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Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
The fun kind of ridiculous
Last night I spent $1.50 to see Tom Cruise scurry around in his newest blockbuster sci-fi action comedy extravaganza Edge of Tomorrow. Let me tell you, $1.50 is the perfect price to pay for this film. Now, don't interpret that as me saying this movie sucks. It doesn't. Is it worth the usual price of admission, which here in Los Angeles can be as much as $20? No. Is it worth the theater experience, though? Yes, absolutely. Edge of Tomorrow is loud, shiny, and extravagant, and it definitely entertains for two hours.
Edge of Tomorrow takes place in the midst of an alien invasion as the humans of Earth try to battle back a vicious race of bizarre looking aliens called Mimics. Cruise plays Cage, an officer who finds himself stuck in a time loop where he repeats the same day over and over a-la Groundhogs Day. This day just happens to be the day that a beachfront attack on the aliens would go horribly wrong, resulting in an absolute slaughter on the human side of the battle. When Cruise meets up with Emily Blunt he finds out that, because of his G-Day syndrome, is the only chance civilization has at stopping the Mimics. The only catch is that he has to keep dying so that he can relive the same fatal day until he pretty much gets it right.
The easiest way to label this movie is by calling it a mix between Groundhogs Day and Starship Troopers. If that logline sounds absolutely ridiculous, it is because Edge of Tomorrow is absolutely ridiculous. It's an absurd concept carried throughout by absurd exposition driving an increasingly absurd plot. By about the halfway mark it should have been very easy to start hating this film, but it's saved by one thing; it's own self awareness. Edge of Tomorrow knows how silly it is, and it embraces that right off the bat. It hits the ground running with a good sense of humor and a protagonist who is intentionally a complete pussy. Of course, reliving the same day over and over allows Cruise's character to come into his own, and the transition from wuss to hero is pretty well done.
This film sets itself up well for non-stop action. It only takes about 20 minutes for us to get our first taste of combat in an epic D-Day inspired beach battle. Then we of course repeat this battle again and again, making for a battle sequence that technically lasts the entire movie. How many films get to say that?
This unfortunately sets the film up to be a little long winded, and I felt like a solid 15-20 minutes could have been shaved off to save some of the alien battle fatigue I was feeling by the third act. I was really enjoying Edge of Tomorrow from the get go, but after a while Tom Cruise getting smacked around by aliens and robots gets a little tiring and repetitive. Given the film's premise it's probably not totally fair to call the film repetitive, since that's sort of the point, but other similar movies like Groundhogs Day proved that you can still keep a repetitive movie fresh, and for most of the film Edge of Tomorrow is good about this. By the third act the film did something really smart. I won't give away any specific plot points but it definitely raises the stakes, keeping the plot freshly exciting, but the on screen action was more of the same.
Edge of Tomorrow starts significantly stronger than it ends, but that doesn't stop this film from being a solid sci-fi action movie. It's a memorable popcorn flick that I can admire solely for the fact that it's not a sequel, prequel, remake, or reboot. I always enjoy original sci- fi, and Edge of Tomorrow is no exception. Especially given how dreadful this looked from the trailers, I give major kudos to Edge for keeping me entertained enough for it's two hour runtime.
A bit behind Rise, but the action holds its own
In 2011 the long dead Planet of the Apes franchise got an unexpectedly successful reboot with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Nobody expected it to kill at the box office like it did, and as a result a whole new franchise was born. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes marks the second, and certainly not the last, film in this franchise and it's a noticeable improvement on the first in some places, and a step backwards in others. Of course, if you're like me and you have a soft spot for dystopian sci- fi, this blockbuster can deliver a solid two hours of entertainment.
Dawn picks up a few years after the events of Rise where Caesar and his ape army fled to the Redwoods just before the aptly named Simian flu begins spreading and killing off the human population. Dawn kicks off by introducing us to the post apocalypse where the majority of the human population is dead, and the ape population has grown considerably. The apes now have their own civilization established in the woods; a civilization I was really excited about at the beginning of the film and would have liked to see more of. Instead, those pesky humans come in and interfere with everything, which sparks the central and, after a while, long winded conflict of the film which is humans vs apes. Caesar, because of his upbringing with humans, still wants to trust this race that many of his ape counterparts, specifically Koba, the film's main antagonist, vehemently despise. Unless you're absolutely oblivious you can pretty easily assume that when the humans need help from the apes it kicks off a whirlwind of driving conflict that carries forth an explosively action packed plot.
If it's nothing else Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a lot of fun. Like, an absolute blast. Every year I feel like motion capture technology improves exponentially, and 2014 is no exception, with Dawn displaying awe inspiring motion capture performances that blend so seamlessly with the rest of the film. The illusion of movie magic is never broken. The raging human v ape battles are as exciting and as spell binding as they should be. Then, at the same time, the more sentimental and intimate ape moments feel just as real as everything else with an impeccable amount of detail going into each and every ape we see on screen. They certainly feel more authentic than the tiredly straight forward human story. Thanks to astounding technology and fantastic performers, the motion capture performances are honestly better than any of the human performances in the film.
Where Dawn suffers is obviously not in its grandeur or its effects, it's the fact that it has traded in layered storytelling for a whole lot of simplicity. Dawn doesn't have a deep seated conflict or textured characters for us to sink our empathetic teeth into. One of the things I really thought Rise did well was the pacing at which it told Caesar's story and detailed his struggle. It felt very authentic and believable as we watched Caesar grow up trying to discover why he was different from all the other apes he was surrounded by. Watching his coping with abandonment and betrayal by his human friends feels so real and my sympathy with Caesar knew no boundaries during Rise.
With Dawn we are repeatedly hit over the head with "Caesar trust humans. Koba no trust humans. Caesar love humans more than apes. Koba love apes more than Caesar. etc, etc, etc." This dichotomy is laid out within the first 20 to 30 minutes of the film, but we get to be constantly reminded of how it works for the next hour and a half.
Dawn doesn't have the storytelling chops of its predecessor, and its script, chock full of unnatural and poorly disguised plot forwarding devices, also leaves something to be desired. But what Dawn does have is the setting, the dystopian post apocalypse world that has been created here is awesome, and the great action set pieces that persist for two hours left testosterone fueled adolescent me very happy. The side of me that appreciates great storytelling was underwhelmed, but not enough to say that I didn't really enjoy Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Who knew this could work?
Director Rian Johnson proved himself an admirable director with 2012's Looper, the time traveling sci-fi noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. But if you go back a little further in Johnson's career you'll see that his debut feature actually has a lot to offer, too. Brick stars Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, a high school teen who finds his way deep within his high school's crime ring while investigating the death of his ex-girlfriend. What's the catch? It's all done in a Maltese Falcon-esque noir style, despite taking place in a wholly contemporary setting. With expired dialogue too cool for its own good and an array of darkly melodramatic motifs, Brick drips with 1940's noir inspired style.
If there's one thing this flick does right is that it commits. It is a story that could have been told like any other contemporary mystery, especially one set in the often immature and narrow high school setting. But Rian Johnson decided to take a leap of faith and set his story in a world of fast talking swindlers and dastardly gangsters the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, or Humphrey Bogart would have introduced us to, all of whom just happen to be high schoolers. It's an odd juxtaposition, but I admire Johnson for committing so passionately to that storytelling decision. I've got respect for risk takers like that.
Johnson's skills as a director shine in Brick as not only does he commit, but he inspires his entire cast to commit as well. Not one of the members of this character heavy cast breaks the illusion of this neo-noir reality. You couldn't ask for a script this unique to be executed better, and I can only imagine how privileged Rian Johnson feels to have pulled together a cast dedicated enough to make this strange mish-mash of genre and setting work.
Yet, despite all this admiration and praise for the film's commitment to style, I didn't come out of Brick feeling blown away with the feeling of experiencing the next great cinematic movement. I came away not quite sure what to think. There was certainly nothing I hated about the film, but I'm hard pressed to come up with exactly what I loved about it. This really is something I've never seen done before, so maybe I was just caught off guard by the film's unsuspected nuance. This is certainly a film that warrants a second viewing.
Brick, before anything else, is just an odd film. It's an odd film that is saved and effectively elevated to a good film because of its fantastic performances and cool but not too cool visual style. It's an odd film that demands your respect because of how well it executes such a strange concept. It's an odd film that, in lieu of all the head scratching, is overall pretty damn good.
Day-Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln
Here's one to appease all the history buffs out there. Steven Spielberg's historical drama Lincoln. Here you've got a story about one of the greatest presidents in our history being played by one of the greatest actors in our current history. That actor of course is the magnificent Daniel Day-Lewis who gives an exceptionally spellbinding performance as the 16th president of the United States.
Lincoln chronicles one of the most tumultuous parts of Abraham Lincoln's presidency. As the Civil War enters its fourth year, Lincoln and his cabinet are stuck at a crossroads in passing the 13th amendment, an amendment that will effectively abolish slavery and will level all male citizens of the United States equal under the law. The film details Honest Abe's struggle amid a cavalcade of other characters all played by stellar A-List actors and actresses.
First and foremost, Lincoln is a good movie. It was made by history buffs for history buffs and the historical accuracy of the film has been widely praised. It certainly helps that Day-Lewis bares a frighteningly uncanny resemblance to Abe, and his performance more than sells the idea that we truly are watching Abe fight for equality.
However, if you asked me if I loved Lincoln I would have to say no. I liked it. I enjoyed it. I don't regret watching it. I didn't fall in love with it though. There were a handful of scenes I really did get a rise from. Namely, the debate scenes within the House of Representatives are some of the most enthralling and entertaining. They depict a Congress full of loud mouthed drunkards who shout and curse over one another, completely going against all of the civility we assume Congress exhibits today. (Ha, I could barely type that with a straight face). It depicts an unabashed and unapologetic take on Congress, one that was probably very accurate to the time period. Spielberg's attention to detail in these scenes shines as well, equipping almost every desk in the House with an ash tray and a bottle of liquor. It's these little things that make me smile while watching Lincoln.
The rest of the film is full of powerfully performed scenes of Lincoln doing presidential, and non-presidential things, and plot forwarding scenes that are lit and shot consistently well by longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. These scenes, while setting an aesthetically gripping mood, also help cement the film's slow and sometimes dull pacing. I don't want to say that Lincoln is a boring film, but it does drag and doesn't always hold my interest from a plot perspective, holding me back from a love of the film.
At the end of the day Lincoln is a film that should not be missed if you love Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, or just great performances in general, because the film is packed with them. It boasts a cast of A-Listers including Tommy Lee Jones as the sternly sarcastic Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Field in a powerhouse performance as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a smaller role as Robert Lincoln, David Strathairn as William Seward, and the always lovable James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, a foul mouthed, cigar smoking, quick witted sonofabitch. You'll find a great performance in every single frame of this film, even if as a whole the film doesn't exactly change your life.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Believe all of the hype. Marvel's newest blockbuster outing, Guardians of the Galaxy, delivers all that you should expect from it, which is a loud, flashy, explosive science fiction action movie with a wacky sense of screwball humor that anyone with a heart should be able to appreciate.
After seeing James Gunn's darkly comedic superhero film Super, I had the bar set pretty high for Guardians of the Galaxy. Now that I've seen it I really have to commend Marvel for trusting the directors in whose hands they put these cherished stories. Nothing about this film suggests a compromised vision. It's as wacky as I expected from Gunn, and as visually tantalizing as I expected from Marvel Studios. It packs a sarcastic, crass, and explosive punch and I absolutely love that.
Chris Pratt stars as Peter Quill, or Star-Lord as he would like to be known amongst his peers. Quill is an outlaw, a space cowboy, just looking to cause trouble and make money by stealing and selling galactic trinkets. But when he gets his hands on one of the coveted Infinity Stones, which I guess is becoming a major plot point for Marvel's universe, Quill gets caught up in far more trouble than he bargained for. He lands himself in prison, and then subsequently escapes with the help of a band of misfits that include talking trees and sassy raccoons. I say that in jest, but really this whole band of individuals are more than the caricatures you initially expect them to be. They're a rag-tag gang of characters who each have their own great nuances, allowing you to fall in love with all of them in a different way.
Zoe Saldana plays Gamora, an orange haired, green skinned professional ass kicker who, even with that limey tint is still great to look at. Dave Bautista shines as Drax the Destroyer a menacing muscle head whose poor understanding of metaphors allows for some of Guardian's best laughs. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel kill it in their own right as voice actors playing the parts of Rocket Raccoon and Groot, respectively. They are an unlikely duo whose on-screen loveability rivals that of duo's as classic as C-3PO and R2-D2. A bold claim, sure, but Groot is just too f***ing cool.
By the 30 minute mark we've met all of these great characters, and in less time than that I could already tell how much I was going to love these goofballs. And love them I did. For two hours I was given a non- stop barrage of action, humor, and heart; none of which came without a side of cheese, but to any film of this magnitude that can have me in visual awe, have me laughing genuinely most of the way through, and also allow me to give a damn about these characters and their stories, I'll forgive some sappy eye rolling moments and some uninspired on the nose dialogue.
I feel like Marvel gets a lot of backlash from the more- ahem- high brow crowd for being too silly or too cheesy or too light hearted. But to these naysayers I have to say get over yourselves. When your source material is the one introducing snappy talking raccoons and sentient trees with comically limited vocabulary, how can you possibly criticize this for being too silly? Wackiness is the heart and soul of these comics, and the film reflects that and lives up to that while having as much fun as possible. For me, the fun that must have been had creating this movie was translated and received by me with a wildly entertained heart. For others who think they are too good for the likes of Star-Lord and his team of weirdos, you're only missing out on all the fun I had with this wacky-ass space romp.
The Master (2012)
Here is a movie that the art-house cinema world has been anticipating for quite a while now. We've all been looking forward to seeing what Paul Thomas Anderson was capable of producing, especially after the monumental success of There Will Be Blood. The hype around his new film, The Master, was huge, what with all of the speculations about what the film was actually about and all of the supposed allusions to Scientology that Anderson has repeatedly denied. Now it's out and the rumors and speculation become discussion and interpretation.
The Master tells the story about a troubled Naval veteran named Freddy Quell who returns home from war without a path to follow in his life. He spends some time going from place to place, trying to find himself, but not being able to overcome his violent tendencies and alcoholism. Things change drastically when Freddy meets Lancaster Dodd, a charismatically jolly man who has gathered a following of disciples to promote what he calls The Cause. Freddy quickly begins to embrace what Dodd has to offer him, and a relationship develops between Freddy and Dodd, and it is a relationship that will affect both of their lives forever.
The Master marks Paul Thomas Anderson's return to the movie theater in five years, but it also marks the return of Joaquin Phoenix coming back from his shameless publicity stunt where he decided to abandon acting and pursue a career as a rapper. Despite all of the crazy that Phoenix went through, The Master is one hell of a return. Phoenix's performance, as well as all the others in this film, is astounding. The performances in this film are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favorite actors, is profoundly compelling as Lancaster Dodd, and the scenes between him and Phoenix display some of the finest acting known to man in this modern generation of filmmaking.
The Master delivers in aspects that we would expect it to. The performances are some of the finest of these actors career's, and the look of the film is all Anderson style and nuance. Visually this film is an unreal spectacle full of some of the most compelling and beautiful cinematography that filmmaking can achieve. I was lucky enough to see it in 70mm print, which made the visual quality of the film unbelievably fantastic. It is what you would expect from Anderson, and the cinematography alone makes this film worth watching.
I can assert very clear cut opinions on the acting and directing of this film. Where I'm not as sure in my belief is the story. The Master is astonishingly ambitious. There is a lot going on. Anderson's script has built an incredibly complex web of character relationships and story dynamics. The amount of things going on at one time in this film is, for lack of a better word, overwhelming. It is a powerful and moving experience to absorb all at once, but it is easy to miss some things.
I'm not sure if The Master is trying to accomplish too much, or just enough. Regardless, I am incredibly excited about seeing this film again. It is a film with so much to offer and I feel there is so much profundity to take away from it. I will definitely be watching this film a multitude of times to understand it fully. For now, I'm just not entirely sure.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
The redundancies of this franchise are starting to show
The Paranormal Activity franchise just seems to keep on trucking along, never losing any steam it seems. Paranormal Activity 3 is, obviously, the third film in the franchise. This time around we jump back 18 years to when Katie and Kristi, the unfortunate pair of demonically terrorized sisters, are children. The film chronicles their first encounter with the demon that returns to terrorize them in the first two films. Obviously, the film is shot in the same first person style as the first two films, always adding to the creepiness factor that possesses the entire film franchise.
Three movies in and I still haven't managed to sit through a single one of these films in the franchise without being incredibly scared for my life. Paranormal Activity 3 doesn't let up on the thrills, and employs all of the same chilling techniques that scared the crap out of us in the first two films. It goes in a similar route as the second film in setting up surveillance cameras around the house to monitor the strange happenings that the characters encounter at the beginning of the film. We are obviously somewhat used to this by the third time around, but Paranormal Activity 3 does have one stroke of genius that ramps up the scariness ten fold. And that is the cruelly suspenseful oscillating camera that pans back and forth to monitor the living room and kitchen of the house. This was a fiendishly clever move by the filmmakers and helped to keep the style of the franchise at least somewhat fresh.
However, Paranormal Activity 3 really starts to show the redundancies of this franchise. I like the prequel element as it is interesting to see the story that began with the first Paranormal Activity grow deeper and deeper, but this film does sort of feel like more of the same. It is still scary, but the disturbingly tense atmosphere that the first two films had down so well wasn't as prevalent here. Paranormal Activity 3 is still entertaining, and still frightening, but its also a little crazy and, especially by the end, seemed to go a little overboard.
I enjoyed this film, but it was easily my least favorite of the three. If you have seen the first two films then don't miss out on this one, even though it isn't as great as the first two in style or substance. It definitely delivers on the thrills, but it has its fair share of issues. But, as I've said before, go in without skepticism and just enjoy the film because it is plenty entertaining.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
Take it for what it is. Still really scary!
Some intelligent producers knew they had created a profit monster with the original Paranormal Activity, and so was spawned a cavalcade of sequels. By cavalcade I only mean three so far, but this is a franchise that will keep on going until it stops making money. Anyways, Paranormal Activity 2 is the sequel to the infamous Paranormal Activity. This sequel begins a few weeks before the events of the first film. It follows the family of Kristi, the younger sister of Katie, the main girl from the first film which meets her demonic demise at the end of that film. It plays out much in the same way as the first film. There are some weird noises and strange events occurring in their household, so they decide to buy security cameras to set up all over the house. And, as anyone would expect, things get pretty creepy from here.
To me, this is an incredibly scary and disturbingly clever franchise of films that are so much fun to watch. I have a soft spot for any film done in this first person camera style of filming so this entire franchise is right up my alley. I think you can go into these films with a skeptical eye and you will come out hating the film, but if you really just sit back and enjoy these films for what they are they can be awesome. They are really entertaining, put together with a great suspenseful atmosphere, and they get truly scary when the time comes. To me, these films are all very successful in what they are trying to accomplish.
As far as Paranormal Activity 2 goes, it at times feels like more of the same, but the filmmakers actually do a plethora of devilishly clever things throughout the film. The introduction of the surveillance cameras adds a whole new element of creepy to the film. Each night we jump from camera to camera, seeing the same things around and outside the house, just waiting for what is going to happen. The suspense is cruel at times as we just sit and wait for a door to creak open, a chair to move, or a cabinet door to fly open. This is an element that the original film did a great job of, and Paranormal Activity 2 just keeps it going. I wouldn't say that it is as scary because we already know, to some extent, what to expect from this demon, but nothing stopped Paranormal Activity 2 from scaring the hell out of me.
Honestly, you should see this film. If you enjoyed the first one at all then Paranormal Activity 2 should be a really fun experience. Don't be a party pooper and go into the film full of skepticism. Just enjoy it, be scared, let it get inside your head.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
An ingenious blend of genres
This is the film that more sophisticated horror fans have been waiting for. It takes your stereotypical horror story of a group of archetypally based friends going off and getting terrorized by some horrific being or creature for one reason or another. One thing always seems to stand with this type of film. The humans are really stupid, and most horror films are fueled by an onslaught of bad decisions. Well, The Cabin in the Woods does the same, but puts a twist on it. A devilishly clever twist that completely transcends the horror genre. The Cabin in the Woods is unlike anything you have ever seen.
All that you really need to know going into The Cabin in the Woods is that it is about a group of friends who go to a remote cabin in the middle of the woods to party, drink, have sex, etc, etc. Naturally, things get weird, but not what you would expect. If you can guess exactly how this film will pan out then major kudos to you. But, if you actually can guess whats going on in this film then you're probably cheating. The point is, The Cabin in the Woods is fiendishly unpredictable and completely unlike any horror film you've ever seen.
And, to praise this film even further, it's just plain awesome. It is so incredibly smart and so deliciously clever, combining so many different genres and doing things with these genres that we have never seen before. I have to be really vague in how I express my absolute love for this movie, because you absolutely have to see it knowing nothing about what is really going on. This way, as events unfold you will be completely floored, just as I was. The film is constantly building towards some big reveal, hinting at little things here and there that suggest what is actually going on, but still being very vague and very ambiguous about the whole thing. This brilliant subtlety to the progression of the story is what makes this film so incredibly enthralling and a non-stop roller coaster of excitement.
The Cabin in the Woods is a must see. It doesn't matter what you think going into the movie. You can expect it to be awesome, you can expect it to be awful. It doesn't matter. It is a one of a kind experience and you would be a fool to miss out on it. See this movie to experience one of the most clever films I have seen all year.
The Others director Alejandro Amenábar directs this dramatic historical epic set in Roman Egypt during the rise of Christianity. Rachel Weisz stars as Hypatia of Alexandria , the famous mathematician and philosopher who is credited as being the first to discover the elliptical orbit of the Earth around the sun. Max Minghella stars as Davus, a slave who turns towards Christianity looking for freedom, while also falling for Hypatia. The Christian uprising and subsequent quelling is a tumultuous and violent ordeal that leaves Alexandria in ruins and puts strain on Hypatia as she tries to discover the ultimate truths about our universe.
If you like historical dramas then Agora is certainly a good movie for you. It is plenty dramatic and its historical context is very relevant and at times it almost plays out as a history lesson. There is a ton of ancient history within this film between the discoveries of Hypatia and the conflict between the Christians and Jews that dictates most of the events that happen in the film. It's a pretty interesting film to watch and there is certainly a lot to be learned from the film.
However, Agora isn't all that exciting overall. It's not bad but I felt indifferent about the film overall. It's somewhat melodramatic and can border on cheesy at times. Amenábar directs with a good eye for detail, mixing in some beautiful aerial shots throughout the film, along with the film's overall high quality cinematography. Of course, the film still feels very Hollywood. Agora holds back in many places where it could have excelled in deep and unsettling subject matter. The war between the Christians and Jews gets pretty brutal during the film, but I still felt like it was sugarcoated, seeing as this was a truly horrendous and bloody conflict. Agora could have done more, but it is, overall, a pretty decent film.