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After Earth (2013)
Decent, light-weight sci-fi
The critics have been unnecessarily harsh in blasting this film. It is not the disaster that many people are labeling it. It is at least mediocre and perhaps even decent.
After Earth's story is simple--in the future, a military general and his aspiring military son crash land on a no-longer-inhabitable Earth and the son must retrieve the distress beacon from the separated tail of the ship. The screenplay is wise in not over-complicating the simple story, but I would have appreciated just a little bit more character and world development.
M. Night Shyamalan's direction is right for this movie. He is more deliberate than typical sci-fi fare, but it works for this movie since it is such a simple, linear plot. The tone is somber, but given the gravity of the situation, I would expect nothing else. I found his choice to make all of the actors speak in a made up "future" accent a little off-putting at first, but I quickly got over it. I also thought the prologue was a little clunky and perfunctory, and I would have liked a more satisfying resolution.
The visual effects were convincing and effective enough. They did not break new ground, but they blended well with the on-location scenery. I felt thoroughly immersed in the world. Moreover, I enjoyed the design of the architecture on Nova Prime, and I found myself wanting to learn more about their culture.
Much has been made of Jaden Smith's performance. I thought it was serviceable for the role--he needed to be physical, afraid, angry, and resolved, and he was effective in each of those elements of performance. Sure, he does not show the charisma that his father has shown in previous roles, but this role did not require charisma. It is also worth noting that he father showed very little charisma in this film as well, which indicates that it may not be Jaden that is lacking, but that the script and direction took charisma off the table.
All in all, this movie was decent enough escapism for a short, simple, sci-fi flick. It might have been more successful as an early March or October release when there is less competition and people have lower expectations. If the trailers made you interested in seeing it, then go ahead and check it out.
The Happening (2008)
Engrossing but imperfect
The reviews for this film have been embarrassingly bad, just as they were for "Lady in the Water" and "The Village." For my money, they were deserved for "Lady" but completely off the mark here.
Despite what detractors are saying, the leads turned out some solid performances and Shaymalan shows an interesting blend of restraint and gratuitousness. He demonstrates that he can create and maintain tension while revealing the disturbing visuals that he avoided so carefully in Signs and he crafts an environmental disaster movie that required no flashy special effects.
Thematically, this continued Shaymalan's common theme that nobody is an island - everyone is connected to the world around them. This was also Shaymalan's most overtly topical film, unless you believe "The Village" was about the post 9/11 Bush administration.
There were, of course, some mis-steps, especially the overuse of wind as a potential threat.
Overall, this is worth a look if you are a Shyamalan fan. If you did not like "Signs" or "The Village," then this is not for you.
Rocky V (1990)
Imperfect, but overly maligned
Here is a movie that has taken a lot of heat. Looking back on it after having watched the new final film in the series, Rocky Balboa, I believe some of the extreme negativity came from two places - the fatigue that comes from watching a fifth installment in a movie series, and the belief that this would be the last movie in the series.
As the final film in the series, this movie was a disappointment - Rocky is a boxer, and he never steps into the ring. Also, it is a stylistic departure from the film that immediately preceded - V looks and feels much more like Rocky I than Rocky IV, which may have been jarring to some.
Rocky V works better as a fifth installment rather than as the final film. We can overlook the fact that there is no training montage and that Rocky does not step into the ring. We can accept the stylistic departure from Rocky IV because Balboa continues in the vein of Rocky V. We can get past the unrealistic plot point of Rocky losing all of his fortune, because we see he finds a way to get by in Rocky Balboa.
There are still some things that are simply bad in Rocky V that Rocky Balboa does not make acceptable, namely the fight at the end. Rocky V does not build naturally to a fight - this is a movie that is ultimately about overcoming hardship and the complexities of family life. The fight did nothing to conclude that story - it seemed contractually obligated. It is also strange that his son magically ages several years during the few months that Rocky is in Russia.
Still, it is an acceptable installment in the series, if not an acceptable ending. Stallone gives a better performance than he did in III or IV, and it develops the father-son element of the greater story quite nicely.
I am horrified that a "film" like this can gross as much money as it has. I am horrified that the IMDb users have rated it so high.
What was good about this movie? The effects, both auditory and visual.
What was bad? Everything else. Countless plots and A-list actors all fighting each other for screen time, while the audience is left with a seriously convoluted "plot," no connection to the characters, and an almost 3 hour movie which could have been an hour and a half. Half of the film was exposition for unnecessary side-plots, and the other half was effects sequences that were so over-the-top that they became tedious.
Un-entertaining and hard to follow. A far cry from the comparably simple and superior first installment.
Chicks 101 (2004)
Very problematic, but a valiant first effort
I saw this movie in it's pre-DVD release attempt to make its money back.
First, let me say that this is NOT a good movie. Second, let me say that it is not a wasted effort - the first-time-filmmaker Lovinder Gill's screenplay had a couple of nice ideas and messages throughout, but they were hidden amongst lots of clutter.
Now then, down to the nitty-gritty.
-Film was uneven in every way. Stylistically, it didn't know what it wanted to be. It started with kind of a spare theatrical quality that I kind of liked, then it went with an over-the-top style that didn't work for me, and finally it resolved itself by trying to be a quiet romantic realistic thing. I just didn't know how I was supposed to respond at any given moment.
-Cliched and repetitive. In order to win over the feminist, our hero learned one quote from another, more famous feminist, and said it over and over again. I got the feeling that that was the only feminist quote that the filmmakers knew, so they just used it a lot.
-Not particularly funny. That's all I have on that.
-Performances were hit-or miss. The three main leads were generally pretty good, but there was a lot of bad stuff going on in the supporting cast.
-I suppose the general message was nice, and there were some specific moments that were effective such as Louis' 60/40 speech and some of his "advice" to the guys in the class.
All in all, I would say that this film was a great project for Mr. Gill to see what works and what doesn't - I hope he learned a lot. But as a film, it's just not very good. Sorry. I know this will offend all of the friends of the filmmakers that gave this a "10."
Sin City (2005)
Problems with narrative structure mar beautiful surface
Sin City is truly revolutionary. It is a stylistic masterpiece. The visuals are amazing in their blend of film noir, comic book styling, and use of color. This is the first time a comic has TRULY been brought to the screen.
Unfortunately the narrative structure allowed this otherwise flawless movie to falter.
The Sin City graphic novels are a collection of separate stories which occasionally loosely relate all in the place of Basin City. Each of the major characters of the film (Marv, Hartigan, and Dwight) have their own Sin City novel to stretch their arms in. Each is a story unto itself with its own beginning, middle, and end.
Sin City the movie contains three of these individual novels under one heading "Sin City." The film's director, Robert Rodriguez, opted not to do the film in an episodic fashion...or did he? This is where the film falters. He could have chose to do three individual episodes, each beginning with its own individual title: Marv, Dwight, Hartigan. But Rodriguez chose not to, instead he wanted to film a single, cohesive whole. This could have worked. But it was haphazard. Instead of having the stories weave together, he left the Marv and Dwight stories as episodes, split the Hartigan story in half to bookend the episodes, and did something with Josh Hartnet to bookend the bookends. The trouble with this is that the audience starts to search for meanings and connections as soon as Hartigan reappears. And the dots did not connect - just opened more questions.
I left the theater blown away by the visuals, but wondering if there was meant to be a greater story. I thought it might be the Roarke family...but the Dwight story had nothing to do with that. I thought it might be the prostitution community...but the Hartigan story did not deal with that.
In the end, it felt like a movie that should have been episodic but had delusions of cohesion. Were the visuals not so amazing and the adaptation so reverent, I would give this a 5/10. But all things considered I give it an 8/10.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
despite some questions, an amazing film
I should preface with my background - I am a Protestant Christian of the liberal variety - i.e. I am appalled by the religious "right." With that out of the way, let me first say that this film was, from a production standpoint, amazing. Acting, cinematography, makeup, unity of artistic vision - all are amazing.
From my background as a Christian, I was moved by the severity of the depiction of Christ's suffering. Never before has it been so graphic, and never before has it been so powerful. If you are a Christian, this film will likely bring you to tears. For that reason, this movie is completely successful.
That was my emotion/spiritual response. But I also had an intellectual response. And my brain had some questions at the end. The big question being one that has been made much of - why was the Roman leadership portrayed in such a positive and complex light, and yet Caiaphus and the majority of the Jewish leadership was portrayed as single-minded evil people. I wondered about that. I wondered why Mel Gibson had not included Caiaphus' line of doubt from the Gospel of John.
Also in question was one of the last shots of the movie - the devil was in it and I think it was supposed to be a shot of Hell, but I wasn't sure. Eh. It didn't work for me.
But overall impression - this is a moving film for Christians. Non-Christians would probably not respond in the same way.
Great film, but....
As an unwavering fan of Mr. M. Night Shayamalan, I must say this was good. But to clarify my perspective, I did not see this when it first came out. I rented it after having seen The Sixth Sense, Signs, and The Village. Being a fan of those three, I knew this would not disappoint.
This film has all of the prerequisites of an M. Night film....slow, brooding atmosphere, dialogue instead of action, heaps of character development, and a twist of some kind. Ultimately, this film works. It works well. We feel for the characters, want to know what will happen next, and are intrigued by the premise. All of the actors meet my expectations - there is no weak link in the acting. Shayamalan tends to pull good performances out of everyone.
That being said, I think there are two minor problems with this movie. First, the movie has a boldly slow pace, but that works for the film. What bothered me a little bit is there was about a 30 minute period of time in the movie where very little happened - in the "action" or in the characters. It seemed a repetitious - "am I really unbreakable or not? Is this guy yanking my chain or what?" This problem is minor, but with weaker actors, my attention would not have been held.
The other minor problem is how the "twist" was carried out. There is a potentially massive revelation, but it gets written off by two sentences on the screen. The climax becomes an afterthought. There is no falling action. I liked the twist, but I thought it was written off.
All in all, this is a good movie - much better than your average Hollywood entertainment. I recommend it if you like to think about movies.
Cradle Will Rock (1999)
clever, underrated and under viewed
This is the only movie that I have seen which SUCCESSFULLY threads together so many plots into one cohesive whole. The scope of this film is immense and yet it manages to be personal and moving.
Each performance in "Cradle" hits right on the mark, despite much being made about Susan Sarandon's lack of performance or Emily Watson's lack of singing ability. Forgive my tangent, but her lack of singing ability is the point. Need we recall Orson Welles ranting, "She's terrible, why did we cast her?" Particularly notable are Bill Murray and Hank Azaria.
As a director, Tim Robbins has done some marvelous work here, adding a certain theatricality which adds to the theme of the film. It feels like a live performance, particularly in a scene backstage where the camera meanders around the theatre picking up bits of conversation as it goes in a remarkably staged scene that must have taken hours to rehearse just to get the timing. The juxtapositions of high society's artistic discussions with rehearsals of "Cradle Will Rock," and the performance of "Cradle" with the demolition of the Rivera piece are stunning.
And then of course there is the social commentary. Tim Robbins is clearly left-leaning (but so am I), but the movie is relatively fairly balanced. Ironically, it is the unions, not the government, which keep "cradle" from being performed in its original venue.
The reason I rate this a "9" instead of a "10" is because of the film's accessibility. To a person unfamiliar with art or the depression or the red scare, this movie would not have much meaning. But if you meet the viewing criteria, this is one of the best.
a fulfilling cinematic experience
Upon seeing the trailer for this film, I thought to myself, "self - I might rent that when in comes out on DVD. Maybe." Frankly, it looked like it was probably pretty good, but how good could a middle-aged road trip wine tasting movie really be? But then came the critical acclaim and I realized that there must be more than what is on the surface. Indeed, such is the case.
This is one of the few movies of the last couple years which has taken me (effectively) through all of the major emotions such as happiness, sadness, surprise, amusement, concern, etc. The connection I felt to these characters - all four of them - was impressive. What is even more impressive is that I could get this connection without being able to relate to the characters in any way - I'm in my mid-20s, not a wine drinker, not familiar with California, not divorced, etc. Still, I was able to connect in a way that I often do not connect with movies.
My rating for this is a 9 and not a 10 only because there were a couple of moments that did not work 100% and there were a few directorial choices that I felt pulled me out of the narrative, but these small things do not keep this from being an amazing film. I recommend it to anyone. 9/10