Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Quiet Place


RATING: B+

I think this is the first actual horror film I've ever reviewed on here. If it wasn't obvious, I'm not a fan of the genre. I never saw the appeal in getting your pants scared off, and even less in the appeal of the gorefests that most horror films these days have become (Saw, anyone?). 

Still, at its core, this really isn't strictly a horror movie. It's also a post-apocalyptic, somewhat sci-fi thriller about alien monsters that have decimated most of the human population... and it focuses strictly on one family trying to survive in this world. Yes, it makes use of horror cliches. But it's certainly not like most horror films these days, which are often one of two things (or both): slasher flicks where the idea is to see how many gallons of blood can be spilled, or films involving demonic supernatural stuff. This film is neither of those. To describe all the genres in one sentence: it's a post-apocalyptic family-survival monster horror/thriller. Oh yeah, and it's directed by Jim Halpert from The Office--oh excuse me, John Krasinski. (He also stars in it.) 

To go further into the premise without using spoilers, these monsters are rather unique ones in that they get by on basically nothing but sound. They're totally blind, but their hearing is way too good--meaning that you have to stay silent at basically all times (there is a caveat or two), or the monsters will hear you. And if they hear you, then they come for you. And when they come for you... well, you can guess what happens next. So this movie isn't kidding about the "quiet" part of the title. Much of the movie is spent in near silence (with most of the actual noise being the music soundtrack or the monster's roars), and basically all communication is via sign language. No one actually speaks out loud until almost halfway through this 90-minute movie. 

And as for the family themselves: we have Lee (Krasinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) as the parents; then there's the children, Marcus and Regan (the latter of whom is deaf). Given that they don't speak a lot, one would think it'd be hard to get much character development. But there is some. And it helps that the two parents are both cast quite well.

This movie is actually pretty good. It's got a quite unique idea, and the whole concept of focusing on one family's attempts at survival during a big-picture situation is one that is sadly lacking in cinema. Sometimes it's better to have more characters; other times a more simplistic approach like this really does win. And although it is a tense movie, it's not nearly as much so as one might think from some of the reviews (although it helps if you don't go in knowing literally nothing about it). Another thing I feel this movie does well is that while it does make use of some horror elements/cliches (sometimes to its detriment), it doesn't rely on them; it's merely more of a tool. In that respect, it's not too different from a movie like the original Jurassic Park or maybe Jaws.

The small cast also deserves some attention. Emily Blunt is as good as one would expect by now. However, John Krasinski--who hadn't done much beyond comedy roles like the one in The Office--also really stands out here. He shows some excellent range in this movie (and he does a pretty good job directing too). Also, the more unknown Millicent Simmonds stands out as one of the children (and like her character, is deaf in real life); for someone who's still technically a child actress, she's quite good.

Still, as impressive as this movie is at times, it's still got some flaws. As I previously stated, it does not rely on horror cliches too much; but there are a few that come up (namely lights flickering for no reason a couple times) that made me roll my eyes a bit. Also, the cold opening before the title screen is a bit brutal (psychologically more so than visually) and could easily start some more sensitive viewers off on the wrong foot. Also, the ending is rather abrupt and arguably even somewhat inconclusive. Interestingly enough, a sequel is happening... although I'm not sure they could do a whole lot with that.

Even with those issues, A Quiet Place is still a pretty well-done piece of work. It's arguably one of the better original movies we'll see out of Hollywood all year. It's honestly kind of difficult to pull off a movie without much dialogue and still make it enthralling, but these guys did quite well. I am quite interested to see what Krasinski does next as a director, because it's pretty obvious this guy's got talent beyond his acting abilities. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Rampage


RATING: B-

Here's something interesting: a video game movie based on a video game that a lot of us probably haven't heard of. Or at least, I barely knew about it anyway. The idea of the video game pretty much laid in the title: you rampage, only as a mega-sized animal. Apparently in the original game the monsters were actually transformed humans, but that's ditched here and instead switched to mutated animals. 

The premise here is that some typical evil movie corporation has been practicing genetic editing on animals... for some reason (never really given, other than it's supposed to make them money... somehow?). Anyways, they're doing these experiments in space and after one of them goes wrong and their space station explodes, three capsules of pathogens from their research crash onto the Earth. And when inhaled by animals... well, the effects aren't pretty. 

One of the three mutated animals in question is George, a rare albino gorilla under the care of Dwayne Johnson--oh excuse me, Davis. Anyway, this gorilla is a pretty smart one that's learned sign language; only he's a bit more goofy than Caesar of the rebooted Planet of the Apes. So when he inhales the pathogen and mutates, Davis is determined to fix him... somehow. In addition to George, we have a mutated wolf and crocodile. Together, the three will do quite a bit of... well... rampaging. 

Obviously, this isn't the kind of film that's meant to be an Oscar-winner. What helps set it apart (to a certain degree) is that both director Brad Peyton and The Rock seem to get that, and so they just work to give us a fun popcorn action movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. And this works, for whatever that's worth. It's better than some of its peers in that it's not insultingly dumb, and in that it does not waste time on material that has no business being part of the runtime. 

And the action is quite fun, indeed. Most of it takes place during the second half in Chicago, where the actual rampaging takes place. Sometimes the bounds of suspension of disbelief get stretched a little bit (namely when The Rock's character gets shot in the stomach... but shrugs it off later and continues fighting like nothing happened). But when your movie is about genetically mutated animals, you already have to suspend it a little bit anyway. 

As can be expected, Dwayne Johnson is pretty much the star of the movie. While he's never really been in any truly great films, few action actors are as charismatic and fun as he is. And at times, it does feel quite a bit like the script was written around a character that would be played by The Rock. Case in point: one character tells Davis that "you know there are other ways of dealing with people, right?" after he expresses regret in not being able to punch somebody. His response? "I do know that, yeah, but that's not fun." There's not much talent in the cast beyond Johnson, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan does pretty good at hamming it up. 

Rampage obviously is only going to appeal to certain people who are willing to put up with action films like this that just aim to be more fun than anything. In that regard, the film's better than most in its niche. Again, it helps that the film doesn't take itself too seriously. It probably won't be seen as memorable or anything, but if one is able to put up with this kind of movie, they'll probably have a pretty decent time. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix


RATING: B+

The Harry Potter filmmakers decided to do kind of a bizarre thing when it came time to do the fifth book/movie, Order of the Phoenix. This was the longest book in the entire series (around 850 pages).... and they decided to make it the shortest movie thus far at 138 minutes. Makes sense, right? Actually, kind of sounds like a recipe for disaster. Particularly considering we had already seen one movie (Prisoner of Azkaban) struggle to tell the story in a relatively shorter amount of time. 

Somehow, it actually kind of works. Or rather, it doesn't fall apart at the seams at least. To be clear, there's still some problems with the way they cut down the book while making the movie. But they got most of the important stuff in there, added a couple of interesting new bits here and there and managed to make the product as a whole flow properly. Unlike Prisoner of Azkaban, it doesn't feel like they just shoved important/random bits from the book and just rolled with it. 

One thing to note about this iteration, though, is that there's considerably less actual action scenes than in previous installments. That's not to say there's nothing happening; on the contrary, we get to deal with the Ministry of Magic turning into semi-dictators as they try to pretend Lord Voldemort's return never happened. But there technically is a somewhat slower pace than in some previous films. 

Still, when the action does happen (most of it being in the final act), it does work just fine. It's a little frustrating that they cut down the Department of Mysteries battle from the book into about a five-minute skirmish, but they do make up for that by having arguably the best magical duel in the entire film series later on (between Voldemort and Dumbledore), and then extending the "possession" scene, which only took up about half a page in the book. 

There are still indeed problems. As previously stated, the fact that the thing's been trimmed is still noticeable. Harry and Cho's relationship is given so little screen time that one would be forgiven for forgetting often that they were even a thing. The Quidditch subplot is cut out completely. And the fact that the rest of the Professors or the school itself try to work against the scummy Professor Umbridge is not given much time either, which would've made for some good comedy in places. (Snape still gets a pretty hilarious deadpan moment with her, though.) And while David Yates' direction is for the most part pretty stylish, some of his depictions of magical spells are a little confusing; as is having some of Voldemort's Death Eater minions just fly around in smoky mists during the final act, which does not help when one is trying to tell who's who.

Something that does help the film out, though, is some of the new castings. We always get a couple to enjoy each movie, but some of the most "nailed it" ones in the series are introduced here. Evanna Lynch couldn't be a better Luna Lovegood. And Helena Bonham Carter is excellent as well as the more insane Bellatrix. And the usual returning stars do great as well (by this point, I probably don't need to name them all). 

Overall, Order of the Phoenix is an enjoyable Harry Potter adaption; even if this version cuts a lot of stuff out. At any rate, it's a lot better than it has any right to be. As previously stated, making the longest book one of the shortest movies just should not work. But it does, and while not many may find the film version of Order of the Phoenix to be one of their favorites, it probably won't show up on their least favorites either. 

Friday, August 31, 2018

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


RATING: A-

The people making the Harry Potter movies had an interesting task ahead of them when it came time for Goblet of Fire. This was the point in the book series where things started getting a bit darker... so that meant it time was for the series to graduate from PG to PG-13. The idea was, they had to make a more mature and darker Harry Potter film and pull it off well. Oh, and they had another new director. This time it's some guy named Mike Newell. 

This is definitely a better adaption than Prisoner of Azkaban. That one certainly wasn't bad, but among various issues, it kind of felt like it was having a hard time transitioning. And the whole thing felt oddly trimmed and even a little rushed at times. This one certainly is not; at 157 minutes, it's actually the second longest movie in the entire series. 

Let's get the early minutes out of the way first. Because while most of this movie is quite excellent, there is some horrendous editing/rushed storytelling early on. After the vision Harry has in the beginning (and that part is done well), the events of the Portkey and the Quidditch World Cup, up to the Death Eater raid happen all in a space of about under ten minutes. We don't even get the World Cup--instead we get an incredibly jarring transition out of it. For all the good this movie does later on, this sequence of events is horrendously adapted. 

But after that, things go much better. The pacing is pretty good for a movie of its length, and it doesn't feel like they just cut and pasted the most important bits from the book here without regard for flow. As good as Cuaron was at visual set pieces, he just wasn't as good at directing overall. And while the Yule Ball section (which goes on for about 15-20 minutes) feels quite tedious, it's difficult to be bored otherwise. 

The action scenes are quite well done here; the famous/infamous final act in particular stands out. They also kind of updated the underwater sequence; the creatures within (whatever they are, I forget) are more ferocious here than in the book, which works for making the sequence more compelling. 

The cast is excellent, as per the usual. Aside from the normal standouts (Radcliffe, Watson, Rickman, Oldman), we get a couple new faces again. Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody) gets the most screen time out of them, and he does his role quite well. Ralph Fiennes also makes his introduction here; and while he got a bit more over-the-top at times in future movies, he's more appropriately menacing here. David Tennant is also in this one; he doesn't get much screen time, but he makes good use of it. Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy) is also back after being gone in the previous movie, and his presence is welcome. I do kind of wish they had cast Fleur Delacour and Viktor Krum better, but whatever. Robert Pattinson's (Cedric) presence is a bit jarring (given how most feel about the Twilight series), but he does fine enough here. 

Mike Newell is probably the most overlooked director of the Harry Potter series. He only got one movie, but for the most part he delivered. He gave us the more darker and mature movie that was more appropriate for this installment. And really, he helped transition the series at a pivotal point. David Yates really just had to pick up where Newell left off. As such, this movie--even if it has a couple issues--is arguably one of the better ones in the series. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


RATING: B-

(Preface Note: A few may have noticed that there was no review last week. Based on my stats, that number of people who noticed was indeed likely very few, if anyone at all. Due to family-related reasons, I really had no opportunities all of last week to sit down, watch a movie (especially a long one like this) and then write up a review for it. Things should be back to normal now.) 

The first two installments in the Harry Potter series gave us unusually more reverent adaptions of their source material, courtesy of director Chris Columbus. And despite overall stellar casting, we still did have to put up with some lackluster child acting--particularly in the first one. Now, the third one comes along and things are a bit different. For one, we have a new director in Alfonso Cuaron. And his style is noticeably different. 

For one thing, Cuaron's style is a bit more visually focused at times--and it shows. The visuals and special effects are generally quite improved over the first two movies. Cuaron does give us some pretty impressive shots; there is often a nice attention to detail if one is looking for it.

What is also different here is that this adaption is definitely less faithful to the book. While for the most part it's not too bad (there's even a couple of subtle improvements over the book here and there), there's still some problems. For example, the identities of the Marauders are *never* explained (which I feel is pretty important, given that they're major characters). And while the first Quidditch match appears (and is woefully brief, again showing the film series' ineptitude with portraying the sport), the other two don't happen at all.

Oh yeah, and the dementors are not done justice at all. While they're still menacing, they're essentially just a swarm of flying black ghouls here. It's like they were trying so hard in the movies to distinguish them from the Black Riders of the Lord of the Rings series that they lost their way. (And unfortunately, it only gets even worse from here with regards to depicting the dementors.) 

And really, the sequencing of probably the first two-thirds or so just feels awkward at times. It feels like they just took certain scenes from the book (mostly the more important ones) and just spliced them together without regard for transitioning or flow, and the passage of time is not always clear either. This problem thankfully disappears later, but it's still a little bothering at times. 

So what does actually work about this movie? Still plenty. As previously mentioned, it's a quite nice film to look at. And the final act is done quite well, with the time-travel bits actually a bit improved at times over the source material. And if one has gotten this far (like most have), it'll still be difficult to not be enthralled with the main story-lines, which are still overall quite excellent despite the awkward pacing of the film itself. 

Also, there's the cast to consider. In addition to the usual ones we've already seen (Radcliffe, Watson, Rickman, etc), this one introduces Gary Oldman and David Thewlis, both of whom do great--particularly the former. We also get the first film with Michael Gambon's rendition of Dumbledore, and while his is hardly anything like Richard Harris's version, he's still pretty good and certainly seems less frail. Tom Felton (Draco) also improved his performance over the first two movies, even though he's not really given much to do other than "my father will...!"

Prisoner of Azkaban isn't a bad movie by any means; in fact, it's often still pretty doggone good. It's just a little sloppily written at times. It kind of feels like they were having some growing pains with transitioning the film series from the style of the first two films to the style we got used to in later films. Still, it is generally difficult to go wrong with a Harry Potter movie and even if this is one of the worst of the lot, that doesn't make it a disaster either. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Hugo


RATING: B

This film is a little bit of an anomaly. Not only because of its unique premise, but also because it's technically a kids' movie... directed by Martin Scorsese. Director of films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas. He certainly had never made a movie like this that was geared/marketed towards a younger crowd, even if it was also quite accessible to all ages. (Because it is; if anything it might be better appreciated by some older folk.) 

And because it is such an anomaly, no one knew how to market this movie; this kind of leaves me in a pinch myself on how to describe it. This film is about a boy named Hugo (hence the title) who lives in a railway station... in the clocks. Yup, seriously. That's what he does; he's an orphan that maintains the clocks. And also he's trying to fix this automaton that he has in his possession. (By the way, this takes place in the 1930's.) And there's a mystery surrounding said "automaton" that he ends up getting embroiled into by way of chance. 

There's not a whole lot else I can say about the plot of this movie without spoilers. Because even once the issue of the automaton is more or less solved, the film becomes a bit of a different beast entirely. That's one of the issues with this movie; it's a bit inconsistent in tone. It tries to be sort of a mystery drama at first, then for a bit in the middle I have no idea what it is. However, by the time it's over it's become a sort of love letter to cinema itself. This is a pretty interesting concept to explore. 

This film could actually arguably be described as Tim Burton-esque. This comes with both positives and negatives. As previously stated, it's a unique film and even a bit of a treat to watch at times owing to the spirit of its wonder towards the art of cinema. But there are still some things that don't make much sense. For a film that's mostly quite grounded in reality, there are a couple of scenes where the laws of physics just go bye-bye. And as also previously stated, the tone is a little inconsistent at times. And although it tends to lean more towards being a drama, there's just enough comedy (but not much) that I found myself wanting more of that as well. Example: There's an early scene where Sacha Baron Cohen's inspector character gets part of his leg brace attached to the train and is dragged along the ground in an unexpected slapstick moment. There arguably should have been more of that slapstick, especially since his character is a bit inconsistent. 

Part of what does help this film work is some of the performances. Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz are just fine in their child actor roles. But Ben Kingsley takes the cake here, giving one of the more memorable performances I've ever seen out of him. Christopher Lee and Emily Mortimer also do well in side roles. Jude Law's there too, but he's only on screen for about 90 seconds. Sacha Baron Cohen does fine too, despite the writers not seeming to know what to do with his character all the time. 

Hugo is an interesting film to watch, for sure. Those looking for more unique movies may want to give it a shot based on that virtue alone. It's got its issues and the pacing isn't always what it could be. But the direction it ends up going in is pretty admirable. Hugo may not be remembered as a classic, but it's certainly worth a look. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Ready Player One


RATING: B+

This film is a bit of a strange beast of a sci-fi/fantasy flick (if it can even be called that). It's essentially what you get when you put Tron, Garry's Mod and Sword Art Online (yes, seriously) into a blender, stuff a crap-ton of pop culture references into it, and then get Steven Spielberg to direct it. It's a strange combination for sure. And what's odder is that the plot of the movie is actually sort of unique--but is also stuffed with all the pop culture references, and while those things do fit in-universe, that does kind of make for a hit-or-miss deal for some.

This movie takes place in a futuristic world (2045, specifically) where the world has pretty much become a wasteland because... uh... reasons. But Columbus, Ohio is one of the main hubs of activity left in America, and yet it has more in common with Detroit or Chicago... minus almost all the skyscrapers. Despite the Earth apparently being in bad shape, there's still good technology available. In this case, most of it refers to whatever is needed to enter the Oasis--a virtual reality where literally anything is possible. (Hence the Garry's Mod thing.) As the main character puts it, real life kind of sucks right now. So everyone just wants to escape into the virtual reality. That mentality is kind of spurred on by the fact that the dead creator of the Oasis has an ongoing quest there which involves finding three keys by way of crazy challenges. And whoever wins this "quest" will inherit control of the Oasis. And pretty much everyone--our main character Wade/Parcival included--wants to win this quest. And because the Oasis is essentially the future right now... that includes an evil corporate dude. The Earth may be a desolate wasteland, but there's still no shortage of corrupt corporate types. 

This is a pretty bonkers movie at times. The scenes in the Oasis are often pretty over-the-top, due to how stuffed they are with... well... a lot of stuff. It would be near-impossible to list all the pop culture references/appearances in this thing; some of the more memorable ones include the Iron Giant, T-Rex from Jurassic Park, King Kong, Chucky, and a mech version of Godzilla. There's way, *way* more and I probably didn't even catch all of the references/cameos. And I haven't even mentioned how jarring it can be to go from the normal live-action real world to the virtual reality world--which looks more like what a modern high-end video game would look like.

Despite how overwhelming some could find this movie... it's actually pretty good. The characters are likable enough (despite some forgettable acting), and the world that exists in this movie is still a pretty interesting one. And despite how over-the-top things in the Oasis can get at times, it will still often be difficult to not get excited at times. And the story itself is pretty interesting, particularly the story of the dead Oasis creator's life which is revealed over time. Despite what the marketing made it seem like, there's a pretty balanced dose between life in the real world and life in the Oasis; and what's going on in either place actually does keep you interested, even if you find the whole "virtual reality" part a bit much. And for all the reveling in the digital reality that the marketing does (and that even the movie does at times), it's really not the kind of movie you'd think it is from that.

This movie is definitely better than it has much right to be. With all the overwhelming stuff that occurs in the Oasis, this easily could've turned into a fun but ultimately hollow fantasy. But despite all on the craziness on the surface, the heart of the movie is a bit of a different beast entirely--and that does help it stand out. There are definitely elements that one could have mixed feelings on--namely whether it relied too much on existing pop culture or not. But at the end of the day, this film still delivers a compelling story, and strikes the right balance of being fun and yet also being serious at the appropriate times. And perhaps it also delivers a cautionary tale to a certain degree--although that part may get lost in the shuffle for some viewers.