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.