Category Archives: Various

Suicide Squad (2016)

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*spoiler-free*

Everyone who sees DC’s latest and greatest film will inevitably compare it to Marvel’s surprising hit Guardians of the Galaxy, which isn’t a completely unfair comparison; after all, both films take social misfits and team them together to fight evil, all with a jukebox playing in the background. Unfortunately, Suicide Squad does this so much less successfully, and it’s largely because of the film’s failure to create an engaging story and inability to make all of its characters interesting.

Suicide Squad opens with government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) proposing that a team of the world’s most dangerous criminals be assembled to fight the next superhuman threat, whatever that may be. The team – comprising of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Slipknot (Adam Beach), and Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), along with good-guy Katana (Karen Fukuhara) and led by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) – is quickly called into action when a supernatural force attacks. With the threat of death looming over their heads for any disobedience, this team of bad guys must work together to do good for the first time in their lives.

THE GOOD

Viola Davis as Waller is probably the second-best part of this movie. Her hard determination to get her way, along with her willingness to do anything necessary for the task at hand, makes her a formidable character who you almost fear more than any of the so-called “bad guys” because you never know how far she’ll go to get what she wants done. Davis has an innate toughness that has always shone through in her acting – even as Aibileen in The Help – and she is able to show with little effort that she is not someone to be messed with. The best part of this movie, however, is Will Smith’s Deadshot. Smith is a fantastic actor, but the best role he plays is himself: goofy, full of attitude, but always grounded, and this movie thankfully gives him the chance to just be himself…and it’s so refreshing! He has many great one-liners here and clearly has a fun time on-screen, but he is also the one that brings the most emotion to the movie, which it sorely needs more of. Deadshot is driven by love for his daughter, and every moment that he spends showing that is both believable and brings tangible stakes to the task at hand.

THE DISAPPOINTING

Harley Quinn was the character I was most looking forward to here, and I was sure that she would be my favorite part…she’s just a fun character! Unfortunately, she was ultimately a let-down for me. Don’t get me wrong: Margot Robbie puts forth an admirable effort, and I certainly wouldn’t call her portrayal “bad,” but it’s Harley’s poor usage in the film that really disappoints me. Though she has her moments to show off – a scene when she takes down a couple of attackers in an elevator by herself comes to mind – her primary roles in this movie are to act as sex object first, Joker’s property second, and strong female character third. There are very few moments during her time on-screen when attention is not being drawn to her short shorts or how attractive she is in general. She is attractive, yes, but why does that have to be her main appeal? The scene in the elevator I mentioned is probably so good because there aren’t any men there to ogle her in that moment, but, sure enough, as soon as the fight is over we’re given a view of her backside as she strides through the crowd of men as they look on incredulously. Had Harley been given more opportunity to just show off how capable she is on her own, I would have liked her much more.

THE NOT-GOOD

Since I was just talking about Harley, I’ll go straight into what I believe was the worst part of this movie: Jared Leto’s Joker. Every promotional shot or trailer that featured this new, psychotic take on the character left a bad taste in my mouth, but I was open to being proven wrong – as I always am when I have preconceived notions – in the context of the movie. And no, this isn’t about comparing it to the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (my review)…Leto’s Joker is, frankly, just bad. I don’t know how else to put it. The Joker has always been about his relationship and back-and-forth with Batman; he does what he does to antagonize the Caped Crusader. It felt strange in this movie to have his character be motivated by his need to rescue own Harley because that’s not who the Joker is. Every scene that has Leto in it suffers because of him, and the story as a whole suffers because his character is largely unnecessary to everything else that is going on.

All the other characters in this movie I have yet to mention are just flat. Uninteresting, unmotivated…just boring. Kinnaman’s Rick Flag finally starts showing some real emotion towards the end of the movie right when the other characters need motivation, but it’s a moment that doesn’t feel earned. Of Killer Croc’s ten total lines, maybe two of them are intelligible. El Diablo’s emotional backstory is not all that emotional either because he spends the whole movie moping in the corner – although, admittedly, his moment in the spotlight during the climax of the movie is pretty cool. The villain, though, who I won’t spoil here, is just a joke. A poor backstory leads to poor motivation, and by the time the climax of the film rolls around you know that our “heroes” are going to win, so there’s no threat or stakes at all to give the fight credibility.

Characters aside, the story and editing are a jumbled mess. The first fifteen minutes or so had me optimistic because it introduces some cool stylistic choices that would have been great had they been featured throughout the rest of the film without being overused, but alas, they disappear without a trace by the 30-minute mark. The fight scenes are basically the same thing regurgigated three times. (For the record, I thought that the climax of the film was overall pretty fun!) The jukebox I mentioned earlier? It seems broken because it changes songs every two minutes; no joke, there are probably 6 songs featured in the first 5 minutes of the movie, and it doesn’t slow down after that. The money that went into music rights would have been better spent on a good musical score, which, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to composer Steven Price’s usual quality.

*rant ahead*

The goal of The Cinescope Podcast is to talk about my favorite movies, and, in general, I aim to be as positive as I can when watching because liking things is more fun than hating them. That being said, I can’t and won’t overlook flaws for the sake of positivity; yes, Suicide Squad does do some things well, however few, and I would argue that it’s not as bad as others might have you believe (RottenTomatoes.com gives it a 26% approval rating, which I think is unfairly low), but the truth of the matter is that it is far from being a good film. Too many issues plague the plot, the editing, the music, and the majority of the characters for me to recommend this movie for everyone.

However, I know some people who did enjoy this movie for what it is, and that does not make them wrong. In fact, that makes them happier because they enjoyed this movie more than I did. So while I may not personally recommend this movie, you need to be the judge for yourself. Movie critics – including myself – do not exist to tell you that you should not see a movie; we love movies just as much as you do. We exist to share our opinions and to generate discussion, so if you feel like seeing a movie because you think you might like it, do it. You be the judge. We’re all critics because we all evaluate what we consume. So go out there, watch movies, and tell us what you think!

-Chad

DOES NOT RECOMMEND

*unless you want to go see it, in which case, do it!

MPAA: PG-13 – for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content, and language

 


TRON: Legacy (2010)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 1 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!

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Back in 1982, Disney released a film that proved to leave a lasting impact in the world of film, making strides in advanced computer graphics technology and laser trail bikes. One of the more notable effects this film had in the industry was showing John Lasseter the possibilities of computer graphics and leading to the eventual success of Pixar. Nearly 30 years after the release of TRON, first-time director Joseph Kosinski was hired to direct the almost $200 million sequel to the dated film, challenged with continuing the story and dazzling with another technological marvel…and he succeeded.

TRON: Legacy opens with young ENCOM CEO Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) explaining to his son Sam the origin of The Grid – a “digital frontier” that resembles a city, a place where programs are anthropomorphized and live their own lives, and where Tron, a protector, and a clone of Flynn called C.L.U. – Codified Likeness Utility  – work together to create and to explore this digital landscape. However, later that night, Flynn disappears from the world without a trace. 20 years pass, and now Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who has distanced himself from his father’s company save for an annual prank, has received a tip from his father’s friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) that something may be going on in his father’s office at the now-abandoned arcade that he owned. Upon investigating, something extraordinary happens, thrusting him into the very world that his father described to him as a boy. It becomes a race against time to escape back to the real world, with new faces Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and Castor (Michael Sheen) showing up along the way during Sam’s journey home.

*mild spoilers ahead*

To get it out of the way, I’ll start with the obvious: this film is quite the spectacle to behold, from the glowing blue skyscrapers, to the intimidating flying Recognizers (appearing as a significant upgrade from their original appearance 30 years ago), to the fantastic score composed by Daft Punk and Joseph Trapanese (my review). These are the things that people agree on regarding this film: that it is a visual and auditory treat, showing that every cent of the $200 million budget was put to good use. Concepts introduced in the first film – disc wars, light cycle races, a world that pulses with a vivid energy – are magnified to the nth degree here and, paired with Daft Punk’s infectious music, provide some of the more extravagant action sequences made with digital effects in the last decade. In this movie and in his second feature, Oblivion (my review), director Joseph Kosinski proves he has an talent for creating visuals that are wonders to behold

What people agree on less when it comes to this movie is everything outside of what appeals to the senses: that is, to put it simply, the story and acting. But I would disagree with the majority in saying that there are some great, moving performances that feature here.

At its core, TRON: Legacy is a father/son movie. Garrett Hedlund’s Sam exudes a confidence that masks his vulnerability; after all, this is a character who lost his father when he was 7 years old, and as the film goes on, it is revealed how much he misses him. In a scene where Alan tells Sam of a mysterious message he received from Flynn’s former office, Hedlund’s face expresses so well the pain he feels in wishing that his father was around but knowing that he’s gone forever. Likewise, Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn portrays a father who is willing to sacrifice anything for the protection and well-being of his son. In their heartfelt reunion, it’s difficult to not feel a pang when Flynn turns around to instantly recognize his son who was only a child the last time he saw him, collapsing into his arms in a deep embrace. It’s a powerful moment. As the film progresses, so does their relationship, and though they face some tough moments, they prove that they’re there for each other and, more importantly, that they love each other.

Most of the emotional core of this movie comes from those two characters, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jeff Bridges’ other character, C.L.U., who is our villain. As mentioned before, he is essentially a clone of Flynn, and as such he represents Flynn’s flaws at the time of his inception, namely an inability to recognize that perfection is not an attainable goal. It’s this flaw that helps us to empathize with the character – he’s only doing what he feels is right because it’s what he was created to do, even if it’s contrary to what Flynn himself came to realize as he aged and matured. Despite the motion capture work that doesn’t age quite as well as the rest of the effects in the film, Bridges communicates this conflict very well, culminating in the final bridge scene that shows C.L.U.’s desperation to fulfill his purpose.

It would be a shame if I didn’t give a shoutout to Olivia Wilde’s wonderfully naïve Quorra, who represents the childlike wonder in all of us. One scene has her asking for the description of the sun because she’s never had the chance to experience it, and this pays off in the end of the film when we see her basking in the glow of a warm sunrise. Worth mentioning is Michael Sheen’s quirky Castor, who does little more than strut around talking strangely, but he’s a fun character who appears during one of the film’s dry spells to further along the plot.

TRON: Legacy isn’t a masterpiece of a film that delves into the human condition or anything “deep” like that, but it does have characters whose interactions with each other give us something to connect with. The concept of The Grid and the activities that lie therein are fascinating to me – the very concept of the world is *concept* itself – and the execution of these are what pushes this film into the realm of “enjoyable” for me. While the main attractions certainly are these spectacles and the outstanding soundtrack, if you look for it, there are some great human moments that might make you feel something along the way.

-Chad

RECOMMEND!

MPAA: PG – for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language


RoboCop (2014)

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I must confess to not having seen the original 1987 RoboCop film, so you unfortunately won’t get a comparison of the old to the new here. However, that also means that this is a review from the perspective of someone who watched the movie just to watch the movie rather than to look for comparisons.

RoboCop stars Joel Kinnaman as police detective Alex Murphy, who is nearly killed by a crime boss for getting too close to his business. Thanks to Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton) and Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) of OmniCorp, however, what is left of Murphy is merged with the latest robot technology, making him a lean, mean, crime-fighting machine, as well as saving his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son from having to mourn his death. But things get complicated when the question arises: who is more in control – man or robot?

I actually – surprisingly – enjoyed the film. It wasn’t one that I was particularly looking forward to, but I decided to give it a chance and was pleased with the result. Gary Oldman is the standout performance for me; his character’s internal conflict – do I do what’s ethical or what I’m told to do? – is well-acted and makes us sympathize with him rather than hate him for his actions. Michael Keaton as Raymond Sellers is also great. I haven’t seen Keaton in a true “bad guy” role before, though Sellers isn’t a “villain” in the traditional sense…he just wants money. Joel Kinnaman as the eponymous robotic cop does a decent job as a robot, but I didn’t think he played the human side of the character very well, even at the start of the film when he wasn’t yet part robot. He played the character almost completely emotionless, almost to the point that he was completely monotone.

*mild spoilers ahead*

The real problem with this movie is that characters don’t make reasonable decisions. Sellers randomly turns murderous toward the end of the film, which doesn’t make sense, and Murphy’s wife’s reaction to security alarms going off after confronting Sellers is to turn against what she just said about not wanting to see or speak to Sellers again and joining him on the roof, which is mostly just for the convenience of the plot.

That being said, there was a scene or two that got me emotionally involved, such as the scene when Murphy first comes home to his wife and son as family, but that tension is never built upon any further. In fact, there’s a moment in the film when RoboCop, now under the full control of the organization rather than his own free will, is told about his son’s social problems resulting from his father’s absence. This information sparks a change in Murphy, and he returns home, but instead of trying to amend his relationship with his family, he starts investigating his own murder. I would have liked to have seen some sort of reconciliation between him and his family at this point rather than saving it for the very end of the film.

In the end, this movie turns into more of just a generic action movie, albeit a mostly entertaining one. The visuals and technology displayed are impressive, and the action scenes were enjoyable, but too much of the story and character relationships were not given justice. Even the music score by Pedro Bromfman was sort of hit-and-miss for me; he utilizes the original theme from the 1987 film, which just doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re going to reboot a film, why not reboot everything like composers have done with Batman Begins (2005), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), and Man of Steel (2013)? The theme was too 80s for me, which probably worked for the original film but felt out of place here, as did most of the rest of the score. The themes of biased media, family, and morality that the filmmakers tried to emphasize were not developed as well as they could have been, but, like I said, RoboCop is an at least decent action movie that I thought was fun to watch. I can’t speak to how it compares to the original film, but it’s still worth watching at least once.

-Chad

Rating: 3 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material


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


American Hustle (2013)

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One of the most celebrated films of 2013 is David O. Russell’s American Hustle, his follow-up to 2012’s critically-acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook (my review). It took me a while to catch this one in theaters just because of the business of winter break and then transitioning back into school, but I was glad to get the chance to check it out.

American Hustle introduces itself with the cheeky disclaimer “Some of this actually happened.” The movie is based on facts, yes, but how much these facts are stretched or not is unclear and are ultimately unimportant. The story focuses around Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con artist who works with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), or, using her “business” name, Lady Edith Greensly. The two of them have a relationship together, but it is complicated by the fact that Rosenfeld is married to Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence), with whom he has a son. When Rosenfeld and Prosser are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they strike a deal to help DiMaso score four more arrests in exchange for their amnesty. They set up a sting operation on corrupt politicians, implicating Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. However, they soon get in with the wrong people, so they must do everything in their power to maintain their subterfuge or else the operation – and their lives – might be in danger.

The best word I can use to describe this movie is “fun.” The characters are fun, the dialogue is fun, the music is fun, the subterfuge is fun…you get the idea. The whole film is just one big ride that I was happy to go along with. Just like Silver Linings Playbook, the dialogue is king, with everything being presented fast-paced, but never too fast. My favorite two characters and the stars of the film, in my opinion, are Christian Bale as Rosenfeld and Amy Adams as Prosser. Their chemistry is believable and fun, and their abilities to cooperate together to trick people out of their money is detestable in theory but amusing to watch in action. I was surprised by the charisma of Jeremy Renner, who, up until now, has always seemed a bit grumpy or subdued in his roles. It’s not his problem – it’s just the face he has and the roles he’s been in in the past. But here he shines, with smiles abound and energy flowing out of him freely.

Unpopular opinion: I didn’t care much for either Bradley Cooper as DiMaso or Jennifer Lawrence as Mrs. Rosenfeld. Sure, they both had their moments of brilliance, but the majority of the time it seemed that they were just trying to hard…or, in Lawrence’s case, not trying hard enough. I’ve seen “JLaw” in several roles by now, and she’s outstanding in each of them…except for this one. Not to say that she’s not good, just that she didn’t blow me away for once.

Despite its energy, the movie did start to feel a little long by the time we reached the end of it. However, I loved the overall feel of the film, and the 70s soundtrack was extremely entertaining; I have a strange affinity for 70s music, so I was singing along to myself in the back of the theater for the majority of the movie. American Hustle does have its problems – listen to Episode 78 of The MovieByte Podcast to hear me discuss these more in-depth with my friends TJ and Mikey – but I had too much fun watching these characters to be too upset by any lack of quality in other aspects.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: R – for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence


Lone Survivor (2013)

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There are some movies that should be required viewing for everyone. Not because they are necessarily good, mind you, but because that the information or message that they are trying to pass on is worthwhile. Recently, 12 Years a Slave was one of these films, in my opinion, and I think that Lone Survivor just might be one as well.

This film tells the true story of Marcus Luttrell and three other US Navy SEALs and the failed Operation Red Wings, in which they were tasked to track Taliban leader Ahmad Shah but were discovered and subsequently attacked, resulting in the death of all but Luttrell.

Disclaimer: I have nothing but respect for the members of our armed forces and am incredibly thankful for the sacrifices that they and their families have made. Any criticisms expressed here are of the film, not of the SEALs themselves or the system in general.

The opening credits of the film seemed to be confused on the message it was trying to send. A montage of various training sessions with these Navy SEALs and the trials they go through is shown to us, but I don’t know what the takeaway is supposed to be: the soldiers work hard? The soldiers are mistreated? The training process is cruel and rigorous? These men are super tough? They have a strong brotherhood among them? Or is it all of the above? The scene that this montage transitions into – the four men that we spend the rest of the film with waking up in their living quarters and going about their daily routines – would have been a much more powerful opening scene than the confusing montage itself.

Opening aside, all four men are fantastic. Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster, to be more specific. They all convinced me that their relationship as close friends, nearly brothers, in this situation was completely real, and I hurt for them when I saw them suffer together and lose one another one by one.

However, I thought that the first half of the film in general was too uneven. There was a lot of jumping around from place to place, military talk that I didn’t necessarily understand, and it was just not very well put together. I didn’t start to truly appreciate the film until the action kicked up, and not necessarily because of the action, but because it didn’t shy away from the realities of war. We see these men responding to situations in real time and working off of each others’ strengths to increase their chances of survival…whether they were successful or not. The fighting and violence is brutal, but it never seemed overly gratuitous or unnecessary to me, and it certainly didn’t revel in the gore either.

The final ten minutes are the most potent of the film, with Wahlberg’s “thank you” to the men who saved his life serving as an incredibly emotional moment. I was hurt because of the sacrifices made by all parties involved – both the SEALs and the local villagers – but I was also thankful.

Lone Survivor is not a fun watch, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that it is an important one. Granted, I’m not well-versed in the specifics of war and cannot speak on the accuracy of the events depicted in the film, but it made me thankful for the life I live thanks to the men like this who give their lives for me daily, and, for that reason, I have to recommend it – if you can stomach it.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: R – for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

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I must confess to something: before this film, I hadn’t seen any of the Jack Ryan-centric movies, meaning The Hunt for Red OctoberPatriot GamesClear and Present Danger, and The Sum of All Fears, which is apparently a big deal. I own Patriot Games but haven’t gotten around to watching it, and The Hunt for Red October has been on my list for a while as well. Anyway, the point is that I had no established expectation for this character; I just knew that it was a reboot, and that it was the first Jack Ryan film to not be based on one of Tom Clancy’s original novels. My expectations weren’t too high, which I suppose is a good thing because I walked away moderately pleased.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (re?)introduces us to Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), a CIA analyst who has a past as a Marine but left due to severe injury. He is engaged to Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), a physician who helped him to recover following his accident. When Ryan discovers a discrepancy with bank accounts connected to Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), a discrepancy that might endanger the economy of the United States, he flies to Moscow to get to the bottom of it, but he is nearly killed upon arrival, forcing him to resort to his military training and take care of business in a way atypical of his position as an analyst. Tensions rise as he comes into contact with Cherevin himself, is suspected of infidelity by his fiancé, and is joined by his supervisor, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) in a race to stop Cherevin and save the US.

Chris Pine as Ryan was the best part of this movie. The backstory provided at the start of the film showing how he joined the Marines as a response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center gives us an emotional reason to invest in his decision, and his subsequent injury resulting from trying to save another Marine further solidifies that investment. He has a likable personality and does well in the action film setting thanks to his charisma and confidence. Kenneth Branagh both directs the film and plays Cherevin, and though I liked parts of his portrayal, it also seemed to me that his attempts at what I can best describe as “Russian stoicism” often seemed flat and uninteresting. There isn’t really anything to say about Kevin Costner except that he did an acceptable job without being stellar, as did Knightley as Ryan’s fiancée, though her American accent was inconsistent and, frankly, laughable.

My biggest complaint about the film – aside from the fact that the villain’s evil scheme was actually pretty confusing – is the abundance of overreactions from multiple characters throughout. At one point, Knightley’s character suspects Ryan of cheating on her with another woman because she finds a movie ticket stub in his pocket…sounds like cheating to me! She then flies to Russia like it’s not a big deal just to confront him on what she thinks is a business trip. This is most obvious example of what I’m talking about, but Cherevin and a couple of other minor characters have similar reactions for no reason at later points in the film.

Patrick Doyle’s score was actually pretty decent. I haven’t listened to it outside of the film itself, but what I heard in the film did an excellent job at propelling the action forward and building the tension/anxiety of the plot up. Doyle’s scores have been hit and miss for me in the past (well, more accurately, his score to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was a HUGE miss), but I was relatively pleased here.

Though I was a bit confused at time and irritated at others, this movie did a fairly decent job at keeping me interested and on the edge of my seat throughout. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit may have been my first venture into the world of Jack Ryan, and it may not have been an overwhelmingly positive one, but, to the film’s credit, it has piqued my interest in the character himself, so I am looking forward to looking backward at the previous films in this character’s history.

-Chad

Rating: 3 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language


Divergent Trilogy (2011-2013) – Veronica Roth

divergent-trilogy

 

 

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.”

 


Top Ten Films of 2013

The delay in me typing this up comes from the fact that there are still a few major films from 2013 that I have yet to see – American HustleHerInside Llewyn Davis, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Wolf of Wall Street (though I’m thinking I won’t see the latter due to excessive sexual content). That being said, I wanted to go ahead and tackle what I have seen before too much of 2014 passes, so just know that, if I see these films and find them worthy of this list, I will update it and let you all know.

2013 was a pretty great year for me. I saw more films than ever before, largely due to my involvement in The MovieByte Podcast with my friend TJ. If I totaled everything correctly, I saw 40 new films this year in theaters, so this list is drawing from a pretty wide selection.

An important note: this is a list of favorite films, which may conflict with my ratings. My ratings are usually based on a combination of both quality and enjoyment, whereas this list will mostly be based on enjoyment with quality mixed in just a bit. Click on the titles to see my reviews for each film. With that said, let’s get started with number 10:

thor the dark world

Honorable Mention – Thor: The Dark World

After the mediocre first Thor film, I was hoping for a much better second film, which we thankfully got in Thor: The Dark World. Chris Hemsworth is an excellent Thor, made better by the fact that we’re not establishing an origin anymore. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki continues to impress as well, this time as an ally, bringing an interesting twist to the character and allowing for a fun and occasionally potent brother-to-brother relationship. Brian Tyler’s score is just as fun as the movie itself, and Christopher Eccleston’s villain Malekith is appropriately menacing, if a bit vague in intention.

frozen

10. Frozen

I love Disney films, especially musical ones, because they remind me of my childhood, when The Lion KingBeauty and the Beast (my review), and Aladdin were supreme. Frozen reminds me of those 1990s Disney movies, but this time with a nice twist at the end – which I won’t spoil for you. The voice cast is incredible here, namely Kristen Bell as Anna and Josh Gad as Olaf the Snowman, with Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” set to be a surefire nominee for Best Original Song at this year’s Academy Awards – and, I’ll call it now, it’ll win too. The animation is beautiful, the story is touching, and you’ll walk out whistling the songs, wanting to watch it again and again.

12-years-a-slave

9. 12 Years a Slave

This film is difficult to rank because, while it’s certainly a 5-star film, it’s also difficult to watch. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Solomon Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve long years. The film covers his incredibly painful time spent on a plantation in Louisiana, where he meets good people, bad people, and fellow slaves who are also struggling for their lives. Director Steve McQueen doesn’t shy away from the harsh truths of slavery and how brutal the slave owners often were, making this film exceptionally powerful and a must-watch – if you can stomach it.

Enders-Game

8. Ender’s Game

I read Orson Scott Card’s classic book in anticipation of this film, so it was fresh on my mind when I walked into the theater. As expected, the book is much better and much of the content in the film is watered down, but that doesn’t stop the film from being pretty excellent on its own. For the most part, it keeps the themes of morality and unnecessary violence intact, and Asa Butterfield as the eponymous Ender does a fantastic job of capturing the character, from his calm control in stressful situations to his intense emotional outbursts upon the realizations of what has happened to him. The visuals in this movie are gorgeous, with scenes from the book, such as the armies in the Battle Room, flying right off the page in a great way.

book-thief

7. The Book Thief

I also read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief before seeing the film based on it, and many of my criticisms are the same as for Ender’s Game in regards to the watering down of content and such, but that doesn’t stop this film from being an emotional punch to the gut. Sophie Nélisse is outstanding as Liesel Meminger, as are her parents, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. The period setting of the film is well-done, and John Williams delivers as intimate and beautiful a score as ever. Bring a box of tissues for this one…maybe two.

Tom Hanks

6. Captain Phillips

In this film, Tom Hanks has the best performance of his life…for, what, the fifth time now? Man, he continues to prove that he’s one of the best actors out there. Captain Phillips tells the true story of how Somalian pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama but were thwarted by Captain Richard Phillips, who not only protected everyone on board with his actions but also offered himself as hostage to continue that protection. Barkhad Abdi plays the lead pirate, who isn’t portrayed as a bad guy but rather as a guy forced to do bad things due to unfortunate social circumstances. There isn’t a bad guy here, not really – at least, that’s not how the film portrays the pirates – but there is simply reality and suspense that rises from it. The long run-time never feels too long as you are caught up in the action from start to finish, and if Tom Hanks doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Actor, it’ll only be because he lost it to Chiwetel Ejiofor.

SAVING MR. BANKS

5. Saving Mr. Banks

Emma Thompson shines in this historical film about the making of the 1964 Disney film, Mary Poppins, based on the book series by P. L. Travers. Thompson’s portrayal of the stubborn author is both quirky and humorous, but it’s also heartbreaking in her remembrance of moments in her childhood that inspired her books. Colin Farrell plays her father in these flashbacks, juxtaposing a happy-go-lucky father with a down-on-his-luck drunkard, giving us insight into Mary Poppins and the Banks family that I was not previously familiar with. Tom Hanks plays an admirable Walt Disney, even if his performance doesn’t convince me enough that I am watching Walt himself rather than Hanks playing him. Still, the charm of the movie as a whole as well as Thompson’s performance knock this film out of the park. (You should probably bring tissues to this one as well.)

oblivionstarringtomcruise

4. Oblivion

I had a self-imposed boycott on Tom Cruise’s films for quite a long time, but since lifting it for 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (my review) he has quickly become one of my favorite actors. His performance here is great, as is Andrea Riseborough’s performance as his partner, but it’s the themes and questions raised by the film that bring Oblivion so far to the top of my list. Themes of asking questions, seeking answers, and the thirst for knowledge vs. the fear of knowledge are brought to the forefront, and, for some reason, it really resonated with me. The script is smart, Tom Cruise is as great as ever, and the score by M83 is energetic and fun, in the same vein as Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (my review), which was directed by the same man, Joseph Kosinski. This film not only shows off Tom Cruise’s continuing capabilities as an action star, but his talents as a dramatic actor as well.

the hunger games catching fire

3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

As far as book-to-film adaptations go, 2012’s The Hunger Games (my review) was one of the best I’d seen, but it still had problems. Director Gary Ross’ replacement by Francis Lawrence for the second film seemed worrying at first, but it seemed to pay off. Not only is Catching Fire a better film than the first one, but it’s also a better adaptation of its book counterpart, which is hard to believe. In fact, if I may be so bold, I think that I enjoyed the film more than the book, at least as far as the opening scenes involving the Victory Tour go, which I know is probably blasphemy. Jennifer Lawrence is surely one of the best actresses out there today as evidenced by her continued terrific performance as Katniss Everdeen. The stakes of this film are higher than in the first, and the character development is even better than the already-good character development of the first film. The shaky-cam is gone in favor of better choreographed action scenes, and, in fact, nearly every aspect of the first film is improved upon this time around. This is an excellent film whether you’ve read the books or not.

gravity

2. Gravity

If you didn’t catch this film in theaters, I’m sorry. You missed out. Maybe they’ll bring it back for a few extra showings before the Academy Awards, in which case you should buy a ticket as soon as they’re available. Though this film is great all-around, from the performance of Sandra Bullock to the music by Steven Price to the brilliant visuals of space, the real thrill comes from the thrill of total immersion. You seem to experience everything that Bullock’s character experiences, from spinning around in the vacuum of space to the rush of being trapped in a shower of incoming deadly space debris. The theater experience makes an already-great film even better by involving the audience fully in the action and atmosphere – or lack thereof – of space.

The Way Way Back

1. The Way, Way Back

I love, love, love this film. Love it. I caught an early screening about a month before it reached theaters and subsequently paid to see it twice more. I purchased it on Blu-Ray the day it became available and have watched it three times more since then, and I have yet to tire of it. The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age film about Duncan, played by Liam James, who is the most perfectly, believably awkward person I’ve ever seen onscreen, which is exactly how his character should be. The growth of his character throughout the film is equally fun and touching, contrasted by Steve Carell’s portrayal of Duncan’s awful stepfather, a role refreshingly atypical of Carell’s usual fare. However, the standout performance in this film is that of Sam Rockwell as Owen, a local waterpark owner who befriends Duncan and helps him to make his summer one of the best of his life. Rockwell brings many laugh-out-loud moments, but he also brings the most poignant moments of the film. The moral is great, and the ride is a great one. I don’t think I could possibly over-recommend this movie.

Well, there you have it. Do you agree or disagree with my list? What were your favorite films of 2013? Sound off in the comments – I’d love to hear your opinions.

Here’s to 2014 – another great year for movies!

-Chad


Captain Phillips (2013)

Tom Hanks

 

I believe I’ve said it before, but, just in case I haven’t – historical films don’t have to be historically accurate to be good films. Ideally, yes, they would get every detail correct, but films are designed to entertain and to inform. Whether the events as shown in Captain Phillips accurately line up with the real-life event or not, it is pretty darn great film.

Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama container ship, who takes charge when his ship is attacked by Somalian pirates. Making smart tactical decisions that save the life of his crew and sacrificing his safety for the safety of the rest of the people onboard the ship, Phillips stands as a hero who takes a terrible situation and manages to walk away with not only his life, but the lives of the people he is responsible for as well.

Hanks gives the best performance of his life…for, what, the fifth time now? Seriously, he continues to amaze me with his capabilities as an actor. I don’t know about the real-life Richard Phillips, but Hanks’ portrayal is filled with an incredible emotional depth. Through him, we see a compassion for not only his family and his crew, but also for the Somalian pirates who attack the ship. We also see his dedication to the job at hand, his solid resolve, and his desire to put others’ needs ahead of his own. The closing scene of the film, where Hanks’ character sits in shock with the nurse after being rescued from a hostage situation with the pirates, is one of the most emotionally powerful scenes I’ve ever seen.

Barkhad Abdi plays the lead pirate Muse, and he’s pretty excellent as well. The pirates as a whole are equally dedicated to the task at hand. One of my favorite parts about the film is that it never portrays the pirates as bad guys; they are simply young men whose social situations demand that they find a more…creative…means of income. Phillips sees this side of the pirates, which is why he acts so compassionately to them. It also leads to a particularly sobering moment when he says something to the effect of, “surely you must be able to be something aside from fishermen or kidnappers,” to which Muse replies, “maybe in America.” This line highlights how good we have it over here in America, humanizing the pirates and showing that their intentions are not evil from their perspective – they are simply trying to live.

My only slight criticism of this film is the shaky cam work that we have learned to be typical of Paul Greengrass films (cough Bourne Supremacy cough) makes an appearance here, and, though you could argue that it emulates the feeling of being on a boat in choppy water, it never really adds to the film.

There really isn’t a whole lot to say about this film aside from praising Hanks’ performance. The only thing that might stop him from winning the Academy Award for Best Actor is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The script here is smart, Hanks’ performance is top-notch, and the long run time never feels overbearing due to the suspenseful engagement of the film from the very beginning. Captain Phillips is one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen.

-Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use