Latest Reviews
Thursday
May152014

Godzilla

It’s always interesting to see how a director will fare when transitioning from a miniscule independent film to a big budget studio blockbuster. One hopes that the director will bring his or her independent background into the blockbuster and focus on characters and story rather than effects and explosions. Following his terrific low budget 2010 film, “Monsters,” director Gareth Edwards attempts to do just that with the American reboot, “Godzilla,” but it’s a give and take. The focus is indeed the characters and story, but those things are, unfortunately, not very interesting. In a way, it’s like last summer’s “Pacific Rim.” It’s slim on characterization, but it gets by on its fun and impressive action scenes. It’s not the epic movie one might expect from the outstanding trailers, but as a summer tent-pole release, “Godzilla” is entertaining enough.

The movie begins in in the late 90s and follows Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a nuclear physicist and engineer at a Japanese nuclear plant. One day, some seismic activity rattles the foundation of the plant, which ends up killing Joe’s wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche). Flash forward 15 years and Joe has become obsessed with the event, swearing that the tremors they felt were not natural, but rather from some type of creature that has been lying dormant for many years. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now all grown up and in the Navy, thinks he’s crazy, but, as is typical with these types of movies, it turns out he’s not and the next thing they know, a creature, dubbed a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object), unearths and starts wreaking havoc on the country’s citizens.

Don’t be fooled by the above synopsis and the misleading trailers. While “Godzilla” clearly hopes to ride the popularity of Cranston at the height of his career after a successful stint on “Breaking Bad,” early movie events turn the focus on Ford and Aaron Taylor-Johnson simply isn’t able to carry it to its conclusion. While Cranston’s character is a bit of a cliché in regards to monster movie archetypes, being the seemingly crazy one who is the only one who actually knows the truth, his motivations are nevertheless noble. It’s the love for his wife that drives him to do what he does, which could have worked as the heart and meaning behind the film. Unfortunately, his character becomes nothing more than a catalyst to thrust Johnson to the forefront.

Though it might come as a surprise for those expecting a bombastic monster movie, “Godzilla” chooses to focus on its human characters. Much like “Monsters,” Edwards tries to create a human story out of its creature feature origins, but unlike “Monsters,” the characters, story and themes simply aren’t established well enough to be very interesting. Take, for instance, Ford’s family in San Francisco, a young boy and a wife named Elle, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen brings her natural beauty and talent to the proceedings, but her role is minimal and underdeveloped. The connection the two have is thin, so when Ford is in danger, nothing is felt. He could be eaten whole or ripped in half and the tragedy would be lost on the majority of viewers who have rightfully invested nothing into what’s going on.

What it all boils down to is that Edwards, with a bigger budget and expanded scope, simply doesn’t seem comfortable and is unable to find a rhythm, instead relying on overdramatic character introductions, cheesy motivational speeches and on-the-nose foreshadowing to move his story along (“It’s not the end of the world,” one characters says moments before the potential end-of-the-world event begins). Luckily for the viewers he would lose otherwise, he doesn’t waste much time getting to the action. Sure, it’s so quick that when Joe’s wife inevitably bites the dust, it doesn’t really resonate, but it remains exciting and Godzilla’s introduction is enough to put a big, stupid smile on anyone’s face. It even manages to throw in a few references to both Godzilla movies past and other popular monster movies, including an opening reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film, “Alien.”

If you’re looking for something with more depth than your typical monster movie, “Godzilla” won’t do much for you, but if that’s the case, why are you watching “Godzilla” anyway? Despite some narrative stumbles and a central character that is impossible to care about, the movie delivers exactly what fans want: monster battles and rampant destruction. It’s a good jumping off point for future installments as well. Past movies, including Roland Emmerich’s 1998 reboot, were a bit silly, but this new film sets a darker foundation, one that could lead to rich drama in more confident hands. As it stands, however, “Godzilla” is unlikely to garner too high of praise, but it’s an entertaining summer movie nonetheless.

Godzilla receives 3/5

Friday
May092014

Neighbors

Comedies, perhaps more than any other genre, are subjective. While all can agree that a drama about the loss of a child is inherently sad, not everyone will agree on what is funny. Our senses of humor have been shaped by our upbringing and the various life events we’ve experienced. Some may find humor in blacker than black comedies about death while others simply want their comedies to be lighthearted and goofy. However, there’s a subgenre that of comedy that can only be described as cruel comedy. This cruel humor is what fuels the new Seth Rogen and Zac Efron film, “Neighbors.” If you’re averse to comedy that stems from unlikable characters doing bad things to each other, as I am, this film won’t do much for you. Despite some legitimate laughs, the pervading savagery on display is enough to make “Neighbors” little more than a waste of time.

The story is simple. Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) move into a nice neighborhood with their infant child. They’ve poured nearly everything they have into their new house and are hoping that this will give them the opportunity to raise their kid in a peaceful, happy environment. Their hopes are dashed, however, when a fraternity moves in next door. Despite some initial kind words, a feud eventually breaks out between the couple and the frat, led by President Teddy Sanders (Efron), after a late night party that prevents them from getting a good night’s rest. Mac and Kelly’s only goal from there on out is to get them to leave, no matter what the cost.

The movie tries to set this story up with Teddy as the antagonist, the evil, unruly hellion turning Mac and Kelly’s lives into a waking nightmare, while Mac and Kelly are the heroes we’re supposed to root for. However, Mac and Kelly are no better than Teddy. They manipulate Teddy and his crew while they facilitate many acts of sabotage. Frankly, nobody in this movie handles themselves in a way befitting an actual person and their actions only prove to make things worse. It’s lucky they’re in a movie because in a real world context, they would all be thrown in jail.

Prior to their feud, Mac and Kelly join Teddy and his frat during a party. Their hope is that it will make them seem cool to the kids and, in return, they’ll respect them when they ask them to keep it down, but the night leads to debauchery. They leave their infant child alone in their house while they dance next door abusing any harmful substance they can get their hands on. These people, regardless of their initial intentions, aren’t fit to be parents and the only appropriate following scene would be for child services to show up and take their kid away.

Teddy is even worse and actually goes out of his way to cause harm to the others. At one point, he steals the airbags out of Mac and Kelly’s car and hides them around their house. This leads to some of the dumbest slapstick humor one can imagine, where a slight burst of air sends them flying all the way across the room like an explosion just went off. After Teddy falls prey to a couple of these hidden objects, he begins to search around, poking his furniture with a wooden pole to see if it contains an airbag. He hesitates before poking his child’s bed and lets out a thankful sigh when nothing happens, which is supposed to show that Teddy, as ruthless as he can be, would never sink so low. Unfortunately, that pesky thing called logic rears its ugly head when you consider that Teddy could have very easily been holding his child when he fell culprit to the other hidden airbags, potentially killing it. Teddy, in a very real sense, puts their lives in danger. This, along with so many more violent and abrasive shenanigans, makes the cheery ending seem forced and very, very unlikely.

I imagine many will wonder why this matters in a comedy—as long as you’re laughing, who cares—but there’s more to it than that. “Neighbors” does indeed have some legitimate laughs. Rogen is just as funny as ever, despite a considerable lack of help from Rose Byrne, who just doesn’t have the comedic chops to pull off rolls like this, and Efron plays his character well. The problem is that his character, along with Rogen’s, is cruel, leading to unlikable situations and making many of those potential laughs moot.

If what I’ve written sounds to you like a curmudgeon stupidly complaining about morality in a silly movie that shouldn’t be taken seriously, then you’ll likely enjoy “Neighbors,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it rubbed me the wrong way. I’d love to see a movie with these two paired up again, one that doesn’t rely on cruelty to garner laughs, but if one must go in that direction, there’s a fine line between a mean spirit and a silly one. Sadly, “Neighbors” leans a tad too far to the former.

Neighbors receives 1.5/5

Thursday
Apr172014

Transcendence

Wally Pfister is probably one of the most talented, yet unheralded, workers in Hollywood today. Many may not know that he’s actually the man behind the camera for every single one of director Christopher Nolan’s films (aside from his first, “Following,” and his upcoming sci-fi film, “Interstellar”). He even won an Oscar for his cinematography work on “Inception,” so it’s clear the man has talent. He knows how to shoot a movie and evoke emotions through visuals. Since film is a visual medium, that strength is arguably the most valuable to have in Hollywood. In this regard, his directorial debut, “Transcendence,” follows his tradition of excellence (despite being shot by “Hot Fuzz” and “The Spectacular Now” cinematographer, Jess Hall), but it’s lacking nearly everywhere else. Pfister certainly picked some things up from Nolan, but he lacks his penchant for storytelling. With an uneven pace and unexplored themes, “Transcendence” can be described as little more than a missed opportunity.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is an artificial intelligence expert. With many years of research and hard work behind him, he hopes to one day create a machine that will be able to reach singularity—or as he likes to put it, transcendence—that moment in time when a machine reaches superhuman intelligence. It’s a vision that doesn’t seem to be too far off in the future, which sparks a radical movement of extremists determined to stop it. After giving a speech about the future of artificial intelligence, a member of that extremist group shoots him. Although he survives the attack, the bullet is shown to have been laced with poison, which entered his bloodstream, giving him only a month to live. In light of this, his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) comes up with a crazy idea. She suggests planting a nanochip in his brain and uploading his consciousness to a supercomputer, thus ensuring he lives on. Her partner, Max (Paul Bettany), reluctantly agrees to give it a shot, though the odds of success are low. Much to their surprise, however, it works and Will is essentially alive, or as close as one can be to it, in a computer.

These early moments, along with the closing, are perhaps the best in the entire film. Though essentially a sped up tragedy—complete with dramatic music, emotional breakdowns and even a sad Morgan Freeman narration for good measure—it works. The capable actors bring their characters to life, upping the ante for what’s to come. However, anyone who has seen a film about technology achieving sentience will see all of it coming from a mile away, which is to say things don’t quite go according to plan.

This gives way to a plethora of wonderful ideas that, sadly, are haphazardly introduced and never intelligently expanded on. At one point, after Will reaches his sought after transcendence, the film seems to be heading in the right direction and finds its focus. Will begins to heal the sick, even those with long time illnesses that modern medicine hasn’t found cures for yet. He lets the blind see, the paralyzed walk and more. It asks, what if we could be better than God? What if we could fix the mistakes a supposed flawless creator burdened us with? What if we could see everything all at once, as any omnipotent being should? What if we could heal someone’s potentially life threating injuries in seconds, to the point where it’s like those injuries never even happened? These are compelling thoughts, ones that seem wonderful at first, but the complications of playing God slowly reveal themselves, showing that these vulnerabilities and afflictions are what make us human.

Granted, the effects of playing God are hardly breaking new cinematic ground, but they gave “Transcendence” the weight it so desperately needed. Unfortunately, it’s also around this point that it introduces its most absurd idea: the taking over of actual human bodies through the use of nanobots and “connecting” them to Will’s digital infrastructure. While I hesitate to say that such an event is completely out of the realm of scientific plausibility, it nevertheless gives the film that typical Hollywood feel and essentially strips it of the ideas it had just minutes before introduced.

Despite messy narrative and thematic arcs, “Transcendence” still manages to pack a ton of awe into its runtime, mostly thanks to Pfister’s understanding of cinematography. The shot composition is solid, the camera movements are fluid and its interesting focus on seemingly mundane objects ground the film. For those interested in the technical creation of filmmaking, “Transcendence” will be a thing of beauty, but it all goes back to those missed opportunities. Despite similar central ideas, it never quite reaches the bombastic action of something like “The Terminator” or the heartfelt wonders of last year’s “Her.” It tries to combine both into one cohesive whole, one that can tug at the heartstrings while also keeping things exciting, but, ultimately, it collapses under the weight of its own ambition.

Transcendence receives 2.5/5

Friday
Apr042014

The Raid 2: Berandal

Indonesia’s smash 2011 film, “The Raid: Redemption,” came out of nowhere and surprised action fans everywhere. Releasing in most territories the following year, it managed to keep up a breakneck pace throughout its 101 minute runtime and, though the story was minimal, the action was mesmerizing. When someone makes the claim that it’s one of the best action movies they’ve ever seen, it’s likely not hyperbolic. It truly is that good. This year’s sequel, “The Raid 2: Berandal,” doesn’t quite live up to the precedent set by its predecessor, primarily due to an expanded focus on a sometimes uneven story, but the action is just as good. If the action in the original blew you away, the action in the sequel will too, just less frequently.

The film begins shortly after the events of the first one. Rama (Iko Uwais) quickly learns that the crime syndicate that he just tore through in that criminal controlled tenement building attracted the attention of the larger crime lords in the Jakarta area. One of the leaders has a son named Ucok (Arifin Putra) in prison, so his first step is to go undercover as a criminal in that prison and get close to him. After saving his life in a prison riot, his father believes a debt is owed, so he recruits him into his syndicate. Rama’s ultimate goal is to earn the trust of those in the syndicate and eventually uncover the corrupt police officers and politicians that are truly in charge, but his challenge becomes a bit harder when Ucok tries to incite a mob war with the Japanese.

And that’s only a small portion of an overloaded story that switches focus from the Indonesian crime lord to their Japanese rivals to a number of hired hands and back again. One side story revolves around Prakoso, a new character confusingly played by an actor from the original, Yayan Ruhian, and his love for his family. A mostly worthless scene with his estranged wife tries to set up some emotion that will compliment an upcoming event, but its perfunctory attempt falls flat. It goes pretty much nowhere and has little significance to the larger plot.

In fact, many events in the film feel like little more than flimsy reasons to show off the cast’s martial arts skill. The first one was guilty of this as well, but it never pretended to be anything more than that while this sequel clearly has higher aspirations, so the film turns into what can only be described as a give and take. The story isn’t bad, despite some haphazard storytelling, and is even welcome after the empty narrative from before, but it’s sometimes hard not to wish it would just shut up and get back to the action. The first film wasn’t as acclaimed as it was because of its story; very few people would argue otherwise. It was acclaimed because of the impressive hand-to-hand choreography.

But when it gets to that action, there is simply nothing like it (aside from the first movie, of course). “The Raid 2” features some of the most impressive hand-to-hand fighting ever put to screen, particularly a battle near the end that takes place in a whiter than white kitchen. The stark contrast between the clean surroundings and the blood that eventually begins to spill is visually pleasing, but the moves on display are even better. In nearly every way possible, these late movie action scenes up the ante from the first film, due in large part to its grander scope, which allows them to bring together a car chase, close quarters hand-to-hand combat and a good old fashioned shootout in one glorious sequence.

Occasionally, “The Raid 2” feels like its showcasing the overt violence more than the actual martial arts, like when Rama holds an opponent’s face down on a teppanyaki-like grill for an unnecessarily long period of time. But when it comes back from these moments with action scenes that rival some of the best that had come before, it’s easy to forgive. It stumbles here and there, including in an early scene during a prison riot that’s less about the fantastic choreography and more about random inmates sliding through the mud occasionally landing some blows on each other, but it’s by and large an exciting event. Even its cinematography and editing live up to the high standards of the rest of the film by cleverly playing with viewers’ perspective on at least a few occasions.

“The Raid 2: Berandal” was clearly crafted with much love and care. It seems to desire to be more than the original, but in many ways it’s less. Its higher aspirations lead to a grander story and give more reason to care about the characters (even if only slightly), but in doing so, it deviates from the very thing that made the “The Raid: Redemption” so good. If the story had been more original and carried out in a more careful manner, this would have easily surpassed that film. As it stands, however, it’s firmly planted as runner-up, but when you consider the lofty expectations it had to live up to, it’s still mighty impressive.

The Raid 2: Berandal receives 4/5

Thursday
Apr032014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Has superhero fatigue set in? Six years have passed since the first “Iron Man” film, with each year seemingly more crammed with costumed heroes than the last, so one has to wonder how much longer this will last before the subgenre implodes on itself. If “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is any indication, it still has some legs, though it’s clear that we’re crossing into “been-there-done-that” territory at this point.

Although it had its detractors, I would argue that 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” is one of the best in the recent Marvel canon, right up there with “Iron Man” because the film showcased the type of courageousness and nobleness one would expect from a hero. Captain America didn’t fight for any other reason than because it was the right thing to do and his big heart and selfless desires—to fight and even die for his country, if necessary—validated him. He was a character that was easy to root for and love. Thematically, the film didn’t have much going on, but as a character study, it worked, which forgave its thematic thinness. “The Winter Soldier” introduces more themes, many of which pertain to today’s world due, in part, to its modern setting, but neglects to follow through on them. That is the film’s biggest deficiency.

The story takes place in Washington, D.C. where the Captain, also known as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is adjusting to his new life as a part of the Avengers working for S.H.I.E.L.D., the espionage agency that deals primarily with superhuman threats. S.H.I.E.L.D., under the leadership of Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) is about to launch Operation Insight, which will place machine gun mounted helicarriers in the sky that are designed to protect the country’s citizens. The Captain doesn’t agree with this operation and, after a crazy turn of events, including a violent attack on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the possibility of a S.H.I.E.L.D. compromise, he is branded a fugitive. So while being hunted by the mysterious Winter Soldier, he finds himself on the lam with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), vowing to uncover whatever plan is about to unfold and put a stop to it.

And it’s with the introduction of those helicarriers that the film introduces its themes. The Captain disagrees with the very idea, arguing that launching the operation would only scare people into giving up their freedoms (“This isn’t freedom; this is fear,” he explicitly says at one point). To him, placing these eyes in the sky, always peering below for potential threats, compromises the freedom and right to privacy America’s citizens deserve. In a post-9/11 world where phone tapping and other surveillance measures are commonplace, these ideas couldn’t be more relevant.

The film even questions the notion that joining the military is the greatest thing you can do. While the Captain still considers the well-being of the country’s citizens his number one priority, he talks about how joining today, as opposed to during the World War II era he grew up and found his patriotism in, isn’t the same. The moral compass of “the greatest generation” is now gone and we instead “protect” our citizens with fear and intimidation. In a strange way, the film supports serving your country through activism rather than enlisting in a time of government corruption and unconstitutional actions.

As intriguing as these themes are, “The Winter Soldier,” unfortunately, drops them all too quickly. Actual insight is limited and most come through deep exposition rather than narrative exploration. Instead, the film rests on the laurels of being yet another Marvel movie. The flip side to this somewhat disappointing coin is that, luckily, the majority of those Marvel movies, while not all great, have been pretty solid. The action here, while certainly not as bombastic as “The Avengers,” is serviceable, if a little clunky. While some of the action is fluid and fun, other moments are too shaky and hectic. The camera likes to zoom in occasionally and follow each punch and kick to their fast paced conclusions and doing so sometimes makes the action a bit hard to follow.

One welcome addition in this installment is the greater focus on Black Widow. Not much more than a periphery character in the previous films, she has an expanded role here and she is allowed to come into her own. She’s a more complicated person than her previous appearances might suggest and she has to battle her own motivations between doing what she’s ordered to do and doing what’s right. The bond she forms with the Captain doesn’t really lead anywhere if looking for an emotional arc, but it works nonetheless.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” will do exactly what filmgoers will expect of it and in that regard, it’s a success. Most won’t care about its thematic inconsistencies and had they not been included in the first place, one couldn’t fault it, but bringing them up and dropping them so quickly afterwards only to bring them up again in a cheesy late movie speech is a missed opportunity. This film had the potential to be one of the more intelligent, insightful movies in the Marvel canon, but ends up compromising its ideas for more of the same old Marvel action. It’s just a good thing that Marvel action is still as impressive as it is. But while “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is easily recommendable right now, push this back a few years, when superhero fatigue has done more than show glimpses of itself, and it might not be.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier receives 3.5/5