Friday, October 23, 2015

Movie Review: "Steve Jobs"

Steve Jobs is one of the most unique biopics ever produced.  The film paints a picture of the enigmatic Apple computers co-founder by going backstage at three product launches in his illustrious career, where Jobs interacts with countless figures within his life to show us who this man was and how he evolved over time.  The most fascinating thing about this film is that it makes you look at all of your Apple devices differently.  You are able to see all of the brilliance of Steve Jobs on display, as well as all of his faults.  Actor Michael Fassbender is amazing as Jobs, even though the two look nothing alike.  While some may quibble about this little detail being historically inaccurate or whatever, no biopic is 100% perfect, but Steve Jobs is about as close as any can get.  It is a film that requires you to think while also entertaining you with the energy on display in the script from Aaron Sorkin and the direction from Danny Boyle.

I give Steve Jobs a 9 out of 10!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Movie Review: "Bridge of Spies"

Director Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have teamed up for the fourth time in their illustrious careers to make their latest film, Bridge of Spies.  Few filmmakers could literally direct in their sleep, and Spielberg probably could do that, the same with Tom Hanks in regards to acting, thankfully both of them give it their all here and make Bridge of Spies a very polished film that, while is neither of their best work, is still well worth your time.

Bridge of Spies tells the story of James B. Donovan (Hanks), a Brooklyn-based insurance lawyer in the late-1950s who took on the case of accused Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (a likable Mark Rylance).  Donovan was seen as a pariah for doing his best to defend Abel to the letter of the law, but he was then recognized as a hero when U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), was shot down over Soviet Russia, and Donovan was tasked by the CIA to travel to East Berlin to negotiate a swap -- Abel for Powers.

Spielberg works from a script that was written by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, and the Coen influence is very evident throughout the script.  There are scenes of high tension one second (all exquisitely milked by Spielberg), and then moments that disarm the tension with humor the very next (a place where Tom Hanks excels at), which is very reminiscent of Coen films like Blood Simple or No Country for Old Men.  This five-way collaboration between Spielberg, Hanks, Charman, and the Coens, finds each of these exceptional filmmakers all pooling their collective talents together to make a film that plays to all of their strengths, and that is the main reason that Bridge of Spies is a cut above most films in current release.  The fact that the movie may have too high expectations upon it, purely because of the prior resumes of all involved, does not detract from the fact that this is still a remarkable film that captures a moment in history where too few films have gone.

The history of film is full of movies about World War II, but when it comes to the Cold War, it's been an area that has been vastly unexplored by Hollywood.  This film accurately recreates the period when Cold War paranoia was at its height in the States, making this a fantastic history lesson as well as fantastic entertainment.  The production is designed with exquisite detail, with Berlin in particular looking as if it leapt off the pages of history books, and it really reinforces how bad things really were during that period.  In just the background characters alone, Spielberg could have probably made three or four other movies, all of which would be equally as fascinating, that is how insane this moment in history was, and it's why it should never be forgotten.

On the technical side of things, Bridge of Spies is another Spielberg, Janusz Kaminski collaboration with stunning cinematography.  The film uses muted colors, with lots of grays, blacks, and navy blues on display in the sets and costumes, while the cinematographer, Kaminski, utilizes a lot of wide angle lenses to mimic the looks of many Hollywood films from the Fifties.  This film simply looks as slick and stylish as anything that Spielberg has ever made, and yet it very affectionately feels like a throwback to the movies of the era in which is this film is set.  The feel of movies like Judgment at Nuremberg is very evident in many moments.  Of course, while the movie is a technical marvel and a well recreated history lesson, what makes Bridge of Spies stick with you after seeing it is the character of Donovan himself.

James B. Donovan was a very fascinating man.  He defended Abel because he believed that if we just sentenced him to death for being a spy without any due process, how does that make us any different from our enemy?  If we see ourselves as Americans as being the better men, then should we not show the world that we are?  This kind of straight arrow character is a rarity in film nowadays, with Hanks really mirroring the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck in his performance, it's just that kind of role and he does it perfectly.  Then there is Rylance as Abel, who plays him in a very quiet, controlled manner that really paints Abel in a poetic light.  He was simply a patriot, who believed in his country and on top of that, was just an unassuming, nice man who actually befriends Donovan in an interesting way.  It really goes to show that the bogeyman is not always the monster we make him out to be, and I think that was one of the main ideas Spielberg was wanting show with this film, and I believe he does so brilliantly.

I give Bridge of Spies a 9 out of 10!

Movie Review: "Goosebumps"

With over 400 million books sold, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books are among some of the most popular books of all-time.  They are the kind of bump in the night campfire stories that keep any kid up late with images of ghouls and talking ventriloquist dummies flashing across their minds.  After a successful TV series in the Nineties, Goosebumps now returns to an even bigger screen in the form of a large scale Hollywood movie starring Jack Black as a fictionalized version of Stine.

Part comedy, part kid friendly horror, and even part Eighties Spielberg, Goosebumps is a great time at the movies this Halloween season.  When Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves to small town Delaware with his single mom, things get weird fast.  Just like a good Goosebumps story, it doesn't take long for Zach to find that something is off with their new next door neighbors.  The Dad (Jack Black) is very over-protective of his daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush), who Zach has a bit of a crush on.  Of course, things get even more bizarre when it is revealed that Hannah's Dad is actually R.L. Stine, who actually imagined every monster he ever created into being, and had to trap them inside the pages of his Goosebumps manuscripts to keep them from wreaking havoc.  Of course, all of the manuscripts get opened when Slappy, the talking ventriloquist dummy with a Napoleonic complex, gets loose from his book and seeks revenge on Stine for keeping him imprisoned all these long years.

Goosebumps is the kind of fun, family entertainment that isn't made much anymore.  It's a relatively PG-affair, with a key eye toward kids from about 10 up.  The movie is funny, never raunchy, and actually tells a fairly sweet story about having to learn to let go of things in order to move on in life.  Of course, there are some moments that might be a little scary for a kid, but the filmmakers do a great job of diffusing anything that might traumatize a child with laugh out loud humor.  The script is chock full of wit, and when you couple that with the great cast of young actors and their impeccable chemistry and comedic timing, you get a movie that is fun instead of nightmarish, plus Jack Black is in prime scenery chewing form as Stine (just don't compare him to Stephen King).  While the movie occasionally barrels through without ever giving our heroes much downtime to reveal more information about their characters, the final act of the movie works because of the likability of the cast and some clever twists that give the movie an added emotional punch.

I give Goosebumps an 8 out of 10!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Movie Review: "Woodlawn"

Woodlawn is easily the best faith-based film I've ever seen (one not based on a bible story, that is).  The film details the true story of the Woodlawn High School football team in 1973 Birmingham, Alabama, the year the school integrated, and how this team helped bring the whole school together by all of the players accepting Christ.  This is a story that could have easily been ham-fisted, but the Erwin Brothers (the directors of the film) manage to keep the film from ever being too sappy or preachy.  All of the preaching of the film comes naturally from the characters and who they are, which is a problem with most faith-based films.  Characters will often transform into philosophical sages when the filmmakers feel it is time to preach, and I think that just comes across as cheesy and not authentic to non-believers and some believers.  Luckily, Woodlawn avoids that pitfall in its script, which could have been a little stronger in some areas (in particular in character depth and their motivations), but unlike most faith-based films, the good outweighs the bad here.  Featuring some truly moving moments and a slew of well-realized football sequences, Woodlawn is a faith-based film I actually want to recommend.

I give Woodlawn an 8 out of 10!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Are Video Game Movies About to Have Their Day?

A Still from Warcraft
Let's face it, if you're both a gamer and a movie fan, you hate pretty much any movie that's been made of a video game.  When the pinnacles of the game-to-film translation are Street Fighter with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Prince of Persia with Jake Gyllenhaal, you can get where I'm coming from.  For some odd reason, Hollywood has just never been able to take what's so great about playing these games on our couches and adapt that into major cinematic spectacle.  This is a shame, because a lot of games are almost tailor made for film, what with their vast stories and franchise potential already built in.  However, it feels like there might be a change just on the horizon with video game companies like Sony, Blizzard, and Ubisoft, starting to take a very active approach to making film franchises out of some of their most storied video games.  With the likes of Warcraft, Assassin's Creed, Ratchet and Clank, Sly Cooper, Splinter Cell, and Uncharted, all slated to come out over the course of the next two to three years, things very well could be changing.

In a lot of ways, one of the main reasons I feel like the game industry, and gamers themselves, have always wanted movies made of their favorite video games, is to somewhat legitimize their place as a viable form of entertainment and storytelling.  However, I believe this current surge is more of a response of filmmakers who love games and who are now in a position of Hollywood power to make films out of games that they've always wanted to see.

I'll be perfectly honest, given the track record of most video game movies, I am always skeptical whenever I see a new one announced, and I think a large reason for that is so many past video game movies have tried to make a story out of a game that is not known for storytelling.  Need For Speed is not a story-driven game, nor is Street Fighter or the like, but a lot of these upcoming video game movies are based on story-driven games.  This has me a lot less skeptical about a lot of the upcoming video game movies.  Of course the biggest reason I am optimistic is the level of talent behind most of the video game movies coming out over the next few years.  The talent level is just so huge, that I really think this may be the time of the video game movie.  Take what game company, Ubisoft, is doing for example.

Currently, Ubisoft is playing Hollywood very well right now with both Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell.  For both of these franchises, they tapped big up-and-coming stars for the films (Michael Fassbender for Assassin's Creed and Tom Hardy for Splinter Cell), and hired highly respected directors to direct them (Justin Kurzel and Doug Liman, respectively).  Fassbender and Hardy are two of the best actors under forty currently working in the film industry, and Kurzel is a fast-rising star in the directing world having recently teamed with Fassbender on a cinematic adaptation of Macbeth that wowed critics at the super-prestigious Cannes Film Festival in May (getting some Oscar buzz along the way).  Then there is Liman, who has been one of the action movie genre's greatest directors for over a decade now, with a resume that includes everything from The Bourne Identity to Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow.  These are some big, highly respected names and they lend these films a level of credibility that most other video game movies have never had, which has allowed these movies to garner real blockbuster-sized budgets.

Michael Fassbender in Assassin's Creed

Too often in the past, video game movies were always done on the cheap because studios feared whether or not they'd be successful, but it really feels like that with both Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell, the studios are going all in.  The same can be said for Warcraft.  Director Duncan Jones (Moon and Source Code) has been working on this adaptation of the popular strategy game for almost five years and it's finally coming out June 10, 2016.  The project is utilizing cutting edge motion capture performances from actors portraying orcs interacting with humans to create a type of spectacle video game movies have never delivered before.  As a matter of fact, studio Universal, and production company Legendary, are basically hedging all of their bets on Warcraft next Summer.  This is their big Summer blockbuster for next year and they are not ashamed of it.  While I have yet to see a trailer or anything, all I've heard from outlets that saw stuff at Comic Con a year or so back are raves, and the few pictures I've seen of the film look as good as anything we're seeing from the new Star Wars movie.

So are we on the eve of a video game movie renaissance?  It's still too early to call, but things are shaping up nicely.  Big name filmmakers from Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott have expressed interest in video game movies in the past few years, with Spielberg himself directing a movie heavily inspired by video games based off the bestselling book, Ready Player One, so anything is possible.  Of course, what it will really take for this to be a full-blown renaissance is for more than one of these movies to actually be successful at the box office, and not just with a niche crowd.  These movies need to find success with people who have never even heard of these video games for them to break through the glass ceiling.  However, if you are a gamer and you're hoping that these movies will legitimize your love for video games to the rest of the world, don't put so much pressure on yourself or these movies.  Just like comic book movies, even if video game movies get to a point of profitability and quality that we've yet to ever see before, there will be the stinkers as well as the really awesome, super good ones.  So time will tell, but we wont have to wait long.  With both Warcraft and Assassin's Creed hitting theaters in 2016, we will know sooner rather than later if a renaissance has begun.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Movie Review: "The Martian"

The Martian is simply put, a phenomenal film.  The story follows Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, who while during a violent dust storm on a mission to Mars, gets separated from his crew on the way to their ship.  They believe him to be dead and leave him on Mars as they return home to Earth.  Now stranded, Watney has to find a way to survive till he can contact NASA and coordinate a return home.  You might think I just spoiled the whole movie for you, but this is literally the first 5-10 minutes!  Now, I wouldn't blame anyone thinking that a movie like this might be a downer, but it is not.  The Martian is a movie that balances all of the intensity of the situation with humor and heart.  Matt Damon's performance is comforting even when things get rough and the character personalities are all so great from every actor involved, that you care what happens.  In short, The Martian is a movie about the triumph of the human spirit (I know, a cliche), and the ability of the human spirit to problem solve in order to survive.

I give The Martian a 10 out of 10!