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.


Rango (2011) Review


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.


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. 


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 fa├žade 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.


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.