Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wrath of the Titans Review

Greetings and salutations, Internet!  Wrath of the Titans.  Sequel to 2010's less-then-stellar Clash of the Titans.  I'll come right out and say that I wasn't a huge fan of the original - as with most films I was tricked by the trailer and got quite excited for the film.  Then I was let down by the abysmal 3D, the mediocre visual effects, and a story that just didn't do it for me.  Luckily its sequel, Wrath of the Titans, improves upon most of these issues and delivers a taught, fast-paced popcorn action film that I enjoyed more than I anticipated.

Wrath improves upon the original is almost every way.  This time around, the 3D is actually utilized fairly well and is leaps and bounds better than Clash.  There are certain sequences that looking quite fantastic with the addition of the third dimension.  The visual effects also took a step us this time around, with fantastic work on Kronos (father of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades - all three being reprised by Liam Neeson, Danny Huston, and Ralph Fiennes, respectively) and the labyrinth constructed to protect Tartarus (Kronos' prison).  Perhaps the weakest CG of the film involves a trio of cyclops who attack our band of heroes.  And they were still fairly believable.

Where Wrath still falters is with its character development and narrative.  Clash fumbled the ball completely when it came to these two facets of the film; Wrath merely stumbles.  We catch up with Perseus over a decade after the original, and clearly much has changed.  Without spoiling much, Perseus has a son, who is at least 12 or 13 years old, and he's known as the "Kraken-slayer;" he's become sort of a legend amongst the Greeks.  This is pretty much all the information we get about what's come to pass in the years following the actual slaying of the kraken.  As evidenced in the trailers, Hades is totally a bad guy now, out to unleash Kronos on the world. 

That's pretty much the whole plot.  Zeus goes to Perseus and basically says "hey, son, Kronos is coming back.  The world's gonna end.  Gotta go!" and thus sets Perseus in motion.  Characters are picked up along the way, and several stops are made at some pretty cool set-pieces, but I can't help but want for maybe 15-20 more minutes (Wrath clocks in at a trim 99 minutes - by comparison, The Hunger Games runs at 142 minutes) of actual character development.  Perseus and Andromeda have some history (considering she was being sacrificed to the Kraken back in the day) and it would have been nice to have some dialogue between the two, outside of the maybe two lines we actually got when they first meet.  And that's how the character development is presented throughout the course of the film.  We get some dialogue here and there (that doesn't pertain to finding and taking down Kronos), and even though I actually did care about these people, I just would've liked to see a bit more bonding between the crew that forms on the journey to Tartarus.

A quick note on the acting in the film: Wrath is populated with some fantastic actors, putting in pretty decent performances.  I cannot get enough of Liam Neeson or Ralph Fiennes and neither phone it in.  Danny Huston is fun as Poseidon, and new-additions Bill Nighy as Hephaestus and Toby Kebbell as demi-god Agenor added a bit of comic relief that I thought worked quite well.  Andromeda was re-cast with Rosamund Pike stepping into the role and I feel that she as well did a fairly commendable job.  For me, the two stand-outs are Edgar Ramirez as Ares and of course, Sam Worthington as Perseus.  I'm quite a fan of Sam's and thought he gave a fairly compelling performance.  Ramirez is pretty awesome as Ares - I just wish he had more screen time.

As previously mentioned, the plot is quite simple - and that's not necessarily negative by any means.  Wrath is a very fast-paced, tight, action blockbuster that rarely slows down to breathe.  And when it does slow down, there should've been more character development!  I feel like there is a place in cinema for films like Wrath, Safe House, and The Expendables; films that deliver on action and little else, but do it well.  And that's what Wrath comes down to being.  I'll get action AND well-developed narratives in franchises such as Bourne and Christopher Nolan's Batman films.  And that's fine with me.  Sometimes all I want to do is sit down and turn off my brain for awhile and watch some demi-gods and gods battle each other.

I'm fairly certain that there will plenty of film-goers out there that will walk away from Wrath disappointed - and I completely understand.  I went into the film with low-to-moderate expectations (again, because of two awesome trailers) and was pleasantly surprised.  There is just a ton of cool stuff in Wrath.  Despite some fairly glaring flaws, there is quite a bit of awesomeness to behold; the climactic battle against Kronos is pretty damn epic and a much better finale than the Kraken fight that capped Clash.  If you enjoyed the original, you'll probably love Wrath as well.  And if you didn't enjoy Clash, I hope that you'll give Wrath a chance, as it improves upon its predecessor is some marked ways.

Just a quick note about the director, Jonathan Liebesman, before I wrap this up:  Jonathan most recently directed Battle: LA, a film that I did not like at all.  The use of shaky-cam was awful and nausea-inducing.  I must say that he reigned his directing style in quite a bit for Wrath.  The plentiful action scenes and fairly well-staged, with camera-work that is quite comprehensible and a great improvement over Battle: LA.  Wrath is a much better overall film.

Wrath of the Titans improves upon its predecessor is many ways, yet remains stagnant in others.

The Bearded Bullet to watch Immortals and play some God of War!  

Thursday, March 22, 2012

21 Jump Street Trimmed Review

Hello, Internet.  I'm just going to get this right out of the way:  go see 21 Jump Street.  Its one of the funniest films in years and just works on so many levels.  It hits dramatic and comedic beats so perfectly that its hard to express them in words.

The two best things about 21JS are its leads and its jokes.  Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum (who knew he could be so damn funny?) are incredible as the dynamic duo of 21JS.  They have amazing comedic timing with one another that just works.  It seems effortless, really.  Their dynamic and relationship helps ground this film and stops it from becoming too over the top.  And its already pretty over the top.  The rest of cast is fantastic, with some excellent cameos.

21 Jump Street is just so damn funny.  Its tough to discuss a comedy because comedy is so subjective.  Some people loath South Park and similar fare.  I happen to enjoy a broad range of comedic styles, from the awkwardness of something like Wanderlust, to the incredibly witty, as is the case with Arrested Development.  21 Jump Street is rude, crude, and it doesn't care.  One of the biggest laughs involves fingers in mouths.  That's all I'm going to say.  Its just so damn funny.

Final word:  this isn't your father's 21 Jump Street.  I've never seen the original series, but this is nothing like the original.  True story - an older couple came into the film late and after two f-bombs by the insanely funny Ice Cube, they left the theater, shaking their heads in disgust.  They were there for less than three lines of dialogue.

21 Jump Street is a superbly funny, entertaining action-comedy that I cannot recommend highly enough.

The Bearded Bullet.

Silent House Trimmed Review

Hello Internet!  I'm not going to say much about Silent House because I don't want to spoil anything.  What I will say is that I was terrified for most of the film and constantly on the edge of my seat.  Actually, during the entire film I was cursing myself for voluntarily subjecting myself to such stresses; I'm not a huge fan of horror/suspense films.  Yet I see them anyway.

Silent House's main draw, and my favorite aspect, is the insane camera work on display throughout the film.  For those unaware, SH is presented as one long, continuous take.  So no alternate angles, no multiple cameras.  The entire film is one.  freaking.  take.  And its awesome.  In the beginning I was actively searching out instances where they might have cut and repositioned actors/props, but somewhere in the middle of the film I just stopped and allowed myself to be engrossed in the film (I only found but a few instances where a cut might've been placed).  I'm no expert of film or film making, but it was damn impressive to me.

The other big positive is the performance of the film's lead, Elizabeth Olsen.  She rarely leaves the frame for the duration of the film, and we're along for her ride into terror and madness as the film progresses.  There are instances of extreme close-ups that linger for what seems like an eternity as events transpire around that we do not see.  Most of the time what you don't see is what terrifies you the most - something that is present throughout the entire film.  The actual narrative and how the film wraps up left me a bit cold, however, and actually makes you question the rest of the film.  There are twists and turns throughout, making Silent House all about the journey, but not the destination.  If you enjoy horror/thrillers I very much recommend Silent House.

Silent House is a very interestingly-made horror/suspense thriller that ends in an unsatisfying manner.

The Bearded Bullet is off to turn on some lights..

The Lorax Trimmed Review

What's up Internet?  I have a like/dislike relationship with most animated films.  I would usually use "love/hate" but there are very few films that I actually "hate."  I like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, How to Train Your Dragon, both Kung Fu Panda films.  I dislike The Lorax.  Something just didn't click with me.

Its probably because The Lorax wasn't marketed as a musical.  And there are several musical numbers throughout the film.  I am by no means against musically-inclined films.  As a matter of fact I enjoyed The Muppets quite a bit.  Rather, I am against films (musical or not) that pander to children.  Most of today's animated features are, for lack of a better term, "children's" films, yet contain content entertaining for adults.  That doesn't mean double entendres or veiled dirty jokes.  I simply mean a story or animation or anything that an older generation could enjoy.  The Lorax, while exhibiting superb animation and generally a fun, engaging story, panders far too much to children.  Particularly with aforementioned musical numbers and jokes that just weren't funny.  Also the story's a bit preachy at times.

My main beef with The Lorax is said preachiness.  I can't recall reading the story as a child, so I went into the film with a relatively blank slate.  I understand the environmental message Dr. Seuss was trying to convey, but boy did they convey it.  What message will children take away from the film?  That being greedy is okay as long as you do something nice in the end?  That you can cut down a billion trees as long as you plant just one?  Maybe I'm over-analyzing The Lorax but that's just how I feel.  Let me retract my earlier statement: my main beef with The Lorax is the horrifyingly bad guitar-laden musical number in the middle of the film.  Atrocious.

The Lorax is a well-made children's film that aspires to be nothing more than that.

Bullet is out.

Safe House Trimmed Review

Hello, Internet!  This review of Safe House will be my first "trimmed" review.  Rather than a full, "bearded" review, trimmed reviews will be short and to-the-point.  There are several reasons for me to write a trimmed review; perhaps I didn't quite like the film, don't have many thoughts on it, or just don't have much to say.  Sometimes more isn't always better.

Safe House is a perfectly adequate action/thriller that doesn't really bring much new to the table.  SH looks very much like a Tony Scott film (see: Man on Fire, Unstoppable, Taking of Pelham 123), and pretty much is, despite being directed by Daniel Espinosa.  The dialogue isn't all that terrific, the acting is perfectly fine, and the action is alright.  This film screams "meh."  There isn't anything intrinsically bad about the film; nothing to make me want to hate it.  It just exists.  And maybe that's why it took me over a month to write this...

Safe House is a fairly competent yet forgettable action/thriller.

Bullet out.

The Hunger Games Review

Greetings, Internet!  Be prepared - I have quite a bit to say about The Hunger Games.  I am a relatively new fan of the series.  I read the entire trilogy only a few weeks ago, after much prodding from one of my friends.  I immediately fell in love with the characters and universe created by Suzanne Collins (who also is credited as a co-screenwriter for the film) and was enthralled by the sweeping narrative that played out brilliantly over the course of three books.  The first book is, in my opinion, the strongest of the three and would hopefully translate well to the big screen.  And it has very, very well indeed.  For those of you who have not read the book(s) or don't want the film spoiled, I suggest you stop reading here. 

***Warning - FULL spoilers for both the book and film version of The Hunger Games are abound***

Still with me?  Alright - I have alot to say about THG and how it relates to its written counterpart.  I'm going to come right out and say that I absolutely loved the film.  Its everything I thought it would be and more.  Right off the bat, one of the issues with adapting the book would be the externalization of Katniss' thoughts and feelings.  The entire trilogy is told essentially from her point of view; we are never privy to things occurring outside her immediate area.  This poses quite a huge problem for the medium of film.  There are plenty of films that deal with one character's perspective; 127 Hours, Buried, and more recently, Silent House all present those types of narratives and are quite effective at doing so.  Neither of those are big-budget, franchise-starting, tent-pole films like The Hunger Games.  There are really only two ways to deal with something like this - either introduce an inner monologue for Katniss (which would almost absolutely come across as corny and ineffective), or externalize the information we get from her thoughts in the book to the outside world.

The screenwriters chose the latter - rather than learn about trackerjackers or the "alliance" formed between the Careers and Peeta by reading what Katniss is thinking, director Gary Ross cleverly cuts to quick clips of Cesar Flickerman (the always-fantastic Stanley Tucci) and Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones) providing commentary to the audience of Panem watching the Games.  This rather effectively provides narrative insights that we would either have to infer for ourselves, or just be left in the dark.  While I do appreciate the out-of-the-Games scenes, including the aforementioned, but also several visits to the Seneca Crane's Head-Gamemaker's-control room and a few conversations between Crane and President Snow (played quietly ominous by Donald Sutherland), I can't help but feel that some of them are too on-the-nose with delivering their message.

For instance, I appreciated seeing Haymitch's (Woody Harrelson) reaction to Katniss' burn and his immediate campaigning for the salve that would heal her wound.  It was an effective scene, in which no dialogue was shared.  We, the audience, were able to fully understand and comprehend what he was doing and why he was doing it.  Jump to early in the Games when Katniss first sees the Career gang with Peeta on their side.  We can obviously see that Peeta has teamed up with them.  That's all we need to know.  However, we cut to Cesar making a comment about an alliance forming.  Duh!  We just saw that play out on screen.  We don't need everything spelled out for us.

On the flip side, a lot of things are not spelled out or explained at all.  That is both the strongest and weakest aspect of the film adaptation.  The already-fast-paced book is trimmed and made into a lean, mean, killing machine of a blockbuster.  We get but a fleeting explanation about the trackerjackers, but don't get any information about the other muttations - the mockingjays or the wolf creatures in the climax.  Much more time is spent in the actual Games in the book; Katniss alone, with Rue, and then finally with Peeta in their cave.  Even the final events at the Cornucopia are trimmed in the film.  All of these diversions from the source material exist to service a fast-paced, taught, action film that delivers in many ways.  As a fan of the book, I was disappointed that certain aspects were changed/altered/excluded, but ultimately film is a different medium and requires a different type of storytelling to convey the narrative.

The performances, on the whole, were spot-on to what I envisioned for these characters.  Jennifer Lawrence is absolutely fantastic as Katniss Everdeen.  She's quiet, reserved, contemplative, calculating, and cold.  Katniss rarely shows emotion, but when she does its quite gripping and moving.  A perfect example is her compassion for her sister as she is chosen at the Reaping.  I knew what was going to happen, but I was emotionally moved by Lawrence's passion and intensity.  Same goes for Rue's death.  Again, despite knowing what was going to transpire, I was able to be wholly engaged in the horrific events unfolding before my eyes; something that the performances of the cast were able to help me achieve.  Equally strong, but perhaps not given enough screen time, is Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark.  The majority of our time with Peeta is spent while he is injured, resting in their cave near the end of the film/book.  The book allows us to get to know Peeta more and delve into who he is and his motivations.  The cave segment is trimmed considerably, meaning that we don't get to be with Peeta as much as we possibly should have.  Both train sequences are considerably trimmed - another setting in which Peeta is quite prominent.  I liked his character enough, and the performance is fairly strong, but I just wish there could've been more dialogue between him and Katniss.

As a film, The Hunger Games is very good.  It absolutely does not feel like an almost two-and-a-half-hour film.  Ross stays with each act just long enough; from the Reaping, to the Capitol, and finally with the Games themselves.  I was not bored for a single moment, despite already knowing what was to come.  And that says a lot.  Some of my favorite films evoke real emotion in me, even after multiple viewings.  The Hunger Games did this on multiple occasions; the Reaping, the countdown to the games, and of course during Rue's death.  Even when Katniss pulled out the nightlock berries.  I was drawn into this well-crafted narrative through the superb character-work and fantastic world-building, pulled off with aplomb by Collins and her fellow screenwriters.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough.  And the book trilogy as well.  While the book is about children killing one another, all of the deaths are done tastefully; they aren't glamorized in the least bit.  Not much in the film is glamorized at all.  And that was the point.  District 12 is dirty and run-down.  The Games are chaotic and violent.  The Capitol is clean and technologically advanced.  These descriptions are complimented beautifully by Ross' decisions for using hand-held cinematography for most of the film.  There are a lot close-ups and shaky-cam.  And I'm talking about Bourne Ultimatum-style shaky cam.  I very much enjoyed the grittiness of the hand-held nature of the film making; it lent an air of reality to the proceedings and grounded the film in a way few others are.  The shaky-cam was a bit hit-and-miss for my tastes.  I have no problem with its implementation in films - the Bourne trilogy is one of my favorite franchises and that has shaky-cam written all over it.  Most of the shakiness comes during combat scenes in the Games themselves.  For the most part I was able to distinguish what was happening and who was who, but there were more than a few moments where I wish they would've cut to more wide shots that gave us a clear and calm view of what was happening.  The worst examples involve action around the Cornucopia; when Katniss and Clove are fighting and during the final confrontation with Cato in the climax of the Games.  It was very difficult to tell what was happening.

I can't help but feel that I'm complaining a lot about the film, but at the end of the day I loved it.  Its going to make a ton of money, and is already tracking higher than the last few Twilight films (thank goodness).  I plan on seeing THG many more times, and cannot wait for Catching Fire in 2013/2014.  Go see this movie.  I don't think you'll be disappointed.

The Hunger Games is an exceptional Hollywood blockbuster, that doesn't look at all like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Bullet out.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

John Carter Review

What's up Internet?  The Bearded Bullet is here to discuss his thoughts on the film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom book series, John Carter.  The first book written by Mr. Burroughs was way back in 1912.  After the film version its insane to think about how forward-thinking he was in terms of the technology and ideas present throughout.  I'll admit that I have never read any of the books, nor had actually never knew of their existence until the film was announced several years ago.  I enjoyed both trailers and held out hope for the film.  Many accused John Carter of borrowing from beloved franchises such as Star Wars or Avatar, when in fact, those very franchises borrowed from the Barsoom series from a century ago.

For those unaware of the series (as I was), the title character, John Carter, is a former Confederate solider from Virginia who is searching for a cave full of gold in the deserts of Arizona in 1881.  After being arrested and conscripted into the Arizona cavalry, John escapes, finds his cave, and by a series of interesting events winds up teleported to the surface of Mars.  Without going into too much detail, John becomes embroiled in a three-way Martian civil war that threatens to bring the entire planet to its knees.

For its time, this plot is insane.  Its difficult to attempt to view this film for what it represented a century ago rather than what it means in today's cinema.  That said, the story, on the whole, is a fairly refreshing take on the reluctant-hero trope found in plenty of films.  Its is an amalgamation of numerous film franchises: mix Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Avatar, Lord of the Rings, and Cowboys & Aliens (I know...woof) and you get John Carter.  And I'm actually okay with that.  The problem is that had I been completely unaware of this film's source material I probably would feel completely different.  And I fear that filmgoers may either stay away because of that fact or leave the theater feeling cheated.  Especially when some of the imagery of the film seems to steal directly from Star Wars Episode II - the arena scene in particular.

There is very much to like about this film.  The visual effects are stunning; however they did it, I actually felt that John was on Mars rather than a green screen set or a desert in Utah.  The fidelity of the effects is truly staggering.  A good two-thirds of the cast is wholly CG and they looked fantastic.  I would argue that the effects are on par with and at times surpass those of Avatar (which, to me, is the gold-standard for digitally-created characters).  I had some reservations going in about how realistic it would look to have John bounding around on screen (considering the gravity on Mars is much less than that of Earth) but again, I completely bought that he was jumping hundreds of feet at a time and killing foes with ease.  John Carter raises the bar for what motion-capture should be.

The characters outside of John and possibly his love interest, Dejah (played by Lynn Collins) don't get all that much attention.  You, as the viewer, are thrown into this world embroiled by conflict as much as the protagonist is.  We don't get to know the main villain, Sab (played by a wonderfully devious Dominic West), much at all outside of him being a totally evil dude.  The rest of the cast is treated in the same manner; they all put in great performances but don't get treated very well in terms of actual character development.  However, taken into context of John himself and what he's going through one could excuse such neglect.  Being thrown into this chaotic, new world, John would be just as confused as we are and might not have time to get to know the people around him.

That leads into my main complaint with the film - I was very confused for a good majority of the run-time.  Names, titles, and places are being thrown around like nobody's business.  For instance, the word for "leader" or "king" was being used to describe two different characters; I initially thought that the word was the name of Cirian Hind's character, Tardos, and was very confused when it was used to refer to Willem Dafoe's Tars.  And for the record, I had to look up all those names on IMDb.  Even though most of them are used numerous times throughout the film, its difficult at times to understand what the characters are saying, even when the dialogue turns into English.  John Carter is one of those films that it would be beneficial to see twice.  Because its awesome and because its confusing.

Along with the visual effects John Carter gets two other things very right: action and comedy.  JC is a much funnier film than I would have anticipated.  Its not a comedy by a long shot; rather, it has a light-hearted feel to it that felt similar in tone to something like 2008's Iron Man.  Great action, good laughs, but can get very serious when it needs to.  Speaking of action, JC has some excellent set-pieces.  The digital effects really shine during these elaborate sequences and the camera floats around with ease, providing some breathtaking cinematography.  The opening shot alone was a sight to behold.  Going back to that "serious" part that I mentioned - John Carter has some pretty heavy emotional stuff going on.  There's one scene in particular, during a large fight, that gave me chills - its one of the most moving and impactful moments of the film and of any film I've seen in quite awhile.  The tonal shift was handled with aplomb and felt quite genuine.

I could keep on going about how much I loved John Carter.  I think it must be mentioned that this was Andrew Stanton's first live-action film.  He, along with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol's Brad Bird, is a Pixar man, having directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E previously.  Both John Carter and MIGP hit grand-slams as being first-time-live-action directorial efforts.  I highly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys well-made action/adventure films.  I saw JC in Imax 3D and I would highly recommend that experience; the 3D was quite good and the visuals are gorgeously stunning on the large screen.  John Carter is, so far, my favorite film of 2012 - I cannot wait to see it again.  And one last thing: Woola is the most adorable alien-dog I have ever seen.

John Carter is a stunningly well-made action/adventure film that needs to be seen.

Bullet out.