Reel Opinions


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sabotage

I have no problem with violent movies, and have enjoyed a great many of them.  But Sabotage is not merely a violent movie.  It is an ugly, mean-spirited, abrasive and grimy one.  It made me feel uncomfortable watching it.  It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a depressed and violent DEA agent who leads a team so unlikable and so completely lacking in charm and personalities, calling them antiheroes would be an understatement.  Even worse, the script has no idea what it thinks of these people.  They're just deplorable people doing disgusting things, and the movie has nothing to say about it.

Schwarzenegger is John "Breacher" Wharton, a DEA agent with a reputation for getting the job done when it comes to dealing with drug dealers.  He storms in with his team, made up of young, violent, drug-snorting sociopaths, and pretty much shoot everyone in sight.  When he's not shooting up violent scumbags, he sits in his large home, tormented over the loss of his wife and teenage son one year ago, when they were captured, tortured and murdered by a crime kingpin.  In the film's opening scene, John is watching a snuff film the kingpin sent him of his wife being killed.  Not only does John watch these images over and over again, but the movie forces us to watch them, too.  If this plot point and these violent images had led to some kind of character development for John, that might have been something.  But, the whole idea of John seeking revenge for the death of his family seems like an afterthought, and the movie forgets about it for long periods of time.

Early on, John and his team raid the mansion of a drug lord, killing everyone inside.  Here, we're introduced to John's team, or at least we learn their names, since really that's all that separates them.  They all refer to each other by nicknames like "Pyro", "Grinder", "Tripod" and "Sugar".  Since the team members are more or less interchangeable, that's all we remember about them.  After all the bad guys are dead, John's team decide to help themselves to $10 million they find stashed away in a secret room of the mansion.  They hide it down a sewer pipe, but when they go back later to collect it, the money is gone.  There is an investigation into the team, and whether or not they did steal money from the drug compound, but the charges are dropped quickly, and John and the rest of his men are back to work in no time.

That's when certain members of John's team start turning up dead in various gruesome and graphic ways.  One finds the R.V. he lives in placed on the railroad tracks, another is mutilated and stuck to the ceiling, yet another is mutilated and stuffed in a refrigerator...You get the idea.  Not only do we get to see the finer details of the murder scenes, with various internal organs tossed about the crime area, but the movie usually treats us further by allowing us to watch the autopsy afterward.  The only good thing about these murders is that they bring about the film's one interesting character, a homicide investigator named Caroline (Olivia Williams).  I liked her character, but couldn't help but feel I would have liked her even more if she was being used in a better movie.  Preferably one that doesn't force her to have sex with Schwarzenegger's character at one point, even though the two have absolutely nothing in common, and little chemistry together.

So, Sabotage is ultimately a murder mystery, and not a very good one.  I was able to guess the identity of the killer by using a handy little trick that has gotten me through many a mediocre mystery - Just look for the recognizable actor who's stuck in a role that seems to have absolutely nothing to do with anything, or is given so little to do in the script, you wonder why the actor would even take the role in the first place.  The answer, of course, is that this character is the killer.  Why else would the movie not be drawing attention to them, and why would a recognizable actor take what is obviously a worthless role unless it was going to turn out they are the killer at the end?  Even when the truth is finally revealed, audiences are likely to greet it with a dismissive shrug, as the outcome isn't that thrilling to begin with.

There is no art, style or wit on display here.  It is simply a gruesome endurance test designed to see how many images of splattered brains, spilled intestines and other internal organs you can stomach before you want to get out of your seat and walk out of the theater.  The film's director is David Ayer, whose last film was the amazing End of Watch, a gritty and violent cop drama that was actually about something, and had characters we could get behind.  His script here, which he co-wrote with Skip Woods (A Good Day to Die Hard), reads like it had every last shred of humanity removed from it.  Not only do these characters not resemble real people, they don't even talk like them.  These characters use a certain four letter word with such incessant frequency, it doesn't even sound like dialogue anymore.

Sabotage is a gutless piece of junk that ended up boring me the more it tried to shock me with its violence.  Funny how that is.  The more desperately a movie comes across in its efforts of trying to shock you, the more...well, desperate it often comes across.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Noah

Darren Aronofsky is a very good, and frequently great, filmmaker.  But I think his take on the story of Noah misses the mark by a wide margin.  It's a big budget misfire filled with elements that just don't work, like epic Lord of the Rings-style battle sequences, giant CG monsters, and special effects that more bring to mind a video game, rather than a Biblical epic.  To be fair, the movie's been made with some skill, and features some good turns by a talented cast.  But the script by Aronofsky and Ari Handel brings down any positives the film may muster.

And yet, I found myself deeply intrigued by the film's depiction of Noah.  As played by Russell Crowe, Noah comes across as a warrior, who often feels that mankind is not worthy of saving.  When he gets the message from God (called "The Creator" in this film) to build the Ark and of the impending flood, he views it as the world being purged of humans.  They are not meant to repopulate the world, and the Earth must return to a natural state.  When it is revealed that his adopted daughter, Ila (Emma Watson) has become pregnant, he does not know how to react, and is torn between mercy and violence.  The film has already triggered a lot of controversy with its depiction of Noah and the story.  And while I can certainly see the point of the criticisms, I none the less found it to be a fascinating interpretation, and Crowe's performance to be compelling as a man torn between violence and mercy, even toward his own family at times.

Noah is the descendant of Seth, while Cain's descendants built massive cities that have ravaged and destroyed the land.  Early on, Noah receives a vision of the impending cleansing of the Earth and all mankind.  He seeks the guidance of his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who resides in a nearby cave, dreaming of the taste of fresh berries.  During his time in the cave, he has another vision where he learns that he must build a massive Ark, and carry two of every animal on board during the impending flood that will wipe away all the wickedness in the land.  When the evil king, and descendant of Cain, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) hears of Noah's plan, he gathers an army and plans to take the Ark by force.  Fortunately, Noah will be protected in his mission by the Watchers, fallen angels from heaven who now take the form of towering rock monsters whose design seems more than a little bit inspired by Michael Bay's Transformers films, only they're made of stone instead of scrap metal.

Noah is also aided by his family, which includes his wife (Jennifer Connelly), three sons, and the previously mentioned Ila, whom he rescued and adopted when she was a child.  The movie desperately tries to create some drama and tension within the family, but like a lot of things in this movie, it doesn't work as well as it should.  Noah is a rigid man in his beliefs.  He believes that the family's task is simply to protect the animals, and return them to their rightful place in nature after this is all over.  There is no room for repopulation in his plan.  However, when Ila does become pregnant by one of his sons (and some magic from Methuselah), some tensions obviously arise, as the father and son argue over the fate of the children.  We keep on waiting for the film to pick up on this dramatic angle, and while it keeps on hitting upon it, it never takes off and truly grabs hold.  A large part of this has to do with the fact that Noah's family feel underwritten, and often don't participate in the story, unless the script deems it necessary.

There is a great moment late in the film when Noah's wife finally confronts her husband about his behavior, and how she does not think she can tolerate it much longer.  Not only is this Connelly's best scene in the film, it's one of the few times her character gets to truly come alive, so we can't blame her for taking advantage of it.  In Noah, we sometimes get a standout scene for one of the supporting characters, making us think the script is finally ready to let them step forward, only to have it pull back almost immediately.  There's a subplot about one of Noah's son's slowly being seduced by the evil Tubal-cain, who has stowed away on the Ark.  This too never really goes anywhere.  And what about those giant rock monsters that help Noah construct the Ark itself?  Once they're introduced, they're pretty much pushed to the background, forced to look like expensive special effects that really serve no purpose.

While there are moments and individual performances that do stand out, this is an endlessly frustrating movie overall.  The decision to add big, epic war scenes against an army determined to overtake the Ark for themselves comes across as a desperate act to drag out a movie that didn't need to be any longer, as it already runs nearly two and a half hours as is.  The movie is stuffed with spectacle and CG images, but more often than not, it distracts rather than adds to the story.  If Aronofsky wanted to make an environmental-based fantasy epic, maybe he should have come up with his own idea.  These added elements of fantasy, war, and sorcery feel shoehorned in to the original story, and sometimes don't even feel natural in the narrative.  This is a big, lumbering and odd movie that has some moments where you get to see the director's true intentions, but they are surrounded by a lot of spectacle and empty characters that simply don't engage.

I have no doubt that Aronofsky's career will survive this film, and he will get to do a great film again someday.  This almost feels like a big studio production that got out of control, and he just didn't know how to reign it back in.  Noah gives us an interesting jumping point for a unique look at the classic story, but then it goes wrong pretty much every step after that.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Divergent

It's amazing how cut throat the world of adapting teen-oriented novels has become in Hollywood.  The past few years alone has been met with a wide variety of shattered franchise dreams, when the initial film adaptation that was supposed to trigger a series crashed and burned at the box office.  For every Twilight or Hunger Games, there have been just as many failed attempts.  Does anyone even remember The Mortal Instruments or Vampire Academy?  Now comes Divergent, based on the novels by Veronica Roth.  While it's too soon to tell, I think this film has a chance to carry on into a full series.  It features a likable lead, some interesting ideas, and a compelling futuristic world that personally sucked me in more than the one depicted in the Hunger Games series.

Like a lot of adaptations of Young Adult fiction, we're treated to a lot of exposition early on that explains the world we're about to enter, so that those not familiar with the books won't feel left out.  Fortunately, unlike some other past efforts, it flows by pretty quickly and doesn't border on self-parody by over-explaining every detail.  The world of Divergent is set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, which is largely in ruins due to some global war that is not really explained in much detail.  A massive wall has been constructed around the border of the city to keep the few survivors who live within the city safe from whatever may be lurking out beyond the border.  The people within this society are divided into one of five groups.  Each of the groups focus on one specialty or virtue, such as knowledge, kindness, agriculture or strength.  The groups (which have names such as Erudite, Dauntless, Abnegation, Amity, and Candor) generally work together to keep the society running, although we can tell early on that there are some cracks starting to form within the "perfect" system, with the Erudites (intellectuals) plotting to overthrow the other classes and assume control.

The teenagers in this society are given a test to determine which path and group they will follow for the rest of their life.  Sometimes it can be the same society as their parents that they grew up in, and sometimes it's not, and they are never allowed to see their family again.  If you take the test, and cannot be placed into one of the five categories, or you hold multiple traits and specialties, you are known as a Divergent.  They are considered dangerous, because they don't fit the system, and thus are hunted down.  During the opening moments of the film, our heroine Tris Prior (played by a very likable Shailene Woodley) learns that she is a Divergent when she tries to take the placement test.  She is advised to keep the test results a secret from her parents, a pair of Abnegation leaders (played by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), as well as the rest of the world.  When she must undergo the ceremony where she announces which faction she will follow, she chooses the athletic Dauntless, who serve as soldiers in the society.

A majority of the film deals with Tris undergoing the grueling training program for the Dauntless, which seems to be a combination of military boot camp and mixed martial arts training.  During training, she makes some friends, such as the sweet natured Christina (Zoe Kravitz), as well as some enemies, like the smug and smarmy fellow recruit, Peter (Miles Teller).  Interestingly enough, Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller played young lovers in last year's underrated The Spectacular Now.  Here, playing rivals, we see that their antagonistic chemistry is just as good as their romantic connection was in the earlier film.  Most importantly, however, Tris meets the handsome Dauntless instructor, Four (Theo James), who not only takes her under his wing during training, but the two also develop a romantic relationship.  This is one area where Divergent fortunately differs from most of the other Young Adult adaptations, in that there is no love triangle muddling the plot.  It also helps that both of the young actors are likable in their respective roles, and work well when together.

While Tris completes her training, she seems to be under the constant careful watch of a Erudite named Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet).  It seems that Jeanine suspects that young Tris may be a Divergent, and this fact could be dangerous to her plan for her faction to become the dominant ruling power in the society.  Seeing the usually warm Winslet playing such an ice-cold villain type is an interesting change of pace, and she handles it quite well.  I actually wanted to know more about the political power struggle going on behind the scenes, as the movie seldom slows down long enough to explore it.  Despite a nearly two and a half hour running time, there does seem to be some crucial information about this society and how it is run missing.  Having not read the books the film is based on, I can't say if this is because the author didn't go into much detail, or if the screenplay intentionally left it out, and focused on the action instead.  Whatever the case, I felt like I needed more information, and I hope it is explored deeper in future installments.

What does work in Divergent, and what drew me in, is both the character of Tris, as well as the performance by Woodley.  She comes across as vulnerable, human, and even manages a sense of humor from time to time, which is more than you can say for the mopey Bella from the Twilight series, or even the overly-serious Katniss from The Hunger Games.  Even during the film's final half hour, when Tris is acting as a total butt-kicking, knife-throwing heroine against a corrupt faction staging a hostile take over, Woodley still manages to find the humanity in the character.  She is strong, but is given ample time to react to people she loves getting hurt, as well as reflecting on her own violent actions at times.  I'm looking forward to seeing the character grow in the future installments, and hopefully I will not be disappointed.

I can't say for certain whether I will be with this series to the very end (there are two more films on the way if this does well), but for now, Divergent got me caught up enough in its world and its main character that I am cautiously optimistic.  Hopefully Tris will be treated well in her further adventures.  The kid's got a lot of potential, as does the young actress who plays her.

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Muppets Most Wanted

Comparing 2011's revamp of The Muppets, and their just-released sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, you have to wonder if perhaps the co-writer and human star of the last movie, Jason Segel, was the real heart and soul of that film's success.  The previous Muppet film was sweet and often relentlessly sunny and cheerful, and did a great job of reintroducing the Muppet characters, while at the same time paying tribute to their past.  Segel was instrumental to that film's development, given his love of the characters and his understanding of their world, and most likely played a huge role in why that film worked so well.

For whatever reason, he chose not to return for the sequel, and his absence is definitely felt.  While the movie is never bad, it also feels oddly mechanical and lifeless.  The charm and simplicity that the last movie had in such large abundance has been replaced with a convoluted plot about Cold War-era terrorists, an evil doppelganger for Kermit the Frog, a wedding, and international thieves planning a heist.  Will kids like Most Wanted?  I honestly can't say.  The jokes often revolve around stuff they probably won't understand, like Silence of the Lambs, Jerry Maguire, the Broadway musical A Chorus Line, and even Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.  That's not to say the movie has no laughs at all, and isn't fun in some way, as it is from time to time.  It just feels like this time around, the likable Muppet characters get sidetracked by the overly dense story.

The film actually opens mere seconds after the last one ended, with the movie wrapping up, and Kermit (voice by Steve Whitmire), Miss Piggy (voice by Eric Jacobson) and the rest unsure of what they should do, and whether the fans really do still care. (Turns out the fans who turned out at the end of their last movie were hired extras.) However, they soon realize that the cameras are still rolling, which means that the Disney Corporation has enough faith in them for a franchise and another movie.  This starts off the film's opening musical number, "We're Doing a Sequel", a funny and self-depreciating song, where the Muppets flat out admit that the sequel is never quite as good as the last one.  As Kermit and the gang try to figure out what kind of movie they should do for the next one, they are approached by a shady talent agent named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who explains his suspicious last name as being French, and pronounced "Bad-Gee".

Dominic approaches the Muppets under the pretense that he wants to sign with them and help them put on a world tour across Europe.  In reality, he's a master thief with a scheme to steal the royal crown jewels.  He's also working for a criminal mastermind named Constantine (voice by Matt Vogel), billed "the world's most dangerous frog", who bears a strong resemblance to Kermit, and recently escaped from a Siberian prison camp.  Constantine's evil plan involves switching places with Kermit, so that the innocent frog goes back to jail in his place, and Constantine worms his way into Kermit's spot, winning over the other Muppets by allowing them complete and total creative freedom to do whatever they want during their show.  As the Muppets tour across Europe, Constantine and Dominic rob a variety of museums, looking for the location of a lost treasure.  As for poor Kermit, he's pretty much brushed aside in an underdeveloped subplot, where he tries to win over the prison warden (Tina Fey), put together the annual prison musical revue, and naturally escape.

Despite the Muppets getting the top billing in the title, they are given little to do, and often disappear from the narrative for long periods of time.  It's up to the villains to drive most of the plot and the scenes, and they're just not strong enough or funny enough to do so.  I have enjoyed much of Ricky Gervais' work, but here he seems oddly held back and bland.  Even when he gets to do a musical number, he doesn't seem to cut loose as completely as he should.  Constantine the Frog doesn't hold up much better, his main joke revolving around his indecipherable accent that seems somewhat inspired by Steve Carell's in the Despicable Me films, and the fact that none of the Muppets seem to realize he doesn't talk or act remotely like Kermit.  There's also a plot revolving around Miss Piggy finding herself somewhat attracted to this new version of Kermit, as he seems much more open with his feelings and affections.  It's a cute idea, but not explored as much as it should.

Just like the last movie, Muppets Most Wanted features a slew of celebrity guest stars, most of whom are on screen just long enough for us to recognize them before they walk off.  The actor who gets the most screen time, outside of Gervais, would be Ty Burrell, who shows up as an Inspector Clouseau-like Interpol Agent on the trail of the criminals.  There's also Tina Fey as the Russian prison warden.  She gets a catchy song welcoming Kermit to the Big House when he first arrives, and always seems to be on the verge of breaking out and doing something really funny, but the movie constantly shortchanges her after her introduction.  In truth, a lot of the celebrity cameos come across as missed opportunities this time around.  We get a scene where two of the great divas, Miss Piggy and Celine Dion, share the screen together for a musical number.  As soon as we see them together, our mind races with possibilities of the jokes that are to come, and...Well, nothing happens.  They just sing a ballad together, and don't even really get to interact with each other.  You don't put a pairing like that up on the screen, and not do anything with it.

There is just a disjointed feel to the material here.  So much time is spent on the villains, that the sweet and likable Muppets are pretty much pushed into the background, or flat-out forgotten about.  It's not until the third act, when three of the Muppets finally realize that the Kermit they're working for is an imposter and set out to find the real one, that they finally start to drive their own movie.  By then, it's far too late.  This is a Muppet movie that could have used much more of the Muppets, and their simple laid back charm.  The curious thing is, the last movie understood this, and let that charm drive much of the film.  Even when they weren't on screen in that one, the script itself had a similar kind of energy.  This time, it's all plot all the time, and none of the joy that we're supposed to feel.

Are there laughs to be had here?  Sure, but not enough to make up for the many flaws.  Muppets Most Wanted is overlong, overstuffed, and oddly nixes a lot of the stuff that made the last movie work.  Despite having most of the creative team of the last film come back, something feels missing.  That something, I think, is Jason Segel's understanding of these characters and their world.

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Need for Speed

Given that the Fast and Furious franchise continues to strike box office gold with each sequel, it's no wonder why a studio would want to get in on the success with their own variation.  Hence, we have Dreamworks and Touchstone's Need for Speed, a live action take of a popular video game series.  For a Fast and Furious knock off, this will do, I guess.  Faint praise, to be sure.  The racing scenes are actually quite good, and shot in such a way that it's easy to follow the action.  But the weak plot and characters, dumb dialogue, and a bloated running time work against what could have been a really fun guilty pleasure.

Our hero is a brooding racer named Toby (Aaron Paul), who has a lot of problems as the film opens.  His dad recently died, he's in danger of losing his family garage and custom car service to massive debt, and his ex-girlfriend (who he's still in love with) is with the slimy professional racer, Dino (Dominic Cooper).  We instantly know that Dino is the villain because of his slicked black hair, constant sneer, and the fact that he "sold out" and went pro after years of being an illegal street racer.  The movie wastes too much time setting up the rivalry between Toby and Dino, when all we want to see is the racing.  When the two finally do compete against each other (with one of Toby's young friends also competing in the race), Dino causes a car crash which kills Toby's friend, and then speeds off, leaving Toby alone to take the blame when the police arrive. 

Flash forward two years later, and Toby's out on parole with revenge on his mind.  He knows that Dino is going to be competing in an illegal street race on the West Coast that is held every year by the mysterious Monarch (Michael Keaton).  Seeing Keaton playing a character who literally does nothing but sit at a desk and commentate on the action is probably the best example of wasted talent I've seen in a while.  Toby decides to make the journey from New York to California, so he can compete against his rival.  Along the way, he's teamed up with an obligatory love interest, played quite likably by Imogen Poots.  I liked Poots a lot in the last film I saw her in, too (last month's That Awkward Moment), and hope she gets some better scripts soon, as she's too good to be tossed aside in these kind of movies.  As our heroes make their way cross country to compete in the big race, we slowly realize that not much is happening, and the movie could have easily been trimmed to a lean 90 minutes with little sacrifice.  Instead, it clocks in at a far too long 130 minutes.

Even if the overlong and uneven pacing knocks Need for Speed down quite a bit, we can see glimpses of a fun movie throughout.  The stunt driving is pulled off well, and seems to rely on practical effects, instead of CG.  The editing on the racing is also clean, so we can constantly keep track on what's happening.  This is a huge relief after witnessing the last car-based action film I saw, Getaway, which was edited so rapidly you could hardly tell what you were supposed to be looking at.  The driving sequences are obviously the main selling point of the film, so we have to wonder why the movie makes us wait so long to get to them.  Are we really supposed to get behind these thinly written characters, whose personalities could probably be written out on a small scrap of paper?  Apparently we are, as the filmmakers stop the action to focus on them, while never making a big case as to why we're supposed to care about them.

With a tighter focus on the action, I could forgive the movie for its lame characters, and even occasional glaring continuity problems. (At one point, one of Toby's friends quits his job by taking off all his clothes, and walking through the office complex naked.  Yet, seconds after leaving the building and getting in another character's car, he's suddenly dressed again.) I mean, heck, I've been able to find enjoyment in some of the Fast and Furious films, because they have a winning formula of action and characters that have some kind of chemistry together.  There's none of that in Need for Speed.  As a hero, Toby is largely a brooding dullard, and his rivalry with the evil Dino is never as strong as it should be.  It never feels like its driving the action, like it should be.  Instead, the movie meanders - It throws a few police car chases at us from time to time, but it does little to distract how little there is going on within the film.

I would classify Need for Speed as a movie that does work when it's doing what it's supposed to be doing, but spends far too much time avoiding what does work.  I think with another trip or two to the editing room, this could have been a fun little movie.  As it is, it's bloated, and only fun in bits and pieces.

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Sunday, March 09, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

When 300 came out seven years ago, it looked like nothing we had seen before on the screen.  Since then, a lot of other movies have tried to mimic its visual style and tone, so with the far-too-late second installment, 300: Rise of an Empire, we feel like we've seen it all before.   If only that was the film's sole problem.  It's also over-produced, badly written, and is probably about as unnecessary as a second movie can get.

This is not so much a sequel, as it is a side story.  It tells a different story that happens during the events of the first film.  Right from the start, we're bombarded with information and visuals that mean absolutely nothing to us at the time.  The returning Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) spews forth exposition narration for a good 10 minutes or so, which more or less gives us the backstory of three separate main characters.  If there's one thing this movie loves, it's exposition and backstory, as this won't be the last time the movie will pause itself to fill us in on a main character's background.  While she talks, we're treated to the visuals of numerous stabbings and decapitations, fake CG blood flying at the screen (Gotta give the 3D audiences their money worth!), and brave warriors fighting in battle.  Of course, the movie has just started, so we don't know who these people are.  The entire opening feels like a series of random images to play over the narration at times.

We then get some more backstory on King Xeres (Rodrigo Santoro), who is crushed by the death of his father in battle, and is further manipulated by the female warrior Artemesia (Eva Green) to become a "God King", and take revenge on the Greeks who slayed his father.  Xeres is apparently easily swayed, as he does just that, and declares war on the Greeks.  We also learn that Artemesia herself has a reason to hate Greeks as well, as she watched her family get raped and murdered by their warriors, and then she was captured herself, and raped continuously on board a slave ship, until she was left for dead and rescued and revived by the Persians.  You know, Artemesia is supposed to be the central villain in the story, but as her background played out, I kind of sympathized with her.  Given what she went through as a child, who can really blame her for being more than a little bit angry at the people the Persians are declaring war against?

Finally, after what feels like a good half hour of explaining everyone's motivations, we get to this film's main plot.  While the Spartans from the original movie are off fighting the Persian army, Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton, who makes very little impact here) has to lead a small band of farmers and warriors to battle Artemesia's Navy, which is fast approaching the Greek shores for an invasion campaign.  The set up for battle is more or less the same as before.  Themistokles' army is greatly outmatched by the enemies, and the Persian ships are much larger and advanced.  Regardless, due to some clever strategy on the Greeks' half, they are able to win some victories in battle.  Artemesia comes to respect Themistokles on the battlefield, and even invites him to join her on her ship one night, hoping that she can turn him over to her side.  This leads to what has to be one of the silliest and most overdone sex scenes in cinema history, as the two suddenly find themselves extremely attracted to each other, and violently trash the entire room as they make passionate love.  Even the guards standing outside the door seem to be making a silent commentary on how silly this scene is in the way they look at each other, as they hear what's going on inside.

300: Rise of an Empire has a very bad script, with lines of dialogue only the screenwriters who wrote them could love.  But what really seals the movie's fate is how overdone it is as a whole.  Director Noam Murro feels that there has to be some kind of visual trick in every single scene.  Even when the characters are just standing around talking, there has to be CG digital dust mites floating about the screen.  During the film's many battle scenes, it's just not enough for someone to simply be killed.  They have to have their blood spill upon the camera lens, or perhaps have their detached limbs go flying toward the screen.  The most annoying thing is how frequently it uses one of the stylistic choices of the first film, of having the action slow down temporarily, and then speeding it right back up again.  It's overkill here, as the movie even uses the "slow down/speed up" technique when two characters are kissing!  That particular moment comes close to bordering on self-parody. 

I've been seeing a lot of movies lately where I just don't care about what's going on up on the screen, and this movie continues the trend.  I understand, it's supposed to be a technical demo for special effects and action, and not a detailed account on the historical battles its plot is based on.  I get that, and with the original 300 movie, I was able to enjoy it despite its obvious faults.  But with Rise of an Empire, it's literally more of the same stuff we saw seven years ago.  It doesn't add any new visuals for us to get excited about.  Despite the new plot and characters, it feels like a generic clone of the first one.  And despite the script's love for exposition, we don't really learn anything about these characters that allow them to become likable or interesting.  The movie has the good guys scream dialogue about wanting democracy, so we'll know we're supposed to cheer them on when they're slaughtering the other army.  That's about as deep as this stuff gets, folks.

I closed my review of the first movie by calling it "junk food for the mind, but a full course meal for the eyes and the senses".  This movie keeps the first part in tact, but ignores the second.  Unlike the original, this one can't get by solely on its visual impact. 

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Friday, March 07, 2014

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Given that my memories of the original cartoons that introduced the Peabody and Sherman characters are fuzzy at best, I am grateful that previous knowledge is not required to enjoy this spirited and fast-paced animated update.  In fact, the canine Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) does a good job of getting us up to speed in the film's opening moments.  We learn that even though Peabody is a dog, he rejected the usual behavior of sniffing butts and chasing balls at a young age, and instead decided to dedicate his life to knowledge.  He grew up to become a Harvard graduate, Nobel Prize-winning scientist, and an all around captain of industry, just to name a few of his accomplishments.

He's also the adoptive father to a seven-year-old boy named Sherman (Max Charles).  Yes, this is the story of a dog and his boy, and in flashbacks, we see glimpses of how Peabody had to win a court case in order to gain custody of the abandoned child he discovered in an alley.  Despite the court's decision, there are some who do not think a dog, even a highly intelligent talking one, is a reasonable parent for a child - Particularly the cruel Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), who wishes to separate the two.  Despite these setbacks, Mr. Peabody has used his gift of invention to help educate his son over the years.  He invented a time machine he calls the WABAC (pronounced "way back"), so that Sherman and he can travel to important moments in history, and the boy can be educated in our world.  Now that the time has come for Sherman's first day of school, Peabody must leave his boy in the care of others for the first time.

It's what happens on that first day of school that kicks off the plot.  Sherman becomes the target of a mean girl at school named Penny (Ariel Winter), and a fight breaks out between the two when she teases him about his unconventional father figure.  Hoping to make peace, Mr. Peabody invites Penny and her family over to his place for dinner, so that both families can talk things out.  While the adults discuss the situation with their children, Sherman makes an effort to patch things up with the snooty Penny, which leads to him letting it slip that he has a time machine hidden away in his home.  The two kids take an impromptu trip back in time to Ancient Egypt, which ends with Penny being trapped there as the new bride of King Tut.  Sherman travels back to the present to inform Peabody of what's going on, and as the two travel back in order to correct history, their journey across time ends up disrupting the time-space order.

As directed by Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) and written by Craig Wright (TV's Lost), Mr. Peabody & Sherman is frequently funny, very bright and joyful, and works just as well for adults as it does for kids.  I loved some of the clever visual gags that are bound to fly over the heads of most kids (and some adults, as well), such as the fact that Sherman shows up at school with a lunchbox of Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time".  The original cartoons were fairly low key in nature, but in order to keep today's kids entertained, this update has been infused with some big action set pieces, with Peabody and the time traveling kids having narrow escapes with the French Revolution, or fighting alongside the Trojans.  These never become excessive, and most importantly, the screenplay shows a real gift for wordplay and witty dialogue.

It also has an affection for puns, which is no surprise, given that the original cartoons were created by Jay Ward (he created Rocky and Bullwinkle), who loved a good pun himself.  At one point, Mr. Peabody tells Sherman that the pyramids were built "by some old Giza".  If you laughed or even smiled at that, as I did, then you should find it easy enough to surrender to the film's sense of humor.  Even if that kind of humor is not your thing, there's plenty to like here.  The look of the film is colorful, it's quickly-paced and a lot of fun, and the voice cast, despite being filled with recognizable names, never distracts.  This is thankfully not one of those cases were celebrity voice talents were picked just to put some names on the poster.  They are used well here, so that we are focused on the cartoon character on the screen, and not the voice coming out of them.

While Mr. Peabody & Sherman doesn't quite reach the heights of The Lego Movie, it's still incredibly charming, and should prove to be tremendous fun for both kids and adults.  At the very least, it's a step up for Dreamworks Animation Studios, whose last two efforts (the mediocre The Croods and the flat-out terrible Turbo) left me cold.  Should these characters either inspire a franchise, or perhaps some short films, I would be more than welcome to seeing them again.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com! 

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Monday, March 03, 2014

The Wind Rises

Supposedly the animated feature swan song for Hayao Miyazaki (although he has made that claim before with some of his past films), The Wind Rises ends up being an unusual choice for the filmmaker to cap off his career, while at the same time probably being his most personal film.  As is to be expected from Miyazaki, there are some wonderfully surreal images (although this time, they are pretty much restricted to dream sequences the main character has), and a beautifully detailed hand-drawn look that is unmatched by just about anything out there right now.  At the same time, the story itself is entirely grounded in reality, with none of his trademark fantasy elements whatsoever.

Rather than his usual passion for fantasy and wonder, Miyazaki has chosen to give us a heartfelt and compelling historical drama set in the early 20th Century based on the life of Japanese aircraft engineer, Jiro Horikoshi.  The movie's format and script has already created some controversy, as it chooses to almost completely ignore the fact that Horikoshi's plane designs were used for war and destruction (including their involvement in a certain day that will live in infamy), as well as whitewashing over some of Japan's historical tragedies, such as their strife with China at the time.  Instead of telling the whole historical story, it simply wants to be a story of a man in love with creation.  Miyazaki is obviously intent on covering only one certain aspect of the story, not giving a history lesson.  And besides, when you think about it, it's perfectly understandable that the filmmaker would want his last film to be about a man's imagination and drive.

And besides, it's not as if the movie completely ignores what Jiro's designs were eventually used for, as the film's final scene has a sobering feel.  I can understand why some people would be upset about these aspects not being emphasized, but I am here to review the movie that Miyazaki has made, not the movie some people think he should have made.  What he has made is a movie that celebrates those who rise above the ordinary in their respective fields, just as the director himself has done many times in his career.  The film opens with Jiro as a boy, who dreams of becoming a pilot, but his poor eyesight has ended that dream before it could begin.  One night, he has a dream where he is visited by a famous Italian aircraft engineer named Caproni (English dub voice by Stanley Tucci), who convinces the boy that he can still pursue his passion by building what he loves.  This dream inspires young Jiro, and drives the course of his young and eventual adult life.

As an adult in 1927, Jiro (now voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) heads to Tokyo to take a job with the Mitsubishi Corporation, who is trying to design a modern day marvel aircraft for the Japanese military, as well as advance Japan's air technology, which is woefully behind other militaries, such as Germany.  Jiro's devotion to design and original thinking wins him the favor of his short-tempered boss, Kurokawa (Martin Short), and eventually leads to him being a key member of the team.  We also get to witness some important moments in Japan's history at the time through Jiro's eyes, the most memorable being a stunning sequence that recreates the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.  But the film's main focus comes into play when he meets Nahoko (Emily Blunt), a wealthy young woman who has become a victim of a tuberculosis outbreak, and becomes the love of his life.  The way that Jiro and Nahoko inspire each other becomes the heart of the film, and lends it a certain level of gravitas when it becomes clear that Nahoko's health is not improving.

Seeing The Wind Rises for what it is, a celebration of creativity and inspiration, you can understand what Miyazaki was trying to do with this film.  And while the fact that it ignores a lot of the historical outcomes of Jiro's work is certainly a stumbling block for the film, I don't feel it completely crushes its worth.  As I mentioned, this is not intended to be a movie about the horrors of war.  Could Miyazaki have celebrated the human creative spirit by choosing a different historical subject?  Of course.  But I cannot second guess the man.  This is the movie and the subject he has chosen, and while the film has obviously been whitewashed in some way, its more troubling subject matter is still present in some form.  If anything, what brings the film down just a little and prevents it from joining the director's other masterpieces is that its reality-focus keeps it a little too grounded.  The director is obviously more comfortable dealing with the fantastic, and while he holds our attention with this historical drama, there are some lapses in energy, as well as some jumps in time and place that could have been handled a little bit better.

Those who have followed Miyazaki's career up to the present are bound to find a lot to like in The Wind Rises.  As expected, it's beautiful to look at, and there is still no theatrical experience quite like seeing a detailed Studio Ghibli production on the big screen.  Also as is to be expected, the English dub provided by the Walt Disney Studios (who have decided to release this film under its Touchstone Pictures label, due to the adult nature of the story and the PG-13 rating) is quite good for what it is.  I have never personally been a fan of dubbing foreign films, but the Disney Studio dubs of Miyazaki's films have generally been a step above, and it's no different here.  The only problem I do have with it is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt sounds a bit less enthused at times in his performance as Jiro.  I understand that the man is supposed to be somewhat of an introvert, and probably wasn't exactly "Mr. Personality" in real life, but Gordon-Levitt's line readings sound downright monotone at times.  Maybe it was just me, as I haven't heard anyone else bring it up in reviews or discussion of the film.

If this is truly the last film from Hayao Miyazaki, then at least he has left us with a wonderful vision, as well as a strong celebration of invention, passion and love.  It's not a perfect film, but it leaves us with some unforgettable images, as well as a heartfelt and honest love story in the middle of it all.  Just like all of his films, I imagine I will be revisiting this many times in the future.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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