Category Archives: Movie Reviews

DIVERGENT (PG-13)

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I was certain I’d hate DIVERGENT. I expected a steaming bowl of doe-eyed teenage crap, fresh off the studio assembly line to kill time until Katniss’s next outing. I was ready to rip it apart. I was looking forward to ripping it apart. Heck, I had a thesaurus handy so I could find synonyms for “god-awful.”
But… DIVERGENT is actually pretty darn good.
This is coming from someone who hasn’t even read Veronica Roth’s source novel. I’m nowhere near the target audience. Generally, I only read books that have body counts. This technicality is the only reason I read John Green’s THE FAULT OF OUR STARS (uh… spoiler alert).
As far as I can tell, DIVERGENT is set in a world where HARRY POTTER’s Sorting Hat escaped Hogwarts and now runs post-apocalyptic Chicago. In the aftermath of an unspecified war, young adults are tested and sorted among five societal factions – such as the Erudite (scientists) or the Dauntless (soldiers). You commit to this through a grand public ceremony, where you slice your palm open and drip blood into a bowl. Couldn’t they just have you fill out a form or something?
Our hero Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) takes the test, but discovers she’s something else. Something called a “divergent.” This marks her for death, unless she can conform to this rigid world. But… does she want to?
Like all good fantasy/sci-fi, the world of DIVERGENT is an interesting lens to view our real one through. Just like college, you’re presented with a set of trades, you choose one, and then you’re locked into a lifestyle. You must succeed in your field or you become “factionless” – depicted as dirty, desperate and homeless. So basically, God help you if you major in Philosophy.
DIVERGENT hits all the right adventure/romance beats. The casting is spot-on (right down to the bit roles, like Jai Courtney as a sneering henchman), and the mandatory love story benefits from real chemistry between the leads. There are enough intriguing ideas, nifty visuals, and punchy fight scenes (pun intended) to make two and a half hours fly by.
It’s also clearly the first entry of a trilogy – for better and worse. As it builds its universe, this movie dumps a truckload of setups and offers precious few payoffs. Towering questions central to the premise – such as, “Why is there a hundred-foot fence around Chicago?” – remain unanswered. But the foundation is certainly there for the sequels to build upon. If you’re a fan of the book, see it. I think you’ll be pleased.
As for me? I have a bunch of synonyms for “god-awful” and nothing to use them on.

stars

-Taylor Adams

NEED FOR SPEED (PG-13)

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NEED FOR SPEED is a wheezing, dried-out corpse of a movie, reanimated by the black magic of EA Games.
Based on the popular video game (your first red flag), the film’s sole accomplishment is making 200-mph races boring. Clocking in at over two hours, it’s astonishing that a movie calling itself NEED FOR SPEED would be so, well, slow. Long stretches of time are devoted to soap opera angst and brutally unfunny comic relief. It’s either a tedious death march or a $10 nap, depending on how light of a sleeper you are.
The flimsy plot doesn’t justify the butt-punishing runtime. Our hero is Tobey (Aaron Paul), a legendary street racer wrongly convicted for the death of his best friend. The real killer is fellow racer Dino (Dominic Cooper), and we can tell because he wears black and uses slightly more hair gel. After serving two years in prison, Tobey must avenge his buddy, woo a pretty car broker (Imogen Poots), and bring Dino to justice. This all unfolds with the urgency of a slower-than-average glacier, in a parallel universe where cops don’t know how to use spike strips. Michael Keaton also appears occasionally, like he got lost on his way back to the nineties.
Nothing works here. The storyline feels like an exhibit of all the things they tell you not to do in Screenwriting 101, failing to deliver even the guiltiest of pleasures. The stakes are low, the car crashes are minimal, and the body count totals to one.
The cast does their best but it’s futile. Aaron Paul is a talented presence, so it’s a real bummer to see him out-acted by the car he’s sitting in. Dominic Cooper is miscast as the villain – we’re told Dino is a ruthless killer, but he looks more like the shift manager at a local McDonald’s. And Imogen Poots is wasted on a weak romantic subplot, wedged into the story with all the grace of a drunk driver hitting a curb.
In short? NEED FOR SPEED is awful. It’s so bad, I’m not even sure Jesus could forgive it. You know how some movies show bonus scenes during the end credits? So does this one - but I didn’t watch. I couldn’t take any more. I elbowed through the audience like a linebacker and left the theater like it was filled with tear gas. Life is too precious.
So in that respect, I guess I’ve failed as a movie critic. Maybe there’s a small pocket of brilliance hidden in the end credits. Maybe it turns into SCHINDLER’S LIST. I don’t know.
Even if this movie cured cancer, I would have a hard time recommending it.
stars
-Taylor Adams

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (R)

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The human body is seventy percent water. According to 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, the other thirty percent must be ketchup.
People don’t just bleed in this hyper-stylized movie. They explode. Gallons of red stuff splash and spurt with every death, all rendered in CGI too cartoonish to be disturbing. Every character is basically a human-shaped water balloon swollen with blood, ready to burst at the slightest poke. It’s pretty awesome.
Yep, I liked it. 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is a shamelessly entertaining semi-sequel to the 2007 hit. Running parallel to the events of that film, we follow Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he defends Greece against an invading Persian fleet, masterminded by the memorably psychotic naval commander Artemesia (Eva Green, who steals every scene she’s in). Because this is a Frank Miller adaptation, expect troubled heroes, gory action, and epic speeches. And because this is ancient Greece, expect character names that will take several tries to pronounce on the drive home.
The broader scope of the story is both good and bad. It’s nice to see more of this colorful, blood-drenched world, but it loses some of the focus and against-all-odds oomph that made the original film resonate. Even with Eva Green’s gloriously deranged performance, I doubt it will become a cult classic.
No worries, though, because 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is single-mindedly driven toward one goal: being awesome. Every aspect of this production - from the indulgent slow-motion kills to the booming Black Sabbath credits song – is designed for maximum spectacle. Early on, we see Persian warships surfing into battle atop a hundred-foot tidal wave. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how water works, but that doesn’t matter because it’s just so awesome.
I enjoyed the heck out of this film. You might, too. Like Zack Snyder’s original, it’s a bloody, fist-pumping war cartoon; a take-it-or-leave-it experience that’s utterly impervious to logic. I’m not even sure I can call this an acquired taste, because lots of people will have no interest in ever acquiring it. But for me? After a long day at work, sometimes a stylish, slow-motion decapitation just hits the spot.
Please don’t quote me on that.

stars

-Taylor Adams

NON-STOP (PG-13)

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NON-STOP is basically two hours of Liam Neeson playing “Clue” on an airplane.

Alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) needs to find out who’s murdering people on his flight. Fast. Every twenty minutes, another passenger will die unless $150 million is deposited in the mystery killer’s bank account. As the body count rises, everyone aboard the plane becomes a suspect – Bill included, when the authorities realize the bank account is (gasp) his. Against a ticking clock, our haggard hero must save the plane, stop the killings, and punch whoever’s responsible in the throat.

It’s a fun, twisty mystery for a while. The film presents a whole crowd of murder suspects, all exchanging shifty glances and red herrings. Every time the ingenious script seems to paint itself into a corner, it knocks down a wall. Major plot twists are hidden inside smaller ones, carefully arranged like narrative time bombs (and one literal one). The direction is marvelous, too – one particular shot halfway through the film gracefully swoops from end of the plane to another, eavesdropping on a half-dozen characters with evolving agendas. A lot of skill went into this film, and it’s easy to get swept up in the suspense.

But it’s hard to stick with it. How’s your suspension of disbelief? Because NON-STOP will put it through a triathlon. It’s not just the numerous plot holes (don’t even try to count them) – it’s the jarring tonal difference between where it starts and where it ends. The first half is a plausible, low-key murder mystery at 40,000 feet, and the second half descends to LEGO MOVIE absurdity. Poison darts? Check. Fighter jets? Check. Zero-gravity shootout? Double-check.

The last fifteen minutes drop to face-palm altitude. When the criminal mastermind is finally unmasked, he/she delivers a forced and bewildering “how I did it and why” speech, like an unusually violent episode of Scooby Doo. I guess the villain’s motivation doesn’t matter that much; it’s the end of the movie and Liam Neeson is in a neck-breaking mood.

NON-STOP isn’t a bad thriller – it’s just hard to love. It’s too smart to be mindless fun and too stupid to be anything more. Heck, 2008′s TAKEN delivered twice the butt-kicking with half the fuss.

I guess I like Liam Neeson better when he’s creating the body count – not cleaning up after it.

2stars

-Taylor Adams

POMPEII (PG-13)

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I have never rooted so hard for a volcano before.

W.S. Anderson’s POMPEII spends most of its runtime copying other movies – and not even the right ones. Surprisingly, the disaster itself is largely sidelined so we can get a poor man’s GLADIATOR crossed with a stupid man’s TITANIC. Our star-crossed lovers are Milo (Kitt Harrington), a Celtic gladiator with a murdered family to avenge, and Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of Pompeii’s ruler. She’s being blackmailed into marrying the third corner of this love triangle: Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), a snarling Roman senator. Who will survive the coming disaster? More importantly, who cares?

That’s POMPEII’s biggest problem. None of the characters are written or acted well enough to earn our sympathy. They just sort of stand there, posed in various scenes cribbed from better films, and recite stilted dialogue like kids in a school play. It’s a bizarrely lifeless movie. Worse, it wastes a full hour on tedious stage-setting while the volcano impatiently grumbles in the background. Milo and Cassia’s chemistry-free romance feels like a studio-mandated attempt to please a demographic that wouldn’t be caught dead in a W.S. Anderson movie anyway.

Eventually Mount Vesuvius erupts, possibly because it’s as sick of the characters as we are, and delivers the flaming rocks, pyroclastic flows, and tsunamis promised by the trailer. It suffers a bit in comparison to 1997′s DANTE’S PEAK, but at least Anderson is finally copying the right movie. The city’s fiery demise is undeniably cool, but in a glossy, digital way. It feels more like a PS4 game than a real-life disaster. We don’t see any of the blood, grit, or burns, so our heroes might as well be fleeing a giant wall of cotton candy.

The movie does have its guilty pleasures, though. Anderson shoots a handful of kinetic fight scenes with some memorable (PG-13-rated) spills, and Kiefer Sutherland seems to be the only actor here with a pulse. He sinks his teeth into the cardboard role of Corvus, delivering every line with mustache-twirling evil and a baffling accent. Of course, it’s bad acting, but it’s so bad, it transcends badness and becomes kind of awesome. POMPEII needed more of Sutherland’s energy.

At least the volcano wins.

stars

 

Review By: Taylor Adams

THE LEGO MOVIE (PG, 2014)

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I was going to start this review with “I can’t believe I liked a movie based on a toy,” but then I remembered that I enjoyed TRANSFORMERS.

So… I can’t believe I liked another movie based on a toy.

Emmet (Chris Pratt) is an anonymous construction worker in a perfect (vaguely fascist) Lego metropolis where the coffee is $37 and the number one sitcom is “Where’s My Pants?” Every day is choreographed to an excruciatingly catchy Tegan and Sara song and overseen by the Orwellian President Business (Will Ferrell), sold separately. When Emmet stumbles onto a mysterious artifact, he sets in motion an ancient prophecy that could save – or destroy – not just his Lego universe, but all of them. He soon allies with an ensemble cast including Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), and Batman (Will Arnett). And Abraham Lincoln. And pirates. And a unicorn-cat thing.

I promise, it’s funny.  Funnier than anything I’ve seen in a long time. THE LEGO MOVIE boasts a razor-sharp script and a canny sense of the absurd, hurling joke after joke and challenging you to keep up. Chris Pratt’s empty-headed but sincere hero is a standout comedic performance in a cast full of them. Who’d have known a movie about a toy brand would have more laughs than both HANGOVER sequels?

Visually it’s stunning, although not always for the right reasons. Every inch of the Lego world is lovingly animated, right down to the authentic smudges and imperfections on the pieces. Even the dust and smoke is made of tiny bricks. It’s imaginative and vibrant, but also a little overwhelming. Every frame is crowded with so many small touches of genius, and it’s all edited so blisteringly fast, that THE LEGO MOVIE sometimes looks like a colorful headache. But it’s a headache worth having.

This excess of creative passion is why I like this movie so much. It overachieves. It works hard. The plot is lightyears ahead of competing fare, eventually launching its third act into a sort of CABIN IN THE WOODS-ish meta-narrative. Few movies are brave enough to even try this, and even fewer stick the landing. To be fair, THE LEGO MOVIE does stumble a little bit toward the end, when the cleverness reaches a sort of critical mass, the fourth wall falls, and the story grinds to a halt so we can be force-fed a moral about the importance of individuality. Cue the hugs.

The real moral is “buy Legos.” It’s the funniest, best Lego commercial ever.

stars

 

By: Taylor Adams

LONE SURVIVOR (R, 2014) Review

LONE SURVIVOR (R, 2014)

Directed by Peter Berg

85695 The centerpiece of Peter Berg’s LONE SURVIVOR is a 40-minute running gunfight down the jagged cliffs of the Hindu Kush. It’s one of the most effective and bruising action sequences I’ve ever seen. This is both good and bad; nothing else in this sincere but clumsy film comes close to matching its power.

12Based on the memoirs of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (same title), LONE SURVIVOR dramatizes the disastrous 2005 Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan.

Through faulty equipment, a thorny moral dilemma, and simple bad luck, Luttrell and three other SEALS find themselves cut off and vastly outnumbered by Taliban fighters on unforgiving terrain. By the end of the day, nineteen American lives have been lost.

5656Berg honors them all by exposing the meat grinder of modern combat in the film’s middle act. Bullets snap off rocks and thunk into trees. Ears ring.  Shattered bones pierce skin and lungs gurgle with blood. It’s visceral, intense, and merits comparison with the famous D-Day landing sequence in Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Prepare to wince. A lot.

And that’s the point. This film renders the battle so convincingly, it’s impossible not to be in awe of the real-life heroes that fought it. Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and the supporting cast hit the right notes here (sharp-eyed viewers will note the real-life Luttrell appearing in an early cameo). Particularly impressive is the sound design and stunt work, which makes you feel every onscreen injury.

With such a powerful depiction of combat, it’s too bad that the rest of the movie is only good. The script is workmanlike, bookending with clumsy voice-overs and an unnecessary framing device. It opens post-battle and recounts it via flashback, which tells us nothing that the title LONE SURVIVOR didn’t already. These bells and whistles unfortunately dilute some of the impact.

But the film’s biggest misstep is the third act. Anyone who’s read the memoir (that’s your cue to read it) can tell you the final leg of Luttrell’s true survival story is a fascinating example of local Afghan heroism. This is still included, but Berg also injects an unneeded climactic battle. Cars explode, AK’s are fired, and bad guys are stabbed in the nick of time, per Hollywood timing. Inventing a gunfight that never happened isn’t necessarily bad, but here it takes the focus off something that did happen. Whether the studio forced Berg’s hand or not, it’s a cheesy piece of revisionism on a true story that didn’t need revising.

Still, at its worst, Lone Survivor is watchable. At its best, it’s unforgettable. That’s a fair trade. After all, on the drive home, no one will be talking about the uneven storytelling – it’s the heroism of the men of SEAL Team 10 and the Afghan tribesmen that lingers long after the credits.

stars

 

By: Taylor Adams

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Gravity 3D (Review)

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“A dazzling movie about all the different ways space wants to kill you.”

Seconds into GRAVITY, a text crawl helpfully informs us that “life in space is impossible.” Cuaron isn’t kidding. From the start, he drops us into a place where claustrophobia and agoraphobia collide; a fever dream of sweaty desperation against a bleak panorama of nothing. It’s a gorgeously produced, 90-minute panic attack of a film. And it’s one of the few releases in recent memory that really demands to be seen in 3D.

Roughly the first twenty minutes are a single, uninterrupted take – which is great for audience immersion and bad for audience blood pressure. Tension quietly builds as we watch reluctant astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) conduct repairs on the Hubble Telescope. It’s just another day at the office, except the office is miles above the atmosphere and wants to kill you. NASA Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris) notes an incoming debris field but assures Stone and Kowalski they’re safe. Spoiler alert: they’re not. The Hubble suffers the space-equivalent of a shotgun blast and our heroes are left untethered, falling into the frictionless void. From here on, it’s a straight-up survival tale.

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Everything you’ve probably heard about the 3D visual effects is true.

They’re jaw-dropping. But GRAVITY works as more than a shiny tech demo thanks in a large part to Bullock’s performance. She’s a relatable human presence, even when she’s dwarfed by all the expensive lights and sounds.

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She earns our empathy and convincingly takes us from horror, to grief, to exhausted humor (“I hate space,” she gripes after a particularly close call). We root for her as she fights for every gulp of air. Because of Bullock, GRAVITY’s final thirty minutes are an emotional gut-punch.

And that’s why this is an excellent film and not just a well-made one. As technically complex as it is, what resonates is its narrative simplicity.

The plot can be described on a t-shirt. It features a handful of locations and approximately one subplot. The onscreen cast is basically just Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and a fire extinguisher. Not a second is wasted here, and that’s one of the highest compliments a thriller can receive.

Of course, there are nits to be picked. George Clooney’s performance has a little too much George Clooney in it. The Hubble Telescope, the ISS, and the Tiangong all seem to orbit within (space)walking distance of each other. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the convenient physics of a certain death scene, and no doubt the armchair scientists will find a smorgasbord of inaccuracies. None of these issues dent the film’s power.

As an experience, GRAVITY is tough to criticize because virtually everything about it works. Cuaron’s directing is masterful, the script is clean-burning, the acting is affecting, the technical aspects are mind-boggling, and even the score is stirring. No wonder this movie has been grabbing every award that isn’t nailed down. And it’s back in theaters – what are you waiting for?

Review by: Taylor Adams

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