Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Muppets (2011)

I guess I should apologize for not updating in, what, twenty days?! Sorry about that. Job-hunting and the like. Not much new to report. I am still actively looking for jobs, but in this cash-strapped period I have not gone out to see many movies. Actually, I think The Hunger Games and The Avengers are the only movies I saw in theaters since I returned.

I caught The Muppets onboard Singapore Airlines during my flight back to America. I was swept up by a wave of nostalgia that compelled me to press “enter” on my remote control and select the movie. It ate up a good fifth or so of my flight, and I enjoyed most of the experience.

I imagine there are many more qualified people who could be reviewing this film. While I grew up watching Kermit and Miss Piggy on the Muppets Tonight television series, I never really followed their work after that, except for a cameo in the Keep Fishin’ music video by Weezer. Most of the time I spent watching The Muppets was spent re-acquainting myself with the cast of characters, Fozzie and Gonzo and all the rest.

The Muppets’ movies were coming out during a period between 1976, the premier of The Muppets Movie, and Muppets From Space, which came out in 1999. The new film plays out as a reunion of sorts, using Jason Segel’s everyman character (Gary) to reintroduce the audience to all of our childhood favorites. The human element to this story comes in the form of Walter, Gary’s brother, born a Muppet but not one of the Muppets. He struggles to come to terms with his identity and is inspired to visit the Muppet Studio for guidance.

The brothers work with Kermit the Frog to reunite the Muppets and put on a show that will allow them to buy their studio back from the trope-tacular evil business tycoon who has purchased it. The film is littered with throwbacks to the original series and movies, as well as a handful of fresh humor that almost seems out of place in terms of modern-day relevance. For every call-back to my childhood, there was also a new chuckle to be had.

This is not one of those films that needs to secretly work in a bunch of covert dirty humor to appeal to the parents that wind up sitting through it with their children. The nostalgia factor will keep parents in their seats as their kids gain an appreciation for these classic characters. The film did well at the box office, so hopefully this is the start of a new series of Muppet movies.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The King's Speech (2010)

Just wanted to take this chance to apologize for taking so long to update the page. I was in California over the weekend and neglected to prepare a post in advance. Then, when I came home, I simply got caught up in the usual chaos that envelops my life.

Like Black Swan, this is another Oscar winner. I must apologize for erroneously saying last time that Black Swan won the award for Best Picture. In fact, The King’s Speech won that award. Natalie Portman won Best Actress and Colin Firth won Best Actor. It’s unfortunate that two films can’t win the award, though—I would have selected these two in a heartbeat. Oh well, no changing the past I suppose.

The King’s Speech chronicles a period in the life of King George VI of England leading up to the onset of World War 2. Played by Colin Firth (remember I mentioned that Oscar for Best Actor?), King George VI struggles to cope with a socially debilitating stutter that makes it nearly impossible for him to speak in front of audiences.

He eventually finds his way to a speech therapist, Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush who makes the most progress in teaching the king how to speak clearly. If you don’t know the history, I won’t spoil it for you, but later in the film Firth is called upon to make a very important speech, meaning that his work with Rush is of dire importance.

The film does a very good job of painting two pictures. The first is of a country on the brink of war, searching for a leader to guide it. The second is of a man torn between duty and fear, unable to overcome a hurdle that has plagued him since birth and rise to a station he never expected nor desired. Here is where Colin Firth shines. If I didn’t know better, I would say he actually has a stutter.

Beyond those points, though, the film is lacking in historical accuracy. Though honestly, if it’s a feature film you shouldn’t be surprised. I recommend you critically examine every feature film after you have seen it, to sort out the truth from the lies. In this case, most of the errors deal with inconsistent dates, people, and places. Second-hand accounts also claim that King George VI was never as casual around Logue as the film suggests. I argue that this is an instance of necessary artistic license; our protagonist needs to be down-to-earth and relatable if he is to garner empathy from the audience.

It is another Oscar winner, so I definitely suggest catching it sometime. The beginning might seem a little slow, but once you bite into the meat of the plot it manages to remain engaging and believable until the end.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Black Swan (2010)

I’m going to California for a short vacation, so I won’t be updating again until Tuesday or Wednesday. Make due with this review of the 2011 Oscars’ Best Picture, Black Swan.

I reviewed Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain a while back. This film came out about four years after that, and was far more successful both critically and financially. The film centers around a young ballet starlet named Nina (Natalie Portman) who wins the starring role in the classic ballet Swan Lake. What follows is a tumultuous journey into Nina’s psyche as she struggles to cope with the physical and mental demands that accompany such a prestigious role.

Like many of Aronofsky’s films, this one blurs the line between reality and fantasy, offering scenarios that the audience must judge for themselves. Do these events take place in Nina’s head, or in real life? Which events? Who is real, and when are they real? Probably the most fun I had was after the film, sitting on my couch, trying to decide what actually happened.

Aronofsky and Portman both stated that they were inspired or reminded of Roman Polanski’s works, such as The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby. Those films also made very broad strokes when it came to nailing down whether the action on screen should be taken at face-value or not. The film also bears passing similarities to 1997’s Perfect Blue, a film in which an actress falls into a dream world to escape problems associated with her changing career.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that you shouldn’t take the events in this movie too seriously at first glance. Watch it once if you want a dark, dramatic psychological thriller. Give yourself some time to think and then watch it again. Look for what you missed, and try to associate everything you saw before. There’s a reason this film won Best Picture. It’s worth watching at least twice.

On a final note, to address some of the criticisms people have with the film. I agree that it does not realistically portray the lives of ballet dancers. It seems to be more like the fictionalized lives of ballet dancers, lives that are often described as tormented and painful. The latter seems to be the one people are more familiar with whenever the “dark side” of ballet is brought up. In a way, leaning away from the reality of ballet seems to make the film even better, as it further twists and perverts Nina’s life and the way we see her world. It’s something to consider when viewing the film.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011)

I had the opportunity to catch the Sherlock Holmes sequel approximately three months after it premiered in America, thanks to the long wait that people living in Japan must endure while films go through the tumultuous process required to prepare them for foreign markets. Wow, that was a long sentence!

The sequel takes place a short time after the original. Not much has changed, really: Holmes is still chasing after Moriarty, Irene Adler is still acting as Moriarty’s agent, and Watson is still planning on marrying Mary Morstan. However, this film is the cumulative battle of wits between the famed detective and his arch-nemesis, so things kick into high gear and Holmes and Watson are reunited.

What follows is an enigmatic tour across Europe, where Holmes tries to uncover what sort of insidious plan Moriarty’s recent atrocities have been leading up to. I won’t spoil it for you, but like the first film some leaps of faith are required in order to tie everything together. In addition to seeing Moriarty’s face for the first time, Holmes works with a new female co-star, Noomi Rapace as a gypsy named Simza. Her destiny is intertwined with that of the protagonists.

Director Guy Ritchie follows up on the cinematic conventions from the first film, including Holmes’ special style of pre-planning his battles, by adding some interesting techniques to the mix. There is a very powerful scene that takes place in a forest, Holmes fleeing bullets and bombs, that I doubt you have seen the like of before. Intermingled slow-motion, exaggerated sound effects, and a variety of other features made each fight something unique and memorable. It’s only a shame that the story has to suffer as a result.

It’s true, the action starts almost immediately and most of the film turns into a giant chase scene, Holmes employing any and all means of transportation to follow his foe across country borders. Between gunfights and fistfights, there is little time to develop a rapport between the classic rivals. Actor Jared Harris gives Moriarty a strong performance that makes his lack of screen time seem inconsequential, though.

This film stands out as a blockbuster with strong, if shoehorned, action scenes and a narrative that shows the proper way to build a sequel upon the fountain of a successful origin film. If you’ve seen the first one, you won’t be disappointed by the second. If you haven’t seen the first one, you may be in over your head.

Friday, 20 April 2012

In Time (2011)

Let us start with an outlandish premise: What would you do if you stopped aging at 25, and you were paid in seconds instead of cents? That’s the background of “In Time,” starring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, and Cillian Murphy.

In the not-so-distant future, humans are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. From that point on, they are dependent on earning increments of time to survive. Oh, and did I mention that when you run out of “time,” you die? That’s also important. Justin Timberlake works in a factory, earning just enough time to live day-to-day. His mother, played by “House” actress Olivia Wilde, is worse off than he is. One day, she runs out of time and dies. From that moment on, Timberlake vows to change the system somehow.

I think I watched this on the airplane, mostly out of sheer boredom. The number of plot holes in the film are astounding, and I cannot believe that a society like the one presented in this film could ever function properly. The dichotomy of this society uses time as a replacement for money, the only difference being that having no time will literally kill you. Rich people have millions of years at their disposal, while slum dwellers like Timberlake have 48 hours or so until their next paycheck.

Somehow, Timberlake stumbles onto a windfall of time and ends up in high society, where he flirts with Amanda Seyfried and makes enemies with the Timekeepers, led by Cillian Murphy. The movie slowly turns into a Bonny and Clyde-type film, full of futuristic bank robberies and action-packed chases. Neither side comes off as particularly savvy to the ways of this make-believe world; Timberlake’s character doesn’t seem to have any plans beyond the next heist, and Murphy’s law enforcement henchmen come off as entirely inept.

There are some interesting concepts in this film but, like most sci-fi films set in near-future scenarios, they are underdeveloped and ultimately sacrificed for that quick rush of adrenaline that audiences seem to adore. I’d recommend this movie to people who don’t like to think too hard when they’re watching science fiction flicks.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

There was once a time where I was always standing outside the theater to see the latest releases. Renting movies as soon as they came out on DVD (back when people actually rented movies). After college, I find myself spending less and less time eagerly awaiting the next big thing, instead trying to enjoy myself. I lack the leisure time necessary to indulge in a wide variety of independent films, or to rewatch films again and again until I’ve dissected them like finely-built clocks. When I have a few free hours, it seems I’m now more likely to watch a fun, mindless film like the most recent Pirates movie.

The first three films formed a trilogy that revolved around Jack Sparrow’s re-acqusition of his ship, The Black Pearl. In the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, Jack (Johnny Depp) is once again shipless, and a prisoner of the British crown. He is wrangled into searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth by an old flame, and ends up sailing alongside the notorious pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). In addition, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) returns as Jack’s old nemesis.

It’s hard to hate a movie that is, at its core, so innocent. The original trilogy never had any depth to it, and suffered from countless plotholes and bad characterization. Still, the fact that they never took themselves seriously made them watchable enough. Gore Verbinski decided to stop directing the films after finishing the third, so Rob Marshall took over with this installment. It seems a little out of his element, considering most of his previous works are musicals. He’s also the guy that directed Memoirs of a Geisha, if that means anything to you.

On Stranger Tides is just as wild and needlessly complicated as the previous films, even with a different director. Jack ends up on what seems like a wild goose chase for something out of a legend. He meets various enemy factions and spends the film switching his allegiance to suit his mood and goals. There is a fair amount of swashbuckling and choreographed swordplay. The characters do a lot of silly things that don’t always make sense, and supporting characters end up serving almost superfluous roles on the fringes of the plot.

It’s no Citizen Kane. You will have to suspend your sense of disbelief when you watch this film to avoid getting mad at how stupid everyone seems to be. But if you liked the first three films then you will find this one is not a departure from their shared style. It’s a good way to eat up a chunk of time instead of doing stupid things like homework or chores. Watch it once, file it away in the back of your mind, and wait for the next sequel.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Fresh off the airplane, I decided to celebrate my return with a trip to the theater. My movie of choice? “The Hunger Games,” a film in which children attempt to kill each other for sport. The story follows Katniss Everdeen, a girl chosen to compete in the games alongside twenty-three other young warriors. Each of them grasps for victory, knowing only one person will walk out of the arena alive.

Gary Ross has directed some pretty well-known films. In particular, he wrote “Big” with Tom Hanks and directed “Pleasantville” with Tobey Maguire. Although “The Hunger Games” was the financially successful part-one of a young adult novel trilogy, Ross has stated that he won’t be returning to direct the sequel. Even though the movie “has grossed $310 million domestically and an additional $157 million overseas,” Ross says “As a writer and director, I simply don't have the time I need to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make because of the fixed and tight production schedule.”

Still, he does a brilliant job with this film. Ross captures the desolation and utter helplessness that pervade the fictional country of Panem, a post-apocalyptic war-torn country residing within the borders of the former United States. Running at nearly two and a half hours, the first section of the film is largely exposition, setting the rules of the game and introducing the players. This section lays the groundwork for what happens in the arena. People who will play important roles and talents that will pop up later in deadly situations are subtly shown to the audience.

All of this build-up pays off once Katniss and her opponents are in the arena. The fast-paced nature of the game kept me riveted to the screen, eyes darting to and fro, desperately seeking more and more action. Ironically, a film that mocks the concept of making a spectacle of war and death ends up being a spectacle itself. If I have one complaint, it would be that Ross relies too heavily on handheld cameras, causing much of the film’s best action to become lost in shaky jump cuts. Several scenes would have benefited from stationary camera work.

“The Hunger Games” is a near-perfect adaption for those of us fortunate enough to have already read the books. For viewers trying to discover the reason for the hype, or those who are genuinely clueless about the original media, the movie should serve well enough as a young adult action film. Honestly, though, I’m surprised the movie received a PG-13 rating. I wouldn’t take my children to it, because that would mean I’d have to tell them I’m their real father ;)

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

Sorry for the wait! I finally have internet on my laptop again, after a week of being back in Oregon.

On the plane ride back to America, I watched my fill of in-flight movies, including the 2011 Blockbuster Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I have been an avid fan of the series since the second film (not that the first film was bad), and really enjoyed the third film because the villain was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Ghost Protocol follows a mission gone wrong, agents gone rogue, and a nuclear crisis. Tom Cruise once again takes the lead as agent Ethan Hunt, although the fourth film in the franchise focuses more on teamwork than his personal story. You may recognize Simon Pegg from the previous film, once again acting as the “tech guy.” I’m glad that he has make the leap to big American films like Mission Impossible and Star Trek.

The rest of the cast is good but not as well known. Although the acting is fine, the stunts and technology are really the most gripping aspects of this film. The story goes all over the world, from Russia to Dubai, and in each locale Ethan Hunt is forced to make up tactics on the fly. I found several times that my heart was racing. In one case, I actually gasped out loud and surprised a few of my fellow passengers.

This film is an action film all-around, with an interesting take on the classic “nuclear threat” plot that you see in all-too-many spy thrillers. What makes this one stand out are the stunts, the story, and the spies themselves. Definitely worth a look.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Resident Evil Film Series

Resident Evil Film Series

You may notice, as this blog expands, that I have a thing for horror movies. To further narrow my definition, zombie movies. I thoroughly enjoy a good zombie film, and although the big zombie boom was a few years back, in the early 2000’s, I still occasionally run across one I enjoy. My early adolescence was spent watching films like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. As time passed I branched out into foreign films like England’s 28 Days Later and Norway’s Dead Snow.

The Resident Evil film series is based on a series of video games from Japan. Although they are referred to as Biohazard overseas, the name was changed because it would have been difficult to copyright the word “Biohazard” as a brand. After the games spawned a popular following in the United States, a series of four films was produced between 2002 and 2010, with a fifth film slated for release in late 2012. The films follow a vastly different plot than the games, starring a battle-hardened warrior named Alice who struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland.

Since there are currently four films in the series, I will attempt to discuss each of them without writing a 20-page essay in the process.

Resident Evil (2002) was the film that started it all. It is a near-perfect blend of action and horror, revolving around Alice and a group of soldiers who infiltrate a secret underground laboratory after a mysterious accident. What follows is a series of grisly deaths and more zombies than you can care to count on severed fingers. My first viewing of the film was soured by its drastic departure from the source material, but after shutting off my brain the film proved to mindless (if grotesque) fun. I imagine the producers expected it would do well and took pains to leave a sequel hook at the end of the movie.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) picks up immediately after the events of the first film, in a city ravaged by the spreading undead plague. Anyone who has seen a zombie film knows how fast the disease can expand. Unfortunately, the second movie is far weaker than the first one. The mystery that kept the original’s plot fresh and exciting is gone, replaced with extensive action scenes and an enlarged cast of supporting characters. The first film benifitted by not relying on CGI, but this picture nearly abuses it. Although the fight scenes can be fun to watch, the plot is weak and hard to stomach.

Still, the sequel was profitable enough to lead to Resident Evil: Extinction (2007). Something like five years after the last film, Alice lives in the desert. Humanity has nearly been wiped out by zombies, and the eco-system has taken a turn for the worse. Humans struggle to brave the elements and seek a safe-haven. The film benefits from introducing some dangerous and exciting new villains while keeping supporting characters from the previous film to anchor the audience. Though Extinction suffers from a lot of the camp of the last film, by this point such tactics have almost become a sort of calling card for the series. Additionally, the villains are much more interesting this time around and drew me into their schemes little by little.

The third film leads almost directly into the fourth, Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010). Unfortunately, by the end of the third film Alice had become too powerful of a protagonist, and much of this film’s exposition involves “de-powering” her. This tactic is cheap but allows the zombie plague to remain a menace, whereas by the end of the third film Alice was nearly invincible. The power shift also allows the series to return to its roots in a way. The cast is once again a small group of people, trapped and trying to escape from a zombie-infested prison. However, none of this makes up for the ending, which is a huge and confusing clusterfuck. Additionally, the sequel hook sacrifices any closure we might have received from the aftermath.

Afterlife would have been a bad way to end the series, so I am actually glad a fifth film, Resident Evil: Retribution, is in the works. Unfortunately, the cast listing makes it sound like a lot of characters who perished quite graphically in previous films will be returning. Though it’s not the first time the series has spit on continuity, it will definitely be a blow for hardcore fans. Still, if the audience is already familiar with these characters, more time can be spent fleshing out the plot and answering questions from previous films. I don’t know if this will be the final film of the series, but if it is I hope this ending is more satisfying than the previous one.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Fountain (2006)

Darren Aronofsky. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He created some very emotional films in his career, among them last year’s Oscar-winning Black Swan with Natalie Portman. After watching that film, I had a nostalgia-ridden flashback to earlier years, watching Requiem For a Dream and feeling terribly depressed by it. For years, I’ve heard that Aronofsky’s 2006 sci-fi/romance The Fountain was a so-so film, and put it on the back-burner for that reason. Well, I finally got around to watching it.

The Fountain follows three stories, each containing a protagonist played by Hugh Jackman (famous in my circles as Wolverine of X-Men fame). In the framing story, Jackman is a neuroscientist named Tommy, desperately seeking to cure a malignant tumor growing in his wife’s brain. This story intermingles with the stories of a Spanish conquistador named Tomas, searching for the Fountain of Youth, and an astronaut named Tom, slowing moving through space toward a golden nebula.

Much of the film revolves around the protagonists attempting to “cure” death. The underlying theme of The Fountain seems to be “coming to terms with death.” In each scenario, Jackman interacts with a version of Rachel Weisz. She portrays the love interest for each protagonist and represents the theme of death in different stages. Weisz does a magnificent job of steeling herself through the five stages of grief, although Jackman’s characters do not fare as well.

It’s a meditation on death that focuses more on those left behind than those who have passed on. Whether it is accepting that someone cannot be saved, or choosing not to fall into depression, or moving on and refusing to dwell on the past, the protagonists each come to terms one way or another, for better or worse. What ties the storylines together is each protagonist’s fierce love for Weisz, and his journey to fight for a cure that seems to always be just out of reach.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the paths we choose in life, as I’ve chosen to leave Japan and return to America. I don’t want this to sound depressing, but I really cannot articulate it any better: we all have the freedom to make decisions and mold our lives, but there is only ever one ending, and that is when we die. We all end up in the same place eventually, no matter what, and The Fountain’s rumination on this concept has given me plenty of food for thought. I think each and every one of us will have to come to terms with our own mortality some day, and if cinema can help guide me along, I’m happy to accept a helping hand.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Hugo (2011)

I had wanted to review The King’s Speech, but I’d rather not discuss biopic after biopic, even if the contents are different. Today, I’m discussing Hugo, the most recent work of famed director Martin Scorsese. I would be surprised if you don’t know this director’s name. Among his best works are Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, Goodfellas, and Cape Fear (I may be slightly infatuated with Robert de Niro). Hugo is somewhat of a departure from Scorsese’s more serious films, an adventure-drama about a boy who lives in a train station and secretly maintains all of the clocks there.

What really interested me about this film was the core of the story, which deals with the creation of the moving picture. Much of the plot is based in reality. To elaborate: the first major public display of movie magic was by the Lumière Brothers in 1895. Stage magician Georges Méliès was so captivated by their work that he also began to make films. You may know his most famous work, A Trip To The Moon (1902) from pop culture references. In short, these three men were instrumental in the evolution of cinema from a sideshow attraction to the granduer it elicits today.

The story of Hugo’s titular protagonist is a grand mystery that takes him from the bowels of the train station into the winter streets of Paris. With the help of a young girl, he searches for the means to make his father’s dream come true. I hope I have made the movie sound inspiring enough. It offers a sort of dream-like atmosphere that is filled with unique and humorous characters. Among those actors fortunate enough to work with Scorsese: Sir Ben Kingsly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, and Jude Law. While each actor gives the audience a fair turn, Sir Ben Kingsly especially delivers an excellent performance.

Although at 128 minutes the film can seem slightly drawn out, it’s worth watching to see what Scorsese is capable of when his characters aren’t trying to murder one another in gang wars. Hugo is a family-friendly film that offers something for every member of the family, even if its historical roots may be a little too lofty for children.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

The recent controversy surrounding the Kony 2012 online video produced by Invisible Children, Inc, has once again brought Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) into the public eye. In order to better understand the controversy, I selected the movie Machine Gun Preacher, a 2011 biopic starring Gerard Butler. The film follows the life of ex-con Sam Childers, who becomes a born-again Christian and travels to Uganda and Sudan to build an orphanage.

Although I am deeply interested in the LRA and the atrocities occuring in northern Uganda and South Sudan, I was hesitant to take any film with Gerard Butler at its word. Although I like him as an actor, his films have never struck me on a personal level. Movies like Gamer, 300, and Law Abiding Citizen are all flights of fancy with no basis in reality. I had to trust that he would give a down-to-earth performance.

I was happily surprised. Although any big-budget picture is susceptible to common cinematic tropes, I found the plot to be engaging and, I daresay, moving on an emotional level. It is hard not to cringe at violence in this film. I found I could relate to the story of Sam Childers, although not on the same level.

Marc Forster is responsible for many films I’ve enjoyed, such as Stranger Than Fiction, Finding Neverland, and Quantum of Solace. I remember blubbering like a baby at the end of Finding Neverland, and I was nearly driven to tears throughout this movie as well. Marc Forster seems to know what chords to strike when aiming for his audience’s heartstrings.

I was surprised to learn the movie has been panned on Rotten Tomatoes, with only a 29% rating from critics. However, audiences have ranked it closer to 62%, with 6.8 stars on IMDb. I wonder how much of this criticism comes from Butler’s involvement, though. In my opinion, it was one of the best performances he has ever given onscreen. Critics also sometimes disparage films that contain social commentary or tackle real-world problems.

Unfortunately, the movie bombed at the box office, recouping less than 3 million of its 30 million dollar budget. I was invested in the rise and fall of Butler’s character, and hoped the movie would have done better. Regardless, I encourage those interested in the events surrounding the LRA to watch this film or seek out concrete resources on the internet.