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    Friday
    Aug142015

    Review: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

     

    While it's likely that the swingin 60's espionage thriller can't compete with Straight Outta' Compton as Universal's record-breaking year draws to a close, the film should- and will- find legs and hopefully lead to more of the adventures of American daredevil Napoleon Solo and the Russian powerhouse Illya Kuryakin. 

    The film's plot is fairly straightforward, with Russia and America joining forces by way of their two best men to combat a Nuclear threat from a former Nazi rocketeer. This leads them to the scientist's daughter Gaby, played brilliantly by Ex Machina break-out Alicia Vikander, and on a collision course with the devilish Victoria, who plans to launch the nuke.

    Guy Ritchie's last success was his character-driven mystery, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and his style was on point like a blade for this feature. The action and comedy hit and snaps with equal beats of life and energy, and the set-pieces were delightfully old-fashioned yet spun with a modernity that didn't overshadow it; but rather complemented it.  Boat-lead escapes, cross country car races, dazzling rooftop getaways and more. U.N.C.L.E. makes over-the-top actioners like the most recent Bond-fare seem so far away from it's own roots it's laughable. 

    Ritchie and Wigram's screenplay though is where the film truly shines; but would be nothing without it's cast. Cavill and Hammer are given room to be suave and hard in equal measure for the former and the latter, and the movie never uses the tired method of "cultural differences for laughs" that most "two worlds come together" character pieces play out to no end, even at the height of the Cold war, the two males butt heads as men do, and their growth as partners (and later as friends) is never reached by ham-fisted cliches or groan inducing lines; but as mutual respect for one another, and their strengths and weaknesses. 

    The female leads though, excel a film cemented almost 50 years in the pats firmly in the future. Alicia Vikander's character is introduced as a mechanic, a hard working grease-monkey, and not once is it addressed she is a woman. Solo isn't shocked or demeaning to her in anyway, same for the film's central antagonist, played by Elizabeth Debicki. It's a small detail, but it goes to show how much of a difference it can make in the long run.
    Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation did this similarly, and makes the Bond franchise seem more and more like a fossil, for a series that's last strong female character was back in 2008 with Quantum of Solace

    The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is not a boisterous explosion-filled summer bang, and it is yet another strength.
    The film isn't focused on telling the audience "Look, this isn't just an old TV show!". It's a quiet film that's loud in it's color and it's heart, and is more of a bright Sunday drive than an adrenalin pumping wam-bam spectacle- not to say that there isn't enough action and intrigue; but it's a drive that you'll want to take again and, hopefully in the future, can with the ear-to-ear grin that will come across you with the sequel hook and name drop. 

    Sunday
    May182014

    Review: Godzilla

    It's sort of strange summing up my feelings for this new U.S. remake of Godzilla when I consider myself quite a fan of Hollywood's first attempt back in 1998.

    Say what you will about the film's plot and not staying at all true to the Godzilla mythos in the slightest, it was a great summer, popcorn movie.  I can watch that film over and over and never tire of it.  It may not leave you feeling like you've seen the next coming of Citizen Kane, but you more than likely had a damn good time watching it.

    Which brings us to this year's Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures remake of the same name (TriStar Pictures was the studio behind 1998's version, in case you were curious).

    The film opens in the year 1999 with a 'natural disaster' being investigated in the Philippines.  Scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) come to find answers only to discover a gigantic skeleton of a prehistoric creature along with two egg-shaped pods, one of which has hatched.

    This leads to Japan where a nuclear power plant (run by Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody) is experiencing seismic activity after the monster has found its way there.  The plant ends up succumbing to a radiation leak and collapses, killing Cranston's wife (played by Juliette Binoche) in the process.  Their son, Ford, can only watch from a distance as his school's evacuated.

    Fast forward to present day, and we find young Ford has joined the Navy and become a Lieutenant, specializing in explosive ordnance disposal.  His father, Joe, has become obsessed with finding out what destroyed the power and plant and killed his wife.

    When new seismic activity begins hitting Japan once more, Ford teams up with his father begrudgingly to investigate, and from there, all hell breaks loose.

    I'm not going to go further into the story as I don't want to spoil the entire movie for anyone reading, but I will give my two cents as to what I thought of the film overall.

    In terms of the special effects and visuals, it's all top notch.  Director Gareth Edwards certainly shows he knows how to shoot action while also giving us a slow build up to actually seeing the big fella himself.  It's probably some of the best CGI I've ever seen on film, and definitely shows how far filmmaking has come since 1998 (though the special effects there were no slouch either).

    While special effects are always great though, it's always important to have a good story too, and that's where I feel Godzilla faulters (but not for lack of trying).  The production team definitely makes it a point to want you to care about the characters and give you a number of dramatic, character moments where - if pulled off well - can add to the film going experience.  The problem here though, is the bland acting by most involved, sans Bryan Cranston.

    Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not a leading man, period.  I can't recall the last time I saw more of an uncharasmatic, poorly acted lead in an action film.  He adds absolutely nothing to the story.  That is certainly a problem when his role is the biggest outside of Godzilla himself.  And his wife, played by Elizabeth Olson, is just as hollow.  Olson - while considered a strong actress - is so empty in this film in terms of character, it's at times eye-roll inducing to watch.  Outside of that, Ken Watanabe certainly does the best he can with what he's given, but like David Strathairn and Sally Hawkins too, he's limited by the work he has t do.

    Overall, I'd rank Godzilla as certainly a film to go see if you want to get enjoyment out of watching a big budget, monster movie.  However, I feel the 1998 film is actually better because at least there you cared about the characters involved, unlike here where the only one I was concerned with was Godzilla himself, and safe to say, the big guy makes it out okay.

    Grade:  B-

    Saturday
    Feb222014

    Review: POMPEII


    PaulW.S. Anderson is an artist in the purest sense of the word.

    No, this isn't a "troll" statement and yes, his directorial credits include AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, Death Race, and Resident Evil.

    POMPEII, a passion-project of the British director, is an advanced hybrid of almost every genre of film,
    Blend in Gladiator with TITANIC, add a few sprinkles of 2012 and a dash of Game of Thrones and you might, MIGHT, be able to come up with half of POMPEII which, in the hands of a lesser director, would come off as a shlocky mess; but with Anderson becomes a moving and dark throwback to classic Hollywood epics of old with the suave professionalism of a modern auteur and a timeless message that true love always finds it's way, even if it's not the ending you would expect.

    The film starts with a young Milo (played by Game of Thrones and Silent Hill Revelations star Kit Harrington) watching his horse-tribe being slaughtered by the film's antagonist, a Roman general known as Corvus (24's Kiefer Sutherland) with his legionaries and second-in-command Proculus (Sasha Roiz of 16 Blocks and GRIMM fame).
    After wandering, an orphan and the last of his kind, Milo is soon picked up and works his way through the bloody sands as a respected gladiator.
    It's finally in Pompeii that he has a chance encounter with Cassia (Sucker Punch's Emily Browning), the daughter of aristocrats Severus and Aurelia (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss) and also befriends fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

     

    As the film starts; Anderson presents this world as a pulpy and rich B-Movie. The heroes and the villians are all clear-cut and extremely light or extremely dark, and the actors all ham it up in varying degrees with Sutherland absolutely chewing the scenery as Corvus, and damn does Sutherland have fun with bringing this character to life as the sort of "human" representation of Mt. Vesuvius, a destructive and dark being that has always been in the lives of these people; and when he erupts (as Vesuvius does) the result is just as destructive.
    It's a brilliant way of having a focus for the audience who go in expecting the antagonist to ONLY be the volcano, as well as a threat to the characters themselves who tragically don't posses the audience's insight as to what is about to go down.
    In many ways, this builds the tension ten-fold, as the destruction of nature and the broken hatred of man are one in the same sense of unpredictability and malevolence.

    The relationship between Milo and Cassia isn't as built up long and hard as say, Jack and Rose, but that doesn't make it lack for weight. Cassia's only attraction to Milo is a superficial one at first, the audience and her seem to think, in the same way everyone's "attraction" to Milo is through the film.
    The audience loves "The Celt" because he's pretty and he's dark, he's dangerous. It's a brilliant meta exploration of an easy to dismiss trope; but when Cassia looks at Milo, their eyes meet and you feel a love as bright as the hell-fire that is about to reign upon them.
    When Milo calms Cassia's horse down at a party held on her family's estate, the two, in a fit of teenage love, gallop off towards the volcano into the night, itself a fantastic symbol that comes into reverse-play later.
    The two embrace, cautiously, as the guards come to take Milo back, which he takes the fault for and is whipped before her.

    Soon after, Milo and Atticus are finally in the coliseum. Atticus, a bold and dangerous man who has already had his family taken from him, has one more game to win before his victory is granted and he is "free", something the corrupt game-runners soon prevent from happening as Corvus, Cassia, and her parents are in attendance to over-see the games.
    The "scenario" the gladiators are put it in a recreation of the slaughtering of the horse-tribes (the same slaughter Milo survived). He now, 20 years later, must relive the events of that night, only this time he changes his fate in a fleeting glimpse of the film's hopefulness.

     

    As you'd expect, things go wrong and then we get to the "money shot", which is Vesuvius erupting mid-way through the battle. The destruction Anderson presents on screen is breath-taking and biblical and it is in no way "fun" to sit through.
    It is hard to watch, as this unflinching glimpse into the past is brought to life using what is some of the best CGI I have ever seen on film, this would make Roland Emmerich blush and makes the destruction presented in Man of Steel seem G rated.
    The decadence of the ancient city explodes, crumbles, and is lit ablaze along with everyone trapped within it's walls. Women run screaming from buildings as they burn alive, children are trampled in the streets, and glimpses of carcasses with their flesh burnt off (still smoking) are seen through the rubble. This is a PG-13 film, mind you.

    None of this is ever presented to us in a way less than artistic. Anderson's crisp and clear camera-work is as noticable as ever, with no "shakey cam" action or "snap zooms", the chaos and pure death is laid bare for the audience to take in.
    It's at this point to that Anderson's vivid imagery through the film's first half, with lush greens and deep golds and a living breathing painting in the richest of colors are muted in an instant to black, pitch black, gray, orange, and red both of blood and flame.
    The grit and and ash in the film are palpable and you leave the theater feeling as if you've just left the ruin of Pompeii itself. 
    Once again, with a lesser director the film would have become sterile and cheap "disaster porn", with listless CGI and color-filters; but not with Anderson.

    The film's leads, as I've said, all do fantastic work with that they're given; but they are a beautiful cast of people, with Harrington and Browning looking exactly like something out of a painting. Of course the cast's physical beauty has no impact on the film itself; but they are emphasized through costume designer Wendy Partridge who has done Oscar-worthy work with such films as HellboyII: The Golden Army, the Silent Hill franchise, and most recently Thor: The Dark World. A great costume designer coupled with a director like Anderson and you have almost every frame that could be printed off and hung in a museum.  
    District 9
    's Clinton Shorter scores the film, giving it a grand and wonderful sound that is as touching, frenetic, romantic, and chilling as the movie itself.  

    POMPEII's closure of character arcs are all brutally satisfying, with Atticus facing off one on one against Proculus as Vesuvius reaches it's hellish crescendo. Their exchange of blows is brutal and swift, elegant and barbaric, and bloody on both ends.
    When you begin the film you believe that fairy-tales have happy endings and that there will be a rainbow at the end for the characters in Anderson's dramatic epic; but after a tight and thrilling horse chase through the exploding rotting carcass of Pompeii as Milo finally is united with Cassia and leaves Corvus to die you get a sick feeling, and that's when Anderson buries the dagger.

    The final shot is the most sickeningly beautiful and gut-wrenching frame of cinema I've seen in a mainstream film such as this. This is something that makes TITANIC's tear-jerker ending look like the finale to an Air-Bud film.

    POMPEII is a film unlike any other; and deserves a rewatch for it's themes alone as well as to properly appreciate every small gear in this well-oiled machine clicking into place with such perfection you don't want it to end.
    A film that will be tore apart by critics; no doubt; but for those who seek an experience on a truly "grand" scale, this is the right film for you.  

    Sunday
    Oct202013

    Review: Gravity

    I would just like to notate up front that I did NOT see this movie in 3D, even though it's pretty much the 'suppose to' way to see this.  The way I figured it, I'm reviewing the FILM; what does it matter what medium I see it in?  Anyway...

    Of course a lot has been written and raved about Alfonso Cauron's sci-fi epic, Gravity, from its groundbreaking special effects to its powerful story.

    I have to say though - while I was completey taken by its visuals unlike anything I had ever witnessed on screen - its story did not grab me as much as I would have hoped.

    I understand what Cauron was trying to do by having a rookie astronaut (Bullock) paired with a veteran one (Clooney), to give the audience member a relate-able view to what was happening in a situation most anyone knows nothing in how to handle.

    However, at times I felt the story was weak in certain moments and a tad bit 'Hollywood-ish' in others.

    For example, we're given a backstory of Bullock's character, Dr. Ryan Stone, having lost her daughter in a tragic accident, yet are never given any hint in regards to her family, especially her assumed husband.  For me at least, it took away from the realism of the story as I couldn't quite understand why it seemed as if the main character was given limited background to work with and nothing more than that.

    In terms of the acting, both Clooney and Bullock are exceptional.  I seem to always give Clooney a lot of crap for always playing, well Clooney, but in this film at least you really bought his performance as a weathered, experienced astronaut who had been doing this for a very long time.

    As for Bullock - and I've never been the biggest fan of hers either - she definitely took acting to another level (if not something that's never been attempted) in going through a range of emotions, from scared and panicked, to confident and uplifted.  She has to be a front runner for the Best Actress Oscar, for sure a nomination.

    Lastly, I have to comment on Cauron's directing.  Incredible.  The opening scene of this film is 20 minutes long.  20 minutes!  In outer space!  Try doing that in a normal film, let alone one taking place above the earth's atmosphere nonetheless.  This man is undoubtedly an exceptional filmmaker and someone who I will certainly keep an eye on for years to come.

    Overall: B+

    Tuesday
    Aug062013

    And Now For Something Completely Different: A Review of The Help

    I have 42, the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, waiting for me at home.  I had wanted to see it in the theaters, but never got around to it.  I'll be watching it soon and will have a review up after.  But, in the meantime, I thought I'd share an older review of mine about a very similar subject.  This is not the sort of movie that is normally reviewed on this site and I thought it may be a nice change. 

    A few months ago, my girlfriend mentioned to me that she was reading “The Help”, a book about a young, white woman’s relationship with two black maids in 1960’s Mississippi.  She ended up loving the book, and told me that they were adapting it into a movie.  Therefore, I pretty much accepted the fact that I’d be seeing this movie whether I wanted to or not.  To my surprise, I actually really enjoyed it.

    I’m not going to go into plot details, but I will say that Viola Davis, who plays Aibileen, deserves some sort of nomination for her performance here.  She is absolutely pitch-perfect.  I haven’t read the book, and knew next to nothing about the story going into it, but it took less than five minutes for me to realize that this actress was going to carry the film.  The “it” girl of the moment, Emma Stone, who seems to be in everything short of a biopic on Hulk Hogan, was very good as the main  character, Skeeter.  She is a writer at heart, who gets a job at the local paper as a "homemaker hints" columnist.  She is then able to parlay that into an idea for a book about The Help based on the lives of the maids who have spent their entire life taking care of white children.

    As one can imagine, this was a very controversial stance to take for a book at the time.  I really thought that Skeeter showed great courage continuing through with the book, even though she knew that if she and the maids were ever discovered writing down any negative stories regarding white families, the consequences would be disastrous.

    I’m not really doing a good job of hitting the points I wanted to in this review, as I have made it sound like a typical race relations story set in the early 60’s in the south.  Take my word that the film is anything but.

    There are few things that get under my skin as much as racism and that could be why I had a strong emotional response to this movie.  Once again, it’s not as simple as “Blacks are good and whites are bad” and if that’s the main idea you walk away from this review with, blame me.  The film makes you think on several levels and what is most striking of all is the fact that it really wasn’t that long ago that the treatment of blacks as second class citizens was commonplace.  I would be remiss, if I didn’t mention that there were several lighthearted, comedic parts as well that helped break up the heavy ideas explored.  Octavia Spencer portrays Minnie Jackson, whose outspoken ways have put her in a tough spot.  What really drives her actions and character home, however, is the fact that she is responsible for being both serious and fun, all within a moments notice.  

    The audience that has found this website so far may not be the audience that would normally appreciate a film like The Help.  One of my goals as a writer here is to hopefully open some readers up to experiencing films outside of their comfort zone.  If you see this film, and I recommend you do, don’t see it to help fulfill your chick flick quota with your significant other.  See it for the performances and for the real life situations that may help open your eyes beyond what things are like in your own world.  I think the inward trip the film takes you on is well worth the two hour running time.