Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Oblivion Review

Oblivion Review
Director: Joseph Kosinski

Cast Headliners: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough,  Morgan Freeman

Original Release Date: April 19th, 2013
              In a market filled with so many remakes, sequels, and adaptations it is incredibly refreshing to be able to see a film which has a unique original premise. This film Oblivion was entirely created in both world and script by Tron Legacy director Joseph Kosinski.  He wanted to create a tribute to the classic science fiction films of the 70’s, and he certainly succeeds.
            The film introduces us to a ruined Earth watched over by Jack Harper aka Tech-49, played by the ever intriguing Tom Cruise.  Jack repairs drones that protect the ruins of humanity from encroach by the evil “Scavengers” who invaded in the planet and caused it to be devastated in the first place.  Cruise is at his usual self in this film, looking suave and doing many stunts. However he is a bit more reserved in this role as Oblivion has a mostly very serious tone.  There are some light jokes and even more romance between him and his advisor Victoria (Riseborough).  Besides them and Victoria’s boss Sally, no other humans are seen in person for majority of the movie as the rest of the population is apparently on the space station Tet flying above Earth or on the moon Titan.
            This gives the movie a very desolate, quiet feeling. Just as with Tron Legacy, the director has really created a gorgeous other world. Magnificent sweeping vista shots of the planet are seen, and this movie has some of the most gorgeous shots seen in a long time. Masterfully crafted CGI is incorporated to show what the future world of 2077 will be like.  There is also a superb soundtrack by electronic group M83, really helping to encapsulate the feeling of a broken world.

             The film’s greatest strength, aside from the visuals, effects, and sound, is the story.  It is hard to discuss the larger story and Morgan Freeman’s Malcolm and Olga’s Julia, since they are key to what happens in the rest of the film.  There are many thrilling twists and turns in the plot, but luckily it never gets too complex. The second half of the film really ratchets up the tension after Jack discovers SOMETHING, and this makes his mission even more important. My only complaint is that every other character, besides Jack, are kinda bland.  The character of Julia is very important, but Olga plays her as just kind of…there.  Charming heroine she is not.  Same with Malcolm, though he is a bit better and has great lines (when does Morgan Freeman not have great lines?)  Also, the way Jack reacts to certain things is….. not realistic. One can imagine that figuring things out would make someone more nervous, but he just passes it off.

        Those things ignored, Oblivion feels like a modern day 20th century science fiction film, if that makes sense. The music is delightful synths, and the technology is all white and grey. I especially like the plot because it is inspired by the Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury epics of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. It tackles existential threats which are not often seen in modern films.  Yes some scenes are inspired by 2001: A Space Odyessy and Star Wars, but those are great sources to crib in my opinion. Overall, 8.65 out of 10

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Evil Dead (2013) Review

Evil Dead (2013) Review
Director: Fede Alvarez

Cast Headliner: Jane Levy

Original Release Date: April 5th, 2013

  Horror films are entwined with the idea of “risk.” Indeed the characters risk their lives against supernatural or earthly but twisted horrors. But even more so, the risk is of the movie being good or bad. There is a thin line between “quality” and “mediocrity”.  A few select horror movies are good films overall, good when compared to any genre.  Most ride that line, being fun in a cheesy way. And unfortunately, some are in a pit of trash.  Luckily, Evil Dead is one of those quality films.
            This version is very much based on the 1981 Sam Raimi-created one. As in that one, five young people spend time in a creaky cabin in a forest. This time the group is David (an average a joe as one can be), his girlfriend Natalie, his old friends Eric and Olivia, and his sister Mia (Jane Levy).  This 2013 premise is much darker, because turns out that Mia is a cocaine addict.  What would certainly make for an interesting movie situation by itself is extremely worsened up by the arrival of demons from an ancient book.  The movie then descends onto a downhill rollercoaster into an ocean of blood and guts.
            This is one of the goriest films I have ever seen, EVER.  This adds to the horror and tension, making the viewer gripping their seat tight at they are on the edge of it every moment to the end. There are many twists in Evil Dead, and the plot is smartly handled with great pacing and surprises. There are not many jump scares, the horror comes from the fact that the film itself seems to be demonically possessed. The special effects appear unsettlingly realistic, and the score is great. An impressive scene is when, to quote 80’s metal band Slayer, “raining blood from a lacerated sky.”  That’s not even the bloodiest thing of this movie.  I’d also like to note some very crisp direction and homages to the original by Fede Alvarez.
            The highlight of this film is the grim tension and gore, but what of its soul? It mostly lacks one, but I feel that helps in its effect. Jane Levy is pretty decent as Mia, who surprisingly was a villain for well most of the film. I’ll just say she redeems her terrible acts by the end. She’s thrillingly scary in her demonic form, and makes you feel bad when going she’s through drug addiction issues.  However, I found the supporting cast to be mostly “meh” in both character development and acting.  David, the sort of-Ash Williams of this movie (although his Mia has been given half that role as deutrogonist) is not very interesting. He’s sort of a dunce (at first), and I literally put my palm to my face when he barely reacted to the news that his sister overdosed and heart-deaded recently.  Also, his girlfriend and Olivia the other girl are barely involved in the film before their….turn.  Luckily, Eric is a decent character but everyone else is sort of forgettable. This is interesting, because another review mentioned this as one of the major horror films in a “post-Cabin in the Woods world.” I loved that movie because it went beyond just horror, putting in some charming characters and smart comedy into the Evil Dead formula. This film doesn’t have those things, which to a non-horror fan makes me wish it did.
            But, that’s not what Evil Dead is about. Its motive is to deliver a gory horror experience, and that it does. Fans of the original trilogy have no need to worry, as the quality and fun is right up there with it. There is actually way more gross gore and scares than those, or most other films in this genre, have ever had.  A quality time that delivers on the promises it was trying to spread, and opens up exciting possibilities as to what Mia will do next. 8.1 out of 10

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

American History X Review

American History X Review
Director: Tony Kaye 

Cast Headliner: Edward Norton

Original Release Date: October 30, 1998

Seen: February 2013

            American History X is the highlight of Edward Norton’s career. It is the pinnacle, nothing will surpass it. Yes he’s been in other great things, but they’re not this movie. Few other movies ever are as good as this movie. It is because of the transformative journey through this extremely unique and deep film.
 The movie alternates between two major perspectives. Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) is foul-mouth and a rebel. He is a high schooler who worships the Nazis, is proudly racist, and is a wanna-be member of the Aryan Brotherhood. This is inspired by his older brother Derek, who becomes corrupted as a person and joins the brotherhood after his police officer father is murdered by gangsters.
            A unique trait of this film is that the time period of the setting jumps around and is jumbled. This adds to the film tremendously, as a trait will be mentioned about Derek by Danny and a flashback will show a past situation.  The past is in depressing stark black and white, and present events are in color.   Norton’s Derek is a tremendously nuanced character. He was the once good but gullible youth. The tragedies of his life make him ferocious, racist, and evil.   American History X can be at times very graphic and violent, a warning about that. It is handled with tact however, and the horrible acts he does to people and the murders he commits are evidence to show how deep into the abyss Derek sunk as a person.
The film is a kind of introspection by Danny about his older brother. Events happen in the present, as Derek is released from prison. Problems happen because Derek is a changed man, no longer racist and hateful but redeemed and wanting to help the world.
There is a long flashback segment set during Derek’s time in prison after his murder of several black men who were in his neighborhood.  He goes to hell on Earth that is a California prison.  He thinks he can join the darkness, but he finds that when one works on the darkside everyone is out to stab each other.
The film is especially bleak and depressing while in that prison. Derek faces a shocking betrayal , and also learns to respect a non-white person for the first time perhaps because of that. In the abyss, he found that there was no point to his darkness anymore. He redeems himself; he doesn’t not want to be what has harmed him.  Norton’s best moments ever are at this transition. He goes from being charismatic in a cult leader way to being charismatic in a heroic way.
            The supporting cast is good, every actor and actress in this movie do a fantastic job.  The characters all have depth and defining characteristics showing the flaws and positives of the human race.  Seth is the bumbling racist redneck friend; Stacey is the dark racist girlfriend, Mrs.Vinyard a broken but strong woman who is the boy’s mother, Davina their sister who won’t back down from the harsh people around her. Also of note is Dr.Sweeney who sets the plot into motion by making Danny think about his life, he also is influential in causing Derek to redeem himself. You really care about these characters or if they are wicked you are fascinated by them.
The acting is impeccable. The images are shocking at times. The messages about human morality and redemption will stay with me forever. It can be overwhelmingly intense and depressing at times, but I can honestly say that American History X is one of my favorite movies of all time after watching it.  9.5 out of 10

Monday, April 8, 2013

God Bless America Review

God Bless America Review
Director:  Bobcat Goldthwait  

Cast Headliners: Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr

Original Release Date: April 6, 2012

Seen: Uh December 2012?
            God Bless America is an ironic film. It is ironic in the fact that it is against violence, against hedonistic debauchery that pervades modern American media, against mindlessness. But, it is an incredibly violent film. God Bless America has much, as they say, kahunas. It is not afraid to take risks. It is fresh, it is wonderful, and it is dang smart.
            Frank Murdoch (played by Joel Murray) is an average middle aged salesman who works in a typical office in the stereotypical town that is Syracuse, New York. He has had it with life, he is fed up with the blaring annoyingness that someone who isn’t a member of mainstream culture has to deal with.  He is in the mainstream, but he decides to become some sort of Orwellian liberator to the lies and filth that modern culture promotes.  This is set off by learning he’s dying from a doctor distracted by his phone. He also is made at a certain reality show girl who complains about getting a car for her birthday. He decides to murder those who, perhaps truthfully, are the corrupt of society.
            On his way to kill the girl from the show (and yes he does shoot her this film is edgy and holds nothing back), he makes the acquaintance of the spunky young girl Roxy (played impressively by Tara Lynee Barr who was only 16 at the time of filming).  He begrudgingly takes he along, and the two journeys across America shooting the so-called wicked and joking and delivering intense rants.  The film can be quite funny at times, both in its sheer ridiculousness and also in the witty banter and relation between Frank and Roxy.  There is also a sweet side as the two get to know each other, and Frank becomes a father figure to her and even makes a true friend for the first time despite the gruesome circumstances.
            Yes, there is much bloody murder. The violence is perhaps a bit gratuitous, but God Bless America is a movie with a mission.  It is backed up by some very smart political and cultural lessons.  You’ll come wanting blood; you’ll leave remembering the cautionary lessons to be a better person (it’s there, even if hidden by the gunshots). Yes, the movie is shocking. But it is a decent and smart criticism of modern America. Actually, that’s the ironic thing. The smartest thing of this movie is that it’s supposed to appear overly violent. The audience is just buying into that system. Clever job God Bless America.  8.45 out of 10

Enemy at the Gates Review

Enemy at the Gates Review
Director:  Jean-Jacques Annaud  

Cast Headliners: Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz 

Original Release Date: March 16, 2001

Seen: January 2013
Many, many films have been made about World War 2. Considering it is the largest conflict in recent human history, that is understandable.  Quality ranges, but many remember films showing American heroes such as in Saving Private Ryan and The Dirty Dozen and Patton. However, there is a front which is less often explored. That is the bloody campaign of the Russians fighting against the Nazis to defend and re-take their homeland.  The setting of Enemy at the Gates is the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad.  Jude Law plays Vasily Zaitsev, a simple man who is charges into the front of battle with his comrades. The large scale action scenes such as the opening assault are epic and awe-inspiring in their size and explosiveness. The interesting thing is that the entire scene happened in real life while filming. 100’s of extras were used, and a prop town was demolished then re-built. Not much CGI is used in the film, which gives credit to director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s attention to detail. It really feels like 1942 Russia, from the setting to the clothing to the props. This entire story is true , which helps lend to the immersion.
In this scarred battleground Vasily makes the acquaintance of a commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) who becomes a good friend and fellow sniper Tania (Rachel Weisz) who becomes a lover.  The trio’s friendship gives the film a bit of heartwarming in the grim war setting, and the romance subplot is luckily not distracting. Also a mention is worth of Bob Hoskins as the grizzled and mean Nikita Khrushchev, who would later be a famous premier of the USSR but for now is a mere general as of the film.
That is because this movie has some of the best sniping ever. Vasily is a crackshot, and takes out officer after officer in the many great battle scenes.  A challenger from the Nazi side soon appears in the form of Major Erwin Konig, played by the chilling Ed Harris Harris is so evil in this movie, he seems demonic. . The rest of the film after Konig’s introduction becomes a sub war of “spy vs spy” between him and Vasily, sniping at each other in many heart pumping scenes.  Each snipe-off gets better and better up until the final fight.
I reviewed this movie because I feel like it is the Saving Private Ryan of the Russian Theater of World War 2.  It was moderately successful, but I think it deserves to be watched.  It is exciting, accurate, and frankly the best sniper centric war film I have ever seen.  There may be only minimal deep craft or whatever in Enemy at the Gates, but it wonderfully delivers on its mission of showing a Russian sniper sniping things in World War 2.  A well-earned 8.65 out of 10.

Argo Review

Argo Review
Director: Ben Affleck

Cast Headliners: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman

Original Release Date: October 12, 2012

Seen: April 2013

This movie was the so called best of 2012 by the critics and the Oscar academy. I think I agree.  This right here, this Argo, is how you make a quality political history movie. Argo paints itself to be an epic from the start with a comic book like segment talking of the history of the Persian Empire, which led to Iran. This is where the 1979 Hostage Crisis occurred, which unfolds in the wonderfully intense beginning of the film showing the fall of the US Embassy in Tehran.  It’s a sign of quality when a film makes a segment without the main protagonist tense and exciting to watch.  There are people who escaped this uprising luckily, and they were Robert Anders (Tate Donovan), Cora Amburn-Lijek (Clea DuVall), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), Joseph Stafford (Scoot McNairy), Kathleen Stafford (Kerry Bishé), and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane).  All of them do a fine job portraying victims hiding in an oppressive state, and as scene in the end credits or comparing photographs, they look just like the real people.
To remedy this, Tony Mendez (played by actor Ben Affleck who is also directing this film) must pitch a plan to save the hostages. Affleck does a great job as Tony, delivering eloquent dialogue and charm. The direction also showcases Affleck’s stark realistic style.  Tony’s plan, after seeing Battle of the Planet of the Apes, is to make a fake film called “Argo” using Iran as a location ala Star Wars using Africa. The film has a slight humorous side, when Tony enlists the help of eccentric makeup artist and costumer John Chambers (played by John Goodman in classic form) and director Lester Siegel (the wonderful Alan Arkin).  This gives the movie an intriguing mish-mash of Hollywood stereotypes and Middle Eastern action. 
Hollywood may have been laughs, but Tony’s quest to help the hostages in Tehran is very bleak. Any moment he could be killed, as could those he’s trying to save.  The editing and music is spot on in helping to illustrate their escape.  Watching Argo is very much like being there with the characters, never knowing what is going to come next.  It is a very exciting and entertaining time.
            The cast is expansive and likeable, the directing and production fantastic, and the plot greatly written. This is movie that is not to be missed, and really inspires honor for the real people who made it out of Iran in 1979.  There are not many flaws; perhaps just that it is not perfect.  Sometimes, I felt it dragged on.  Also the hostages were not given very much characterization. Compared to Tony and John Chambers and Siegel and Tony’s CIA support, the hostages felt in some ways like nobodies.  Regardless, Argo gives them respect . Argo is a fantastic movie which will truly leave you on the edge of your seat. It would definitely be in my top 5 from last year even if not number 1. 8.75 out of 10

GI Joe:Retaliation Review

GI Joe:Retaliation Review
Director: Jon M. Chu

Cast Headliners: Channing Tatum, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Byung-Hun Lee

Original Release Date: March 29, 2013
GI: Joe: Retaliation is the sequel to the first live action Joe film, 2007’s The Rise of Cobra. That film introduced us to a wide variety of colorful characters on both sides of good and evil, and this time most but not all return. The fact that Marlon Wayan’s goofy Ripcord is gone points to the film having a different tone. It is definitely a lot more grim and well… im not going to say realistic since there’s ninja fights jumping between mountains and exploding robo-bugs, but this movie has a sort of maturity that the first didn’t have.  It has a very unique and interesting vibe to it compared to most franchise action films.
Without spoiling a major twist that must be scene, that maturity is in the film’s premise. The opening of the film has a couple of cool minor missions, but after a certain disastrous accident the main crew of Roadblock (Johnson), Lady Jaye, and Flint find themselves on the run. America is not what it used to be, and their quest is an intense one of stealth and sabotage.  Across the world, a different kind of stealth is being used by the awesome ninja Storm-Eyes returning from number 1 and his new friends Jinx and Blind Master to track down his old nemesis Storm Shadow (Lee). The two plotlines don’t intersect till later, and his ninja-centric plot feels almost like another movie. I think these scenes were the best of the movie, with the ninja fight at the ninja monastery being the highlight of the action scenes in the film. I haven’t seen spectacle like that in a while.  Eventually the two teams unite, which leads to a fantastic finale at the scenic Ft.Sumter.
I want to make note of the new characters. Roadblock is both a badass and hilarious, and one of my favorite Rock roles in a while. The Rock is doing what he does best, at his best here. There are some very funny scenes between him and Duke (Channing Tatum, who actually isn’t really the main focus of this film which can be debated whether that’s a good or bad thing), and also when he’s a leader. The America based team eventually enlists GI Joe Coulton himself, played by Bruce Willis who is pretty much being John McClane and being hilarious wisecrackin as always.   On the villain spectrum, Cobra Commander has lost Joseph Gordin Levitt as the actor but new actor Robert Baker retains some of his charisma and seems right out of the Saturday morning cartoon. Ray Stevenson’s Firefly and Byung-Hun Lee’s Storm Shadow are both great minion stereotypes, and the star of the villain side is acclaimed actor Jonathan Pryce playing Zartan is who disguised as the President. Some of the greatest humor comes from Pryce actually.
The film has great fights, quality, special effects, and some good laughs. It’s held back perhaps by little exposition showing the rest of the massive GI Joe organization. Are we really supposed to believe that Dennis Quaid’s General Hawk character from number one would let this all happen without intervening? The script may not be Oscar quality either, and some of the performances such as the character Flint and even Tatum’s Duke being a bit subpar. But, this is a fun colorful action movie worth seeing. It had a heart and a craft one is not used to in blockbusters.  Overall, it makes you want to should “Gooo Joe!”,   8 out of 10

Kevin’s Note: (I would also like to dedicate this review and post to Roger Ebert, who passed away a few days ago. He was a great film critic, and inspiration for this blog. Thank you Ebert for your reviews, and we’ll always remember you)