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Evil Dead (2013)
7/10
A satisfying and brutally bloody mess of a remake
23 March 2013
When I initially heard about a remake to Evil Dead, I was a little disappointed. I was never a huge fan of the original film, but the sequels remain two of the most wildly entertaining films I have ever seen. With my doubts in mind, everything changed the moment I saw the first red-band trailer. And now after catching a screening of the film last week, I wonder why I doubted Fede Alvarez's re-imagining in the first place.

Five friends venture to a cabin to help Mia (Jane Levy) kick her drug habit. Things are not as they seem from the very start, but it only gets worse after Mia's claims she was attacked by a demon in the forest. Her friends just think she is adjusting badly to going cold turkey, but strange occurrences start to take place within the cabin, and it quickly becomes obvious that Mia is not quite herself.

I went in with low expectations, but Alvarez does a great job bringing the film to life. It hints at and replays certain key moments from the original series, but for the most part, Evil Dead is very much its own individual thing: a re-imagining that exists all on its own. The story is not all too important here, but it does more than enough to move the film along from beginning to end; something the horror remake genre has botched all too often. Better yet, Evil Dead never feels like it is struggling to live up to lofty comparisons, and seems very content at having fun mercilessly torturing these five young people. Fans will love seeing how Alvarez reinterprets some of the franchise's most popular scenes, but non-fans will still get a hint of glee seeing just how depraved the film quickly becomes. It may take a while to get there, but it never lets up afterwards.

The trailers and marketing elements suggest that the film is terrifying. Indeed the trailer was absolutely horrifying. But I found myself not so much scared as why I was mortified by some of the kills and ludicrous ideas inflicted on the cast. I say ideas mainly because some things that happen should result in a criminal diagnosis on everyone involved. The film is definitely not for the squeamish, and revels in the amount of blood and gore it spills at every turn. It uses the original franchise as a barometer, and then throws it out the window in favour of being more "inventive" and eclectic with its choices. The trailers may have prepared you for some of the brutality, but it only hints at the lingering after-effects. Expect to hear a lot about the vivid and fully realized makeup effects – they are so much better than you could have ever imagined, and are light-years ahead of the minuscule CGI effects employed during the film.

For how enjoyable and loving a tribute this re-imagining is to Raimi's work, there is still plenty wrong with it. Roque Baños' score, although tense throughout, is way too serious and overbearing for the film. It helps create plenty of frightening moments sprinkled generously throughout the film, but I feel like it belonged in a much different film. It never gels quite properly with the tone of the film, and feels off even in the minute sections where it does work. Much the same goes for the prologue that opens the film – a totally new invention of Alvarez and crew. It tries to set the tone for what is coming, and tries its very best to totally set itself apart from the original films (even going so far as to introduce an actual "identity" to the demons possessing the precocious young adults), but ends up feeling totally out of place. About halfway through the film, I forgot it even happened because of how little it affects what comes after. Why bother adding it in the first place?

While I take issue with a number of idiosyncrasies involving a bizarre third act twist I should have seen coming, my bigger concern is with the characterization of everyone except Mia. Their driving force is to help her get better and rid her of her drug dependency, but they seem to have no other motivations outside of that. Lou Taylor Pucci's character Eric unleashes the demons in the first place, but he never really gives any hint of why he commits this act of malice or even how he can read it so well. Elizabeth Blackmore's Natalie is a glorified stage prop, frequently disappearing for whole scenes at a time, only to reappear when the film suddenly needed her to be on hand for reaction shots. The only reason I had any idea of who this character is supposed to be was because she shows up with Fernandez at the beginning of the film. Should she have already been hanging out at the cabin, I do not think we would have been afforded that luxury.

But I digress. For what it is, and for what I can only assume most people expected, Evil Dead is a satisfying, albeit bloody mess of a movie. It does enough right, and does an admirable job being its own film – as opposed to coasting along on the tail of the original film. With a little bit more work, this could have been a significantly greater film. But whether you look at it as pieces or in the sum of its parts, it is more than worthwhile to see.

7.5/10.
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8/10
Brutally hilarious and quite messy, but a total blast from start to finish
23 December 2012
I only had one thought on my mind for this Christmas: see Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino's latest opus, a Western set two years before the Civil War, concerns a former slave named Django (Jamie Foxx). He is freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) in order to help him with a bounty. Quite quickly, Shultz takes Django under his wing and trains him as his partner. But he made him a promise: that he would rescue his wife from a plantation owned by the ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). And rescuing her is not going to be all that easy.

What pains me the most about Django Unchained, as a die-hard Tarantino fan, is just how sloppy it all seems. I enjoyed every minute of it, but I could never shake the feeling of how messy and thrown together it all feels. Portions of the film feel episodic (the search for the Brittle Brothers, mentioned heavily in the trailers, begins and ends practically within minutes), and some scenes just seem to play out just for the fun of it. Another scene from the trailers involving a lynch mob with bags covering their faces seems added for comedic purposes, and has no real point of actually existing. More than any of his films before it, Django feels like Tarantino simply making a movie for sheer pleasure and with no outside motivations or controllers.

The film threatens to go totally off the rails at any given moment, and lacks any real sense of direction or focus. It may sound ridiculous, but the loss of editor Sally Menke confirms a sneaking suspicion I always had about Tarantino – he needed a steady right hand to help encourage him as to what was needed and what was not. I do not want to criticize Django's editor Fred Raskin, but it is obvious he is no Menke and that works against the film heavily. It lacks the polish we have come to expect, and is practically stripped of the glossy/cool texture so prevalent in Tarantino's work up until now.

But then maybe that was his intention all along, and perhaps Tarantino is airing out his frustrations with life and film in general. Django is deliberately shot on film (or at least from the print I saw), and looks very gritty and messy at all times. It is significantly more brutally violent than anything he has worked on before (the borderline cartoonish Kill Bill included), and has a very go for broke attitude about itself. The film seems to revel in how brilliantly it can splatter all the blood and gore (done through the use of squibs and no digital!), and how uncomfortably numbing it can make the violence. I know he does not care what people think of his films, but this movie especially seems like an emphatically raised middle finger to the establishment. And for all of my complaints about how messy it all feels, I was never once bored or felt like the movie was dragging itself out. The staggering 165-minute running time shockingly flies by faster than you might ever imagine.

Acting wise, Tarantino stacks the deck with a number of recognizable character actors young and old for roles that vary in size. Most have very few lines, if any at all, and seem to just stand by, just as content as the audience is to watch the action unfold. It is a little off-putting, especially with how important some of these characters are initially made out to be. Washington as Broomhilda von Shaft (one of the most subtle references he's ever dropped) does well as the helpless victim and frequent dreamlike object – but she never really gets to show off any of her acting prowess outside of her facial reactions. They are increasingly effective, especially during horrific flashback scenes. But her work here feels ridiculously stunted in comparison to the other leads. Samuel L. Jackson, much like Tarantino himself, seems to just be having fun in his role as Candie's adviser Stephen. He plays on every ridiculous stereotype he ever has been associated with and then amps it up to a near ludicrous state. He is frequently hilarious, but the role seems to border on parody more than anything else.

Surprisingly, Foxx takes a very long time settling into the leading role. It may just be the character, but it is quite clear from the on- set that he is not very comfortable in Django's shoes, and leads credence to why Will Smith, amongst so many others, dropped out of the picture so quickly. But once he finds his footing, he does a fantastic job walking the thin line between empathetic and sadistic. It is not an easy character to play, but Foxx makes it his own, bringing a sense of style and grace that are virtually absent from the rest of the film. And of course, he gets all the best lines.

Waltz and DiCaprio are the clear standouts however, nailing every nuance of their sadly underwritten characters. While Waltz plays the straight man, DiCaprio is delightfully unhinged and vicious. Both are playing directly against type, yet are strangely comfortable in the roles. Watching them act circles around the rest of the cast, Foxx included, is the true highlight of the film. I just wish they were both given additional emphasis and more to do.

For all of its numerous faults, I had a blast watching Django Unchained. It is hilarious, it is a lot of fun, and is wildly enjoyable. I genuinely think it could have been a lot better if there was more focus and direction, but this is very clearly a picture Tarantino wanted to make on his own terms. And for that, I applaud him for the effort. It is not his best work, but certainly not his worst.

8/10.
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Lawless (2012)
5/10
A brutally violent, wildly uneven disappointment
27 August 2012
Based on a true story, the Bondurants were bootleggers selling their Moonshine to whoever would buy within the South during the Great Depression. The three brothers: Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke); were legendary in their parts of Virginia, and also one of the few groups left not selling their wares through a higher authority. With the competition slowly bought out, dirty Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) begins looking for ways to buy out the Bondurant's small fortune, or take them out one-by-one. And rather obviously, the Bondurants are not ones to go down without a fight.

Simply put, Lawless is a mess from start to finish. At any given moment, it feels like a totally different film – a gangster picture, a brutal revenge thriller, an unintentional buddy comedy, a romantic melodrama and even a little bit of a heartfelt coming-of-age film. It never seems to have any semblance of an idea of what it wants to be at any point. I have read since that the source material, Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World, was a bit all over the place too in this regard. While that is fine for the book, it makes for an exhausting film experience. I had no idea what I should be feeling, and considering how restless the crowd seemed at the wildly shifting tonal structure, it seems like I was not the only one.

The storyline is a little bit too undercooked as well. It is quite the wildly entertaining story, made even wilder by being based on truth. But the time-line is never really set-up properly, leading to a lot of odd time lapses and at least one clumsy montage (looking like it was ripped straight out of Brian De Palma's Scarface). While an odd structure like this may just feel like nitpicking, it drastically effects the character motivations, or lack thereof. At one point, Forrest and Howard take revenge into their own hands and act in such a grisly manner, that the camera barely even lets you see what is happening. But in the next scene, they are just good old boys trying to hide their Moonshine- running business from pesky invaders. Much like the shifts in tone, it feels like the characters experience the very same shifts in character motivation and development. And it only gets sloppier as the film keeps progressing.

The acting does not fare much better.

LaBeouf is clearly over his head trying to carry the film, and he almost collapses under its weight. He overdoes it in some instances, and does not put nearly enough effort into other places. This is really his first leading, non-gimmicky role, and it shows in how wildly inexperienced he comes off. He is never quite believable as anything other than a careless kid on the outside looking in. And while this works for parts of the film, during the really heavy moments, it flops near horrendously. I wanted to believe in LaBeouf's character's struggle, and wanted to really feel something for the brotherly dynamic between him, Hardy and Clarke. But outside of a few playful, near out-of-character moments, there is no real reason to feel anything but disappointment.

Hardy and Clarke are clearly game for the material (when you can decipher what either of them are saying), but are clearly being held back by the confines of their underwritten characters. They are supposed to be menacing, and are supposed to be indestructible forces of nature. But I never gathered that watching either of their interactions with anyone else. Sure, they were brutal powerhouses, but I did not believe they were as scary as some of the dialogue hints they could be. Pearce, gleefully at peace overacting and riffing on Christoph Waltz's character from Inglourious Basterds, seems to really be trying to make something out of his character. But for all the scenery chewing and devious one- liners, he is sadly reduced to a one-dimensional throwaway villain. Despite figuring heavily into the trailers, Gary Oldman is criminally underused as gangster Floyd Banner. He has less than 10-minutes of screen time, and is given practically no reason to be in the film other than to move the characters from Point A to Point B.

Similar fates are bestowed on Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Dane DeHaan – all give well done performances, but simply exist either to brighten the film up from the often grim subject matter or to help establish a plot point the dialogue cannot.

If there is one thing I can point out as being done right, it is the look of the film. There is an aura of nostalgia that emanates around almost every scene, lovingly bringing us back to a time that has been practically forgotten. The costumes, the sets, the cinematography – all come together as one for a really beautiful and inspiring showcase. And while it does maintain its beauty throughout, it does get incredibly gritty during the surprisingly scenes of brutal violence. It took me a back by just how far some of the scenes go, and may make some audience goers incredibly uneasy. After seeing so much go wrong, it was nice to see something done so right.

Lawless took years to get made (along with a few title changes). And after seeing the final product, a near catastrophic wreck, I can only begin to surmise why. It is a disappointment through and through, with some interesting but underwritten performances, a wildly uneven story and some of the most brutal violence I have seen all year. Some may read its quirky nature as being the film's true salvation and reason it is so much better than other films like it. But it is just as easy to see right through the façade and realize just how deeply disappointing Lawless is.

5/10.
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8/10
The odds are in favour of the first must-see film of the year
21 March 2012
After months of endless hype and speculation, The Hunger Games are finally upon us. With fan anticipation running high, I managed to check out the Canadian premiere of the film a few days early. And I must say, I came out significantly more impressed than I ever imagined.

Set in an unspecified future, one boy and one girl are randomly selected as tributes from each of the "Districts" that make up the country known as Panem to take part in The Hunger Games – a televised battle to the death. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of District 12 volunteers in place of her younger sister to take part in the games. But survival will not come easy, especially when she faces 23 other individuals.

I will confess, I initially thought The Hunger Games would be nothing more than a dolled up, Americanized version of the absolutely brilliant Battle Royale. Thankfully, it was everything but that. For Gary Ross has helped create a film that goes above and beyond a simple adaptation. This is a living, breathing, full blown phenomenon just waiting to break out. He hits the ground running after a brief explanation of the titular games, and makes the film more and more interesting as it trucks along. I hate that I will compare this film to Harry Potter and Twilight so often, but it does so much right that the first films in these franchises did wrong that you begin to wonder whether it is because of the source material, or because they just found the right filmmaker from the on-set to bring this epic story to life.

Lawrence, an Oscar-nominee for Winter's Bone, proves her worth and undeniable talent as Katniss. She carries the film on her shoulders from the moment she enters the frame, and never looks back. You feel every breath, every tear, every ounce of struggle she goes through. We already knew she was an exceptional talent before, now we know she is a star and this was the role she was born to play. She is very in tune with this character, and never wavers; staying strong from beginning to end. While the young cast of Harry Potter and Twilight took 2-3 films to really find themselves, Lawrence already knows who this character is and how to play it. Granted she stays focused through the next two films, this could go down as one of the best character portrayals in film history. Whether she is on her own or interacting with the rest of the cast, you simply cannot take your eyes off her.

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, the other half of District 12, does a fairly good job supporting Lawrence. There is a lot left unsaid about his character (although significantly more than Liam Hemsworth's Gale, who spends all too much of his screen time brooding and looking longingly into the distance), but he is more than up to the task of showing off the skills he has been praying would make him a star for the better part of the decade. He does a lot of the emotional lifting in the film, giving his best work to date. He even helps make the more love-centric aspects of the story not feel nearly as dragged out as they seem to be.

While the young leads are all great, I found myself most fascinated by the supporting cast of adult character actors like Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley, and especially Stanley Tucci. All of them are sadly underused, but are all incredible additions when they do pop on screen. I just wish it was more often.

But what holds The Hunger Games back from perfection is its distinct lack of flavor or personality. The film moves at a wildly chaotic pace, barely slowing down for character or story development. It just moves from beat to beat, to the point where you can sense the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. And in this chaos, you never get a sense of what style Ross wants to infuse the film with. It has all the elements it needs to be a dystopian masterpiece or even a poignant and subtle social satire (ideas I already know will be developed in the future films), but it never quite gels together the way it should. It thrills you, but at the same time leaves you incredibly empty. I am not sure if this is how the book reads, or even if this was Ross' intention. Is he holding back on purpose, or is someone pulling strings to make sure the film does not truly become its own thing?

I feel like I may be getting to the point of nitpicking (I will leave out my reservations about how shoddy some of the shots involving fire looked), but days later, I still feel like the film is missing that one crucial element that separates it from being a simply book-to-film adaptation and the truly wonderful epic it should rightfully be.

While it may not be perfect, I cannot help but applaud The Hunger Games. This is the best first book-to-film adaptation since The Fellowship of the Ring, and did exactly what I secretly hoped it would – made me want to read the books as fast as humanly possible to find out what happens next. While it hints at oh so much of more, the film gives you just enough to stay riveting throughout. Lawrence cements her status as someone to watch out for, while Hutcherson and Hemsworth should brace for stardom. With Harry Potter an all but distant memory, and Twilight hopefully fading into obscurity, it's nice to know we have a series we can actually look forward to continuing. Bring on Catching Fire!

8/10.
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7/10
Fascinating and exquisite, but ultimately disappointing
15 January 2012
Despite being made by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method was only just released in the Great White North. It was one of my most anticipated films of the fall, and yet another film I missed out on at TIFF (here's an early wish that Cosmopolis will have more than two screenings when it gets announced later this year). So as you can guess, I did not wait very long to see it this past weekend. Unfortunately, I may not have truly considered why it was put off for so long.

Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is an upcoming and coming psychologist who has begun to use a newly developed method of analysis on hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). As he starts to understand her troubles and their overt sexual nature, he begins conversations with another celebrated psychologist, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). As his relationship with Spielrein begins to take a sexual turn, his conversations with Freud start to breathe life into what we now know as psychoanalysis.

Cronenberg has always evaded definition as a filmmaker, and his work here in A Dangerous Method is no different. You can see the intense close-ups as well as the lure and gaze of a master, but he seems to have been dialed back here. Instead of brutal violence or grotesque body horror, we get a very intimate story that seems very well out of his realm of typical filmmaking. He allows the performances and the dialogue to tell the story, and never lets the sexual elements become too overreaching. I was surprised by just how quiet the film was, and how it felt so un-Cronenbergian (I am certain that is a word by now). It shows his maturity as a filmmaker, and also shows how he continues to challenge himself – never making the same movie, and always flip-flopping on his genres.

But as much as I appreciate the effort Cronenberg put forth, I feel the material is the biggest hurdle holding the film back from the awards glory it should have deserved. Much like War Horse and Carnage, the film is based on a play. And because of this, A Dangerous Method feels very constricted and forced to stay within the confines already set out during the writing. It zips along conversationally through a period of around ten years, never stopping to really examine what is going on with the characters. We get small tidbits along the way, and nothing more. It is bad enough that the film feels like it starts and ends in the middle of the story (not unlike other small films from last year like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Fassbender's breakout film Shame), but it is deeply unsatisfying for scenes to begin leading to one thing, ending, and then starting again in a whole different year or time period. It feels very jumpy in this respect, and incredibly difficult to gauge. It is easy to follow along, but frustrating to try and decipher the "why this" and "why not this".

Neither Fassbender nor Mortensen deliver their best work here, but manage to be downright fascinating when they are facing off against each other on-screen. Their chemistry is intense, and watching them spar through psychoanalysis is the clear highlight of the film. Without raising their voices or their fists, you can tell these two are locked in a vicious battle, and it only lets up when they are away from each other. While Mortensen has the benefit of being low-key and an almost background figure within the film, Fassbender is front and centre for its majority. He carries the film well, but you can see he is struggling. We know from Shame and X-Men: First Class that he is a powerful talent, and is destined for the Hollywood elite. So why does he seem to flounder here? Is he having just as much trouble gauging and defining the material as Cronenberg seems to be? I found myself consistently baffled by someone whose performances just seemed to get better and better. But here, he sadly underwhelms.

It surprisingly is Knightley who picks up the slack and delivers the film's best performance. From her initial introduction right until her final scene, she is a force to be reckoned with. Her vivid shifts between being hysterical and being in control are spectacular. I originally thought she was overdoing it with her bizarre facial gestures, but as the film went on, they felt tame in comparison to how deep she goes with her performance. She may be the object of the most sexual ambivalence (one of the few Cronenberg-isms within the film), but she is also the most well developed and constructed character. Where Fassbender fumbles, she recovers and carries the film between the portions without Freud/Jung sparring. This is quite likely her best work to date, and an early example of some of the brilliant material she may have in store for the future.

Supporting turns from Sarah Gadon as Jung's wife Emma and an all too small appearance by Vincent Cassell are well done, but both feel entirely underused. Both are important in the grand scheme of things, but evidently not important enough to not feel like mere plot devices.

In the end, I managed to be fascinated by A Dangerous Method, but disappointed at the same time. I can continue blaming the material, but it feels like of the three leads, only Knightley really brought her A-game. After the glorious double-header of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, I think I had come to expect too much of Cronenberg. He is a man who became famous for his disgusting other- worldly work in the realm of horror and fantasy. But then, a disappointing Cronenberg film still manages to be a worthwhile endeavor anyway when compared to the rest of the dreck Hollywood pumped out last year.

7/10.
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3/10
A disappointing, cruel joke of a film
8 January 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I still do not quite have the words to express my disappointment after watching The Devil Inside a few days ago. I caught it by chance at a free screening before the reviews, the tweets and the unbelievable box office score came in, and did not expect much from it. But sadly, even with very little expectations, the film just may be one of the worst and most inexcusable films I have seen in years.

Chances are by now you have seen or heard some form of a creepy ad for The Devil Inside, which follows Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) to Italy to investigate whether or not her mother Maria (Suzan Crowley) is possessed by a demon, and is in need of an exorcism.

What the ads do not suggest is how agonizing this trip to Italy really is.

For nearly half of its running time, the film is basically a faux documentary about a group of characters that are neither compelling nor interesting. Considering the film follows the set-up of Paranormal Activity right down to the title cards announcing what day it is, you would have figured they would have at least given the audience one character to care about. Instead we have four who are given one- dimensional descriptions and mere hints of past indiscretions. These hints come fast and furious, to the point where they bash the audience into submission – except they do absolutely nothing for their characters. They mention them in passing, the "demons" bring them up, but no one seems to care or want to investigate further. These hints quite simply linger, and never come to any form of fruition.

The scenes involving exorcisms or what happens as a result of these "exorcisms" prove to be where the only worthwhile part of The Devil Inside lies. They are not all that scary, and the filmmakers seem to be cribbing from both old (The Exorcist) and the new (The Last Exorcism), but the hand-held look of the film makes these scenes somewhat riveting. It gets crazy, and the down and gritty look of the film gives it an aura of realism that keeps your eyes glued to the screen to find out what happens next. While some scenes seem to have been added simply for shock value, including a baptism scene that is nowhere near as intense and ludicrous as trailers and word of mouth have suggested, it does feel like the filmmakers really wanted to try and attempt to elicit some form of reaction or talking point for the film.

But this all comes to a screeching halt with the film's ending. After building the audience up to some sort of climax, the film quite simply ends and inexplicably cuts to black. But not before telling the audience to go to a website to learn more about the characters in this supposed "true story". No resolution, no obnoxious set-up for a sequel or franchise, not even an indication of what happens next. Instead, just a website followed by the slowest credits ever put to celluloid. I do not think you could even begin to imagine the groaning, the sighs, and the profanity-laced reactions this ending received – and for good reason. I cannot even begin to imagine what any of the filmmakers were thinking by ending it here. Had they run out of ideas and were simply hoping some sort of viral marketing would keep the project a float? Do they really expect audiences to rush out to learn more on a website, after being cheated out of the cash to wash this insipid filth posing as a real film?

So my immediate question, and one I have been trying to answer for days, is what was the whole point of this film? Did Paramount want a new, cheap horror franchise to replacing the waning Paranormal brand? Did marketers want to prove marketing works, even for the worst most dreadful pictures? Did some exec just want a quick and easy paycheque?

So many questions, but so very little answers; surprisingly, much like the events, ideas and characterizations in the film itself. In an odd way, it is almost like the film was a meta experiment, designed to see if the audience would eat it up so quickly and easily without question.

What I am left with is this: The Devil Inside is a film that exhibited a limited amount of promise with its atypically creepy and borderline sadistic trailer. The final cohesive product however, was a mess of ideas stolen from better films, original ideas that go absolutely nowhere with a handful of riveting hand-held scenes. Nothing more, and nothing less. I cannot in good conscience recommend the film to anyone, even those who like bad movies. No amount of build-up or hype can prepare you for the disappointment you would have in store putting yourself through this atrocious film. I have described the ending to groups of people, and no one can quite believe just how absolutely awful it really is. I cannot remember the last time I absolutely loathed a film mere seconds after watching it, but The Devil Inside may take that record.

I just really hope this cruel joke of a film is not a true indication of what we have in store for 2012. Because between that and remembering this movie even exists, we may be in for one bad year at the movies.

3/10.
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8/10
Entertaining and a lot more fun than the original outing
15 December 2011
As much as I loved the character interactions and insane chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, I was very much let down by Sherlock Holmes when I first saw it a few years ago. It was a really stylish and well-made film, but the storyline bored me to tears. I came in incredibly excited to see it, and left wishing it had ended sooner. With the obvious sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows upon us, I figured I would go in with much lower expectations and brace for something along the same lines.

Europe is at the brink of war, with many little seemingly unconnected events occurring across the nations. Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr.) believes it to be the work of the brilliant Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). He enlists the help of his sidekick, Watson (Law), to help him uncover the truth, before it is too late.

With less of a focus on the occult, a stronger plot and a significantly more interesting villain, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows outdoes its predecessor in many respects. It ups the thrills and the action, continues the fun, and delivers one of the better sequel going experiences this year.

Even though the story is a bit wonky in certain respects (more on that in a moment), I feel A Game of Shadows manages to feel a lot more grounded than the original. There is a clear storyline, and an even clearer path of where the film wants to go. It stalls here and there, as I imagined it would, but it never lingers like the original did. The art direction is just as incredible as it was, and the special effects seem to have been improved greatly. Where the first film flopped around, this film picks up the slack.

While Downey Jr. and Law are just as impeccable and well matched as they were the first time round, the film benefits greatly from the addition of Harris as Moriarty. The character's presence was felt throughout the first film, but the film noticeable lost its edge by simply referring to him in passing and hinting at what a sequel could have had in store. Bringing him into the fold, he immediately is tenfold better than Mark Strong ever could have hoped to be. Watching Harris match wits with Downey is simply astounding, and makes for the most wildly enjoyable parts of the film. There is never a dull moment when he is around, and instead of making the film drone on, he invigorates it with an immense amount of energy. Harris knows exactly how to look deceptive, even with a wide grin and dialogue that does not even hint at ulterior motives. His looks are downright terrifying in a lot of instances. This is his first major film role, and I can only hope filmmakers continue using his dastardly skills for antiheroes and villains alike.

I think the film's biggest hurtle, and the one that hurts it the most, is that there are simply too many characters and too many of them did not need to appear in the first place. Rapace's character is nothing more than a plot device, used to connect certain sections together and forgotten almost entirely all too often. The practically blink-and-you- will-miss them moments for Rachel McAdams and Eddie Marsan feel more like Richie peddling to the fans, as opposed to actually serving a real point to the film. It is fun seeing them show up again, but considering they have little to no effect on the plot, they could have easily just never showed up at all. But the far worst offender of not serving any purpose is Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes. He brings a ridiculous amount of humour to the film, and he is a welcome addition on the onset. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear he is merely there simply to make the film even more ludicrous and silly than Downey Jr. makes it. When the inevitable third film drops, I hope they actually use him effectively, instead of making his appearance feel like a mere tease.

What also hurts the film is Richie's incessant need to use slow motion in every action sequence. While it works insanely and surprisingly well for the film's centrepiece involving a foot chase through a forest, it feels like overkill in almost every other instance. We understand from the first film that Holmes likes to evaluate the moves of both his adversaries and himself before he makes them, but watching him plot it out helps drag the film out longer than it needs to be. It is fun and worthwhile when it is used sparingly, or used to draw attention to something specific. But when Richie is one-upping Zack Snyder in the worst possible way, it begs the question of whether he learned any mistakes from the first film or not. At just under 130 minutes, I feel like a good fifteen minutes of slow motion could have been sped up, and would have looked just as great. Hell, Richie potentially could have shown off a bit of his own style too, instead of just what he cribbed from everyone else.

While the film still has its problems, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is an enjoyable ride from start to finish. It maintained my interest, where the first film had me counting the excruciating minutes before it would end. Richie still has a lot to learn about as a filmmaker (and even more as a man who creates his own style instead of Tarantino-ing from others), he does know how to make a crafty film. Now if he can stop hinting at future installments and just give us a film that sticks to being about the story at hand, then maybe we might just get the perfect rendition of this legendary detective.

8/10.
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The Artist (I) (2011)
8/10
A wildly enjoyable dose of cinematic magic
29 November 2011
Looking back at the ride that was this year's TIFF, I continue to find multiple errors in judgment in regards to what I could have seen versus what I did see. While I saw some extraordinary works, I find that I missed out on some truly incredible films. One such loss was The Artist, a decision I regretted immediately afterwards. I have heard nothing but praise since the film's debut at Cannes, and missing out when I had a remote chance was a terrible mistake. Luckily, I only had to wait a short while before getting another chance to see the film. And let me say right from the start, if you have the chance to see this film, do not think twice about missing out.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the pinnacle of his career as a silent film star in late 1920s Hollywood. He is a megastar, beloved by his fans and loathed by his studio. On chance, he literally bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and helps get her film career started over night. But as talkies start to take over and Miller's star rises, Valentin's starts to fall.

It does not sound like a lot, but the simplicity of The Artist is where the film finds its charm and its wonder. Michel Hazanavicius, a relative unknown on this side of the Atlantic, has composed something truly extraordinary and ridiculously unique by 2011 standards. Who would have thought that creating a silent film would provide one of the most enjoyable experiences you will likely have at the movies all year?

Of course, the most widely discussed item regarding the film is its use of silent film tropes and language. This is a silent film about a silent film star. Hazanavicius takes his cues from the pioneers of cinema, and wisely and effortlessly fuses together a film that would not look entirely out of place should it have been shown in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Where filmmakers have been using a widescreen canvas since the 1950s, Hazanavicius stubbornly sticks to the method of the time and displays everything he needs to in the 1.37:1 ratio. I imagine the film would look great in colour, but again, he stays true to the time and gives the film a glorious black and white image that shines brighter than any colour image ever could have. It gives a certain aura of authenticity to the picture that borders on being a gimmick not unlike 3D, but instead allows the film to become all that more special and unique.

I must confess that I have watched very few silent films, a hurdle I envision many audience members may face when they see The Artist. But right from the opening frame, Hazanavicius makes it incredibly easy to put those fears to rest. Through the lovingly created and often nostalgia-inducing visuals, I found myself swept up and deeply engrossed in what was happening. While I could read the lips of some actors, I found that you never really needed to in order to get a full grasp of what was being conveyed. It may sound a bit pedantic of me to even consider discussing the semantics of my literal viewing experience, but it is something that demands to be noted. This film is not an easy sell, and its silent nature was initially a little startling of an idea for me. I do not know if Hazanavicius envisioned this problem from the offset, but I cannot imagine the film would be anywhere near as enjoyable had it had sound.

While Hazanavicius does deserve a lot of praise for the sheer fact that he made this film, I find an equal if not greater amount of praise should be bestowed on Dujardin. Without letting us hear him say a word, he is simply marvelous from beginning to end. He is a true artist, brilliantly using his emotions at every turn. He hams it up when he needs to, and then goes deeply serious even quicker. He works twice as hard as any actor working today to really make his plight from silent film icon to a distraught and lost has-been truly believable. His actions, whether wholesome fun or downright depressing, are one-of-a- kind, and make us truly appreciate what icons like Charlie Chaplin, Lou Chaney and Harold Lloyd had to go through when they made their films. The expressions on Dujardin's face are simply astounding, and are more than enough reason to see the film, if there were not already more than enough.

While Bejo's chemistry with Dujardin is the stuff of magic, I found that she was nowhere near as strong without him. She does some great work, but she never really comes out as a character that I truly believed in. I found that I was watching an actor act her way through a silent film, as opposed to Dujardin whose work simply transcends the medium. It makes for a slight disappointment, but thankfully she shares the screen with him enough times that it makes up for her fumbles on her own. Supporting turns from James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and especially John Goodman are all above and beyond great, but again, simply pale in comparison to the artistry on display by Dujardin.

It may be overly clear already, but rather simply put, The Artist is every bit as good as you have heard and probably even better. There are a few minor elements that simply do not add up, and a bit too much of a lull in the middle act, but this is a really wonderful film unlike any other this year. It is wildly enjoyable from beginning to end, and packs one of the best performances of the year that will leave you astounded. This is the kind of movie magic we see all too rarely. Do not let it pass you by.

8.5/10.
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Hugo (2011)
8/10
Simply stunning to watch, but a bit of a chore to love
26 November 2011
Martin Scorsese directing a kid's movie? You cannot be serious.

That was the thought that ran through my head when I first read about Hugo, based on the children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. While it seemed like an intriguing idea, I was a bit skeptical that a man who has spent almost fifty years in the business directing violent gangster pictures and sweepingly violent period pieces would really be well equipped to direct something that was directed at youngsters. Add the fact that it is in 3D, and you have the first real time I had a doubt in Scorsese.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives as an orphan rotating and setting the clocks properly at a train station near Paris post 1930s economic depression. He is caught by the local toy store shopkeeper (played by Ben Kingsley), who confiscates the sketch pad filled with inventions and ideas originally owned by Hugo's father. Hugo obviously wants to retrieve it, but there is something deeply troubling the shopkeeper. And with the help of his granddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the pair set out to find out just what is troubling him.

For all the critical praise it has and will continue to receive, it does not negate the fact that Hugo is two-thirds of a horrifically boring movie. It starts off interesting enough, but then it slows right down and barely picks itself back up. Until the subplots kicked in about the pioneering of the filmmaking medium, I had absolutely no idea where the film was going – and neither did the film. It just plays itself out without much concern, introducing characters, ideas and elements which may have proved valuable at the time, but are next to useless in the final end game. I found myself frequently questioning just what Scorsese was trying to accomplish, and found that the film was more often than not, at odds with itself. It is not a children's film by a long shot, but it is not necessarily an adult film either. There are moments of adventure and whimsy, but then there are some really dark and disturbing moments as well. It just does not know what it wants to be, and suffers as a result of it. When I am fighting the urge to pass out during one of the most highly anticipated films of the year because I am bored to tears, then there is clearly an issue.

While we can blame the lack of any semblance of plot development on the source material (I have not read Selznick's novel, but it sounds like a mish-mash of ideas that barely come together), I feel that Scorsese is a talented enough director that he should have been able to see through the problems, and fix them with relative ease. He is out of his element here making his first real "children's movie", but his craft is just as impeccable as always. Surely he could tell that he needed to make his thinly veiled plea for cinematic restoration and preservation a lot sooner and clearer than he does, right? He clearly has a passion for the material, but the film lacks that electric feel that most Scorsese films have. It lacks that jolt, that spark that really transcends the medium, and sets his work apart from everyone else's. If you had very little knowledge of the project and left Hugo before the cinema subplot kicks in, you may not even know the film was part of Scorsese's oeuvre. It may simply look like a very gorgeous film, with some intriguing characters and a total lack of a cohesive story.

But for all the story related issues, I must say that the film is very impressive to look at. The sets, the costumes, and the editing style – all of it is just as incredible as we have come to expect. Scorsese knows how to make a really authentic and meticulously designed period piece, and his work here is no different. But what really makes it dazzle and come to life, rather surprisingly, is the 3D. It is generously employed throughout the film very carefully, very rarely coming off as the gimmick it inherently is. Instead, it adds depth and a stunning realism to the film. It feels like you are in the movie, experiencing what Hugo sees and feels. It may look extremely fake when it hits Blu-ray, but there is no questioning how astonishing it looks here. Seeing the clocks in action is particularly wonderful, as is the subtle use of snow outside and dust inside. And even though it is used quite frequently, you never grow tired of it. You just sit in your seat, and wait for the next effect Scorsese throws at you.

Acting is strong across the board, from main players like Butterfield, Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen and Kingsley, to bit players who serve very little purpose like Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Christopher Lee and Emily Mortimer, to blink-and-you-will-miss-them extended cameos like Jude Law and Ray Winstone. Everyone is on their A-game, and shines well above the dialogue and actions they are given. Particular attention needs to be played to Butterfield, who shoulders the majority of the film almost exclusively. His plight is the stuff of wonder and imagination, and would have been simply riveting had the film's content been a bit better focused.

While Hugo is a positively stunning experience to view, the majority of the story leaves a lot to be imagined. Even with the great acting and wonderful 3D, the film suffers from a horrendous element of boredom constantly. When the third act kicks in, it finally figures out what it wants to be and suddenly the film becomes the masterpiece it should have been all along. I did enjoy Hugo, but this is quite simply a good movie that could have been brilliant.

8/10.
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9/10
The rare fuse of amazing direction and brilliant performances
16 November 2011
It has been quite some time since the Toronto International Film Festival, but I still have trouble coming up with something negative to say about The Descendants. It was a film I was immensely excited to see, and one that I think I just managed to squeak into on the second last day of the festival. I tried to not overhype myself, but with George Clooney teaming up with Alexander Payne, a filmmaker whose last film was made almost a decade ago, I could barely contain myself.

Matt King (Clooney) just found out that his wife is in a coma in the hospital. Matt has always been one to put things off, and has never really found time for his kids. But in this time of need, he finds that he is struggling to identify with older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller). When he learns of a stunning secret about his wife, it thrusts him into an adventure alongside his daughters to find out the truth, while also finding himself.

From beginning to end, Payne has crafted an endearing film that is hilarious and devastating, often in the same sequence. This is a more calculated family-related effort than I originally thought it would be (with a bit too much emphasis placed on the extended family and land owning subplot), but it is the driving force of everything that happens on-screen. He never overindulges, and never gets too far ahead of himself. He lets the drama play out just as much as he does the comedy, and always keeps the film moving at a borderline ridiculous pace. This may be an indie, but it speaks more to the mainstream than Sideways ever even tried to. It is a truly spectacular work, and one that proves the worth of a talent that has been gone for far too long.

While he already solidified his leading man status years ago, Clooney quite simply knocks this one out of the park. It is not the typical role we are accustomed to seeing him in, and I think that is what sells it the most. This is a very mature role for Clooney, away from the playboys, the lotharios and the screwballs. He is out of his element, much like the character he is playing, thrust into a situation he never expected in a very adult way. He plays Matt in a very nuanced way, always hovering along the fine line of being a struggling parent and having a full blown emotional breakdown. Clooney has continually proved that he is willing to reinvent himself, and his work here is no different. From the moment he steps on-screen, you are simply enamoured by his presence. We can see the brief twinkle in his eye that suggests he is still the Clooney we all know and adore, but his hardened exterior suggests he is trying to camouflage that fact. I said years ago that Up in the Air was his strongest work. But his work here makes it look positively amateur in comparison.

For all of Clooney's brilliance, it is surprising to note that Woodley almost steals the movie entirely away from him. While she has had quite a lot of experience on television, this is her first real film role and is an immeasurable breakout. The trailer suggests she is a bit of a wild child, but seeing the heartbreak and pain in her face after she finds out what has happened to her mother is enough to make you want to weep uncontrollably. Lucky for her, she gets more than one scene to prove her emotional chops, and she nails each and every one. She holds her own against Clooney, and has just the right amount of charisma and angst to make her character above and beyond believable. Her struggle to find her place and to help her father on this adventure is the emotional crux of the film, and the real driving spirit. She may be extremely younger than Clooney is, but she is an old soul. Their relationship and chemistry is amazing, and should she have been acting against a less capable actor, I doubt she would be anywhere near as powerful as she is.

The supporting cast, made up of Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Nick Krause, Robert Forster and an almost unrecognizable Matthew Lilliard, are all excellent in their small roles. All of them get some really memorable moments to shine, and help to make Clooney and Woodley's performances even greater. Special mention needs to go to both Patricia Hastie, who is confined to a hospital bed for all but about thirty seconds of her screen-time as Matt's wife Elizabeth, and newcomer Miller as Scottie. She is naive and innocent throughout, never once coming off as that annoying kid you try to forget exists. She has a lot of fun in the role, and strikes a real emotional chord at just the right moments. I can only hope directors continue to use her in the future for roles that are just as good, if not better.

It may have taken me practically two months to write about it, but I still find myself at a loss for words about The Descendants. It is finally rolling out into theatres now, and I cannot wait to see the film again. The cast is amazing, with Clooney coming out swinging. Payne may have taken his time finding a follow-up for Sideways, but what he has returned with is nothing short of amazing. Run, drive, fly – whatever you have to do, just make sure you do not miss it.

9/10.
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6/10
More a love letter to the fans than it is a documentary
31 October 2011
Besides being a not so subtle nod to Star Wars, Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan's Hope is a documentary told through the viewpoints of eight individuals as they descend into the madness that is the San Diego Comic Con. All of them have a purpose to be there, and all have a goal in mind, whether it is to sell a rare comic, win a masquerade or get signed on as an artist for a comic book company.

Morgan Spurlock's latest documentary was one of the late entries on my list of films to see at this year's past Toronto International Film Festival, and one I have continued wrestling with over how I felt about it. Packed with dozens of hilarious interview clips with real and internet celebrities, along with actual footage from the floor, Spurlock valiantly tries to capture what it is like entering and navigating through the four day convention that becomes bigger with each passing year. He gets access to some behind the scenes material, and offers a fan's eye view of some of the panels and events that had occurred at the 2010 event.

But what holds the film back from being anything but a fun and amusing diversion for the geek and convention crowd, is the fact that it is a film lovingly made almost explicitly just for them. While the interviews are entertaining and downright hilarious, they do not provide any real insight or explanation for what fan culture is or why so many people go to Comic-Con year after year. Even the stories contained within the film do not answer why these people do what they do, simply that they go to obscene lengths to make sure they can pull off their goals. I assume Spurlock's main goal was to tell multiple stories (more on that in a moment), but I cannot help but feel it hinders the film. It seems content at simply existing, as a memento for everyone who experiences this kind of subculture.

Then that brings up another point – what is the ultimate goal here? I go to at least one major fan convention per year, so I have experienced the rush of seeing and meeting geek idols, witnessing the detail of some of the costumes, and talking shop with people just like the ones profiled here. But what about people venturing in with no real grasp on geek culture? What are they supposed to take from this? Are they even supposed to venture into this film? It seems a bit elitist in that respect, because there is nothing really to grasp if you do not already have some preconceived knowledge on the topic. In his previous films, Spurlock has tackled tough topics and asked some tough questions. While some segments and films work better than others (the less said about the borderline ridiculous Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, the better), he still made a real attempt at getting the answers. Here, he just seems content without asking the bigger questions, and as a result, the film feels like a much weaker effort.

While I do fault Spurlock's lack of analysis here, I must praise the fact that outside of name credits, he does not appear in the film at all. He offers no narration whatsoever and does not appear on-screen at any time. He lets the people being profiled tell their stories, and lets the interviews help guide the film through its less-than-90-minute run time. It is a bit flabbergasting at first, considering how prolific and personal he has made his other documentary films, but I think it helps reflect his maturity both as a documentarian and filmmaker, and as a storyteller. It allows the film to become a more intimate film, and helps reinforce the notion that it is a film made as a kind of memento for the geeks. It is made up of their stories and quips, and Spurlock never interferes or redirects the film to follow him and his thoughts. It makes the film that much more different in that respect, and I think is the key reason why it works at all.

Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan's Hope was an interesting idea on paper, but I think in practice it comes off as more flawed than it should. While it is entertaining to watch the ups and downs of the people profiled within the film, I cannot help but feel underwhelmed by the general lack of analysis on Spurlock's part. There have been documentaries before on specific fan cultures, but no real works centred around the mother of all conventions. There was plenty of material he could have mined and a wealth of individuals who could have given keen insight on the idea of fan and convention subculture. But in the end, it feels like a whole lot of ideas, and not a lot of actual follow through. As a love letter to the people that come out to San Diego once a year, it succeeds. But as a documentary on fan culture, it fails.

6.5/10.
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Goon (2011)
7/10
A lot of fun when you embrace the ridiculousness of it all
31 October 2011
I plead ignorance: I have never seen Slap Shot, the holy grail of non- Mighty Ducks hockey films. When I ventured into the world premiere of Michael Dowse's Goon over a month ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, I felt like I missed out on required reading. But while it may be deeply indebted to the Paul Newman classic, I think Goon still manages to be unique enough that it works pretty well on its own.

Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is a loser. His father and brother are doctors, yet he is stuck as a bouncer in a seedy Orangetown bar. A rather heinous act of self-defense at a local hockey game gets him noticed and brought in to play in the minors as a goon, someone who fights with others and protects his smaller teammates. He does so incredibly well that he is quickly drafted to a semi-professional team in Canada, where his main goal is to protect star player Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-Andre Grondin), who has not played the same since a brutal hit from the legendary Ross 'The Boss' Rhea (Live Schreiber).

Goon is the type of movie that begs not to be taken seriously. If the synopsis was not enough, then the key opening shot, a bloody tooth falling in slow motion over classical music, is an obvious suggestion of the borderline ludicrous film that follows. There is nothing subtle that occurs at all, everything is incredibly blatant and wildly over-the-top (and frequently incredibly gritty and disgusting). The film wears its pride for the sport on its sleeve, and sometimes goes to ridiculous lengths to make sure you always know that. While hockey seems to be an oddly frequent theme in Canadian pictures in the past year or so, this was the first one I saw that had the sport front and centre – not simply existing as an underlying theme or plot device.

But what sets it apart from the other Canadian hockey films is its glorification of violence and carnage on ice. Glatt's main objective is to destroy and take out the other players, and everyone around him is constantly stressing that. While we get to witness the struggle he has trying to understand if there will ever be anything more for him, the film still paints him in the corner of always needing to fight, which leads to some horrifically bloody battles. Dowse does not shy away from how violent the sport can be; instead he makes it incredibly gratuitous and takes it dangerously close to the limits of decency. I laughed at how silly the violence became, but I was surprised at just how gory it was in many instances. It will no doubt cause a minor controversy, and I would not be surprised if a lot of people ignore the fact that the film is one of the few to actually deal with the topic head-on.

Goon is also set apart through its rather colourful use of profanity, specifically at the hands of Jay Baruchel's Pat Houlihan. He adapted and co-wrote the script with Seth Rogen's usual writing partner Evan Goldberg , and spices up almost every line with a unique expletive. Some are too overdone for their own good, but others are near perfect. They lead to some rather hysterical one-liners more often than not, and help shape the film around the hockey. I found it particularly amusing that Baruchel gets to be the most vulgar of anyone in the script, allowing him to provide the most laughs and steal scenes from everyone. It also makes the film, at least in my mind, a bit more authentic to the sport itself. It can be family orientated as some films have tried to suggest, but it is much more at ease when it is adult.

If I hold anything against the film (outside of the ending I wanted so much more from), it is that no one is really developed at all. We get to see a few different shades of Scott's Glatt, but no one else in the film changes. They are one-dimensional all around, with some minor throwaway moments that could have been used to better characterize them. It feels like a missed opportunity, even with the short running time, and nearly puts the talented cast to waste. Even Scott himself seems to be having trouble trying to really make something of his character. They all make the most of what they are given, but it seems like the acting must have come a close third to the sensationalizing of hockey and the glorifying of violence.

That said, Scott does a lot better in the role than I want to give him credit for. He is very meek throughout, and is always downplaying the character. He is the complete opposite of Stifler, and shows that he has some range. Schreiber is great as Ross, but he leaves the film for far too many interludes. Same goes for Kim Coates as the head coach of Glatt's team, who never appears on screen for nearly long enough. Sadly, Grondin and Alison Pill, as Glatt's love interest, seem to fare the worst of anyone. They get so very little to do, despite their importance in the film. They just end up looking awkward and out of place more often than not, almost like they do not belong at all.

In the end, there is a lot of fun to be had watching Goon, especially if you really embrace the ridiculousness of it all. It is a really silly film, but manages to be enjoyable even with the massive flaws that plague it. With a little more work, it could have been one of the best sports movies ever. Instead, it will have to contend with being the best among a long string of Canadian hockey movies that will hopefully end sooner rather than later.

7/10.
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Real Steel (2011)
7/10
Predictable yet entertaining, despite the family friendly push
31 October 2011
In the near future, boxing involves bouts between two massive robots in an equally massive ring. Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a former human boxer himself, is having a bit of trouble with cash flow despite having no problem getting all of his robots destroyed in the ring. But his struggles continue out of the ring, where he is forced to take care of Max (Dakota Goyo), the son he never wanted. By chance, Max discovers a fully built robot, Atom, discarded in a junkyard. He retrieves it, and convinces Charlie to help train him to fight in the big leagues.

What works for and against Real Steel is that there is not much else to the plot after this. Much like the recent travesty Warrior, the set-up and execution is in the synopsis. Knowing what we do about film history and genre tropes, I imagine you can figure out exactly what comes next piece by piece. And as much as I enjoyed watching the film, the predictability hangs over it like a plague. It really is Rocky with robots, and it makes very little attempt to try anything new. It finds a niche very early on, and just keeps hoping it will not break. So while everyone loves an underdog story, it may be a little hard to swallow the film doing everything we have seen way too many times before.

What Real Steel does do differently, and what I enjoyed immensely, was how it connected and reimagined human boxing with robot boxing. The sweat and smell of the unsanctioned underground leagues, the spectacle of the pay per view spectacular in a live arena; it seemed silly watching the trailers and thinking of robots taking the place of humans in the ring. But it is so naturally executed here that you wonder why you doubted the film in the first place. Every precaution is taken to reinvent and enhance the sport, to the point where it makes a case for this idea being viable in the future. Much the same goes for the technology in the film, which seems like a natural progression to where we are heading in reality. For such a silly and ridiculous concept, it seems to have its finger on the pulse of a hotbed of real life ideas.

Another great element to the film is the special effects that bring the robots to life. Using a nearly seamless mix of animatronics and CGI, we watch as these robots bridge the gap between fantasy and reality. They look, feel and act real, managing to beat the life out of one another in one scene, and then silently emote without the use of any real expressions. While an early scene involving a bull looks awful, every scene afterwards just looks better and better. I had a hard time distinguishing the puppets from the CGI, it is that well conveyed on- screen. And really, when was the last time a big budget film like this went with animatronics over full blown CGI?

Thankfully, Jackman is also one of the best things about Real Steel. The trailers suggested he was playing the character very loose and over-the- top, but he is surprisingly rather reserved for the most part. He plays a washed up has-been very well, and manages to really make the audience feel for him – even when he is being a reprehensible jerk. He brings the charisma and edge to the role that he has perfected as Wolverine, and helps rise above the material he is given. He is given a lot of silly stuff to do no doubt, but he smiles and glides through it with ease.

As Max, Goyo brings gentleness and naivety to the role that really sells the idea of robots boxing. Seeing the wonder in his eyes is like watching our own wonder playing out on-screen. He is a more than capable child actor, and I look forward to seeing him light up screens in the future. Evangeline Lilly, as Charlie's love interest Bailey, is good in small doses, but is not afforded the time or development to really be anything other than a plot device. Anthony Mackie is great as the bookie Finn, and even if the role is completely one note and silly, Kevin Durand does pretty good as Charlie's nemesis Ricky.

What I found really took away from the film, was the focus on the broken family unit between Charlie and Max. When they are apart and interacting with others or alongside Atom, the film works increasingly well. But when the family struggles start being the focal point of scenes, it just feels pushed and rushed, as if it was an afterthought to add a bit more drama to the film. Jackman does what he can to salvage these scenes, but they just became progressively more irritating and more predictable as the film goes on. I wanted to ignore them and enjoy watching the boxing robots, but even thinking back to these scenes now, they just seem overdone and out of place. Less would have been better, and perhaps would have assisted in a lot less of Danny Elfman's surprisingly atrocious and annoyingly upbeat score.

I wanted to enjoy Real Steel a lot more than I actually did. Jackman is great, and the ideas at the core of the film about robot boxing and technology are more astounding than I would like to give the film credit for. But its inherent predictability, not to mention a forced family friendly redemptive storyline, drag the film into a mediocrity it does not deserve. This should have been a really fun movie about a ridiculous idea that turned out surprisingly well. Instead, it is a film that struggles between the idea of what it is and what it wants to be, and is never able to truly balance itself out.

7/10.

(An extended review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).
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The Thing (I) (2011)
7/10
Quite a bit to dislike, but not as bad as some make it out to be
31 October 2011
Like most people, I was horrified when I heard they were making a prequel to The Thing. John Carpenter's landmark sci-fi horror film was a remake itself, but is so near perfect that the idea of making another feels like sacrilege. I was positively stunned when I finally got to see the film and have adored it ever since. Despite my admiration, the prequel idea still managed to intrigue me. Was there really a story to tell about the Norwegian crew that discovered the alien?

In remote and desolate Antarctica, a "specimen" has been discovered. The specimen, an alien life form, has been frozen under a thick sheet of ice for what is believed to be hundreds of thousands of years old. It is taken to a nearby Norwegian research base for further study, and while the group that inhabit the base celebrate, it breaks free. After a hostile encounter, the group slowly discover that this alien, this titular thing, has the ability to infiltrate a host and imitate its structure near perfect – to the point where they would be unable to tell the difference between the real person, and the thing that is pretending to be them.

Rather miraculously, this new rendition of The Thing maintains the same stellar amount of suspense and dread that plagues Carpenter's film. The film plays its cards carefully, toying with the audience just as much as it does with the characters. Who is really themselves, and who has been transformed? It is a question that the film picks up after a surprisingly lengthy opening set-up, and one that never lets up afterwards. It just keeps packing more on, always maintaining the dreadful atmosphere it sets up for itself. It even manages to throw in a few fairly scary moments, even if the majority is made up of jump scares. While some shots are eerily reminiscent of Carpenter's work, director Matthijs van Heijiningen Jr. manages to make the film feel fresh enough both for those nostalgic for the original and those totally new to the film.

van Heijiningen should also be praised for how effective the film works as a prequel. My initial fears were put to rest after the film started, and I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw on-screen. The film is set in Winter 1982, and you can see the immense amount of painstaking detail put in to make everything appear like they came right out of that exact time period. The film could easily be watched side-by-side with Carpenter's, and it would look like they belonged together. Rather surprisingly, it also adds in a few new tidbits and details Carpenter's did not, making for a few interesting new ideas.

But this manages to also be the film's undoing. On more than one occasion, it paints itself into a corner and forces the storyline to conform to the continuity set in Carpenter's film. It makes for a great many turns that should not be taken, and a few elements which feel like they were simply added just to point out to discerning fans how certain things came to be. It really lessens the effect of the film, and makes it a lesser work than it should be. I like that they decided to make a prequel instead of a remake, but they should not have been hindered by what came before it. I know some changes would not have been forgiven (especially the ending), but I think a small few easily could have been if they were done creatively.

What also could have been done a bit better were the effects. Some are just as astounding as they were in 1982, but others just look silly and overdone. I enjoyed seeing the alien when it was not imitating a human, but van Heijiningen shows it a bit too often. The beauty of Carpenter's film was its makeup effects and how little you actually got to see the monster. Here, it seems like makeup effects come secondary to seeing the alien appear and disappear. It takes away from the mystery of it all, and in some cases, it feels just like any other generic monster/alien movie (albeit, one with a great atmosphere). Much like the overactive need to fulfill continuity, it dampens and lessens the effect it has on the film.

Acting wise, there are sadly no particular standouts. While it was enjoyable seeing Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a strong female lead in the vein of Ellen Ripley, she lacks the charisma and spunk to really carry the film from beginning to end. She has moments of greatness sprinkled throughout, but I do not think she has quite managed to lead a film. Joel Edgerton is great in small doses, but the script never really gives him any moments to shine. He seems like a significantly scaled back version of Kurt Russell's character MacReady, and his appearance and actions do not seem to entertain the idea that he is not trying to be. Much the same goes for Eric Christian Olsen, the only other recognizable actor in the film. He works when he has something to do, but he never seems to get enough.

While there is a lot to like about this prequel to The Thing, there is quite a lot to dislike as well. It is surprising to see all the detail put in to make the film a genuine and faithful predecessor to Carpenter's original masterpiece, but there is a lot done to make the film a lesser picture. It is a really uneven experience, and one that fans may find the ability to appreciate more so than people who have never seen the film it is based off of. It is worth giving it a chance, but just do not expect a lot to come out of it.

7/10.

(An extended review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).
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7/10
A darkly hilarious treatise that could have been so much better
3 October 2011
The moment I read the synopsis for God Bless America, I had to see it. It was one of the first films I signed up for at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, and one I had to wait most of the week to get the opportunity to see. I wanted to adore it, despite hearing mixed things about it. But as I found out, this experience might never have been intended to be adored.

Frank (Joel Murray) is sick of everything in his life. His neighbours are inconsiderate, his daughter hates him, and he cannot connect with anyone at work because all they want to do is sit around and talk about reality television. After he finds out he has an inoperable brain tumour, Frank sets out to rid the United States of the filth that corrupts it. He finds an early fan and confidant in precocious teenager Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), and decides to bring her along for the ride with him.

God Bless America is not so much of a film as it is a treatise on what is wrong with pop culture in the modern United States. Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait packs the film full of allusions and satires of reality television primarily, but trickles down to political news shows, celebrity gossip, social networking, texting, and more. Despite how cheap it looks, he manages to depict just the right imagery, the right dialogue and the right attitudes to truly sell the ideas the film brings up. And as the film starts to edge closer and closer to real life, Goldthwait starts getting his characters to start dishing out justice in the most ridiculous ways possible. He does and says what a lot of people are scared to, and bravely attempts to dissect and take down an institution that has been thriving for well over a decade. Nothing is sacred or off limits. While the film was clearly intended to shock and disgust with how darkly hilarious it is, it also sets out to teach and not so secretly try to right the wrongs we continue to allow invade our lives.

But this element of teaching veers into the realm of preaching, and is what holds Goldthwait's film back from being truly enjoyable. While I was initially amused at watching Murray's Frank spout musings about the human condition and what is wrong with society, that amusement quickly faded. By around the halfway mark, it becomes increasingly clear that the film has no real set direction or even a real point of existing. It is an extended rant that would have worked out better as a piece of stand-up. You can easily tell where Goldthwait has veered off track and lost any idea of what points he wanted to make, and he struggles to find his way back more often than he should. The film clocks in at just about 100-minutes, but twenty of those minutes could be chopped out if he stopped circling around and just make his points.

And what's worse is that outside of an absolutely stunning realization, the thesis if you will, during the bloodsoaked finale, he does not cover any real new ground in what he is getting Frank to talk about. These tropes he is taking down one by one are things people have been complaining almost as long as they have existed. Michael Moore is consistently churning out documentaries about them every few years. Yes, the majority of the population around the United States (and hell, worldwide) are embracing these ideals and not thinking any differently. But God Bless America is too subversive a film to ever conceivably be watched by these kinds of people. Does Goldthwait really think he can shock these people into submission with his vivid speeches and grotesque and borderline terrorist tactics? Does he think he can get them to rethink everything they follow and do in their everyday lives? If not, then why bother making the film?

Goldthwait claims that God Bless America is not meant to be a political film. But unless he really wants people to just laugh and forget about it moments later, then there is really no other way one can possibly read it.

While I felt for how agonizing some of the dialogue must have been to deliver, I really enjoyed Murray's performance as Frank. He is a bit player in dozens of TV shows and movies, and it is nice to see him finally get a leading role. He plays Frank as an upstanding and concerned citizen, one who truly believes in the war he is fighting. He has a quiet intensity about him, and seeing him jump between a tongue- in-cheek innocence and a full blown sociopath is truly remarkable. I am glad that Goldthwait took a chance on him, and I can only hope more directors will follow suit in the future. Barr, much like Chloë Moretz in Kick-Ass, is a revelation. She is ridiculously hilarious and downright terrifying all at the same time. From the moment she walks on-screen, she has an aura about her that never dissipates, allowing her to truly make something of her character even with some rather awful dialogue.

I think in the end, I appreciated God Bless America more than I actually enjoyed it. There are some really funny scenes sprinkled throughout, and just as many deeply thought-provoking moments. But it is a film that gets too full of itself much too often, and loses track of what it wants to be even more so. Goldthwait is a talented filmmaker (even if he shamelessly cribs his action beats and styles from some rather obvious influences), but I think he could have easily improved on the flaws that plague the film. I hope that the distribution deal he received affords him some time to make the necessary cuts. There is a truly great film somewhere in there, just waiting to appear.

7/10.
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Like Crazy (2011)
9/10
Emotionally devastating, yet equally just as deeply romantic
3 October 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I am still trying to play catch up with my reviews from this year's past Toronto International Film Festival, but have found myself at a total loss for words when I try to write out my thoughts on Like Crazy. It was a movie I was excited to see ever since I heard the buzz at Sundance, and one I had high hopes for. Sure enough, I was left reeling after my screening, choking back the desire to weep for Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones), a couple so deeply and madly in love who are held back from being together because of immigration laws. It is one of the most emotional experiences I have had at the movies in ages, and one that is not bound to leave me any time soon.

Like Crazy is a bit unconventional when compared to other romantic dramas. Instead of seeing the whole story of Jacob and Anna's romance from the beginning, co-writer/director Drake Doremus only gives us moments, glimpses and mere blips along the way. He frames it in a nostalgic sense, as if the pair is reminiscing about their favourite or most important memories years later. We are not privy to their most personal moments like their first kiss or their first sexual encounter. But we are allowed to see how they lived their lives together, how they live them apart, and how they intersect and meet up with each other over a five year period. Doremus never gives us the full picture of what has and has not happened; he merely offers only fragments of these characters' lives. And at just under 90-minutes, there are only so many fragments that can be offered. This may infuriate some viewers, but it provides for a captivating experience that feels more authentic and genuine than most romances that have come before it.

What is also unique is how Doremus films this heartbreaking romance. He uses many intimate and candid close-ups to help convey the joy and anguish in our couple's faces. He never shies away from allowing Yelchin and Jones to reveal their emotions, hovering uncomfortably on their tear soaked faces more often than you may imagine. He also employs the use of the shaky cam style of filmmaking, effectively furthering the notion of the film being told from a nostalgic point-of-view. In some sense, it almost looks as if someone is trying to keep up and capture these moments as they happen. It borders on resembling cinéma vérité, but not quite as pronounced or blatant. Doremus maintains a dreamlike, hazy quality to the earlier scenes, and then brings in a grittier, starker tone to the later scenes. It makes for an interesting viewing experience, because as the actions are toying with your emotions, so too is the look and appearance of the film.

Yelchin and Jones are simply above and beyond fantastic in their roles. While Yelchin proves he is a talent to continue to watch, Jones is quite simply a breakthrough. Together or apart, both actors breathe life into their characters, allowing them a depth that transcends everything Doremus allows the audience to see. We only get hints at things, but their performances make us feel like we know everything there is to know about them. These characters are very lived in, and feel incredibly natural and real from the moment Anna walks into Jacob's life, until the end credits roll. You feel their every pain, their every heartache, their every joy and their every sorrow. Their chemistry practically smoulders on-screen, making their devastating romance that much harder to take in. By the end of the film, you feel like you really know this couple on a level where they could actually exist. The power and strength of both of their performances is simply unfathomable and is something that cannot be easily replicated.

Supporting turns from Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead as Anna's parents, Charlie Bewley and an especially low-key Jennifer Lawrence are all very well done. I will not reveal how Bewley and Lawrence factor into the story, but suffice to say, they help pull some incredibly emotional gut punches along the way. None of these characters are particularly well developed, but then, the film's pacing and structure never affords them any chance for an immense amount of depth. But it does give them the chance to shine in a few brief moments, as well as work off of Yelchin and Jones increasingly well. Both actors easily overshadow everyone they appear beside at all times, but nonetheless, these supporting players help maintain the realism the film strives for, and help even further to move the film ahead through some of its more twisty scenes.

I keep struggling to come up with more words and ideas to further describe how exceptional Like Crazy is, but there are not enough phrases to truly explain it. It is quite simply, the kind of emotionally resonant film that does not comes around nearly enough. Anyone who has ever been in love or who has suffered the unbearable pain of heartbreak will find a bit of themselves in these characters. The indie nature of the film may steer viewers away, but it only helps to preserve the story and the tone. While it can be incredibly devastating to watch, Like Crazy is equally just as deeply romantic. You may need to find time to prepare yourself before you watch it, but you will not regret the decision.

9/10.
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Footloose (2011)
4/10
Not as awful as it could have been, but not overly great either
2 October 2011
I enjoy bad movies, and enjoy bad remakes even more. So when the opportunity to get advanced passes to the atrocious looking remake of Footloose came, I pounced on them just out of the sheer will to see what kind of monstrosity Craig Brewer and company came up with. The film had gone through a number of changes, and had plenty of room to improve on the original. Sadly, I do not think there was ever any hope for it.

After a horrific accident takes the lives of five high school seniors, the town of Bomont, Tennessee outlaws a number of activities for the teenage populace including dancing. Enter Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald), a city kid and distinct outsider to the close knit Bomont townspeople. He is confused by the bans, and after making a few new friends, sets out to get them abolished.

While the nostalgia factor may cloud the memories of some people, the original Footloose is really nothing more than a fun diversion packed alongside an absolutely infectious soundtrack that is still great even today. It is a fairly silly film really, but with the help of Kevin Bacon's 1984-era charm and charisma, the film remains a wildly enjoyable film. Yet somehow, in remaking the film for an audience in 2011, it seems like the filmmakers missed more than a few steps along the way.

Now I will be the first to admit that this new remake does have a handful of fun scenes and astonishing dance choreography. The trailers do a good job of showing off just how great some of the dance moves are from this new cast, but what it does not let on too much is that most of these scenes come when they are replicating scenes from the original film. I basked in the glory of hearing Kenny Loggins blasting, while watching the various pairs of feet dancing to the beat. And seeing Willard (Miles Teller) learning how to dance is one of the highlights of the film, much like it is the original film. A key dance sequence late in the film is also significantly better than I could have ever predicted.

But that is where the enjoyment ends.

The rest of the film that surrounds these scenes is dull and lifeless, moving at a snail's pace and just going through the motions. There is very little fun to be had, and should someone venture into the film without having seen the original, they may wonder why anyone wanted to remake it in the first place. Instead of trying to improve and make the plot line less ludicrous, the filmmakers left the entire crux of the film the exact same. They merely changed a few character traits around, shuffled in some racy dialogue, and took out the tractors and added in school buses. They sucked out all the fun, and what is left seems like a mere project that was cranked out with little to no thought for what audiences may actually perceive to be enjoyable.

Worse yet, the soundtrack is a totally forgettable affair. While it is the crucial element of the original film, it feels like a largely laughable affair here. I was originally intrigued at the idea of the film containing all the original songs, albeit covered by new artists. But somehow, all of the catchiness of the original tunes seems to have been stripped from these new ones. Instead, we are left with versions that have a country twang or overtly urban feel to them, and absolutely no reason to want to listen to these new versions ever again. I would be lying if I did not think the most memorable tracks in the film were the two original ones that somehow were deemed okay to fit into the film. I would register a guess that this is the influence of Brewer, who is best known for Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan. He has a distinctly Southern taste to his body of work, and practically forces it on this film. But in forcing this ideology, alongside two completely different genres of music, he crushes the film into submission, leaving many scenes an absolute mess.

The acting in the film is even more disappointing. Dennis Quaid looks embarrassed in every scene he is in, overacting as much as he possibly can to forget that he is in the film. Andie McDowell looks like she wandered in off the wrong set, and just decided to stick around as a background character. Wormald is a poor substitute for Bacon, and is an even worse lead for a major motion picture. I realize he is a dancer first and foremost, but leaving him to carry this film was an awful decision. He looks frightened and confused for the majority of the film, and quivers through most of his lines. He lacks Ren's charm, and is never believable when he rebels against authority. You want to believe in this character, but all you will do is laugh at how staggeringly bad Wormald's performance is. Julianne Hough, the female lead, at least attempts to act. She comes close to a breakthrough in more than one instance, but she comes off a bit too amateur for her own good. She makes a great dance partner for Wormald, but for what little shred of chemistry she has, it is made totally moot when he opens his mouth.

What redeems the film from being the awful travesty it should be is Teller's performance as Willard. The moment he walks on-screen, he has an energy to him that is simply unmatchable. He is the single best thing about the film, embodying the innocence, spirit and fun of Chris Penn's original performance. If you venture into this remake, see it for him and ignore the rest. You may find some remotely enjoyable experience buried in there somewhere.

4/10.
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3/10
A crushing and soulless disappointment
2 October 2011
Seven young and pretty undergraduates head to a secluded lakeside cottage in Louisiana to take a load off and enjoy a wild and crazy weekend away. But things take a turn for the worst when a member of the group is attacked by a shark. Isolated with no cell service and no help in sight, the group quickly realizes they are on their own, but the water around them is not safe.

I wanted Shark Night 3D to be as fun as Piranha 3D was last year. Despite the PG-13 rating, I held onto a desperate hope that it would somehow manage to live up to that level of gleeful insanity and absolutely ridiculous trashiness. I knew deep down it would never be anywhere near comparable, but everything about the film suggested it would be an enjoyable ride.

Sadly, this is not the case.

Instead of getting a ridiculous movie about sharks mauling pretty 20- somethings that embraces the sheer silliness of the very idea, we get a deadly serious, high-concept slasher film that seems to have no concept of what fun is. Sure we get the typical horror movie wise ass quips sprinkled here and there, and some rather intriguing reasoning as to why the attacks are occurring. But in-between these moments, we get stilted dialogue, wooden performances, characters with next to no dimensionality whatsoever, and just about nothing else. Despite it being 2011, the film feels like it belongs to a different era – one where it has not realized how outrageous and frivolous the genre has become. It offers nothing new by way of ideas or story, and somehow thinks an ode to Jaws at the beginning of the film is appropriate. I initially wanted to criticize Shark Night for cribbing from Piranha. But in watching the film, it is obvious they learned absolutely nothing from Alexandre Aja and his crew.

But while the bad story and worse acting are to be expected, what is really disappointing is just how much of a grand tease the whole movie is. The rating may be a contributing factor, but the only thing it seems to cut out is gratuitous nudity. The T and A is still plentiful, and the film is actually surprisingly graphic in some instances. But the majority of deaths, the best part of any slasher film, are merely hinted at. We see characters get pulled underwater, and just when you think we will see their grisly end, the film inexplicably cuts to the next scene. Hell, we do not even get the obligatory shot confirming that a character did indeed die. How do we know they did not manage to fight off the shark and survive to fight another day? And since there are about ten people in the entire cast, most of which meet an untimely end, that is a whole lot of teasing and not a lot of pay off. I can only think of one that is explicitly shown, and even that seemed like it was pushing it based on what happens during the rest of the film. It is all very arbitrary, but it seems like a rather obscene faux pas on the part of the filmmakers.

Remember how comically bad and exaggerated the piranha looked in Piranha 3D? Somehow, the sharks in Shark Night 3D look even worse. There is nothing realistic about them. They look more cartoonish than anything, standing out as not even attempting to look like they belong in any of the scenes. They make memories of the shark from Jaws appear more frighteningly authentic than I thought possible. But this is only when the sharks are swimming around underwater, looking menacing and hungry . When they actually interact with the characters, they look absolutely absurd and preposterous. A shot involving a shark leaping out of the water to attack one of the characters as he zips by on a jet-ski looks even worse than those ludicrously awful effects you may have seen from Shark Attack 3: Megalodon. They may actually qualify for some of the worst effects in the past decade. Surely the special effects team realized they were working on an actual movie with a budget, and not some straight-to-DVD Asylum knockoff. So what could possibly be there excuse for such a terrible job?

I think the only thing I remotely enjoyed was how impressive the underwater shots looked in 3D. They were clearly shot with the format in mind, and look absolutely stunning even with a fake shark in the background. They frequently took me entirely out of the film, as they look like they belong in a significantly better project. The shots are just so tranquil and so beautiful that they may make you forget what an awful movie you are sitting through. With the exception of an over-the- top explosion, this is just about the only thing that sizzles in 3D. There are no other elements that even attempt to take advantage of the format.

When I tell you that Shark Night 3D is one of the worst films of the year, with next to no redeeming qualities, you better believe I am not lying. I was hoping it would be somewhat fun, but instead it was one of the most annoying and agonizing films I have ever put myself through. The film is too serious to be enjoyable, and fails to deliver in almost every respect. The filmmakers and cast should be ashamed of themselves. When the credits rolled, I could not leave the theatre fast enough because I was ashamed to have actually watched it. Apparently there is a rap music video after the credits conclude, featuring the entire cast. Somehow, I still do not think this could make up for the travesty you have to put yourself through to get to it.

3/10.

(An extended review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).
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Warrior (2011)
4/10
It has some great fight scenes, but the rest is a manipulative and predictable washout
2 October 2011
Despite what you may have heard or read, Warrior just may be one of the most melodramatic and manipulative films ever conceived. Yes, it is a sports movie and gets a pass from most people because of the genre's varied history. But that is not nearly a good enough excuse for the dreck that Gavin O'Connor has helped concoct with this film.

The Conlon family has been irreparably damaged after years of abuse at the hands of the former boxer and alcoholic patriarch Paddy (Nick Nolte). He is trying his hand at sobriety, but his estranged son Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is not ready to let Paddy get too close to his family. Other son Tommy (Tom Hardy) has just mysteriously returned from fighting in the Middle East, and recruits Paddy to help train him as an MMA fighter in order to compete in an upcoming tournament with the best fighters in the world. At the same time, Brendan, a school teacher, begins training to fight in the same tournament in order to keep a roof over his family's heads.

Should the trailer not have told you already, it becomes increasingly obvious throughout Warrior's often excruciating 140-minute running time where these two brothers are heading. The film makes no bones about it, and plays through almost every single underdog trope you can imagine and even a few you may have forgotten. The notion of being subtle was apparently lost on O'Connor, and I wonder if the original script played out just as annoying and silly as the film does. The comparisons to Rocky are more than fair, because the movie practically rips off entire segments right out of that legendary Oscar winner without shame.

But looking aside from the formulaic and absolutely asinine plotting structure, as well as the clear jumps in logic on the parts of almost every single cast member (specifically towards the end of the film), I think the film is most guilty of being too long, too self-indulgent and just plain boring. Warrior lacks the charisma and finesse needed to really make you forget the predictability of it all and actually care about the plight of these characters. It beats you over the head with moments dripping with pathos and sorrow, but never answers the question of why you should care. It merely goes through the motions, playing out lengthy scenes that could have easily been cut for pacing or reworked to give us a reason for watching the struggles of this collapsed family. It fails to connect on almost every level, and merely feels like a stretched out, half-baked drama that drags its heels getting to the tournament the film is building towards. Even then, it still takes its time getting to the fights.

I dig Hardy as an actor and look forward to seeing him truly break out, but he does not really put any effort into Tommy. He is brooding and conceited throughout, hinting at an inner pain that is waiting to be unleashed. But he never really gets the opportunity to showcase any of it. He spends most of the movie not saying a word, and merely looking at the camera or his cast mates with saddened and hollowed eyes. His sad eyes can only do so much, and his dialogue does absolutely nothing. It looks like he took the movie merely for the chance to bulk up and prep for The Dark Knight Rises.

Edgerton, who I also look forward to seeing break out, does a little better. He actually puts in the effort needed to be convincing, and even with the atrocious dialogue, comes off as genuine. He takes even the worst of moments in stride, and does almost the entirety of the heavy lifting in the film. Should the film have focused entirely on him and cut out the silly brother subplot, I think it could have worked a whole lot better.

Which brings me to Nolte, who gives what is likely his best performance in over a decade. While that may be true, I find it hard to find anything to really praise about it. He appears to be playing a fragmented archetype along the lines of Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler. Both characters are washed up shadows of their former selves, and not surprisingly, the lives of the actors playing them mirror the roles. But instead of giving the emotional breadth and genuine authenticity needed for this character, Nolte overacts the entire way through it. He hams it up for part of the film, and in others, completely destroys any semblance of attempting to give a great performance. Instead of letting it flourish, he seems more concerned with ensuring everyone know what kind of thespian he can be when he wants to be, and ends up becoming comically bad in some scenes. When there are people laughing at your character's most deadly serious scene, not because it is funny but because the delivery is stilted and amateur, it says a lot about the character and even more about your work.

But for all of its problems and everything it does so horrifically wrong, the fight scenes at the end of the film are simply magnificent. They are raw and realistic. You can feel every punch, gasp at every bone crunching submission, and practically smell the sweat coming off the mat. You can sense immediately that great pains were taken to ensure these scenes looked as authentic as possible. You become immersed in them, and feel like you are right there in the scene. Not surprisingly, I completely forgot how long I had been sitting watching Warrior because these scenes were just so breathlessly entertaining. But after wading through almost two hours of melodramatic pandering, I think they deserved to be.

4/10.

(An extended review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).
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Albert Nobbs (2011)
6/10
McTeer sizzles while Close fizzles in this lavishly boring period piece
28 September 2011
Going into Albert Nobbs at the Toronto International Film Festival, I think my anticipation for Glenn Close's performance was high. There was a lot of early Oscar buzz going for the film, and it was the key reason I ventured into the packed final screening of the film. And now, almost two weeks later, I still feel a lot of regret for giving into the hype.

Albert Nobbs (Close) leads a simple life as a butler at a fancy hotel in turn of the century Dublin. But he is hiding a secret: he is actually a she, staying low-key while she raises enough money to start a tobacco shop. With the appearance of Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a painter who hides a similar secret, Nobbs realizes she needs to come out of her shell a bit more and start planning her future.

I desperately wanted to adore Albert Nobbs, but after the initial play-like introduction to all of the main players (in one scene no less), I found myself horrifically bored from start to finish. Remember the stuffy British period pieces you loathe the very existence of, and were hoping were completely extinct? I am sorry to report they are alive and well. The film moves at a snail's pace, going through Nobb's attempt at prepping to move on and stop hiding. It goes through a few incredibly odd subplots, one namely involving a pretty house maid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska), but feels badly cobbled together. It is based on a critically acclaimed play that Close had previously starred in and feels like it is stuck within the confines of that pace and structure. I realize they wanted to stay true to the original source material, but I am confident in saying that we have seen enough films based on musicals and plays to know that it is not hard to think outside the box and make something a bit different and more inclined to the medium.

For all the early Oscar talk, it disappoints me to say that Close's performance is good but nothing truly extraordinary. She is incredibly convincing as the titular character, looking nearly unrecognizable for a good portion of the film. She plays Nobbs as a timid introvert, who has an underlying fear that plagues her every move. She does want her true identity to be revealed, and must constantly downplay everything. It may seem like an incredibly layered role, but outside of some atypical glances, there is really nothing special about Close. Her character wants to hide in plain sight, and not do anything to draw attention to herself. But this affects Close's performance immensely, because it never gives her the opportunity to make something of this character. Mere glances and passing references to something truly brilliant are apparent, but I found myself really struggling to care about the character. Much like the film, paying attention to Nobbs bordered on excruciatingly boring.

McTeer as Page however, the other woman playing a man in this grand play, is the exact opposite. I had heard very little about her before the film, but found myself unable to look away when she entered the frame. She has a sassy wit about her, and truly enlivens the characters and every second-rate line that comes out of her mouth. She is the catalyst for change in Nobb's life, but she too is doing her best not to draw attention to herself. Yet somehow, she does not slog through the performance like Close does. She truly makes something of the character, and carves out something interesting and fun to watch develop. It is not surprising at all surprising to find that she provides the most emotional scenes in the movie, b both downright hilarious and incredibly sad. I just wish there was more focus on her character, as she only appears in a handful of scenes. Fortunately they are the best scenes in the entire film, but they come way too far and few between.

Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson are the only other two actors who do not spend their screen time eliciting minor laughs from the crowd (although Pauline Collins is an underplayed delight as Mrs. Baker, the head of the hotel where most of the action takes place). While they have both given significantly better performances in other films, they both deliver some fairly solid work here. They have to chisel through some absolutely obnoxious and dull character motivations and actions, but they still shine through in most cases. I appreciated their work here more than I actually enjoyed it, but I think it could have been improved if they were not stuck working within the confines of the script.

Story and acting issues aside, the art direction is simply marvelous. The look of Dublin is so rich and vivid that you can practically smell the putrid stench coming off of these streets. A lot of care was put into making these sets and costumes look as detailed as physically possible, and it shows in how great they look. I sat in awe in more than one occasion, ignoring the inane dialogue and just taking in the scenery.

While I think the laughs that made The King's Speech such a crowd-pleasing delight last year may have had a bit of an influence on at least a portion of Albert Nobbs, I really wish they took more of a directional cue from the Best Picture winner. As it is, Nobbs is the kind of stuffy, pretentious period piece that most filmgoers love to hate. It is incredibly boring, with a lot of useless side performances and only a few good performances that still manage to be dull. The only real saving grace here is a wildly enjoyable supporting turn from McTeer, who will surely not see that enthusiasm go to waste when the awards time arrives. Maybe I should not have expected so much.

6/10.
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8/10
Should be retitled "A Star is Born"
24 September 2011
Moments after the credits began, I knew Elizabeth Olsen was destined for the Oscar red carpet for her work in Martha Marcy May Marlene. It was a quiet thriller I knew very little about content wise before hand, but knew all about the acclaim it has received since premiering at Sundance and Cannes earlier this year. When it came to the Toronto International Film Festival, it was one of the first films I clamoured for tickets for. And now I know why.

Martha (Olsen) has fled an abusive cult lead by Patrick (John Hawkes). After years of being off-the-grid, she calls her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to pick her up from a bus shelter. Lucy brings her to the lakeside cottage she shares with her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), where they are to spend some much needed time away from their lives in the city. But as Martha tries to adjust back to a normal life, she is continually haunted by the memories of her life in the cult.

I was initially underwhelmed walking out of Sean Durkin's debut feature, loving Olsen's performance but not much else. But as the days have gone on, I continually find myself obsessing on every moment of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Despite the backwoods feel and its atmospheric similarities to last year's Best Picture nominee Winter's Bone, this film is just simply unmissable. It is deeply unsettling throughout, and one of the few films that succeed in making the audience deeply uncomfortable. I usually find myself shifting in my seat from boredom. Here, I was shifting just because of how quietly terrified and incredibly disgusted I was with what was going on on-screen. It is a moody piece, but one that sticks with you and scares you more every time you talk and think about it. And it is that feeling, that earnest inner torment that keeps bringing me back and appreciating it more and more.

Durkin brilliantly frames the film in a similar vein to Memento, jumping back and forth between Martha at her sister's cottage in the present and her life in the cult in the past. He weaves in and out of the timelines with care, never once confusing the audience. We simply watch as Martha tries to get on with her life, but keeps finding things that remind her of moments she spent in the cult. He frames the story entirely around her, allowing her unreliability to throw the story into off-putting and disturbing directions. I found myself simply stunned by some of the unbelievable things that occur without warning. Nothing too horrific physically happens, but Durkin makes the implications of what is even more so. More impressive is how no one thing in the film feels insignificant. They all just add up on top of each other magnificently, and help drive the paranoia that plagues Martha from scene to scene, just as much if not more than it does for the audience.

Olsen has appeared in a few films before her work here, but this is an incredibly impressive true debut film for her. Her performance is simply unbelievable and unmissable. Watching her transformation from naïve teenager to paranoid, PTSD victim on-screen is one of the few absolutely amazing moments of film we have had this year. It is made even better by the fact that the film is not even told in sequence, so we are forced to watch her navigate between the depictions with relative ease. Watching her character's arch blossom into something terrifying is something that has become truly rare for such a young, unaccomplished actress. But she makes it work, and forces the audience to never take their eyes off her. She just ups the ante with every scene, and undercuts every actor who she shares the screen with. She is magnetic, and commands the screen with such strength that you would never even pretend to imagine that she is related to the Olsen Twins. Whatever doubts I may have had about the film did not even come close to quashing her compelling and spectacular performance.

Hawkes continues to prove what a remarkable supporting player he is with his work as the leader of the cult. He is always frightening and nightmarish from the very beginning, but seeing him differing forms of sincerity make him a genuinely scary villain. We practically scream at the screen before and after what he puts Martha (or as he calls her, Marcy May) through, and his performance is one of the key reasons why the film is so vividly unsettling. Watching Hawkes playing the guitar and serenading her with a tune he wrote "about her", may go down as one of the most horrific scenes in film history.

Paulson and Dancy do a fairly great job in their thankless roles as Martha's actual family. They help propel the film forward and make Olsen's role all the more fantastic, but I found that they were not given all that much to do outside of helping move the story forward. Paulson does get some very juicy moments, but I think their roles could have been all the better if they had so much more to do. They just seemed like mere plot devices more so than anything else.

While there is still something I still cannot quite describe that holds Martha Marcy May Marlene back from being the best film of the year, I cannot stop thinking about how powerful and great it really is. It is an ambiguous film that stays with you long after you leave the theatre and one that packs one of the single best performances of the year. This is an incredible directorial debut for Durkin, and an even better one for Olsen. Missing this film when it hits theatres is quite simply unacceptable.

8.5/10.
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Shame (2011)
8/10
An expertly crafted and shocking film that will divide audiences
24 September 2011
Despite having never seen Steve McQueen's Hunger, the smouldering and sensational acclaim for Shame was simply unreal. Having heard terrific things about the film, I ventured out and snagged a last minute ticket to the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Weeks later, I am still trying to decipher what may be one of the most shocking and raw films I have seen in quite some time.

The titular Shame in question is what Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a posh yuppie living in New York City, must live with every day. He is a sex addict, and his addiction knows no bounds. His estranged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has also just dropped by his apartment for an extended stay, making things all the worse.

The plot may not sound like much, because there really is not all that much to it storywise. Shame is more of a portrait of a man struggling with his inner demons than it is anything else. There is a story at its very core, but the primary focus is always on Brandon, his addiction and what boundaries and limits it pushes him to. I had read about some of the more "unconventional" and decidedly non-mainstream sexual escapades (for lack of a better word) Brandon gets himself into, but I was still incredibly surprised and downright shocked by just how far McQueen goes with this character. He is brazen and uninhibited in what he shows on screen, bravely defying the conventions of what we typically can and cannot see in mainstream cinema. McQueen does not shy away from hard truths, and does not even try to mask the explicit nature of some of the sexual acts. Seeing how far Brandon will go to satisfy and suppress himself is simply harrowing, not unlike films like Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream were with their characters' drug addictions.

While the film and its frank depiction of sexuality are sometimes difficult to watch, I found myself mesmerized by the choreography and cinematography at play throughout. McQueen frames the film with the audience in the position of a voyeur. Early on, we see Brandon's morning routine, featuring Fassbender roaming around his chic apartment totally naked. We see him at his most honest and his most vulnerable, a man who is unable to hide the truth about himself. Later, we watch him as he interacts with his office co-workers from behind huge glass windows, and from a table across from him at a restaurant while he is on a date. McQueen uses a lot of unbroken shots to help depict this slice of Brandon's life through tracking shots and an immense amount of long shots. They help set the very somber mood, and allow the audience to continue watching as if they were an actual character peering into the events that transpire for him. McQueen also expertly uses music to help dictate the action on screen, tearing away the dialogue or sounds of the scene. It makes for an awkward feeling, but one that evokes a response with every new scene.

But for all of the shock and audacity, McQueen still managed to make a deeply troubled film that leaves a lot unsaid, and even more unresolved. He does not give out simple answers for what causes Brandon's addiction, or even the reasoning behind the troubled and strained relationship between Brandon and Sissy. While leaving some things enigmatic and up to the viewers to decide (many have already voiced their concerns regarding incest, which seem a bit too outrageous for this kind of film) is incredibly intriguing and help further propel the voyeuristic means of viewing the film, it also makes for maddening thoughts afterwards. What exactly is McQueen trying to say? What is the point he is trying to make? It all feels like it builds towards nothing outside of an unsatisfying and deludingly ambiguous climax. As mentioned earlier, it feels like the story and just about everything else came second to the portrait he wanted to paint through Fassbender's canvas. I can appreciate the film as it is, but it makes it hard to love it the way I thought I would.

Fassbender is stunning as Brandon, magnetizing the audience from the beginning all the way to the end. He propels the film, using his reactions and emotions to define the character. He makes Brandon's struggle one that is very real, and almost horrific. He is unable to feel intimacy, and watching him struggle to fulfill his urges is fascinating and deeply disturbing all at once. Watching his face through candid closeups, you can see just how much raw power went into the role. But while it is a stellar and tortured performance that more than proves his weight as an up and coming actor, I never found him to be nearly as incredibly impressive as we know he can be. I still find myself at odds with how great it was, and how much greater it could have been.

While James Badge Dale is effective in his small role as Brandon's smarmy and sleazy boss David, it is Mulligan who truly compliments Fassbender. Her role does not ask a whole lot of her, but her pained expressions and infinite desire to be loved by everyone is more than enough to make this a memorable turn for her. While the full frontal nudity was near useless, I only wish that she could have done more.

Shame is a very well done film, but one that will divide audiences. On one hand, it is an expertly crafted film about addiction that packs a great lead performance. On the other hand, it is a maddening film that answers very little it asks and sometimes shocks just for the sake of it. It is an impressive feat for a second feature, but one that I think could have been even better.

8/10.
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Contagion (2011)
6/10
Incredibly disappointing, even with the talent involved
30 August 2011
I was taken off guard when I first watched the trailer for Contagion. It looked like a crazy, off-the-rails thriller that was genuinely terrifying in its depiction of something too close to reality. When I got passes for an advanced screening last week, I had to contain my excitement. With Steven Soderbergh at the helm of a plethora of Oscar-winning/nominated talent, how could I possibly go wrong?

A deadly virus has been discovered after multiple deaths begin surfacing around the world. As various members of the CDC and WHO race to find a cure, the world stands at the brink of a rising epidemic. While some are safe, others must do everything they can to avoid infection, or risk the fatal consequences.

It may sound vague, but with so many characters and story lines going on at once, it is slightly difficult to nail down a synopsis without giving too much away. The film takes the approach of giving us the events on a day-to-day structure, showing how quickly and destructively stretches and mutates. Characters drop in and out to give us varying points of view of the effects of the virus, whether it be from an almost random citizen, a doctor on ground zero, or the scientists in the lab. We learn early on that no one is safe, and the film pulls no punches letting you know that sentiment again and again.

While I was a little flabbergasted at the almost ludicrous amount of montages early in the film, it became clear exactly what kind of slick look Soderbergh intended for the picture. Depending on the location, the colour scheme modifies and reinvents itself. Some scenes look simply stunning in their production values, making a big budget Hollywood project look like a down and dirty, gritty amateur indie. Soderbergh has never been easily classified, and with this film, his first major motion picture since Ocean's Thirteen, he maintains and furthers his enigmatic nature. The pounding 1980s synth score was a nice and bewildering touch too, but I would have expected nothing less.

Despite what the trailers and some of my early praise would have you believe, Contagion is actually a slow and meticulous film that is only partially thrilling. Yes, there is a panicked tone that carries the film for a good portion – one that frequently veers into claustrophobia as it dawns on the characters and the audience themselves just how widespread and devastating the virus is – but this tone never seems right. It jumps and fluctuates, disappearing almost entirely in some instances, and overdoing it in others. It seems completely unable to settle on any one ideal, and as a result, feels very all over-the-place. It saddens me to say it, considering what a master filmmaker Soderbergh truly is, but the film starts unraveling the moment it starts and never seems to be able to find its footing.

But I think this can also be blamed on the script by Scott Z. Burns. He partnered with Soderbergh before and gave us the moderately entertaining The Informant!, but he suffers here by building a complex, dense and incredibly verbose narrative around a mere nugget of a good idea. Instead of developing the idea into the thought-provoking and horrifying vision we are meant to take from everything we have been shown, we are given a cross-section of stories that intersect at points and fail to come to any sort of fruition. By the time the film comes to a close, after more than a handful of screeching halts and asinine character motivations and reactions, I just found myself asking what the point of it all was. There is some heavy handed satire buried within the picture, as is a treatise on some disturbing realities of the healthcare system worldwide. But outside of these vague notions, it all feels like a huge build-up to nothing. It feels like Burns and Soderbergh simply stopped caring after the basic idea stage was completed. And if they do not care about what is happening, then why should we?

And really, with all the jargon and technical terminology being thrown around, did they really need to talk down to the audience on more than one occasion? I am by no means a genius, but I felt kind of offended that the film found the need to hint and then spell things out entirely for me.

While it was initially impressive to see such a diverse group of actors in roles of varying importance (including Canada's own Enrico Colantoni in a fairly substantial role), sadly there is no real time for any one actor to really make something of their role. No one drops the ball thankfully (they let the film do that for them), but at the same time, no one seems like they are putting any substantial effort in either. Singling any one actor out is practically unfair, because there are no standouts. I realize this is a very ensemble based film, but even the most hardened examples of this type of film have one character that the audience finds unforgettable. This film does not have this character in any capacity. And for such a great pool of Oscar-calibre talent, this is the most disappointing and disheartening element of all.

While I went into Contagion with excitement, I came out let down. For what little the film actually has going for it, it just seems like it all went to waste (including the absolutely shocking death that is ruined by the trailers). Whether it wanted to be a paranoia-driven thriller, a not so subtle satire, or just an exercise in fear, Contagion fails on all counts. It is overly slow, and at the worst of times, incredibly boring. You are better off watching the trailer on loop and imagining just how much better the film looks, than it actually is.

6/10.

(An extended review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).
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8/10
A wildly entertaining summer adventure
31 July 2011
Despite going in with incredibly low expectations, I was horrendously disappointed by Thor. It was everything I hoped it would not be, and made me worry about Captain America: The First Avenger. Even with my excitement over that film, Thor's romp through the desert made me incredibly apprehensive to think Cap's adventure would be worthwhile.

After a short modern day intro, we are thrust into wartime in 1940s New York. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to fight for his country -- but has been turned away five times for health ailments and his size. Shortly after another attempt, Rogers is intercepted and quickly chosen for a Super Soldier project the US is quietly developing. He is turned into Captain America, the soldier that will help turn the tides and end the war. But while he is selling war bonds, the German science division HYDRA run by Johann Schmidt, better known as the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), is gaining more power behind enemy lines. And obviously, Rogers cannot just let that slide.

I will immediately say that Thor does not deserve to breathe the same air as Captain America: The First Avenger. Minutes into the film, you know immediately where Marvel was focusing its attention all along and why Thor felt so undercooked. This film is without a doubt, the best superhero film since the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight in 2008. Anyone weary of it being a period piece should rest at ease, as this is one of the most unique entries into the genre to date. The time period only helps bring the characters to life even more vividly than they already are depicted on-screen.

But the reason the origin story works so well is because it is so wildly different than everything that has come before it. Captain America is a movie that feels right at home in the 1940s and transcends itself into the time period. From Rogers' introduction on, Joe Johnston frames the film with a sense of wonder, imagination and authenticity. Much like Inglourious Basterds before it, this is a reconstructed history. But it is done so convincingly that you may second guess yourself, trying to picture whether this very real world is actually what really happened. Johnston also layers the film with an aura of fascination and bewilderment, frequently leaving the audience in the same disbelief as the characters. When Rogers is discovering his new abilities for the first time, we feel the exact same way.

But instead of embracing this astonishing feeling and letting the film breathe life into a genre that is on its last legs, it fumbles and takes us away from it all too quickly. While the first half plays out beautifully, developing the world and its characters, the second half amps up the gas and zips by without a thought for explanation or near sighted investigation. It felt like the filmmakers realized they took too long developing everything, and decided to just rush through the rest without stopping to think whether the audience would notice or not. But once you notice all of the montages, and how there is zero explanation on who the 'Howling Commandoes' are, you know Marvel may have missed out on a few crucial steps along the way of story development.

For the most part, Captain America: The First Avenger is a deeply focused and ridiculously invested story of the origins of an extraordinary soldier who just wants to do his part for his country. Yes, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is an important character in the film, but he is the only real tie to the rest of the Marvel film canon. But as the film draws to a close, the tacked on ending starts, and suddenly, Marvel's investment in Cap suddenly turns into just another agenda pushing entry for The Avengers. It is sad and disappointing, but after four films, I should have assumed they would not have suddenly changed tactics.

After playing such a great Johnny Storm, I was worried that Evans would not have the chops, charisma or gravitas needed to play Captain America. Was I ever wrong. He is absolutely flawless in the role, quickly shifting from scrawny weakling to beefy hero with ease. He remains throughout as a boy from Queens, and the look of wonder and awe in his eyes never dissipates. No matter what he is doing, Evans maintains the character, and never even considers becoming anything other than a loyal boy scout. He is a true hero through and through, and watching him in action makes me wonder why it took this long for a good Captain America film to be released.

While his accent is imperfect, Weaving is exquisitely evil as the Red Skull. He is downright disturbing in some instances, and deliciously over-the-top in others. I cannot imagine anyone being as brooding and insanely evil as he is here. Cooper, Sebastian Stan, Toby Jones and Tommy Lee Jones all give excellent performances in their roles. Relative newcomer Hayley Atwell also shines in her role as the hardnosed Peggy Carter. Her subtle romance and chemistry with Evans is magnificent, as are her ability to effortlessly create a strong female lead. Special mention also must go to Stanley Tucci, whose Dr. Abraham Erskine is a welcome departure from his atypical roles as of late.

While it botches any attempts at perfection (and really did not need to be post converted to 3D), Captain America: The First Avenger still manages to be a wildly entertaining adventure that is even more impressive than you may imagine. Evans is amazing in the role, and the whole film is ridiculously pulpy fun. And I dare you to not feel a warm feeling of nostalgia while humming along to the deliriously catchy "Star Spangled Man" propaganda jingle. It makes the film worthwhile all on its own.

8/10.

(An extended review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).
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8/10
A breathtaking finale to an amazing series
31 July 2011
Moments after I saw the very first trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was crawling with goosebumps and plagued with anxiety. After almost a decade, the franchise was coming to an end. I had already read the book, knew the plotting, and remembered the fates of all the characters, but the trailer left me in a near unfathomable state -- the end was coming, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

Picking up practically the exact moment where the first half of the left off, the film begins with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) still on the trail for the elusive Horcruxes that make up Voldemort's (Ralph Fiennes) soul. Rather quickly, it becomes apparent that the group will need to travel back to Hogwarts, and it is there that the final battle to determine the fate of the wizarding community, and the world at large, begins.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a fitting finale for one of the best and most consistent series of the past decade. It is a simply wondrous spectacle that extends and concludes the story wonderfully. While the story and effects are just as great as always, it is the final battle we have all been waiting for that delivers in spades. It is everything you imagined it would be and more. Splitting the films may still be a debatable decision, but the film is able to stand on its own much the same way the previous part did. It is that good, and that gripping. It may be the shortest Harry Potter film, but it is also the only one that feels like it knows exactly where it wants to navigate itself to with each new scene.

Grint, Watson and especially Radcliffe are simply stunning in their performances. They have grown up with these characters, and have gotten progressively stronger as actors with each new film. But here, they have totally immersed themselves into their roles, and the results are nothing short of magical. They are exactly how you remember them written in the book, and move from sadness, to courageous, to fearful, and more, with such passion and conviction that you forget they are simply acting. Their styles are that strong, and help provide the emotional crux the film leans on and never from.

Even with their varying screen times, the supporting cast is impeccable as always. Alan Rickman is spectacular and simply devastating as the devious Professor Snape. Maggie Smith finally gets some real time to shine as Professor McGonagall, as does Julie Walters as Molly Weasley (who gets the greatest line in the film). Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, George Harris, Tom Felton, Michael Gambon and Matthew Lewis also perfect their characters, and help deliver awesome performances all around.

But the supporting screen time is dominated by Fiennes as Voldemort. When Harry and his friends are not the focal point, Fiennes simply owns everyone. His performance always ranked amongst the best of the series, and he does not let the finale slow him down. He is horrifically evil in his interpretation, and frequently compares to his absolutely and terrifyingly brilliant performance as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. The fear that courses through the characters' veins at the very sight or mention of his name, courses equally through the audience. Even when he is being darkly hilarious, Fiennes is downright petrifying. He is the stuff that nightmares are made of. His work is just that close to perfect in the role that it gives an almost genuine authenticity that should not come so effortlessly.

But like all Harry Potter films however, the cohesive product is not without its faults.

My main gripe with the film come out of the sheer fact that because it was split off into two parts, it allowed some of the more useless and careless sections of prose to make it into the film. Much like the extended and excruciatingly long camping trip from the first half, the second half gets dragged down by the addition of standout moments from the book that felt awful the first time you read them, and come off even worse on the screen. I know they are pandering to the audience, and adding just as much as they possibly could to make the film feel complete, but there was a reason so much was cut out of the other books when they made the leap to the big screen. This is the shortest of the saga by a long shot, and the chaotic pace makes it feel like it could have been even shorter had they chopped more out.

My other gripe is the 3D. The filmmakers said they did not have the right amount of time to convert the first half properly, so they just scrapped the plans. The movie looked amazing anyway, and I found myself puzzled at what exactly would have been three-dimensional about it about the second part. Save for a scene early on involving a rather badly rendered dragon, there is not much else that takes advantage of the added 3D. The majority of the film just looks and acts normal, never exploring the format, and never giving the audience a reason to care or change their minds on the quickly dying trend.

In what feels like a blink of the eye, the Harry Potter film series is over. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 has arrived, and with it, an incredible end to the franchise. It stumbles in some places because of the inane and disappointing prose of the book, but the filmmakers have stayed true to their book and film fans, and delivered a tremendously worthy finale. It is one of the strongest films of the year, and one of the best film finales ever conceived.

8.5/10.

(An extended review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).
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