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A Thrilling Sequel that Raises the Bar for Marvel
With Rogers, Fury, and Romanoff previously established, directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a magnificent job at expanding these characters along with some secondary characters we've seen before providing more depth to understanding their actions and how they will affect future stories. Sam Jackson has a stronger presence this time around, validating Nick Fury as a main staple in the MCU among the big boys. Captain America is stronger, faster, and a more refined soldier, equipped with better fighting skills and understanding of current technology. Evans plays the earnestness of Captain America's black and white morality with convincing finesse in an age of grey that he has yet to find a comfortable middle. And Johansson progresses the allure of the cunning and multifaceted Black Widow, while bringing a splendid and lively balance to Rogers' straight and narrow.
Amidst such a tight and clever script, The Winter Soldier introduces a band of new characters, all of whom play a significant role, creating a more layered and conceivably real MCU. Frank Grillo brings the swolling mass of muscle known as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Brock Rumlow to life. Emily VanCamp surprises with her portrayal of Agent 13, whom I wish had more screen time with Cap than just two quick scenes. Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a superior ranking Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., friend to Nick Fury, and representative of the World Security Council. Pierce is a wonderful look into the higher ranks at S.H.I.E.L.D., contributing new insights as to how the organization is run outside of Fury, Agent Coulson, and Agent Maria Hill. Anthony Mackie is Sam Wilson aka The Falcon, an ex-military special-ops paratrooper and a welcomed addition recruited by Rogers to help fight the good fight. Mackie fits comfortably among the cast of veteran actors and should play nicely with the other Avengers.
Enhanced for combat and strength, The Winter Soldier's presence is terrifying when it comes to any action scene. Sebastian Stan does an amazing job holding his own against his targets and those who get in his way of his missions. My only gripe is that it is not explained how he obtains the immense power and skills he beholds. The connection between Rogers and The Winter Soldier is dealt with true care and excels the story of Captain America from the first film brilliantly. (Be sure to stay after the credits for a nice button leading into Captain America 3.)
The Winter Soldier is not just a fantastic sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, it should also be recognized as one of the best sequels ever made. In fact, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the duo behind Thor: The Dark World, the Narnia Trilogy, and The First Avenger, have done such a great job shaping Captain America's story that this movie could almost stand on its own. There are many exciting twists and turns in this well-constructed, political action-thriller, but nothing comes as more of a shock than how important the story is at defining the direction of the MCU. What takes place in The Winter Soldier, along with an awesome mid-credits sequence tie-in, will inherently influence Avengers: Age of Ultron as well as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which should make the TV series a lot more interesting and reward fans who have stuck by its side.
Tonally, The Winter Soldier is the darkest story we've come to encounter, raising many deep-seated questions about government and soldiers of war while also taking Rogers on an emotional journey. It also has the best action choreography among all of the MCU movies thus far. Whedon's NYC battle in The Avengers is beautifully shot and written, but cannot compare to the hard-hitting set pieces found in The Winter Soldier, each building up to the bigger whole. The Russo brothers come from a background of directing television comedies such as Arrested Development and Community, and it's extraordinary how well they handle a big budget action blockbuster from cinematography to pacing. They do infuse their own style of comedy with fun references and a cameo other than Stan Lee, functioning properly within the confines of the tone and story. Henry Jackman (Captain Phillips; Wreck-It Ralph; X-Men: First Class) also composes an adrenaline pumping score that sets the right mood every time.
The biggest fault found in The Winter Soldier is that it does not address the whereabouts of other heroes or where we are in terms of the time line of the other movies. Why can't Captain America call on Tony Stark to help him out or even Hawkeye who is a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. himself. This is a recurring problem we have seen throughout Phase 2 of the MCU in Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Marvel Studios needs to acknowledge this hiccup if they want us to continue to believe all of these characters live in the same universe together. You cannot exclude these characters once you have opened Pandora's Box.
Marvel Studios has hit this one out of the ball park with yet another gripping adaptation for fans to enjoy for years to come. By and large, Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds on all fronts. It is the perfect set up for future films and at the same time it increases the value of its predecessors. There is little to argue against its merits and should be regarded as one of the greatest superhero movies of all time.
'Divergent' Conforms to Uninspired Fan Service with Little Clarity
In a very quick introduction voice over by Tris we are told that after a massive war society was broken into five factions to ensure it never happens again. Why the war happened, who it was with, and how it ended is never discussed, but at least Chicago has a large security fence as tall as a skyscraper surrounding the city to protect against a giant T-Rex or something. Planes must not be an issue either because they could easily fly over the fence, but we never see any flown; technology in this world is used for guns, digital display panels, seeing into a person's dreams, and instant tattoos, not for rebuilding a more suitable world to live in - that would be silly.
Tris was born within the Abnegation faction aka the just and loyal Hufflepuffs. Abegnation are the leading figures of government because of their selflessness. She lives with her mother Natalie, father Andrew, and brother Caleb who is also taking the aptitude test despite being older, which makes no sense per the rules stating 16-year-olds must take the test and choose a faction.
Now that Tris is 16-years-old, she must partake in a process where she is told to drink an unknown liquid to determine which clique she belongs to. Based on her results, she may find herself fitting in with Dauntless aka the courageous Gryffindors; Candor aka the ready-minded Ravenclaws; Erudite aka the cunning Slytherins; or the last group known as Amity who just farm and have no real stakes or voice in the entire film.
Tris' results of her aptitude test are inconclusive and discovers she is a rare breed known as Divergent. Those labeled Divergent can fit into any faction because they are capable of having more than one personality trait explanation as to why everyone else cannot achieve the same level of basic human nature is not provided. Through a sorting hat-like process, after wasting time with an aptitude test that tells each teen which faction they should belong to, everyone is able to choose a faction, via a blood sacrifice, they'd like to shack up with for the rest of their lives.
Luckily for Tris, her aptitude test proctor Tori allowed her to walk away despite one line of dialogue telling us Divergents are a threat to the system. Evidence to prove Divergents are dangerous to the way of life is never explained well enough to truly justify as a threat. So Tris hides her little secret anyway and chooses Dauntless because she would not want to become factionless, a nomadic people without a home who are not accepted into any of the five factions doesn't that make them Divergent? While spending almost an hour through a rigorous training regime to prove to us she is the one, we are introduced to a love interest named Four (Theo James). Four is the eye candy until the main conflict presents itself almost two-thirds of the way into the movie; the Erudites want to overthrow Abnegation as the leaders because selflessness is too weak and not logical. Heaven forbid anyone should be able to think beyond their means.
With a taxing two hour and twenty minute run time, Divergent is a complete clunker. The real grit of the story doesn't begin until well over an hour in and it isn't until the last thirty minutes that some kind of resolve needs to happen. Since I haven't read the book, I'm not sure if it is Roth's lack of imagination or the screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor's failure to bring the book to life, but Divergent is absolutely devoid of any kind of world building to make this film stand out besides its loony way of assigning factions to its citizens. They even use the Chicago's L transit system to ride into Hogwarts, I mean Dauntless.
Strangely, there seems to be no adults anywhere unless they play a small role in the plot, and yet there are so many kids running around. The bulk of the movie is focused on these kids and their plight to fit into Dauntless. Tris and Four's parents become a convoluted piece of the puzzle near the final act, adding little relevance, clarity, emotional depth, or importance. Janine, an Erudite and President Snow rip-off, is one of the few adults we get to know and acts as the main antagonist, posing as a faceless, unmotivated, and irrational villain.
Thankfully, Woodley and James are able to have enough chemistry on screen to provide some redeeming qualities. Another case of beautiful people falling for beautiful people. Without Woodley, Divergent could not stand a chance. There is also a Ron Weasley-esque sidekick for Tris named Christina as well as a Neville-esque boy named Will.
Visually unimpressive with an uninspiring score that does nothing to better the film's lack of a personality, Divergent struggles even on a superficial level. Even a larger budget than most YA adaptations can't set it apart from the rest. Sets do not feel lived in and the different factions are hardly explored, making the world even more unbelievable than it already is.
Themes of discovering who you are, understanding your place in the world, and standing up for yourself are practically force fed, but in the final third of the film the moral teachings diminish and Divergent transforms into a popcorn action flick. Burger tries to materialize high concepts of freewill, totalitarianism, and the human condition, but misses the mark by focusing more on the romance and action than answering the bigger questions.
Divergent is simple fan service at its best; it even ends so abruptly that no ramifications of Erudite's actions, Tris' Rebellion, or Dauntless' coup d'etat are mentioned. Anyone going into this movie without having read the books is going to end up confused or annoyed by the sheer lack of coherence.
Need for Speed (2014)
Fails to Deliver Anything of Value Past the Promise of Real Stunts
Despite the game franchise not having a set story mode until 2003 with Need for Speed: Underground, screenwriter George Gatins took it upon himself to create an original narrative without having to lean on preexisting material. Need for Speed follows Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), a run-of-the-mill, auto mechanic nice guy with a knack for illegal street racing daddy issues are assumed, but no real back story is defined. He uses his race winnings to pay off debts accumulated by his shop because apparently no one wants to have their car tuned up by the best racer in town.
Like all video game protagonists, Tobey has a rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a spoiled rich boy sociopath who must win at all costs he also has the Tobester's ex-girlfriend Anita (Dakota Johnson) wrapped around his fingers to establish top tier bad guy status. She proves to be a worthless character anyways until one significant plot convenience and Cooper struggles to grow Dino beyond the stereotypical villain role, lacking any dimension and zero charisma.
Dino strolls into town one day looking to hire Tobey to build a Mustang. They eventually end up racing each other so Dino can prove his mega star status isn't a fluke. This of course entices Tobey's wide-eyed, ADHD BFF Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertons) to want to get in on the action, which you know won't end well. Doing what any rival would do in the face of near defeat, Dino knocks into Little Pete's car causing it to burst into flames mid-air. Racing away from the scene of the crime, Dino leaves Tobey behind who is picked up by the cops and held accountable for the unintentional murder of his friend.
Released on parole two years later, Tobey seeks revenge, recruiting his ragtag group of friends Joe (Ramón Rodriguez), Benny (Scott Mescudi aka Kid Cudi), and Finn (Rami Malek), a colorful bunch who provide comedic relief and come in handy when the story requires them to be as well as a cheeky-British gal with a wealth of car knowledge named Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), whom he helped build the Mustang for. Poots is the most lively of the cast, creating great chemistry with Paul as they bounce off each other very well. You definitely feel their camaraderie build as the two get to know each other while they are chased by the cops or flee from other drivers because Dino issues a bounty to stop Tobey from reaching Dino.
Together they all must drive across the country to San Francicso in two days time in hopes they can gain the attention of Monarch (Michael Keaton), the organizer of the most illustrious, invitation only underground street racing competition, the DeLeon. Tobey believes that if he qualifies for the DeLeon and wins he will somehow prove his innocence to the world if that makes any sense at all. Keaton chews up every scene with absolute flair and a wonderfully silly, caricature of a performance. Never interacting with a single cast member, I can only imagine Keaton letting loose on set by his lonesome.
This plot summary is reflective of how much time the film takes to establish conflict. Even with two race scenes before Tobey is arrested, the first act is so draining and prolonged that everything becomes completely uninteresting. And you may think that Aaron Paul will save you because he's Jesse from Breaking Bad, but Need for Speed doesn't have the writing team of Vince Gilligan and pals to make Tobey a fully fleshed out and fun character. Thankfully Paul gives a decent enough performance through repetitive scenes of angst to make Tobey's cause seem believable for this movie. But still, the plot is so linear and thin that everything is paint by numbers for director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor).
But thanks to Waugh's insights as a former stunt performer/coordinator, Need for Speed pulls off some of the most brain racking practical effects stunts. That's right, every car chase, crash, and race is performed with real stunt drivers without the use of CGI. With how incredible of a feat that may be, what is presented on screen is not very compelling due to lousy editing. Scenes cut back and forth between the streets and low angle shots of the driver from within the cars sporadically making a lot of the action hard to follow at times. Setting up practical stunts takes money and time, so I'm sure they had limited funds to shoot scenes multiple times and had to use what they had. The cinematography, shot by Shane Hurlbut (Terminator: Salvation; Semi-Pro; Act of Valor), is also very sub par. The movie captures none of the stylish or slick appeal the video game has.
What also makes Need for Speed frustrating is that all of the races are given very poor direction so that it is a bit difficult to grasp exactly where our drivers need to be at the end of each sequence. This disregard of set up places the viewer in an awkward position because the driving feels like it drags on forever without a sense of urgency which hurts the tension in the scenes. Luckily some suspense is built up with police chases and various obstacles that stand in the way of the drivers.
Need for Speed could have easily been called anything because it has little to do with the game other than the racing. In that regard you could call it a success because it doesn't tarnish the game's reputation. However, as a movie, Need for Speed fails to deliver much value for the overly long run time, weak characters, and linear plot. Moviegoers hoping to see a sleek, finely polished Fast & Furious knock off will surely be disappointed by its spastic editing and gritty cinematography.
300: Rise of an Empire (2014)
Lacks the Integrity of the Original, but that Eva Green Though
After seven long years, the commercially praised 300 finally receives its prequel/coincidequel/sequel with 300: Rise of an Empire. In an attempt to reignite life back into fans with an all new cast of characters to rain chaos down on Xerxes and his Persian army, Rise of an Empire sadly does not come close to bringing the same caliber of excitement 300 had. Check out the full spoiler-free review of the film after the break.
Taking into consideration that the naval Battle of Artemisium between Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) and Artemisia (Eva Green) coincides with the Battle of Thermopylae the tale of 300 and King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) 300: Rise of an Empire is pretty historically accurate. But of course we need to add Frank Miller's razzle dazzle, colorful characters and monsters, thousands of buckets of CGI blood, and as much violence and sex as possible and then add more violence on top of that. Rise of an Empire also tells the story before Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans as well as the aftermath thereof.
For a story that takes place before, during, and after the events of its predecessor, 300: Rise of an Empire has a tall order to fill. And for being less than two hours, the film feels excruciatingly longer than what the time line of the narrative suggests it would be. In fact, 300 is 13 minutes longer and takes place over a shorter period of time than Rise of an Empire. What makes this movie such a monster to endure is the disconnect between uninteresting character developments sans Artemisia and the abundance of ultra violence and mayhem.
Rise of an Empire works out of the same mold 300 did whereas it stylizes violence in the most visually compelling way while incorporating as many slow motion shots as possible. If it was their ultimate goal to match the vision of Zack Snyder, but with darker tones shot in 3D, then the filmmakers have succeeded on all fronts. Moviegoers looking for that same effect won't be disappointed by any means. Surprisingly the 3D isn't that terrible either. The worst offender of the cinematography is the random, extreme close ups of the action and our inability to follow the scene clearly. Composer Junkie XL does a decent job at matching the heavy metal sounds of Tyler Bate's original score from 300, so much so that it feels familiar in tone yet he is able to make it his own.
However, beyond the aesthetics, Rise of an Empire fails to create a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment through all of the cut limbs, slit throats, and bloodbaths that worked so well in 300. The stakes of Themistokles and his Athenian warriors are not conveyed as well personally as those of the Spartans. The theme of freedom throughout Greece is hammered home repeatedly by the many lackluster speeches spoken by Themistokles. Unfortunately, Stapleton lacks a certain level of confidence, swagger, and charisma that Butler had; and being physically fit only covers half of the role. It's as if he just tried to mirror Butler's Leonidas without trying to make the character his own.
And equipped with nipple shields, no help is given by his comrades played by Hans Matheson, Jack O'Connell, and Callan Mulvey, who have less character and personality than a head of cabbage. Unlike the Spartans, we do not get enough facts to support these men in war other than the fact that their homes are being threatened. The Athenians are all able to leave the battle whenever they would like because they are free Greeks and that message hasn't been said enough, but they choose to stand by Themistokles' side with little or no reasoning because YOLO, practically. Every Athenian death doesn't really amount to much unlike the Spartans who fought to make Greece realize their stupidity.
But luckily for us, 300: Rise of an Empire has Eva Green, whom without this film would be as lifeless as Kristen Stewarts' eyes. Green's portrayal of Artemisia lights the screen on fire with so much energy, raw passion, and enthusiasm; she may be the only one who understands they're in a 300 movie. Artemisia is so ruthless, cunning, sexy, and absolutely terrifying that she easily joins the ranks of some of the most feared villains in the history of cinema. Whether she uses her tactical prowess to dominate out on the high seas or in the bedroom, the power Artemisia possesses is unmatched by anyone else. Eva Green makes me believe in a world where more strong, female villains in Hollywood need to be realized.
Despite having a much larger scale and an increased budget, director Noam Murro was defeated by a lukewarm screenplay written by Zack Snyerand Kurt Jonstad, which he himself should be to blame as well as a director for not improving on the material he is given. Rise of the Empire also doesn't work too well as a standalone film, as it often brings up many references and characters from 300 to remind us of a better time at the movies. Murro has a decent eye for action, but pays too much attention to Artemisia's development than anyone else, making the survival of the Athenians 300: Rise of an Empire hard to care for without truly understanding them.
Vampire Academy (2014)
'Vampire Academy' is Try Hard, Scooby-Doo Twilight Fan Fiction
Young adult adaptations have it rough in a world where we have Harry Potter and Twilight. The level of expectations range from super premium all the way down to toxic sludge. There is little in-between, with no saving grace for those who push out properties just because there's a large fan base behind the books. And as much as it may have seemed like a good idea, Vampire Academy (written by Richelle Mead) is yet another throwaway YA franchise that fails gloriously.
Now I have never heard of the Vampire Academy series before the movie was announced, but apparently there are six of them. (Cha-ching!) Vampire Academy is the tale of Rosemarie "Rose" Hathaway (Zoey Deutch, who resembles a mix between Ellen Page and Linda Cardellini) and her BFF she has sworn to protect, Vasilisa "Lissa" Dragomir (Lucy Fry). These two ladies have been brought back to St. Vladimir's aka "Vampire Academy" in Montana after being on the run for a year. Lissa is the only living, rightful heir to the throne of Moroi (good vampires) through some regal upbringing that is given little explanation. They've been hiding out because Rose, a Dhampir (halfsie vampires who are the guardians of the Moroi) believes that Lissa has inherited some bad juju and is in danger.
Of course shenanigans occur once they return to school. Blood warnings are smeared on the walls to frighten Lissa (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), the truth to discover who's behind a mystery no one seems to care about has to be uncovered (Scooby-Doo), and the Strirgoi (evil vampires) want to kill the royal family because, you know, they're evil and such.
There's awkward teenage love, high school melodrama, a big stereotypical speech about how we should all get along (Mean Girls), magic is used as a deus ex machina to push the story along, and random pop culture references that make little sense because we are told these kids aren't allowed off the premises of the academy and do not have Internet access or iPhones (#FirstWorldProblems). Sure Lissa and Rose escaped to Oregon for a year, but how did they find time to watch Pretty in Pink and Gladiator while they feared for their lives? I'd like to think that the director of Mean Girls, Mark Waters, would be a decent choice to attempt at breathing new life into the teenage vampire genre, but if you look at his filmography (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past; Mr. Popper's Penguins; The Spiderwick Chronicles) the guy is just a one-hit wonder who can't direct an action scene to save his life. Tina Fey should be the only one receiving kudos for Mean Girls thanks to her screenplay. Mark's brother and the screenwriter of Heathers, Daniel Waters, wrote this adaptation, and it becomes obvious where everything falls apart. (I really don't think Heathers is that great of a film either.) As I said, I have not touched one page of the Vampire Academy books, but I'm sure there has to be more depth to the characters than what is not articulated on screen. Fry does an OK job for her first feature, but Deutch will be the only one to walk away mostly unscathed with the potential for more work. Deutch will need to find a role that will challenge her range if she wants to stand out amongst Shailene Woodley and Jennifer Lawrence though. I dig her energy, quickness, and sass. She's like the male equivalent to Miles Teller. They also really force feed her cleavage as much as possible, which may not be an issue for some guys who get dragged to this by their girlfriends.
All of the secondary characters: Dimitri (Danila Kozlovsky) head Dhampir guardian, Christian (Dominic Sherwood) a fellow Moroi student, and Natalie (Sarah Hyland) also a Moroi, are carbon copies of roles we've seen before. Not a single character do you care about their outcome or come to understand their background throughout the movie. Olga Kurylenko, Gabriel Byrne, and Joely Richardson play the overseeing, party-pooper adult figureheads who bring some flavor with the cheesiest and most chewed up roles imaginable.
The only redeeming quality that Vampire Academy has going for it is the dialogue; not because it's witty, funny, or sharp it's far from it but because it's miles away from the brooding vampire/fantasy we're use to. Sometimes Rose's banter with the others works because of Zoey's well-timed delivery, but the script feels like it is trying way too hard to be edgy and cool as if it were Juno, which would have worked 10 years ago. The best part is that the film tries to rip on Twilight, but just ends up being nearly as shallow.
If Daniel Waters spent a little more time fleshing out the rules and fun of the magic; going into more detail about the royal family and the school; expanded the mythology for us to understand the difference between the vampire races and their past; and provide some immediacy leading up to the climax than Vampire Academy could have worked. We're also stuck on this high school campus for who knows when because they don't give a hint as to how much time has past. Everything feels so closed off on this humungous campus while we are only taken to six or seven rooms.
True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, The Twilight Saga, and Underworld, you would think someone would catch on that we've had a bit of an overload on the whole niche as of late, right? Vampire Academy in no way helps bring vampires back into the forefront of pop culture, it reinforces the fact that someone needs to drive a stake into the genre to put it to rest. Without the enthusiasm of the young cast Vampire Academy would have been insufferable. Take note Hollywood, it's not the quantity of young adult fiction-fantasy novels you bring us, it's the quality.
Cheap Scares Overshadow an Intriguing Spin-off
A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween. Once studios see profitability from a beloved horror movie they will more than likely attempt to cash in on sequels that will undoubtedly lose steam somewhere around the third film. Recently we have seen this with Saw (stopping after its seventh flick in 2010), and here with Paranormal Activity, which got its start in 2009. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones tries very hard to break this curse. Despite rebuilding some faith after a feeble fourth entry, The Marked Ones holds back the franchise from the crucial revival it needs due to weak scares and little expansion in the mythology.
One year after the events of Paranormal Activity 4, this spin-off removes the focus from Katie and Kristi in San Diego County and takes us north to Oxnard, California. Here we meet 18-year-old Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), who just graduated high school, and Hector (Jorge Diaz), his best friend who has to document his friend's educational triumph. After discovering that Jesse's estranged elderly neighbor Anna (Gloria Sandoval) was murdered in her apartment by the valedictorian of their high school, the duo makes the obvious decision to investigate the ordeal. Of course Jesse stumbles upon some bad juju when they enter her apartment, which might explain the strange sounds and behavior he had encountered from his newly deceased neighbor.
With the well of found footage films all but dried up, the Paranormal Activity series has always been one to progress the medium in ways we haven't seen before, as Saw did with its unique traps. Unfortunately The Marked Ones drops the ball. No fan cameras or cool Xbox Kinect effects, just simple hand-held, first person photography and one scene with a Go-Pro. I will give TMO credit for finally stepping out beyond the confines of a household, but with that said there is a lot of untapped potential in doing so. And if you're like me, insisting there should be a purpose for the people to be shooting with their cameras at all times, you won't find one here. Luckily there isn't much shaky-cam to cause nausea.
What The Marked Ones also makes up for from the poorly written PA4 is personality. Jesse and Hector are a likable pair to follow along on their journey. Not much depth to them, but they're tolerable enough to laugh with amongst the handful of comedic moments that loosen you up before the panic takes flight. The Marked Ones winds up having some of the funniest bits of the saga.
Sadly there is poor tension built up with each cheap jump scare or peek-a-boo scare. All of these sequences are predominantly predictable, having used the formula four times now: calm movements and subtle glances of the camera mixed in with a slow-building, deep bass white noise. If jump scares still make for a good horror experience for you, by all means The Marked Ones will raise your blood pressure. But if you're on the other end of the spectrum, there is minimal quality in the terror depicted that neither frightens, disturbs, or entertains.
But what fascinates me about The Marked Ones is the interwoven stories from previous entries. At times the decision to inject references from older PA movies are just to wink at the audience or they're forced in to progress the minimal plot; one person makes a brief appearance just to dish out exposition that our characters couldn't discover on their own. On the other hand, there are some instances where these references serve the story well and actually succeed in retaining my attention.
My biggest concern now is that I hope writer/director Christopher Landon (contributing writer for PA2, PA3, PA4) has not cornered the franchise in a situation it cannot get out of, much like Saw did with its delicately connected plot threads. Some goodwill has been restored here, but PA5 releasing this October needs to hit it out of the park creatively to keep fans engaged and terrified once more.
Although a spin-off, The Marked Ones does not bode well as a stand-alone film. The first three movies are a necessity to understand and appreciate what the filmmakers are trying to do. I am happy to tell you that they practically neglect the existence of PA4 though, so you can skip that monstrosity. Overall, The Marked Ones is a passable entry to a noteworthy horror series that creates enough intrigue to believe that Paranormal Activity is back on track in the right direction.
An Incredibly Beautiful Story That Hits You Right in the Feels
One could easily define a relationship as the inclusion of another person into their life, good or bad, whether as a friend, relative, co-worker, or romantic companion. And that definition can easily be expanded to include pets, places, and even inanimate objects; queue Office Space printer sequence. Spike Jonze's Her explores this unique gift humans are able to forge between other people, places, and things in one of the best, most beautifully told stories of the year.
In the not-so-distant-future where everyone has their own automated assistant, synced to a hand-held computer that communicates via ear piece think Siri but more advanced we meet Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an intelligently humble writer who has a knack for understanding the relationships of others but not his own. Theodore works for a company that is hired to create compelling, personal handwritten letters to loved ones as if written by the client.
Enter OS1, the world's first artificially intelligent operating system for personal use. Right away Theodore installs OS1 to his computer, and after a series of questions one including his preference in a female OS he is introduced to Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a name chose after she read through thousands of names from a baby name book in a fraction of a second.
Samantha is able to learn from Theodore, along with anyone else she comes in contact with, how to become more human in order to work in favor of Theodore's daily routine. As they begin to work together, Samantha's curiosity reaches very intimate topics that have Theodore at odds with his flourishing relationship with his new OS. While questioning Theodore about human connection and the feeling of loss and love, especially about his former marriage with Catherine (Rooney Mara), a special link forms between man and machine.
Scarlett Johansson puts on one of the best performances she has ever done, and is never on-screen once. Her voice acting is inspiring for someone who has minimal work in the field. Every moment she has with Joaquin Phoenix is so natural and charismatic it's as if she is in the room with him physically. If ScarJo voiced Siri I'd be more inclined to use the feature. Phoenix's ability to construct this outstanding chemistry with no one to work with is awe-inspiring. His range of emotion is complex and exciting to watch. His wardrobe however is a completely different discussion for another time. Amongst all of the laughter, affection, and sadness, Her brilliantly captures the raw essence of sharing a life with someone thanks to Joaquin and Scarlett's incredible talents.
What Theodore and Samantha have feels far more organic than any Katherine Heigl movie could ever dream of achieving. Because most romantic stories introduce two characters forced together through happenstance and wacky hijinks. Her takes the road less traveled by taking its time with its characters by showing an honest, emotionally resonating story of how a relationship truly works. Learning through the thick and the thin, they grow as individuals to love and appreciate each other. Spike Jonze has always been a director to harness the power of this kind of character building, and Her nails it out of the ballpark.
It's not just this overly convincing bond between Theodore and Samantha that makes this film a smash success, but you can also give credit to the emotionally unobtrusive score by Arcade Fire and the visual eye of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (The Fighter; Let the Right One In). From the pastel colors to the soft lighting, everything works in Her's favor to heighten the atmosphere our lovebirds inhabit.
Like most relationships, Theodore and Samantha's isn't always rainbows and sunshine. Trust and loyalty are tested while another shade of the story unfolds. And as comfortable as Jonze allows the situation between the two to come into its own, there are striking parallels of how attached we are to our technology today. If your eyes are able to take a moment away from Ted and Sam you'll notice there are very few instances of humans interacting with someone else, everyone is regularly "plugged in." There are very nice and sometimes tense moments where Theodore interacts with similar beings of the fleshy variety, such with his neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), his ex-wife Catherine, and a tasty cameo by Chris Pratt. Each character brings their own perspective, weighing the pros and cons we need as an audience to gain that outside human perspective. I never felt this notion of detaching from our technology to be contrived in any way. The message gained is neatly woven into the story and appreciated, because when it's all said and done we only have each other.
We as humans will continually make and break relationships throughout our lives, shaping the very person we become until we inevitably pass on. And every once in a while someone comes our way that makes us swerve left when we were heading right. Her is a great reminder to relish in what we are capable of creating with another individual, and to make the best of what we have with that person in the time we are allotted. And that is truly beautiful.
This Is the End (2013)
Big on Laughs, Short on Plot
As far as comedies go, 2013 has been slacking. A few laughs and a couple of giggles, but nothing has truly stuck out enough to break my funny bone. That is until I saw This Is The End. The epic, star-studded comedy brings the Apatow bunch to a whole new level; thanks in-part to co-writers and directorial debut of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. As the world comes to its ultimate demise, This Is The End makes good on delivering one of the raunchiest, most entertaining movies of the year. No topic is taboo and no one is safe.
The events leading up to the apocalypse begin with Jay Baruchel, who has come from Canada to visit Seth Rogen in Los Angeles. These two best friends make up our main protagonists, as this story is based on the original short film Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse. As pizza, video games, alcohol, and of course a lot of pot is consumed, Jay comes to find that Seth would like the two of them to attend James Franco's house party. Cautiously reluctant because he finds Seth's new LA buddies threatening to their friendship Jay concedes and they both head over to Franco's ridiculously large mansion complete with Freaks and Geeks art and penis sculptures.
Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, and Aziz Ansari mentioning any more would ruin the fun of the cameos live it up as the night progresses, indulging in on the pleasures of Hollywood society. But just as the party finds its groove, tremors drive everyone outside only to find Los Angeles engulfed in flames. Panicked, everyone runs about in their own way to find safety as if someone yelled "fire" in a crowded club. Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Robinson, and Hill bunker down in Franco's palace and board up the doors and windows. Unbeknownst to them, the next morning they find Danny McBride alive and kicking, but eating all of their rations. The six friends must quickly learn to get along and kick in their survivalist instincts if they are to ever make it through the end of the world.
The theory of bringing all of these talented actors together to play themselves is quite unfamiliar territory, but everyone, including the secondary "characters" steps up their game to perform admirably. (On a side note, there seems to be a lot of ragtag team movies lately ever since The Avengers made it big, i.e. Fast & Furious 6, Gangster Squad, Now You See Me.) Although everyone is playing themselves, there is a degree of character to each of the actors to amplify the conflict and dynamic of the group. I'm sure each of these actors are buddy buddy in real life, but that would get boring to see on the screen. I like that they can each be themselves while also adding a little flair to their personas.
Similarly to Superbad, this film tells the tale of two friends who have become increasingly distant. This is the main through line of our story aside from the immediate danger lurking outside casa de Fracno. There is also a little social commentary on celebrity status and Hollywood. And even though this is a comedy at heart, elements of horror, suspense, and action get mixed in making for great genre twisting fun.
This Is The End relies heavily on the audience to have been following the work of these actors for quite some time. There is a ton of referential humor that mention films such as Pineapple Express, Your Highness, 127 Hours, and The Green Hornet so casually in conversation it would be hard to understand if you haven't seen them. This type of comedy may not be for everyone, but if you enjoy these actors, and have seen most of their filmography, all of the jokes will payoff without fail. Strangely enough, while every single moment had me rolling on the ground, all of the jokes are not very memorable. The issue here is that the film lacks a certain heart.
Superbad is incredibly funny because throughout all the crazy antics you have a sense of commitment to the characters and care about their friendship. And here you couldn't really care less about any of them. With full emphasis on the comedy, the rookie directors seem to have forgotten all about the true conflict within the story. As soon as the chaos begins to wreck havoc on Earth, the dispute between Seth and Jay is thrown to the wayside as the group struggles to survive.
As knee-slapping as I find this movie, the middle of This Is The End meanders, making the story feel longer than it should be. It would make sense that this story originated as a short film. The whole second act feels directionless and very stretched out. They could have cut out a lot in order to strengthen the relationship between Baruchel and Rogen or put the characters in more situations that would have tested their friendship to forward the story. It takes them awhile to eventually leave the house and it makes for a very rushed ending.
Undoubtedly, This Is The End exceeded my expectations as a fan of all of these actors. Anyone who enjoys this cast of misfits will be greatly rewarded by a film that holds nothing back. On the surface this movie is a gas, and my only wish is that it could have delved deeper into the lives of Jay and Seth so that we could invest more attention to their friendship. Regardless, if you're looking for a really, really fun time at the movies, This Is The End will not disappoint.
The Internship (2013)
Late to the Party but Completely Harmless
Buckle up, because if The Internship is what you seek, prepare for an overly long, two-hour advertisement for Google riddled with outdated clichés. But despite the lack of ingenuity, this film turns out a pretty harmless attempt at humor with a little dash of heart. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson put in a great effort, but the once famed Wedding Crashers duo are hardly given enough room to grow.
After being let go from their wrist watch company that went under, Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) are labeled as dinosaurs, struggling to find a place in the world. Hounded by his sister to grow up and get married, Nick picks up a job at mattress retailer. Meanwhile, Billy comes to find his house under foreclosure with his long-term girlfriend leaving him to find his way. From having it all to hitting rock-bottom, the two salesmen find themselves in quite the pickle.
Desperate, and apparently with no other options, Billy decides to enroll Nick and himself into The University of Phoenix in order to gain an internship with Google, that may or may not lead to employment. Convinced to take a leap of faith, Nick joins Billy in a video conference interview with the prestigious billion-dollar corporation. And wouldn't you know it, they nailed their interview in spite of their technological shortcomings.
Arriving on Google's well-branded campus in northern California, Nick and Billy come to find they may be over their heads. Every Googler is connected to a device and in-tune with the modern age, while Billy has a hard time figuring out how to be "on the line." Having to pair off into teams during orientation, the duo join with a band of intellectual misfits also deemed unworthy of their talents by the rest of the interns.
The socially awkward Lyle (Josh Brener) leads the rest of the group who consists of the cynical and distant Stuart Twombly (Dylan O'Brien), the sexually frustrated and geeky Neha Patel (Tiya Sircar), and the home schooled, over-protected Yo-Yo Santos (Tobit Raphael). This ragtag team of "Nooglers" new Googlers must work together with Nick and Billy in a series of challenges if they have any hope of landing a job.
The Internship is an underdog story to its core; everyone must prove how much Googliness they have. Lyle's group is monitored closely by the highly critical Mr. Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), who leads the internship program, unafraid to openly express doubts in Nick and Billy. But an underdog story is incomplete without its villain, which is filled in by Graham Hawtrey (Max Mingella), the overly confident and snarky rival intern. Rose Byrne also appears as a Google employee who Nick sets his heart after. Her presence is basically a waste of time and plot development.
With the pieces set in place, The Internship begins to tick off cliché after cliché from its checklist in order to drive home its not too subtle messages: Generation X cannot understand Generation Y, the economy is tough on college graduates in today's job market, live life to the fullest, be yourself, and don't be a jerk.
Vince Vaughn, who wrote the story, positions Nick and Billy well as their own characters, separating them from the those they played in Wedding Crashers, John and Jeremy. But as a comedy, the jokes fall flat. The point that Nick and Billy are from a different era than their fellow interns is beaten to death and the whole film relies on this premise to work. It's been done before, but with much older actors.
Nothing in the screenplay demands our attention nor does it create anything new for the viewer to enjoy. The challenges our characters are tasked to complete are hardly complex or inspiring they play Quidditch for one of them which ends up as missed opportunities reflecting poorly on Vaughn or Googles' creativity. One of the challenges is for the interns to develop a mobile app, and the movie dedicates an exhausting amount of time to this scenario with little pay off.
Where The Internship tends to excel is within the character development. This young cast arrives on screen fairly unknown Tobit's first role yet they do a swell job at bringing their characters to life. The struggles that each one of our protagonist face creates a great team dynamic once they eventually learn to understand each other. Although director Shawn Levy (Date Night; Night at the Museum; Real Steel) fails to find a unique position on the genre, he is able to capture a positive energy that maintains a slow pulse strong enough to keep forward momentum.
Even though Nick and Billy are fantastic salesmen, Levy has a hard time selling The Internship as a film that neither surprises or excites. The bland, archaic comedy minimally tickles the funny bone yet has so much heart and good intentions it is not unbearable to ingest. The Internship is rather forgettable, but isn't a complete failure due to the charisma of the cast and the movie's ability to embrace some of the weirder moments that provides enough life to make it passable.
The Hangover Part III (2013)
Not the Trilogy we Asked for, but the Ending we Deserve
If the movie trailers and the posters live up to their promise, this is the end for The Wolfpack as we know it. Not disliking Part II myself, as much as everyone else, I still held reservations against Part III. Going in with low expectations, I can say that The Hangover Part III makes up for the disastrous Part II, but comes nowhere near the level of the original.
Breaking formula, there is no hangover this time, but there is another missing person. Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Doug (Justin Bartha) are reunited once again to mourn the loss of Alan's dad (Jeffery Tambor). Alan's outrageous antics and almost cartoonish behavior have elevated to the point that his friends and family make the executive decision to banish him to a special home until he is deemed fit to reenter society.
Before The Wolfpack can even make it to Arizona with Alan they are ambushed by Marshall, a drug kingpin who has direct connections to "Black" Doug (Mike Epps) from The Hangover. Six degrees of separation brings Marshall to reveal that Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) has stolen $21 million from him. Marshall kidnaps "White" Doug and forces Phil, Stu, and Alan on a merry chase to find Mr. Chow and his money.
The tone is set in a much darker place. A real life is in serious peril with Marshall threatening to kill Doug unless they bring him Chow. This plot development is a fantastic way to tie all three movies together, but it rarely finds a way to works itself in with the subplot of Alan needing mental help. Drifting away from the trouble with Alan to focus on finding Chow, there is never a feeling of urgency to anything that makes us care for Doug's safety, which ultimately lessens Alan's story.
As Part III begins as a cry for help from Alan, we never see a progression of his change until the very end when he meets Melissa McCarthy. Her scene with Alan makes more sense as a gag than an actual instrument to influence the character. This moment is way too forced and is resolved too quickly. However, it is nice to see Phil and Stu bring a calm balance to the overly exhausted random acts of words that spew out of Alan's mouth. These actors have a great chemistry together, but nothing in this story helps grow these characters from what we know of them already.
On the other hand, Mr. Chow is a greater force to be reckoned with this time around and you can actually tell how threatening and sly he can be. And although Jeong works well in Part III, his atrocious accent and Asian caricature is still unbearable. John Goodman is a decent commanding villain, but is never given much to do. What irritates me about his threat is that since they are in the U.S. The Wolfpack never bother to call the cops or are given an ultimatum by Marshall, which lacks tension.
For a sequel that no one really asked for, Part III does a reasonable job at clinging on to audiences that have not lost faith in the franchise. Unfortunately it was an uphill battle from the beginning after Part II left its mark. You could, however, skip Part II and hardly miss a beat aside from one joke. Almost every element of the first film is re-introduced in the third to bring the trilogy together in a neat little package. Even little Carlos makes an appearance, and it happens to be the most genuine scene in the movie.
The movie is visually slick, like any under Todd Phillips' belt, he uses every ounce of his budget to his advantage. With what comedy there is, the timing from every actor is just as smooth as ever. Again, Phillips makes use of a killer soundtrack and fits it well into each scene. There is a rendition of "Hurt" from Nine Inch Nails that would make the band cringe, but it is timed perfectly for this film. "Dark Fantasy" by Kanye West, "Down in Mexico" by The Coasters, and many others work in favor of the film keeping up a high energy.
Helms, Galifianakis, and Cooper have gotten their character dynamics as The Wolfpack down to a science. As much as it hurts to see these actors fill the shoes of these characters again because it feels like they're in it for the paycheck they all do a great job running through the motions. I did have a good chuckle here and there, but most of those moments have been easily forgotten. There are some clever elements that I enjoyed, but for the most part this movie is bland and fails to elevate the franchise one inch.
And even though the stakes are much higher this time, it never really appears like anyone cares about the safety of Doug and his kidnapping is one more annoyance they have to suffer through to find a happy ending. Doug's kidnapping is basically used as a running gag at this point to keep him out of the film. What I would have liked to see is for Todd Phillips to completely depart from this franchise, maintain the same rules, and try something daring to give us something fresh for these characters to do.
Fans of The Hangover won't be entirely disappointed by Part III as much as they were with Part II. By no means does it reach the same caliber of the first, but it is coherent enough to work as an subpar sequel. At no point does Part III feel like an enjoyable farewell experience, and that's a shame. The actors make this film entertaining enough to get by, but The Hangover Part III never succeeds in being anything more than a way to cleanly tie up loose ends.