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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

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Thor: The Dark World (2013)

thor the dark world

Though I enjoyed Marvel’s first Thor film (my review) well enough, I didn’t like it as much as I did the first Iron Man film or Captain America: The First Avenger and especially not as much as The Avengers (my review). That being said, the high quality of The Avengers and the altogether decent Iron Man 3 (my review) had me excited that Thor: The Dark World would be at least an improvement on its predecessor – and, thankfully, it is.

Thor: The Dark World opens with an introduction to the film’s villain, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a Dark Elf set to destroy the universe with an evil substance called the Aether. We witness Odin’s father defeat Malekith and hide the Aether, but Malekith and other Dark Elves manage to escape in suspended animation. The film then picks up after the events of The Avengers, with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) being imprisoned for his crimes against Earth. Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Tadanobu Asano), and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) are fighting to make peace in the Nine Realms. On Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), along with her assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), is still searching for a way to make contact with Thor again after their last encounter. Her research leads her to the discovery of some sort of magic portal, through which she is accidentally teleported to another world, where she is infected by the Aether, awakening Malekith and threatening her life. Thor returns to Earth and seeks to find a way to save her life, eventually turning to Loki as his only hope for saving Jane, Asgard, and the universe itself.

Marvel has done an excellent job of casting people perfect for their roles, with the prime example being Tony Stark as Robert Downey, Jr. Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark. Chris Hemsworth is no exception here, as he really falls into his stride and wields the god of thunder’s hammer perfectly. The return of Hiddleston as Loki is also a welcome addition to the film; Hiddleston’s ability to be simultaneously charming and sinister is put to good use as Thor turns to him for help…can he really be trusted? The character brings a couple of nice twists and plenty of humor (including one particular scene in which he jokingly morphs into a certain Captain who we all know and love), though I fear that the character almost turned into too much of a good thing, similarly to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. Now, fear not, he never fully crosses that line, but in true Loki fashion he toes the line carefully, with a few jokes becoming a bit annoying for me because they came all at once. Still, Loki’s presence here was overall a good thing, and it would have been a much less entertaining film without him. Part of the reason why the return of Loki is so satisfying is because it gives him a chance to be brother to Thor again. Thor doesn’t know whether or not he can trust his brother, which in one scene he reveals is hard for him to accept. The two were raised together, and it’s difficult for Thor to accept that the person who he spent so many years with has no good left in him. It’s an interesting dynamic that is explored pretty well, however briefly.

Other faces are back in varying capacities. At least a brief mention should be given to Idris Elba as Heimdall, who is simply lots of fun – and he even gets his moment to shine here! Natalie Portman as Jane does a better job here than she did in the first film…but I still don’t believe that she’s a scientist. Thankfully, her relationship with Thor is a bit more believable this time around, but it doesn’t change the fact that I still think she’s an awkward character. The role of her assistant, Darcy, played by Kat Dennings, contrasts with her role in the first film in the sense that I actually liked her here; rather than simply being the comedic relief for the film, she played a definitive part in defeating the villain in the end, and the moments in which she WAS comedic relief played off better this time around. I like that Stellan Skarsgård is back as Dr. Erik Selvig, though you could say that his role here has been switched with Darcy’s in the first film. You could make the argument that the silliness/eccentricity of the character here (he spends more than half the film not wearing pants) is a result from Loki spending too much time in his head during The Avengers, but the fact of the matter here is that Skarsgård would have been put to better use as someone who could convince us that the science in the film is actually believable, rather than using Jane as the throwaway scientist. Either way, he’s at least moderately entertaining here…just a bit of wasted potential. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, but he’s gone from bad father in the first film to bad king in this film, making decisions based less on good judgement and more on pride. He even calls Jane a goat…it just seems odd. Eccleston as Malekith makes an appropriately menacing villain, but there is little explanation as to why he is the way he is or any sort of reason for his actions. Again, it just seems like a wasted opportunity.

The visuals of the film are on the whole better than in the first film, which relied mostly on CGI and often looked pretty cartoony. The CGI that is used in TDW is on the whole much more tasteful and refined, but it otherwise relies more on actual sets rather than on a green screen, which I really appreciate. I also really admire the ties that it makes to The Avengers; like Iron Man 3, the implications of Loki’s war crimes on Earth and the effects that they had on our heroes are explored here, from Loki’s imprisonment to Selvig’s eccentricity to various other small examples. It just helps the film to feel a part of the greater universe that Marvel has compiled, and it’s done without making it seem like TDW relies on the events of The Avengers to make sense. 

Since I’m the music guy, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Brian Tyler’s score for the film. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed when I first learned that Patrick Doyle wouldn’t be returning to score the sequel, since I generally appreciated his work on the first film, but that disappointment has disappeared since listening to Tyler’s score in full. The energy that he also brought to Iron Man 3 is just as present here without feeling like a rehash, and, while his music is almost entirely his own creation, he doesn’t completely abandon the main theme from Doyle’s score, an act that I appreciate for continuity’s sake. The score is definitely worth picking up and listening to if you’re interested in those sorts of things!

This film leaves us with some interesting questions that I won’t spoil here, but just know that the future of Thor and friends should hopefully be a great ride. On the whole, Thor: The Dark World takes what was good about the first film and improves on it, and it also flips around much of what made the first film, shall we say, less than stellar, to make a film that feels fun, adventurous, and even weighted at times, all in the best of ways.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content


Now You See Me (2013)

NOTE: Review originally written for and posted at MovieByte.com. To see this post and check out the guys over at MovieByte, click here!

 

NOW YOU SEE ME

Magic is fun. Movies are fun. Combining the two to make a movie about a group of magicians who rob a bank? Even more fun! With a premise like that, Now You See Me, sets itself up from the start to be one heck of a ride – and quite an entertaining one at that!

Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco star as four magicians of varying abilities who work alone. As we are introduced to each magician performing his/her solo act, we notice a hooded figure  in attendance at each performer’s show. Soon, the four are brought together, each having received a card from this unknown person telling them to show up at an apartment, where the performers are given blueprints and instructions to a grand master plan that involves bank robbery through the art of deception. They form a group and call themselves the Four Horsemen, and, through the sponsorship of insurance businessman Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), they give a performance a year later in Las Vegas where they seemingly rob a bank in Paris using their talents. The FBI gets involved, with Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) on the case, as well as French Interpol agent Alma Vargas (Mélanie Laurent). They ask for help from Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), an ex-magician who exposes magicians’ secrets for a living, leading to several intriguing explanations behind some of the magic tricks performed.

While all of that is a lot to comprehend on paper, it doesn’t feel convoluted in the context of the film. Each of the lead actors does a fine job, though Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson both seem to be channeling previous roles at times (Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network and Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games, respectively). None of that detracts from the film, however, because, believe it or not, the focus isn’t much on the magicians; the focus is on Rhodes and Vargas, the FBI and Interpol agents who are frantically trying to get ahead of these apparent criminals.

The entire film is a boatload of fun; I’ve had a fascination with magic tricks since a very early age, so I was constantly on the edge of my seat trying to figure out how things were being done. The performance sets were huge, and the constant camera movement (not shaky-cam) helped add to the notion that what you were seeing was an illusion…nothing was held still for very long, so the film had a dynamic feeling of movement throughout that worked quite well, pushing the story forward in a great way. The music, composed by Brian Tyler, was a huge asset to this film, sounding appropriately like a Vegas stage show, background music for an inspirational speaker, and like an action film, all simultaneously, again adding to the notion that everything that the Four Horsemen did, on stage or not, was a performance.

Like all films, though, this one has its problems, with this one being its ending. I won’t reveal the twist to you, but I’ll tell you that someone gets arrested, and it happens in a way that seems entirely illegal. The character who gets arrested is the object of another character’s longtime plan for revenge, and he gets locked away simply out of spite, which is definitely not okay. Had he done something actually illegal, I would have been completely fine with it. Additionally, Michael Caine’s character, Arthur Tressler, disappears for the entire final act of the film with no payoff. Unfortunately, even if his character had come back with a proper payoff, Caine’s performance seemed pretty weak to me, something that I fear can be attributed to his age – at 80 years old, the range of Caine’s acting ability is growing thinner, and I think that this role, however small in the overall context of the film, is outside of that range. I didn’t dislike him, but he certainly could have been better.

Aside from those couple of issues, I really enjoyed this movie. Something that I noticed was what I took to be a hidden commentary on Christianity and belief in God. FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes has a firm disbelief in magic. At one point in the film, a comment is made about believing in something you can’t see to make yourself feel better, and, though I initially thought it was a slam against those who believe in God, I later decided that the film was in support of the idea of having faith in something like magic or God or whatever it may be. I may be completely wrong in that assumption, but it was a bit of commentary that I picked up on and that I really appreciated, being a Christian myself.

Overall, this movie is (mostly) everything I hoped that it would be. A strong central cast takes an intriguing premise and takes us on an exciting journey into the world of magic where its all too easy to get sucked into the fun of the illusions, and, although I was skeptical of the twist ending at first, I’ve come to really appreciate it as I look into how it fits back into the earlier parts of the film. Now You See Me isn’t the kind of film that calls for extra scrutiny or criticism at a superficial level as other films might; just sit back, get your popcorn, and enjoy the ride!

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for language, some action and sexual content


Iron Man 3 (2013)

Note: This will be as spoiler-free as I can possibly make it. If there’s something I just can’t avoid, I will warn you before you read on.

To say that Iron Man 3 was an anticipated film would be an incredible understatement. Marvel’s first follow-up to last year’s incredible The Avengers (my review), this film had quite the expectation to live up to. Did it? For the most part, I think so.

Iron Man 3 picks up presumably a few months after the events of The Avengers, with Tony and Pepper back home in Malibu, but something’s different…Tony can’t sleep. Haunted by the alien invasion in New York and determined to protect “the one thing [he] can’t live without,” Pepper, Tony spends all of his time designing and building new Iron Man suits and fighting off panic attacks. To put things in perspective, the suit in The Avengers was Mark VII, while his newest suit in this film is the Mark XLII (that’s 42, for those not versed in Roman numerals). When a terrorist calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) hits Tony close to home, he must overcome his personal struggles in order to protect the woman he loves and to stop the imminent threat of The Mandarin. Along the way, we are introduced to blasts from Tony’s past, including Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen and Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian.

Much like Christopher Nolan’s final film in his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises (my review), this is an Iron Man film with more Tony Stark than Iron Man (in fact, there are quite a few comparisons that could be made to The Dark Knight Rises, but I’ll save those for another time) – but don’t worry, there are still plenty of great moments with the suit. I personally really enjoyed seeing more of Tony Stark as Robert Downey, Jr. Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, as we see a more humanized version of the character. He is a real person who struggles with real people problems just like you and me, bringing  an interesting contrast between Tony Stark as Tony Stark and Tony Stark as Iron Man and a lot more to the table than just RDJ flying around in a suit behind a mask. He has a scene or two with Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes in which both men are without their suits and are forced to rely on their own abilities and instincts to solve their problems rather than rely on their armor. RDJ’s likability in the role shines brightly throughout the film, with another side of the character coming out with the introduction of a new character, a boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins). Harley’s father left him seven years previously, and his mother works at night, so he is often alone. When Tony Stark steps into his life, he’s dragged into Tony’s mission. Stark treats Harley like an adult, which, though it sometimes means he makes snarky or “rude” comments (including a quip about how leaving is what fathers do and that he should man up and suck it up), it shows that Stark respects Harley enough to speak with him honestly and as an equal. The banter between these two characters works incredibly well, with their time onscreen together being some of the best moments of the film. Guy Pearce does an admirable job in his role, though I don’t want to delve too much into his character…spoilers and all that.

Almost every film comes with its disappointments, and Iron Man 3 is no exception. The funniest film of the three, I actually thought that the writers tried to bring too much humor to the table, with some of it feeling forced or unnecessary. I don’t want an Iron Man film that is taken 100% seriously, but I do think that the film as a whole could have survived with fewer attempts at getting a laugh. For reasons that I won’t list here, I was very disappointed with Ben Kingsley’s character, The Mandarin, and, while I thought that Guy Pearce did a decent job as a sort of supplemental villain, a better Mandarin would have been preferred. Lastly, Gwyneth Paltrow, though she does a fine job as a dramatic actress, is not an action star and should not have ever been given the opportunity. That being said, the chemistry between her and Downey, Jr. is palpable and never feels canned, instead flowing rather naturally between the two actors in a great way.

I didn’t fully flesh out my complaints due to spoilers, but, as I said, I enjoyed the film for the most part; in any case, it was a huge improvement over the awful Iron Man 2, so we should all rejoice for that. Six years after the release of the first Iron Man film, Robert Downey, Jr. continues to slip as effortlessly into the role now as he did then, and it manages to be a worthy followup to The Avengers. With decent performances all around and an enjoyable score from Brian Tyler, Iron Man 3 pleases for the most part and leaves me hoping that we see plenty more of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark in the future.

-Chad

Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content