May 24, 2015

The Bourne Legacy (2012)


The Bourne Legacy, the fourth Bourne movie, has a very confusing plot. The general outline is that a covert government agency is killing all their secret operatives after a benign-appearing YouTube video is leaked. One black ops agent (Renner) escapes death and travels to the Philippines with a scientist (Weisz) so that he can inject himself with a virus. Yes, it does sound absolutely preposterous. And to make matters worse, there are simply too many story lines and too many characters to keep track of. The director, Tony Gilroy, seems to focus on the wrong things in each scene, as if uncertain what the movie is about. He goes back and forth between time and place way too frequently without any real explanation or clear motivation. This results in an extended second half that doesn't make sense within the film's logic, where seemingly ever character (big, small, good, bad) takes enormous risks out of proportion to expected benefits.

Superficially, the movie looks very exciting. There is a lot of anger and yelling, a lot of drama and histrionics. But the action scenes aren't so much exciting as they are filled with loud action-y music. Instead of gunfights and fistfights, we get running and chasing. Instead of action, we get super-fast cuts. I estimate that the average length of each shot is around 1 second. Not to spoil the movie, but Matt Damon never appears in it, although his character is unendingly discussed peripherally. To make matters worse, it has an extremely unsatisfying ending. Do not recommend.

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May 12, 2015

Snowpiercer (2013)


Joon-ho Bong's first English-language film Snowpiercer takes place in a fascinating, utterly absorbing dystopian world where all the survivors of an apocalyptic winter live in a constantly-moving train. Curtis (Evans), a member of the lowest class tail car, plans a rebellion with Edgar (Bell), Gilliam (Hurt), and Tanya (Spencer) to take over the upper class cars. They enlist the help of the train's security expert (Song), who is now confined to the prison car, to advance past each locked door.

The journey from tail car to head car serves as an obvious allegory for class systems, climbing the social ladder, and the inherent injustices within. It provides a canvas for characters to illustrate the searing traumas they must endure when pushed to extremes. But it also outlines the entire film, providing a structure that helps situate the audience within each scene and helps mentally prepare for the film's plot progression. Also, seeing what's in the next train--whether an underwater aquarium/sushi restaurant or a nightclub/opium den--is one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie.

Bong has always been able to turn the most bizarre premises into gripping, provocative stories (The Host, Mother). His movies turn horrifying and unpredictable because we've never seen anything like them before and we lack the context with which to appropriately process them. Snowpiercer continues that tradition, and Bong makes it work.

He makes it work most of the time, that is. The movie has some pretty basic CGI. And a lot of weird scenes, including one that involves gutting a fish with an axe followed by Chris Evans slipping on said fish. And a lot of lingering on strange images, including a smiling soldier or a slow-motion shot of the aforementioned fish. It's all very uncomfortable without any clear benefit. But taken as a whole, Snowpiercer is entertaining and strangely compelling; I highly recommend it!

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May 09, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)


Avengers: Age of Ultron is just another cog in the Marvel moneymaking machine and lacks just about any element of individual charm. It exists entirely within the context of a larger goal and throws everything that might make it unique or memorable by the wayside. Although directed by Joss Whedon, it allows for none of the clever dialogue, unique characters, or genre-defying storytelling that made him who he is. If anything, we see sarcastic side remarks that permeate the background like a whiny kid who doesn't get what he wants. And I wish Whedon could have gotten what he wanted, so he could have turned this unwieldy behemoth into a truly spectacular film.

As the movie started, it felt like there was too much going on and not enough depth to do the story justice. The plot is way too complex and confusing to figure out. But it manages to expand on characters and relationships in ways I didn't expect. For the most part, the movie succeeds. It gets your blood pumping and your heart racing. It's well-paced and thrilling. It's filled with entertainment and laughs.

But it has a large number of problems. The CGI is competent but overwrought. It allows for some cool slo-mo shots and striking visual compositions, but it also turns what should be exciting action scenes into boring, anemic exercises in computer animation. There was no physical action that made Captain America: The Winter Soldier so great. And the overarching plot is just so predictable. We've seen this all before time and time again in all the Marvel movies that preceded it and we'll see it time and time again in all the movies that follow, too. It's just different actors in different suits, but the same things happen every time. Perhaps the biggest problem is that this movie has no heart, just a wallet. I need to learn to stop giving it my cash.

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May 08, 2015

A Most Violent Year (2014)


JC Chandor's A Most Violent Year takes place in New York City in 1981. A rising oil businessman (Isaac) finds himself at a difficult crossroads. His drivers (Gabel) are being carjacked and he is losing thousands of dollars in stolen oil; the DA (Oyelowo) is looking into his company for criminal misconduct; and he risks losing a $1 million deposit on property after the bank backs out of a loan.

Whether you call it an homage or piracy, the movie takes a number of cues from The Godfather, which I won't enumerate here. But it does it all in a different era; it's learned from its predecessors. It feels like what The Godfather Part III wanted to be.

It is visually and thematically rich, polished and perfected by studies of the countless gangster movies that came before. Soft sepia tones belie an unspoken intensity and slow pacing hides an unrelenting momentum. This movie defies expectations--violence is not the same as action--but rewards the patient viewer. The powerful finale perfectly encapsulates the entire movie: a quiet moment of reflection punctuated by a gut-wrenching act of violence, a striking visual composition with enormous emotional resonance, and a morally ambiguous denouement to leave the saga ever unraveling.

The acting is spectacular--there is nuance and subtlety, even in loud moments of vitriol and rage--and the cinematography is breathtaking. But it is not a perfect movie. Some early scenes felt off kilter; a few sideplots felt unnecessary and unresolved; and parts of the movie felt boring. But on the whole it's a much more mature project compared to Chandor's earlier Margin Call, and it's definitely a film worth watching.

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April 25, 2015

It Follows (2014)


The plot of It Follows centers around Jay (Monroe) and her family and friends. After having sex with a boy (Weary), she discovers that he has passed something on to her, something that makes her the target of a sinister force that wants to kill her. The force can take on any human form, from a loved one to a stranger, and it can only walk--never run--towards its next victim.

It Follows is a very interesting take on a horror movie. It's a film with a clever premise that is inherently fascinating and intriguing but one that never manages to capitalize on its own initial potential. It's a modern film that feels very much set in the late 80's, with ominous, overbearing synth music reminiscent of Michael Mann's Manhunter and slow, overbearing super-long zooms.

It has some very impressive qualities, including more than adequate special effects. By setting the film in Detroit, it provides an eerie and haunting backdrop behind the main event. There are two scenes of incredible tension and uncertainty--one on a beach and one in a pool--that stand out in my mind. I love the way the film forces you to watch the background of every scene, scanning for a body gradually closing in on the camera. But it's also really, really, really weird: from the bizarre apparel teens wear to the clamshell e-readers they use. And the filmmakers have a seeming obsession with body fluids and the idea of sexual contamination. The movie is unsettling in many ways, but it never quite delivers on what it always seems to be building up to.

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April 12, 2015

Furious 7 (2015)


Furious 7 outdoes its many predecessors in every way possible. Sometimes this mindset helps, but more often than not it hurts. Fast & Furious 6 was already the epitome of outrageous action films, so anything more extreme just feels silly. The action scenes are too over-the-top to believe, which eliminates the tension from each action scene. You are supposed to fear for someone's life, but you can't do that if they are invincible superheroes.

Maybe I'm just forgetting the previous films, but I'm a little surprised at how much objectionable content there is. The objectification of women is outrageous, filming models the same way they film shiny new cars. The Rock's use of "woman" and "sumbitch" is both derogatory and laughable.

That's not to say that this is a bad movie; in fact it's a whole lot of fun. It's pure entertainment. And Paul Walker's send-off is poignant and heart-rending. If only the movie ended on the beach instead of with the voice-over montage, it would have been immeasurably better. But it is what it is, blending humor and action and heart seamlessly, which makes it a joy to watch.

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March 19, 2015

Whiplash (2014)


Whiplash is a phenomenal film about ambition and the lengths people will go to create something great. After beginning school as a first-year jazz musician in a prestigious music conservatory, Andrew (Teller) finds himself recruited into the awe-inspiring studio band. He soon discovers that his instructor, Fletcher (Simmons), is verbally and physically abusive to his students in the hopes that he will direct them to greatness. And Andrew pushes himself to his limits to earn Fletcher's respect. The plot grips you from beginning to end, even as it takes you down some unexpected turns, and concludes with a finale that is somehow simultaneously satisfying and ambiguous.

The movie is full of fantastic music--that's a given--but it is also full of fantastic cinematography and editing that elevate this movie past its constituent parts. The camerawork is stunning, whether grandly swooping into a complicated scene or using a simple rack focus, and is supplemented by dramatic lighting and singularly beautiful compositions. The editing was playful and precise, adding another dimension to the music on screen. I was truly flabbergasted at the level of cinematic technique on display in this film.

However, I found the message to be a little simplistic and a little overdone. The film tackles a fairly clich├ęd question and doesn't add all that much to the discussion. Still, this movie is such a joy to watch that it's hard to come up with anything negative about it at all. JK Simmons is absolutely incredible, always going one step past acceptable behavior to be both eminently entertaining and instantly horrifying. Watch this movie. You won't regret it.

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March 18, 2015

Foxcatcher (2014)


Foxcatcher, set in the 1980's, tells the troubling true story of an enigmatic multimillionaire wrestling enthusiast (Carell) who enlists two Olympic gold medal-winning wrestlers (Tatum, Ruffalo) to help him start a training camp for the US Wrestling Team on his enormous estate. I won't go into more detail so as to prevent anyone reading this review from getting too interested in the movie.

The trailers for the movie give it a creepy, chilling atmosphere. And indeed it starts out intense and brooding, but the mood doesn't last and the pacing turns awkward and slow. The cinematography is bland and lingering like the worst kind of indie films. There is an obscene amount of silence to make the whole movie unendingly boring. A lot of shots seem to be nothing more than random events without any context. Nothing feels concrete (except the ending), which makes for an infuriating and unsatisfying film filled with nothing but hints and suggestions. And it was somewhat unsettling that I couldn't tell if there were homosexual undertones or not. That's how subtle everything was.

I will admit, though, that Steve Carell gives an impressive acting turn. The same could be said for Channing Tatum, although all I really got out of his performance is that he gets slapped in the face a lot. The problem is that the characters seem to perform actions with either unclear motivations or intentionally veiled ones, both of which are frustrating to watch. But the biggest surprise of all was when the credits rolled and I realized that this garbage was directed by Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball). I ended the movie asking myself why I spent the last 2+ hours watching it and I didn't have a good answer.

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March 17, 2015

The Imitation Game (2014)


The Imitation Game tells a fascinating story spectacularly well. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, a British math professor who gets enlisted into a covert military mission to break the Nazi's Enigma Machine and help win WWII for the Allies. (Spoiler alert: he succeeds.) He plays the role to perfection, although I fear that Cumberbatch is well on his way to getting typecast. Here he plays an unlikeable genius lacking any interpersonal skills, nearly identical to his equally uncharming title role on BBC's Sherlock.

The writing somehow simultaneously represents the best and worst aspects of the movie. It is expertly paced, engaging from beginning to end, continuously drawing you in. But the timeline is also unnecessarily complicated, going back and forth between three distinct time periods much too frequently. Also, the film seems to use Turing's homosexuality sometimes to great effect and sometimes for shock value. It ends the movie in a surprisingly sad light and gives the title enormous new weight, but it also deviates from the character study we signed up to watch to tackle Britain's abhorrent policy on the matter.

There was also a little too much old timey footage, and its inclusion feels more like laziness rather than value-added benefit. Or maybe it's just a pet peeve of mine, like unnecessary voiceover narration. Still, The Imitation Game is an engrossing and compelling watch. Highly recommended.

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March 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)


Fifty Shades of Grey is a surprisingly successful movie about a college graduate (Johnson) who begins a dominance/submission relationship with a young business magnate (Dornan). It originally started out as fan fiction for Twilight, with the titular Christian Grey originally written as a non-vampire billionaire version of Edward Cullen in an alternate universe. It makes sense, then, why the writing feels particularly amateurish and the bare-bones plot feels long and drawn-out. It also makes sense why it feels so much like a fantasy, a dream-like series of events filled with tension and delayed gratification devoid of any actual content.

Despite the awful writing and acting, this was not a 1 star movie. It largely succeeds at stimulating the audience's imagination with its BDSM eroticism, exposing flesh right to the edges of the screen. And although it tries too hard to be provocative, I actually appreciated how it forces non-traditional ideas about sex and pleasure into the mainstream. I did, however, find all the side comments about the main character being gay alarming because it conflates all non-heterosexual experiences as "not normal."

As a side note, I have never been more embarrassed in my life than when I asked for 2 tickets to see Fifty Shades of Grey. I hope you never have to go through something like that.

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