Archive Page 2

30
Apr
15

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Seven summers ago there was an idea . . . the idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if they could become something more. To see if they could work together when we needed them to, to make the movies that that no one else could.

From his first foray into what we now refer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with 2008’s Iron Man, president of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige collected talent and creatives and guided them on a path to create the largest “universe” of films anyone has seen. Forget the characters on screen. Names like Joss Whedon, Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson are now real life Avengers. And Feige, he’s the real world equivalent of Nick Fury; ever so astutely manipulating storylines and stars as deftly as Fury could manipulate secrets and spies.Flash forward to 2015 and that Marvel machine shows no signs of stopping. Avengers: Age of Ultron is the second film in the MCU that brings together the “group of remarkable people” we know as the Avengers. With the Battle of New York now three years past, we join right in as the team is in the heat of battle; still cleaning up Hydra agents from the events that took place in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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Flash forward to 2015 and the Marvel machine shows no signs of stopping. Avengers: Age of Ultron is the second film in the MCU that brings together the “group of remarkable people” we know as the Avengers. With the Battle of New York now three years past, we jump right in as the team is in the heat of battle; still cleaning up Hydra agents from the events that took place in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

In an effort to close the book on Hydra, the Avengers are tracking down Loki’s scepter (which we last saw in Hydra’s possession in The Winter Soldier and which Phil Coulson discovered intel on its whereabouts in this week’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD). Having neutralized the Hydra threat, the Avengers discover that Hydra has a focus on collecting Inhumans–a sub-race of humans who possess special abilities. Hydra’s Inhumans, aka The Twins, aka Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (also seen at the end of The Winter Soldier), manipulate Tony Stark and turn his fears from the Battle of New York against him which leads him to create Ultron–initially a protocol of automated Iron Man suits to fight large threats and protect the human race; but morphs into an evil artificial intelligence bent on “protecting” humanity by destroying it.

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Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson join the cast as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. They’re more Inhuman than human.

 Avengers: Age of Ultron has all the action that you’d expect from an Avenger movie. While we’ve gotten some cool action sequences in the stand alone Avenger films, it’s totally amped up in Age of Ultron since in nearly every scene you’ve got at least two Avengers working together. A lot of action scenes in the film are fun because the Avengers are fighting together, working as a team, and riffing off of each other’s weaponry and special talents. When you see Captain America whipping his shield around, Black Widow catching it, throwing it back to him–but knocking bad guys into the air, with Iron Man flying in and repulsor blasting said bad guys in mid air and then finishing off with Thor slamming his hammer down on Cap’s shield creating a shockwave that knocks everyone out . . . you can’t help but crack a smile on your face because yes, this is what superhero team-up movies are supposed to be.

Whedon’s comedic stamp is still all over the film as well. From the quick one-liners during battle (Cap’s chastising of Iron Man’s “language”), to our heroes being self-deprecating with one another, to fun scenes of comradery (like say when you’re hanging out after a party and everyone tries to lift Thor’s hammer); all the little touches and flourishes of humor that made the first Avengers so fun is still here as well.

Great action and fun laughs aren’t the only things that Age of Ultron gives us. It also does some table setting for Phase III and also subtly explain other goings on in the MCU. Things like “well where was Hawkeye when all that stuff with SHIELD going down” are in fact addressed and answered (no, he wasn’t just appearing on Fallon). Then there’s the role call of cameos from supporting characters from many of the other stand alone films. Not only do we get to see War Machine and Falcon, but we also get the inclusion of two new Avengers as well (spoiler alert–it’s The Twins). We all know that Marvel can’t keep this train with the core group of Avengers going forever. They literally can’t afford to as the actor’s salaries will keep getting higher with each passing movie. The next logical step is to bring in new blood and set things up for a changing of the guard. I mean, in the comic books the Avengers are a big team of superheroes so it only makes sense that new Avengers are introduced in Age of Ultron.

Where did you come from where did you go? Where did you come from cotten eye Hawkeye?

Hawkeye’s still super as they are.

In a similar vein, Age of Ultron also moves us ever so closer to the next Avengers film three years from now: Infinity War. From the discovery of the tesseract in Captain America: The First Avenger to the outright explanation of the Infinity Stones in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, you can’t help but notice that these items seem to be the most power artifacts in the universe if everyone is out to get them. While I won’t give too much away from Age of Ultron, the Infinity Stones are referenced several times in the film. If one by itself commands so much power, just imagine an enemy who possesses all of them.

If there was one thing that felt a little out of place in Age of Ultron, it would have to be the developing relationship between Bruce and Natasha. We saw a few hints at this in the first Avengers film. In Age of Ultron, it is in full bloom. What I found out of place about it was that I thought it was completely unnecessary. Did they want to keep the female audience interested by introducing a romance element to the story? Who knows. What I do know is this . . . you have a strong female character in your comic book movie (something in short supply and high demand at the moment) and you give her character weepy eyes throughout the film? Sure they gave us some backstory and point of view moments for her, but I think the end result was not worth adding that in. Talk about sidelining your character–it just makes her character look that much more vulnerable on a team packed with powers.

DID YOU ORDER THE CODE GREEN???

DID YOU ORDER THE CODE GREEN???

While Avengers: Age of Ultron does deliver the fun, I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing after the movie was done. I laughed and I cheered throughout the movie and yet I didn’t feel as good as I did when I got out of seeing The Avengers. The best way to equate this is probably to The Dark Knight and The Dark Night Rises. With The Dark Knight being as good as it was, expectations for it’s follow up were sky high. When The Dark Knight Rises came out, due to those high expectations, many people felt that Rises was a bit of a letdown. And that what we’ve got going on here.

Pound dog!

Pound dog!

Though Ultron is a diabolical foe, the entire movie feels a bit like more of what we wanted from the first Avengers movie but just didn’t have time to have in there. There wasn’t anything that special that blew me away. This time around we don’t have the novelty of seeing these guys come together for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great scenes and I did enjoy myself throughout the film, but at the end of the day I thought Ultron was just another bad guy in the long list of Marvel bad guys that got left in the dust. What he did was the typical things that we’d expect any one-note bad guy to do: he came up with a plan to destroy the world, he got the Avengers to fight each other, and he had the whole multiple versions of himself going for him. With all of that, none of it left a lasting impression on me.

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To be sure, I’ll see this movie a couple more times in theaters. And like I mentioned at the top, Marvel has nothing to fear in regards to their universe slowing down anytime soon. Feige, Whedon, and the entire cast have put together something that is special. What I’m hoping we get next time is a movie that “becomes something more” and is not just more of the same.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is now playing in theaters worldwide.

4 / 5 stars // rated PG-13 // 2h 21min

 

24
Apr
15

Review: The Age of Adaline

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The thing you have to remember should you choose to see The Age of Adaline, is that the film is much more about the ‘what’ more than it is about the ‘why’ or ‘how.’ If you expect to find out exactly why Adaline doesn’t age, you do find that out. In fact, the film dolls out a long winded explanation via some sort of pseudo-sciency Neil deGrasse Tyson-esque explanation. But the film itself is more interested in asking, what would you do with your life if you could live forever?

The Age of Adaline stars Blake Lively as the ever-youthful Adaline, who finds herself in a unique position of everlasting youth after a freak car accident and a little help from planetary alignment. Born in the early 1900s, Adaline finds herself stuck at age 29 for roughly 80 years. During this time, she leads a solitary life; moving around and changing her identity every ten years so her secret isn’t discovered. However, in present day San Francisco she meets Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a charming philanthropist who gives her a reason to open up and love again.

As the film plainly illustrates, Adaline not being able to age is more of a curse than a blessing. Having lived alone for so long, Adaline doesn’t let people get close. Though she is well off financially, she lives modestly so as not to attract any attention. And probably the biggest heart breaker . . . she keeps a photo album of all the pets she’s lost over the years. This all points to the fact that you can’t really live your life when you confine yourself like this.

Adaline with her regular aging daughter.

Adaline with her regular aging daughter.

Of course, this story wouldn’t be interesting unless a curveball was thrown her way. Adaline’s daughter, who she had before her accident and who has aged normally, pushes her to not worry about her in her old age, but more importantly; to find love and live her life. And what do you know, on the day before her birthday (New Year’s Eve), she meets Ellis. From the moment he lays eyes on her he is transfixed and for a few fleeting moments she seems to be a little intrigued. This leads to Adaline questioning the life she’s lived up until this point. Should she stick to the plan that she’s set out for herself–solitary, alone, but safe? Or should she open herself up to love, even though she will most likely outlive the person that she’s with? While these are all great questions, the film pretty much takes all the expected turns.

Adaline and Ellis's first encounter on New Year's Eve.

Adaline and Ellis’s first encounter on New Year’s Eve.

Blake gives a nice performance in the film and plays an ‘older person trapped in a younger person’s body’ fairly well. I always got a sense that she was holding something back, not really opening up fully anytime Ellis made advances on her. And of course she looks great in any time period and got to show off a bunch of great looks as there were multiple flashbacks of her through the years. Michiel’s Ellis, meh, I could take him or leave him. He wasn’t bad in the role, he was more okay than anything and I think someone else could have played that role just as easily. His character did come off a little stalker-ish at times when he kept showing up at places Adaline was at. He’s actually more carismatic in his role as Daario Naharis of the Second Sons in Game of Thrones.

And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about that narration. Within the first few minutes of the film, the narrator comes in and literally tells us about Adaline and her life. It then moves on to tell us specifically how, in scientific terms, why Adaline no longer ages. I’m not a purist by any means, so I’m open to narration providing me straightforward details when it’s applied appropriately. But, in this case, the narration was so out of place and so unnecessary that it almost made me feel dumber for listening to it. Had the narration not taken place, myself and I’m sure much of the audience could have inferred what happened to Adaline. The narration, however, was not limited to just the beginning of the film. The same style of narration is employed several more times throughout the film and actually closes the film out with more unnecessary mumbo-jumbo.

Adaline celebrating New Year's in the 1940s

Adaline celebrating New Year’s in the 1940s

On the whole The Age of Adaline doesn’t do much in terms of providing drama or romance. Yes, romance is displayed for us on-screen but I never really fully bought into Adaline and Ellis relationship. Still, it’s an interesting film in the sense that it tries to be a little bit more than a romance movie. If you’ve ever had a burning question about whether or not to find someone to love if you were forever young, then you’ll definitely want to check out The Age of Adaline. Or if you’re just looking for a decent date movie before heading out to Avengers next weekend, then Adaline fits the bill just nicely too.

The Age of Adaline is now playing in theaters everywhere.

⅗ stars // rated PG-13 // 1h 50min

23
Apr
15

Post View: Thoughts on The Force Awakens Trailer

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I’ve had a lot of cautious optimism since the dual announcement of the LucasFilm acquisition by Disney and the creation of new Star Wars movies two and a half years ago. Though I have fond memories of watching each of the episodes in the New Trilogy (NT, Episodes I, II, & III), they just weren’t as memorable or as imaginative as the Original Trilogy (OT, Episodes IV, V, & VI) was. That’s why since the announcement I’ve been patiently waiting to see how the franchise would be guided and what kind of storytellers would be brought in to carry the saga forward.

To be honest, I wasn’t all that hot on JJ Abrams decision to nix the script that Toy Story 3 writer Michael Arndt was working on in favor of a storyline that brought the OT leads back. I wanted to see what new stories and challenges the characters in a post-OT Star Wars universe would have to face; not tagging along with Luke, Leia, and Han for “one last ride.” Their stories have been told already. Been there done that.

When the Star Wars – The Force Awakens teaser trailer came out last December I was intrigued, but not blown away. I mean really, all we got were a couple of short scenes that gave us an idea of how the film would “look.” Probably the biggest takeaway for me was that this film “looked” like it fit in with the OT and not dramatically different like the NT did. While everyone was excited to see the Millenium Falcon (the only appearance of something from the OT), I was excited to see that scene as well. Not because we got to see the Millenium Falcon, but because of how we saw it. That over the shoulder tracking shot of the Millenium Falcon as it did a loop and then turned right side up was so dynamic and exhilarating that it was definitely my favorite part of the trailer.

Now cut to a week ago.

Disney drops the first full trailer for The Force Awakens last week at Star Wars Celebration to rave reviews, fans crying (hell, even Matthew McConaughey shed a few tears), and nearly half of my Facebook feed wetting themselves. Again, cautious optimism. But what was getting everyone so worked up?

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. . . the reveal of Chewie and Han. I’m not going to lie, Harrison Ford looks older than ever. I don’t know if it’s because he became such a big star, but after his last slate of films that he’s been in (Expendables, Ender’s Game, Cowboys & Aliens, Morning Glory) I don’t see him as Han Solo anymore. I see him as an old and grumpy Harrison Ford. The brash and beguiling Han I know only appears in Episodes IV, V, and VI. Seeing him here at the end of the trailer telling Chewie “we’re home”, that did not do anything for me. Do not get me wrong, I am a fan of the series through and through and I love Han as much as the next fanboy; but seeing a tired Harrison Ford on-screen just kind of deflated the entire trailer for me. I’m still hopeful that maybe in the grand scheme of the movie, this wasn’t exactly Ford’s best moment. And who knows, maybe he is still is the same old Han Solo we all know and love just a bit older. We’ll have to wait and see.

Similarly to the teaser trailer, it’s the sum all the parts of this trailer that really gets me excited for Episode VII.

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The trailer starts out with a familiar shot of Tatooine, but then as the camera pans across the desert landscape we see a massive star destroyer crashed into the dunes with a wrecked X-wing in the foreground–already I’m hooked. We’ve seen the Tatooine landscape laid out for us before, and Lucas even brought back similar shots in the NT to give Anakin an angsty emotional moment. This opening shot, however, it lets us know that we’re not in that same galaxy far, far away that we once knew–things are different now.

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Then the nostalgia train gets started with Luke (we think) reciting his line from Return of the Jedi that talks about his family “having” Force abilities. While seeing Vader’s burnt and disfigured helmet is a nice touch, it’s when we get to this particular shot (image above) that we realize this isn’t the line from Jedi that we’re hearing, but new dialogue when we hear “my father HAS it.” This could mean any number of things, but most fans are speculating that this suggests that Vader is not dead. Why would Luke say this unless he knew his father (Darth Vader) wasn’t dead right? Maybe, just maybe he lived and what Luke burned at the end of Jedi wasn’t his father. Granted, this is one possibility.

Another interpretation could be that the reason Luke said it this way is because, as Obi-Wan told us, “from a certain point of view” Luke doesn’t consider his father dead because he is still “alive” as a Force ghost–which we saw at the end of Return of the Jedi. He could still be interacting with his father/Vader’s Force ghost ever since his death.

Still another possibility is that this isn’t Luke speaking at all, but perhaps it’s his son instead. Most of the theories out there posit that this next set of episodes will focus on the children of Han and Leia–who would have Force abilities passed down to them from their mother. However, as no official synopsis has yet been released, we still don’t know what the story is. The reference to “my father has it” could be from Luke’s son being told to someone else. Fun speculation to be sure, but like I said, this could be another possibility.

As we get into the second half of the trailer though, that’s where we get to see a bunch of fun puzzle pieces . . .

An ominous cloaked figure putting a metal hand on R2D2, someone being handed a lightsaber, Oscar Isaac getting excited flying he X-wing . . . while these next set of shots didn’t move the needle too much for me, the following did:

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Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and BB8 running from tie fighter strafing fire . . . totes exciting.

 

Is this a new sith lord? Is he the main villain of the film? Always two there are right? Which one is he?

Is this a new sith lord? Is he the main villain of the film? Always two there are right? Which one is he?

 

A tie fighter shooting up an Imperial hanger--you can feel JJ’s presence with both the look of the shot and how everything is framed.

A tie fighter shooting up an Imperial hanger–you can feel JJ’s presence with both the look of the shot and how everything is framed.

 

I saw this guy and wanted to know his story. Is he the sith lord from a few scenes ago? Or is he just a badass Tie fighter pilot?

I saw this guy and wanted to know his story. Is he the sith lord from a few scenes ago? Or is he just a badass Tie fighter pilot?

 

And then, the pièce de résistance for me . . .

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This chase sequence through a crashed star destroyer (same one from the opening shot perhaps?) is damn near genius. It’s definitely got hints of Return of the Jedi when Lando took the Millenium Falcon into the Death Star, but I also love that it’s updated by JJ with the snap zoom shot as the Millenium Falcon enters the star destroyer. It’s something we’re familiar with, but updated for a new generation.

And that last shot, well, I’ve already talked about that at the top.

After seeing this trailer, I’m much more excited and hopeful that this next set of Star Wars films will be the Star Wars movies that we’ve been waiting for. While I will always have fond memories of camping out and seeing the NT in theaters the same way the previous generation did with the OT; the newer films themselves didn’t live up to the bar that was set by the older ones.

After this trailer though, there has been an awakening . . . have you felt it?

17
Apr
15

Review: Monkey Kingdom

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Every Earth Day Disney puts out a family-friendly animal documentary. In the past, they’ve told us stories about our planet’s oceans, chimpanzees, African cats, and brown bears. This year’s film, Monkey Kingdom focuses on a troop of toque macaque monkeys in Sri Lanka.

The first thing that usually comes to mind when someone thinks ‘wildlife documentary’ is usually those old boring wildlife videos from high school with bland narration about whatever the animals on screen are doing. If you haven’t seen any of the Disneynature series of films then you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise as their films are crafted really well and present the audience with conventions that you’ll get in a regular film. Things such as a protagonist that the movie follows, a plot that tells the story of our protagonist, fun supporting characters, rising tension, and because it’s a Disney movie . . . a happy ending.

Monkey Kingdom focuses on Maya, a pretty well-groomed macaque monkey who’s at the bottom of her troop’s social strata. Like the human world, the toque macaque monkeys of Sri Lanka have a social class structure–the privileged get all the best fruit on the top of fig tree, while those on the bottom (literally the ground) have to scrounge around for food. The film follows Maya as she struggles to find food, raise her young son, and her climb up the troop’s social structure–which helps them to survive.

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It’s actually a pretty ingenious endeavor when you think about it. How do you get people to watch what might ordinarily be a boring subject? By getting them into it. Give the audience someone to root for. Someone that they can empathize with. For us, that person (or monkey rather) is Maya. I don’t know how much of Tina Fey’s narration is actually true, but from the footage the producers shot and edited together; they’ve crafted a pretty interesting story that people will sit down to watch.

When the film starts off, Maya is essentially a low income worker with no good prospects and she only stays with her troop because she knows that if she were to leave, she would not be protected by any number of predators that lurk in the surrounding jungle. We see Maya “going to work” every day as she goes out to search for food. We see her as a single mother when she begins to raise her son on her own. And we see her rise to prominence in her tribe when they start to rely on her skills as a searcher and gatherer of food.

There are a number of fun moments in the film–one or two of which I wouldn’t be surprised if they were staged. In one particular scene, Maya and some of the other low-class monkeys raid a human kitchen where a birthday cake with a bunch of different goodies are all perfectly laid out, ripe for the plundering. It’s fun to watch the monkeys go crazy grabbing at all this food, but I found it really hard to believe that the filmmakers just happened upon a scene like that.

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Conversely, there’s an emotional sequence in the film when Maya is separated from her son by “The Sisters”, a trio of upper-class female monkeys who treat lower classed monkeys badly because they can. While more heart-wrenching moments like these are few and far between, it does give us a sense that that the animal kingdom mirrors the human kingdom in many similar ways.

If I were to tell you the plot of this story without telling you that it stared monkeys, you might think it’s a halfway decent movie. And for the most part it is. Believe it or not the narration adds a lot to the film. It’s not so much Tina Fey’s personality as it is how the filmmakers edited the footage they shot and developed the narrative for it. Again, who can say exactly how much of what we hear is actually how things happened. At the end of the day, just like in any movie, you’re here to be entertained and that’s exactly what Monkey Kingdom does. It gets you to root for Maya and her family of monkeys.

As in previous years, a portion of opening week box office sales will be donated to an organization that will help the animals and/or environment that the film was shot in. In conjunction with Conservation International, this year’s collected proceeds will go towards protecting habitat across Indonesia, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. Not only do you get to see a movie the entire family can enjoy, but part of the cost you pay for admission will help Maya and other monkeys in the region. Remember, it’s only during the first week of Monkey Kingdom’s engagement (April 17-23).

Monkey Kingdom is now playing in theaters everywhere.

⅗ stars // rated G // 1h 22min

19
Mar
15

Insurgent Review: Detergent

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There’s nothing all that wrong with Insurgent. It’s actually a somewhat competent sequel in the Divergent series that doesn’t suffer middle chapter syndrome: there’s some action and the storyline moves. It’s just that… What were we talking about again?

Oh. And there you go.

Somehow, Insurgent is just not memorable. We’ve seen all of this before in Twilight, The Hunger Games, Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, The Maze Runner, The Running Man, and of course, Battle Royale. And by now, unless the young adult book adaptation movies do something drastic with their female heroines and post-apocalypse imaginings (or lack thereof), the genre is just about as burnt-out as the landscape in Mad Max.

In fact, I can barely bring myself to re-cap the last film, much less do a synopsis for this one. Frankly, I completely forgot Divergent and actually had to rent the film to watch again the night before the screening of its sequel. And once the lights went down and the screen lit up, I still did not have total recall. And no, I wasn’t drunk.

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Here’s my best try: In the future, to keep the peace, a walled city kinda like the one in Attack on Titan or Mega City One in Dredd is broken into five factions of society. Or was it seven? I’m too lazy to look it up so we’ll just go with five, yes, five factions. Our heroine Tris, used to belong to the self-less, government-ruling Abnegation but when she hit puberty, she decided to join Dauntless, a group in charge of policing the city and they like to hoot and holler, get tattoos and run around a lot.

Oh, and Tris took a test that revealed she is a Divergent—she can fit into more than one faction. So by the first movie’s end, Tris’s parents died, and she, her brother Caleb, her new boyfriend Four, Four’s abusive father, and a kidnapped member of Dauntless played by Miles Teller are on the run. The new film opens with them taking shelter in Amity, a faction devoted to peace and love. Actually, I’m not sure what the difference is between Amity and Abnegation except Amity seems more hare krishna-like because they offer good tidings when they give you your plate at the buffet line.

You know, this is actually really (too) complicated. I forgot to mention Kate Winslet, leader of the smart people, Erudite, who wants to rule the city like Donald Sutherland in The Hunger Games. She needs Tris to unlock this box that looks like the Tesseract from The Avengers. Once unlocked, the box will reveal some sort of big thing. This all takes place in this room with tentacles that stab into Tris like the ones from The Matrix and Tris enters this simulation like the one in The Matrix and she does all these tasks and things explode slowly in a nice computer-y way like The Matrix and…

What were we talking about again?

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I just don’t wanna type anymore. I’m tired. The actors, Buddha bless them, don’t seem to mind relentless cinematic thievery though. Teller plays the ruthless, kidnapped Dauntless baddie Peter with the proper sense of bullying and self-loathing. Ansel Elgort plays Tris’s conflicted brother Caleb. And Shailene Woodley plays Tris with a determined ambition to not be pegged as a Jennifer Lawrence wanna-be. (Interestingly enough, Woodley slept with Teller in The Spectacular Now. She also slept with Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars. At this rate, by the end of the decade, at least on screen, Woodley could possibly sleep with the rest of the series’ male cast.)

Oh and everybody in the theater squealed when Daniel Dae Kim popped up as the leader of Erudite. He conducted himself with great dignity. (Does anybody still watch Hawaii Five-0? Oh wait yeah…my mom.)

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I think we’ve come to the point where we must simply acknowledge that these films were made from books that were made for young adults. Particularly young adults who haven’t seen many other movies. I think I’ll stop here. I’m tired of writing about it and to paraphrase the wise words imparted by Taylor Swift, I should just shake it off.

One more thing. They’re also planning to split the final book in the series, Allegiant, into two movies. Like Harry Potter. And The Hunger Games.

I’m trying to just breathe and relax. And shake it off.

Insurgent is now playing in theaters everywhere.

20
Feb
15

Review: The DUFF

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High school is rough. With age comes insight and perspective, so you can look back on your high school days and ask “Wow, were we . . . were things, really that dramatic when I was in high school?” Through the lens of The DUFF, it’s safe to say that though the lingo, clothes, and technology have changed, high school is still high school. You still have the popular kids, the jocks, bullying; it all just looks a little different, but it’s still there.

In case you haven’t visited Urban Dictionary lately, DUFF stands for ‘Designated Ugly Fat Friend’. However, the moniker doesn’t have to strictly adhere to the descriptors the acronym stands for. In broader terms it mainly refers to a situation where a less attractive and more approachable person (usually female, but can apply to either male or female) hangs out or is friends with two or more attractive people. Needless to say that when our main character Bianca is made aware of her situation, drama (of the high school nature) ensues.

I guess one question I initially had was how could a girl with popular friends not be comfortable with who she is? And an even potentially bigger question: does it really matter how you’re perceived? In high school, the answer is almost invariably YES. From the get-go Bianca our protagonist and is portrayed as very independent and very much her own person, but yet she lets the title of ‘The Duff’ to cause doubt in herself. With such a strong minded character, I didn’t get why she let it bother her. Was it just because of high school insecurity? I guess. We need something to move the story along right? Whatever the case may be, I’m always a sucker for high school movies and the struggles of the less popular class of students against the more popular kids at school.

0220_01-Girlfriends

This class struggle is deftly woven into the fabric of the film with the relationship between Bianca and Wesley. At first you might think that they’re the usual “childhood friends” where one grows up to be popular and the other not at all. Well, that’s sort of the case here, but The DUFF gives us some great setup for their friendship by showing us an old photo of Wes and Bianca taking a bath together as kids. You know the type of photo, those embarrassing ones of you that your parents took of you as a kid. It’s inserted into the film and paints us a more authentic history for them.

Being childhood friends, Bianca and Wesley are still pretty good friends in high school–though they both inhabit different social circles. Bianca is the independent, school newspaper editor with something to say who hangs out with two of the hottest girls at school. Wesley meanwhile seems like the stereotypical sex crazed jock–but with some sense of conscience and the right amount of doubt. You can tell he sort of wants to do the right thing (or at least thinks about it), but is held back by the high school social class system that demands the cool kids act like cool kids. Despite their baggage, Bianca and Wes’s friendship feels really developed and their chemistry is fun and playful.

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A happy surprise is Ken Jeong who fits in surprisingly well in this film as the supportive teacher. He’s not playing the over the top character that we normally get (à la Mr Chow in the Hangover films) and is definitely dialed it back, but still serving up some pretty witty banter. Amazingly he is the inspirational teacher who thinks he’s cool, but in reality is not. Even though his character tries really hard to be cool, he doesn’t really succeed. It’s his attempt to be cool that really made me want to see more of him. When he delivers his lines you almost feel like you’re seeing a different side to Ken Jeong.

And that kind of leads into one of the great things about this movie: the dialogue. Some of the banter and one-liners are so sharp and so perfectly timed. I’d like to think people are this smart and quick in real life, but I don’t think that’s the case. However, almost every character in the film that has screen time has a quip that they get in or a hilarious comedic beat that they hit. Kudos to the screenwriters for giving us some very smart and very fun dialogue.

0220_04-RealityMedia

Focusing back on Bianca and her quest to un-DUFF herself, we do get the usual plot points that we’re all used to in these types of high school movies: friends stop being friends, our awkward protagonist going after the high school crush, our protagonist getting a makeover, and the always fun romantic comedy drama where one person realizes they have feelings for the other person–but at the wrong time. Though The DUFF has all of these tropes, it’s the way it tells them that kept me interested and laughing throughout the film.

Overall The Duff kind of surprised me. Going in I thought I was going to get some pretty standard high school faire just updated for 2015. Though the story was nothing we haven’t seen before, there was enough of a slant to the characters and situations to make them different enough to feel a little more real and original. And the comedy–definitely one of the highlights. As the The DUFF went on I found myself enjoying the film more and more. Good high school flicks get me every time.

The DUFF is now playing in theaters everywhere.

3.5/5 stars // rated PG-13 // 1hr 41min

13
Feb
15

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

"On the other side of this mirror is Mr Gray's red room."

“On the other side of this mirror is Mr Gray’s red room.”

For 40 years James Bond ruled the spy genre until the franchise was rebooted. Part of the reason–Austin Powers. Mike Myers satirized nearly every spy film convention in the book with his ‘International Man of Mystery.’ Enter Daniel Craig and a more “grittier” and “realistic” Bond. If Austin Powers was the satirical commentary to the first 40 years of Bond, then Kingsman: The Secret Service is the Austin Powers to the next generation of Bond films.

Kingsman stars Colin Firth as Galahad, one of the top agents in Kingsman, a private intelligence organization not beholden to any government. Early in the film the Kingsman, looking to fill an opening in their ranks, put a set of recruits through a series to test to see if any of them have what it takes to be the next Kingsman. One of the recruits is Eggsy, British newcomer Taron Egerton, whose character shows a lot of promise, but is undisciplined and rough around the edges. Overshadowing the initiation of these would be future Kingsman is the maniacal world dominating plans of tech mogul Valentine, played ever so colorfully by Samuel L. Jackson.

Where does he get those wonderful suits?

Where does he get those wonderful suits?

As a film Kingsman hits the sweet spot between realistic spy movie and satirical comedy. Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) melds his comedic and action oriented sensibilities into a spy film that is fun, action packed, damn funny, but also not so silly where it’s completely bonkers and unbelievable. Yes, it mocks the old Bond with those tropes that caused the aforementioned reboot (lighters that are grenades and umbrellas that shoot a myriad of projectiles). At the end of the day, Kingsman is smarter than that. It knows what kind of movie it’s trying to be and revels in it.

One of the things I love is the meta-ness of the film. At several points both Galahad and Valentine make reference to spy movies as if they’re not in one. The exchange is fun because they’re talking around typical spy movie tropes and how they won’t fall into them. You know them: the villain telling the captured spy his plans, the civil banter between adversaries who both know the real identity of the other. Call me a movie geek, but I ate all of that up.

"English . . . do you speak it?"

“English . . . do you speak it?”

Speaking of Valentine, he is definitely one of the highlights of the film. Samuel L Jackson has played many roles throughout his career; many of them good, many bad. Valentine has to be in the top 10. It’s not that he’s the most evil character Jackson has played that makes him such a good villain. It is more of his unique sense of embodying madness that makes him such a great bad guy. Granted, his character is portrayed as a genius and the richest man in the world so that attitude is warranted; but his simplistic reasoning plays right into his megalomania. The icing on the cake has to be the lisp that Valentine has. Usually something like this would be really gimmicky. Thankfully Jackson has some good direction supported by great dialogue that makes speaking with the lisp not so overdone. Save for not being too strong of a guy (and a fear of blood), Valentine is a pretty unique villain.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Valentine’s left hand woman and bodyguard, Gazelle. In classic Bond henchmen fashion, Gazelle lives up to her name because she has prosthetic blades for legs. But, the twist here is that they’re actual blades…Like sharp blades that can slice things. In one of the early scenes in the film Gazelle kills a man by literally slicing him in two. While totally implausible (and in some instances even a little corny), within the context of the film combined with the way her character is presented, you buy in to the fact that she is one badass chick. 

Just keep swimin'.

Just keep swimin’.

An aspect of the film that keeps things fresh is the initiation process that Kingsman puts their potential recruits through. Rather than train them, they test them by giving them real challenges that show what kind of people they really are. In one of their first tests, the recruits’ sleeping quarters quickly fills up with water. While this challenge not only tests how they react under pressure as well as their survival skills, the ultimate lesson they need to learn is that in order to be a Kingsman, they need to learn how to work as a team. After each test, someone is dropped from the program and as the film progresses, so does the degree of difficulty of their challenges. While their teamwork is tested time and again, other aspects of being a spy are tested as well: how they act under duress, can they pull the trigger when they need to, can they overcome their most basic fears. While in some instances the results of the trials are a little predictable, they’re still fun and intense nonetheless.

Should you find yourself watching Kingsman this weekend, just know this, you’re going to see a very fun, action-oriented, smart, and hilarious spy movie. Just the cheekiness of the characters had me laughing and fully invested. I guess that’s what I appreciated most about the film, the characters are all very well written and very well spoken. Never at any point did I think the film went over the top. While a lot of the situations in the film are unbelievable that isn’t the point. It’s not realistic, it’s fun. We have Daniel Craig and the new James Bond if we want a “real” and “gritty” spy movie. For a fun movie that pokes fun at the spy genre, we have Kingsman.

Cinematic Scene: Are we going to fight?

“Cinematic Scene” is an effort to bring to light some of the more technically creative and/or emotionally charged scenes in the film. This more technical analysis of the film lives at the end of each review as a way to discuss these noteworthy scenes. Whether it’s fancy camera work, brilliant use of special effects, or heart wrenching acting; I will pick one notable scene from the film that you should pay attention to.

What really sets the tone for the film is this scene where Galahad dispatches a group of thugs in a pub who have been tormenting Eggsy. If you’ve seen the trailer then you know which scene I’m referring to. It’s the one where Colin Firth flips a switch and takes down this group of thugs. The scene is very well choreographed to be sure, but the editing and the way the camera moves around the room to follow the action really keeps you in the moment and gives the impression that Galahad’s actions are as equally calculated as the camera movements. Yes, we know from the onset Galahad is going to take care of them–it’s the fight sequence itself and the way Galahad weaves through the fight that make the scene mesmerizing to watch.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is now playing in theaters everywhere.

4.5/5 stars // rated R // 2hr 9min

06
Feb
15

Jupiter Ascending Review: The Wachowskis Descending

"Is it just me or is the left shark out of sync?"

“Is it just me or is the left shark out of sync?”

Jupiter Ascending is the latest sci-fi, CGI-filled behemoth from the Wachowskis and sadly, it is their most uninspired effort yet.

One way or another, you still gotta give it up to the sibling writers/directors. From Bound to Cloud Atlas, they’ve dedicated themselves to trying to show us something neato on the screen. Even their unfairly reviled entries, The Matrix Revolutions and Speed Racer, are overly-knocked on bits of screen sumptuousness; in this video game era, they still manage to give us pretty things. If anything, they range from a bit derivative to very derivative, but then again, at this point with big budget studio popcorners, who isn’t? Yet, as fascinating as Jupiter is to occasionally look at, it is obvious that we have seen everything before and for once, the Wachowskis have managed to rip off even themselves.

Mila Kunis is Jupiter, a hard-working janitor who wishes for something greater. She’s also the most beautiful performer to ever be filmed scrubbing a toilet. One day, her cousin comes up with a scheme to sell her eggs and while in the operating room, she discovers aliens are trying to kill her.

"I shall declare this the House of Strep Throat."

“I shall declare this the House of Strep Throat.”

Luckily, Channing Tatum, a human/werewolf soldier of fortune hybrid, comes roller-blading in on anti-gravity boots and spirits her away to his ex-collegue Stinger’s safehouse. (Stinger is played by Sean Bean, who instantly makes us worry for his character’s life.) Soon Jupiter discovers that she is the genetic reincarnation of universal royalty and that there is a whole new world (or worlds) other than our own. Faster than you can say “Neo-Morpheus,” she finds herself in space, trapped between three competing siblings who all what to use her to continue their reins of power, along with their mysterious immortality. (The secret of their longevity is also the second major plot point the Wachowskis rip off from themselves.)

At this point, we are just left with watching the pretty, shape-shifting spaceships firing at each other as well as Tatum flying around shooting and stabbing various beings ranging from simple humans, giant bipedal komodo dragons straight out of Halo, and little green men who look like vicious extras from Close Encounters. (Incidentally, for a movie that looks so pretty, Tatum’s waist seems a bit puffy. Perhaps he was in some sort of “bulking” phase for Magic Mike XXL.)

Gleaming the cube!

Gleaming the cube!

Best Actor Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) plays one of the villainous monarchs and he speaks with a whisper and occasional scream that is more goofy than threatening. And there’s also these anti-gravity boots that move like roller-blades which— Oops. That’s been mentioned already.

Actually there really isn’t anything else worth mentioning about Jupiter Ascending. No wonder it was released in February. For their next project, the Wachowskis should work with a script of adapted material. They seem to do better ripping other people off and that would just cut out the middle man.

Jupiter Ascending is now playing in theaters everywhere.

07
Jan
15

Most Anticipated Films of 2014 (That Have Yet to Come Out)

“Do you have eyes on this?” Bradley Cooper scopes out the last crop of films from last year that you haven’t had a chance to see yet.

“Do you have eyes on this?” Bradley Cooper scopes out the last crop of films from 2014 year that you haven’t had a chance to see yet.

Critics nationwide came out with their ‘Best of 2014’ lists all last month. Even friends of the Project, Anderson Le with HIFF and Myong Choi of Frolic, posted their favorite films of 2014. As such is life in Hawaii, we’re not done with 2014 movies just yet. While the big studio films have all come out, there are still a number of smaller, independent features that have yet to make their way onto Hawaii screens.

And this is the reason why I’m not yet ready to close the book on 2014. We’ve still got so much more movies to watch! I mean really, what do we have to look forward to in January? Liam Neeson’s very particular set of skills for a third time (Taken 3)? Hell, even Hollywood doesn’t come out with their ‘Best of’ list for another seven weeks (the Oscars are on February 22). So, read up on what’s still coming down the pike for 2014 and try to check some of these films out in the cold dark winter for the multiplex that is the month of January.

Selma

0107_02-Selma

With Dr Martin Luther King Jr Day right around the corner, it’s no coincidence that the Dr King biopic, Selma expands nationwide this week after it’s limited release in select cities on December 25th. Selma is a chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. David Oyelowo (Interstellar, Jack Reacher) is receiving a ton of accolades for his performance as Dr. King and is being heavily talked about as an Oscar nominee. Same goes for director Ava DuVernay who is garnering acclaim for craftsmanship of an amazing film that’s getting Best Picture buzz.

Website // Trailer
Release in Hawaii: Friday, January 9th

Inherent Vice

0107_02-InherentVice

If high brow art house is for you, then Inherent Vice is right up your alley. Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon, Vice is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, The Master). I’m not really that much of a fan of PT Anderson, but critics seem to eat up his films every time they come out. Boogie Nights is the film I enjoy most from him, but his last film The Master definitely left me scratching my head. A lot of early reviews of Vice I’ve read say the film is very well shot and very well put together, but a bit confusing if you haven’t read the book. And then there’s Joaquin Phoenix. The usually stalwart actor’s performance in Vice hasn’t generated any talk for Oscar.

Website // Trailer
Release in Hawaii: Friday, January 9th

A Most Violent Year

0107_03-AMostViolentYear

I first heard about A Most Violent Year near the beginning of the festival season back in September. Year is the third feature film from director J.C. Chandor, whose first film Margin Call was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and whose second feature All is Lost garnered a lot of critical acclaim, most notably for Robert Redford’s solo (and for the most part speechless) performance in the film. With a lot of clout generated from his first two films, I’m definitely interested to see what Chandor has cooked up for his third go around. In Year, Chandor is working with acting power houses Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Drive) and Jessica Chastain (Interstellar, Zero Dark Thirty) and focuses on a couple in 1981 New York City who try to protect their business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.

Website // Trailer
Expands Nationwide: Friday, January 30th

Cake

0107_04-Cake

I literally knew nothing about Cake until it started popping up on Top 10 lists and projected Oscar contenders in early December. The reason . . . a lot of critics say that Jennifer Aniston’s performance in the film is Oscar worthy. The way her performance is being described is enough for me to want to check out the film. Luckily, the film also stars Anna Kendrick, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macey, and Sam Worthington–a pretty solid cast to round out a small independent drama and definitely not a bad option to check out late in the month.

Website // Trailer
Expands Nationwide: Friday, January 23rd

American Sniper

0107_05-AmericanSniper

And finally, the movie everyone was asking me about during Christmas . . . American Sniper. A lot of people are excited for this film and if you’ve seen the first trailer for the film, then you already know how tense of a film this will be. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and check it out. You’ll definitely get sucked in by the trailer alone. Not only does the film look great, but Bradley Cooper is generating some buzz for his performance in the film and Clint Eastwood is also getting some attention for his direction. Thankfully, we won’t have too much longer to wait.

Website // Trailer
Expands Nationwide: Friday, January 16th

—-

January isn’t just a cold dark time in winter, it’s also a cold dark time in the multiplexes as Hollywood waits for the stars to align to release their next big tentpole. With that in mind it’s also the perfect time to catch up on these films from 2014 that have yet to be released as well as other great films from last year that you still like to catch up with. For myself, you can add Only Lovers Left Alive, Nightcrawler, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Laggies, and Beyond the Lights as films from 2014 that I still need to catch up with.

2014 over with? Hardly. Preparation for your Oscar ballot starts now!

What films from last year do you still have to catch up with?

20
Nov
14

Hunger Games Mockingjay Pt 1 REVIEW: These Foolish Games

"You saw me on Letterman. I'll walk out. Don't make me."

“You saw me on Letterman. I’ll walk out. Don’t make me.”

Okay fine, I’m not the hugest fan of the series but seriously, while watching The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, I was bored. Like, bored out of my skull. And I was in a preview screening so security guards were watching and I couldn’t pull out my phone lest they think I was trying to pirate the film.

Already these movies (and books) weren’t exactly cheerful affairs but with the lack of a Battle Royale in this installment, things are really, really dour. After seeing her do “Live and Let Die” in American Hustle, slinking around as Mystique and calling off her own interview with David Letterman, poor Jennifer Lawrence seems to have outgrown her role as Katniss Everdeen. She’s definitely no Kristen Stewart—J-Law looks like she’s absolutely busting at the seems to do something, anything. Alas, most of her time is spent looking morose and dejected, something K-Stew had no trouble doing.

Granted, the adapted screenplay doesn’t give her much opportunity since it basically cut the final source material in half. Even more so than The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 though, Mockingjay suffers from being a project comprised of only a first and second act. And unlike Peter Jackson, nothing entertaining is made up just to fill in space.

This is Sutherland's only scene in the movie.

This is Sutherland’s only scene in the movie.

Katniss wakes up on a rebel airship and spends the rest of the time trying to decide whether she wants to become a propaganda instrument against the evil Capitol and it’s equally evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). She also worries a lot about her buddy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who got left behind in the previous film and is now in the hands of Snow, and losing weight very quickly. Hopefully his skinniness was CGI cause poor Hutcherson looks positively anorexic.

A few performers do what they can with what little they have. Elizabeth Banks still manages to be a diva as Effie, the fashionable emcee of The Hunger Games, even though she is now a political refugee in a jump suit. Donald Sutherland appears to be having a good time overacting with his Satanic line readings, but he’s hardly in the movie so he barely registers.

They wish their agents got them more money.

They wish their agents got them more money.

But esteemed actors like Julianne Moore, as the powerful leader of the resistance, is just going through the firm-jawed motions. The saddest though, is Philip Seymour Hoffman. As a member of the leadership committee, he just meekly agrees or disagrees with Moore. Tragic how this is the last role he will ever play.

But then it all must come down to tragedy with this bleak, dystopian series. Even the cinematography has a gray grain so thick that it almost blurs the scenery. Fans, of course, will not care. And considering that the fan base are pre-programmed admirers of the novels, they should be satisfied with this additional entry of loose-ended angst. Other audience members dragged into the theaters against their will might want to make sure their phones are fully charged prior. There’s a new version of Candy Crush to help pass the time.

The Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 1 is now playing in theaters everywhere.




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