Category Archives: 5

The LEGO Movie (2014)

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Some ideas just don’t sound good on paper, no matter how much you may want them to. The LEGO Movie is one of those movies – who wouldn’t want an all-LEGO movie to be awesome? Well, fortunately for us (and for Warner Bros.), everything about this movie worked better on the screen than it did on paper…everything about this movie is awesome.

This film features Emmett Brickowski (Chris Pratt), an everyday, run-of-the-mill conformist construction worker who is happy to follow the “instructions” set by President Business (Will Ferrell), who secretly masquerades as the evil Lord Business. Lord Business has acquired a super-secret-superweapon called “The Kragle,” and it has been foretold that someone “with face of yellow” will one day stop Lord Business and overcome the power of the Kragle. However, when this person ends up being Emmett – who is vastly unprepared and unqualified to save the world – he must team up with Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), master builders who will hopefully prepare Emmett for the task set before him.

(Wow…that synopsis was hard to type because of how silly it sounds!)

The humor in this film is what I like to describe as “Muppets-esque”…very tongue-in-cheek and self-aware comedy that allows the characters to be aware of who and what they are, which is LEGO objects that use LEGO instructions to build other LEGO objects, just like we do as humans. One great moment is when Batman’s Batwing goes in for a landing, at which point Batman jumps out and quickly makes the necessary conversions to turn it into the Batmobile. The silliness of the film is never overdone to the point of it being childish, but, rather, it’s “fun silly.”

The characters are all quite lovable, with Chris Pratt bringing a lot to the character of Emmett. He’s easy to relate to as well; though we may not generally be as not-special as he is, I think it’s easy to find a part of ourselves that thinks that we are not good enough or that thinks we can’t break away from what is expected of us rather than setting our own expectations and defining our own abilities. Because of this relatability, it’s really easy to feel for Emmett when he is scorned by others and belittled for not being special enough, even by the people he thought were his friends. Chris Pratt plays the character with a lot of variety in inflection, making Emmett incredibly fun as well because of how unpredictable and eclectic his personality actually is.

The other characters in the film are also fantastic, with Liam Neeson’s Good Cop/Bad Cop probably being my favorite; I would love to see behind-the-scenes footage of Neeson in the recording studio as Good Cop because of how ludicrously not like himself he sounds. A stand-out moment for his character is when he idly sings “Danny Boy” under his breath while sitting in the security room of Lord Business’ tower. Will Arnett’s Batman is also worth mentioning because of how he plays off all of the established Batman stereotypes – the low, gravelly voice as played by Christian Bale, his ability to disappear and reappear without notice, etc. – in incredibly fun ways. Shout-outs to Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle and Morgan Freeman as Vitruvius as well; the way these two characters interact with Emmett, especially Wyldstyle, and how she grows with him over the course of the film, is actually simultaneously hilarious and endearing.

The visuals of the film are super colorful and vibrant, and the stop-motion feel of the film is believable despite the fact that it was created solely with CGI. The making of the world entirely of LEGOs is impressive in its detail, with even the ocean and shower water being made of various LEGO studs that flow together. There are a couple of scenes that are live-action toward the end of the film that I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t seen it, but they bring a strong human element that makes the film hit home and become even more emotionally absorbing.

As you can tell, I have literally zero complaints about this movie. I was thoroughly entertained throughout, and the score by Mark Mothersbaugh is engaging and eclectic, bringing together a lot of styles of music that are both amusing in their variety and absorbing in their presentation. I should also mention the song “Everything is Awesome” by The Lonely Island which is used extensively in the context of the film – and is also hysterical. Check it out if you haven’t heard it already. To sum everything up, The LEGO Movie is one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen in a long time, and I can’t find a single fault with it. If you want to have good, clean fun that also teaches on teamwork, imagination, belief in yourself, and even aspects of family, this movie is for you. I can’t praise it enough.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG – for mild action and rude humor


Divergent Trilogy (2011-2013) – Veronica Roth

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Note: This is going to be a completely spoiler-free review. 

As most of you probably know by now, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy is the hottest series off the Young Adult press to be adapted into a film, with the first installment set for release in just a couple of weeks. Watching the initial film trailer did absolutely nothing for me. What is this film about? Why am I supposed to care? Am I supposed to be excited? Whether the trailer made me feel it or not (it didn’t), I felt like I should be excited for this movie, so I decided to read the books to see if that built my anticipation more. And it did. Quite a bit, actually.

I initially planned to give a brief sum-up of my opinion on each book, but the fact of the matter is that I loved all three. Beatrice “Tris” Prior is a fantastic character who grows in so many ways over the course of the trilogy, and Four has fascinating complexities that keep him interesting as well. There are definitely similarities to Suzanne Collins The Hunger Gamges trilogy especially, but none of these bother me; one work of art inspires another, and I think I actually enjoyed the Divergent trilogy more anyway. (I also particularly enjoyed her reference to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game with Peter, who is obviously inspired by Ender’s violent older brother with the same name.) Questions that I had in the first book – Where is the rest of the world? Who started the faction system and why? What is outside the walls of the city that needs guarding? – were all answered in time, even if it took Roth until the third book to do it.

I only have a couple of small complaints. In the first book more so than in the other two, it often seems like Tris is turning toward the metaphorical camera and saying something dramatic directly to the audience at the end of a chapter. For example, the following two sentences are the last of chapter 14 of Divergent:

I wish I could say I felt guilty for what I did.

[dramatic turn to camera] I don’t.

Obviously, the bracketed part is my addition, but you get the idea. It’s not a huge issue, but I did get the feeling that it happened a lot, like Tris needs to say something dramatic to say something about her character, but I don’t think it is necessary; Tris’ actions very clearly define her character, especially the further we advance in the books, so these dramatic moments just feel overdone. My other minor complaint is that I have no real sense of how much time has passed from the beginning to the end of the trilogy. Roth uses both “weeks ago” and “months ago” at multiple points in the series in random orders, so it is difficult for me to tell how much time is spent at each moment or location in the book. I mean, it obviously has to be long enough for certain characters to heal from injuries sustained in action, but the passage of time is not clear enough for me to follow. Again, though, this is minor – the story and character development means more than the passage of time, and, in any case, we can agree that time passes, which is all that you really need to know.

But complaints don’t really matter when everything else is top-notch. Roth absorbed me into her world from page one, so much so that I read the entire trilogy in less than a week…with the second two being read within a 48-hour time period. I suppose I should say something in regard to the huge spoiler in Allegiant that I’m sure you’ve all heard about, whether you know what it is or not; it doesn’t bother me. Maybe because I was (unfortunately) exposed to the spoiler by someone who was careless online, or maybe because I knew that many people didn’t like the ending because of this giant spoiler, I don’t know, but I thought that this particular spoiler brought something full-circle in a bold way. Like I said, no spoilers here, but if you’ve read the books and are curious to read the author’s reasoning, check out this super-spoilery blog post on her website (you’ve been warned).

Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy continues to prove that the world of Young Adult fiction has quite a bit to offer – and that it isn’t strictly for young adults to read. These are young characters, yes, but they go through very adult situations, and the way they react to these situations and how they grow from them can teach us a lot about ourselves no matter our age. I haven’t read something entertaining and engaging in this way in quite a while; I’m looking forward both to reading it again in the future and to seeing the movie soon.

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

-Chad

“I believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”

 


12 Years a Slave (2013)

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The purpose of cinema is often to entertain, but that is not always the case; sometimes, its purpose is to inform, to educate, or to enlighten. Such is the case with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Though it’s certainly not comfortable viewing, it is powerful, emotional, and heart-breaking film.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living with his family in 1840s New York. A true story based on Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave follows him as he is captured and sold into slavery, with him remaining in captivity as a slave in Louisiana for twelve years before being released. We are given a glimpse into the cruelty of the slave trade and the struggles that Northup faces during his time in captivity.

In a film full of excellent performances – with “excellent” here meaning “painfully believable” – from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt, among others, it’s hard to imagine that one person would stand out – but stand out he does. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a performance that can be described with nothing less than the word “incredible;” the emotions he brings to the story, from joy to fear to anger to depression, are each powerful in their own way, and I found myself captivated every time he was onscreen. Another standout performance comes from Lupita Nyong’o as another slave named Patsey. She goes through quite a lot throughout the course of this film as well, from being the apple of the slaveowner’s eye to begging for death to being flogged for wanting to take a bath. Her performance is also an extremely emotional one – one that will likely bring you to tears more than once.

Often in the film, we are treated to long, still camera shots that linger on Solomon’s face as he stares into the distance, contemplating his current situation. These shots are interesting in that they allow us to see the subtleties in Ejiofor’s acting skills; we can see his emotions develop in real time, like a glimpse into his soul, and it is an unusually compelling technique that works astonishingly well. During these scenes, and during other scenes in which the focus is mostly silence, we are also treated to Hans Zimmer’s minimal but profoundly touching musical score. He utilizes a single theme throughout the film, but each time we hear it, it seems to adapt a new meaning – hope, despair, hopelessness, joy, reunion, thankfulness, tension, and others are all heard in the repetition of this simple theme. Zimmer has been improving with each new score he releases, and it certainly shows here as he deviates from his typically exciting, driving scores to something much more intimate.

This film is difficult to watch in many scenes as we are shown cruelties that no person should have to endure, but it is a sobering and important glimpse into our nation’s past. I mentioned earlier that the purpose of this film is not to entertain, a statement which may draw comparisons to my review of the 2012 Michael Haneke film Amour, which I only awarded 2.5 out of 5 stars because it was such an incredibly depressing film, no matter how artful or masterful it was in execution. Precedent might dictate that I rate this film similarly, but the fact here is that the two films are entirely different in nature. 12 Years a Slave is an often depressing film, yes, but it also has one of the most satisfying endings of any film I’ve seen (you’ll cry if you have a heart), and the historical significance of the story and of the depictions of slavery in the film make this film one that I would entirely recommend…if you can stomach it. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a definite contender (and likely the winner) for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film itself and Steve McQueen as director just might walk away with Best Picture/Director.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

MPAA: R – for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality


Gravity (2013)

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I generally try to not over-hype films in my head before seeing them for fear of my expectations not being met. That being said, Gravity is a film that was hard to not over-hype…from the very earliest of screenings, critics have been raving about how it’s “the space film they always wanted” or “the best space movie ever,” etc. Despite the fact that I generally try to avoid critic reviews before seeing films so as not to color my own opinion one way or the other, I couldn’t help but see how much people were liking this movie, so the bar was high. And, my goodness, even that bar was far too low for a film like this.

Gravity begins calmly enough; Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is experimenting with a prototype jetpack during his final expedition before retiring, and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is making repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope on her first space shuttle mission. However, disaster soon strikes when speeding space debris appears, damaging the space shuttle and causing the astronauts to lose communication with Mission Control, rendering the pair completely alone. Tension is high as they navigate across space, fighting for survival against impossible odds.

The only two actors appearing in the film (aside from voices) are Clooney and Bullock, who are both fantastic. Clooney’s character carries the same sort of assured confidence that is always attributed to him, but it doesn’t feel canned or overly familiar; in fact, it’s a comfort in the film, as his character is the voice of reason and determination in a desperate situation. Bullock’s performance is what truly carries the film, though, with her inspiring growth from damsel in distress to her struggle in finding hope to her resolve to survive. It’s an intimate role in that it is often literally her, space, and the audience alone together, so we spend a lot of time in her head seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels.

Speaking of seeing what she sees, the cinematography is often used as a tool to change audience perspective. In one scene, the camera shifts from us looking at Dr. Stone in empty space, alone, with us watching her panic as she spins out of control, to inside her helmet, watching the world and the destruction of the space shuttle come in and out of focus as we spin with her. This perspective shift makes an intimate performance even more intimate because we literally experience the same thing that she does. The camera work is also incredibly beautiful; as Kowalski and Stone venture across space together, we are treated to wide open shots that show their relative insignificance when contrasted with the enormity of Earth and the space that engulfs it. Our perspective is shifted again as we see shots of the two of them against the backdrop of Earth during times of hopefulness, but we see them with nothing but black emptiness in the background when all hope seems to be lost. It’s an incredible technique that is as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. Despite the wide-openness of the setting, the great irony of the film is that you often feel claustrophobic; being confined alone to a suit in the middle of an oxygen-less emptiness is a scary feeling.

I purchased the film’s score, composed by Steven Price, a couple of weeks before the film was in theaters. From the very first track, I was stunned by how well the music is able to embody and facilitate the claustrophobia of the film. Much of the score is more atmospheric than musical, relying on random electronic beeps (as if from warning beeps from the astronauts’ equipment) and deafening “whirrs” to evoke feelings of disaster or extreme peril. Perhaps even more incredible are the moments in the film that don’t use music at all, perhaps bringing the claustrophobia to even greater heights. Obviously, there is no sound in space, so these moments are especially profound and, in a way, sobering. There are times of beauty, though, heard in the film’s rare instances of peace, such as in the track “Airlock,” that hint at the final track on the soundtrack, “Gravity,” which is heard in the final moments of the film. It’s a hugely satisfying moment that I don’t want to spoil for you here…just enjoy it when you see the film for yourself.

It has been quite a while since I’ve been as blown away by a film as I am by Gravity. It is one of those rare films that manages to both awe and inspire its audience in terms of story, characterization, and visuals, and it does so without ever becoming boring. I saw the movie in IMAX 3D, which I would highly recommend; the 3D is utilized well, actually engrossing you further into the film by making you a part of the action on-screen. Cuarón delivers on every level here…Gravity is a masterpiece.

Oscar season is upon us, my friends.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language

 


Oblivion (2013)

Joseph Kosinski’s first directorial effort was 2010’s TRON: Legacy, a film that, despite how much I enjoyed it, was only decent. His second directorial effort, as well as his first to write and produce, is Oblivion, which, due to my enjoyment of TRON: Legacy, I was actually looking forward to quite a bit, especially since I have been enlightened to the acting talent of Tom Cruise in the last year. I listened to the soundtrack for the film by M83 and Joseph Trapanese for a full week and a half in anticipation. I must admit that I still only expected this to be a decent film, but, thankfully, this was a rare instance in which my expectations were exceeded.

Oblivion tells the story of Jack Harper (Cruise) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) as they live on a post-apocalyptic Earth. We are told that aliens invaded sixty years prior to the events of the film, but the humans won in nuclear war, leaving the Earth ravaged and forcing the humans to evacuate to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Jack is a repair technician who repairs drones that protect hydrorigs, which are sucking up Earth’s water to transport to Saturn, acting on orders rather than memory; he was forced to have his mind wiped fifteen years previously, though he still has vague recollections of a past that he doesn’t remember. He collects books that he finds and imagines what the world was like before all of this, but his partner is content to follow orders – two more weeks until the two of them get to join the rest of the human population on Titan. But when a space module crash lands and Jack pulls a survivor (Olga Kurylenko) from the wreckage before the “scavs” (remaining aliens from the war who sabotage the drones and hydrorigs) can get to her, he asks more questions than ever, throwing his and Victoria’s world into even further disarray.

Sound complicated? It is, a bit, but I never found the film’s complexities to be a burden. In fact, I sat on the edge of my seat the whole time, eagerly asking myself, “What’s going to happen next? How are they going to resolve this? Why did that just happen? What does this mean?” Cruise is the obvious highlight of this film, bringing his usual talent for action along with appropriate drama and a refreshing humanity that we don’t always see from him. Andrea Riseborough as Victoria, Harper’s partner and lover, gives a powerfully emotional performance as the sort of voice of reason, the one who is only interested in doing what she’s told rather than asking questions. Morgan Freeman’s brief but incredibly important role as Malcolm Beech, leader of an underground resistance, plays into Freeman’s typical “father figure” sort of role, but it doesn’t feel canned, and Olga Kurylenko as Julia, the survivor from the space module, gives a decent performance as well.

The story is somewhat reminiscent of Pixar’s Wall•E, though I won’t explain all the similarities here lest I spoil the film for you. The themes of asking questions/searching for answers and thirsting for knowledge vs. the fear of knowledge are powerful and well-represented here, with symbolism running rampant. For example, Jack Harper has a secret cabin on a plot of green earth near a pond that he found; this is where he stores the books that he finds, from medical dictionaries to Horatius to A Tale of Two Cities. This area is the obvious representation of the previously mentioned thirst for knowledge. There is also one moment where Harper presents Victoria with a can containing a flower that he has cared for, but she promptly tosses it out the window, citing regulation and contamination (there’s an obvious Wall•E parallel), which is representative of her fear of knowledge.

Ever since I walked out of the theater, I’ve been debating what rating to give this film. I knew it was at least a 4/5, though I thought it could easily be a 4.5 as well. I wanted to give it 5/5, though I know it’s certainly not a perfect movie. However, given my enjoyment of it, I think that a 5 is a perfectly reasonable rating; it’s got a smart script, a capable and talented cast, an appropriate score by M83 (assisted by Joseph Trapanese), and it asks questions that we can all learn from. Despite its flaws, Oblivion is a fantastic film, proving that 1) Cruise is not only a wonderful action star but also a capable dramatic actor and that 2) Kosinksi has a lot of future potential as a great film director.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity

P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by M83, here!


Finding Nemo (2003)

As a child, Finding Nemo wasn’t a film that I caught in theaters. In fact, I didn’t see it at all until a few years after it had been released. Though not my favorite Pixar film, it’s certainly an enjoyable one, enough to convince me to go catch it in theaters when it was re-released in 3D back in September of 2012. I’m a firm believer in the idea that films were made to be seen on the big screen, so I always try to go to theater re-releases of films I enjoy, even though 3D is sometimes less than okay. However, Finding Nemo 3D was a great theater experience that also translated well to the recent 3D Blu-Ray release.

In case you’ve been living in a hole in the ground for the past ten years, Finding Nemo is about a single father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), whose son is kidnapped by a diver and taken to Sydney, Australia. In order to find his son, Nemo, he traverses the entire ocean, meeting along the way a forgetful fish named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a friendly shark named Bruce (Barry Humphries), a gnarly sea turtle named Crush (Andrew Stanton), and a pelican named Nigel (Geoffrey Rush). All the while, Nemo (Alexander Gould) and his new tank friends, lead by Gill (Willem Dafoe), must devise a plan to help them escape from the dentist office where they are being kept before the dentist’s careless niece can get her hands on the young clownfish.

The people at Pixar have always astounded me with their ability to pack so much humanity into their often inhuman characters, i.e. the toys of Toy Story, the bugs of A Bug’s Life, and, later, the robots of Wall-E. In Finding Nemo, we have FISH…just about as inhuman as you can get, as far as living organisms go. But that doesn’t stop us from sympathizing with Marlin as he struggles to find his lost son or rooting for Nemo as he succeeds in overcoming his fears faced in the fish tank at the dentist office or shedding a tear when Marlin has given up hope and says goodbye to Dory. These characters are just as endearing as any human character out there, if not more. They teach us to trust each other, especially those we love, that it’s okay to let go sometimes, and that we can and should learn from our mistakes.

In addition to the fantastic characters, this film is also visually stunning. The physics of the ocean and its inhabitants feel very authentic – even the physical movement of the fish – despite the fact that everything is animated. The 3D is also well-done (one of the best films I’ve ever seen in 3D), with it fully absorbing you into the atmosphere of the film. The 3D home release is even better than it was in the theater; on a high-definition 3D TV, everything is crystal clear and fully immersive.

Pixar has a track record unmatched by any other film company. Though perfection is impossible, I would say that Pixar has several “perfect” films, and Finding Nemo is one of them. The characters are three-dimensional (in a character growth sort of way, I mean), the story is touching, and the score by Thomas Newman is one of the best of all of the Pixar films. With humor appropriate for both children and adults and several important life lessons to be learned, there is much to be missed if you’ve managed to never see this film – and I’d even recommend the 3D version, if you don’t mind the glasses.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

MPAA: G


Les Misérables (2012)

I enjoy musicals. I have attended several performances of various musicals, and I have also participated in several musicals. That being said, Les Misérables is not a musical that I was familiar with at all aside from the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” (thank you, Susan Boyle). With all of the positive hype that the movie version was getting, I was prepared to dislike it…not that I wanted to or expected to, but I just embraced the possibility of really not enjoying this film. Thankfully, just the opposite occurred…Les Misérables is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen.

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 French novel, this film tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who just finished serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to provide for his sister and her children. Upon release, the homeless ex-convict seeks shelter at a local church, where he is taken care of by the bishop (played by Colm Wilkinson, the originator of the role of Jean Valjean in the original Broadway production). Despite the bishop’s kindness, Valjean steals silver with the intent of selling it for money, but he’s caught and returned to the church. The bishop, however, tells the authorities that the silver was a gift, even giving Valjean more than he initially stole. It is this act of kindness that turns Valjean’s life around. The rest of the film follows him as he avoids his past and strives to live an honest life and to help others. This is the basis of the story, but there is much more that I’ll leave to you to discover when you watch the film for yourself.

Though Valjean is the main character and Hugh Jackman does a brilliant job with the role, there are other characters of note: Anne Hathaway as Fantine, a woman who struggles to provide for her child, gives an incredible performance and sings a beautiful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” that will leave you in tears. I was also impressed with Samantha Barks as Éponine, the daughter of two mischievous inn owners (played amusingly by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who managed to pull at my heartstrings from the very first moment she appeared on screen. Also worth mentioning are Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.

The film as a whole is simultaneously gorgeous and grungy; it switches back and forth between the two when appropriate. The period setting of the film is well-done and quite believable. The most fantastic part of this film, though, is the live singing. In case you weren’t aware, the actors in this film did all of the singing that you hear in the film live on-set…the first film to ever do so, and it’s amazing. As a performer myself, I can attest to the fact that a live performance of a song carries much more raw emotion and feeling than a recording ever could, and it certainly shows in this film. We see everything from the anguish felt by Fantine as she struggles to understand why her life has become so miserable, to the despair that Valjean feels as he considers the possibility of losing Cosette to someone else, to the conflict felt by Javert as he struggles to justify the difference between his morals and his civil responsibility (though, I’ll admit, Crowe’s singing leaves much to be desired). If this film hadn’t been recorded in this way, not even half of the emotion would have been present because only so much can be expressed when lip-syncing.

It was the combination of the emotional live singing and the themes of forgiveness, the love of God, the love of others, and social injustice that made this film so powerful. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film, despite the fact that it was getting rave reviews from most of my friends, but I walked away extremely satisfied…this may just be my favorite musical film of all time. The direction is fantastic, the acting is spot-on, the cinematography is beautiful, and (most of) the singing is top-notch. Les Misérables has set a new standard for the musical film.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements