Monthly Archives: May 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Review)

The fourth installment in Disney’s blockbuster franchise warrants neither lavish praise nor aggressive criticism; it merely exists, with a sort of blandness and mediocrity that is saved by some great performances. 

Whether you like it or not, Disney’s runaway Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is here to stay.  The second film grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, one of only seven films ever to do so.  The newest installment, On Stranger Tides, opened to a $350 million weekend worldwide.  There will be more Pirates movies.  Hopefully they get more exciting and entertaining than this.

On Stranger Tides starts with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) impersonating a judge before getting discovered and leading the city guards on a massive carriage chase through London.  He has been hearing of someone impersonating him and gathering a crew, and goes on a hunt to find out who is taking his fame.  It turns out to be none other than an old flame, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), whom he abandoned on the day of their wedding.  Carrying over from the last scene of At World’s End, Jack is hunting for the Fountain of Youth.  Also joining the chase is the Spanish Armada, Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who is sailing on behalf of the British Navy and intends to find and kill Blackbeard on account of Blackbeard’s theft of Barbossa’s right leg and the Black Pearl.  Jack soon finds himself prisoner of Blackbeard and, curiously, of Angelica, who is apparently Blackbeard’s daughter.  For the fountain to work, the tear of a mermaid and two magical chalices are required, which sends each of the factions scrambling to recover the components first.

At this point, the scriptwriters seem to be throwing every idea that pops into their head when it comes to writing the script.  Zombies!  Mermaids!  Blackbeard’s ship is controlled magically by his sword and has a flamethrower!  The bizarre ideas keep coming and coming, and though things are certainly dialed back from the utter chaos that was the plots of the Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, the storyline here is still kind of messy.  Recognition must be given, however, for trimming away the pointless fat that was the characters of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.  At the very least, the film moves a bit more briskly with them gone.

Disney’s choice for captain of this voyage was strange if nothing else.  Gore Verbinski, who directed the previous three films, was not on board this time.  Instead Rob Marshall, who directed Chicago  and Memoirs of a Geisha, helms On Stranger Tides.  I cannot imagine why Marshall was chosen for this picture.  The man has a certain flair to his filmmaking, but he’s hardly the safest of bets for Disney’s biggest franchise.  Unfortunately, Marshall’s lack of experience in action pictures shows here, and the talent he showed with his previous films doesn’t carry over.  On Stranger Tides sports some rather limp action and lazy direction, and simply is not very exciting most of the time.  There’s a decent amount of action, but Marshall does not have a handle on how to thrill his audience through the action sequences.  Even the choreography was lacking, and the production design was somewhat weak to boot.

In spite of that, one sequence that stood out as the film’s best was the mermaid sequence.  The film takes time to establish that these mermaids might be beautiful, but it is all a ruse to drag sailors to their doom and eat them alive.  Knowing this prior to seeing the mermaids,  it lends a beauty and tension to the scene.  Coupled with the best new piece of the film’s soundtrack, the buildup to the sequences where the mermaids alarming transform into much more fearsome creatures is haunting.  Another of my favorite sequences was on a ship perched on the edge of a cliff.  To keep the teetering ship from falling, the treasure on the ship must stay exactly balanced.  Naturally, Barbossa and Jack both arrive at the ship looking for the chalices, which leads to the two of them comically running around and tossing treasure, simultaneously fighting over the chalices and trying to keep the ship balanced so they don’t both die.

The soaring high point of On Stranger Tides is the performances from the main ensemble.  Johnny Depp’s (Captain) Jack Sparrow is still entertaining to watch, and surprisingly has some excellent chemistry with Penelope Cruz’s Angelica.  Their constant double-crossing and flirting were some of the more consistently enjoyable parts of the picture.  Ian McShane is everything one could have hoped for as Blackbeard.  McShane is a perfect fit for the most feared pirate of the Caribbean, and he slips into the role with a menace that sidesteps the silliness of the rest of the cast.  As a polar opposite to the eccentric protagonists, he really works.  As good as all of them were, however, Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa stole the show.  Barbossa has always been my favorite character in the Pirates franchise, and after cleansing his palate in last years excellent King’s Speech, Rush clearly has a blast returning to his role.

On Stranger Tides has moments of what made the original so great; an eccentric and slightly macabre sense of humor coupled with fun characters and exciting action (although the latter is missing).  It also deeps so frequently into mediocrity it makes it a bit of a tough sell, especially considering that this is the fourth film in a series that is already wearing out its welcome.  Rather than enriching the experience of the series, it’s quickly turning into a shameless cash grab, and the franchise needs new life breathed into it before it’s too late.

Score: **1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality, and innuendo.

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I Saw The Devil (Review)

Brutal violence and relentless darkness give Ji-Woon Kim’s revenge masterpiece a mean edge that packs a powerfully visceral and emotional punch that you’re not likely to find anywhere else.

I Saw The Devil opens just as any good thriller should: quietly.  The opening shot is from the interior of a vehicle, driving down a lonely road during a snowstorm. A young woman is talking to her fiancee on the phone. Her car gets stuck and a man shows up out of the darkness, offering assistance.  She politely refuses.  He returns shortly after, shattering her window, dragging her out of the car,  and taking her to his hideout to murder her and cut her up.  Such a strong contrast that comes on so suddenly is a precursor to what will follow in Ji-Woon Kim’s latest film, but does little to prepare one for what will happen in the next two hours.

Straight from the get-go, the victim’s fiancee, a highly trained government agent named Soo-hyeon Kim (Lee Byung-hun), wastes no time.  He sheds a couple of tears, then asks for exactly two weeks off from work–no more, soundly rejecting his captain’s concern and offer for more time off.  Two weeks is all Soo-hyeon Kim needs to catch his prey.  After violently working his way down a short list  of possible suspects, he locates the killer, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), and, after a brief and brutal fight, nearly kills him.  He abstains from doing so, however, and instead crams a small tracking device down Kyung-chul’s throat and leaves him in the dirt with an envelope of money. Kim draws the killer into a diabolical game of catch-and-release, subjecting him to nearly constant psychological stress and torture.  This first fight scene occurs less than halfway into the movie, with the rest being devoted to Kim’s little game.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird was my favorite foreign film of last year.  With it, Ji-Woon Kim established himself as one of my new favorite auteurs of South Korean cinema and a director more than capable of handling complex sequences and stylish framing. Striking early shots, such as Soo-hyeon standing quietly with his head down at the cremation, as the women around him wail and sob.  The final long take, which I will not spoil, is profound.  The fight sequences are also well-choreographed and the camera movements during these feel appropriately rough and erratic without making the sequences incoherent and overly shaky.  In fact, the fight sequences feel oddly artful.  One scene in which three men get into a knife fight in a taxicab has the camera spinning around the taxi in one take as the men slash and stab at each other.  Kim and his choreographer get creative in this movie, and the end result is a visual treat.

The film is, in many ways, a tribute to the revenge thrillers of old, such as Death Wish.  In constructing this, Kim occasionally goes a bit overboard in his portrayal of his characters as two powerful forces.  An example of this is a fight scene in a doctor’s office in which Su-hyeon catches a knife thrust in his direction, and then squeezes the blade for no reason.  Earlier in the film, Kim establishes the dramatic impact of the first death by having several tens of reporters and officers sweeping the crime scene.  Realistically, this would have destroyed all of the evidence.  However, scenes like this work within the film.  Kim is a bit heavy-handed as a director, but like The Good, the Bad, the Weird, it lends a surreal feel to the film as a whole with each character dominating an obvious and hyperbolic stereotype. This also carries over into the violence level of the film, which is frequently and suddenly extremely brutal.  Quiet moments erupt into bloody action and torture.  This is not a film for anyone with a weak stomach.  When this film was first released, the Korean Ratings Board forced Kim to cut the movie down on account of the content.  This DVD version is unrated, so I’m not quite sure if this is the uncut version or not.

The revenge thriller is a difficult film to make.  Keeping the primary characters within their realms of good and evil while also giving the good guy adequate revenge without causing too much sympathy for the villain is a delicate balancing act that Kim pulls off magnificently.  The slow descent of the main character was also handled extremely well.  The ebb and flow of the brutal violence, tempered with quieter dramatic scenes, keep the film unpredictable. That unpredictability is what makes I Saw the Devil so good.  The film teases each subsequent scene of vengeance, building anticipation for the next time Soo-hyeon catches his target.  In its final moments, the film blindsides with a sudden eruption of emotion that had been dormant for so long throughout the film.  Ending on this note leaves a profoundly empty feeling.  I always give the highest of accolades to a film that can strike into an emotional core with so much power, and I Saw the Devil does just that.  It’s a landmark revenge thriller, and if viewers can stomach the content, they cannot miss it.

Score: ***** (out of 5)

Rated: Not Rated (originally rated R for strong sadistic brutal violence and torture, sexuality, nudity, and language)

Thor (Review)

Director Kenneth Branagh brings his own distinct set of directing skills to another of Marvel’s heroes, resulting in a wonderfully crowd-pleasing fantasy action picture.

Thor is the next in Marvel’s massively ambitious campaign to stitch together their Avengers stable of characters to eventually converge into Joss Whedon’s 2012 Avengers film.  Following after Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies and Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, and preceding this summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor adds another character to the roster and builds toward Marvel’s master plan.  With it, I count myself considerably more excited for the endgame.  Director Kenneth Branagh has put together a hugely entertaining and genuinely stirring fantasy action picture.

Relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth plays the titular character, who, in a fit of ignorance and blind rage after a trio of Frost Giants (who were once at war with Asgard) attempt an attack on Asgard, ventures to their realm and tries to fight all of them.  Failing, he is cast out of his home Asgard and stripped of his powers by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  Thor plummets to Earth, smack into New Mexico and the lap of a young astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman) as she searches for an anomaly that she has been chasing for months. Thor moves through Earth with a nearly childlike ignorance and destructive temper.  Predictably, Jane falls for Thor within a matter of hours.  Up in Asgard, Odin has fallen ill, and his other son Loki (Tom Hiddelston) has assumed the throne as king of Asgard.  Anyone remotely familiar with Marvel Comics or Nordic mythology will recognize Loki as the God of Mischief, and, of course, the villain of the picture.  The storyline essentially centers around Thor trying to regain his powers and recover his hammer Mjolnir so that he can return to Asgard and make amends with his father.  It is Loki’s plan, however, to keep Thor exiled on Earth, Odin in his slumber, and to destroy the enemies of Asgard.

Easily the best element of the film is the interplay between Thor, Odin, and Loki.  Kenneth Branagh, who has essentially only ever directed Shakespearean productions and a couple of films based on classic literature, is the perfect example of a fine actor’s director.  The man knows how to handle the players on his set, and turns out some truly remarkable performances from the trio.  It helps that the scenes that take place in Asgard have a distinctly Shakespearean flavor (with perhaps a bit of Gladiator) in the family dynamics.  By far, Loki is the most well-developed character in the film.  Far from Marvel’s usual mustache-twirling villain, Loki is a hurt and misunderstood son who feels betrayed and unloved in the shadow of Thor.  Most of the evil that Loki does in the film stems from what he feels is the necessary action as his father’s successor.  The scenes in which Thor, Loki, and Odin interact are the strongest in the film.  The end result is a film that feels like a sweeping Shakespearean production wrapped in a colorful Nordic mythology wrapping.  Of course, the movie still belongs to Thor and his own character arc that takes him from arrogant god, to humble human, and finally to courageous and selfless god (and one scene toward the end that illustrated his newfound heroism was truly touching), was also extremely well-executed.

The film isn’t all familial rivalry and character drama, however; it knows how to have a lot of fun as well.  During the Earth scenes, there is a very distinct sense of lightheartedness.  One-liners zing back and forth and Thor’s boyish ignorance is entertaining to watch, as well as the human characters and their reactions to the fantastical events that occur around them (a high point in the film is when a small handful of Thor’s allies venture to Earth to attempt to rescue him, and parade through the small town in their full armor as the townsfolk look on in shock). It’s fairly remarkable just how well Branagh balances the heaviness of Asgard and the silliness of Earth.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Marvel Studios production without a healthy amount of action, and Thor delivers just that in spades.  While there are several times where the environment in which the action takes place is excessively dark, and some of the shots are too shaky and close up, the rest of the action is well put together, appropriately rough, and exciting.  Thor swings, throws, and spins his hammer to lay waste to Frost Giants, and it looks nice and brutal when it connects and shatters his enemies.  It really establishes Thor as the powerhouse that the namesake deserves.  On Earth, Thor can hold his own as a mortal as well, in a small handful of hand to hand action sequences.  While there might not be as much action as some other comic book films, it is still plenty exciting.

Looking at the production design, it becomes clear that this is by far the most ambitious project Marvel has ever worked on.  The production designer for the film put together a positively beautiful vision of Asgard, with gold and crystal structures rising out of the rock, a rainbow bridge leading to a golden portal to the other realms, and the edge of each realm signified by the sunlight dissolving into space as the water pours over in an endless waterfall.  It’s a sight to behold, and must be experienced on the big screen.  Unexpectedly, the music score was entirely fantastic.  Written by Patrick Doyle and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, the film’s music was sweeping and epic, again perfectly conveying the majesty of Asgard and the power of its denizens. In fact, I think this may be the best work Doyle has done thus far.  There are times when I notice a film soundtrack, and then there are times when I actively listen to it.  Thor was certainly the latter, and by the end of the film was one of the most memorable elements.

Going into Thor, I was somewhat excited but wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.  I certainly was not expecting the characters to be so well developed.  The tonal shifts in the film feel totally natural, and the Marvel’s surprise move in bringing Branagh on as the director paid off magnificently in the Shakespeare-inspired scenes between the members of Thor’s family.  Thor also feels like the first true “comic book” movie in years and does not attempt to become overly realistic as other comic book movies seem to want to do.  The special effects and production are a sight to behold, and the main players do their part very well and play off each other excellently.  This is, by far, one of the most completely satisfying and flat-out entertaining films I have seen so far this year.

Score: ****1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence.

Sucker Punch (Review)

Sucker Punch may not quite achieve the lofty heights it aims for, but the massive ambition of Zack Snyder’s first original project is impressive and entertaining.

Sucker Punch is the fifth film in Zack Snyder’s catalog of directorial efforts (following Dawn of the Dead (2004), 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)).  After this sequence of films based off of other works, Warner Brothers gave Snyder a budget and allowed him to direct his own production; Sucker Punch is written, produced, and directed by Snyder and is a 100% original piece.  It’s clear that Snyder took this creative freedom to heart: his movie is ambitious, bombastic, and absurd.  It’s a massive collection of ideas and influences from each end of every spectrum, making for an extremely busy and unconventional action picture.

The film’s first frames are styled as an opera house.  As the curtains adorned with studio logos rise, we are shown a 20-year-old girl, “Baby Doll” (Emily Browning) taking center stage.  The camera moves fluidly toward her and into her house, and a wordless opening montage in Snyder’s trademark graphic novel-style slow-motion shows Baby Doll’s tragic home life and sexually abusive stepfather, set to the song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” hauntingly sung by Emily Browning.  After she tries and fails to shoot her stepfather after he attempts to lay hands on her sister, Baby Doll is shipped off to an insane asylum by her stepfather.

Arriving at the asylum, Baby Doll meets and befriends Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish).  The mysteriously pornographic names of the girls are explained when the girls describe to Baby Doll how the owner of the asylum, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), has turned the asylum into an underground brothel where he forces these young girls to dance for rich and powerful customers while he makes massive profits.  Baby Doll decides that she must escape before the mysterious “High Roller” (John Hamm), comes for her in a few days.  To do so, she must recover several items that will enable her escape.  Baby Doll realizes that she has the ability to dance an entrance all onlookers, which she uses to distract the men that oppress her as her allies snag the necessary item.  These dance sequences, which were regrettably cut from the theatrical version of the film, serve as the bridge into the dream world.

The main draw of the film is the visual style.  Zach Snyder has at this point developed his own feel for his films, making the images look like they are leaping from the pages of a graphic novel. There is no doubt that for any faults he may have in terms of plotting or character directing, he is a wizard behind the camera when it comes to aesthetics.  The fact that many of the scenes feel like a graphic novel set on the stage of a large-scale opera production is what drives the whole film.  Once the scenes move to the dream world, Snyder allows his imagination to run wild.  Dragons, robots, orcs, steampunk Nazis, and towering samurai get knocked around a lot, all within a variety of themed venues such as a snowy dojo, dragon’s lair, or runaway train.  One of my favorite sequences of the film was on this train, where an army of robots gets decimated by the girls, all in one long, sweeping take that lasts several minutes.

Snyder’s film is a massive gamble.  It takes risks I would have never thought mainstream films would have.  The narrative is frequently open to interpretation, and multiple tropes and motifs come and go throughout the film, culminating in an ending that may or may not be metaphorical.  Internet forums are still buzzing about the significance of certain characters and what constitutes reality within the film.  This is simultaneously an ingenious element and a stumbling block for the film.  It makes the narrative feel fresh and daring, yes occasionally felt like it was being symbolic and nonlinear for the sake thereof.  Even so, the film is a lot of fun to try to deconstruct and figure out what was going on in Snyder’s mind.  Sometimes, it feels a bit overstuffed.  Snyder is easily one of my favorite directors, and I will defend my love for his stunning adaptation of Watchmen with whatever force is necessary.  However,  there are so many great ideas going on at one time in Sucker Punch that they occasionally step on each other.  Snyder still has a lot of growing to do as a storyteller and as an independent creative force, but he shows a ton of promise here.

Sucker Punch is a fascinating film.  It works on many levels but falls short on others.  Essentially, however, it succeeds magnificently on what its primary focus is: a thrilling girl-power psychological action movie.  It’s a liberating flight of imagination that, despite being excessively busy with ideas at times, is a blast to watch.  There is still something that keeps every element from clicking together perfectly, but at the very least, I have to give Zach Snyder and his crack team of visual wizards, in all of their creative genius, a sincere round of applause for blasting forward with more ambition then I have seen in a movie in years. I cannot wait to see what he does for Man of Steel.

Score: **** (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language.

I Am Number Four (Review)

I Am Number Four is a hilariously absurd, aggressively derivative mess that is too sloppily constructed to even hold its own unoriginal mythology together.

The story behind I Am Number Four should be an immediate deterrent from seeing the film at all. James Frey, author of the publicly debunked “memoir” All the Little Pieces, has started a massive ghost writing scheme in which he hires young aspiring writers, has them write a book, buys the rights, and then sells the film rights to a movie studio in an attempt to create the next Twilight (that is a term directly from Frey’s mouth, but I have no source so I cannot quote it).  The first installment of this plan involves Jobie Hughes, credited as Pittacus Lore. I haven’t read the Lore’s novel that the movie was based on, but if it’s as messy as D.J. Caruso’s movie, I plan to stay as far away as I can.

I Am Number Four‘s storyline and mythology borrows from a massive collection of other sources, feeling horribly disconnected and piecemeal.  As the film opens, a voiceover explains that there was a race of aliens that are being hunted down by other aliens called Mogadorians for absolutely no reason.  After these tall, tattooed aliens destroy their prey’s home planet, nine of the good guys escape to Earth, where they are pursued and eliminated systematically (and apparently in order, since the first death of the movie is that of Number Three).  Alex Pettyfer plays Number Four, who is cared for by his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant,  clearly trying his best with what he is given).  Upon learning of the death of Number Three,  Number Four and Henri escape to a town suspiciously reminiscent of Forks or Smallville and Four gets sent to high school, where he struggles to fit in as he falls hard for a shy girl who likes photography and is dating the biggest jock in the school.  He also finds his first friend in the school’s resident nerd. I am not joking.  Later on, Number Six (Teresa Palmer) shows up to help Four fight off the Mogadorians, who have at this point changed their plans and want to take over Earth.

The entirety of I Am Number Four feels much like a direct-to-TV movie that would be right at home on the CW.  The first and second acts of the film are nothing more than high school drama, as if somebody accidentally picked up a script from an episode of Smallville and the crew just went with that.  The entire “misunderstood teen who has powers and likes the girl” storyline is aggressively unoriginal and, frankly, incredibly boring. There is barely any action until the last half hour or so, where the movie redeems itself slightly with an extended action sequence that demolishes the school.  This is easily the strongest segment of the film, though it is still tarnished by increasingly bizarre and hilarious events such as a dog that can suddenly shapeshift and the sudden introduction of more new powers for Four and Six.  Speaking of those powers,  they feel cheap and game breaking here because there are constantly new ones being introduced until there seems to be nothing that these aliens cannot do.  It further contributes to the complicated unoriginality of the whole piece.  Honestly, I have never really cared for D.J. Caruso as a director.  Disturbia was a shameless and inferior rip-off of what I feel is Hitchcock’s best movie (Rear Window), and I absolutely hated Eagle Eye in all of its mindless stupidity.  Here is no different, as I Am Number Four  is more of Caruso’s lackluster storytelling and average-at-best Michael Bay-style action (it comes as no surprise, then, that Bay produced the picture).

I made a little game out of guessing which actors were taking the movie seriously and which ones weren’t.  Pettyfer and Palmer seemed to be trying a bit too hard, what with Pettyfer’s constant moody expressions tempered with intense ones, and Palmer’s overblown tough-girl act (she even walks away from an explosion without looking at it).  Olyphant plays himself, essentially, but really just seems bored.  The Mogadorians steal the whole movie, with outrageously hammy performances replete with snarling, sneering, and lip smacking.  The actors portraying them stomp around with glee and if there is any reason to watch the film, if only to laugh at the absurdity of it, is the presence of these villains.

My review for I Am Number Four took longer to write than almost any of my other reviews that I have written.  This is due largely in part to the fact that I had difficulty describing just how messy the film is; how the only entertaining element of the film is the hilariously over-the-top bad guys.  At a loss for any other means to describe how brutally unoriginal this movie is, I can offer only a simple example: Number Four’s human name is John Smith.  Now, that’s creativity.

Score: *1/2 (Out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for language.