Friday, 7 November 2014

Interstellar (2014) Movie Review

This week, I did not go gentle into that good night. Rather, I went to a preview showing of Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic Interstellar (2014) starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain.

Interstellar (2014) is the story of the struggle for humankind to survive on a dying planet Earth. The key to said survival seems to be in space. Matt McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, among others, head out to the stars looking for a new home for everyone.

I went into this film hoping for a huge spectacle style movie with grand, sweeping shots in space, amazing, immersive music and lofty, mind-blowing ideas.

It's always nice to get what you pay for.

It's by no means a perfect film. At 2 hours and 49 minutes, it runs a little long. Some of the dialogue is corny and cliche. A few of the ideas aren't fleshed out well enough to suspend disbelief and the ending is something of a copout. Having said all of that, though, this movie is highly entertaining.

Matt McConaughey turns in a great performance as the father of two young children who suddenly finds himself thrust into the role of the saviour of all humankind. When you look back on his career, you start to appreciate how far he's come and what he's accomplished. His emotional range is dynamic and compelling. He's the lead in this film and takes it by the horns, never giving you any question that he's commanding the camera in every scene he's in.

Anne Hathaway is also very good in her portrayal as one of the scientists on the mission to save the world. She's the perfect foil for McConaughey. The two have excellent on-screen chemistry together, which allows them to boost each other's performances throughout the movie.

The visuals, sounds and technical aspects of the film are astounding. I was fortunate enough to see this film in IMAX and, boy, am I ever glad I did. The outer space shots in particular are incredible with the planet based shots on both the water world and the ice world equally so. Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema create these worlds for us to come and visit. At no time did I get the sense that I was watching actors walking around in a studio behind a green screen. I got sucked in for nearly every single shot that happened to the explorers in space and on alien worlds.

A little less compelling was the story that was happening on Earth during this time. Due to the effects of relativity, McConaughey's kids grow up while he stays the same age. His son, played by Casey Affleck, is a salt-of-the-earth family man running the family farm. His daughter, played by Jessica Chastain, ends up going to work for the same government setup that launched her father into space, trying to solve an equation that will help the folks on Earth save themselves. If there is any trimming to do to reduce the film's run-time, it would be to this plotline. Too much exposition and too long to get where it needed to go.

Other than these few minor quibbles, I have to say that I really enjoyed Interstellar (2014). Great performances, a thought-provoking story, stunning visuals and a soundtrack that kept giving me goosebumps throughout. I couldn't have asked for much more.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Chef (2014) Movie Review

This week, I put on my favourite set of cook's whites with a big, floppy hat, burned some water and watched Chef (2014). Written, directed and starring Jon Favreau, Chef tells the tale of Carl Casper, a former hot prospect, fine dining chef who has found himself in something of a rut. Working for Dustin Hoffman's "Riva" character, Carl feels compelled to make the same old same old dishes night in and night out. A visit from the biggest food critic on the internet has Carl wanting to try new things. Shut down by Riva, Carl gets skewered (the first of many cooking puns this review will contain, I'm afraid) by the critic and goes on something of a rampage, walking off the job in the process. His ex-wife, played by the very tasty Sofia Vergara, sets Carl up with her second ex-husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) to man a food truck and travel across the country. Complicating matters is the damaged relationship Carl has with his son, Percy, played by Emjay Anthony. Percy accompanies dad across the country, learning the cooking trade in the food truck along with some valuable life lessons.

The ernestness of the film cannot be denied. Favreau really wants to send some messages here. Well, it wouldn't be me if I didn't find a few things wrong...

The pacing is difficult to work around, especially if you've seen the trailers or even the poster for the film. A lot is made out of the time Favreau and son spend in the food truck, travelling and bonding. In the film, however, it seems to take a very long time for them to get to that point. You would assume that act 1 would be the trials and tribulations that lead to Favreau getting into the truck. However it's not until at least half way through act 2, or halfway through the movie, that he manages to finally get there. The long, slow build helps to establish the two main characters (Carl and Percy), but it leaves too little time to focus on the main narrative piece of the movie. We get that Carl is a frustrated chef who wants to branch out. We also get his relationship with his son is strained because of his obsession with cooking. Get on with the plot of the movie already! 

Having said that, I'd like to point out that Favreau is fantastic in the role of Carl Casper. I won't lie, I haven't seen a lot of Favreau's acting work. After having watched this, however, I think I'll go back and check out some of his earlier stuff. You completely buy into his obsessions and his indulgences. You start out rooting for him, then thinking he's kind of a dick, then rooting for him again. It's a neat little emotional rollercoaster that he pulls off beautifully.

Unfortunately, it's a little too beautifully. Once the rigmarole is done with and he actually gets into the truck, everything goes so well and so amazingly you'd think it was some sort of dream sequence. The truck is a smash hit, thanks largely due to a seemingly simply social media campaign engineered by a 10 year old. Carl repairs his damaged relationship with his son and even manages to win back the way way wayyyyy out of his league Sofia Vergara character. He even gets his own restaurant backed by the very critic that roasted him in the first place! All of this as the result of a couple of weeks in a truck. A little more strife and struggle to help match the first half of the movie wouldn't have hurt.

Pacing and 3rd act issues aside, I liked Chef even if I didn't love it. I'm looking forward to seeing Favreau show off those acting chops more and more in the future.

3 out of 5 stars
Chef (2014)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Sept 14 2014
Rating: 3

Friday, 15 August 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) Movie Review

This week, I painted my face with some cool war paint, learned sign language (not really) and swung my way down to the local cinema to check out Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), which shall henceforth be known simply as "Dawn" since I don't want to have to keep typing it out throughout this review. Dawn stars Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell. It's directed by Matt Reeves.

Dawn picks up nearly 10 years after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). The opening montage shows the spread of the disease that came to be known as the Simian Flu and it's effect on humankind. Namely, nearly wiping it out. The film then moves us to the ape city that's slowly being created and the human city that's slowly falling apart. The film's main focus is the struggle between these two factions, both with each other and within their own ranks.

Dawn makes some bold moves fairly early in the film. After the recap during the opening credits, our first scene is actually within the ape city. Even though Caesar (Andy Serkis) was clearly speaking by the end of Rise, the vast majority of the communication seen from ape to ape is via sign language. What we end up with is a long and beautifully shot but near silent set of scenes clearly establishing the apes as highly emotional and very family oriented characters. Typically in a movie of this fashion, a lot of time is spent on the human characters, ensuring that the audience has someone they can relate to. Instead, Dawn takes the time to make the apes very much human in our eyes, giving us touching moments and examples of loyalty, bravery, cunning and, ultimately, betrayal. As I said, it's a bold move on the film makers part and it pays off brilliantly.

In fact, it may pay off a bit too brilliantly. The apes are so beautifully rendered and amazingly characterized that the actual humans in the film end up playing second banana (I'm so very sorry). All of the truly poignant moments in the movie come from the apes. The range of emotion the CGI apes are able to convey is nothing short of astounding. Even the sign language allows the viewer to read the scene in their head and add their own heightened level of emotion to the mix. The humans in the film don't really stack up to this. Well, most of the humans anyway.

Gary Oldman is the lone exception here. Or, at least, he would be if he'd been given more than 15 minutes of screen time. Just as Bryan Cranston was criminally underused in Godzilla (2014), so too does Oldman get short shrifted. A couple of key scenes and a moving speech and he's gone for most of the film. The few scenes he does get to play in he steals, of course. We just don't get to see nearly enough of him.

That's not my biggest gripe with Dawn, though. No, my biggest gripe is the nature of the film itself. This is a prequel; a second film that's leading to the eventual remake of the 1968 film The Planet of the Apes. The problem? Well, it's the problem with all prequels, really. We already know where it's all going to go. 

I find it incredibly difficult to take the human struggle for survival and it's need to hang on to civilization seriously when I know it's ultimately going to fail. I also find it hard to get involved in any of the "bonding" moments between human and ape when I know those bonds clearly do not last. Why do I care if Caesar and some dude become best buds when I know that apes will rule the planet (hence the title) and keep humans as pets? What's in it for me to see the humans trying desperately to get a hydro dam working to maintain power in their city if I know that the humans end up as speechless savages living in the jungle? Some say it's the journey and not the destination, but that's only when you haven't already actually experienced the destination. Maybe it's just me.

This movie couldn't have been made 10 years ago. It's a truly ambitious effort that blurs the lines between actual actors on-screen and CGI, motion-capture characters rendered digitally instead. It's a triumph of technology, much like Gravity (2013) was before it. It's also a character study with the cool part being that those characters are apes and not people. Let's hope it's a sign of more good things to come, even though I'll continue to grind my teeth at the nature of prequels and all the baggage that comes with them.

4 out of 5 stars.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Aug 15 2014
Rating: 4

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The movie business is weird. Or, why do we do it this way?

Movies are bizarre.

No really. They are. I was looking back at some recent movie releases and I had some thoughts about how we look at movies. More specifically, how we decide whether or not a movie is a hit.

When a movie is released, there are reviews by actual movie reviewers, fan reaction upon just having seen it (something called Cinemascore) and the all important box office numbers. It's this aspect, the numbers game, that got me thinking the other day.

When do we all collectively agree that a movie, once released, is a hit? Is it based on the critical reviews of the movie? No, not really. Is it based on the fan reaction? Nope. What makes or breaks a movie is the amount of money that movie makes. That's it. And, to me, that seems really weird.

Whenever we see a top 10 or top 100 list of most successful movies of all time, it's ALWAYS ranked in total gross dollar amount. Sometimes you'll see a list in something called "Adjusted Dollars" which just means the total gross has had inflation factored in. Do you know what you don't see as far as ranking these movies goes? 

The number of tickets sold. Or, in other words, the number of people that actually went to see it.

You have to dig pretty deep to find statistics on how many seats were actually sold for a movie. How many folks shoveled out their hard earned moolah to take their favourite sweetheart to see the latest Die Hard movie? I have no idea, but I can tell you exactly, and I mean EXACTLY, how much money that movie made.

Does this seem odd to anyone else? Or is it just me? Wait, wait...it gets odder.

The total gross dollars a movie pulls in at the box office still doesn't actually decide whether or not a movie is a hit. There's still one overriding factor that should really only matter to the studio that's making the movie but has somehow been adopted by the rest of us as well.

Profit.

Let me give you an example. Here's a movie that's been universally hailed as one of the biggest box office flops of all time:


Now here's a movie that was considered a huge runaway success just this summer:


Would you like to know how much each of these movies grossed worldwide?

The Lone Ranger: $260,502,115
The Fault in Our Stars: $263,444,846

That's right. The runaway smash hit of the summer made a mere $3 million more than one of the biggest box office flops since forever. What that means is, when it comes down to butts in seats, just as many people went to the theatre to see The Lone Ranger as did to see The Fault in Our Stars. So why is one considered a flop and the other a hit? I'll say it again;

Profit.

The Lone Ranger cost $215 million to make. The Fault in Our Stars only cost $12 million to make. So, from a studio perspective, I can see why they would think one was a success and one was a failure. But why do the rest of us adopt this mentality as well? 

Think about it for a second. Almost exactly as many of us (different demographics notwithstanding) went to see each of these movies. Do we, as the movie going public, actually care how much profit a film makes? We're certainly not seeing any of that money. So why is it if you ask someone about these two movies, most of them will tell you that one was a huge flop and the other a huge hit?

Maybe it really is just me. I understand the economics behind it. I just don't get why most of us do it this way.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

3D movies and why we don't need them anymore

This week, I managed to get bitter about something in general instead of a specific film. This week, I attack 3D movie technology.

I remember my first experience with this new 3D. Like most, it came while watching James Cameron's Avatar and it was glorious. Rich, vibrant colours and a deep, compelling landscape in a movie that was a blatant ripoff of Pochahontas, I was excited. I thought we were seeing the birth of a new era of movie watching greatness. 

I was wrong. 

While a few films have managed to get close to that same level of awesome spectacle (Tron: Legacy, Oz The Great and Powerful), most have failed to utilize the 3D tech to enhance the film. In fact, in most cases, they've accomplished the exact opposite. 

The 3D glasses themselves are shaded. I'm sure there's an awesome, technical reason for this, but it means you're watching your movie through a pair of sunglasses. So what happens when a darker, dimmer part of the movie starts to unwind on the screen? You can't see what's happening, that's what. A good example of a recent film that really suffers from this is Godzilla. I could barely see anything during the 3rd act. 

Theatre owners aren't helping matters either. The bulbs required to show these movies on large screens are incredibly expensive. They have a finite amount of life in them before they must be replaced. These owners have realized that turning the brightness down on the films extends the life of these bulbs and saves money.

Less brightness + sunglasses = what the hell is going on, I can't see anything.

Then there's the uncomfortableness of the glasses themselves. Especially if, like me, you already wear glasses. I spend entirely too much time trying to adjust both pairs to make something that's sorta comfortable and I fail every damned time. 

All in all, this technology is starting to seem like more of a cash grab than something that actually makes a movie better to watch. The sad thing here is, most of the major tent pole movies coming out are utilizing this tech. Theatres are showing these movies in 3D with no option for a 2D viewing save a matinee showing here and there. It's to the point now where, if I want to see the latest summer blockbuster on a big screen with amazing sound, I have to put on a pair of stupid shades and squint my way through the darkness. Or go see the movie in a shoebox. 

If this technology must stick around, fine. But make it so there are viable 2D options for people that wish to see the movie without the glasses and the bother. 




Saturday, 21 June 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) Movie Review

This week, I put on my coolest looking mechanized suit, took off my helmet and clumped on down to the local movie theatre to check out Edge of Tomorrow (2014) starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton. It's directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity).

The concept for Edge of Tomorrow is pretty straight forward and detailed well in the trailers. Major William Cage (Cruise) is a PR guy with the Armed Forces who, much to his chagrin and terror, is asked to suit up for combat for the first time against a new alien enemy known as the Mimics. The ensuing massive offensive is a complete disaster with the last vestiges of the human defense forces wiped out to a man. During the battle, Cage dies but suddenly finds himself alive again and right back to the beginning of the day before, on the eve of battle. Cage, confused, seeks out Rita Vrataski (Blunt), a hero of the previous Battle of Verdun, who tells him she experienced the same thing. With Rita's help, Cage uses his new found time-looping ability to keep reliving the battle over and over again, finding ways to turn the tide in humanity's favour. 

The idea, here, is to emulate Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day (1993) only in a totally different setting. And it totally works.

This could easily have been a dark, grim and monotonous tale of endless slaughter and cool special effects. Instead, Liman infuses an energy and light-heartedness that's unexpected to say the least. There are some genuinely funny moments in this movie. Because Cage ends up redoing the same day hundreds of times, Liman decides to have all kinds of fun with the concept, very similar to Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day. Some of the similarities include timing specific events based on trial and error to get where he needs to go and using knowledge about people gleaned in previous loops to get them to trust him and do what he wants. Liman also uses different camera angles and character perspectives to change up the scenes so you don't end up feeling like you're sitting through the same scene over and over again. It's extremely well done.

Tom Cruise is at his best in this action/sci-fi romp. He's become very good at picking scripts that focus his talents in such a way that you can't help but root for him in the film. He doesn't get a really wide range of emotions to show off, but all the classic Cruise moves are there. Like him or hate him in the real world, Cruise knows his craft and plays to his strengths.

Emily Blunt also shines as Rita Vrataski. As a war hero, her character has become a rallying point for the last human defensive strategy. She plays this up and is a hardass in most of her scenes. She also has just enough femininity to take notice of her beauty along with her strength and her obvious chemistry with Cruise. Oh, and she gets to kick a bunch of ass in the movie too, something rarely scene in action films these days.

And then there's Bill Paxton. While Cruise knows how to pick roles and scripts that play to his strengths, Paxton could teach a University course on the subject. He's used to absolute perfection in this as the over-the-top, southern twang drill sergeant who glories in battle. He provides the foil for a lot of the humourous one-offs in the film with Cruise and the two work seamlessly together. If you're not a fan of Paxton after seeing this film, you're doing something wrong in your life.

That's not to say all is well in Edge of Tomorrow. I've got a few bones to pick with this film. Chief among them is the camera work.

Maybe it's just me, but I've never understood the whole shaky camera phenomenon. Made popular by director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum), it mainly involves shooting scenes with a handheld camera instead of a steadycam and purposefully making small, jarring movements with the camera during shots. This is supposed to add a level of realism to the scenes, invoking a sense in the viewer of actually being there and moving around as you would in real life. The problem is, we don't actually view the real world in this fashion. If we did, I'd be in a constant state of motion sickness. Just like I was with this film. Truth is, when the camera starts to inadvertently shake around even during the calmest of scenes in the movie, let alone those filled with action, it makes following said action difficult. This is probably just a personal pet peeve of mine, but nobody would be happier to see this trend in Hollywood disappear than me. Unfortunately, Liman uses it extensively in the movie.

Also, there's the Mimics themselves. A cool and crazy looking alien, the effects were top notch and the details of how the Mimics move and use their time-looping abilities was nothing short of amazing. The issue lies in using a tired cliche in Hollywood movies where a huge invading force has this one ridiculous Achilles heel which, when neutralized, renders all of the remaining forces inert. To me, it smacks of lazy writing and, when you think about it, there's no human equivalent. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, think The Avengers (2012). Ironman bombs the alien mothership in outer space and all of a sudden every single one of the thousands of aliens on earth decides it's time for a nap. It's just too damned convenient and way overused.

The ending of the film employs another tired Hollywood cliche as well. I'm not going to spoil it for you. I haven't read the source material that this movie was based on, so I'm not sure how the original story ended. I can tell you that I'm willing to bet this likely wasn't the ending envisioned and the studio stepped in to tack this on. 

Overall, a solid effort by everyone involved with this one. A great action, sci-fi piece with generous amounts of humour thrown in. A high concept film that doesn't end up getting bogged down in it's own high concept.

4 out of 5 stars.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014) Movie Review
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Jun 21 2014
Rating: 4

Thursday, 12 June 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) Movie Review

This week, I traded in my spandex for some cool black leather, strapped some kitchen knives to my wrists and flew down to the local cineplex to see Bryan Singer's X-Men: Days of Future Past starring most of the cast of the original X-Men franchise and some of the rebooted X-Men: First Class franchise.

This installment sees our intrepid heroes from the original X-Men franchise in the not too distant future fighting for their survival from the evil and all-powerful Sentinels. They're losing. With only a few scattered mutants left, they come up with an idea; send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman making his record-breaking 7th appearance) back to the 1970s when the Sentinel program began and stop it from happening. Encouraging Wolvie to take this leap is returning aged thespians Ian McKellan (Magneto) and Patrick Stewart (Professor X), who've managed to put aside their differences for this one chance to rewrite history. Wolverine's consciousness is sent into the past where he meets up with some of the characters from the X-Men: First Class franchise including James McAvoy (Professor X), Michael Fassbender (Magneto) and Jennifer Lawrence (Raven/Mystique). Some new characters are also introduced. Most notably, Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask and Even Peters as Quicksilver.

I'm going to say this now to avoid a lot of confusion. If the above synopsis and character names made little-to-no sense to you, this is not the movie for you. I can't put together a primer for you as this review would end up being 14 pages long and you'd probably fall asleep around page 3. No, you're just going to have to trust me on this. If you've not seen the previous 6 films in this franchise or, at the very least, the 4 X-Men films (you could reasonably skip the two standalone Wolverine movies, which I'd recommend you'd do anyway since they're both awful), you're not going to have a clue what's going on. 

Having said that, I'll do my best not to delve too deep into the backstory and focus on the merits of the movie.

First, it's important to note that this movie heralds the return of Bryan Singer to the director's chair. He directed the first two X-Men films, both of which were financially and critically successful. He basically ushered in the modern age of tentpole superhero movies. He's also an amazing director when it comes to ensemble casting. His first major film, The Usual Suspects, as well as the first two X-Men films show off this talent, and this movie is no exception. Remember, this movie is a blending of two distinct casts; the cast of the first three X-Men films and the cast of the reboot X-Men: First Class. There's also at least 5 new mutants introduced as well as additional supporting cast members. How on earth was Singer going to be able to handle all these old and new and not-so-familiar faces?

By placing the focus on the characters. That's how.

Don't get me wrong, the movie has plenty of mind-blowing action set pieces. Most of them, though, serve as a means to further the character development and the story, not take away from it. This, coupled with making sure nearly every character has their moment to shine, leaves you identifying with the characters and their plight in a much more personal manner.

In fact, the real fight in the third act for this movie is not against a monster or another mutant or the Sentinels or anything like that. The fight ends up being for one person's soul. I know, I know, that sounds totally cheesy, but it's also totally true. The entire point and purpose of the main plotline of the movie is the redemption of a single character.

Cool, huh?

Nearly every actor turns in a great performance in this one. In particular, James McAvoy is amazing as a drug-addled, guilt-ridden Charles Xavier. Sure, you know he's going to pull himself together and help save the day, but his portrayal of that journey reminds me of why he's one of the most under-rated actors working in Hollywood today.

Hugh Jackman also gets a nod here, but more for what he didn't do rather than for what he did. It's safe to say that, in the first three X-Men films, Wolverine stole the show. In fact, those movies could've been called "Wolverine and his Amazing Friends" rather than "X-Men" since most of the action and plot revolved around him. Essentially, it's the role that made Jackman a household name. The character was so popular that he spawned two solo efforts, which exactly none of the other characters appearing in the same franchise got. At first, it looked like the same thing was going to happen here when it was decided that Wolverine would be the one to go back in time. However, Jackman takes a step back from the intensity and grittiness that made the role famous and plays a much calmer, cooler, mentor style character. It actually works very well and gives the other characters a chance to shine. In fact, at the penultimate moment of the third act when all is decided, he's nowhere to be found. 

Then there's Quicksilver. Evan Peters steals every scene he's in. The character isn't overused, but isn't under utilized either. It's kind of a one-note character, which clearly the writers and directors realized, so they kept him to a few scenes and that was it. And absolutely nailed it. The speed effect associated is done superbly as well and made for some of the funniest moments in a movie that was a little lacking in the levity department.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention all the cool cameos. For fans of the previous films, I'm not going to name names, but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by who all manages to turn up, even briefly. I know I was.

Not all is well in the land of mutants, though. This movie, due to the time-travel nature of it, serves as something of soft reboot moving forward in the franchise. Because the previous movies had different directors and writers and maybe weren't really meant to co-exist in the same movie universe, there were some serious continuity issues throughout. While this film saw fit to address some of those, a lot of them are still lingering. I can't go into a lot of detail without giving away some major spoilers. I will say that the next movie in the franchise, called X-Men: Apocolypse, is going to have some serious explaining to do. Just like Lucy.

Oh, and this is more of a general gripe than specifically aimed at this movie, but can we all just agree that having a movie shot or converted into 3D does almost nothing to enhance the viewing experience? It was a lovely experiment, but I'd like it to go away now, please. This film had some very dimly lit moments, especially at the beginning of the film. This dim lighting becomes even dimmer when putting on the shaded 3D glasses. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to see this movie without seeing it in 3D unless I wanted to see it in a shoebox. And I didn't want to see it in a shoebox. I'm fine if the format sticks around for those that seem to enjoy it, but please make sure there's a non-3D alternative for those of us who like to be able to tell what the hell is going on when a scene in a movie is shot at night.

4 out of 5 stars
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Jun 12 2014
Rating: 4