Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My final six reviews of the year 2013...

2013 has been quite a hectic year for me. I haven’t gotten around to as many movies as I’d have liked to, and I still have quite a bit of catching up to do before I call the year quits. In celebration of the New Year, I did some brief write-ups for a few movies I recently got around to. Hope you enjoy reading them, and Happy New Year!

I’ve been nothing but excited all year for Elysium, from the talented Neill Blomkamp of District 9 fame, but this movie wasn’t the sophomore project of his I was hoping for. Granted, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of Elysium. Much like District 9 when that movie came out, I intentionally kept myself in the dark about this movie’s plot, and I avoided reviews altogether. I guess that kind of helped, but not to the extent I was hoping. 150 years in the future, most of the wealthiest humans have left an earth in ruin due to overpopulation and other disasters, and have relocated to a luxury space station known as Elysium. After being stricken with radioactive poisoning, a man (Matt Damon) seeks to breach the space station with aid from fellow humans, and heal himself with the station’s advanced technology.

Neill Blomkamp definitely feels like a director who wants to push the boundaries of high-concept science-fiction in great ways. With District 9, he created a commentary on mankind’s thirst for stronger weapons technology, as well as racial segregation, evoking comparisons to Apartheid. Elysium has no shortage in thematic ambition, specifically in serving as an allegory in societal class inequality. Whereas the richest souls are blessed with their comfortable abodes and technologically advanced medicine tactics, the underprivileged are left barely scraping by to survive, left to their squalors on Earth, waiting to succumb to their illnesses. In that regard, the film serves as commentary on the implementation of healthcare, and even features some not so subtle nods to immigration laws.

Sounds like it should work, but in the long run, I found myself underwhelmed. Pains me to say this, but I think the writing can be very weak. I did find myself wanting to make a stronger connection with the characters, whether they be that of the hostile, opportunistic Kruger (the terrific Sharlto Copley, clearly Blomkamp’s new Michael Fassbender), or the weakly directed and written Delacourt (Jodie Foster in one of her lesser performances). None of these characters really grab me, and the plot threads tend to be confusing and heavy-handed at times. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. The movie looks and sounds to the highest quality possible (even if I think District 9 did things better, and at about one quarter of Elysium’s reported budget), the action is fine, and I do actually like the last thirty minutes a great deal. At the end of the day, it’s still enough to earn a pass.

*** / *****

Fruitvale Station:
January 1st, 2009: the last day of Oscar Grant III’s life. On that day, Oscar was shot and killed at the Fruitvale BART Station, when an officer mistook (HUGE quotations on mistook) his pistol for his taser. If that’s true, how this man was able to pass his exams is so dumbfounding that it’s anyone’s guess, but now I’m just losing focus. In Fruitvale Station, rookie director Ryan Coogler creates for us a look into Oscar’s final hours, all leading up to that fatal moment.

For the most part, he is successful. There’s no specific narrative flow to the experience, letting the events unfold in a very organic way. Sometimes the execution can be less than stellar, but that doesn’t take too much away from the powerful emotions that the film puts us through. Much praise is richly deserved for the movie’s all around solid cast, including excellent performances from breakthrough star Michael B. Jordan, and especially for Octavia Spencer, who gives an honest portrayal of motherly care, confliction, and eventually grief.

**** / *****

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom:
The story of the late Nelson Mandela is one of true inspiration. A man who had every right to hate those who imprisoned him for 27 years, Mandela still found the strength to forgive, and eventually became president of South Africa to rebuild the society torn apart by segregation. One movie covering Mandela already exists, albeit the piece of dulldom that was Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. Now, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom seeks to tell a much larger story of the man, covering his early age, his marriage to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his 27 year prison sentence, and his eventual release. That’s an awful lot to cover in this movie, but a plentiful portion of them are still adressed very well. If the film suffers from anything, it’s from awkward and sudden time shifts in history, as well as the fact that the film probably runs longer than it should, but that shouldn’t be enough to take too much away from this movie, which gets a lot of its power from the incredible story and character of Mandela, and it also serves as an excellent acting showcase for both Idris Elba and Naomie Harris. This film is not perfect, but is still solidly made in nearly every regard.

***1/2 / *****

The Place Beyond the Pines:
Another film I had been eagerly anticipating. I’ve been looking forward to this one since last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (Still haven’t gotten around to Blue Valentine), and in all honesty, I’m conflicted. I know this film is trying very hard, but it still falls short in numerous areas. In the film, we follow Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle stunt rider who turns to robbing banks to provide for his child that he’s just recently me- No, we’re following Bradley Cooper, who plays a rookie cop in a corrupt police precinct and feels guilt over a recent inci- Actually, no! We’re following both of these people’s sons as teenagers, and... It’s a bit of a mess.

First of all, the first third of this film is very great. It beautifully establishes the brooding atmosphere, it moves along confidently, and Ryan Gosling is excellent. In fact, the first third is so good, you could have ended the movie there, and people probably would have been satisfied. However, that’s where the transition into Cooper’s story begins, which isn’t so much a transition as it is a sudden jolt. It’s not a knock against Cooper, who probably gives the best performance in the movie, but it seems to come out of nowhere, with no set up or natural integration into the film. While succumbing to certain clichés, this segment is absolutely fine on its own, but I wish the shift in focus were executed better.

And then that leaves the final third, which is downright the hardest to be invested in. I don’t want to be harsh on these teenage actors, they’re trying their hardest, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that they’re saddled with weak material. I want to feel for the moral questions and struggles that they go through. I want to care for them, but that’s just the thing... I DON’T care. This is completely uninteresting. I felt like I’d already seen this segment a thousand times before, because this is so predictable down to a tee, and they barely even do anything to differentiate themselves, or do these story beats well. This is not to say it’s a bad film, but as it goes on, it loses its footing, and suffers for it. It feels like it’s trying to play several movies at once, and requires a more narrowed focus to really be successful.

*** / *****

As much as I am a fan of Ron Howard, I had some early skepticism about his latest film Rush, a movie dealing with the intense rivalry between Formula 1 racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, as the two fiercely competed against each other in the 1976 Grand Prix. When great reviews for the film started coming in, I got excited, and while I don’t consider it the best of Howard’s career, that still doesn’t change the fact that this movie is, itself, a rush, one as slick and well-oiled as any of the vehicles in the feature.

Much of the strength for the film comes from the interaction between Hunt and Lauda, played excellently by respective actors Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl. Both racers could be seen as having ego problems, or even as a$-holes (their words to each other, not mine), but at least they have the skill to back themselves up. Hunt operates his racing style based on human reflex and impulse, while Lauda’s risks are more calculated and technical. This even holds true off the track, where the two frequently (and sometimes humorously) butt heads, with Lauda flying circles around Hunt with his intellect, or Hunt coming prepared with razor sharp insults comparing Lauda to a rat. The film makes the wise decision not to treat either of them as villains, and get across the point that, even though they may snap at each other, they surprisingly thrive on the other to excel in the races the way that they do.

Speaking of which, those racing scenes are exhilarating. They’re thoroughly intense, perfectly built-up, and slickly edited in a way that effectively shows off the film’s top notch photography and sound design. Standout sequences include the August 1st race in Germany, where Lauda is badly burned after wrecking (the makeup design for that being especially effective and gritty), and the concluding race in Japan, where my heart refused to stop rapidly pounding until the very end.

****1/2 / *****

The Wolverine:
Do you want to live forever? At what cost? What consequences would you foresee? Over the years, would you keep finding something to live for, thinking there might be more things in life you’ll have to do, or over time, would you live in agony seeing yourself in the mirror every day, exactly the same, as everyone you care about eventually dies? This is the conflict that Logan (aka. Wolverine) faces with no end in sight. In The Wolverine, he’s finally grown tired of it all, so when it seems he finally has the chance to live an ordinary life, it raises all the above questions, and more. Despite my initial skepticism towards continuing the Wolverine story, just leave it to this movie to show me that there IS still more to be done with this character.

After so much waiting, film after film in the X-Men series released over time, the thing that I appreciated the most about this film is how it finally fully dives headfirst into Logan’s mortality struggles. Through the years, Logan has been haunted, traumatized, and embittered over the events and tragedies in his life. That struggle between whether or not to lose that invincibility of his becomes the main motif of the film, and a very powerful one that displays his unfiltered psyche in full, effectively taking time out of the film to contemplate his dilemma. Should he have that peaceful life that he deserves, or is there still more that he needs to do before then? Well, seeing as how there are several X-Men sequels planned, you probably know the answer, but regardless, it remains a surprisingly effective character study, one that benefits director James Mangold, who places a refreshing focus on character, and keeps the fast paced action (none more stellar than that bullet train sequence) from feeling at odds with the more gritty elements. It’s all fantastically done...

...Too bad they drop the ball in other areas. As much as I praise the writing of the film, there are several elements here which are derivative and unoriginal to the point of being ridiculous. On top of having the most generic villains imaginable (I don’t think I’m breaking anyone’s heart by saying that Viper was a laughably worthless villain), and it leads up to the most generic climax possible. You gotta expect something excellent after all the build up to that sequence, and unfortunately, the film does not deliver on that promise, reaching stupidity levels of The Abomination from The Incredible Hulk, “fun” stupid, but stupid nevertheless. Talk about doing so well the entire game, and then fumbling during that last inning. Oh well, I still thought it was solid enough, and the post credits clip was great, as it heightens my anticipation for X-Men: Days of Future Past.

***1/2 / *****

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