Because filmmakers, not critics, should tell the stories...

Most film reviews appear to do little more than explain and, thus, spoil the plot. I'm tired of carefully scanning reviews to get to actual opinions. Hence, I'm committed to writing reviews that focus not on plot, but on the overall quality of the film. And if you want a film reviewed, just let me know; I'm open to suggestions.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Moving Time!

Now that I've decided to take a serious run at developing this site (and maybe adding a couple of reviewers), I've purchased a URL and moved my efforts there.  Please update your bookmarks:

Seeya there!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


One piece of housekeeping and then it's on to the review.  I'll be attending and reviewing in-theater movies on Tuesdays from here on out.  You can also expect reviews from older releases in the latter half of the week.  And, as always, I take requests; I'll watch crappy movies (within reason...Gigli is off the table) so that you don't have to.  Now on to the review:

Let's get one thing straight: if you're thinking of taking your girlfriend/kid/grandpa to see Kick-Ass, don't.  Just DON'T.  That first might seem sexist, but if it is, the magnitude of the sexism is minimal.  See, Kick-Ass earns its R rating and revels in the violence while it does.  We're talking Clockwork Orange levels, folks.  AND there's an aspect to the violence (which I won't mention, because it's deep in spoiler territory) that many have found upsetting.  So if you aren't desensitized to violence, male or female, you're gonna want to skip this.

Still there?  Good, because Kick-Ass is also terrific.  The violence level caught me off guard at first, but then I remembered the pedigree of the movie.  Kick-Ass is based off a graphic novel from the same mind (Mark Millar) as Wanted.  So if you've seen the latter, you should know what you're in for with the former.  And, to be fair, the movie's concept warranted gritty violence, if not quite in the prodigious quantity delivered.

Actually, comparisons to Wanted reveal a couple more similarities.  Both feature voice over narration and a pretty subversive sense of humor.  Kick-Ass is the more approachable of the two, however; the day-to-day challenges of the protagonist keep the movie more firmly tethered to some semi-approximation of reality.  I liked both, but if Wanted was a bit too off-the-wall for your tastes, you might still enjoy Kick-Ass.  The movie oozes fun and makes viewers feel like they're watching a top-notch superhero movie despite the lack of...well, superheroes.

Kick-Ass also reflects the casting strategy of Wanted.  Both movies wisely cast a relative unknown as the protagonist and surround them with stars.  In the case of Kick-Ass, Aaron Johnson plays a very likable high-schooler who, like any guy who can lay the slightest claim to nerd-dom, wishes he was a superhero.  Supporting him are Nicholas Cage and Christopher Mintz-Plasse ("McLovin" from Superbad).  As someone who finds 9 out of 10 Nicholas Cage movies to be utter drivel, I was shocked to find Cage in an engaging, transformative role.  I'd say that he steals the show, but newcomer Chloe Moretz makes a pretty strong case for that herself.  Another welcome appearance is Mark Strong, a Stanley Tucci look-alike whose role in Revolver personifies bad-assery (being in grad school give you license to create new words).

If you find yourself down with the level of violence, you'll find it well filmed.  There's also some pretty decent choreography for a movie that isn't really focused on the fights, themselves.  Between the two, Kick-Ass is stylish and moves at a swift clip.  What really sets the movie on fire, however, is the pulse-pounding score, which effectively funnels viewer emotions- especially during the action scenes.

Consensus from those who have read the original graphic novel is that many plot points were changed.  But as someone new to the world of Kick-Ass, I thoroughly enjoyed my viewing.  Consider this escapist paradise big-screen money well-spent and proof that the summer blockbusters are nearly upon us.  8.5/10

Agree? Disagree? Questions?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Things yet to come...

Readers who have stumbled here up to this point may have noticed that new posts were rare.  That all changes now.  Look for new reviews to show up at least twice a week.  My Kick-Ass review should show up in the next couple of days.  That's all folks!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Oh, what to do with poor Alice? This was the question swimming through my mind as I sauntered out of the theater last Friday. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit right now that Burton's Gothic stylings often strike a chord with me. Sweeney Todd was a dream come true.

Early images from Alice revealed brilliant visual re-interpretations of classic characters such as the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen. From an aesthetic standpoint, Alice constitutes a sumptuous feast. Yet our parents used to warn us that snacks before dinner could ruin our appetites, and the same lesson applies here. The ad campaign promoting the movie has been so vicious and aggressive in distributing images from the movie that I nearly felt as though I'd seen it before even stepping into the theater. Full-screen pop-up, trailers, and the like ate away at my ability to enjoy the movie, itself...despite my best efforts to avoid them.

What, then, can be said of the story? Burton was careful to avoid explicitly raising the ire of Alice fans by telling a story that didn't attempt to follow the original books. Noble though the goal may have been, the result left me cold and ambivalent. As Burton told his tale, I struggled to make any connection between his Alice and the one from my recollection. One by one, familiar characters are paraded out for all to see, but this never coalesces into a greater whole. The audience needs a reason to care about Alice's struggle in Wonderland, but Burton shows very little of the realm, itself. In truth, the movie probably needed another ten minutes to better establish his vision. Instead, the entire affair takes a turn for the generic. Strangely enough, the movie seems to take a number of cues from the recent Narnia movies.

Alice plays out like a morality tale, and it does a poor job of clothing its core ethic. At every turn, the movie invests time in browbeating the audience when it should be further developing the characters in this strange world. Worse, the denouement that should act as a final proof of the core feels flimsy, rushed and entirely inadequate.

The writing isn't all bad; there are some witty one-liners and a couple of particularly amusing characters. Thankfully, the best of the script is used to full effect by a stacked cast of actors and voice actors. Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman are perfectly cast; Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham-Carter are their usual talented selves...even if Depp's performance might feel a tad familiar; and Crispin Glover, who delivers the best line in the movie, is a welcome addition whenever he pops up.

I can say little about the score, and that's a rarity for me. Some directors and composers seem more attached than most married couples. Perhaps the best example is Burton and Elfman. I don't really remember much about the score, so I assume that it was typical but unremarkable Elfman.

Is Alice worth your time in a theater? That depends...were you more successful than I in avoiding the reprehensible quantity of advertising for the movie? If so, then you've got a visually dazzling 100 minutes ahead of you. Just don't expect too much; Burton's Wonderland is a tad low on the wonder.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Avatar certainly could have been a disaster, a technological husk with no soul. Worse, the reliance on CG characters could have landed it smack dab in the uncanny valley...the realm where special effects wizards attempt to match reality but reap unsettling and awkward results. Beyond all reasonable expectations, however, Avatar must be considered a smashing success.

It's easy to see why 3D has been pushed in lock step with Avatar; the film melds CG and reality to create breathtaking scenes and believable characters. The eye candy on offer simply hasn't been paralleled this year. But Avatar's most significant technological feat lies in its ability to confuse the viewer. Halfway through, I had entirely lost track of what was and wasn't CG. The main characters, though some of them were alien, appeared to be fully-fleshed entities, and the world surrounding them was simultaneously impossible and yet flawlessly presented before my eyes.

Beautiful scenery and high octane action can only carry a film so far, but Cameron's screenplay, though not without a few warts, succeeds in inviting viewers to a new world and lulls them into caring for its characters. The barebones story isn't particularly complicated, and many of the plot points are telegraphed well in advance. The focus here is on a simple story told well. Cameron takes his time introducing his world and slowly unraveling its mechanics. The 162 minutes are judiciously apportioned such that the pacing avoids the twin pitfalls of skipping proper character development and drowning in excess exposition. Some of the characters are necessarily flat, and a handful of one-liners fall a bit short, but most of the writing implies a sure hand at work.

Of course, Cameron writes with a message, and the elegance of his delivery comes very close to perfection. Science fiction and fantasy often deliver morally or politically charged messages via metaphor, and Avatar can be viewed as one epic metaphor. Said metaphors risk crossing the line from art to rhetoric when they try to attach explicit anchors to the real world, and Cameron's script commits this error in two unrelated lines. Still, considering the length of the film and the otherwise effective development of the metaphor, this is a decent record.

On top of these aspects of the film are more conventional concerns such as acting. Sam Worthington, Segourney Weaver, and a host of other notables fill their roles with polish, but again, the true acting miracle in Avatar revolves around the CG characters. Never will a glitch remind the viewer that they aren't watching humans. The wizards behind Avatar have managed to simulate the full breadth of human expression and movement; the execution is flawless.

Combined with another rousing score from James Horner, Avatar's superlative special effects, measured pacing, and likeable characters form an unlikely synergy. By the film's climax, my heart was in my throat every time the life of a character was threatened. Sitting through the credits, I realized that Cameron's enormous gamble had paid off. Avatar is a cinematic tour-de-force and fully deserves the accolades it will surely garner at upcoming awards shows.

Image source:

Right At Your Door

NOTE: When I wrote this review a while back, it contained some small spoilers.  I've reordered this review so that this part is at the end and partitioned off for those who don't want to read it.  Moving along....

"WOW" was the word I kept silently mouthing as I watched this film. Cinematography, flawless acting, and an endlessly foreboding tone and script come together  in Right at Your Door for the most engrossing cinematic experience I've had in some time.
In a rare turn, the script and direction trust the intelligence of the viewer. In particular, subtle use of the radio provides small doorways into the current psychological states of the characters. Hence, the film isn't nearly as interesting or engaging if the viewer does not surrender their full attention. For the right viewer, however, that won't be the slightest problem. Additionally, there are any number of nuances to the relationships between the main characters; catching them all requires even more attentiveness. The director isn't hiding these things, however. These extra spices simply contribute to the feeling that the audience is watching real people. Plot points aren't telegraphed 20 minutes in advance in real life.

This riveting package comes in a small box. It was filmed on a small budget, but the claustrophobic quarters that provide the setting for the majority of the movie only add to the horror and futility of the situation. Considering that this is Chris Gorak's first film, I haven't been this excited about a debut since Shane Carruth's Primer (what's HE up to now?). Hitchcock ain't got nothin' on Chris Gorak!

Highly, HIGHLY Recommended!
Slight spoilers follow, but they all follow under this umbrella: "This is a small interpersonal story taking place within your typical disaster movie."

Another strenth of the script? It employs a gritty realism via the only source of information the main characters have on hand: the radio news station. The story of the disaster that has befallen the outer world unfolds through this mechanism, the application of which should trigger memories of 9/11 for all but the most obtuse. The comparison, however, is never explicitly made, and the implied connection between the American disaster and the events in this film is applied with finesse and grace.
Image Source: IMDB

Bionic Commando (PS3)

The critical reception to Bionic Commando was anything but kind. The PS3 version of the game is sitting on GameRankings with an aggregate score of 72%. I've seen games get the short shrift before, but never so much as Bionic Commando. I have a small confession to make; I'm only halfway through the game, but I'm so enamored with it that I couldn't wait to write a review. Here's the breakdown:

Graphics: Stunning throughout. Animations seem realistic (considering the subject matter at least) and environments are breathtaking. Not much to say because there's nothing to complain about.

Story: I've heard that this aspect takes some criticism; apparently the ending is love it or hate it. I'm enjoying the story partly because of the effective voice-acting. Steve Blum always puts on a good performance, and he's effective here as Super-Joe. I'm not familiar with the VA for the main character, but he certainly does a good job of making me believe he's enjoying the swinging as much as I am- which brings us to...

Gameplay: There's nothing else on the market like BC. It's not an FPS or even a standard 3rd person shooter. The main focus is on effective use of the bionic arm. The result has been compared to the Spider-man games, but such a comparison leaves out the nuances that BC brings to the table. First of all, the level design is superb. Whereas the Spider-man levels games are typically limited to swinging around the same old skyscrapers, BC's levels are filled with all kinds of broken buildings, suspended railways, caverns, and more. Even if the mechanics of the swinging were identical, the game would play much differently. But the swinging requires more precision than SM. Some players make the mistake of giving the game five minutes and deciding it sucks. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of using the arm, but once you've got it, you're in for some gameplay gold. The reason the game "works", in my opinion, is that it doesn't focus on split-second reactions and near-impossible jumps. Instead, the emphasis is on tactics. How does one effectively navigate the war-torn landscape and attack ones' foes while evading their gun-fire? Answering this question is the job of the player. Using the arm, for instance, to swing into battle and then swing out to recover is a rewarding experience. The boss battles, in particular, do a fantastic job of highlighting the difference between this game and your vanilla third person game.

Sound: WOW! If you're familiar with the themes from past BC games, you'll recognize some remixed themes. This soundtrack, however, is simply outstanding. From the elegant piano theme in the main menu to the thundering symphonic arrangements during battle, these pieces do much to elevate the gameplay to something truly special. On a related note, I intend to do some serious searching for the sheet music to the menu music; I would love to play that on the piano.

Let's talk downsides for two seconds. I've heard a lot of criticisms, and these are the two that I deem to be accurate:
1) Radioactive out-of-bounds. Linear games have the difficult task of creating some means to provide limits to the environments. The standard but laughable solution of times past has been the familiar "invisible wall". BC tries something new by simply killing the player if they stray out-of-bounds for too long. It is explained that much of the city is irradiated and that our protagonist must avoid this stuff like the plague. Most of the time, this radiation is clear enough to see. But those few times it surprises you can get pretty annoying. This solution to an old problem might even be elegant if well-implemented, but there are some weird choices here. Sometimes, the UPPER HALF of a building will be irradiated. Usually, level limits are lateral in natural, so coming across this can be vexing.
2) Collectables. See, you're gonna die a lot; this isn't an easy game (on Normal, at least). Most games don't make you re-collect collectables if you die before reaching the next checkpoint. Well, BC does. Get used to it.

These cons are really quite minor in comparison to the fantastic gameplay on offer. Every major aspect of BC screams high production values, and the gameplay offers something truly novel and rewarding. The price of BC has plummeted in most places. I found it new for 20 dollars. Don't believe the critics; Bionic Commando is an astonishing accomplishment.

Image Source: IGN