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