Friday, December 30, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Die-hard Doyle fans will be miffed, but the acting, synergy and action make it great.

Were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle alive today, I’m sure he would hate the film adaptations of his mystery classics. Unlike Doyle’s subdued and contemplative Holmes, this Holmes, while equally brilliant, is brash, violent and more action star than investigator. Fans of the novels will find this film frustrating, a caricaturization of a beloved hero, streamlined and beefed up for a modern generation. But for those who don’t care, or who can simply pretend it’s not really a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s a supremely fun and surprisingly deep film.

In A Game of Shadows, Sherlock Holmes investigates a random series of bombings around Europe. Anarchist groups are blamed, but Sherlock suspects a deeper conspiracy, revolving around Professor Moriarty. Holmes dons multiple disguises, interrupts Watson’s honeymoon, teams up with a gypsy woman and travels around the world to stop Moriarty. If Sherlock fails, Moriarty will unleash terror upon the entire world.

The filmmakers took some really good risks with the plot, killing off key characters early on. I was kept guessing the whole time, unsure how the mystery would play out. While more a globe-trotting adventure than a typical Sherlock mystery, there are still some signature elements that are reminiscent of its source material. As always, Sherlock’s wit is sharp and his powers of observation keen. Through the wonder of cinema and creative camera tactics, I was let in on Holmes’s deductive processes allowing me to share in his “AHA!” moments.

The plot is bolstered by great performances and witty dialogue. Robert Downey, Jr.’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson exude personality and their perfect on-screen synergy results in many hilarious exchanges. But the real show-stealers are the interactions between Holmes and Moriarty (excellently portrayed by Mad Men’s Jared Harris). The final showdown between the two is riveting, as much a battle of wits as a battle of strength, their minds so alike, yet one completely evil and one unabashedly good. The constant repartee between the characters elevates this movie above a typical action film.

But the action scenes are also very good. There are loads of chases, gunfights and explosions. Some of these scenes are a bit jumpy and hard to follow, but they are still exciting and fun to watch. Holmes demonstrates his prowess at hand-to-hand combat in an early scene, taking on four huge thugs. While typically this would seem absurdly unrealistic, Holmes’s narration demonstrates that with a little observation, dispatching these men is effortless.

The look and feel of the Holmes films is quite unique. The color palette is dark, hued in blues and greys. It’s a perfect fit for the European setting, giving everything a brooding, Gothic feel. Director Guy Ritchie did a fine job giving the film its own style, unlike any other action film I’ve seen.

Hans Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes theme is perhaps his most bizarre and original composition. Game of Shadows adds in additional cues, mostly quick-paced gypsy numbers. It’s a fun and catchy soundtrack guaranteed to get stuck in your head.

There are a few cautions preventing a blanket recommendation. In an intensely awkward scene, a character walks around naked, his delicate areas only mostly covered by well-placed props. Apart from that, there is violence, a few mild profanities, some double entendres and cross-dressing (played for laughs).

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is an exceedingly entertaining film that surpasses the first. It’s the complete package of great plot, character, dialogue and action. It’s not your typical Sherlock Holmes story, but it works well. Should you see this one? The answer is...elementary.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Debt (2011)

A stressful spy thriller with more than enough plot, character and action.

If a movie can stress me out, it’s done a good job. Stress denotes my undivided attention and apprehension at the film’s unexpectedness and unpredictability. I can honestly say that The Debt raised my stress levels to dangerous proportions, providing one of the most exciting and suspenseful rides I’ve had at the movies in quite some time.

The Debt tells the story of three Mossad agents, Stephan, David and Rachel, sent to kidnap and extradite Doktor Bernhardt, brutal killer of Jews in World War II. But the kidnapping is irreparably botched, the mission is compromised and, while waiting for new orders, the agents are forced to keep the doctor hostage in their apartment. While in captivity, the monstrous doctor spews anti-semitic hate, subversively getting into the agents’ heads and under their skin. The mental and emotional strain of the situation pushes them over the brink of sanity. Disastrous decisions are made, ones that will haunt them for the next thirty years. Now, in the present, Stephan, David and Rachel are forced to confront their past and right their wrongs.

The story is riveting, shifting seamlessly between flashbacks and present day action. The intricate plot forced me to pay close attention in order to catch the nuances and subtexts. Several times I thought that I had the film figured out and, without fail, each time something completely shocking would happen. I was immersed in the film’s world from the opening titles and could only breathe a sigh of relief when the credits rolled. It was an unrelenting ride filled with constant stress.

The dialogue was gritty and real, deepening the characters and given great weight by the strong performers delivering it. A subplot involving a love triangle is perfectly balanced with the rest of the plot, never overshadowing the characters or the story. My favorite scene of the film, set against the soothing sounds of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ portrays the agony (and ecstasy) of the agents as they sort through their emotions for each other.

Jessica Chastain stands out amongst this stellar cast, delivering a powerhouse performance as Rachel. Helen Mirren perfectly captures the Rachel of the present, and the usual continuity pitfalls of different actors portraying the same character are completely avoided. The same can be said, although to a slightly lesser degree, for the other leads. The teams of Worthington/Hinds and Csokas/Wilkinson are great as David and Stephan, young and old.

As usual, Thomas Newman’s signature cadence and choice of instruments borders on unoriginal. Regardless, the lack of creativity doesn’t detract and the score works well in the film, ratcheting up the stress levels with loud and repetitive drum beats.

The film easily earns its R rating with language, violence and sexuality. The language is strong, exclamatory and harsh and the violence is brutal, even though never graphically shown. There are two scenes of implied sex and an extended and disturbing scene involving a gynecological exam. While there is no nudity, the scene feels intrusive and invasive.

This film stressed me out. It’s completely unpredictable, unbearably suspenseful and unquestionably brilliant. It’s well plotted, well scripted, incredibly acted and beautifully shot. It’s cautions are few, but significant in areas of strong language, brutal violence, disturbing scenes and sexual content. It’s a nail-biting, white-knuckle thriller and one I can’t wait to see again and again. You owe it to yourself to see this movie.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Real Steel (2011)

Another forgettable and painfully predictable sports movie.

Formulaic sports films upset me. There aren’t any surprises, unexpected twists, deep plot points that require concentration—just two hours rooting for the underdog, leading up to a completely predictable conclusion. To make matters worse, as a general rule the more inevitable the plot, the more predictable the scenes, and the more uplifting the ending, the less cinematic the film. That’s the case here. Any attempts at bucking the formula in favor of cinematic greatness are completely absent leaving the audience with an occasionally entertaining, but incredibly mediocre, film.

In the futuristic world of Real Steel, human boxing has been abandoned in favor of mechanical pugilism. It’s more violent, more intense and each round ends with more carnage. Former champion boxer Charlie Kenton is a small-time promoter, building and fighting scrap robots. His luck is bad and his gambling debts are piling up. When Charlie is forced to take custody of his 11-year-old son, Max, he sees this as only another liability. But when Max finds a sparring robot named Atom, he convinces Charlie to book Atom a fight. Against all bets, Atom wins. Charlie sees this as his chance at a comeback, and an opportunity to rebuild his relationship with his son.

The plot is as expected—obvious, the outcome of each scene determined at its outset. The father-son storyline was cute, sometimes even touching, but there were never any surprises. Bad father-son relationship at the beginning; family harmony at the end. The sports scenes were the same, the result of each round a sure bet before the ring of the starting bell.

Hugh Jackman isn’t a great actor. Yet there’s something about him that makes him an instant hero. Even when Charlie was still a loser, I couldn’t help but cheer for him. His charm made up for his lack of talent. Evangeline Lilly, on the other hand…not so much. Her acting was robotic, lifeless and pathetic; her character felt forced and fake. Young Dakota Goyo was cheeky as Max, but the character was such a brat that I couldn’t really stand watching him. The acting is paltry, reflecting the overall quality of the film.

To be fair, the actors had little to work with, script-wise. The dialogue was populated by countless platitudes and clichés—typical sports movie fare. But the incessant corniness made the exchanges painful to listen to. All the dialogue was devoid of any nuance, talking down to its audience by explaining every single detail.

As is the case with most sports films, the sports scenes were the most anticipated and the most exciting. Real Steel doesn’t disappoint in this area. Underdog Atom rises to fame in glorious and inspiring fashion. The robot boxing scenes are beautifully made with special effects so lifelike, the robots could actually be real. But these scenes were too few and far between, spread out over two hours of unbearable filler.

One surprise was the fact that this film, marketed towards families, featured frequent profanity. The language was never strong, but it was regular, salty and crude. More surprising is that much of the bad language was uttered by the 11-year-old protagonist. The inclusion of such crudities was likely an attempt to ratchet up the rating in order to attract older teens and adults.

Like a boxer who only knows one punch, Real Steel has one strength: robot boxing. But take away these scenes and all that’s left is a weak story, pathetic acting, awful dialogue and a disappointing score. The film is a piece of cinematic trash at its worst, a guilty pleasure-waste of two hours at best. Not worth the waste of time.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Moneyball (2011)

It lacks the human touch that would have made it great. 

He hits the ball, hard, into center field. His habit is to always stop at first but, in the moment, he rounds the bag, running to second. He’s horrified as his worst fear is realized. He’s slipped and fallen, sliding in the dirt. In a panic, he writhes on the ground, arms extended, reaching for the safety of the white first-base bag. As he desperately scrambles for first, he hears the basemen laughing at him. He’d hit a home run and he didn’t even know it.

So goes the story of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. His revolutionary methods changed the way baseball is played forever. Yet, while the world recognized his greatness, he couldn’t see it. He lamented his failures, unable to see he’d hit a home run.

The A’s of the 2002 season are losers. They have a small budget and their three biggest stars have just left for more prestigious ball clubs. Billy becomes increasingly frustrated with his coaching staff, the managers crudely evaluating possible new players. But when Billy meets Peter Brandt, the game changes. Peter suggests a new type of tactic, a roster focused less on appearance and appeal and more on the ability to drive in runs. Baseball is, after all, a game of statistics. Billy and Peter assemble their motley crew of misfit ball players and are met with skepticism, mockery and scorn. But the A’s, against everyone's expectations, start winning.

By all statistical measurements, this film should have been great—inspirational true story, great cast, sports scenes, family turmoil and drama. By all odds, it should have been a winner. But it wasn’t great. In fact, it was barely average. The reason for this? The film failed to connect with my heart. I never felt inspired by or attached to the lives of the characters. Even when the drama escalated, Billy finding it increasingly difficult to manage a team and maintain a relationship with his daughter, I felt detached. Even when the film tried to further deepen Billy’s character by sporadic flashbacks, highlighting his failed career as a player, I never felt involved.

The acting and characterization were strong but, at times, I didn’t believe the actors. Brad Pitt seldom was Billy Beane. I never connected with him or the others on an emotional level. Frankly, I didn’t really care. Compared to Aaron Sorkin’s last, Oscar-winnining screenplay for The Social Network, this one flagged. I wished that, as in The Social Network, the characters would have been stronger, the dialogue snappier and the comedic interludes not so far apart. The interplays between Billy and Peter are heartfelt, sometimes amusing, but still they neglected the personal touch that the film so desperately needed.

For a sports film, Moneyball spends little time on the field. Instead, much of the screen time is given to statistical figures flashing across the screen. But the time spent showing America’s pastime is worth the wait. Highly stylized, well scored and beautifully choreographed sequences give an ethereal feeling to the game. The lighting during these sequences stood out, a perfect example of modern chiaroscuro. Only these scenes provided the desired sports film catharsis I longed for. I couldn’t resist rooting for the underdog A’s. Truly, these were the only scenes that really made me care.

Moneyball never hits a home run. It has strong characters, a solid, inspirational story and some great sports action; statistically speaking, this film should have been great. But without characters or dialogue that make the audience care, it’s only average.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Puss in Boots (2011)

Puss gets his own film, but can't carry it. 

I was initially interested in Puss in Boots because of my love for the Shrek franchise (or at least the first two films), but the trailer looked pretty painful. Sadly, the trailer does the film justice. Its art and animation are its only strengths.

Puss teams up with former partner Humpty Dumpty and the seductive Kitty Softpaws to steal magic beans, grow a beanstalk, ride the beanstalk up to the castle in the clouds and steal some golden eggs, making them forever rich. Along the way they encounter adventure, revenge and romance as well as a host of marauding outlaws, vicious beasts and an angry monster.

As I was watching, it became apparent that Puss in Boots hoped to ride Shrek’s success and launch a brand new franchise. But Puss lacks any of the charm that made the first Shrek movies so delightful. Gone are the witty cynicisms, the backhanded slams of fairy tale characters and conventions. Gone are the hilarious pop culture references and the sarcastic one-liners. Instead, all that’s left are weak attempts at humor consisting of potty jokes and a few puns that try to support a film mostly devoid of laughs.

To its credit, there were a few solid moments of genuine comedy. The filmmakers did their research on feline behavior, which they exaggerated in hilarious fashion. Anyone with a cat will appreciate as Puss chases light reflections, performs a litter box dance, and brings a dead bird to his human “mother” as a present. These gags worked while others fell flat, often reverting to tasteless bathroom humor and innuendo. An early scene takes place in “Dance Club” (an attempt to spoof “Fight Club”), where Puss and Kitty dance to the death. The scene is long, cheesy and unnecessary, failing to satirize one of film’s most iconic locales.

In an attempt to manufacture character, emotion and concern for our feline hero, a long flashback highlights his early years. I realized that I was supposed to be rooting for him, but I was unimpressed. Puss is amoral, committing all manner of villainy as he earns a bad reputation in his attempts to—ironically—maintain his good name. The characters of Humpty and Kitty were likewise shallow and undeveloped.

Despite the weak characters and sub-par narration, the nonstop action was plain fun. There were some incredible chase scenes, my favorite being one over the rooftops of Mexico’s quiet streets. The horse-carriage race through the desert deserves mention for its stunning effects, brilliant choreography and sheer entertainment value. The film pops in 3D and is, to date, the best 3D I’ve seen.

The animation is Dreamworks’ finest work, far surpassing even that of this year’s Kung Fu Panda 2. The detail is incredible: the characters’ fur is very realistic, while Humpty’s face was eerily photorealistic—making him look creepy and out of place in a cartoon. The backgrounds are vivid and the sets gorgeous. The animators also did a fine job picking their “shots,” taking the film to a new level of cinematic artistry; my favorite was when Puss stood on a roof in Mexico, his profile silhouetted against the full and milky-white moon.

Puss in Boots is a film that barely entertains while watching. The animation is gorgeous and the action scenes are riveting. However, the story was predictable, pointless and gave me no character to care about. The humor was generally infantile and the good laughs too few and far between. This one is for the dogs.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Drive (2011)

Surprisingly slow-paced yet unrelentingly brutal.

Drive is unique. It’s so different that one enraged film-goer is suing Hollywood to stop showing “misleading previews,” while another, inspired to do something “courageous and epic,” threw a hot dog at Tiger Woods during a golf match. With all this buzz, it seemed like a film I should watch—and review.

What makes Drive different? My first hint that the film would not be as expected was the opening scene, a riveting—yet lackadaisical—car chase through downtown L.A. It captivated me in a way that no car chase ever has. The atypical song playing in the background; the utter calm and cool of the driver in the midst of such a stressful situation. I was immediately immersed—a feeling that stayed with me for the rest of the film.

The unnamed hero (Ryan Gosling) is a stunt car operator and mechanic who moonlights as a getaway car driver. He meets the girl next door (Carey Mulligan); they fall in love; life is good. But when the girl’s husband comes home from prison, in debt to thugs, our paramour offers to help satisfy the husband’s debt. He volunteers to drive the getaway for a burglary that will clear the debt—but the heist goes horribly awry, someone ends up dead, and he narrowly escapes. Now on the run from the mob, and intent on protecting himself and the one he loves, he fights back.

Ryan Gosling is incredible. His face and expressions exude such a mix of boyish charm and grandfatherly sageness that he melts into his character and you can’t help but root for him. Forget the fact that his character is a criminal and eventually a murderer. You like him. You want him to live. You want him to win. The supporting cast also performs very well, notably Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston.

The plot is strong—complex but never confusing. The dialogue is incredibly sparse and much of the story and emotion is carried by the non-verbal action on screen. Long silences, extended slow-motion shots and awkward and unnatural pauses add a certain ethereal quality. The soundtrack is unexpected, a blend of 80s styles and electro-pop score. These attributes all combine to give the film a unique feel—a bizzare, highly stylized indie action flick with no flashy CGI, big explosions or elaborate set pieces. Its minimalism is its greatest strength.

Even though I had been warned, the violence was brutal and disturbing. The last half of the movie presents death after death, killing after killing. The shift from atmospheric drama to wild action movie is jarring, kicking my pulse into overdrive. Heads explode, skulls are bashed in and knives slash in an unrelenting and shockingly bloody assault.

The little dialogue is polluted by plenty of profanity, usually uttered in long spurts by the most vile characters. It’s unnecessary but not glaringly out of place as it fit with the characters’ despicable villainy. One scene in a strip club, I’m told, shows some nudity, but I can’t tell you any more than that—I fast forwarded.

Drive is slow-paced yet frenzied; laid back yet it will quicken your pulse. It’s bloody, it’s graphic, it’s unrelenting, and it’s stylistically unlike any other film I’ve seen. It's brilliantly engineered but difficult to stomach.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Limitless (2011)

Imaginative visuals, an absorbing storyline, and a disquieting topic make it a trip.

Limitless is part action, part geeky—too introspective to really belong in the first category, but too frenetic and fast-paced for the latter. The fourth movie to be directed by relative unknown Neil Burger, it has some rough edges—although, on the whole, I was positively impressed.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is both protagonist and first-person narrator, and the sequence of the movie follows closely the personal details of his sometimes vivid, often hazy, and occasionally schizophrenic life. The story opens some twenty stories high, with Eddie poised on the edge of a rooftop, his toes hanging over the brink—but instead of the cinematic freefall I expected, the film kept me continually on edge.

The crux of the tale is thus: never-do-well Eddie comes across a super-drug, NZT-48, which unlocks the unused potential of his brain, allowing him to learn new skills, put details together in unimagined ways, and maintain a surge in creativity. But like all drugs, it has side effects—and this particular one includes relentless thugs and Russian mafia who won’t hesitate to kill to get the pills. Eddie suddenly is confronted by the temptations and threats of limitless achievement, imminent self-destruction, determined enemies, and a limited stock of NZT-48.

The camera-work was phenomenal. A signature effect was the mile-long zoom down city streets, through windows and cars, in and out of crowds, beyond mirrors. When Eddie first took the NZT-48, everything became crisp and clear, shadows faded away, light spread. Colors melded, melted, blurred and blazed. His view of his surroundings expanded like the widening lens of a camera, obscure details reorganizing into useful patterns and prompts—and pictures skipped crazily as hours disappeared in seconds. The visual effects alone are worth seeing.

Cooper is an able and enjoyable actor. From the unkempt man on the street to the almost superhuman Wall Street consultant, he always appeared comfortable in his role(s), yet never lost his unique style. The supporting actors also fit excellently: as Eddie’s on-again-off-again girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), as the sharp investment broker (Robert De Niro), as the accented mafioso who rued his minced vocabulary (Andrew Howard). While these secondary characters were somewhat one-sided and incompletely developed, they were also human and feeling.

The movie’s score was largely trash, too often harsh and strident, psychedelic trance composed of electronic drum machines and an eternally recurrent refrain—which harmonized with the narcomanic nature of the movie’s theme, but earned no place in my off-screen playlist. It didn’t jar; it just didn’t impress.

Brief flashes of disturbing material complicated my general liking for the movie: a series of fleetingly passionate sexual encounters; a couple shots of disarmed hands hacked off their owners; PG-13’s one escalation of vulgarity in a verbal confrontation; and one disgusting yet hypnotic scene where a man struggles to lap from a drug-rich pool of blood as it horribly spreads its perimeters. In any case, these segments were emphasized more by their scarcity than their abundance.

While the plot showed numerous incoherencies, all were scruples; none detracted from my viewing. The story was at times predictable and unexpected; controversial and tame; hackneyed and original; maddening and mentally provocative. It was strange, but not too strange; striking, but not staggering. With reservations, I couldn’t help but like it.

Maybe most unnerving was its elevation of the highs of the central substance; I felt an uncomfortable tension between the allure of NZT’s potential and the poison of its sting. In the upside-down world of the drug, Eddie’s aspiring spirals sometimes seemed like tailspins. If the movie was making some broad statement about narcotics, its interpretation is limitless.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Contagion (2011)

Shocking, grotesque, claustrophobic, paranoid, terrifying. A must-see.


My eyes twitch. My throat tightens. I feel a cough coming on. I fight the impulse to rub, cough or blink. Is this the byproduct of my hypochondria, or the paranoia of the film I’m watching? Maybe both? All I know is that I dare not touch my face, my body or the package of M&M’s sitting on my lap. Disease is everywhere. The knob of a door, the rail in a bus, the armrest of a chair, the kitchen counter, the human hand, and don’t even get me started on airplanes.

This is a horror film like no other. I shudder as a man touches a handrail, a waitress hands a patron a cocktail glass, a mother feeds her child a cookie. These everyday actions become menacing, dangerous, deadly.

But that’s how it starts. “The average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute. In between that we're touching door knobs, water fountains, and each other.” These “fomites” (objects capable of transferring infection between individuals) are all potentially festering with viral plague, waiting to mutate and start an epidemic.


People contract fevers, have seizures and die. Within 48 hours, cases of the virus all over the world are reported. Panic runs rampant. The CDC and the World Health Organization scramble for answers, desperate to identify the virus and find a cure. But this takes time. Weeks pass and the dogged determination of medicine’s best minds can’t keep up with the rising death toll. One in twelve will die; the whole world is infected.

But against this epic backdrop of worldwide panic and devastation come several stories, stories of people we grow to love and loathe. The father (Matt Damon) desperately trying to keep his daughter safe, devastated by the loss of his wife and son. The CDC director (Laurence Fishburne) attempting to control the publicity, manage panic, find a cure, and protect his loved ones. The rogue blogger (Jude Law) intent on perpetuating frenzy and making a buck. The doctor (Jennifer Ehle) working tirelessly to find a cure. The field agent (Kate Winslet) risking infection daily to save lives. The WHO operative (Marion Cotillard) taken hostage by townspeople hoping to be the first to receive the vaccine.

Steven Soderbergh deftly handles his ensemble cast, drawing out significant emotion and character from each despite limited screen time. Ehle, Fishburne and Winslet stand out amongst a stellar cast, bringing the best performances of the film. Only Cotillard’s story seemed ancillary—there was little development and the ending was dissatisfying. The plot takes risks, killing off big name actors without thought. No character is safe and several plot twists added to the feeling of unstoppable terror.

The score is a pulsating mix of synthesizers. The constant pounding enhanced the feeling of panic and terror. The camera shakes and zooms, giving the claustrophobic feeling that you’re actually in the movie. These techniques are incredibly effective in ratcheting up the suspense.

Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone. Stay away from other people. Contagion is not a fun film-going experience. It’s intensely disturbing and grotesque. This is a horrifying film, a frighteningly plausible look at what could happen if such events actually took place. The results are grim. Yet through the grimness there is hope. A cure can be found, relationships can thrive, forgiveness can be granted. The plot, cast and direction elevate this above the normal thriller. An effective and outstanding film.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Enamors with glimpses of Paris past and present but otherwise falls flat. 

I’ve never been much of a Woody Allen fan. I enjoy watching him act—his personality and witticisms crack me up—but his films have never grabbed me. He’s a critical darling (Annie Hall for Best Picture? Really?), so the 92% on the “Tomatometer” shouldn’t have elevated my expectations as much as it did. But as one of the highest rated movies of the summer—and set in one of my favorite cities—I thought I’d give it a shot.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is looking for inspiration. He’s bored churning out screenplays and instead yearns to complete his first novel. He’s almost finished but it lacks…something. Seeking inspiration, Gil accompanies his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents to Paris. Immediately Gil is enamored by the city’s charm and fantasizes about a future there. Walking the streets at midnight, he is magically transported back to the Paris of the 1920s where he fraternizes with musical, artistic and literary luminaries such as Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. He also falls for the glamorous and mysterious Adriana (Marion Cotillard). His new friends give him perspective and insight into his novel, and Gil wonders if he might stay with them forever.

Owen Wilson ruined this movie for me. His attempt to channel the quirky and hilarious persona of Woody Allen fails miserably and instead he comes off as whiny and annoying. His nonstop talking grated my ears. He cannot carry a movie as the leading man and should stick to comedies and cameos. The supporting cast, however, boasts some outstanding performances. Marion Cotillard is cute and charming as Adriana, and Adrien Brody is spot-on as the surrealist Dali. In one hilarious scene, a confused Gil attempts to explain his midnight teleportations to Dali and his friends, but is frustrated when the artist is unperturbed and paints Gil as a rhinoceros, sad in spirit, lips melting off his face.

The story is shallow yet enchanting. The plot seemed unfocused and the moral tacked on: try and make the best of the time that you live in. But while the film falls short as a drama, it shines as a fun look at the historical City of Light. The scenery is beautiful and the mood of Paris’ streets and sights is captured so well on film, it is perhaps the best cinematic depiction I’ve seen. The glimpses of what the city must have been like in the ’20s were delightful, the energy electric and the glamour undeniable. The accordion score channeled Parisian but the constant repetition of the sole theme irritated. It’s a soundtrack I never wish to revisit.

There is little profanity and the sexual content is mild compared to Allen’s other films. Yet there are still some descriptions and discussions of sex, prostitution and homosexuality. An amoral attitude towards sex permeates the screenplay—Gil is encouraged in his romancing of Adriana in the 1920s, even while he continues his relationship with Inez in 2010.

Midnight in Paris could have been great. It was fanciful and sweet, perfectly capturing the allure of Paris, both present and past. But Owen Wilson’s ridiculous acting, the shallow plot, and the blasé attitude towards morals nearly cripple the film. It’s an average movie, neither good nor great. Enjoy it for the setting alone, or not at all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Help (2011)

This is not a comedy. It is a serious but realistic look at the devastating effects of racism.

When I first saw the trailer for The Help, I had absolutely no desire to ever see the film. It was marketed as a comedy, a light and airy romp about a young girl’s quest to fight bigotry. It looked trite, schmaltzy and saccharine. But a friend convinced me I shouldn’t miss it so, still skeptical, I dragged family and friend to the theater. We all loved it.

The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Racism is prevalent and colored people are still treated almost as slaves. They live difficult lives and can find work only as maids, cooks and factory workers, for which they are paid almost nothing. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, disgusted by her friends’ ignorant prejudice, seeks to effect a change by writing a book told from the perspective of “the help.” Barely able to survive on their piddling incomes, the maids fear the repercussions of getting involved. But as racial unfairness burgeons, the help decides that it is time for people to hear their story.

This film is not a comedy. Sure, some comedic moments had me roaring, but it is definitely a drama—a serious, disheartening and sometimes disturbing film about the destructiveness of racial prejudice. Tears came more readily than laughs as I shared in the characters’ trials and heartaches. It’s moving and sentimental, and it deals head-on with bigotry, unfairness and physical abuse.

The film ran over two hours but never felt overlong. Flashbacks and back stories made the characters more real. In one especially heartbreaking scene, the maid Aibileen recalls the death of her son after brutal mistreatment by his white employer. The dialogue is mostly good, often great, but sometimes tacky. The film was occasionally cliché and “sweet,” but these moments were brief and sparse. The ending made no attempt to be happy; I was given the impression that the worst was yet to come.

Viola Davis gives an award-worthy performance as Aibileen, the film’s narrator and the first maid willing to come forward with her stories. Emma Stone does a fine job in the role of Skeeter but I felt the casting wasn’t a perfect fit. Bryce Dallas Howard portrays the hateful Hilly, a crusader with a shocking animosity towards blacks and their “strange diseases.” Octavia Spencer is hilariously sassy as Minny and provides great laughs while supporting an emotional subplot.

Bad language is sporadic but sticks out like a sore thumb. While some of it fits within the context of the story, especially in a highly comedic running gag about human waste, mostly it feels out of character and unnecessary. There are a few discussions of sexual activity. One bloody scene shows the aftermath of a miscarriage, but nothing graphic. There is some brutal violence which, while never shown, made me sick to my stomach.

The cinematography is bright and colorful, in stark juxtaposition to the dark undertones of
the film. The costume was authentic and the locations made me feel like I was in ‘60s Mississippi. Newman’s score was gorgeous, often light and sweet, driven by high notes of the piano. This was accompanied by an eclectic assortment of songs appropriate to the era. Cash’s Jackson appears in an early scene, a nod to the film’s setting.

The Help is my kind of film. It had an outstanding plot that delved into deep and serious themes, boasted an outstanding cast, had great character development and humor, and educated its audience about the horrors of racial intolerance. This film does an excellent job portraying one of the darkest times in American history, and I was disturbed to realize that all this happened so recently. The film is already generating much-deserved Oscar buzz. Put it at the top of your to-see list.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

A well-made movie that raises intriguing questions, but gives no answers.

Enforcer: You don't have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.

David Norris: You expect me to believe that? I make decisions every day.

Enforcer: You have free will over which toothpaste you use, or which beverage to order at lunch. But humanity just isn't mature enough to control the important things.

Free will or predestination? I was surprised to find such a timeless question at the forefront of this big-budget Hollywood film. It’s a difficult discussion that no filmmaker could possibly develop in 100 minutes, but The Adjustment Bureau provides both a thought-provoking plot and an entertainingly slick production.

David Norris (Matt Damon) has just lost the senatorial election by a landslide. He walks into the deserted men’s bathroom to practice his concession speech, but his impassioned rehearsal is interrupted by Elise (Emily Blunt), a woman hiding from security in a stall. Though their meeting is awkward, the electricity between them is undeniable. But their love is not meant to be. Their lives are [supposed to be] on different paths, orchestrated by the Adjustment Bureau, an organization that painstakingly ensures that each person’s appropriate destiny takes place. David fights back against the Bureau, wanting above anything to be with Elise. But as the fight escalates, he quickly learns that gaining Elise will mean losing everything.

Contrary to the trailers’ suggestion, this is not an action film. This is a slowly paced drama with only a few thrilling sequences; interest is mostly kept by a mysterious, supernatural plot and some unexpected twists. Every supernatural thriller and sci-fi film has the difficult task presenting a new universe where new “rules” apply. Sometimes this is done seamlessly, the audience lured into suspending their disbelief. But in this film, the “rules” of David and Elise’s fictional reality appear arbitrary, unbelievable, and even downright ridiculous. And since these rules are necessary to propel the story, the plot itself irritated me on several points—such as the Adjustment Bureau’s inability to function around water, or the necessity that all operatives wear hats. It drove me crazy.

The acting is generally good from Damon and Blunt, and Terence Stamp unnerves as the creepy and soulless Thompson, the Bureau’s top enforcer. The dialogue had some good comedic moments, relaxing the tense atmosphere, but at times it felt awkwardly unnatural and forced, as though there was a lack of real chemistry between the leads. The dialogue was also frequented by profanities, and sex was used to propel character development as the lovers slept together in a steamy (yet non-explicit) scene that distracted from the true beauty of their relationship.

The score was fitting but not extraordinary. Thomas Newman’s orchestrations are simple, relying heavily on simple piano themes, soft strings, and the gentler percussion instruments. The score added depth to each scene and reflected the emotion of the moment.

The Adjustment Bureau raises interesting questions and forced me to ponder and really contemplate the ideas behind its story. The conclusions are theologically troubling, as the story analogizes the Adjustment Bureau to God and angels, but it does provide fodder for discussion. I won’t be changing my worldview because of it, but the viewing caused me to re-examine my own thoughts on the issue of free will versus destiny.

But despite its questions, the movie never provided any real answers. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t know how to properly tackle such a huge subject; perhaps they were purposely vague to promote independent thought. The film generates good discussion starters and features a strong cast and bold, if underdeveloped, storyline. It had amazing potential. But instead of greatness it is just okay. I didn’t love it; I didn’t hate it. Watch it and decide for yourself.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

Not a family film, but a true legal thriller with strong characterization and a complex plot.

As both a fan of film and a student of the law, I’m always on the lookout for a good legal thriller. Good lawyer movies are hard to find, lawyers generally being the villains rather than heroes. Since I enjoyed the novel, I was excited to see the critically acclaimed film adaptation of The Lincoln Lawyer.

Mickey Haller is a slimebag defense attorney willing to do whatever it takes to get his clients off the hook, even if it means bribery or bending truth. He’s presented with the opportunity of a lifetime to represent Louis Roulet, a rich and famous realtor who has been accused of sexually assaulting a young woman. As the representation progresses, Roulet maintains innocence but Mickey begins to sense that there’s more to this case than meets the eye. Mickey develops a conscience and seeks to do what’s right as he’s caught up in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a dangerous killer, the body count rising at every turn.

The plot is complex and features a collection of characters all somehow interconnected. It forces the audience to think and put pieces together for themselves, never taking a second to pause and explain what’s happening. It’s bold and bound to cause some confusion, but if you can follow the story it’s a fun yet somewhat far-fetched thriller.

I was sucked in immediately by the film’s energy. The cinematography is kinetic; the camera pans and jerks about, constantly zooming in and out. The colors are bright and each shot feeds off the urban beauty and electricity of downtown L.A. The soundtrack also echoes this, the pulsating beats of hip hop and rap accentuating the aggressiveness in the film.

The film boasts some very strong acting, with standout performances from Ryan Phillipe as Louis Roulet and Michael Pena as Mickey’s former client, Jesus Martinez, who is currently serving time but still claiming innocence. Matthew McConaughey is comfortable in his role as attorney and he looks natural and poised inside and outside the courtroom. The acting by William Macy and John Leguizamo, however, is quite disappointing.

The dialogue between the characters feels natural and sincere, much of it taken directly from the novel. The scenes between Mickey Haller and Jesus Martinez are perfect, charged with emotion, anger and regret. Unfortunately the interactions are also laced with strong profanity. The language is frequently vulgar and crass and, due to the nature of the plot, sex is a common topic. There is also a sex scene, with no nudity.

What I loved most about the book were the courtroom scenes as Haller fights all odds to free his client. Generally, lawyer movies spend little time in the courtroom for fear of boring their audience; this is not the case here. The trial scenes are riveting and I was glued to the screen. The direct examinations bolster; the cross examinations devastate. The scenes feel over-dramatic and totally Hollywood but they work very, very well.

The Lincoln Lawyer is everything an attorney movie (and a book adaptation) should be. The plot is complex and suspenseful, the acting strong, the characters rich and the courtroom scenes exciting. But a recommendation is hampered by heavy profanity, crass dialogue (within the context of the plot) and a sex scene. It’s a solid film but one to view with discretion.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Cars 2 (2011)

Stops short of Pixar’s normal Bluebook value, but the animation is in excellent condition.

In 1997, Pixar delivered its first smash hit, Toy Story. Not only did the film boast ground-breaking computer animation but it was a deep emotional narrative with lots of heart and humor. Since this release, Pixar has become a powerhouse of entertainment, consistently raising the bar of animated movies and delivering eleven acclaimed films. So when the negative reviews started pouring in for Cars 2, I thought that this time Pixar had truly delivered its first lemon.

Lightning McQueen, world renowned racing champion, is ready for some time off. He’s headed back to Radiator Springs, seeking to relax and refuel after winning his 4th Piston Cup. But his vacation stalls when he accepts a challenge to race in the World Grand Prix, taking place in Tokyo, the French Riviera, and London. Mater tags along and, after being mistaken for a secret agent, is caught up in a dangerous international spy game. It’s now up to Mater, and British spies Sally Shiftwell and Finn McMissile, to save Lightning from a flaming burnout.

The plot is fun but it’s no match for the narrative genius of Pixar’s other films. It was, however, surprisingly far superior to the first (and, I thought, somewhat lackluster) Cars movie. The story wove in twists and turns, much like the grand prix racetrack itself, and although the outcome was never in doubt, the road getting there was always suspenseful. The story was bogged down, however, by some oft-tread clichés, including themes of being true to yourself and being a good friend.

These infantile themes also reflect the majority of the humor of the movie. The jokes were definitely geared toward a younger audience, slapstick comedy taking the front seat. But there was still much humor to enjoy—the subtle references to other Pixar films (the drive in theater playing “The Incredimobiles”), the dialogue between Lightning and arch-rival Francesco Bernoulli, the hilarious moment at the Arch de Triumph roundabout, and the always-subtle car puns.

Giaccino’s music paid tribute to old James Bond scores—brassy blasts and percussion-heavy motifs punctuating each scene. It works well in the film but it’s too bombastic to be enjoyed on its own.

The real showstoppers here are the animation, car races and action scenes. From the beginning, my eyes were dazzled by an explosion of color. I would hasten to say that this is some of the most stunning and gorgeously vivid animation I have ever seen. The palette was brightest during the opening race in Tokyo, the neon greens, blues and reds splashing the screen with jaw-dropping brilliance.

Pixar animators are truly innovative craftsmen when it comes to car race and action scenes. These are beautifully choreographed as Mater, Sally and Finn often make narrow escapes by utilizing Bond-like gadgets to escape. The unique scenes kept the suspense revved up and made for one exciting ride.

I left the theater wondering why the majority of critics (and friends) hated this film so much. Yes, the narrative is weaker than past Pixar gems, and it is often burdened by clichés, but the plot still manages to be a lot of fun. The humor is often immature and geared for a younger audience, but there are still plenty of laughs for more sophisticated audiences to enjoy. The flaws are far outweighed by the strengths, especially the creative action, exciting racing scenes and, above all, brilliant animation. While not up to normal Pixar standards, this is a strong sequel, outclassing its predecessor in almost every way. Ignore the critics; this is no lemon.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

It boasts great scenery but ends a disappointing mess of too much plot, too little action.

I appreciate the title Cowboys & Aliens. It has no pretense and puts the viewer on immediate notice of what to expect. I was tantalized by the promise of cowboys and aliens duking it out in the Old West and excited to see this film. But sadly the film completely missed its mark.

Jake Lonergan awakens in the desert with no memory and an odd contraption around his wrist. He swaggers into town and is immediately put in jail after his face is recognized from a “wanted” poster. That evening, the small town of Dispatch is attacked by alien ships, many townspeople are abducted, and the town is almost completely destroyed. Lonergan, with the help of the device on his wrist, destroys one of the the alien vessels. Seeking answers about his past, he agrees to join an expedition to find the aliens and recover the lost.

The plot is the film’s main fault. The basic premise is solid, fresh and interesting. However, the screenwriters stuffed the two hours with countless sub-plots, bogged down with emotional transformations and touching interludes, all of which fall completely flat and lead to a ridiculous conclusion. The lack of cohesive plot and story makes the film feel frustratingly pointless.

The concept is further hampered by weak characters and development, who continually take actions and make decisions completely inconsistent with their roles. Many moments intended to warm the audience’s souls, such as the awkward softness from the hardened rancher, felt completely out of place. The lack of depth left me indifferent to the characters and the predictable outcome.

However, the acting from Daniel Craig and Sam Rockwell is fairly solid; had their characters been properly developed, they would have provided a strong emotional core for the film. Both performances stand out amongst the others—Craig as the amnesiac outlaw seeking to rediscover his past and Rockwell as the timid bartender willing to do anything to save his wife. The acting from Harrison Ford, unfortunately, is a different story. Ford trots about the screen, growling each line, his performance as one-dimensional as the character he portrays: the loathsome rancher seeking to rescue his son. It’s quite sad and disturbing to see such a talented actor being squandered in that role.

Many of the characters spew rather frequent profanities, and also engage in making crude and sexual comments. Another caution-worthy scene suggests complete nudity although nothing is actually shown.

The action scenes are fun, but shockingly sparse. I definitely was expecting much more fighting. The climactic battle is only somewhat satisfying as it barely generates any suspense.

But the film looks outstanding, like a true piece of cinematic art. Every shot is beautiful. Barren desert landscapes fill the screen, the shots of reddish sandstone, covered in sparse shrubbery, contrasting sharply with the azure sky. Strong special effects help maintain interest, and the aliens were well-animated and looked creepy and vile.

Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is excellent. The cadence of the pieces is familiar, echoing the scores of Westerns past—but with a twist. The opening track stood out in particular as the twang of the banjo was replaced by the sound of synthesized guitars. The retro themes mixed with the modern instruments fit perfectly with the theme of Old West meets outer space.

Cowboys & Aliens is a mess. The story could have been campy and fun but instead it’s overloaded, incomprehensible and frustrating. The acting is uneven from great stars and the character development is non-existent. There is also very little action. It irks me to see such a great concept wasted in such a fashion. Miss it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Romancing the Stone (1984)

A fun ride through remote jungles: robust action, rollicking humor, and facetious romance.

I told my roommate that I preferred action to comedy. I thought we all understood that romance wasn’t even an option. But as he read the disheartening list of movie titles, only one stood out.

Romancing the Stone had piqued my interest ever since I stumbled across the abject DOS game Paganitzu (1991), bastard progeny of the movie. I later heard that the film was an early pioneer in the resurgence of the jungle-adventurer genre that also spawned the Indiana Jones storyline. So when I was further informed that Romancing holds a respectable 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I agreed to break my film fast.

The story opens into the curiously mundane life of Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), romantic novelist, who pours her heart and hopes into the pages she pens. Unlike her heroines, Joan’s personal life is uncaptivating and unkempt—until her sister in South America calls and begs Joan to ransom her from kidnappers. Instructed to bring an old map, Joan sets off for Columbia, bravely bumbling through the foreign culture and fearsome jungles, followed by thieves and thugs, and finally guided by the moody and nomadic Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas). Suddenly living her own novel adventure, she begins to wonder, and worry, whether Jack could be its missing hero.

I did not expect the movie’s comical abundance. Joan’s abysmal life contrasts in amusing contradiction to her romantic heroines’. Jack’s apt and astute answers to each dilemma created unintentional hilarity; at his every pause and silence, his deadpan sarcasm kept me wondering what humorous remark he would make next. The villains, constantly challenged in their attempts to follow Joan’s unpredictable itinerary, and outmatching expertise with effort, act as comic foils to each other, sometimes coldly cruel, other times absurdly clumsy, though not ridiculous. The story is riddled with genuine gags and laughter, but is also cringingly cliché (albeit laughably) at times.

Nor does the action disappoint. Flash floods and perilously plunging falls, gun battles, bus crashes, standoffs and jeep chases punctuate the film without overwhelming it. The movie opens in a Western setting with a well-thrown knife, but involves more traditional shootouts and a lively machine-gun battle. But while the action is explosive, the violence is (almost) never bloody or macabre. As they wend their way, the heroine and anti-hero drive, tramp, slide, trudge, ride, and jump from rainforest to river, hovel to hotel, and cave to castillo.

The film is a veritable child of the eighties, from the big hair to the Model 2500 telephones. Alan Silvestri’s awfully inappropriate score of synthesized saxophones and slap bass hearkens back to a formidable history of the decade’s television shows and theme songs. Even the outrageous and overblown action and violence bears its birthmark. While sometimes sadly dated, these aspects made the movie even more merrily entertaining.

My only regret, besides the lamentable music, was the quantity of profane language. Jack in particular is frequently irascible and irreverent, though never obscene, and a few of the other characters sometimes indulge. There are also two brief displays of dishabille (one with the leading duo in apparent full undress), but I thought them neither excessively prolonged nor overtly lurid.

I appreciated the movie, finding it a remarkable but mostly pleasing blend of comedy, action, and romance, in just balance. I’m not an eighties fan by any means, but I thought the era’s influences were more amusing than annoying. The movie was just enough over the top to entertain, but always avoided going too far. I enjoyed it entirely; it is definitely worth a watch.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Cool effects can't resuscitate a lifeless story, dead acting and bloated length.

What made the first Transformers movie so attractive was its combination of ground-breaking robotic action, fast-paced fun, strong plot, charismatic characters, good humor and incredible special effects. But this winning formula was wholly abandoned in the terrible sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The cast and crew publicly acknowledged this, the director and stars apologizing profusely for its flaws, and promised that the close of the trilogy would be a work of phenomenal franchise redemption. Alas, these promises were broken, making the third Transformers the biggest disappointment of the summer.

Sam Witwicky is bored. He’s recently been dumped by Mikaela, and is living with his new flame Carly while trying to lead a normal life. But Sam yearns to be important, to be part of the ongoing battle between the Autobots and Decepticons. This struggle intensifies when it is revealed that humans might be working with the Decepticons. Sam, Optimus and the rest of the transforming gang are once again thrust into the center of the war between robotic armies, this time fighting the enslavement of the human race.

The plot is shallow, but it still manages to produce a few surprises. The opening scene reimagines the history of the space race: the United States government put men on the moon for the sole purpose of locating and examining a crashed alien ship. Splicing actual historical footage with new dialogue to fit the plot, the scene is brilliant and probably the best of the movie. Sadly, it all goes downhill from there.

The bloated two hour and thirty-five minute runtime is jam-packed with a rapid assault of chases and explosions. Robots incessantly blast each other—and their surroundings—in Chernobyl, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. There are some stunning effects and sequences—in one, Sam is riding in Bumblebee (in Camaro form) when they are attacked and the bot is forced to transform. In an awesome and breathtaking sequence, Bumblebee launches his passenger into the air, dispatches his enemies with explosive accuracy, then transforms back, catching the plummeting Sam safely in the passenger seat. But these action scenes are nothing new; they are almost identical to those in the first two movies. The barrage of metallic destruction is overkill; instead of thrilling, the scenes feel repetitive and dull. Around the two-hour mark, I was bored and felt my eyelids drooping, fighting the call of slumber.

The fillers between the fight scenes consist of weak attempts at humor, mostly sexual. The film pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating with explicit and raunchy jokes and strong profanity. The dialogue is lacking, the lines are contrived, and the delivery is so wooden it’s painful to watch. Shia LaBeouf is adequate as Sam, and Patrick Dempsey appears to have fun in his role as Carly’s boss Dylan, but the performances won’t be winning any awards. The rest of the supporting cast is more robotic than the robots.

Jablonsky’s score also feels unoriginal. There was not a single theme or riff that was different from his first two orchestrations. While strong in musicality, the lack of creativity is a letdown.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a disappointment because it could have been great—the audience was promised as much. The weak story, terrible acting, raunchy jokes and nauseating excess of action scenes are a poor excuse for a summer blockbuster. I felt insulted having paid to see this garbage. Don’t waste your time.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

2011 is indeed the “Year of the Franchise” with a record-setting twenty-seven sequels, prequels and remakes being released in cinemas. Some have been pleasant surprises; others have been awful. I loved the first two X-Men films but disliked the third and fourth. With low expectations I entered the theater to witness the prequel stories of my favorite mutants.

Erik Lehnsherr is separated from his parents as they are hauled to a German concentration camp (an almost shot-for-shot reproduction of the opening scene in the original X-Men). After a display of his mutant abilities, Erik is tortured, experimented on and forced to witness the brutal death of his mother. Years later, Erik plots his revenge on the Nazis and the brute that killed his mother. During his quest, he meets Charles Xavier, a mutant helping the government avert a nuclear holocaust. The two develop a strong friendship and together they train a team of young mutants to prevent the start of World War III. But the differences in ideologies between the friends threaten to destroy not only their friendship but the world itself.

X-Men: First Class is a political film, and it raises some very interesting questions about prejudice, discrimination, evolution and the goodness of man. The treatment of mutants is analogized to the treatment of Jews in World War II. Erik believes that, like Jews, mutants will eventually be considered a threat to the government and thus imprisoned and annihilated. Charles maintains a faith in humanity. The dialogues between Charles and Erik over these issues are thought-provoking and disheartening as the humans confirm Erik’s views. The following exchange in particular stood out to me:

Charles: Erik, you said yourself: we're the better men. This is the time to prove it. There are thousands of men on those ships: good, honest, innocent men. They're just following orders!
Erik: I've been at the mercy of men just following orders...never again!

The plot is excellent. It’s unpredictable and suspenseful. However, since this is a prequel, some of the character development feels a bit rushed, the filmmakers hurrying to put the characters in position for the “first” X-Men film. Though the audience knows that Erik becomes Magneto—villain of the later films—his transformation into the brutal arch-nemesis is devastating. This is a credit to the acting which is outstanding from every single member of the film’s ensemble cast, including James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kevin Bacon.

The drama takes place in the ‘60s and the film’s technical aspects beautifully reflect this era. The cinematography is stylistically antique and the film grain gives the movie a classic look and feel. The special effects, while topnotch, also feel wondrously oldfangled due to an obvious reliance on real stunts and actual explosions rather than constant CGI. The score is loud and orchestral—a throwback to Bernard Herrmann and John Barry—and can be enjoyed off-screen.

There is some strong language in the film, but it is not pervasive. Many shots focus on women in lingerie and Mystique appears fully “nude” in a couple scenes, arrayed only in her blue skin and leaving little to the imagination. Several crude jokes, sexual references and implications of sex are also present. It is also surprisingly violent at times, unusual for a PG-13 film.

X-Men: First Class is the best of the X-Men franchise, featuring a deeper plot, better dialogue and more character than its predecessors. The look and feel are perfectly suited to the period, the acting is outstanding, the visual effects stunning and the themes rich and thought-provoking. These attributes make it not only the best film of the year thus far but also one of the best superhero movies ever made. This is definitely a must-see.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

I like a sensational, spectacular, sci-fi movie done well, like when the filmmakers combine the macro—the sweeping backdrop of the cinematic preposterous—and the micro—the focus on a select few caught up in the madness. J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg understand this balance, making this alien movie both exciting and endearing, and a solid summer film.

Think Cloverfield meets E.T. Like the former, it’s a monster thriller and an alien flick but, like the latter, it’s a coming of age movie with tons of heart and comedy—and aliens.

It is the summer of 1979 in the small town of Lillian, Ohio. A group of elementary-aged filmmakers witness a brutal suicide attempt leading to a massive train crash. The next day, a battalion of Air Force officers converge upon the small town. Strange disappearances, mysterious deaths and unexplained phenomena shock the town. The kids, a scrappy bunch of misfits, slowly piece together the mystery, revealing a shocking secret.

From scene one, I was immediately drawn into and engrossed with the lives of the sextet who supply the micro aspect of the film. The acting is top-notch from very talented child actors—notably Joel Courtney, who portrays Joe Lamb. Elle Fanning is also quite good as Alice, and both leads handled the weighty material handed them with dexterity. The interactions between the children’s characters were genuine and even heart-wrenching—as when Joe and Alice try and help each other cope with the death and crippling loss of close relatives. The film delves into themes of death, single-parenthood, drunkenness, abandonment, depression, guilt and forgiveness. Here is more depth than your typical summer blockbuster.

Super 8 is character drama, first and foremost, but it is also an intense sci-fi actioner. The train collision, during the opening and played out over several minutes, was wondrous to behold, riveting and gloriously shot. The kids are caught in the middle of the action; railroad cars barrel narrowly by, hurtling like projectiles, exploding like bombs. The rest of the film is equally suspenseful and visually arresting, showcasing impressing special effects.

But the film suffers in the third act from predictability and a lapse in realism. While still entertaining, there was nothing in the movie that left me guessing, and I called the ending from miles away.

Though shallow, the plot is redeemed by constant humor, every joke hitting its mark accurately. It was consistently funny—one-liners, snappy sarcasms, hilarious sight gags breaking the tension. The laughs were a delightful break from the stress of the harrowing situations. And as a tip: don’t miss the end credits.

The score by Giacchino was unremarkable. It worked in the context of the film, the deep bass notes aiding the sense of impending doom, but none of the cues really stood out.

The other downside to the movie is the copious amount of language. For a movie with kids as main characters, the language is extremely heavy, most of it spewed from their young mouths. There was also some drug content, though this is discouraged: when one character gets “so stoned,” another runs away screaming, “drugs are so bad.

Super 8 is a solid movie. The micro elements are fantastic, the interactions genuine, the emotions raw and the ending redemptive. The macro elements are strong, visually captivating and technically wonderful; they suffer from a lackluster third act, but slightly. It’s got micro and macro; it’s an almost perfect summer film.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Jack is back! His beloved Black Pearl missing, Jack finds himself running from the British, crossing swords with an old flame, and getting shanghaied by Blackbeard’s pirate crew. Their mission: locate the Fountain of Youth. To unlock the water’s immortal powers the crew needs a mermaid tear, two chalices belonging to Ponce De Leon, and a willing (or unwilling!) human sacrifice. Alliances are drawn, broken, re-drawn, and re-broken as pirates, British regulars and Spanish conquistadors all compete for eternal life. Captain Jack must face zombies, mermaids, and—deadliest of all—the return of a forgotten love.

Rob Marshall takes the helm as director, navigating his first foray into the action genre with aplomb. His talent is apparent as he directs a compelling story with a perfect pace. Renowned for his dramatic dance numbers, Marshall brings his Oscar-winning knowledge of choreography to the action, translating the energy and artistic flair of dance into fun, swashbuckling chase and adventure sequences. The scenes always captivate, each setpiece more elaborate than the last. The opening carriage chase through London’s streets is wonderful and fun. Then there’s the sword fight on the docks, the escape from the Spaniards’ camp, the battle for the Fountain of Youth, and (my favorite) the dangerous encounter with the mermaids. These aren’t your typical Disney little mermaids—they’re fierce, vicious and deadly, luring innocents with beauty, then slashing and devouring with razor-sharp fangs. Supernatural elements like Blackbeard’s zombie pirates, his “possessed” ship, and the legendary Fountain of Youth lend the film a fanciful, yet eerie and sinister, tone.

Despite the dark story, the dialogue and cast were light. Johnny Depp re-immerses himself in the role of the swaggering pirate. He is Jack Sparrow. Geoffrey Rush returns in a delightful performance as Captain Barbossa, pirate-turned-privateer. And we are introduced to the laid-back yet shockingly brutal Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and Angelica (Penelope Cruz), the sensuous and volatile love interest of Captain Jack.

The dialogue is fantastic. The characters’ interactions are superb, especially between Jack and Barbossa. The scene in the teetering ship boasts the best dialogue of the series. I was never sure where their comradeship stood: friends one second, enemies the next.

With Will and Elizabeth’s romance shelved, the story was able to focus more on Jack and Angelica, and on the love story between the missionary Philip and the mermaid Syrena. This romance develops when Syrena saves Philip’s life and notes that, unlike other humans, he seeks to save—not destroy—life. This subplot could have been great, but was tedious as neither Philip nor Syrena’s characters ever fully developed. But the romance between Jack and Angelica was perfect. Their nuanced banter, filled with sarcasm, bitterness, and barely perceptible fondness, added excellent comic relief.

The score disappointed. Instead of new themes and riffs, I heard a battery of recycled themes from the past three movies. Zimmer added a touch of Spanish guitar to embellish the themes, but it wasn’t at the level of creativity I’ve come to expect from my favorite composer.

The film’s protagonists have a modicum of morality, and themes of honor, duty, love and self-sacrifice are hinted at, but never realized. There was more sensual content than in the prequels; sexual banter flew fast and furious between Jack and Angelica, and some crude references were made. The mermaids appear nude, although their feminine figures are always obscured by voluptuous locks or scales.

While shorter than its predecessors, this film features outstanding performances, a compelling story, brilliant dialogue, beautiful sets and cinematography, cheeky romance, and extraordinary action. It looks and feels completely different from the first three; the characters are mostly new, and it is less a continuation and more like a franchise reboot. This is a solid piece of entertainment definitely worth a watch.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Fast Five (2011)

Fifth in The Fast and the Furious series, this film is still coherent on its own. Big-time smuggler Dom Toretto escapes from custody, thanks to his sister Mia and her boyfriend Brian. The three converge on a train transporting high-value sports cars, but their larcenous scheme is complicated when corrupt Brazilian mogul Reyes interferes. They find themselves on the run, pursued by both Reyes’ thugs and federal agents. Taking refuge in the favalas of Rio de Janeiro, they assemble a team for “one last job”: a heist of all Reyes’s cash reserves.

Joel: This was a fast-paced movie—the action never flagged—and an entertaining two hours filled with speeding cars, explosions, and impossible fights, flights, and stunts. The plot was cohesive but constantly changing; the characters many but defined; the score sparse yet appropriate; the dialogue light. It’s an action movie, not a work of art, but the action was artfully done.

Michael: Fast cars, big guns, pretty girls. While you get what you pay for with Fast Five, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d seen it all before—only better. Ocean’s Eleven, Italian Job, Inception, Mission: Impossible—these are all similar heist movies but have more poise, polish, comedy, and character. The dialogue here is awful, the acting worse, and most all attempts at comic relief fall flat. Except for the action, there’s nothing here worth seeing.

J: Sweeping and picturesque cityscapes were immediately prominent. The iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Rio’s hills, the cubist mosaic of the favalas, the miles-long expanse of the Rio-Niterói Bridge stretching across Guanabara Bay. The color and vivacity, breadth and breath, of the Brazilian outdoors really made the scenes come alive, and contrasted with the dull, muted indoor shots.

M: The shots were repetitive and boring—the first sweeping panorama was cool, but using the same transition between every scene was uncreative overkill. Same with the soundtrack: it was headache-inducing. Brian Tyler’s original score was nice, but unfortunately underused, and instead replaced with loud rap and hip hop. The songs fit the mood, but they annoyed me.

J: I enjoyed the soundtrack. It was unorthodox, but fitting. The percussive rhythms intensified the action sequences; Brazilian-inspired beats colored and complemented the Latin scenes; the electronica segues and rap sequences supported the street-racing theme; vintage radio crackle delightfully tarnished riffs of evocative samba. Apart from a few brief gems, most of the soundtrack won’t stand on its own, but it worked with the film.

M: If pounding music didn’t dull the senses, there was the acting. The performances and dialogue were frequently ridiculous; “serious” and “touching” moments, like when Mia abruptly mentions that she is pregnant, were without nuance—and induced hearty chuckles. In fact, while the attempts at humor may have miserably failed, there was plenty of laughter. This movie was unintentional comedy of the year.

J: Fortunately, the dialogue was sparse, and, except for some cliché and unconvincing romantic attempts, the acting centered on the action. I was afraid all the characters would blur together, but each was quickly differentiated. The fast-tongued Rome provided running commentary and comic relief; eye-catching but minacious Gisele was always ready with pointed words and weapons; and the redoubtable federal agent Hobbs quickly illustrated his no-nonsense style with the emphatic, unnecessary, and fortunately unrepeated, “Stay the f— out of my way.”

M: There was an unnecessary amount of swearing and sexual content. The camera frequently zoomed in and lingered on barely-clad women, crude references abounded, and the language was stronger than I prefer.

J: I was frankly surprised, and discomfited, by some elements. Several characters punctuate their speech with innuendos and mild profanities. In one scene of Rio’s hot-rod aficionados, the camera hesitates on the women’s scant Brazilian dress and provocatively-baring hemlines voyeuristically. Two men brutally bludgeon each other with their fists, smashing into walls, shattering windows, their faces trickling blood, until one scrabbles for a pipe wrench and drives it down with a sickening (off-screen) thud.

M: The film’s one redeeming quality, setting it apart from other caper movies, is the string of unbelievably incredible driving scenes. The closing car chase through the streets of Rio was the most over-the-top, destructive, and totally awesome I’d ever seen. The turbo-charged Dodge muscle-cars, towing their ten-ton load, causing explosions, crashing and demolishing buildings, scenery, and everything else—wow! The effects of this scene were so shocking and unbelievable I couldn’t help but gape in amazement. The gun scenes, fist fights, action and chase scenes make the movie almost worth watching.

J: It’s a solid action movie. Because of the brief but distasteful language and lechery, I can’t recommend it. But it was one exciting and impressive film.

M: It’s mindless, it’s over the top, it’s fun, it’s profane, it’s often crude. But despite the action and adventure, it’s not worth the ticket price.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Sequel dread. You all know it. You loved the first movie, you’re excited to revisit familiar characters, you’re curious to see what new adventures are in store, but you’re nervous that the return trip will be disappointing. Let’s face it, you’ve had lots of reinforcement that sequels are awful, and seldom has the second surpassed—or even equaled—the first.

But Kung Fu Panda 2 shattered all negative sequel dreads. A cinematic treat both visually and narratively, it continues the story of Po the Panda, newly christened Dragon Warrior, as he joins the Furious Five, an elite group of Kung Fu Warriors sworn to protect China from evil. No longer at odds with his Kung Fu counterparts, Po journeys with his team to defeat the dastardly peacock villain Lord Shen, who threatens to annihilate China and destroy the ancient art of Kung Fu forever. But Po faces personal challenges as well. He must uncover his true identity and learn that no matter how sad the story’s beginning, it is the ending that matters.

The first thing I notice in an animated movie is its artistry. The animation here is stunning. Beautiful scenes of China’s landscapes, vistas, waterfalls, architecture, and cities splayed in colorful array across the screen, the palette bright and vivid. The animated characters were incredibly detailed, each with unique facial quirks, fur texture, and coloring. Animated movies have the challenge of starting from scratch, without pre-existing sets, props or lighting. The animators here did a fantastic job filling each shot with the perfect amount of foreground, mid-ground, and background, every frame beautiful and interesting to behold. On a technical level, this film is a masterpiece.

The soundtrack reunites worthy composers Hans Zimmer and John Powell. The first Kung Fu Panda score was an audible feast. This one revisits many of the old themes while adding some new, and the oriental flair enhances the film’s flavor and mood. It’s superb.

The dialogue is excellent, deftly combining physical comedy with hilarious, snappy wit. The laughs were earned; the mirth never stemmed from that lowest common denominator, bathroom humor. And while it was genuinely funny—several scenes had me rolling—it was never corny. I most enjoyed the scene where our posse of Kung Fu warriors attempts to infiltrate the enemy’s stronghold by hiding inside a large dragon puppet. As they parade through the city, they “ingest,” “digest” and “expel” all enemies in their path. And Jack Black’s voice so perfectly suits the large, furry panda that his delivery itself is enough to induce chuckles.

But this film isn’t all about laughs; it has tons of heart too. Fairly deep for a “kids’ movie,” it addresses heavy themes of adoption, the importance of family, compassion, inner peace, and self-sacrifice. The characters’ development and maturity from the first movie was apparent, each growing with age and experience.

But the highlight of any “Kung Fu” movie is the action, right? Well, you get loads of it here, and, boy, is it fun. Each fighting scene is more explosive, exciting and engrossing than the last. The action never gets repetitive and the fight moves are often unbelievable (it is a cartoon) without being absurdly over the top. The fights are not only visually arresting but emotionally captivating. There’s a constant sense of danger, a palpable feeling of suspense and uncertainty. No character ever feels safe from the throes of death. Anything can happen.

If I had one complaint, it would be that the villain was not nearly as compelling as the ferocious leopard from the first movie, Tai Lung. The peacock Shen has some good lines, but while he’s pretty evil, I never really feared or hated him. However, this is an incredibly small complaint for an overall excellent film.

The animation was stunning, the fights enthralling, the characters developed, the dialogue witty and often deep, the score beautiful, the story endearing and, with no real detractors, this is pretty much a perfect movie. It is not only a great sequel but a great standalone film. In fact, I think I liked it even better than its predecessor. I’m looking forward to revisiting this gem again, and hoping for another sequel. This movie is great. Go see it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thor (2011)

I admit that, until I saw the trailer, I didn't even know Thor was a superhero character. Thus as I walked into the screening next to a man carrying a homemade Thor hammer, I felt at a slight disadvantage. All the inside jokes, the shoutouts to aficionados of the Marvel universe, went completely over my head. With no expectations, I sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the show.

Thor, the powerful son of Odin, is about to be crowned as the new king of Asgard. But as Odin starts to utter the words of coronation, the ceremony is interrupted by the invasion of the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, enemies from a distant planet. Though the invasion is quelled without losses, Thor impulsively decides to initiate war with the giants. He travels to their planet, stirring up trouble and eliminating any hope for peace between the worlds. His actions were in direct violation of Odin’s orders and, for his brashness and immaturity, Thor has his power stripped away and is banished to a foreign realm—Earth. The story then splits. Half takes place with Thor on earth as he attempts to reclaim his power, helped by three astrophysicists and hindered by mysterious government agents. The other half takes place in space where Odin’s kingdom is threatened by frozen enemies and traitors within its ranks. Thor must battle aliens, secret agents, and the hazards of true love as he slowly regains the power to save both worlds from complete annihilation.

The first act explodes with thunderous intensity. The fight scenes are incredible, the visuals dazzling and the plot captivating. However, when Thor loses his power, so does the film. The second act drags and the third fails to rebuild any of the original suspense. The once-interesting plot disintegrates into an hour-long commercial for the upcoming Avengers movie (the film uniting all Marvel characters). Plot twists late in the film pointlessly complicated the narrative and failed to generate excitement.

The acting is generally good, most notably Anthony Hopkins’ as Odin. However, with the exception of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the characters lacked depth. Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard are one-dimensional in stereotypical roles of love interest, comic relief and random scientist.

Despite the narrative and character flaws, there is much here to enjoy—breathtaking visuals, incredible cinematography, sweeping landscapes of other-worldly vistas. The special effects are top-notch, most notably in the early battle scene on Jotunheim’s ice planet. The fight scenes invoked cheers and applause from the audience on several occasions. The score is sweepingly epic and a perfect match for the action on screen. The film also never takes itself too seriously, injecting genuinely comedic moments throughout. Holding his coffee cup in the air, Thor proclaims, “This drink...I like it! More!” He then smashes the mug to the floor in barbaric Viking fashion. Hilarious interactions and one-liners make the dialogue shine. The film also lauds important traits of honor, duty, and self-sacrifice.

It’s good, clean, mindless entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less—ultimately forgettable but still fun to watch. Its flaws are mostly overcome by its entertainment value and the movie is a solid choice for an afternoon time-waster. Just don’t expect this film to be, like its hero, a cinematic god.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Apartment (1960)

I rented this movie based solely on the recommendation of the Academy—they awarded the film five Oscars, including Best Picture, in 1961.

The film tells the story of C.C. Baxter, low man on the totem pole in a prestigious New York insurance company. Dissatisfied with his inferior status, Baxter attempts to ingratiate himself with the higher-ups of the company by letting them use his apartment for their secret affairs. But things get complicated when the married head of the company, and Baxter’s direct supervisor, demands to use the apartment in order to seduce the girl that Baxter loves. If Baxter refuses, he’ll lose his job and everything he’s ever worked for; he realizes that he won’t be able to maintain his career and also get the girl.

Part romantic comedy, part tragedy, and part character study, the film deals with dark themes of infidelity, divorce and suicide while somehow maintaining a light and cavalier facade. The story was incredibly original never succumbing to rom-com convention or formula. The ending was uncertain, and until the final few frames the outcome was still capricious and unforeseeable.

The acting by film legends Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray is superbly believable: Lemmon as the bumbling wannabe torn between a lucrative executive position and a passionate love, MacLaine as the woman desperately in love with a married man, and MacMurray as the unfaithful boss who makes life miserable for the protagonist. Each character is wonderfully flawed and nuanced.

The dialogue is both playfully witty and bitingly sarcastic. Cynicism proliferates as the characters deal with their marriage-ruining and life-altering choices. Every line of dialogue they deliver only deepens and illuminates their personalities and worldviews; not one is out of place (even a sneaky reference to the director’s 1945 Oscar-winning film, “The Lost Weekend,” works well in context). The conversation draws you into the action, making you feel like an active participant in the characters’ lives. In addition to the clever dialogue, the film also bursts with fun visual touches like an overflowing champagne bottle, a tennis racket being used as a spaghetti strainer, and an extended comedic scene involving the modeling of an “executive” hat.

The film was shot in black and white despite technological advancements of the day. The colorless cinematography brilliantly captured each environment and setting, giving it an old-fashioned and classical feel.

The movie is restrained in terms of inappropriate content; however, the dialogue is laced with some graphic innuendo and suggestion, and most people I know would not want their kids watching this. While neither outrightly condemned nor overtly condoned, the effects of suicide and infidelity are explored; the filmmakers seem to reach the conclusion that neither is the best option. The film is guaranteed to leave you thoughtful, bemused, and perhaps even a little sad (can a story about infidelity ever truly be happy?).

The question I usually ask after I finish watching a Best Picture winner is this: “should it really have won?” Not having seen the other nominees of the year, it’s hard to say for sure. But “The Apartment” is a near-perfect movie. Its flaws are far outweighed by its many strengths. It fully deserves all the accolades it received. This classic is definitely worth a watch.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Next Three Days (2010)

He’s a good guy. He treats his wife to an elegant dinner, spends time with their son at the playground, teaches at the community college. A nice guy. An ordinary guy. Not awesome. Not always quick on the uptake, a few pounds overweight, sometimes naïve.

But now he’s at the visiting room at the county jail. The woman in the red scrub top—that’s his wife. She’s in jail for murder. Her face is hard, her jaw tight. Her eyes bore into his. She leans forward. Listen to her.

“You know, you never even asked me if I did it. If I killed her.”

He stares at the table top before him for a second, then looks at her.

“Because I knew you didn’t.”

Her attorney has told him that he needs to just look at the evidence. His parents feel sorry that he won’t accept the truth. She’ll be locked up for the next twenty years. But now, she—his wife—is here, in front of him. Speaking to him.

“Then you’d be wrong,” she says. “I did it.”

He’s a good guy. He treated his wife to an elegant dinner, spent time with their son at the playground, taught at the community college. A nice guy. An ordinary guy. Not awesome.

But he’s going to break his wife out of jail.

The film’s “hero” is hardly that. He buys a gun, but doesn’t know where the bullets go. He cruises through dark alleys and rubs shoulders with other social strata in seedy bars, but stands out like the middle-class white guy he is. A stressful interrogation by a suspicious prison official makes him violently sick. Unlike the Hollywood heroes who can shoot, fight, track and lie with proficiency, this one learns from library books and YouTube videos.

But despite his naïve hopefulness and combed incompetence, his is a dogged perseverance and fidelity. He exhausts every legal avenue, earning his attorney’s ire. His face perpetually sports the cuts and scars of backstreet battles, but eventually makes it to the front of a false passport. His search for the key to releasing his wife is abruptly broken off, but he finds that even locked doors can be opened. Challenged to abandon everything, he remains faithful to what he most holds dear.

His ordinariness, his ignorance of how to load a gun, his uncool car, his aggravating short-sightedness in discarding incriminating papers—all these do not obscure who he is. He may know nothing about jailbreaks, but at his core is an unrestrainable loyalty. He may be betrayed, ambushed, attacked, threatened; people may die. But his devotion does not.

He never tells his wife he loves her, but he does. There is some passionate, physical face-to-face in the film, but if anything this seems fleeting and shallow. Instead it is the little things, strung together in long, unbroken chains—the way he throws out playful, tongue-in-cheek comments to make her smile; the way he keeps coming back, month over month, to visit her in jail; the way he looks at and cares for their son; the way he rebuffs that pretty brunette, Nicole, at the playground (her daughter is just about Luke’s age); and the shaky, but unshakable, way he repeatedly works to free her, regardless of all who oppose it. He loves her. He’ll do anything for her.

So he goes back to the jail. He takes a seat, waiting in front of the glass, the phone to his ear. She picks up the other end, and starts to speak, but he cuts her off.

“Shut up. I don’t care what you say or how you say it. I don’t believe you did it and I never will. I know who you are.”

Is the movie a romance? Sure—in every sense of the word. But in another way, it is very real. The people are always imperfect, often prone to failure, sometimes profane. But the film is like its hero: unremarkable…yet remarkably so. It is about an ordinary guy.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Source Code (2011)

Stevens: What would you do if you knew you had less than eight minutes to live?
Christina: I don't know . . . I would make those seconds count.

And that’s exactly what Captain Colter Stevens attempts to do. Make his final eight minutes count. Over and over and over again.

Welcome to the Source Code. Captain Stevens awakens, finding himself in the body of Sean Fentress on a train that is set to explode in eight minutes. But the bombing has already happened and Sean has already died. Through the wonder of science, it is now possible for a soldier to inhabit the body of a deceased person for the last eight minutes of their life. Each time Stevens returns to the train he finds new clues which will help him identify the bomber who now threatens to destroy all of Chicago. During this quest, Stevens develops feelings for a beautiful passenger whom he then sets out to save.

While marketed as an action thriller, this film is, at its core, a character drama. And it excels on both levels. Edge-of-your-seat suspense captivates and never bores. I was able to call some of the plot twists, but others were completely unexpected and shocking. It’s also a solid who-done-it that provides some interesting ethical themes to contemplate.

The characters were rich and deep, a difficult task since many of them had only eight minutes in which to develop. Jake Gyllenhaal convincingly portrays Captain Stevens, the flawed hero who must save the world, get the girl, and sort out his past. His performance is earnest and often touching. Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga, while not given a whole lot of screen time, do a good job portraying their characters: Monaghan as the girl the captain must save, and Farmiga as the sympathetic mission commander.

There is always the danger that a film that features repeating scenes and identical sets can become tedious and boring. However, director Duncan Jones clearly anticipated these moments, making sure that this was never the case. I was enthralled to the end.

The film would have been near-perfect if it had ended five minutes earlier, at the height of emotional impact and tear-jerking redemption.The ending we’re given isn’t bad, but it detracts from the beauty of the film and feels very Hollywood-esque. But don’t get me wrong, it is still plenty satisfying and heartwarming.

On the technical end, this film is a wonder. The film quality was astounding. Each shot was chosen with such brilliant precision that the director did not need to rely on the cheap trick of shaky cam to increase suspense. Editing was top notch, and the special effects were realistic and impressive. The soundtrack by newcomer Chris Bacon was a bit too bombastic for my tastes, but it worked well in the film and brought a sense of urgency to an already suspenseful story.

Love, forgiveness, heroism, and seizing the time we are given are the main themes presented. Captain Colter Stevens continually put his life on the line as a helicopter pilot and now puts his life on the line repeatedly in order to try and save the world from mass destruction and chaos. His character provides a great moral backbone to the story and these themes provide good fodder for consideration as you enjoy this roller-coaster of a ride.

So take a journey into the Source Code; you’re guaranteed a great time.

Caution: The film was marred by some infrequent strong profanity and a few mild innuendos.