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petra_ste

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357 reviews in total 
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Rogue One (2016)
2 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
The three stages after a new Star Wars movie, 30 December 2016
7/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

1) Relief and jubilation that it's better than the prequels; 2) Gushing over its slick execution, practical effects, cool set-pieces - at this point, a tentative argument is made that "it's better than Return of the Jedi" 3) Creeping realization of the movie's flaws.

Rogue One (aka Episode 3,5 or"How the Death Star plans were stolen") is an entertaining flick with strong moments and a few issues; inferior to the original trilogy and superior to the prequels, I'd rate it higher than The Force Awakens as well, because at least it's not a remake of A New Hope.

The film does plenty of things right - the look of it, in particular, is perfect; sets, effects and costumes are great, with a "lived-in" feel which is classic Star Wars. Edwards is a fine visual director, his set-pieces are neat and stylish. Rogue One also features a rare case of clever retcon: the Death Star's fatal structural flaw was implanted as a revenge by a Rebel-sympathizing scientist. Not bad.

The main issue is haphazard characterization. Characters are well-cast and competently acted, but they are sketchily drawn, missing moments of development which would have made them pop to life.

Felicity Jones's Jyn Erso (Dark Forces reference duly noted) has two father figures but interacts meaningfully with neither, and in the space of a few hours (though admittedly eventful hours) goes from cynical loner to making pep talks about hope. Diego Luna's Cassian has a promising "Han shooting Greedo" scene at the beginning, but we never learn about his backstory and the reason of his devotion to the Rebel Alliance. Forrest Whitaker's interesting Saw Gerrera gets little screen-time after a long build-up.

Donnie Yen has a couple of cool moments, but his blind monk Chirrut and trigger-happy pal Baze (Wen Jiang) feel more like NPCs with great stats in a role-playing game than fleshed-out characters. The Alan Tudyk-voiced robot (inspired by KOTOR's HK-47?), although droll, becomes too much of a quip-delivering machine.

Riz Ahmed's pilot is underwritten for such a crucial role; we don't learn what made him desert the Empire, but we do get a confrontation with a lie-detecting octopus (?) which is supposed to drive him insane but just leaves him a bit weird for a couple of scenes. It's a silly moment which sums up the movie's aimless approach to characterization (either cut the scene or give it meaningful consequences).

The lack of arcs and developed relationships make several supposedly emotional moments feel unearned - like Baze calling Jyn "little sister" near the end (I think that was the second time they spoke to each other in the whole movie) and Bodhi's "For you, Galen!" (the two never share a scene).

In fact, the more coherent new character is villain Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn); although he isn't particularly menacing, he does feel like a well-defined individual – a smug, amoral, ambitious Imperial officer who is way over his head dealing with bigger fishes like Vader and Tarkin.

Speaking of Tarkin, he is played by a CGI version of Peter Cushing; although it looks good as far as these things go - and they don't go THAT far yet, a seamless CGI human is still impossible without the uncanny valley effect - pasting a dead actor's appearance into a movie he didn't choose to be a part of, in a role he had no creative influence over, strikes me as creepy. As iconic as Cushing was, just recast the part.

Other issues include the clunky beginning - jumping back and forth to five different planets in fifteen minutes, with distracting title cards (why not use the series' classic wipe transitions?) - and an excess of fan-service: some of it is appreciated (a spaceship here, a throw-away line there), too much becomes an overkill. We don't need, for example, to bump into the two creepy guys from the Mos Eisley cantina - it's the kind of pointless, smug in-joke the now deceased Expanded Universe would have dished out (actually, it would have added a couple of novels about their shenanigans).

Rogue One was just a few tweaks away from greatness, but settled for competence instead. Still, for me it's the best Star Wars movie in thirty years... although it wasn't that high a bar. Now, if only they could reduce the fan-service... wait, what else is Disney filming now? A young Han Solo movie? Oh dear.

7/10

2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Some footage is better left lost, 24 December 2016
4/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Look, I've defended found-footage horror in the past - "har har why do they keep filming" notwithstanding. Matt Reeves' Cloverfield was neat, impressive, with its sense of scale and scope, the humongous threat glimpsed from the limited point of view of the protagonists; Jaume Balagueró's Rec was terrifying, with a masterful build-up of tension as the mystery surrounding the apartment building began to unravel. Blair Witch, however, is a worthless specimen of this particular genre.

If the first half or so is mediocre but tolerable, with a bunch of underdeveloped characters roaming the haunted forest, in the second part all semblance of storytelling goes out the window and this becomes some of the most tiresome stuff I've watched all year.

You can effectively recreate the experience by turning on a cheap camera, grabbing it and running at full speed through your local public gardens at night, while a bunch of your friends bellow and scream as you pass by; every now and then, someone gets a perspiring, hysterical close-up before being yanked away from the camera with a "whoosh!". This is anti-cinema; it's so shapeless and incoherent, it makes the first Paranormal Activity (i.e. the only one which wasn't completely terrible) look as tightly plotted as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I suppose suckers for Blair Witch lore (if such people still exist seventeen years after the original) could be intrigued by the last ten minutes... except, the movie takes a supremely silly turn even then and implies aliens are behind it all. Wait, what?

Worth no viewings.

4/10

True Grit (2010)
A saucy line will not get you far with me, 3 December 2016
9/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There's this idea by some critics and moviegoers that True Grit does not feel like a Coens movie. However, it seems to me this adaptation of Charles Portis' fine western novel bears many clear traces of the brothers' touch.

Has there ever been a case of weak acting in a Coens movie? Performances are tone-perfect. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is phenomenal as shrewd, pugnacious 14-years-old Mattie, who hires dogged U.S. Marshall Cogburn to hunt down the man who killed her father. The great Jeff Bridges is compelling and larger-than-life as Cogburn, the role played by John Wayne in the 1969 version. Matt Damon (as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (as the dim-witted killer) and Barry Pepper (as the leader of a criminal gang) round out the excellent cast.

Camera work is stylish, precise. See the ending of the climactic battle, with an exceptional amount of tension conjured by a long shot of two far-away figures as we wait for the result of a desperate sniping attempt; see how the camera slowly creeps into the point of view of a doomed character during a confrontation in a cabin to make his abrupt demise all the more shocking.

Storytelling is masterful, dialogues crisp. Notice the clever way the Coens handle exposition - the element most screenwriters struggle with - in the courtroom scene, as Cogburn's background and history of frontier justice are extorted from him in moments full of humour and conflict. Weird characters like the "bear man" and darkly humorous bits - like when a condemned Native American's final words are unceremoniously cut off by the hangman - are also trademark Coens.

The delightful soundtrack was composed by Carter Burwell, the brothers' long-time collaborator since Blood Simple.

True Grit does feel less misanthropic and nihilistic than the Coens' average film, with Mattie finding a surrogate father figure and the Cogburn/LaBoeuf duo eventually bonding with her. Still, consider how the most emotional sequence - the "ride to death" to save the girl - results first in the killing of a beloved animal companion, then in the physical disfigurement of a main character, and how the epilogue is a regretful meditation about time and loss.

So yes, it is a Coens movie, and it's a great one.

9/10

3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Yo mama is so ugly, she put the "ug" in "Ugnaught", 11 November 2016
5/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Of all the Star Wars prequels, Revenge of the Sith wastes the biggest potential.

The Phantom Menace was doomed from the start because of its terrible structure (the Tatooine mid-section is so clunky, it kills the momentum of the whole movie); Attack of the Clones is a pestilent disaster.

But Revenge... there was a great premise here. Now that the new, Disney-tagged cycle of Star Wars has begun with the competent but depressingly safe Episode VII (a movie which is "a bit derivative" in the same way hydrogen cyanide is "a bit unhealthy"), Lucas' ambitions with the prequels appear all the more admirable, his failure all the more disappointing. Revenge was supposed to be the climax of Anakin Skywalker's downfall, the culmination of his reverse hero's journey; horrific writing and consequently abysmal performances turned it into the punchline of a drawn-out, embarrassing joke.

(Speaking of performances, what happened to Christensen? Unlike Natalie Portman - who was equally bad but landed on her feet - and the blameless McGregor, Hayden seems to have disappeared. I know right now he is probably chilling out with some hot model in a swimming pool, but I like to picture him atoning for his acting sins in some remote monastery).

People mock Lucas as someone whose main priority was selling action figures but, watching scenes like the Jedi purge or the Obi-wan/Anakin duel, I don't see that at all. I see a once vital storyteller trying - trying hard - to recapture what talent he once possessed.

Sadly, much like Kurt Vonnegut's fictional writer Kilgore Trout, George has interesting ideas but botches the execution; his hubris got the better of him when he decided he should be the scriptwriter instead of merely the creative force which provided the basic story elements. The prequel trilogy in general and Revenge in particular were a brave, ambitious project which ended up as an abject defeat. And that's why J. J. Abrams overcompensated in terms of caution.

5,5/10

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Rendezvous with Europa, 10 October 2016
7/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This found-footage movie is quite low-key for a sci-fi thriller - meaning there aren't giant robots fighting monsters or nuclear bombs countdowns. It's a space exploration yarn with an old-school, "Rendezvous with Rama" vibe, where action takes a backseat to mystery and awe.

The main problem is structure. The movie opens with a flash-forward, then alternates between two different time-lines, both the first and the last days of the mission. It's a mistake; not only jumping back and forth is distracting, it also spoils the death of a crew member, an effective scene which would have carried more tension if we hadn't already watched its aftermath.

This also muddles other characters' arcs; they start off as morose and disillusioned, then we jump back to before the incident, when they are still optimistic. Playing with time like that is a dangerous storytelling choice; with a few exceptions (think Memento), the dramatic progression works better as a chronological crescendo from good to bad to worse.

Maybe I'm sounding like The Europa Report is a mess, but it's not. Like Duncan Jones' Moon, this movie looks neat in spite of a slim budget; the cast is composed of competent character actors. After the first two thirds of Interstellar, this is probably as close to a "hard sci-fi / space exploration adventure" as fans of the genre are likely to get in a long time.

6,5/10

ARQ (2016)
4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
What if there is no tomorrow?, 4 October 2016
7/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In 1993, Harold Ramis' comedic masterpiece Groundhog Day struck cinematic gold with the premise of the protagonist trapped in a time loop, facing the same events over and over again and dealing with them more and more efficiently.

In 2011, Duncan Jones' excellent Source Code put a sci-fi/thriller spin to the premise.

ARQ, the debut of writer/director Tony Elliott, follows Source Code's footsteps but adds to the formula another clever twist. In a war-ravaged future, a scientist and his partner are captured by a group of mysterious masked bandits; when he gets killed, he wakes up again right before the attack, stuck in a loop created by a machine he invented. As this happen again and again, he starts elaborating a more effective defence. However, and here's the catch, after a while he isn't the only one remembering previous events.

Multiple loopers? Yeah, that's a neat concept.

Science is wonky; in terms of logic, the plot melts like Mozzarella cheese in a furnace the moment you stop to think about its finer details - in particular, a last minute reveal that should be a REALLY BIG DEAL (the loop is confined to a single area) is completely glossed over... still, this sci-fi/thriller kept me engaged throughout. It's a small-scale story with only a handful of characters trapped in a single location, but it's fast-paced and compelling.

6,5/10

Bad movie, disastrous adaptation, 28 September 2016
4/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The original Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series is the rare kind of fantasy fiction ostensibly aimed at kids which can be enjoyed by adults as well - a bit like The Hobbit (the book, not the tiresome movie trilogy). With its vivid characters and compelling story, the Nickelodeon saga ran for three exciting seasons.

So, how does a director whose increasingly shaky reputation hinged on thrillers adapt in an hour and a half movie the 400+ minutes first season of an action/adventure/fantasy series?

Badly.

Writing is leaden and ponderous, but that's hardly a surprise in a M. Night Shyamalan film - the voice-over by Katara (Nicola Peltz), in particular, is one of the most overwritten, repetitive and insufferable narrations I recall in a major production. Ironically, in spite of all the yammering, the exposition is so inefficient that the series' rich lore and world-building are mercilessly castrated - the result is a generic, anodyne fantasy setting.

(To be fair, the first season was challenging to adapt because of its very episodic structure; the second and third have more forward momentum).

While M. Night has never been a strong writer (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable notwithstanding), he does possess some visual talent. Unfortunately, he is not a great ACTION director, while The Last Airbender relies heavily on action; therefore, set-pieces here range from bland to ridiculous.

The most obvious problem is that, in the series, "bending" - a mix between martial arts and magic employed to command elements (water, earth, fire, air) - was visually effective and precise, with each elemental effect corresponding to a crisp, clear body movement. This connection is lost in the movie's action scenes, where characters often gesticulate wildly and flail their limbs around to produce comically tiny results. The effect is grotesque - the kind of silly, juvenile stuff which gives fantasy a bad name.

4/10

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Irresistible impulse, 21 September 2016
9/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

James Stewart plays Biegler, attorney of Manion (Ben Gazzara), charged with the murder of a man who reportedly raped Manion's wife Laura (Lee Remick).

The plot could have made for standard genre schlock (think Joel Schumacher's A Time to Kill), but Anatomy of a Murder is sly, ironic, rich in psychological detail and characterization, focusing on the chess-like courtroom tactics between Biegler and the prosecutor (George C. Scott).

A lesser, more obvious movie would have made the defendant a sympathetic, righteous avenger and his wife as pure as the driven snow; here they are both unsavory, untrustworthy types. And Biegler is not a man on a mission, just a professional who tries to do his job at the best of his considerable abilities. Stewart is wonderful, of course, and the rest of the cast is on par.

9/10

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Flirting with greatness, 19 August 2016
8/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

An animated series set in the same narrative world of the excellent Avatar: The Last Airbender (and a sequel to it, although knowledge of the previous story is recommended but not imperative), The Legend of Korra is an action/fantasy/adventure influenced by both Wuxia and steampunk.

At its best, Korra feels like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Princess Mononoke meets an elemental version of the X-Men. It's a neat series with several flaws: moments of juvenile humor which don't jibe with the mature themes (terrorism, anarchy, fascism...) the show tries to juggle; a few tired narrative choices, like the "battle between good giant entity and evil giant entity" climax of the second season (the weakest); the unwillingness to go for unapologetic darkness when narrative called for it.

(Spoiler-y example: at the end of the first season, heroine Korra suffers a major power loss, an interesting twist for a likable but brash protagonist who revels in her abilities. However, after five minutes, her powers are restored and boosted. That's not an effective way to structure the hero's journey; blame it on the troubled production history).

Still, lore is rich, world-building detailed, storytelling tight; the appealing visuals recall the works of the great Hayao Miyazaki. In its finer moments, as the protagonists roam the streets of Republic City - a sort of Asian New York set in a steampunk version of the roaring Twenties - Korra almost feels like Hugo Pratt taking a shot at the superhero genre. A must-see for geeks.

8/10

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
The Jungle Bunch, 9 August 2016
8/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This little French gem is a funny, fast-paced, colorful adventure-comedy with crisp visuals and amusing characters, a pleasant animated series even adults can watch. Seriously, how can you not enjoy a team of animal superheroes whose leader is a penguin who paints himself with orange stripes in his endearing obsession to be a tiger?

The Kung Fu Panda show could take some notes on how to make a group of well-differentiated protagonists with distinctive personalities, comic-book villains and stories aimed at kids which feature both monsters and pratfalls, martial arts battles and lightweight gags, and still manage to be tonally consistent.

8/10


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