Mini-Review Round-Up #4

This is something I’m going to do periodically. Basically, I will employ many means to qualify films for the BAM Awards be it either seeing the film theatrically acquiring a DVD either through purchase or on Netflix. This could lead to an influx of several new titles being seen in a short span of time which would be difficult to write full reviews for. At least this way the film gets some of its deserved attention and you get some notion of my thoughts on them.

If you have questions or comments feel free to respond. I always get back.

As always please refer to My Rating Scale for an indication of what the scores mean and if you’re curious where these films might make a dent in my personal awards please check my BAM Considerations.

The Inheritance

Rochelle Aytes in The Inheritance (Duly Noted)

A family reunion in the country quickly becomes something more insidious.

I use the word quickly above almost for the lack of a better word. There’s nothing quick about The Inheritance, it all takes far too long to unravel, too many things are played close to the vest and by the time secrets are spilled and the true intention starts to come out it’s too late to salvage it. The idea is interesting: it’s a generational tale going back to slavery and mixing in voodoo aspects, however, all the information finally flows in a barrage and then you get bad effects towards the end and truly anticlimactic escape. It all could’ve gone somewhere very interesting but never gets its momentum going.

3/10

Stake Land

Connor Paolo in Stake Land (IFC Films)

A post-apocalyptic world wherein vampires rule and it’s kill or be killed.

There is a lot going for this film from cinematography to score to a well-delivered, at times poetic, at times humorous narration by the lead Connor Paolo. Where Stake Land struggles some is in its pace. There are some potentially rather huge situations glossed over and a lot of time is dedicated to roaming the abandoned countryside. There is also a lot of great acting in this film. While it is recommended viewing it’s also nowhere near as good as it could’ve been.

7/10

Dream Home

Josie Ho in Dream Home (IFC Films)

A woman will do anything to get her dream home.

This is almost like two different movies entirely. I get how they connect but while I appreciate the bit of time traveling done by the narrative in the beginning, and the subtext at the end in the nice simple button, but I really just could not get into this one. The film goes out of its way to explain why this means so much to her and thus we identify but it all seems so superficial. It is rather suspenseful, the kills are great but it ends up feeling a bit vacuous. It almost would’ve been better if the film tried its hand at subtext more and didn’t get so cutesy with the whodunit. Instead, we eventually get all the pieces, put them in place and say “So what?” Sometimes I’d rather be confused and intrigued at times than lucid and unimpressed.

5/10

The Reef

Adrienne Pickering in The Reef (Image Entertainment)

It’s a shark attack movie.

Not to disparage it in the synopsis section but that’s what it is. It’s one in the Open Water mold and while the performances are good a very believable the film takes the concept of slow burn a bit too far such that it burns out. It becomes completely and totally uninteresting and after a while downright boring. There’s only so much of people treading water, or even swimming, that you can take before it becomes mind-numbing shark or no shark. The score does nothing to heighten the tension and there’s really no drama to the whole affair. I will grant that it’s more realistic than most of the goofy shark movies as of late and more interesting but it still doesn’t make it good.

4/10

Fright Flick

Allyn Carrell in Fright Flick (Breaking Glass Pictures)

The story is that of a series of murders on a film set.

One of the first problem this film runs into is that it’s about a cheesy low budget horror movie. It starts with a film-within-a-film and you’re thinking “Wow, is it going to be this terrible throughout?” The good news is no it’s not; the bad news is it doesn’t get much better. The gore effects are really strong, when the chips are down some of the performances are decent but the characters are pathetic and so are some of the performances at times, only some are consistently annoying throughout. A lot of the inconsistency stems from the direction just upload it on instant and watch the in-credits scene and you’ll see the confusion that plagues this film. The standout performances are those of Chad Allen and Allyn Carrell.

3/10

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Mini-Review Round-Up #3

This is something I’m going to do periodically. Basically, I will employ many means to qualify films for the BAM Awards be it either seeing the film theatrically acquiring a DVD either through purchase or on Netflix. This could lead to an influx of several new titles being seen in a short span of time which would be difficult to write full reviews for. At least this way the film gets some of its deserved attention and you get some notion of my thoughts on them.

If you have questions or comments feel free to respond. I always get back.

As always please refer to My Rating Scale for an indication of what the scores mean and if you’re curious where these films might make a dent in my personal awards please check my BAM Considerations.

The Ward

John Carpenter’s latest film goes inside a pysch ward and tries to unravel why its newest inmate is there.

There are portions of this film which are tremendously effective and as a whole I think this is a very good film. The tension builds and is maintained throughout mostly thanks to the very good cast that is assembled in this film. This is so rare in a horror film that it truly is a sight to behold. The film also incorporates a twist which is not wholly inorganic and does elevate the film and answers a few of the elusive questions it had posed throughout.

8/10

Heartbeats

Heartbeats (2010, IFC Films)

Director Xavier Dolan’s sophomore effort about a love triangle where a young man is the prize for a gay man and his girlfriend is a rumination on unrequited love and love in general.

I can see why this didn’t get the fanfare that his first film, J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), did but in it Dolan proves himself to be a flat-out artist. He not only acts in it but directs it with a steady hand. The only things that hold it back is a conceptual/intellectual disconnect with how the material is rendered but there is an absolute certainty to how he does things. The cinematography is brilliant and vibrant throughout; the framing precise, the edit is good. The use of slow-motion is at times inspired and his affinity to source music rivals Tarantino. It’s not the greatest script but it is perhaps the best treatment that script could’ve gotten.

7/10

The Suite Life Movie

The Suite Life Movie (2011, Disney Channel)

A funny and silly sci-fi tale wherein twin brothers face off against a mad scientist.

I believe in judging everything on what it is and what its goals are. Therefore, a DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie for the uninitiated) cannot be judged against Citizen Kane. Each are doing very disparate things. Another caveat for those who will point out that this is a TV movie I’ve allowed them to be eligible before both for the good and the bad in my awards (Note: Only winners are linked to) therefore I should try and see a few each year or bar them and essentially the aesthetics are the same, the commercial break on streaming merely turns into a fade to black and then fade in.

Having said all that this film really works for what it’s trying to do and I was surprised that I enjoyed it quite a bit. Both Cole and Dylan Sprouse, who are no strangers to film acting, have far more naturalistic interpretations of their characters in this film than they do in a typical episode of the show. The film also manages to be rather self-contained and doesn’t require one to be overly-familiar with the show to enjoy and appreciate what’s going on. The mad scientist involvement is one not seen much these days but can definitely still be employed to great affect.

It’s funny, silly and even gets emotional with a point to be made. I’m not saying it’ll be in the year end fray but I was pleasantly surprised by it as it is one of the most enjoyable DCOMs I’ve seen in some time.

10/10

Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure

Spinning off from the High School Musical series, Sharpay movies to New York to try and make it on Broadway.

As opposed to the DCOM above this one for the most part misses the mark entirely. The High School Musical craze has come and gone and this is a perfect example of going to the the well one time too many. Sharpay, of course, starts this adventure off as cartoonishly spoiled and through the course of it will transform into a person who does things for herself and is a real person and has real emotions. It’s just one of a list of things in this film that’s asking a bit too much to be believed. The shame of it is that Tisdale is charismatic when just playing someone closer to herself but she’s rarely allowed to do that. The outlandish, ridiculous and wrong also overshadow a humorous and engaging turn by Bradley Steven Perry better known from his role on Good Luck Charlie.

There are things to like about the film but there are many more that will annoy you to no end. Hopefully, this is the swan song for the franchise because it really is running on fumes now.

4/10

13 Assassins

A group of assassins join forces to kill an evil lord in 19th century Japan.

There is a lot that is technically impressive about 13 Assassins. The cinematography is very impressive, some of the acting is very strong a lot of the make-up work is good. Other things just fall terribly flat. There are a lot of characters introduced at the start such that the film even includes titles to tell you who they are and the overall plotting is slow to unfurl. It leaves you wanting and begging for the “heist scene” so you know what the endgame is. Then the battle just goes on practically forever, such that after a while I really was no longer interested in the outcome only that the movie would in fact, as rumors had it, end.

5/10

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

This is actually one of the first films I saw this year and after a little research I decided that I would include it for consideration in the 2011 BAM race.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is the story of punk rock icon Ian Drury over a long and tumultuous career.

This is a very unique and creative film and there are a lot of interesting narrative and directorial choices made throughout the course of it. Upon these decisions your opinion will hinge and they are totally open to interpretation some work, some don’t and some work with mixed results but at the very least there are chances taken in this film. What stands out most in the film are the performances of Andy Serkis and Bill Milner. Both are faced with enormous challenges in this film as actors and both succeed. Serkis has a massive arc to play and many different notes and Milner has to play his character from a youth and ages with him over many years quite impressively.

Aside from that it will introduce you, if you are unfamiliar with it as I was, to a lot of good music throughout.

7/10

Review- Final Destination 5

Jacqueline MacInnes Wood and Nicholas D'Agosto in Final Destination 5 (Warner Bros./New Line)

Were I to be completely and totally hateful I’d start this review with something like: “Final Destination 5, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways” and I would do so without any sort of qualifications. Instead I will qualify this review by stating the following:

I have gone to see each and every Final Destination film willingly and while two of them have been atrociously bad at the very least they had me come coming back. I absolutely love the first installment of the series without any reservation and I still think there are possibilities in the concept which keeps bringing me back but this…this is a train wreck and not the kind where you wanna stick around and watch either. It’s just nightmarishly bad almost from the word go. So what makes this one so much worse than the others? Now, I can say with far much less crassness than I would’ve otherwise, let me count the ways:

Firstly, I think all the sequels have struggled in terms of casting, there aren’t that many Devon Sawas around these day to plop into these kinds of films, however, I cannot recall the last time I was this appalled and offended by the ineptitude of the cast of a film. I will not name the names but you have the internet use the IMDb. The most prominent characters in the film are portrayed by those with the least chops or the least faith in the material. If you look at those top three there is at least one who has proven in the past she can act so part of it falls on the direction also.

However, your two leading males are made even worse by comparison when Tony Todd waltzes in for a few scenes and just blows everyone out of the water.

Now, there’s also the writing to blame. This is best evidenced by Agent Block, which I believe was likely shortened from Agent Blockhead in earlier drafts because rarely if ever have I seen a character this stupid, much less one that’s supposed to be in law enforcement. The last character I saw that was this dumb was in Satan’s Little Helper and he was a kid not a cop. Courtney B. Vance is a good actor but he cannot salvage dialogue so bad that anyone with half-a-brain who ever saw a police procedural show can punch holes in.

While one piece of the formula which was the persistence of visions (Oh, film jokes) is gone here (as there’s only one) and I’m fine with that but it’s as if they had to fill it with something and what they did fill it with is even more annoying because the paranoia they feel knowing death has a plan goes outward and it turns the movie into something it’s really not. You also have in this film fewer false alarms, near misses and chain reactions therefore while the kills might be more spectacular in execution they have less suspense leading up to them and you have here the flattest, least likable characters to date so all you’re left with is hoping for deaths that you know will happen.

It’s true I feel 80s slashers skewed the equation of the horror film where in certain cases you wanted death but even they knew better than to always kill everyone. Almost invariably there was a character you couldn’t stand that wouldn’t get it. Here it seems as if the effort has become less and less in terms of building characters that you’re at least interested in watching dodge death’s attempts.

What could possibly make bad acting, bad casting, bad writing, bad directing any worse? Oh, yeah there’s a twist too not only that but it changes the nature of this film and I really wish it hadn’t it’s as if what preceded the end of this film wasn’t bad enough it needed a little coup de grace.

All in all I can’t say I’ll give up on the franchise because there is something inherently scary about having escaped fate and then always looking over your shoulder and it takes a lot to squander that (and they did). So it’s a new low in the series that will hopefully take the next one (which there may or may not be) back to its roots.

1/10

Review- Terri

Bridger Zadina, Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly in Terri (ATO Pictures)

Terri is a film, which tells a very low-key, stripped-down and honest account of teenage ostracism and the perils of adolescence which is refreshingly devoid of convention and condescension. In the film you get an honest portrayal of how facile ostracism is, how sudden it can be and an honest look at how it’s dealt with if it’s dealt with at all.

The film has a very deliberate and precise construction at the beginning of the film to illustrate the lack of variety and proclivity to be routine-bound, in Terri’s life. We see from the very start that breakdowns in communication are a major factor in the difficulties he’s facing. When an obsession he has boarders on sociopathy his uncle, played brilliantly by Creed Bratton, is at a loss for words to adequately express what his true disappointment is. Similarly, his homeroom teacher (Tara Karsian) can see he’s bullied and how it affects him but is too beaten down and burned out to do anything about it. It’s these kinds of subtle accurate portrayals that you get in Terri that make the story truly work.

It deals with adolescence not with histrionics or apologies but with understanding and sincerity. A lot of what happens in the movie just happens and there is little to no commentary about it by the characters through much of it so it avoids, by a wide margin, both sensationalism and pandering.

The acting in this film overall is quite brilliant. There is a healthy mix of new faces, tried and true character actors and one notable name in perhaps the most pivotal role. The latter, of course, would be John C. Reilly who plays the well-intentioned but imperfect assistant principal who takes it upon himself to have weekly meetings with the school’s more troubled students. His monologue about his imperfections is so truthful and beautiful it got me teary-eyed out of the blue and although it is a function of the movie to create drama, the fact that he is the one person in the school who does try does ring a little true and there are some wonderful surprises in store from his character.

Then, of course, you have the lead Jacob Wysocki as Terri. Whenever you have an eponymous character you need that character and that performance to connect and for there to be some kind of universal resonance and there most certainly is here. In this film a lot of Terri’s maladjustment on the surface is something many can relate to. The root cause is that he feels like an outsider or freak due to his weight but the symptoms socially and otherwise are ones many can relate to: having difficulty making friends, talking to girls, academics and so on. There’s a timidity and amiableness to both the character and the performance that makes him connect even when he’s making a mistake.

There are also two very strong turns from classmates of Terri’s Bridger Zadina as Chad and Olivia Crocicchia as Heather. The former perhaps runs a larger emotional gamut and has a character whose strangeness and backstory is never defined so the fact that he arrives in place where his performance always feels organic and never contrived is quite a feat in and of itself. Zadina always finds himself in a place where he’s rebelling against the status quo yet there’s a depth and sensitivity to his portrayal that makes Chad equally compelling to the other characters. Crocicchia as Heather also has a lot to do and not much time to do it in and is natural and convincing in all stages from popular girl, to depressed and marginalized to just another student who blends into the background.

It’s the building of these characters which allows for the film to bifurcate yet do it so successfully. One part of the film is very much a cloistered, private confessional between Terri and Mr. Fizgerald (Reilly) and then towards the end there’s a long sequence that’s reminiscent of a modern, private, more exclusive Breakfast Club wherein these characters exorcise their demons over the course of a night and similarly bare their souls.

Perhaps, what’s most intelligent about the film is that it offers no easy answers. There’s no real resolution to it just as there’s no real resolution to adolescent angst. They just all reach a point from which they can move on to a new and hopefully better chapter in their life and that might be what sticks with you most about the film. It’s that fact upon reflection I connected with most and I feel that adolescents who see it would too.

9/10

Review- Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis as Caesar and James Fanco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox)

So here we are again it’s time for another prequel, however, unlike most that have come along since it became a popular trend this one is quite good and valid at the same time. However, this is not one where I’d suggest you watch the prequel first. Therefore, if you, like many of those I watched this film with apparently, have not seen the original Planet of the Apes please do so before venturing to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As good as it is and it is pretty good it will ruin the experience of the first film for you because it is a classic that is spoiled entirely by the conception of this film.

Having said that if one has the knowledge of what occurs in the first series of films it is fascinating to watch this film and see how the blanks get filled in and they’re not done so in a thoughtless haphazard way but rather intelligently and interestingly as well.

What is also good to see is that the scope of the film is not too large. It is a rather focused story that seeks to tell only the very beginning, the rise as it were. Therefore, it’s not too sweeping and that focusing of the narrative allows for a greater identification with the plight of the characters involved and for us to watch in close quarters the world-changing events that will take place.

This is the kind of plot that is intriguing and detailed enough such that it doesn’t really hinge on the performances of its cast. Film is a strange medium in as much as a well-crafted, well told story need not have the most powerful acting to succeed whereas in a play that’s next to impossible. A prime example would be James Franco’s character, he’s not given much in the way of a character and doesn’t add a tremendous amount to it either. Where he brings me into the story is in the moral/ethical dilemmas of the testing in the lab and the moments with his father, played by John Lithgow. His interaction in scenes opposite motion-capture creations are less compelling. Freida Pinto similarly just seems to be there as a plot device and of significance to the protagonist but not truly present in the tale. Tom Felton’s first post-Harry Potter performance is a bit inconsistent and uncomfortable sadly, though it is a perfectly despicable villain hearkening back to the beginning of Malfoy’s arc where he was more vile and less ambivalent.

Then, of course, there’s the performance all are talking about which is that of Andy Serkis as Caesar. Having seen Serkis recently in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll I was most impressed with his performance there. Here I was impressed by the combination of factors: how he in turn aided the CG artists to render a humanoid ape. I appreciate and admire the contribution he makes to this film and consider a success but any Oscar talk pre-Fall is always premature and for the time being any and all motion capture discussions of that nature are far-fetched.

As intimated prior the effects work is rather impressive throughout, however, as is the case in most films that use them so regularly some sequences are far stronger than others and the rendition is by no means perfect.

The climax of the film is truly great stuff and is the kind of sequence you head out to the movies for but don’t find nearly often enough. It’s a pretty huge and well-choreographed battle that the whole movie has been working towards.

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes does have a few failings it is a very solid piece of entertainment. Those who were, or still are, skeptical can rest easy: it’s a well done and worthy installment in the series.

8/10

Review- Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (Disney/Marvel)

As is always the case when dealing with a superhero film I feel that one’s personal history with a character is an important factor to consider when discussing the film, at the very least so I can relay to you my frame of reference. In the crop of superhero films released this year Captain America is likely the property I had the least amount of history with, which if you think about it is an advantage to the film. For as much as I talk about disengaging expectation built by other media from a film the reason I write on it so much is that it’s a fight against human nature to more purely and accurately judge a film.

So Captain America, to me, is free of the restraint of expectations but does it take advantage of this advantage? Not fully, no. The film sets its character up well enough: Steve Rogers is a kind, disciplined, brave young man who yearns to serve his country in the hour of its greatest need but is repeatedly rejected due to his build and health problems. This film, especially the opening, runs the risk of being overly overt propaganda, however, it focuses on character enough, at the beginning at least, such that it narrowly avoids that.

Another manner in which it dodges the P-word is in the turn the film takes immediately following the experiment that gives Steve his abilities. The trajectory from everyman to super-being isn’t a straight ascent because at first the only responsibility he’s given is that of pitchman. He has to fight the power and be a little rebellious to truly fulfill his destiny so that makes it a bit interesting.

Another strength that the film has to fall back on is the strength of its cast, the supporting cast mainly. Not to discredit Chris Evans, he does a fine job and is believable as Steve at both stages though he’s not as dynamic as he was in Star Trek and it seems like he was always waiting for the transition- that CG job making him skinny is quite impressive.

First and foremost among the supporting cast is Hayley Atwell who plays Peggy Carter and the love interest in this film and is not only a strong, intelligent woman but makes the love interest in a superhero film vital for the first time in some time. If you think about it many of the recent crop have had love interests as either an afterthought or not at all. The relationship between her and Steve gives this film the little extra it needs to get by.

Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving each do rather well in their respective required roles: Jones as the disbelieving Colonel and Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, replete with an authentic-sounding accent in a film with too much foreign intrigue to dabble in foreign tongues like others have recently. Also quite enjoyable is the performance of Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine who takes Steve under his wing.

This isn’t the only recent superhero film of late to deal with actual historical events in a fictionalized context, see the recent X-Men film, what that film did though that this failed to do (and it was the major failing of it) is that it made its tale as high stakes and intriguing as the historical incident in which it wrapped itself up. It also re-wrote history in a major way this film decided instead to write a subplot so to an extent you’re watching the undercard of World War II as Captain America and co. go after Red Skull and his rogue band of occultist Nazis and Hitler and the majority get second billing and no play. When an actual man who wanted to take over the world takes a backseat to a fictional creation who does, it’s a monumental task to make that notion as scary regardless of how likely it is in the world of the story.

Thus, in Captain America his initial battle as a hero, which in the end is more climactic, is also more effective.

When it’s all said and done Captain America is an effective and enjoyable film with obvious flaws that could’ve been handled and addressed better than it is.

6/10

Review- Crazy, Stupid, Love

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love (Warner Bros.)

Crazy, Stupid, Love is for lack of a better word a film that isn’t receiving a lot of love but more important than that it is a film that breaks free of a few molds, works on a few levels and does so exceedingly well. It’s funny, heartfelt, dramatic and a truthful family story. It has pretty real and rounded characters that we meet in isolation and learn about more so when they interact.

Now I know that many of you are asking “Hey, isn’t this a RomCom and therefore sucky?” The answers to those questions are it’s not that easy and most definitely not. The problem with most romantic comedies is not just the formulaic nature but the lack of dimension, which they have. They too often tend to be all about the relationship and the obstacles two people face in trying to be with one another and reach that ultimate pinnacle. What separates a film like this is first it’s about its characters’ struggles and not a relationship but in each serious relationship it builds it does things a bit unconventionally and unexpectedly. The main relationship is a marriage of 20+ years that is falling apart, which is not your usual recipe for one of these films. Similarly, the secondary relationships don’t follow the typical patterns.

There’s also a lack of schmaltz, contrivance and other kinds of BS you’re usually saddled with in a film of this kind. I’d call this film the best of its kind since Love, Actually (In part because few make me want to see them and few are any good) but what this film does better than Love, Actually is it doesn’t need the pretense to tell several kinds of love stories, they’re all intertwined in much more organic way. I’m not sure it’s better than that but if it is we might be looking at perhaps going all the way back to French Kiss for something as good.

I could go on for quite a bit about the performances in this film, however, I will attempt to reach some semblance of balance. First, there’s Steve Carell, which brings to mind another apt comparison for this film is that this is kind of like what Dan in Real Life yearned to be, both in terms of his arc and performance but it just never got there. I’ve seen a lot of Steve Carell in the years since he left The Daily Show and this may just be his next great performance the only stronger being Little Miss Sunshine. Then, of course, you have his wonderful counterpart Julianne Moore, who is so consistently brilliant as of late it may be easy to overlook her contribution to this film.

Ryan Gosling has no simple task in this film either. He has to be equally convincing as the can’t-miss-womanizer and also a guy who lets his guard down and falls for the one girl who can crack through the facade. Similarly, Emma Stone has a deceptively simple job; she has to bring her comedic chops and feminine wiles to the same part so she needs to be equal parts sarcastic and smart and lovable. Her persona is infectious but as Zookeeper proves your aura does not guarantee the elevation of a film.

The third pairing features perhaps the most surprising turns. First, you have Jonah Bobo as Robbie. Bobo has been infrequently seen since his debut performance in Zathura. His character is refreshingly written in certain regards and very well interpreted. Bobo exudes an intellectual maturity and emotional naivete that are essential to this part. Conversely, Analeigh Tipton poignantly captures an essentially young girl with a woman’s desires and makes it a third strong combination.

This is a film, as the genre-related discussion above implies, is also a comedy, if not primarily, and it most definitely delivers in terms of laughs. There are laughs to be had in this film and in good quantity. Since I viewed it it’s already proven rather quotable but also it packs a wallop in terms of dramatic emotional content. This balance along with a sizable portion of it being funny is what places it head-and-shoulders above most films of its kind. This makes the film quite moving as well as funny in the end.

As if it was out to disprove many notions I typically find annoying this film also includes a twist which works to great effect and like a good one does it elevates the film and it’s helped by the fact that it’s not too close to the end and doesn’t have the whole film hinge on it.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is an old kind of film done in a more modern way. It takes some 21st Century notions and mixes it in with tried and true storytelling techniques that are executed here better than you’ll find in most films regardless of genre. Typically, the amount of value you get out of you admission price is not a barometer I use but this film makes itself worth the price of admission in many ways. It’s well worth it.

10/10

Review- Cowboys & Aliens

    Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in Cowboys & Aliens (Universal)

    As humorous as it may have sounded to some, few if any other ideas held as much promise in conception as Cowboys & Aliens did. Albeit a remake it seemed like a no-brainer combination of genres that couldn’t miss and then it did; badly. Whereas many expected the best that each genre has to offer combined in a delicious cinematic stew instead you get the worst.

    The first thing that’s off is the pace of the film, which is first dragged down by the fact that we have a protagonist who is suffering from extra-terrestrial induced amnesia and trying to put the pieces of his life back together and thus the story, while it’s true that Jake (Daniel Craig) does beat a few guys up in the first few minutes it’s of virtually no consequence save to introduce some characters and there’s a long lull thereafter.

    While there is no inter-species standoffs but rather carpet-bomb attacks and a raid where the core of the alien ship needs to be reached and exploded in a rather Death Star-like manner, these are the least of the problems the aliens pose to this film. Firstly, they are absent from the film for far too long and far too often. When they are away there is no real sense of foreboding or imminent attack. This makes their initial attack rather a jolt but underwhelms the remainder of the film.

    I realize there is a desire to create a completely new alien species in every film to stand out but the construction of these creatures is a bit weak and convenient and make for the humans targets that are surprisingly too easy. All the people of the town have to do was get adequate numbers and how to fight them, the aliens themselves did little.

    Another issue this film has is that it tries to have two protagonists to an extent by having both Jake (Craig) and Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) feature so prominently. This is a difficult task, however, it’s made more difficult when you have one who can’t remember who he is and where he came from and another who is a gruff, curmudgeonly, SOB who raised a spoiled brat and has no one to blame but himself and only shows any humanity to his “adopted” son, Nat (Adam Beach). Who is easy to identify with here? Dolarhyde’s softer side is refreshing and gives Ford his first and far-too-late chance to play something other than the same character he’s been playing for the last 30 years but it’s too little too late. So with two dominant figures of the script hard to relate to its easy to see how one can disengage from this story but wait there’s more.

    There’s also a very silly twist which is only made somewhat better by the fact that it’s not thrown in at the end of the film. It also helps to explain the vacuousness of a particular performance but sadly said performance doesn’t improve much after the reveal.

    So to tally it up you have a lack of information followed by a lot of exposition, a small handful of really good performances (Craig, Rockwell, Dano and Ringer) many of which are hampered by being really small parts, an enemy that isn’t as imposing as it should be and a climactic battle that isn’t. There are unfortunately so many wrong turns that this film can’t be saved.

    3/10

Review- NEDs

Gary Milligan and Gregg Forrest in NEDs (Tribeca Film)

NEDs was the second film I was able to see as a part of the From Britain with Love series, I will be seeing and reviewing a third on DVD. NEDs stands for Non-Educated Delinquents and is a tale takes places in 1970s Glasgow. It’s also interesting to note that due to the naturalistic way in which the actors speak it has been distributed to English-speaking countries around the world complete with subtitles.

This film tells the story of John McGill at two ages (ten and sixteen) and is a tale of how a studious, intelligent boy is bullied and ultimately pushed to make a decision he can either continue to bear the brunt of it or he can become one of the NEDs who used to make his life miserable. It’s a film that does have its share of dramatic moments and good scenes but is ultimately a bit too uneven to be truly successful.

The definition of an antihero states that one is an antihero who does not possess the typical attributes of a heroic character. Therefore you clearly in this film have one, however, for a film with an antihero to be truly successful there must be at least identification if not empathy with the character. There have been likable antiheroes but clearly that is not a necessity. What is necessary is that ability to stand in the character’s shoes for the entirety of the journey if at any point you lose that feeling that you are willing to accompany them, or are not at least somewhat interested in what happens to them, then the film has lost you, thus failed.

To accomplish this the protagonist ought reach a Point of Potential Return and be forced anew to choose, if their path is dark and/or seemingly irredeemable, but the character ought not reach a point of No Return as John does in this film, especially if the decision is entirely their own. Not to deal entirely in absolutes but it just makes it a more difficult road to traverse as an identifiable story and you may note that the most successful antiheroes are those who have passed that Point of No Return before the beginning of the tale a great example would be The Man Without a Name played by Clint Eastwood. We don’t know what his past is only his current situation(s) and we know that by hook or by crook he will try and do what’s right/makes the most sense. True it usually involves compromising principle and screwing people over but it’s generally to dupe someone who is far more nefarious than he is.

What you get in this film is a complete and total implosion of character and personal potential and you only get rare glimpses at the collateral damage he does and the impact he truly has on others. Whereas John starts as a rather complicated character he slowly strips away all encumbrances that might prevent him from fully investing in his newfound identity as a NED.

That massive tangent is not to say the film doesn’t have its merit, it definitely does. There are scenes and sequences that work without question, however, when one’s major issue is of such a fundamental nature it deserves a full explication. I’ll also be the first to admit that this film more than many is subjective. Some may view it and find it powerful and I want to stress that my disengaging from the film is not because I want everything to be saccharine, I have enjoyed films like City of God and Sleepers which are heavy movies that can be depressing but there is that connection there that keeps you invested.

The performance of Greg Forrest, as the younger version of John, is quite good but perhaps a bit shorter than it should’ve been. Conor McCarron does well and has a much more difficult task. What’s seen of John’s homelife despite a good performance by Peter Mullan, also the film’s writer and director, doesn’t truly illuminate anything except that John has no refuge.

The benefit of this series of films is that there were typically Q&A sessions with the directors of the films and it became clear that Mullan did succeed in getting what he wanted so it really is a question of the degree to which a protagonist can be disliked and still have the film succeed and of a philosophical stance more than anything else.

Ultimately, while I cannot say I enjoyed the film it was thought-provoking and occasionally very stirring and I do encourage you to see it if this has piqued your interest.

5/10

Review- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Warner Bros.)

It’s not easy to see a series you love come to a close. It becomes more difficult when you happen to be traveling when that final chapter receives its worldwide release. The difficulties I encountered trying to obtain tickets to a Harry Potter screening in Brazil may make an apropos footnote in another post but here they serve the purpose of stating that: it was hard to say goodbye and therefore it seemed almost fitting that it was difficult for me to make it to my first screening of the film.

While I stand by what I wrote in my series of articles entitled Keys to a Better Life as a Fanboy, hindsight has been beneficial in my viewing of the Harry Potter series; some have aged better than others but I believe, more so with this series than others, that the whole is truly greater than the sum the parts. Only now having seen it all can I truly see the enormity of the series. Whereas in each individual installment there was nitpicking to be done, or ignored, and the franchise became the Susan Lucci of my personal awards, The BAMs, now that it’s at its conclusion I can say it’s the greatest film franchise I’ve beheld.

Now what of this installment, you ask?

Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (Warner Bros.)

Firstly, the issue of cinematic bifurcation needs to be addressed. When Harry Potter announced they split the seventh book of the series into two films it became the thing to do. Twilight followed suit and it seems The Hunger Games will likely do the same and perhaps some others that I’m forgetting. Now I’m not naive enough to believe that the main motivation to do such a thing isn’t financial, however, there exists in this decision artistic possibilities and responsibilities: the possibilities being to cinematically craft as much of the adapted work as possible and the responsibility to make it vital. I also want to clarify that while there might not be the Shakespearean foresight to make a multi-part work such as Henry IV or Henry VI it also was not a decision made retroactively in the editing room so some jets need to be cooled regarding the split-finale phenomenon.

Michael Gambon and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner Bros.)

All series of films have their own inherent logic and language and thus they develop their own shorthand and therefore the bifurcation becomes much less of an issue. This, of course, does not mean that you could walk in cold to Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and get absolutely everything (an example would be how quick and dirty the Polyjuice potion usage is in this film) but conversely I don’t want to be able to walk into the end of a series cold and be able to watch it without wondering what’s happening at some point because it usually means that at some point the integrity of the series has been compromised.

So yes, this film does stand tall on its own as a self-contained piece of art with the above caveats noted. As the trend progresses other films will have this as a barometer as how to handle this adaptation phenomena. My feeling is that works which have distinct tonal differences in the beginning and the end, as this does, (going from foreboding progressing to all out chaos) will be more successful in pulling off this trick.

What this film ultimately does is deliver the desired conclusion to this mammoth story in the desired fashion. The pace of the film can best be described as a slow but steady depression of an accelerator and a very slow release at the end, which for the narrative being conveyed is just about perfect. Mark Day, the editor who has been the unsung hero of the tail end of this franchise, does his best work in this film. He creates the best montage I’ve seen since Up and perhaps surpassed it.

Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Warner Bros.)

Much like the pace of the film the tone is also established immediately. In a fashion not dissimilar to the recent X-Men film the film opens with a series of tense, brilliantly acted interrogatory scenes. The heroic triad is immediately gathering information and plotting their next move.

These scenes are also brilliantly and dramatically lit and also establishes the visual motif of camera movement which is not altogether foreign to Eduardo Serra and it just adds that much more tension and gravitas to all the proceedings.

I try and avoid departmental punchlists replete with commentary but the production and crafting of this film make it such that it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Alexandre Desplat has quickly catapulted to the A-List amongst film composers and his work in this film is absolutely sublime, it’s omnipresent but not overpowering and over-accentuating the film, it’s there for the taking if you want it and if you listen to it in isolation it’s amazing but in conjunction with the imagery sheer brilliance.

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Warner Bros.)

The Harry Potter films have also been through the years a bastion for lovers of ensemble acting, what’s most enjoyable about this film is that there are a number of paired scenes wherein the supporting players really get a chance to shine and have their moment and each one is more staggeringly great than the last. While I’d definitely contend that the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 was the showcase for Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, however, it should be noted that it is usually they who paired off with these supporting characters like John Hurt as Ollivander who here is pitch perfect and has more screentime than in the rest of the series combined. There’s also Ciarán Hinds who plays Aberforth. Warwick Davis, who does double duty as Griphook and Professor Flitwick, has a very tense scene as the former and is incredibly versatile. Then you also have among the supporting cast the incomparable Alan Rickman who over the course of eight films has steered his character unerringly along a very subtle and incredible arc.

Alan Rickman in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Warner Bros.)

Perhaps what sticks with you most about the film though is the beautiful chaos of it all. The film does not bow down to the artifice of its artform and focus too singularly on any one tragic occurrence and just takes it all in as quick as one might in that moment. Some things just happen and you learn about it when characters do and you don’t know the how and the where just the result.

It almost goes without saying that the effects are outstanding and are the best and most blended of the series. As for the 3D I have not seen it as such but I do want to and have heard that for a conversion it’s a job well done for a detailed summation of that aspect I’d point you towards CinemaBlend who does a great series about the 3D or not 3D conundrum.

Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Warner Bros.)

One of the barometers for the Harry Potter films, and for films in general, that I like to use is how is the ending handled. Now not that it’s a make or break but you do want the film’s last moment to leave a good, lasting impression. For example, I think that The Prisoner of Azkaban really dropped the ball with an ending that was tonally discordant when the darker chapters had just begun and a bit more restraint was needed. This film, however, ends perfectly and as I’d expected the epilogue was more effective on the big screen than it was in the book as it seemed to be created for the big screen.

It is my assessment that Harry Potter is the greatest franchise I’ve beheld and it is to my delight and relief that it has concluded with the greatest cinematic chapter it has yet told.

10/10

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Warner Bros.)