Monday, December 3, 2012

The King's Speech (2010) Review


The King’s Speech

On the surface, The King’s Speech appears to be another Oscar-bait movie that gets put out during the winter season to attract the Academy’s attention. It’s British made, the cast is a who’s-who of Britain’s finest actors, and the core story is about the main character overcoming adversity. And the Academy seems to have taken the bait, seeing as how the movie is leading the Oscar race with twelve nominations (compared to True Grit’s ten and The Social Network’s eight). But does the movie really deserve the accolades it has been receiving?

Plot Synopsis: After the death of King George V, his eldest son David is chosen as the successor to the throne. However, his marriage and strong allegiance to an American divorcee soon force him to leave this position, and his brother Albert (nicknamed Bertie) is now in line. The problem is that Bertie has had a stutter for almost his entire life, which doesn’t bode well for when he has to address the people with a speech. In order to improve his speaking, Bertie enlists the help of speech therapist Lionel Logue, and the two soon begin a friendship that will last throughout Bertie’s tenure as king.

The heart of the film, and what gives it the staying power that makes it more than “just another Oscar-bait” movie, is the friendship that occurs between the two protagonists. Colin Firth (Bertie) and Geoffrey Rush (Logue) have remarkable chemistry together, and the two of them grow a mutual understanding of each other despite their class differences (Logue isn’t an official therapist sponsored by the royal family). Firth, currently the frontrunner to win Best Actor and deserving of all the hype, is the particular standout. While he typically plays immensely likable characters, Firth doesn’t shy away from making Bertie less than sympathetic, playing up the fact that he feels “above” Logue when they first meet. And Geoffrey Rush, most well known for playing Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, goes toe-to-toe with Firth as Logue isn’t afraid to criticize someone as powerful as the king. While Firth is the one getting all the attention for the film, Rush deserves just as much recognition.

While the movie is a drama first and foremost, it is not a dry affair, which many might assume of British movies. There is a surprising amount of humor present, which lightens up the mood at appropriate moments and keeps the audience engaged and entertained even as they are watching a highly privileged man complain about a stutter in his voice. A scene where Logue instructs Bertie to let loose with all his pent up anger is the comical highlight as Bertie unleashes a torrent of curses and insults.

While many of the other Best Picture Oscar nominees each have a “hook” that attracts attention (Inception explores dreams, Social Network shows Facebook’s creation, Black Swan is about a ballerina going crazy, etc.), The King’s Speech contains a much more straightforward plot than the other competitor’s. But that doesn’t make it any less deserving of the acclaim pitched its way. It easily stands strongly amongst the more high profile and popular films of the year, and one that almost everyone can enjoy.

3.5/4

Rango (2011) Review


Rango

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Rango from the original previews that advertised the movie. Some of them didn’t really sell what the movie was about and what was shown didn’t seem all that funny or entertaining. As the release got closer, the ads began improving and I started getting more excited for it until finally seeing the film. The final result ends up being quite a bit different than expected and is more unique and creative than the majority of other animated movies out there.

Plot Synopsis: After being stranded in the middle of the desert, the chameleon Rango comes upon a small town named Dirt, which is populated by various other animals. Soon they task him with the job of being their sheriff for the time being and protect the town while they figure out a way of fixing the drought Dirt has been experiencing.

While that sounds like a fairly simple plot, Rangos more eccentric sensibilities come into play with its brand of humor. The movie comes off as a weird amalgam of Clint Eastwood westerns and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, while also adding in other in-jokes that movie buffs should pick up on. While Rango the character is an original creation, he is not too dissimilar from Raoul Duke, the protagonist of Fear and Loathing.

This doesn’t come as too much of a shock since both are played by Johnny Depp, and with the decision to have Rango be a chameleon is a little ironic given Depp’s chameleon-like ability to slip into roles (including this one). The rest of the cast, while it’s not filled with stars in the way that DreamWorks frontloads its movies, is an eclectic mix of lesser-known but great actors that slip into their characters. Isla Fisher plays Rango’s love interest Beans, Bill Nighy (known mostly for his portrayal of Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean) voices the feared Rattlesnake Jake, and look for Timothy Olyphant in a memorable role that pops up later on.

Speaking of Pirates of the Caribbean, that film series shares the same director as this one, Gore Verbinski. Verbinski’s career has been very diverse over the years, starting with the children’s movie Mouse Hunt, moving on to The Ring and then the Pirates trilogy. Rango is more in line with Mouse Hunt than any other; it’s an animated movie with animal characters that looks like a kids movie, but has a darker sense of humor than most others. When the action comes, the characters feel like they are in real danger and the overall film feels geared more towards an older age crowd. Although when your writer also penned The Aviator, Any Given Sunday, and Gladiator, that’s not much of a surprise.

That said, Rango does tend to drag in a couple of places and the pacing could have been quickened up. The movie is a little long in the midsection but things pick up again with some fun action sequences in the third act. It’s not quite up to Pixar’s level, but Rango is more visually inventive and sharply written than the majority of other kids animated movies, and it may even entertain older and more mature audiences greater than the child crowd.

3.5/4

Battle: Los Angeles (2011) Review


Battle: Los Angeles

Battle: Los Angeles is only a science fiction film on the surface. The movie is really a war film with aliens in the place of human beings and the fight taking place on American soil rather than a foreign country. This premise is an intriguing take on the alien invasion genre, stripping it of the glossy gadgetry that is typically associated with it and giving the genre a Cloverfield-style gritty shakeup. Now, District 9 took the same approach, but that movie used the style in a way that compliments its message and story. Battle: Los Angeles uses that approach in order to give audiences a straightforward action movie with aliens by way of Black Hawk Down.

Plot Synopsis: After a meteor shower is soon identified as an alien invasion, the U.S. Army and the Marines set up bases to defend the ocean bordered cities from further damage. In Los Angeles, Staff Sergeant Nantz is assigned to a platoon being sent into the Santa Monica area for evacuation purposes. However, they find themselves overwhelmed by the extraterrestrial presence and the mission soon turns into an escape from the city.

It’s an admirably straightforward plot, without being overburdened by any unnecessary side tangents, but executed in a way that is uninvolving and occasionally slapdash. The action scenes are shot in the shaky-cam style that can work if done right, but can also be annoying if done wrong. Director Jonathon Liebesman puts forth a valiant effort, although he ends up wallowing in the method too much, shooting the action in almost exclusively close ups and having his editor chop the scenes in ways that confuse and disorient the viewer, but not in the way that they were probably intending. Even simple dialogue scenes are done this way and when a scene arrives where we should be able see an alien clearly as its being dissected, I ended up “fighting” with the camera and editing just to get a clear and simple glance of how it looks. From what I could make out, the alien design and their other weaponry are cool to look at, but feel more than a little inspired by the scrambled-junk look of District 9s Prawns and their ships. 

If they remind you too much of Skyline, don’t hold that against the movie because some of the special effects artists who worked on this went off to create Skyline after finishing their work here (and managed to release that movie before it too). That said, a couple of the action set pieces do work despite the fast-and-loose technique, notably an attack on top of a freeway and the final standoff against a larger threat (which succeeds despite a grossly unexplained plot hole in the setup). The dirty feel of the combat is also a refreshing juxtaposition against the otherworldly technology of the aliens. Liebesman wants to achieve the Jaws effect of keeping the enemy hidden or seen from far away, and he mostly accomplishes that in the battle scenes.

Just as with any other movie of this type (such as Independence Day), the characters within the story are bound to be labeled as stereotypes, and sure enough we have the rookie, the soon-to-be-married soldier, etc. The best examples of movies that use stereotypical characters do so in ways that help them be distinctive from one another. The problem with Battle: Los Angeles is that once the introductory scenes are finished and the battle commences, the characters are so bland and interchangeable that it’s easy to forget who’s who. Only Aaron Eckhart stands out as Staff Sergeant Nantz, who is the only person given some level of depth to work with in addition to being the most talented actor of the bunch, presenting enough conviction to the role that you might miss the bad dialogue he has to spout off (which there is plenty of).

With only the most minimal emotional investment in the characters and action scenes that range from competently done to incomprehensible, Battle: Los Angeles doesn’t do its worthwhile premise any favors. With a script rewrite and less hyper-caffeinated editing, this could have been a rousing action spectacle that puts a gritty spin on the alien invasion flick. At this stage, it’s an unimaginative, occasionally exciting romp with no one to root for. It’s not bottom of the barrel bad, but it rests somewhere in the lower end of mediocre. 

1.5/4

The Social Network (2010) Review


The Social Network
You don’t get to $500 million without making a great movie

Back when the news broke about “that Facebook movie” being put into production, the reaction was particularly lukewarm. People asked, “What story is there about an Internet website that would last for two hours?” As it turns out, there was in fact a compelling story waiting to be told about the genesis and eventual popularity boom of Facebook, catching the attention of quite a few big names. With actor Kevin Spacey producing the film, Aaron Sorkin (famous for writing A Few Good Men) penning the screenplay, and acclaimed director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, and Benjamin Button) helming the film, suddenly buzz began to gradually build in the months before its release. And then the critics began chiming in their thoughts, endlessly praising the film and bringing its Rotten Tomatoes score to its current standing at an extraordinary 97%. How did this movie that was surrounded by so much skepticism become one of the most well-received movies of the year, and does it live up to the massive hype?

Plot Synopsis: After his girlfriend Erica dumps him because of his incredible arrogance, Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard sophomore obsessed with the social clubs that he wants to be a part of, returns to his dorm and fumes his anger into creating a website called Facemash. Facemash takes pictures from campus directories of the girls and lets students rank them based on their hotness. Because of heavy traffic, the site crashes Harvard's server and catches the attention of Divya Narenda and twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss. The three approach Mark with an idea for a new networking site, The Harvard Connection. He agrees to take part in the task, but doesn’t follow up with them. Joined by his best friend Eduardo Saverin, Mark blows off Narenda and the Winklevoss' and launches his version, The Facebook. The site catches on quick, adding users and schools with startling speed, which only the Winklevoss’ of its existence. Narenda and them believe that Zuckerberg ripped them off and eventually decide to take legal action against him.

I feel pretty confident in saying that The Social Network is just about on par with this years other great movies such as Inception and Toy Story 3. And while Inception’s greatest asset was its originality and Toy Story 3 was an emotional powerhouse, The Social Network’s secret weapon is its writer, Aaron Sorkin. The back-and-forth dialogue between the characters moves at the pace of a screwball comedy, with insults and vicious wit arriving at 100 mph. Before you can absorb what just transpired, the film is already on to the next scene. Sorkin captures the zeitgeist feel of the current generation, a collection of ideals that support self-made entrepreneurs and emotional disconnect through technology. In one of her few scenes, Erica lays it out to Mark, “You write your snide bullshit from a dark room, because that’s what the angry do nowadays.” In that one line of dialogue, she essentially summarizes not only Mark as an individual, but also an entire generation of teenagers and young adults who would rather converse or spew venom at each other from the safety of a computer (or phone) screen rather than face-to-face.

The structure of the film is also quite unique, and takes about 5-10 minutes to get used to, alternating between flashbacks of Mark creating the website and scenes depicting the legal battles that ensued between him and his collaborators. Because of the lack of linear storytelling, there are some intentional holes in the plot that create a grey area of morals and actions that where we must choose which side we believe. Did Mark really “steal” Facebook or are the Winklevoss twins simply absorbed in their own sense of entitlement? While a tale with very little action and lots of scenes staring at a computer may sound somewhat boring, Fincher keeps the audience invested throughout, even when they don’t understand any of the computer jargon being spoken. Part of this is due not only to the whip-crack pacing, but to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rather unusual, yet engaging music score. Not surprisingly, it reminds one of the Dust Brothers’ score for Fincher’s previous “generation film,” Fight Club, evoking a similar concoction of thumping techno and eerie electronic sounds.

Fincher and Sorkin don’t ask us to sympathize with Zuckerberg, and instead are willing to allow Jesse Eisenberg to portray the man as a self-centered, egotistical, genius with very little social skills and maybe a hint of ADHD. Eisenberg breaks out of his “Michael Cera clone” persona here, forgoing his stuttering mumble mouth traits and adopting a more confident and assertive façade where Mark will dance around any argument someone may have, but only if he actually cares what they had to say. Whether or not this cinema incarnation of him is entirely based on the real guy or audiences can stand watching a person stab everyone in the back for personal gain for two swift hours, the fact is that Mark Zuckerberg is a very fascinating character in his motivations and unspoken emotions, much like the similarly unlikable Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.

Balancing things out in comparison to Zuckerberg is his only friend Eduardo, played by Andrew Garfield, who is probably the closest we get to a sympathetic person in this story. But as we soon learn, even he has some flaws and shortsightedness that ultimately causes the rift in their friendship. Of course, Zuckerberg’s questionable actions do play a large part in that too. Napster creator Sean Parker may be a more antagonistic character than Mark, but Justin Timberlake’s easy charisma allows us to look past the sliminess because he brings such a spark of energy to the film after he comes onto the scene. The dynamic between two Armie Hammers (using computer effects to put Hammer’s face on Josh Pence’s body) as the Winklevoss’ provides many humorous moments and Rooney Mara (as Erica) makes quite an impact in just her few scenes, showing that her dreadfully dull turn in A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) was most likely just a fluke. The Social Network is one of those movies that are easy to dismiss on first glance, but incredibly rewarding on further examination. It’s a fascinating character study, a compelling rise-and-fall drama full of deception and backstabbing, and even a subtle commentary on “social” technology and how it affects our people and culture.

4/4

True Grit (2010) Review


True Grit (2010)
The Dude does the Duke

For the majority of its twelve months, 2010 wasn’t a very good year for movies. While there were the occasional gems such as Shutter Island, How to Train Your Dragon, and Kick-Ass, the first half of the year was deathly starved of quality movies. Even the summer only had a few hits like Toy Story 3, Inception, and The Expendables. But while I expected things to pick up during Oscar season (September-December), I didn’t foresee the amount of so many great movies that would arrive. One of those was the Coen brothers’ remake of the John Wayne western, True Grit, which was immediately embraced by almost everyone, critics and audiences alike. While I will say it was a very good movie, I can’t quite shower it with the same amount of praise.

Plot Synopsis: After her father is murdered at the hands of the outlaw Tom Chaney, teenager Mattie Ross requests the help of Marshall Rooster Cogburn in an effort to track down Chaney (or possibly kill him). Texas Ranger La Boeuf, who has been on the trail of Chaney for some time because of another murder and who wishes to take him in on his own terms, also soon joins Mattie and Rooster along the way.

First, a little background: I have seen the original, but the remake does manage to best it in almost every category. The Coen brothers have gone back to the original Charles Portis novel for inspiration, more so in little details rather than the overall story. The movie pretty much goes through the same events that Wayne trekked through before, albeit pumped up with the Coens’ flair for elegant writing and strong, slightly quirky characters. And while not darkly gritty in the vain of Clint Eastwood westerns nor does it have the “clean” feeling of old (i.e. John Wayne) westerns, the Coens find a nice middle ground where the beautiful landscapes and scenery are punctuated by stark bouts of action.

Amazingly, there is not one weak link within the entire cast. Jeff Bridges does a great job of making this Rooster his to call his own, refraining from referencing John Wayne’s performance with the exception of when the plot called for it. Cogburn is a humorous and oddball character, but he’s also quick on the draw and won’t hesitate on shooting if the occasion called for it. However, first-time actress Hailee Steinfeld steals the film right from under everyone, meaning Matt Damon (La Boeuf), Josh Brolin (Chaney), and even Bridges. Whenever Steinfeld (as Mattie) is present, and that’s about 90% of the time, she dominates the movie with her hardened assertiveness and remarkable maturity, while at the same time reminding us that she is still a child who has yet to experience some of the harsh realities of life.

And while everything I’ve mentioned cements that True Grit comes highly recommended, I cannot quite say it is one of the top five movies of the year like so many others have stated. I felt an odd sense of detachment during the course of the movie, meaning I wasn’t quite as involved in the plot as I probably should have been. Also, I began to notice a pattern of mumbling and occasionally hard to understand actor voices; starting with Bridges’ droll speech and Brolin’s bumbling and then eventually Damon joins in on the act after Le Boeuf bites his tongue. This was more of a minor annoyance than anything significant, but it bothered me at times. Nevertheless, I would still say the movie is very good, satisfying, and very recommended, but I didn’t quite see anything so above and beyond that I fell head over heels in love with it.

3.5/4

Friday, September 28, 2012

Dredd (2012) Review

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Dredd

When one thinks of comic book movies, the first images are probably of Spider-Man swinging across NYC, Iron Man flying around blowing up other robots, or the X-Men using their special powers together. These are all decidedly PG-13 affairs, and comic book movies have gotten the stigma of being labeled child’s play in some circles, the recent gritty Batman movies notwithstanding. But there are many comic properties out there for more mature audiences who crave hard-edged material. While there haven’t been many good movie versions of those out there, “Dredd” is here to turn the tides for comic fans that want to see the hard-hitting violence of its source translated onscreen.

After some background exposition establishing that most of the United States has become consumed by radiation and one gigantic city was built along the entire East Coast, we learn that crime had become so rampant that the police force was transformed into the “judges.” The judges are basically cops with the ability to determine crime sentences on the spot and dispense justice as they see fit. Judge Dredd is one of the more unforgiving men on the force, and on a routine murder investigation with his new rookie partner, Anderson, the two are trapped in a block (essentially a whole neighborhood in one skyscraper.) The block’s crime lord, Ma-Ma, doesn’t want the judges to find out about her new drug line, and orders them dead.

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Background information aside, the actual plot setup is as simple an action movie premise as you can get, and has been used in others such as “Die Hard” and the recent “The Raid.” What sets “Dredd” apart from those two accomplished endeavors is its sense of style and the world that has been established. It’s a science fiction world for sure, and yet the sets and costumes are so well designed in ways that feels both futuristic and grittily believable at the same time. It’s an unforgiving environment, a place where the likes of Dredd are perhaps necessary to apply their brand of first-hand justice.

In those cases, the movie is violent and fun in the same way that old-school action movies were, when killing nameless henchmen in the most creatively bloody ways was the name of the game. “Dredd” is like those shoot-em-ups, but with a distinct modern twist. Ever since “The Matrix,” slow motion is tool that has been overused to the point of parody. “Dredd,” however, applies it in a way that feels fresh and organic, as the drug that Ma-Ma is pushing slows the brain down to 1% it’s normal speed. At times, the bad guys will take a hit of the stuff, only to unexpectedly have Dredd and Anderson’s bullets ripple through them and spill copious amounts of blood everyway in gloriously stylized fashion. It’s a neat twist on an otherwise formulaic trope, showing that, despite the numerous action scenes, the movie has a semblance of a brain behind it.

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Writer Alex Garland slyly places the audiences sympathies with Anderson rather than the titular character, allowing us to see through the mindsets of both his machine-like efficiency and Anderson’s conscience. Because Anderson grew up near the eradiated zone, her mind has developed psychic abilities, making her a very useful asset for the judge force, allowing forms of interrogation and battle tactics not possible before. Through her, we see what this clearly fascistic system looks like to an outsider, adding subtle moments in between the bloodletting where the movie develops a sense of self-awareness to its ridiculous excesses.

The character of Judge Dredd does not have the same level of public awareness in the U.S. as he does in the U.K., where the comic originates from, and judging (no pun intended, I swear) by the low box-office returns, he won’t have it any time soon. This is unfortunate, as “Dredd” is an action movie that has been getting many unexpectedly positive reviews, and I will gladly join that battle cry. It’s very recommended for comic and action fans, and if you end up liking it too, spread the word around.

3/4

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) Review

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Occasionally, a nearby theater will have an opening for a week or two and decide to show an indie festival favorite that had been gaining buzz for the past few months. Last semester, after feverishly searching for a couple weeks, I was able to find a nearby showing of the highly acclaimed action film “The Raid,” and it didn’t disappoint. Now, as Oscar season looms on the horizon, this will become more common, and the past week offered showings of the Cannes Film Festival favorite “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

There isn’t much of a conventional plot running through the film; it’s mostly meandering around (though not necessarily in a detrimental way) as the camera follows Hushpuppy and her father as they live in The Bathtub. The Bathtub is an island off the coast of Louisiana where a community of people living on the fringes of society has taken up residence. It’s not a glamorous place to live, but the people have a bond together and are proud to call the place their home. So when a hurricane floods the area and the government comes in to remove them, they refuse help because they have grown so accustomed to taking care of themselves.

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There are certainly parallels to Katrina at play here, but “Beasts” doesn’t want to cater to current event emotional manipulation and instead remains steadfast and focused on the tough relationship between father and daughter. It’s certainly an odd relationship, partly fueled by the loss of Hushpuppy’s mother, and the heart of the film is about watching these two find mutual ground together and grow closer, without resorting to a trite, clichéd handling of the material. As non-actors plucked out of obscurity to create a more palpable air of reality, Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry give performances as natural and nuanced as the best actors working today in the industry.

Wallis is the reason the film has been gaining significant traction since the festival showings, and it’s easy to see why. For a girl who was only five-years-old during filming and even contributed to the writing of her character, she’s a pint-sized wonder that powers through the film with incredible conviction and will. Hushpuppy is just as capable of taking care of herself as the adults surrounding her; and just like most other children her age, she has a certain degree of imagination too.

While it isn’t a pertinent portion of the plot, “Beasts” also has elements of magic realism that balances out the gritty setting of the Bathtub. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy is referencing tales of a creature called the aurochs. According to her tale, the titular beasts of the film were frozen under the ice caps, and that the storm that ravaged the Bathtub is linked to thawing them out of this. This is where I can see some viewers feeling a sense of  disconnect, as this element of the plot could feel disingenuous and out-of-place. However, the aurochs are a metaphorical element of the story that gives its themes more significance and the film a unique quality that makes it stand out from the usual crop of stripped-down indie dramas that it is clearly related to.

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Even though “Beasts” is certainly a very good film and is worthy of the attention it has been getting, I’m not sure I completely fell in love with it as much as others did/will. The lack of a straightforward plot was not an issue, as I’ve seen many other films in a similar vein, although I would have liked more connective tissue to carry it from scene to scene. A more prominent through-line would have helped the make the structure more fluid and some scenes have more impact.

Ultimately, this doesn’t drag the film down too much, but it kept it from transforming from an impressive, very good film to a truly great one. Even with those caveats, the surprising performances and unconventional chemistry between Wallis and Henry injects the film with the life it needs to stand out among the crowd. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a piece of filmmaking where the rough edges haven’t quite been sanded off, but the shots of imagination and verisimilitude that break through the surface give it a singular identity and life all its own.

3.5/4

ParaNorman (2012) Review

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ParaNorman

Animated movies aimed towards children but don’t talk down to children are a rarity. Typically, animated children’s movies are filled with broad slapstick and silly circumstances because it’s often assumed that children will only hold their attention for colorful chaos. Sometimes though, a movie such as “ParaNorman” comes along that not only doesn’t treat child like dim bulbs, but also trusts that they can deal with more mature subject matter.

Norman is a bit of an odd child. Not only does he have a strong affinity for horror movies, books, etc. (particularly zombies), but he also has the ability to talk to dead people. Unfortunately, no one else can, so he is often berated by his father (who thinks he needs to “move on” from his grandmother’s death) and the school bullies on a daily basis. Soon his powers will have to be used for greater purposes though, as the resident witch spirit has come back to enact revenge on the town who murdered her 300 years before.

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Fans of the 2009 animated venture “Coraline” (and by extension “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) should feel right at home with the creepy, horror-lite vibe of “ParaNorman.” It’s certainly not a coincidence that both were developed by animation house Laika, who are quickly carving out their place in the animation field amidst Pixar and Dreamworks. A large portion of the appeal of “ParaNorman” stems from its unabashed love for the horror genre, whether it’s from the funny opening movie-within-the movie and cute little references sprinkled throughout. Norman’s use of the “Halloween” theme as his cell ringtone put a big smile on my face.

The film is also unafraid of going to some macabre and dark places. This is still very much a PG-rated affair, but it doesn’t shy away from the moments that will undoubtedly freak out some of the little ones in the theater (although the ones in mine seemed pretty thick-skinned). The stop-motion animation technique was a perfect choice for creating the world of “ParaNorman,” allowing for the type of angular and bizarre designs that flesh out the eerie settings and monsters to good effect. There’s a tactile feel to the stop-motion animation that couldn’t have been achieved with the industry standard computer animation.

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While there is certainly a focus on the creepy and the freaky in “ParaNorman,” there is also plenty of humor to balance things out. Truth be told, the jokes could have been stronger. Although it generally gets stronger and wittier as the plot continues along, the first half has multiple obvious jokes (“How’s it hanging,” says Norman to a ghost that is stuck on a tree). However, I do give the film a huge amount of credit for allowing the kid characters to talk like kids actually do. There’s no mild cursing a la “The Goonies,” but the humor (mostly later on) is remarkably more subversive than the trailers would indicate without using it as a crutch to lean on.

By the time the plot really gets rolling and Norman uncovers the truths behind certain characters, “ParaNorman” becomes unexpectedly moving. The zombies descending on the town become more than just lumbering monsters, and a late scene between Norman and the witch is at turns both intense and touching, revealing a level of dimension that gives the film staying power beyond the jokes and endearing characters. If you’re a fan of animation (and who isn’t really?), there is a great chance you will enjoy “ParaNorman,” and if you’re a horror fan then you will like it even more.

3.5/4

Premium Rush (2012) Review

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Premium Rush

Not every movie has to be complex or thought-provoking to work. Some of the best pleasures of cinema are the movies that have a simple premise, with maybe a few extra details thrown in to flesh out the concept. Action movies such as “Crank” accomplish this perfectly well, and horror movies like “Halloween” can get away with sticking to their focused guns. “Premium Rush” is another movie in the same line as those; set up a plot with multiple characters and motives, and then unleash the bread-and-butter bike chases that audiences paid to see.

“Premium Rush” also sidesteps one of the issues with many “simple” movies with its creative story structure. Right from the start we’re thrown into the action with our hero, Wiley, speeding down the New York City streets on his brakeless bike to deliver a package. Once he returns to the bike messenger office, his boss hands him an envelope that soon has him being hunted down by a crooked cop. The movie throws you directly into the action, and then assuredly slides in flashbacks every now and then to flesh out the characters and plot beyond it’s deceptively straightforward basis.

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This back-and-forth arrangement means there is never a dull moment as we are entertained by the action while waiting for the next piece of the plot to fall into place at anytime. To make this work, a film such as this needs a charismatic cast to carry it through the nonstop movement, and everybody ably fills their positions. As our snarky lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings charm and determination to a character that we should probably hate in real life (seriously, cyclists are irritating, dangerous people, especially in a place like N.Y.C.)

While I’m sure many people would see this movie for his presence, the clear standout player here is Michael Shannon, as the corrupt cop, Bobby Monday. Shannon is typically known for his reserved acting style in very serious dramas, but “Premium Rush” gives him the chance to take off the reigns and have fun. Monday is a character that constantly digs himself into a deeper hole and is full of awkward tics, and Shannon’s willingness to go all out yields unexpectedly riotous results. He’s hams it up in the best kind of way, relentlessly barreling through the film like the coyote chasing Gordon-Levitt’s Road Runner.

Premium Rush Michael Shannon Joseph Gordon Levitt

And when it brings itself back to the bike chases, “Premium Rush” doesn’t pause for a minute. Even when characters are learning new information and talking to each other, they remain planted in their seat riding down the crowded streets. The stunt work (even when it’s an obvious stuntman doing it) is clever and lively, and director David Koepp finds creative places to throw the camera into the flow without relying on cheap visual effects and flashiness. The extent of his tricks is a digital map that shows Wiley’s path and a “Sherlock Holmes” style effect where time slows down so Wiley can figure out how to dodge traffic.

Koepp’s approach is straightforward and streamlined, which is a perfect compliment for how the movie goes about its business. Whether “Premium Rush” sticks with you once you leave the theater or its energetic thrills fizzle from your mind moments later, that’s ultimately not the point. It’s an adrenaline shot of a movie that achieves what most of the “Fast and the Furious” movies miss out on: a sense of good, clean fun buoyed by likable actors and a mischievous sense of humor.

3/4

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) Review

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Resident Evil: Retribution

At this point, is anyone really expecting something worthwhile out of the “Resident Evil” movie franchise? The first one may have been a passable horror/action B-movie, but since then the series has descended into excess and overall idiocy. This fifth movie doesn’t change the status quo; the same “Matrix” influenced action is in full effect and the actors are just as flat as ever. However, I would be lying in saying that I didn’t get some enjoyment out of “Retribution,” which is more than I can say for “Apocalypse” (#2) and “Afterlife” (#4).

Picking up right where “Afterlife” left off, Alice and the other survivors are attacked at sea and overwhelmed by Umbrella’s forces. Alice then wakes up in a holding cell, where she learns that the Red Queen computer has taken over Umbrella. Because of this, previous Umbrella head honcho Wesker enlists Alice’s help in stopping the renegade A.I. It turns out Alice is being held in a massive underground testing facility, so Wesker sends a team of soldiers to extract Alice while wading through the hordes of monsters still hanging around the facility.

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That may sound like a plot synopsis, but in the context of the movie itself, “Retribution” has only the illusion of a plot. I owe a few apologies to any action movie I’ve ever called plot less in the past, because this movie takes the same tact as “Afterlife” and literally has only a barebones skeleton of a plot. There’s a semblance of a beginning, and arguably a middle, but there’s no ending. Remember the beginnings of “The Matrix Revolution” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” where Neo and Sparrow have to be rescued from some holding place? “Retribution” is those 20-minute segments stretched to feature length and padded out with exposition and relentless action.

On those grounds, it may be objectively the worst movie of the series. I hesitate to go there though because unlike some of the previous entries, the action is actually really fun to watch in spots. Unlike “Apocalypse,” where the action was incomprehensible, and “Afterlife,” where the abuse of slow motion killed much of the enjoyment, “Retribution” is able to come up with a few over-the-top sequences that stand out. Even though director Paul W.S. Anderson is still not above throwing in tired bullet-time bits here and there, he appears to have a slightly better grasp on creating diverse and fast-paced scenes of carnage for this go-around.

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It’s also very clear that Anderson loves his wife, Milla Jovovich, very much, as Alice is still the only character that gets any reasonable amount of attention, more so than the characters that are actually from the videogames. Alice remains a forgettable heroine without a personality back her up, and Milla is as reliably stoic as ever, despite how beautiful she is. She’s also one of the few actors, along with Kevin Durand (Barry Burton) and Johann Urb (Leon Kennedy,) that don’t embarrass themselves. Shawn Roberts (Wesker) continues his forced, cringe-worthy sneering from the last movie, and Sienna Guillory (Jill Valentine) is flat-out awful. On top of her inability to be a convincing antagonist, Anderson saddles her with the worst of his already terrible writing, leaving a character that is only bearable when she doesn’t open her mouth.

The best way to describe “Retribution” is as a 90-minute lead up for the inevitable sixth movie. This is rather irritating, as the movie finally comes to a scene where the pieces are in place for an all-out monster war…and then the credits roll. In the end, the movie is just one big tease that fails to establish the stakes and scope that it promises, and then ends once it hits at something worth watching. Because of this, the film is not as enjoyable as the first film or even the mediocre third one, “Extinction.” However, thanks to its decent action scenes, I would probably watch “Retribution” before the other two installments, as much of a backhanded compliment as that is.

1.5/4

The Expendables 2 (2012) Review

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The Expendables 2

The first “Expendables” movie was perhaps not quite the triumph that everyone had hoped it would be back in 2010. It had some memorable moments and a great final action scene, but for the most part it left me wanting more. This is not the case with “The Expendables 2,” as the majority of the issues I had with the first one have been fixed and the film is just plain fun overall.

Seeing the first “Expendables” film isn’t necessary to enjoy this improved sequel, although there are some connections. Essentially we learn that our heroes, even though they succeeded in their own way (which basically means taking out every last villain in sight), didn’t carry out the previous mission like their employer, C.I.A. agent Church (Bruce Willis), wanted them to. In order to make up for this misunderstanding, Church wants Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his crew to locate missing nuclear launch codes and return them without fault. What should have been a simple in-and-out job becomes personal when the codes are stolen by arms dealer Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), forcing the Expendables to track him down before he can use them on hidden Russian missiles.

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Just about every actor from the first movie, sans Mickey Rourke, returns for this go-around, and some of them get expanded roles while at the same time making way for new players. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Willis, previously only two-minute cameos, finally get in on the action and the shot of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis standing side-by-side taking out nameless henchman in unison should give 80s action fans the kind of nostalgic wish fulfillment missing from the first movie. Jet Li unfortunately bows out early (not without an incredible display of martial arts skills beforehand though), making time for newcomers Liam Hemsworth, Chuck Norris, and Van Damme to get their due. Even when some actors don’t get much attention (more Terry Crews would’ve been nice, while Randy Couture is practically pointless at this point), everyone gets their moments to shine.

The humor and banter between our heroes gets a nice boost, as they spout off cheesy one-liners and joke about each other even in battle. The dialogue doesn’t work most of the time; a lot of it is flat out bad and painful to listen to, but every now and then someone throws out a line that will get a big laugh (including, yes, a Chuck Norris joke for good measure). This doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, since the core audience is surely watching this movie for the big action moments rather than the talking, but it is disappointing that the tough-guy talk (a staple of 80s action movies) could have been much better than it turns out to be. Arnold and Bruce exchanging each others’ famous quotes is fun; Hemsworth giving a laughably overdone story of his experience in Afghanistan is less so.




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Thankfully, the film manages to strike the right tone of goofy outlandishness, and many of the players like Statham, Van Damme, and Schwarzenegger manage to slide by on their charisma. Van Damme in particular looks like he’s having a ball as the head villain Vilain (get it?) as he chews through the ridiculous dialogue with his thick accent and helicopter kicking Stallone in their mano-a-mano. The films use of Chuck Norris, who is not actually remembered as a good action star, is refreshingly self-aware and plays off of his recent inexplicable Internet fame. Director Simon West also plans out the action sequences with over-the-top glee as bullets fly and heads explode, thankfully with less obvious computer-made gore, starting out with a great opening set piece and then dolling out smaller fun moments before the explosive climax.

Those who wanted to see “The Expendables 2” and have already made up your minds about the movie will most likely not be swayed by my review. Despite any faults, the film gives the audience what it wants and satisfies on that level. Those who were disappointed by the first movie and were cautious about seeing this one though should know that the sequel is a marked improvement and gives action fans the all-out brawl they were expecting before.

3/4

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Review


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The Dark Knight Rises

With death threats towards negative critics and the tragic shooting in Colorado, I would be lying if I didn’t say my anticipation for “The Dark Knight Rises” had all but dissipated. The excitement had dialed down, and eventually I thought, “I’ll just see it when I see it.” Finally I came around to it on my beach vacation in a small theater without the massive crowd that would otherwise annoy me, so I could just relax and watch without distraction. As I walked out of the theater, an overwhelming sense of finality swept over me, as I realized that regardless of any minor speed bumps along the way, Christopher Nolan brought his interpretation of Batman full circle to an incredibly satisfying close.

In the eight years since the events of “The Dark Knight,” Harvey Dent has become immortalized as a hero of Gotham, allowing the Harvey Dent Act to be created and basically wipe most of the organized criminals off of the streets. During this time, Bruce Wayne feels that he has accomplished what he set out to do (find someone to “replace” Batman), and has retired the cowl while becoming a bit of a recluse himself. When the League of Shadows, lead by the mastermind Bane, returns to wreck vengeance on Wayne and Gotham for the death of their master Ras Al’Ghul, this forces Wayne to suit up again and put an end to them. But he has more to deal with on his hands than just Bane, as the police (Commissioner Gordon notwithstanding) have branded Batman an outlaw, and the duplicitous Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman) is working on twisting both sides for her own benefit.

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Ever since “Batman Begins,” director Christopher Nolan (along with co-writers Jonathon Nolan and David S. Goyer) has been developing the idea of Batman as a symbol, something that can go beyond simple crime fighting as a man and inspire others to do good also. This opportunity arrived with Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight,” which seems to have worked even if the Joker temporarily mucked things up by turning him evil. While “Rises” is much more influenced by “Begins” than “Dark Knight,” the efforts of Gordon and Batman to hide Dent’s malicious doings come back to haunt them.

While the film spends a lot of time with it’s ensemble cast, the focus is definitely on Bruce Wayne’s arc as he works himself back into shape towards the path of Batman’s redemption. This is a franchise best performance from Christian Bale on display, as he painfully navigates through the emotional and physical torments the character goes through, and “Rises” isn’t afraid to put its hero through the ringer at his lowest possible point. What sets the film apart from its intimidating predecessor is in the structure of its plot, building towards a final 40 minutes of action and catharsis rather than employ nonstop tension like the Joker’s exploits caused.

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Even though I’ve name-checked the Joker about a couple times now, “Rises” makes absolutely no mention of the tricky Clown Prince of Crime. There’s no telling how this final chapter would have played out had Heath Ledger not passed away, but Tom Hardy is more than capable of taking over the villainous duties. Sporting an eccentric accent and the immense muscle mass left over from “Warrior,” Hardy creates an engaging adversary through both smart intellect and sheer brute force. Bane is also the first villain since Ras that can go toe-to-toe with Batman, and the times they match blows are easily the best fisticuffs in the whole series. Nolan has significantly stepped up his game in the action department since the awkwardly constructed set pieces of “Batman Begins,” and every punch and kick comes through with bone-crunching intensity while the mostly practical effects sell the spectacle of the vehicular action. The Bat-Pod makes a great return, but it’s The Bat, which is essentially Nolan’s version of the Batwing, that steals the show as it rumbles through Gotham in the extended action climax.

As the stakes escalate and Bane holds the entire city hostage, Batman cannot handle everything all by himself and reluctantly must turn to Selina for some help. Selina is a true enigma, armed with only razor-edged high heels and sharp intuition, she’s only out for herself as she straddles the line between being on the wrong side of the law and becoming a heroine. It’s a tricky double act to pull off, and Anne Hathaway uncannily switches between faux vulnerability and being in total control as fast as a finger snap. She exudes the sex appeal inherent in the character without hamming it up like Michelle Pfieffer’s incarnation, and consistently steals her scenes even against heavyweights like Bale. If there is a fault, it’s that with so much going on in the plot, the relationship between her and Bruce doesn’t get the attention time to breathe, especially once his character arc has to take over the story.


In the midst of all the chaos of costumed heroes and menaces is John Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a cop working under Gordon’s wing who is more useful and integral to the story than you might think. The script takes some shortcuts with Blake’s street-smart abilities (his deduction of Batman’s identity is frustratingly thin and implausible), but he eventually proves his worth. While I would love to delve into how Blake figures into the plot some more, and how it is one of the better aspects of the film, it is also a huge part of the ending that I wouldn’t want to spoil for first-timers.

This has been a long review for me because there’s just so much stuff to talk about in just this one film. That means there’s a ton of material to like and some that may not have been entirely necessary (such as Matthew Modine’s character), but once all is said and done, Christopher Nolan has brought his version of Batman to the close it has been set up for since “Batman Begins.” The legend has indeed ended with “The Dark Knight Rises,” but it will live on in some way shape or form.

3.5/4

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) Review



The Amazing Spider-Man

The summer of 2012 has proved to be an extremely divisive time for movie fans. “Brave” has had a similarly mixed reaction to that of the first “Cars” movie, “Prometheus” has people debating fervently whether it is ambitiously successful or complete bunk, and now “The Amazing Spider-Man” has split the line between two groups: camp Raimi and camp Webb. Sam Raimi fans hold his original movies close to their hearts (with good reason, barring the mediocre but not terrible “Spider-Man 3”), while many others believe that director Marc Webb has successfully restarted the franchise on more proper footing. As I walked into the theater, I contemplated over which side I would land on, unsure about whether this new film would end up as a successful reworking or tired remake.

While it retreads similar ground in the origin story that the 2002 original movie did, the movie takes on a slightly different tact by throwing in the element of Peter Parker’s parents and by spending more time with the characters leading up to the point of Uncle Ben’s death (at this point, if you didn’t know that, the joke’s on you). Rather than the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn, we have Dr. Curt Conners, a scientist at Oscorp (Osborn is still very much a figurehead in the background) who is working on a formula for regenerating body tissue, especially in the hopes of getting back his lost arm. While Peter is being bitten by a radioactive spider and then exploring his newfound superpowers, Conners must test the formula on a human in order for it to be used on the ailing Osborn. In a desperate move, he tests it on himself, and the lizard D.N.A. in the formula enhances his body to the point where it takes over and turns Connors into a monster.

There are many more character connections, plot threads, etc. that can be discussed, but that would take up more space than needed. Along the way, Peter catches the attention of Gwen Stacy, who is enamored with his good-hearted nature after standing up to a school bully. With Webb’s previous film being “(500) Days of Summer,” it should come as no surprise that the relationship and chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone is exceptionally done. Their sharp and playful banter provides the spark of life that raises them above the pairing of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.

Garfield does an incredible job of juggling Peter’s impossibly awkward and nice demeanor with the inner torment he holds because of his parents abandoning him. He sometimes lashes out at others, and the majority of the film is about him learning to use his Spider-Man powers for the good of others rather than just his personal vendettas. The theme of Peter figuring out his “identity” and his character arc that runs through the plot provides the compelling backbone for the film that distinguishes it from the original.

Dr. Connors is also searching for something, but it brings him down a more dangerous path. Connors/The Lizard follows in the tradition of the “Spider-Man 2” interpretation of Doc Ock as a sympathetic villain, as his endgame plan is not entirely malicious. In fact, once he figures out how to grow back his missing arm, Connors wants to share his miraculous discovery with others in the world that suffer from defects. Of course, we still want Spider-Man to win out in the end because Connors’ good intentions are twisted and warped, but it fleshes out the character with more intriguing layers underneath his scaly exterior.

Although Webb’s approach to the action doesn’t have the zany energy that Raimi brought to the table, he has an eye for creative angles and spider-like choreography to keep viewers on their toes. There’s still room for improvement though, as a funny but incomprehensibly shot fight in a subway train proves. It also helps that while he takes on an overall darker tone to the material, a sense of humor is maintained throughout thanks to Spider-Man’s quips and the ever-reliable Denis Leary as Gwen’s police captain father.

When taken as a whole, “The Amazing Spider-Man” never reaches the heights that “Spider-Man 2” did. It’s not as smoothly constructed, with multiple points where the editing begins/ends scenes at awkward times, and has sections around the middle that tend to drag. Add to that James Horner’s uneven score, which doesn’t establish a theme worthy of a hero like Spider-Man, as well as being painfully bad in one scene that comes off like a cheap horror movie. However, the elements are certainly there for a superior sequel (comic fans know what’s coming with Gwen and Osborn involved), and I would argue that it establishes a stronger franchise footing than the 2002 movie. With Spider-Man fans split down the middle on their preferred version, this new iteration will have to pull out the big guns with the next installment to win everyone over.

3.5/4

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Prometheus (2012) Review


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Prometheus

“Prometheus” is a damn tough movie to write about, namely because it’s still jostling in my brain days after seeing it. It’s not a confusing movie to follow, but I want to see it again to make sure I understand certain details correctly. It’s an “Alien” movie that’s also not an “Alien” movie. It wants to combine both the philosophical aspects of its original story with the body horror gross outs that come with the franchise. It wants to get these story threads up and running while at the same time clearly leaving some of them to be explained in a continuing sequel. How do I begin to approach a film that I definitely think is good, but still has me debating about it in my head?

Right from the get-go throws in a whopper of a concept: that the beginnings of human life on Earth originated from extraterrestrials of another world. After scientists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway find cave drawings with matching star maps that point to one planet, the Weyland Corporation agrees to fund a space expedition to that planet and possibly learn about humanity’s start. What they find there astounds them, although something more sinister and dangerous is waiting to happen.

It’s heavy stuff, and I won’t deny that “Prometheus” doesn’t address most of these at length as the films divisive reception has pointed out. While some more explanation definitely could have gone down, I’m not sure that was entirely the films intent. There are a couple points where the characters ask whether it’s right to find all the answers to mankind, and whether it is worth answers that may not be entirely satisfying. The android David, who is played by the excellent Michael Fassbender and easily the most interesting character, asks why he was built by Weyland. Charlie replies, “Because they could.” David then further asks, “How would you feel if that was the reason why you were made?” This goes back to that old adventure story adage about cursed treasure that some things were never meant to be found.

This is not meant to be a cover I’m making for all of the movies unexplained pieces. There is a line between ambiguity and vagueness, and “Prometheus” treads over the wrong side of the line at times. Some explanations can be easily inferred (one drastic action of a character gets some light after a late movie twist), while others are just plain ignored. What I love about the movie though, even if things don’t entirely line up, is its sheer cojones within a Hollywood blockbuster. That a modern day sci-fi blockbuster could be made where the focus is more on the big ideas and actual science fiction writing rather than grand action is quite amazing in its own right.

Yes, the second half eventually gives audiences the excitement that they want, but it’s done with such style and panache by director Ridley Scott that the shift never felt jarring or that it overwhelmed the movie. Make no mistake though, while I believe that “Prometheus” is NOT a horror movie overall, there are multiple scenes where I was squirming. The standout surgery scene is filled with tension and suspense, and recalls the classic chestburster scene from the original “Alien.” The famous alien being that most people recognize is not at the heart of the story (although it does figure in the story in some ways), and Scott and his visual effects designers have created some really creepy and inventive looking new creatures to fill the void.

Complaints about the lack of character development honestly perplex me, as I thought the main characters had just the right about of attention. Idris Elba’s Captain Janek has some well-placed comic relief moments, Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers is revealed to be a little more than just a cold person, and Noomi Rapace’s Shaw is a very sympathetic protagonist who isn’t just a replica of Ripley from “Alien.” As I said before though, Fassbender is far and away the best of the bunch, proving his worth as one of the most reliable and dynamic actors of this generation. However, there are a large number of tertiary characters that are merely blank faces and should have been whittled down to a reasonable number instead of being figures in the background.

All in all, “Prometheus” is both a pleasing return to form for director Ridley Scott after several duds, but at the same time could have felt more complete with some tweaks and slight additions. As Scott has proved in the past, his director’s cuts of his movie are for the most part improvements on the theatrical releases, and that seems like the perfect opportunity for there to be a smoother, more fully formed film to exist. I wasn’t disappointed in what I got, although my time to reflect has evened out my reaction.

3/4