Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gravity | Movie Review

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron 
Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron 
Stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language
A Warner Bros. Pictures Release

***1/2 (out of four)

By now, you've probably heard words and phrases like "masterpiece," "jaw-dropping," and "an experience unlike any other" in reference to Alfonso Cuaron's techno-thriller Gravity. If you've seen it, you can choose to believe any of those phrases or not, but there's one thing that just about everyone can agree on: it is an experience.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Heady science fiction has to fight to get onto movie screens. It's happened a lot in the last ten years, from Shane Carruth's Primer to Danny Boyle's Sunshine to Duncan Jones' Moon. However, we've also been fortunate to get Neill Blomkamp's District 9, Christopher Nolan's Inception, and Rian Johnson's Looper into multiplexes and actually finding an audience. Gravity - given its $55 million opening weekend - is bound to do the same.

One of the many fascinating things about Gravity is that it's everything you've seen before, but yet it isn't. There's nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and even Pixar's WALL-e, but it's no rip-off, nor is it some finger-wagging sociopolitical commentary. This is like sci-fi unplugged, a stripped-down, raw, but nevertheless intense immersion into the perspective of one's struggle for survival.

That person is Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer who is assisting astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) with repairs to the Hubble Telescope. While nearly finished with their mission, they get a call from Houston to abort the mission, as debris from a Russian missile has caused a chain reaction that is headed for their ship. When their ship inevitably goes down, Stone and Kowalski are sent free-floating into space, and must find a way back to the station to try and get back home.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
The story is simplistic, but it more than works. Gravity is a breakthrough in technological storytelling and sound design. Like James Cameron with Avatar and Martin Scorsese with Hugo, Cuaron is able to utilize the 3D technology to immerse you into the film. You feel exactly how Dr. Stone feels as the movie goes on: shortness of breath, cringe-worthy attempts to hold on, and the feeling of isolation and encasement, looking for a way out. Lengthy tracking shots take you through the silence of space and then into the noise of Dr. Stone's breathing, oxygen levels, and headset inside her helmet. Even during the intense moments of wreckage, the sound of the explosions are muted.

Gravity only runs a scant 90 minutes, and that's including credits. What a relief, given that the overkill of this year's summer blockbusters needing to run at least 130 minutes. This is the kind of smart technology-led filmmaking that we need to see more of, and one can only hope that Gravity's box office success will send that message. Hey, I enjoyed Pacific Rim too, but you can only take so much sci-fi fluff of robots and giant monsters before it becomes tiresome. Ideas, emotions, and experiences is what audiences are hungry for.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

I haven't even gotten into the performances yet. Clooney has never been more charming. He is effective, but I can't say that he sets the world on fire. This is truly Sandra Bullock's show, and she's up to every challenge. Most of this film was created digitally, chroma keyed onto a green screen, but you would believe that she is really trapped in space, gasping for air, and contemplating her odds.

Filmmakers like Zack Snyder and Michael Bay (and even George Lucas with the Star Wars prequels) tend to crowd the frame with clutter when they use green screen technology, but Cuaron's use of negative space is more claustrophobic and hauntingly sticks with you. Between Gravity and his 2006 masterpiece Children of Men, Cuaron is a gifted filmmaker who can by stylish, but always for a purpose. Both these films aim to frighten, disorient, and shock you, but as any filmmaker should, he aims to also enlighten and entertain.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures 
Gravity is undoubtably a one-of-a-kind film, a trailblazer in technological filmmaking, which makes it an easy target for nitpicking. Sure, some of the dialogue is hokey and awkward, but I'm not writing this to focus on that. I'm writing this to inform you about a film and its masterful filmmaker who have reminded us what going to the movies is all about. There have been better films released this year, and there will continue to be better films released between now and December, but very few will be remembered quite as fondly as Gravity.

Note: Having seen Gravity in both the 2D and 3D format, I highly recommend you view it in 3D, preferably in IMAX, RPX, or Cinemark XD. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Kick-Ass 2 | Movie Review

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Kick-Ass 2
Directed by Jeff Wadlow
Written by Jeff Wadlow; based on the comic series by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. 
Stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Morris Chesnut, John Leguizamo, Donald Faison, Clark Duke, and Jim Carrey 
MPAA: Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, crude and sexual content, and brief nudity
A Universal Pictures Release

Zero Stars (out of four)

The first Kick-Ass - released in 2010 and based on the comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. - aimed to satirize the conventions of the comic book film by showing the effect of heroes in the real world. It ended up adhering to the genre tropes more than it might have intended, but as a refreshing change-of pace for the genre - funny, small-scale, and scrappy - it worked as fun popcorn escapism that had the balls to push its R-rating. Now we get Kick-Ass 2, also proudly wearing the R-rating, but expectedly so. What's missing this time around is sharp-edged humor, inventive action, a story and/or character arcs to care about, and, above all else, a real reason for existing.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Kick-Ass 2 is so jaw-droppingly bad that it doesn't even feel like it's cut from the same cloth as its predecessor. Truth is, it isn't. The first film was directed and co-written by Matthew Vaughn, a British filmmaker who started in producing Guy Ritchie's early films, then moved into the director's chair with Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class. Vaughn is a storyteller first and an action director second, which is why the jarring tonal shifts in Kick-Ass are forgivable because he establishes a rooting interest in the characters early on. Vaughn still produced the sequel, but writing and directing duties fell to Jeff Wadlow, whose only directorial credits include Cry Wolf and Never Back Down. I had never planned to see either of those, and Kick-Ass 2 solidifies that.

However, playing devil's advocate, I'm not so sure that Wadlow is completely at fault for this train-wreck. The sequel moved from Lionsgate to Universal (I don't know any more details other than that), and I fear that the latter forced him make this film as accessible as possible, seeing how the first film was only a moderate success (the home video sales allegedly made the sequel possible). The first ten minutes makes a strong case for that. It opens with a voice-over narration from Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), AKA Kick-Ass, not only explaining the events that occurred in the last film, but what Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz), AKA Hit-Girl, has been doing to try and fit into a normal society after her father died. I'm sure that 95% of the audience - save for the occasional significant other who is dragged along - has seen the first film, so why lay on the exposition so thick?
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The film essentially tells three stories that forcefully try to flow into one another by means of fate and destiny. One of the stories is Mindy hanging up her Hit-Girl life at the request of her guardian (Morris Chesnut) and adapting to life in high school. The second one is Kick-Ass itching to get back out there and fight crime, finding his way into an underground group called "Justice Forever," headed by Col. Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). The third is about Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), still wanting revenge against Kick-Ass for the death of his father, who becomes a S&M-dressed super villain known as "The Motherfucker" and assembles his own ragtag group of villains.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
The film runs for 103 minutes, which is a lot of material to pack into a small amount of time. Needless to say, none of it sticks. The actors fare okay for the script they had the displeasure of sticking to, but that can only go so far. There's no bite to the humor this time around. All of it revolves around characters stating the obvious with an ironic delivery, or just swearing. However, the surprise of its gleeful vulgarity is gone. It also stoops to jokes about bodily fluids and creepy jokes revolving around hormonal teenage girls, which doesn't work unless you're writing from a place of honesty. There's also a really tasteless rape joke involving The Motherfucker and Kick-Ass's flame in the Justice Forever, Night Bitch (Lindy Booth). While the comic featured an awful rape scene, the film does thankfully omit that and decides to play erectile dysfunction to comic effect, but just ends up coming across as scuzzy.

Even the over-the-top violence that the first film was known for is very stale and uninspired in the follow-up. Not to mention that Wadlow doesn't know his way around an action sequence, which results in a toxic mix of stereotypical slo-mo and incomprehensible quick-cutting. However, for all its head-banging violence and juvenile humor, the one thing that makes Kick-Ass 2 unforgivable is a reason to care. Carrey could have rocked at playing a twisted mentor to Johnson's Kick-Ass, but it ends up being merely an excuse for Carrey to play dress-up. People can bash him all they want, but Nicolas Cage was the heart and soul of the first film. His quest for vengeance and balancing that with raising his daughter (and, in doing so, raising her into this kind of world) provided the film with an emotional anchor. There's no emotion or anything else to care about in Kick-Ass 2. It only asks that you hang on for the ride. But, given its repetitiveness and a "when will it end!?" mentality, the ride it mirrors is "It's a Small World."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Summer 2013: The Most Promising of What's Left

It's already the middle of July (where did the time go?), and it just now feels like summer is kicking off. So far, this summer's wide releases have been overall lame. The only standout of the bunch is This Is the End, but other than that, these blockbusters have a repetitiveness to them that brings out out a feeling of "meh." However, the arthouse circuit has been a saving grace (Before Midnight and Mud), and there's some promising films both in limited and wide release coming out through the end of August. Here's the cream of the crop.

Only God Forgives (Limited, VOD, and iTunes July 19th) 
Courtesy of Radius/TWC

You would think this would be the arthouse crowds' biggest event of the summer. The Drive team of director Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher trilogy, Bronson) and star Ryan Gosling reuniting for a blood-soaked soap opera involving a crime queenpin in Thailand (Kristen Scott Thomas) ordering her youngest son (Gosling) to avenge his brother's death sounds like a winner. Reviews have been mixed, infamously getting booed at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, but hey, more often than not, the films that get booed are misunderstood. If this film is Lynchian in nature like some have said, and with David Lynch himself not planning on making a feature anytime soon, I'll take my surreal fix where I can get it.

The Way Way Back (Now Playing in Limited, Expands July 26th) 
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

You can click to read my review over at GotchaMovies right here, but know this: Oscar-winning screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants) make a strong directorial debut with this somewhat conventional, but always entertaining coming-of-age comedy with strong work from Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, and Alison Janney, among others. There have been better films this summer, but this one is one of the most enjoyable.

The To-Do List (Wide, July 26th) 
Courtesy of CBS Films

Maggie Carey (wife of Bill Hader) makes her directorial debut about virginal high school grad Brandy (Aubrey Plaza, the invaluable April Ludgate on NBC's Parks and Recreation) who decides to make a list of various sexual experiences she wants to do before heading to college. The jokes are hit-and-miss, and it's unnecessarily raunchy at times, but Carey's honest script and direction brings it all together in a final act that breaks the conventions of the "losing-your-virginity" sex comedy. A solid supporting cast that includes Hader, Andy Samberg, and Connie Britton and Clark Gregg as Brandy's parents doesn't hurt either.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Blue Jasmine (Limited, July 26th) 

It wouldn't be summer without a new Woody Allen film. I don't know much about it other than it being about a housewife (Cate Blanchett) in a midlife crisis, but Louis C.K. co-starring has me intrigued. Hopefully that team-up won't disappoint like Allen and Larry David did in Whatever Works, which didn't work.

2 Guns (Wide, August 2nd)

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Mark Wahlberg (re-teaming with Contraband director Baltasar Kormakur) and Denzel Washington are essentially remaking Mr. & Mrs. Smith. If the movie knows it's dumb and Wahlberg and Washington bring the comic goods, I'm in.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
We're The Millers (Wide, August 7th) 

Dodgeball director Rawson Marshall Thurber directs this road movie about a pot dealer (Jason Sudekis) and a stripper (Jennifer Anniston) who pretend to be a family to smuggle marijuana over the Mexican border. It could be slapstick heaven or fall completely flat, but the Red Band trailer attached to The Hangover Part III was funnier than that whole movie.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Elysium (Wide, August 9th)

Neill Blomkamp, the wonder behind District 9, returns with his sophomore effort Elysium, where in the future, the privileged live on a perfect planet by the title's name, and everyone else lives on a dying Earth. Matt Damon plays a dying, blue-collar worker who needs to break into Elysium to be cured. I'm trying not to read or see anything more about it until its release, as I will stop writing, but if Blomkamp brings emotional gravitas and sociopolitical subtext as he did in District 9, then this should be another winner.

In a World... (Limited, August 9th) 

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Have you ever caught yourself watching trailers and immediately think "This movie was made for me?" That's how I felt when I first heard about In a World... Children Hospital's Lake Bell writes, directs, and stars in this comedy about the daughter of a movie trailer narrator who wants to be the first female trailer narrator. The supporting cast includes Children's Hospital stars Rob Corddry and Ken Marino, as well as Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Geena Davis, and Fred Melamed as the father. As someone who wanted to be a the "movie voice guy" as a kid, this looks fantastic.

Kick-Ass 2 (Wide, August 14th)

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Jeff Wadlow steps into the directors' chair for Matthew Vaughn which has Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) teaming up with a superhero newcomer - Col. Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey) - to take down Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) - now called "The Motherfucker" - and his army of super villains. If the laughs come fast and the performances as solid as they were the first time around, then this may be the best comic book film of the summer (suck on that, Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel).

Courtesy of Focus Features

The World's End (Wide, August 23rd)

Director Edgar Wright and co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost - the mad geniuses behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and BBC's short-lived Spaced - round out their so-called "Cornetto" trilogy in which five friends try to live their college days by finishing a twelve pub bar-crawl. In the midst of their drunken stupor, they encounter an alien invasion. These Brits are the best in genre-mashing, pop culture idolizing, and delivering rapid-fire laughs. I don't expect The World's End will change that.

Monday, June 24, 2013

In Response To A Fan: "When Is The Best Time to Review a Film?"

Today, I got a request from one of my best friends and colleagues to answer a question in a blog entry. Mr. Nic Adenau (Twitter handle @nicadenau) asked me this via Twitter:

Well, Nic, I will answer that to the best of my ability. Usually, if my schedule permits it, I like to post my review of a film the night before said film is released. If I see the film days, weeks, or in some cases, months in advance, then I will usually write the review up and save it in my database, then wait until the film is closer to being released before I post it.

I usually try my best to respect the "review embargo." Generally, studio pictures will put up an embargo stating that no reviews are to be published until a certain date. Now, I don't always adhere to the embargo, because I am not technically a recognized media outlet. The screenings I attend are first come, first serve, and because I am not involved with a publishing firm, the embargoes don't apply to me. However, I generally only break the embargo if it is a film I have positive things to say about it (though I did break it with negative reviews of "Now You See Me" and 2011's "Apollo 18," which the latter was not actually screened for critics).

Also, it's sort of an unspoken agreement between me and my readers, especially those who are close friends, but if it is a hotly-anticipated film that you are going to see regardless of reviews, I advise that you wait to read my review until after viewing the film. If I have nothing but superlatives to say about the film, I fear that I may overhype it and then someone will be disappointed. On the reverse side, if I write something very negative and you read it before hand, and you happen to notice it during the film, you'll already have that doubt in your mind. If it is a film you are on the fence about, I encourage reading my review beforehand. Otherwise, wait until you see the film.

Thanks again brother Nic for the question. I would love to do more of these, so if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or send me a Tweet (@TheRyanOliver). Until next time, happy viewing!

Monsters University | Movie Review

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
Monsters University
Directed by Dan Scanlon 
Screen Story and Screenplay by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Dan Scanlon
Features the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina 
MPAA: Rated G
A Walt Disney Pictures Release

**1/2 (out of four)

Disney/Pixar's Monsters University raises a lot of questions, though none related to the sweet and funny, yet safe and predictable film itself. Questions like "Is Pixar running out of juice?" "Are they being heavily controlled by parent company Disney?" "Was a prequel to Monsters Inc. - a top-tier Pixar gem - really necessary?" The answer? Maybe, maybe, and no.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
I refuse to believe that Pixar - the granddaddy of all animation studios - is out of creative endeavors. WIth a resume that includes Toy Story, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-e, and Up, there's no way they cannot recapture that magic. Their last great film - 2010's Toy Story 3 - became a billion dollar hit, which makes me ponder if parent company Disney is looking to capitalize on brand familiarity with Pixar's last few films. Toy Story 3 not only was the second sequel in a beloved series, it was also the most emotionally satisfying of the series, and like the other titles I mentioned above, wasn't afraid to let anxiety and fears seep in and make you work for the happy ending.

Pixar then proceeded to make Cars 2, not only a weak film, but a sequel to one of Pixar's less-revered films (though the original is unfairly maligned). Rumors circulated whether or not Pixar wanted to make Cars 2 or if Disney wanted to keep selling toys. Either way, Cars 2 was a stinker, but, sadly, not as much as their next film, Brave, which featured a generic, Scotland-set fairy tale with a princess who strived to be independent. The strong female character of Merida (Kelly MacDonald) with a genre deconstruction of the generic princess story sounded right up Pixar's alley, but it adheres to the cliches rather than breaking them and, with an uneasy mix of scares and slapstick, the film ultimately fails.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
It should go without saying that Monsters University is an improvement from these last two titles, but not quite up to par with the Pixar standard. Billy Crystal and John Goodman are back voicing Mike Wazowski and James P. "Sully" Sullivan, respectively, in their college years at the School of Scarers at MU. Mike is a overachieving know-it-all, yet faces one big problem: he's not physically scary. Sully comes from a prestigious family name known for scaring, but believes he can get by on that name alone with no effort. Their attitudes form a bitter rivalry, which ultimately gets them kicked out of the Scaring program and into scare-canister engineering. Mike and Sully, desperately wanting to get back into the School of Scarers, enter the school's annual Scare Games with a laughing-stock fraternity, wagering the dean (Helen Mirren) that if they win, they are admitted back into the program.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
What follows is a run-of-the-mill underdog story about overcoming differences and becoming friends. That's all fine and dandy, but it's frustratingly safe. There's many angles this movie could have gone to make it go a little deeper. They don't touch much on Sully struggling to get out of his family's shadows, nor do we really see what fuels the bitter rivalry between Mike & Sully and Randall (Steve Buscemi).

Fortunately, Monsters University has a lot of big laughs that make up for its lack of freshness. While it may be weird that Crystal, age 65, and Goodman, age 61, are voicing college students, but their easy rapport from the first film hasn't left. Monsters Inc. raised the question about the existence and fears of monsters, as well as attributing real-world fuel issues to a world occupied by monsters. Monsters University doesn't go that deep. It's funny, overlong by fifteen minutes, and works as a nice family outing. Just don't expect it to hold up 12 years from now like its predecessor.