Billy Soistmann

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Review: Iron Man 2

In 2010, Action, Comedy, Comic Books, Jon Favreau, Paramount, Reviews on May 6, 2010 at 3:30 PM

I’ll be honest. Iron Man 2 surprised me. After such a brilliant start, I was worried that the sequel would either fall flat or try too hard. However, the movie delivers exactly as a summer blockbuster should. Although I have always been adamant that a great film should have something deeper to say, the true purpose of a film is to tell a story, whether it is entertaining, sad, or scary.

Iron Man 2 has no proverb it is trying to get across. No insight into the human condition. What it is is pure entertainment. Now, I hesitate to say this because normally I would attack a film that attempts solely to entertain. But, there is a difference between mindless entertainment and an enjoyable movie such as this one.

This sequel to 2008’s Iron Man is an action-packed tale of how Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) attempts to deal with the ramifications of being Iron Man, as well as a life-threatening medical condition, a competing weapons contractor (Sam Rockwell), and a very bitter Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke).

The film opens in Russia as a very angry Mickey Rourke begins building some kind a weapon and continues into an amazing shot (which you can see embedded below) of Iron Man jumping from a plane into the grand opening of his Stark Expo. The kinetic energy in this sequence really sets the mood for the rest of the movie.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

As the film progresses, there are several great action set pieces as well as a lot comedy. Sam Rockwell delivers a hilarious performance as the wannabe Tony Stark. Overall, the acting was good. Downey Jr. is fantastic, as usual, and director Jon Favreau also has a sizable part. Mickey Rourke is a great villain, although sometimes that accent was just ridiculous. Paltrow is good as the straight-laced Pepper Potts, but Scarlett Johannson, on the other hand, delivers an cringe-worthy performance as Stark’s new secretary with a secret.

The main problem this movie has is its plot. At times, the film could have been paced much more smoothly. Especially in the second half, I felt as if the story became too rushed. However, these issues never reach the level of the atrocity that was Spider-Man 3. The film remains coherent, and interesting, throughout.

The bigger error, however, comes from the science. In Iron Man, if you believed that a device as powerful and tiny as Stark’s arc reactor was possible, the rest of the movie made sense, at least from a technical point-of-view. Unfortunately, the sequel throws this out the window. This isn’t a huge deal, but does detract from the believability of the story, which, frankly, matters little considering the movie’s superhero roots.

So, where exactly does this film succeed? It doesn’t have a fantastic story, but the plot is interesting, the characters are great, and it’s just so much fun. This movie is a blast and, although it wasn’t on par with the first film, Iron Man 2 is a great way to start off the summer movie season.

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The Oscar-Nominated Short Films

In 2009, Awards, Magnolia, Reviews, Shorts on February 25, 2010 at 11:42 AM

This year I was fortunate enough, once again, to be able to the see the Oscar-nominated short films on the big screen. I live in Delaware, so I’m not stuck in the middle-of-nowhere, but it is still difficult to find any non-mainstream films in my are. Lucky for me, the only independent cinema in my area, Theatre N in Wilmington, decided to show the Oscar-nominated shorts again this year.

There are two programs – one for animated and one for live-action – which are put together by Shorts International and distributed by Magnolia Pictures. It’s a great experience to be able to see so many films in the theater in one day. I had a great time watching these wonderful little films. So, what did I think?

Animation

French Roast (France, 8 min):

This was my least favorite of the bunch. The animation was good and the story was humorous, but I didn’t find it really entertaining. It wasn’t that funny and didn’t fit together very well. The camera movement was great, though. The movie consists of one shot that shifts based on what is going on at that moment. It is a nice touch made possible by the computer animation and the short format. Although not bad, I wasn’t impressed.

Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty (Ireland, 6 min):

This was a hilarious short. Granny O’Grimm loses the plot as she tries to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty to her granddaughter. Her version of the beloved fairy-tale was great, and the granddaughter’s reaction was terrific. The mix between CG and traditional animation worked very well, although the CG was a bit lacking. Overall, this was an extremely funny short.

The Lady and the Reaper (Spain, 8 min):

I loved this one. The story was a bit macabre, but charming at the same time. The character design was excellent with all three main characters being awesome. I especially admired the reaper character, with his square features. The adventure was fun, with a surprisingly funny ending.

Logorama (France, 16 min):

Now this is a crazy movie. Composed almost entirely with logos, I originally thought this was a statement about consumerism in America, and it basically was, but with violence and language. In the movie, Michelin Man cops are on the hunt for the psychopathic Ronald Macdonald. The innovative use of hundreds and hundreds of logos was astounding and I have no idea how they got permission to use all of them. This was a very enjoyable, albeit strange, movie experience.

A Matter of Loaf and Death (UK, 30 min):

Wallace and Gromit are back. This time, someone is murdering bakers one by one. I love the comedy in this series. The slapstick and Rube Goldberg-esque antics in the movie are great. Also, this serves as a fun whodunit, although the answer isn’t too hard to figure out. The animation and set-design in this movie are fantastic. This is definitely the best-looking film of the bunch.

Live-Action

The Door (Ireland, 17 min):

This is a deep movie about loss and perseverance after a tragedy. It centers on a family forced to evacuate Pripyat after the Chernobyl disaster in ’86. This is definitely the most emotional film of the group and is very somber in tone. I thought the movie was terrific, but not my favorite.

Instead of Abracadabra (Sweden, 22 min):

This was by-far the funniest short film nominated. It focuses on Tomas, an aspiring magician who still lives with his parents. The entire movie is filled with hilarious moments and the cast if great, especially Jacob Nordenson, who plays Bengt, Tomas’ ashamed father. The film is also an insightful character study of a man plagued by desolation. You really care for this lovable loser by the end of the movie, and you even become embarrassed for him when he fails.

Kavi (USA/India, 19 min):

This was a good story that was never fleshed out. Sure, the plot continued to a conclusion, but I felt that this movie could be expanded into a feature with not much effort. It was a good story, shot well, that leaves only a little impact on the viewer. Overall, I’m on the fence with this one.

Miracle Fish (Australia, 17 min):

This is another weird little movie. What starts out as a day-in-the-life of an ordinary kid quickly turns. I don’t want to give anything away, but this movie definitely caught me off guard about half-way through this film. The movie is about the boy’s encounter one day, and I’m not sure that its theme comes across very well, but in general the movie was excellent.

The New Tenants (Denmark/USA, 20 min):

This movie starts with an elegant monologue about the failures of humanity and then goes on to show the two main characters a more sinister side of life. They have just moved into a new apartment and quickly find out just how bad of a choice they have made. Vincent D’Onofrio kicks things off as a vengeful husband and things only get worse. This movie was funny and touching, and had a very poetic ending.

Once again, I really enjoyed all the short films. My favorites were The Lady and the Reaper and The New Tenants, but I predict Logorama and The Door will win come Oscar night.

Review: Shutter Island

In 2010, Horror, Martin Scorsese, Mystery, Paramount, Reviews, Thrillers & Mystery/Suspense on February 19, 2010 at 11:53 AM

Sometimes, it’s not what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it and that is definitely the case in Shutter Island. Martin Scorsese delivers an incredible film from good, but flawed source material.

Shutter Island stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy, a US Marshal who, along with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), are assigned to investigate the disappearance of a psychotic patient from the mental institution on the titular island. Dr. John Cowley (Ben Kingsley), along with Dr. Jeremiah Naering (Max von Sydow) and the warden (Ted Levine), run the facility with an iron fist. The fantastic supporting cast is rounded off with Jackie Earle Haley and Michelle Williams. As the mystery unfolds, Teddy learns that the island is definitely more intimidating than he first suspected.

From the opening shot of this film, you know you are in for something special. The opening sequence is clearly the work of a master filmmaker. Scorsese lets his shots run their course, rather than cutting away. We watch as the boat slowly emerges from the fog heading toward the island. After some dialog, we see the island for the first time in a shot that says a lot about the character of this wretched place – the jagged rocks, the rocking boat, the imposing cliffs. As the on-edge police force escorts the marshals into the institution, Scorsese utilizes his signature sweeping camera moves which give the film a constant kinetic energy.

Shutter Island is visually stunning. The composition is absolutely perfect. The movie is also partly surrealist. The dream sequences play out through unique visuals and give a glimpse into DiCaprio’s mental collapse. Overall, the pacing and editing make for an incredible thriller. Scorsese channels his inner Hitchcock and continually builds suspense. Rather than rely on simple jump scares, this film is psychological. The score also contributes immensely to the overall feeling of the movie. Incredibly, a score wasn’t even written for the movie. Instead, Scorsese and singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson created an ensemble of already-recorded music. The haunting music and, even more so, the lack of sound during certain scenes also adds to the unnerving atmosphere.

The plot of the film plays like a classic thriller. The movie uses several horror clichés, such as the telephone lines being knocked out by a storm, but I didn’t mind them. As for the sotry, it started out well, but then fell short a little around 2/3rds of the way through. Towards the end, I did not like the direction the story was going, but the ending was amazingly ambiguous. (I’ll definitely have to write more in-depth about this in a later, spoiler-filled post.) In the end, the craftsmanship of the film outweighs any shortcomings in the script.

Apart from the technical aspects, which were virtually perfect, Shutter Island provides several levels of enjoyment. There is suspense throughout – the film is an excellent thriller. On a deeper level, the movie examines the nature of human sanity. Overall, Shutter Island is an engrossing thriller told through excellent visuals that only Scorsese can create. The fantastic directing, acting, and technical aspects of the movie take a typical horror film and make it into a thought-provoking, beautiful film.

Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

In 2010, 20th Century Fox, Action, Chris Columbus, Family, Reviews, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on February 13, 2010 at 5:28 PM

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is not the next Harry Potter. That’s exactly what 20th Century Fox was going for – based on the series by Rick Riordan, it stars Logan Lerman as Percy Jackson, a young man who discovers that Greek legends are real, and is directed by Chris Columbus.

Although based on an intriguing premise, “The Lightning Thief” falls flat. It’s a real shame, too. It could have been a fun adventure through Greek mythology. Instead, it falls into a simple movie formula that we’ve all seen many times over.

The film begins with Zeus (Sean Bean) confronting Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) over the theft of his lightning bolt. The scene plays off well as tongue-in-cheek comedy, although I don’t think that’s what they were aiming for. The dialogue is ridiculous, but if the entire film just stuck with this not-too-serious feel, I would have liked it much more.

The first major flaw is the lack of an introduction. We see Percy and his best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), but we never really get to know them before the plot quickens and the action begins. The writers hit the points they need to, but the characters never come alive.

The plot of the movie is terrible. This film takes a good premise and ruins it by making it so formulaic and predictable, there’s almost no point in watching it. The only redeeming factor is that the movie is actually pretty fun most of the time.

The acting is atrocious all-around. Even the excellent supporting cast, including Uma Thurman, Catherine Keener, Joe Pantoliano, Pierce Brosnan, and Sean Bean, are humiliated through silly dialogue with no real characters beneath. As for the stars, this film goes to show you that very few teens can actually act.

However, these shortcomings don’t diminish the movie as much as they should. Somehow, this mess of a screenplay plays out as a surprisingly fun family adventure. Although not a good film by any stretch, “Percy Jackson” provides a fun adventure suitable for the whole family, and is better than most films aimed at the same audience.

Review: The Cove

In 2009, Documentary, Lionsgate Films, Louie Psihoyos, Reviews on February 8, 2010 at 7:03 PM

The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos, follows him in his quest to expose the cetacean massacre in Taiji, Japan.

The movie begins as Ric O’Barry, a dolphin trainer turned activist, guides the director into the small coastal town of Taiji. The sequence introduces the town so naturally, as we are taken on the ride with the director. Psihoyos becomes the audience’s stand-in and we see the town for the first time through his eyes. Then, we are given some background into the “star” of the film, Mr. O’Barry. The movie progresses as a typical, although extremely well-crafted doc. We see some aspects of the dolphin hunt, including many of its disastrous consequences as well as the primary causes and corruption that keeps it running.

However, the main plot of the film centers on O’Barry and Psihoyos as they assemble a covert team to infiltrate “The Cove.” Everything is building up to the final act, in which the team attempts to get footage from inside the guarded killing cove. Their mission is as thrilling as any narrative spy film, and this is where the movie really succeeds.

This film is a leap forward for the documentary format. It cuts between a more traditional documentary (interviews, clips, etc.) and the team’s covert operation. And this works perfectly. By contrasting the two styles of filmmaking, both aspects of the movie have much more effect.

At the end of the film, Psihoyos makes a very wise choice. He lets the images speak for themselves. Rather than pontificate about the evils of the hunt, the audience is given the images and we must make of them what we want.

The Cove is a superb film that transcends its documentary label and impacts the audience like very few films of any kind can.

Review: The Brothers Bloom

In 2009, Caper/Heist, Character-Driven, Comedy, Noir, Reviews, Rian Johnson, Romance, Summit Entertainment, Thrillers & Mystery/Suspense on February 6, 2010 at 8:07 PM

The Brothers Bloom is my kind of movie. When I selected the film from my local Redbox, I expected to enjoy it. I mean, it’s a comedic con-man story. I figured it would be good, but I never expected to be so enthralled. Trying to describe the film cannot do it justice. All I’m going to say is imagine the perfect mixture of Big Fish, Matchstick Men, and Chinatown.

To be clear, this is not a perfect film. I have seen better films recently, but The Brothers Bloom is my favorite film of the year. And I don’t feel uncomfortable drawing this distinction. There is definitely a distinction between good movies and those you like the most. I’m not going to go into that right now, but, to explain, Star Wars is my favorite movie of all time, yet The Godfather is the greatest film I have ever seen.

So, why did I love this movie so much? For the life of me, I cannot pinpoint a specific aspect of the film that made it stand out, and that in and of itself is one of its strong points. Everything – the direction, the cinematography, the acting, the writing – comes together and creates this fantastic blend of mystery, fantasy, and comedy.

The opening sequence brings you straight into the brothers’ world. With a fantastic narration by the magician Ricky Jay, we see Stephen, 13, and Bloom, 10, as they craft their first con, and already we have a good idea of the relationship between the two, as well as their differences, which is at the heart of the film. In the next scene, we see the brothers 25 years later, at the top of their game. They are true con men, and the movie has fun with a quick rewind to explain what we just saw. After these introductions, the plot really picks up when Stephen goes to Bloom with one last con.

The story itself isn’t entirely original. It is a typical con man story, but the movie is just so much fun and still has something deeper to say. The performances are good throughout, although no one specific stands out. The film also looks great, with a clever closing shot that really gives closure to the story. However, I don’t want to go into more detail about the technical aspects of the movie.

It all comes down to tone. The entire film gives you this feeling of wonder and that is what movies are all about. No matter how technically perfect or how many layers of meaning one can find in a movie, it makes no difference if it doesn’t provoke any emotional reaction. I can’t articulate exactly why I enjoyed this movie so much, and that is part of the reason it is so memorable. The Brothers Bloom is a magnificent film, with a perfect mixture of fantasy, comedy, and emotion that I absolutely loved.

Sundance Review: Bass Ackwards

In 2010, Character-Driven, Distribution, Independent, Linas Phillips, Reviews, Sundance on January 23, 2010 at 10:23 AM

Watching a Film On YouTube

Wow. Technology is awesome: I just finished watching, on YouTube, Bass Ackwards, a film premiering tonight at the Sundance Film Festival. As a part of the festival’s current theme of “rebirth” and their campaign to get away from what Sundance has become in 21st century (As Ebert puts it, “a sort of yuppie tech-head geek consumerist trade show and party animal convention”), five Sundance films, three from 2010, two from last year, are available to rent at YouTube.com/Movies.

Say what you will about how Google has handled YouTube, but this really appealed to me. I wish I could be at Sundance right now, but I just didn’t have the time or money to get there this year. With this streaming deal, I can at least watch a few films from the festival from the comfort of my own home.

So how did it work out? After putting my credit card into Google Checkout, I went to the page for the movie. It looks just like a normal video, except you are prompted that it costs $3.99 to rent the movie. I clicked “Rent” and I was off. Overall, it went well. The quality was very good (720p), but there were some issues with buffering. Several times, the image would stutter and, sometimes, even pause completely. Streaming a film off of the internet is not the ideal format, but enough about how I watched it. How was the film itself?

In Bass Ackwards, Linas (played by Director/Writer Linas Phillips) drives a ’76 Volkswagon bus cross-country and meets some interesting people along the way. This movie was nothing like my expectations. Rather than a quirky, hip indie flick, Bass Ackwards is an honest portrait of how a cross-country journey affects one lonely man.

This is precisely why this film works: Instead of relying on a recycled road movie plot, like the trailer pretends it is, Ass Backwards simply creates a character that we care about and follows him. Other movies that share this quality are Chop Shop and Munyurangabo. These types of films are rare, but utterly refreshing.

The film is also shot beautifully. The transitional scenery along Linas’ travels are impressive considering the film’s low budget. Also, there is a certain magic to the 1976 VW bus. By the end of the movie, it becomes a character of its own.

Where the movie fails slightly is the comedy. There are many funny moments and Alex Karpovsky is hilarious as a gas station manager, but overall the film falls somewhere in this gray area between drama and comedy, which many movies fall into, but the mixture just isn’t quite right.

In spite of this flaw, Bass Ackwards is a very good film with some great vignettes and a solid emotional core.

Review: District 9

In Reviews, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on August 14, 2009 at 3:19 AM

I had been looking forward to this film for a long while – longer than most people even knew about the movie. After reading the premise almost a year ago, I watched Alive in Joburg, the short film that is the basis for the feature. I was thoroughly impressed and wanted more. Well, now I’ve seen it. I really enjoyed it and thought it was a very good film. It has its flaws, of course, but I was not disappointed.

In the world of the movie, an alien mothership settled over Johannesburg around two decades ago and has been sitting there ever since. The aliens that were found aboard were in horrible conditions so they were moved onto the ground into “District 9” which has degenerated into a slum. Relations between the prawns, as they are called, and the humans are tense. This basic premise is obviously a critique on the apartheid system of racial segregation that was in effect in South Africa until 1994. However, this social commentary takes a back seat to the real story – the story of Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a bureaucrat in charge of overseeing the relocation of the prawns into another camp.

The movie starts off as basically a documentary, complete with interviews with experts and ordinary people. The best use of this documentary feel is when the humans make first contact with the aliens. This is shown through fuzzy archival footage from inside the ship and works beautifully. The film does lose most of its documentary feel, but the cinema-verite style of a handheld camera continues. I really enjoyed this fresh way of shooting. It really gave the film a raw quality that helped bring these aliens into the real world. I did notice, however, that towards the end the style got closer to a polished look. It never quite got there, the camera continued to shake, but the feeling that you were right there in the middle of it all died down a bit. The end fell back on the documentary aspect to tie things up, even including some text at the end of the movie. Overall, this was a very promising feature debut from Neill Blomkamp and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Those who complain that the movie didn’t focus enough on the prejudice against the aliens have a point, but I liked the way the movie went. Instead of making a documentary about the social injustice during the apartheid years, the film focused on a single character. This gave it narrative structure that could hold up for almost two hours. I felt that the story found a nice balance between social commentary and action, although the climax felt a little too much like a traditional popcorn action flick. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they watered-down the true heart of the film for mainstream audiences, but the filmmakers definitely chose not to force the message of the film down the audience’s throat. My favorite point made in the movie is when a young Nigerian says something to the effect of, “We only hate them because they’re alien – they are from another planet, if they were human we wouldn’t treat them this way.” Of course, in the real world we see how we only wish this statement could be true.

The script was excellent. As soon as Wikus starts to discover what is happening to him, the movie flows beautifully. Rather than having distinct scenes, the story constantly moves forward. Also, Wikus learns a lot through the course of the movie and changes for the better. This is a key for any good character-driven piece: the character must grow. Speaking of Wikus, Sharlto Copley is fantastic. I would have never guessed that this is his feature film debut. His character goes through a lot in the film and Copley portrays his journey excellently. Relying on a non-actor to drive the entire movie was a huge risk that payed off in the end.

The special effects, while not the best, fit in with the rest of the movie, which is all they had to do. The director showed his skill at blending real environments with CGI once again. By showing these obviously fictitious aliens through his handheld, constantly shifting camera, Blomkamp takes us into this world and makes us believe in it, despite any logical problems with the aliens.

So, while the story was not what I was expecting, District 9 paid off in the end. The film consistently amazed me with its style while still telling the story a man forced out of his element. Most importantly, though, the movie delivered fantastic images. For example, the ominous mothership sitting above the city was a constant reminder that this world portrayed in the movie was not entirely like ours.

I really enjoyed this film. It provides a compelling story, told through fresh cinematography, with a great performance. All of this combined with undertones of racial prejudice and social commentary on the apartheid that isn’t too overbearing makes for a thoroughly compelling, entertaining, and thoughtful film. District 9 feels like a breath of fresh air during this generally disappointing summer.

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

In Coming-of-Age, David Yates, Harry Potter, Reviews, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Warner Brothers on July 15, 2009 at 4:47 AM

First of all, let me say that I have never considered myself a Harry Potter fan. I’ve always enjoyed the movies, but had only seen them once. That is, until this week, when I watched the first five films over the course of three days. I never realized how much I enjoy them. It’s amazing how much better the movies are when you go in with the knowledge of the previous ones. After soaking in the previous movies, I was now prepared for the “Half-Blood Prince”.

Once again, I loved the movie. The magic carries on, even though so much has changed since our heroes were just little kids running around an enchanted movie set. Thematically, the series has definitely evolved. A storm is brewing as Voldemort prepares his army and Harry must be ready to fight back. Dumbledore steps up to prepare the young wizard, instead of hiding as he did in “Order of the Phoenix”. At the same time, we see the complex nature of teen relationships as Harry, Ron, and Hermione discover love. The film moves completely away from the episodic nature of the early movies and becomes much more focused – Voldemort is coming and we must be ready.

This movie has bridged an important gap, created by “Order of the Phoenix”, between the enchantment of the first films and the brooding darkness of the two most recent installments. “Half-Blood Prince” successfully combines the magic of the early movies with the ever-increasing tension of Voldemort’s return.

The acting is better this time around. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) loosens up and starts to embody his character’s conflicts while Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) remains funny throughout and Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore) steps up to become a much more active player in the movie. As always, Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) is delightful, but I was surprised to see Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) in such a big part. While I will forever hate his character, I have to admit that it was nice to see him in a bigger role. Instead of serving as a simple, all-evil antagonist, Draco becomes torn between his family ties and his personal convictions. Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) adeptly depicts the ups and downs of Hermione’s growing feelings for Ron. One of the best moments in the film happens when a distraught Hermione shares her feelings with Harry. It’s great to see how these young stars have matured and become actors in their own right.

The newcomer in this film, Horace Slughorn, returns to his position as Potions Master after being persuaded by Harry and Dumbledore. As the story wears on, Harry struggles to find out what happened between Professor Slughorn and the mysterious Tom Riddle. Harry must persuade Slughorn to give him his memory of that night so that he can view it with Dumbledore’s pensieve, a device that visualizes memories. The character is portrayed excellently by Jim Broadbent, who really brings depth to the character.

Another surprise is the comedy. This is definitely the funniest Harry Potter film to date. It was definitely a risky move, but it paid off. The comedy gave the movie a fresh feeling that really livened the potentially droll middle portion of the movie.

Thanks to both the direction and cinematography, the film really shines visually. I don’t remember another movie where I was so consistently impressed with the visuals. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is top-notch. From the opening Death Eater attack to the race through the wheat field and up until the thrilling climax, the movie consistently provides fantastic images. I’ve seen movies with good shots, but this one kept coming with excellent scenes over and over. Be sure to see this in the theater – you won’t get the full impact at home.

The special effects only added to the fantastic look of the film. CGI has come a long way since The Sorcerer’s Stone’s ragdoll effects, but the deciding factor is how the technology is utilized. Instead of constantly bombarding the senses, the effects are subtle and only serve as a tool to tell the story. What stood out to me were the quidditch sequences. In “Half-Blood Prince”, they are vastly superior to any of the previous films’ quidditch due to the combined effect of great cinematography and special effects.

Where this installment falls short, unfortunately, is the plot. First of all, I imagine it will be nearly impossible to watch this without any knowledge of the preceding events, but I don’t consider this a fault. This is now the sixth movie in the series, so don’t expect to be able to jump right in. The main problem is that the entire story feels unfulfilled. For example, we see the Death Eaters attack sporadically, but nothing ever comes of it. Just as we start to learn more about Tom Riddle, we realize that hardly any new information has been added. The worst offender in this category is the Half-Blood Prince. You would think that the title of the movie would be given some significant time, but this part of the story consists of a potions book with his name in it and a single line at the end of the film – “I am the Half-Blood Prince.” Well, that’s just great, but what does that actually mean?!

Another oddity was the absence of Voldemort himself. I didn’t realize this until shortly after the movie, but Voldemort was inexplicably absent. At first, I was a little mad, but I soon came to the conclusion that this was a very smart move. First of all, it shows that the film can hold itself up without him, but, most importantly, giving the Dark Lord very little screen time increases his mystique exponentially. By hiding the main antagonist for the majority of the movies, he becomes a much better villain. Even so, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the “Deathly Hallows”.

In spite of these faults, the story builds well and leads to a thrilling climax that doesn’t disappoint. The overall structure of the film is good, it is in the details where things get dodgy.

Even with its plot’s minor faults, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is another great addition to the Harry Potter franchise. With its rich visuals and solid performances, HP6 shows how a big-budget summer blockbuster should be made. Now, I hope that this movie goes on to make as much money as possible, just to show that audiences do know a good movie when they see one.

My Rating: 8.6/10

Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

In Action, Dreamworks, Michael Bay, Paramount, Remakes & Sequels, Reviews, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Transformers on June 24, 2009 at 4:14 AM

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a sheer mess. I really want to like it, but it’s impossible – the movie has a horrible plot and is way too long. The only reason there even is a plot is to set up a lot of cool robot fighting.

This time around, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) finds a piece of the All Spark in a hoodie from the first movie (Why he hasn’t touched that sweatshirt in two years is never explained.) which causes him to have visions of ancient symbols. Megatron (Hugo Weaving) comes back and our hero is joined by his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) and Leo (Ramon Rodriguez), who is introduced as an alien/robot conspiracy theorist, but only uses his knowledge once. (In order to get Agent Simmons (John Turturro), who knows more than him.) Sam and the gang finally end up in Egypt looking for the Matrix of Leadership. (Which turns out to be incredibly easy-to-find item, considering it’s been hidden for about 20,000 years.) Of course, an enourmous battle ensues. Besides the logical dilemmas such as the seemingly endless supply of robots who were mysteriously missing in the first movie (I guess it was their day off.), the fundamental problem is that the story leaves absolutely no room for any character development or underlying themes. Sure there’s enough story to fuel copious amounts of cool robot fighting, but there is no meaning or question explored by this film (at least the first hinted at humanity’s capacity for good). This is especially atrocious considering the two lead robots – Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and the Fallen (Tony Todd).

The first is Optimus Prime, an extremely wise, very old alien robot who has been through a lot. Basically, he’s the Autobots’ philosopher and everything he says sounds world-shattering thanks to Peter Cullen’s fantastic voice work. Why not use this asset to explore more of human nature? The second, the Fallen of the film’s title, has been described as “the Lucifer of the Transformers universe.” No he isn’t – at least not in the movie. The film begins in 17000 BC as the Fallen is working on a huge machine on Earth. Now, I’d figure that a trip back almost 20,000 years would be pretty important. Not in this film. The only purpose that scene serves is to set up the title card and to establish that there is a huge machine underground in Egypt. Essentially, the movie skips right over the Fallen’s “fall”. The pivotal turning point that establishes this titular character’s motivation for 20 milleniums is glazed over.

Throughout the film, there is a feeling of manufactured epic-ness. Of course, the movie spans continents and cost around $200 million, but every potential emotionally-charged scene is overdone almost to the point of losing any real effect. For example, Sam cries out “OPTIMUS!” in a moment clearly overblown to make the scene seem important (and to beef up the trailer). The audience is smart enough to choose for themselves what characters they care about, Optimus Prime included, without the movie spoon-feeding them.

Now for Sam and Mikaela’s relationship. During the hiatus between films, the couple have been dating, but have a difficult choice coming up. With Sam going off to college, Mikaela decides to stay with her ex-con father working on automobiles. Maybe these kinds of things are just not my cup of tea, but I cringed every time they had a serious conversation with each other. I just don’t buy their relationship at all.

At two-and-a-half hours, “Transformers 2” is not a short movie but I’m not against a long movie. A feature film should be as long as it needs to be, but this movie doesn’t need that much time – in this form, anyway. If any meaningful subjects were explored or the characters were developed on any real level, then I could excuse such a runtime.

So, without a decent story, is there anything left? Basically, there’s a whole lot of alien robots fighting and it looks amazing. The special effects are the movie’s high point and the folks at ILM have really given us a spectacular showcase of amazing visuals. The transformers are an incredible sight when they fight and even more so when they actually transform. Another strong point is the humor. There are many funny moments that create a fun atmosphere for all the action. We see much more of Sam’s parents, who are hysterical but start to lose their edge by the conclusion. Still, special effects and some laughs alone cannot carry an entire movie.

How about the direction? Surprisingly, director Michael Bay isn’t too bad this time around. Setting aside numerous gratuitous slow motion shots and a dismal climax, the action is frenetic yet discernible.

From an acting point of view, Shia is not his best. This could be due to the poor script, but he is not up to par with his performances in Disturbia or even Holes. Other than him, Peter Cullen is (once again) perfect as Optimus, Megan Fox replaces her looks for any superb acting (actually, her performance gets better as the movie goes on), and John Turturro does well as an exiled secret agent.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is full of missed opportunities and mindless fighting. Surprised? I didn’t think so. In any case, you should enjoy the spectacle, at least until you realize how much better the film could be.

My Rating: 4.3/10

10 Theaters to 2,890: The Story of Slumdog Millionaire

In Awards, Box Office, Danny Boyle, Distribution, Features, Foreign Language, Fox Searchlight, Independent, News, Reviews, The Forum, Warner Brothers on February 23, 2009 at 8:12 AM
(This is an article I wrote earlier in the year for another publication. I have estimated a date and added it here late so please excuse any time discrepancies.)

Three months ago, a relatively small film opened in only ten theaters. As of March 9, it has earned 222 million dollars worldwide and is playing on 2,890 screens in the US. How did a movie with such humble beginnings go on to become such a smash?

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik, who grew up in the slums of Dharavi, India with his brother Salim. He is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? when he is arrested under suspicion of cheating.

The movie debuted at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30. On September 7, it played at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award.

After playing at several other festivals, “Slumdog” opened on November 12 and earned 33 thousand dollars on opening day. As positive word-of-mouth spread, the film was expanded and, by Christmas, “Slumdog” was playing in 614 theaters and had grossed 15 million dollars. Positive reviews and many awards, including four Golden Globes, generated even more buzz and it continued to perform well throughout January, even though theaters had begun to drop off. On January 22, it was still playing on 582 screens. Then it was nominated for the 81st Annual Academy Awards – ten times. The very next day, “Slumdog” expanded to 1,411 screens and grossed almost 3 million dollars. So what was the key to its success?

Let’s get one thing straight. Slumdog Millionaire is a fantastic movie. Beyond the intriguing story, the editing and score really make this film stand out. However, there are many great movies that did terribly at the box office. What made “Slumdog” different?

First of all, there are four major groups of people that saw this movie. First are the committed independent film fans who try to see any good movie outside of the mainstream. This group would have seen “Slumdog” either at a film festival or early in its theatrical run. The second group contains the movie buffs. This group just loves movies and probably started to hear about SM in November or December. The third group are the more casual movie fans who went to see the movie as award season really picked up. The fourth group is composed of the “normal” people who heard about “Slumdog” on the news or the internet and were intrigued enough to see the movie. This group is most interesting due to the fact that they usually don’t see anything outside of the mainstream. What special qualities caused so many people to go see this at the theater?

The unique storyline is definitely the prime contribution to this “X-Factor.” The use of flashbacks is particularly well-designed in the film, unlike many flashback sequences. Usually, flashbacks break continuity or appear too corny. On the other hand, a well-implemented flashback is hard to come by. Citizen Kane, Forrest Gump, and The Godfather Part II all use the tecnique to great effect.
Further, the blend of a mainstream, English movie with the novelty of a foreign film makes “Slumdog” much more accessible to a mainstream American audience. Finally, a much more Hollywood-esque story [a classic romance], while still a good one, separated Slumdog Millionaire from many other independent films that focus on more complex subject matter.

These factors not only led to fantastic box office performance, but to a stunning eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Slumdog Millionaire is a unique movie that blends independent filmmaking with a captivating storyline, foreign elements, Hollywood-style romance, and one Bollywood-style musical. It is also an example of a relatively small movie which blossomed into both a critical and box office hit.

Review: Twilight

In Catherine Hardwicke, Reviews, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Summit Entertainment, The Forum on November 24, 2008 at 5:28 AM

(This is an article I wrote earlier in the year for another publication. I have estimated a date and added it here late so please excuse any time discrepancies.)

It’s 12:01 a.m., November 21 and the theater is packed. The anticipation is tremendous as the movie begins. Teenagers, young girls, and their moms all squeal with excitement. This is Twilight.

Based on the book by Stephenie Meyer and directed by Catherine Hardwicke (ThirteenLords of DogtownThe Nativity Story), Twilight is the story of Isabella Swan (Kristen Stewart), and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who happens to be a vampire. After moving to Forks, Washington, to live with her dad, Charlie, Bella meets Edward and “instantly” falls in love.

Edward is weird, yet he is the best-looking guy at school. He stares at her, acts like a jerk, and follows her, even when she goes to a larger city with her friends. When she confronts him, he insists that they should not see each other. After a little detective work and a quick Google search, Bella deduces that he must be a vampire. The rest of the film deals with Edward’s “conflicted” feelings – he loves Bella, but he’s worried that he won’t be able to control his urge to suck her blood.

Twilight has created an enormous amount of hype in the months leading up to the movie. Breaking Dawn, the fourth in the Twilight series sold over 200,000 copies on its first day, August 2. As sophomore Kellie Wood puts it, “People are obsessed with immortality… or something like that.”

Fans have gotten even crazier upon the release of the movie. “Nothing is weirder than a 45-year-old lady coming in to watch the movie and she has every book with her,” says senior Alex Hall, an employee at Movies 10.

After all the hype dies down, after all the anticipation is satisfied, after all the screaming fangirls have left the theater, does Twilight deliver? Is it enjoyable to those who have not been en(twi)lighted?

First of all, is Twilight a action-packed vampire movie? While there are doses of action here and there (and a surprisingly good fight scene during the climax), Twilight is definitely a love story.

The main problems with the movie are the poor directing, shaky soundtrack, horrible special effects, and the overall cheesiness of the film.

The directing was not blatantly horrible, though. However, there were virtually no appealing shots or interesting angles. For example, in one scene, Bella and Edward are in a tree and the camera tracks away from them and sweeps in a circle around the tree. Then it is cut off prematurely, only to be followed by another shot with the same basic motion. In another scene, Edward and Bella are lying in the grass and the camera flies from directly over them and zooms back into the sky. This would have been a great way to conclude the scene, but instead it cuts back to them lying down. Lastly, another mistake is the overuse of slow motion. Several scenes contained slow motion, although only one use of the effect had any real impact.

Also, the soundtrack did not quite fit in with the visuals onscreen during most of the movie. There were some scenes which were enhanced by the soundtrack, such as when Edward and Bella look at each other across the schoolyard, but overall, the music seemed as if it were picked mainly to sell CDs, which it did well when the Twilight soundtrack debuted at number one on the album charts.

In addition, the special effects were awful! The worst effect was the super-speed that the vampires possess. Every time they ran at warp speed, an ugly blur followed them. It was on par with a low-budget, sci-fi TV show, not a 35 million dollar movie. Even worse than the super-speed was when Edward climbs up a tree with Bella on his back. It’s surprising that the special effects team even bothered to paint out the wires. His hands didn’t even touch the tree when he climbed. He just shot up like he was Superman.

Finally, the general tone of the movie was flawed. A large percentage of the movie was unintentionally humorous. The worst offenders were the rival vampires (who actually eat people, not just animals as the Cullens do). When they arrived and confronted the Cullens, they did not come off as a serious threat. In addition to the involuntary cheesiness, there were a few genuinely funny jokes. The movie would have been better had it taken itself more seriously.

However, after these problems there were a few redeeming qualities. The best part of the movie was definitely the Cullens, the coven of vampires that includes Edward. From their first appearance, Carlisle (Peter Facinelli), Esme (Elizabeth Reaser), Alice (Ashley Greene), Jasper (Jackson Rathbone), Rosalie (Nikki Reed), Emmett (Kellan Lutz), and Edward just emanate weird. From their pale skin to their blank faces, they are excellent as the “outcast family that no one likes.”

In addition, Pattinson (Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) did a fantastic job as Edward. He talked in a particular way, stared at Bella just right, and, overall, projected Edward’s peculiar nature perfectly. Also, the supporting cast of Charlie (Billy Burke), Bella’s dad, along with Jessica (Anna Kendrick) and Mikey (Michael Welch) – her school chums – did well in creating the world in which the main characters live. On the other hand, Kristen Stewart didn’t really flesh out Bella’s character as well as she could have. Most of the time, her acting seemed forced, which took away from the story.

While the vampires in Twilight definitely aren’t the vampires of old, they were an intriguing take on an old idea. For example, the Cullens live in Washington because of the heavy cloud cover and therefore, see very little sun. Small details like that were clever and added to the realism of the story. Sophomore Becky Ronan said, “The vampires aren’t stereotypical. You can relate to them.”

However, even these glints of hope cannot rescue what is ultimately a second-rate teen romance. There is so much fertile ground for really intriguing questions that are never explored. Twilight could have been a much better movie had it spent more time on Edward’s internal conflict. Instead, it is given the back seat to Bella falling in love with him. The audience is never shown Edward’s side of the story.

The bottom line is that, while most fans of the books will enjoy the movie, judged solely as a movie, it was only a mediocre teen romance with some vampires thrown into the mix.

Taking into account the 69.6 million dollars of tickets sold domestically during its opening weekend, Summit Pictures announced that they had green-lighted New Moon, the sequel to Twilight. Maybe fans of the book are all the franchise needs after all.

Review: The Dark Knight

In Action, Batman, Christopher Nolan, Comic Books, Comic Books & Superheroes, Drama, Remakes & Sequels, Reviews, The Forum, Warner Brothers on September 12, 2008 at 8:23 AM

(This is an article I wrote earlier in the year for another publication. I have estimated a date and added it here late so please excuse any time discrepancies.)

After leaving the theater over 74 million people were amazed. This sequel was even better than anticipated. Unheard of!

On June 15, 2005, Batman debuted on the big screen for the first time in about eight years. Batman Begins was a great re-introduction to Batman and far surpassed any previous Batman film. Exactly 1,029 days later, its sequel, The Dark Knight, was released. Months of anticipation and hype, which were even more fueled by Heath Ledger’s death on January 22, made it seem impossible that The Dark Knight could live up to its expectations. In the months since, critical acclaim and word-of-mouth catapulted The Dark Knight to 27 on the box office chart (adjusted for inflation) at $525,904,700.

While Batman Begins is a fantastic movie about how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, The Dark Knight focuses on the criminal underbelly of Gotham and how Batman and the police department strive to fight it. In this way, The Dark Knight becomes a much deeper movie than Batman Begins because it raises questions of what is right, and “how far is too far?” Other thought-provoking dilemma the film explores are “Should Batman fight crime?” and “Is the world better off without him?”

In an interview with David Halbfinger of The New York Times, the director and co-writer, Christopher Nolan said, “As we looked through the comics, there was this fascinating idea that Batman’s presence in Gotham actually attracts criminals to Gotham, [it] attracts lunacy. When you’re dealing with questionable notions like people taking the law into their own hands, you have to really ask, where does that lead?” This leads to the Joker.

“I love that dynamic between The Joker and Batman,” says Christian Bale (Batman) in an interview with SuperHeroHype.com, “He completes him in a sense that he finally has a really worthy challenge, a worthy opponent that challenges him in a way that nobody else ever has.”

Originally portrayed by Cesar Romero in 1966, the role of the Joker was then passed on to Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). In July 2006, Heath Ledger was confirmed to play the Joker in The Dark Knight. To prepare for the role, he spent a month living in an apartment in London where he developed the character. Eventually, he settled on an anarchic interpretation that fit the feel of Batman Begins. Even though Heath Ledger’s iconic voice and laugh for the Joker are excellent, the most impressive aspect of the performance is that in every scene, the Joker’s body language and small nuances in his face tell you more about his character than any amount of dialogue can. The most frightening aspect of the character is that all he cares about is “seeing the world burn.” He couldn’t care less about money or power. Most criminals want something, so they can be negotiated with, however, the Joker cannot be dissuaded. After filming concluded, Heath Ledger tragically died from a prescription drug overdose on January 22, 2008.

“The Joker, he sort of cuts through the film – he’s got no story arc, he’s just a force of nature tearing through,” says Christopher Nolan, in an interview with The LA Times, “Harvey Dent is a tragic figure, and his story is the backbone of this film.”

In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart, has recently been elected District Attorney and is starting to crack down on crime in Gotham. Dubbed “The White Knight,” he contrasts with Batman, because while Batman, “The Dark Knight,” fights crime by his own rules, Dent attempts to fight crime through the court system. Dent’s presence causes Batman to question his motives and ask himself whether or not he should be fighting crime in this way. However, what makes Dent a centerpiece of the film is what he does in response to the Joker, not the affect he has on Batman.

The Dark Knight is definitely the best film of the summer, not only because it is a great superhero movie, but also because it is a very complex morality tale. We eagerly anticipate what is next for the record-shattering “Dark Knight.” Is there a posthumous Oscar in store for Heath Ledger? What conflicts and villains await our hero? Can Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film surpass the first two? Only time will reveal all… and eager fans will certainly be in line.

Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

In Animation, George Lucas, Remakes & Sequels, Reviews, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Star Wars, Warner Brothers on August 21, 2008 at 9:41 PM

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)

  • Directed by Dave Filoni
  • Written by Henry Gilroy
  • Starring:
    • Matt Lanter as Anakin Skywalker
    • James Arnold Taylor as Obi-Wan Kenobi
    • Ashley Eckstein as Ahsoka Tano
    • Tom Kane as Yoda
  • Rating: 7.5/10

Let me start by saying that I am a huge Star Wars fan and have been for a long time. I went into the theater very nervous. I had heard negative things about the movie and I was worried that the continuity between episodes II and III. Also, (1) Anakin having a padawan, and (2) Jabba the Hutt’s son scared me. There was a lot of potential for The Clone Wars to be a very disappointing movie, especially after the wonderful Clone Wars cartoon by Genndy Tartakovsky.

Once the title card appeared and retreated into the distance, I was relieved. Star Wars was back. How could I be disappointed? I loved the intro (even though there was not the familiar crawl) because it was very reminiscent of the old action serials that Star Wars and Indiana Jones were both inspired by. Basically, we were told: “Jabba the Hutt’s son has been kidnapped and needs to be rescued so that the Republic can be allowed to use Jabba’s hyperspace lanes.” and we’re thrown into the action. As the movie rolled on, I enjoyed it. The action was essentially non-stop and I loved the visual style. The characters were very well designed and I liked how it wasn’t too “real” looking. The filmmakers could have decided to make the animation look almost as good as live-action, but what would be the point? We accept the fact that it’s a cartoon and I think that the story only works with animation, and would have failed were it live-action. I liked the overall style of the movie and I thought the character design was excellent.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I found myself cringing at some of the acting and writing. At some points you could tell that it was just actors reading lines. It didn’t feel natural when one character would say something and a split-second later the other character knew exactly how to react. Some lines were cheesy, but it is Star Wars, so you can’t complain. Overall, the story felt like a stretched TV show (which is basically what it was). With a feature, there was so much potential for an epic, galaxy-spanning story, but instead the writers chose to elongate a mediocre episode idea into a movie, which was disappointing. More character development and backstory that we haven’t heard before would have been great, but I can’t gripe too much about the story because the movie and subsequent TV show are obviously geared towards a new generation of Star Wars fans. (not that that should stop you from enjoying either) Also, you should remember that the promised TV series between episodes III and IV (which should debut “later this decade”) will probably be darker and, hopefully, geared toward an older audience.

In my opinion, the best part of the movie was the cinematography and lighting. My favorite shot is when the camera is running behind the clones in the opening battle. Another great scene is when Anakin, Ahsoka, and R2 are walking through the desert. The twin suns in the sky created some very interesting silhouettes and made for some breathtaking shots. The lightsaber duels were just as good as in the live-action movies. The use of color in the movie was very well done, especially when Anakin is riding in the Republic gunship. The only thing that annoyed me slightly was that almost every shot in the movie was canted (not level with the ground). While this provided some interesting perspectives, I felt that it was used too much, detracting from it’s affect.

Now, back to my two concerns before-hand. I thought that Anakin’s padawan was handled semi-well. She was slightly annoying and I’m not sure how they will get rid of her, especially in a kid’s show. (She’s never mentioned in Episode III and Yoda and Mace Windu won’t make Anakin a Jedi Master because he has never trained a padawan, so something must happen.) All I’m going to say about Jabba the Hutt’s son is that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.

Another thing I didn’t like was that everyone had a nickname for absolutely everything. For example, I hated when Ahsoka called R2-D2 “R-2eey.” There’s no reason for it! I mean, count the syllables: R2-D2 (4), R2 (2), R-2eey (3). It’s just a failed attempt to show that the characters are good friends, but we already know them, so it’s pointless to make up stupid nicknames.

While The Clone Wars has it’s faults, all-in-all I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a great introduction to the TV series, which I think will be much more satisfying than the movie because the simple stories will work better as individual episodes instead of a stretched movie. I still would reccomend that you see it in the theater, though, just to experience the magic of Star Wars on the big screen once again.