Saturday, December 28, 2013

"The Wolf of Wall Street" Review

New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort is the type of guy who likes to have his cake and eat it, too. He's such a junkie for mayhem and excess that it's easy to liken him to a Goodfella-Gatsby wannabe. With The Wolf of Wall Street, director Martin Scorsese faces a task unlike any he's ever attempted - bring Belfort's Olympian true story to life with all the pomp and circumstance that it deserves. The director succeeds to a fault.

This is Scorsese's funniest, most ambitious, most energetic film in years - if not of his career. The film never boasts a boring moment, and at three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is more than a movie - it's a marathon experience. Just like in a real marathon, the film runs on sheer adrenaline - the richest runner's high coming from Leonardo DiCaprio's dynamic, energetic performance as Belfort. However, fatigue sets in by the film's final act, which makes me think how much better TWOWS might've been if it had been trimmed by even a half hour. (It's no secret that the film has faced controversy regarding the editing of its content. Scorsese was forced to cut several sex scenes to avoid an NC-17 rating, which would've effectively doomed the picture to box office hell and ruined practically any chance at Oscar gold.) 

There's simply far too much crammed in here, and not all of it is consistently realistic. Belfort's life is full of so much off-the-wall stuff that it's hard to distinguish fact from fiction. I could've done without a few sex scenes that were played for laughs, but really served no purpose in the overall narrative, like the butler's orgy. There's also an absurd sequence which takes place on Belfort's 170-foot yacht during a storm that looks and feels like something out of Titanic. It just doesn't seem true at all. If the plot was as smooth and streamlined as that ostentatious yacht, TWOWS might be the year's best film. It's certainly the most original I've seen thus far. However, for me, Scorsese's best since Goodfellas remains Shutter Island - a seriously underrated psychological thriller, also starring DiCaprio.

Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in TWOWS may be the best of his career, but I doubt it will be enough to finally earn him an Oscar. There have been too many great leading performances this year. The Gold will most likely go to Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave or Tom Hanks for either Captain Phillips or Saving Mr. Banks. 

As for The Wolf of Wall Street's other players, Jonah Hill's character is an annoying douchebag, as well as all the other sleazy individuals with which Belfort aligns himself. My favorite supporting performers were Rob Reiner as Jordan's tough-loving father, Max Belfort and Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna, Jordan's mentor at his first ever Wall Street job. For. McConaughey, this is a hilarious bit part that allows him to show off some of the classic cowboy charisma that made him famous. I wish he was in it for longer than 10 minutes. Margot Robbie also fares nicely as Belfort's femme fatale, Naomi, with a performance that hearkens back to Lorraine Bracco's in Goodfellas

Believe it or not, The Wolf of Wall Street makes a strong case for being the funniest movie of 2013. Lots of it is gleefully self-referential, and DiCaprio does his best Henry Hill impersonation with a clever, razor-sharp voiceover. He even breaks the fourth wall on occasion. That said, this is strictly a guys-only night at the multiplex. The film is jacked up on so much testosterone and adrenaline (among other, more synthetic substances) that it'll leave you ready for a workout by the end. That is, if it doesn't burn you out on a three-hour marathon of sex, drugs and alcohol first. 


Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Saving Mr. Banks" & "American Hustle" Pocket Reviews

Saving Mr. Banks presents the untold story behind the making of Walt Disney's Mary Poppins. Emma Thompson makes a stellar turn as the persnickety author P.L. Travers, who refuses to sell the Poppins rights to Disney for fear of his presenting her as "twinkling". Tom Hanks counterbalances with a strong portrayal of Walt Disney, the mogul's first appearance as an acted-out character in a feature film. Saving Mr. Banks also boasts a strong supporting cast, including Colin Farrel, Bradley Whitford, Paul Giamatti, and Jason Schwartzman. The story itself has a delicate balance of humor and catharsis, making the audience roar with laughter just before tugging at your heartstrings. Parts of the dramatization may have been fictionalized in order to be intentionally sappy, but I cried nonetheless. One of the finest films of the year, and possibly Disney's best live-action picture since the first Pirates of the Caribbean.


As the latest picture from David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter), American Hustle is a loose dramatization of the FBI's famous Abscam operation from the late 1970s and early 80s. Christian Bale plays a sleazy con man who, together with his seductive partner in crime (Amy Adams), works with an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to expose bribery and corruption in the New Jersey state legislature. The ensemble cast is the best I've seen all year including the players already listed, as well as Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert DeNiro.

The script, from Russell and Eric Warren Singer (The International), is full of hilarious moments, but the plot itself feels a bit convoluted at times. There are so many cons and jobs being played out on screen that, at times, it feels like the moviegoers are the ones being hustled. I still don't know if Adam's character really was British or not. And just what exactly was the purpose of Lawrence's character? It's as if Russell and Singer just wrote a silly part specifically for her so that Russell could work with her again. Lawrence is a great actress, but this might be the least deserving Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category.

American Hustle has fleeting moments of brilliance but it just isn't as endearing a story as Russell's previous two efforts. Following the trend started by last year's Zero Dark Thirty, I find American Hustle to be the most overrated film of 2013. Give Mr. Banks a nomination instead.


"Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" Review


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Grandiosity and bombast have been the name of the game in 2013 for major studio productions. This past summer brought us perfect examples with Pacific Rim and Man of SteelThe Hobbit could be considered another, more recent culprit. It's as if everyone's just demanding more special effects, more destruction, more gunfights, more, more, more... But for Ron Burgundy and the Channel 4 news team, more [of the same] ain't such a bad thing - especially not after nine long years.

The 70s are now a thing of the past, and what lies ahead is the dawn of 24-hour cable news. Leaving San Di-AH-go behind them, the Channel 4 news team (Will Ferrell, David Koechner, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell) moves to New York City to begin work at Global News Network - headed by the feisty Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). In their time spent together at GNN, Ron and his cohorts haphazardly reinvent the standards of broadcast journalism. 

Sure, a handful of jokes can be written off as shameless retreads (Brian Fantana's cache of cologne is now a collection of condoms / another news team battle) but there's more than enough original material to make up for it. As much as I hoped deep down for another a capella version of a classic rock song, I'm glad that the singing, if there really needed to be any, is relegated to an original song. Ferrell sings a sweeping rendition of "Doby" as he laments the departure of his pet shark. Additionally, Kristen Wiig brings a fun dimension as Brick Tamland's muse. 

I also noticed a stronger plot at work here than in the previous Anchorman film. While the sequel manages to maintain less of the first movie's looseness, Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay lace a sharp commentary on the current state of cable news into their story here. By the condescending frown of Bill O'Reilly!

The amount of surprise celebrity cameos greatly out-tallies the first Anchorman, and it gets a little absurd when some of them are introduced. It starts to become less of a gimmick and more of an annoyance when Kanye West shows up wearing a Jheri curl or when Harrison Ford turns into a werewolf. But with the amount of quality players involved, it's hard not to have fun with each of their different parts. 

Anchorman 2 is just as funny as it's riotous predecessor. Time will tell if it's as quotable, however.


Monday, December 16, 2013

"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" Review


Why can't every fantasy epic be like Game of Thrones or even the original Lord of the Rings movies?

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - the second film of Peter Jackson's L.O.T.R. prequel trilogy - panders too much to the video game crowd with superficial storytelling and ridiculous stunts that come off far-fetched, even for a big-budget fantasy picture like this.

In what may be the greatest sequence of controlled chaos ever captured at 48 frames per second, we see dwarves riding in barrels careening down a whitewater river and haphazardly taking out hordes of orcs as they go.

You wouldn't have seen that ten years ago, and it makes one wonder the kind of lowly chord Jackson has now struck in Tolkein's grave. After a certain point, all I could think to myself was, "Seriously?"

Throw in some giant spiders (been there, done that) and The Desolation of Smaug puts Legolas's hokey-but-badass shield surfing in The Two Towers to shame in the worst possible way.

To add insult to injury, I found the CGI to be mediocre at best.

The biggest set pieces look cartoony, as do the orcs who are no longer portrayed by live actors as they were in the Lord of the Rings films.

The combat felt much more raw and realistic with the actors as orcs.

Now it just looks and feels like a three-hour Whack-A-Mole game.

The plot, while not all that dissimilar from the earlier movies (get a group together / venture to this place in order to do this thing / meet folks along the way), simply lacks the emotional panache of the Lord of the Rings. I could care less about what happens to Bilbo, Thorin (Richard Armitage), Bard (Luke Evans), or any of the other characters because all their actions and reactions feel skin-deep. I sense no true change in the film's hobbit hero, who seems just as squirrelly as he was six hours and two movies ago at The Shire. Hell, Frodo started finding his own autonomy by the end of Fellowship.

For a story that's supposed to be about finding your courage and embracing the unknown, Martin Freeman's quasi-douchey Bilbo makes finding a reason to embrace this prequel story impossible. The fact that his character seemingly takes a back seat to Gandalf, Thorin, Bard, the elves, or any of the other dwarves, except for when his "burglary" skills are needed, makes matters even worse. "The Dwarves" would be a more apt title for this movie.

The Hobbit's sole saving grace is Benedict Cumberbatch who doesn't even appear in person.

He plays the voice of Smaug - the fearsome dragon who guards the dwarves' gold and inhabits the desolate mountain kingdom that they hope to reclaim.

It's clear that the bulk of the special effects budget was spent on making Smaug look just right. The amount of detail on his hide and scales is impeccable, looking every bit as gnarly and battle-scarred as Tolkein could have envisioned.

Cumberbatch's voice work is outstanding; it makes the film's final act both frightening and engaging. Just a casual conversation with the dragon had me on the edge of my seat more than any of the big action sequences did.

The introduction of Smaug alone makes this sequel better than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Though it finishes strong and leaves fans hungry for the final chapter, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is unlikely to convert franchise newcomers as the series continues to devolve into an emotionless shell of its former cinematic glory.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"Frozen" Review

In Disney’s “Frozen,” the biggest laughs come from Olaf (Josh Gad), an adorable snowman who longs for nothing more than to experience the heat of summer. He’s blissfully unaware that snow doesn’t typically hold up in beach weather.

Whether he’s reassembling his body parts after falling off a cliff or expressing his feeling that “some people are worth melting for,” Olaf is “Frozen”’s biggest treat.
I can only imagine the number of plush toys flying off the gift shop shelves at Disneyland.

But much like those toys, “Frozen” is an assembly of multiple, better executed source materials. Namely, it’s a re-heated version of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” crossed with Broadway’s “Wicked” musical.

Both star Idina Menzel as flawed leading ladies who go AWOL in fear of rejection and alienation. Also like “Wicked,” this version has a bubbly sister to counter Menzel’s villain.

Glinda tries to bring Elphaba back down to earth in “Wicked.”

In “Frozen,” Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) pursues Elphab— sorry, Queen Elsa (Menzel) — in an attempt to bring her back home and end the winter that Elsa’s plagued their Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle with.

The film earns major points for its animation from Walt Disney’s in-house Animation Studios division - probably the most spectacular work I’ve seen in a Disney movie that wasn’t made by Pixar. Crystalline snowflakes are gorgeously detailed, and the scenes inside the kingdom’s glacial castle feel as if you’ve been placed inside a massive and delicate chandelier. All the while, the icy conditions on screen made me want to watch “Frozen” with my jacket on.

The script from Jennifer Lee (“Wreck-It Ralph”) is full of breezy, witty dialogue with enough gags to please both kids and grown-ups.

The music, from Broadway veteran Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, is not as strong as Alan Menken’s in “Tangled” or “Beauty and the Beast” or any of the myriad Disney films he’s worked on in the past. It sounds too poppy, but at the same time many of the numbers are tailor-made for the Broadway stage. “Let It Go,” sung in the film by Menzel, sounds as if it were written to rival her rousing “Defying Gravity” number in “Wicked.”

Together with spectacular visuals, production values and colorful characters, “Frozen” is begging to be adapted into the next big Broadway musical.

Like a romp in the new fallen snow, “Frozen” is fun while it lasts but is quickly forgotten after the thaw of leaving the theater. For a more imaginative reworking, go watch 2011’s Tangled instead.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" Review

It feels as though we've seen countless adaptations of young adult novels this past year — the most recent of which was Ender's Game. All of the protagonists in these stories are forced to make hard choices, but in Catching Fire those choices feels real. While Harrison Ford shows up for nothing more than a paycheck in Ender's Game, the stars of Catching Fire help to legitimize the inherent goofiness of its story.
Fresh off her big win at the Oscars for Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence returns to The Hunger Games with other Oscar-caliber actors, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, who pops up as the new gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee.

As Katniss starts to realize the repercussions of her actions of the first film, Lawrence seems more up to the task of carrying a big-budget franchise. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Northern Kentucky's own Josh Hutcherson) find themselves dodging both the heat from President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the growing unrest among the districts while on their victory tour.
It's this unrest - this threat of revolution - which damns Katniss and company back to the arena for the third Quarter Quell. 
What sets this apart from Gary Ross's mopey, Appalachian take on the first film is that Catching Fire feels much more streamlined. Gone are the days of the shaky cam and gone are the headaches that came along with it. While the film's running time clocks in at nearly two and a half hours, every action moves the plot forward.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) feels well-suited to handle the sheer grandiosity of some of the sets and characters, including a Gatsby-esque party at the President’s home and the vibrant, Candy Land chic of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).
While screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) pack the script with a heavy dramatic punch, they still relish in poking fun at many of the ancillary characters.
But this time, Banks' Trinket and Woody Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy feel as if they're in on the joke, making their comic relief even funnier. The cast of supporting characters are rounded out with loads of series newcomers, including Jeffery Wright as Beetee, Jena Malone as Johanna Mason and a middling Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair.
And for the record, if judging on acting prowess alone, I have to go Team Gale. Liam Hemsworth brushes up on his American accent and becomes a stronger presence in Katniss's life in this sequel whereas Hutcherson has felt awkward as Peeta since the last movie. If you think about it, he's kind of the proverbial "bitch" in this story - always conforming to what the Capitol wants him to say and always getting gravely injured in the arena to emphasize Katniss's badass streak as she bravely defends/revives him. That, plus the fact that Lawrence is nearly half a head taller than Hutcherson in real life (heels, schmeels) doesn't help his credibility in my eyes. 

Moviegoers will have to wait until next Thanksgiving (and the Thanksgiving after that) to find out what becomes of Katniss and Peeta. But, in honor of the holiday, I'm thankful I get to spend another couple of hours with my friends in Panem.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"About Time" Review

As if the Delorean had lost any of its nerdy staying power, Love Actually director Richard Curtis brings us a Marty McFly for the Nicholas Sparks generation in About Time - a charming romantic comedy that both guys and girls can dig.
Upon turning 21, Tim (Harry Potter’s Domhnall Gleeson) learns that he’s inherited his father’s ability to travel back in time. Lonely and unsatisfied with his existence, he uses his gift to get a girlfriend and right the wrongs of every embarrassingly awkward moment along the way. After moving to London and courting Mary (Rachel McAdams), things get even more complicated when his family life begins crumbling. It’s here that Tim realizes that there are some events he can’t fix without undoing the outcomes of others.
Curtis’s script chronicles several years of Tim’s life – focusing primarily on the 20s and early 30s – to show the lessons he learns from his newfound power regarding life, love, acceptance and the importance of family. But the sappy sentimentality balances out with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, making About Time much more appealing to both sexes than the melodramatic The Time Traveler’s WifeBoth films are conceptually similar and feature McAdams in starring roles.
While About Time takes a more lighthearted approach to the formula, Mary is never privy to her man’s special ability like Clare is in The Time Traveler’s WifeI found this to be the biggest issue with the former because it just seems far-fetched. Mary never asks, so Tim never tells. There isn’t so much as a hint or inkling of desire to share his secret with her. If Mary had questioned it, or if Tim had shared at some point, a fascinating dimension would’ve been added to the relationship between these two characters.
As it stands, the film still thrives on Gleeson’s comedic timing and everyman appeal, which together prove that not all gingers lack souls. The chemistry between him and McAdams remains believable throughout, which makes their interactions a blast to watch.
Bill Nighy gives a typically affable performance as Tim’s father – a retired academic who spends his days reading Charles Dickens, practicing ping-pong and drinking tea on the beach. But the real scene stealer is Tom Hollander (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) as Harry - a lowly playwright whom Tim moves in with in London. His scathingly pessimistic attitude warrants some of the film’s best lines, including a Monty Python reference and the comparison of Tim’s mother to an Andy Warhol lookalike.
Where Tim's life is going, he doesn't need roads in the literal sense. But you'll be thankful for the one that ends at the movie theater when you and your date go to see About Time.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" Review

What would you do if everything you ever knew was taken away in a single moment, like a rug suddenly yanked from beneath your feet?

Such is the tale of Solomon Northup – a free man from Saratoga, New York who finds himself wrongfully kidnapped and sold into slavery. As he awaits justice to be wrought in his favor, Solomon spends twelve years trying to retain his dignity in the face of both wicked cruelty and unexpected kindness.

Powerful and emotionally gripping, 12 Years a Slave is one of the year’s best films. Mr. Northup’s incredible true story gets due presentation from Steve McQueen's careful, reverent direction. He cradles each frame like a long lost child. The way he lingers on certain shots lends the film a palpable, affecting gravity. 

The production design makes the film feel as if it were actually filmed on location in the mid-19th century. Together with John Ridley’s colloquial script, “12 Years a Slave” boasts a tremendous sense of historical accuracy, even though the brutal acts committed against the slaves are difficult to watch.

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the performance of his career as Northup and leads a stellar ensemble cast including Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, and Sarah Paulson. As he reacts to the injustice done to him, Ejiofor places the audience right by his side for the ups and downs of this emotional roller coaster. Look for him at the front of the Best Actor pack this coming Oscar season.

As Master Epps, the film’s most notable antagonist, Fassbender slithers around his plantation like a snake, wrongfully invoking the name of God to justify his evil. This makes Epps easy to loathe as a character but Fassbender perfect for the role.

My favorite scene features Argo’s Scoot McNairy and SNL’s Taran Killam doing their best Barnum and Bailey impersonations as the entertainers Brown and Hamilton respectively. Their lighthearted demeanors lend flair to a conversation they have early on with Solomon. This serves as a jovial juxtaposition against the heavy-hearted content that follows.

12 Years a Slave is not the feel-good movie of the year. 

Such graphic, realistic depiction of life in the antebellum south is not for all casual audience members. This film is emotionally taxing with unsettling words and actions that nearly moved me to tears on several occasions.

But it is as worthy a testament to the human spirit as audiences have seen all year. Ejiofor’s career-defining performance, McQueen’s careful direction, Ridley’s excellent script and period-appropriate production design make 12 Years a Slave an unforgettable cinematic experience.  

Don’t miss this sure-fire Oscar contender that should garner nods in the acting, directing, screenwriting, production design, and best picture categories.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

"Thor: The Dark World" Review

After the super-sized disappointments that were Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel, my once-pristine faith in comic book movies has been severely tarnished. So it’s no wonder that I felt a splitting headache when I watched the first preview for Thor: The Dark World earlier this year.

All I saw was another chance for Hollywood to hammer audiences in the noggin with a cataclysmic, metropolis-leveling climax and a greater concern for the special effects budget than the story or characters.

That being said, Marvel has succeeded twice in bringing the God of Thunder to the big screen: once in his first solo adventure and again for the Avengers team-up. But in such a year where the blockbuster theme seems to be style over substance, why risk seeing if three’s company?

With all due respect to the late John Ritter, I think Thor kicks a bit more ass.

I say that because the Asgardian is now 3-for-3 with Thor: The Dark World - a loose science fiction/fantasy epic bolstered by the charismatic performances of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston and a screenplay full of some of the funniest, most clever gags in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That said, Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor brings a diminished sense of awe compared to Kenneth Branaugh’s 2011 film. The initial fly-over reveal of Asgard feels less exciting here than it did then, despite strong visuals overall.

Thor: The Dark World picks up in the midst of a cosmic “convergence,” in which each of the Nine Realms of the universe become perfectly aligned. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, given precious little to do but scowl under layers of B-movie makeup), the leader of a race known as the Dark Elves, sees the convergence as a chance to cloak the entire universe in darkness. To do that, Malekith must recover the “Aether” – a powerful weapon that looks like a giant, floating spill of CabernetConveniently, the plot thickens when Thor’s scientist girlfriend, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), unwittingly becomes host to the Aether, making the consequences more dire and personal for the God of Thunder.

Are your eyes getting heavy yet?

If the story sounds far-fetched, that’s because it is, even by Marvel’s standards. What makes it so enjoyable, however, is the voracious pacing and clever humor that scribes Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Chris Yost lend to the story. The film never seems to take itself too seriously, which is refreshing for a blockbuster as monumental as this.

Give most of the credit to Tom Hiddleston, whose Loki once again steals the show.
Now condemned for his actions in The Avengers, Loki seems as conflicted and crafty as ever. That smirking façade lets audiences know that sinister gears are always turning inside Loki’s head. This makes him, arguably, the most dynamic character in the Marvel canon thus far.

I like the way Chris Orr put it in “The Atlantic” – “Hiddleston’s Loki is a hero for the antiheroic age of Don Draper and Walter White."  That's why I believe audiences love him to the point of clamoring for Loki’s own spin-off movie.

As for Hemsworth, he brings a larger-than-life charisma, not just to Thor, but to every role he plays. That type of talent screams big-screen success. He embraces the role of Thor in such a way that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. 

In the end, Thor: The Dark World falters with a slightly generic plot but still managers to hammer its recent super-powered competitors on the strength of charismatic performances and a fun script that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Don't miss it this weekend, and don't forget to stay for the credits.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Ender's Game" Review

It’s a dilemma that science fiction stories have grappled with for ages: how do you solve a problem like the end of the world?
Recently, Guillermo del Toro’s solution was to fight it with giant robots. Marc Forster thought Brad Pitt could be the one to curtail our apocalypse. But for filmmaker Gavin Hood, the issue is thrust upon a battalion of 10-year-olds.
Based on the classic novel by Orson Scott Card, “Ender’s Game” picks up in the wake of a thwarted alien invasion of Earth. In order to prevent future attacks, America’s increasingly paranoid, trigger-happy government initiates a training program for the best and brightest children to become weapons against the insectoid alien invaders known as Formics. Ender Wiggin (“Hugo”’s Asa Butterfield) is the greatest of these weapons, a 12-year-old tactical genius who is hand-picked by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) to lead his fellow child soldiers in an impending fight against the Formics.

Like the book, Hood’s script is fraught with the same political undertones for which Card himself has come under fire. Parallels can still be drawn between Ender and Adolf Hitler, though more current themes of geopolitics and homophobia can clearly be discerned from Hood's presentation.
Butterfield fares nicely as Ender, whose hardened attitude never gets in the way of empathizing with him. No child should have to face the circumstances that Ender finds himself in, which makes him easy enough to root for. I just wish I understood more of his backstory. Hood doesn’t do a great job with character development, and instead chooses to push our tiny heroes directly into action, stopping only briefly to explain things as they go.
The only other significant players are Davis and Ford, whose Colonel Graff barks orders in such a garbled manner that he should’ve been called Colonel Gruff. Davis’s motherly disposition shines through only slightly when discussing Ender’s special training procedures with Graff.

In terms of special effects, “Ender’s Game” looks like a video game, which is decidedly appropriate. Animations are gorgeously detailed, yet slightly cartoony — similar to the style of “Borderlands” or “Red Dead Redemption.” Most of the action in “Ender’s Game” centers around a zero-gravity training arena in outer space in which the kids essentially engage in the most elaborate laser tag matches ever conceived. Combat enters an even larger, more frenetic scale in the last half-hour when Ender’s lightning-quick movements look as if he’s in the middle of a sugar-addled “Call of Duty” marathon.

Though it’s decently acted and choreographed, “Ender’s Game” proves to be yet another middling entry in a year full of mediocre sci-fi movies.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Halloween" 35th Anniversary Blu-Ray Review

When it comes to “slasher” films, you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween.
What sets it apart from typical genre fare, like Friday the 13th, is that Michael Myers is no maniac in a mask.
He is quite simply a physical embodiment of the pure, unwavering evil that can lurk anywhere – even in the quietest, most unsuspecting neighborhoods.
Such terror deserves home entertainment treatment of the highest order, and audiences get that with the all-new 35th anniversary Blu-Ray release of Halloween.
The most notable feature that distinguishes this from previous releases is the all-new, high definition image transfer supervised by Dean Cundey himself, the film’s original director of photography.
The result is a gorgeously clear picture that looks like it could’ve been filmed yesterday.
By looking at still photographs comparing this version to the 2007 Blu-Ray release, it’s clear that Cundey’s 35th anniversary transfer is the definitive viewing experience.
The color scheme is cooler and less vibrant, allowing for more natural looking images that are truer to Carpenter’s original vision.
The transfer also retains its slight graininess, lending a sense of authenticity that’s true to Halloween’s original theatrical presentation.

As for the sound, Cundey includes a new Dolby TrueHD 7.1 lossless audio track, which means the movie’s original soundtrack has been completely reconstructed to sound as clear as ever.
Carpenter’s haunting score is beautifully crisp.
Its classically foreboding presence is enhanced to evoke a greater sense of dread than ever before.
Additionally, a brand new audio commentary from Carpenter and star Jamie Lee Curtis is included.
This was my favorite special feature for the way Carpenter and Curtis josh each other – while she’s freaking out at every other scene, he’s telling her how silly she is.
Through their easygoing banter, the duo provides remarkable insights into the filming experience, the mythology, casting, and technical elements of the production.
The only other new feature is an hour-long documentary titled “The Night SHE Came Home,” in which a camera crew follows Curtis as she meets fans at her first ever horror convention.
It’s entertaining and worth a few viewings simply because this is the first time that Curtis has ever acknowledged the passionate Halloween fan base.

Her distaste for horror films and wish to disassociate from the “scream queen” image are reasons why Curtis has taken 35 years to reach out.
Other special features have all been ported over from previous home video releases.
The “On Location: 25 Years Later” featurette showcases the South Pasadena shooting locations that have, by and large, remained unchanged since the late 70s.
Though it features rare appearances from the late Debra Hill and star P.J. Soles, such a dated feature feels out of place on a 35th anniversary release.
If anything, they should’ve updated it with the cooperation of Carpenter and Curtis.
It would’ve been fun to see their reactions and hear their stories about filming on location so many years ago.
Remaining features include a collection of scenes shot specifically for the film’s television presentations, as well as original theatrical trailers, television, and radio spots.
Michael has never looked or sounded better, so fans looking for the definitive Halloween viewing experience should head to Best Buy or Target to pick up a copy.
 Even if you're a first-time viewer, this classic horror film is a worthy addition to any home video collection.

Friday, October 25, 2013

"The Counselor" Review

If Hollywood were to produce its own “greatest hits” album, it might look something like “The Counselor”.

On the surface, the film features one of the best pedigrees in the history of American cinema. You’ve got a proven director in Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Alien”), a screenplay from arguably one of the greatest American novelists of all time, Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men”), and a cast of Hollywood’s most talented players including Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt.

What’s more is that the television spots during Monday Night Football make it look like the next riveting episode of “Breaking Bad.” Heck, Dean Norris even makes a brief appearance as the wholesale buyer of a large shipment of cocaine in “The Counselor.”

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

McCarthy’s story picks up when a nameless, cash-strapped lawyer (Fassbender) invests in a big drug deal, contrary to the advising of his associates (Bardem, Pitt). Inevitably, the deal goes awry, forcing our hero into an abyss of increasingly dire straits.

In trying to create intrigue and suspense in his first-ever screenplay, it’s clear that McCarthy shouldn’t quit his day job.

A reviewer on “The Counselor”’s IMDb page put it best, saying that “McCarthy fails to realize that he isn’t writing a book here.” Real people don’t often speak in monologues, which is how most of the dialogue is delivered. As such, the story becomes bogged down under the weight of its own profundity. It’s almost impossible to tell what exactly is going on at any point in time.

The aforementioned scene with Norris feels entirely out of place, and it doesn’t help that the characters in the scene are both introduced and abandoned over the course of 3 minutes. We never see any of these guys again after Norris’s character makes the deal. That being said, the rest of the film features a colorful cast of characters inhabited by capable actors.

Diaz steals the show as Malkina, the girlfriend to Bardem’s Reiner. Her ulterior motives lend a welcome sense of depth to both her character and to the film’s final act. Diaz manages to balance confidence and initiative in a manner that’s imposing, yet undeniably sexy.

This is made apparent to, not just the audience, but Bardem’s character in a scene involving her and a car. Watching it is like watching a train wreck – it’s terrible, but you just can’t bring yourself to look away.

Trailing in Diaz’s wake is the rest of the A-list cast, each given ample time to flex their chops in what feels like a series of long-winded vignettes that serve as exposition.

In the end, I think those audience members looking for recourse after the recent departure of dear Heisenberg will be disappointed by “The Counselor.” A series of interpersonal scenes with cryptic dialogue fail to make a cohesive story apparent in McCarthy’s screenplay. It’s just boring and unengaging, which are two things that stories like “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” certainly are not.

That being said, the cast makes “The Counselor” consistently watchable. Although with such an outstanding pedigree, “watchable” is a major disappointment.