Sunday, September 15, 2013

Kick-Ass 2 Review

Much like Sherlock Holmes’ depravity, my love for Kick-Ass knows no bounds.  It’s one of my all-time favorite comic-book movies for good reasons.  It has a main character who isn't a super hero.  He’s a normal kid who can’t really feel pain who decides to don a costume and try to clean up New York.  The real stars were Hit Girl (Chloe Grace-Moretz) and Big Daddy (the always-incredible Nicholas Cage) and their eye-popping action sequences.  The night-vision, “switch to kryptonite” scene leaves my jaw on the floor to this day.  And the hairs on my arms standing at attention.

Unfortunately, this year’s follow up, Kick-Ass 2, doesn't even come close to any of those spine-tingling moments of the original.

Set a bit after the events of the original, Kick-Ass 2 picks up with Mindy (Moretz) trying to lead a “normal” life by hanging up her Hit-Girl costume.  Her story line is essentially (and ironically) a prequel to her character’s fate in the upcoming Carrie remake.  Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) wants to take up the Kick-Ass mantle and begin again but can’t convince Mindy to don the cape and cowl to help him.  Long story short, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plass) is still pretty upset about Kick-Ass blowing up his dad in the finale of the first film, so he becomes “The Mother-Fucker,” recruits an army of insanely evil people as super-villains, and sets out to murder Kick-Ass in revenge.  Kick-Ass, in an unrelated turn of events, joins a newly-formed team of heroes, led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (the incredible Jim Carrey).

The new additions to the cast, for the most part, work pretty well.  Carrey just chews the scenery as Colonel Stars and Stripes.  I just wish he had a much larger to role to play.  Taylor-Johnson, Grace-Moretz, and Mintz-Plasse re-inhabit the characters that we came to love (or hate).  Plasse’s performance is a bit over-the-top and melodramatic at times, but considering Chris’ father was blown up it’s a little believable that he’d be acting the way he does.  Moretz still plays that foul-mouthed Mindy well, but now that she’s a bit older the vulgarity that spews from her mouth isn't shocking or amusing any more – it’s just obnoxious.

The same goes for almost all of the vulgarity in the film in general.  There’s just no reason for The Mother-Fucker to call his super-villain team “The Ungrateful C**ts.”  No reason beyond shock-value.  I’m not a prude by any means, but there’s just so much strange and almost out-of-place immaturity and foul language that I was squirming in my seat from uncomfortableness.  There’s something about this sequel that makes this crude language and behavior just fall flat with me.

Narrative-wise, Kick-Ass 2 is an inevitable and logical extension of the story-line from the previous film.  TMF wants revenge on Kick-Ass and that’s essentially it.  That said, there were some choices made that I just didn't enjoy whatsoever.  I understand why there were done (for the sake of the plot and to add weight and tension to an already-tense situation), but they just don’t sit well with me.  Some of Dave’s choices and actions (with regards to his father) just didn't ring all that true to me in terms of what the character feels and thinks.  Two characters are killed during the course of the film that made me genuinely angry.  I get that that was the point, but the same effect could’ve been accomplished by other means.

In terms of action, there isn't really anything in this film that can touch the “kryptonite” or kusuri-gama scene from the original.  Two set-pieces come close: one involving Mother Russia (one of TMF’s villains) wreaking havoc on the local police department (a bit disturbing, actually), and a showdown between Mother Russia and Hit-Girl.  The biggest problem with all of this is that much like The Dark Knight Rises and this year’s Iron Man 3, our favorite hero, in this case Hit-Girl, isn’t Hit-Girl for 95% of the movie.  She was the main attraction of the original, and even if her skills are less impressive now that she’s older, watching her fight is still just an utter delight.  I would've rather seen a movie in which she’s seeking revenge against the remainder of the D’Amico crime family for the murder of her father…

If it isn't apparent by this point, I wasn't that big of a fan of Kick-Ass 2.  I was so incredibly excited for it and it just left me a bit cold.  When you’re coming off of something as incredible as the original film, it’s very hard to top it, and it just fell short of the mark in just about every way.  Probably my biggest disappointment of the year so far.

Kick-Ass 2 is offensive just because it can be, and just can’t live up to the high bar set by its predecessor.

The Bearded Bullet.

Elysium Review

Neill Blompkamp’s directorial debut, District 9, was just so astounding that my expectations for his follow-up, Elysium, were through the roof.  District 9 was just such a special little film; the visual effects were some of the best ever seen, earning the film an Academy Award nomination, the characters were unique and felt real, and the way the narrative unfolded, transitioning from pseudo-found-footage to a more traditionally shot film was superb.  Unfortunately, while still a great time at the theater, Elysium just isn't up to par with this previous effort.

Set in 2154, Elysium introduces us to an Earth that has been ravaged to the point where it’s a veritable wasteland.  The rich and powerful members of society built a massive habitat ring in orbit, known as Elysium (which also happens to look almost identically to a Halo ring from that videogame series..), where everyone like, hangs out by pools and is just being rich and awesome.  We get a small glimpse into an ordinary citizens’ life through Max DaCosta (Matt Damon).  He lives in a massive shanty-town version of Los Angeles (think of the shanty town in District 9 but just on top of skyscrapers), working in a massive factory that produces robots that are used as the police force (and other purposes).  One day he’s dosed with a lethal burst of radiation and given just a few days to live.  He makes it his final goal in life to make it up to Elysium to fix himself, in one of the magical medical beds that can cure any disease.

Confused yet?  There is, of course, more to the plot but that’s the general idea.  There’s a lot going on in Elysium after you add in all of the periphery characters that make up the ensemble cast.  Jodie Foster’s Delacourt (seriously, what is up with her accent?!?) is the Secretary of Defense of Elysium, and of course she has her own agenda with the place.  Sharlto Copley plays one of the most sinister, down-and-out evil villains I've ever seen, Kruger.  He’s Delacourt’s on-call assassin/hit-man/ex-military-hired-thug that is certifiably insane.  There is absolutely no redemptive qualities to his character whatsoever.  You won’t sympathize with him for even a second.  And I loved it.  He is just so gloriously evil (and has some insane tech/weaponry) that Copley revels in the role and is clearly having a blast.

Damon’s Max is incredibly sympathetic and somewhat relatable; he’s just trying to make his way through this awful world after leading a life of crime.  Blompkamp tries to give us a window into his childhood through some kinda-bad flashbacks to his time in an orphanage.  It’s here where he learns about Elysium and vows to take himself and his friend, Frey (Alice Braga), up there someday.  It’s some pretty heavy-handed set-up for events that follow.

One thing that Elysium lacks over its predecessor is any sense of subtlety.  Granted, District 9 was very much an obvious analogy for apartheid in South Africa, and to a degree Elysium is as well, but it isn't hidden within an alien story line.  Here, the rich are literally above the poor and have the most awesome lifestyle ever.  There isn't much beyond that. 

As I previously mentioned, up on Elysium the rich have access to medical beds that will cure literally any ailment or disease a human can have.  We aren't told exactly why the rich won’t let poor people use their med-bays.  If you have this amazing technology, is there no way to develop other tech to help revitalize the Earth?  What exactly do people do on Elysium every day?  Do they have jobs?  Do they earn an income?  If over-population caused the destruction of the planet, wouldn't magical med-bays that cure anything do the same thing on Elysium?

As I just pointed out, the world-building Blompkamp does is good but not great.  This is just the most basic of story lines; poor good guy has to throw off the shackles of social oppression to fight against the bad rich guys.  By the end, the story pretty much just becomes Robin Hood.  But on a space station.

It may sound like I didn't really like Elysium, when in fact I did.  It may lack the subtlety or originality of District 9, but there is still quite a bit to enjoy about the film.  I do like Matt Damon quite a bit and enjoyed seeing him in this action-y role.  As I said before, Max is incredibly sympathetic and relatable.  Again, Kruger is just an awesomely-evil villain to his core.  As expected, the future tech on display is pretty amazing and somewhat grounded in our reality.  At one point, Max uses a modified AK-47 (we’re still using them 200+ years after they were created?) that has air-burst bullets with target-lock.  The effects (both visually and story-wise) are devastating and glorious.  There’s also a “chem-rail” rifle that can apparently shoot right through like, incredibly thick metal walls.  Kruger uses an energy shield several times (again, incredibly reminiscent of those in Halo) that is just awesome to view.

I suppose my biggest complaint with the film, if you look past the bland story and one-note characters, is the action.  Or more specifically, how the action was filmed.  District 9 has some face-melting action scenes and we could see exactly what was happening.  For some reason, the action sequences in Elysium are shot with some pretty heavy-handed shaky-cam (think Paul Greengrass on steroids).  I mean, I could tell what was happening but the visual effects are just so damn amazing that their beauty is hidden within this insane shakiness.  The final (this isn't a spoiler, folks.  There’s always one of these) showdown between Max and Kruger would've been pretty damn incredible had Blompkamp just locked down his camera for more than two quick shots.  I mean, there’s a gorgeous shot of Kruger jumping like, twenty feet in the air, in slow motion.  Then the camera goes right back to Parkinson’s mode.  It’s just such a shame.

While Elysium may not be the best or even my favorite sci-fi film this year (that honor goes to Oblivion), it’s still a very, very fun time at the theater and is still better than most run-of-the-mill summer action films.  While it doesn't quite live up to the heights achieved by District 9, I am still very much in Blompkamp’s corner and will continue to wish for great things from him.  Can Microsoft please just let him go back to Halo? (assuming, of course, that he’d still want to...which I don’t think he does)

Elysium is a fun, entertaining action blockbuster that doesn't quite live up to its predecessor.

The Bearded Bullet.

Pacific Rim Review

What does almost every young boy (or girl) do with his (or her) action figures?  Make them fight.  Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie, Pacific Rim, is pretty much the big-screen version of this; gigantic robots going up against huge monsters from another dimension.  At its core this is what Pac Rim is all about…but it ends up being more than just that.

In 2013 a portal to another dimension opens deep under the Pacific Ocean.  Hulking monsters, known as kaiju, begin invading our planet, causing thousands of deaths and wreaking havoc across the globe.  Conventional weapons were able to stop them at first, but eventually a new weapon was needed to defend against these monstrosities.  The Jaeger program was born.  Jaegers are hulking robots as big as the kaiju and are controlled by two pilots whose minds are linked via a neural bridge.  One pilot controls the right side of the Jaeger while the other controls the left side.  The pilots become celebrities and their Jaegers turned into toys.  Enter our hero, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam).  He and his brother pilot Gypsie Danger, a Mark 2 Jaeger.  They’re some of the best in the world until a kaiju gets the better of them and Raleigh disappears into anonymity.

Still with me?

Pacific Rim is a fairly straight-forward action film where you kind of know what people are going to do and generally how things will play out.  But that doesn't matter in the least.  Each fight between Jaegers and kaiju is thrilling, intense, and incredibly entertaining.  Each kaiju looks unique and has different powers or abilities.  The same goes for the Jaegers.  Each nation around the globe built their own and as such, each is easily distinguishable and has their own visual flairs and weapons.  For the most part, the action is distinguishable; there are only a few moments where the geography of the players in a fight got a little muddled and confusing.

What makes this film more than just another robots-fight-stuff movie is the human element.  Transformers tried to make you care about the humans in each film (ultimately we only really care for Sam Witwicky and even then not that much) but we really didn't.  Something like Real Steel pulled that aspect off incredibly well and so does Pacific Rim.  The relationships established from the first frames of the film are believable and feel incredibly real.  The bond that forms between Raleigh and his new co-pilot, Riyuki, feels real and earned.  I just cared about everyone in this film: from Idris Elba's stern Stacker (seriously, guys, his "end of our times" speech was in-credible) and Charlie Day’s kaiju-obsessed Newt.  Granted, they might not be very deep characters, with back-stories we don't know and understand, but on a surface, human level I cared about each and every one of them and their plight against the kaiju.

I just absolutely loved every aspect of Pacific Rim.  At first glance it looks like just another rock ‘em, sock’em robot vs. monsters film but it’s got a bit more depth to it than that.  The most important aspect is the human element – the cast is just populated with great actors putting in believable performances that raise the film just that much higher than other movies of its type.  I loved it and you probably will too!

Pacific Rim is an incredibly fun, entertaining summer blockbuster with a lot of heart.

The Bearded Bullet.

We're the Millers Trimmed Review

We’re the Millers is a fairly run-of-the-mill…ers raunchy comedy that, while ultimately fairly forgettable, does do some very funny things with the interesting cast that was assembled for the film.

David (Jason Sudekis), a low-level drug dealer gets in bad with his “boss,” Brad (Ed Helms) and has to smuggle some marijuana into the country from Mexico.  In order to pass the border checkpoint, David enlists three acquaintances, Casey (Emma Roberts), Kenny (Will Poulter) and Rose (Jennifer Aniston) to pose as his family; apparently families’ cars aren't thoroughly checked when coming into the country.  Good to know if I ever wanted to smuggle bad stuff into the country…

While this set-up and the ensuing overall film is pretty ordinary and predictable (spoiler alert: things don’t go according to plan), the interactions and chemistry between our four lead characters feel real and are incredibly entertaining.  Several comedic set-pieces almost left me in tears from laughing to hard: a bit with a venomous tarantula, an awkward three-way make-out scene, and another incredibly awkward almost-four-way left me in stitches (featuring the hilarious Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn - both Parks and Rec alums!).

That said, there were just some things that left me shaking my head.  Putting aside all of the average plot twists, contrivances, and tropes, the single most ridiculous scene of any film this year is proudly housed by We’re the Millers: after being captured and on the verge of being executed by a drug kingpin, the “Millers” frantically explain that they’re not a family…because the bad guy said something like, “now it’s time you died together like a family.”  Jennifer Aniston’s Rose explains that she’s a stripper and…proceeds to strip for everyone.  While she’s dancing around, grinding on things, there’s for some reason a giant shower in this garage (so now she’s all wet and even sexier…) and she somehow knew that when she pressed a big red button that sparks would come flying out of nowhere (so now she’s wet, sexy, and looking like she’s in a Nine Inch Nails video).  I get it – the whole point was to distract the bad guys so they could all get away, but the entire scene is ridiculous and a cheap way to draw in hormonal teens by slapping it in every trailer.  Which they did.

We’re the Millers isn't terrible.  Or great.  It’s okay.  With other fantastic comedies this year (The World’s End, This is the End, The Heat), Millers just feels average.  And there’s nothing really wrong with that.

We’re the Millers is an average, raunchy comedy with some truly brilliant moments.

The Bearded Bullet.

The Heat Trimmed Review

I’m not the world’s biggest Sandra Bullock fan.  I don’t really like her at all.  The only reason I wanted to see Paul Feig’s The Heat was because of Melissa McCarthy.  She stole the show in the hilarious Bridesmaids and was most certainly one of the highlights in The Hangover: Part III.  The entire film would succeed or fail solely upon the chemistry between these two leading ladies.

Thankfully, after a rocky start with Bullock’s Ashburn, McCarthy’s Mullins comes on screen and the whole movie just exudes a new energy.  Much like Zach Galifianakis’ Allan from the aforementioned Hangover films, just her presence on-screen is enough to get me laughing.  The story that unfolds with these two unlikely friends is one we've all seen ad naseum: Ashburn is the stick-in-the-mud FBI agent who has to work with the rough-around-the-edges Mullins on a case that could make-or-break her career.  Hilarity ensues.

What makes The Heat so funny and endearing is this awkward pairing that we've seen so many times before.  The two play off each other so well that it’s hard to believe it’s their first film together.  The usually-serious Bullock isn't afraid to loosen up and get a bit vulgar near the end of the film – her character’s transformation isn't surprising but it feels natural and is incredibly funny.

There isn't a whole lot new and unique about The Heat, narrative-wise, but it’s the two leading ladies that really make this film work as much as it does.  I really hope we see more of these two together on screen, whether in a sequel (which they set up quite nicely) or in another project.  If you’re looking for a good laugh I’d say check it out.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

The Heat is a paint-by-numbers comedy that’ll still leave you in stitches.

The Bearded Bullet.

The Last Stand Review

The Last Stand is an incredibly dumb, brutish action film with a thin plot and even thinner characters…but I loved it all the same.  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen (his appearances in both Expendables movies notwithstanding) delivers on pretty much exactly what you expect going in; lots of action.  And that’s pretty much all we get with this film.

***Spoiler Warning is in effect***

A cartel boss pulls a prison-break and escapes Federal custody while being transported to death row.  Forrest Whitaker’s Agent Bannister is the inept FBI agent in charge of the operation (seriously, Arnold tells him straight-up that there are bad guys in his town but just gets dismissed like he’s an idiot).  The bad guy is heading toward the Mexican border and his path will lead him directly through Sheriff Ray Owen’s (Schwarzenegger) small New Mexico town.  After the absolutely worst FBI agents manage to lose the bad guy at least twice, it’s up to Arnold and his small crew of deputies to stop him and his group of cronies that shows up early in the film.

There isn't much finesse or nuance to the story; bad guy is going from point A to point B and must be stopped.  Sheriff Owens is a fairly apt parallel to Arnold’s off-screen presence; he is old, has seen and done a lot in his time, but can still kick ass when he needs to.  I’m sure that Arnold didn't do many of his own stunts, but there are a few awesomely kick-ass moments that make me very glad that he’s back in the realm of cinema.  The supporting cast is just fine; not spectacular and not horrible.  You get the sense, from Johnny Knoxville especially, that they’re just having fun blowing stuff up and killing scores of professional baddies.  Each player gets their moment in the spotlight - Luis Guzman’s Mike walks out of smoking wreckage, slaughtering bad guys with a WW2-era M1 Thompson sub-machine gun.  Cheesy, yes.  But incredibly fun as well.

By the end, all of the cronies are dead and it all comes down to a show-down between him and the Sheriff.  If you don’t like anything about the film, I would hope that the final car chase (through a disorienting corn field) and subsequent final fistfight would get your blood pumping.  Both are incredibly interesting and well executed (save for some very dodgy green-screen work during the bridge confrontation) and are just a blast to watch unfold.  It felt right at home in Arnold’s stable of ridiculous action moments.

While the story, characters, and dialogue leave much to be desired, where The Last Stand shines is in its action.  Largely shaky-cam free, the action is very clear and comprehensible and makes total geographic sense.  It isn’t making much money and isn’t getting the best reviews, but Stand is simply a fun time at the movies.  If you turn off your brain and just sit back and revel in the fact that Arnold is back and kicking ass, you’ll probably have a great time.

The Last Stand is a fun action movie with some great moments…just make sure you turn off your brain.

The Bearded Bullet.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters Review

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was delayed almost an entire year (due to 3D post-conversion)…and I can’t say it was worth the wait.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing too awful or offensive about it – it’s just a perfectly fine, serviceable action film with some great set-design and production values.  There just isn’t that much else at play here.

The film opens with a young Hansel and Gretel being lead into a forest by their father.  He asks them to stay put and leaves them all alone.  They eventually disobey him and make their way to the iconic witch’s house made of candy.  And the rest is history.  Well, not exactly.  Our heroes grow up as orphans, hell-bent on eradicating the countryside of all manner of foul witches.  The rest of the film plays out like a typical action movie; our heroes are hired to hunt witches, they slowly uncover a larger scheme being conducted by the big baddie (played by Famke Janssen), which culminates in an over-the-top action set-piece.  Throw in a douchey sheriff (my all-time least favorite actor, Peter Stormare), a bumbling comic-relief sidekick, and a love interest for Hansel and you have the complete package.

Despite the paint-by-numbers story, I did actually appreciate the film’s attempt at a mystery sub-plot involving H&G’s parents and their mysterious disappearance.  I did, for the most part, see the twists coming a mile away, but they were still very welcomed at mixing up the story just that little bit.  Jeremy Renner (Hansel) and Gemma Arteron (Gretel) must be commended as well – not for their performances, per se, but at least for actually trying and giving it their all.  It genuinely looked like they were having fun running around forests and beating the living hell out of evil witches.  I did, however, find the underlying incestuality between the two a bit disturbing…

If you’ve seen the trailers for Hansel & Gretel then you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.  While it won’t end up as one of my favorite movies of the year, I would recommend it based solely on its fun factor; it’s also just nice to see Jeremy Renner getting work after his career-turning performance in The Hurt Locker.

Hansel & Gretel is a fairly generic, paint-by-numbers action film with enough pleasantries to entertain.

The Bearded Bullet

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Last of Us Review

The Last of Us is one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had whilst gaming.  And that’s why I’m going to treat this magnificent game as a film and review it as such.  It is without a doubt one of, it not THE most cinematic game I’ve ever played – even more so than my beloved Bioshock franchise.  For those of you who haven’t experienced it yet, I suggest you just stick to the first part of my review, for there are many things you won’t want to know going in…

Developer Naughty Dog has shown its increasingly-fantastic pedigree this console generation with the fantastic Uncharted series.  They’re essentially big-budget, summer action tent-pole films, in the vein of Indiana Jones, in video-game form.  To continue the analogy, The Last of Us is the somber, brooding, awards-bait drama that comes out in November in limited release…and wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.  This game is dark.  I mean, dark.  The world that Naughty Dog has built oozes grime and grit.  And is utterly depressing.

It’s this unflinchingly uncompromising world that makes The Last of Us something special.  In 2013, a fungal pandemic sweeps the globe.  The fungus, cordyceps, exists in our actual world and acts as a parasite to insects and other fungi.  It can take over motor functions completely, rendering the host without the ability to control its movements.  In the game, the fungus evolves to infect humans, who go through several stages of mutation.  An infected human goes from a fast zombie-type to a “clicker,” who uses echo-location to find its prey.  “Bloaters” are the last stage of the infection; their entire bodies are covered in armored fungal plates and are incredibly hard to take down.  The infected aren’t the only dangers in this world; pockets of hunters and bandits permeate the countryside, having carved out sections of the ruins of America as their own turf.

The game is set in 2033, twenty years after the fall of civilization.  Our protagonist is Joel, a survivor who lived through the apocalypse and is living in one of the last quarantine zones in the country, Boston, Massachusetts.  The remains of the U.S. Government, FEDRA, attempt to hold these zones with and by total military control.  Joel and co-conspirator Tess smuggle goods and make black-market deals to earn ration cards to survive.  A gun deal goes south and the two are tasked with smuggling a unique package across the country for a rebel faction known as the Fireflies.  This package is a fourteen-year-old girl named Ellie.

The crux of both the gameplay and the narrative is the relationship between Joel and Ellie.  It’s always interesting to watch two opposite people have to team up for a greater task; Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell in The Other Guys, Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges in True Grit, or more aptly, Booker and Elizabeth from this year’s outstanding Bioshock Infinite (fun fact: Troy Baker voiced the lead characters for both Infinite and The Last of Us).  Joel is a grizzled and jaded man who has seen and done despicable things and knew what the world once was.  Ellie was born after the fall of civilization and has a gritty naiveté about her; she’s tough and can fight in this harsh world, but will stop to wonder at movie posters or toys in a store.  As is expected, Joel isn’t all too happy to have this girl by his side while traveling through the harsh world that exists outside the quarantine zone; it’s enough to just stay alive let alone have to look out for someone else.  He and Tess are partners, but from the beginning you know that Tess isn’t a liability – she can more than handle herself in a fight.

The pairing of Joel and Ellie begins within well-worn territory; Joel is the reluctant anti-hero and Ellie is the plucky, mouthy side-kick who doesn’t really wanna be there either.  We’re with this pair for a significant amount of time, through the good and bad.  But mostly it’s bad.  Their relationship develops naturally and feels incredibly real and grounded, especially for this cruel world they’re surviving in.  The guarded nature that both begin the journey with spills over into the greater narrative; any survivor the duo meet are met with hesitance and paranoia.  It truly is survival of the fittest and no one can be trusted.  Late in the game Ellie meets two men in the woods and she and I shared a mutual paranoia about these two; are they really there to help or to do cruel and deplorable things to this teenage girl?

The narrative is structured into clear chapters, defined by the four seasons.  We begin in Summer and end in Spring.  Every season ends on a dramatic climax, and left my jaw on the floor each time.  If this were a TV show I would’ve lost my mind having to wait to find out what happened next.  How the narrative picks up each sequential season is handled masterfully; if we don’t know if someone lived or died we’re left hanging, with tidbits of information given to us rather than just outright showing us.  If this all seems a bit vague and abstract it’s because it is – to give any details outside of the initial set-up would be a disservice to anyone who wants to experience this game as it’s meant to be.

I don’t have much more to say that won’t spoil key events that transpire in this masterwork of gaming.  If you own a PlayStation 3 you have absolutely no excuse to not pick this gem up and experience one of the best-told stories I’ve ever seen.  If you can’t afford the $60 price tag then do your best to rent it or borrow it from a friend.  The Last of Us is without a doubt a must-play game, hands-down.

************Spoilers for The Last of Us**********

From the beginning of the game to its quiet ending moments, Joel is the ultimate anti-hero.  He doesn’t want to smuggle Ellie and it shows.  He kills and does despicable things to survive in this world.  As the seasons change and Ellie begins to grow on him, Joel begins to change subtlely.  By Spring, when our duo reaches Salt Lake City, Utah, Joel is now the one trying to cheer up Ellie and joke around  a bit.  The relationship that developed between the two, with each having saved each other’s lives several times, plays heavily into the final moments of the game and the humanity-condemning decision Joel ultimately makes.

Ellie is immune to cordyceps; before the game even begins she is bitten and infected…but doesn’t turn.  She is seen as the cure, which is an acknowledged trope found in other post-apocalyptic fare like Children of Men, and is the driving force for the entire game.  Upon finding refuge with the Fireflies in Salt Lake City, Joel learns that in order for them to develop a potential cure Ellie must essentially be lobotomized.  The parts of her brain that resisted the fungus must be removed and her life sacrificed for the greater good.  Just as Spock said in The Wrath of Khan, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  Or the one.” 

Joel can’t process this information, especially after all they’ve been through.  He almost gave his life several times to get her to their destination that he just cannot accept her sacrifice.  The final set-piece involves Joel sneaking by or murdering dozens of Firefly soldiers on the way to the operating room where Ellie is being prepped for surgery.  Joel breaks in and flees with Ellie and is stopped by the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, who pleads with Joel to stop.   In the last great reveal of the game, we see Joel in a truck driving away from the city and we, the viewers, have no idea what he decided to do.  The camera slowly pans to the back seat where we see Ellie asleep; we flash back to Marlene and see Joel shoot her in the stomach.  With her last breaths she begs Joel to let her live.  He puts a bullet in her brain.

Ellie awakens in the back of the truck and asks Joel what happened.  He explains that there were other people who were immune and that she wasn’t needed.  We cut to the duo as they’re approaching the Colorado settlement where Joel’s brother, Tommy, is living with his new wife.  Ellie stops Joel and tells the gut-wrenching story of how she became infected.  At the end, she asks Joel if everything he told her about the Firefly incident is true.  This is his one chance to come clean and be wholly honest with her.  And he replies, “yes.”  Cut to black.  Game over.  What a gut-punch of an ending.

We’ve spent 15+ hours with these characters, watching them grow and change and evolve.  The duo have been together for a year by the end.  You want them to achieve their goal and they do.  They make it to the Fireflies but the result isn’t what you expect.  You don’t want Ellie to die but her life is being given for the greater good.  For the whole of humanity!!  I probably would’ve made the same choice that Joel did; I would’ve at the least asked her to be awoken and given a choice.  There’s no mention made about what she wants in this case.  Going into it, all the pair expected to happen was to have some blood drawn, not Ellie being lobotomized. 

We are rooting for Joel to save her, but at the same time he’s potentially condemning humanity to extinction in the process.  Add on the two HUGE lies he tells Ellie at the game’s closing moments and Joel becomes a despicable person……..but he was one all along.  The gut-punch isn’t just how the game ends, but that ultimately that the person you’ve been playing as this entire game never was the hero you wanted him to be or even thought he was.  Joel is just a man trying to survive in the apocalypse after having his own daughter die in his arms in the opening moments of the game (and the outbreak).  As I said before, I probably would’ve made the same decision to save Ellie if I was in his shoes, but the lies are almost worse than the condemnation of humanity.

The Last of Us is just simply one of the best-told stories I’ve ever experienced in any medium.  Naughty Dog is firing on all cylinders for this one; the voice-acting is top-notch, character animations are strikingly life-like at times, the score is incredibly strong and evocative, the visuals are breathtaking (the idea of “destroyed beauty” introduced by 2007’s Gears of War is taken and ran with by the art team), and the narrative is simply sublime in its masterful execution.  I have literally no complaints about this game whatsoever.  It’s PlayStation 3’s best exclusive title and one of the best games of this generation.  Hands down.

The Last of Us transcends its medium to become something so much more.

The Bearded Bullet.

Friday, June 28, 2013

World War Z Review

I didn’t have much confidence in World War Z.  The project was plagued with issues: police confiscating actual rifles that were found on set, ballooning production costs, myriad re-shoots, and an incomplete third act.  My adoration for lead Brad Pitt wasn’t enough to make me more than wary about the final product.  It turns out that any and all trepidation I had was for naught; World War Z is a terrifying, thrilling, exciting zombie action film that is quite good.

Let’s address the “Z” word right off the bat.  I suppose technically the creatures featured in the film are just “infected” and not “zombies” per se, but I’m going to call them that anyway (the film does so as well for the most part).  I’m not here to argue the definition of “zombie.”  Ultimately it doesn’t matter because they’re not real, but most people would classify zombies as being relatively slow and decrepit.  What permeates WWZ is the complete opposite; these zombies are FAST…VERY FAST.  And they’ll dive-tackle their prey like a football player on massive steroids.  As can be seen in the trailers, they can act in a massive swarm, piling over each other like a human wave or forming a tower like the fire ants in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  It’s utterly and completely insane.  And VERY terrifying.  Whether or not the CGI swarms work for you, the image is horrifying and one that’ll shake you to your core.

Considering that this film is rated PG-13 there is very little blood or gore on screen.  Because of this, we don’t get to see gruesome zombie kills and attacks as in AMC’s The Walking Dead.  We see people get tackled and attacked and then violently turn (this isn’t just the normal “person dies from a fever and then wakes back up”…when someone turns it is within seconds and they’re body contorts violently accompanied with torturous screams), just sans blood.  To be honest the lack of blood was noticeable but it didn’t really bother me all that much.  Sometimes what you can’t see is more disturbing than what you can see, and in some instances this works out pretty well.

I’ve never read the book upon which this movie is based (although I have read Max Brook’s other zombie book, “The Zombie Survival Guide,” which is pretty fantastic), so I cannot provide insight on how it stands up (although I am aware that the film has very little to do with the content of the book).  Gerry (Brad Pitt) is a former UN investigator who’s been to some of the worst places on Earth.  Quite early in the film he and his family get caught up in what becomes a world-wide pandemic of flesh-craving, sprinting zombies.  They make it from Philadelphia to Newark, New Jersey and must survive until a UN rescue helicopter can get to them.  Gerry is one of the last people on the planet that can help figure out how to combat this sickness.  He’s sent with a small team of Navy SEALs and one of the world’s leading viral researchers across the globe to find patient zero – the one who started it all.  From there the film hops from location to location across the planet, with Gerry in constant danger, having to piece together the puzzle that is this viral outbreak.

What I appreciated most about World War Z is the film’s originality.  I won’t spoil the specifics, but there were multiple things in the film that I had never seen before in a zombie movie.  To go along with this idea, the characters, for the most part, are quite smart and the decisions they make make sense (which doesn’t happen often in films of this nature)…save for one side character who is infuriatingly clumsy.  I must also commend the film’s finale; much ado was made about Damon Lindelof being brought in to pen the third act, but I felt that what he brought to the table in terms of the final set-piece was fantastic.  The end is sort of an anti-climax, which upon my initial viewing left me a bit let down…but after a second viewing and some time I’ve learned to appreciate what they were going for.  This isn’t a normal summer tent-pole film with a bombastic, over-the-top action finale.  In the world that was built, with the characters we’ve come to know, something of that nature just wasn’t possible.  The finale introduces a concept that I’ve never seen before in a zombie film and allows for a potential sequel down the road.

While World War Z gets a lot right, there are a few bumps in the road.  Much of the action takes place close to the camera, with director Marc Forster using his Quantum of Solace shaky-cam all too much.  I assume this was done to hide any potential blood, gore, and violence (a la The Hunger Games) but it was still hard to follow the action and figure out what was happening.  There are two plotlines that were all but dropped by the end of the film; the situation with Gerry’s family and a small boy that they took under their protection while in Newark.  While the family stuff comes back by the end, they’re missing from the entire third act of the film.  Just a scene or two with us checking in with them would’ve been quite helpful in reminding us what Gerry’s fighting for.

World War Z is probably the biggest surprise for me so far this year in terms of just blowing any and all expectations out of the water.  I went in expecting a mess of a zombie film, but what I saw was a quite competent, thrilling, scary and incredibly entertaining action film that left me wanting more.  There is just so much to love about the film and so little to hate that I have to whole-heartedly recommend it.  In a summer filled with bombastic action films, WWZ is a nice change of pace…mainly due to its unique finale.

World War Z is an intense, thrilling, and action-packed zombie-apocalypse film that’s just damn good.

The Bearded Bullet

Man of Steel Review

My connection with Superman does not run deep.  I never really read any of the comics growing up and hadn’t seen any of the Christopher Reeve films until recently – I watched Superman and Superman II back-to-back and thought they were good but great (I know, probably blasphemous, right?).  I had seen Superman Returns only once several years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit from what I remember; I still don’t understand the hatred that it receives to this day.  I mean, even in last year’s fantastic Ted, Seth MacFarlane made sure to throw in a joke about Brandon Routh and “that god-awful Superman movie.”  That said, what really had my juices flowing about Man of Steel was the creative team behind it; David Goyer writing (who helped to co-write The Dark Knight trilogy), Christopher Nolan producing (the man needs no introduction), and Zack Snyder (one of my absolute favorite directors) directing.  Add in an absolutely stellar cast and they pretty much could do no wrong.  And guess what?  They didn’t.

The influence that this incredible creative team exerted upon this film comes through in spades.  Goyer, Nolan, and Snyder took Kal-El’s origin story and made is realistic as possible; yeah, he’s an alien from a distant planet, but they took this super-powered alien and planted him in our world and explored the ramifications of such an event.  Through a series of vignettes interspersed throughout the film, we learn about Clark and his struggles growing up with his amazing powers.  His human father, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) mentored him in his early years, imparting key advice – that everything will change for him and the entire world when his powers become known.  This leads to a life of mediocrity for Clark, as he moves from job to job across Canada, revealing his powers only when life-or-death situations arise.  And when he does reveal himself to the world, and namely the American military, they react accordingly; with extreme trepidation and a healthy dose of fear.  Luckily, this initial prejudice dissipates as Clark proves that despite their inability to control him, we, as a country and species, have nothing to fear from him.

On the surface, Man of Steel is a superhero action film…that is hidden within a greater science-fiction epic.  The film opens with Kal-El’s birth on his home planet of Krypton – one of the most visually stunning extraterrestrial environments I’ve ever seen.  We quickly get into some action via the menacing General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his cronies who start a civil war over the future of their dying planet.  The action on Krypton is face-meltingly gorgeous through and through, and the same goes for the Earth-bound majority of the film.  Snyder very rarely dips into the slow-motion well that he mined gloriously for 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and to a degree Legends of the Guardians.  Fist-fights (of which there are numerous) tend to be a little close to the camera but comprehensible for the most part – which is what really matters.  Any scene where Kryptonians collide will leave your jaw on the floor; a showdown between two of Zod’s soldiers and Clark in the middle of Smallville is hands-down one of the coolest fight scenes I’ve ever seen in any superhero film…or action film in general.  Snyder does a fantastic job of making these super-powered people feel as real as possible; when Clark gets punched across the town by Faora it looks and feels real.

While all of the action scenes are glorious to behold, within them lives my only real issue with the film - the wanton destruction that permeates every conflict between Clark and Zod’s minions.  I’m no Superman expert, clearly, but to me it seems that Clark doesn’t even really attempt to steer destruction and carnage away from Smallville and/or Metropolis.  A major battle occurs in each, with Clark actually bringing the fight himself to Smallville.  Gas stations explode, an IHOP gets demolished, and dozens of cars are blown up with seemingly no remorse.  In the third act finale, what seems to be a large portion of Metropolis is completely and utterly demolished.  Granted, a lot of this isn’t Clark’s fault, but a climactic fight between him and Zod causes entire skyscrapers to collapse…and Supes doesn’t even flinch.  All I can hope is that this issue is brought up and dealt with in the sequel; perhaps Clark accepts responsibility and helps rebuild the city.  Maybe Lex Luthor steps up (there are myriad references to the super-villain throughout the film) and gets wealthy from rebuilding.  I just don’t hope that it gets ignored in future installments.

Much ado is being made about the film’s final moments.  I won’t spoil what exactly happens, but Clark makes a decision that is incredibly polarizing.  Personally, I had no issue at all with what transpired; it may go against one of the major tenants of the character, but I feel like there was no other option for Clark.  What transpires can allow for the already-green-lit sequel to explore the ramifications of his decision and how it affects him as a person.

The film ultimately hinges upon the relationships within; Clark and Lois, Clark and the Kents, Kal and Jor-El, and even Zod and Jor-El.  While each existed on different levels, for the most part they worked.  A lot of emotional weight is placed upon the Clark/Kents relationship, with the bond between Clark and his father, Jonathan taking center stage.  A key moment in the film hinges entirely upon this bond and I felt it worked incredibly well.  It doesn’t and won’t work for everyone, but I felt that the handful of flashbacks to Clark’s childhood did a fantastic job of building this relationship and the values that Jonathan tried to impart upon his son.  Clark and Lois are together for a large part of the film and I felt their chemistry immediately.  Much like in Captain America, by the time the two leads kiss it feels incredibly earned and meaningful.

As with most action and superhero films these days, many comparisons can be drawn to previous films.  Several moments in Man of Steel seem to come directly out of the The Dark Knight – both feature an interrogation-room scene, have a villain demanding something from the hero within 24 hours or bad stuff will happen,  and both end with our hero doing something questionable for the greater good.  There were also echoes of The Avengers (an alien-invasion scenario in the third act) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (the villains attempting to essentially make our world theirs).

Despite these immediate comparisons (of which some are knowingly thin), I think the aspect I enjoyed the most is the originality of its structure.  Something like 2009’s Star Trek flows quite linearly; we open with an action sequence (as does Man of Steel) and from there were bounce from Kirk to Spock and back as they each grow up on their own planets.  Man of Steel jumps right into Clark as an adult.  As I mentioned before, current events are inter-spliced with flashbacks to Clark’s childhood, with them complimenting each other quite well.  I’m sure you could edit the film to play out linearly, but this non-linear narrative adds just a little uniqueness to a film that is ultimately a loud, pretty, bombastic action film.

It would seem that Man of Steel is a love-it-or-hate-it film…I fall into the “love” category.  It has its flaws, yes, but it is incredibly entertaining, with some outstanding action sequences that left my jaw on the floor.  The same can be said about the stunning visual effects that allow these super-human beings to feel grounded in our reality.  Warner Bros. and DC seem to be wholly embracing the dark/somber tone that The Dark Knight trilogy delivered to us, and while it may not exactly fit every character in their pantheon, it suits this film well enough and will hopefully continue on to the inevitable Justice League film.

Man of Steel a jaw-droppingly gorgeous summer blockbuster with some real emotion and heart.

The Bearded Bullet