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As far as he can remember, Lloyd is all about movies. With a passion for writing, Lloyd likes nothing more than to tell potential viewers why a person should or shouldn't spend their time and money on the movie under review.
Jersey Boys (2014)
A brilliant narration on the true cost of fame and fortune and how pain and loss can conceive everlasting music.
There's a reason why the 1960s is widely known as the "Golden Era" of music, specifically, the birth of what is now called Rock n Roll. Comprising of four British teenagers from Liverpool, The Beatles produced their first album (Please Please Me) in 1963 and went on to be regarded as the greatest rock and roll band of all time. But just a year earlier, in 1962, four boys from New Jersey made heads turn and girls swoon with a unique 'sound' to their music. Jersey Boys is the phenomenal true story of a 'sound' that took four boys from New Jersey's mob controlled suburbs and made them into the icons they are today legends whose music is still celebrated more than five decades on!
Produced and directed by another living legend Clint Eastwood Jersey Boys is a Tony Award winning Broadway and West End musical adaptation of the same name. Scripted by Woody Allen's Oscar winning collaborate Marshall Brickman (Anne Hall and Manhattan), the story benefits from a deeply dramatized account of the stage production, thus making it a biopic rather than just a musical. This is why the audience has to wait a good hour before Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) makes our feet tap to the film's first real track: Sherry. But before we get to hear Young's remarkable rendition of Valli's incredible falsetto pitch, Brickman's story takes us through New Jersey's underworld circa. Valli is a good Italian-American kid but his friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) is just the opposite. They are both connected to local mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). Taking Valli under his wing, Tommy puts together a small time band but only manages mediocre returns while also moonlighting as juvenile delinquents. This changes with the arrival of Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a golden goose of a singer- song writer whose epiphany changes the band's name from The Four Lovers to The Four Seasons. Then, with the addition of bass guitarist and singer Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), Sherry, their first song as a band, becomes a hit and the group is instantly catapulted into nationwide fame.
By the time we get to the band's all-time number one hit single, Can't Take My Eyes Off You, there's trouble brewing. Domestic heartbreak and tragedy, ego trips and quarrels, financial crises and mob intervention turns cracks into fissures. Reminding us that this is in fact a stage show adaptation, Eastwood creates individual perceptions by allowing each member of the band to narrate his story directly to the camera. While this might seem like a theatre-cinema blending technique (ala Moulin Rouge!), it adds wholesome dimensions as a biography made for the discerning cinema audience. Adding on to that dimension is the juxtaposition of organized crime with the evolution of Doo-wop into rock and pop. In fact, there is a brief reference to Frank Sinatra, who as legendary as himself, was known to have ties with Chicago's notorious mobster Al Capone. To this effect, the story also includes real life actor Joe Pesci (Joey Russo) as a talent scout who recommends Bob to the band. Synonymous with mobster roles in previous films, Walken himself might seem like a cliché, but instead is entrusted with the film's humour and he delivers. Characterization from the rest leaves more to be desired. Young as front man Valli and Piazza as Tommy are more theatrical than expected in a film. It's a different matter when we get to see them perform as musicians simply astonishing!
That there is no reference to era specific bands like The Beach Boys or the Bee Gees can be another letdown. Instead, Brickman's script remains parallel to the stage production with emphasis on an underdog rags-to-riches plot arc. Even so, as Eastwood's first musical adaptation, Jersey Boys has more hits than misses (excuse the pun). Like the Academy Award winning Walk The Line, a lot of focus has gone into the back story by dramatizing the true cost of fame and fortune. Above all, it is a brilliant narration on how pain and loss can conceive everlasting music. And judging from the need to make this film, it's no surprise that the music of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons will always remain evergreen.
As a satirical take on 40-something parenting issues, Blended is occasionally funny but never original.
Nothing you say or do will deter Adam Sandler from making no-brainer Adam Sandler films. Blended follows suit after a string of lowbrow films from Sandler's lineup of Happy Madison titles. While the premise is still a no-brainer that is a fraction of what a romantic-comedy should be, it is more than tolerable with quite a few slapstick surprises aimed at young parents with stress levels going through the roof.
Paired for the third time, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore hit it off again, while regenerating that mushy charm from their previous outings in The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates. Times have changed since those two films, so it is only fitting that they are now cast as single parents during the most crucial years of parenting. Sandler plays Jim, a widower with three young girls, while Barrymore plays Lauren, a single mother with two notorious boys. After a disastrous blind date, Jim and Lauren vow never to see each other again but a mix-up in holiday reservations bring them together at the beautiful Sun City resort in South Africa. What happens next is anyone's guess but the farce that ensues offers a few laughs even if these gags lack an iota of originality. Comprising of 70 percent Adam Sandler goofiness, 20 percent marketing for Sun City, and 10 percent romantic comedy, Blended turns out to be 100 percent family fun as long as kids don't take this film too seriously. That being said, I suspect kids these days are smarter than those characterised in this film. And they should be. Despite several jabs at early parenting (or bad parenting, in this case), the central message reiterates the fact that kids are growing up faster and smarter than they used to a generation ago. The repeated joke, of course, is aimed at parents who find themselves in awkward situations; typically, when kids reach puberty. For all other situations, Sandler's Jim has a remedial quip "You have to give 99 percent of your life to your kids and keep just 1 percent for yourself". Easier said than done? Allow Jim to show you how it's done.
Having first worked with Barrymore and Sandler in The Wedding Singer and the latter's top hit The Waterboy, director Frank Coraci opens another can of lampoon mayhem with Blended. Only this can is open on both ends. Out the top end is the aforementioned satirical take on 40-something parenting issues. Out the bottom end is a date-night movie for parents who have forgotten what it was like to go for a date-night movie. Lining that can is a high level of crude humour that has become a standard in Happy Madison films, but in a million ways more effective than allowing Seth McFarlane to be Seth McFarlane. What works here is the contribution from everyone including Wendi McLendon-Covey as Lauren's rubber-mouth business partner, Bella Thorn as Jim's eldest daughter who looks like a boy, Alyvia Alyn Lind as Lauren's toddler (with an uncanny resemblance to Barrymore in E.T the Extra-Terrestrial) and the show stealing Terry Crews in Sun City.
For a film that I feared would be another Happy Madison wrecking ball, Blended is neither pulsating nor a flat liner. Even if the story is pretty lame, everyone just seems to be having fun and part of that fun radiates into the audience. And if you still find some of the jokes bland, take it with a pinch of salt and just blend in. Pun intended.
Even with its centrally themed time paradox, Looper is an original and enjoyable science fiction film that relies on logic to dictate the narrative.
If you thought Inception went overboard (pun unintended) with the whole dream within a dream within a dream, don't read any further. But like Inception and Memento before it, Looper is an intricately woven yarn that is very much a thinking man's movie; at least for the most part. Luckily, unlike the aforementioned films, writer-director Rian Johnson doesn't let it get to a point where we smell our own cerebral cortex cooking. Just when you raise a hand to scratch your head, the other hand snaps a finger in triumphant euphoria, as if solving a puzzle only moments before abandoning it.
The setup has Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Joe, a mafia assassin in the year 2044. His narration tells us that although time travel is yet to be invented, it exists thirty years in the future. However, its use is condemned by the government but adopted by criminal organizations as a means of "closing the loop". This means ending an employee's tenure by sending him to the present, where a younger "Looper" waits in an abandoned field with just a loaded shotgun. Loopers are paid handsomely, typically silver bars for each kill. When a Looper receives gold bars it is a cause for immediate celebration, but also means they have thirty years to live as they have just killed their future self thus closing the loop in the future. On one such contract, Joe is faced with killing his future self (Bruce Willis) but hesitates to pull the trigger. This much is known from pre-release trailers. What follows is a diabolical fight for survival where both Joes, though each unrelenting, must find and eliminate "The Rainmaker", a person destined to become an ironfisted criminal mastermind responsible for closing all the loops.
This is a science-fiction movie that relies heavily on logic, but not necessarily the kind found in The Matrix. It's as simple as basic computer programming, where the outcome of an action depends on a pre-determined set of rules. IF you do this, THEN that will happen; as a paradox, the premise in this film is very similar to the 'Butterfly Effect' a metaphysical theory where cause and effect play a fundamental role in a nonlinear state of progression. Simply put, Johnson's forte is in telling a story where the end justifies the means. Given the centrally themed time paradox, it becomes all the more profound that however obscure the future may seem, it is the present that determines the outcome of that future. This grain of thought powers the final act where both Joes, each with opposing agendas, work towards preventing a cataclysmic chain of events. As such, a vital plot development is omitted from the trailers, owing to which, some viewers may find that the film begins and ends without cohesion. Without spoiling much I can say that a sub-plot involving genetic mutation takes center stage towards the end.
Although I have referred to other movies of similar ilk, I am happy to report that Looper is conceptually original all the more so when every other recent movie is a sequel or a remake or a remake of a remake. Add to this a solid performance from Gordon-Levitt who has appeared in more interesting films this year than Tom Cruise. As a younger Bruce Willis, it might take a while to get used to his facial prosthetics, but I am willing to wager that Gordon-Levitt watched quite a few of the former's movies to get the swagger right, complete with Willis' iconic smirk and grunt. Willis himself is back in form with a much needed departure from some half-made films he has chosen to merely appear in over the last couple of years. Together they form a great team and amusingly play the same person. A special mention goes to Emily Blunt, who although has more screen time than necessary, makes a refreshing change as a straight-talking, shotgun-wielding Southerner with very little trace of her native British accent. Her character brings in a questionable romantic element, but is also linked to a vital plot development. Finally, kudos to Johnson for a good attempt at skillfully presenting a sci-fi film that also has a film noir look and feel despite its futuristic setting. There are moments when you wish Johnson's script could have used Christopher Nolan's finesse, but that would be asking for too much. À la dual-wielding guns ablaze, Bruce Willis also gets his clichéd moments, but let's just say we would rather see Willis with a gun than a magic wand.
This is a recommended movie. You can either watch it now or risk watching it later by this I mean your future self could be annoyed with your present self for not watching it sooner.
The Last Stand (2013)
Definitely not Arnie's best action film, but it does a decent enough job heralding the return of an action icon.
Proprietor of the catch phrase "I'll be back", Arnold Schwarzenegger keeps his promise by jumping back into a lead role after almost a decade in politics. Widely regarded as his comeback to high-octane action flicks, The Last Stand appears to be the much awaited launch vehicle whether you are an Arnie fan or not. As always, the secret to enjoying any Arnie movie is to expect everything but frown over nothing. Luckily, for old fans and new, this simple rule hasn't changed. And neither has Arnie.
Reduced from a real life Governor to a washed-up county sheriff, Schwarzenegger's Ray Owens is reluctantly caught between badass drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) making a run for the Mexican border, and the latter's FBI pursuer John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), who is unable to keep up with the chase. Blazing at speeds close to 330 km/h in a modified corvette ZR-1, nothing on land and air will help the FBI stop Cortez from reaching a crossover point between Arizona and Mexico. But ensuring Owen's sleepy town of Sommerton is a meddle free exit into Mexico, Cortez's sidekick Burrell (Peter Stormare) has an army of mafia henchmen on standby; all armed to the teeth with enough munitions to blow up the moon. No amount of suspended reality can prepare you for what happens nextthe biggest showdown in the smallest town. Lock n load! For a Hollywood debut, South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon comes equipped for an all-out artillery barrage. Andrew Knauer's simple yet high energy screenplay is non-stop, fast paced and sinfully indulgent that even the most addicted action movie junkies out there will have a rollicking time trying to keep up with the on-screen mayhem. Guns of all types and sizes with endless clips of ammo, jaw-clenching car chases with spectacular crashes, and explosions that don't necessarily amount to a great ball of fire. Speaking of which, Kim's violence is unforgivably full and plenty, in your face and out the back, with blood splattering 'pink mist' head shots and a whole load of hamburger meat that fall out of the sky. At times, the violence will surely have some viewers grimacing in aversion, but it's not all mindless action. Kim maintains some restraint by mixing it up with broad comedy and you guessed it: one-liners as corny as corned beef in fresh lemon juice. Ah The Last Stand is nowhere near a standing ovation at the Oscars or any other award ceremonies for that matter, but it gets by with some mediocre performances aligned towards some intentional comic relief. Playing the good guys are Luis Guzmán as the bumbling deputy 'Figgie' and Johnny Knoxville as Owens' deputised hired hand. There is one particular stunt, I suspect, tailor-made with Knoxville's Jackass styled adventures in mind and it seems to get the desired effect without the camera panning away. Whitaker's Bannister doesn't add much except some foot-in-mouth dialogue repetition, and in character, only serves to play the big city FBI agent who learns a thing or two from a small town sheriff. Playing the bad guys, Noriega and Stormare exude likable style in their villains, but along with Schwarzenegger, their accents don't quite gel in. Schwarzenegger himself seems apt for the role of an ageing lawman with a tumultuous past. You can't really expect anything more from the man himself, except a sly hint suggesting future roles along the likes of grumpy old men played by Clint Eastwood in recent years.
The Last Stand is definitely not Arnie's best action movie, but it does a decent enough job heralding the return of an action icon. Together with director Kim Jee-woon's formulaic and spaghetti-western styled narration, there just might be a chance for both the director and the prodigal action hero last seen ten years ago. Pun unintended.
Gangster Squad (2013)
There is a lot of testosterone-fuelled action in Gangster Squad but it all feels like a shoddy caricature of some classic gangster flicks of yesteryears.
If ignorance is bliss, director Ruben Fleischer must be a very happy man. Known for crude action-comedies like Zombieland and 30 Minutes Or Less, the director gives sceptics a field day by trying his hand at a period-piece that in theory had the potential to be a powerful crime-caper. But as it turns out, all Fleisher manages is a shoddy caricature of some classic gangster flicks of yesteryears.
The backdrop is 1949 Los Angeles, and Dion Beebe's cinematography is vivid with chrome trimmed vintage cars, jazzy nightlife obsessions and almost every other detail you would expect in a film noir setting. Ironically, in this post WWII era, the City of Angels is anything but angelic as Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) sets out to become the most notorious criminal mastermind in California. From gambling and narcotics to extortion and police bribery, Cohen is on a ruthless rise to power and there is not a damned thing anyone can do about it. Well almost. Played by Josh Brolin, LAPD Sargent John O'Mara is a hot-headed honest cop (think Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential) who believes court order arrest warrants are useless when issued by judges on Cohen's payroll. Summoned by no-nonsense LAPD Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte), O'Mara is tasked with putting together the titular hit squad to wage war on Cohen and his criminal enterprise and reclaim the soul of Los Angeles. Like six rounds to a pea-shooter, the squad comprises of badge less detectives O'Mara, smooth talking playboy Wooters (Ryan Gosling), knife-throwing Harris (Anthony Mackie), recon expert Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), sharp shooter Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his protégé Ramirez (Michael Peña).
As an analogy, some viewers might even think this squad is one man short of what would have sounded like The Magnificent Seven; then again, that would be insignificant with everything else this film falls short of. Besides Beebe's stylized cinematography and a few well-framed car chase sequences, the only other aspect worth considering is the ensemble star cast. Normally this would be a good thing. Loosely adapting from Paul Liebermann's L. A. Times chronicle Tales From the Gangster SquadWill Beall is a questionable choice especially since this is his first cinema screenplay. To say the least, the effect of this fundamentally flawed screenplay is disastrous on many top actors in this movie and even embarrassing considering some of them are Oscar material from previous films. Double Oscar-winner Penn, for example, is hideous as a boxer-turned-criminal and even manages a faint flash of brilliance in a couple of scenes, but is then reduced to a comical villain easily comparable to Al Pacino's 'Big Boy' Caprice in Dick Tracy. But in also claiming the story to be based on actual events, Beall has carelessly overlooked vital plot aids like Cohen's real life association with Al Capone and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. Gosling's Jerry Wooters has some likability if you don't mind his jarring dialogues. The problem arises when his character becomes romantically involved with Cohen's moll and eye-candy Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). On her own, Stone does her part well when we first see her as the sumptuous 'lady in red' but together with Gosling you would expect some more of that on-screen chemistry last seen in Crazy, Stupid, Love. The rest are mere paperweights that could have benefited from a more experienced director. Almost every other character appears to have a story to tell, but is somehow suppressed in the narrative: the most annoying being Wooters and O'Mara's history together as war veterans.
For a noir period saga, Gangster Squad is a crime-drama that tries to match up to the look and feel of L.A. Confidential or Mullholland Falls or other films of similar ilk. There is a lot of testosterone-fuelled action with focus given to tommy guns rattling in slow-motion and tooth extracting fistfights, but it all feels done before. In their inadvertent desperation to make a classic gangster movie, Beall and Fleischer have failed to place themselves in the viewer's seat first. The audience, however, has seen this movie before and it will be forever known as The Untouchables.
By its very making, director Steven Spielberg has written the greatest obituary for one of the greatest leaders of the modern world.
The very mention of a Steven Spielberg project and everyone goes bug-eyed in excitement and curiosity; everyone from casual movie goers to mainstream critics to cinema house managers. Now reunite Spielberg with long standing producing partner Kathleen Kennedy, throw in a multi-award winning star cast lead by Daniel Day-Lewis and a story about one of the most revered Presidents in US history and you have an Academy Award nominated movie by default. Lincoln has all these fine qualities and a whole lot more. This is not just a great film for the reasons stated above, or because it is very easy to praise a film directed by Spielberg. This is also not just a masterpiece or a very important and powerful film for the sake of calling it so. From the drawing boards to its last take, Lincoln is every bit exquisitely fashioned filmmaking an amalgamation of art, literature, politics, society, history, and most importantly, humanism.
Here's a brief re-cap to get you up to speed on the relevance of the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) as depicted in the film. The United States of America is divided as cotton rich states of the South refuse to phase out slavery. After Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln secures the Presidency, almost a dozen states in the South pull out of the 'Union' and become the Confederate States of America. As a bloody civil war rages between North and South, the film's story begins with President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. This is the Commander and Chief of the armed forces calling for slavery to be abolished in all states by seeking a landmark constitutional amendment. For this to happen, Lincoln must procure enough votes through Congress for a stay order on making slavery illegal anywhere in America. Challenged with factions within his Republican party, Lincoln becomes his own worst enemy in a daunting personal crisis: save thousands of lives by ending the war or prolong the war in favour of ending slavery.
Running at 150 minutes, this film is a slow burner with extensive dialogues and frequent courthouse debates; but like the trudging power of a steam locomotive, Lincoln pushes forward with remarkable pace while never losing sight of its destination. Piloting this powerhouse of a film is Daniel Day-Lewis in easily his finest hour as a method actor. His Lincoln is tall and bent over with war-stressed fatigue and a shrill voice, but armed with a quiver full of wisdom and remedial anecdotes for when push comes to shove. Throughout the narrative Lincoln is torn within as he manages his duties as the President of a nation, as a father who has lost a son, and as a husband who must confide in his wife when decisions become complex. This is also when I must mention Sally Field in another fine delivery as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and the epitome of the phrase 'Behind every great man is a woman'. Field's Mary is a tragic character whose depiction of a bleeding heart is memorable in a scene where she confronts Lincoln as the father of their children, not a man with immense power. With strong characterisation forming the flesh and blood of the film, you can also expect riveting roles from Tommy Lee Jones and David Strathairn, besides a multitude of top actors.
This is one of the most important films of the year and perhaps even the times we live in. By its very making, Spielberg has written the greatest obituary for one of the greatest leaders of the modern world. Lincoln is to Steven Spielberg what Gandhi is to Richard Attenborough; the commonality being crucial moments in history, rather than a history lesson per se. If I have to nit-pick, I suspect there could be historical anomalies in the narrative if this film is solely considered a biopic. This is why I strongly recommend the film as a political drama rather than a componential biography. Is it safe to say that President Abraham Lincoln was a self-made man? That he was extremely intelligent despite dropping out of school? That he changed the future of an entire nation? That Barak Obama is the current President of the United States of America because Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery? If you said 'yes' to any of these questions then Lincoln is more than just an Academy Award magnetit is a landmark film made by people reiterating that freedom is a birth right for people everywhere.
Parker suffers from a disappointing script and a tapered ending that not even Oscar-winning director Taylor Hackford can fix.
Back in 1999, Mel Gibson played the leading role in a film called Payback a noir crime thriller about a criminal who exacts revenge on the people who double-crossed him. Based on Donald E. Westlake's crime novels The Hunter and Flashfire, Gibson's anti-hero returns to the big screen, this time closer to home but retrofitted by a new actor. Played by Jason Statham, the titular Parker is basically the same character as Gibson's Porter; however, the plot similarities in Payback and Parker are offset by notable levels of disparity in adapting the same character for two different films. Years from now only one of these films will remain in memory.
As a generic assumption I'm willing to wager that not every Jason Statham fan out there is also a fan of Westlake's books; especially the twenty-four novels he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark. As a crime novelist, Westlake can be credited with conceiving the anti-hero in literary fiction a badass who eventually charms the reader (in this case the viewer) into cheering for him despite his ruthless modus operandi. And so we have Parker, a professional and meticulous criminal with a code of honour: he doesn't steal from those who can't afford it and he doesn't hurt anyone who doesn't deserve it. While that code sounds like the one practiced by the legendry Robin Hood, Parker is known for getting the job done as long as his crew remains loyal and sticks to the plan. After a near fatal mission arising from a crewmember's negligence, Parker decides to quit the gang for said reasons. Consequently, ring leader Melander (Michael Chiklis) shoots and leaves him for dead. Obviously, Parker survives, now hell-bent on revenge, finds his former gang in the playground of the rich and famous: Palm Beach, Florida. Sporting a Texan accent on the pretext of buying a lavish house, Parker meets Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), a realtor behind on her bills. Together they discover Melander's next big heist but not before painfully learning the latter's connection to Chicago's equally ruthless underworld.
What follows is a classic case of the hunter becoming the hunted. The problem arises when we realise that Parker and Melander switch positions ever so often. Even if you accept this goose chase as a plot twister, you still have to deal with the film's two-toned mediocrity. Having previously penned the Academy Award winning Black Swan, John J. McLaughlin's disappointing script is a vehicle with just two gears: fast and neutral. If action is what you want, you won't be disappointed with well-executed heists and bloody fight sequences wherein characters use improvised weaponry, everything from guns and knives to shower curtains and toilet seats! For Statham, it's business as usual when considering the fact that almost every leading role he has played to date is an "anti-hero". On the other hand, scenes with Lopez stagnates the pace and tone with awkward moments of flat humour. This of course will not prevent swarms of male viewers from happily paying the price of admission to have a glimpse at J.Lo's posterior and marvel no longer at why it is her most prized ass-et.
For a film that starts off well, Parker suffers from the above problems and a tapered ending that not even Academy Award winning director Taylor Hackford (Ray) can fix. Bullets fly and blood is spilt, but Jason Statham's Parker cannot match up to Mel Gibson's Porter and neither can Hackford hold a candle to Brian Helgeland's Payback.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
Oz The Great And Powerful celebrates cinema's core ethos of 'Make Believe' even if some viewers find that it lacks the magical impetus of the 1939 original.
Keeping in mind that 2013 has barely reached cruising speed, I might be jumping the gun in saying this: if Oz The Great And Powerful is intended as the most visually immersive, most stunningly surreal and most colourfully vivid film of the year, it has a head start in the race to grab accolades for visual effects, production design and art direction. The catch, of course, is to experience this film the way it is intended to be experienced in 3D, no less.
To appreciate this movie in its simplest form, avoid wholly comparing this film with its proprietary 1939 classic The Wizard Of Oz. Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, and directed by Sam Raimi, this film prudently adds a fresh new twist to the original story without trying to make the original look old or outdated. Unfortunately, pundits tend to always refer to the original when judging hereditary strands of any remake. This is why I recommend perceiving Raimi's film as either a prequel or homage to the original. In not expecting children of the current generation to have watched, understood or appreciated Victor Fleming's original, Disney's powerhouse production team has evidently focused on the events leading up to L. Frank Baum's 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (Essentially, this is what makes the film a prequel with symbiotic reverence to the 1939 film.) But whichever way you choose to appreciate its making, the outcome will be the same: a thrilling journey that takes us over, under and through the rainbow. But before we get there, Raimi's opening act is set in a monochromatic letter-box aspect ratio where we first meet the man destined to become a great and powerful wizard. Calling himself 'Oz', Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is anything but great. In fact, he is a womaniser and a circus magician with questionable ethics. Deemed a fraud and fleeing from his past, Oz's escape in a hot-air balloon is thwarted when a tornado sends him crashing towards an extremely colourful Emerald City, whereupon his arrival, naive inhabitants think he is the prophesised saviour of the land. Oz plays along but lands in trouble again while charming the socks of three gorgeous women Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis); all witches who will influence Oz's transformation from a faux wizard to one that saves the day.
As a children's movie, Disney has outdone itself with a fantasy epic brimming with visual effects and cinematography that are both mind-blowing and out of this world. Quite literally, the Land of Oz appears to be the recent most stunning rendition of Middle-Earth and it flourishes with vibrant life. But with a running time of 130 minutes, children could wriggle around restlessly during the film's soap opera-esque moments arising from Oz's flirtatious shenanigans with said witches. There are also some frightening scenes that could startle younger children but these are arguably when 3D is at its immersive best. Casting and characters could be seen as a mixed bag for older viewers keen on panning between this film and previous versions. Although Franco gets by as an ostensible wizard, I still think Raimi's original choice of Robert Downey Jr. would have been far more entertaining. Opposite Franco, Williams, Weisz and Kunis have more relevance; each with ample screen time and zappy magic that brews towards a fire-and-brimstone finale. While you won't find the Tin Man or Lion or Scarecrow as vital characters, their personification is manifested in short references. Freshly written for the film is the somewhat humorous Finley, a flying monkey voiced by Zack Braff, and the melodramatic China Girl, a porcelain doll voiced by Joey King.
All said and done, If Avatar set about reviving the novel use of 3D and Life Of Pi literally blew it out of the water, Oz The Great And Powerful marches forward by celebrating cinema's core ethos of 'Make Believe'. At the short end of the stick, some viewers may find this story lacks the magical impetus of the 1939 original. Then again, Raimi being the true wizard that he is, takes us down a picturesque yellow brick road resonating the fact that it's less about where we are going but more about how we get there.
The Host (2013)
Once you get past the opening act, it won't be long before you realize that this film is a silly romance for high school co-eds.
Adapted from Stephenie Meyer's novel of the same name, The Host is a sci-fi film with a vague premise that asks viewers to imagine our world after an alien invasion. On a grand scale, this film had the potential to ask "what if?" questions, especially if you have seen any or all versions of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. But once you get past the opening act, it won't be long before you realize that at the core, this film is a silly romance for high school co-eds and sorority sisters.
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the plot is set in the future where a vast majority of the human population are hosts to an alien species called "Souls". These are alien entities residing in human bodies but stripping the human hosts of emotions and memories. We don't get to see the initial invasion or the part where I presume NASA decodes an intergalactic message that reads 'we come in peace' just before calling the Whitehouse and stating the cinematically overdone "We have a problem". But in keeping with Meyer's tendency for bloodless melodrama, Niccol skips forward and begins the narrative where Earth is virtually pristine no wars, no famine, no pollution, no disease, no lies and no corruption. As good as this sounds, a tiny band of human resistance exists somewhere in the Utah dessert with no intention of being 'turned'. The Seeker (Diane Kruger), an authoritative alien in human form knows this. So when Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) is captured, surgically induced with an alien parasite and renamed Wanderer, Seeker expects to learn where the surviving bands of humans are hiding. Yet, somehow, Melanie doesn't let go even as Wanderer tries to take control.
Inevitably, Melanie and Wanderer become BFFs (best-friends-forever), before leading Seeker to a near-extinct volcano ingenuously improvised for self-sustenance. This is where Melanie's family resides but also much of the film's melodramatic romance, watered down action and huge deficiencies in logic. Just when you start to question how intelligent or powerful the alien race really is, Meyer's signature love triangle takes centre stage; only this time you get two love triangles for the price of one! Although unintentionally humorous, this somehow works in Niccol's favour. There is a lot of contradictory cross-talk between Melanie and Wanderer (who is re-christened Wanda) when it comes to ogling hunks at the volcano but this doesn't help the narrative from steadily descending into a lumbering snooze fest. There is a little bit of action involving all manner of chrome gilded vehicles and I suspect this is how Niccol preferred to depict the luminous nature of this particular alien race, but that's about it. If sci-fi action is what you dig, you are best suited for 2013's share of alien invasion movies like Oblivion or Pacific Rim.
On the upside, The Host is marginally better than the brazen Twilight franchise and thanks to Niccol and Ronan, Stephanie Meyer's Melanie has more soul (excuse the pun) when compared to Kristen Stewart's Bella Swan. No doubt there. However, there is a lot lacking given the director's panache in depicting the innate values of a human being's individuality and identity in society (think Gattaca and The Truman Show). Fundamentally flawed from the beginning, The Host becomes terminally ill when the premise of an alien invasion takes a back seat, only to be replaced by a human teen teaching a 1000-year-old alien how to kiss a guy. For what it boils down to, you are left with so much kinky fantasy that I wholly recommend this movie for an all-girl teenage slumber party. Even so, you can be damn sure Sigourney Weaver won't be attending.
Despicable Me 2 (2013)
Besides a string of jokes, both adult and juvenile, the best moments in Despicable me 2 are when we get to see minions indulge in screwball mischief.
Whenever a sequel is announced, it is safe to assume that filmmakers are coming after your money in an attempt to milk the success of the original film. From a movie patron's perspective, there is always a risk of being victimized should pre-ordained expectations go south. This risk is amplified when returning viewers expect an equal or greater experience in comparison. While not quite as unique as the 2010 original, I am happy to report that Despicable Me 2 is an equally entertaining encore, just as long as your expectations are tethered to a stick of Acme dynamite. Yes; dynamite.
Returning directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud have brought along few tricks that are seamlessly blended into the visual quality of this animation. And of course, the use of 3D is one of them. That being said, the real treats come from returning screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cino Paul, by injecting the story with heavy doses of the most likable aspects from the predecessor adorability and hilarity. The story is also altered where Gru (Steve Carell) is now a fervent father to his three adopted girls Margo, Edith, and Agnes, having abandoned his villainous ways of the past. But when new super-villain El Macho (Benjamin Bratt) threatens to turn Gru's lovable minions into aggressive monsters, the latter is recruited by the "Anti-Villain League", a secret agency whose only purpose is detecting and eliminating super-villains. All of a sudden, Gru is back to juggling again this time as a hero and an overprotective father, while actually falling for AVL colleague and sidekick Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig).
For a spy-spoof animation, the story does not do much to hide its high level of predictability. Instead, the screenwriters have clearly focused on slapstick gags that are well written for viewers of all ages. There are several references to heist and spy movies that adults will mentally tick off to, while kids and toddlers are more than likely to get off to a rollicking ride from the start. Making this possible are zany new characters that add extra pizazz with plenty of loony-toon moments. One such character is Bratt's El Macho, a two faced super-villain with a psychotic chicken for a side-kick and a son that steals Margo's heart from right under Gru's nose. And while Carell's Gru takes a backseat as a reformed villain, Wiig's Lucy brings out a wacky side of Gru that is straight out of the Acme crate I had mentioned earlier. But amongst the various characters and voice talents at work, nothing can prepare you for the incredibly adorable Agnes (Elsie Fisher). Also returning from her debut role in Despicable Me, Fisher's voice acting is the essence of cuteness each and every time her character is on screen.
Besides a string of jokes, both adult and juvenile, the best moments in the film are when we get to see Gru's minions indulge in screwball mischief, including singing pop music with a French twist. These are also the moments when 3D is at its intentional best, so stick around for the end credits where minions audition for their 2015 movie spin-off called The Minions. But before we get there, I recommend Despicable Me 2 for the loads of fun, joy and laughter it has in store. It is easily one of the funniest animated films of the year.