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5 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
White House Down is mostly action-by-numbers, 29 June 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Roland Emmerich is mainly known for his big budget spectacles, but ever since the dismal '2012' he seems to be scaling it back a bit. His newest effort has only the White House under siege, but in this case, smaller isn't necessarily better. Here he manages to deliver a pretty stale summer blockbuster, in which both the action and comedy are just a step off. After watching, there isn't a discussion about "was it good" or "was it bad," but rather, "why did they bother?" The film is tired, and it wants to masquerade as geopolitical commentary, but it fails on virtually any conceivable level. The film isn't even entertaining. In the end, there doesn't seem to be any real passion behind 'White House Down,' and it shows with every minute that ticks by on-screen. Spoilers to follow.

The film stars Channing Tatum as a want-to-be secret service agent who gets caught up in an attack on the White House while he is there for a tour with his daughter (the surprisingly-effective Joey King). Tatum is actually pretty decent in the role, but is nothing spectacular or praise-worthy. His performance is simply good and believable, all one could want out of a summer blockbuster, but especially from Emmerich. Also believable is Jamie Foxx as President Sawyer, and while Foxx does add flourishes of depth to the character, these are brief and barely sidenotes once the action gets going. The film doesn't really spend a lot of time on Sawyer as the president, what he believes, or any of that- it simply focuses on the action plot so as not to try to make the film overly political. At least not yet, anyway. Maggie Gyllenhaal is barely effective as a secret service agent and isn't given much to do with the role but stand around looking concerned.

James Woods also stars in the film as the head of the secret service, agent Walker, and is also the film's villain. This isn't a spoiler, since it immediately establishes this in the first moments he is on the screen. Once the actual attack begins, Woods turns out one of the hammiest performances in recent memory and has a lot of fun with his role, even if most of it is relatively nonsensical. The mercenary team that attacks the White House is able to dispatch all of the guards and secret service personnel therein within a matter of seconds; they might as well have been shooting at dummies. If anyone should be angry about the film it is the secret service, who are here portrayed as either traitors or ineffective wimps or target practice. Suspension of disbelief falls to pieces here. Sure, some of the mercenaries were well-trained, but Emmerich wants the audience to believe that the secret service is made of up retired mall cops and wanna-be security guards.

For a big summer blockbuster, the film is a relative snore. Sure, it has some pretty effects, but none of its action set pieces, twists, or comedic moments hit the mark. The only funny moments come from Nicolas Wright as the White House tour guide, but they are peppered in as a distraction at best and probably to make sure the audience is still awake. Lots of things explode, and there is plenty of money on the screen, but none of it is really compelling or exciting to watch. Emmerich quite literally seems to have just thrown it on the screen, and it shows. It doesn't do anything surprising to throw off the audience or keep them engaged. It is literally action-by-numbers, quick comedic scene, quick heartfelt scene, exposition, more action-by-numbers. It was boring, Roland, and watching the Capitol explode shouldn't be boring. Its concluding action piece- the "race to complete the mission before the planes bomb the building" scene, is boring and is also standard fare. Nothing that happens in the film isn't predictable, save for the final reveal of the real villain, which comes so far out of left field that it is cringe-worthy. Throwing in a big twist at the very end to try to "gotcha" the audience is just lazy writing on the part of James Vanderbilt.

Where the film is at its most-flawed, however, is in its blatant attempts at geopolitical commentary. While one can appreciate that no political party is ever given for Sawyer's administration, the film turns into an over-the-top political cheesefest with Vanderbilt's revelations that the whole attack was motivated by a military-industrial complex desperate to keep the war machines running. Sawyer makes note in the film that war equals profit, which is true, and while no one can argue that Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex is a very valid point, it all comes off as an afterthought, and a halfhearted one at that. The film's decidedly anti-war and war-exhausted atmosphere is something that a lot of Americans can connect with, but in the end it all falls apart. It is a conspiracy script, desperate to give credence to the conspiracy mindset that there must be more at work than we can know. Like most conspiracies, 'White House Down' doesn't hold a lot of water, nor does it hold up to any kind of scrutiny in the end. Dwight Eisenhower's warning is as true today as ever it was, but it needs a better spotlight than this ineffective garbage.

Star Trek (2009)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Good sequel, better reboot, all-around triumph, 20 May 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Star Trek is a series that could keep going forever. It has seen so many incarnations, between television, movies, comic books, and the like, and each bit has added just a little bit more to the vast canon that makes it up. So rebooting a series such as this- returning to the crew that started it all- was sure to be a difficult task. Enter writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and director J.J. Abrams with a fantastic idea to not only reboot the series, but to create a sequel to it as well, to pay homage to the immense canon that came before but give the franchise a future free of adhering directly to it. With this they were able to create a fantastic film that captures the heart and camaraderie that always lay at the heart of Trek, and a great sci-fi action flick to boot.

Star Trek begins as a sequel, with a Romulan vessel piloted by the mysterious Captain Nero (Eric Bana) arriving out of a black hole in front of the USS Kelvin. They immediately attack and cripple the ship, leaving first officer George Kirk (a not-yet-Thor Chris Hemsworth) in command with his wife (Jennifer Morrison) giving birth to their son. They are tragically torn apart when Kirk must take the Kelvin on a collision course with the Romulan ship; the last sounds he hears are his infant son, whom they decide to name James.

The film spends its first hour growing with- and exploring the dynamic between- James Kirk and Mr. Spock (Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto). Abrams and his team assembled a brilliant cast here, the heart and soul of which are these two characters. Pine and Quinto do more than just impressions of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy- though there are clearly hints of the two in their performances- but they strive to truly connect as Kirk and Spock, be they friends or adversaries as the film continues. Pine and Quinto take the immeasurable mantle of these two characters and they wear it incredibly well- fantastic performances both.

The rest of the crew rounds out and is introduced as the film goes on- from Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Bones (Karl Urban). Each of the cast members does a great job in their respective roles, particularly Urban as Bones, who steals every scene he is in. Less effective is Simon Pegg as Scotty- he is a great actor and adds some good comic relief, but his Scotty is less an engineering genius than a sideshow. The film needed some comedy, and between Bones and Kirk it has plenty- Pegg's Scotty practically grinds the film to a halt every time he is on the screen.

Another weakness of the film is Bana's Nero, who is an utterly dis-interesting character and a lackluster villain. While his anger over the destruction of Romulus is understandable, and his motivation fitting, he gets little to no development. What happens to him after the destruction of the Kelvin? How does he know what happens to Spock and where to find him? Too much of his story ends up on the cutting room floor, and it's a shame. Five more minutes of screen time exploring Nero would have benefited the film greatly.

Despite these minor flaws, however, the film is a triumph. Beautiful special effects and spectacular actions sequences, and a small role for Leonard Nimoy as the time-traveling Ambassador Spock- this film quite literally has it all, tie-ins and homages to old Trek while paving a new path for itself. Particular credit has to go to Abrams and his screenwriters for focusing so strongly on character, and the interactions between them. At its core, Star Trek is as much about going "where no one has gone before" as it is about the limits within all of us- indeed, our very human nature. More than that, Abrams has taken a franchise that once alienated all but its hardcore viewers and made it something accessible to a massive audience- and from here, Star Trek has no limits. Truly, the franchise will now go where it has never gone before, and a new generation can grow up with Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise in the same way their grandparents did.

12 out of 27 people found the following review useful:
Soars with a stellar cast and script, 20 May 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Star Trek (2009) was a fantastic accomplishment for many reasons. Chief among these was its honoring of the Trek that was, while re-booting the franchise to liberate it from the weighty canon that preceded it. It also returned it to its roots, with the original crew of the USS Enterprise that started it all. With the freedom to now do what they pleased with the franchise, J.J. Abrams and his team have created a bold, thrilling installment with the sequel, Star Trek into Darkness.

The film picks up largely where the first film left off- Kirk (Chris Pine) is now in command of the Enterprise, and is still hot-headed, reckless, and impulsive. He is grounded by his counterpoint, Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), who clearly respects his captain but does not agree with his disdain for the rules. Abrams does the sequel justice by not forgetting that this dynamic between these two characters is the crux of this film franchise, and they haven't lost a step. The chemistry these two actors bring to these roles is perfect and seamless- the two characters can and do disagree, but they could practically finish one another's sentences.

It is because of the genius of this cast that the first film worked so well, and that carries perfectly into the sequel. Bones (Karl Urban) still has an amazing dynamic with Jim, and Urban is fantastic once again. Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) continue to shine in their relatively smaller roles, and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) really turns her supporting role into something stronger. Though her lover's quarrel with Spock in the middle of a mission on the Klingon home planet is drastically out of place in the film- one of its few weaknesses- she and Quinto continue to have great chemistry and their dynamic is yet another successful one.

The film's only real weakness, like its predecessor, is Simon Pegg as Scotty. He is great in the role as he was in the first film, but he is played as largely comic relief again. The character lends himself to comedy and when the scenes aren't forced, they are great, but sadly too many scenes are written just for him to be funny and they interrupt the flow of the film. It is not as jarring as it was in the first film this time around, and isn't as much of a distraction, but it is still a waste at best and irritating at worse. And why was that little creature companion of his back? It's as if the film needed to force Scotty to have some kind of audience at all times so he could be absurdly cartoonish through the runtime. Please, for the sequel's sake, tone down the utter ridiculousness of Scotty in part III.

Outside of the few gripes above, however, the film is beautiful and brilliant. The script- all at once about love, honor, friendship, sacrifice, and heroism- is absolutely phenomenal. Through it the characters grow- particularly Pine's Kirk, who learns about humility and what it takes to be a hero. Quinto's Spock still struggles with the human and Vulcan parts of his heritage, but learns to better communicate his feelings. He and Kirk grow to understand one another better- Kirk learns what it means to respect orders and follow them, and Spock understands what it means to be emotional and impulsive.

The story is equally phenomenal here- an attack on Starfleet sends Kirk and his crew on a manhunt to the Klingon home planet, searching for John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Once the audience really gets a chance to see Harrison in action, however, it is clear that this is only a ruse, which is explained shortly thereafter in a frankly stellar nod to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- as long rumored, Cumberbatch reveals himself as Khan, one of the greatest villains in Trek history, and does him incredible justice. Cumberbatch frankly steals every scene he is in, but the film doesn't play as a remake of WoK at all- with the changes to the timeline, this alternate universe sees an entirely different story for Khan. Once again Abrams and the screen writing team- this time joined by 'LOST' alum and Prometheus screenwriter Damon Lindelof- have paid homage to Trek of old in a brilliant way, but forged something entirely their own. Cumberbatch's Khan is a completely different animal than was Ricardo Montalbon's, but he is every bit as cunning and dangerous.

Once the reveal comes that Harrison is actually Khan, the film kicks into high gear and never looks back. Its final homage to WoK sees a Kirk desperate to protect his loved ones at any cost and at his most selfless- Pine has an amazing journey with this character in the first film and that journey continues strongly here. Contrary to criticisms from hardcore Trek fans, Abrams knows that Star Trek is, at is core, a journey to the center of the self- to the heart of humanity, and this film again succeeds not only in sending the Enterprise to different worlds and meeting alien races, but at driving to the depths of mankind to find the good within us all. His Trek, however, doesn't alienate- it invites. It doesn't lose itself within its techno-jargon and self-indulgence, it makes it accessible for all. Abrams continues to cement himself as one of the best directors working in Hollywood- can't wait to see what he'll bring to Star Wars. The only question that remains is, where will the sequel take Kirk and his crew?

Iron Man 3 (2013)
2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Not just bad, it's insulting, 13 May 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Iron Man and his alter-ego, billionaire philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) are back in a big way after the events of The Avengers, and it's clear Stark feels a little out of place in a world with gods, alien invasions, and Hulks. Captain America's line to Stark in the film: "Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?" resonates in Iron Man 3 as Stark seems haunted by his alter-ego and whether or not it defines him. The film sets out to answer this question; it is far more about Tony Stark than it is about Iron Man, so anyone who went into the film expecting the opposite left disappointed. Stark's character arc concludes magnificently in the film, and if this were the only merit on which it were to be judged, it'd be five stars out of five. Sadly, the film that surrounds this wonderful piece of cinema is drowned out by a colossal red herring, throw-away characters, and wasted opportunities. Special mention should also go to Downey Jr, because his portrayal of Stark in this film is his best yet.

One of the biggest gripes about the Iron Man trilogy to date has been its rather bland villains, especially when compared to the likes of Thor or Cap, whose respective villains (Loki and Red Skull) were excellent. Iron Man 3 decided to resolve this problem by doing absolutely nothing to resolve it, by making a hamming-it-up Guy Pearce as the villain we know next to nothing about, and then by pretending- through trailers, marketing, and the film's plot itself- that the main villain was Sir Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. Well into its second hour, the film reveals that The Mandarin is little more than a sideshow- a demon, for the public to focus its hate on- and Killian proudly announces at the end of it all that "I am the Mandarin!!!" No, Aldrich, you're not, and the film could've been a lot better had it actually spent time developing your character instead of making you a sniveling crybaby 'cuz Tony didn't come up to the roof to meet you.

The Mandarin- especially with an actor the likes of Kingsley behind him- would be an instant sell. As Iron Man's most-recognizable villain he'd make for great merchandising and was easily promotable as the film's main villain. The real reveal here is the fact that they wrote another terrible, empty suit of a villain who poses no real threat to Stark, and who is about as menacing as a sunburn. The reveal is poorly-timed and adds nothing to the story- Stark's point about "creating our own demons" is evident in Killian. It grinds the entire film to a halt to explain the reveal, once from actor portraying him, and then again by Killian. The film does such a bad job of planting this seed that he has to shout it again at the end to make sure the audience gets the twist. After the dismal Iron Man 2, fans deserved better than this, but we got more of the same- sure, Downey Jr. is great as always, but the rest is basically a waste of time. One could argue that the writers were in fact developing Killian the entire time, but they weren't- his Mandarin was a theater act. He had no ideology or reasoning, he simply hated Stark and wanted money.

Essentially, they had Stark's character arc written and they had nothing else to write it to. They wanted Tony to prove he's a hero without his armor on, and he truly was. The audience learns nothing about Killian or his chief lackey, played by James Badge Dale. Rhodey (Don Cheadle) returns as the Iron Patriot, but the film doesn't give him much to do outside of standing around in a big red, white, and blue suit the whole time. The Mandarin turns from menacing super-terrorist to a drunk Ben Kingsley as comic relief, every moment of which just felt like a slap in the face and- again- ground the film to an absolute halt. Speaking of comic relief, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) got way too much screen time. Obsession with security badges? Really? Was any of it supposed to be funny? The only thing that worked about this dreck was Downey Jr. as Stark. He manages to be the glue, and is funny, heroic, and charming all at once. Without him the film would be a colossal disaster.

The film never quite seems to recover after the twist plays off- frankly, Killian is just not as compelling or as menacing as Kingsley, and this is frankly more of a missed opportunity. Their point here was understandable- creating a mysterious, evil figurehead to represent evil, basically in order to frighten people into submission. A chilling point to make in this day and age, but Pearce isn't up to the task, and his Mandarin reveal comes too late in the film for it to carry any weight or substance.

As far as effects, they're good enough, for what they're trying to achieve. There are some great scenes, like Tony trying on his Mark 42 armor for the first time, or his many scenes with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). There is a great deal to like about Iron Man 3, which makes its failings all the more tragic. The action and music are largely forgettable. They throw every brand of armor in the film just because they might as well, who knows if they'll ever make another solo Iron Man film. It feels like they simply had no idea where to take Tony Stark after the success of the first film, and outside of his stint in Avengers, he can't seem to find a good story- or an interesting villain- to save his life.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Glitz and Glamour with beautiful Subtext!, 13 May 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The Great Gatsby is explosively vibrant from its beginning to its end. Baz Luhrmann takes his stunning artistry to F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, projecting the lavishness and decadence of the roaring 20s onto the screen with a modern soundtrack. A bold choice, perhaps, but make no mistake, Luhrmann's Gatsby is a wonderfully deep and poignant picture about love, lust, and greed that bursts onto the screen in vibrant detail.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jay Gatsby, a reclusive millionaire living in a lavish mansion, who dazzles all of New York with opulent parties weekend to weekend. Yet, for all of this, Gatsby himself is a bit of a recluse- few of his party guests even know who he is, fewer still know anything about him. DiCaprio gives a splendid performance as the enigmatic Gatsby, always hinting that there is more to him beneath the surface and always seeming that, despite the opulence that he surrounds himself with, he is a smaller man with smaller dreams. No, not necessarily smaller- but closer to heart.

The film is told through the eyes of young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who moves in next door to Gatsby after graduating from Yale. Maguire, too, gives a good performance here, and he was perfectly cast for this role- he has a great wide-eyed, always-in-wonder stare through which the audience can be introduced into the decadence of Gatsby's world. He always seems a bit out of place and a bit blown away by what's going on around him and the character is better for it. He is captivated not by the money and status that surround him, but by the humanity of the people living it- Carraway is by far the most "human" and relate-able character in the film.

Gatsby's story, ultimately, is a story of love, whether it be the love of another person or the love of wealth, status, and power. Luhrmann contrasts the two beautifully against one another in Gatsby and Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Both are wealthy, but in terms of set design and even in the performances, it is obvious that it isn't wealth and status that are important to Gatsby, while these are everything to Buchanan. Their beautiful mansions, on opposing shores, are a reflection of this.

Much has been made of Luhrmann's use of modern hip-hop music as a backdrop for Gatsby's tale, with Jay-Z serving as an executive producer on the film- this is a stylistic choice that works for a few reasons. One, it gives the film and the story a timelessness- not many people alive today can relate to living in the Jazz age, when American decadence reached its pinnacle. Two, it draws a parallel with the decadence of the modern day, particularly in the hip-hop culture- whether this was intentional or not is anyone's guess, but the correlation is there. It gives the lavishness of the life lived by Gatsby a fantastic musical backdrop and gives the film a vibrant signature all its own.

The whole film is, of course, a slow unraveling of the mystery of exactly who Jay Gatsby is. Leo plays Gatsby as coy, carefully guarded, never fully revealing anything about himself to anyone. His is a tragic tale, a man who lost the woman he loved and would do anything to get her back- in the end, of course, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) has forgotten all about him, more in love with status and money. Real, human love is tossed aside and left behind in the wake of money and power- Luhrmann's film does a great job of exploring this theme, most particularly the loss of humanity and the battle for love. Carraway describes Gatsby as being filled with a limitless hope. His tales of his amazing exploits at war are echoed in his quest to reclaim Daisy- fighting single-handedly against impossible odds to defeat a powerful enemy. His hope is indeed limitless, and his is the hope to reclaim his lost love and live forever in romance, a hope that is dashed by the greed and want for status, money, and power. Gatsby is rich, but his money, ultimately, means nothing to him.

Luhrmann's direction is meant to lose the viewer in the tumult of Gatsby's world (and heart)- indeed, there are times when it seems rather directionless, and the over-the-top production seems about to crash down on itself. This choice feels deliberate, as Luhrmann wants the audience lost in the world as Carraway is- his vision is fantastically realized, and even if it comes off a bit stagey at times, it is still larger-than-life and layered deep. At the center of it all, in the chaos of the opulent parties and the wealth literally poured away, stands Gatsby. DiCaprio easily shoulders the weight of the film and gives a great performance, begging the audience to look closer and peel back the layers that encompass him to get to the ultimate truth.

2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Wonderful and thought-provoking, but a mess, 18 March 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Oz the Great and Powerful is a pseudo-prequel to the indomitable Wizard of Oz, so it's hard to see the film doing anything to satisfy the expectations of film-goers everywhere. In terms of direction, effects, and (most of) the script, the film is utterly spectacular; it is marred by flat-out bad performances from most of its major cast, and the supporting cast isn't enough to prop it up, no matter how cute that little china doll (Joey King) is. It seems, unfortunately, to forget the whimsy and wonder that made the 1939 film so endearing to audiences- most of the actors herein seem rather bored, and their characters are all profoundly thin. Oz is a great movie to look at, but director Sam Raimi seems to have taken a page out of the George Lucas playbook, paying more attention to visual effects and set pieces than the performances on which any good film must, ultimately, rest.

The film stars James Franco as a small-time con man and magician in a traveling circus who is whisked away to the magical land of Oz when he runs afoul of the neighborhood strongman. He first meets the young witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who instantly falls in love with him as they journey to the Emerald City, which has fallen under hard times. The king was murdered, and the "wizard" is prophesied to become the new king, if only he can slay the Wicked Witch. So, the journey begins, and... Franco is really annoying most of the time he's on-screen. Yes, yes, he's supposed to be somewhat aloof and conniving, but his character is so reprehensible and regards so much of what he sees with disdain that to actively root for him as a protagonist just feels wrong. Franco is overacting, to a fantastic degree, and the film suffers for it. Even as the film goes on and he gradually transforms into the "hero" that the film wants him to be, his pandering performance only saps away from the wondrous world that Raimi and company have created.

Despite the film directly positioning itself as a prequel to the Wizard of Oz, the interesting question is... is it a dream? Raimi utilizes the same trick here, with actors appearing in the opening 4:3 shot in sepia tones and playing primary characters in Oz. They each represent a facet of Oz's life or personality that he is unable to rectify in real life: He is unable to help a little girl at his show to walk, but in Oz, he fixes her legs. He badly mistreats his assistant Frank (Zach Braff), only to come to respect his counterpart in Oz. In Theodora, one sees the manifestation of his carelessness, greed, and womanizing, turning her into the evil Wicked Witch of the West. And, of course, the grandest of all- he is a failure as a magician in his real life, but is able to become a great success in Oz. Isn't it all a little too... neat? Regardless, this aspect of the film is by far its most fascinating. One wonders if there was a sequence scripted to have the magician wake up back in the sepia-toned real world at the end- the aforementioned legal troubles might have played into this, but as it is the film is meant to precede Baum's original works, in which Oz was unequivocally real.

For the most part, the rest of the cast simply phones it in. Michelle Williams is relatively bland as Glinda the Good Witch, adding no subtext or offering no complexities to the character and instead content to pawn her off as a symbol of absolute purity. Returning to the above, this may have been intentional- Oz sees Annie, her counterpart in Kansas, as a symbol of love, elegance, and purity, and it is no surprise then to see her as a manifestation of such in Oz. Still, Williams does nothing with the role. Not sure who to blame exactly for Mila Kunis' over-the-top performance as Theodora: her or the script. It largely relegates her turn as the Wicked Witch of the West into petty jealousy and a revenge stunt against a womanizing idiot, and both she and the role deserve better than this. She plays Theodora as wickedly naive, and plays the Wicked Witch as so flamboyantly evil she may has well have carried around a giant banner that said, 'I'm really evil!' The only one who really gives a great performance here is Rachel Weisz as Evanora, who is so deliciously and subtly evil and was an enormous pleasure to watch. Outside of the main cast, the only standouts are Braff as the flying monkey Finley and King as the little china doll, the latter being so heartwarming that the film could've been about her for a solid two hours and it would've been fantastic. The others are forgettable and/or comic relief, particularly the running gag of Oz never being able to remember Knuck's (Tony Cox) real name.

Overall, Oz the Great and Powerful is gorgeous to look at and the 3D is well-done and not over-the-top. It is used well to great effect, much to Raimi's credit. This cast was simply wrong for this film, and Franco's performance is not nearly strong enough to carry it. Go for the stunning visuals and great effects, and the (mostly) great writing. The script hands down a great character arc for Oz, and with an actor who maybe wanted to play the role, the film probably would've been a lot more enjoyable to watch. In the "literature as film" sense- if the characters in Oz are little more than metaphors for various facets of the wizard's own life and personality- it is a fantastic and marvelous success. The performances only needed to deliver this, but they fell resoundingly flat.

Flight (2012/I)
56 out of 74 people found the following review useful:
Only soars on Denzel Washington's fantastic performance, 21 February 2013

Flight is the kind of movie that studio marketing departments seem to hate. Watching the trailer, it gives the feeling of a lighter film, dramatic, with some suspense. It does not, however, indicate that this is an incredibly dark film about the depths and perils of addiction. The trailer gives a completely different idea of what this movie is going to be about, but with Denzel Washington's "Whip" Whitaker doing cocaine about thirty seconds into the runtime, one can safely throw away any thoughts they may have had about it.

Mr. Washington stars as Captain Whitaker, piloting a flight from Florida to Georgia; a relatively short flight, but when something goes wrong at 30,000 feet, the quick-thinking and talented Whip rolls the plane to pull it out of its dive and ends up crash-landing, saving the lives of all but six people on-board the plane. The namesake sequence of the film is probably its best, filled with amazing tension and some stellar effects.

Washington absolutely shines in this role, and being an actor of immeasurable talent, there is no question why he is up for an Academy Award for best actor. His acting is the kind of amazing that doesn't even require words- near the end of the film, his performance is absolutely heartbreaking, and Denzel Washington wears it in his face. Sadly, the rest of the film (outside of scene-stealing performances from John Goodman and James Badge Dale) isn't really up to par. The film follows Whip's self-destructive alcoholism as he is caught up in an investigation into the cause of the plane crash; friends try to help him and are spurned, he is alienated from his family, and he finds fleeting comfort in strangers such as Nicole (Kelly Reilly).

This is where the film runs into problems, however. It wastes far too much screen time developing Nicole's character only to drop her off the face of the Earth. She enters Whip's life as a common ally, someone battling her own demons and addictions, but she is seeking help. She then vanishes from it just as quickly. Her character isn't all that interesting to begin with, and the same can be said for most of the rest of the characters and the story in the film; they only serve as a backdrop, a mirror through which Whip's many, many demons are reflected.

Flight is, unfortunately, a film without much of a sense of direction. Robert Zemeckis seems to be all over the place, pouring multitudes of attention into Nicole's character, the plane crash, and Whip battling his demons, and it never seems to make up its mind as to what it's about. The film never, for a moment, questions whether Whip is actually at fault for the plane crash, and in fact it was his actions that saved many lives. Maybe it is Washington's poise and gravitas in the scene, but it never feels like Whip isn't in control. True that he is drunk and on drugs, and has many serious, serious problems, but saving the lives of ninety-six people (himself included) wasn't one of them. So while the plane crash story is certainly interesting, there's never any doubt about exactly how it is going to play out.

Flight could have been a better film if it had capitalized on the success of the tension it so well displayed early during the plane crash. Whip's story, his battles with his numerous demons- and ultimately, his freedom from them- are moving and wonderful to watch. If Zemeckis hadn't tried to shoehorn in this ridiculous investigation plot that never really merits any attention, it would have been that much better. Washington gives a five-star performance, but the rest of Flight lands at a dismal Three and a half out of Five Stars.

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Life of Pi (2012)
1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Beautiful, but self-defeating, 21 February 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Life of Pi is an encouraging and optimistic tale about human survival and the struggle to battle ones inner demons. Visually dazzling and filled with great tension, Ang Lee's latest does a lot of things right in its quest to steady the soul. Its themes and its overall narrative, however, are purposefully deceptive, which leaves a lot of the film rather muddled and lost in its own message. A stunning testament to the human spirit and to love, and in the end, the journey one man takes to find himself and to find God. It is too bad that Lee's presentation comes off as a little overwrought.

Irrfan Khan stars in the film as Pi, who recounts the tale of his life to a writer (Rafe Spall). He was the son of a zookeeper and his wife, living in India. Through some happenstance, the family decides to move to Canada, taking the animals with them, which they plan on selling once they arrive in order to financially establish themselves. En route, the Japanese cargo ship sinks, the animals escape, and Pi finds himself stranded alone on a lifeboat with a few of them.

The bulk of the narrative revolves around a younger Pi (Suraj Sharma in a fantastic performance) and his attempts to survive stranded at sea with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The two share a fantastic voyage across the sea in which Pi learns about courage and finds the strength to survive, often out of fearing for his own life. However, the narrative often seems a touch too fantastic and out of touch with reality- a fact given a great deal of attention since the older Pi prefaces the story with a warning about how fantastic it is.

As a young boy, Pi spent a great deal of time searching for himself through faith- proclaiming himself to be a Hindu, Christian, and a Muslim simultaneously. His father (Adil Hussain) tells him that one who believes in all things at once really believes in nothing at all, and urges him to choose a path. He asks him to listen to reason (one could argue, a faith all its own). Life of Pi is, at its core, a metaphor for religion, but not one specific religion, and ultimately argues there is no one path to peace and spirituality, to faith, love, and wisdom. It instead marries all of the ideas together, showing that there is no one true path. Science, reason, faith, and religion, all different paths leading to the same destination.

Life of Pi asks whether the journey is more important than the destination, and the film clearly argues that the former is more important; at the end, the elder Pi recalls telling two stories. In both stories, his ship sinks, his family dies, and he survives. Yet he asks which is the better story; the writer responds, "the one with the tiger." With this, the elder Pi replies, "and so it goes with God." Life of Pi, then, places upon the viewer that the destination- finding God- is always the same, but that each must find the best way.

In revealing his narrator as unreliable, Lee unfortunately detracts from the themes that he is trying to present. It would have been Lee's masterstroke had he simply let the film tell this story; his attempts at selling his point of view to the audience are weakened by placing doubt in the mind of the viewer. The film makes the point he wants it to without the ham-fisted exposition, and it forces the vigilant viewer to ever question the journey. Without the needless revelation- by cutting out anything regarding the adult Pi until the end of the film- it would have been absolutely magnificent. As it stands now, it is just one flaw too many in a film that spends half its run time on a boat with a man and a tiger, which is devoid of tension since the audience knows how it ends.

In the end, take away from Life of Pi the thematic questions it raises and the points it makes, but don't expect it to unfold naturally. Despite all of the nature, the serenity, and the unpredictability of the setting of the film, it has a simplistic, mechanical feel that is too inorganic by comparison.

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Amour (2012)
3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Vivid mise en scène and rich performances, 12 February 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Amour is a film for film-makers and is a film student's dream. It is the kind of movie that demands analysis over and over for its dense symbolism and wonderful structure. It makes some really odd choices, but overall writer/director Michael Haneke knows exactly where he's putting the camera and why, and every shot on the screen oozes purpose. Foreign films don't often gets nominated at the Oscars outside of the best foreign film award, let alone for best director and a best actress nomination for star Emmanuelle Riva, but Amour is moving, brutally honest cinema about love, life, sacrifice, and death. NOTE: Spoilers to come. A lot of them.

The aforementioned Emmanuelle Riva stars in the film as Anne along with co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges, a couple of retired music teachers in their eighties enjoying their quiet little life together. The film takes a turn when Anne suffers a stroke, paralyzing her right side and forcing Georges to take care of her. The attack puts a strain on their relationship, with Anne falling increasingly ill and wanting more for her husband than to take care of her, and with Georges ever-loyal and willing to do anything to make her well again.

The performances by both Riva and Trintignant are simply spectacular. There is a love and devotion between these two characters that goes beyond words and it is bright and alive in the air between them at all times. Most enjoyable are the scenes between the two just looking at one another, such as Georges attempting to feed Anne and give her water; the look on Anne's face is one of such excruciating pain. The real crime is Trintignant being overlooked at the Oscars for his amazing performance; he is every bit as spectacular as Riva is, and their performances compliment one another perfectly. Truly, one would not have been possible without the other.

The film co-stars Isabelle Huppert as their daughter Eva, a far smaller role but a character just as large as the other two. It is fantastic to see her evolution as a character, and how her mother's deteriorating health commands more and more of her attention as the film goes on. Alexandre Tharaud plays Alexandre, a former student of the couple's who has gone on to great success and fame.

The amazing acting, however, is only a small portion of the very large picture that is Amour. It owes everything to the script from Haneke and to his careful direction. The camera-work is a bit jarring at first; shots remain steady for quite a long time, looking at characters from behind or from the side, keeping things out of focus, and keeping its distance; an interesting choice that serves to truly isolate Anne and Georges. In some scenes the camera-work is deliberately meant to make the viewer almost uncomfortable; others, it serves to illustrate the slow, stagnant lives that the two of them live. The viewer is only allowed certain access to these moments, the minutes that make up these lives. Georges and Eva have a discussion about her relationships and career- Georges has his back to the camera, while all the viewer can see is Eva. Haneke closes the audience off emotionally from Georges, forcing them to wonder with him at what happened to Anne in the prior scene.

Amour also uses beautiful symbolism, in many ways but most specifically in the form of a pigeon twice arriving at Georges and Anne's home. The bird finds its way in through an open window, popping about the apartment- the first time through, Georges shoos it away, chasing it back to the window and out of the apartment. The second- after Anne has already passed away- he captures and cradles closely in his arms. In both of these instances the pigeon represents death, passage into the afterlife- he wants more than anything to keep his wife alive, and make her well again, and chases the bird off. Once she has passed, however, there is little left on Earth for Georges, and he embraces death to join his beloved Anne.

There is too much to say about a film so richly layered and this review barely touches the surface. Amour is a moving film about real love and real life and the struggles that love must endure. It certainly isn't a blockbuster, it can be a bit slow and a bit jarring at times- the camera is unforgiving, and the characters grow more and more haggard as the movie goes on. Yet it is, to its core, a testament to the beauty and unending power of love that transcends this or any other life. Its performers simply live and breathe these characters for two hours, but I promise they'll stay with you for a very long time after.

4 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
Frivilous, with no lessons learned, 9 February 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Having defeated the leader of the mutant gang in The Dark Knight Returns: Part I, Batman (Peter Weller) has inspired a wave of new vigilantism, which inspires even more of the previously derided television news panels and news programs that spout off the film's various running themes at the viewer, lest they forget that they need to select a point of view they most agree with and be reminded of it every five minutes. Unlike the first film, however, which was content to only ask the question, this film does everything it can to convince the viewer that they are wrong if they like the Batman or support the kind of vigilantism that he represents. How does the film manage this? Fifty seconds into the film it stages a talk show debate both for and against Batman, selecting for its "pro" Batman voice a grotesquely overweight and ignorant Lana Lang who babbles inanely at the audience that it isn't Batman's fault that he has inspired further vigilantism in his name. Many arguments can be made about the Batman, but the vigilantes he inspires in his wake are a direct result of his actions, which the film makes overtly clear.

In the meantime, Commissioner Jim Gordon (David Selby) is retiring, leaving newcomer Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals-Barrera) to take over the job. Being decidedly anti-Batman, she becomes the face of a city that will no longer tolerate Batman's vigilante antics, and thus dedicates every single police resource possible to taking him down. This specific plot is annoying at best, something contrived in hero stories when A.) the hero needs to be delayed in reaching a goal, and B.) the villain needs to be given time to achieve their goals. The Dark Knight Rises adapted this onto the big screen and it was just as ignorant there as it is here; it defies any logical sense that the police would dedicate so many resources to take down Batman but ignore the serial killers and super villains that are plotting beneath their noses.

Meanwhile, the Joker (Michael Emerson) has stirred, beginning another killing spree that sends the Batman after him (murdering an entire studio audience while no police were around, since Batman is clearly the bigger threat). The chase and subsequent battle between the two of them is downright amazing, capturing the bitterness and hatred the two characters have for one another perfectly. The Joker going so far as to kill himself to pin his murder on Batman is an inspired stroke of writing. It is tragic that his time in the film is rather short, since their confrontation is easily the film's best sequence.

Meantime, the president decides that Batman's renewed antics are a menace and must be put to an end. He sends Superman (Mark Valley) off to give the Batman a stern talking to that goes as well as anyone might expect. From this point on the film just... it just falls apart. Seeing Superman as a government lackey, fighting against the Soviets on Corto Maltese was so absurd that there is no response appropriate enough for it. So Superman allows himself to be used as a human weapon for political ends now? This, similar to portraying Batman as a dual personality of Bruce Wayne in the first film, is so bafflingly out-of-sorts with the character. Worse is his diversion of a nuclear strike in Corto Maltese that renders him crippled and looking like a super zombie. So Superman then proceeds to... suck the life force out of the Earth to replenish himself?!

Thanks to the ineptitude of the Man of Tomorrow, the nuclear strike instead cripples the United States with an electromagnetic pulse, sending the country into pseudo-martial law. Batman, not content to let crime overthrow Gotham, rounds up the vigilantes that have been acting in his name and decides to keep the streets safe. This makes Gotham the safest city in the country, something that the Feds deem to be a colossal embarrassment, so they send Superman in to take Batman out.

All things considered, the fight between Bats and Supes was very well done. Batman shows his strength of character and his intellect, attempting to weaken the Man of Steel before facing him in a full-on showdown that he knows he will likely lose. As in the previous installment, the animation style completely suits the sort of heavy-fisted fighting that it again showcases here, as well as earlier in the Joker fight. The whole affair is very well done, with Bruce enlisting the help of Oliver Queen, the former Green Arrow, to help him take down Superman. Robin (Ariel Winter) also lends a helping hand here and at other places in the film, but is really just a throwaway character.

Just as in part one, this film could've been made a lot better if it had cut down on the insipid newscasts that constantly intercut it, content to yell at the viewer over and over what they should be thinking and believing that audiences are too stupid to think for themselves or to glean the themes of the film from the film itself. This could've easily been done as a single feature-length animated feature, instead of two 75-minute films that are drawn out and overlong and replete with the same repetitive newscasts that never, ever stop. The whole thing reeks as a cash grab from DC, whose feature films always seem to falter unless they star Batman. Can't blame the company from cashing in on its relatively successful (and for the most part, very well-done) animated featurettes, one supposes. The animation style is terrible for anything outside of the film's action sequences or those not featuring Batman, and despite some great voicework from the cast, the whole affair feels as worthless as part one before it. It's a shame that the Joker couldn't have hung around longer, because once he died, he took the energy of the film with him.

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