Monday, November 30, 2015

Thanksgiving Break Pocket Reviews

The Night Before (2015)
dir. Jonathan Levine
Cast: Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan

After the indelible, understated charms of 50-50, director Jonathan Levine re-teams with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt for this flat-out absurd holiday comedy. Think The Hangover set at Christmastime.

When three best friends (Rogen, Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie) meet for their last Christmas Eve together, they embark on an odyssey to make it the greatest night of their lives.

Each goofy, unrealistic escapade begets another, but so goes every single one of Rogen's movies. That said, the film shows some heart and could just be the best new Christmas movie in several years. It really is the holiday-themed Hangover movie I didn't realize I needed to put me right in the spirit of the season.

The Night Before is a total riot, but whether or not it becomes a perennial favorite remains to be seen. I'll have to try it out again next Christmas.


Creed (2015)
dir. Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

Director Ryan Coogler reinvigorates the Rocky franchise with the exceptional seventh sequel, Creed.

Living in Apollo's shadow, young Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) seeks to honor his late father's legacy while also forging his own path on his way to becoming a champion. Along the way, Adonis seeks the counsel of former champ Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and also finds his "Adrian" in Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an edgy, up-and-coming musical artist from Rocky's neighborhood.

Spectacular performances, a great story, gorgeous cinematography and confident direction will make you forget Southpaw even existed, if you haven't already. Creed is as good as anything I've seen all year.

(P.S. Stallone is firmly, unfacetiously in the conversation for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Yes, that's right. THAT Sylvester Stallone, bitches.)


Spectre (2015)
dir. Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Christoph Waltz, Naomi Harris, Ben Whishaw, Dave Bautista, and Monica Bellucci

I finally made it out to see Spectre, the latest (and possibly last) adventure for Daniel Craig's 007.

Following a snafu in Mexico City, James Bond returns to England disgraced. He's suspended by M (Ralph Fiennes) just as political tensions loom regarding worldwide surveilance / "big data." This somehow prompts Bond to embark on a personal mission to uncover the secrets behind a rogue organization of assassins and terrorists.

Many of the subplots didn't quite gel for me. I also found Spectre to be criminally lacking in urgency and stakes compared to Skyfall and Casino Royale. To add insult to injury, this is apparently one of the most expensive movies ever made, costing around $300 million after re-shoots and marketing expenses. You'd never know it by just watching the thing though. There aren't enough set pieces to justify going so far overbudget, and most of the locations are no more lavish than what we've seen in previous Bond films.

All said, it's interesting to dig deeper into Bond's character as it seems all roads so far have led to this. At the same time, it still feels like the real conflict is just beginning. The performances are quite good as well. Christoph Waltz is the standout as the main villain, Franz Oberhauser.

If you have yet to see Spectre at this point, wait and give it a rent when it hits Blu-ray.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Spectre" Review

by Levi Hill


Spectre sees Daniel Craig return for his fourth go-round as special agent 007. In this film, as his past comes back to haunt him, James Bond hunts for a sinister terrorist organization while M (Ralph Fiennes) fights to keep MI6 in operation. The movie tries to craft a deeper personal look at Bond but lackluster storytelling holds it back from reaching its full potential. Acting and set pieces are solid though.

Spectre’s main issue is that the villain of the film, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), is severely underused. He doesn’t appear until well into the film, and once he does appear, he is completely hidden in shadow. When he surfaces a second time, near the very end of the film, he shows exactly how perfect of a Bond villain he is. However his three scenes are not nearly enough screen time for a cretin of his caliber.

The next issue I had with Spectre is that the relationship between Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) feels incredibly forced. Of course Bond isn’t known for taking things slow with his women, but by the end of the film their relationship feels rushed and unearned. Similar to Vesper in Casino Royale, Swann is set up to be a real love interest for Bond. However, the lack of chemistry between the two makes their relationship here hard to believe.

Despite these complaints, the film is still worth your while. The opening sequence is a masterpiece of continuous camera movement. The action scenes are exciting, and you can feel the impact of each blow, especially when Bond is fighting Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista).

There are no bad performances in the film. Craig is fantastic as Bond, which should be expected with his fourth, and potentially final, outing as 007. Waltz is incredible in his limited screen time. Seydoux is convincing enough despite her character being rushed. The supporting cast, including Fiennes, Andrew Scott, Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw, also give solid performances. 

Overall, Spectre is a fun, enjoyable action film. It doesn’t live up to the post-Skyfall hype that surrounded it, but that doesn’t make it a complete failure.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Words on "Star Wars: Battlefront"

I've seen so much negativity out there surrounding this new video game, Star Wars: Battlefront, that I felt compelled to offer my meager two cents after spending time with last month's beta as well as this week's full release.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I have not played enough of the original Battlefront games to speak in depth on them here. However, I recognize a hard reboot when I see one.)

This game is AWESOME. Fans on the fence who didn't have a chance to play the beta should at least rent it, but if you're like me (a Star Wars fan who enjoys playing online shooters with friends who are also Star Wars fans) pick this game up post-haste.

There are many caveats to developer DICE and publisher EA's approach to this thing. It thrives on multiplayer and doesn't feature much by way of an offline single-player campaign. There are several training, battle, and survival missions for players to choose from that each take place within the context of the larger "story world" of this game, which is almost exclusively based on Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Players can tackle these modes alone or with a friend offline locally, but online co-op is also supported. I had a blast racing speeder bikes on Endor with a friend who lives 100 miles away.

Battlefront also has myriad online multiplayer game modes. Some are better than others. Without the fan-favorite Galactic Conquest, most players will probably turn to Supremacy, Walker Assault, and Fighter Squadron. The current game has about 12-13 maps spread across 4 planets: Hoth, Endor, Sullist and Tattoine. The thing holding some of these modes back is that the game limits map choice. For example, you can only play Walker Assault on 4 of the 13 maps. However it wouldn't make sense to have the massive AT-ATs on a map like "Ice Caves" which is made up entirely of a network of underground tunnels on Hoth.

There are many critics out there that think limitations such as these constitute a broken game. They're also complaining that EA is pushing a $50 DLC season pass that, over the course of the coming year, will offer 16 more maps, more game modes (possibly Galactic Conquest?), more weapons, and additional playable heroes. Is that really more overall content than the final game? Who knows? I'd rather have a sure thing in my hands first than base my entire judgement on mysterious additional content that may be underwhelming. 

From a visual standpoint, the whole thing just looks and sounds so damn good that it's easy for me to let some of the limitations slide. It really feels like I'm playing the movie. Blaster fire and character movement feel authentic. Killing stormtroopers is extremely satisfying when they crumble to the ground with physics that mirror the films.

Controls are pretty tight too. The only thing that feels out of place is the ability to switch between first and third person views on the fly, which is mapped exclusively to the down arrow on the D-pad. That feels awkward when I'm trying to quickly outmaneuver enemy fire.

 For me, Battlefront is about as immersive a video game as I've ever played. I'm having such a blast with it that I'm not put off by any of these nitpicks, many of which can be fixed for free in future software updates let alone $50 DLC. 

(Once the season pass is fully detailed, I might spring for it. Maybe that means I'm part of the problem, but from what I've experienced so far, it's worth it.)