Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Movie Review: "Philomena"

Director Stephen Frears' new film, Philomena, is based on a true story.  The film follows Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, an old Irish Catholic woman who had to give up her son for adoption 50 years ago.  Philomena and her daughter enlist the aid of a disgraced reporter, portrayed by Steve Coogan, to help her track her lost son down.

The remarkable thing about Frears' direction is that he never lays it on too thick with syrupy sentiment, which does serve the story well and keeps it from being a Lifetime Channel Original Movie, however the film's script is heavy handed in other areas.  The emotional beats work and feel authentic, but it's the script's negative view of the Catholic church, and religion in general, that is so one-sided.  While we often get Philomena sticking up for her religion when bashed by Coogan's character, the film has clearly chosen the side it's on, which is not fair to the other half of the population that will see this film who are religious.

All in all, this is a film with remarkable performances from Coogan, and especially Dame Judi Dench in a role that is sure to get her Oscar recognition.  Dench makes you feel Philomena's pain, while still having a sunny outlook on life that is infectious and leads to some surprisingly cheeky humor at times that will have you nearly falling out of your seat laughing.  If the film just wasn't so one-sided on particular issues, perhaps it might have rated higher with me, but alas no.

I give Philomena a C+!

Movie Review: "Frozen"

Disney's animation department has really been struggling over the past decade trying to figure out their place in the midst of in-house rival Pixar, and other studios like Dreamworks Animation.  They've been trying to make all of their films a little bit more hip and cool, and less old-fashioned.  Now, with Frozen, even thought it's a return to the fairy tale musicals of the past, it's still a little too modern in its sensibilities for it to ever feel like a classic Disney animation.

The film is a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, The Snow Queen.  In the film there are two princesses, Elsa and her little sister, Anna.  Elsa has always had the ability to create ice and snow, with no way to really control it.  When Elsa is crowned queen, she accidentally reveals her powers at the coronation ceremony and freezes the entire kingdom.  With Elsa fleeing into the wilderness, Anna must go after her sister to try and thaw the kingdom and help her sister control her abilities.  Of course, along the way Anna meets up with a colorful cast of characters, most notably a talking snowman named Olaf who dreams of Summer, and who also gets the biggest laughs of the entire film.

Truthfully, there are many things to love about Frozen, I mean the characters are all immediately likable, and I appreciate Disney's attempts at upending all of the traditional tropes that they've harbored in the past to be more feministic, but at a certain point I want that old Disney comfort food.  Personally, I miss the simplicity of many of Disney's old animated classics.  There was nothing ironic about them, they were not trying to be politically correct, they just were faithfully told fairy tales that made you believe in magic and in the good that the world can offer if we just look for it.  Then there is the CG animation, which is very well done, but it lacks the warmth and personality that comes from hand-drawn animation of yore, which I feel would have given the film more life.  As well, Frozen often suffers from its attempts to go against the grain.  There is not a very strong central conflict to this film, because there is no real villain till about the final twenty minutes, and so the film often feels like its languishing with no urgency, especially in the middle portions.  Of course, that's not to say that Frozen is not a good time.

The songs of Frozen are the best songs written for a Disney film since the Nineties, with many of the tunes, like "For the First Time in Forever" and "Let It Go," assured to be Disney classics, but the film itself falls just shy of that mark.  This film does no harm, and it is quite entertaining, but it's one of those movies that a year from now I will be hard pressed to remember.  It's definitely worth seeing if you're a fan of Disney animation, but just enough of the classic elements are missing to keep this from being another Disney classic.

I give Frozen a B!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

It still baffles me as to why The Hunger Games is so successful.  I love it, but why do so many others?  These aren't escapist stories, these aren't entertainment, and yet there is something about these stories that appeals to me in a deep way that I can't quite explain.  Perhaps it's because I love the characters and identify with them?  Or perhaps it's because I find the thematic ideas of oppression and rebellion so striking?  Irregardless to what it is that draws me to the material, I love The Hunger Games, and I absolutely enjoyed the first film in the franchise.  The sequel, Catching Fire, does what every good cinematic sequel should do, and goes above and beyond.

We start the film shortly after the end of The Hunger Games.  Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is back in her home of District 12, but things have only gotten worse for her since she left the arena.  The entire country of Panem is on the brink of a revolution, all sparked by her defiant act at the end of the Games.  The malicious President Snow wishes to extinguish the flames that Katniss ignited, and how does he plan on doing that?  By showing he's still boss, forcing the previous victors of the Hunger Games to once more fight for their lives in the special, 75th edition of the Hunger Games.

First and foremost, I must applaud new director, Francis Lawrence, for applying an if it isn't broke, don't fix it mentality to the material.  Rather than recreate everything that the first film's director, Gary Ross, did, Lawrence merely expands on all of Ross's ideas and makes them clearer and more concise.  There is an obvious continuity that this film has, and it's because of this filmmaking approach.  Too many sequels often change the worlds of the films too much, especially when there is a change in directors, and it can be offputting and alienating if you were a fan of everything the predecessor did right.  Lawrence avoids this pratfall and only makes things even more cinematic than before.  A large part of the reason the continuity also works is because James Newton Howard was brought back to do the music a second time around, and he utilizes all of his prior thematical material to bring you back into the world.  With Howard's score, and Lawrence's direction, it makes the film feel familiar both aurally, and visually, which is simply what makes this film a phenomenal sequel that bests its predecessor.

Everything that worked the first go around works once more, due to the careful attention in maintaining continuity, so if you were a fan of the first film, then buckle up and just enjoy the ride.  Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen.  Her performance as Katniss in The Hunger Games was the best performance she ever gave, and I think was more deserving of the Oscar than her role in Silver Linings Playbook, and once more she proves why this is the role of a lifetime for her.  She plays Katniss with such a raw, brutal honesty.  There is nothing that feels faked about her portrayal, it simply feels like Jennifer, just baring her soul for all to see, and that is the most adventurous and awesome kind of acting there is.

Other returning favorites to the cast all grow further in their roles and excel, but I was most pleased to see Donald Sutherland with even more screentime as President Snow.  He relishes in this role, and it's clear that he is enjoying himself being the bad guy, but by having an actor of his caliber in his role, it lends a third dimension that would not come had he just been played by a mustache twirling character actor.  Then there are the new cast additions.  Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair, and most importantly, Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee.  Malone in particular sets into this role that is so eccentric, so over-the-top, and manages to make Johanna somewhat relatable and real.  Simply put, I could not find a weak performance in this film, and that's how I like it.

All in all, I loved Catching Fire.  The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, is given even more prominence this go around, and is peppered which much more complexity that the first film.  You understand each and every person's feelings better, and their reasonings for why they feel that way.  By the time Katniss finally kisses Peeta and you know it wasn't for show, you can't help but be moved by the moment.  The sad thing is, while there is a romantic component to these stories, that is all anyone usually talks about.

I think in some ways, these movies have created the kind of false pageantry that the Capitol forces on the people of the Districts.  Sure, filmmaking is a business, even still, I truly believe that the writers, directors, and producers, for these films, have all understood what Suzanne Collins' novels were about.  With that said, I have serious doubts that many, in particular of the teenage crowd, as well as the studio, see these works as anything other than another night on the town, and I think that's sad.  

It's sad that something so thematically important, and so emotionally rich, has essentially been turned into another cashcow.  It's not because of the books, because the books are phenomenal works of literature, and it's not because of the films, because as I've already said, Catching Fire wisely doesn't ever lose sight of the book's themes and never traipses into blockbuster territory.  So why have we turned this into a blockbuster franchise akin to Star Wars or Harry Potter?  

These aren't simple good versus evil stories, and yet I think that's all most are seeing these as.  It's why we're carting the cast off to premieres and mall appearances to turn them into teen heartthrobs.  It's why the studio is constantly tracking the box office performance like it's a baseball game.  It's why people are not looking at these books and films the right way.  These are stories about real emotions, real relationships, and eerily familiar situations.  I just wish the target audience would understand this, but it's not a fault against the films, because no matter how other people perceive Catching Fire, I know how I perceive it, and I am blown away once more by The Hunger Games.

I give The Hunger Games: Catching Fire an A+!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review Roundup

It's time for a new rendition of Review Roundup, where all of the movies released over the past few months that I never got around to seeing in theaters have hit Blu Ray and DVD.  Thanks to the pure joy of Redbox, I've been able to catch up on a good many films that I did not get to see while in theaters.  As usual, the films I've reviewed range from large scale Hollywood to small Indies.  I've also included a few reviews for films that are still in theaters but were released over a month ago, therefore they're also going to be in the roundup as well.  So, without further ado, enjoy the reviews.  You'll find the links to each one below:

After Earth

Escape Plan

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

The Kings of Summer 

Monsters University

Much Ado About Nothing

Olympus Has Fallen 


The Sapphires 

The Spectacular Now

What Maisie Knew

Why is Ernst Stavro Blofeld Important?

Some of the biggest James Bond news in years has occurred.  MGM and Danjaq, owners of the 007 rights, have finally ended the fifty year long battle with the estate of writer Kevin McClory.  They now have gotten the rights back to, not only the Bond book and film, Thunderball, but also to the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and the nefarious, Blofeld-led organization, known as SPECTRE.

For a little bit of understanding as to why this is such big news, way back in 1959, James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, enlisted writer Kevin McClory to help him write a new Bond book.  Well, the partnership eventually soured and Fleming went on to write Thunderball without McClory being credited as one of the creative contributors to many elements of the story.  What this led to was a lawsuit where McClory won the rights to Thunderball, being named a producer on that film, and eventually remaking it, unofficially, outside the MGM and EON Productions' canon with Never Say Never Again.  The thing is, McClory also was eventually granted the rights to the character of Blofeld and the organization of SPECTRE, who factored heavily into the events of Thunderball.

Now, you may be asking, what is so important about Blofeld?  Why, it's only because he's James Bond's archenemy, of course.  Every great hero has that villain they fear above all else.  For Batman, it's the Joker.  For Superman, it's Lex Luthor.  For Sherlock Holmes, it's Moriarty.  For James Bond, it's Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  That's just how it is.  While his days in drag, in Diamonds Are Forever, are not all that scary, no villain in Bond's catalogue has ever given him the heartache and trouble that Blofeld has.

Blofeld killed 007's wife, arguably the only woman he ever loved, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  Not to mention the fact that SPECTRE and Blofeld were the brainchild behind everything 007 experienced in majority of the first six or seven Bond films.  From being the man behind Dr. No and Rosa Klebb, to his ultimate win against Bond, killing Bond's one true love, nothing makes for a greater archenemy than that.  Then there's the Blofeld iconography.  The bald head.  The scar on his face.  The white cat in his lap.  There are few villains who are so iconic that we know who they are by just seeing the bald head sticking over the back of a chair with a cat's tail swishing off to the side.  It's a true sign of iconography when you're parodied multiple times.  The bottom line is, Blofeld is highly important to the legacy of James Bond, and he has not been available to the Bond producers for a long time, but now he is again, so what will they do with him?

Ultimately, I don't expect Blofeld to be rushed into the next Daniel Craig Bond film, as a matter of fact I don't even think we'll see Blofeld again in the foreseeable future.  Blofeld is an eccentric villain that just wouldn't work as well with the style of the current Bond films, not to mention the fact that Blofeld is technically dead, even though the continuity of the James Bond series has always been murky at best.  Do I think that Blofeld could have survived that drop down a smoke stack in For Your Eyes Only?  It takes a lot more than some Roger Moore trickery to kill the villain who's more cockroach than man, though this still does not mean that Daniel Craig will go toe-to-toe with SPECTRE and Blofeld next go around.

While many think this signals what the next Bond film will be about, I think it's just wishful thinking, because there was a plan in place for these next Bond films before this court case was settled.  I think Daniel Craig will round out his tenure as Bond with another few films or so, and then we'll get a new Bond.  With every new 007 actor, there's a slightly different interpretation, I believe it is then we might see a return to some more of the tongue-in-cheek behavior of old, and perhaps a return of SPECTRE and Blofeld.  Though, even if we don't ever see Blofeld on the bigscreen again, the fact that it's now a possibility is a big win for all Bond fans and they should be celebrating this joyous occasion.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Thor: The Dark World"

By this point, you're either a fan of what Marvel Studios are doing with their movies, or you aren't.  It is that pure and simple, and if you enjoyed the first Thor film and his role in The Avengers, then you will absolutely love Thor: The Dark World, as I did.

Few films these days are as much fun as the films that Marvel Studios are putting out right now.  Not only are these films showing deep respect and faithfulness to their source material whenever they can, but they also never try to downplay the fantasticalness of what makes these comic book heroes so awe-inspiring.  They embrace the comic booky-nature of all of these heroes and portray it not as satire, because while there are jokes at almost every juncture of these films, the characters are always taking the situations they are in seriously, therefore we're laughing while feeling like there are genuine stakes at hand.  Thor: The Dark World does Marvel's typical bang-up job of this, and everything works.

This particular film is very much born out of the repercussions of Thor and The Avengers, picking up right where those films left off, and you must have seen both of those films in order to get full enjoyment out of this one.  At the start of Thor: The Dark World, Thor is still traveling across the nine realms, trying to restore peace and order to the galaxy after he had to destroy the bifrost at the end of Thor, therefore cutting off the other realms from Asgard's protection.  Meanwhile, Loki has been imprisoned in the dungeons of Asgard for his attack on New York at the end of The Avengers.  When the convergence of the nine realms approaches, that only happens every one thousand years, an ancient power awakens, threatening to destroy all nine realms, including Midgard, or Earth, as it is better known.  This sends Thor having to journey back to Earth to save his beloved mortal, Jane Foster, while also having to make a shaky alliance with Loki in order to fight the evil that is brewing.

As a whole, there isn't anything more I can say to entice you to see this film.  If you love these films, you're going to see it.  All I can really say is that Thor: The Dark World is everything you expect it to be.  There is tons of action, lots of laughs (contributed mostly from Kat Dennings' Darcy and some smartly utilized cameos), and the film is also emotional and genuinely heroic.  Few films can put you through so much emotional turmoil in the course of the story, and yet still keep things lighthearted and full of hope.  That is what Marvel does better than anyone else.

What we're seeing here is a new Golden Age for Marvel superheroes, and if you just sit back and allow yourself to enjoy the ride, rather than searching for ways to not like these films just because you have your own ideas of how you feel these heroes should be best represented on film, then you will be a part of something that is truly special.

P.S.  Stay till the very end of the credits.  There are two scenes after the end of the movie.  One in the middle of the credits, and one after they're all done.

I give Thor: The Dark World a 9 out of 10!

"Star Wars: Episode VII" Gets a Release Date of December 2015!

Are you ready to return to that galaxy far, far away?  It's happening folks, and there is no stopping it.

I've been quiet on the Star Wars: Episode VII front for a while now, but it's really because there's been nothing to tell.  Well, nothing official at least.  I've been asked by a few people when I was going to write more about the film, and that's the whole reason why.  I've only ever made posts when Lucasfilm and Disney finally made something official, because as I've learned in the past with countless other movies and whatnot, that it's pointless to hypothesize about rumors when they are more than likely never going to happen.  As it is, we have finally gotten official news this past week, but first let me set the stage as to why this news has been such a huge relief for Star Wars fans.

Over the past few weeks there's been lots of rumors flying fast and hard about Star Wars: Episode VII, not all of the rumors were good.  The word was that producer Kathleen Kennedy wanted to push the release date back to 2016, where as Disney CEO, Bob Iger, wanted the film out by 2015.  Then there were the script issues, that were brought into question when original writer, Michael Arndt, left the project, and director, J.J. Abrams, was tapped alongside The Empire Strikes Back co-writer, Lawrence Kasdan, to rewrite the script.  The word was the script was a contributing factor to the release date woes, as Abrams pointed out in a recent interview, that the change in writers was a time issue to get the script finished, rather than having anything to do with Arndt's writing.

It's been a busy few weeks of furious rumors, and I am personally glad that Lucasfilm and Disney are realizing that they're being so quiet and secretive about everything is more self-destructive than it is actually helping.  Ultimately, the release date battle has been solved.  A compromise has been reached, and as reported by the only site that has so far delivered any official word on Episode VII,, the film will hit theaters on December 18, 2015.  My first reaction?  It's happening, it's really happening.

For me, personally, I thought there would never be anymore Star Wars movies after the prequels.  I thought that was it, and I've almost been borderline grieving the end of the greatest cinematic saga of all-time (prequel haters just need to get a life).  What this means for me is that this all hasn't just been a dream, there are going to be new Star Wars films, and there seems to be a lot of love and care being put into them to make Star Wars as great as it's always been.

What do I make of the release date?  Well, honestly it does sadden me a bit to think that it will be the first live action Star Wars film without a May release date, but I always thought the Summer of 2015 was too tight a schedule to make a good film of this scale, and even an extra 6-7 months are not as good as if the film had been released in 2016.  Ultimately, though, there is so much talent working on this film, there is no way they wont pull their acts together and make something that isn't, at the very least, worthy of the name Star Wars.

The good side is that this will be a perfect movie to see with the family at Christmastime, not to mention the fact that we're always looking for a little magic around that time of year anyways, and Star Wars has always supplied movie magic far greater than any other film franchise that's ever existed.  Then there's the fact that from a business standpoint it gives Disney's other major blockbuster, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, room to breath and roam during the Summer of 2015, rather than having to compete for screens with Episode VII.

With that all said, it sounds like Episode VII is right on track, and any behind-the-scenes drama has been wildly overblown.  Do I think that there might have been script issues at one point?  Yeah, but every movie has those.  Ask any writer and they'll tell you.  Might there have been a disagreement over a certain plot point or whatever that led to Arndt's departure?  Possibly, but that's no reason to fret.  Whenever you have a bunch of creative people trying to realize something, there are inevitably going to be debates, and in Hollywood, typically whoever has the bigger name power, in this case being Abrams, will usually win out the day.  It's as simple as that.  The bottom line is that the producers and the studio are feeling that this film is far enough along to where they actually need to stake a claim on a date.  That's the real takeaway point here.

With production set to begin in Spring of 2014, and open casting calls going on all across the US and the UK over the next month for what are assumed to be the two leads of the new trilogy, expect casting announcements soon.  While I don't often post about rumors, Mark Hammil, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, will be back.  No matter what they say in interviews, the word has been that Hammil and Fisher have been signed for a while now, and that Ford has recently closed on an agreement with Disney and Lucasfilm.  Any fears that you wouldn't get to see Luke, Han, or Leia, on the bigscreen together again, can be put to rest.   Really, at this point, it's only a matter of time before Disney and Lucasfilm make their casting official, and I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't happen before the end of the year.  Another bit of casting that I wouldn't be surprised to hear either by the end of the year, or at the start of 2014, is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch.  This has been a rumor for a long time, and it's the one rumor that has stuck for the longest, aside from the return of Han, Luke, and Leia.  Will he be the villain?  More than likely, and that's all I'll say at this point.

So as we sit here, all I have to say to any Star Wars fans reading out there, is that there is no need for worry or alarm.  The Star Wars sequel we fans have always wanted is on its way and is on schedule.  Don't listen to all of the rumors saying the film is far behind, I mean, for goodness sake, Industrial, Light, & Magic have been working on Episode VII for nearly a year now, developing concept art and preliminary special effects.  The folks at Disney and Lucasfilm know what the story is and what will happen, and now it's all just about fine tuning everything so that they can actually get filming when they need to in order to meet this December release in 2015.  There has never been a more exciting time to be a Star Wars fan, so just enjoy the ride, because that's what I'm going to be doing from here on out.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Movie Review: "Ender's Game"

Sometimes a film comes out and it's just right down my alley, and it takes more out of me to not like the film than it does to like it.  In the case of Ender's Game, not only does it appeal to all of my sci-fi-leaned sensibilities, but it also happens to be more than just a film that didn't have to do much to win me over.  Ender's Game winds up being a thoughtful, emotional film experience that deserves to be seen by any fan of science fiction.

Based on Orson Scott Card's revered novel, Ender's Game takes place in the near future.  In this future, Earth enlists kids to lead drones into battles against an evil alien race, the rationale being that kids are more in tune with technology and their minds can process more information than their adult counterparts.  Asa Butterfield portrays Ender Wiggin, a teen genius, recruited to attend Battle School, an orbiting space station where these kids are trained in zero gravity.  Could Ender be the Commander that the International Fleet has been looking for?  Is he the one that will once and for all be able to lead the troops and destroy the alien homeworld?  Well, you'll have to see the movie to find out, but what I can tell you is that Ender's Game is one of the more successful science fiction films I've seen in recent memory, and it is entirely grounded in reality.

Everything in Ender's Game feels current.  While the film deals with aliens and is set in the future, the thematic ideas of bullying, violence in video games, and drone warfare, are all so of the times, the film manages to feel real and lived in.  This is not a slight on the film, it's a praise of it.  These are all hot button issues, a few of which I don't even know on which side I come down on, but Ender's Game has got me thinking about them, and I think that, coupled with the emotional experience that this film offers, just solidifies why I go to movies.

Ender's Game has moments of awe and wonder, there are laughs to be had, there are moments where you'll probably want to cheer, and yet, in the end, you realize that this film was never meant to be frivolous popcorn entertainment, but an involving conversation with the audience.  Director Gavin Hood manages to hit all of the beats, and lends Ender's Game a voice through his smart realizations of things that must have seemed impossible to realize when reading it on the page of Card's novel, such as the Battle Room, where the kids float around in zero-G, fighting mock battles.  Of course, a large part of what makes Hood's work so phenomenal and beautifully realized, is the stellar work done behind the scenes.

The film's special effects are seamless in their integration, which is a rarity nowadays.  The production design is never showy, but feels authentic.  Then there is Steve Jablonsky's music, which is the genuine surprise of the film for me.  Jablonsky never implements a memorable theme that you will be humming for days on end, but his smart use of strings and how he orchestrated it, makes this a film score that I find hard to stop thinking about, because it's just so technically well done and is effective when it needs to be in the context of the film.  However, you cannot have a film without those in front of the camera, and the actors all manage to deliver phenomenal performances.

Butterfield plays Ender like an open book.  When Ender is conflicted between his leanings towards violence and empathy, we can tell what he is thinking or feeling through his facial expressions, and it works.  While this type of acting is very raw and unrefined, its immediacy gives more potency to situations.  Personally, I prefer performances such as this, rather than things being so internalized that we never get any facial reaction whatsoever.  As for the rest of the cast, while Ender is obviously the meatiest role, there are a few key supporting roles where the actors really stand out.

Harrison Ford is in tip top shape as Colonel Graff, the head of the Battle School.  I would argue he hasn't been this charming and dedicated in a role in years.  Then there is Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis, both delivering their usual strong performances, even if they're nothing to write home about.  After that, the rest of the cast are mostly children, or at least actors under the age of 18.  Abigail Breslin makes the most out of her small, yet crucial role as Ender's older sister, Valentine, who acts as Ender's conscience.  Rounding out the kids of note are Hailee Steinfeld and Moises Arias as fellow Battle School students.  While Steinfeld does not have as much to do as a young actress of her caliber deserves, she manages to deliver everything with the same likability she had in True Grit.  Then, there is Arias, who is having quite a year, showing his range in films like this and The Kings of Summer, with two drastically different, and equally solid performances, he is truly an actor to look out for.

Truly, if there is a drawback to Ender's Game, it is that the film is so heavy on the sci-fi jargon, without spoon feeding any of it to the audience, that I'm doubtful as to whether or not the film will have much reach beyond science fiction fans.  Then, there is the fact that the film winds up favoring thought and emotion over action, and I truly wonder as to what type of box office it can have, but as a rabid science fiction fan myself, I find Ender's Game a surprise worth noting.  This is one of those films that fellow sci-fi fans need to see.

I give Ender's Game an A+!