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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (PG-13)

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER wants to be a political thriller, but it also wants its characters to fly around in wing-suits. It comes pretty close to having it both ways.
Picking up where Joss Whedon’s THE AVENGERS left off, our favorite recently thawed WWII-era super-soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is struggling to fit into the modern world as an agent of the NSA-like S.H.I.E.L.D. Soon, he’s wondering if he’s playing for the right team. After all, when the good guys start planning preemptive attacks via giant floating super-weapons, are they still the good guys? As Rogers untangles friend from foe, he also searches for the mysterious “Winter Soldier,” an assassin with a metal arm (which at least narrows it down a bit). Thrusting a Greatest Generation hero into our post-9/11 debate between civil liberties and national security definitely makes for an intriguing setup, but in the end THE WINTER SOLDIER still boils down to the usual comic book fluff. Apparently even in this digital age of drone strikes and WikiLeaks, no problems exist that Captain America can’t just punch to death.
And that’s okay, because while THE WINTER SOLDIER may be an undercooked political thriller, it’s one hell of an action flick. The urban gunfights crackle with grit and menace. The audio direction is top-notch, using moments of unexpected silence to throw us off and build real suspense. And the fight choreography is a joy to behold, finding an impressive variety of ways for Captain America to beat people up with a shield. Many, many concussions are delivered in the name of freedom.
I could recommend this movie on the strength of these visceral action sequences alone, but it’s a solid piece of entertainment all around. Even those not already aboard Team Marvel will find plenty of thrills, laughs, and twists. Although THE WINTER SOLDIER is crammed with supporting characters, it juggles them confidently and never drags or feels bloated, even at 136 minutes. The titular villain has limited screen time but owns every second of it.
The only weak link in the cast is, shockingly, Golden Globe-winner Scarlett Johansson, who’s dull and zombie-like here as Black Widow. Apparently she was going for “tough” but overshot into “stoned.” And despite all the hot-button topics THE WINTER SOLDIER flirts with, it just doesn’t say enough to justify its political aims.
But who needs politics? This is a slam-bang action movie about the visual poetry of Captain America hitting bad guys so hard, they forget math.
stars
-Taylor Adams

NOAH (PG-13)

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Rock monsters. This movie has rock monsters.
Technically, they’re fallen angels – cursed by God to dwell on earth as towering, Ent-like beasts – but they’re one of several bizarre creative choices in Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH that never quite mesh with the biblical source material. It’s like watching THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and noticing that the first nail in Christ’s palm is being hammered in by Megatron.
Russell Crowe is Noah, an ordinary man charged with the daunting task of building a big you-know-what before an even bigger you-know-what reboots the earth. To be fair, mankind deserves it. This prehistoric world is a Cormac McCarthy-esque wasteland of stripped forests and roving cannibals. As Noah and his family construct the ark and the rain begins, a Cain-descendant warrior-king (Ray Winstone) takes notice and marshals his forces to attack. Now Noah must fend off both a desperate world that’s not ready to be exterminated, and his own decaying sanity.
Aronofsky is fearless in his retelling, taking one artistic gamble after another. Aside from the rock monster subplot (which doesn’t pay off), he visualizes the creation of the earth via still photography (which does). We also get glimpses of the garden of Eden, hellish panoramas, and a nifty spin on Darwinism. I was stunned by how often NOAH showed things that other films would have only alluded to.
Too bad so much of the first half feels like an artsy spinoff of LORD OF THE RINGS. The rock monsters are the most glaring problem (they were scrubbed from the trailers because they’re so breathtakingly stupid), but Aronofsky takes other fantastical liberties – including lizard-dogs, fire-rocks, and magic pregnancy tests – that are almost as distracting. Some viewers will find them flat-out insulting.
The second half, and the real focus of the film, is Noah’s personal struggle with the enormity of God’s task – and luckily it’s terrific. Crowe is utterly convincing as a flawed man caught between the apocalypse and the corrupted race that earned it. Emma Watson owns several heartbreaking scenes, and Ray Winstone manages to be both credibly evil and oddly persuasive. He is, after all, merely fighting for his life as the water rises. Wouldn’t you?
That’s what makes NOAH worth watching, rock monsters and all. It embraces the moral complexities of a story that ends in the deaths of millions. It dares to ask tough questions of its characters, and of us. God’s messages to Noah are absolute but not always clear, so where do you draw the line between faith and blind obedience? The climax resonates because it presents a situation where doing the wrong thing makes sense – and doing the right thing doesn’t.
It’s a brave and fascinating movie, but the book was better.
stars
-Taylor Adams

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