Latest Reviews
Friday
Nov072014

Big Hero 6

When Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, one’s imagination couldn’t help but go wild. What stories in the existing Marvel Universe could be told with the talented Disney affiliated minds behind them? The possibilities were endless, which makes it that much more depressing that their first animated film based on a Marvel property is a dud. “Big Hero 6,” based on the comic book series of the same name lacks personality, a heartfelt story or even decent laughs. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, but neither is it very good. It’s just kind of there.

Hiro (Ryan Potter) is an engineering prodigy who graduated high school at age 13, but hasn’t done much since aside from hustling people in underground robot fighting. However, his brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), understands his potential and helps him harness it in an environment that could allow him to change the future with his inventions. After a successful exhibition of his nanobots, he is accepted into a school for the scientifically gifted, but he ends up not attending, as his brother is killed in a tragic fire shortly after. His brother’s invention, an inflatable medical robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit) is all Hiro has left of him. One day, when Baymax wanders off, Hiro follows him and discovers something he didn’t expect to find: someone wearing a kabuki mask is manipulating his nanobot technology for evil. So he, along with his brother’s school friends, use their engineering prowess to turn themselves and Baymax into superheroes and set out to identify the masked man and bring him down.

Despite its source material predating its release, “Big Hero 6” feels like a poor imitation of “The Incredibles.” It has a similar visual style, eccentric characters with crazy superpowers and the same dark-but-not-too-dark-so-as-to-appeal-to-the-kiddies narrative. Unfortunately, the narrative here isn’t particularly interesting, as it breezily moves from here to there with few moments of consequence in between. The only character worth caring about is Tadashi, primarily due to the wonderful sibling relationship he has with Hiro. Their relationship leads to some heartfelt and, eventually, heartbreaking moments, but he leaves the picture so early on that the rest of the film feels lackluster in comparison.

Once he leaves, the relationship angle is primarily centered around Hiro and Baymax, but it’s rudimentary at best. While not impossible to create a meaningful relationship between a human and machine, “Big Hero 6” squanders it by focusing less on the human qualities of Baymax and more on the fact that he’s a machine capable of upgrading. The more it focuses on the latter, the more the viewer realizes that whatever limited personality he has can be replicated. When Baymax finds himself in precarious situations later in the movie, it doesn’t matter. If he’s destroyed, it won’t be difficult to build another.

Luckily, there are a couple interesting twists in the movie to keep viewers interested, even if they don’t necessarily raise the stakes in any meaningful way. In particular, the finale is thrilling and goes in a direction that, at least visually, is wonderful. These final moments show the real beauty that this type of filmmaking is capable of imagining up, which goes a long way in making up for the rest of the film’s good, but typical aesthetics.

“Big Hero 6” is a movie without an audience. Older viewers with more distinguished tastes will be able to see through its thinness while younger audiences may find themselves too frightened by the admittedly menacing kabuki mask wearing enigma. But in the end, it simply lacks the personality, humor or charm of Disney’s other films and while it doesn’t offend in any way, neither does it impress. “Big Hero 6” is 102 minutes of pure mediocrity.

Big Hero 6 receives 2.5/5

Wednesday
Nov052014

Interstellar

As a general rule, director Christopher Nolan doesn’t make bad movies. While not all have been great, neither have any been bad. In regards to consistency, at least, one could argue he’s the single best director working today and early buzz for his newest film, “Interstellar,” seemed to indicate magnificence. Some reports even stated that it was on a philosophical level of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Having now seen it, I feel like I can definitively say that it’s not quite up to that level. “Interstellar” is a great movie, one that will inevitably end up on many critics’ best of the year lists, but to make such a direct comparison is overenthusiastic hyperbole. It’s Nolan’s most narratively ambitious film to date and it does a good job of exploring complex themes, but its philosophizing doesn’t always land. Still, when most science fiction films these days involve little more than assault-on-the-senses action, one can’t help but appreciate that this one strives to be intellectually more.

And it’s that intellectualism, even when it’s not up to snuff, that gives “Interstellar” its edge. In a real world that seems increasingly anti-intellectualism and anti-science, with societies hell bent on holding onto archaic beliefs and ideologies, it’s a breath of fresh air to see onscreen characters portrayed in a way that highlights scientific curiosity and hope, even in the face of extreme adversity. Matthew McConaughey, in what could very well be his best dramatic performance to date, plays Cooper, a brilliant engineer and scientist who, due to apocalyptic weather patterns diminishing Earth’s resources, is relegated to farming. He’s a naturally curious person and has passed that curiosity down to his children, namely Murph, played by Mackenzie Foy, a young girl who swears there’s a ghost in her room trying to tell her something.

Eventually they learn the strange occurrences in her room are gravitational anomalies that began around 50 years ago. Around the same time, a wormhole in space appeared and has remained stable ever since. Using this wormhole, NASA was able to send its bravest men and women to a new galaxy with potentially habitable worlds. The data they’ve since received indicates a handful of those worlds could work to save the human race, so they enlist Cooper to leave his family behind and embark on a dangerous mission. Knowing that inaction could mean extinction for his species, he begrudgingly agrees.

In many ways, “Interstellar” is the polar opposite of last year’s sci-fi hit, “Gravity.” While that movie was essentially a 90 minute action movie in space with minimal characterization, “Interstellar” nearly doubles that length and is all about character. A few tense action scenes pop up in from time to time, but it’s the effect those scenes have on the characters that makes them so interesting. Before the characters even lift off into space, the stage is set for some wonderful human drama. The relationships are built in a believable way, which allows later scenes to lead to some truly heartbreaking moments. Characters aren’t mentioned in passing like Bullock’s daughter in “Gravity,” but are instead grown and explored through many years and even decades, thanks to a clever narrative mechanic grounded in real life science.

In fact, the lengths “Interstellar” goes to be scientifically accurate are both welcome and impressive. It takes liberties, of course, to form its story, but it dares to show its scientific literacy when other movies would have taken the easy way out. A great example comes in its portrayal of artificial gravity. Nolan could have very easily had the characters flip a switch to turn it on in their spaceship, but he instead has a 10 minute sequence where their ship docks with a circular apparatus that then begins to rotate, creating artificial gravity through centrifugal force. Is this sequence necessary for the characters or the drama? No, but it helps create a real, living world and, though minor in the big scheme of things, it allows viewers to sink fully into the desired immersion.

These details show a genuine love for the subject matter, for space and even for the unknown. The writing from Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, indicate as much. Wonderful scenes that mock Apollo landing conspiracy theorists and early dialogue discussing the merits of scientific study highlight a passion for scientific endeavors as well as the wonders of both the human spirit and the insignificant role we play in the immensity of the cosmos. The visuals similarly show this affection, with truly stunning imagery that looks pulled from NASA’s archives. This is a movie that understands not just the frightening and dangerous nature of our universe, but also its grandiosity and quiet beauty. If you too share such awe, as I do, then you’ll find plenty to love here.

When “Interstellar” stumbles, it’s not due to these things, but rather a narrative that occasionally misses the mark. When the characters start to hypothesize about the meaning of everything, one starts to babble on with silly nonsense about love, about how it could potentially be an extra dimension beyond time and space that we aren’t yet able to perceive. In a movie as grounded as this one, scenes like this are worth little more than an eye roll.

It also loses some narrative momentum in its final moments. Despite a deliberate pacing and a runtime of 169 minutes, its conclusion is rushed beyond plausibility. Although undeniably interesting and unexpected, a specific character comes to a revelation completely out of the blue with little convincing context behind it. However, it must be said that this moment also leads to one of the emotionally impactful moments in the entire film, which makes it easier to forgive such hurriedness.

If nothing else, “Interstellar” goes to show that there are still some great ideas out there that the science fiction genre can lend itself to beyond giant robots crashing into each other. It might not be the intellectual equivalent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” as some have argued, but it’s a wondrous movie in its own right that tackles complex themes, builds believable characters and hits all the right emotional chords while rarely relying on heavy-handed manipulation. Even with its faults, it’s one of the year’s best.

Interstellar receives 4.5/5

Friday
Oct242014

John Wick

How many revenge films have we seen where an ordinary man with a loving wife and beautiful children goes on a killing spree to avenge the deaths of that family at the hands of some evil men? Too many to count. As sad of a statement on society as it may be, most audiences have become desensitized to such a thing. After years, decades even, of watching violence onscreen, revenge movies just don’t seem to have as strong an impact. This realization is where the terrific “John Wick” finds its inspiration.

It gets that whole pesky family thing out of the way before the movie even starts, as our titular character John (Keavu Reeves) has just lost his wife to cancer. Soon after, he receives a puppy with a note from his late wife telling him that he’s going to need something to love. So he takes care of the dog for about a day or so until some lowlife mobsters, led by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), kill it in the act of stealing his car. It’s a brutal scene, the one truly serious dramatic moment in the entire movie, and it is precisely what gives the movie its edge. Many viewers are inclined to sympathize more with the death of an animal than a person, especially one as young and innocent as the puppy portrayed here, so while John’s reaction may be extreme, you’ll nevertheless be rooting for him to kill every single mobster in that organization.

And boy, will he. At a swift 95 minutes, “John Wick” doesn’t have the time to pussyfoot around with dialogue or character arcs. The movie’s focus is pure action and exploring the different ways one can shoot someone else in the face. Given that it’s directed by two stuntmen, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, such a focus should come as no surprise. They know their strengths and they make no attempt at pretending like what they’re making is high art. Their goal was clearly to make a fun movie with a high body count and some truly impressive action sequences. In that regard, “John Wick” is a rousing success.

One must give credit to writer Derek Kolstad as well for knowing exactly what tone he wanted to convey. This film knows what it is and various scenes and dialogue exchanges (what few there are, at least) confirm as much. There’s a very tongue-in-cheek attitude about it and there are some big, albeit dark, laughs to be had, like when John, in the middle of an action heavy killing spree, runs out of bullets just as he’s about to shoot someone in the head, so he casually reloads with an annoying look on his face while his soon-to-be-victim stumbles around. Despite a muted color palette of dark greys and blacks that suggest despair, moments like this ensure the film never gets too dour.

What really makes this humor work, though, is a standout performance from Keanu Reeves, who plays it brilliantly straight. Were it not for a couple scenes so goofy it would be impossible to remain oblivious to it, you’d swear Reeves was acting as if he thought he was in something more dramatic and emotional. The juxtaposition between his straight faced performance and the self-aware movie it’s in gives “John Wick” an interesting angle and a unique feeling that nothing else this year has quite captured. With his shady background and violent tendencies, his character isn’t exactly what one would call a hero, but hey, they killed the guy’s dog. And it was really cute.

It might be strange to say it, but “John Wick” is one of the year’s best films. Its narrative is practically empty and its characters lack much personality, but whereas other movies suffer for such deficiencies, this one excels. It’s all about finding the right tone, that sweet spot between taking yourself too seriously and all out self-parody, and “John Wick” movie nails it.

John Wick receives 4.5/5

Friday
Oct242014

Ouija

At the risk of sounding condescending, I have a tendency to mock those that believe in silly things. When I was younger, I was the one who would move the Ouija board slider to mess with my more gullible friends, as my cynical nature quickly took over as soon as we gathered around that board. I simply couldn’t help myself; it was just too easy. If anything, my cynicism regarding the so called “spirit world” has increased as I’ve grown older.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a good ghost movie, but this week’s succinctly titled “Ouija” was more than I could handle. It was hard not to roll my eyes when the skeptic characters, 15 seconds after huddling around the Ouija board, were all of a sudden believers. Where are the logical ones, the ones who refuse to believe such nonsense? Although horror movie rules dictate that they will ultimately be wrong for being non-believers, a decent representation would have been nice. At a short 89 minutes, however, I suppose such narrative and character arcs are too much to ask for. But even with my cynicism removed from the rest of the product, “Ouija” just doesn’t cut it. It’s not scary or interesting, the make-up and effects are subpar and the dialogue is ridiculous.

The very thin plot follows a young woman named Laine (Olivia Cooke) whose friend has just seemingly committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. She quickly learns that, just prior to her death, her friend had just used a Ouija board alone, which is against the rules if you want to safely contact the spirit world. A believer herself, she and a group of friends decide to huddle around the Ouija board at night in the house her friend died in to see if they can summon her spirit and uncover the truth surrounding her death.

Even with the thin plot, the events leading up to that girl’s death set the stage for a promising ghost movie. For example, backgrounds are prominent in the opening shots and though the girl is front and center, the eyes are drawn behind her. It sets a mood by cinematically implying something may happen, but then it doesn’t. It toys with perspective and viewer expectation in a way that too many horror films fail to do. Even when her fate ultimately befalls her, nothing much is shown, allowing the imagination to conjure up whatever horror she sees in her final moments. It’s heightened tension at its finest.

Unfortunately, this is all within the first five or so minutes of “Ouija,” the rest of it succumbing to a bland story and horror clichés, like slowly opening doors and reflections in the mirror that stopped being scary years ago and don’t find themselves reinvigorated here. The spirits here, like so many that came before, spend more time with mild trickery than actually getting the job done. One must wonder what the mentality is behind turning the oven on when, if they can already manipulate real world objects, they could easily do something much more effective. A gas leak explosion, perhaps?

Where “Ouija” ultimately falters, though, isn’t in its narrative absurdities, but in its abundance of jump scares, effective only in the sense that they’ll startle your heart to the point of racing rather than building to it and earning it. It’s the kind of scares where someone in the other room inexplicably and unintentionally sneaks up behind their friend with ninja-like stealth skills, a scare intended only for an audience dumb enough to fall for such lazy tricks. But I suppose the filmmakers had to try to spice things up somehow. If it weren’t for those occasional loud jump scares, I’m pretty sure I would have fallen asleep.

Even still, those tricks are preferable to the ghostly presences the audience is eventually introduced to. They look incredibly silly and they’re seen in such generic horror movie locations that they would be hard to take very seriously anyway. The characters venture into dusty attics, cluttered basements and even a psychiatric ward. One gets the feeling that the only reason they don't end up in a cemetery is because the Ouija rules expressly forbid it.

Simply put, “Ouija” is ill-conceived from top to bottom, rarely showing that it has any idea what makes a good horror movie. It’s very easy to make fun of those who think a mass manufactured Hasbro game has any supernatural properties to it, but you can’t blame those people for looking for some cheap thrills. The movie based on it wishes it could muster as much.

Ouija receives 1/5

Friday
Oct102014

The Judge

With all the recent hoopla surrounding “The Avengers” and the “Iron Man” franchise, it might be easy to forget that Robert Downey Jr. is a damn fine actor even when outside of that iconic suit. Even when his films fail to live up to expectations (2009’s “The Soloist” being a perfect example), he shines. His latest, “The Judge,” may be his single best performance yet. Working opposite the always fantastic Robert Duvall, he gives the rawest, most emotional performance of his storied career. However, like “The Soloist,” the film he resides in is less than the sum of its parts. An occasionally sloppy script and baffling directorial decisions keep this from going very far, but if you enjoy seeing two great actors at the top of their game, you can’t go wrong here.

Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a soon-to-be-divorced lawyer whose cases consist entirely of defending the guilty and getting them off for whatever crime they may have committed. Naturally, he’s not a courthouse favorite, nor has he made his father, the titular Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), particularly proud, despite his talents. One day, he gets a call that his mother has died, so he heads back to his hometown in Indiana. A cynical man, he has clearly outgrown the small minded nature of this otherwise friendly town, a place where everyone knows each other and drivers wave as they pass each other on the road.

He hasn’t been home in years and as soon as he arrives, the hostility that kept him away resurfaces. His brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), do their best to diffuse the situation, though the latter has a harder time dealing with it due to mental illness, but his father keeps pushing. Eventually, the judge heads out to the grocery store, for both practical reasons and to get away from his disappointing son, but arrives home with no memory of what happened. Unfortunately, there’s blood on his car and a body on a road he was spotted on, the victim a violent criminal he gave a second chance to many years ago. Did he purposely run this man down to make up for his past mistake or was this a simple accident? Regardless of the answer, Hank decides to stick around and defend his father.

“The Judge” suffers not from an uninteresting premise. Although it heads in obvious directions and the eventual answer to the above question is likely to be answered by the audience far before the characters onscreen, the foundation that the narrative is built upon is sturdy. Unfortunately, it’s the execution that cripples the film. Directed by David Dobkin, a man most known for his goofball comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” “The Change-Up” and “Fred Claus,” the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Does it want to be a lighthearted dramedy about family, a message movie about moving on and forgiving others or something else entirely? It’s never very clear, as the tone shifts from here to there and back around again.

Mixing tones is not an inherently bad thing, but Dobkin simply doesn’t have a clean grasp on any of them. As one critic friend whispered in my ear during our screening, “The Judge” occasionally plays like a Lifetime movie, complete with sappy music and cheesy dialogue, and he wasn’t wrong. The music, oddly, ramps up and down seemingly based entirely on those dialogue cues. The music doesn’t enhance what’s being said or depicted, but rather exists as a manipulative force to make it seem like what’s being said has some type of emotional impact. Its lyrical selections are heavy-handed and its other selections sound so similar to the drum heavy nature of those silly crime dramas on television that it’s laughable. Visually, “The Judge” is no better, also moving uncomfortably from tone to tone, but if there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that these moments as described above are infrequent.

The saving grace, again, are the fantastic performances from the stellar cast. Aside from some notable exceptions, like Leighton Meester in a small, inconsequential role—an actress that has starred primarily in nonsense teen dramas and B-movie quality thrillers and doesn't quite have the chops to keep up with her co-stars—everyone here is great and elevates the substandard material into something more than it would be otherwise. The dialogue isn’t great, but it’s delivered with such gusto that you buy into it. It’s easy to understand the motivations and emotions driving Hank and his father, from a basic level of conflicting morals to more serious, unresolved family issues from their pasts that are revealed as the film goes on, and it’s due almost entirely to the actors in the roles.

Stilll, at nearly two and half hours, it’s understandable if certain moviegoers decide to pass on “The Judge” given its many faults, including a wholly unnecessary and uncomfortable side story involving the mystery paternity of Meester’s character, but this is not a bad movie. It is merely an underwhelming one. What had the potential to be one of the best of the year instead ends up as a mildly entertaining diversion; inconsequential, but nevertheless memorable. There will be better movies in the coming months as the awards season ramps up, but you could do worse than “The Judge.”

The Judge receives 3/5