Archive for the Movie Review Category

Movie Review: “Sucker Punch” is the year’s most interesting failure

Posted in Action, Movie Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2011 by judsonw

Zack Snyder sure knows how to make visually stimulating movies. His talents as a writer, on the other hand, don’t come close to his talents as a director. Sucker Punch was released this past March and was expected to be a smash hit, Snyder’s first completely original movie. Unfortunately, critics and audiences alike ravaged the film, claiming its incoherent plot made for an uncomfortable 2 hours. So is it really that bad? Well, in my opinion, no. Actually, I kinda dug it!

Sucker Punch is one thing so many bloated, mediocre blockbusters aren’t today: ambitious. Snyder attempts to tell a story that takes place in 3 different dimensions, or “dreamworlds.” We have our main character, Baby Doll, who is sent to a mental institution by her evil stepfather for accidently killing her sister (his fault). Once she’s at the institution and she hears word of plans to lobotomize her, Baby Doll teams up with a few of the other female inmates in an attempt to escape. The movie opens with a red curtain raising up, which is appropriate because from this point on the entire movie is virtually indistinguishable between reality and fantasy.

First, we have the actual reality of the girls in the mental institution which is rarely shown. Second, we have the fantasy of the girls in a brothel-like institution where they are forced to dance scantily clad in front of rich old men so the owner can get rich. It’s in this dreamworld that the girls band together to escape. Baby Doll determines that they need to find 5 objects to become free: a map, fire, a knife, a key, and something else. So a map of the institution, a lighter for a distraction, a knife for protection, and a master key for the institution’s doors. The strange thing about the movie is that whenever the girls go after one of the objects, Baby Doll imagines a world where they are kick-ass machine gun-toting babes battling slow motion-style through breathtaking set pieces and landscapes. In one scene, they fight masked Nazis to retrieve the map. In another, they must slit a baby dragon’s throat to retrieve the fire. While it may not make much sense, it’s pretty damn entertaining to watch.

Another aspect of the film I really appreciated was the soundtrack. Snyder used to direct music videos for a living and you can definitely see that here. All the fight scenes are almost dance-like in their nature, with the girls in perfect synchronicity with the song/music. It really does come across like a video game mixed with a music video. Though there are a lot of things I enjoyed about Sucker Punch, overall it’s not a great movie. The plot is simply too convoluted to fully follow and becomes quite frustrating after a while. That being said, the film can be looked at in so many different ways after its ambiguous ending and is certain to spark debate and conversation among film fanatics.  It’s a shame because I think that if Snyder was a better writer or really fine crafted his storytelling techniques Sucker Punch could have been something spectacular. However, I won’t be surprised if a few years from now Sucker Punch becomes a cult classic.

B-

Advertisements

Movie Review: ET + Cloverfield x The Goonies = “Super 8”

Posted in Action, Movie Review with tags , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2011 by judsonw

As soon as ET flies across that moon in the Amblin logo before “Super 8” begins, we know we’re in for something special. Behind such classic sci-fi films like “ET” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the involvement of Steven Spielberg’s studio instantly suggests a type of quality science fiction movie that is so rare in Hollywood today. The man behind this movie, JJ Abrams, grew up making films with super 8 cameras just like his idol, Steven Spielberg. The two somehow found each other years later to make this little passion project about kids who encounter a paranormal creature while filming a movie.

As soon as “Super 8” began, I was instantly hooked. All the kids were great, unknowns that actually acted like friends instead of a Hollywood representation of kids being kids. The dialogue between them is authentic and enjoyable to watch, as each kid takes a role in the filmmaking team. While the director of the group stands out, it’s Joe (Joel Courtney) who takes center stage as the heart of the movie. His mother recently killed in a work accident and his father (Kyle Chandler) not knowing how to deal, Joe focuses on helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish his film over the summer in a small 1979 Ohio town. His plans take a 360, however, when the kids witness a train crash while filming a scene after hours.

The train crash itself is absolutely exhilarating, a piece of action filmmaking hard to find these days. From this point on, I was geared up for something massive, something monumental the film would build up to. The problem with “Super 8” is the fact that it doesn’t really build up to anything significant. Abrams instead decides to focus on the relationships between the characters as something on a grander scale takes place in their peripherals. Because the characters are so well developed, this doesn’t bring the film down at all. Everything between the opening and the close kept my attention even though the lack of monster action became a tad bit frustrating. Like “Cloverfield,” the creature is only shown in glimpses. Since those glimpses don’t really offer anything intriguing, the constant mystery becomes more of a nuisance than a reason to keep watching.

So how is this movie like “ET?” For one, the score by Michael Giacchino brings back memories of John Williams’ work on that film, among others. The small town setting, dysfunctional family, and realistic child actors seal the deal on one nostalgic experience. Despite some minor flaws, “Super 8” is a movie definitely worth watching, if only for the fact that it’s a completely original film in a summer full of adaptations and sequels. Abrams is certainly a better director than writer, in this case at least, but the sometimes uneven script doesn’t bog down the experience of watching a completely original and refreshing film.

B+

Movie Review: “Battle: Los Angeles” a soulless representation of everything wrong with action movies of today

Posted in Action, Movie Review with tags , , , , , , on March 17, 2011 by judsonw

The summer blockbuster movie season seems to start earlier each year than the last and 2011 is no different. The upcoming buffet of big budget special effects-laden movies starts off this year in early March with a plate of an alien invasion film entitled “Battle: Los Angeles.” The question is, will “Battle: Los Angeles” live up to past successful alien invasion blockbusters like “Independence Day” and “World of the Worlds” or fizzle like recent turkeys such as “Skyline?” Unfortunately, “Independence Day” could be considered a masterpiece next to this soulless and brainless mess of a movie.

“Battle: Los Angeles”, as can probably be guessed from the title, is about aliens invading the world, and the film focuses on the fight to save Los Angeles. If you’re looking for more detail than that, you won’t find it here. Thus lies the biggest problem with “Battle: Los Angeles.” There is absolutely no story to be found in the film. Characters are briefly introduced; the aliens attack, and the soldiers fight back. The film is very similar to a videogame, where instead of deep characterization and a coherent storyline, the viewers are essentially thrust into the middle of a battlefield. The problem is that here the audience is forced to sit and try to comprehend who is winning and losing, rather than taking part themselves with a videogame controller. The videogame comparison doesn’t stop there, however, because it’s very believable that “Battle: Los Angeles” was written by a 10-year-old gamer after a 12 hour Halo binge. The dialogue moves past simply being mediocre and becomes hilariously awful. With such gems as “I didn’t get this far because of my good looks” and “that was some John Wayne shit,” it’s hard to resist from bursting out laughing at the unintentional hilarity of it all.

Once the aliens make contact, the film becomes a non-stop action romp. In spite of this, the movie is still a bore to watch since the overreliance on shaky cam leads to hard-to-follow, headache-inducing action sequences. Five minutes into the first battle sequence, I already found myself dozing off. Because the film puts close to no effort developing memorable characters or a story, the action is the most important component of its success. With that being said, the movie fails miserably in that aspect.“Battle: Los Angeles” boasts some great acting talent from such actors as Aaron Eckhart and Michelle Rodriguez, but unfortunately all that talent goes down the drain with a terrible script. Poor Rodriguez gets the brunt of the cringe worthy lines. It’s a wonder she was able to keep a straight face, uttering off lines such as “they’re going down like bowling pins!” It’s never a good sign when you can’t name a single character’s name after seeing a movie, but that is exactly what happened to me after seeing this disgrace of a film. Though some actual character development would have been appreciated, it doesn’t help when almost every character’s name starts off with the title “Staff Sergeant.” Despite the characters being extremely one dimensional, the film is desperate for an emotional response when one of them sacrifices their life or loses the battle against the aliens, even making it a purpose to throw in some cheesy saccharine music during the death scenes. A film that doesn’t earn my minimal interest will certainly not earn my tears.

The main draw for a film like “Battle: Los Angeles” would seemingly be the movie’s main villains: the aliens. Unfortunately, the film decides to barely focus on the world’s attackers, instead opting to spotlight some of the most dull and unsympathetic human characters put to screen in recent memory. When we actually do get a look at the aliens, they are briefly shown in the distance or out of focus. When they finally do get a close up, it’s hard not to be disappointed by their unmemorable and lazy design. Seeing the aliens in this film raised my appreciation for the effort and work behind such alien invasion films such as “District 9.” Much of the CGI and alien technology on screen here simply does not even measure up to today’s best videogames.

“Battle: Los Angeles” is merely a mediocre videogame posing as a summer blockbuster alien invasion movie. It follows the “Transformers” model, with a lot of loud action with little to nothing to get out of it all. The truth of the matter is that I’d rather spend two hours playing a videogame. At least that way I’d be able to make it an enjoyable and exciting experience, two qualities that “Battle: Los Angeles” does not posses.

F

Movie Review: This is one “Blue Valentine” I wish was red

Posted in Drama, Movie Review with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2011 by judsonw

Is it possible to fall out of love? This is a question that is both asked and seemingly answered in the heartbreaking romance “Blue Valentine.” The film, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple at the end of their destructive marriage, is finally being released across the country after its extremely well-received debut at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Gosling is Dean, a charming but dim high school drop out who meets the girl of his dreams while helping out at a moving company. That girl is Cindy (Williams), a pre-med college student stuck living with her dysfunctional parents, all the while trapped in an unhealthy relationship. Love doesn’t strike instantly, but the two form a deep connection once certain solemn events bring them closer together. Their love is contagious, which makes the eventual dissolution of their relationship all the more painful.

What makes director Derek Cianfrance’s feature debut so unique and memorable is the way it is conveyed. Instead of portraying Dean and Cindy’s growing apart chronologically, the film shifts back and forth in time during the several years they are together. In one scene, Cindy can’t stand to look at Dean as he carries their young daughter. In the next, the two blissfully perform a song and dance number with a ukulele in the early morning hours outside a bridal shop in Brooklyn. The juxtaposition of the different stages of the relationship is so startling that it is hard to believe the same couple is being depicted on screen. While the film flashes back to happier times, the present day married Dean and Cindy try to convalesce their relationship on a weekend night in a sex motel. The scenes that ensue in this setting are almost unbearable to watch as something that is so rarely presented in mainstream movies is on display: raw human emotion. The flashbacks to the couple’s happier moments offer glimmers of hope to an otherwise disheartening story.

This concurrence of the characters’ pre-marital courtship and post-marriage doldrums is evidenced even more so from Cianfrance’s use of different cameras for each stage of the relationship. All the pre-marriage scenes were filmed using Super 16mm cameras while all the post-marriage scenes were filmed using Red One digital cameras. While this change in style shifts the mood of each scene, it also gives off the impression of two different movies occurring concurrently.

“Blue Valentine” would not be nearly as successful without the captivating and deep performances from Gosling and Williams. The two make up the film’s emotional core, and their unusual veracity makes it easy to forget that these are actors depicting characters. The believability of the couple may be thanks to Gosling and Williams’ utter dedication to their roles. Before filming took place, the actors staged out arguments in a shared home, living on the budgets that their respective characters would encompass. These transformations led to a chemistry between the two, while not always positive, that was further strengthened by improvised dialogue during the majority of the movie’s runtime.

“Blue Valentine” is by no means an enjoyable or easy film to watch. It portrays something many of us are familiar with: the complex and sometimes heartrending process of falling in and out of love. But it also shows the pure delight and blissful times that process brings.

A-

Movie Review: “The Green Hornet” would be nothing without Kato

Posted in Action, Comedy, Movie Review with tags , , , , on February 13, 2011 by judsonw

2011 seems to be the year of the superhero at the movies, albeit about lesser-known names like Thor and Green Lantern. First up on the block is “The Green Hornet,” based on the American pulp hero from radio shows and serialized dramas from the 1930s through the 1960s. Funnyman Seth Rogen shed 30 pounds to don the mask of the Green Hornet, but the real test is whether he was able to shed his reputation as an immature “man child” to become an action hero. Rogen plays Britt Reid, a spoiled party boy who lives off the fortune of his father, the publisher of Los Angeles’ “The Daily Sentinel.” When Britt’s father suddenly dies from a bee sting, he finds himself as the new publisher for a newspaper he doesn’t even care about. He finally meets his father’s longtime assistant, Kato (Jay Chou), and the two quickly form a bond when Britt decides to start a new career fighting crime as the Green Hornet.

“The Green Hornet” is unlike any superhero film in recent memory. Directed by Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), it’s filmed with an interesting kinetic visual style, and the fight scenes feature exciting choreography that manages to be both fast and slow paced simultaneously. Many of these exciting fight scenes spotlight the martial arts expert Kato, which leads to the highlight of the film: Kato-vision. Kato-vision occurs when time slows down as Kato’s heart starts pumping during a fight. As if in slow motion, Kato spots the elements and details he’s going to use to his advantage and the results are spectacular. The scenes featuring Kato-vision are the only moments in the film when the 3-D is used to its full advantage, with fists and pieces of glass flying off the screen. Otherwise, the 3-D up conversion is nothing to write home about. At some points in the film I would take off my 3-D glasses and notice no difference on the screen than when I had them on.

At one point in the movie Kato says “the Green Hornet would be nothing without me.” The same could be said for the film, as well. Rogen and Chou have decent chemistry but Kato is truly the star of “The Green Hornet.” It’s the rare case of the sidekick overshadowing the hero, but it’s true. Kato designs all of Britt’s weapons, constructs his “Black Beauty” car, takes out all the bad guys with his bare hands and acts as a surrogate brother to Britt. Though Chou’s Chinese accent is sometimes hard to interpret, he comes across as charming and surprisingly funny. As for that “Black Beauty” car, it would be appropriate to call it the other star of the film. Complete with machine gun doors, bulletproof windows, indestructible tires, a flame thrower, ejectable seats, a record player and even a fax machine, it’s the coolest automobile to grace the big screen since the Batmobile made its debut in “Batman Begins.”

Every superhero movie has some sort of villain, and Christoph Waltz channels his inner evil from “Inglourious Basterds” to take on the role of the self-conscious and unfortunately named Chudnofsky. The head of L.A.’s crime syndicate, Chudnofsky comes across as laughable with his undying attempts to “be scary.” At one point he even claims to have “decapitated real people.” The tone of the movie is very similar to the 2008 action comedy “Pineapple Express.” There are violent action scenes and some deep themes, but it’s all wrapped up in a comedy. The film has its funny moments but other attempts at humor miss their mark by a long shot.

While “The Green Hornet” is a surprisingly fun take on a classic hero, the film is far from perfect. The pace slows down when the story shifts away from Britt and Kato and onto L.A.’s criminals. The final conflict between Britt and a new villain proves unsatisfying and anticlimactic. Cameron Diaz also brings close to nothing to her role as Britt’s secretary. She seems to be in the movie to simply act as part of a love triangle that causes a rift between the two friends. The biggest problem with “The Green Hornet,” however, is the character of Britt Reid. Rogen does a fine enough job with the character, but he merely has close to no character development throughout the film. He’s an unlikeable, immature spoiled brat, and he is essentially the same person at the end of the film as he was in the beginning. Britt is a hard hero to root for, which may explain why Kato is the one shining beacon in the movie.

With all that being said, “The Green Hornet” pleasantly surprised me. The combination of exhilarating fight scenes, nifty gadgets and funny characters make it a fun 2-hour diversion at the cinema.

B-

Movie Review: Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross the one with “True Grit”

Posted in Drama, Movie Review with tags , , , , , , on December 30, 2010 by judsonw

After 2007’s semi modern day Western masterpiece No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers release a true Western three years later in the form of a remake of the John Wayne 1969 classic. Is it as memorable, thrilling, and perfect as that film? Well, no. But that doesn’t mean True Grit isn’t an entirely entertaining romp at the movies. While No Country was a film that is still being dissected and discussed today, True Grit isn’t something that will keep you thinking and guessing for days after. It’s a fairly simple story that is told straightforward with a few Coen flourishes here and there. We follow Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), a feisty 14 year old girl who is determined to bring her daddy’s killer to justice. Since she’s still a pigtail wearing preteen, she decides to hire a U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who she’s heard is a man who has “true grit.” Along for the journey is a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (la-beef) played by Matt Damon.

When looking at the cast list for this movie, you can’t help but get excited for the headliners: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin (as killer Tom Chaney). So it’s suprising that after seeing the film, it’s none of these men that leave the greatest impression. That honor goes to newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who not only holds her own against these veteran actors, but pretty much carries the film on her small shoulders. No matter what the advertising for this film wants you to believe, Mattie Ross is the main character through and through. She is the first character we see in the film and the last, and Steinfeld simply pulls the film together. A combination of wit, snark, and intelligence, she ran the risk of coming across as just another annoying child actor reading big words off a script. However, everything Steinfeld does and says on screen seems entirely natural that’s it’s hard to believe she was only 13 years old during filming.

While Steinfeld is the clear star here, Bridges and Damon both give one of the best performances of their respective careers. Bridges is the perfect blubbering drunk as Cogburn and comes across as both pathetic and entirely likeable. He’s such a convincing drunk that I could barely make out what he was saying through his mumblings. The addition of subtitles for his character would not only have made it clearer but it would have added another level of hilarity to an already surprisingly humorous film. Damon and Brolin are both incredible in their respective roles, with Damon’s Texas Ranger acting as an effective villian and hero simultaneously. Though Damon’s performance is bona-fide awesome, I had some problems with the development of his character LaBeouf as I felt he transformed from mean baddie into warm, snuggly father figure far too quickly.

Though I was expecting something more “life changing” like No Country, I still thoroughly enjoyed True Grit. However, don’t go in expecting a modern re-envisioning of a Western. This is a true Western all the way from the costumes to the dialogue. Visually, it’s a beautiful feat of filmmaking. Cinematographer Roger Deakins knocks it out of the park once again, the highlight being a gorgeous horse ride across the vast dark plains of the old West toward the end of the film. While I didn’t leave the film obsessing over little details or marveling at the deepness of the story, I did feel a sense of discovery in Steinfeld’s performance. Forget Bridges’ mumbling Cogburn, Mattie Ross is the only character with true grit. Rooster and LaBeouf, along with the film itself, wouldn’t be a success without her.

B+

Movie Review: Insanity on full display in “Black Swan”

Posted in Drama, Horror, Movie Review with tags , , , , , , , on December 22, 2010 by judsonw

There’s a moment in director Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan where ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) walks into her mother’s room full of paintings. She glances inside, notices it’s empty, and continues on her way. However, for a brief second, the eyes of one of the portraits in the room moves. Moments like these, a brief moment where you question what you just witnessed, are what make the film such a unique experience. The combination of Aronofsky’s inventive filmmaking and Portman’s devestating performance as a dancer gone mad, makes Black Swan a true dive into the mind of a crazy person.

In Black Swan, Nina is a ballerina in New York City who finally gets her dream role of the Swan Queen in the upcoming production of “Swan Lake.” To say Nina is sheltered would be putting it lightly, as she still lives with her overbearing mother (a scary good Barbara Hershey) who is trying to live the dream that she was never able to accomplish in her former ballet career. The role of the Swan Queen requires two separate personas: the White Swan and the Black Swan. Nina embodies the White Swan perfectly; she’s innocent, weak, and graceful. However, it’s the Black Swan she’s cant grasp; a being full of sexuality and recklessness. When Nina meets a rival dancer named Lilly (Mila Kunis), who seems to be the perfect Black Swan, her world starts to unravel. Question is, are we really seeing what we think we’re seeing?

There are so many different ways to view and dissect Black Swan. It can be seen as a retelling of Michael Powell’s 1948 classic ballet tale The Red Shoes. The film was obviously inspired by Powell’s impactful movie, especially in the showstopping performance of “Swan Lake.” The movie can also be seen as just another telling of “Swan Lake.” As the show’s director (Vincent Cassel) so bluntly puts it early on in the film, it’s been done to death. Characters in Black Swan fit nicely into the roles of “Swan Lake” and the story progresses in an almost identical manner. Aronofsky doesn’t make the interpretation any easier, as he adds numerous little signs early on that everything isn’t what it seems. Whether it’s Nina seeing her face on the head of another or the growling sound of the subway, we’re constantly meant to question whether what we’re seeing on screen is in fact real or imagined. The fact that there are mirrors everywhere in the film just adds to the ambiguity, double meanings, and “did I just see what I thought I saw” moments.

The screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin isn’t anything to write home about. However, Aronofsky makes the story his own with his signature inventive style. The camera is constantly following Portman over the shoulder, giving the feeling of actually being there, just following her on her way to the dance company. The same can be said for the dance scenes as the camera is right up in the middle of the twirls, jumps, and leaps (okay, I don’t know any ballet terms, shoot me). This up close and personal nature makes it even tougher for Portman, who has to prove herself as a capable dancer to both her director and us, the audience.

Speaking of Portman, she’s simply exquisite. She captures Nina’s innocence and weakness, repeatedly apologizing for every wrongdoing. You just want to smack her and yell “stand up for yourself” with each vulnerability on display. As the film progresses through Nina’s mental breakdown, however, Portman takes on a different role completely. So much is demanded of her as she puts herself on display sexually, emotionally, and physically. The sport of ballet destroys Nina completely. The same can be said for the experience of watching Black Swan, but only in the best of ways. A psychological drama mixed with true horror and disguised as a ballet film, the movie will stay with you long after the screen goes black. Like Nina, the film strives for perfection and very nearly achieves it.

A-