Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Film Review 2014, Part 1

As a longtime movie-buff and blogger, here's my latest installment of film reviews.

Please understand that I'm not endorsing all of these movies.  I'm not even giving a blanket endorsement of movie-watching in general.  But I watch movies with a view toward history, culture, and spiritual worldview, so perhaps I can steer you toward (or away) from certain films based on that point of view.

Part 1 of my 2014 list represents the films I watched from January through June, 2013.  My ranking system and special GOC (gratuitous objectionable content) warning is as follows:
5 stars - A great movie everyone should see.
4 stars - A great movie with some qualifications.
3 stars - An okay movie that will appeal to some audiences.
2 stars - Not very good to most audiences but with some redeeming qualities.
1 star - Not a movie worth seeing.

GOC - Warning: Gratuitous Objectionable Content -- Please fast forward or, better yet, watch an edited version of the film or skip it altogether.  Used especially in reference to nudity or abusive use of vulgar content. I sometimes deliberately watch films which are edited for content, so there may be GOC I don't know about.

5 stars
Captain Philips (2013) - This is the fascinating true story of the hijacking of a ship by modern day pirates.  The final scene, unlike anything I’ve seen before in a movie, of the “decompression” from the traumatic event is worth the price of admission.  This scene is what should lead to a best acting Oscar… but Tom Hanks already has two of them, so…

4.5 stars
• Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) - As good or better than its predecessor, Winter Soldier is about as good as the first Avengers movie.  What’s great is that the Captain America movies get to explore more political intrigue than the typical comic book action movie.
Ender’s Game (2013) - For a sci-fi book that was once considered un-filmable, this adaptation is nearly perfect.  The book is an absolute classic and the movie suffers by being condensed in several ways, but it still captures the essence of a isolated, gifted child with all of the pressure in the world on his shoulders.
Ip Man (2008) -  Very loosely based on a true story from the life of the humble martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee, Ip Man is a fantastic Kung Fu movie, set during the rarely-seen WW2 Japanese occupation of China. 

4 stars
Frozen (2013) - Another great Disney film with memorable characters, wit, and charm.  Other than the opening sequence, Frozen also had great music that absolutely captured my kids.  Shannon and Anneliese loved this movie.
Galaxy Quest (1999) - If you’re a fan of sci-fi, particularly Star Trek, this comedy is directed both at and for you.  It’s a take on the relationship between the actors and obsessed fans of sci-fi shows and (for some people) the blurring of the lines between reality and the fantasy is surpassingly profound for a comedy.
Hotel Transylvania (2012) - This animated "monster movie” turned out to be a surprisingly good father-daughter flick which is carried by a remarkable cast of talented comedians as the voice actors.

3.5 stars
Cloud Atlas (2012) - In part, this film demonstrates some genius film-making, combining six different stories, set in six different time periods, with the same six actors playing different roles each time.  However, this complexity works against the film because it’s so hard to track the plots and derive any kind of coherent theme from them.  I got stuck trying to figure out which character was reincarnated into whom and finally gave up in frustration, even after studying a chart on wikipedia.  Warning: brief but completely unnecessary and overly graphic GOC.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) - Far and away a better film than the first one, this story moves better and is better executed than the clumsy first attempt (both of the screenwriters and director were replaced).  Those who read the books tell me the second volume was a better story as well.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) - Ugh, how the legendary has become mundane.  There’s so much that’s not quite right here.  Aliens?!  How is geriatric Indy not breaking his hip?  A refrigerator?!  Really?!  That kid looks nothing like either of his parents!  This franchise needs a reboot not merely another chapter with this cast.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) - I’m a sucker for anything the Coen Brothers put together.  This film, however, is so depressing in its examination of depression (in the life of a 1960’s New York folk singer and the miserable people around him), that it becomes hard to enthusiastically recommend.  More than that, this movie is about ten times more profane than it really needed to be.  I wanted it to be O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) part 2, but it left me too despondent to see any of those connections.  Extensive GOC
Thor: The Dark World (2013) - Another installment in the recent series which includes The Avengers.  Thor is a bit abstract and unfamiliar to most audiences but the film is well done with fantastic special effects.  If the plot was a bit easier to follow the movie would get a better rating.
Warm Bodies (2013)  - As a zombie film, it’s okay.  As an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, it’s incredibly clever and cute.  “R” is a zombie and Julie is a living person but their love will bring the two warring sides together.  How adorable.

3 stars
Arthur (2011) - If you look at this movie as an indictment of hedonism and alcohol and a promotion of monogamy, then this is really pretty good.  Other than that, it’s a very ho-hum remake of an older romantic-comedy, of which the best addition is Russell Brand’s comedic delivery.  Relatively minor GOC.
Croods (2013) - Cute movie.  A little odd… but I liked the father-daughter message near the end.
Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013) - This film was highly lauded, largely for it’s politically correct plot: 1980’s redneck learns to tolerate gays because he contracts AIDS.  It does have some very good performances but honestly the movie is not that profound, as countless other films have followed this same character arc with as much or more payoff in the end.  Seriously offputting GOC.
Europa Report (2013) - This sci-fi exploration movie follows an ill-fated crew on a mission where nothing goes right.  It gets kind of bleak, maybe a bit pointless, and the ending doesn’t quite hit the emotional payoff that the movie is obviously shooting for.
• The Grey (2011) - Bleak, nihilistic, but still suspenseful, this movie is kind of like Jaws (1975) or even Alien (1979), but with wolves.  I didn’t like the ending or the philosophy running throughout.  Also, Liam Neeson is everywhere!  GOC.
Wartime in Winter (2008) - Here’s an interesting World War 2 story you probably haven’t seen before.  The Dutch film follows a boy who desperately want to be part of the WW2 Resistance against the Nazis and finds his chance when he locates a downed British airman.  Drama ensues.
• White House Down (2013) - Die Hard in the White House.  Yes, it’s a little ridiculous, a little predictable, and a little corny here and there.  But this action film is also more fun and witty than most of its ilk, thanks largely to Jamie Foxx’s so-square-he's-cool portrayal of the president.
The World’s End (2013) - This is the third movie in the trilogy that includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.  Thus, it’s a really clever Edgar Wright dark comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost battling some nefarious force while cursing and drinking.  This time it’s aliens.  I like the humor but I would be more of a fan of these films if not for the nearly constant profanity.  Obnoxiously constant GOC.

2.5 stars 
• All is Lost (2013) - This tale of a man on a sinking ship may not float your boat.  First off, it’s truly a one-man-show; Robert Redford is completely alone and no other human face is shown.  Second, there is virtually no spoken dialog.  You have few lines at the beginning and then 90 minutes of silence punctuated by one f-bomb.  Third, any non-sailor is going to have difficulty following this taciturn plot.  Yet I’ve read criticism from actual sailors on several nitpicky errors.  GOC
American Hustle (2013) - GOC.  Did I mention GOC?  No seriously, this is up to its eyeballs in GOC. This film was supposed to be the next The Sting (1973) or Ocean’s Eleven (1960), but failed to achieve that level of greatness.  It’s star studded and interesting but frankly not worth the investment of time.  I’m surprised this film garnered as much award attention as it did (10 Oscar nominations, no wins).  Oh, yeah: GOC. 
• Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) - When I began watching I had the impression that this was a true story.  And for the first two-thirds of the movie, the story and acting were superb.  Then it went off the rails.  Cliché.  Schmaltzy.  Predictable.  On-the-nose.  The two sons had more coincidences than Forrest Gump and a story that should have stayed in the 1960’s forced its way into 2008 and the Obama election, as if the audience couldn’t connect those dots already.  When I found out that virtually every point of this story was fabricated, it ruined what good did exist.
The Wolverine (2013) - The sixth turn of Hugh Jackman wearing the claws.  This one is relatively forgettable, especially due to an extraordinarily weak supporting cast.  The plot caters to fanboys steeped in Wolverine-lore but doesn’t offer much to newcomers.  Slightly more GOC than most comic book movies.

2 stars
Contraband (2012) - A foul-mouthed and and rather obvious plot about smuggling serves as the vehicle to get Mark Wahlberg on screen, playing roughly the same reformed-bad-boy-turned-good he plays in most movies.  More than most of Wahlberg’s movies however, this character seems to justify immoral behavior as long as it’s clever and he looks good doing it.  GOC
G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) - Goodness, these movies are awful.  But what do expect from a director who’s only other credits are the Justin Bieber movies and the Step Up franchise?  Does this G.I. Joe movie supply lots of mindless gunplay and explosions?  Yes, but at some point you need more than that even in popcorn fare.

1 star

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