Monday, August 17, 2015

Movie review: "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

Starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.
Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
     In the day when most spy movies have been reinvented for today's audience, Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. goes back to the stomping grounds of all subterfuge and misdirection: the Cold War. While the movie (based on the 1964 show) does have some charm and fun chase scenes, it also can't step out of the shadow of more well-known franchises like Mission: Impossible and of course, James Bond.
     The year is 1963, and CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) have their first mission together: recover a missing German scientist who can arm nuclear warheads and do it more quickly than normal. Their lead is the scientist's brother, who works for an Italian shipping company run by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). With the aid of the scientist's daughter, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the duo plan to get close to both Vinciguerra and the scientist's brother in order to find the scientist and stop him from arming a bomb.
     Only one problem: Solo and Kuryakin hate each other. Like more than ice and fire hate each other.
     But as one might accurately guess, they do learn to work together (or at the very least, don't try to kill each other). Which is good, because the bickering rivalry between the two is probably the movie's biggest strength. From the opening chase scene that quickly becomes a battle of wits between the two to both of them bugging each other's hotel rooms, Solo and Kuryakin's rather hilarious relationship remains the heart of the movie and is helped by the chemistry between Cavill and Hammer.
From left to right: Hammer, Vikander, Cavill and Grant.
Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
     For that matter, both Cavill and Hammer embody their characters' personalities very well; Cavill slides
into the Bond-like Solo's skin with relative ease and Hammer remains a taut wire as he conveys Kuryakin's struggle to control his borderline-psychotic rage. Other characters don't receive quite the same treatment. While Vikander gives Teller both intelligence and toughness and is just plain fun to have on the screen, Debicki's Viniciguerra isn't all that interesting villain, even with Debicki's fine femme fatale performance. Hugh Grant shows up every now and then as a British guy named Waverly (fans of the show will recognize that name...) to deliver a snarky comment or several and, like Vikander, is also good fun.
Debicki's Viniciguerra.
And no, I don't know where she wants to put that thing.
Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
     As a throwback to the 60's, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. includes more than a few chases from the dastardly forces of evil. And they work pretty well; the camerawork is quick and vigorous enough to make the scenes very satisfying. The rest of the script is a mixed bag; the first third isn't particularly interesting and was so boring that I had to look up a plot summary just to remember what happened. But by the second third, the action begins to pick up and stay that way for the rest of the movie (despite one very unnecessary and dark moment...which is quickly broken up by an equally black comedic moment). Camera shots range from the standard medium shot to bird's-eye and helicopter shots, giving the movie energy and speed. To Ritchie's credit, he also plays with the frame quite a bit, leaving some details out of sight for the viewer and letting them figure out what happens on their own.
     And that's probably U.N.C.L.E.'s biggest weakness: even without showing some things and keeping details hidden, some viewers will be able to see plot twists coming a mile away (or further, if they're really good). Even as the movie celebrates 60's spy films, it also doesn't really shake off this feeling of "We've seen this before already." It doesn't kill the movie at all, only prevents it from standing out more.
     In short, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is nowhere near as good as Sean Connery or Daniel Craig's James Bond. But at least it ain't Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan.

Final rating: 7 bags of popcorn out of 10. Director: Guy Ritchie. Screenplay: Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, and Hugh Grant.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Movie review: "Edge of Tomorrow" is a deeper action movie

            I don’t think it coincidental that Edge of Tomorrow was released in the U.S. on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
            Let me explain: Edge of Tomorrow, adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s 2004 light novel, All You Need is Kill (I know, weird title), begins with a montage of news coverage—both fake and real-life—of aliens crashing into Germany and beginning a full-scale war against humanity. We’ve only just begun to actually fight back against these aliens, dubbed Mimics, thanks to that well-known sci-fi trope called armored power-suits. By the time the film actually starts, the United Defense Forces have planned an endgame called Operation Downfall, where the UDF will work together to basically box in the Mimics in Europe with the aid of Russian and Chinese forces.
            Now think about it: an enemy from Germany that completely sweeps most of Europe and has been unstoppable. To continue the WWII parallels, the plot really begins in London, where the UDF is holding the Mimics at the English Channel. The UDF is supposed to invade France, and to top it off even further, the battle itself strongly resembles the Invasion of Normandy; establishing shots have airships flying over a gray beachfront, dropping soldiers into the thick of it. We follow the soldiers as they fall to earth and as they march into a hellish crossfire against a faraway enemy. Foxholes also appear as precious cover against the merciless onslaught.
            If nothing else, these opening scenes are a nice little homage to one of history’s most famous battles and a great visual touch. But beyond that, Edge of Tomorrow fights its own very different war. That war is fought by Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), an American officer and UDF spokesman who has never seen a day of combat in his life. That doesn’t stop General Brigham (a literal stiff-upper-lipped Brendan Gleeson) from sending him to the front lines to cover the invasion. One ill-attempted escape later and Cage is sent to Heathrow Airport under the command of Master Sergeant Farell, a funny-as-all-get-out Bill Paxton. Seriously, you can’t help but laugh every time the dude shows up.
            Despite his best efforts, Cage is sent to the front lines, and director Doug Liman treats the battle as a losing affair: Soldiers die frequently, many from the gyrating masses of tendrils that are the Mimics. The musical score and the shaky camera reflect Cage’s confusion and the soldiers’ desperation. Cage manages one kill before a blue-hued Alpha Mimic assaults him. A quickly-grabbed mine kills the Alpha but also Cage. The camera lingers on his burned-out face covered in Alpha blood…
            …and then jump cuts back to Cage waking up at Heathrow Airport the day before the invasion, screaming. He figures out that he’s stuck in a time loop that resets his day every time he dies. He eventually grows into a better soldier going through the loop. Then he encounters the highly-decorated Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), also known amongst soldiers as the “Fullmetal Bitch” (Dang). Turns out she went the same thing that Cage is going through and together, they resolve to decide make Cage even better so that they can escape the loop and end the Mimic threat.
            This is actually a deviance from the original novel, which was more of a character study of the two warriors. The film probably would have been more interesting if it centered more on Cage and Rita’s relationship than on them trying to escape their fate. Still, the script is a fine one, not slowing down because of the loop and even surprising when it becomes clear that Cage has already experienced the events unfolding. To give the writers further credit, they give Cage and Rita a few quiet moments in-between the fights to further develop them. Which is good, because Rita struck me as a flat character in contrast to Cage, who goes slowly from a smooth-talking coward to a tenacious and confident warrior.
Cruise handles Cage's character development very well while not rushing it, and Blunt embodies Rita’s extreme toughness very well while giving us subtle hints at a much more sensitive interior. Together, they form an unrelenting team in some slick and thrilling action scenes, with Rita brandishing a sword that will be familiar to Final Fantasy VII fans.
            With all this dying going on, you might think Edge of Tomorrow is too serious for its own good. Fortunately, there’s enough comedy peppered here and there to balance it out. In addition to Paxton’s one-liners, Cruise keeps Cage just green enough to warrant some funny reactions. This, when paired next to Blunt’s Rita, leads to one hilarious conversation between the two. One of my favorite moments is after Cage has looped a few times. He’s getting the hang of his suit, he’s courageously running toward the enemy, the music swells to that victorious heroic tune…and then Cage gets run over by a truck! (He does learn, of course.)
            While the writing is good throughout the film, I had mixed feelings about the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say it is a happy ending. And that’s the problem. On the one hand, after what Cage and Rita go through, you might think they deserve a happy ending. On the other hand, I felt that the ending devalued everything the story was about, which is perseverance, maturing into a better person, and overcoming great odds. And frankly, I also thought the writers (or the studio executives) just pulled it out of their rear ends. I’ll leave that up to the viewers to judge.
            In the end, Edge of Tomorrow did something I thought I’d never do: Call an action movie “heartfelt”. It didn't exactly tug at my heartstrings, but I found myself actually becoming more attached to the characters and their struggle. And in an age of bigger and flashier blockbusters, characters you can feel for are a rare and welcome thing.

Final rating: 8 bags of popcorn out of 10. Director: Doug Liman. Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth. Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, and Brendan Gleeson.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Movie review: New "Godzilla" has great monster but a sluggish pace

Poster courtesy Rotten Tomatoes.
     "Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out....Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood....Nothing on earth is its equal--a creature without fear."
     Those words from the book of Job (narrated by God Himself) described a mythical creature called only Leviathan. But if the beginning of Gareth Edwards' new Godzilla is any indication, the titular beast could almost be the same thing.
     This new Godzilla begins with a cool montage of images ranging from cave drawings of dinosaurs to medieval depictions of dragons to actual footage of the atomic tests in the Marshall Islands with the Big G himself digitally added in. It then follows Drs. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) investigating radioactivity in a giant chasm in the Philippines in 1999 and discovering that something big has awakened and dug its' way out to the ocean. We then cut to Janjira, Japan, and follow the Brody family as Joe and Sandra prepare for another day at the nuclear plant while their son, Ford, goes to school. Seismic activity has been rocking the plant for some time, enough to worry Joe and send Sandra down to the core to investigate. Of course, he comes to regret this decision as that seismic activity has been gradually getting closer to the plant, rocking it more violently, so much so that Joe is forced to seal off the core after radiation leaks out...trapping his wife down there. It's one of the best scenes in the movies, thanks to the strong acting from Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche.
Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
     Cut to 15 years later, and Joe and his son, Ford (played here by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), have gone very different ways: Ford joined the Navy as an explosive ordinance disposal officer, had a son, Sam, with his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olson), and moved on with his life. Not so for poor Joe. Unable to move past the Janjira incident, he's devoted himself to finding out what really caused the plant destruction and has become one of those conspiracy theorists nobody wants to listen to--even his son can't stand him. But blood runs thicker than water, as after Joe trespasses in the quarantine zone of Janjira, Ford flies to break him out...and pretty soon, the both of them are trespassing together and eventually arrested and taken to the deserted plant site.
     Or not-so-deserted, after all. Turns out there is no radiation in Janjira, and the same Drs. Serizawa and Graham have been studying the true cause of the destruction (wait for it)...a massive unidentified terrestrial organism, or MUTO for short.
     Yep, it isn't actually caused by the King of the Monsters. In fact, the actual Godzilla doesn't make a full appearance until an hour into the film. And on one hand, that's partly to Gareth Edwards' credit. Cranston has said in interviews that Edwards' method is similar to Steven Spielberg's Jaws: The movie has a slow buildup to the actual entrance of the monster so that when it does, its presence is much more terrifying.
     And here, Godzilla is a force to be reckoned with. More like a force of nature. At one point, Dr. Serizawa explains that Gojira (the original Japanese name for Godzilla) is an Alpha-Predator that was at the food chain during Earth's primordial years--essentially, a god among monsters. Indeed, it's an apt description; Godzilla dominates the screen whenever he shows up. His steps crack the earth when he walks, his tail strikes like a lightning bolt, and his classic roar will shake the screen with his explosive power. Being in awe of the King of the Monsters has never felt so satisfying.
Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins. Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

     On the other hand, sometimes the slow burn doesn't work out so well. Because the director is taking his time before showing the monsters, there has to be some other action going between each appearance to hold viewers' interest. But what action is going turns out to be either Dr. Serizawa explaining the creatures' behavior, the Navy (the head of which played by a cool David Strathairn) formulating their next plan to stop the creatures, or scenes of Elle who is patiently waiting for Brody. Many of these segments wind up feeling more tedious and boring than actually interesting after a while and bog up the movie's pace. In fact, the whole movie feels a bit long; if they cut off 15 or 20 minutes of the exposition (while still hiding Godzilla, mind you), the film would probably have felt much smoother.
     The characters are also really one-dimensional and don't receive a lot of development (but then, this is a monster movie). Fortunately, the cast alleviates these problems somewhat. Cranston, Binoche, and Strathairn are great and exude a lot of personality for whatever time they're given. Watanabe delivers some cool lines really well and is otherwise cool on the screen, and would be even more so if he didn't have the shell-shocked veteran look on his face most of the time. However, he's a lot better than the lead, Taylor-Johnson, who is barely emotive and has the same expression on his face almost the whole way through. Never mind most of the cast has ruined their pants at seeing the kaiju. At least Olsen is a little more interesting and can pull off a great look of terror. (On a side note, why are good female actors like Olsen, Binoche, and Sally Hawkins relegated to really minor roles? Seems like a waste of talent.)
Elizabeth Oslen. Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
     The film has a wonderful musical score by Alexandre Desplat that ranges from despairing to outright victorious, and it's a delight every single time. The scenes are also well-shot, particularly the Navy's HALO jump into the city, which looks some descent into an apocalypse.
     Godzilla really tries to be two movies: a compelling human drama and a destroy-all-things monster movie. Unfortunately, the writing and some of the acting fail to make both excel at the same time. But I tended to forget those missteps any and every time Godzilla lumbered onto center stage.
     "If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!"

Final rating: 7 bags of popcorn out of 10. Director: Gareth Edwards. Writer: Max Borenstein. Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and Bryan Cranston.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

            So I’ve come to the end of this little school project. I’ve talked about the benefits of listening to both local radio and satellite radio, commented on Time magazine’s March 28 issue, and reviewed three movies: Muppets Most Wanted, Divergent, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
            And the question is: What have I learned from all this, if anything at all? I would say that I’ve learned that you have to be careful about whatever expectations you have when consuming any kind of media. You might just be surprised at how media can thwart them.
            I think I first noticed this when I was reviewing the film, Divergent. I didn’t think much of the film at first; I thought it would be pretty bad, actually. “But what the heck?” I thought. And I found myself actually enjoying certain parts of it and admitting it was ok. But then my opinion went to mediocre as I thought a little more about the movie’s multiple elements and how they all came together into a whole, and I realized despite being surprised, the film really wasn’t all that spectacular anyway.
            My other surprise came when I first saw the headlines for Time magazine. “God at the Movies.” Me being a Christian, my opinion of most media outlets was that they preferred to keep religion out of their articles. But what I read was a fair and in-depth look at Hollywood’s recent focus on Biblical films, once again surprising me and disappointing me as I realized the writer didn’t cover smaller Christian-oriented movies made by churches (I had different expectations in mind for the article).

            Truth is, we all have something in mind when we first read a newspaper or listen to some artist we’ve only heard about or something similar. The real trouble only comes we aren’t willing to look at and listen to the stuff that’s actually in front of us and not put aside our views for just a moment.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Film review: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" Marvel's best film yet

             Wow. Just wow.
            That’s the best introduction I can think of, having recently seen the latest entry to the Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This film is not only a riveting thriller, but it’s also a major game-changer for the franchise that will leave long-time Marvel fans stunned long after they’ve left the theater.
            But first, the story. The Winter Soldier takes place two years after 2012’s The Avengers, and Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, now works for the spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. in Washington, D.C. and is trying to readjust to life in the 2000s. After a brief introduction to Sam Wilson (a.k.a. the Falcon, Cap’s sidekick), Cap is picked up by the lovely Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow, for a mission involving saving a captive S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel from pirates led by Georges Batroc (for you diehard fans out there…). In the process, Romanoff manages to salvage some data from the ship’s computers. Rogers later confronts the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, for misleading him, which causes Fury to reveal to him Project Insight: three brand-spanking-new Helicarriers (think flying aircraft carriers) that linked to spy satellites and designed to neutralize threats before they’re even carried out.
The Captain and the Widow play off each other well.
           Of course, this flies in the face of Cap’s ideals and sets up his own conflict for the rest of the film: In a world where black and white have faded to grey, how far is too far? Is the greater good really worth sacrificing individuals’ rights and liberties? Is peace really hanging a sword over people’s heads? These are themes that define Rogers’ internal conflict, as well as that of the film itself—themes that should ring especially true in light of the NSA leaks and the use of drone warfare. Because it deals with these issues (albeit not deeply—more on that soon), The Winter Soldier has a little bit more depth than the average superhero movie. Props also go out to it being a political thriller of sorts, so there are enough twists in the plot that viewers will stick around to find out what happens next. Especially important for one plot thread that will blow the minds of long-time comic fans and Marvel newbies. I warn you: it’s a big one.
            But like I said, this is a superhero movie, and what that means is a slight sweeping aside of deeper things for the action and explosions to take center stage. While there’s plenty property damage to go around, none of it is wasted. The chase and fight scenes are already impressive, but cameras tracking the actors and quick, choppy editing give the scenes more kinetic energy, making them feel stronger and more fluid. Additionally, these scenes are often given a slow buildup before they occur, often with a bang meant to—successfully, I might add—surprise viewers and keep them invested in the story.

            All the players of this game are at their top form: Chris Evans continues to imbue Cap with his essential goodness even as he shows more vulnerability and doubt in some other instances. Scarlett Johansson is a good fit for the sassy, irreverent Romanoff and a good foil for Evans. Samuel L. Jackson is back as Fury, and Robert Redford makes his Marvel debut as Alexander Pierce, a rather flat character that Redford still makes more mysterious and cunning. Anthony Mackie as Wilson has the everyday charm and humor needed to balance out the somewhat mythical Captain.
Fans will get this reference...
            And of course, who could forget the titular Soldier himself? Sebastian Stan doesn’t have much of a speaking role here, but he’s still such an imposing force on the screen that he doesn’t have to speak a lot (the slo-mo camera and high-contrast help in creating the terrifying persona). Strong, confident, and relentless, Stan as the Soldier is a lot like the Terminator, except with fewer lines and no titanium endoskeleton.
             Add in an excellent musical score by composer Henry Newman, and you have a film that’s going to be high at the box office for quite some time. With the impressive stunts, good acting, and deep story (for a Marvel film), Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t just Marvel’s best film yet; it might very well be one of the best films of the year.

Final score: 9 shields out of 10. Director: Anthony and Joe Russo. Writer: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johannson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, and Hayley Atwell, with Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Film review: "Divergent" better than expected but still mediocre

            I don’t mind being surprised. Sometimes it’s nice to have your expectations thwarted. So you can imagine my surprise as I watched Divergent and found it wasn’t half-bad at all. Now, granted, it straddles the line somewhat between good and mediocre, but for what it has to offer, Divergent is a passable, if not formulaic, young-adult feature film.
            Based on the best-selling novel by Veronica Roth, Divergent is set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago divided into five factions, based on certain traits: Abnegation, the selfless government leaders (boy, is that paradoxical); Dauntless, the brave train-hopping soldiers; Erudite, the intelligent scientists and teachers; Amity, the peaceful farmers, nurses, and artists; and finally, Candor, the honest lawyers (again, paradoxical). For every young person’s 16th birthday, after taking an aptitude test for factions, they must go through a ceremony called the Choosing, where they can choose to stay in the faction they were born in or transfer to another faction. Those who fail to belong in any faction are “factionless,” which basically means they’re homeless.
            The film follows a one Beatrice Prior, born into Abnegation. Though content in Abnegation, she has always had an interest in Dauntless. When she goes through her aptitude test (a bizarre simulation involving mirrors, reflections of herself, and a seriously hacked-off canine), her tester reveals that she is the titular Divergent: having the attributes of more than one faction, Divergents are freethinkers who can’t conform to the social order and thus are considered threats.
            But you wouldn’t really know that based on the plot. Though Divergent has an interesting setting, the plot is quite haphazard. The “Beatrice as Divergent” plot thread is pushed almost immediately to the side and scarcely makes any sort of resurgence afterwards, which will make some viewers (especially those unfamiliar with the book) wonder what exactly is the problem with being Divergent. Then there are the growing rumors in Chicago about Abnegation being selfish and the Erudite complaining about it, and Beatrice—who later calls herself Tris—leaving Abnegation for Dauntless, and it makes you wonder what the writers want to focus on. What should generate suspense fails to do so in the end.
Four (Theo James) giving Tris (Shailene Woodley) some fighting advice.
            Still, when the writers do decide what to focus on, Divergent can be pretty entertaining. The second act of the film is comprised largely of Tris undergoing Dauntless training such as weapons training and hand-to-hand combat. These segments can be fun enough, particularly one scene where different Dauntless teams play a game of “capture the flag.”
            There’s quite a cast in Divergent, and all do a good job with their roles; for example, Jai Courtney gets the intimidation factor down with one the Dauntless teachers, and Zoe Kravitz as Tris’ best friend, Christina of Candor, carries her character’s snarky humor quite well. The focus, however, is on the two leads: Shailene Woodley as Tris and Theo James as Four (yes, like the number), Tris’ instructor and, yes, her later love interest as well. Woodley has undeniable charm and innocence as Tris and James, despite being a hard-as-nails instructor, is very likable and charismatic. The only real casting misstep is Kate Winslet, who is squandered talent in a largely absent and transparent villainous role.
            Camerawork is pretty standard; lots of establishing shots of Chicago, wide shots of bigger environments to provide setting, and tilted angles for growing action. However, there was one too many times where the viewer has to stare into Woodley’s face through multiple close-ups. It’s like the director couldn’t decide what to do what to a scene, so he thought it was a good idea to Woodley’s face whenever he got stuck. Ok, man, we get it; she’s beautiful. Now can you please give her and us some breathing room next time?
            Divergent as a novel has been compared more than once to the latest young-adult novel, The Hunger Games, with its emphasis on teenagers fighting—literally and metaphorically—against the established social order. There are definitely similar themes, but The Hunger Games film series is ultimately in a class of own. Despite some good acting and fun action scenes, Divergent doesn’t quite live up to those standards and remains instead a cut-and-dried young-adult film.

Final score: 5 bags of popcorn out of 10. Director: Neil Burger. Writer: Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty. Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q, and Kate Winslet.