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Movie Ratings and Reviews

300: Rise of an Empire

Zack Snyder's 300 moved me. The film has fallen prey to biting parody in recent years, but I knew then that 300 was one of the era's great cinematic experiences. Movies like that demand to be seen on the big screen. Like both The Matrix and Gravity, 300 was a masterpiece of visual splendor. And it was unique, too; never before or since have I reacted so emotionally to any film's aesthetic. It remains one of my favorite pictures for that reason.

300 received a fair amount of criticism when it was released because of its simplistic narrative arc and grossly romanticized storytelling. But for me, 300 was pure magic. It did nothing more than it set out to do, taking a rather straightforward - spartan, if you will - approach to the Battle of Thermopylae. With 300: Rise of an Empire, graphic novelist Frank Miller and director Noam Murro take this focused scope and blow it up. Unfortunately, this creates far more problems than it solves.

Everything from the Battle of Marathon to the Battle of Salamis is haphazardly squeezed into less than two hours of film. As a result, fascinating characters like Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) are sidelined in favor of hamfisted speeches and brawny chest beating. Simultaneously, almost no time is given to distinguish the Athenians from the Spartans outside of exposition. Where's their poetry? Their sculpting? Their art? That contrast might have given the Athenians a much-needed dose of humanity. Instead, they come off like two-bit knockoffs of their Spartan counterparts.

But this skirts the main issue I had with Rise of an Empire. Some may recall that 300 was divisive for its decidedly East versus West conflict-driven plot. Historically speaking, however, this subtext was first and foremost in the minds of the Persian empire and the Greeks who resisted them. It is an ideological fight that persisted long after the Persian empire crumbled, arguably continuing through to modern day.

With Rise of an Empire, however, writers Miller, Zack Snyder, and Kurt Johnstad push this allegory well beyond its reasonable historical limit. The movie conflates several important and separate ideas, using longwinded monologues to associate a unified Greece with the modern American watchwords of Freedom and Democracy. In one particularly incriminating speech, Gorgo even refers to "our lady liberty." With this change in tone, the movie becomes less popcorn entertainment and more an exercise in unabashed jingoism. And considering the United States' current relationship with Iran and the rest of the Middle East, the "Rise of an Empire" epithet suddenly takes on a far more sinister meaning.

Every time the movie leapt from one momentous but horribly misrepresented battle to another, I could see my Greek history professor suffering a small heart attack in my mind's eye. The 300 franchise was never one for historical accuracy, but there is a difference between fantastical allegory and outright propagandizing. 300 bathed safely in the waters of the former, but Rise of an Empire wades triumphantly into the deep end and nearly drowns in the process.

Consider that not a single Persian character in this movie has any shred of intelligence. Artemisia (Eva Green), a formerly Greek woman who grew up to command the Persian navy, suffers the dimwittedness of her Persian subordinates through much of her conflict with the cunning Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who we knew to be prideful after his pathetic attempt at besting Leonidas in 300, comes off like a spoiled, shortsighted moron.

To complete the insult, nearly every Persian in Rise of an Empire is distinguished from their strangely white "Greek" counterparts by darker skin and stereotypically Middle Eastern garb. Where in 300 the Persians were more mysterious boogeyman than outright caricature, here the light skinned American versus dark skinned Middle Eastern iconography floats obviously to the surface like the mangled detritus of the plentiful shipwrecks of Salamis. The more I think about Rise of an Empire, the clearer its arguably racist but certainly nationalistic intentions become.

I am aware this review doesn't speak much to the content of the film. If you're wondering how the movie stacks up against its predecessor, it doesn't; it is merely serviceable, forgettable, big screen entertainment. The lack of visual novelty in a post-300 world is apparent. Still, the elegant fight choreography can be fun to watch and the cinematography is, at times, reminiscent of cinematographer Larry Fong's magnum opus.

But I must ask audiences to think beyond the film's pretty exterior and see this movie for what it is. Rise of an Empire is a fundamentally manipulative superimposition of modern American ideals onto important but distorted historical events. To me, that is not only educationally irresponsible - it's morally deceptive. And I want no part of it.

Movie Verdict: Meh
Score: 60%

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/1lLtLAW

~ Søren

Pompeii
Pompeii(2014)

Let me set the scene. You're a wealthy young woman from Pompeii. You're traveling for days in an uncomfortable horse-led caravan, finally returning home after a strenuous visit to Rome. Along the way, one of your steeds drops to the ground with a desperate whinny. And because for some reason neither you nor any of your Roman military escorts knows the first thing about horses, your entire company is paralyzed with indecision.

Fortunately, a dreamy, impossibly good-looking young slave with perfectly coiffed hair is nearby, and he offers to show you and your compatriots basic equestrian logic: a wounded horse is as good as dead. He approaches the horse, shares a few quiet words with you, and snaps the neck of the beast. It goes without saying, but at this point you've fallen madly in love with him. That you just met him thirty seconds ago is immaterial; this encounter has made you so over-the-moon crazy for this guy that you'd risk anything - your family, your personal safety, your freedom - all for the sake of winning his heart.

I'm sure I've lost most of you with the sheer absurdity of the scenario. Your cognitive abilities have reasoned that this love scene is so trite it puts the Disney princess films to shame. This is a good thing. No one should accept this scene, and by extension, no one should enjoy Pompeii. It brims with these eye-rolling moments, where emotions are artificial and every line of overused dialogue is visible from miles away.

This movie is the consummate offspring of cliché archetypes, absentee character development, and a coincidence-driven story. It treats its audience like idiots, favoring awful revenge and romance subplots over meaningful character arcs. Pompeii is, in the kindest terms, an utterly missable, barely competent bore.

Here's another scene, this one from the first moments of the film. Pompeii opens on a Celtic village somewhere in Brittania. A young boy watches as two cartoonishly evil Roman soldiers (Keifer Sutherland and Sasha Roiz) slaughter his entire family. The boy barely escapes with his life, but soon finds himself enslaved by the very people who massacred his kin. You can surmise the rest of the plot from there.

That boy grows up to be the gladiator Milo, played by Kit Harington. The actor does an admirable job as Jon Snow in Game of the Thrones and could probably carry a quality swords and sandals epic on his own. Pompeii, an abyss devoid of any worthwhile character moments, will not be his big break.

Co-starring is Carrie-Anne Moss, whose resumé speaks for itself. She plays the mother of Harington's helpless love interest, Cassia (Emily Browning). Moss' face was paraded in every ad that I saw for Pompeii, but don't be fooled: her role is both minuscule and inconsequential. Seeing such a talented actress diminished by blatant bait-and-switch marketing is disheartening.

Coming into Pompeii, I was also excited to see Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje flex his acting talent beyond his one-note villain in Thor: The Dark World. But by the time he makes his first appearance onscreen, I had already given up hope that any new character could transform the movie into a fun popcorn adventure. This isn't Akinnuoye-Agbaje's fault; he gives his tired brother-in-arms character as much of his energetic spirit as he can. But like the slave character he portrays, the actor is shackled by the ideas of a greater power. Indeed, none of the problems in Pompeii are the fault of the cast.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson and his writers, Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson, fight an admittedly uphill battle with Pompeii. In an age post-Spartacus, post-Gladiator, and post-Blood and Sand, these dusty roads have been well-traveled. Yet, these intrepid filmmakers imagined they might give the gladiator genre a try anyway.

The problem is that we've seen this all before. Pompeii lacks the novelty of Kubrick's film, the fine direction of Scott's epic, and the carnal escapism of the Starz series. What's left is Pompeii, a hollow shell of its forebears. This is a shame given the unique disaster-laden backdrop of the Pompeii narrative; foregoing the gladiator angle, Pompeii might have benefited from an eruption-centric story in the vein of a Roland Emmerich film. Alas, it was not to be.

Anderson's vision is simply bloodless. I mean this in two ways. Aesthetically, this is a PG-13 effort from Anderson, meaning it lacks the adult language or violent imagery necessary to give a story about embattled gladiators any gravitas. But beyond its kiddy glove approach to death sport, the film also lacks soul. None of its characters are interesting or relatable. They are pallid imitations of real people, motivated by paper thin whim.

Cassia (Browning) and Milo are depressingly lazy amalgamations of gender stereotypes. What's more, they are surrounded by ancillary characters who care more about their fate than the audience does. About halfway through the movie, I leaned over to my friend and said, "I hope everyone in this movie dies." Do not mistake my meaning: I didn't harbor any resentment toward the characters. I just wanted the movie to end, and I figured their meaningless deaths would expedite the process.

There's a joke about how bad Pompeii is, buried somewhere among its ample computer generated ash and rubble. I'm sure it'd involve some snarky analogy between sitting through this film and experiencing the actual eruption of Vesuvius firsthand. But if the filmmakers couldn't be bothered to create a film that did anything new, creative, or interesting, I can't be bothered to make the quip. It just isn't worth my time, or yours. And neither is Pompeii.

Movie Verdict: Fail
RT Score: 40% (38%)

Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-1gR

~ Søren

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

I saw this Anchorman sequel twice, and both times I could not stop laughing. It's been a while since I've a seen a film with as much pure manic energy as this one. Rest assured, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues was well worth the wait. Everyone from the powerhouse comedic team behind the first film is back; director Adam McKay and producer Judd Apatow return along with stars Will Ferrell (co-writing again with McKay), Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, and Christina Applegate.

Nine years have passed since we first heard the legend of Ron Burgundy (Ferrell), and the update of the film's setting matches that gap. Burgundy and Co. have jumped from the seventies to the eighties. Ron and Veronica Corningstone (Applegate) are married with a six-year-old son, Walter (Judah Nelson, deadpan with hilarious innocence) and life is good, until Ron is fired by his idol, Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford). Burgundy hits bottom, but a proposal from GNN, the world's first 24-hour news network, sends him out to reassemble the news team.

What a wonderful reunion it is. Ferrell, Rudd, Carell, and Koechner are an absolute riot. Burgundy remains the lovable narcissist he always was, and Rudd and Koechner are solid once again as Brian Fantana and Champ Kind, but Steve Carell is something else entirely. Brick Tamland (Carell) was memorably eccentric in the first film, but here Carell devotedly throws the character even further into his own wildly absurd world. Brick is ludicrously enigmatic and Carell's performance glows with utter conviction.

In all honesty, the comedy is often very silly, sometimes sometimes veering into the plain stupid. Yet the pleasant surprise is the smartly subversive satire that McKay and Ferrell infuse into the story. As things start moving at GNN, the film throws some great jabs at the sensationalism in non-stop mass media. When network representative Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) tells Ron and the team "it's total crap and they can't get enough," the truth reflected in those words, especially today, is almost sobering. The ridiculousness of it all is frequently lampshaded, and, even through the retro lens, the satirical content retains its blunt honesty and relevance in the eyes and ears of its modern audience.

Sequels tend to squander the potential of their originals, but Anchorman 2 arrived this December as a welcome exception, a cinematic gift that opened just in time for Christmas. Sure, it follows the path blazed by the original, and, yes, perhaps the first movie is truthfully more quotable (you might not hear a line quite as solid as "sixty percent of the time, it works every time"), but McKay and Ferrell pull off a pretty neat stunt this time around. They prove that more can be better. Absurdity is pushed to the breaking point and then well over it, especially in a fantastically epic reprise of the news team battle royal seen in the first film. The big-headed, bigoted characters, especially Ferrell's, cross the line twice then twice again. This sequel takes the humor of the original, runs with it, converts it into rocket fuel, and blasts it through the stratosphere.

Ron, Brick, Brian, and Champ are all bumbling morons, each of a unique, twisted sort, and the focus on their outright idiocy is ingenious. James Marsden is also great as Jack Lime, the suave golden boy at GNN, and his clashes with Ferrell's Burgundy offer an interesting and rib-splitting glance into yet another media trend: the de facto pattern of the new pushing out the old. You shouldn't count out Ron Burgundy of course, because as the man himself passionately states, he was put on this earth "to have salon-quality hair and read the news."

Tonight's top story? A rare exception to disappointing comedy sequels that breaks its own boundaries and reminds us how much we love the legend of a certain madcap newsman in a maroon blazer.

Verdict: Movie Win
Rating: 80%

Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-1dF

~ Nathan

American Hustle

American Hustle opens with a balding, rotund, middle-aged man distastefully gluing a toupée to his head. You can taste the plaster fumes as little rivulets drip down his scalp. Then he takes his remaining strands of hair and pulls them over the furry piece now attached to his skin. The scene is uncomfortable, synthetic, difficult to watch. It is a good primer for the rest of the film.

That man, Irving, is played by Christian Bale, and he is the only human character in American Hustle. He has a conscience buried beneath his sleazy exterior, and he is shown to be a family man at heart. His oscillation between these two extremes is gradual and moving. Unfortunately, the people that surround him do not evolve or change. They manifest their desires in hyperbolic expression. From Bradley Cooper as unbalanced Agent Richie DiMaso to Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's wife, Rosalyn, the entire cast seems to revel in the irrational. Not a single character has any genuinely human qualities.

Rosalyn is a mother, but we know this because are told and not because we are shown. We never actually see her mothering. Likewise, we are introduced to an unstable Agent DiMaso whose actions are erratic and, as far as we know, unwarranted. It is eventually revealed that he took on Irving's criminal case because he was an FBI pencil pusher desperate for a job in the field. Unfortunately, this is also conveyed through expositional dialogue.

Amy Adams is Irving's lover and con artist partner, Sydney. She also isn't given any demonstrable impetus for her fickle accent-tinged behavior. And for what little role Jeremy Renner has in the film, his perfect do-gooder schtick feels contrived and implausible. Simply saying these characters have human qualities isn't enough. These traits must be apparent if we are to empathize with their struggles. If not, the result is a group of characters with whom we simply cannot relate; they are cardboard cutouts, ripe for spectacle and not much else.

The blame for shallow, cartoon-like characterization in American Hustle does not lie at the feet of the actors. Lawrence gives the Rosalyn as much dysfunctional depth as one could reasonably expect, and Cooper shines as he delivers gatling gun dialogue. Both have excellent, often hilarious sparring matches with Bale.

Adams is also fine, although she lacks the crutch of humorous respite from which Cooper and Lawrence both benefit. Through no fault of her own, her scenes tend to be more dramatic than funny. This does not work to her advantage in what is a mostly emotionless film. The supporting cast also stands tall beside the leads; a particularly amusing dynamic blossoms between Richie and his boss, Stoddard (Louis C.K.), and remains one of the standout storylines in the movie.

The problem with the characters in American Hustle doesn't lie in its direction, either. David O. Russell uses clever camera work to keep the film moving and under his hand his star team from Silver Linings Playbook all give fantastic repeat performances. Still, his guidance doesn't solve every problem. The film lacks focus. The main character appears to be Irving, confirmed by the opening and closing scenes, but Russell jump between narrative threads so much it becomes difficult to track or care about the central premise. The story isn't complicated per se, but it convolutes itself with one too many disparate character moments.

The blame for the mostly two-dimensional ensemble, it turns out, lies with the script. Eric Singer co-wrote the film with Russell and neither of them can keep the film on track. Their weak characterizations lead to a hodgepodge of events I never cared about. I was uninterested in whether Irving or Sydney would get away with their crimes. Even though Irving did eventually earn my sympathy, I was mostly nonplussed with his conman antics. In fact, I just generally didn't care about anyone: not Richie's desperate pull for the top of the bureaucratic ladder, nor Rosalyn's spousal troubles with Irving.

Something magical happens in the first five minutes of American Hustle. Just after Irving (Bale) perfects his awful combover, he leaves the dresser mirror and meets Sydney (Adams) in what appears to be a hotel living room. Richie (Cooper) barges in behind her, complete with luscious, impossibly tight curls. The three of them snap at one another and the room burns with energy. Instantly the relationship between Richie, Sydney, and Irving is clear. It is a brilliant way to establish the film.

I kept waiting to see that life reinvigorate the story once again. That never happens. American Hustle is a few scenes too long and a few true characters too short. The result is a passable, if unremarkable, ensemble showcase. To paraphrase a certain hobbit, it is thin. Like hair spread over too much head.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60% (65%)

Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-1dv

~ Søren

Life Itself
Life Itself(2014)

I was in pieces when Roger Ebert died. I have never felt so broken up about the passing of someone I had never met in person. Following his death, I picked up Life Itself, which has now become something of a holy book to me. It is an informative autobiography, manifesting itself as both an invaluable guide to film journalism and, oddly, as a sagely blueprint to being a better person.

But Life Itself, though a beautiful memoir, still left me without internal closure. Ebert's musings about the joys of living haunted me. I was reading them in July 2013 and I knew an important fact not buried in the pages of his book: two years after finishing Life Itself, he would die. This was unbearable. I needed someone to fully acknowledge the passing of one of my heroes, a postmortem epilogue to quench the ache he had left behind. This documentary fills that void. It shows I am not alone in missing that scowling round man from the television, the man whose own words convinced me films were worth taking seriously.

Director Steve James had a vision when he set out to make Life Itself. He had extensive interview questions for Roger Ebert paced out to the roadmap of his movie. But at some point soon after he started filming, James came to understand something important. Ebert, known as a great storyteller to his friends, was going to have the project done his way. Without the ability to speak and with no way to walk, Roger Ebert nevertheless took Steve James' film and made with it what he wanted. And James, bless him, stepped humbly aside for his friend.

It takes courage to do what Steve James did. Few if any filmmakers are willing to remove their own authorship from their movie; professional ego tends to get in the way. But James, a talented and respected director in his own right, knows no one is seeing Life Itself for his name. They are seeing because it is about Roger Ebert, and James is content with that.

This moment of clarity transcends James' filmmaking. It pervades the stuff of the film and allows him to cut incisively to the misshapen core of his subject. There are documentaries that peal back layers of fame to reveal the human underneath, but none of them make you forget you are watching a celebrity the way Life Itself does.

James does not achieve this feat by merely replacing Ebert's book with his film counterpart. Instead, his film complements the source material. Although it overlaps tangentially with the material Ebert wrote, occasionally offering narration from an Ebert soundalike as he reads through passages of Life Itself, James smartly avoids any attempt at historical chronology or simple retelling. Instead, he admits plainly and without words that what was once an attempt to chronicle Ebert's life was now a gift, a band-aid offered to the public to help cope with the departure of a giant.

Through heartfelt testimony from friends, family, and colleagues, the story of Life Itself becomes a unique and telling account of the man from the mouths of those who loved him. It gives insight into his faults and dreams. Embarrassing anecdotes and biting admonishment color James' tribute to the man. Life Itself is a triumph of kind, but fair, portraiture.

Ebert once said, "A lot of critics are almost shy about confessing that they had any emotional reaction. If you laughed, say you laughed. If you cried, say you cried."

So I confess this for his sake: I wept through most of Life Itself, far more than I have at any movie to date. Hearing Roger Ebert speak through his computer one more time filled me with welled-up emotion I haven't felt since last April. If that sounds melodramatic, blame that man himself for my candidness. In fact, blame him for this whole review, this site, and my career. It is his fault I'm a critic, and I thank him every day for it.

There is a moment late in the film where Ebert reveals that his cancer is back and that he only has a few weeks left to live. His wife, Chaz, talks optimistically about radiation treatment. But behind her, Ebert shakes his head at her obstinate positivity before throwing his hands up in exasperation. Watching a man accept his fate so resolutely, and so calmly, was a moment of intense sadness for me.

But it was also a moment of discovery. It was then that I realized I had stopped caring about Roger Ebert the critic, the award-winner, the writer, and started caring for Roger Ebert the person. He could never have communicated this himself; Ebert had a habit of muddling his own self-image with magnificent prose and articulation that only served to remind me of his imposing reputation. Only an external source like Steve James could offer such human perspective to a world in mourning.

How fitting that such acumen came in the form of a movie, and how just that it came from his friend. I daresay Ebert would have liked that.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Review: 100% (97%)

Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-1dd

~ Søren

Inside Llewyn Davis
½

Llewyn Davis is kind of a prick. He's an immensely talented folk singer, but he's selfish. He doesn't seem to care about anyone but himself. Yet, I enjoyed spending time with Llewyn. In his own self-involved kind of way, his story rings true. We all know someone like him: a friend with all the potential in the world, but whose shortsightedness holds them back.

Unfortunately, the Coen brothers don't feel the same way. Never mind Oscar Isaac's spellbinding performance or silky singing voice. Forget his subtle performance and honesty of spirit. For the Coens, Llewyn is a project. He's a fix-me-up. He needs to be repaired.

I couldn't help but feel manipulated by Inside Llewyn Davis. The film spends most of its hour and forty minute runtime investing the audience in Llewyn's struggles. We laugh as we watch him awkwardly struggle with social mores. We cringe as he makes one faux pas after another. We even empathize with his frustration as no one recognizes his obvious aptitude for musicianship.

But frustration on behalf of Llewyn turns into frustration with the Coen brothers. Overwrought symbolism interrupts the narrative as it bashes the audience over the head with barely-hidden meaning. And if that doesn't communicate the message, the director brothers make their perspective abundantly clear with an eleventh hour narrative shake-up.

Indeed, the Coen brothers believe Llewyn is lost. But whats's wrong with that? Maybe Llewyn doesn't want to be found. And maybe I prefer his being lost. Maybe I appreciate his flaws. Maybe I find those aspects of his character relatable.

The story of Inside Llewyn Davis begs comparison with another slice of life story. In the award-winning television series, Louie, Louis C.K. captures the essence of the human spirit. Like Inside Llewyn Davis, his show oscillates between hilarity and emotional poignancy. They both feature realistically flawed main characters fighting to make their way in the world. But unlike Louis C.K., the Coens don't have any patience for humanity.

In Louie, Louis C.K. messes up constantly. His relationships range from nonexistent to depressingly unfulfilled, and his wants and desires often conflict with his moral values. But C.K. recognizes that that's life. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has their shortcomings. Horrible things happens to people, as do wonderful things. Awkward situations come and go. And while it would be lovely to become a better person along the way, life, on average, tends to stay the same.

Llewyn would probably find solace in hanging out with Louie. He would see that it's okay to fail. He would understand that that's what makes us human. Perhaps, one day, he might even learn from that. But in Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens see fit to turn his story into a morality tale. They take time to capture the human spirit only to callously trample it into the ground. "Isn't Llewyn just the worst?" The Coens seem to say from on high. "He must learn the errors of his ways."

Inside Llewyn Davis features a cat. Several, in fact. Sometimes they're funny, sometimes they're plot devices. The parallels between the behaviors of wandering strays and of Llewyn are clear: there is a feline soul inside Llewyn Davis.

It's alright to roll your eyes. This is the puddle-deep symbolism I was talking about. As with many of their recent efforts, it wasn't enough for the Coens to just tell a beautifully shot, impeccably acted, and well-scripted drama about a struggling folk singer. They needed to muddle it up, confusing their message with unnecessary and simplistic imagery.

You know, Coens, there's such thing as too much. Llewyn is a weird name, and he's a weird guy, but I enjoyed getting to know him. I found his life intriguing. I had no need for layers, or for shoehorned metaphor. I ask you, Coens: what's wrong with a cat just being a cat?

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 70% (75%)

Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-19B

~ Søren

Seven Psychopaths

The McDonagh family has some serious talent. Both Martin, the writer/director of In Bruges, and his brother John Michael McDonagh, writer/director of The Guard, have produced two of the best dark comedies of the 21st century. Martin in particular feels in many ways like a subtler, more poignant Tarantino, combining morbid violence with ingenious dialogue and meaningful emotion. In light of this, I was looking forward to his second film with great anticipation. It therefore grieves me to say that Seven Psychopaths is, to be frank, an utter disappointment.

Part of this failure comes from how uneven the movie is in its structure. I was totally hooked at the first scene, which brilliantly sets a violent, silly tone for a whacky tale featuring an eclectic ensemble of characters. Unfortunately, this initial giddiness doesn't last as the film moves into its limp second hour. It has been a long time since I've seen a movie that crashes and burns this much in its second half; while the first part of Seven Psychopaths is filed with the usual snappy, witty, kinetic filmmaking that we expect from McDonagh, the latter half completely changes course with meandering dialogue and slow pacing. McDonagh suddenly trades laughs for misplaced drama and eye-rolling preachiness, culminating in a wholly unsatisfying climax.

Like Hugo before it, Seven Psychopaths also suffers from false advertising. It does not, in fact, feature seven psychopaths at all. By my count, I could count at best five (arguably) psychopathic people. It may be unfair to fault a film for how it was marketed, but the title also elicits this expectation from the audience. One might argue that Seven Psychopaths refers to the title of Marty's script of the same name, but then I still don't understand where these elusive seven people come into play in the course of the narrative.

For those keeping count, here's a breakdown of the characters in the image above:

1. Angela's (Olga Kurylenko) story arc ends in the same scene she's introduced.
2. Walken is Hans, Billy's partner-in-crime, who favors Christian prayer over any sort of violence. He's far more concerned with the welfare of his wife than anything else. ✓*
3. Colin Farrell plays an Irish screenwriter named Marty, perhaps based on Martin McDonagh himself, and serves as the straight man to Sam Rockwell's zany Billy.
4. Billy (Sam Rockwell) is certifiably insane, making one random, dangerous decision after the other. ✓
5. Abbie Cornish does absolutely nothing as Marty's "bitchy" girlfriend Kaya, so-called simply because she recognizes Billy as a psychopath and disapproves of Marty's drinking. Her story goes nowhere, and she's far from psychopathic.
6. Tom Waits can justifiably be called a psychopath, but like Angela, his story stretches across all of one scene. ✓
7. Woody Harrelson is Charlie, the primary antagonist, whose obsession with his dog and erratic violent behavior warrant classification as a psychopath. You can definitely see echoes of Ralph Fiennes's Harry from In Bruges in his mannerisms and quirks. ✓

*This is debatable. If he counts, so does his wife; but I'll leave that for you to decide if you do see the film.

The biggest downfall of the film is its self-awareness. Every error or inconsistency is commented on by the characters themselves as they help Marty work through his screenplay. Marty's script gives short-shrift to its female characters? So does McDonagh. Marty's climax feels completely anticlimactic in every possible way? So does McDonagh's. Marty can't come up with seven characters for his movie? Neither can McDonagh. Self-aware humor is a fine tool to use to drive a film, but simply pointing out why your movie doesn't work isn't funny and it only serves to remind us why the film isn't very good.

Seven Psychopaths does have its merits, of course. The humor is very much spot-on, at least in its superior first half. Visual gags and surprise violence, much in the same vein as Quentin Tarantino, give the movie that exhilarating roller-coaster feel that makes black comedy work so well. And while some of the dialogue feels quirky for the sake of being quirky, it is for the most part extraordinarily well-written.

And of course, the entire ensemble cast does as well as they can with the material they're given; Sam Rockwell gets the chance to be as zany as possible, Harrelson is amusing as the sensitive, angry villain, and Farrell does well at playing "normal," reacting to each subsequently absurd scenario with the appropriate expressions shock and horror. Walken in particular is incredible as Hans, the only character with any discernibly emotional or logical motivations in the entire film. Walken's total commitment to bringing Hans to life makes him the standout player in Seven Psychopaths.

Having said that, I probably won't ever see all of Seven Psychopaths again. Save for Christopher Walken's absolutely stellar performance and Sam Rockwell's delightful insanity, the film just falls apart too quickly and suffers from too many poor narrative choices to recommend. If you're a diehard fan of Martin McDonagh, you may find something to like here - for everyone else, you're better off just watching In Bruges for the hundredth time.

Let's hope his next effort shows a more concerted return to form.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60% (62%)

~ Søren

A Note on Tom Waits - To understand what is fundamentally wrong with Seven Psychopaths, we can look at the character of Zachariah (Tom Waits). Instead of showing us anything about his character outside of the fact that he is carrying a bunny, the film outright tells us via shoehorned exposition that he's a psychopath. He then proceeds to talk about his past, using unnecessarily violent flashbacks (two people actually left the theater in disgust) to confirm McDonagh's assertion that he is crazy. And then he leaves.

That is his entire role.

He does have a final post-credits scene, but it feel tacked-on, predictable, and isn't particularly funny or interesting in any way. Anything communicated there could have been achieved with some simple on-screen text, or left out entirely; it, like the character himself, adds nothing to the movie whatsoever.

A Note on In Bruges - There is a subtle, clever reference toward the beginning of the film to In Bruges. See if you can spot it - it happens in a conversation between Billy and Marty when they are discussing his script.

A Note on Missing Psychopaths - The hugely important missing ingredient of the other 2 or 3 psychopaths is accentuated as titles for each character appear randomly on the screen in the first half of the film, labeling them as Psychopath #1, #2, etc. These visual cues feel entirely incongruent and inconsistent with one another, ultimately confusing the audience more than they help.

Movie 43
Movie 43(2013)

I decided to incur the wrath of the internet today. I have never been interested in contrarianism for its own sake; I have never defended or criticized a film that I didn't feel strongly about. It is with this outlook that I say Movie 43, a sketch film that has earned universal derision from the public and from critics, wasn't the worst movie I've ever seen.

Don't get me wrong: Movie 43 is terrible. Some intrepid writers have tried to give the film credit as meta-commentary on the state of Hollywood, but I caution those fine cinephiles that such endeavors are a waste of precious time and effort. Judging by its haphazard production process, it seems little thought went into Movie 43 whatsoever. It is most shocking to know that the Farrelly brothers had anything to do with this film. Remember their loving homage to dimwitted comedy stars of days past in Dumb and Dumber? Or the charming fraternal saga of conjoined twins in Stuck on You? Or how about the nostalgia trip that was The Three Stooges?

But then, I would hesitate to call this a Farrelly brothers film in the first place. Although they specialize in gross-out humor, Peter and Bobby Farrelly have surprisingly tasteful style. Movie 43 just doesn't show that restraint and sensitivity, separating it from a true Farrelly effort. The movie also features twelve other directors. The brothers themselves only directed the storyline featuring Greg Kinnear and Dennis Quaid, a thread not even present in foreign cuts of the films. It is unfortunate that the Farrelly name is attached to this disaster, but I would hope that any discerning viewer would know that the fault lies at the feet of more than just two people.

Goodness knows there's more than enough fault to go around. I think I chuckled twice during the entire film. Once was at the sheer novelty of seeing the talented Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet engage in some of the basest material I've ever seen on-screen - that didn't last. Later, Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts elicit a brief smile with their unorthodox parenting methods. I would hesitate to call either of these scenes funny, but they get a few points for not making me roll my eyes in irritation. The rest of the sketches feel like they were pulled straight out of conversations on middle school playgrounds, which should give you an idea how piercingly intellectual they are. They were designed to shock and appall, but I mostly found myself hanging my head in dejected silence.

It almost pains me to say that Movie 43 somehow isn't without its redeeming features. While its myriad sketches all toe the line between awful and dick-wilting, they thankfully fly by at breakneck speed. Ironically, Movie 43 has a better grasp on the problem of one-note gags than the modern incarnation of Saturday Night Live. Where the latter hammers on one joke for far too long, Movie 43 offers quick respite from its sporadic terribleness. Note that this is faint praise, because at least Saturday Night Live is sometimes funny.

As sad as it is, that is what keeps Movie 43 from finding kin with the worst Hollywood abominations. Where Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer seem to have come up with their films over lunch, Movie 43 exhibits minor foresight with its random sight gags and loosely connected sketches. Likewise, Happy Madison films like Grandma's Boy find themselves stuck on one godawful premise which they beat bloody until all you can do is pray it ends soon. Movie 43 features similarly prepubescent stories, but no single thread lasts the full 90 minutes. None of these factors make this a good movie, but they offer a baby step up from the bottom of the barrel.

The issue with Movie 43 isn't its sub-par content or its desperate offensiveness. No, the real issue is that it offers absolutely nothing to the world of comedy. By extension, I doubt it will add anything to your life. If movies are meant to tap into a universal sense of empathy, as Roger Ebert once said, this movie does exactly nothing right. But it is fast paced and brief, a fleeting thought in the grand scheme of cinematic history. If you hate it, rest assured that it will be erased from our collective consciousness in short order. If you love it, well - I'm sure you'll figure out which shapes go in which holes soon enough. Third grade is waiting for you.

Movie Verdict: Fail
RT Score: 30%

Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-18D

~ Søren

Walking With Dinosaurs

I can sum up my thoughts on Walking With Dinosaurs 3D in just two words. If you know anything about the history of this production, you probably know what they are:

Shut. Up.

Walking With Dinosaurs, named after the television miniseries released by the BBC in 1999, departs from the naturalistic, documentary-style presentation of its namesake in favor of a more traditional narrative. The story follows Patchi (Justin Long), a Pachyrhinosaurus who struggles as the runt of his litter. Growing up in Late Cretaceous Alaska (the Campanian Stage for all you paleo-nuts out there) presents many challenges to our intrepid ceratopsian (one of Triceratops' frilled, horn-faced relatives).

Whether its running from packs of formidable Gorgosaurs, which are like T. rex but smaller and faster, or being dominated by his bigger brother, Scowler (Skyler Stone), Patchi certainly has a hard time of it. But through curiosity and determination - you know, the traits dinosaurs are most famous for - he survives the annual migrations and grows up to be a fine, upstanding member of Mesozoic society.

As an adult, Patchi faces all new challenges, like competing with his more physically impressive brother over the lovely hand (er, manus) of his childhood friend and love interest: the fair Juniper (Tiya Sircar). The Enantiornithine bird, Alex the Alexornis (John Leguizamo) provides commentary all the while, leading us directly into the film's biggest problem.

Only four of the characters have any voiceovers at all: Patchi, Scowler, Juniper, and Alex. Yet somehow, with only four voices, they manage to fill every darned second with useless, utterly superfluous, and downright annoying remarks. From references to things that won't exist for another 70 million years (like ninjas), irritating amounts of poop and fart jokes, or telling the audience in words what the movie is already showing through action, the movie doesn't clam up for even a second.

At least, that's what it feels like. The dialogue has no substance and contributes nothing to the story or its characters. It comes across as a last-minute decision by studio executives with no faith in the power of the moviegoer's brain, and too much faith in the talent of lazy writers.

I wonder why.

Well, as it turns out, and according to pretty much everyone who worked on the movie, that is what happened. The filmmakers conceived of, wrote, shot, animated, and edited the film with no voiceovers whatsoever. The result reportedly played out as a fairly naturalistic, if somewhat stylized, portrayal of the dinosaurs in their natural habitat. According to a Facebook comment made by paleontologist and consultant, Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., the film was mostly finished back in March. Unfortunately, the studio decided the film needed more exposition, and so they introduced Alex's narration. From there, they decided to add the three other cast members, who they - and I'm not kidding - last month.

This is obvious if you look at the product. From the design of the animals to their 3D rendering, it's blatantly obvious that the artists, animators, and filmmakers cared deeply about creating these creatures. In particular, extremely talented lead artist David Krentz's keen understanding of dinosaur physiology and behavior shines through regularly. Despite some anthropomorphization, these animals are fairly true to what we know about the fossil record.

Many paleontologists were involved until the 11th hour to make sure the animals were as true to life as they could be, and it shows. Hardcore dinosaur fans will appreciate the full-fledged wing feathers on all the maniraptorans, and the glorious layers of pterosaur pycnofibers rippling in the wind. Troodon is also correctly identified as an omnivore, and the Azhdarchids engage in some most-welcome terrestrial stalking. For those of us who care, this sort of accuracy is important.

All of this careful dedication culminates in animals that simply feel real. These are without a doubt the most realistic dinosaurs ever depicted on film; sorry, Jurassic Park, but your featherless Velociraptors just don't cut it anymore. In WWD 3D, I was aware of so many little details of life that added so much to the animals' realism. I could see the underlying musculoskeletal anatomy in action as the Pachyrinosaurs moved, and felt as though I could reach out and stroke the hard, pebbly scaled hide of the Edmontosaurus.

All of this tireless work meshes badly with the aforementioned voiceovers. These additions end up undermining the artists' intentions, yielding a movie that is more frustrating than anything else. Back when the first trailer released for this movie, I was thrilled that it didn't feature any talking animals. Finally, I was going to get to see dinosaurs as they actually were, and not as movie monsters or cartoons. Disney's largely forgotten Dinosaur from 2000 suffered a similar problem, but the decision to include voiceover in that movie was made early enough to do real lip-syncing. Meanwhile, the animals in WWD 3D are apparently telepathic.

Apart from these two aspects of Walking With Dinosaurs, there's not much else to say. There's a completely unnecessary human framing device about a paleontologist (Karl Urban) taking his niece (Angourie Rice) and teenage nephew (Charlie Rowe) to a fossil site. Their story is fairly simple. The music is mostly unremarkable, as well, although some songs actually hurt the film as they contrast with the tone of the story.

Something else worth noting is that the movie does suffer from some unfortunate sexist implications. The Pachyrhinosaurus in the movie form harems, with a dominant male having access to all the females in the herd. They are essentially his property. Had the movie been kept in its original incarnation, this would have been understandable. After all, a lot of herding animals today do tend to follow this behavioral pattern, and other species are not obligated to obey human social mores. But when you factor in the human voiceovers, suddenly Juniper's submission to the two male leads becomes more than a little uncomfortable to watch.

Your enjoyment of Walking With Dinosaurs 3D really depends on how much you like dinosaurs. Whether you're more interested in the science behind the scenes or the spectacle that takes center stage, the creatures of this movie are awesome in the most proper sense of the word. It also depends and how willing you are to ignore the voices and appreciate the animation. If you aren't, then there's nothing to gain whatsoever in seeing it.

There are so many better movies out, and so many better ways to learn about dinosaurs. Some might say that this movie still works for children, but I find that attitude patronizing; just because their brains aren't fully developed yet doesn't mean they can't enjoy well-written film, nor that they should have to settle for lesser material. And judging by their disinterested expressions, the kids sitting next to me in the theater were in complete agreement.

Verdict: Movie Fail
RT Score: 40%

Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-18G

~ Patrick

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
½

David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the second film adaptation of the Stieg Larsson novel by the same name. The film follows the story of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), and how they get wrapped up in a tangled web of mystery relating to the dreadfully dysfunctional Vanger family. The entire film is set in contemporary Sweden and plays almost entirely off of a hostile climate of backstabbing and mistrust.

Interestingly, the original Swedish title of the novel is Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women. I am of the opinion that the English title strongly belies the brutality present in the story of the two principle characters, and that the original more accurately describes the content of the film. Make no mistake, every part of Dragon Tattoo is as visceral and as acutely executed as you should expect from a crime drama. Sexual violence abounds, and there is more than one scene that are quite difficult to watch; this is not a film for people with weak stomachs for in-your-face sadism.

This isn't to say Fincher's work exploitative or over-the-top. As someone who did not read the original novel I cannot attest to this, but I do know people who have and they claim there is even more risqué content that has been left out of the movie. From what I could see, every action has a consequence and no scene is shot for the sake of cheap thrills or to simply elicit visceral reactions. There is always a point, and it takes someone with skill like David Fincher to handle these difficult plot points so effectively.



Fincher's hallmarks are of course present in this film, down to his signature cut-through-wall shots. Fans of the director will find the overall feel of the film comfortingly familiar. His knack for bringing a sort of sterile coarseness to the universe he is filming is ever-present and lends to the setting the mood for its depiction of bleak underbelly of modern Sweden.

Playing one of the central characters in Dragon Tattoo, Daniel Craig gives one of his most affecting performances yet, proving that he does indeed have the chops for high-impact drama as much as he does for high-octane action. Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander is both a fascinating rebel archetype with a clearly complex backstory that makes her character an absolute scene-stealer. In combination, this unlikely pairing yields one of the most compelling on-screen partner-ups in recent memory.

The film also gets extra points for one of the best opening credit sequences of all time. This remarkable introduction to the movie sets a tone and artistic direction for the rest of the film. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is certainly an aesthetic triumph and should be commended for its attention to detail.

In fact, Dragon Tattoo should be commended for being an excellent film on the whole that makes few, if any, major missteps. This is another knockout piece from David Fincher, a very impressive showing from Daniel Craig, and a breakout performance for Rooney Mara. It is well-worth your time.

You may never listen to Enya the same way again, however. Consider yourself warned.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (93%)

Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-7D

~ Søren

Drive
Drive(2011)
½

Drive is Nicholas Winding Refn's first return to a crime story since his final installment in the Pusher series, but the director winds up hewing to close to his own conventions to make truly compelling cinema. When I first sat down to watch Drive, I was not entirely sure what I what sort of film to expect. I knew the film starred Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver, but that was about it. I think that sense of mystery can really work in a movie's favor - but now that the film's over, I can't say I'm terribly satisfied with the results.

It's not that Drive is an incompetent film. On the contrary, many techniques that Refn uses in Drive are of the highest technical proficiency, from shot framing to how some of the characters are artfully fleshed out despite the rather simplistic minimalist dialogue. However, Refn's strong affinity for long periods of impenetrable silence where characters communicate their emotion through facial expressions proves problematic when matched with the protagonist of Drive.

Ryan Gosling's character, "the driver," is supposed to be enigmatic and emotionless. Therefore, whatever feelings are meant to be communicated through Refn's silent scenes are lost on the audience, and, quite plainly, didn't work well to captivate my interests. In Refn's Valhalla Rising, which has many of the same problems as Drive, the audience can at least connect with the fact that Mad Eye is a prisoner in spite of the fact that other than that, he had little in the way of backstory. It becomes possible to empathize with One Eye due to the circumstances we find him in, while a disconnect remains in Drive between the audience and the driver - we are asked to find humanity in someone who appears to be a good-looking, young, employed white male in modern America, and also enjoys doing crime and killing things on the side.

The instinct might initially be to go with the Gosling-hate crowd that's hot in Hollywood right now and blame the lead for the disconnect, but I think he wasn't given much to work with here and he certainly has shown his dramatic chops in other films. Having said this, it is hard forgive the perpetually blank face Gosling wears that lacks any of the subtleties of other landmark performances of more seasoned actors. Characters in television and film who show very little in the way of emotion on the outside carry their performances through minute twitches and minor facial alterations. These nuances are a product of their complex backstories and deep personalities; examples of this include Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring in Breaking Bad. Whether this impenetrable enigma of a character is a product of Refn's direction or the limits of Gosling's acting remains a mystery, but it does not work at all in the film's favor - particularly when, as a result of with Refn's trademark silences, the lack of personality is accentuated.

Whatever the faults in Drive, I admit the acting probably isn't to blame. Carey Mulligan gives a very solid, unobtrusive performance as the driver's neighbor, Irene, although there's nothing particularly stand-out about her acting. Bryan Cranston, whom I have come to appreciate much more after his role as Walter White in the television series Breaking Bad, gives a very convincing and satisfying performance as a greedy-yet-endearing mechanic named Shannon who works as the driver's boss. Unfortunately, Christina Hendricks (Firefly, Mad Men)feels wasted in a minor role - her considerable acting chops are barely utilized in her 2-3 lines of irrelevant dialogue. The two head-honcho criminals intimately involved in the main plot are played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. Of course, Ron Perlman is a total powerhouse while Albert Brooks plays a horribly sadistic version of, well, Albert Brooks, and both serve as very respectable antagonists.

One of the most glaringly odd and off-putting choices Refn made in making Drive was the retro motif he used for the soundtrack, the credits, and the overall aesthetic of the film. Colors in each scene are bright and appear to give off a neon sheen, and lights are brighter and stick to a bright pink, blue, and orange color palette. This, combined with the retro soundtrack, might actually have been a pretty great design choice - but for Drive, it feels totally unrelated to the film's style and setting. Worse than that, those "silent" scenes I mentioned earlier are actually unceremoniously punctuated by the soundtrack, and the result is probably not what Refn intended. I felt thrown off by the fact that the soundtrack seemed to be trying to fill for the missing spark between the characters. This dichotomy merely exacerbated my frustration with how stagnant the tension felt as opposed to enhancing how invested I was in the characters' situations.

Drive is very obviously a Nicholas Winding Refn movie, but this time he self-indulged to a fault. Fans of the director will likely not be disappointed with the film whatsoever. Much like myself and director Wes Anderson, whose films I will always go and see because something about his style clicks with me. Nevertheless, I must caution that this movie follows many of the same beats as Vallhalla Rising before it, and that the aforementioned issues of character development do keep Drive from attaining the heights it was trying to achieve.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 70%

Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p4dFgD-ft

A Note About Orange and Blue - Using orange and blue to color a scene is one of the most commonly used film techniques and can be found in almost any film. When used in moderation, it makes a lot of sense - but Drive uses this color scheme constantly, almost to the degree of Harry Brown. It's nothing major, and it's not really a critique, but I thought I would point it out for those of you who pay attention to such things.

Another Note About the Film - I don't know that a movie like Drive need exist when a masterwork like Sling Blade tells a similar story in a far more compelling manner. Billy Bob Thornton's character manages to instill unending endearing qualities into his performance and around that central pillar, the rest of the movie takes shape. Drive lacks that pillar and ends up suffering for it.

~ Søren

The Amazing Spider-Man
½

It has been a long, long decade since Sam Raimi's Spider-Man debuted in 2002. The comic book film universe has been on a roller coaster of highs and lows, producing everything from drivel like Ang Lee's Hulk and Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand to blockbuster hits like Jon Favreau's Iron Man and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, and even genre-deconstructing films like Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass and Zack Snyder's Watchmen. But throughout all of that, superheroes have certainly broken into the mainstream, and are no longer just reserved for the nerd whose mint-condition Superman #1 sits quietly in their living room behind glass. And now, with Joss Whedon's The Avengers having made more money than nearly any film before it, all eyes in Hollywood are on the cash cow that is the comic book world.

Needless to say, everyone at Marvel probably gets up each morning and kick themselves repeatedly every day for selling the film adaptation rights to their most popular superhero to Sony. And since Sony's not about to let the rights revert back to their rival studio, The Amazing Spider-Man was born. Directed by Marc Webb (an appropriately-named director if their ever was one), who previously helmed the charming (500) Days of Summer, Sony looked to give a new spin to the formula by fundamentally changing Sam Raimi's vision.

His approach, in this reviewer's humble opinion, was the best thing to happen to the character of Spider-Man in a long time. I have never been a big fan of Sam Raimi's franchise, with the possible exception of Spider-Man 2, for many reasons that I will largely refrain from dumping into this review. What I can say is that Marc Webb seems to be a better fit than Sam Raimi to handle "the bug," and it shows at nearly every turn.

There is, if I can make a cross-medium reference, but one on-screen version of the webslinger that I hold as the gold standard for the masked hero: the animated television series Spectacular Spider-Man. If you haven't seen it, I highly encourage you to sit down and watch the first two to three episodes. It is one of the best animated shows to hit television, and it is quite possibly the best introduction one could ask for to the world of Peter Park and Spider-Man.

Notice that I said Peter Park *and* Spider-Man. One of the most important things that Spectacular did that so few incarnations had done before was that it made Peter Parker, the nerdy high school kid, just as interesting (if not more so) than his superhero alter ego. Even with everything he did to stop villains and fight crime, he always had to balance it with being home before curfew, his romantic relationships, and schoolwork.

So when I heard that someone who knows how to direct young drama and love so well was taking up the baton to direct the next Spider-Man movie, I was very hopeful that this basic tenet of making the boy as interesting as the spider would be upheld. This was something blatantly lacking in Sam Raimi's trilogy, a fault harped on my many critics. But on this front, I can assure you that Marc Web has delivered.

Andrew Garfield is Peter Parker, more so than Tobey Maguire ever was. He is an absolute revelation as an awkward, nerdy, skateboarding high school student, creating a new narrative spin that perfectly embodies what made the character so endearing in the first place. In combination with the ever-watchable, always funny Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, every scene (red and blue suit or no) is fascinating, charming, and often-times hilarious to watch. It says something that we don't really get a look at Parker as Spider-Man until what feels like halfway through the film, and that that fact has no discernible impact on the audience's enjoyment.

However, if Marc Webb has one major fault when it comes to directing a summer blockbuster like this, it is that he has never dealt with big set-piece action. Shot in a very similar vein to (500) Days of Summer, the aesthetic of his camerawork oftentimes feels like it would more closely fit a romcom than a superhero movie. While this doesn't always hurt his more hectic scenes, it can make the gravity of Spider-Man's fights seem less than epic. Nevertheless, some very inventive choreography manages to save it from being a true loss, and Spider-Man's humorous, tricky tactics and wisecracking quips really help sell the point that this is just a smart, superpowered teenager engaging these larger-than-life villains.

Rhys Ifans gives an admirable effort as Curt Connors, the man who would become The Lizard. This is interestingly also the first story arc of Spectacular Spider-Man (really, you should see that show), but I digress. As an introduction to the world of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, he is a solid stepping stone toward a bright future of Spider-Man's traditional rogues gallery. Compare this much more nuanced, interconnected approach to Parker's first adversary to Spider-Man, where we have little to no connection to Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborn, and it quickly becomes apparent that the studio is approaching this series with the long haul in mind.

The Amazing Spider-Man should also be given some serious credit for eliciting an emotional reaction from the audience. The movie does not shy away from tragic moments and character deaths, and the result is something more profound than even my beloved Iron Man. Unfortunately, this is also where Marc Webb does run into another sometimes troubling issue with his direction. For some reason, despite its more than ample 2-hour runtime, The Amazing Spider-Man constantly feels like it's on fast-forward during the biggest and most important emotional scenes. The audience is never given time to sit back and reflect on weighty events like Peter's spider-bite, making it feel like Webb is rushing through them to get back to where he feels comfortable.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man. From the "amazing" epithet headlining the title to the celebration of the lovable nature of both Peter Parker and Spider-Man, this movie honors its comic book origins without totally restricting itself to those confines, and is exactly what fans of the character deserve. Little touches like a the inclusion of Flash Thompson, the choice to use the Gwen Stacy character and not Mary Jane (not yet, anyway), and the little visual jokes and spider-themed motifs sprinkled throughout the film, Marc Webb has crafted what feels like a real look at the potential the character has on the silver screen. Despite its occasional pitfalls, I am eagerly anticipating what promises to be a spectacular sequel to what is a pretty amazing movie.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (89%)

~ Søren

A Note on Sam Raimi's Spider-Man Franchise - I mentioned that a believable, interesting villain was something that appreciated about this movie, something that Sam Raimi missed in his first crack at the franchise. In fairness, though, I should point out that this was something that Sam Raimi did actually achieve in Spider-Man 2 with Dr. Octopus, an aspect that I can point to as to why that movie worked so much better than its predecessor.

A Note on Responsibility - I really appreciated how Webb dances around the classic quotes from the franchise (making me very excited to see how they handle the introduction of the Mary Jane storyline - I hear she has a great personality). Even the "great power, great responsibility" line is twisted to convey the same message with a very different syntax, making the film stand out from its predecessor even more. Moreover, this theme of responsibility is elaborated on to great effect; the inner conflict Peter Parker faces on whether to help his fellow human being often takes center stage and gives more meaning to his superhero persona.

A Note on Webshooters - Another key aspect played up in the Spectacular Spider-Man series, and before that in the comics, was the idea of the webshooters; as a plot device, it helps to add more gravity to fights when Spidey runs out of fluid, and as a part of the story, it helps reaffirm Peter Parker's extreme intelligence (not unlike Tony Stark's brilliant design of the Iron Man suit). The Amazing Spider-Man film smartly chose to eschew the weird, organic webs from the first trilogy, and introduced the shooters in a believable manner; the first half of the film is used to periodically show the audience that Peter Parker is smart, handy, and has the capacity to create something very mechanically advanced, so when he does fashion the devices, the audience can swallow the pill more easily.

The Wolf of Wall Street
½

I will make no apologies: Jordan Belfort is a greedy, shortsighted leech on society, and I hope The Wolf of Wall Street is his swan song. To me, this real-life Wall Street mogul represents everything that can go wrong with the human spirit. To quote him directly, he is nothing but pond scum. And yet it is in that pond scum that his proxy, Leonardo DiCaprio, comes alive.

It's hard not to love DiCaprio at this point. His portrayal of Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street is nuanced magnificence. DiCaprio infuses Belfort with a venom more poisonous even than that of his role as a slave driver in Django Unchained. Hitting every tortured note of Belfort's life with scene-stealing monologue and narration, DiCaprio continues to cement himself as a cinematic icon. He will be remembered as one of the greatest actors of his generations, his lack of Oscars be damned.

Sharing the screen with DiCaprio is a superb cast. Jonah Hill turns in another great performance following his award-winning work in Moneyball, marking him as dramatic actor worth taking note of. Matthew McConaughey also continues to astound with a brief but memorable role as Belfort's first mentor. Jean Dujardin and Rob Reiner do well in their bit parts, as does an underutilized Jon Favreau.

But it's Margot Robbie as Belfort's second wife, Naomi, who stands head and shoulders above her peers. While DiCaprio mostly keeps the ball in his court as Belfort carves his way through Wall Street, Robbie is the only actor to meet his intensity line for line. As Naomi and Belfort fight, their emotions scream through the screen. These moments elicit an uncomfortable sense of fly on-the-wall voyeurism, a testament to the truth of their vitriolic chemistry. Beauty and talent don't always go hand-in-hand, but Robbie's got both; I expect to see her name on the marquee again in short order.

The Wolf of Wall Street is yet another magnum opus from Scorsese, a director who is rather transparent with his films. For those he cares a great deal about, it is easy to feel his raw passion for the material. For others, his vigorous attention to detail seems all but absent. Happily, The Wolf of Wall Street sits snugly in the former category alongside the legendary Goodfellas.

The film charges forward with energetic aplomb. At three hours any movie might start to drag, but The Wolf of Wall Street does not. It does, however, face an issue of balance. In particular, its top-heavy first two hours puts just enough emphasis on Belfort's degeneracy to confuse the film's message.

You see, I haven't read Belfort's autobiography. Having now seen this movie, I suspect it reads something like Tucker Max's I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell: a longwinded tale of testosterone fueled shenanigans, all of which are meant to offer vicarious pleasure and wonderment to the reader. I cannot abide this sort of self-indulgence, particularly when the person in question is making, in the case of Belfort, $1.7 million off of book sales. You don't get to act like a jackass and then expect me to pay to hear you tell the story.

Fortunately, audiences have Martin Scorsese to retell Belfort's saga with less personal investment. His film offers an outsider's perspective and takes care to never glamorize Belfort's life; the whole film seems highly critical of white collar crookery. Still, the extra focus on Belfort's Quaalude-addled antics is just enough to make me wonder if some viewers will misunderstand the point of the movie. This isn't a tonal or thematic issue, but merely one of time allotment: too much spent on debauchery, and not enough on comeuppance.

The Wolf of Wall Street went through the wringer in post-production. Scorsese cut almost an hour out of the movie, including content he had to remove to keep it from getting an NC-17 rating. Some of this manifests in underdeveloped side characters and the aforementioned balancing issues, but none of it really hurts the film. Often hilarious and with its morals on the straight and narrow, The Wolf of Wall Street is an epic film worth three hours of your time. And unlike working a day on Wall Street, no drugs are required to get through it.

Movie Verdict: Win
RT Score: 90%

Link to Full Review: http://wp.me/p1Mo33-Wo

~ Søren

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

In my youth, I was a Tolkien acolyte. The Hobbit was always the bedtime story of choice in my house. When I got older, I read and watched all of The Lord of the Rings and became entrenched in Tolkien's world. I took time to learn about the intricate relationships between the Valar and the Maiar. I became familiar with the long battle between Morgoth and the armies of Arda. I even had in my possession, I confess for the sake of this review, a small red book from which I desperately tried to learn how to understand different dialects of the Elvish language.

I was, to put it frankly, a no holds barred nerd.

Unlike other fans, however, I was actually excited to see The Hobbit split into three films. I suspected that New Line Cinema's trilogy announcement was financially motivated, but for me, the decision meant Jackson and Company could introduce more Tolkien lore. More time in Middle-Earth also meant that he could conceivably bridge the narratives of The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings in a more fully fleshed out manner than we saw in the books.

The Desolation of Smaug wins points immediately by sidestepping the worst aspects of An Unexpected Journey. Gone are the pandering Jar Jar Binks-esque antics of Radagast the Brown. In their place are compelling action sequences and well-placed homage to Jackson's first trilogy. In particular, Gandalf's showdown in the evil fortress of Dol Guldur is a heart-stopping sequence that sits on par with the best of moments in The Lord of the Rings. Although this scene never happens in the book, it is a shining example of how to alter the source material for the better.

Interspersing these positive changes are more questionable ones. The film's most depressing turn comes with the addition of the character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). When Peter Jackson expanded the roles of Arwen and Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings movies, he did so within the confines of the books. These characters existed in Tolkien's epic as two-dimensional female foils for Aragorn, limiting what Jackson could do in his adaptation. Nevertheless, their meager elaboration was a welcome change from the source material.

It is important to remember that The Hobbit novel is an even worse offender, with nary a female character to be found. On paper, then, Jackson made a brilliant decision to rectify this problem by adding Lilly to the cast. Unfortunately, Jackson quickly undermines himself as he relegates Tauriel to the tired role of "love interest." Although she has moments in spite of her status as a plot device, Tauriel's story arc feels like a sorely missed opportunity.

The other sagging end of The Desolation of Smaug is its grand scope. We knew Bilbo and his ragtag comrades would fall by the wayside when Jackson and his team decided to expand The Hobbit into three films, but it remains a disheartening to see it unfold on-screen. In many ways, the narrative arc in this trilogy seems to mirror that of The Lord of the Rings as it follows several different concurrent storylines and characters. Unfortunately, Jackson seems to have forgotten that while The Lord of the Rings series is about massive, multifaceted assault on Mordor, The Hobbit is a much quieter tale. In these movies, Bilbo's simple story of courage and self-confidence seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

By the last scenes in The Desolation of Smaug, it is abundantly clear that Jackson is striving to recreate the bombast of The Return of the King with the final entry in the trilogy. Yet even if he manages to recapture that cinematic magic, the issue of unfaithfulness remains. Fans remain divided on The Hobbit films because Peter Jackson's vision is a markedly different beast than the books it spawned from. Where you stand on that issue as a viewer will likely determine how you feel about this film.

For my part, as a fan, I am willing to admit that The Desolation of Smaug isn't a very good adaptation of The Hobbit. Nevertheless, it is a solid movie that offers an improvement over An Unexpected Journey. It smartly eschews the former's biggest missteps in favor of a few smaller ones, yielding a better end-product. Indeed, Jackson's latest is undoubtedly a lighthearted and ably constructed adventure. And at this point, mellonamin, that's all we can really ask for.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80%

Link to full review: http://wp.me/p1Mo33-Vl

~ Søren

To Rome with Love

Coming off of his fourth Academy Award for the wonderful Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen attempts once again to catch that European lightning in a bottle with To Rome with Love. Unfortunately for him, comparisons to his last film are inevitable, making the fact that To Rome doesn't measure up to the quality of the writing, story, dialogue, or even humor in Paris all the more noticeable. Even still, this is a Woody Allen film, and a "bad" Allen film is like a "bad" Pixar film - in other word, it's still leagues ahead of most its peers in the genre.

Instead of the more concise, poignant story as he usually tells, Allen chooses to work four short stories together in conveyance of the magical nature of the ancient city of Rome. This decision ends up backfiring as it often does in films like this, though, as whatever message he is trying to get across is lost amongst the glib, ephemeral, and altogether depthless collection of vignettes. Despite the fact that every story sports charming leads who work admirably with their fellow cast members, the narratives ultimately fall short of any significant meaning.

Perhaps the biggest pitfall is that none of the tales seem to have anything to do with one another. The disconnected, staccato feeling of the plot will lead many to wonder if Allen had a few ideas kicking around for a film but didn't flesh any of them out enough to warrant their own feature-length running time. This in comp

The similarly-structured Love Actually, as sickeningly sweet as it is, makes much more of an effort to illustrate its core message through each of its tales. Moreover, Love Actually constantly alludes to other stories and reminds the audience that what they are seeing is all part of a contiguous universe. In To Rome, there is absolutely no interconnectedness and so immersion falls by the wayside.

Even on a fundamental level, none of these stories really work like they should. For example, Leopoldo (Benigni)'s story suffers for its more fantastical tale of an ordinary man who is suddenly a celebrity. Midnight in Paris utilized similar fantastical elements well, weaving them into the fabric of the overarching narrative - the audience could accept them because the singular focus of the plot drew us in. Here, any of the more over-the-top aspects feel out of place or jarring because some of the stories are much more grounded in reality than others.

The vignette starring Jack (Eisenberg), Monica (Page), Sally (Gerwig), and John (Baldwin) starts off strong, but comes to no discernible conclusion; by the end I was simply confused by what was going on onscreen. Perhaps on its own, if I had the entire movie to really focus on a core message, the past/present concept would have scenes could have hit home. Unfortunately, Allen relies entirely on an untenable technique he's used in past films like Annie Hall, inserting a future version of a character into a past situation to emphasize the old idiom "hindsight is 20-20." While it has its place in a broader context of a feature-length movie, this vignette would suggest that the gimmick in and of itself cannot successfully support a story.

Similarly, the honeymooners Antonio (Tiberi) and Milly (Mastronardi), Luca Salta the actor (Albanese), and Anna the prostitute (Cruz) work well together in a mistaken identity story about a couple on their honeymoon. Raising interesting points about the hypocrisy of the upper class and prudish nature of so many newlyweds, this vignette almost hits home its whimsical tone and lighthearted gags. Like the other stories, though, the tale of these lovebirds lacks any strong ending, making the whole affair feel shallow and unnecessary.

The story of Jerry (Allen), his wife Phyllis (Davis), their daughter Hayley (Pill), her boyfriend Michelangelo (Parenti), and his father Giancarlo (Armiliato), suffers from both of these issues - it is overtly silly while delivering no emotional punch to drive it home. The seeds of a contemplative investigation of a mid-life crisis are certainly present, but are never given room to breathe. In place of that, visual jokes and some dependable neurosis from Allen are forced to carry the plot along.

While Allen's writing and directing periodically shines through, dialogue is often cringe-worthy - something that I would never normally associate with his usual films. His typically strong performance works well, however, as he plays the father of a young woman who has fallen in love in the heart of Rome. Similarly, Alec Baldwin gives his standard dry delivery of often-times clever lines, Ellen Page is deadpan as ever, and Penélope Cruz smokes up the screen. All in all, the star-studded ensemble cast is just as charming as you might expect.

I think that at this point, many see Allen for what he is: a comedian. As such, he serves to cut through the nonsense of society to comment directly on its core values in a light, humorous manner. So why is that he adheres so closely to the silly tropes of so many romcoms, where in the past he deconstructed the typical onscreen relationship so well? He even fell prey to one of his most fundamental pet peeves - outright pretentiousness. In both Annie Hall and Midnight in Paris, Allen did a superb job of mocking the bourgeoisie - yet here, name-dropping is rampant as architects, poets, operas, writers are all rattled off by the characters like it's some sort of common knowledge.

To Rome with Love is hardly a bad film, and considering how many terrible films in the genre litter theaters these days, it's almost worth seeing. Still, from someone as prolific and talented as Woody allen is, we have to demand more as an audience. We can make this demand because we know he can deliver; let's just hope that Allen's next film marks a more consistent return to his previous masterpieces.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60%

~ Søren

A Note on Breaking the Fourth Wall - If you're going to do it, do it right - and here, it didn't anything to help the film. Breaking the fourth wall with random characters in the first and final scenes felt totally unnecessary and cliché, with poor acting to boot. Not to repeat myself, but Love Actually did this well with a very sweet voiceover from Hugh Grant during silent footage at Heathrow Airport; here, it's just seems like a silly and non-sequitur bookend to the story. Even in his past films, fourth wall breaking was implemented in a totally different (and more successful) manner - usually coming directly from whatever character Allen was playing.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
½

The first Hunger Games movie pissed me off. Series author Suzanne Collins helped pen the film's script herself, but the adaptation was troublingly devoid of the substance that made the book so great. Perhaps the best thing about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is how it vastly improves on the first film. A much-needed changing of the guard served the production extremely well; director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt created an adaptation that is both fresh and faithful to the source material. The story ignites as it jumps from page to screen, and thankfully, it sticks the landing.

Early scenes in Catching Fire are colored with a palette of cold grays, blues and white. This effectively mirrors the calm before the storm in a wintry District 12, establishing a tension that never lets up. You can really feel the heightened stakes during Katniss and Peeta's victory tour montage, which picks up after the events of the first film. The canned press statements the two are forced to read barely mask the growing unrest in Panem.

Lawrence fortunately picks up some of the important threads that were left out of the first Hunger Games, including the romantic tension between Katniss and Peeta. This is key because it was that dynamic that gives the first part of the trilogy its emotional heft. Katniss and Peeta's relationship is more seriously acknowledged here, as is the strain it causes between them. This conflict means that when they do eventually reconcile with one another, the moment is especially satisfying.

Collins' post-apocalyptic dystopian society is also more convincing this time around, with the help of some cleverly placed nuance. The Capitol is an intriguing juxtaposition of savage brutality with technologically advanced grandeur and frightening affluence. The excess of the Capitol's denizens is still wonderfully over-the-top, their costumes and makeup particularly well-done. Even James Newton Howard's score occasionally invokes a sense of the thoughtless, almost clichéd aristocracy. The rest of Panem is, as President Snow remarks to Katniss, "a fragile system." It is clear that the country is teetering on the edge of chaos. A yearning for revolution is rampant everywhere, reaching as far as the cold, battle-hardened souls of the previous victors that are called to action once again.

Strong characters are essential for making this twisted world believable, and the cast of Catching Fire delivers. Stanley Tucci, this time decked out with purple eyebrows, a pompadour and ponytail, is absolutely perfect as Caesar Flickerman. He digs deeper into Flickerman's empathetic interactions with the victors, all while blowing the energetic capitol emcee even further off the deep end of sanity. Elizabeth Banks also adds some more colors to Effie Trinket's emotional canvas and watching the character get choked up as she passes new orders from the Capitol to her District 12 victors is heartbreaking.

Josh Hutcherson isn't terrible as Peeta, but the co-star performs as if reading from a distilled version of the script. Peeta is supposed to be brooding and conflicted, but Hutcherson's portrayal of a thoughtlessly protective nice guy leaves the onscreen character oversimplified and uninteresting. His Peeta is basically the placid teddy bear to Katniss' fiery Mockingjay. Here's hoping the final two sequels allow him to more fully inhabit the character.

Jennifer Lawrence remains an undeniable force as Katniss. She is defiant and strong, but Lawrence also very successfully conveys the underlying fragility of the character; in Catching Fire, you really believe that she has the shell-shocked psyche of an adolescent who had to fight her way to survive a televised bloodbath. There's a great moment at the beginning of the film where she is overwhelmed by a sudden flashback to the games and it's a very compelling depiction of PTSD. Lawrence is entirely devoted to her role and it becomes abundantly clear in the film that only she could play Katniss Everdeen.

At nearly two and a half hours, Catching Fire is long, but it flies by at a kinetic pace. Francis Lawrence made the right choice to drop the much-maligned handheld camera technique that Gary Ross used in the previous film. Lawrence keeps the shots steady. The unwavering images lock eyes with the viewer, forcing them to witness every atrocity the Capitol commits. The dystopian world is terrifying and realistic, thanks in part to a slew of improved special effects.

The film's finale is especially gripping, and it provides an excellent base on which Mockingjay: Part 1 can build. However, Catching Fire deserves attention for being the rare exception to the lapse in quality that often plagues sequels. Instead, Lawrence's vision is thought-provoking and shocking. It surpasses its predecessor, thanks to a terrific production team and a killer cast. Catching Fire is more than a blockbuster cash-in - it's also a stimulating and invigorating cinematic escape.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Rating: 90%

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/1cjx7W5

~ Nathan Frontiero

About the Author

Nathan Frontiero is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He loves to explore stories and the modes of storytelling allowed by various artistic media. He has diverse interests and wants to pursue writing, filmmaking, and music. He respectfully asks that you refrain from crushing his dreams. That just isn't a nice thing to do.

This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on November 26, 2013.

Inception
Inception(2010)

This review was written 4 years ago, and only remains available online in its original form for nostalgia. Apologies for the writing quality.

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I don't want to call Christopher Nolan a hack director, because by all rights, he isn't. But if he continues to receive these accolades so undeservedly, I might just have to in order to balance out the hyperbole. In truth, this movie was far from terrible, and on paper, much like Nolan's The Dark Knight, this film is my dream movie. As a fully realized epic depicting a futuristic world with equal parts sci fi, sophistication, dream science, and suave- all made possible by near-perfect special effects and amazing camera work- how could it go wrong?

The story follows, primarily, Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary agent of sorts working for various private companies to extract information from other company leaders' minds while they sleep. Naturally, to give him a backstory, Cobb is also seeking redemption from the United States for some unknown reason, and has been forbidden to returning to his children due to exile. As the story progresses, Cobb is given the opportunity to get a clean slate, if only he can successfully build a team of people to go into the mind of the head of a major executive and plant an idea instead of extracting one- inception.

Throw in an excellent cast of characters, how incredibly cool does this sound? How does any of it not hit home?

And in fact, it doesn't really go wrong- perhaps by the sheer merit of the aforementioned ingredients and premise. However, three major, glaring problems hold this film back from realizing true greatness. It's risky for me to bring you, the reader, three levels into my psyche, but it's necessary. We need to go deeper.

1. Logistics and plot holes.

On the first plane, we have the logistics of the movie. For all the praise this film is getting, you would think that this film was immune to pitfalls as basic as logical story arc progression. Unfortunately, it isn't. In fact, this film is simply riddled with myriad examples of nonsensical rules that are set up and broken all within the two hour run time.

At the beginning of the movie, much like that little indy film The Matrix, rules are set up explaining how extraction/inception works, and how the dream world (parallel to the Matrix) operates. Well, that's great- that's just what you want. To establish rules for an alternate reality is necessary in a new film. The issue is that all throughout the movie, Nolan decided it would be great for characters to continually add new rules while simultaneously breaking the old rules.

If you set rules, don't break them shortly thereafter. This breaks the trust of the audience, and the believability of the world you created. Without ruining anything, the second half of the movie is essentially a multilayered dream. In order to get out of each level, one must get a "kick" to move up until you reach complete consciousness- usually easiest to do this by getting killed or killing yourself. However, due to various extenuating circumstances, the multilayered dream won't allow for such an easy wake-up. Instead, dying brings you down lower in the dream state to a subconscious realm called Limbo. Way to switch up the rules.

That would be fine I suppose except then, simply killing oneself or getting killed in Limbo kicks you all the way back into reality. Wait- so then what's the big deal about getting stuck in Limbo?

This annoyance comes along with a slew of other made up plot devices which feel completely synthetic and appear to be used for sheer convenience. Shame on you, Mr. Nolan- leave that hack style for the bad directors.

2. Violation of accepted rules of dream science

Okay, I'll keep this brief because I'm a nerd and most everyone else doesn't care about this. However, I say it is relevant because Nolan professes to love the idea of dreams and how they work.

There is a field of study around dreaming, and more specifically, "lucid dreaming"- wherein someone is dreaming but is conscious and acting with the knowledge that you are in a dream world. This has been well documented and there are official rules governing how a lucid dream works.

Nolan is free to take liberties with dream sharing, something that is not real and is a great concept for him to invent and talk about. However, lucid dreaming is not science fiction- it's real. And in that dream science, the rules are as follows:

A. To find out you are dreaming, check fine print on signs, books, etc. It will usually be nonsensical or a blur, because your mind won't fill in that level of detail.
B. You may also check any digital clock to see if it is unreadable or rapidly changing, another indication you are dreaming.
C. Flipping a light switch should do nothing in a dream- light levels are usually unchangeable in the dream state.

The worst part is definitely that Nolan managed to follow rule C. throughout the dream sequences... but why does all of this matter in the long run?

Well, the core love story between Cobb and Mol (Cotillard) is based around the tragedy that Mol could not be convinced that once she had woken up that she was not in a dream anymore.

Just flip a switch, Mol.

3. Inception doesn't at all feel like a dream.

If this is how Nolan dreams in real life, he must have the most boring, linear dreams ever. Not that the movie itself is boring, but it is linear- and for a dream, it is rather dull and uninspired.

Movies that come to mind include The Science of Sleep, Waking Life, Amelie (among others) when I think of films that accurately capture at least some aspect of how a dream plays out. The only time this movie truly felt like a dream- and this may be a spoiler so if you want to skip this paragraph, go ahead- was when in the first level of the multilayer dream, a train appears out of nowhere, produced by Cobbs subconscious.

I thought for a moment there that the movie was going to really embrace the weird, illogical nature of dreams as the aforementioned films had, but instead, it merely presented more set pieces that felt cold, calculated, and dry.

-------

Now, after going three levels into my critical mind, there is Limbo. It's not such a fun place to be- just ask Cobb or Saito. My feelings about Inception reside in Limbo- see it as a summer action film, not as a cerebral experience, and you might not find it to be so problematic

I also want to say that this movie is not complicated at all and dispel that rumor as best as I can. Primer was complicated. Memento was complicated. Inception was not.

After thinking for two minutes about what you just saw, it is as easy to understand as Harry Potter. As I said, the plot is 100% linear, aside for some jury-rigged cyclicality which connects the first scene to one of the final scenes. Nolan/Cobb's idea of "going deeper" most closely means that the story will progress over time to its climax, just like any other film.

Finally, the love story between Cobb and Mol and background to Cobb's depression, which at first seemed secondary to the far more interesting inception plotline (notice Nolan is once again ignoring the title of his film), is boring and unnecessary. Nothing else to say other than that I just am so disappointed that that story took precedence over the main epic.

On a last note, commendations are in order for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this film, once again- his character Arthur is charming, funny, and suave. His small love story subplot with Ellen Page's character makes for an interesting diversion, unlike Cobb and Mol. JGL gives another spectacular performance, and was easily my favorite part of this movie.

So in the end, I still gave this film an 80%- despite all of those issues in my rant. This film works as long as you go in thinking of it as a summer action flick and nothing more. It's not the A-Team/Crank shut-your-brain-off cartoon of a movie (not that there's anything wrong with that), but don't listen to people when they tell you this is the next Memento. It's just good fun, and try not to think too hard about it. I enjoyed myself.

P.S. No comment on the ending. It simply proves my point that Nolan is not doing his job very well- and it just made me angry. Moving on.

Verdict: Movie Win (as a non-intellectual summer action flick)

12 Years a Slave

For as long as cinema has existed, there have been movies about human atrocity. It's one of our favorite things to tell stories about. The optimist would say that these films help us to heal wounds, to work through difficult cultural memories by recreating them in a dramatized context. The pessimist would say that these types of films are too often treacly and cloying, and that they inappropriately use real-life horror to yank at your heartstrings, your wallet, and possibly your Oscar vote. But if there's one thing that 12 Years a Slave doesn't do, it's that. Director Steve McQueen favors a distant, removed approach, one that might alienate viewers who expect to be lead by the hand through this story. He doesn't shove his images in your face; he simply places them on screen and leaves them there. This film says "12 Years" right there in the title, and there are scenes where he makes you feel that horrifying length.

There's an extraordinary scene probably a third of the way through the movie where Solomon, played expertly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is strung up on a tree with a noose around his neck, as a type of punishment. He's left with just enough room beneath his feet to stand so that he won't suffocate. But the ground is muddy and loose. McQueen holds on a wide shot of Solomon hanging for what felt like several minutes. He doesn't give you the safety of a cut. You're forced to watch this awful, awful thing, and what's more, you're forced to feel its duration. McQueen is making a point about all the movies about slavery - and other human atrocities - that have come and gone. This movie doesn't make you feel safe. It doesn't want you to think of Solomon's story as a "learning experience." This actually happened, this is someone's life. This isn't an opportunity for you to feel proud of yourself for watching such a difficult movie. McQueen isn't going to leave any of this to your imagination, because whatever you could come up with wouldn't be half as bad as what actually happened.

The film weaves through a cavalcade of character actors, and most of them come and go without making much of an impression. Quvenzhané Wallis, the young actress who stunned so many people with her performance last year in Beasts of the Southern Wild, shows up very briefly at the beginning of the film. I don't even think she has a line. Michael K. Williams, best known for his role on The Wire, also shows up for one scene. There's a lot of this going on in the movie, but it mostly feels like casting for the sake of casting. The worst example of this is Brad Pitt, who shows up in a pivotal role at the end. I like Pitt, but he's not quite strong enough as an actor to pull off the part. I'd rather have seen a bunch of great unknown actors populate the film, especially considering how great Lupita Nyong'o is as Patsey, a slave whom Solomon meets later in the film. Her performance is mind-bogglingly good, maybe the best in the film, and she was cast straight out of college.*

Michael Fassbender's performance is one that I can really see standing the test of time, much in the same way that Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List is still a part of the cultural consciousness surrounding Nazism. Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a brutal plantation owner who Solomon is owned by for most of his enslavement. Fassbender makes an interesting choice to not play Epps as just sadistic and mean. He's a really complex character, who is pressured by his manipulative wife (Sarah Paulson, who crushes it) to use more and more power over the people he owns. Epps is shown to often come home late at night, extremely drunk, and wake up his slaves to dance for his amusement. He's not being cruel to people, in his mind. He's playing with his pets. And he's using his slaves to exert control that he can't with his wife.

He has a sexually abusive relationship with Patsey, who in turn is tormented by Epps' wife out of jealous hatred. In a sick, demented way, he loves her, and his self-loathing for that fact manifests in further torture of her. Lesser actors (under lesser directors) would have just said, "I'll make him one-dimensionally evil, and no one will complain because he's a slave owner." Like Nazis, slave-owning Southerners are seen as inherently evil in a ton of pop culture. McQueen and Fassbender don't excuse Epps' horrific behavior, but they place it in a psychological context that's captivating and intelligent. In fact, "captivating and intelligent" is a good way to describe 12 Years a Slave as a whole.

Of course, the film is anchored by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and it's a testament to the strength of this cast that I've taken this long to get around to him. It's the kind of performance that's so obviously good that there's not a whole lot to say about it. It's all in his eyes. McQueen's camera has a love affair with Ejiofor's eyes, and with good reason. He's able to communicate with a look what some actors couldn't with a three-page speech. That's something you need for such a minimalistic film.

That brings me to one of my few complaints about 12 Years a Slave, which is to do with the screenplay. A lot of scenes feel awfully over-written. I've been praising the movie for not pandering to Oscar voters, but there are a few scenes which lean too heavily on speechifying. Brad Pitt's character in particular is given to lengthy monologues about his beliefs. It's like they lifted passages directly from Solomon's memoir and made him say them on screen. That sort of thing works for direct lines of dialogue, but people probably wouldn't talk in the way that Solomon narrates the book. The screenplay avoids that most of the time, but the moments where it doesn't stand out.

My only other complaint is about the score. I'm not a Hans Zimmer fan, and I think that this might be one of his worst works. He's smart enough to get out of the way and let some scenes play without music, but his score just doesn't fit with the film most of the time. When it's not using some weird, blaring, out-of-place percussion, it's going for the sweeping, weeping strings that slap you until you cry along with them. You know who would have been great instead? Jonny Greenwood, composer of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Again, minimalism is what this film is all about, and he's a composer who bonds tightly with the director's style. Unlike Zimmer, who just does his Zimmer thing all over the place regardless of what the film calls for.

But those are minor quibbles. They don't tarnish 12 Years a Slave's status as one of the most vital films ever made about slavery, or indeed any similarly monstrous institution. It captures tragedy and cruelty with a clinical eye, and by doing so strips away any preconceived notions or emotions. You have to take this movie on its own terms, not yours. You don't get to walk out feeling all happy for yourself because you sat through it. Because what good could possibly come out of something as heinous as slavery? We don't get to stand on top of this movie and feel better about ourselves. That's not fair to the thousands of real people who suffered and died during this time. The fact that 12 Years a Slave understands this makes it smarter than any other movie about slavery that I can think of, not to mention one of the best films of 2013. This is essential American cinema.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Rating: 100%

Link to Full Review Incoming

~ Josh

*Nyong'o actually went to Hampshire College where, funnily enough, Movie Fail contributor Michael Capodiferro is currently a student.

Thor: The Dark World
½

When I saw Kenneth Branagh's Thor a few years back, I was confused. That isn't to say I didn't understand the movie, and I wouldn't say it wasn't badly made - I just had no opinion on its content. Perhaps it was the thin character development and gaping plot holes. Maybe it was the hokey costuming. Or it could have been that nagging feeling that it existed only to explain Thor and Loki's appearances in The Avengers. But whatever that movie's problems were, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Alan Taylor's sequel, Thor: The Dark World, doesn't have them. It avoids the sand trap of mediocrity altogether with a snappy energy and renewed sense of self, finally making Thor feel like an integral component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The difference between the two films is immediately apparent. This time around, Asgard is no longer a plastic, antiseptic world. Every detail, down to minutiae like weapon design, feels fresh and new, perhaps owing its grittier aesthetic to Taylor's history as a director for Game of Thrones. It also helps that Taylor takes a leaf out of Peter Jackson's world-building handbook; just as Jackson did with Rivendell in The Hobbit, audiences return to a familiar world in an entirely different way, offering a different perspective than was given in Branagh's Thor. Sitting by wavering pools, walking down long corridors and partying in crowded banquet halls all feel like organic extensions of a living, breathing city. Asgard is now more than ever a civilization that effortlessly and wondrously transitions between magic and technology.

On a surface level, Asgard seems to resemble Naboo from Star Wars: Episode I - but thankfully, that's where the comparisons end. The Dark World wastes no time with complex backstory or political drama. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) is a dark elf bent on the destruction of the universe for some reason, and that's really all the explanation the film offers. Unfortunately, screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely see fit to introduce that premise through clichéd exposition on more than one occasion. Aside from the obvious redundancy, these moments do little more than cast light on the villain's one-note agenda.

This is symptomatic of the poor writing in The Dark World. Characters never have much to say to one another that isn't directly related to the plot or for the sake of some hammy joke. The brilliant introspective commentary of Iron Man 3 is nowhere to be found here. Instead, gags are set-up and executed in a rote, machine-like thrum. The lack of innovation and wit isn't debilitating, of course, but it is disappointing given Shane Black's strong launch of Phase 2.

It doesn't help that the dialogue in The Dark World is about as sharp as the broad side of Mjolnir. Indeed, the only conversations worthy of praise seem to be those where Joss Whedon stepped in to accentuate the relationship between Thor and Loki. These sequences are compelling and stand in obvious contrast to the weaker scenes featuring Thor and Jane Foster.

If The Dark World works, it is largely due to the top-notch performances of its leads. They show absolute commitment to the material. In particular, Chris Hemsworth has nailed Thor's persona. His Asgardian alter ego is thoughtful, caring and vengeful. Gone is the jock-like, glory-bound portrayal from Thor; in The Dark World, none of his conflicts are without their emotional underpinning. Likewise, Anthony Hopkins seems to take his role more seriously this time around, his relationship with Loki and Thor better formed and more believable than it was previously.

Natalie Portman is once again wasted as Jane Foster, but filmmakers would do well to recognize that the character isn't and will never be as interesting as much the better-developed fan favorite Pepper Potts. Without radical changes to the source material, it's a dead-end; in the comics, Foster never really develops into more than Thor's earthbound lover. Conversely, the brief screen time given to Frigga (Rene Russo) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) reveals them to be some of the deepest characters this side of Thor and Loki. So why bother with Jane?

In the past I have not been as fanatical about Tom Hiddleston's Loki as some of my peers, but he really steals the show in The Dark World. His eyes reveal an ever-scheming mind beset by pain and emotional turmoil. In one particularly beautiful scene, Thor breaks through Loki's illusions and finds his step-brother a distraught shell of his former world-conquering self. This sequence alone did more for both characters than either Thor or The Avengers combined.

It is easy to recommend Thor: The Dark World. After its ponderous, romance-heavy first half, tragedy strikes and launches the film into non-stop action. Set-pieces are huge and cleverly-conceived. Malektih and his lieutenant (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), while simple in mission, are suitably terrifying opponents for the seemingly indestructible Thor. Ultimately, Taylor shows glimmers of masterful superhero storytelling in his Marvel debut. I just wish that there wasn't so much time wasted on interstitial drivel before the first punches fly.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 70% (75%)

Link to Full Review Incoming

~ Søren

This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on November 19, 2013.

Attack the Block

Old-fashioned, rip-roaring good time.

(Full review to come.)

Men in Black III

It is not often that one has the privilege of reviewing a good second sequel to an almost 15-year-old franchise. At this point in the film industry, it is commonplace to become jaded with the onslaught of sequels, chalking the lack of new intellectual properties up to the cursed dearth of originality in Hollywood. And indeed, Men In Black III doesn't make any real effort to distinguish itself from its most successful predecessor - but in this case, with the first Men in Black having achieved such monstrous success and its sequel being such an awful follow-up, this close-hewed threequel is a much more welcome addition to the franchise.

When I suggest that Men in Black III calls heavily on the original film, I mean that it does so in its tone and nature, not in plot points or story beats. No, MIB III steers well-clear of the simple rehash trick that MIB II attempted, following a twisting narrative arc which echoes the charming novelty of the first film by confusing, tricking, and ultimately pleasing its audience with its central mystery. In the end, I believe the fact that Men in Black III began shooting without a script might have been its greatest asset, because while the film clearly has a beginning, middle, and end, it feels unstructured in a very positive, well-paced, organic sort of way.

I admit I have never actually sat down and read Lowell Cunnhingham's Men in Black comics from which the first film was adapted - I am told they are sport a much darker tone and incorporate not only extraterrestrials, but supernatural beings, as well, and killing is often the favored alternative to a simple neuralyzing. Having grown up with the more lighthearted, charming take Barry Sonnenfeld has had on the property, I have to say I really couldn't have expected MIB III to be any different than it is. It is a silly film that appropriately sports snappy dialogue, and lots of fun comedic interplay between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones/Josh Brolin.

If there is one thing that the critics' circle seems to agree on, it's that Josh Brolin's performance is solid gold - as a younger, warmer version of Tommy Lee Jones's Agent K, he adds significant dimensionality to the latter's characterization. In a risky move, Sonnenfeld makes a point of illustrating K's 2-dimensionality at the film's opening, leaving the audience thinking that, in fact, K is actually quite a boring protagonist. However, this initial downplaying works well as a set-up for the surprisingly deep character study filling the rest of the film's runtime. Once the mystery about K's past is revealed and Will Smith's Agent J is returned to the present, we have a restored and renewed appreciation for the deadly serious Agent K.

Will Smith benefits from his clear adoration for the MIB universe; he exudes happiness at returning to one of his most famous starring roles, quipping and mugging like the first Men In Black came out yesterday. As aforementioned, Tommy Lee Jones's character feels hollow until the end of the film, but this is not at all the fault of the actor - taking up minimal screen time and handing most of the character development to his younger counterpart were necessary sacrifices for the sake of the plot. A new side character named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) is also introduced in MIB III whose role I won't spoil, but I will mention that I found Stuhlbarg's neurotic performance to be strong and interesting and his character's design to be quite fascinating.

The storyline of Men In Black III focuses on the mystery of K's past, using the mechanic of time travel for the first time in the franchise. I certainly felt as I watched the film that this time travel element paralleled the "Orion's Belt" puzzle in the first film, while K's enigmatic past seemed to mirror the novelty of our introduction to the world of the Men In Black in the opening scenes of the first film. In this way, the movie made a significant and well-conceived departure from the formulaic approach of the first sequel in favor of becoming a more spiritual successor to the tone of the original film.
On that note, MIB III includes several subtle references to elements from the first movies, particularly Frank the Pug, which add to its familiar atmosphere. It is also certainly worth mentioning that seven-time Oscar-winner Rick Baker is back for a third go-round designing the aliens for the film, and every creature that is introduced feels completely germane to the MIB universe. The effects are more than sound, as well, which help establish that ever-evasive believability factor.

Most people did not have high hopes for this threequel. I know I didn't even include it on my list of 2012 films to see because of the horror show that was Men in Black II. Nevertheless, I found Men in Black III to be a mostly funny, light, and even heartfelt revisit with Agents J and K, who at this point feel like old friends. I didn't know how much I wanted to see a fourth entry before, but having been exposed to the deeper characterizations of both J and K in this film, I think the opportunity for more adventures with this oddball couple wouldn't be the worst thing to happen to the franchise... provided they remember what failed miserably in II, and stick to what worked in I and III.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (86%)

~ Søren

A Note on Retro Quips - I was sort of hoping for a 60s riff on the "It just be raining black people in New York" line everyone loves so much from the first film, but alas.

A Note on Hephaestus - Unfortunately, Rip Torn does not make an appearance in this film as Agent Zed. However, his replacement, Agent O (played by Emma Thompson), plays well with the rest of the cast and helps to add some dimensionality to the plot.

A Note on Graffiti Aliens - I know I saw a graffiti alien in the first trailer for Men In Black III, but he seems to be absent from the film. I know the design got a lot of flack around the interwebs for being too silly, so I wonder if he was removed at the last minute?

A Note on 3D - I don't normally recommend 3D, but if you decide to go that route here, I have to admit the added effect of putting on glasses with Agents J and K is a pretty swanky feeling. I should also point out that one effect in particular made excellent use of the extra visual plane (see Boris's hand in the opening scene), but in general you could tell the film was post-converted; many, many scenes that could have 3D didn't make any use of the format whatsoever.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

I can't review this film. It is a landmark achievement in the medium, much like Citizen Kane was for live-action cinema. And while I think it has been outclassed many times over since it was released, its historical importance prevents me from assigning it a proper rating.

Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane(1941)

A classic which I am unworthy to review. It is a landmark achievement in the medium, much like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was for animation. And while I think it has been outclassed many times over since it was released, its historical importance prevents me from assigning it a proper rating.

Monsters
Monsters(2010)

Writer/director Gareth Edwards made a big splash in 2010 when he released his first feature-length film Monsters, which he reportedly made for a paltry $500,000. Working with a crew of just seven people that traveled by van around across five countries in only three weeks, Edwards had high ambitions - his mission was to create an authentic romantic story shot against the backdrop of a monster movie. In the end, while Monsters has its problems, Edwards largely succeeded in conveying both an aesthetic sense of beauty while delivering a core message that encourages the audience to think about contemporary social issues.

Monsters follows a photographer named Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) who receives a call from his boss a the beginning of the film. The boss asks Kaulder to escort his daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), out of Central America and into the US. What's the catch? Massive aliens populate the Northern border of Mexico, making the trip a constant fight for survival.

As a monster movie, Monsters does manage to elicit a few credible thrills out of the audience. However, I must caution that this is most assuredly not Godzilla - the actual "monsters" in Monsters are distinctly relegated to setting the scene for the romantic drama that unfolds between the leads. In addition, the entire plot is told within the context of a socio-political international scenario, and the focus is hardly ever on the aliens themselves.

I appreciate that Edwards resists the urge to use the allegory he created in Monsters in a heavy-handed manner. The idea of the wall covering the border between Mexico and the United States that is meant to keep the "aliens" out of America is a bit obvious, but he manages to show us without telling us about the situation on multiple occasions. Instead of hammering it over our heads, the final effect is a gentle-yet-poignant commentary on immigration. The sentiment is so subtle, in fact, that one could easily choose to ignore this aspect of Monsters and still find the film entirely enjoyable and complete. However, to those of us who wish to take the title of the movie at its double meaning, issues such as the folly of international isolationism can be found bubbling just below the surface.

Despite sometimes stilted line delivery (which may or may not be a fault of the screenwriting itself), the principle actors manage to hold their own and convincingly portray a growing relationship as Monsters progresses. Owing perhaps to the fact that Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able were in fact a couple before the film started, their chemistry is strong. All other characters were non-actors, but it isn't terribly noticeable and their screen time is kept largely to a minimum in any case.

My absolute favorite part of this movie, and what resonated with me long after the credits rolled, was how gorgeous the locales were. From rolling green jungles to old Amerindian ruins, Andrew and Samantha's journey is at the very least a treat for the eyes. I can't even tell you if the cinematography was excellent or not because I'm having a hard time figuring out if it's possible to get a bad shot of Central American landscape. Either way, it's gorgeous.

Due to budgetary restrictions, the effects are understandably sparse and fairly spotty up close - but when used to promote the scenery, as in the final scene, the imagery can be breathtaking. The aliens on display are fascinating and when you are finally treated to a full-on look at their anatomy, I was intrigued by the originality of their design. I am a sucker for creative creature creation, and I can tell you that the filmmakers did not skimp on this point.

In the end, Edwards crafted an incredibly beautiful and altogether surprising film that forsakes the standard tropes of big-budget thrillers for the simpler tropes of romantic dramas. While the acting is not always flawless, the real-life blossoming relationship between the two main actors lends an indelible sense of realism and emotion to the proceedings. I enjoyed Monsters, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it. However, I must still say this with the caveat that those expecting pacing and high-octane thrills associated with other monster movies will be quite disappointed. Monsters is creature feature for the thinking person.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80%

~ Søren

Rush
Rush(2013)

Rush. A short title. Onomatopoetic, monosyllabic. It doesn't suggest a specific time, place or personality. It simply evokes a feeling. And at its strongest, Ron Howard's latest film is just that: an uncomplicated expression of raw emotion.

That's not to say Howard doesn't do a good job with the rest of the storytelling. Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan have skillfully transformed the true story of the 1970's rivalry between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda into a classic sports rivalry film. They're following an old recipe, but it's an effective one. Racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, impressively Thor-ish with his shaggy blonde hair and crisp English accent) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), two completely disparate personalities, vie to become the Formula 1 World Champion.

Hunt is a fiendishly handsome playboy, perpetually floating through life in a cloud of drugs, booze and women. Lauda is a self-described "businessman," whose rigid self-discipline wins him the irritated respect of his peers. Hunt is all talent, while Lauda manufactures his success though skill and technical know-how. The friction between personalities increases the ferocity of the competition as they careen towards their inevitable showdown.

There are no new ideas here. It's the unpredictable hotshot versus the controlling tight-ass. We've seen this formula in movies a thousand times before: Mozart and Salieri, Maverick and Iceman, Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard. However, the central pairing in Rush is set apart by the keen, philosophical self-awareness of both characters.

Yes, James Hunt is sort of a dumb jock, but it's a conscious choice on his part. He is proudly, determinedly hedonistic in his approach to racing and life. Meanwhile, Lauda knows his restraint isn't as attractive as Hunt's rockstar wildness, but Lauda knows his own strengths and obstinately sticks to them. The characterizations of Hunt and Lauda are strengthened by the performances of the lead actors; Hemsworth brings out the tension humming beneath Hunt's cavalier façade, while Daniel Brühl (whose last major American role was that of the all-too charming Nazi Captain Zoller in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds) lends an appealing vulnerability to the surly, often sanctimonious Lauda.
But while the film makes the differences between the two men very clear, it also brings out their similarities. Both are extremely arrogant, entirely certain that their own approach is best. And both are also acutely aware of the danger in which they willingly place themselves.

Early on in the film, racers huddle around televisions, watching coverage of a fiery crash on the racetrack. In Rush the threat of mortality is introduced early, and its presence lingers. In any scene that takes place in or near a vehicle, engines growl like a dangerous animal poised to attack. Adding to the menace of the machines themselves, Hans Zimmer's score insinuates tension through the low ominous rumble of bass in almost every scene.

There are also constant images of fire. When nervous, James plays with a Zippo lighter, and the Lauda honeymoon suite is decorated with torches. This destructive force flickers on the periphery, until it blazes onto the screen when Lauda is horribly burned in a car crash while racing in the rain.

Rush is at its strongest when it's channeling that danger and excitement at the heart of F1 racing. During the actual driving sequences, you're not just in the cars with Hunt and Lauda - Howard actually places you inside their helmets. The squeal of brakes and slapping of rubber on pavement are right next to your ear, and you can practically smell the gasoline burning. Occasionally the shot takes you out of the cars, offering a view of the action from a distance, but then you're right back inside the vehicles, darkness creeping in on the edge of the frame. Howard uses this technique to effectively recreate the tunnel vision of a racer who can't see anything but the finish line.

Rush is a serviceable narrative, but the true strength of the movie is its ability to recreate the emotional and corporeal experience of F1 racing for the audience. For this reason, the true soul of Rush is not Lauda (though his is the voice we are left with at the end), but Hunt. Rush, like Hunt himself, is pretty to look at, not terribly intelligent and deeply physical.

Even the visual quality of the film itself adds to the visceral experience of Rush. The movie is shot in the high-saturation of 1970's cinema. When watching Rush, we're not in the age of digital video, in which "film" is an abstraction and where images are transmitted through an invisible, intangible current of data. We're in a time where film is still a material combination of chemicals, plastic and light, in which even the act of watching a movie is a sandpapery sensory experience.

Ultimately, Rush may be more about feeling than thought, but what a feeling it is.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80%

Link to full review: http://bit.ly/1a5tfTd

~ Yoshi

About the Author

Yoshi Makishima is a student at Smith College. She enjoys stop-motion animation, Shakespearean drama, and cancelled TV shows. When she grows up she wants to be a film director. Or a pirate. She hasn't decided yet.

This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on October 15, 2013.

Gravity
Gravity(2013)
½

A woman, short-haired and weightless, folds her body up in relief. Light pours in through a nearby window, and as she floats gently in the sunlight, at once the image of a fetus in utero is evoked. The frame lingers here. She recovers her breath and then, her energy restored, she swims through the air.

Alfonso Cuarón, along with his brother, Jonás, have crafted what may be the most technologically impressive film in history with Gravity. When James Cameron himself has nothing but praise for your cinematic achievements, you know you've made waves. And yet, in spite of its impressive spectacle, moments like the scene described above keep this tale of astronauts lost in space disappointingly moored to Earth.

I am happy to count Cuarón among my favorite directors. His views on filmmaking have always seemed entirely in sync with my own, from directorial ideology to aesthetic taste. I love his appreciation for the long take, as well as his gritty perspective on humanity. These elements are palpable in everything from The Prisoner of Azkaban to Children of Men, and indeed extend to his latest effort.

As with any master of film, I expected and found nothing less than technical perfection in Gravity. The sound design alone is worthy of an Academy Award, as Cuarón contrasts the silence of space with the very human noises of heavy breathing and nervous humming. Likewise, no visual detail is left unattended. Thinking about the film now, this may be the first movie I've seen where it was truly difficult to tell where the sets ended and the computer-generated effects began.

No, the faults in Gravity do not lie with its presentation. Instead, it is Cuarón's own idiosyncrasies that eventually fail his space epic. His now-signature long take is the best example of this. In Children of Men, a seminal piece of science fiction cinema, Cuarón indulges his affection for the long take sparingly. This culminates in a scene towards the end of the film that gains much of its tension from the director's unique camerawork.

For Gravity, Cuarón seems to have misunderstood the weight of such moments. While the first scene is approximately 13 minutes of uncut footage, serving as a beautiful introduction to the story and characters, the long take becomes a forced crutch in later sequences. Cuarón misses that this trick really only works once, diminishing in return with each subsequent use.

Eventually, this predilection becomes more of a ponderous quirk than a powerful tool, drawing attention to itself in a way that does not benefit the movie's tone or message. When Sandra Bullock hovers by the window posed like a prenatal infant, Cuarón fixes the camera on her for far too long. He seems to shove the metaphor in the face of the audience, all pretense of subtlety lost.

Issues like this unfortunately take away from the stars of Gravity. Bullock gives an incredible performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, a specialist assigned to a space mission alongside seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Clooney does his usual calm, collected and charming thing here, but Bullock really stood out to me. I'm not always her biggest fan, but the way she brings Dr. Stone to life is beautifully nuanced. Her physical presence is graceful and measured, making her helplessness in space that much more impactful. As a character she is instantly relatable and entirely human, reacting as a real person would to the catastrophe around her.

Umbilical cords are a recurring motif in Gravity. Attaching characters to one another, these tethers flow openly in the black of space. They dangle about in perpetual connection, yanking the astronauts toward and away from each other with force.

These cords represent an unwillingness to let go; to sever them is to free oneself and accept the present. In fact, it is perhaps Cuarón's most important theme in Gravity. It is therefore ironic that the director seems so entrenched in what has worked in the past. Had he let go, weighing anchor and embracing the medium more liberally, he might have made a masterpiece. For now, Gravity remains lamentably stuck in the mire of its own talented creator.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90%

Link to full review: bit.ly/1ie3Bkb

~ Søren

This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on October 22, 2013.

Enough Said
Enough Said(2013)
½

It is sobering to know that this is one of the last times we'll see James Gandolfini's big, friendly face in theaters. From meteoric rise in the public consciousness with the HBO series The Sopranos to smaller roles in films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, he never missed a beat, bringing even the silliest films a sense of measured endearment and charisma. And so, paired with the indomitable Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it is no surprise that Gandolfini is the key ingredient in his penultimate film, Enough Said.

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener delivers a charming, well-written romantic comedy that sticks to its strengths. Dialogue is tight and the chemistry between the cast is beautiful. In particular, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is astoundingly good as Eva, a divorcee mother of one who's looking for something to change up her life as a door-to-door masseuse. The actor has been such a comedic force in television that it's easy to forget what an incredible entertainer she can be, but Enough Said wastes no time correcting that thought. Louis-Dreyfus has compelling scenes with absolutely every cast member, not only doing well for herself, but sometimes picking up slack in what would otherwise be lesser performances.

But of course, her co-star needs no help garnering investment from the audience. Gandolfini is immediately likable as Albert, a round, middle-aged single father who first encounters Eva at a party. In developing his character, Holofcener crafts a realistic portrait of a white middle-class bachelor. He's unclean, but not excessively, and his general contentedness with his lot in life just feels honest. Gandolfini strikes an everyman note with this role, and with that comes the audience's sympathy.

This candor carries through palpably to the rest of the characters. Toni Collette and Ben Falcone are believable as Eva's married friends working through a lull in their relationship. Likewise, Tracy Fairaway, Tavi Gevenson and Eve Hewson all avoid the "bratty kid" stereotype as the teenage counterparts to the veteran half of the cast. Holofcener takes the time to carefully evolve them into three-dimensional young women with fleshed-out personalities, and the result is an emotionally involving depiction of modern adolescence.

Enough Said does, unfortunately, adhere to a rigid three-act formula, ultimately to the detriment of the film. However, Holofcener makes every effort to eschew that conceit. She knows her leads have enough raw talent for 10 films, and lets them breathe with her intensely clever script.

Even the shots in Holofcener's film are carefully chosen, composed thoughtfully so that character motivations and values are immediately conveyed through visual cues. For example, the very first scene in the movie shows Eva struggling with her equipment next to her Prius. From that frame alone, we know that she's doing well for herself, but that she might care more about what others think than she should. It isn't often that so much thought is put into cinematography in a comedy, but giving the audience so much so quickly without saying a word is a boon to the film.

Indeed, what sets Enough Said above the pack is just that: thought. Holofcener offers ponderous commentary on the power of suggestion; she asks interesting questions about personal values and how friends and family can change them dramatically. The characters also openly probe the problem of balancing family with personal introspection.

They interrogate one another meaningfully, and the result is a film that doesn't just offer some wistful tale of love, but a thought-provoking one, as well.

I think it's safe to say that Gandolfini will be remembered most for his turn as Tony Soprano, but his quieter role as Albert might stick out to me even more; it's hard to ignore how easily he could convey gentle sincerity with just a few words and a smile. For me, the actor couldn't have done better for himself performing alongside fellow television legend Louis-Dreyfus in the second-to-last film of his career. Few in Hollywood can say they left behind a legacy like his, and it's clear that the man certainly went out on a high note. So without belaboring the point, I'll use the titular cliché on his behalf.

You will be missed, Mr. Gandolfini. Enough said.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90%

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/1fzNa4X

~ Søren

This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on October 15, 2013.

Austenland
Austenland(2013)

Austenland is sort of the latest adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I say "sort of" because it's actually based on Shannon Hale's novel Austenland, which was inspired by the 1995 film version of Pride and Prejudice, which was itself adapted from Austen's actual novel. After being dragged through a book, a movie, another book, and another movie, Austen's story has lost a bit of its zip. All that's left in Austenland (not the book, the movie... no, the second movie...) are a bunch of familiar plot devices and personalities wrapped in a poofy pink ball gown.

Instead of Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, we have Jane Hayes (Keri Russell). Jane is not the witty, plucky Elizabeth of the original story, but she does want a Mr. Darcy. Specifically, Jane wants the Mr. Darcy from the 1995 miniseries. Her obsession compels her to cover her apartment with Pride and Prejudice paraphernalia, including a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth in breeches standing guard over her living room and wooden letters spelling "DARCY WAS HERE" hanging over her bed.

Desperate to live out her fantasy, Jane travels to England to an Austen theme park - think Colonial Williamsburg, but with more heaving bosoms - where she discovers that reality can be just as much fun as fiction.

Austenland is the directorial debut of Jerusha Hess (who also adapted the screenplay from Shannon Hale's novel), and on paper, it seems like a natural choice. Hess is half of the husband-wife team behind Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. Most of Hess' previous projects have been about tiny insulated communities populated by a motley crew of lovable weirdos, and Austenland fits that bill perfectly.

However, Hess' Austenland is not a gentle, quirky comedy, but an over-the-top burlesque - or at least, that's what Hess wants it to be. But she doesn't deal with the change in style gracefully. The characters of Austenland are broad stereotypes, but they're a little too inconsistent to make a lasting impression; motivations, behaviors, and even accents change at the drop of a hat. Awkward slapstick and outrageous non-sequiturs in dialogue seem to be shoehorned into scenes that don't have the pacing to accommodate them.

Hess' clumsy execution is made even worse by the editing. She may have been able to squeeze more humor out of the weak source material by allowing the jokes to land. Instead, we're hurried from scene to scene, almost apologetically. "Sorry you had to see that, moving on now," the filmmaker seems to say. Hess wants the big laughs, but is a little too self-conscious to go whole hog.

Fortunately, her cast has no such reservations. Though Hess shies away from broad comedy, the actors are completely unafraid to embrace it. Keri Russell makes the odd, lonely Jane a likable straight woman in the middle of a circus of crazy characters. She holds her own among several overpowering screen presences, including Jane's brassy fellow vacationer "Miss Charming," (Jennifer Coolidge), who delivers some of the best lines in the movie. James Callis is fabulous as foppish closet-case Colonel Andrews, J.J. Field is alternately stormily brooding and sweetly awkward as the Darcy-esque Mr. Nobley, and Ricky Whittle does a fantastic turn as 18th century Old Spice Guy Captain East.

But the best surprise is definitely Scottish actress Georgia King as mean girl Lady Amelia Heartwright. Though King is probably best known to American audiences as the star of NBC's sadly short-lived sitcom The New Normal, she also has a long list of BBC costume dramas on her resume. She gleefully parodies the conventions of traditional Austen adaptations, pirouetting from room to room in the manner of a classic doe-eyed ingénue.

The wackiness culminates in a post-credits music video, in which the entire cast lip-syncs Nelly's "Hot in Here." It's not particularly clever or surprising, but everyone seems to be having a great time. And their enthusiasm is infectious; it's hard not to crack a smile when Keri Russell, in full Regency dress, raps while several comely stable boys act as her backup dancers.

Austenland is not a great movie by any standard. But you won't see good actors having this much fun with bad material in any other movie this year.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60%

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/16F6kwK

~ Yoshi

About the Author

Yoshi Makishima is a student at Smith College. She enjoys stop-motion animation, Shakespearean drama, and cancelled TV shows. When she grows up she wants to be a film director. Or a pirate. She hasn't decided yet.

The Hunt (Jagten)
½

What would you do if a child erroneously accused you of abuse?

Nobody should have to answer a question like this. Unfortunately Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), the kindhearted protagonist in Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt, finds himself in this very situation. Following a direct accusation from a young girl named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) in his kindergarten class, Lucas is immediately embroiled in a heated battle with the people he once called friends.

Using Mikkelsen as his vehicle, The Hunt is Vinterberg's paralyzing examination of how one community deals with the issue of an alleged sexual predator. Vinterberg cleverly takes advantage of Mikkelsen's real-world persona as an actor who has been typecast as a villain to sow uncertainty with the audience. Although we are fairly certain that Lucas is innocent, many of us are familiar with Mikkelsen's past roles as Le Chiffre and Hannibal; on a subconscious level, this makes the community's steadfast insistence that he is guilty far more believable.

And Mikkelsen sells every moment. While many know him for his more nefarious characters in film and television, here he is immediately sympathetic and relatable. He plays an everyman whose life is just beginning to yake a turn for the better. His love for his students is genuine and benign, making the events that follow that much harder to watch.

While Mikkelsen steals the show, the supporting cast makes every effort to keep up. Thomas Bo Larsen as Klara's booming-voiced father Theo is a fantastic foil for Mikkelsen. Annika Wedderkopp makes Klara feel like a real young girl; her lines are simple, but she delivers them with earnest sincerity. Alexandra Rapaport as Nadja (Lucas's girlfriend) and Lasse Fogelstrøm as Marcus (Lucas's son) also offer strong supporting roles.

A warning to those with a weak stomach: The Hunt hits hard. There are no gory or sexually explicit scenes to speak of, but in some ways, those would be preferable to the horrific events that happen to and around Lucas. At one point, I was so upset that I considered walking out of the theater. Think of the downward spiral in the second half of Requiem for a Dream, and then dial it down a notch or two; that will give you a pretty good idea of what it's like to watch The Hunt.

Manipulating the audience's emotions, Vinterberg offers a brilliant slice of dramatic entertainment and social commentary that raises important social questions. For example, how does the legal system treat child abuse? How many people have gone to jail because investigators asked leading questions of their child witnesses? How many felons have walked free because the defense managed to convince the victims that nothing bad had happened?

CDC studies on the subject have suggested that the impact of abuse early in life can lead to a multitude of health problems. They state that victims are more susceptible to diseases, social disorders, and even early death. Moreover, many cases go unreported due to social stigma. Conversely, what happens when an innocent person is accused?

Indeed, The Hunt may have a broader impact than Vinterberg realizes. As a prospective male educator, I wondered if the film might discourage other young men from entering the field for fear of situations like this. Similarly, I wondered if adults watching the film might trust children less after seeing how Klara's lie escalated so quickly. It is a tricky line for a director to walk, and doing so may have actual societal consequences.

Taken as a movie, however, The Hunt is simply fantastic. It is cinematographically beautiful and impeccably acted. Most importantly, it is a film that it is impossible to walk away from without having an intense emotional reaction to its story. There are films that will shake your core, and The Hunt is one of them.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (95%)

Link to full review incoming.

~ Søren

This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on September 17, 2013.

Blackfish
Blackfish(2013)

Filmmakers have long understood that animals garner more sympathy than humans. In a strange phenomenon of mass desensitization, the injury or death of a fellow Homo sapien just doesn't have as much of an impact on moviegoers. Bucking that trend, Blackfish invests emotional collateral in both its human and animal subjects. In doing so, it becomes a devastating indictment of aquatic theme parks and their mistreatment of wildlife.

Writer/director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and co-writer Eli Despres focus on their energy on the iconic "killer whales" of SeaWorld. Avoiding the typical pitfall of animal-centric films, humans receive ample screen time throughout the movie. Interviews with survivors, friends and families of victims, along with former SeaWorld professionals, give poignant insight into the underbelly of SeaWorld. Employee testimony lends to Cowperthwaite's central thesis weight, and tearful anecdotes of both trainer deaths and mishandling of the orcas appeals to the audience's humanity.

The story of Blackfish is tasteful, following a complete and snappy story arc that neither deifies nor demonizes its subject matter. Using this tactic, Cowperthwaite never tries to manipulate the audience. For example, she withholds the inevitable archive footage of orca attacks until just the right moment for maximum effect. Cowperthwaite bides her time with colleagues of the victims and survivors, as well as with the orcas themselves. This helps give dimensionality to her subjects before we see them encounter one another as predator and prey.

It may seem like a stretch, but George Lucas could learn a thing or two from Cowperthwaite. The attention paid to both the trainers and the orcas is exactly what Lucas's Star Wars prequel films lacked. In his landmark video critique of Star Wars: Episode I, Mike Stoklasa compares the simplistic (but iconic) fight between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV to the highly choreographed (but less effective) sequence at the end of Episode III.

He points out that simply pitting two powerful entities against one another isn't compelling. Instead, he suggests that fleshed-out character development gives conflict meaning. This is what makes the former so memorable and the latter so banal. But while Lucas may have forgotten this idea in the 28 years between Episode IV and Episode III, Cowperthwaite retains total control of the audience throughout Blackfish. I know that my butt scooted right to the edge of my seat in the first five minutes and didn't leave until the end credits.

Blackfish also manages to deliver an incredible amount of information to its audience. The wealth of evidence presented in the film exposes what public relations teams have covered up for decades. Cowperthwaite cleverly juxtaposes the darker side of SeaWorld and its affiliates with official propaganda from the parks.

I remember going to SeaWorld with my mother and sister a few years ago, taking in the marketing rap as if it were gospel. Knowing now not only that SeaWorld mistreats its animals, but also exactly how it is impacting both the orcas and the trainers, means I will probably never make a second trip to the theme park. Many other potential tourists will likely feel the same way.

Blackfish is one of the most compelling special interest documentaries I have ever seen. I had little investment in the subject matter prior to entering the theater, but I was instantly enraptured. Rest assured that this tale of the orca is a gripping, perfectly-paced film that prods at every emotional bone in your body. At once thrilling, melancholic, and industry-shaking, Blackfish is a must-see.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 100% (98%)

Link to full review: http://bit.ly/16zqI3i

~ Søren

Quartet
Quartet(2013)
½

Quartet is a quiet drama-comedy that tells the story of four older men and women living at Beecham House, a home for retired musicians, and their struggle to maintain their identities as they reach old age.

Well-known as a prolific and successful actor, Dustin Hoffman decided to step behind the camera for Quartet, his first major directorial debut. Quartet is slick effort that shows a lot of promise of things to come; from the oftentimes beautiful scenery to the briskness of the story, Quartet makes me anxious to see what project the filmmaker will tackle next.

Hoffman's work is complemented by a strong script from Ronald Hardwood, who also wrote the original stage play of the same name. Some jokes don't completely hit their mark, leading to awkwardly pregnant pauses where the audience is meant to laugh at the preceding witticisms. Nevertheless, the banter is still quite snappy, and the story seems to have lost very little in its transition from the stage to film.

The ensemble cast is unsurprisingly fantastic. Maggie Smith plays prideful former legend Jean Horton with the strong, brisk elegance we have come to expect from the veteran actor. Tom Courtenay portrays the troubled-but-loyal Reginald Paget, giving a subtle, complex performance that enlivens his character with a mysterious emotional depth.

Billy Connolly is the randy Scot Wilfred Bond, whose coarse sexual antics make him the stand-out scene-stealer in Quartet. Pauline Collins is the memory-challenged Cissy Robson, who seems to have an interesting backstory that is unfortunately never fully investigated. And of course, reuniting with Maggie Smith once again after their run together in the Harry Potter films, Michael Gambon thunders desperately into the picture as he struggles to manage his elderly peers in preparation for the annual Beecham House gala.

While the primary actors in Quartet are wholly untrained in music, Hoffman wisely chose many actual retired musicians to work as extras in the film. This successfully conceals the technical ineptitude of the main cast while making Beecham House a believable home for these aging performers.

Thematically, Quartet seems recall the glory of days past while reaffirming the trends of the present. In one particularly compelling scene, Courtenay's Reginald attempts to understand the concept of rap from a young black student, while simultaneously conveying the importance of opera to the rest of the class. Beyond the inherent humor in this exchange, there is a clear message of acceptance on both sides of the aisle - the lines of communication between the new and old generations are still open, which is promising considering both demographics have a lot to learn from one another.

What is most notable about Quartet outside of its sound writing, direction, and acting, is its commitment to positivity. The film almost never truly hits a sour note, and maintains an almost euphoric feeling of gaiety throughout without ever becoming overly saccharine; owing in large part to Connolly, Smith, Collins, and Courtenay, the movie feels organic and subtle as opposed to manufactured and cloying. So while the story remains fairly predictable, the climax and ultimate character development still make for a wholly satisfying conclusion to the narrative.

Indeed, the sheer joy of seeing these elderly gentlemen and women work through their difficulties and overcome their very universal fears and damaged pride is an emotional experience. There are two films out right now that endeavor to explore what it means to reach old age, and both use musicians as vehicles for their respective narratives. But I only shed a tear at one of these movies, and I can assure you it was not Amour.

If you have the time, make an effort to see Quartet before it leaves theaters.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90%

~ Søren

The To Do List
½

There is a special place in our hearts for the coming-of-age film. Adolescence is a universal theme that reflects the ephemeral nature of modernity. Moreover, these movies always have the potential to reach new audiences by focusing on protagonists of varying age, race, and gender. So it is that The Way Way Back and The To Do List can coexist in the same summer, but approach their subject matter in very different ways. And fortunately, writer/director Maggie Carey's The To Do List does it with such raw enthusiasm that it unequivocally smokes its competition.

Bolstered by a consistent performance by Aubrey Plaza as the prudish Brandy Klark, the film handles sexuality with tact. Uncomfortable moments aren't the product of a tasteless script, but rather the audience wrestling with their own taboos. Make no mistake, many scenes in The To Do List rival the most outrageous sequences in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's This Is The End; rest assured that Carey treats her characters with far more respect.

Consider the extremely awkward scene in This Is The End where Rogen and his friends discuss having sex with Emma Watson. Where that back-and-forth invited some criticism for its dark tones, The To Do List briskly sidesteps the issue. Carey chooses to include a prudent gag where Brandy is mistaken for another girl at a high school graduation party. In an age where subjects like consent are becoming part of the common dialogue, it is refreshing to see lighthearted films take a stab at more realistic teen sex scenarios.

This scene is somewhat bolstered by the 90s timeframe of the film. It is unclear why Carey made the decision to set The To Do List approximately twenty years in the past, but I wonder if it wasn't to emphasize the comparatively sex-negative environment of the late 20th century. Disappointingly, without clear justification from Carey, her nostalgia remains a distracting element of the film.

Big-name comedies tend to feature stock actors known for pulling in money at the box office. Knowing little about the film going in, it was heartening to see the diverse levels of talent involved in this project. From the entire Derrick Comedy crew to Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Alia Shawkat, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the opening credits alone are enough to get any comedy fan excited.

And everyone delivers. Samberg underplays Van, the hilariously aloof lead singer of an amateur rock band, while Bill Hader shows compassion underneath his thorny exterior to serve as a foil for Brandy. Mintz-Plasse, Shawkat, and Glover all do very well in bit sequences throughout the movie, although all are underutilized considering their respective pedigrees.

Where The To Do List really shines is in its briskness. The film keeps a snappy pace until its final moments, maintaining audience interest in Brandy's exploration of her sexuality. It is difficult for any comedy to remain funny for an extended period of time, but The To Do List manages to supplement dead air with a kinetic plot.

The To Do List is already infamous for pushing the sexual boundaries of the genre; even Aubrey Plaza found some of her scenes to be challenging. Looking beyond one-sided media coverage, though, it is easy to see that Carey has crafted a smart, sensitive, laugh-out-loud comedy. Plain and simple, The To Do List is a treat.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (88%)

Link to Full Review:http://bit.ly/1dmG8QM

~ Søren

Note on Derrick and Parks and Recreation - I'm a big fan of Derrick Comedy (the whole troupe shows up at one point or another in the film) and of Parks and Recreation. I wonder if Donald Glover's name, Derrick, is a direct reference to his past in sketch comedy? Or if Aubrey Plaza threatening to call the parks department is a shout out to her famous role in Parks and Rec? Either way, little moments like that were welcome fan service.

Le bonheur d'Elza (Elza)

Directed and co-written by Mariette Monpierre, Elza (also known as Le bounheur d'Elza) is notable for being the first narrative film by a female Guadeloupean director. The film is a semi-autobiographical independent drama about a young French woman and her search to find her estranged father in Guadaloupe. However, despite the promise of a highly personal, beautifully shot film about love and family, the film has all of the earmarks of a novice auteur; from pacing issues to an arc that never totally satisfies its audience, Elza is an unfortunate miss for the fledgling director.

Just before our screening, Dawn Fulton from Smith College in Northampton, MA, a professor who specializes in the study of French cinema and Caribbean studies, spoke to the audience. She talked about the challenges that directors, artists, and authors from the islands face in balancing the natural beauty of a place like Guadaloupe with the sometimes harsh realities of living there. She went on to state that Monpierre had somehow managed to successfully weave these two disparate elements together with Elza. Regrettably, I find myself disagreeing with this sentiment.

Monpierre's reluctance to make any sort of social commentary is far less problematic than the story, however. The idea of a woman returning to her homeland to find her father sounds perfectly ripe for exploration, but Monpierre makes the strange decision to permeate the film with spots of hokey melodrama. In one particularly hammy scene, several members of the Désiré family (including Elza's adulterous father and brother-in-law) are sitting in church. Like clockwork, the preacher launches into a heavy-handed sermon on the dangers and immorality of infidelity.

The lack of subtlety in this sequence is representative of the film itself. For example, many of these on-the-nose scenes are accentuated by a strangely-placed piano piece that seems like it'd be much more at home in a daytime soap opera than a serious drama. These conceits culminate in the movie's final moments, where Monpierre deviates from the real-world story to tell a schmaltzy, wish-fulfillment ending about her father that makes very little sense in the context of the narrative.

Elza is not a total loss. As aforementioned, the scenery is bright and colorful (one of the biggest advantages of shooting on location) with an island-themed soundtrack to match, and the acting is almost completely sound. Specifically, Stana Roumillac does a good job portraying Elza's emotional turmoil as the film comes to its conclusion. Eva Constant, playing Elza's very young niece Caroline, shows a lot of promise as an actress at just 10 years old. And, unsurprisingly, Monpierre did manage to accurately capture island life; from a drum dance session on the beach to intense games of dominoes, her Guadaloupean kin are given ample chance to show off the vibrant cultural aspects of the region.
It pains me to say that Elza was disappointing, because the film was certainly made in ernest. Perhaps it is Monpierre's general lack of experience with narrative storytelling, her previous films having been documentaries, but the movie just doesn't have that ring of truth or believability present in most autobiopics. The detrimental choices she made as a filmmaker and as a writer by overdramatizing her tale ended up doing her a disservice, giving the movie a distinctly made-for-television feel. Perhaps Monpierre will get it right next time, but for now I think I'll stick with that other, much better movie (http://bit.ly/1ey85Av ) that explored a father-daughter relationship with significantly more incisive language and emotional kick.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60% (65%)

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/11xctPm

~ Søren

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Each time the Sundance Film Festival rolls around, there are two categories of film which make the news: those that are so far off of the deep end that people become visibly upset by what they see on-screen, and those that people view as possible Oscar contenders for Best Picture. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film depicting life beyond the levees in Louisiana, is stuck safely in the latter category - and for good reason. As a debut effort from Benh Zeitlin, Beasts is an emotional journey through the life of a little girl and her father in the shantytown known as "The Bathtub."

One of Beasts' strengths is that it refuses to succumb to preachiness. An easy, lazy fallback for so many films focusing on poverty-stricken characters, it's a big turn-off for me to see a film which decides to point fingers instead of tell a story. Fortunately, Beasts completely sidesteps this trope. While it certainly doesn't ignore race and gender issues, they aren't the focal point of the narrative; instead, we see everyone - black, white, male, female - working together to survive the hazards of living beyond the relative safety of the rest of Louisiana. Because of this, the audience is free to simply sit back and enjoy the story.

Zeitlin focuses his balanced portrayal of The Bathtub using a feisty, fearless little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) as his protagonist. As though her actual gender were completely irrelevant, Hushpuppy is repeatedly taught by her father how to "be the man" and fend for herself. This beautiful back and forth between her and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is the driving force which holds the film firmly together. Every conversation they have feels authentic, and their interactions never shy away from showing the good and the bad aspects of their relationship.

It is important that these two characters are totally believable, because Beasts also doesn't conform to the usual three-act formula of most Hollywood movies. The central conflict of the story is revealed and developed from the first ten or twenty minutes onward, but only comes to its conclusion in the film's final moments. Despite this, Zeitlin's pacing is spot-on, and though the audience is never quite sure where the story is going, the film never drags for a second. It is risky to rebel against the classic Hollywood structure, but Zeitlin's characters move the plot forward all on their own.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is told in a series of mini-stories which offer perspective on several different aspects of life in The Bathtub. As the relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy grows, and as the audience learns more about the community of The Bathtub, the moral grey area on how to handle each issue becomes more and more pronounced. Thankfully, ideas about what the levees mean to those trapped beyond their protection, as well as the right of government to displace those who do live out in the wilds, are all handled with care and introspection.

Beasts of the Southern Wild isn't perfect, of course. For a film whose title implies a strong imagination-driven motif, the actual "beasts" as they appear in the movie never represent anything more than an obstacle, in this case fear, that Hushpuppy has to overcome. Perhaps this was Zeitlin's intention, but I felt like the concept of these majestic, mysterious creatures was wasted in such a basic metaphor. In Tarsem Singh's The Fall, much more complex metaphors are illustrated similarly from the perspective of a very small child. Still, the basic premise is executed well enough in Beasts, and so when Zeitlin doesn't go the distance, the result isn't debilitating - it's just somewhat disappointing.

The other issue Beasts has is how it deals with emotion. While most of the film sets up a little world filled with colorful personalities that the audience can immediately care about, Zeitlin stops just short of driving home the connection in the final moments of the film. It is possible that he does so at the risk of using tired clichés, but I was hoping that the last moments of the film would resonate with me enough to bring on the waterworks.

At the end of the day, Beasts of the Southern Wild succeeds because it deftly handles politically charged issues and moral quandaries through the perfectly cast, innocent eyes of the six-year-old Hushpuppy. And while I am looking forward to Zeitlin's next big screen effort, I am even more interested in seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild at least one more time so that I can begin to fully understand the layers of thought that went into its narrative construction. Beasts is a refreshing film that I heartily recommend.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 100% (95%)

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/1ey85Av

~ Søren

20 Feet From Stardom
½

The poster for 20 Feet from Stardom features impassioned back-up artist Judith Hill singing into a microphone. Below her is the title of the film in large pink and white text. Underneath the title, where one might expect to see the names of other back-up legends like Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, The Waters, Claudia Lennear, Darlene Love, Judith Hill, and Táta Vega, the text instead reads "Featuring Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and Bette Midler."

In something of an ironic twist, the film about the singers who made everyone from Lou Reed to "The Talking Heads" the sensations that they were still can't resist trotting out the names of major singers onto its posters in order to attract moviegoers. I suppose this is the way of the film (and indeed music) industry, but this faux pas only serves to further emphasize how these artists never truly got their shot in the limelight, and why it is so important to tell their stories.

Because of this, I can't fault director Morgan Neville for his mission; by making this film, he has put the spotlight on the oft-forgotten mothers and fathers of modern pop culture. However, filmmaking missteps like his overuse of improbably lit B-roll footage of his subjects sitting on stools looking wistful can start to feel artificial and hammy. The argument could be made that these moments reflect the self-described diva personae of these young artists, but it is hard not feel that they still undercut the message of the raw love and mystique of singing for which these artists live.

Theatrics aside, most of Neville's decisions actually do lend a lot to the narrative. His long background as a documentary filmmaker consistently shines through. Many of the important scenes, as well as the transitions that connect them, feature slick computer-generated tricks and effects that give a strong sense of production value to the movie.

In one stand-out sequence, singer Lisa Fischer riffs into a microphone in a recording studio. After a few seconds, another flawlessly-added Lisa Fischer appears next to the first and starts harmonizing. Then two more appear, all adding another layer of vocals to the track. While this is a visual treat for the audience, it also helps the viewer to understand how these artists think, listening to the other parts in a song to determine how they can sing in compliment to the core track.

Directorial choices aside, the real focus of the film should be Vega, Love, Hill, Clayton, Fischer, the Waters family, and Lennear. To the film's credit, about 80% or more of the movie gives screen time to these remarkable singers. While legends like Jagger and Sting do appear every so often to emphasize the importance of these singers' contributions to their own success as superstars, the narrative predominantly follows the careers of the lesser-known performers.

Almost all of the main subjects in the film are both female and black. This leads to some thought-provoking commentary on the part of both the singers themselves, as well as the filmmaker. The audience is made to understand what it meant to be a black woman in show business, and what it was like to work as a dancer/singer for people like Ray Charles or Ike and Tina Turner. From hyper-sexualized performances to racially controversial tracks, back-up singers took whatever work they could in order to support themselves (and their families if they had any time to start one).

At one point, the Waters family is sitting around a table and discussing their past work. As they effortlessly break into song, it becomes clear that without them, everything from James Cameron's monster hit Avatar to the classic sitcom Growing Pains owe it to this legendary family for their signature themes and sounds. Quite simply, they singlehandedly changed the landscape of media entertainment - and almost no one even knows who they are.

This inside look at the evolution of music from the late 20th century is of critical importance to American culture, and yet it remains entirely overlooked. 20 Feet from Stardom is a good movie, but I recommend it as if it is a great one, simply because it is important that every American see it. Every citizen of the United States must understand the contributions that back-up artists have made not only to their own medium, but to the the entire world of film, music, and show business.

Each time these singers open their mouths to belt out a note is stunning in its own right; despite their age, even the most aged of the group haven't lost a beat. But what is even more beautiful is that they all do what they do simply for the sake of the craft itself, for the joy of creating an amazing sound that cannot exist without the help of other perfectly-tuned voices. That's love, in point of fact, and these women have it.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (87%)

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/14UaGkL

~ Søren

The Way Way Back

I had a much older trombone-playing friend growing up named Stan. He was someone I rarely interacted with outside of music, but I grew into an adult playing my upright bass right alongside him in my temple's intergenerational klezmer band. Pointing to my now comically small quarter-sized bass, he always used to say, "I remember when that thing was bigger than you are!" He called me things like "squirt," even though I was soon much taller than he was, and he was always a friendly supporter of my amateur musicianship. When he passed away a few days ago, I realized just how important he was to me, and the profound impact he had on my adolescent growth.

In Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's directorial debut film The Way Way Back, protagonist Duncan (Liam James) doesn't have a "Stan," or any other male role models to speak of. His father is entirely absent from his life, and his mother's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), would have to try hard to be a worse example of an adult human being. After losing someone who was so influential in my life, Duncan's desperate struggle to find a guide through the pains of his teenage years struck a chord with me.

Filling that void for Ducan is the always reliable Sam Rockwell as Owen, a water park owner whose own life has slowed to an unbearable crawl. Unsurprisingly, Rockwell gives the standout performance in the film, offering his rebellious charm to a character who, right down to his outfit, reminded me of his role in Matchstick Men as Frank Mercer. Carell also knocks it out of the park as he infuses the unredeemable Trent with absolutely no endearing features whatsoever. By the end of the film, Trent's character arc has remains a solid flat line, which is impressive considering Carell's typically unquashable natural charisma.

James offers an admirably awkward portrayal of Duncan, and AnnaSophia Robb as Susanna is sympathetic as Duncan's beach neighbor and love interest. Allison Janey also gives a good performance as the drunken, obnoxious neighbor Betty, although her character is generally underutilized. The rest of the cast is solid, if unmemorable, save for River Alexander's self-deprecating role as the quick-witted neighbor Peter who is sidelined early on and never gets enough time in the spotlight.

The way Rash and Faxon cast aside some of their more interesting characters is indicative of the film's overall imbalance. As with any drama/comedy, the filmmaker is always striving to give both light and dark aspects of the story enough time to breathe and communicate their respective messages. In The Way Way Back, the focus is frustratingly placed on Duncan's sad home life. This works as a set-up for his arc, but if Duncan's growth takes flight when he spends time in the water park, it's hard not to feel like that should be the centerpiece of the movie. Instead, the audience is treated to a simplified, ultra-brief montage as Duncan begins to blossom into a self-confident young man before being shunted back into his family's internal drama.

Having seen both Faxon and Rash's The Descendants and now The Way Way Back, it has become clear that the pair is adept at capturing human emotion and reaction to very real situations. However, their sense of dialogue is oddly stilted. The conversations in The Way Way Back alternate between clumsy attempts at profundity and throwaway plot-driving conversations. Where a similarly-themed film like It's Kind of Funny Story successfully straddled this line, The Way Way Back just doesn't quite ring true in this regard.

The other area in which The Way Way Back loses luster is in its predictability. The film never throws a curveball at the audience, opting for a straightforward, well-worn narrative that refuses to take any significant risks with its subject matter. There is a glimmer of hope as the movie transitions into its second act where it seemed the story would head in an entirely new direction, but alas, the moment turned out to be an ugly spot of depressingly poor pacing. Rash and Faxon might do well to take a cue from the rather meandering coming-of-age specialist Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Gentleman Broncos); while that director makes films with a clear end goal in mind, he tends to wander toward his destination rather than power walk, offering the audience a reason to attentively follow his protagonists.

The Way Way Back features a few outstanding performances, a decent script, and a noble (if cliché) message. Other movies have worked with this material before and some have done it much better, but it's hard not to fall for Rash and Faxon's quirky characters and humble storytelling style. The film rarely elicited serious laughs and never managed to squeeze out any tears from my theater's audience, but from a technical standpoint, The Way Way Back is an admirable first effort for the up-and-coming, Oscar-winning, filmmaking pair.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (79%)

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/13vwwgp

~ Søren

A Note on "Sad" Home Lives - Bear in mind here that Duncan's supposedly miserable existence includes a very middle class life and a paradisiacal summer in a beach house. His mother's boyfriend may be a huge tool, but to say the kid's life is anything but privileged would be a gross understatement. For many audience members, this author included, that conceit undercuts the emotional weight of many of the film's more dramatic scenes.

Searching for Sugar Man

My father is a white South African who moved to the United States around 20 years ago. Because of him, I grew up listening to Sixto Rodriguez's album Cold Fact on loop for most of my childhood. While most of the artist's very adult metaphors were lost on me as a kid, I was nevertheless transfixed by his soothing voice and simple dream-like tunes. But despite our familiarity with his music, like most of his fans, my father and I had no idea who Sixto Rodriguez was, where he was from, or if he was even still alive. Needless to say, I was overjoyed when I learned that Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul was going to attempt to elucidate fact from fiction in Searching for Sugar Man by exploring the life of this illusive, enigmatic folk rock singer.

In his feature film debut, Bendjelloul had the unenviable task of first making his audience fall in love with his subject before diving into his narrative. In this, he absolutely succeeds; while I was already a convert coming into the theater, the movie certainly helped reaffirmed my strong affection for Rodriguez. Smartly using the musician's own calming tracks as his vehicle, Bendjelloul reminded me why I was so moved by his music in the first place.

The difficulty of getting moviegoers emotionally involved in the story is compounded by the director's staunch determination to remain faithful to the ephemeral, transient personality of Rodriguez himself. Most of the movie has a dry, barren, concrete-jungle aesthetic that echoes the natural urban environment its eponymous central character. But as the first notes of the film's titular song "Sugar Man" begin to ring out over the stark visuals of winter in 70s Detroit, permeating the quiet of the city, the audience comes to understand why Rodriguez is such a remarkable artist. Bendjelloul uses this realization to drive the audience's interest in learning his subject's identity and whereabouts, while at the same time asking viewers through purposefully diminishing cinematography choices to respect and embrace Rodriguez's desire for seclusion from the outside world.

The most commendable quality of Searching for Sugar Man is its objectivism. From Bendjelloul's brief coverage of Apartheid-era South Africa to the questions he raises about who in America illicitly benefited from Sixto Rodriguez's popularity in foreign countries, the only real bias the filmmaker seems to have is his fascination and love for his subject matter. By refraining from pointing fingers and presenting his narrative historically, he keeps his story clear and even-handed.

Searching for Sugar Man isn't without its flaws. While I enjoyed the movie, I felt that it began to lose focus as the film entered its third act. For example, although I appreciate the fact that Bendjelloul doesn't make any accusations as to who made money off of his success, I would have liked a bit more of a conclusory argument. The audience is meant to care about this man and his well-being, so the idea of anyone making money at his expense should make us angry. Unfortunately, Bendjelloul makes no assertions to this effect, and so the audience is left feeling ambivalent rather than outraged. This lack of commitment to a central message means that the moments of real emotional weight are almost entirely during archival footage that the director had little to do with.

Ultimately, Searching for Sugar Man is a good documentary about a great subject. I understand that there were a lot of speed bumps during production, but I can't help feeling that a more adventurous, creative filmmaker would have produced a better end-product. Still, I am overjoyed that Searching for Sugar Man exists; it is a more-than-functional ode to Sixto Rodriguez. Even if the artist reportedly never wanted any recognition for his work, I'm glad he's receiving this exposure. Seeing Rodriguez perform in the film's source footage, I could tell instantly that that's where feels at home - drifting on his silver magic ships in front of an adoring audience.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (86%)

Link to main review: http://bit.ly/WRtGjN

~ Søren

Not Fade Away
½

While I am an avid HBO original series enthusiast (Rome, Deadwood, etc.), I admit never got acquainted with David Chase's The Sopranos. I remember the show's rise and its subsequent immense popularity, but I was too young at the time to start watching and I haven't found the time to since. In any case, the now-famous Chase made waves when he announced that he would write and direct his first feature-length film, and that would tell the story of a teen rock 'n' roll band in the mid-60s. Unfortunately, Not Fade Away is a resounding swing and a miss for the creator of The Sopranos.

Not Fade Away opens on some archival footage followed by a reenactment of two of the Rolling Stones meeting for the first time on a train. Shortly afterwards, a narrator pipes in to tell the audience that movie would not focus on that band's rise to fame, but instead tell the story of one no-name group of teenage musicians who never made it in the big leagues. While I didn't go into the film expecting a biopic of some famous band, it is a risky proposition to come out of the gate saying that the story the audience is about to watch unfold stars nobody we've ever heard of doing nothing important with their lives. This approach can work if the subsequent tale is funny or has some sort of moralistic or emotional message to convey, but Not Fade Away doesn't have either of those; what it has to say about the world is just as bland and tasteless as the narrator unintentionally suggests in the film's first five minutes.

Douglas, the low-key protagonist of Not Fade Away played by John Magaro, has a sort of general apathy toward the world that makes him difficult to root for as a character. While there is a noticeable shift in his interests and rhetoric as the film progresses, he doesn't seem to grow at all as a character and we leave him at the film's conclusion much as we found him - a drifting, aimless, uninteresting, whiny bore. Having said that, Magaro's performance was just compelling enough to keep my attention in spite of the material he had to work with.

The rest of the characters suffer the same fate as the ungainly protagonist. None of them are particularly likable or memorable outside of Douglas's father played by the fantastic James Gandolfini, and as a result they make for wholly uninteresting subjects; from the clichéd stereotypically egotistical band member to Douglas's high school crush girl friend, the entire ensemble lacks any sort of spark or chemistry. And while most of the rest of the cast does tolerably well, Molly Price's Antoinette ruins most of the scenes she's in with annoyingly forced anguish that inspires more eye rolling than sympathy (or laughs - it wasn't really clear what she was going for).

But what is truly fundamental to the failing of Not Fade Away is Chase's determination to say absolutely nothing by the time the credits roll. I don't mind a movie that isn't trying to tell a story (although the exposition of the narrator seems to imply otherwise), but if there is no narrative arc to the film, then I have no idea what the film is supposed to be about. There's nothing wrong with more abstract movies that try to elicit emotion or communicate a message more than tell a story, but I didn't get either of those things from Not Fade Away. The idea of "living in the now" is brought up repeatedly implying its meta-importance to the film itself, but according to Chase's self-destructive non-ending, living by that self-righteous mantra will only leave you broke, bitter, and alone.

Not Fade Away feels like a student audition tape for film school. That isn't to say that it's amateurishly executed, because it's not, for the most part. However, its niche subject matter and lackadaisical style mean that unless the audience somehow relates directly to the story of this go-nowhere band, the only thing to recommend the film becomes its technical achievement. Without the out-of-left field unintentionally silly ending, I might have written off Not Fade Away as a strange, middling period piece about youth in suburban middle America. As it stands, the movie really just didn't work for me on any level.

Verdict: Movie Fail
RT Score: 50% (49%)

The full review can be found at http://bit.ly/V1rT8A.

~ Søren

The Story Of Luke
½

In Alonso Mayo's debut film The Story of Luke, Luke (Lou Taylor Pucci), a twenty-five-year-old autistic man, grew up never knowing his parents. His mother abandoned him when he was young, and he never knew his father. He was raised and sheltered by his grandparents. After his grandmother dies, he finds himself living alongside his grandfather Jonas (who is incapable of taking care of himself) in the home of his Uncle Paul (Cary Elwes), Aunt Cindy (Kristin Bauer van Straten), and his two cousins, Brad and Megan.

His routine world is turned upside down when he moves in with his family, who immediately place his grandfather into a nursing home. Luke takes his grandfather's advice to "get his shit together," and goes on a quest to find a job and a nice girl who won't nag and likes to travel. Luke decides to get a job, and after being advised by his cousin Megan to search in the classifieds, he goes to a job counselor where he is directed to SMILES, a company that assists differently-abled individuals in finding jobs.

Pucci's performance as the quirky, high-functioning Luke left little to be desired, giving extremely insightful view into the everyday challenges people with autism face. In the beginning of the film, he struggles with breaking from his normal routine. He runs away from Uncle Paul's after the first day to return to his grandmother's house to cook himself breakfast and watch his regular cooking show. He's uncomfortable, he's awkward, and he's just plain lovab

The movie, categorized as a comedy, crawls to eventual humor. But the over-arching serious themes made it difficult to laugh at Luke's unfiltered dialogue. At times, it seemed wrong to laugh at a comedic spin that was put on his life, but Mayo portrays Luke as a witty man-child who takes everything so literally and says exactly what is on his mind. When Luke is allowed to do job training with his overbearing, crazy supervisor Zach (Seth Green), the comedic scenes were not in short supply. Green is memorable in his role as an angry genius who also has trouble fitting in with society, a very different than the uptight intellect that he normally plays (Dan Mott Without a Paddle, for example). His presence ultimately puts a lighter spin on the film.

After learning to work in the mailroom of the job, Zach decides to take Luke on as a case study. He helps Luke act "normal" in order to win over the girl of his dreams, Maria, who works at the job counseling agency. Luke learns many things along his journey, but also teaches everyone around him very valuable lessons.

The Story of Luke is a great film for anyone with a slightly dark sense of humor. Mayo does an excellent job portraying Luke and the challenges that he faces everyday. The film reminds us that some of the challenges that arise with autism might not be any more difficult than those of the average person searching for happiness.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 88% (90%)

~ Haylee

Man of Steel
Man of Steel(2013)
½

Full disclosure: While I am a fan of superhero movies in general, I'm not a fan of Superman; I've always felt that he's too campy, and that he doesn't have enough weaknesses as a superhero or flaws as a character. He's too perfect. Maybe this is why Man of Steel, for all its faults, still manages to soar. Zack Snyder gives us a look at Kal-El at his most vulnerable. Some people may not feel this is right, that the point of Superman is that he is above humanity's weaknesses and an ideal to strive towards. But an ideal isn't a character, and a film needs someone to relate to if it is going to succeed.

That said, from where I'm standing, Man of Steel still isn't that much of a departure from previous iterations. It's much more in line with the comics than Superman Returns was, but Superman still has his suit and cape, albeit in darker colors, and he's still a corn-fed American from Kansas. Meanwhile, other elements have been given some "Nolanization." Some scientifically plausible sounding jargon gets thrown around to explain Superman's powers, and the world doesn't just start bowing down to Superman the moment he reveals himself.

Clark grows up in Smallville dodging fearful suspicion, and as has been plastered on much of the advertising, gets himself arrested at one point. However, this makes up much less of the film than the marketing suggests; the film as a whole is much more devoted to your usual superhero origin story, with some occasional flourishes of narrative experimentation. When Superman gets cuffed, I started to suspect some The Day The Earth Stood Still stuff could go down, but it never did. I feel like there was some wasted potential there, but that could be my own expectations talking rather than the quality of the film itself.

Where the film is unquestionably a success is in its cinematography. Gone is the over-the-top spewing of visuals that Zack Snyder is known for. Instead, Man of Steel makes use of unobtrusive handheld-cameras and muted colors, both of which serve to ground the film in the real world (at least as much as a superhero film can claim). As the film moves on, the visual style slowly becomes grander until it evolves into the Zack Snyder 'comic-book panel come to life' look, though still with a sense of restraint. Indeed, the progression of visuals feels so natural that I'm even tempted to use the word 'lyrical.' My screening was in 2D, and while I'm a fan of good 3D, I can't imagine it works well with the prevalent handheld shots.

Action-wise, Superman cuts loose like he never has before, and it really shows just how much Superman Returns failed to showcase his power. Once his fellow Kryptonians show up, punches send fighters back several hundred yards. Gone are the days of catching planes; Superman's actually up against enemies who can match him in a fight. Sure, everyone knows who's going to win by the end of the movie, but Superman actually having to struggle makes for much more thrilling action. The final bout does start to drag a bit, and the time devoted to the excess punching could've been spent fleshing out Clark's character more. But still, after all these years, it's about damn time we saw Superman cut loose.

The movie's biggest misstep is David S. Goyer's scriptwriting. The dialogue is on-the-nose almost to a fault, and the pacing is all over the place; the prologue on Krypton is given a surprising amount of focus, Clark's childhood is glossed over, along with his coming-out to the world, and the film doesn't slow down until just before the action-packed finale. That's all largely forgivable, as origin stories are the most repetitive of superhero stories, and they often acquire some clunkiness in an effort to stand out.

Some of the additions to the Superman mythos are quite good, such as Jon Kent's attitude towards his adoptive son's powers. Clark's journey over the film is largely about his fear of revealing himself to the world and learning to accept who he is. That journey becomes a little muddled towards the end, but the film does get it right more often than not.

And thankfully, the cast absolutely delivers. Henry Cavill isn't given enough dialogue, but he captures Clark's humility and Superman's decency very well. Amy Adams is unsurprisingly wonderful as Lois Lane, cutting down slightly on Lois's spunkiness while refreshingly upping her intelligence, even if she's occasionally reduced to a damsel for Superman to rescue. As Clark's Kryptonian and human fathers, Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner get the bulk of the script's heavy-handed speeches, some of which they handle well, some of which they don't. Michael Shannon, likewise, isn't given much depth from the script, but occasionally he's able to get some complexity through. Diane Lane is also quite good as Martha Kent.

Overall, Man of Steel struggles to overcome the faults of its script, but with good performances, a refined visual style, and thrilling action, the film is a fine and surprisingly faithful return for Superman.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 70%

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/11ysbo8

~ Ari

Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim(2013)
½

In his recent review of This Is The End, Søren compared the comedy to 2011's The Cabin in the Woods. These movies share characteristics that make them part of an exciting trend in Hollywood; films that exist as both satires and as superb examples of the genres they are satirizing.

Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim does for homage what The Cabin in the Woods and This Is The End did for satire. Its clear and effective reverence for the earnest action movies and Japanese monster flicks of the director's childhood meshes perfectly with its existence as a brilliant action/monster film. The result is a cleverly self-aware and marvelously entertaining experience.

Unfortunately, Pacific Rim might be the latest victim of Hollywood mis-marketing. Based on its trailers, many might assume its closest contemporary is Michael Bay's Transformers series. This is a regrettable connection, because the Transformers films reeked of tediousness and exploitation, while Pacific Rim takes careful steps to avoid these issues.

One such step is a lack of character development, which in this case is a positive asset that allows the film to feel quick despite its 132 minute run time. Del Toro is smart - he knows that his movie employs a cast of stock characters (the hero, the commander, the love interest, the comic relief), so he doesn't waste the audience's time pretending they are complex. The characters, while well-acted, are intentionally simple; their relationships, their motivations, and their purpose, are all very clear. But this movie is not about them. This movie is about giant robots fighting giant monsters.

And those battles are superb. The robots (called Jaegers) were constructed by the nations of the world to fight off the influx of alien monsters (called Kaiju) which periodically emerge from an undersea rift. Because the Jaegers were built in different parts of the earth, and because they are piloted by members of those nations, they fight in subtly stereotypical and exhilaratingly entertaining styles. The Chinese Jaeger does kung-fu, the Russian Jaeger is a brawler, the American is a rebel. And the monsters they are fighting live up to the levels of monster design one expects from del Toro, whose previous successes include the Hellboy franchise and Pan's Labyrinth.

My favorite thing about the film, however, is that it is for kids. Despite its PG-13 rating, I would not hesitate to bring a child to see it. Transformers made the mistake of taking what should have been a movie for kids and stuffing it full of sex and violence. In Pacific Rim, there is no sexual content and the majority of the violence occurs between non-human entities. There is hardly any profanity. Del Toro even took measures to make sure a child seeing this movie doesn't end up idolizing war by avoiding the use of military ranks. Instead, the unity of mankind remains the major theme throughout the film.

I would not hesitate to call this film masterful. Del Toro wastes no time and gives no apologies, and the result is not only an astounding film, but an important one. Pacific Rim is the first movie I have seen since my childhood that truly made me want to save the world.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90%

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/15KjQm3

~ Ben

About the Author

Ben Sack is currently studying screenwriting at Emerson College in Boston. When he's not watching/writing movies he enjoys penning children's books and building blanket forts. Ben hopes to win an Oscar someday, but he'll settle for a Golden Globe.

Star Trek Into Darkness
½

Despite a positive reception from both critics and general audiences, J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise was controversial amongst fans of the original series. While some embraced the film's modern style, others were turned off by what they perceived to be a rejection of the spirit of the original. Star Trek the television show was about philosophy and ideology. Its main characters were more likely to solve a dispute with diplomacy than with photon torpedoes.

Star Trek the 2009 film, however, is first and foremost an action film. The film contains numerous pitched battles between the forces of good and evil. The antagonist's motivation is barely existent, getting no more complex than "kill Spock." There's no denying that the film and the series come from entirely different worlds, but the complaints of fans were justified, to an extent. With Star Trek Into Darkness, it appears that Abrams and Co. have heard those complaints, and the film seems to serve as an apology.

Are there still exciting battles between enormous spaceships? Plenty, believe me. But without spoiling anything (and this review will be spoiler-free, worry not), our heroes are fighting to keep Starfleet true to its original intentions. When the film begins, the Federation is on the brink of war with the Klingons, and there are some people within Starfleet who want to weaponize the organization and turn it into a military. Isn't this exactly what fans thought the 2009 film was doing? Well, not on the watch of Kirk and his crew.

The cold open of Star Trek Into Darkness, which people who saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in IMAX have already seen, isn't an epic space battle, as most films like this would have opened with. The Enterprise is trying to save a primitive population from a volcano. That carries its own tension and stakes, but it isn't a violent fight like the opening scene of the last film. The crux of the film is ultimately about what Starfleet stands for. Fans of the original series won't be disappointed.

Speaking of which, the cast of the film is even better than they were the last time out. Our seven lead characters have all settled into their roles, and none of them are doing an impression of the actors who preceded them. Zachary Quinto's Spock is of particular note. Spock is the definitive straight man, and he gets most of the film's laughs. He's self-aware, but never in a way that feels disrespectful to the legacy of the character. Chris Pine has some trouble with the film's emotional beats, but he seems to have a solid understanding of who Kirk is. The screenplay does a great job of capturing him as a person, and not a caricature.

In fact, that could be said of pretty much all of the main characters. These people have become so ingrained in the popular culture that it would have been easy to write them as broad stereotypes and leave it at that. The crew's tropes we all know and love are still there, but they're rooted in actual three dimensional characters. The film also does a great job of giving each character their own moment to shine. It's reminiscent of last year's The Avengers, which had a similarly large roster of heroes to juggle, and succeeded in giving equal treatment to all of them. None of the main characters get the short end of the stick, and they all get to save the day at some point or another. This isn't an easy task, but Abrams and Lindelof pull it off without any of the spotlights feeling forced.

Benedict Cumberbatch is introduced as "John Harrison," so that's how I'll refer to him in this review. There's a lot to be said about how the film deals with his character, but it's nigh impossible to do without spoiling anything. I will say that I'm worried whether people who aren't fans of the original series will fully understand who he is and what his motivations are. His history is given a quick explanation, but it's easy to miss. It's possible that the filmmakers overestimated just how well-known this character was. I fear that a lot of people will be walking out of the theater scratching their heads as to what Harrison was trying to do. Trekkies will immediately pick up on Harrison's true identity (the mere mention of a certain number will tip die-hards off right off the bat), but the glossing-over of his whole motivation might baffle general audiences.

That said, Star Trek Into Darkness is a great deal of fun. It's a breathless story that dishes out moments of nail-biting tension with wild abandon. The production design, the performances, and the storytelling all feel far more polished and refined than in the 2009 film. If you're looking for two hours of thrilling adventure with solid writing and stunning cinematography to boot, you can't ask for more than Star Trek Into Darkness. It's a film that will please the Trek-illiterate and the hardcore fans alike.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (93%)

Link to full review: http://bit.ly/104nBxg

~ Josh

Looper
Looper(2012)
½

I feel it is only fair to warn you that there are very light spoilers for Looper in the review below. I have seen the movie and can assure you they are absolutely far from important given how complex the film is, but if you're one of those people who wants to go into the movie completely fresh, I thought I would give you a heads-up.

Rian Johnson's Looper is built on a fascinating concept. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, a man commissioned to kill unnamed victims of a futuristic gang that sends them back in time to avoid the hassle of dealing with bodies. Joe's job is complicated when one of his targets appears, and is revealed to be his older self (Bruce Willis). The combination of Willis and Gordon-Levitt sounds like any cinephile's ideal on-screen couple, and the concept of "loopers" is easily any science fiction nerd's perfect premise. It is good, then, that Looper mostly delivers, despite falling prey to periodic narrative inconsistencies and underutilized characters.

When I refer to inconsistencies, it is important to note that I am not referring to time travel. I understand that time travel is trope which inherently incurs all sorts of logical issues, and as such I paid very little attention to how these temporal shifts worked within the confines of the story. What I did find hard to stomach, however, is something that has killed the potential of so many promising science fiction films: rule-breaking.

Without spoiling the story, the older version of Joe has come back in time in order to seek revenge for the future murder of his significant other. That might seem like a workable backstory, except that the entire premise of loopers is that in the future, people can't be killed all willy-nilly due to body-tag tracking; that's why they get sent back in time in the first place, so that the body can be disposed of without a hitch. This paradox ultimately hurts Bruce Willis's character, because it makes his history feels like a contrived plot device instead of a real, believable motivation for anger.

The acting in Looper is unsurprisingly fantastic. Bruce Willis is far from the subtle nuance of his character in Moonrise Kingdom, but he works well as an older Joe. Gordon-Levitt and Sara (Emily Blunt) also do just fine, although they're not really stretching themselves here the way they have in past roles.

The real star of the show, however, is Pierce Gagnon as Sara's son, Cid. This kid is absolutely wonderful; he easily gives the stand-out performance, perfectly demonstrating his ability to handle intense dialogue and explosive emotion. Amidst all of that, he also has some killer comedic timing. I look forward to seeing him in future projects where he can show us even more of what he can do.

I was conversely very disappointed with how Jeff Daniels' character, Abe, was handled. While he has some truly spectacular dialogue sequences in the first part of the film as the leader of the loopers, his arc all but disappears in Looper's second and third acts. Compared to the last film he did with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scott Frank's excellent The Lookout, his role here feels terribly anemic as it comes to a very ho-hum conclusion: a real shame given Daniels' incredible talent.

The first part of the film feels appropriately unpredictable as Johnson uses clever cutting and time-jump mechanics to show us Joe's world, but the film begins to drag as it enters its second half. At this point Joe is no longer in the hustle and bustle of the city, instead sticking to the quieter scenery of the countryside. I have nothing against rural settings, of course, but as action and suspense are traded for drama and mystery, the pace of Looper slows significantly. While it does pick up again in its final act, this whole sequence feels out of place, especially as it intermittently cuts to the more action-heavy scenes with Bruce Willis.

Looper is, at the end of the day, one of the good-but-not-great science fiction films of the 21st century. I applaud Rian Johnson for doing something different with this movie, and for striking a fairly original plot from the usual molds of the genre; influences of movies like Akira and The Butterfly Effect are evident, but they are given a fresh spin in the Looper universe. I wish Johnson had paid a bit more attention to his narrative than to the science fiction. For now, Looper stands just above other decent genre movies like Inception and District 9, and fails to pierce the ranks of Moon, Children of Men, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Verdict: Movie Win (with reservations)
RT Score: 70% (76%)

~ Søren

A Note On Rule-Breaking - "Rule-breaking" is a phenomenon where the filmmaker sets up certain parameters at the beginning of the story, and then proceeds to completely ignore them as the story moves forward. Perhaps the best recent example of this unforgivable conceit is Inception, where Christopher Nolan decided midway through his movie that everything he had set up prior was entirely moot. In contrast, The Matrix perfectly follows every single rule it sets up, giving the movie a real sense of immersion and believability.

A Note on Looper versus Dredd - All things being equal, I would probably recommend that you see the recently-released Dredd over Looper; the appeal of the big-name actors here is hard to resist, but Dredd is so air-tight in comparison that it's hard for me not to give it my vote.

A Note on Die Hard - I was very put-out by a late-movie action sequence featuring on Bruce Willis. In this scene, Willis essentially channels John McClane as he Rambo's his way through a series of armed guards. It feels like an over-the-top, out-of-place action moment that would better fit in the next Die Hard; I'm pretty sure I even heard him say "Yippe kai yay, mother f*****."

A Note on Continuity - I normally don't care about continuity problems and do my best not look for them, but when Rian Johnson forces us to look at a character's face through several close-up shots, they are nearly impossible to miss. Again, this usually doesn't matter to me; here, it happened to break my immersion enough to warrant a mention.

Dredd
Dredd(2012)

I confess that I am not intimately familiar with John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra's Judge Dredd comics, nor did I have the privilege of experiencing the so-bad-it's-good Judge Dredd starring Sly Stallone that came out in 1995. Because of this, I was completely ambivalent about the fact that Judge Dredd was getting a reboot. And yet, even as a member of the heretofore unconverted, I enjoyed Dredd immensely. It defines "smart fun" and has only grown in my estimation since I first saw it.

As we are introduced to the dystopian setting of Mega-City 1, we are shown that the world of the Judges is dank, dark, and pretty much hopeless. Fortunately we follow Judge Dredd, a brutal cop who oozes so much confidence and gruff certainty that we feel safe using him as a guide. In spite of his name, Dredd actually serves as a great foil for what is a depressing, dread-filled vision of the future, nobly doing his duty even in the face of impossible odds. In this way he resembles Batman; and like the Dark Knight, we are very invested in seeing him succeed.

In evaluating the success of the character, you have to hand it to Karl Urban. He's a very solid actor who seems to revel in working in the world of nerds and nerd culture; from The Lord of the Rings to Chronicles of Riddick, he has put his stamp on some of the most successful franchises of the past decade. I'm impressed that he (or any actor) would be willing to sign on as a protagonist whose face would be almost completely invisible for the entire film. As a result, Urban is forced to convey every expression solely with his mouth, scowling and growling his way around the urban jungle of Mega-City 1 - and it works spectacularly. Every goofy line is delivered straight-faced, and the audience is left grinning the whole time due to his whole-hearted commitment to the role.

Anderson is an earnest "rookie" Judge with a special gift that I shan't ruin here. Olivia Thirlby's performance is completely believable, portraying Anderson's transformation into someone who trusts her instincts and accepts that she is fantastic at her job. Similarly, Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) lends just the right unsettling overtones to the disturbed, drug-addled antagonist Ma-Ma. Headey's forlorn looks and perpetual frown are a perfect compliment to the character; I will note, however, that despite the great lengths the staff probably went through to make her seem unattractive, even a giant scar across her face wasn't going to do much to dampen her looks. Fortunately, her absurdly sadistic behavior distracts from this enough that it doesn't irreparably break the audience's immersion in the film.

Veteran science fiction screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) is the ultimately key ingredient here. While Karl Urban should be commended for hamming up the delivery, Garland's smart, simple script leaves little illogicality for the brain to focus on and successfully bridges the gap between fun and grim violence. What could have been an Expendables 2-style stupid-but-fun joke of a movie is elevated above the rest of the pack through clever plot points and realistic character motivations. Even the periodic slow-motion scenes that seem to appear in every modern action movie are explained within the context of the narrative; whether this device is owed to Peter Travis's direction or Garland's writing (or both) I don't know, but it speaks to the thought put into Dredd.

Travis does an admirable job of capturing the action in a clear, concise manner without letting his conceits get in the way of the script. He displays a harsh, blocky, color-clashing world which contrasts significantly against the slick landscape of the new Total Recall. In one interesting stylistic choice, there is a sequence depicting drug use which makes use of the same rapid-fire frame technique as Darren Aronofsky did in Requiem for a Dream. This all works well to capture what I imagine was the original feel of the Dredd series, where comics attempted to approximate what was then the far-off future of the 21st century.

It is worth noting that your enjoyment of Dredd will be contingent upon whether you can stomach both a bullet slowly entering someone's left cheek and exiting the other and the subsequent deadpan one-liner from Karl Urban. If that appeals to you even a little bit, you'll love this movie. If you don't, well... this might not be the film for you.

Dredd is a warm embrace of the original property, near as I can tell. It's sort of campy, but even that element succeeds as a lighter reprieve in the greater context of Wagner and Ezquerra's somber world. Though the plot is simplistic, individual elements are high-concept and they work well together to show us what could be a very interesting cinematic universe ripe for exploration in future installments. Garland did in fact state that he has some ideas for a sequel and perhaps a threequel; if the studio asks him to move forward with those plans, we might be in for an unexpectedly Dreddful treat.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (85%)

~ Søren

A Note on 3D - I didn't see Dredd in 3D; I was fortunate enough to find a 2D showing so I cannot speak to the quality of the post-conversion. The gore was hard enough to watch with a flat screen, so I imagine 3D may have pushed it over the edge. But again, this is pure supposition - if you love that extra dimension and don't mind forking over the cash, I'd be happy to hear what you thought.

This Is the End

In a world where simple gross-out humor just isn't enough to push the boundaries of funny, only people like Seth Rogen and his longtime writing partner, Evan Goldberg, seem to be able to surprise audiences enough to inspire fits of uncontrollable laughter. Some may lament that Hollywood filmmakers have forgone the sweet, vaudevillian humor of days past in favor of outrageously crude sex jokes, but the reality is that when comedians like Patrice O'Neal and Louis CK are the new faces of comedy, moviegoers are going to crave raw, unfettered, and honest satire. Like it or not, the genre is evolving, and Rogen and Goldberg will be riding that wave until tastes eventually change and their material well finally dries up.

With all of that in mind, This Is The End is still likely to have a relatively narrow, 30-years-and-under audience. Like many of the Rogen and Friends films that preceded it, the film wastes no time in striving to offend as many audience members as possible with the bluest humor imaginable. For many, this author included, jokes that dance the line between acceptable and downright morally objectionable also tend to be the funniest. And fortunately for Rogen and Goldberg, the film rarely crosses that boundary into unnecessary depravity.

The best comparison I can make to This Is The End is probably The Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's loving indictment of horror fans and filmmakers that came out back in 2011. In this film, Seth Rogen and his good friend Jay Baruchel navigate the unbearably synthetic world of Hollywood alongside frequent colloborators James Franco, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson. When disaster strikes Los Angeles, the whole crew is forced into introspection as they question their own ethics and life decisions. Playing on a similar premise to The Cabin in the Woods, This Is The End serves as a biting commentary on Hollywood, this time going after the stars of Tinseltown themselves.

Like Whedon and Goddard's film, This Is The End blends the style and tone of horror and action films with the abrupt and piercing humor that the writers are known for. Alternating brutally violent horror with comedy, Rogen and Golbderg use genre conventions to challenge expectations and generate laughs. I nearly jumped out of my seat at one point during the movie, something that never happens in a straightforward Apatow-esque comedy. And then, without delay, I was once again laughing at the next in a long line of sight gags.

This Is The End brings the genre parody into even greater focus as it begins to periodically reference horror classics and other movies; subtle nods to films like Dirty Dancing are mixed with much more overt homages to movies like The Exorcist. In a strange meta-segment, the characters even begin to discuss Franco and Rogen's own extensive backlog of films and some of those projects are mined for nostalgic laughs. Not all of these bits worked for me, but the writers are so incessant with their rapid-fire joke telling that there was rarely any downtime to dwell on those I found to be rather unfunny.

Moments of brilliance really shine through when Rogen and Goldberg start using misdirection to toy with their audience. Will the token black guy actually die actually first? What's causing all of this destruction - aliens? Demons? Something else entirely? The two filmmakers are acutely aware of cinematic tropes and play with them just enough using color and audio cues to keep the movie feeling fresh, even when it drags.

And the film does drag. The biggest downfall of This Is The End is its pacing. Watching the movie, I had the distinct feeling that many of the gags had been hashed out at a pot-and-beer party much like the one that opens the film. Strung together with a strong central plot, audiences may feel less keenly aware of how slowly the film can move, but for this reviewer, the jokes didn't hit quite often enough to keep me from glancing at my watch.

This Is The End plays on reputations of each of its primary and cameo actors, either negatively accentuating rumors or totally contradicting their public personas for comic effect. And the film mostly succeeds in its self-important self-parody, despite its sagging second act; Michael Cera hasn't been this funny since his debut role on Arrested Development and his short performance is worth the price of admission alone. And the film, in spite of its general crassness, does show some heart as it wraps up its third act. Ultimately, if you think long, boisterous debates over bodily fluids, detached body parts, and kinky sex could be funny in the right hands, you may just enjoy yourself with This Is The End.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80%

~ Søren

Much Ado About Nothing

Expectations are a funny thing, and they almost always get the better of us. Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing is a craftily made Shakespeare adaptation with great performances all around, but you would do well to expect more Bard, less Whedon.

That Whedon was able to make this adaptation on a micro-budget, film it in 12 days over his vacation from production of The Avengers, and gather a crew and a talented cast of this caliber is nothing (ha!) short of remarkable. This isn't the way films are made, not even indie films. So great is the success of Whedon's experiment that it's easy to assume the resulting film will be just as phenomenal, but it's not. It's a solid adaptation acted by a true ensemble, but that's it.

For folks who have seen or read Much Ado About Nothing aren't going to find any surprises, and those looking for Whedon trademarks will come up empty. After all, this is Whedon's first take on material he didn't himself write, and thus it feels very different from the rest of his work. The film is certainly very good, but it's more Shakespeare with a pinch of Whedon, rather than Whedon with a pinch of Shakespeare; anyone who enters expecting the latter, like I did, may find their enjoyment tinged with disappointment.

That isn't to say that the film isn't any good, because it is. The film is very well-staged, which is impressive considering they only had one central location. Shakespeare's plays only provide dialogue, so a director's voice in an adaptation really comes through in the blocking. Most visual gags are invented by the players, and Whedon's Much Ado has plenty to amuse the audience, even when the Bard's dialogue is particularly dense. Speaking of dialogue, it's striking that Whedon has updated the sixteenth-century play to a modern setting, yet left the dialogue unaltered. Whether motivated by a purist sensibility, or simply time constraints, the Elizabethan dialogue perhaps makes the case that the interpersonal difficulties people currently have are the interpersonal difficulties people have always had. The cast does exhibit some preliminary stumbling with the language, but after the first 30 minutes it fades into a natural groove.

The cast is the best reason to see this movie. For fans of Whedon's repeat players, this is fan service of the highest kind. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker own the film as Benedick and Beatrice, lending themselves to comedy and drama with equal weight. The rest of the cast doesn't have a blight among them, with Clark Gregg exuding genial authority as Leonato, Fran Kranz successfully pulling off leading man Claudio, and Nathan Fillion showing up to steal the show as the Bard's token comic relief character Dogberry. The normally mild-mannered Sean Maher, however, is the biggest surprise among the cast, with his expertly exuded villainy as Don Jon. Fans of internet comedy duo BriTANick will also be pleased to see them turn up as the First and Second Watchmen. A dinner party scene features even more cameos by Whedon regulars, so keep your eyes peeled.

Technically, while the film's short production period is impressive, there are moments where it shows in the final product. While Whedon is able to get multiple varied locations out of one house (he shot Much Ado in his own home), the cinematography does come up short. Lacking, I suspect, a steadicam, the film relies too much on handheld shots to the point of overuse. A dinner party near the start of the film is gorgeously staged and framed, perhaps enough to be one of my favorite sequences for cinematography this year, but the film as a whole is noticeably inconsistent in this regard. However, the score, composed by Whedon himself, is more than up to par, heightening neutral moments and never intruding on the more dramatic ones. Whedon also covered two of Shakespeare's sonnets for the soundtrack, "Sigh No More" and "Heavily". Featuring lilting vocals by Maurissa Tancharoen, the songs are beautiful. Hopefully they'll wet our tongues as we wait the long wait for the sequel to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

Overall, although Much Ado About Nothing has flaws, I believe they had more to do with my expectations than they did the film itself. Whedonites may not find his voice very present here, but they should be more than delighted with the veteran cast of Whedon's old collaborators. And while the film doesn't showcase Whedon's usual style, it remains a perfectly enjoyable Shakespeare adaptation, an intriguing experiment in micro-budget filmmaking, and a wonderful showcase of a very talented ensemble.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (76%)

Link to full review: http://bit.ly/10fl837

~ Ari

Monsters University

Note: I had the good fortune to catch a advance screening of Monsters University. The version was I saw was said to be 99% complete, save for some music editing and end credits. It was also missing The Blue Umbrella, the short that will accompany the film in theaters.

Phew. They're back. Oh lord yes, they're back.

Monsters University doesn't exceed the quality of its predecessor, but mostly because it isn't trying to. For this second outing, Pixar has efficiently narrowed their scope, while applying the same dedication to world-building and character development that's made them who they are. After two less than stellar outings (though I only felt Cars 2 was outright bad), it's an extremely welcome return to form.

As a prequel, University does many things right. Foremost, Mike Wasowski is the protagonist, rather than James P. "Sully" Sullivan. Cars 2 actually did something similar by giving Mater greater focus, but unlike Mater, Mike is actually a likable, three-dimensional character who exhibits personal growth. Indeed, University is built on Mike's journey, even more so than it is on Mike and Sully's budding friendship, which is a major contributor to University feeling like its own film. We've already seen Sully's journey in Inc., so focusing on Mike makes for a film that isn't just a retread of its predecessor. This isn't to say Sully doesn't have growth as well; he does, just as Mike did in Inc. But letting Mike have his story means the film is more than just "Hey, how did Mike and Sully become friends?" Monsters University is not an unnecessary follow-up; it has its own reason to exist.

In fact, Monsters University ends up being so independent from its predecessor that I wouldn't even consider Monsters, Inc. required viewing before seeing University. Callbacks to the original are there and they're awesome, but they're surprisingly sparse. The prequel expends far more effort crafting its own story than to paying tribute to the original. So much attention is given to the prequel, however, that the film occasionally skirts the edge of negating the logic of the previous film, particularly in terms of the rules of interaction with the human world. These oversights are few and easily forgivable, though, because it shows Pixar was concerned with making a good film first, and a good prequel second.

Among sequels/prequels/continuations of franchises, University also does something atypical: rather than heightening the stakes, it lowers them. Monsters, Inc. put a lost child in significant danger, and forced its main character to realize that his entire world was built at the expense of children. It was presented in a G-rated context certainly, but that's the crux of the film when you get right down to it.

For a prequel to have equally high stakes is improbable at best, so Pixar has wisely scaled things down. University is about having a dream and being faced with the prospect that achieving your goals may not be possible. There isn't as much danger in that dilemma, but it's still not an easy subject to tackle. How many "kids' movies", particularly ones originating from the House of Mouse, have the message that "when you wish upon a star," it actually does "make a difference who you are?" It's a gutsy statement to make, and guts is exactly what I like about this film.

This theme also fits perfectly with being in college, a time when everyone is trying to figure themselves out, particularly in terms of their careers. Thankfully, from move-in day officiated by chipper RAs, to competing fraternities, to the banality of general education courses, University captures the college atmosphere with accuracy, enthusiasm, and plenty of Monsters twists. But because the film has such a solid groundwork, the college setting feels like a natural extension of the story and never like a gimmick. However, an element towards the end regarding the significance of college surprised me, and I'm curious to see how people will react to it once the film comes out.

Do I even need to say anything about the animation in this day and age? It's Pixar, so of course it's stellar. My screening was in 2D so I can't comment on the quality of the 3D, though past Pixar films have been overly conservative with the format. The cast is also top-notch, not that I expected anything less from them. Billy Crystal and John Goodman may as well have recorded their lines for Monsters, Inc. last week for how comparable they sound, with Crystal in particular seamlessly recreating some of Mike's characteristic screams. Newcomers to the series also impress, with standouts such as Sean Hayes, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, Helen Mirren, and [my doppelgänger] Nathan Fillion.

In sum, there's almost a meta-narrative going on with Monsters University. Just as Mike is faced with his shortcomings and has to learn to appreciate where his talents do lie, Monsters University has accepted that it can't be Monsters, Inc., and has chosen instead to be comfortable in its own skin. That decision makes for a delightful film with wonderful atmosphere, great character development, and a big heart; or, in other words, your standard top-shelf Pixar film. Monsters University is a worthy addition to the Pixar pantheon, and a more than welcome return to form for the studio. Go Oozma Kappa!

Do I even need to say anything about the animation in this day and age? It's Pixar, so of course it's stellar. My screening was in 2D so I can't comment on the quality of the 3D, though past Pixar films have been overly conservative with the format. The cast is also top-notch, not that I expected anything less from them. Billy Crystal and John Goodman may as well have recorded their lines for Monsters, Inc. last week for how comparable they sound, with Crystal in particular seamlessly recreating some of Mike's characteristic screams. Newcomers to the series also impress, with standouts such as Sean Hayes, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, Helen Mirren, and [my doppelgänger] Nathan Fillion.

In sum, there's almost a meta-narrative going on with Monsters University. Just as Mike is faced with his shortcomings and has to learn to appreciate where his talents do lie, Monsters University has accepted that it can't be Monsters, Inc., and has chosen instead to be comfortable in its own skin. That decision makes for a delightful film with wonderful atmosphere, great character development, and a big heart; or, in other words, your standard top-shelf Pixar film. Monsters University is a worthy addition to the Pixar pantheon, and a more than welcome return to form for the studio. Go Oozma Kappa!

Go Oozma Kappa!

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (84%)

Link to full review: http://bit.ly/10z8h0n

~ Ari

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
½

It has been a long time since Jim Carrey has been funny. For the past decade or so, the iconic 90s comedy superstar has been stretching the limits of his acting ability with critical darlings Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I Love You, Philip Morris. Meanwhile, films like Fun With Dick and Jane, while satirical and at times quite funny, didn't give Carrey that space to do his particular brand of over-the-top physical humor. In The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, he's buff, he's loopy, and he's an absolute riot. A truly unique character amongst his extensive repertoire, Steve Gray makes an admirable adversary for Steve Carrell's Burt Wonderstone and Buscemi's Anton Marvelton.

Carrey's bizarre, David Blaine-like antics clash beautifully with the classical magician tradition, personified by Alan Arkin's character Rance Holloway. In one particular scene, the two meet and in a moment that feels like meta-commentary from the old guard of Hollywood on Carrey's acting career. Gray challenges Holloway's authority using nonsensically grandiose metaphors before dramatically gliding out of the bar, leaving Holloway stupefied by his idiotic babbling; the generational gap between these two very funny, very different comedic talents gives a layer of depth to the scene that perhaps director Don Scardino never considered.

Carrell makes for a serviceable leading man as Burt Wonderstone, although he's not nearly as funny here as he has been in other films. He lacks the bombast of an actor like Will Ferrell, and seems to drift through his role as a washed-up magician with a knowing smirk rather than an all-out commitment to the role. Fortunately, Olivia Wilde's character Jane gives him enough humanity for the audience to sympathize with his character despite his apparent apathy.

That's pretty much the end of the praise I can offer, however, because the truth is that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is not a very good film. While Jane is an endearing foil for Wonderstone, she doesn't have nearly enough to do in the context of the narrative. Moreover, the script is stilted and uninspired, the plot is rote, and the characters are decidedly shallow. While Steve Gray is fun to watch, there's no context for his villainy, nor is there any clear impetus for the titular protagonists. Buscemi's Marvelton in particular, while sweet and at times endearing, has almost no character arc whatsoever; he functions simply to drive the conflict between the himself and Wonderstone, and then to inadvertently set up the film's silly climax.

Moreover, the film is about fifteen minutes too long. The first half of the movie wastes too much time building up what is ultimately a shallow relationship between Wonderstone and Marvelton. The pacing in the first act and a half is slow and the jokes are far and few between, leaving the audience wondering if they've just put down money for yet another uninspired schlock-fest comedy. After that laborious introduction, however, the film magically ratchets up the laughs as it steams ahead toward the finish line.

Some have called The Incredible Burt Wonderstone a Will Ferrell sports comedy minus Will Ferrell, but this doesn't quite hold water. While the film does feature over-the-top protagonists and a cartoonish villain, these elements feel germane to the nature of Vegas magicians. This contrasts with Ferrell's character in a movie like Semi-Pro, where his antics clash with what an audience expects of a film about basketball.

Your enjoyment of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is wholly dependent on two important factors. For moviegoers willing to look past clunky writing and a saggy first act, there is a lot of heart and innocent goofiness to be enjoyed, particular in the final moments of the movie. Likewise, fans of Jim Carrey's rubbery brand of shenanigans will find this a welcome and nostalgic return to form for the actor. Burt Wonderstone will be at best an often-times laugh-out-loud comedy, and at worst a charming diversion as audiences await the bigger summer blockbusters.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 65 (70%)

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/YyxKHz

~ Søren

Oz the Great and Powerful
½

I'm always curious why auteur directors step outside of their boxes. Even if the films they make aren't particularly good, they're at least consistent, and they enhance our understanding of the director's style. That said, I'm of the opinion that Sam Raimi needs to get back in his horror box, and fast. I'm in the minority in thinking that his Spider-Man films were weak at best. However, his recent Drag Me To Hell was a lot of fun. Gruesome, tongue-in-cheek horror is what he does best, and his work outside of that genre has never been particularly successful.

I also don't get the appeal of James Franco. Although he has some solid performances under his belt, when he's bad, he's really bad. He has a tendency to come across as bored, or half-asleep, or utterly uninterested in the proceedings. And completing my trifecta of low expectations, I didn't like Tim Burton's 2010 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, a similarly-themed Disney re-imagining of a classic fairy tale by a director primarily known for darker fare. However, I did my best to put all that behind me when I walked into Oz the Great and Powerful. Unfortunately, it still managed to meet my expectations in the worst possible way.

The concept of a new take on the Wizard of Oz isn't necessarily objectionable in and of itself. After all, the Broadway musical Wicked told a Wizard of Oz prequel in a clever and interesting way. It managed to find just the right balance between winking nods to the original and its own novel ideas. This sort of story can work, with the right team behind it. And in fact, the broad story beats of Oz the Great and Powerful do work. The story holds together, and the audience is expected to make very few leaps in logic.

It's the pacing that sinks Oz. The film begins with a lengthy prologue, shot in black-and-white and at a 4:3 aspect ratio, in an obvious reference to the 1939 classic. This is fun for a moment, but the sequence drags on endlessly, with far too many moments of obvious foreshadowing. The prologue is ostensibly meant to set up the character of Oscar Diggs, who we know will become the Wizard of Oz, but the character is so thinly written that the whole thing quickly becomes repetitive. And then, in an abrupt shift, the rest of the film starts to move far too quickly.

Within the space of fifteen minutes, Franco lands in Oz, becomes the king, and is off on a mission to kill the Wicked Witch. The next hour of the film crawls along at a pace that seems deliberately designed to put the audience to sleep. The final half hour then speeds up yet again, hastily building up a climax that the audience has no emotional connection to. Editor Bob Murawski actually won an Academy Award for his work on The Hurt Locker, but here it seems he's asleep at the wheel.

The editing is far from the worst thing about Oz, though - that honor has to go to the acting. Franco gives the worst performance of his entire career, delivering his lines with all the emotional urgency of a man asking for extra pickles on his sandwich. Mila Kunis, meanwhile, could have been replaced with a block of wood for the first half of the film, and no one would be the wiser. Perhaps she was saving it all for the film's back half, where she delivers an embarrassing interpretation of the Wicked Witch of the West, complete with an aesthetic that reminded me of a ten-year-old dressing up on Halloween.

Rachel Weisz plays yet another Wicked Witch, and the uselessness of her character is mirrored by her underwhelming performance. Michelle Williams' natural charm carries over into her portrayal of Glinda, another painfully underwritten denizen of Oz. Williams is the only actor who puts any effort at all into her performance, but she can't save this sinking ship all by herself.

The final strike against Oz is Raimi's lackluster direction. When he isn't using unnecessary snap-zooms carried over from his Evil Dead films, he's pretending that this is a horror movie, inserting moments of tension and jump-scares that are wholly inappropriate in a Disney fantasy film. I also saw Oz in its native 3D, a format that Raimi apparently can't properly utilize to save his life.

I'm sure that the fantastical special effects of Oz were beautiful, but Raimi spends so much time panning that it's impossible to make any of them out. Maybe a higher frame rate could have saved his misdirection, but what's more likely is that he should have studied up on 3D before agreeing to shoot a tentpole blockbuster using that technology. Moreover, at least half of the environments seem to be lifted completely from Burton's Alice in Wonderland. The original Wizard of Oz endures to this day because of its imaginative design and world-building, but there's nothing in this film that hasn't been seen before.

This film has, thus far, been a box office success, so I'm sure that we'll be getting more of these types of movies from Disney. Regardless of what their next project in this vein is, I'm not optimistic about its quality. Oz the Great and Powerful is sloppy, boring, and downright charmless.

Verdict: Movie Fail
RT Score: 30%

Link to Full Review: http://bit.ly/156ogAk

~ Josh

Warm Bodies
Warm Bodies(2013)

Warm Bodies shares a lot in common with last year's Chronicle, a film I really enjoyed. Like Josh Trank's debut, warm Bodies is a film with surprisingly large scale that somehow managed to slip under the radar of most film buffs and journalists; I had heard nothing about it until a trailer was released, and it seemed like an affable enough romantic comedy with a genre twist. Also like Chronicle, Warm Bodies was shoved into a January slot by a studio that had little confidence in it. And just like Chronicle, Warm Bodies managed to surprise me.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Warm Bodies is how straight it plays its romance. Irony and cynicism is the ruling class of comedy these days, but as much as I love 30 Rock and Arrested Development, it's nice to see some good old-fashioned "boy meets girl" storytelling every now and again. Well, as old-fashioned as you can get when one of the lovers is undead.

Of course, the film isn't without a contemporary sense of humor. It uses R, the film's rotting hero who can only remember the first letter of his name, as a fantasy everyman. He complains about his girl troubles to his friend M (played ably by Rob Corddry), who responds, "Bitches, man." Moments like these, as well as R's internal narration, are inherently comedic coming from the mouths of zombies. But R's quasi-existential musings about his place in the world and awkward movements around his crush are totally in sync with any average twenty-something. There have been movies with monstrous protagonists before, but this is perhaps the first zombie film to use the creatures to illustrate personal issues rather than as metaphors for the human condition.

Warm Bodies smartly avoids deconstructing its genre, which has been in vogue for genre comedies since Shaun of the Dead in 2004. The zombies here are conduits for humor, but the concept of the undead as a horror trope is rarely the target of jokes. This film could have very easily been another Zombieland, a half-hearted attempt at reworking what made Shaun of the Dead so successful, but Warm Bodies instead decides to go its own way by not tweaking the formula. The romance between the leads is far more important than the fact that they're zombies, and that's a key element to making Warm Bodies so successful.

R is played actor Nicholas Hoult, who sci-fi fans will recognize from his role as Beast in X-Men: First Class. His job is unenviable at best; he has to convincingly communicate the feelings and emotions of a character who can barely move or speak. His voiceover narration helps a lot with that, but Hoult manages to turn in a really solid performance regardless. I was less enthused with Teresa Palmer, who plays his love interest Julie. It took me a while to get on board with what she was doing with her performance; she spends half of the film as a badass Sarah Connor-type and the other half as... well, nothing really. I get the feeling that she was trying to underplay her character due to Julie's backstory, which I won't spoil here, but it doesn't come across well. Still, she gives enough for Hoult to play off of.

Speaking of underplaying a character, John Malkovich also let me down. Playing Julie's father, a hardened general for whom the fight against zombies is personal, it seemed to me that director Jonathan Levine was restraining his performance. When I see a movie with John Malkovich in it, I want to see him go crazy! Maybe that's something he's trying to move past, but I wish he had gone just a little bit further in certain moments of tension.

Warm Bodies plays with the zombie mythology in a way that had me a little confounded. It has the traditional beginning to the zombie apocalypse, complete with a rapidly spreading zombie-generating virus, but it extends that trope in an original way. In the movie's universe, all zombies eventually lose the will to live (or something, it's not made entirely clear), and they shed their skin and become "Bonies," skeletal monsters who have no trace of humanity left. Basically, it's an arbitrary addition to give humans and zombies a common opponent, but it seemed too far removed from common zombie lore for me. If the writer or director is going to make a choice like that, great - but fully commit to it and explore it. I was left wanting to know a lot more about the world than the movie is willing to tell, but I did appreciate the director's staunch commitment to telling an uncomplicated love story.

Warm Bodies probably isn't going to be a box office sensation, but if you're willing to brave the weather next weekend, I recommend you give it a chance. Its marketing has been modest enough for the film to fly under the radar and the film isn't radical enough to become a cult sensation. Despite that, I'd love to see it become successful. Warm Bodies is funny, sweet, and a perfect choice for a cold winter night.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (85%)

Link to Full Review: bit.ly/14s6YjA

~ Josh

Promised Land

When I saw the first TV spots for Promised Land back in late November, I mostly ignored the actual content of the advertisement in favor of the text that ran right after the title.

Seeing this list of names got me all hot and bothered. Notoriously hit-or-miss director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) was back working with Matt Damon, one half of his golden boy duo, and had replaced Ben Affleck with the slightly less handsome but exponentially more charming John Krasinksi (The Office). Van Sant was also returning to the formula of letting his leading men write the screenplay, a technique which previously won Damon an Oscar for Good Will Hunting. I also recognized the "Story by" credit, Dave Eggers, as the man responsible for adapting the screenplay to my all time favorite film, Where the Wild Things Are. So it seemed from the start that I was in for a witty, meaningful, and original movie the likes of which we hadn't seen since Clinton was in the White House and Matt Damon had a blonde-highlighted bowl cut.

Promised Land focuses on two representatives from a natural gas fracking corporation, played by Matt Damon and Frances Mcdormand, who are deployed to a poor farming town to buy the rights to drill the land one farm at a time. They run into turbulence, however, when the town science teacher brings up the possible environmental repercussions of gas fracking, and the locals decide to vote on the issue at an upcoming town hall meeting. That's when Krasinski, an eager environmentalist, rides into town in a biodiesel truck to stir things up.

In an interview with Charlie Rose on NPR, Damon and Krasinski insisted that despite the plot, this was not a politically charged film about fracking. And they were right; they certainly try their hardest to take a neutral stance (sometimes at the cost of subtlety). Instead, the film is about pride and American identity. Damon's character offers the poor farmers the promise of money to give up their family legacy, but he struggles with whether or not he is doing the right thing. This conflict, complemented by a satisfyingly twisty plot, make for a generally alright movie. There is something missing, however.

During the Charlie Rose interview, Matt Damon said that he and Krasinski took a lot of inspiration from the 1983 film Local Hero. That movie is one of cinema's great enigmas; it currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but not because it is particularly spectacular. Rather, its perfect score is a result of the fact that critics couldn't find anything overtly wrong with the film. But although Local Hero and Promised Land share a similar plot, the former stands out because of its unabashed quirkiness. The townspeople in that film have eccentricities that vary between outlandish and adorable, and that takes the film to a level of storytelling that is more of a fairy tale parable than cautionary realism.

Promised Land lacks that characteristic oddness. There are several townspeople characters featured in the film, but they are all unspectacular and devoid of personality. The filmmakers also tried incorporating a few clever running jokes and sight gags, but they all fall flat. Perhaps Damon and Krasinski were trying for authenticity, but intentional or not, the final product lacks any real cinematic charm.

The film does have its redeeming moments. I felt it in my chest when Damon's character buys a 25¢ lemonade from a little girl, pays with a dollar bill, and tells her to keep the change. The girl holds out the coins and insists "The sign says 25¢. That means it's 25¢." But these sort of moments are heartbreakingly sparse in Promised Land, meaning that yet another film filled with potential will be forgotten.

At least we can always go rewatch Good Will Hunting.

Verdict: Meh
RT Score: 60% (55%)

Link to full review: http://bit.ly/VbLLZB

~ Ben

About the Author

Ben Sack is currently studying screenwriting at Emerson College in Boston. When he's not watching/writing movies he enjoys penning children's books and building blanket forts. Ben hopes to win an Oscar someday, but he'll settle for a Golden Globe.

Django Unchained
½

2012 has been a year of surprises for me. I'm known to be pretty anti-Nolan, and yet I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises. Likewise, and I know this sounds like heresy, it has been a long time - probably since Pulp Fiction - since I walked out of a Tarantino film content with what I had just seen. Nevertheless, just as with The Dark Knight Rises, I was very pleasantly taken aback as I sat in the theater watching Django Unchained.

Compounding on my bias coming into the movie, I don't often find myself enamored of Westerns. With the notable exception 3:10 to Yuma, Deadwood, Firefly, and Serenity, there's just something about the genre that turns me off. So when I heard Tarantino's next film was a send-up of Westerns, I was fairly nonplussed.

I couldn't have been more mistaken; not only does this film have a little something for everybody, no matter how attuned the audience is to older Western films, but it also makes a concerted effort to be a reasonably accurate depiction of the time period. Without being gratuitous, Django Unchained offers a wholesome look at the Deep South just before the start of the Civil War; from bad teeth to heinous violence, Tarantino doesn't shy away from showing every unglamorous angle of America in the 19th century.

Indeed, Django Unchained is an unbridled triumph for Tarantino. Unlike his missteps of the past, Django strikes an odd balance between all of the elements that made him so popular in the early 90s. And it's easy to screw up; I love his clever dialogue, but I am always wary that it will overstay its welcome in the form of long, ham-handed diatribes, and while I think his use of violence is often warranted, I am often concerned that he'll overdo it or put too much stock in the audience's lust for blood spatter. Thankfully, Django manages to successfully tie these discrete ingredients together into one, cohesive whole that is very difficult not to like.

As is expected of a Tarantino film, Django Unchained has no want of talent; Leonardo DiCaprio is phenomenal as ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie, Samuel L. Jackson is despicable as Candie's furiously angry old slave Stephen, Christoph Waltz is charming as dentist-come-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, and Jamie Foxx kills it as Django himself. Every character is deeply fleshed out, complete with clear motivations and logical backstories perfectly communicated by their respective actors. Everyone has their moment to shine, and everyone is a bona fide joy to watch.

If there is any complaint to level with Django Unchained, it is its narrative structure and tone. The film constantly jumps between light comedy and the abject horrors of the old South, sometimes making it difficult to appreciate the humor Tarantino is trying to get across. Similarly, while the film never drags, it is paced oddly; the final act of the film in particular oscillates between several moments, each of which could have been the climax of the film. Ultimately, I don't feel that these issues are enough to really hurt the movie - but they are just noticeable enough to distract from the feature itself.

Still, it is clear that Tarantino has finally returned to form with Django Unchained. For where Inglorious Basterds was too unfocused, Django is a concentrated epic; where Kill Bill was too simplistic, Django is just simple enough. And where I was getting to the point where I wouldn't put down money at the theater for another Tarantino movie, Django has fully renewed my faith in the prolific director.

This gorgeous, well-acted story of love and revenge is one of the best films of 2012.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (93%)

Link to main review: http://bit.ly/VfpyVP

~ Søren

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas(2012)

After seeing Cloud Atlas, I completely understood why it received such mixed reviews from critics. From the moment the film opens, it is immediately apparent that it is no ordinary Hollywood story. But does the risk of "uniqueness" make or break the film? Personally, I believe it was a brilliant choice. I can definitely say audiences will leave the theater with a feeling evoked by no other movie they have ever seen. Although it must be conceded that this film requires both attention to detail and an open mind to appreciate its out-of-the-box format, it is well-worth putting in that [minimal] effort.

Trying to do a full play-by-play logical breakdown of Cloud Atlas is nearly impossible. Those who try to always seem to come to the conclusion that each story doesn't hold much of its own value. But while it is true that some of the narratives are not as good as others, that's really beside the point. These aren't six separate short films; they are six interwoven arcs that cannot be told without one another. Each part of Cloud Atlas is a necessary piece to make the whole. That being said, I do think that at least two of them could stand on their own as full-length films; unfortunately, this also means that the other stories seem almost sub-par and forgettable in comparison.

The overall experience of watching Cloud Atlas is quite surreal. The audience is catapulted into future and pulled back into the past, constantly shipped from world to world in a series of visually captivating narratives. The film follows the lives of each of the characters/actors, keeping the audience in suspense as they wait to see the ultimate fates of the protagonists in each story line. The movie demands the audience's attention almost continuously through to the finale, where your socks will promptly be knocked off as the identities of the actors are revealed in the end credits.

There are some fantastic performances by those thirteen core actors and actresses. The combination of the tremendous costuming and prosthetics and refined ability of the performers to each play between three and six characters allows the audience to track and believe each story line wholeheartedly. Be that as it may, at times I did still get lost sifting through the layers of characters (and their makeup) as I tried to follow their parallel adventures. This can probably be attributed in part to the film's almost three hour length, which is a long time to maintain such active focus.

Still, I believe Cloud Atlas still deserves a positive review if for no other reason than that after leaving the theatre, I was completely unable to stop thinking about it. Days, even weeks later, I would laugh as I replayed some of the funnier scenes in my head, or cringe suddenly as the more nightmarish sequences flashed across my mind. I'd find myself seeking out others who'd seen it, just to see their point of view on the film. And just like with a good book, my fellow moviegoers and I were able to share with one another things we each had noticed (and, in turn, missed), just as if we had all watched a different movie.

Cloud Atlas is definitely a must-see - and maybe a must-see-again, if only to appreciate its full value.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (82%)

~ Jadin

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It's been nine years since The Return of the King. Nine long years filled with lawsuits, lost directors, politics, and health issues all conspiring to keep The Hobbit from being made. And now, finally, Peter Jackson's done it: it's time to return to Middle-Earth. But after all these years, after all these delays, and after the masterpiece that is the original trilogy, can any film live up to expectations?

It depends on what kind of film you're expecting.

An Unexpected Journey is not The Fellowship of the Ring, just as The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. The prequel book was a very different creature than the trilogy, with a different subject and different goals. The dissimilarity of the two works can be felt immediately in An Unexpected Journey. While the film's title sequence uses the original The Lord of the Rings-style font, the opening music is eager and light where the original's was chilling and weighty. I think the best way to put it is that An Unexpected Journey is not an epic. Instead, it is an adventure tale, like a story your mom or dad read to you when you were a kid. The film has a lot to offer as long as you know what to ask of it.

Being back in Middle-Earth is a joy. Peter Jackson's world is brighter and happier than the more sobered age that will follow in Fellowship, and it's evident in the humorous, bushy-tailed tone of the film. It's a simpler time with a smaller-scale story; however, with this smaller-scale story, it's surprising that the film's pace feels much closer to that of the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings rather than the theatrical versions. The decision to extend The Hobbit into three films means the movie can take its time as it adds elements from The Lord of the Rings and its appendices. Some will call it slow, but once I adjusted, I found it enjoyable.

A slower pace also means more time to appreciate the depth of New Zealand's landscapes, the intricate sets, the complexity of the costumes, and the artistry of the CGI. Nothing is rushed, and that also means the action sequences last longer. It's all wonderful, and even though it takes its time with its 166 minute running time, the film feels a half an hour shorter. That's always a good sign.
The term 'visual feast' has never been more appropriate. The trilogy pioneered much of the special effects it utilized, and while the effects in The Hobbit aren't as ground-breaking, they represent only the best in visual wizardry. Gollum, in particular, is flawless, with Andy Serkis's performance coming through even clearer than it did in original films.

As for the music, most of Howard Shore's score is made up of motifs from his work on the trilogy. The trilogy's score is one of the best of all time, but An Unexpected Journey's nostalgia for that soundtrack means the film's score feels like a greatest hits of the original trilogy rather than its own creation. The film's main theme is its own, but it's repeated many times in lieu of newer music. I'd have appreciated a wider range of new themes, so the music surprisingly ranks as one of the weaker aspects of the film.

With a company of dwarves, one wizard, and one hobbit, the traveling party of An Unexpected Journey numbers six more than that of the Fellowship. Accordingly, characterization is approached differently, with Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin receiving the most development as the rest of the dwarves are relegated to an amusing band of misfits. My understanding is that the original novel developed them even less, so I can't imagine fans feeling slighted on this point - and it's clear that the dwarves' actors are clearly enjoying themselves, anyway.

Gandalf is his usual stoic but whimsical self, growing more serious as he starts to sense the return of Sauron. Despite being the titular character, Bilbo's role is mostly to be an observer the Thorin's arc. We're only one film in so this could easily change, and Bilbo still has his moments to shine, particularly during his encounter with Gollum. Martin Freeman's performance is very familiar, echoing his previous roles; it seems his time spent as Arthur Dent and John Watson have prepared him perfectly for Bilbo Baggins. Still, Thorin's clearly the main player as he gathers his company together and leads them to reclaim his home. It is this story line that I suspect will carry this new trilogy.

An Unexpected Journey was worth the nine year wait. It's not Fellowship of the Ring, but it's not trying to be. The Hobbit is a softer adventure, but one of the highest caliber. And with two more films to go, I'm certainly onboard as a believer.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (83%)

~ Ari

A Note on 48 FPS - My screening was in 2D, so I cannot speak for the quality of the film's 3D, or the 48 frames per second version. I was able to tell much of the film is designed for 48 FPS, as several shots have observable judder that might have been noticed if they were filming in 24 FPS in the first place. Judder is a blurring effect that occurs during rapid motion, but I don't know if anyone who isn't a film student would notice. I plan on seeing the film in 48 FPS when it goes intro wide release later this month.

Lincoln
Lincoln(2012)
½

Lincoln could have been a terrible film. Steven Spielberg has little left to prove at this point, having directed some of the very best genre films ever made. As if to confirm my fears about the film, the first trailer for Lincoln sported cheesy melodramatic dialogue hammed up by a boring stock orchestral track. Sitting down at the theater, I was sure I was in for a preachy tale about the Civil War and the fight to end slavery. But while some of those conceits do rear their ugly head, I can assure you that Lincoln is at its heart a stunning ode to one of the most important and turbulent times in United States history.

The care and effort poured into Lincoln is immediately apparent in Spielberg's choice of aesthetic. From the intricate outfits to the period mannerisms and colloquialisms, the film reeks of historical accuracy. This attention to detail, paired with a grainy blue-gray color palette, gives the characters the appearance of portraits come to life. And yet, it never feels academic - this is a drama through and through. There is something to be said for a film that makes you feel like you're watching footage from over a century ago, but also keeps your attention the entire time.

Central to the success of Lincoln is its lead, Daniel Day-Lewis. Although I am usually nonplussed with his intense method acting style, Day-Lewis shows an incredible sense of restraint and subtlety as Abraham Lincoln. His reserved, quirky take on the former president gives this legendary figure a distinctly human quality, making someone so often portrayed as an infallible symbol into a kind, sympathetic, and generally relatable man.

Nearly stealing the show from Day-Lewis is another famous three-named actor. Taking on the role of the "radical" Republican representative Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones is the only representative who openly expresses a desire for black equality beyond the end of slavery. Dancing perfectly between wit and raw emotion, every moment on-screen with Jones is a joy to watch. The only caveat I should mention about his character development is his final scene, in which an ulterior motive to his fight for equality is revealed to the audience. While this revelation is probably historically accurate, it ultimately hurts Stevens' arc as it diminishes his seemingly selfless crusade.

Levity is a big part of what makes Lincoln so endearing. I was surprised to find myself laughing at this film much more than I did at lighter epics like this year's Skyfall. The rapid-fire banter between Jones's character Thaddeus Stevens and other state representatives in particular always left a big grin on my face. Underlying this humor is Tony Kushner's tight script, although it is unclear whether the more clever pieces of dialogue were of his design, or if they were lifted from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and other historical documents.

Accompanying Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones on-screen is what feels like the rest of Hollywood. With Sally Field (The Amazing Spider-Man) as a distraught, politically minded Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn (The Bourne Ultimatum) as the shrewd Secretary of State William Seward, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises) as Abraham Lincoln's son Robert, the film has no shortage of talent.

Unfortunately, as often happens in such large ensemble casts, many of these big names get sidelined. The aforementioned Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln is a prime example of this, as his character says and does nothing that moves the plot forward. Aside from exposing some of the more gruesome aspects of the war itself, Gordon-Levitt's scenes are generally irrelevant to any of the other characters or story lines. This is a disappointing fate for such a prolific actor, and in the greater context of the narrative, this and other side stories distract more than they help.

The largest problem in Lincoln, though, is its third act pacing. Starting just after the beginning of Abraham Lincoln's second term, Spielberg and Kushner bring us up to speed with some brief exposition before weaving a snappy, compelling political story about the fight to end slavery. This conflict culminates in a simultaneously humorous, emotional, and very satisfying vote in the House of Representatives on whether to ratify the 13th Amendment. However, remembering that the film is called Lincoln and not Abolition, both the director and screenwriter scramble to capture the last few days of Lincoln's life after what feels like the end of the film. Unfortunately, by then it is too late; as they rush conclude their story, having expended most of their energy on the battle of state representatives, the film loses nearly all of its steam and the result feels like tacked-on addendum.

My nitpicks won't hold back my score very much, though, because Lincoln is by most accounts a triumph. While it is possible that someone, some day, will make a better biopic about the 13th president of the United States of America, it will be difficult to top Spielberg's effortless direction, Kushner's smart writing, and Day-Lewis's deftly nuanced portrayal of Lincoln himself. After many attempts at bringing him to the big screen dating all the way back to 1930, The Great Emancipator has finally received his due.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90%

~ Søren

A Note on Ensemble Casts - There are so many actors who play bit parts in Lincoln that I thought it would do them a disservice not to mention them here. John Hawkes (Deadwood), James Spader (Boston Legal), and Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) make for a wonderfully charming band of misfits under the command of Seward. Playing General Ulysses S. Grant is Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows). I enjoyed seeing so many familiar faces in Lincoln, but I have to wonder if it was really necessary, or indeed fiscally responsible, to cast them over lesser-known actors.

A Note on Assassination - I guess this can be considered a spoiler if you don't know the story of Abraham Lincoln, but the film does go right up to the end of the former president's life. Spielberg elected to deal with the infamous shooting at Ford's Theatre by showing us his son attending an entirely different performance at the moment of his father's death. While I understand that Spielberg is trying to avoid his tendency toward syrupy over-sentimentality, the scene was almost too antiseptic; while I cared about Lincoln as a character, to not shoot the scene differently or at least Ford's theatre itself undermined the any emotional pull the tragedy might have had.

Skyfall
Skyfall(2012)
½

Here's how our Dueling Reviews format works: each contributor writes an independent, abbreviated, spoiler-free review of the film. Then, the contributors come together in a podcast and discuss the movie in depth.

Tim's Review

Though it contains many of the high-energy action sequences and traditions that we've come to expect from Bond flicks, Sam Mendes's movie plays more like a thriller/art-film, than an action movie, exploring death, resurrection, and an underlying theme of old versus new. Despite the obviousness of these themes, I never felt like I was being beaten over the head with them. Mendes manages to handle these themes deftly, tying them all up in a final act so glorious and unexpected that it would be a sin to spoil anything about it.

What makes Skyfall so great is that like Casino Royale before it, Skyfall succeeds at getting us invested in the well-being of Bond and the characters around him. After taking a bit of a hiatus in Quantum of Solace, we're back on the path of discovering what makes Bond Bond once again. All in all, Skyfall is visually beautiful, brilliantly acted, action-packed, and quite possibly the best of all 23 Bond films (if one is allowed to say that of a 007 movie that does not feature Sean Connery).

This may be the defining Bond film for our generation.

Tim's Verdict: [Glorious] Movie Win
Tim's Score: 93%

Søren's Review

Skyfall is a gorgeous film. Roger Deakin's (Shawshank Redemption) fingerprints are all over the cinematography, and Thomas Newman's (American Beauty) score fits the tone of Skyfall perfectly. Nevertheless, a movie is more than its dressings, and unfortunately I can't say I was overwhelmed with the actual content of the film. The pacing is off, dragging until Javier Bardem gets a chance to light up the screen, and the plot is overly predictable in ways that directly echo other modern action films like The Dark Knight and The Avengers.

Craig is back as Bond, and does an admirable job giving his character as much humanity as he can within the confines of the somewhat pedestrian script. But at the end of the day, it is very much apparent that Skyfall was written by the same folks who gave us the last two Craig films; halfway-decent dialogue paired with ho-hum stories.The final result is a film which constantly refers to the "good ol' days" of Bond, without ever taking cues from those films to make what should have been a much better entry into the 007 uvre.

Søren's Verdict: Movie Win
Søren's Score: 81%

Todd's Review

Skyfall was the best James Bond film I have seen in a few years for several reasons. It had a better plot than the last few Bond movies, and the action scenes managed not to distract the audience from the main story line. We got to see the rogue James Bond portrayed by the couple of directors turn back into the classic patriotic spy we know and love. The addition of some of the original 007 supporting characters confirms the franchise's return to classic Bond.

As someone who saw the film in Jordan, it was a bit different to see the film with the sexual and alcoholic scenes edited out. I knew going into the film that movies were edited to be more "appropriate" in predominantly Islamic countries. When watching the film I felt that they did a good enough job to not let the edits hurt the film but I think not showing the sexual scenes does take away from the tone of the character of James Bond. One of the trademarks of James Bond is that he is a womanizer; a man who, while on a mission, still finds the time to flirt and have sex. For a 007 fan such like myself, I knew what was cut and therefore I could tolerate the censorship. But for the casual moviegoer, I couldn't help but to feel like they weren't getting the full picture.

Todd's Verdict: Movie Win
Todd's Score: 90%

Podcast Review

WARNING: Spoilers abound in the podcast, so wait until after the film if you'd like some things to remain a surprise.

Listen to the podcast here: http://bit.ly/SsXRXg

Final Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (88%)

The Big Picture
½

"You can hide from your past, but you can never erase it."

With that simple tagline, it becomes clear that The Big Picture is a movie we've seen before: a successful man does something unspeakable, and spends a good deal of time trying to bury his transgression. It is unfortunate that director Eric Lartigau, who also co-wrote the film with Laurent de Bartillat, brings very little originality to this formula. Like The Intouchables, The Big Picture approaches some of the same themes as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly without ever managing to capture that film's pure magic and honest commentary on society. The result is a stylish, well-acted drama that unfortunately has little else going for it.

Lartigau handles his subject matter with a sort of wandering aimlessness, making the film pleasantly unpredictable up until a point. But once Paul Exben makes his life-changing decision toward the end of the first act, the film slips into a stifling by-wrote cause-and-effect paradigm. The success of Paul's escape from his past is constantly in question, giving the story some much-needed background excitement. Unfortunately, Lartigau undermines these thrills at every turn; each twist and turn in the narrative can be seen from a mile away, breaking whatever tension had heretofore been built.

These qualms aside, the movie is far from a total loss. This is mostly due to a typically strong showing from Romain Duris (L'Auberge Espagnole), whose subtle vulnerability makes Paul an instantly sympathetic and believable protagonist. Lartigau puts the audience on his side from the film's onset, giving him a credible reason for his recent poor showing as a husband. Combined with Duris's emotionally-driven performance, the viewer is inexorably attached to the fate of this poor man.

Lartigau and his crew also did a wonderful job showing the evolution of Paul's character using clever visual cues. As the film opens, he is a well-dressed, straight-laced lawyer whose propensity for success oozes from his every mannerism. And yet, his humanity does shine through as he speaks with his longtime partner, Anne (Catherine Deneuve) - hinting at his truer altruistic qualities. After the aforementioned central conflict is revealed, Paul closes up in a shell, paranoid and frightened of the outside world. Toward the end of the film, as the movie approaches its conclusion, we see a more hip, bohemian, laid-back Paul Exben has emerged from this fear-laden cocoon; his hair is loose, his demeanor is cool, and his clothes are perfectly disheveled. And all the while, we see with the film's final sequence that Paul's humanity has been preserved.

Beyond its predictability, the real issue with The Big Picture is that it lacks a compelling message. When a film so fervently assigns parallel meaning to its first and second halves, the audience is goaded into looking for an underlying theme. Yielding nothing more than some ambiguous moral commentary, The Big Picture leaves the audience with distinct of feeling of incompleteness. Perhaps there is a central thesis to The Big Picture, but if there is, Lartigau mostly subverts his intentions. Is the story about being selfless, or being a good husband, or the perils of success? Who's to tell?

There are worse films to spend your time on - the pacing is well-done, the modern look of the film is aesthetically pleasing, and the dialogue is tight - but The Big Picture does little to move the genre forward. Romain Duris is the star of the show here, and fans of his will certainly enjoy seeing him flex his more serious acting muscles. For everyone else, you may find the film lacking thematic depth.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 70% (79%)

Full Review: http://bit.ly/ZnkAdf

~ Søren

A Note on Timing - The Big Picture was released in 2010 in France, but only just made it across the Atlantic to our shores this year. If you're interested in seeing it in theaters, you're likely to find it in your local independent cinema. If you can't find it there, home video may be your best bet.

Argo
Argo(2012)
½

Ben Affleck has had a strange career. As far back as his early films with Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), he's taken a lot of flack for his acting. But the moment he got behind the camera with Gone Baby Gone, audiences and critics put away their complaints as they watched his true talent unfold in front of them. Indeed, Ben Affleck is a good director - he's not always my cup of tea, but I won't deny that he has a serious gift for filmmaking. And so it's little surprise that his third feature-length film, Argo, is an unabashedly thrilling tour de force that sits comfortably on par with his previous effort, The Town.

Argo is an exercise in anxiety. From the moment the film starts, we are immediately enraptured in the fate of the hostages in Iran. And for most of the film, the gravity of this international disaster is at the forefront of our minds, building suspense and giving the film an overall sense of purpose. But while Affleck's conflict-building works, some of it can feel a little contrived; doors not opening and cars not starting are feel like tacked on conceits, which is a shame given the already-exciting premise of the film.

Affleck is sort of an anti-Nicholas Winding Refn, never letting the camera rest on the face of any one character for longer than a few seconds. This works well in Argo, giving the film a decidedly kinetic feel that increases the roller coaster feel of the plot. I'm not sure I particularly enjoy this fast-paced style, as it gives very little time for subtlety, but in the end this film benefits from it in a very positive way.

Likewise, Affleck's writing is generally very solid. Occasionally the script veers into ham-handed dialogue, pushing emotion and exposition in a way that feels less than organic. Because of this, the stronger scenes happen when the characters keep their comments short and sweet. This keeps the film focused on driving the story forward, which is essential in a blockbuster thriller.

An interesting phenomenon that was hard not to notice in Argo is that not one of the primary cast members seems to be stretching their acting muscles at all. Most of the film they spend looking scared and frightened, or in Affleck's case reserved and expressionless. The exception to this rule are Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who are absolutely wonderful; just seeing them on screen together is a joy. They play off one another exceptionally well, and seem to be making the most of their caricatures of Hollywood bigwigs.

Despite their chemistry, however, there is a strange tonal dichotomy in this film between the scenes in Hollywood with Arkin and Goodman and the harsh reality of the Iranian hostage crisis. The opening of the film is a terrifying, uncannily realistic depiction of what happened at the US Embassy in Iran, and yet the subsequent focus on the movie making world is full of whimsy and laughter. It is a jarring juxtaposition. Nevertheless, I can't fault Affleck for it - this contrast between the very real international issue and the sheer absurdity of Mendez's plan are what make the true story so compelling.

Ultimately, Argo does manage to strike a strange but pleasing balance between sweetness, comedy, and intense fear. This combination makes for a unique experience that, perhaps due to its strong adherence to real events, is altogether convincing and memorable. In particular, the ongoing side story about Mendez's wife and child give what seems like an otherwise heroic-but-flat protagonist a compelling background and believable character motivations.

Argo is one of the most crowd-pleasing, fun rides of the year. It is another strong addition to Ben Affleck's growing film uvre, further cementing him as a promising director we should all keep an eye on; I expect to see a true masterpiece out of this man soon. And while Argo doesn't quite fit that bill, I promise it is well-worth your time and money.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (91%)

~ Søren

A Note on Tony Mendez - I understand that Ben Affleck can't resist starring in his own films, and he hardly tries to steal the film as its protagonist with some over-the-top performance, but I was a little queasy at his choice not to choose an actual Hispanic actor to play Tony Mendez. At the end of the film, we have a chance to see photographs showing how well each of the hostages were cast. When the actual Tony Mendez, shows up, I actually laughed - Ben Affleck doesn't even sort of resemble him, even hidden under all of that facial scruff. This isn't a big issue, but I was kind of put off by it.

The Master
The Master(2012)
½

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who thrives on being pensive. This, unfortunately, tends to clash with his directorial style. His stories often feel like twigs strewn across a body of water, loosely tied together by vague ideas and tangential connections. Sometimes that underlying body of water is a puddle, shallow and superficial, while at other times it is an ocean, rife with meaning and forethought. When it is the former, many (myself included) find it hard to enjoy his work. But I am happy to say that The Master is certainly the latter, making for a compelling and powerful study of human nature. Specifically, it investigates the need every human being has to serve some sort of higher power - deities, cultural leaders, bosses, whatever - and how that ultimately restricts our fundamental freedoms.

From the stunning cinematography to the pitch-perfect writing, The Master is a visual and aural treat. At the very onset of the film, we are exposed to brightly lit scenery that follows with an off-beat white and blue motif. This, paired with an appropriately bouncy period-esque soundtrack, gives us the constant feeling of being out at sea, lost in the vastness of the ocean: in much the same way, it would seem, as our protagonist Freddie Quell.

Complementing the aesthetic value, every bit of the acting in The Master is positively electric. Joaquin Phoenix gives the best performance I've seen so far this year as Freddie, tearing up every seen he's in with a polar hybrid of understated rage and charming quaintness. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also gives it his all as Lancaster Dodd (or Master, as his followers refer to him) - one moment a lovable storyteller, the next a fountain of unbridled fury. Between them is Amy Adams, a cold devotee wife to Dodd who is wary of newcomer Freddy Quell.

What is most immediately striking about The Master, however, is its sense of humor. Anderson's other dramas, There Will Be Blood and Magnolia, did of course have their moments of morbidly depressing comedy - but here we laugh much more regularly and without any real pretense of pain or suffering. While there are very few nod-and-wink sequences, much of the dialogue catches us so off-guard that we can't help but smile; my audience had grins plastered on during the entire film.

The Master does run a bit long in its third act, the full film coming to almost two and a quarter hours, but complaining about pacing in a Paul Thomas Anderson film is like complaining that there's too much action in a Michael Bay production. Moreover, the director's oddities don't actually affect the tone or the emotion of the movie. The final message might have been wrapped up a bit tighter, but it's more of an ending than Anderson usually gives, and for that we should all be very grateful.

The Master is not a complicated film, but it does pose powerful, introspective questions that it asks us to answer on an individual basis. Unlike Phillip Seymour Hoffman's empty rhetoric as the Master, these ideas might actually help us become better human beings. And for those of us who have trouble with Paul Thomas Anderson's slow-burn style, rest assured there's enough here to keep you engaged. If you take the time to think about what's happening as it happens, I am confident that the movie's rich content will thoroughly nourish your soul.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (92%)

~ Søren

A Note on 70 mm - I did not have the chance to see this film in 70 mm as it was intended. So while I felt the framing was absolutely impeccable in a more standard format, I imagine with the full breadth of the 70 mm film the movie is even more spectacular. I encourage you to see The Master in that format if you are able.

A Note on Understanding The Master - Who is the Master, exactly? What is going on in Freddie's mind? The Master is, as I said, not an overly complex film. But it does invite discussion, and as such you can look forward to an in-depth analysis of the film in the coming weeks.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tomas Alfredson is an incredible director whose other internationally-acclaimed film, Let the Right One In, was one easily of the best movies of the last decade as far as I'm concerned. Well, now he's back and I am very pleased to say that his latest effort, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, easily matches up to his impressive debut.

First and foremost comes Gary Oldman's stunningly cold, quiet and collected depiction of Cold War intelligence officer George Smiley. With every facial twitch and dependable non-answer, Oldman's quiet, composed Smiley operates at his own pace with his own agenda amidst a sea of ineptitude, deceit, and treason. However, the audience soon learns that his stony face belies a complicated and troubling backstory.

Following Oldman's excellent example are Tom Hardy, playing the lower ranked intelligence agent Ricki Tarr, and Benedict Cumberbatch, playing another intelligence agent named Peter Guillam. In fact, not a single weak performance can be found in Tinker. Some of my fellow critics have made the case that this film is one of the best cases for the creation of an ensemble Oscar award, and I tend to agree.

As a director, Alfredson refuses to talk down to his audience, expecting us to pay attention and listen intently for each thread of detail that ultimately forms the full tapestry of the plot. With that in mind, many people will likely come away from the film with a different experience; I would hazard a guess that someone who goes in but does not pay acute attention might decide that Alfredson expects the audience to have read the book upon which Tinker was based.

This is, of course, not the case - although I imagine it takes less time to understand what is going on if you have that foundation, you can successfully pick up the pieces of plot and put them together if you have the patience. Overall, I cannot say that this is a film flaw, but it is something to take note of when deciding whether or not you want to see the film. Again, all the relevant information is present, but you have to be willing to watch out for it. The reward is well-worth it.

Scene composition, framing, and wordless expressions take precedence over dialogue for a large part of the movie - having said that, if someone is talking, it is probably essential to the story. This is why paying attention is critical to fully comprehending the plot. Some critics have stated that it is a film which requires multiple viewings to fully understand, but I would suggest to you that an earnest viewing attempt on the first go-round will give you a full picture of what transpired on screen. Despite this, repeat viewings of such a masterwork are inevitable, even if it is just for sheer enjoyment.

In closing, I feel I should make a quick point about the director. Every aspect of Tinker was incredible; from the actors' nuanced performances to the use of both silence and ambient music to set the tone of the film, it is clear that Alfredson truly knows how to make a movie. I believe the one thing he has left to master is a unique trademark that lets the audience know that they just saw an Alfredson film. I already get some of that feeling based on the sheer tour-de-force of his technical ability, but quirks that leaves an indelible and unique directorial stamp on his features would be more than welcomed in my opinion. Please note that his is not a critique of Tinker per se, just an observation I have made after seeing the first two major installments in his uvre.

So should you see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? Well, it's a slow-paced, old-fashioned period spy film, and that should be taken to heart when you make your decision. However, if it even remotely peaks your interest, I cannot recommend it highly enough. I have seen many movies in my life and, with willing participation from the audience, this one ranks among the very best.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 100% (96%)

~ Søren

Premium Rush
Premium Rush(2012)

When I first saw the trailer for Premium Rush, I was somewhat taken aback. Here were Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon - two phenomenal, top-of-the line actors who have thrived both in independent and Hollywood films - both choosing to star in what looked like a cliché chase film for the hipster generation. But while Joseph Gordon-Levitt does ride a fixed-gear bike, this film offers a bit more substance than we were lead to believe.

Drawing on the real-world phenomenon of New York bike messenger services, Premium Rush focuses on Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a classically roguish character whose propensity for danger and unnecessary risk make him a hot commodity. So naturally, when a very special package from an old acquaintance needs to be delivered speedily and securely, Wilee is the only man for the job. And, for reasons that become clear later in the film, a man named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) has a vested interest in stopping Wilee's run as fast as possible.

Both Michael Shannon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt don't have a lot of room to breathe in this film. Under David Koepp, they are forced into ordinary character archetypes. Shannon, whose sheer intensity and subtlety was perhaps Take Shelter's best asset, takes on the overdone persona of a gruff, tragic blue-collar man with a tinny New York accent. Gordon-Levitt, who has a big talent for serious drama, is saddled with long, exciting bicycle chase scenes interspersed with glib transitional dialogue. But in the end, while these characters do feel 2-dimensional, they are well suited to the story of Premium Rush.

This all makes for a fun, action-packed romp of a movie. The bike riding is clear - no shaky-cam to be found - and some very well-timed humor is peppered throughout the story to keep the audience smiling. Director David Koepp also made the choice to frame many shots in the movie as if they were part of a map application on a smart phone, which makes the movie feel modern and relevant while giving it a pleasing overall aesthetic.

Still, the film does run into two major issues despite its reasonable 91 minute runtime. First and foremost, subpar pacing makes Premium Rush feel longer than it should given its subject matter. Throughout the film, we are periodically shown flashbacks used to explain current events. In the first quarter or so of the movie, these moments are placed perfectly so that we get just enough background information to understand the proceedings. Unfortunately, as Premium Rush continues, we are subjected to longer and longer flashbacks which distract the audience from Joseph Gordon-Levitt's protagonist and the matter at hand.

Moreover, many of these sequences focus on the side characters of Wilee's ex, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and rival, Manny (Wolé Parks) - but we are never given satisfactory reason to care about these people or their motivations. One particular scene midway through the film where Manny and Wilee are locked in contest feels shoehorned because their rivalry isn't fleshed out until a flashback near the film's end. Because of this, Manny and Vanessa feel more like plot devices than real and relatable foils for the protagonist.

The second major issue is tonal, something that plagued that other major blockbuster starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt this summer: The Dark Knight Rises. As I said earlier, most of the film is quite light with some laugh-out-loud moments that really help the audience connect with the characters. However, a dark backstory both for the package that Wilee has to deliver, as well as for the character of Bobby Monday, are slowly revealed during the film's second and third acts. While these stories are plausible and give some sense of realism to the plot, they feel incongruous with the pervasive running jokes and genuinely charming bicycle scenes.

Your money could be spent on much worse than Premium Rush. Koepp's direction is solid, the primary actors are top-knotch, despite a lack of room to express themselves in their given roles, and the plot is fun; its most redeeming feature is ultimately its ability to keep the audience guessing and invested in its characters and story. I think we all know that Premium Rush won't win any awards this year, but as an action film, it's a solid, smart offering to round out the summer of 2012.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (77%)

~ Søren

The Intouchables

Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's latest film is a fascinating character study that approaches many of the themes handled in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And while it doesn't quite match the dramatic depth or raw honesty of that film, The Intouchables largely succeeds in its marriage of emotion and humor. As a sylistic, feel-good flick with strong individual elements, I can see why The Intouchables was an easy choice for last year's César Award ceremony.

The film tells the story of Driss (Omary Sy), a young guy from the streets of Paris, who finds himself caring for a wealthy tetraplegic art connoisseur named Philippe (François Cluzet). As their relationship begins to unfold, they find that their mutual companionship is far more valuable than the physical services they can provide one another. The premise if heartwarming, even if it is a bit cliché.

Still, Nakache and Toledano manage to coax out some incredible performances from Sy and Cluzet which keep the movie afloat. Driss in particular shines as the looser, more humorous of the two; his willingness to break the stifling conventions of "higher society" makes for some very funny crowd-pleasing gags. What is most compelling about these two characters, however, is how each of their drastically different stories about life in Paris weave together to comment on two very different aspects of the same world. And indeed, the story of the highfalutin Philippe does come to a moving ending that directly ties to his relationship with Driss. On the other hand, Driss' tale comes to a quiet, unremarkable, and unexplained ending which keeps his arc from having a real sense of purpose.

And in the greater context of the film, it is unfortunate that Driss' story gets shortchanged. Looking back to Michael Haneke's 2005 film Caché, everything from French-Algerian relations to racial tension is explored. In one small scene in that film, a black biker nearly hits Daniel Auteuil's character. Their very brief but heated exchange says more about the underlying issues in France than all of The Intouchables, which is too bad considering the opportunity to take a risk and go for poignancy is certainly there.

I think this speaks to the general failings of The Intouchables - the way it handles its potentially touchy subject matter is a microcosm of how Nakache and Toledano approached the film's structure. The film opens with a visually and aurally beautiful scene which eloquently introduces us to both Driss and Philippe; the way the imagery is presented and how perfectly the dialogue comes across feels like the beginnings of a truly avant garde film. But by the time the audience is called back to this gorgeous opening sequence, little stylistic or substantive precedence has been given for their debut scene together. This is because the audience is aware at the film's end that the plot has fallen into a by-wrote formula that so many other movies succumb to, and this stands in stark contrast to its intriguing introductory scene.

As aforementioned, The Intouchables does eschew its potential for mediocrity through the strength of its lead actors, but that underlying feeling of "been there, done that" is nevertheless pervasive. Reservations aside, I would certainly recommend the film. It's funny and it's sweet, and its heart is in the right place - my disappointment comes simply at its unwillingness to go that extra mile.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80%

~ Søren

The Bourne Legacy

MIKE'S REVIEW

A week after I saw The Bourne Legacy, a friend called me up telling me that he was going to see it that night. Summing up my feelings, I told him "Don't do it, it's s****y." The film stumbles between its clear three-act structure with little substance to hold onto. The climax really fizzled in one extended chase scene, complete with a villain who emerged at the last second only to serve as a final physical antagonist. I was also looking forward to see how they'd do the "Bourne ending" this time with Moby's orchestrated version of Extreme Ways, but director Tony Gilroy failed to deliver. That they couldn't get my favorite aspect of the Bourne franchise right was a pretty big deal-breaker for me.

The two main characters, Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) and Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), do do a great job giving the film agreeable protagonists. In fact, I think Renner's performance is the highlight of the film. I particularly loved his odd matter-of-fact attitude about the espionage world.

If it wasn't for the bad climax, and even more awful last shot, it would have been a runaway success for Renner and Weisz - which I would've been very satisfied with. Having said that, I am looking forward to Renner's performance as Aaron Cross in future installments; the series does show promise in that regard. Ultimately, I hope that Bournes five and six do better than this one, because right now this installment is wholly missable.

SØREN'S REVIEW

The Bourne series has long been very near and dear to me. I was unfamiliar with the original novels by Robert Ludlum when I first went to see The Bourne Identity in the the theater, but afterwards I knew what I had seen was special. Matt Damon, along with director Doug Liman and writer Tony Gilroy, had restored the action genre to its former glory. Smart choreography, a well-thought out plot, and a strong lead performance lead the entire movie industry to follow in-step - even the 007 reboot seemed to echo the Bourne films.

Needless to say, I was very excited to see The Bourne Legacy. While the prospect of no Matt Damon/Jason Bourne character had me worried, Jeremy Renner has proved with The Hurt Locker and The Town that he can give the star performance the series deserves. And indeed, The Bourne Legacy's strongest asset is Renner, whose lighthearted, nonchalant Aaron Cross is a far cry from the serious, stony-faced Jason Bourne of the previous films.

Unfortunately, The Bourne Legacy suffer from the direction of Tony Gilroy. As a franchise mainstay, Gilroy has been the mastermind behind the complex, fascinating stories of Treadstone and Blackbriar from previous films. And unsurprisingly, Legacy's narrative really shines; it adds to the series' mythos and sets the Aaron Cross character up to be an interesting foil for Jason Bourne. But in the end, Gilroy doesn't manage to pull off the same deft pacing that previous films managed to achieve.

Having said that, I have always felt The Bourne Supremacy was the black sheep of the trilogy; it definitely took Paul Greengrass a second go-round with the material to get it right with The Bourne Ultimatum. So perhaps, given another shot, Gilroy may create a film whose quality that matches the story he is trying to tell. And maybe, just maybe, we may see the Bourne/Cross team-up that everyone is now waiting to see.

PODCAST REVIEW

WARNING: Spoilers abound in the podcast, so wait until after the film if you'd like some things to remain a surprise.

You can listen to the review online here: http://bit.ly/Ncdm9w

Mike's Verdict: Movie Meh
Søren's Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 80% (78%)

The Dark Knight Rises

Here's how our Dueling Reviews format works: each contributor writes an independent, abbreviated, spoiler-free review of the film. Then, the contributors come together in a podcast and discuss the movie in depth.

SØREN'S REVIEW

At this point, I think that most people are aware that I just plain old didn't like The Dark Knight. The film won endless praise from critics, fans, and audiences everywhere, but I found it to be a bloated, scattered film that relied too much on the magnetic performance by the late Heath Ledger. Instead of focusing on Batman and really giving the character some depth, heart, and soul as he did in Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan seemed to regard the man in the cape with distaste, in a manner similar to so many of Gotham's more cynical residents. So I think a lot of people expected me to hate The Dark Knight Rises, too. Nevertheless, I approached it with an open mind and the results were rather unexpected.

That's right, I enjoyed it.

Sure, I had a few nitpicks here and there - Tom Hardy's Bane sounds like an autotuned Sean Connery, and the film does go on forever - but on a fundamental level, Rises is simply a better film than its predecessor. It follows a coherent narrative, it celebrates its protagonist, and, perhaps most importantly, it seems to genuinely embrace comic book culture. From the first few scenes to the rousing conclusion, I felt that Christopher Nolan had finally accepted the world of Batman wholeheartedly.

At its core, Rises succeeds for two reasons. The first, and perhaps more noticeable, is that it forgoes the pitfall of The Dark Knight by focusing on its plot instead of its villain. Indeed, there is a marked difference in coherence between a plot-centric villain (The Dark Knight Rises) and a villain-centric plot (The Dark Knight); whereas in N0lan's last film every scene felt like filler material biding time before we got a chance to see the Joker again, in Rises, Bane functions simply to drive the story forward and to emphasize Bruce Wayne's growth as a character.

The other major difference is that where The Dark Knight celebrated despair and the fall of a hero, The Dark Knight Rises celebrates the hero himself, and in doing so lends a true sense of hope and positivity to the film.* What I think Nolan understands now is that people actually like Batman - quite a lot, actually. We want this crazy man in a suit to succeed, and when he doesn't, it leaves the audience feeling blue. I'm not calling for every film to end with sunshines and rainbows, but there is a reason Batman is one of the foremost icons of the superhero genre - audiences want to see him triumph. And so ultimately, because he got these two key aspects right, I walked away from a Christopher Nolan film having genuinely enjoyed myself for the first time.

So that's what that feels like.

*One might argue that The Dark Knight should get a pass for this because all three films are part of a single, contiguous storyline, but a film should be able to stand on its own two legs - and in that respect, The Dark Knight does not measure up.

STUART'S REVIEW

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight alluded to a time when Gotham city would no longer need Batman. And with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan finally asks the questions we have been waiting to hear the answers to. How would Batman become the immortal symbol of justice for citizens and fear for criminals? What did Bruce Wayne still have to give the people of Gotham? Would Bruce Wayne ever truly be able to retire from the role of Batman? These were the big questions that raced through moviegoers' minds waiting for The Dark Knight Rises to come out.

The Dark Knight Rises follows Bruce as he is coaxed out of retirement and makes his return - as well as the consequences thereof. A subtle but noteworthy point the first act shows us is how fused Bruce is to his alter ego. When he retires from being Batman, he retires from life altogether. The first act makes for a suspenseful set-up, showing what the physical, mental, and social costs of being Batman have been so far and prompting speculation as to what the ramifications will be for putting on the cowl once again.

Bane makes for a fantastic villain, both due to Tom Hardy's acting and to Nolan's writing. Rather than portraying him as the muscle-bound clod shown in Batman and Robin, Nolan rewards fans of the comics with a proper intellectual and physical counterpart to Batman. That said, I felt that his character development and agenda aren't quite up to par. Bane's background, while original to the film, is overly discussed, and his agenda just seems to touch too closely to the Joker's anarchy from The Dark Knight. Nevertheless, Bane's multilayered efforts to break Batman are impressive enough to hold rank alongside the villains of the last two films.

As the final chapter of the trilogy, Nolan definitely delivers on suspense, drama, and action. However the story itself, both independently and as part of a series, could have been better - especially in comparison to both Nolan's The Dark Knight, as well as to other 'final battle' Batman stories like Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.

PODCAST REVIEW

WARNING: Spoilers abound in the podcast, so wait until after the film if you'd like some things to remain a surprise.

You can listen to the review online here: http://bit.ly/MZh0yw

Søren's Verdict: Movie Win
Stuart's Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 80% (85%)

Before we conclude, we here at Movie Fail Reviews would like to once again offer our condolences to the families affected by the Aurora shootings. If you are able, please consider donating to the Aurora Victim Relief Fund; you can visit the CBS Denver page here (http://cbsloc.al/QWafU8) for instructions on how to send your contribution either online or by snail mail. You may also donate by purchasing Aurora, a piece composed by Hans Zimmer in memory of the victims (http://bit.ly/TogRZ8).

Prometheus
Prometheus(2012)

Here's how our Dueling Reviews format works: each contributor writes an independent, abbreviated, spoiler-free review of the film. Then, the contributors come together in a podcast and discuss the movie in depth.

SØREN'S REVIEW

I will perhaps be deemed a heretic for what I am about to say, but here it is: I am not a huge fan of Ridley Scott's science fiction films. To be sure, Blade Runner and Alien are massive achievements in the genre, and I have the utmost respect for the name he made for himself in the industry with those movies. They are technically magnificent, with solid stories and intriguing premises. It is the emotional distance that his protagonists (e.g. Deckard and Ridley) seem to have from the audience that keeps me at bay. In truth, my own favorite Scott film remains to this day the funny, off-beat conman film Matchstick Men; Roy, Frank, and Angela all are such personable characters with clear emotions that I find them far more relatable, and the film therefore more watchable.

With this in mind, while I came into Prometheus expecting nothing short of technical perfection, I also was not expecting to enjoy myself. Much to my surprise, I really liked the ride Scott takes the audience on from the very opening scene. Immaculately toned, perfectly cast, and sprinkled with some morbid, light humor, Prometheus is a return to form for the director and a real representation of what science fiction has the potential to still be in this era of tired plots and overused CGI. If nothing else, I appreciate the existence of Prometheus and I hope it can inspire many more filmmakers to follow in Scott's footsteps once again.

Ultimately the film does stumble, particularly as it enters its final act. Poor pacing rears its ugly face again, and the climax suffers for it as too many pauses in the action stifle the onscreen spectacle. Still, this is a relatively minor issue. What really irked me about the film was instead its wasted potential. The foundational story for Weyland's mission is fascinating; unfortunately, Scott seemed so dead-set on returning to the tone of Alien that he forces horror elements into the film and works around them, instead of fleshing out his initial plot thread. And to be honest, the scares work; I was squirming in my seat at some of the more, shall we say, intimate time we get with the extraterrestrial lifeforms. Still, I would have preferred Scott really take his premise of the origin of humanity and run with it; after the first half of the film, he seems to surrender that idea for a sequel and sticks to old-fashioned thrill sequences instead. It's far from debilitating, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

ARI'S REVIEW

The Prometheus of greek mythology stole fire from the gods and gave it to his own creation, humanity. Similarly, it is implied that the alien "Engineers" of Ridley Scott')s newest film helped create Earth's primitive civilizations. The questions that the crew of the spaceship Prometheus wish to ask of the Engineers are the same questions we would have asked of the Greek titan: Why? Why did you create us? Why are we special? Your enjoyment of this film may depend on how badly you need there to be an answer to these questions. And if there is any certain moral that can be gleaned from Prometheus, it's that you should be careful what you wish for.

That's not to say Prometheus is only existential pondering with no resolution. Ridley Scott has crafted one of the most visually arresting and all-around intense experiences I've had at the movies in some time. It left me shaking. The film's status as a distant prequel to Alien is well-deserved; a certain scene halfway through the film will go down as one of the most bodily horrifying scenes since the original chestburster. However, the film's horror and tension are balanced by gorgeous vistas of space, as well as the scenery and architecture of the alien planet. Scott's use of 3D surpasses even James Cameron's Avatar, immersing you even further into his sci-fi vision.

The characters of Prometheus are wonderfully three-dimensional as well. The possibility of meeting their maker means something different to each Prometheus crew member, and the film does not sacrifice their personal development in favor of scares or visuals. Among the actors, the two standouts are Noomi Rapace as Elisabeth Shaw, and Michael Fassbender as the android David. Rapace brings to Shaw vulnerability without weakness, creating a female character as solid as Ripley without being a clone. Likewise, opinion will not be divided on Fassbender, who becomes a character as earnest as he is dangerous.

What will divide opinion on Prometheus is that it does not hold any answers. No one finds out why humanity exists or the agenda of the Engineers. This lack of resolution is understandably frustrating. However, science fiction's greatest strength has always been the ability to use the fantastic to comment upon our own world, outside of the theater. Perhaps what Prometheus is trying to say is that the Answer to life, the universe, and everything cannot be found; it can only be sought, and therein lies the beauty. As with the film itself, the meaning is in the journey - not in the destination.

PODCAST REVIEW

WARNING: Spoilers abound in the podcast, so wait until after the film if you'd like some things to remain a surprise.

You can listen to the review online here: http://bit.ly/LigdHo

Søren's Verdict: Movie Win
Ari's Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (85%)

The Cabin in the Woods

Here's how our Dueling Reviews format works: each contributor writes an independent, abbreviated, spoiler-free review of the film. Then, the contributors come together in a podcast and discuss the movie in depth.

SØREN'S REVIEW

The first 5 minutes of The Cabin in the Woods is a perfectly written hybrid of idle dialogue, sudden shock, and scantily-clad females: and that is how you get an audience involved in your picture. So while the remainder of the film doesn't mix its ingredients to a ratio of quite that Reese's Peanut Butter cup-level of perfection, it certainly manages to surprise and entertain in equal amounts. Lampooning the horror genre isn't too difficult these days, but pulling off the execution is definitely a feat worthy of praise.

I think my biggest disappointment, and remember that this is relative to the rest of the film's superior quality, is the fact that the twists and turns promised by the film's initial set-up come to a halt around the middle of the film. To the dismay of the audience, the scenario set up in the first act or so is pretty much the long and short of the surprise - no more revelations await the viewer. I wasn't totally turned off by this, but as I slowly began to realize that nothing else was going to shock me, some of the excitement value of the film deadened. Of course, the overt metaphors of the story offer a lot of food of thought, giving the film more depth.

Joss Whedon's sharp dialogue is evident in the off-beat banter, and Drew Goddard's solid directing carries the film just fine. I don't want to give away too much about the plot, but what I can say is that I don't think I've seen such a bizarre movie in quite a long time - and I'm not sure that its strangeness totally works in the film's favor. Don't get me wrong, though; subtly weaving philosophical quandaries with absurdity and parody can only really be achieved when the people steering the ship are slightly off-kilter geniuses, and it is because of this that The Cabin in the Woods largely succeeds - it's just nothing to totally lose your head over.

Side Note: The puns will stop when morale improves.

ARI'S REVIEW

Before I begin my spoiler-free review, allow me to show you something:

That poster for Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's "loving hate letter" to horror films has been taped to my wall since January 2009. Notice that the release date claims Cabin will be out in 2010. Unfortunately, due to MGM's financial issues, it was not released until 2012. Thankfully, Lionsgate came to the rescue, allowing us to see what we have been waiting for for 3 years. I don't give every film that much of my life. Equally, if not more impressive, is the fact that in those 3 years, I somehow avoided every sneak peak, script review, and festival screening report that came my way; with the exception of the theatrical trailer, I made it to the theater yesterday with not a shred of The Cabin in the Woods spoiled for myself. I cannot suggest more strongly that you do the same; we will do our absolute utmost in this piece to avoid any plot-specific details.

Alright, let's dive into it. I immensely enjoyed Cabin in the Woods. As a deconstruction of horror films, Cabin manages that rare feat of spoofing, criticizing, and celebrating its genre all at once. Not an easy feat, as comedy-horror is one of the hardest acts to balance in film. Most attempts end up feeling like a mash-up of scenes from two tonally different films. Cabin, however, blends comedy and horror together more coherently then I have ever seen in a film. The plot isn't funny and then scary, or scary and then funny. Cabin is consistently hilarious and frightening throughout its running time. Director Drew Goddard has achieved a perfect balance of tone, which is even more impressive in light of the sheer number of moving parts and layers that the film contains. While Cabin relies on the existence of the past couple decades' horror films as meat for its deconstruction grinder, I am confident that this accomplishment in tone will change the genre.

Fans of Joss Whedon will be happy to see several of his regulars turning in solid performances, such as Fran Kranz, Amy Acker, and Tom Lenk. Chris Hemsworth hints at the star power he's shown in Thor and Star Trek, but Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford steal the show in roles I can't bear to spoil. Newcomers Anna Hutchison and Kristen Connolly maintain substantial presence in a cast full of scene-stealers, which makes it sound like I'm not giving them as much credit as they deserve.

Cabin in the Woods may not be for everyone. The film is quite "meta," and anyone who doesn't have at least a passing familiarity with horror movie tropes may have a sense of being left out of the joke. There's also a scare midway through the movie that would've been more effective had it not been set up in an earlier scene. However, it's a small blight upon an extremely enjoyable whole. Cabin in the Woods is a very, very fun film that will defy your expectations. The positive mark it leaves on the horror genre may indeed be felt for years to come, but I am, for the moment, far more concerned with how soon I can see it again.

PODCAST REVIEW

You can listen to the review online here: http://bit.ly/Ihjmai

Søren's Verdict: Movie Win
Ari's Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (86%)

The Dark Knight
½

I cannot tell you how sorrowfully my hopes were dashed when I first saw The Dark Knight in theaters. Unfortunately, The Dark Knight refuses to realize both the limitations of an audience's attention span, and how much plot one can squeeze into one film. Christopher Nolan created what, as disparate elements, are absolutely amazing components of a movie; logically, one would expect these should have come together in a mind-boggling display of superhero goodness. Alas...

Before I get into the film itself, let me make it clear that Batman is hands-down my favorite superhero. Also, I should note that I did not hate Batman Begins; on the contrary, I actually rather appreciated what Nolan was trying to do in his attempt to reboot comic book icon for the big screen and eagerly awaited the sequel.

To address the elephant in the room, I confess that I loved the character of the Joker. Heath Ledger gave us a performance for the ages that was absolutely deserving of its subsequent Academy Award. Never before has a live-action villain, in anything that I've seen, reached the levels of lunacy and depravity of Ledger's Joker before or since.

Nevertheless, must ask all of those fans of The Dark Knight: did you truly love the film itself, or did you just love the Joker?

The first twenty minutes, which are essentially the first two scenes starring the enigmatic villain, had me on the edge of my seat. I was ready for Nolan to bring down the house and top off my list of favorite films. I thought to myself, how could he possibly steer a film down from such impressive heights? Well, as they say, the bigger they come...

The aforementioned brilliance of the Joker seems to be the shiny respite from this tarnished film, replete with pacing and tonal issues. Each scene the audience has to sit through listening to Bruce Wayne whine and Harvey Dent carry out his political campaign appears to be tiding us over until the next sadistic act from The Clown Prince.

But I thought this movie was called The Dark Knight? Isn't that Batman?

Ah - well here's the clever thing. I'm pretty sure that Nolan really had a secret title for this film, tucked away for no one to see, called The Clown Prince. He never shared this with anyone, though, and so the producers just assumed that they should run with its original title despite limited involvement from the title character.

Okay, maybe that's not true. What is true, is that Batman is hardly the star of the show, making only the briefest appearances at the introduction and in the grand finale. The snarky, haughty, rich Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), on the other hand, gets a chance to show the world how annoying and uninteresting he is as Nolan's version of Batman's alter ego.

All of that aside, I believe that the biggest downfall of this film lies in its story. At two and half hours, The Dark Knight does its best to fit what feels like 50 volumes worth of comic and graphic novel information into its runtime. Giving the film a distinctly overstuffed feeling.

And that's all without even mentioning how wasted Maggie Gyllenhaal, normally such a compelling actress, was in this movie, or how nonchalantly Nolan incorporated Two-Face into the plotline. He successfully managed to destroy the legacy of a major Batman villain by giving him literally 10 minutes of screen time, leading many fans to cry out in disappointment.

In the end, this film consists of a mishmash of mostly unfocused ideas which, had they been reorganized and re-cut, probably could have solidified this as a tour de force of modern filmmaking. As it stands, Nolan merely produced a decent film which happens to contain some truly brilliant individual performances. It's not a bad film by a long shot, but it is certainly a missed opportunity for all involved.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 70%

~ Søren

A Note About Too Much - This film easily could have been split into two separate films, alleviating its bloated plot. In fact, there is one scene in particular, which I'll simply call "the hospital scene," which I believe would have been an excellent start to a sequel film also starring the Joker (and perhaps another villain).

A Note About Batman - Batman lack the infamous batnipples, which is a plus, some serious problems remain with his characterization:

a) He's supposed to be the world's greatest detective, and yet he never does any detective work in these film adaptations - that bothers me.

b) What's going on with his voice?

Brave
Brave(2012)

Pixar and trust - for many, those two words are synonymous. Since November 22, 1995, when Pixar produced Toy Story, audiences have trusted in the studio to tell great stories executed with stunning presentation. Pixar greats include The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E, and although Toy Story still remains one my favorite films of all time, I could go on to name practically all of them as examples of Pixar's quality (with the exception of Toy Story 2; I have no idea why some people enjoy that more than the first). But what would be the point of that? Everyone knows Pixar's legacy at this point.

Each of those films presented characters that we cared about, placed in situations that audiences were invested in. It wasn't until Cars that most people's personal log of history deemed a Pixar film a misstep. And while I agree for the most part that the film was not up to par with the rest of the Pixar pantheon, the film did not disappoint in filling the studio's wallet, making an estimated 5 billion dollars from merchandise alone. So from the company's standpoint, Cars 2 was a no-brainer.

The fact that the franchise is studio head John Lasseter's baby probably didn't hurt, either. The Toy Story franchise is his creation, too, and that got a trilogy - so who's to say Cars 3 isn't turning the corner now? Lasseter also directed A Bug's Life, which didn't get a sequel, but who likes bugs anyhow. Anyway, after Cars 2 audiences began to lose trust in Pixar, leaving people like to think that perhaps Pixar sequels are cursed. Good thing Monsters University doesn't have a 2 attached to it, it being a prequel and all.

The studio moved forward with this financial mindset in place and created Brave, a film which was helmed by three different writer/directors over the course of its production. First was Brenda Chapman, director of The Prince of Egypt, who had initially set most of the movie in a snowy environment. She was later replaced due to creative differences by Mark Andrews, director of the Pixar short One Man Band, who promptly got rid of the wintry setting. Steve Purcell, from Sam & Max fame, was also brought in to co-direct alongside Andrews and Chapman.

Despite this managerial muddle, Brave is still the most technically ambitious Pixar film since Finding Nemo. The main character, Merida, is a redhead comprised of 1,500 individually sculpted curves and distinct points in a three-dimensional space that are programmed to bounce and interact in relation to one another via a new software system. Likewise, the shots in the films are composed wonderfully, perfectly showcasing the rolling Scottish highlands. Indeed, this is the best-looking Pixar film to date, requiring a fundamental rewrite of Pixar's animation technology to get through production.

Yet story-wise it is the most contained of Pixar's library, sporting a plot more comparable to their short films. Brave is a simple parable - a first for Pixar. This is not a bad thing per se, but film's strange story structure hurts the overall narrative. I loved the cold opening of of Brave - it was emotional, funny, and epic, ending with the title booming onto the screen. It was the perfect set-up for the film, but unfortunately Brave did not proceed to deliver on all of its intriguing premises.

Having had the fortune to see the film twice, I think I can identify the film's downfall. The first act of the film, which totals up to about 40 minutes of footage, is Pixar-great. However, the second act, which comes in at 30 minutes, is decidedly subpar. And it's not because of it being "too Disney;" I don't even understand how that's a criticism since Disney animation has always been great, but I digress.

No, the fault of the second half of the film is that it does not deliver on the setups of the first half. For example, Merida's archery skills only turns out to be a small detail of her character. Moreover, there is no epic journey to embark on or battle to be invested in - only Merida wandering in the woods trying to figure out how to solve the film's central conflict. The third act, thankfully, swings in with just 20 minutes left and gives the story a fast-paced, attention grabbing, emotional conclusion. Unfortunately, this abrupt improvement makes the second act feel even more like filler, leaving the characters to quietly go through the motions.

Despite these issues I still enjoyed Brave, because I understood it for what it is. It's a fairy tale, with a small cast of grounded characters whose voice actors give performances that are authentic and full of heart (with Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, and Craig Ferguson starring, what more could you expect?). Patrick Doyle's soundtrack is also in line with the film's tone and authenticity, lending to its charm.

Sure it's predicable, but that's what parables are. The fact is that none of the movie's faults are film-breaking, and at the end of the day, it's still a solid tale - a story which I liked in spite its generally conservative nature. Brave made me feel compassion, grief, and excitement; I constantly wanted to see where the characters in the film ended up, and had a genuinely enjoyable time along the way.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80%

~ Mike

A Note on La Luna - La Luna is the short film that plays before Brave in theaters. Directed by Enrico Casarosa, a native-born Italian whose upbringing was obviously a big influence on La Luna. The three characters, a grandfather, a father, and a son, represent three generations of men from one family who drift out into the sea on a little rowboat.

The animation in this short was actually painted over because the director didn't want that too-perfect computer-generated look, giving it an overall impressionist feel to the motion. Strangely, I couldn't help but see connections to Nintendo video games in this film. The water and babble-speak seemed to echo Zelda: The Wind Waker, and the moon reminded me of Super Mario Galaxy; I would be very surprised if the team hadn't seen those games before designing the film's aesthetics. In any case, La Luna is a truly attractive film to look at.

La Luna tells an amusing tale of characters to whom I became emotionally attached. This, combined with the stunning visuals, makes for a short worth the price of admission alone. La Luna is a beautiful piece of animated storytelling, and easily stands as my favorite Pixar short to date; I look forward to more from Enrico Casarosa as he writes the script for the 2014 Pixar film The Good Dinosaur.

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson has a special place in my heart. Back in 2007, during one of the many times my mother sat me down to watch some obscure film she'd heard about, she popped in a film that sounded incredibly drab to my younger self entitled The Darjeeling Limited. To my surprise, ninety-one minutes later, a broad smile had crept across my face as the credits rolled across the screen. And for the first time in my life, I took a movie I had just watched, ran to my room, and proceeded to re-watch the entire thing. It was then that I decided I must learn more about Wes Anderson and his entirely strange-but-charming body of work.

After watching everything from Bottle Rocket to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I realized that while I wasn't so attached to Anderson's films on the whole, I was a sucker for his quirky filmmaking and honest, good-natured storytelling. I eagerly awaited his next feature, a strange-looking stop-motion animated movie called Fantastic Mr. Fox. Unlike his earlier films which I merely enjoyed, I was as blown away by Fox as I was by The Darjeeling Limited. It seemed to me Anderson was on a true winning streak with his films.

Now it's 2012, and Anderson is looking to go for a hat trick - and I'm happy to report that Moonrise Kingdom is exactly what I had hoped for, and more; aided by Darjeeling co-writer Roman Coppola, Anderson's story of young love perfectly captures the themes of innocence, loyalty, and camaraderie. Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Darjeeling Limited remain dear to me, but suffered from some pretty major pacing issues. Moonrise Kingdom eschews this pitfall using tight plot beats and spunky dialogue to land on both feet with arms outstretched, earning a ten out of ten.

Aesthetically, the film takes on a decidedly toy box-like motif. From the lighthouse on one end of the idyllic New English island where the story takes place to the seemingly utopian Bishop household, the movie feels like a tale told from the perspective of a small child. In this way, the film constantly echoes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou by smartly drawing from that film's excellent cinematography for use in Moonrise Kingdom; his direction maintains its Uys-esque kitch throughout, replete with long pans and overt zooms. Similarly, Anderson's time with stop-motion in Fantastic Mr. Fox gives him the freedom to play with his characters in a much more cartoonish manner, employing some magnificent principles of the animated world to manipulate his protagonists.

Newcomer Jared Gilman as camp scout Sam Shakusky is visually reminiscent of a young Daniel Radcliffe, but the former shows a remarkable potential for growth as an actor which was not nearly as apparent in the latter. Gilman stars opposite Kara Hayward, an oddball of an actress who relishes every moment of her big screen debut under Wes Anderson's guidance. Together their chemistry creates one of the most awkward, strange on-screen love stories I've ever seen, and yet remains more emotionally compelling than any other romance film in recent memory.

Supporting characters include an exuberant Ed Norton, a big Wes Anderson fan himself, who clearly enjoys his role as a Khaki Scout leader. Bruce Willis also makes a notable turn in the film as a policeman; it seems that once taken out of the spotlight, a softer, subtler side to the prolific actor manifests itself (see Pulp Fiction). Interestingly, the choice to include Bob Balaban as the narrator, Balaban being a recurrent player in the equally-dry Christopher Guest comedies, was an inspired choice as well; I look forward to seeing him in other films by this director. Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Anderson's favorites Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman all round-out a perfect cast.

If you don't like Wes Anderson, you probably won't enjoy this film nearly as much as I did. This is not to say you need prior familiarity with the director's uvre to have a good time with Moonrise Kingdom, but if his filmmaking doesn't do it for you, this movie will probably feel like more of the same old silliness. Granted, I think even Anderson haters will get something out of the touching central plot, but for those of us who are willing to accept his strange charm as a director, this movie will rank among his very best. For my part, I am confident in declaring this as both his best film, and as the best film I've seen this year. Moonrise Kingdom should be a strong contestant for Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 100% (99%)

~ Søren

Kung Fu Panda 2
½

I can safely say that I haven't had as much fun watching a movie in awhile as I did when I saw Kung Fu Panda 2. As a sequel to the much-lauded Kung Fu Panda, it succeeds on every front, and as a piece of cinema, it makes for a compelling, dramatic addition to the Dreamworks uvre. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a rousing achievement of animation.

The first thing instantly noticeable in Kung Fu Panda 2 is the incredibly high level of 3D artistry. Surpassing the original in both beauty and intricacy, every 3D animated sequence in the movie is a wonder to behold. The style of the Kung Fu Panda universe has been even more fully realized here, with clever character designs for the animal citizens of China permeating the scenery and architecture. Perhaps more importantly, the improvements in 3D have given the animators the ability to instill more subtleties into the facial animation of their characters, allowing for wordless exchanges more akin to a live-action film that greatly increase the emotional resonance of the film.

Having mentioned the 3D visuals, I must mention the fact that 2D cartoon scenes are also here in far greater force than they were in the previous entry. They're used primarily as a tool for flashbacks, but a part of me feels like they were inserted to help expedite production and cut down on having to do more fully-rendered 3D. However, they don't really detract from the feel of the movie, and while I don't think they match up to their 3D counterparts or even previous Dreamworks cel-animated films like The Prince of Egypt, they are at least stylistically distinct and consistent.

Jack Black returns as Po, the immovable, indomitable panda who has come to be known as the Dragon Warrior. Jack Black once again does his Jack Black thing in perhaps the only role where it has ever felt... right - right to the point of being genuinely endearing. In fact, I would say that one of the greatest triumphs of this movie, and of the franchise as a whole, is how infectious Po's enthusiasm for kung fu really is. At multiple points during the film, as Po gives his exposition on other kung fu masters, his fangirling become the audience's fangirling and we become as excited as he is to see these fictional characters jump into the fray.

What I'm trying to say is that this movie got me to empathize with a panda, and that's not nothing.

The supporting cast is still as strong as ever, with Angelina Jolie and James Hong (Balls of Fury) as Po's adoptive goose father getting the particularly meaty roles. Tantalizing bits of a blossoming relationship between Tigress and Po hint strongly at a climax in the next film, and I'm excited to see it come to fruition. Likewise, James Hong's character plays a much larger role in Kung Fu Panda 2, and his dialogue with Po is witty while carrying some strong emotional subtext. Mantis, Monkey, Viper, and Shifu are all serve complimentary roles, but their limited screen time is a bit disappointing considering the talent behind the characters.

Gary Oldman's Shen wants to introduce a new pecking order to the people of China.
Gary Oldman is also stand-out as the wonderfully conceived peacock Shen, who is as evil as he is beautiful to look at. Shen makes a for a formidable villain, with clear, though somewhat cliché, motives, and dialogue that is both eccentric and witty. Once again, the sleek character design fantastic; Shen is in fact so aesthetically interesting that it almost distracts from the typically strong performance from the veteran actor. Almost.

Character development is the true focus of Kung Fu Panda 2. The entire film centers around Po's development as the Dragon Warrior, but gone are the days of people not taking him seriously; with the exception of the villain, most of the supporting cast now accepts the events of the last movie and sees Po for the master he has since become. The sequel instead makes an effort to delve into Po's past, exploring his origins and how he came to be the adopted son of a goose-come-noodle entrepreneur - and surprisingly, I was quite impressed by how invested I was getting in Po's growth, as well as his interpersonal interactions with Tigress. I will say that some pacing issues hold back the film, namely the speed at which the plot moves forward at certain points, but it's certainly not offensive to the point of being a deal-breaker.

And of course, Kung Fu Panda 2 is hilarious. I found myself laughing from the first scene onward, as nearly every joke hit home. The humor feels a bit different than the first film, where it revolved primarily around Po's out-of-place personality and stature, and instead focuses on gags and clever action to bring on the smiles. I found the humor to be perfectly suited to the unique tone of the film, giving it a lighthearted air despite its somewhat dark plot.

I cannot really recommend Kung Fu Panda 2 enough, particularly to fans of the first film. The team at Dreamworks outdid themselves with this sequel, and the strong implications of a third have me quite excited - and that's that in and of itself is a feat. While the movie is not quite on par with the behemoth that is How to Train Your Dragon, every fan of animation, children's films, or comedies should be picking this one up regardless.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90%

~ Søren

A Note on Plot Origins - The plot of Kung Fu Panda 2 is very much reminiscent of the story of Moses, and I'm curious to see where they go with that thread in the next film. Once you've finished the movie, you'll see what potential there is to run with that idea. I mention this because I find it amusing that the same studio that produced The Prince of Egypt, an animated telling of the story of Moses, would go back to that very story for another film 13 years later.

Take Shelter
Take Shelter(2011)
½

Back in 2011, a little film called Take Shelter made a big splash in the critical world. Starring Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire) and Jessica Chastain (The Help, Tree of Life), Take Shelter explores one man's struggle with his responsibilities as a father and a husband. Amidst the drama, a helping of science fiction permeates the landscape and throughout the film, the audience is left wondering about the protagonist's grip on reality.

It is this very dichotomy between the real and the unreal that keeps the viewer engaged during Take Shelter. Curtis LaForche is a simple man leading a simple life against the backdrop of a rural town in Ohio. As the movie progresses, we are let into Curtis's mind, and we begin to understand that a penetrating fear has been gnawing at him for some time. As more and more omens seem to appear to him through dreams and visions, it becomes clear to Curtis that a terrible storm is coming that will devastate the lives of everyone he loves.

Michael Shannon is cast perfectly as Curtis, taking great efforts to relay very little information in the first half of the film. Without spoiling the movie, I will say that Shannon's extraordinarily quiet, stutter-filled, and altogether dejected take on the character belies the explosive emotional turmoil going on underneath the surface, and it is a pleasure to see that come to fruition. Jessica Chastain, who plays his wife Samantha, is sympathetic and endearing. Her frustration and incredulity at the actions of her husband offer clues to the audience on what is and is not reality by giving us an objective perspective to identify with.

The aesthetic of Take Shelter is fairly unique. By choosing a rural setting, writer/director Jeff Nichols gives a sense of foreboding, isolation, and visual splendor to the film. Storms are never quite the same when you can see them approaching from miles away across an entirely flat plain, and Nichols realizes this - every bolt of lightning or strange cloud formation offers wonderful spectacle. This is something I believe Take Shelter has in common with Monsters, another film which had little in the way of funding, but a lot to offer in terms of natural landscapes and beautiful cinematography.

Take Shelter is not a film I would recommend going into without first having a solid idea of what it's about. While I enjoyed myself, I had no idea what to expect going in - and I can see how a viewer might enter into this experience without fully understanding that at its heart, Take Shelter is a slow-moving drama. While the level of intrigue is constant throughout the film, and the science fiction elements do periodically spice up the scenery, the two hour runtime and sparse dialogue might turn off folks looking for more thrill-oriented fare (e.g. Moon).

On that note, while I thought Jeff Nichols did an excellent job directing Take Shelter by really emphasizing the internal and external conflicts of Curtis and Samantha, I felt that the pacing of the film was a bit off. The first half to three quarters of the film felt a bit bloated to me, dragging when there was no need to drag. Curtis's core emotional state could have been explained quicker and to greater effect in less time. Nevertheless, Take Shelter doesn't overstay its welcome by much, and this is really a minor quibble when compared with the greater whole.

As the film comes to a close, we are left wondering - was Curtis crazy? Were his paranoid precautions really necessary? I will not go into detail here about these questions, but I always appreciate when a film offers some nourishing food for thought to the viewer; it is this very idea that makes a film like Donnie Darko so fascinating to its fans. Indeed, Take Shelter is nothing if not at the very least a smart, interesting character study of one man and his struggle with life's responsibilities - but there may be more to it than that.

It seems Take Shelter was written off by many potential audience members, myself included, who felt it looked like some sort of ethereal post-apocalyptic film. Rest assured, the minimalistic science fiction in this movie only exists to enhance the drama and illustrate feelings that are normally internalized and hidden from view. The other movie released in 2011 that used science fiction to similar effect was Lars von Trier's Melancholia - but having seen both, Take Shelter is easily the superior film in that does not get lost in its own visuals and instead focuses on the simplicity of good storytelling. The acting is superb, the aesthetics are pure eye candy, and Michael Shannon is a revelation - I'd heartily recommend finding it online or on DVD/Blu-ray and giving it a watch.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (92%)

~ Søren

A Note on the Ending - The ending of Take Shelter is something that many have debated. Rest assured, I am definitely one of those people who hates endings that don't offer some sort of closure - but Take Shelter's conclusion is as finite as you could want. Still, there is some ambiguity as to the meaning of the final scene, and I will be writing a spoiler-filled analysis of the ending.

A Note on Lightning - Be sure to pay attention to Nichols' incredible use of aural and visual parallels. The comparisons of lightning to nervous impulses, garage doors opening to thunder, falling rain to water leaving a shower head, and a sewing machine to a drill give the movie an altogether unique feel and might in fact clue us in to the film's ultimate meaning.

A Note on Noah - I can't help but find a parallel here between Curtis and the biblical story of Noah. Noah spends much of his time while building the ark taking flak from his neighbors over his apparent insanity. The joke, of course, is on them when the rains do eventually come. Curtis's obsession with building the storm shelter in this film seems to echo Noah's ark, but the conclusion to this story is much more vague since Curtis never gets any obvious vindication for his efforts.

Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol knows it is an unabashedly silly popcorn flick, and it is with that wherewithal that it pulls off its story and characters so ably. That is not to say the film is without its flaws; rest assured, the film makes more than a few missteps. However, while it is far from Brad Bird's best, it is certainly an admirable live-action debut from the director.

One of the biggest issues I had with the movie was its habit of being overly referential. Sure, Ghost is probably a lot of fun for those of us who have managed to stick with the MI series for the better part of the decade. However, some of us, myself included, have not managed to see the other three films prior to MI 4. As a representative of this demographic, I feel compelled to mention that if you aren't up on your Mission Impossible lore, some jokes and cameos may be lost on you. This is not to say the film is in any way unapproachable for newcomers - I only caution that some of these scenes may go right over your head as they did for me.

Having said that, I definitely appreciated many of the homages to the film series as a whole. Many of the Mission Impossible hallmarks are so iconic at this point that I was able to catch the nod-and-wink gags sprinkled throughout the feature despite my unfamiliarity with the franchise. More than that, the new material certainly stood solidly on its own legs, delivering a very entertaining experience overall. If you can make me laugh, I'm probably going to be sold - and this movie delivered in that respect.

So yes, Ghost Protocol was goofy, and quite funny, but it still maintained a solid narrative grounded in the real world. I was mostly invested in Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his spy team as they started their globe-trotting adventure, although character development was clearly not the focus of the film. When the film tried to make this its objective, as it did with the big reveal from William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), it was to no great emotional effect. But a big-explosion blockbuster this remains, and nitpicks like that are hardly a deal-breaker.

Having said that, one thing that may put off some fans of both the franchise and the genre is the ironic lack of major action scenes. Big set pieces are present, but they are far and few between - and almost all of them are entirely spoiled in commercials and teasers. This isn't to say that any of them lack in scale or scope, but they do not occur as often as one might expect from a modern action film.

In the end, Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol did not disappoint and will almost certainly delight fans. As I said, I enjoyed myself immensely - my minor criticisms are the only thing keeping me from giving this a higher rating. If you haven't seen it yet, be sure to get to a theater and see it on the big screen before it's gone forever.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (86%)

~ Søren

A Note on Product Placement: I think it is worth mentioning that the shameless placement of Apple products was obvious to the point of distracting in Mission Impossible 4. I am a big Mac user myself, but I also know computers and the thought of top-tier spy organizations using an iPad as a part of some super-advanced holographic device or a Macbook as the go-to hacking computer is laughable. Perhaps this won't put off all viewers, but it kind of bothered me.

Also, the abundant use iPhones for a solid 5 seconds while they get their new mission before tossing them seems wasteful. They could at least donate them to those of us who are smartphone-less...

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Not on par with previous Aardman efforts, but it sets the stage for an enduring franchise if Sony thinks its worth pursuing.

Full review forthcoming.

The Dictator
The Dictator(2012)

Coming into The Dictator, I had the very real fear that I was about to become witness to the demise of one of the best new comedic minds in film. Since his debut on Da Ali G Show, Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career of playing silly, over-the-top characters thrust into everyday life, but I and many audience members have been wondering how long Cohen can keep this up. Luckily, we seem not to have an Eddie Murphy-sized downfall on our hands, but rather a continuation of Cohen's success that promises a long career of strange public antics and oddball comedy.

In The Dictator, Cohen portrays a caricature of a Middle Eastern dictator named Admiral General Aladeen who is unceremoniously stripped of his identity and spends the latter half of the film trying to get back what he has lost. Unsurprisingly, as Aladeen is shaved of his magnificent beard and immersed in the culture of ordinary men and (gasp!) women, he begins to recant the horrible things he's done as a ruler. This transformation is a bit contrived, but Cohen's scriptwriting credit shines through constantly, every moment that approaches any sort of serious emotional weight is smartly undercut shortly thereafter by some utterly ludicrous gag.

The Dictator marks Cohen's first attempt at a non-Borat/Ali G/Brà 1/4no-style film. Save perhaps for some improvised dialogue and conversations in what we can only assume is the national language of Aladeen's home country of Wadiya, the film's plot is entirely scripted. While I did find the và (C)rità (C) of his previous films a refreshing change from the normal schlock churned out by Hollywood these days, I am personally glad to see that Cohen's humor translates directly into a more standard film structure. And because the environment is now more controlled, Cohen and his director Larry Charles are able to perform more ludicrous stunts and execute more over-the-top gags made possible via movie magic.

The film does suffer a bit from pacing issues. The third act lags as Aladeen deals with internal conflict, but the downtime isn't too noticeable and before you can really identify the problem, the laughs have picked back up once again to finish off the film. If there was one thing The Dictator had going for it, it was its laughs-per-minute which covered up almost every inconsistency or issue.

Indeed, the racial, religious, and ethnic humor successfully hits a Louis CK-sweet spot of comedy for the majority of the film. Having said that, one or two bits that are in no way related to the aforementioned topics really do cross over from the realm of funny to that of creepy and wrong, as evidenced by the accompanying near-dead silence in my particular theater. I won't reveal these gags here, but I feel it is worth mentioning that even an audience prepared to see a Sacha Baron Cohen film has a line that should probably not be stepped over.

Cohen's Aladeen is an interesting character, both because of how he is portrayed in the film, and because of how the media has received him. Just the other day, I heard a piece on the radio on whether Cohen was wrong to continually portray Middle Easterners, and particularly Arabs, in such a negative light. I find this accusation a bit ironic at this point, especially considering the fact that Admiral General Aladeen, aside from being one of the most ridiculous characters to hit the silver screen, is much more a hybrid of Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea's late dictator, Kim Jong Il, than he is of any Arab leaders.

More than that, I am sure there is some underlying message is buried in the silliness of The Dictator. The film takes some lengths to lampoon everything from backwards religious fundamentalism to the far-left ideologies of liberalism, giving it depth only rarely explored in comedies. However, as much as I wanted it to, I don't know how well it came across given the extraordinary goofiness of the plot.

Starring alongside Cohen is Anna Faris, who does her typical Anna Farris thing as Pioneer Valley girl Zoey. Zoey ultimately functions as a passable love interest for Aladeen, but I personally loved the first few interactions she had with Cohen as their polar opposite world views clashed. This may be because I went to school in the Pioneer Valley as well and spent much of my time around people like here, but regardless, their scenes together really worked for me.

In the end, this is Cohen doing what he does best: lampooning those he finds abhorrent through pure comic mischief to the delight of his fans everywhere. The Dictator is one of the funniest films that I have seen all year; I admit that I laughed more for this film than I did at 21 Jump Street or even Men in Black III, though I don't necessarily think The Dictator is a superior film. If you are a fan of the very bluest comedy that also tackles many contemporary sociopolitical issues, then you might just enjoyThe Dictator, too.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80% (83%)

~ Søren

A Note on Comedy - Look - here's the deal. I often refer to comedy as the most divisive genre when I recommend films to people; therefore, while I enjoyed The Dictator, I'm am sure that there will be those of you who find this movie crude, stupid, and more often than not, offensive. Having taking my recommendation to see the film, you and your demographic may decide you never want to read another comedy review I write - but I must point out that if this is the case, you can also use whether I hate a comedy as a reason you should put it on your "must watch" list. It's your call.

A Note on Fake Countries - Perhaps it made his character more believable when Cohen decided to assign Kazakhstan as Borat's homeland - but it always bothered me that he didn't just make up some country instead since the satire was just as evident either way. What did Kazakhstan ever do to him? Thankfully, Cohen wisely chose to fabricate the North African nation of Wadiya for The Dictator, and I think the film is better for it.

A Note on the Soundtrack - The soundtrack in The Dictator is surprisingly awesome. From Arabic (or pseudo-Arabic?) versions of Let's Get it On and Everybody Hurts to a rap song about Admiral General Aladeen, the film makes an unexpectedly strong musical showing.

A Note on Biting Political Satires - If you haven't seen them, Christopher Morris's Four Lions or Armando Iannucci's In the Loop approach many of the same materials as The Dictator, but to even greater effect. Both are highly recommended.

A Note on Cameos - I often dismiss pop culture cameos as cheap attempts at comedy or celebrity, but there is one late-movie appearance that is extremely surprising and very welcome; I won't spoil it, but it definitely gave the film a few extra points in my book.

Marvel's The Avengers
½

Here it is - The Avengers, my second most anticipated movie of the year (out-shined only by the behemoth that is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), has finally released. Under the direction of perhaps one of my favorite writer/directors, Joss Whedon, my expectations for the film were tempered only by some mild criticisms from the first few folks who got a chance to see the film well in advance of the premiere. And alas, as mentioned in some early buzz, The Avengers does in fact have a problematic first and second act. However, they are followed quickly by a spectacular finale that evens everything out into a far above average superhero flick.

I'm just going to come out and say it - all I could think of as this during this movie was that it was in fact a bit too "Whedon-y" for me. That's right - I thought that Joss Whedon's script was a bit much. As a devout Browncoat who founded and currently runs a fan community of almost two thousand people devoted to Joss Whedon's Firefly, this may sound treasonous; nevertheless, it must be said. Please note that I'm a total sucker for the quirky, Western-influenced dialogue in Firefly and Serenity, but I believe that is because that jargon fits well in said universe. Here, it's not a style that strikes me as, well, appropriate for every character.

For example, Black Widow has a line where she talks about a debt she owes to another member of the Avengers team:

"I've got red on my ledger; I'd like to wipe it clean."

This sounds like a bit straight out of Firefly, with Black Widow describing her obligation with such antiquated and distinctly Joss-like terminology that it feels strangely juxtaposed to both the character and the tone of the movie. To make things worse, this particular line is repeated twice in the film, accentuating how out-of-place it feels.

On the other hand, characters like Captain America and Thor benefit greatly from Whedon's writing. Captain's antiquated view of the world and very old-fashioned sensibilities work very well within the confines of Joss Whedon's idioms - I heard "back in the world" come out of his mouth, and it felt as natural as when Malcolm Reynolds said it so many years ago. Similarly, Thor's strangely classical speech feels like a direct and proper lift from a Shakespeare's oeuvre, a body of work Whedon reportedly enjoys reading with his actor friends at his house.

I enjoyed the fact that Whedon clearly knows his target audience and the medium of comics so well having worked on Marvel's Astonishing X-Men, Civil War and Runaways series, as well as graphic novel versions of his own franchises like Buffy and Serenity. Some scenes were even set up in a fashion where you could almost imagine the speech bubbles in a print comic depicting the on-screen events, which was very interesting to see. Additionally, the sense of escapism I so appreciate in these Marvel Studio films, and what I find lacking in Nolan's Batman universe adaptations, was felt in abundance during The Avengers.

This may seem odd, but you should also be prepared to laugh... a lot. The humor in The Avengers is phenomenal; I heard my audience roaring during this film far more than most comedies I've seen at the theatre. Sure, some jokes were a bit "easy," but if you're the guy who finally gets to bring the dream team to the big screen, it's hard not to want to stick in all the gags we might expect - Whedon wisely chooses to throw in a few curveballs, as well, and those are what kept the crowd going. What is also interesting is the almost fourth-wall breaking jokes that permeate the script, but do so without ever truly breaking immersion. Indeed, what really lends to Joss Whedon's sense of wit is the self-awareness of the movie - many jokes are had with a nod and a wink to those comic book fans for whom The Avengers was truly made. In the end, if anything works to a polished shine deserved of the very highest accolades, it is certainly how The Avengers wholeheartedly brings on the funny.

The cast all performed beautifully together, with a seriously impressive showing from Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, which was particularly surprising to me since I thought the character pretty throwaway in Iron Man 2. It stands to reason that the primary female character would be well-done, however, as that is one of Joss Whedon's calling cards. At this point, I would say Black Widow is actually cool enough that in the right hands, she might make a for a pretty awesome solo or co-op film despite the fact that she has no superpowers whatsoever.

I know that the recasting of Bruce Banner is still forefront on many of your minds, but let me preface what I have to say with this: Ed Norton is my favorite actor, and I confess that for a minute I did try to imagine him as Bruce Banner in this film. But, upon retrospection, I realize that was the wrong place to come from as an audience member - letting Mark Ruffalo supplant Norton in your mind is the best possible course of action here, as he gives an inspired performance that is matched only by Robert Downey, Jr.'s now well-practiced pomp as Tony Stark/Iron Man. I loved Ruffalo's Hulk, and I particularly liked how much the big green guy so closely resembled his more human counterpart that it genuinely felt like the same character. The fact that Ruffalo did a bunch of motion capture for the film probably helped.

The film benefits from a massive budget; the special effects are all top-notch and feel as natural as they possibly could given the fact that a Norse god, a man in a cybernetic suit, a big green Hulk, and and alien army are doing battle. As for the cinematography, I unfortunately must point out that frenetic action and strange camera angles during some of the smaller action pieces prior to the third act are so jarring and unclear that I often had a very difficult time following the movements of the characters. One particular fight I quite literally had no idea what was going on at all; maybe I'm just getting jaded or old, but those scenes felt a little too Bourne Supremacy and not enough Bourne Identity for my taste. On the flip side, the aforementioned action-packed finale suffers from none of these complaints.

I heard some folks saying that this was the "the best superhero movie ever" and that "there's literally nothing to bitch about in that film." To take it a step further, my extremely hyperbolic friend called The Avengers "probably the best movie [he has] ever seen ever." This may be chocked up to post-nerdgasm hype, but I have no doubt he will be extolling the virtues of this movie well into the future. For my part, I am a bit sad to say that I ultimately preferred Jon Favreau's Iron Man. While I agree that nerds, and specifically comic nerds, may have little to nothing to whine about when it comes to how Joss Whedon handled The Avengers, moviegoers looking for flaws can and will find them, for they are most certainly present.

Despite my nitpicks, though, I would say that The Avengers made for a very strong showing and I am eager to see Joss Whedon get another whack at the franchise. Even for someone who specializes in the ensembles, a superhero team-up feature with so many powerfully unique characters is a mean feat. Joss Whedon makes it all fit, giving nearly everyone their due screen time - and in that task alone, I do believe no one else could have succeeded to this level of polish. If you see The Avengers, and you come in without some preexisting bias against comic book movies, I guarantee you'll walk out of that theatre well-satisfied.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90%

~ Søren

A Note on "The Joss" Self-Referencing - I'm pretty sure there's an overt nod to Wash (Serenity, Firefly) in this movie. You'll know what I mean when you see it.

A Note on 3D - While unobtrusive, it was a totally and wholly unnecessary waste of money. Plus, it often distracted from what I'm sure were some carefully framed shots that would have been more meaningful and robust had the depth of field not totally distracted my brain.

Did I mention I hate 3D?

Note on Post-Credits Shenanigans - Make sure you stay for both of the two post-credit scenes; they're not long but they're worth the wait.

Note on Chris Evans - Did his jaw get... squarer in this movie? Or is it just me?

Watchmen
Watchmen(2009)

This is our second Movie Fail podcast review. In this segment, we review the movie Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode.

You can listen to the podcast online here: http://bit.ly/HT7nS0

Tim's Verdict: Movie Win
Søren's Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80%

Note: This review is not indicative of the format of future podcast reviews. Both this review and Tim and Søren's previous podcast review of Quantum of Solace do not necessarily represent the nature of subsequent segments.

The Change-Up

The Change-Up had a lot of things that I was expecting - sexual innuendo, very off-color humor, and the vulgarity requisite in seemingly every contemporary adult comedy. But it also had something I wasn't expecting: heart. It is this singular quality which raises The Change-Up above the traditional gross-out schlock Hollywood produces these days.

Yes, in a movie filled with poop jokes and entire scenes based on the alleged inherent funniness of Urban Dictionary, I found an honest emotional through-line. In light of this, I would have to say The Change-Up was one of the best comedies of 2011 (followed closely by Paul Feig's Bridesmaids). From the commercials and from the premise, you might expect another rehash of the Freaky Friday formula - and you would not be remiss make the assumption: two characters who are very close but very different switch bodies, and only manage to switch back once they've learned their respective lessons. However, due to its sincere message and earnest leading roles, The Change-Up hardly feels like old hat.

Dave, portrayed by Jason Bateman, is an overachieving (and overworked) lawyer who is on his way to making partner in his firm, while his best friend Mitch, played by Ryan Reynolds, is a do-nothing burnout who still lives as if he'll be in his twenties for the rest of his life. Their relationship has been uneven at best, with differences in daily priorities creating a significant relationship rift between them.

Naturally, once they've switched bodies, Dave and Mitch don't exactly gel with their new lifestyles. To use the cliché appropriately, hilarity ensues - Bateman and Reynolds clearly had an excellent time playing one another. Each character is completely believable as disembodied consciousnesses and sensibilities stuck in totally new bodies and lives, so much so that a late-movie scene where they are briefly shown in their true bodies to emphasize their growth almost seems unnecessary.

However, what's particularly interesting about this film is that the director, David Dobkin, and the writers did not rest on the laurels of a fish-out-of-water shenanigans to drive the plot. Instead, each scene is carefully constructed to serve either as call-back for another scene later on, or to suggest emotional maturity in both of the main characters. This lends heavily to the endearing nature of the film.

Of course, if there is one glaring weakness to the film, it is how closely the movie hews to the three act Hollywood structure. Nevertheless, I found the characters to be both relatable enough to transcend these faults. In one touching moment, Mitch, in Dave's body, finally succeeds at being a father to Dave's daughter. You can see in Jason Bateman's eyes the inner Ryan Reynolds finally understanding what the whole parent thing is all about, and it unexpectedly strikes a remarkable cord.

And yes, the movie is funny. Very funny. Bateman and Reynolds are oddly at home in their role reversal, Leslie Hand plays essentially the same funny, wife-y role she played in Knocked Up, and Olivia Wilde plays a spot-on assistant-come-love interest whose only real problem as a character is not enough screen time. An underutilized Alan Arkin does disappoint somewhat, but it hardly hurts the overall film - I just wish he had been put to better use.

I mean, it's Alan Arkin.

The point is, you should see The Change-Up - comedy is a divisive genre, but if this sort of humor clicks with you, you won't be disappointed.

~ Søren

Quantum of Solace
½

This is from the archives, back when Movie Fail was just two high school kids and a computer. Tim Nicholson and Søren Hough tackle Quantum of Solace, the sequel to the much-revered reboot of the 007 franchise starring Daniel Craig.

At the end, Tim and Søren summarize the movie with an evaluation of the overall performance and presentation of the director, actors, story, and of the film in general.

Please forgive the scripted introduction - I know it sounds corny, but it was our first attempt at a podcast review.

You can listen to the podcast online here: http://bit.ly/I3862Q

Tim's Verdict: Movie Fail
Søren's Verdict: Movie Fail
RT Score: 50%

Note: This review is not indicative of the format of future podcast reviews. Both this review and Tim and Søren's podcast review of Watchmen do not necessarily represent the nature of subsequent segments.

The Guard
The Guard(2011)
½

This is our first official Movie Fail podcast review. In this segment, Søren and guest reviewer Mike look at Michael McDonagh's The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, and Mark Strong.

You can listen to the show online here:

http://bit.ly/HLvjm3

Mike's Verdict: Movie Win
Søren's Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (95%)

UPDATE:

This post spurred an interesting little anecdote from user "goug" over on Reddit in response to another user's post on how accurate the film was to the Irish countryside location:

"Some friends of mine lived in the town where a good few scenes are happening (Spiddal) during shooting; you hear Don Cheadle mention it when they're going to cover the road from "Galway to Spiddal." He's showing the actual map!

These friends worked in the hotel where the crew stayed and one of them apparently was very friendly - David Wilmot, the blond bad guy (bad bad guy).

One morning, when leaving to work, my friends saw the crew around a trailer with a cop car on it, with Don Cheadle & Brendan Gleeson inside. They were shooting a scene... And still shooting the same scene in the evening, about 10 hours later. Impressive.

And yes, Connemara is gorgeous, especially when go way further west to the coast. You might know that, but this is one of the few counties where Irish is still spoken. In that regard, yeah, I guess it's accurate, although the Irish speakers in the movie there were taking the piss; I say they could probably talk English." ~ Goug

Another Earth

On paper, Brit Marling's Another Earth has an intriguing premise revolving around the possibility of another Earth-like planet suddenly appearing in our sky. This planet is easily within communication distance to our own home world, and the possibilities for a high-concept, low-budget sci-fi film seem endless. Sadly, the film merely implies a lot of squandered potential, a fact that becomes more and more apparent as the film reaches its bizarre and unsatisfying conclusion.

Another Earth follows a girl named Rhoda who one day finds herself in a traumatizing accident with a car carrying a family of four. The crash kills three family members and puts the last, a music professor, into a coma. Consequently, Rhoda is thrown in jail and serves a multi-year sentence. Upon her release, she learns that the professor has woken from his coma and goes to try and reconcile with him. He doesn't recognize her or her name, and an unlikely relationship blossoms between the two. Oh, and there's some other planet that just appeared in the night sky that resembles Earth, or something.

Sound like a cerebral sci-fi film? No? Yeah, I didn't think so either.

Brit Marling gives a fairly solid but strangely dispassionate performance as protagonist Rhoda Williams. Marling was also the screenwriter for Another Earth, and I got the distinct feeling as the movie progressed that she had a very specific image in her head of how her story would look on-screen. Of course, since she was not directing the film, her performance felt disconnected from how the events were ultimately portrayed. I don't know if this is an accurate assumption, but that was the impression I got. William Mapother is passable as John Burroughs, the man whom Rhoda feels indebted to for her role in the accident that killed his family, but his emotional peaks and troughs feel strained and unconvincing.

As Mike Cahill's directorial debut, the film is understandably held back by his lack of experience. One of the most obvious offenses is the use incredibly obvious symbolism, such as placing Rhoda next to a sign that says "No Animals Allowed." Overused clichés, like a guy in a tinfoil hat, also appear periodically in Another Earth. Both of these pitfalls that detract from the film's apparently deeper philosophical aspirations. Moreover, the progression of events, while paced fairly well, don't flow together as organically as I might liked in a drama. Events frequently happen illogically or without clear reasons, making them difficult to believe and therefore breaking the audience's immersion.

Dialogue is problematic, but this time it isn't because of its glibness or sparsity. Rather, Marling elected to write in random and often unnecessary exposition to be spouted by nearly every character we meet. Most infuriatingly, a brief series of ephemeral interactions which Rhoda has with a coworker climax in what is supposed to be one of the most pivotal scenes in Another Earth. However, due to a total lack of emotional investment in our protagonist and this random side character, their ruminations about life and how the world works fall on deaf ears. This causes the apex of Rhoda's character development to fall totally flat. I would have much preferred a show-don't-tell approach that got across what points Marling was trying to make. Instead, we get long speeches about things that seem irrelevant both to the drama at hand, and to the Earth 2 plotline that is constantly taking backseat to Rhoda and John's romance.

Aesthetically, Another Earth takes on a distractingly washed-out look for most of the film. In addition, some odd editing choices and strange zooms and cuts make the cinematography have a distinct but altogether jumbled feel. However, if there are any truly shining moments in Another Earth, it's the beautiful scenic shots of Rhoda gazing up at Earth 2 - I just wish they had some fleshed out that part of the story to give those scenes more meaningful context.

By the end of the movie, you will likely feel cheated by the decision Marling made to focus the film so much on the relationship between Rhoda and John, as opposed to the incredibly fascinating sci-fi concept of another earth. Sadly, this holds back the film more than any acting, editing, or directorial nitpicks I could make. What could have been an interesting, unique sci-fi film with a heavily dramatic core (like the wonderful 2009 film Moon), ends up being an unengaging, somewhat creepy romance story. The only real reason to see this film is to see Brit Marling's work both on-screen and off (in case she does catapult into mainstream stardom sometime soon), and so that you can acknowledge it for the failed experiment that it is.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60%

A Note on the Premise - I really did feel the sci-fi premise was underutilized. A whole other planet that in fact matches our own in every possible way raises so many questions. If you have a duplicate person on this "other Earth" who does everything you do, do you really have free will? If we can observe the silliness and illogical nature of the wars and other conflicts we wage from a bird's eye view, might we decide to end our bickering on our own planet and make an effort toward world peace? And by making contact with this other planet, are we disrupting the careful balance between our two worlds? Unfortunately, Another Earth is not the film to even ask these questions, let alone answer them. A real shame.

A Note on the Ending - What the **** is up with that last scene? Unless I totally missed something, or unless it's some sort of metaphor, it made no sense whatsoever. I hate endings that make no sense.

~ Søren

Hugo
Hugo(2011)
½

I must begin this review by dispelling one of the major misconceptions about this film: those of you who have been led to believe that Hugo is a "steampunk fantasy adventure" (as one friend described it) will be sorely disappointed. Hugo takes place almost exclusively inside a train station in Paris, France, some amount of adventure might occur, but nothing on the scale of a true family fantasy films (e.g. Harry Potter).

This is old news to those of you who have read the graphic novel which Hugo is based on. A simple Wikipedia search on "Invention of Hugo Cabret" finds that the genre of that piece is "historical fiction," and not, as you might expect, "science fiction/fantasy."

What has been called Martin Scorcese's "love letter" to the films of yore falls short of what features such as Super 8 have achieved in the past. However, there is a clear definition of homage according to Dictionary.com:

"homage - noun, respect or reverence paid or rendered."

JJ Abrams masterfully did this in Super 8, where he used imagery, plot devices, and characters that invoked older films such as Stand By Me and E.T. What Scorcese did in Hugo was instead take numerous pieces of footage from early filmmakers' seminal films and insert them into his own. This would not have been an issue, except for the film's aforementioned strange pacing; Scorcese's time showing the audience his passion for the industry's first visionaries is crammed into the twilight of the 2 hour 6 minute runtime when it should have been spaced more elegantly in the lead-up to the emotional conclusion.

This brings me to what is so frustrating about Hugo. The possibility of a deep, engaging look at the dawn of film would have been an excellent concept for a film, and doing it through the medium of a children's movie might help teach the younger generations about where the industry got started. I realized this as I watched the last 20 minutes of this film, which I loved. It was apparent when the final plot twists are revealed, late though they were, that Scorcese was truly inspired by Georges Méliès. The emotion in these final scenes was palpable. Had Hugo truly embraced the Méliès character and story, perhaps through better pacing,I might have better appreciated what Scorcese was purportedly trying to do.

Chloë Moretz gives a typically strong performance as Hugo's friend Isabelle, even if the story doesn't really go anywhere. I am still lukewarm on Hugo himself (Asa Butterfield), as I found his acting to be merely serviceable at best. This may have something to do with the fact that he seems to suffer from a particularly annoying case of twitchy-face (as many other child actors do), but I digress. The more minor roles of Sacha Baron-Cohen as an ex-army policeman and Richard Griffiths as a patron, among others, are cursory and feel shallow in spite of the talent behind them. I have to wonder, since I have not read "Invention of Hugo Cabret," if these station-dwellers were given more face time in the source material. Nevertheless, I always evaluate a film on its own merits and I found the lack of depth to be something of a missed opportunity.

So is Hugo worth seeing? I think that, going in with your eyes open, you might find Hugo to be worth your time. Knowing what to expect might have prevented the massive disappointment I felt at the distinct lack of adventure in the film, despite the characters' claims to the contrary. In the end, I enjoyed what Scorcese was attempting to do, and Hugo is hardly a bad film - I just think people should know what they're getting themselves into ahead of time.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 70%

A Note on 3D - As some of you know, Hugo was notable for actually being shot in 3D, a process which fans of the format say vastly improves the overall 3D effect and avoids the pitfalls endemic to post-conversion. You may or may not know that I'm 100% with Roger Ebert on 3D - I think it's travesty that's doing nothing for cinema and merely exists as an outright ploy to keep us paying premium prices for theater tickets.

Having said that, I can appreciate when a filmmaker at least attempts to use the new format correctly to enhance their film. Martin Scorcese is not one of those people. While he attempted to do it justice by filming in 3D, he never once truly uses the added picture depth to his advantage. In movies like James Cameron's Avatar, 3D is used carefully to add depth or tangibility to the scene. For all its faults, this was one thing Avatar did very well. Hugo merely adds multiple layers in the environment to no great effect and the few scenes where it seems 3D might be well-used, Scorcese skips over entirely.

~ Søren

Mystery Team
Mystery Team(2009)
½

I should start off this review by declaring my undying love for the comedy troupe that is Derrick. I have avidly followed all of their internet shorts, which are hysterical. I also caught, by chance, their impeccable last improv performance at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater in New York.

As for their leader, Donald Glover, I have seen his offbeat but hilarious comedy special on Comedy Central, and I made a point of watching him in Community (a show which I have fast become addicted to). And of course, when I first heard about their feature-length debut, I patiently waited for months until it made its way to and from Sundance onto home video.

In other words, I'm a fan of Derrick Comedy.

So please understand that it pains me to degrade their good name - but Mystery Team is not up to their typical standard of excellence.

The story of Mystery Team follows a group of neighborhood kid detectives who have graduated from the cute, innocuous investigations of their heyday into a world of drugs, sex, and murder. The catch is, these three seem to have next to no conception of how the adult world works, and ater a new case is brought to their attention that is probably better handled by the police, the Mystery Team sets off to bring the perpetrators to justice. It's a goofy, goofy movie that works in concept, but not as well in execution.

Similar to the great Saturday Night Live failures of the 90's and early 2000's, the problem with Mystery Team is that it falls victim to a premise for a sketch stretched too thin. Fortunately, unlike most of its SNL predecessors, Mystery Team is actually quite funny in spite of this. Even with humble, low-budget origins, the core member of Derrick manage to bring enough spirit to keep the movie afloat.

In another fortuitous turn, Mystery Team takes a page out of the Monty Python movie handbook. Akin to The Life of Brian and The Holy Grail, the film is actually comprised of a series of situational gags loosely held together with a continuous plot thread. This brings variety to the premise and allows for the three main actors to breathe a bit in the comedic space they're most comfortable in.

To my dismay, however, Derrick refuses to really go the distance. Instead of totally relying on their God-given penchant for short bits, the movie leans on the strengths of the plot. The issue is that this story, while ironically far superior to any of the Scooby-Doo mysteries it apes, is simply not enough to hold a feature-length film. Then again, neither was the incredible goofy quest for the grail - but Python troupe was keenly aware of that.

Despite the 1 1/2 hour runtime, the film contains maybe 2-3 memorable scenes. This is quite different than The Holy Grail, where nearly every scene is both highly quotable and sticks with you vividly well after the credits roll. Of course, this is just the beginning of hopefully a long career, and not every Python sketch was hit - it took time for even the masters of sketch comedy to find their footing.

I understand it may be unfair to continually contrast Mystery Team with the best films in the genre, but I do so merely as a testament to their raw talent. Sure, Derrick has a ways to go before they are able to reach the lofty heights ahead of them in the sketch comedy world - but those heights are within their reach. I also draw these comparisons in light of the fact that many genre fans will likely do the same as they sit down to watch Mystery Team.

As for the actors themselves, any fan of Derrick will tell you that their sketches usually end up being the Donald Glover show. Whether or not this is a bad thing depends on your feelings about the scene-stealing Mr. Glover. As I mentioned earlier, I'm a huge fan and I didn't mind him taking center stage. Otherwise, acting is solid all around, with a significant camp factor driving the performances from writers/stars Dominic Dierkes as Charlie and D.C. Pierson as Duncan. Aubrey Plaza as apathetic love interest Kelly also works well as a foil for the love-struck Jason (Donald Glover).

Though this definitely is the "Cars" of the Derrick collection, I look forward to their next effort. Scenes like the one in the strip club give me hope that one day, Derrick will realize their potential. Despite my criticisms, however, this film is still worth checking out for any current fans of Derrick. It's also something worth investigating for anyone who's interested to see what the new faces of sketch comedy could well be one day.

Be sure to check them out on Youtube, as well, where they store their old sketches and occasionally post up new ones.

By the way, I suggest avoiding the trailers for Mystery Team - I assure you they give away the best lines in the movie.

Verdict: Movie Meh (with potential)
RT Score: 70%

A Note on The Case of the Haunted Hotel: The short film accompanying this film, Mystery Team: The Case of the Haunted Hotel, is a cute little short much more suited to the premise than the full length movie. I quite enjoyed it, and it makes for an excellent accompaniment to the main feature.

~ Søren

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I was very excited coming out of the movie theater when I saw the first Sherlock Holmes starring the nearly-always likable Robert Downey, Jr. (Holmes) and Jude Law (Watson). Sure, the movie suffered from a lack of plot direction and overall muddled storyline, but I very much enjoyed the style of the film. While it was admittedly not a terribly faithful adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novels, I thought the interplay between Watson and Sherlock was quite fun and I enjoyed their interpretations of the characters. When the sequel was announced and the issues I had with the first film were purportedly to be fixed (most notably the meandering plotline) I was quite excited to see Law and Downey, Jr. back up on the silver screen.

Unfortunately, not even the fondness I have for the chemistry between the leads can keep the sequel film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, from succumbing to its most glaring issues. First and foremost, I think it is safe to say that Guy Ritchie should probably find some other franchise to work on. The first Sherlock was a fun film that benefited from Ritchie's knack for witty banter and big explosions, but if the series is to succeed, we really need a director to step in who is willing to emphasize the other aspects of the Sherlock universe.

The primary issue with the direction is that Ritchie is a one-note pony. When it comes to big set-piece action sequences, he's the man to do it in style - but when it comes down to it, the original Sherlock Holmes stories were about the character and the mystery, and not about wood splintering in impossibly slow motion. His propensity for sticking this time-dilation gimmick into every action scene begins to wear thin on the audience before the grand finale even starts, which is a shame because the finale is when that particular technique feels most appropriate.

What is almost more frustrating is that throughout the movie, there were plenty of opportunities for really amazing artistic choices that Ritchie didn't seem to want to take. While some scenes were truly beautiful in spite of this, the falling scene being the most obvious example, it is upsetting to imagine what might have come from the director had he thought outside the box. In short, although I have nothing against Guy Ritchie per se as a director, the studio and the producers of the film should really examine their choices on the next go-round and see if he is still the best fit for the franchise.

Movie goers will likely make the inevitable comparisons to the first Sherlock, which unfortunately further detracts from A Game of Shadows. It is not until the last 10-20 minutes of the movie that it even begins to echo the whimsy of the first film. It is in these last few scenes that I started to have faith that RDJ's Holmes series was not dead in the water, but it also helped me better assess why the first hour or so was so off. The ending is quite cute and fun, and even manages to reference a bit from the first part of the film that wasn't quite as amusing the first time around - but Ritchie takes his time getting there.

And then there's Professor Moriarty. With an antagonist with clearer motivations, Moriarty becomes a mostly superior villain to Lord Blackwood from Sherlock Holmes. Throughout to film, we do get a clear sense of his intellect and his desire to match wits with Sherlock. At one point, during a torture scene, we get to see how especially evil his character can be. I look forward to seeing him again in a more substantial capacity later on, assuming he is the villain in subsequent entries.


Unfortunately, this villainous improvement falls by the wayside when the plot [sort of] comes into focus. The storyline simply lacks depth or any sense of urgency. It is particularly damming that we are told as the story climaxes that Moriarty's master plan will come to fruition with or without the criminal professor's help. So what's the point of any of characters' efforts, hero or villain?

I will say that it is nice that A Game of Shadows follows some logical consistency where the first film did not, but that's about all I can say. It is strange how another 2011 film, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was far more complicated, and yet Sherlock was the one that left the waters of comprehension more muddy when I left the theater. What the franchise needs now in to maintain its diminishing momentum is a true storyteller to come in as a writer or director for the next film.

In conclusion, I would have to warn against seeing this film, even if you are a fan of its prequel. A Game of Shadows isn't bad - but it's far from good and it hardly meets the expectations of the fans. The only reason I'd recommend it is to find out where the third movie will pick up, if it does indeed get made. In other words, see it for the canonical connector content or don't see it at all.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60%

~ Søren

Henry Poole Is Here
½

Luke Wilson gives it his best shot in this altogether middling indie drama. The first half of the movie implies a fascinating history and character development for Mr. Poole, a dejected, dying man in the final throes of life. His interactions with (ultimately minor) characters such as the supermarket cashier give insight to his life, and intimate to the audience that there is hope that maybe Henry Poole will have some redeeming qualities beneath his rough exterior.

Dismayingly, the film does nothing to follow through with the promise of its strong start. Instead of being a fascinating character study, the film takes a decidedly Hollywood approach to Mr. Poole's troubles.

After finding a stain in the shape of the Virgin Mary on the wall of his house, the entire neighborhood, comprised largely of stereotypically Catholic Hispanics, come to pray and turn his house into a religious destination site. This is of course troubles Poole, who only wants to be left alone. This turn of plot, and the introduction of a religious element, marks the downfall of this film.

As beautiful as the idea of a magical religious figure appearing and saving everyone from misfortune is, this idea works only in concept on-screen. The movie plays out essentially a deus-ex-machina-style scenario to conclude the film, something which does not fit the tone of the first half at all. If we never get a chance to really learn about this character, then why would we accept that he deserves this massive salvation?

Overall, this movie plods along and doesn't go really anywhere, despite a good first impression. It is unfortunate, because I could see that without the cheesy religious aspect that made it feel so artificial, this movie could have been an excellent little flick - not to mention showcase for Luke Wilson, who, as per usual, manages to deliver a great performance in spite of the story. I can't really recommend this movie to anyone in good conscience, unless you're into that sort of manipulative religious schmaltz.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 50% (57%)

~ Søren

The Artist
The Artist(2011)
½

At this point, you've probably heard that The Artist is a beautifully conceived tribute to the era of silent filmmaking - but I would like to reiterate this fact because of how well writer/director Michael Hazanavicius pulled off this feat. Dealing with emotional themes like failure, change, loss, and growth, the period setting of The Artist allows for a truly comprehensive picture of how the industry made the momentous switch to "talkies." Few films are able to manage an homage so ably, but when they do, the result is often a moving picture that successfully conveys its message.

First and foremost, I must commend Jean Dujardin for his impeccable performance as the fictional silent film superstar George Valentin. Both he and co-star Bérénice Bejo, whom Dujardin also worked with in the French spy-comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, share palpable chemistry that has carried over from their previous efforts together and really serves to make the film believable. John Goodman also appears periodically throughout The Artist and for an actor who is known for his distinctive voice and delivery, he makes a powerful but silent effort as film studio boss Al Zimmer.

I think my favorite part of The Artist, however, is its decidedly old-school approach to narrative. The film feels very much like a period silent film, where broad physical comedy and classic good-heartedness takes front stage. These themes are an absolute delight to experience, and are something that was so intrinsic to older silent movies.



Despite this being the dominant overarching approach to the story, however, there are still hints of modern filmmaking sprinkled in. While the majority of The Artist is lighthearted, fun, and romantic, it can also be quite sad and quite dark. While these moments certainly don't detract from the overall feel of the film, it is worth mentioning since they do stand in contrast to the more positive segments.

I also appreciated how much The Artist was able to get me thinking about the dawn of film and how cinema has evolved over the past century. One the most interesting ideas that The Artist brings to light is how both we as an audience and the industry as a whole have made the transition to "talkies" being the standard instead of silent cinema. Hazanavicius challenges us to think about this incredibly famous era, why it is we moved into talking films, and what we lost along the way. For my part, I believe that the most successful filmmakers and actors today are those who have truly mastered what the silent film generation brought to the table.

The Artist has made me realize that silent film still has a major role in modern cinema; how much an actor can convey visually and without speaking is an incredibly potent technique for displaying emotion. The Alfredson film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is probably the best recent example of I can think of that minimizes dialogue and instead favors wordless expressions, music, cinematography, and scene shifts to tell the story. Through the moving original soundtrack by Ludovic Bource and wonderful acting by the lead performers, everything we need to know as viewers is expressed beautifully.



If The Artist has any faults, it is in the minor pacing issues throughout the film. Overall, the story feels tight and concise with a clear path from beginning to end. Despite this, I have found that there was some odd staggering of emotional climaxes in the film. Seemingly final moments were doled out in the very first half hour of the movie, the second act seemed to come to no solid conclusion, and it isn't until the wonderful third act that it all ties together. All three play together nicely as an ensemble in retrospect, but the pacing was something I was definitely conscious of as I watched the movie. I wonder if this issue comes as a result of the film's 100 minute runtime, since many (though not all) of the classic silent movies tended to be shorts that ran for a third of that time.

Bearing everything I said in mind, I still do not think I can accurately translate my feelings on The Artist to my readership. I certainly can tell you that I recommend this film to anyone who is looking for a truly unique piece of cinema, and that in every technical aspect The Artist is a very well-made film. However, the emotion and feeling that the audience experiences seeing this movie is very difficult to describe.

Think of it this way - I am using words in this review to talk about a movie that tells us everything we need to know without nearly any words whatsoever. If that thought appeals to you whatsoever, then The Artist deserves your time.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90 (92%)

A Note on the Soundtrack - I adored the soundtrack to The Artist; the skill with which composer Ludovic Bource weaves the story along with his music is incredible. Many times we do not give a fair shake to the role which music plays in setting the tone of a film, but the nature of The Artist is such that we are forced to recognize the aural component of film and truly embrace it as it brings us along on Hazanavicius's journey. Without Bource, The Artist would not have worked nearly as well as it did.

~ Søren

The Iron Giant

Brad Bird's The Iron Giant mixes adult themes about over-encroaching governments and biting political commentary with humor, heart, and a true soul. To say this film is anything less than one of the preeminent animated films of our time is to do it injustice. I do not believe any movie has been able to so deftly weave in a message as powerful as this one with a kid-friendly animated story. For a film about a "giant metal man," The Iron Giant is anything but mechanical.

This film, despite its 1958 Cold War setting, explores topics very relevant to modern American foreign policy. The Iron Giant portrays the US as a highly expansionistic, militaristic nation with interventionist tendencies, playing off of the common beliefs about nuclear war at the time. However, it manages to do so subtly enough that it never feels like it is preaching to its audience- while there is a powerful anti-war sentiment towards the end of the film, it doesn't go so far as to insult the military or degrade the nation as movies tackling this issue tend to do.

And then, it even works as a sci-fi film, grabbing the attention of the audience from the get-go with an exciting, mysterious opening scene. Sci-fi? Politics? Family values? This movie has got it all.

Hogarth (Marienthal), the protagonist, is an eleven-year-old child with a widow for a mother who has no real friends from school, and often entertains himself outdoors as his mother (Aniston) tries to earn a living. At first, the character almost seems annoying due to his mannerisms and chatty personality, but over time, it becomes apparent that he is absolutely a realistic portrayal of a child who has been left to his own devices, but is undeniably kind and gregarious in nature and who is only looking for companionship (and a father). Throughout the film, the audience is given more backstory to who he is and this allows us to empathize with him, making the climax that much more gripping.

The giant also manages to become an endearing character as the movie progresses, with subtle voice acting talent from Vin Diesel himself. I believe it is safe to say that this is the best thing Vin Diesel has ever done. That goes without saying- in fact, picking him to play the giant with a limited vocabulary ironically gave him the opportunity to be the most affecting. The Iron Giant's incredible relationship with Hogarth evolves as a classic story of friendship that is both organic and believable.

A brilliant edition to the cast comes from Harry Connick, Jr., who plays the beat generation hipster Dean. His role is the shining star of the film. He could easily have been underplayed or overly clichéd, as his character description would allow for either scenario, but fortunately his dialogue, delivery, and place in the story are so well thought-out that he never has the chance to flounder. Equal parts emotional and hilarious, Dean completes the triangle between Hogarth, the giant, and himself.

The last character to finish off the cast is the wonderfully headstrong, slightly crazy and progressively aggressive government agent Kent Mansley (McDonald) whose choices throughout the story ultimately lead to the powerful climax. Unlikable in the best way, Mansley represents everything that was bad about the McCarthy/Red Scare era in US history.

I keep mentioning the movie's climax, but it's for good reason. At first the conclusion seems contrived, but the brilliance of its execution helps overcome this fact. The last 20 minutes will stick with you for days afterward. Of course, the animation is top-notch as well. The hand-drawn environments and character movement, as well as voice-to-mouth alignment, make this a visual spectacle that can be referred to as nothing less than art. The soundtrack compliments the visuals as well, rounding out the AV experience.

In conclusion, I believe that this remains Brad Bird's genre-defining masterwork to date and will remain his best piece unless he somehow outdoes what is essentially perfection. Ratatouille and The Incredibles were fun, but they can't possibly measure up. In fact, I'd say most Pixar films would even find it difficult to compare themselves, mostly because, aside from Up, none deal with adult themes like The Iron Giant. Your biggest competition remains Miyazaki's epic, Spirited Away- and for that, I applaud you, Mr. Bird. You should be honored to be in such impressive company. You've got the Western front covered.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 100%

~ Søren

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

Preface - In case you're for some reason considering going to see the re-releases of the atrocious Star Wars prequels in crappy post-converted 3D, I'd like to cure your selective amnesia and remind you why you hate these movies.

I really don't remember enough differences in the faults between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones to justify two separate reviews, and frankly, I don't think they deserve the extra effort. You may consider this to be a massive cop-out, and it is - but like I said, I can honestly say that neither film deserves anyone's time whatsoever.

The problem with the first film, The Phantom Menace, is that it has no protagonist, long, arduous, confusing, and boring dialogue, crappy action sequences that follow an illogical chain of plot events, and bad acting to top it all off. This isn't to say all of the actors in the film are bad, but considering the acting chops of big players like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGreggor, they can do nothing to overcome the dud of a script.

It's fine if a film elaborates for the fans on obscure details of the created universe, but this film doesn't do that. To say that it not only bores everyone to tears, but is a smack in the face to any Star Wars fan, is a severe understatement. Fictional political drama, the blatant use of iconic Star Wars symbols to lure in unsuspecting fans, an annoying child actor, and... midi-chlorians. All an absolute waste of everyone's time.

But then the sequel came, and everything changed - no wait, wait. It actually didn't change at all. All the same problems return once again. I mean, I suppose Anakin is now the protagonist, but I don't think anyone bothered to tell that to Hayden Christiansen, who plods through the story like a piece of wood that was handed a script a few minutes before shooting began.

Yes, the action is marginally improved over the previous installment, but by the time the epic battle scene rolls around in the end of the movie, the audience is so jaded by the whole thing that they will neither care why these factions are fighting, nor will they care for the high-budget special effects.

In the end, there is no humor, no one to root for, no engaging performances, no captivating story, and, coincidentally, no reason for anyone to ever see these movies.
To put it mildly, George Lucas has royally screwed the pooch (as many have said before me) with these prequel films. Without anyone to guide his CG-happy hand in the direction of good filmmaking, he has produced possibly the most disappointing prequel/sequel to the Star Wars franchise that he possible could have.

If you have any fond memories of the original series, and haven't seen these two duds, then don't. Please. These films are devoid of every characteristic that made you love Episodes IV-VI. You'll thank me when you see the horrified expressions on your friends faces when you mention Episodes I or II.

By the way, I don't think that I thought that Episode III was any good - I just didn't hate it as much as I hated these two pieces of 狗屎.

This 7-part Plinkett Review from Red Letter Media pretty much captures my view on Episode I; if you haven't seen it, it's a much better use of your time than actually watching The Phantom Menace:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxKtZmQgxrI]

Also, for future reference, don't look to George Lucas for Star Wars excellence. Instead, refer to the creators of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Bioware) or Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Clone Wars, the short-lived mini-series that aired on Cartoon Network a few years ago.

So bear all of this in mind when you're thinking of putting down another 10-15 bucks for tickets to the 3D re-releases of the original series later this year - the movies were bad then, and they're still bad now.

Be sure to leave comments - hate or love it, we want to know what you thought!

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 20%

~ Søren

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Preface - In case you're for some reason considering going to see the re-releases of the atrocious Star Wars prequels in crappy post-converted 3D, I'd like to cure your selective amnesia and remind you why you hate these movies.

I really don't remember enough differences in the faults between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones to justify two separate reviews, and frankly, I don't think they deserve the extra effort. You may consider this to be a massive cop-out, and it is - but like I said, I can honestly say that neither film deserves anyone's time whatsoever.

The problem with the first film, The Phantom Menace, is that it has no protagonist, long, arduous, confusing, and boring dialogue, crappy action sequences that follow an illogical chain of plot events, and bad acting to top it all off. This isn't to say all of the actors in the film are bad, but considering the acting chops of big players like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGreggor, they can do nothing to overcome the dud of a script.

It's fine if a film elaborates for the fans on obscure details of the created universe, but this film doesn't do that. To say that it not only bores everyone to tears, but is a smack in the face to any Star Wars fan, is a severe understatement. Fictional political drama, the blatant use of iconic Star Wars symbols to lure in unsuspecting fans, an annoying child actor, and... midi-chlorians. All an absolute waste of everyone's time.

But then the sequel came, and everything changed - no wait, wait. It actually didn't change at all. All the same problems return once again. I mean, I suppose Anakin is now the protagonist, but I don't think anyone bothered to tell that to Hayden Christiansen, who plods through the story like a piece of wood that was handed a script a few minutes before shooting began.

Yes, the action is marginally improved over the previous installment, but by the time the epic battle scene rolls around in the end of the movie, the audience is so jaded by the whole thing that they will neither care why these factions are fighting, nor will they care for the high-budget special effects.

In the end, there is no humor, no one to root for, no engaging performances, no captivating story, and, coincidentally, no reason for anyone to ever see these movies.
To put it mildly, George Lucas has royally screwed the pooch (as many have said before me) with these prequel films. Without anyone to guide his CG-happy hand in the direction of good filmmaking, he has produced possibly the most disappointing prequel/sequel to the Star Wars franchise that he possible could have.

If you have any fond memories of the original series, and haven't seen these two duds, then don't. Please. These films are devoid of every characteristic that made you love Episodes IV-VI. You'll thank me when you see the horrified expressions on your friends faces when you mention Episodes I or II.

By the way, I don't think that I thought that Episode III was any good - I just didn't hate it as much as I hated these two pieces of 狗屎.

This 7-part Plinkett Review from Red Letter Media pretty much captures my view on Episode I; if you haven't seen it, it's a much better use of your time than actually watching The Phantom Menace:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxKtZmQgxrI]

Also, for future reference, don't look to George Lucas for Star Wars excellence. Instead, refer to the creators of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Bioware) or Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Clone Wars, the short-lived mini-series that aired on Cartoon Network a few years ago.

So bear all of this in mind when you're thinking of putting down another 10-15 bucks for tickets to the 3D re-releases of the original series later this year - the movies were bad then, and they're still bad now.

Be sure to leave comments - hate or love it, we want to know what you thought!

Verdict: Movie Fail
RT Score: 20%

~ Søren

A Dangerous Method
½

As tempting as it is, I will try and get through this entire review without making any bad puns. A name like Jung is just begging for it, but I shall resist.

David Cronenberg's newest film, A Dangerous Method, is an in intriguing portrait of two of the biggest names in psychology and the patient who brought them together. The film tells the story of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his newest patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The movie is an adaptation of the play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay.

The spoiler-free premise: the movie begins with Carl Jung deciding that he will treat Spielrein using a radical new type of treatment - talking. With this new approach, Jung learns many fascinating things that start to fly in the face of some of the established tenets of contemporary psychology. Sabina's case begins to catch the attention of the father of psychology himself, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Jung decides to go and speak with him about his observations. The relationship between these two historical powerhouses is the crux of the film, and their differing ideas invite the viewer to think about modern psychology and the ethical considerations endemic to psychoanalysis.

I was particularly intrigued with how the movie seemed to emphasize the contrasts between of Jungian and Freudian theory. One of the more striking parts of A Dangerous Method comes when Freud confronts Jung, suggesting that his method of therapy somehow asks the doctor to "play God," and that his theories include too much superstition. I found Freud's fear of losing academic credibility as one of the first major psychologists to be incredibly very satisfying brain food. Jung and Freud are still feeling there way around the field when the movie starts, and their constantly changing theories make for fascinating discussions.

A Dangerous Method is intent on exploring many sexual themes, all of which tie into the relationship triangle between Spielrein, Jung, and Freud. Sexuality has always been a large factor in the field of psychology, and as it is explored in this film, we are treated to many different opinions and theories on how we should approach things like sexual desire and abuse both academically and in our personal lives. All three of the main characters are intrinsically linked to these ever-changing viewpoints and this provides the momentum for the pacing of the film.

It is difficult for a story-heavy film such as this to talk about it in any depth without giving away more important aspects of the plot. The period is set nicely through art direction - beautiful turn of the century architecture and costume design really help sell the overall feel of the film. I also appreciated the thought provoking nature of the subject matter, and the willingness of the filmmakers to portray both Jung and Freud in a fairly holistic light.

David Cronenberg has proven to be a fantastic match for the talents of Viggo Mortensen in the past with Eastern Promises and A History of Violence - and A Dangerous Method is no different. Mortensen ably handles his role and manages to make a very convincing Freud who plays well off of Fassbender's Jung. Fassbender himself is as usual at the top of his game, offering the audience a true sense of honesty and vulnerability, while implying he has a strong sense of responsibility for his decisions throughout the film. Knightley has perhaps the strongest showing, giving us an impassioned performance that reveals some serious acting chops.

In the end, A Dangerous Method is an excellent film that knows what it's about and brings out excellent performances from each of its cast members. However, it does falls into a category I always find challenging to review; there isn't anything really wrong with the film, but it may not appeal to everyone and doesn't have any sort of eminent re-watchability that other movies have. Nevertheless, I would still recommend this wholeheartedly to anyone interested in psychology or period dramas.

Whew! Done - and not a pun to be found. I was afreud I wasn't going to make it.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (87%)

A Dangerously Brief Note: I would just like to credit this film, and presumably the play it was based off of, for giving Sabina Speilrein so much credit for the role she played in the shaping of some of the major theories in Jungian and Freudian psychology. My mother has a doctorate in psychology and had not heard of Sabina Spielrein before I mentioned her - it is my understanding that she is rarely given more than a sentence or two of recognition in textbooks. Again, well done respectfully portraying an unsung hero of the field.

~ Søren

Winnie the Pooh
½

Harkening back to the glory days of Disney, in the pre-3D animation era where hand-drawn artistry was revered above all else, comes Winnie the Pooh, a wonderful piece of nostalgic film that will delight the whole family. The first of many smart choices on Disney's part came when they decided to maintain the style and motif of the excellent The Many Adventures of Winnie-The-Pooh, keeping with the beautiful animation, real-world introduction to the film, and plot-driving narration that made the original so fun and enjoyable.

I keep referencing the animation in this film, and that's because it absolutely blew me away. I had no idea that in the age of computers and 3D that studios still had the desire to create such classic-looking film. Winnie the Pooh appears to have stepped out of the 70s, with silky-smooth artwork popping to life over beautiful hand-drawn backdrops.
There is, of course, the odd CG scene that rather obviously sticks out when juxtaposed with the more traditional designs, but overall, the movie maintains a very consistent style that is more than easy on the eyes. I believe we can thank John Lasseter, who heads up Pixar and more recently Disney's animation team, for bringing back the old style for both this film and The Princess and the Frog.

First and foremost, the film truly maintains that its focus on a younger audience. However, I can tell you that for anyone who grew up with The Many Adventures, this film is a joy to watch for its incredibly familiar look and feel. Not only that, but it's funny - very funny. I was howling with a friend as we watched this not long ago, and we found nearly every joke was a hit, as G-rated as they were.

Winnie the Pooh doesn't overstay it's welcome one bit, either - it comes in at a slight 63 minutes, just shy of the 74 minutes of its predecessor. While perhaps I would have enjoyed a more in-depth look at the Hundred Acre Wood, I was content with what were given and I would be remiss if I thought the plot could have been stretched to cover a longer period of time. Regardless, its brevity emphasizes how eminently re-watchable this film is.

There are some negative aspects to the film, of course. The cast is sorely missing the voice talents of Junius Matthews as Rabbit, which is a true shame as his character was quite entertaining in The Many Adventures. Jim Cummings makes admirable Pooh and Tigger as he has in the past with The Tigger Movie, making for a barely noticeable change from the original film. Despite all of this, John Cleese as the narrator was an inspired choice and Craig Ferguson gives an excellent edge to the morally-questionable Owl.

And of course, it is unfortunate that the film lacks the brilliant songwriting talents of Robert and Richard Sherman, who wrote the songs for The Many Adventures, The Tigger Movie, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and many others. One of the best aspects of any of those films was the incredible soundtrack, and to lose such an endearing facet of the film was clearly a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, the songs are still fun and numerous, if not terribly memorable.

In the end, I can safely say that Winnie the Pooh is as much for fans of The Many Adventures as it is for younger newcomers. You won't find any real PG nod-wink jokes as you might in, say, a Pixar film, but there is something so charming about the sheer innocence of Winnie the Pooh. If you have any love of the golden days of animation, or if you're looking for a good film to sit down and watch with your family, this is it.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90% (87%)

~ Søren

Batman Gotham Knight
½

In much the same vein as The Animatrix, Gotham Knight is a collection of animated shorts by various directors meant to delve further into the universe portrayed on the big screen (and, of course, capitalize off of the success of its companion film). Unfortunately, unlike The Animatrix, Gotham Knight fails to do this in any meaningful way. Instead,these shorts leave the audience feeling both uninterested and mostly apathetic to both the Batman universe and to the Dark Night as a character.

That's not to say that this movie was bad. Far from it - it was definitely a showcase for exemplary artistry and some periodically interesting storytelling. The widely varied depictions of the Dark Knight really emphasized different aspects of his personality, and of how the population of Gotham perceives him.

Nevertheless, the stories just as a whole don't do much to further what we already know about Batman. We know he can fight, we know he sticks to the shadows - but how about something else? Something from the comics, perhaps? An interesting approach might have been to play on the theme of "The Killing Joke," wherein the author, Alan Moore, implies that The Joker and Batman share aspects of a singular personality. This is not to say that this film was lacking a Joker appearance, but it might have given some of the story more direction if there were a real villain in any of these shorts.

Another interesting idea would have been to adapt a graphic novel, at least in part, to a short. One that comes to mind that would fit the noir feel of the movie would be "Batman/Deathblow" by Brian Azzarello. Not my favorite comic, but it would have been cool to see.

Then again, maybe comic adaptations would have detracted from the overall originality of the film, and maybe those particular stories are best left to the direct-to-DVD DC releases (and I mean that in a good way). Of course, originality doesn't necessarily equate to quality, as we can so clearly see in this animated anthology.

So, I suppose it's worth seeing - it's far from bad, but it's not going to do anything to fill the empty void where Batman lore should be... unlike it's animated Matrix-inspired counterpart.

Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 70%

~ Søren

Love Actually

Infused with the charm of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman ("Tim" from the UK Office), Liam Neeson, and many others, the loosely connected stories in Love Actually manage to weave together to make one of the most endearing and funny rom coms of the past decade.

Unlike its American counterparts, Valentine's Day, this film underplays (to the extent that that's possible with an all-star cast) its principle actors, bringing a much-needed humility and authenticity to the stories.

Sure, some of the tales are a bit cloying, and some are a tad unnecessary, but such is the folly of a modern romantic comedy - not every story hits home with the feeling they're trying to convey. Having said that, one story in particular really impacted me emotionally - something few films ever do, especially romantic comedies.

Two particular performances stand out in this movie. The first is Liam Neeson's character as a widower, whom I found to be extremely endearing. His evolving relationship with his stepson (Thomas Sangster) is a delight to watch. It turns out he has chops for family roles, too, and not just high-impact drama and action. Who knew?

The other gem in this film is the more ephemeral yet ever-present Bill Nighy, who plays a washed-up old hack of a singer/songwriter whose glory days are well behind him. Even he gets his own love story, but that takes a back seat to his hilarious scene-stealing lines peppered throughout the film.

All in all, this film is a fun, charming watch, if not a perfect movie, and is well worth seeing if you have any love of romantic comedies. It also happens to be a no-brainer alternative to that Valentine's Day knockoff cal.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 80%

~ Søren

Iron Man
Iron Man(2008)

Iron Man stands in my mind as the greatest super hero film released thus far. With a phenomenal mix of fantastic acting, near-perfect special effects, humor, and story, this film simultaneously gave me hope that future Marvel movies might actually be good, and brought the wonderful Robert Downey, Jr. back into the limelight.

As a character, the protagonist, Tony Stark, is in every way the perfect vehicle for Downey, Jr. as he assuredly inhabits the role and plays it out to its limit. Pushing social boundaries at every turn, Stark is a chauvinistic, rich, pompous ass of a man. However, unlike his would-be DC counterpart in The Dark Knight, he is actually more entertaining to watch in many respects than his superhero alter ego.

Stark manages to be both funny and endearing throughout the film- a brilliantly written script from Fergus, Ostby*, Marcum, and Holloway makes every scene both witty and often-times hilarious, without being overly campy. I found myself eagerly awaiting Downey, Jr.'s next impeccably delivered line as much as I looked forward to seeing the suit.

An all-star cast play their respective parts well, with solid performances from both Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, and Gwyneth Paltrow, even if Bridges and Howard were a bit under-utilized. In addition, the special effects are top-notch, realistic, and compliment instead of impede character development.

I also enjoyed the fact that this movie also adhered pretty closely, if not entirely, to the comic universe while updating it to a more contemporary setting. At the very least, they captured the essence of major Marvel superhero and made him appeal to the general public. Additionally, in a nice little tribute to avid readers, Iron Monger is portrayed in this film as the main antagonist.

Unfortunately, I would say where Iron Man trips up the most is towards the end. The climax of the film, though mostly satisfying, leaves something to be desired. This is because prior to this action sequence, there are brilliant set pieces that are used in other battles, and the final fight doesn't match up quite as well as one might hope. However, the scope of the action in a film matters significantly less than the emotional meaning and story behind what's going on, and in this respect scene succeeds.

And finally, following that, the last few moments of the movie last wraps up the movie beautifully and leaves us wanting more... unlike a movie starring a certain Caped Crusader.

All in all, it's a wild ride from start to finish that is worth seeing again and again. This movie isn't just good as fan-fodder- it's a good movie, period.

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 100%

~ Søren

*Fergus and Ostby were also the scribes for the excellent sci-fi film Children of Men.

I Love You, Man
½

Prepare yourselves, for I Love You, Man has done the impossible- it has surpassed the last great comedy of this Apatow-controlled era, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (if by only a narrow margin), and has cemented itself in history as one of the funniest movies I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.

What makes this film stand out so much amidst an array of other excellent contemporary comedies? For one, there is a character relationship dynamic in this film that is unrivaled in any other comedy- a relationship that is, weirdly, best compared to the rapport between the leads in any rom com.

You see, while this film is not technically a romantic comedy per se, it is most definitely the very definition of a bromance film. Not since Fight Club has there been a stranger friendship between two men than there is between Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) and Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd). As the movie starts to build up speed and Sydney is brought into the mix, this film takes off and runs with the admittedly thin premise. Literally, the latter three-quarters of the film revolve around the trials and tribulations of being in a bromantic relationship... and what a funny 75 minutes it is.

Paul Rudd steals the show constantly with his perfect delivery of some of the most awkward lines ever written into a script. He is constantly tripping over words and making major faux-pas which consistently generate solid laughs from the audience. Jason Segel provides a winning co-star performance, on par with his role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Here, he plays the expert "guy's guy" who has to educate Peter on how the world *really* works.

I had an immensely good time with this movie. However, in light of it's specific content, I would not necessarily recommend I Love You, Man as strongly to everyone. More appropriately, I think a bunch of guy friends should get together and check it out- you may see more parallels than you'd think you would to your own lives. Even still, there's plenty here to laugh at for women, too- don't hesitate to treat it as a sweet rom com and see it for yourself.

Please check out the link below and rate this review on Rotten Tomatoes, and be sure to comment on any reviews you disagree with, love, or whatever- here or on RT!

Verdict: Movie Win
RT Score: 90%

~ Søren

Killers
Killers(2010)

Just short of atrocious.

(Full review to come.)

Gedo senki (Tales from Earthsea)

Kami-no-michi, and Goro's no Hayao.

(Full review to come.)

Blade Runner
Blade Runner(1982)
½

It goes far, but it doesn't go far enough. The world of the machine is not explored as deeply as I would have liked, in order to truly cement this as a classic film. Nevertheless, it stands on its own as a defining sci-fi noir film that really everyone should see who has an interest in the genre.

Harrison Ford plays essentially Harrison Ford, but as a detective, and he does a very decent job satisfying the old, disgruntled lawman that he's supposed to play. Brion James plays a delightfully crazy android, aided by a brief but memorable performance by Daryl Hannah.

The story weaves together expertly in this crime drama, but the characters really drive the plot along. This is important, because at about two hours in length, this film can seem slow to anyone who is more used to fast-paced modern science fiction. However, tension builds and the climax is worth it for those who are willing to give it a shot.

All in all, its accolades are well-deserved, even if it doesn't make my personal favorite science fiction films list. This may be Ridley Scott's defining masterpiece in his ouevre.