MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING REVIEW

In a world where movies try to appeal to the broadest variety of tastes, one film dares to play to… like, two or three of them.

After delivering what most would call “the most awesomest movie ever,” Joss Whedon has tapped into his more scaled back side and given us his rendition of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Filmed at his home over roughly two weeks, Whedon’s adaption of the Bard’s story of love, treachery and comedy is all black and white and features regulars of the Whedon universe, such as Nathan Fillion, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, and Amy Acker, among many others.

There’s no mistaking this is Whedon’s work — the comedic relationship he has with his troupe of familiars is as stellar as ever, with their humor breaking through the gap of them speaking in the original iamic pentameter and giving the movie that familiar Whedon stamp. It’s thanks to this that the movie isn’t the completely stiff adaption one might think of when Shakespeare comes to mind.

Scaled back efforts have their perks but they also have their pitfalls. In order to fully appreciate Much Ado About Nothing, it feels as if you need to be a fan of Shakespeare, art-house films and the Whedon-verse. In appealing only to such specific tastes, it’s like there’s a hefty wall of separation between the viewer and the movie.

This isn’t a modern Shakespeare adaption you would want to start off with. By keeping the original speech in a modern setting, Whedon’s assuming you’ve already been familiarized with the story and the point is to notice his take on it. For those who have not been overly familiarized with the story, it’s going eventually prove difficult to keep up in deciphering the dialogue and some may even give up.

As if becoming detached due to the vernacular wasn’t enough, the whole tone of the movie is almost made to be looked at from a distance. Filming in black and white in one location with the director’s closest group of friends gives the vibe of being a senior film student’s final project; a cool, collected inside effort by the main creative mind and his people that can only be fully enjoyed by those belonging to all three groups and simply appreciated to varying degrees by others.

However, Whedon’s strong ability to amuse seeps through and keeps the film from being too removed. He knows just how to get his actors to deliver the lines in a way that speaks volumes (and writes a few good tunes as well).

Odds are most of you won’t see this arrive at your local theater and that’s ok. Unless you belong to all three interest groups and have decided you need to rush out and see it, there’s really no reason to spend money on theater prices. Nothing about it screams that it needed to be in theaters in the first place. You will not lose anything if you only view it at home.

Whedon’s adaption isn’t bad. There’s maybe 20 minutes before it ends that stretch on forever and that’s about all that needs to be said negatively on a technical level. In all fairness, its solid performances are what to watch for. But for most people it is a movie that will be appreciated more than enjoyed and if you don’t belong to all three demographics, you may sense the distinct feeling that you’re not part of the club.

6/10 

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WORLD WAR Z REVIEW

The only thing that seems to have lost its bite more than the zombie genre is the enthusiasm for the movie adaption of Max Brooks’ novel, World War Z. Fan outrage at changes to the source material and reported trouble on the set effectively put a dent in early enthusiasm, this writer included.

Well, turns out there’s no reason to lose your head because WWZ may just be the surprise hit of the summer.

I’ve not gotten around to reading the acclaimed book, so I won’t claim to know any changes made but what I will claim to know is that the movie adaption works as a zombie horror movie, an epidemic flick and a tried-and-true thriller. Long story short, it works.

In a summer where tentpoles decide to shift gears half way through, usually for the worst, WWZ remains absolutely consistent in its excitement. I’m usually not that fond of Brad Pitt but, dare I say, he gave a pretty solid performance here. Following him across the globe, trying to pick up clues about this epidemic and staying just one step ahead of the chaos before things go to shit, stays thrilling throughout and keeps the movie going at a great pace (another thing this movie has going over almost every other blockbuster this summer).

Having this story play out on a global scale is a fresh look at a situation that so often is shown about a small group of roaming survivors who can’t help but fight amongst themselves, aka a once interesting story that has been beaten to death for the past decade. The sheer scale of the Israel sequence showcases the overwhelming odds of this mass extinction and is terrifying to no end.

And yet the scene where our protagonist, along with a few others, must sneak down a dark hallway and avoid the zombies at the same time has that old-school horror genre thrill to it. The combination of these two strengths makes the movie almost unpredictable.

Also returning to the days of old: the actual word “zombie.” Gone is this “walker” or “infected” nonsense and thankfully the creatures themselves are practically on par with the idea. Yes, this is a PG-13 movie so the gore can’t go beyond a certain point but director Mark Forster does a proficient job at getting the idea across without indulging in it (after all, you can turn your TV to AMC to see all the “walker” gore you want and little else of interest on that show).

Pitt’s family in the movie is mostly ineffectual but that can be forgiven since they work as a big incentive (also a terrifying situation when you see it and realize what’s happening). While that can be forgiven, the final five minutes of the movie scream that they didn’t know how to end it (another problem of the genre) and fall back on bad narration that comes out of nowhere.

There will be some who avoid it simply because of their obsessive devotion to the book and that’s fine. Wait… no it’s not. Yes, it has the same name and is a much different take but it has such dominant strengths that shunning it simply because it deviates would be a mistake.

World War Z was slated to be a failure long before it came out. Here we are at the time of release and thanks to it being two hours of consistent thrills it’s better than both Star Trek and Man of Steel. Wonders never cease.

8/10

MAN OF STEEL REVIEW

Despite being arguably the most iconic superhero ever (this coming from a diehard Batman fan, no less) Superman has had only a fair share more luck getting traction on the big screen than his lower tier friend Aquaman.

It’s a little surprising to think that over 30 years Supes has had just five big screen adventures, with only one reaching beyond the general consensus of “really good.” Richard Donner’s Superman is still hailed as a quintessential superhero movie while its three sequels saw the effect of diminishing returns, whereas Bryan Singer’s 2006 revisit, Superman Returns, was generally met with a resounding “meh,” effectively putting any future Superman movies on hold.

Now, Man of Steel has arrived to bust down our doors.

This is not your father’s Superman. He still stands for doing the right thing but gone is the campy humor and tongue-in-cheek joy the character is widely known for, instead adapting the material for the complexity of modern superhero movies. Maybe this is due mostly to the fact that Superman can often be a very cut and dry, plain character (read: boring). Nothing can hurt him, he always does the right thing and the people he surrounds himself with are usually just as cookie-cutter.

Honestly, this movie is all the better for dumping the old and trying a new approach because even if it’s far from perfect, Man of Steel has succeeded in doing something that needed to finally be done: make Superman exciting.

Man of Steel‘s savior is its simplicity. By focusing the story into a straightforward sci-fi actioner, the filmmakers have allowed for the themes in the story to flourish, such as finding your place in the world, choosing your own destiny, and a father’s wisdom. These themes help bring a richness and emotional satisfaction that this character deserves and will hopefully continue to display.

David Goyer of Dark Knight trilogy writing fame follows a pattern of similar strengths found in the recent Batman movies, utilizing several flashbacks to explain why our hero becomes something greater and delivering the raw emotional moments that elevate both movies.

Much as it is a superhero movie, this revamp holds just as strong roots in sci-fi. The opening 15 minutes on Krypton are surprisingly realized and put any sci-fi elements in the recent Star Trek sequel to shame. Likewise, Zod’s threat to Earth plays out much like a grand scale alien invasion plot, which sits well in this universe.

Superman Returns was largely criticized for its lack of action, plane scene excluded. No one is likely to find issue there with Man of Steel. In fact, it’s now gone to the other extreme. Director Zack Snyder knows a thing or two about over-the-top action and for some it may be too much (with good reason). Just like Star Trek Into Darkness and even Iron Man 3 among other blockbusters, Man of Steel exists in halves: the first half is made up of character building moments and emotional beats while the second half dives headlong into balls-out action scenes.

True, the first hour or so is definitely more rewarding on a story level but it’s not as if the action half is boring (this is what some people solely want to see in a Superman movie) — it’s more like having a hyper puppy: fun and amusing but occasionally draining.

What may push people past patience is the instances of wholly unnecessary action (giant robot tentacle thing, anyone?), Superman inadvertently causing more catastrophic damage, product placement more rampant than Supes’ Kryptonian adversaries in the battle of Smallville, and a controversial choice our hero is forced to make (for my money, it’s an appropriately buzz-worthy one).

Even if the second half drops the character development the first had for more wow-factor moments, the cast assembled here is still impeccable — seriously, they nailed it. Henry Cavill delivers the earnest, good-heartedness of Clark Kent all while exploring a more conflicted version. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane goes through a few adjustments that make her a stronger, more believable female character. Michael Shannon is held back as Zod but still exudes the requisite menace, and the likes of Russel Crowe, Kevin Costner, Antje Traue, and Laurence Fishburne all get their supporting moments in the yellow sun.

Thanks to the team of Snyder, Goyer, producer Chris Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer, what we have here is a technically masterful, fulfilling movie that keeps the ball rolling full steam ahead, enough so to even make you miss some of the bad dialogue here and there. While it may run more than a bit long, the gorgeous, Malick-esque camera work, Zimmer’s epic score, and the cast’s terrific performances set the movie in its own territory.

There are no doubt those who will say that this movie is lesser for its more serious tone and that the supposed magic of Superman is gone. Don’t be one of those people.  The magic is still there, this time supplemented by some actual weight. Man of Steel finds a good tonal mid-ground between the dire Batman movies and the weightless Marvel movies, providing the fun sci-fi action adventure this series deserves while giving a reason to care about the danger.

A sequel is all but assured at this point and this is nothing but good. With the straightforward, though imperfect introduction in place, this universe now has the ability to expand into even more exciting new places.

It may be overlong and it may go overboard (“over” seems to be the operative criticism here) but it’s never not fun in its excesses. It may not be an instant classic but it stands on its own and is a promising new start. Say what you will about where Man of Steel stands in Superman fandom lore — in the lore of superhero movies and summer blockbusters, it lifts off.

7.5/10

AFTER EARTH REVIEW

Something has gone terribly wrong. A catastrophe similar to the one our world experiences in M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie (surprise!) has happened and has similarly made me want to flee the planet. It’s called After Earth.

After they crash land on a dangerous little planet called Earth, Katai must reach the remaining wreckage of the destroyed ship to save his stoic father’s life and master his emotions to survive the deadly wilderness that has adapted to kill humans.

Did anyone happen to miss the name M. Night Shyamalan? If you did, it’s understandable — a ridiculous amount of effort has been made by the powers that be to hide the fact that he is behind this latest blockbuster.

But there is no hiding the awfulness of one of his movies — it can’t be unnoticed.

Let’s not beat around the surprise-plot-twist bush: After Earth is terrible. Not the kind of terrible that makes you angry, since it was bound to be bad out of the gate due to its origins. Rather, it’s the frustrating kind of terrible that comes from just wishing it was over already.

It feels like there were two interests at play here: Shyamalan going for more of a slow-burn father/son story and the Smiths and other producers looking to make the next big-budget Avatar knockoff. What we have here is the smoldering wreckage of both. Only much more boring.

Shyamalan is known for his more elaborate pacing but making a movie that’s an hour and forty minutes feel like that and a half is criminal. After some unintentional hilarity in the opening prologue and general setup, the movie starts to clunk into an hour and a half of slow motion agony. A drinking game could be formed for every time Will or Jaden Smith blankly stare into the camera for an uncomfortable amount of time, desperate for a line of dialogue. There was more than one point in the movie where the ceiling of the theater was more interesting than what was going on on screen.

Shyamalan uses many flashbacks to a backstory involving Katai’s sister but it’s a mishandled case of show, don’t tell. No less than five scenes showing Katai’s sister and what happened to her are retreaded to the point of being redundant. Conversely, there is a scene in which Katai’s father vocally tells him about an encounter he had with a hostile alien, for which a visual flashback would have been much appreciated, if not necessary.

The reason the flashbacks come off as so redundant and the whole movie isn’t interesting is that the characters are planks of wood. Even if it’s a narrative necessity, having your characters lack any emotion is dull beyond belief. Being subjected to both Smiths mumbling through their distracting, misconceived accents is a test of patience — one which I failed.

It may be a nice gesture to give your son the starring role in a summer blockbuster, or maybe it’s nepotism, but it would be a bigger favor to let him cut his teeth and work up to such a thing first before throwing him to the wolves. As is, Jaden Smith is not up to task. His performance here is stilted and lacks the charisma his famous father used to show eons ago. Yes, he’s just a kid but someone higher up should have known better than to let this happen.

Even if it’s a disaster, there is some minuscule thing to be said about the movie having production values. The ships have a cool organic look to them, the wild environment is palpable and James Newton Howard continues his trend of writing terrific, effective scores to abysmal movies.

But doesn’t that say it all? One has to look to the minor production details to find something to praise because the story, direction and acting is so tragically lacking.

Some have said that After Earth acts as a recruiting tool for Scientology with its strong theme of controlling emotions. Whether or not it does isn’t perfectly clear but if so it’s about as effective as handing someone a brochure, then pumping them full of horse tranquilizer.

As sad as it may be to say, After Earth is a low point in the careers of everyone involved (not godawful like The Last Airbender, but awfully boring). Maybe they all just need a long nap to regroup and figure out what to do next. Luckily they’ve provided one of the best anesthetics ever.

2/10 

NOW YOU SEE ME REVIEW

Magic is a, pardon the pun, tricky thing to pull off on screen. With movie magic added into the mix, the line between plausibility and implausibility often blurs, especially in the case of stage magic. One must also take into account how much the story relies on the magic itself and how much comes from character interest.

Even with its all-star cast and some fun moments, Louis Letterier’s Now You See Me is a modestly put together trick that reveals itself to be a little underwhelming by the time it’s over.

Four separate magicians — a street performer (Jesse Eisenberg), a mentalist/hypnotist (Woody Harrelson), an escape artist (Isla Fisher) and a trickster thief (Dave Franco) — are called together under mysterious circumstances to perform a trio of shows across the country under the name of the Four Horsemen. After their first act finishes with them robbing a French bank and giving the money to the audience, a haggard detective (Mark Ruffalo) is put on the case to nab them before their grand finale.

Now You See Me is a movie made up of good moments. Most of the magic acts in the movie are portrayed by Letterier in interesting, snappy ways as are the exchanges between our four magicians and the ones between Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo’s characters. The action is shot kinetically, there’s some fun jaunty music from Brian Tyler and the movie goes by at a good clip. All in all, Letterier’s latest is a pretty solid example of going in and having a fun, breezy but forgettable two hours at the movies in the summer.

But with some better care in writing, Now You See Me probably could have stolen the show. Characterization is completely left behind to focus on the magic tricks (some of which also bugged the hell out of me by using bad CGI when the trick could have been done practically).

We are introduced to our four magicians in the very beginning and given the requisite knowledge we need on them and then the focus in them is completely gone. They’re given no new chance to grow and instead the rest of the movie focuses on Mark Ruffalo, which is unfortunate because he’s a poorly written character. We’re barely told anything about him for the entire movie, even in the extended stretches where it’s just him, and in the end when we’re supposed to learn something new, looking back it’s just more obvious he wasn’t fleshed out at all.

Trying to fit in a romantic subplot between him and his Interpol partner wasn’t at all necessary because that too wasn’t paid proper attention.

The dialogue at times verges on being atrocious. In the absence of something good to say characters mostly revert to saying things like “shit” and “now, now, now” over and over. The main four survive on the actors talent at trading barbs but it’s still hard to be invested when most of what people are given to say is banal or just plain bad.

There is a twist in this movie. Shocking I know, but it’s pretty prevalent and comes late in the game. Some have said that it goes way beyond the boundaries of being plausible, which it kind of does. It is the sort of twist that erases a large portion of what we knew before it, so naturally some will take issue with that as well. What helps is that nothing in the entire movie is plausible to begin with, be it the ludicrous plot or the faked magic tricks, so taking it with that mindset helps out quite a bit.

That said, viewing the movie in that mindset puts a bit of distance between you and the action. So look closer: you may think you’re watching the next great magic movie but you’re being distracted. What’s really going on is the use of light and sound to trick you into thinking there’s something more important going on.

Instead, it’s just smoke and mirrors.

5/10

I WON’T FORGIVE NICOLAS WINDING REFN

Early critic reactions to Only God Forgives have hit and are almost acting as an apology for getting Drive so tragically wrong

I can’t stand 2011’s Drive — not in the slightest. An intended homage to sleek ’70s crime thrillers, the movie is a hollow, style-over-substance slog that squanders its cast on a cliched story and roughly 40 total lines of banal dialogue before easing into its gratuitous, yet un-engaging action at a snail’s pace. 
It is without a doubt the most pretentious and boring film I’ve wasted my time with at a theater (and for some reason again at home), maybe ever.
And the worst part? Somehow it was hailed as one of 2011’s best movies. The bane of my movie existence still sits at a lofty 93% on Rotten Tomatoes with its non-existent praises being sung night and day. I wish I could rise above it but constantly hearing this undeserved acclaim only strengthens my resolve to prove its falseness.
So when director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling re-teamed for a new, upcoming revenge thriller titled Only God Forgives (in the style of its predecessor), I braced myself for the inevitable tidal wave of critical praise and prepared to continue my mission to make this Danish fucker pay for what he did to myself and the others who saw though the fog bank of neon lights and techno music.
And then, ironically, it was like an act of the almighty happened…
This is the summary from IGN’s review of the film. As you can probably tell, they are not mincing words in their negativity, with “Awful” being quite a bold label.
But that’s just mainstream IGN, you say. They’re a videogaming site that doesn’t usually focus on arthouse films, you say. True, but remember this is also the site that gave Drive a laughable 10/10.
So where are the “true” critics in this whole thing? When are they going to ride in, noses up, scarfs (sorry, ascots) tied and cups of tea primed to shower refined admiration on Refn’s latest? They’re at the Cannes Film Festival… booing the movie.
Yes, the supposed high-brow critics invited to such prestigious events are also taking the movie to task and in a not-so-polite way. Almost seven weeks away from its official release, Only God Forgives has sputtered out of the critical gate with a mere 3 out of 15 collected reviews being positive on RT (20% as of May 31, for those keeping track).
While I obviously have yet to see the movie and likely won’t jump at the chance to spend money on it, I’ll reserve some measure of judgement. Who knows, it could be tolerable. Still, the question is this: 
Where was this reaction two damn years ago with Drive?!
Every single thing highlighted in IGN’s review is almost word for word what I took serious issue with in Drive, and admittedly, their few positive notes are also things I didn’t hate about that one either. 
So how does “dull”, “style over substance” and “caricatured characters” translate to this movie being awful and the exact same things make Drive a masterpiece? What is so incredibly different about the two (other than two different reviewers, keep in mind)? Is some great veil being lifted, finally revealing Refn’s recent works to be the indulgent slogs they really are? Are reparations at last being paid for this previous injustice? Am I asking too many questions?
The suspense is killing me.
Only God Forgives sees Ryan Gosling taking vengeance for the murder of his drug-running, rapist brother. I would say it’s impossible to make such a despicably trashy concept boring but we are talking about a man who made another story of revenge and hyper-violence into a black hole of interest.
Only God Forgives opens in limited release July 19. General audiences might be more forgiving but odds are I won’t be.