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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” may seem like an odd choice for a Christmas time release, especially when you consider the competition it’s up against. It doesn’t seem like your typical holiday fare, but with Nelson Mandela’s recent passing, the film couldn’t be more timely. Forget about the vehement debate about Mandela’s morals and beliefs that occurred after his death by American extremists with nothing better to do. Regardless of whether or not you agree with them, the man led a fascinating life. While not perfect, “Long Walk to Freedom” is a captivating, rousing film with strong performances that is absolutely worth seeing.

The movie begins in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1942. Mandela (Idris Elba) is a lawyer who is frivolously battling a corrupt system that is oppressing blacks in the country. After a close friend is beaten to death by the police for no justifiable reason, he decides to spark some change. Thus begins his long, amazing journey fighting the white powers that demanded black subjugation, which landed him in jail and eventually led to his becoming the president of South Africa.

As a young man, after seeing that his efforts were being made in vain, his rhetoric turned to one of violence, almost like a Malcolm X of South Africa. War and fighting became themes of his speeches, which caused civil unrest and uprising. While many will disapprove of such tactics, the film makes it clear that this was a last resort for him. It’s not until violence is brought upon his people, most notably during the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, that he decides to take this approach. These moments are well realized in the film and even if you don’t agree with it, you understand it.

The issue is that the weight of his actions aren’t always felt, on neither an individual level nor a global one. Because the film takes place over such a long period of time, many details are passed over, so we don’t get to feel the attachment we probably should. The earliest example comes when Mandela’s wife leaves him and takes their son. This hardly registers as a blip on the radar of his life and in about ten minutes, he has already rebounded with, as far as we can tell, the very next woman he meets. This is a common occurrence for biopics that examine an entire life (or close to it) and this one too succumbs to such rushed faults.

Perhaps the larger issue is that much of the revolution that sparked the change we see today happened while Mandela was incarcerated. By focusing primarily on him, even during his prison stay, we fail to see the outside world changing. We rarely see the attitudes shift and when we do, we don’t see why. Mandela spends 18 years on a prison island and additional time in a Cape Town prison after the transfer that eventually led to his release. That’s a lot of time that passes by without much insight into the country’s unrest.

Luckily, these problems are offset by a cast who is more than capable of making up for the slack, particularly Idris Elba, who is able to show through the slightest subtleties the pain and sadness that tormented Mandela during this time. As Mandela grows older in the picture, Elba’s portrayal grows more distinct and different from his portrayal at the beginning. Mandela’s words, though simple, helped change the status quo of South Africa’s needless violence and white supremacy and Elba delivers those words with grandeur and passion. Although far from perfect, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is about as definitive a biopic of this important figure as has been made.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom receives 3.5/5


Pacific Rim

Much hullabaloo has been made about Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim.” You have two groups of people: those who are excited for it and those who think it looks like a glossed up “Transformers.” While the former staunchly defend the director (as they should given his track record of quality), can they really blame the latter? It’s hard to deny that the trailers, almost all of which focused on the action heavy sequences, were making a correlation between the two and reaching for that demographic. The good news is that this is no “Transformers.” Its approach to similar material is markedly different, both in tone, style and storytelling. It’s nothing particularly amazing and it’s certainly not one of del Toro’s best, but it’s well made, gorgeous and it has some truly terrific action.

In the near future, humanity is at war, but not amongst ourselves. Whatever petty problems we had before ended when we were one day invaded by a giant creature we eventually dubbed the Kaiju. At some point, a fissure between two tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean opened a portal between two dimensions, allowing these beasts to come and wreak havoc. In response, humanity built giant robots to fight them. These machines, called Jaegers, are controlled by two pilots who link their brains together to become one. However, the world governments are phasing out the Jaeger program because it is quickly becoming clear that as the attacks become more frequent, we’re unable to keep up. Their plan is to build a giant wall, which quickly proves to be futile. In the meantime, the military, led by Stacker (Idris Elba), changes their categorization into a resistance and plans to hold them back for as long as possible, eventually concocting a plan that could end the war for good.

The first thing one notices when watching “Pacific Rim” is its surprising focus on its characters. Contrary to something like the aforementioned “Transformers” movies, which were less interested in story and more in making things go boom, the film crafts its narrative around the people. The trailers may indicate otherwise, but there’s more story here than action. Unfortunately, the story is relatively uninteresting, mostly traditional and filled to the brim with action movie clichés like the late movie motivational speech and the celebratory crowd welcoming a hero home after a big victory. These moments do little to complement a movie that is already struggling for conflict, seen most noticeably by the forced human quarrels between bickering pilots, one blaming the other for their current predicament. All of these moments are supposed to build these characters and give us a reason to invest ourselves in them and their plight, but they are perfunctory at best and don’t do a particularly good job bridging the action scenes together.

But in the moment, those action scenes will make you forget all that. Guillermo del Toro does a magnificent job of portraying the scope of what’s happening, slyly placing objects in the foreground to contrast between the hulking monstrosities in the background, toying with our perspective and giving us a true idea of how massive these things are. When one of the creatures or machines go flying through the air towards a major city, we know this isn’t going to be like Iron Man falling out of the sky and taking out a previously well-constructed block of road; it’s going to result in catastrophic damage and lives lost. The seriousness of what’s happening is rarely lost on the viewer (aside from the comic relief scientist played by Charlie Day, who is horribly miscast here). In particular, the terrific finale and a nail biting sequence that takes place, no joke, on the edge of space, are mind-blowing. With a score that complements its scope, “Pacific Rim” gives off the feeling of a truly epic Hollywood blockbuster.

The reason these action scenes work as well as they do is due to a calm editing style that isn’t reliant on frenzied cuts to manufacture a sense of excitement. They’re occasionally bogged down by some unnecessary zooms, nighttime darkness and lens flares brought on by nearby bright city lights, all of which make what happens a tad hard to see, but for the most part, they stand as an excellent example of how action should be filmed and presented.

Unfortunately, it all comes back to those characters, all of whom are flatly written and blandly portrayed. For example, Charlie Hunnam, who plays our protagonist, Raleigh, speaks in a whispered dramatic tone full of sentiments and recollections, but he can’t properly convey the required emotion needed for the role. The opening sequence shows the loss of his brother in combat, whom he was mind-melded with at the time, so the memory of his death, all of his brother’s feelings and fears, are trapped in his head, but you wouldn’t know it based on his performance. He basically walks around and scowls for two hours and then the movie ends.

With all that said and with all those problems, including characters that are focused on, yet are still uninteresting, “Pacific Rim” still manages to work, mostly due to the wonderful Guillermo del Toro and a surprisingly effective use of 3D. It really is striking to see the size of the creatures off in the distance in relation to a helicopter up close, making that otherwise impressive flying machine look like a child’s play toy, and the 3D really helps accentuate that. Despite the majority of its pre-release hype being undeserving, “Pacific Rim” is a fun, if a bit shallow, time at the movies.

Pacific Rim receives 3.5/5



Early word on Prometheus was that it was going to be a prequel to Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi terror, Alien. Later, word came out that it had blossomed into an entirely different story completely separate from the Alien world. Finally, we were told it would exist within the same world of Alien and maybe cross paths, but still have its own mythology that won’t interfere with what Alien established. I hesitate to divulge how integral it is to the Alien movies, but whatever it is, it’s solid. It’s not the scariest movie in the world, nor the most exciting, but it has ideas and explores a question that has plagued mankind since its creation: how did we get here?

The movie begins in Scotland in 2089. Two researchers, Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan-Marshall Green), have just stumbled upon a cave painting that dates back at least 35,000 years. It predates any similar discovery they’ve ever made, but it shares a common characteristic: it depicts humans pointing towards the stars. In each painting, the stars were shaped in the same manner, exactly like a galaxy that those primitive cultures never should have (or could have) known about, given that it was too far away to be seen with the naked eye. This leads the researchers to believe that there may be life out there and that maybe that life created us. A few years later, after sleeping in stasis aboard the spaceship Prometheus, they, along with 15 other crewmen and women, arrive to explore a planet that they hope will give them meaning to their existence.

If you’re alive today (and if you’re reading this, I have to assume you are), chances are you’ve thought about the meaning of life. You’ve wondered how we got here, what the purpose of our existence is and who, if anybody, created us. Prometheus wonders that too. The screenplay (and therefore, the characters) taps into our natural human curiosity, our intellectual need for answers. It has a natural wonder of how life began and how important (or, just maybe, unimportant) it is. Their search is what keeps you drawn in because their curiosity is our curiosity. Although obviously fictional, what they discover is mind-blowing and only those without a similar intellectual desire for answers will find their revelations uninteresting.

Greater emphasis could have been put into the validity (or lack thereof) of religion in regards to their findings, which would have made a powerful real world statement on an important modern issue, especially given that one of the characters carries her faith with her regardless of the contradictions she discovers along the way, but religious observation is not the movie’s goal. Its ambitions go much higher than that—besides, human existence probably isn’t as simple as many religions make it out to be—but that ambition is its primary problem. Aiming high and hitting the target is a hard thing to do and Prometheus doesn’t quite reach the standards it, and its eagerly awaiting fans, have set for it.

Ridley Scott tries to convey the same sense of terror portrayed in his quintessential 1979 science fiction landmark, perhaps in an effort to make some type of tonal connection between the two, but his ambition requires a broader scope that contradicts Alien’s more focused nature. Alien took place all on one ship where there was nowhere to hide, giving it an unsettling, claustrophobic feeling while Prometheus takes place across multiple locales, both land and ship. The characters travel all the way through space and explore a previously unexplored planet and what appears to be an elongated cave with its own breathable atmosphere. It also introduces far too many characters, 17 in total, most of whom get only a minute or two of dedicated screen time before essentially disappearing. It focuses on a select few people, including the captain (Idris Elba), Meredith (Charlize Theron) and the ship’s android, David (Michael Fassbender), as it should, but it only brings forth the question, why even have the other characters?

Regardless of its sci-fi content, Prometheus is a human story. Its grandeur may not match its ambition like Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the fact that it has ambition at all is worthy of praise. Those looking for another Alien movie will walk away disappointed—in nearly every regard, Prometheus is quite different—but those who have a natural wonder about where we came from and what our purpose is will find Prometheus both profound and awe inspiring.

Prometheus receives 4/5


The Losers

Hollywood ran out of ideas years ago. Movies, a medium heralded for originality and inventiveness, have lost those trademark qualities. The latest craze is to snatch up the rights to as many comic book series as they can and pump them out before the novelty of watching our favorite superheroes onscreen fades away. So what do you do when you run out of your Batmans and Supermans and Iron Mans? You reach way down and bring forth a property nobody has ever heard of or cares about. Such is the case with The Losers.

The Losers (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Columbus Short and Oscar Jaenada) are a ragtag group of men, soldiers who fight for what’s right, and at the outset of the film they find themselves in Bolivia targeting a man who they think is up to no good. They order an air strike, but then they see a group of 25 children being escorted into the area. They have eight minutes until the bomb drops, so they do what they do best and head down quickly to save the kids. When their rescue helicopter arrives, there isn’t enough room for both them and the kids, so they decide to stay behind and let the children go to safety, but then a rocket comes out of nowhere and blows them all up. It was meant for them, so they fake their deaths and find themselves stuck overseas with no way home. That is until a sexy woman named Aisha (Zoe Saldana) makes a deal with them: she will get them home in exchange for their help in killing Max (Jason Patric). As it turns out, Max is responsible for the helicopter explosion intended for them, so they agree.

The story of The Losers isn’t a case where some issues needed to be resolved because its issue is that the story isn’t even really there. So much is left unexplained that you never truly get a grasp on the situation at hand. Who is Max, really? Is he CIA? Is he working for a corrupt government? Or is he merely an every day evildoer carrying out his own diabolical plan? The former is alluded to, but the latter seemed more applicable given the information shown.

Max wants a highly dangerous weapon that is capable of disintegrating anything in its wake, known only as the snuke, but why? Is the government trying to start a war and the film is trying to make some allegory to current times? I don’t give it that much credit. At its core, it’s another silly comic book adaptation that delivers sporadic thrills and thinks it is way cooler than it really is. For every amusing one liner, there were five terrible jokes carried by its too-cool-for-school hipster attitude.

The only person in the entire film that seems to be having any fun with his character is Jason Patric. He’s one of those seemingly non-threatening bad guys who get by not on their brute strength or keen intellect, but by their cold, soulless disregard for human life, as seen by his brutal (yet hilarious) killing of a woman shading him with an umbrella who, thanks to a sudden burst of wind, accidentally allows the sun to reach his skin.

As far as the actual filmmaking process outside of the performances and poor script development goes, it’s an uneven blend of awesome action and excruciatingly boring exposition. The film opens and ends with a bang, but everything in between fizzles due to a lack of cohesion.

It would be an easy joke to say that The Losers loses, but it’s just not that simple. The movie is neither excellent nor tedious. It’s merely tolerable. Maybe it’s the fact that my expectations going in were low, but it worked for me despite some significant problems and it’s just fun enough to recommend.

The Losers receives 2.5/5