Category Archives: Film Reviews

Film reviews for the most recent films I have watched.

Review: The Human Race (2014)


“Follow the yellow brick road.”

An exhausted pregnant woman sits in a dank hallway, telling the tale of the “Wizard of Oz” to her unborn child in a weak attempt to make a metaphor about a happy group of friends that help one of their group go home. And then some dude runs by, and the woman’s head explodes. That’s just par for the course in writer/director Paul Hough’s (The Angel, The Backyard) The Human Race. In a horror flick by way of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End (you’ll see–and not because it’s funny… it’s not), it’s probably a good idea to give a little more context for why your characters are in the situation they’re in. Consequently, the feature is an awkward foray into horror that fails to build any suspense or connection with the audience.

The Human Race is a wannabe horror film in which eighty competitors are pulled from their daily lives and placed into a nightmarish urban race track in which there are a few simple rules; don’t step off the track, or you will die; don’t get lapped twice, or you will die; don’t touch the grass, or you will die (I’m picturing some old man brandishing a cane at “those damn kids” and threatening death if they don’t get off his lawn). We follow disabled Army veteran Eddie (Eddie McGee) through the race with his best friend and old Army buddy Justin (Paul McCarthy-Boyington), and together watch the two try and rally their fellow competitors to stop the madness of the disembodied voice counting down the deaths of the others. Other characters include a bike racer who doesn’t speak much English, and a pair of deaf friends who communicate in sign language.

Beyond the story of the race, you get a handful of barely-relevant backstories for some of the characters. In fact, while giving . You could cut those entire parts out of the movie and save everyone who watched the film those twenty minutes of their life. Literally the only one that does anything for the plot is Justin’s backstory of working with disabled children, because it shows that he knows sign language in order to communicate with the deaf people later on.

It’s a pretty basic plot, to be sure. Unfortunately, there’s not much else to talk about, and the ending makes me think of Giorgio Tsoukalos (this guy) sitting at a computer trying to think of an ending and finally saying “Aliens!” to no one in particular. It’s kind of like the end of Wright’s The World’s End, but without easing the viewer into the absurdity.

Each character fails to beyond one-dimensional, and the handful of attempts to make the viewer connect emotionally with a character are met with the abrupt kill of that character, severing any sort of emotional bond they might have with the film. For instance, the first eight minutes of the film are spent setting up the story of a girl who watches her sister suffer and die from an unnamed disease. Fast forwarding, the girl ends up diagnosed with the same disease, and does a montage of the girl getting healthy and finding out she’s in remission. …And then she is the very first person to die in this mysterious race, and not mentioned again in the film. It’s fine if the objective of the filmmaker was to simply show the triviality of a death in this film, but it’s another thing entirely to make this the first part of the film and waste the viewer’s time. Yet another nearly-successful attempt to get us to empathize with the film is by including a pair of children. They’re literally only in two scenes with some hackneyed dialogue, but by this point, it doesn’t really matter, because you’ve probably already checked out because of the cheesy head-exploding special effects.

In short, The Human Race is an awkward film that suffers from a lot of glaring problems in writing. The acting isn’t entirely unconvincing, if that’s something you really care about, but it’s far from enough to save the whole feature.

But it is enough to make your head explode.

Check it out on Scene-Stealers!


Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-Cast-poster-570x829 It’s that time again, when the latest installment of the X-Men movie franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past, takes over many of the discussions in my circle of friends for a couple weeks. They’ve ranted and raved about how awesome it was, about how they like this character over that character, or what their favorite moment was, all while shaming me for not having seen the film–until recently. Imagine their disappointment, then, when I came out of the film notably underwhelmed and somewhat disappointed.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Bryan Singer’s (X-Men, X-Men 2) latest foray into the Marvel universe takes place after the events of, well, the other X-Men movies. The mutants are on the run from nonmetallic robots called Sentinels, designed to locate and kill mutants. Only Wolverine, Magneto, Professor Charles Xavier, and a handful of other characters we haven’t really spent any time with have survived at the film’s beginning. In order to save themselves, one of the mutants (Ellen Page) uses her powers to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to try and stop the creator of the Sentinels, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) from being murdered by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).
In theory, that’s all well and good. When you’re trying to do a large ensemble movie like X-Men and involve that ensemble in plots that mean life or death for them, it’s important to build up an emotional connection for the audience. This never really happened. It’s assumed that you’ve seen all the other movies, and short of that, you at least remembered what happened in them. For me, it’s been a long time. The only character I actually felt myself actively rooting for was Wolverine, and not even until the last five minutes of the film. Sure, I know all the baggage that Wolverine carries with him, but it doesn’t matter so much for this film. Just because it’s a sequel doesn’t excuse the filmmakers from not giving us the experience of knowing our characters. Another big example of this, for me, is that of Trask, our villain. We never really figure out why he hates the mutants so much, and so his entire evil plan of creating the Sentinels is baseless because he feels “threatened” that the mutants will “wipe out humanity.”
I’m sure it’s fleshed out in the comics somewhere, but that doesn’t matter because the film needs to stand on its own two (or more?) feet.
Additionally, you don’t get much into the story of how the war between the Sentinels controlled by the government and the mutants started. As far as I can tell, the whole thing started when Wolverine went back in time and pissed off all the bad guys… but that doesn’t explain why he had to go back in time in the first place. So the mutants are on the run, which is fine, except there’s no context. Incidentally, something else I noticed about this dystopia is that during the beginning of the film, it appears that all the non-mutant humans are in what appear to be oppressive work camps not unlike a Russian gulag. To channel my friend Ron Burgundy for a moment–something must have escalated quickly, and we never learn what.
Finally, the last big issue I had with the film was the wasted of opportunity of a couple big set pieces. If you’re going to have Magneto rip an entire baseball stadium out of the ground and plop it down around the White House, what’s the point of not using it? Sure it serves to isolate the area from the police, but you’re creating an arena and the expectation of a big, physical confrontation, and they don’t deliver on that? I hope I’m not along in being disappointed, there.
It’s clear by the end that this film is meant to provide an entire reboot of the X-Men film franchise, and I’m not totally sure how I feel about that. Recent films have been better than some of the first ones (*cough* Last Stand *cough*), but then again, do we really want to rehash everything again with our cast ten years older? But on the other hand, this film also set up some characters with awesome powers (that girl thinking with portals, anyone?), but failed to mention half of their names or give us any reason to care about them beyond appreciation of their combat prowess.
So I’m torn. On the one hand, I was vastly underwhelmed with the movie itself, thinking there’s some wasted opportunities and feeling a bit bored by the whole thing, but on the other hand, I see potential for where the franchise is headed in the future.
Let’s just not hope it’s not a future past.


Review: Godzilla (2014)

As Dr. Ichiro Serazawa (Ken Watanabe) discusses the plan to get rid of the two MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) that threaten the western United States, he says, “Let them fight.” There’s not much else you can say going in to a film like Godzilla, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Godzilla is one of those film franchises that needs no introduction, enduring various iterations over the years. Directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, future director of an unnamed Star Wars project), Godzilla carries on the tradition, never failing to satisfy with eye-popping visuals and intense drama.
Going in, everyone knows that ultimately, this film is about a giant monster fighting other giant monsters. You don’t need much more than that as far as plot synopsis goes, because 90% of moviegoers already know that’s what they’re in for, and the other 10% don’t want to see it anyway. What is warranted to be said about the most recent Godzilla excursion is that it does drama and suspense better than any blockbuster in recent memory, and certainly better than most other kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast”) films.
When you think “Godzilla” tons of things come to mind. If the first thing isn’t “giant lizard crushes city” and probably some Asian man yelling “It’s Gojira!,” I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the franchise. Part of what makes this film work so well is that about half the time you see either Godzilla or one of the MUTOs, you see them indirectly–be it through a television broadcast, binoculars, or a reflection off of some glass from a car window. Additionally, about 90% of the time a monster is onscreen, it’s not directly with a human actor. This works for two main reasons; first, it keeps the emphasis on the monsters, and not on the men; and second, it helps to heighten the sense of sheer scale when the monsters ARE compared in-frame with a human. When the monsters are framed with the actors, it’s nearly always in a way that accentuates just how massive the creatures really are. A personal favorite shot of the film (no spoilers, I promise!) was when Godzilla swims underneath an aircraft carrier in a top-down shot. Aircraft carriers are among the largest vehicles built by human hands, and seeing Godzilla underwater, swimming under this steel behemoth is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Now, when I say Godzilla does suspense better than most recent blockbusters, it might seem odd. How do you add suspense and believable drama to something where everyone pretty much is certain of the outcome? Simple. Remember when I said that the monsters are shot in a way that emphasizes their scale? It’s a combination of that stylistic choice, and usage of perfect audio cues. Where most modern blockbusters would ramp up the music at this point (looking at you, Transformers and Pacific Rim) to make it feel epic, Edwards does just the opposite. He cuts most of the audio, creating a tense atmosphere that inspires awe time and again. There’s an excellent moment where the main human character Lieutenant Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is walking in full combat gear, and virtually makes eye contact with the great beast. Edwards pulls back to a long shot and lets the moment sink in virtually in silence, before Godzilla disappears again into the smoke. Spooky.
Finally, any film review would be remiss in not mentioning the themes of environmentalism and nuclear war that the original 1954 Gojira contained, and Edwards’s modern take is no different. In the recent Godzilla excursion, the MUTOs feed off of excess radiation, in places like underground uranium deposits, and Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository. They literally consume the radioactive mess perpetuated by mankind in order to grow stronger and reproduce. It’s a strong theme throughout the film that nature has a way of balancing itself against the terrible things humans put the earth through, and Dr. Serazawa stresses this to the military trying to control the monsters. His point is eventually proven: man does not control nature–nature controls us.
The Godzilla name brings with it a base level of expectations of awesome fighting monsters and tons of action and this recent excursion into the franchise delivers on all that, and more. With a sequel already announced so soon after the film’s release, I’ve got to agree with Dr. Serazawa: Let them fight, indeed.


Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

“The beautiful things never ask for attention,” photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) remarks on a mountaintop to photo-processor Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller). In much the same way, the viewer learns to appreciate the mousy Mitty and his work, his life, and his wants and needs. In an enchanting film like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Directed by Stiller), it’s plain to see: there is beauty in the mundane, and life is about much more than work.
Daydreamer Walter Mitty has worked in a dark corner of the Life magazine headquarters processing photos day in and day out for sixteen years. After he discovers the magazine is to be discontinued and turned into some “dotcom” and many workers will be laid off in the process, Mitty is given the last roll of negatives from legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Penn) and told by O’Connell in a note to select a certain print for the cover, because he thinks it’s his best ever. The only catch is that Walter can’t find the negative. What follows is a quest upon which Mitty embarks, finding not only the negative, but himself in the process.
Under the experienced direction of Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is based on a short story written by James Thurber in 1939, and is considered one of the best pieces of mid-twentieth-century American fiction, showcasing the power that imagination can hold over humans. Though Stiller’s film is the second film adaptation, it shares little in common with the previous version, starring Danny Kaye in 1947. Stiller’s Mitty evokes a modernized version of Thurber’s character, a man who often drifts into daydreams in the middle of a conversation. The only difference is the context in which the daydreaming is placed, and what Walter does.
Much of Walter’s life is spent falling in and out of daydreams, like some sort of white collar version of JD from NBC’s “Scrubs.” In these daydreams, Walter imagines sweeping his charming co-worker off her feet, experiencing extreme environments, and lives his life vicariously through the photographs lining the walls of the Time office. What Walter finds is a message that we must all take to heart–that there’s truly nothing better than a good old dose of “carpe diem”–seizing the opportunities that present themselves each day and living life to its fullest extent.
It’s a different kind of movie for Stiller to take on, to be sure. It evokes images of Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, wherein actors known for their comedic exploits take on serious roles, and do them quite well. It’s clear that Stiller has the capability to take on a more humor-less role, and excel. The film is largely focused on his character, and Stiller expertly takes on the load. Not to say the film is without humor, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s tone is that of a more serious film, much like the other examples mentioned.
Excellent as ever, Sean Penn plays the sage photographer Sean O’Connell, doling out life wisdom on a mountaintop like some sort of present-day Yoda. Kristen Wiig plays Cheryl Melhoff, a new worker at Life magazine, and the object of Mitty’s affection. Wiig is charming as ever, and despite the more serious film, still allows her quirky and tongue-in-cheek humor to emerge during the film.
Filled with wonderful, evocative environments, an excellent soundtrack, and a heartwarming message, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a thought-provoking work of art, the likes of which I honestly wasn’t expecting. Gathering from the previews, I went in not knowing what to expect, and came out a better person for the experience. Ben Stiller reminds us all that often what we seek for so long and in the most roundabout ways is often right where we never thought to look, and in doing so, climbs his way into one of the slots I reserve for “favorite films of 2013.”


Review: Her (2013)

If you’re like me, you enjoy the show Futurama, and were overjoyed to hear of the reboot of the series. There’s an episode early in the first season of the reboot called “Proposition Infinity” where Bender campaigns for “robosexual marriage” (between robots and humans). The episode actually brings up a lot of great discussion about what love really is, and in 2010 when the episode debuted, it was a great satire of the raging gay marriage debate (still raging today, for many states). I bring this up because “Her” (2013, Spike Jonze) is a refreshing look at how people develop relationships, and what the definition of a “real” relationship is.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) writes love letters for a living. It’s his job to come up with all the mushy notes that people write to their significant others/family members/spouses so that people don’t have to do all the romantic legwork themselves. Ironically, Theodore finds himself in the final stages of a divorce, and spends most of his free time playing video games or occasionally going out with a handful of friends. When Theodore sees an ad for OS1, the OS that is “not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness,” he decides to buy one. The resulting personality is Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the female consciousness that Theodore desperately needs in his life. Their relationship is more professional at first. Samantha is more of an AI personal assistant than a romantic partner, but quickly self-improves her programming to be there for emotional support and more. I won’t spoil where this is going. Just go see the film.
It’s hard for one actor to carry a film like this by themselves, for the most part, and Joaquin Phoenix does a phenomenal job in this role. His loneliness is palpable, and his joy is authentic as he begins to fall in love with Samantha. Different from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” headed by a lone Sandra Bullock, I’m not sure another actor could have done as well as Phoenix in that role, and I think any actress could have done what Bullock did in “Gravity” (Note: I thought she was excellent in the role). Additionally, Johansson’s voice talent as Samantha is nothing short of stellar. Her laugh is like music, and she really helps to bring to life the real feelings that the OS is processing.
It’s interesting that, in a live-action film, there’s so much voice work for characters who are never seen onscreen, even in a digital form. Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and even Spike Jonze himself voice some of the online personalities of “Her.” Each of these characters, despite their brief time as part of the plot, helps convey just how connected Theodore is to technology, and in doing so, shows him something about himself by the end of the film.
Speaking of lessons learned and how the film conveys them, William Butler and Owen Pallet rightly deserve the Academy Award nomination for best original score. Loads of mellow piano music sprinkled through the film perfect the melancholy tone of the movie, yet provide uplift in all the right places. Combined with the futuristic and minimalist production design, there’s lots of “space” in the film to help echo Theodore’s sense of loneliness as a character going through a divorce and conflicting feelings of falling in love with a computer program.
“Her” is a film that boldly steps in a new direction, exploring the very nature of human relationships and dependence on technology. Its three Academy Award nominations are well deserved, and it’s got my personal vote for Best Picture on lock.


Revisiting a Classic: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

In the hit late 1990’s cartoon Recess, the teacher Ms. Finster devises a devilish punishment for the playground miscreants: the box. The protagonist, T.J. Detweiler, is forced to spend a whole ten minutes of his recess in the box. Referencing, of course, the first night in the prison camp for the titular character, this episode of Recess shows the lasting impact that Cool Hand Luke had on the collective memory of society. With an Oscar nomination for Paul Newman, and a win for Best Supporting Actor for George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke is one of those movies that gets constantly referred to in other pop culture. Still listed as 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes 46 years after its release, Cool Hand Luke is highly regarded as a classic film in every sense of the word.
A decorated war hero with a history of insubordination, Lucas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman) gets 2 years of hard labor in a Florida prison camp for drunkenly cutting the tops off of parking meters. He makes a quick enemy out of Dragline (George Kennedy), and after a boxing match in which Luke refuses to give up, they become fast friends, and Luke begins to emerge as a leader, motivating the inmates to finish paving a road in less than a day. After eating fifty eggs (“No man can eat fifty eggs!”), Luke truly gains “leadership” of the group, but is sent to the box by the Captain (the warden), fearing Luke will escape after he learns his mother has died. Luke makes several unsuccessful attempts to escape, and his final attempt leaves the audience with a twisted end and an oddly-satisfying sense of Luke as a tragic hero.
Cool Hand Luke is a great example of the prison escape genre of film, utilizing many archetypes of characterization, such as a rebellious inmate who may be serving an unjust term (or not, as the case may be), a warden as the main antagonist, and the process of gaining respect from his fellow inmates. The camera spends a lot of time on Paul Newman, despite having a pretty loaded cast list, and being that Cool Hand Luke was shot at the height of his popularity as an actor, it’s no surprise the film features gratuitous scenes of Newman sans shirt. The eyecandy of Paul Newman is nothing, however, compared to the gorgeous composition of shots within the movie, often looking down at the prisoners, never up. It paints them in the light of exactly what they are: criminals. Additionally, the soundtrack is surprisingly versatile for 1967. The scene when Luke eats fifty eggs comes to mind, when another prisoner taps on Luke’s stomach, and is rewarded with a dull thudding sound, as if to say he couldn’t possibly consume another egg.
The famous line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” will forever be immortalized due to the film, even sampled by Guns ‘N’ Roses for “Civil War” on their Lose Your Illusion II album in 1991. Every film has its handful of haters, but as Captain states, “Some men, you just can’t reach.”


Review: Catching Fire (2013)

In the film industry, we talk a lot about the doom of the sequel. Thankfully, Catching Fire, the second installment in the Hunger Games trilogy, is like The Two Towers, or as one reviewer put it, The Empire Strikes Back of the series. This is decidedly a good thing. When the first film came out, fans of the book trilogy (written by Suzanne Collins) were generally pleased with the result, but something felt off. With a new director at the helm and a bigger budget for the second go-around, Catching Fire is decidedly the better of the two films.
Set in a dystopian future where “Panem” is split into twelve districts controlled by the Capitol, and the venerable President Snow (Donald Sutherland) reigns with an iron grip. Two children from each district are chosen at random to participate in the Hunger Games, and District Twelve’s recent victors, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned home, and prepare to go on a Victor’s Tour. However, things in Panem aren’t as happy-go-lucky as President Snow would have the people believe. Katniss and Peeta’s refusal to kill the other in the first film is seen as an act of rebellion rather than survival, and causes strife within the districts, begging the question of the necessity of the Games in the first place.
As always, Lawrence delivers a convincing and emotional performance. Katniss has grown as a person, just as Lawrence is growing as an actress, and Lawrence does another great job portraying the composure of Katniss, while allowing her vulnerable side to come out. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Haymitch is spot-on just as last time, being the drunken mentor to Katniss and Peeta, who still manages to come through for the pair and offer guidance as necessary. However, the film’s best performance, in my opinion, comes from Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Plutarch Heavensby, the man who replaced Seneca Crane as head gamemaker. Hoffman is as devious and cocksure as Heavensby, constantly advising President Snow to sit back and enjoy his spectacle, with his ever-devious smile and slicked-back silver hair. You don’t want to miss this performance, to be sure. However, the portrayal of Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) left something to be desired. Claflin’s performance seemed if nothing else, mechanical. Odair is a man for whom the audience sympathizes greatly, however, Claflin struggles to be convincing as the outwardly-cocky and inwardly-wounded Finnick.
Acting performances aside, Catching Fire, much like its predecessor, does a fantastic job of bringing to life the characterization of each district. District Twelve is a stark and brutal world of coal miners, made worse by the crackdown of a new head Peacekeeper. District Eleven is a hair better, but only because they’re agricultural workers, as described in the novels. By contrast, the Capitol is an veritable cornucopia of impeccably-coiffured men and women sporting outlandish costumes and multicolored hairstyles. The architecture, too, reflects that of a utopian society with its ultra-modern styling and sharp lines. At a party, Katniss and Peeta are encouraged to vomit after consuming a large amount of food in order to eat more. It draws a stark contrast to the starving people of the districts, and the production design does a great job of showing this sharp contrast.
For fans of the book series, Catching Fire is another faithful representation of Suzanne Collins’ series. For fans who haven’t read the books, but enjoyed The Hunger Games as a film, again, this is a worthy sequel. Like many fans of the series, I’m excited to see what the third film, Mockingjay, will be like, split into two parts as the conclusion of all films-based-on-books have been in recent years. With Harry Potter, it was necessary, Twilight, perhaps. But Mockingjay? I’m not so sure, but I’ll hold my judgment until the film is released. For now, Catching Fire will just have to hold our attention and anticipation until the next release.