Friday, April 29, 2016

Quick Movie Review: The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016)

If you're one of the people who thought there needed to be a sequel to a film that was already adding nothing really new to the lore of Snow White, then at least you saw the first film. If you didn't see the first film, then you're in luck because you don't have to in order to watch this one. This prequel/sequel is only cosmetically related to 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman.

I mean that in both a good way and a bad way. The two films share some of the same cast--Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Nick Frost--but feels weighed down by the fact that its predecessor wasn't at all as amazing as its trailer lead us to believe.

But let's, for a moment, judge this movie solely on its own being, and not based on how necessary it is or the demerits of its predecessor.

The first installment ends the same way all Snow White adaptations end, except for there being an ambiguous endearment between Snow White and Eric the Huntsman (Hemsworth).

Snow White isn't in this movie. She's mentioned and silhouetted, but basically omitted. Which is fine. She was probably the worst part of the first one anyway.

Even better, we get a couple of cool additions to the cast in Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain--both of whom do a superb job in their respective roles of the Snow Queen and Sara, the huntsman's wife.

When I say this installment acts as a prequel AND a sequel, it means that it shows the origins of how Eric becomes the huntsman and how he meets Sara, but then flashes forward 7 years after she dies (we know this from the first film).

The sequel portion of the story has the huntsman setting out on a journey to find the magic mirror, which Snow White sends away after it starts making her go crazy and homicidal. This is where the plot gets hairy. It's never clear why the mirror is making her mad, nor how she has the consciousness to send it away, nor why the huntsman needs to retrieve it even though Snow White wants it gone to begin with.

The magic mirror is a MacGuffin in the worst sense. Not only do we not need it as a plot device, but we're not even really sure why it's a plot device. There could've been a more sensible reason why Eric and the dwarves set out on their quest.

The action sequences are, at times, ridiculous and silly--over-saturated with shaky cam so you just accept what's happening. But the thing is, we would've been just as fine without the nausea.

There's plenty of levity from the dwarves, played by Frost and Rob Brydon. The jokes are a fairly even mixture of both hits and misses. But it's okay, at least it keeps the movie fun and not too self-aggrandizing. That is, until it wants to be self-aggrandizing. Jarring tonal shifts and an overly jokey Hemsworth all of a sudden make us confused about what feel we're supposed to be getting.

Truth is, I can't think of a good enough reason not to like this movie. I find it entertaining. There's a lot of meandering somewhere in the middle of the story. The journey to the mirror isn't half as exciting as it should be. Nonetheless, The Huntsman tops its predecessor, not on essentiality, but on a unique premise.

Twizard Rating: 79

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Quick Movie Review: Pulp Fiction (1994)

If a piece of art is highly influential, does it make that piece of art good? Yeah, probably--great, even. But it doesn't necessarily mean everyone has to like it.

Intermixing and connecting four stories, the film compares and contrasts all different types of low-level scums of the earth.

In Pulp Fiction, the dialogue is superb--near perfect. Quentin Tarantino's direction is that of ridiculously mind-numbing proportions. The cinematography is truly something else. Not to mention, groundbreaking on so many different levels--replicated infinitely.

But just because it's groundbreaking, doesn't mean it has to be my favorite film.

Perhaps this has something to do with all the hype I've been hearing my whole life about how it's the greatest film of our lifetime--of ALL time. But I wanted to love it. I expected to love it!

And although I didn't love it necessarily. I liked it--a lot. Tarantino might just be my favorite director. I think he's the greatest auteur of our generation. Each film of his I've seen has inspired me even more in my own writing and artistry.

What I like about Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and even Reservoir Dogs, is the sense of grandeur and importance. They all command your attention with mere dialogue in ways that most mainstream action blockbuster flicks never will.

And Pulp Fiction is engaging in that same way. But it differs from those other Tarantino films in one particular way: It's mostly much ado about nothing. I get that it's supposed to pose as commentary on the state of the film industry and mimic countless classics that have gone before it. But too often does Pulp Fiction take its sweet time getting to the point. That's Tarantino's style with his hard-hitting dialogue--which I find entertaining. But if there is no point (or no point of any substantial value) then all that dialogue gives us just that--entertainment.

Which I'm all for. Some of my favorite films are meaningless is the grand scheme of things. But in those films, I care deeply about the characters. I relate to them. I root for them. Here, I'm not sure who I root for, if anybody. But maybe that's the point, too.

The nonlinear story is cool, and is brought back to popularity with this movie, but definitely not the most interesting I've seen in cinema. On the other hand, watching the stories unfold is. Never knowing what's coming around the corner or which characters to trust or like. Tarantino gets the absolute best performances out of his talent--Samuel L. Jackson above all else.

The best scene is when John Travolta and Uma Thurman venture to a 1950s-themed diner. Every employee there is a caricature of some '50s icon. Which is a curious thing since this film pays homage to countless zeitgeists of yesteryear, but almost none of them are from the 1950s.

Perhaps its groundbreakingness is partially due to massively exposing the world to Tarantino and proving that he wasn't just a one-hit-wonder with Reservoir Dogs. That his style is here to stay.

The movie is exploitation that critics reaffirm as high-quality, while also changing the game for independent films, making it okay for A-listers to appear in these lower budget productions.

But like I said, I also have to credit it to its technical accomplishments. And the fact that it's thoroughly and consistently engaging.

Pulp Fiction is an amazing film. Perhaps Tarantino's greatest artistic accomplishment. But one that I could watch over and over? It's not even my favorite Tarantino film.

Twizard Rating: 97

Quick Movie Review: Barbershop (2002)

There are a lot of experiences that young men should have growing up. Being exposed to the barbershop culture is one of them. I loved going to get my haircut when I was a teenager. Not just because I felt rejuvenated with my fresh cut, but because I enjoyed the banter, the stories, and even the superfluous arguments. It's something I still look forward to when I go get a trim. And it's captured perfectly in this 2002 Ice Cube comedy.

The story isn't anything too intricate. It surrounds Cube's character, Calvin, trying to decide whether or not he should sell the barbershop passed on to him by his late father. But most of the film is spent filling us in on the happenings of the employees and patrons of the shop, and their own stories. By far the most interesting part, we get a great sense of who these people are and what makes them tick. We feel like we're right there in the shop with them.

It has its fair share of broad comedy, but there aren't a lot of moments of subtle humor. Which is okay, since it does the former so well. While it's rarely hysterical, you can definitely appreciate the repartee. In fact, most of the highlights don't come from the barbershop at all, but from Anthony Anderson and Lahmard Tate's characters stealing and attempting to open an ATM machine. This subplot goes on throughout the entire film.

With an impressive cast and an even more impressive Ice Cube, the beauty of this film is in its characters. They're not all likable, but you get to know them well enough to understand them. It's deceptively deep.

Ultimately, Barbershop turns a very simple premise into something much bigger and more meaningful. And it does it without ever feeling like it's being stretched too thin.

Although it's not perfect, it's perhaps one of the most accurate portrayals of a culture so beloved by American males.

Twizard Rating: 84

Friday, April 22, 2016

Quick Movie Review: Midnight Special (2016)

It's a movie about a father trying to save his son with super powers. Sounds pretty cool, right?

Yeah, I thought so, too. It's not that this movie is complete garbage, because it isn't. It's just misguided. And slow. Really really slow.

In the beginning we see a boy, Alton, who has been kidnapped--or so we are lead to believe. We soon figure out that he's been taken by his biological father (Michael Shannon), away from a Branch Davidian-type cult that's exploiting Alton for his powers.

This is, by far, the best point in the film. We're excited to see what's about to happen. Somebody's got a secret. There's going to be a cool twist somewhere! …Don't hold your breath.

Certain things always remain unclear. At times this feels intentional. Not using contrived means of letting us in on what's happening--instead, revealing it to us slowly throughout the movie. But what seems artistic at first, soon makes you realize that maybe it's just done as a means to fill up its runtime.

The acting is very impressive. Everyone is perfectly believable in their own respective roles. But unfortunately, that technique--the ambiguous exposition one--also contributes to us feeling like we don't really know our characters very well. It's hard to get attached. It's even harder to care.

We're also never really sure what Alton's super powers consist of. He can control electricity and stuff, but what's with his laser eyes?

There's a lot wrong with Midnight Special. And honestly, I can live with those reasonably minor pitfalls. The main problem? This film should be way more fun than it is. It's nowhere near as cool as the concept leads us to believe. The most interesting part is the end, which is all too brief.

The issue is this film commits way too much to the "realism" aspect of its "magic realism" label. We don't get enough of what sets it apart from other movies with similar story lines.

We get mystery, but much of it goes unsolved. Even after the movie ends.

But like I said, this film isn't a total wash. As slow as it is, the dialogue is engaging. And it keeps us in our seats waiting to see what happens. But then, at a particular point in the movie--I can't remember exactly when--we realize it's not going to resolve at all how we want it to. That's when we feel cheated.

I'm still not quite sure why they decided to name it "Midnight Special". It makes me think of some sort of neo-western. But it's not. It's about a boy with unclear super powers.

Twizard Rating: 68

Quick Movie Review: My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016)

They're all older, yet they're all pretty much the same. Maybe that's another Greek stereotype I'm unaware of. But in this sitcomy world that Nia Vardalos has created for us, it makes sense anyway.

From the very first moments, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 comes off as more of a cast reunion or a "Where Are They Now?" special than anything else.

By nature, the title already limits what this film can be about. And it shows. Obvious with every forced plot point, it tries to cover too much ground, but then still finds a way to sneak a wedding into it all.

Amidst trying to be the mediator for her whole family, Toula (Vardalos) must deal with her daughter possibly leaving home for college. She also must try to handle her own suffering relationship with her neglected husband (John Corbett), while trying to plan a wedding for her parents who recently find out that their 50-year marriage was never official.

At one point there are about 3 major story lines competing for the title of "main". Plus several others intermixed. As a result, we get scenes that serve no purpose and film with no direction.

The dialogue is just as sloppy--going for that quirky awkwardness that worked so well in the 2002 original. But here, it plays as unnatural and stiff.

Maybe the cast has lost its chemistry with one another. Or maybe it's missing a little of what made the first one work. That first film was completely organic. The sequel is the exact opposite.

Everything is forced. From the dialogue to the character depth. Trying to squeeze every last bit of emotion out of its audience every chance it gets.

Not to say it doesn't have its moments. I didn't hate it. It just isn't all that good. Certain performances outdo others. Michael Constantine is just as good as Toula's father. But director Kirk Jones just can't extract the same results out of most of the rest of the cast.

It's all just really discombobulated. Directionless. It tries to prove points, but then counters them with opposing points--ultimately saying nothing. Or worse: not knowing what it's saying.

Many jokes fall flat. Luckily the head count is so high that eventually there are a few you end up laughing at.

But as a whole, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is a mess. It means well. Really, it does. It'll even make you smile a few times. But after 14 years, you'd at least hope for a better story.

Twizard Rating: 59

Quick Movie Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

For those of you who haven't seen Walt Disney's animated version of The Jungle Book--or haven't seen it in awhile, anyway--I'm sure you still know the famous songs, and perhaps even some classic scenes. But what you may not realize is that the version we're most familiar with does have some issues of its own.

Not to say that Disney's 1967 adaptation is anything to scoff at. It will definitely slap a smile on your face. But with a runtime that could have used a few more minutes, there's always been some things missing.

Definitely an improvement on the original, 2016's The Jungle Book fills out the classic story in a much more complete way.

With this one, we get answers to a lot of characters' motives, as well as more realistic responses to drastic life changes.

There's backstory provided for why Shere Khan wants to kill Mowgli, along with a more heartfelt goodbye as Mowgli leaves his wolf pack at the beginning of the film.

Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, passes the cute test. Almost so cute and precocious that he fails to give us the realistic performance we desire. Instead, it's more of what you would see in a Disney Channel show. He's oozing with "my parents made me audition for this." Granted, he does alright considering he's essentially acting with no other humans. And while director Jon Favreau gets the best performance out of him, he's just a little too much Disney and not enough realistic. Which isn't far off from original voice actor in 1967, who lacks the same kind of conviction. Compared to him, Sethi is an improvement.

But the narrative is really what drives this movie the hardest. It's captivating even before the comic relief of Baloo (Bill Murray) shows up. And it has the added benefit of not being too long.

The jungle world created by the filmmakers paints a dark and sinister universe, just as mysterious as the jungle itself. There's nothing peaceful here as long as Shere Khan is around.

King Louie, voiced by Christopher Walken, is just as wicked. He hearkens back to a Marlon Brando Godfather, living in the shadows and attempting to exploit the quid pro quo. This is also where "man's red flower" becomes more of a prominent feature in this version.

The visual effects are an accomplishment alone. Every hair, every movement, without using any live animals. I've never seen anything like it. Truly amazing.

If you romanticize the 1967 original, then you may have a problem accepting this one for all its greatness. But this one is the actuality of what we've been romanticizing. And besides the acting, it's near perfect. It's darker and even more twisted, transcending Rudyard Kipling's original source material to the maximum. It replicates the tone--but better. It's everything good from the original--but better. And even brings back the beloved songs for good measure.

Twizard Rating: 99

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Quick Movie Review: My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Boy, how well does this film holds up 14 years later. Can we finally admit to its greatness now?

Whatever tropes it derives from the rom-coms of old serve only to make us feel comfortable in its grasp. But don't let the formula fool you. This film is anything but cloying. It opts out of cliche and sappy--instead, giving us rompy situations that we could actually see happening in our own lives.

Toula, played by Nia Vardalos, who also wrote the film, is a 30-year-old woman whose family fears will become an eternal spinster. She doesn't seem to care about her appearance, and she is very awkward when it comes to talking to other people. She is of Greek origin, and her family won't let her forget it. They're the type who only talk to other Greek people. On the other hand, Toula doesn't care.

She meets Ian (John Corbett), who isn't Greek. They fall in love and want to get married, but have to deal with the wrath of her family--mostly her father, played by Michael Constantine.

The cast is perfect--especially Constantine, who we are often times convinced is Vardalos' actual father playing himself.

The humor is mostly made of inside jokes from Greek culture. If you're not savvy on that, you might think you won't understand. But the script does an excellent job of not making us feel like an outsider. And most of us have families with weird traditions and tendencies, too, so we get it.

There are a few lulls in the narrative, but the script always recovers well with something funny around the corner.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is truly funny in the most organic way possible. The scenarios all seem real. Vardalos is believable and hilarious in the lead role. She channels the sort of uninhibitedness that Lucille Ball was known for. Almost like a Kristen Wiig before her time.

But most of all, this film speaks to generations of society who can't see past cultural differences. It was relevant back in 2002, and is still very much that way now. It's a tale we've been seeing, in one way or another, for centuries now, but still can't seem to get us to change our ways. Although no one's life is at stake in this film, we could all learn a thing or two from the story. It's deceptively deep.

Twizard Rating: 94

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Quick Movie Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

2008's Cloverfield was an entertaining movie, but 10 Cloverfield Lane brings entertainment to a whole other level.

Brilliantly written and coaxially directed, you know very early on that it's not going to be a bad film. When the audience has that kind of trust in the filmmakers, it's a very pleasurable experience. Driven by Bear McCreary's very deliberate score, every moment of this film is calculated and poised.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a young woman running away from something--a relationship, we conclude. Then, not even 5 minutes into the film, something abrupt happens while she's driving. She gets hit by another car, sending her violently spinning off the road.

In the next scene she wakes up to a prison-like room with no windows. She's chained to the wall. In walks a man named Howard, played by John Goodman. Goodman plays this role how you wish he'd play every role. He's mysterious and crazy and infernal. You're never sure if you should trust him or not. Sometimes you feel like he's okay, but other times he does things that make you reconsider.

It turns out they're in a bomb shelter. There is one other person down there with them--a younger guy, about Michelle's age, named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Howard claims, to Michelle and Emmett's ignorance, that the Earth's air is now chemically contaminated and unbreathable. Michelle and Emmett aren't sure what to believe, but they stick together and have no choice but to trust Howard.

It's like two movies in one. On the first hand, you have a guy who's insane and may be actually kidnapping you, and on the other hand, there could be a possible post-apocalyptic scenario above ground. But it might not matter either way. Just because a crazy guy has a bomb shelter, doesn't mean he's not still a crazy guy.

Director Dan Trachtenberg does a fantastic job in his feature film debut. The movie is almost entirely set in this cramped underground bunker, yet he finds a way to fill all 1 hour and 43 minutes of film without it ever feeling repetitive or boring. We're constantly on the edge of our seats. It's one of the best suspense films in years. Hitchcock would be proud.

Twizard Rating: 100

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Quick Movie Review: Cloverfield (2008)

Cloverfield came at a defining moment in viral culture. YouTube was really getting big, and smart phones hadn't even been around for 2 years yet. So give credit to the awareness of the filmmakers, including producer J.J. Abrams, to take a chance on something that spoke to a new generation--perhaps the first film to do so (based off memory so don't get mad if I'm wrong). It was modern and cool and what people actually wanted to see, but not like in a cheap way when some rich old guy says "Ooo, I bet the kids'll really dig this." But in a totally conscious way.

It's a monster movie with a modern flair. Set in New York City (where else?), it features a group of friends trying to escape Manhattan away from this large unidentifiable creature.

The acting isn't the best--save for Lizzy Caplan and T.J. Miller (the latter of the two having his career essentially launched by this movie alone)--but that may have to do with the completely exposed and unrealistic dialogue. It's obvious that the filmmakers chose to focus more on concept and narrative. And that's fine.

During the movie's setup, before the monster attacks, a party is being held to bid farewell to Rob (Michael Stahl-David) before he leaves for a new career opportunity in Japan. Rob's best friend, Hud (Miller), is documenting the whole thing--including the rest of the movie--on video camera, which may be the best decision by the filmmakers in this whole film. Miller arguably carries the movie and provides great comic relief, proving why he deserves to be such a dominant figure in these types of roles these past few years.

Director Matt Reeves does a good job moving the story along and not leaving behind much wasted space. It constantly feels like this is what might actually happen if there were some sort of monster attack.

One allowance you'll have to make, however, is the corny love story amidst all the chaos. Rob convinces his friends to venture back into ground zero in order to save the one-that-got-away, Beth (Odette Yustman). But thankfully Cloverfield never takes itself too seriously. Or maybe it does, but it's so much so that we just laugh and enjoy it anyway.

Twizard Rating: 86

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Quick Movie Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Oh, how convincing special effects can be. When done right, they can really drive a movie. But when overused, it all starts becoming about the studios flexing their wallets at us. Or the director having fun with the budget. Or, in rarer cases, not knowing how else to execute a given scene. Whatever the reason may be in Batman v Superman, it pushes us further away from an already shallow film.

But it gives it a go. It tries evoking tears and suspense and darkness. (There's this weird yellow tint cast over the whole thing). And surprisingly enough, this may be the deepest Superman film we've seen yet. Although that can only take us so far, as by nature he has no personality. He can't relate to us. Which begs the question of what his and Lois Lane's relationship is based on. He saves her all the time. They kiss. It's intense. They love each other. But why? We're still not sure.

In Batman v Superman, the two of them are developing negative feelings towards each other brought upon by the media and Lex Luthor. I think. We see them fighting, but the plot is so convoluted that, honestly, even I'm not sure of the details behind it.

Let's get to Batman, shall we? We've all seen the Christopher Nolan Batman films--some of us several dozen times--and we all know how Bruce Wayne's parents die. So why the need to show it happening over and over again in this movie? Because it's a new story? Maybe. But perhaps director Zack Snyder likes the way it looks. Because he doesn't just show the death. He overplays each detail of the death--the pearl necklace getting caught on the gun, the heads hitting the pavement. Don't think that it's for the sake of the story. There's a lot of extra in this movie that just adds to the length. If only half of the unnecessary slow-motion sequences were cut, it would probably be 30 minutes shorter.

Jesse Eisenberg does an okay job as Lex Luthor, but you can't help feel like he's a bit derivative of Heath Ledger's Joker from Dark Knight Rises--minus the depth. In fact, it's hard to find any part in this movie that feels original. It all gives us that sense like we've seen it before.

I know I'm not going to spoil anything here, since the trailer did that fine all on its own, but Wonder Woman makes a brief, but heady, introduction in this film. In fact, she's by far the most interesting piece of this movie. And I'm guessing they're saving the meaty stuff for the sequels. It's because of this that I can pretty much guarantee Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is going to end up being the worst of the series. Actually, I'm pretty curious where they're going with it all.

The story is interesting in its bare bones state. Not really being a reader of comic books, I wasn't aware of the backstory. I do remember, however, that DC Comics had much more of a campy cartoony feel to it. But that isn't the case in this movie. In fact, it takes itself way too seriously--with the exception of the 2 instances of levity somewhere towards the end. Overall, it lacks a certain character that the Marvel films so adamantly give us. And hey, maybe if it weren't 153 minutes long it wouldn't feel so self-important. Instead, we end up just asking ourselves, "Why is all of this happening? And why is it taking so long to happen?"

It does, however, answer one question: Batman does still talk in the Batman voice when he's by himself.

Twizard Rating: 64