Saturday, 15 December 2012

Total Recall (2012) Review

Today, I watched Total Recall starring Colin Farrell and directed by Len Wiseman. 

Before I dive into this review, a brief warning. Here there be spoilers! Since this is a remake of a classic sci-fi actioner from the 90's, I won't have much choice but to drop some rather major spoilers when comparing this film to the original. So, if you don't want to know plot details for this movie, just shuffle right on past this review!

The story of Total Recall centers on Douglas Quaid, a factory worker living a boring life in a crappy little apartment with a ridiculously attractive wife, played by Kate Beckinsale. He's passed over for promotions at work and spends his evenings slurping beers with his buddies at the local dive bar. He keeps having the same dream, though, where he's on the run from some bad guys with a love interest that most definitely is not his wife. These dreams, coupled with his humdrum lifestyle, lead Doug to Rekall, a company that can implant memories directly into your brain through chemical injections. Said memories are customizable, offering a wide variety of situations and scenarios for you to remember. Doug decides he wants to remember being a spy. This is where the movie takes off, with Doug being chased by various bad guys, both real and robotic, lead by none other than his wife, who's really a spy herself, attached to Doug to keep an eye on him. The girl of his dreams (Jessica Biel) shows up just to bring everything full circle.

So far as comparisons to the first film, this all follows the same basic plotline. Some of the specifics are different, but the core of the story remains the same. Douglas Quaid isn't really Douglas Quaid. He's Houser, a former double agent who's had his memory and personality erased and implanted with a new one. Where this film greatly differs from the first is all the action takes place on Earth, whereas the first film spent a great deal of time on Mars. Another key difference is the elimination of the Richter character, played by Michael Ironside in the first film. His character seems to get merged with Doug's wife Lori, who not only chases him relentlessly throughout this film, but even disobeys orders to take him alive by giving the order to shoot to kill to the men under her command, just like the Richter character did from the first film.

Now, having said all that about the plot and the setting, there's really only one question burning a hole in my mind...

Why, oh why, did this movie get made? Don't get me wrong, it's not a terrible movie. With some tweaking of the plot and characters, this could easily have been a standalone sci-fi actioner. Not a great one, mind you, but not a terrible one either. Instead, the bankrupt braintrust that is Hollywood decides to remake a movie that just didn't need to be remade. The original Total Recall (1990) is one of Arnie's classic action films. At the time of it's production, it was the most expensive movie ever made. It was simply awash in cutting edge special effects, action set pieces with plenty of guts and gore, and Arnie's usual ham-handed reading of his lines along with his dreadful one-liners. In short, it was a pretty great action movie. So why remake it? More importantly, why remake it if you're not going to improve upon it? Colin Farrell is absolutely dreadful as Douglas Quaid. He spends the vast majority of the film in a state of perpetual confusion, which he plays off by making facial expressions that had me believing he needs more fibre in his diet. Kate Beckinsale isn't bad in the now-I'm-your-wife-now-I'm-trying-to-kill-you roll, but it's nothing inspiring either. Bryan Cranston, as the villainous Cohaagen, is hardly used and seems badly out of place. Jessica Biel as the original love interest Melina is also misused and seems to be there really to give Doug someone to worry about and rescue while he's avoiding his wife and her goons.

The special effects aren't bad, especially the robotic police force known as the Synthetics. The look and feel of the film, in particular the cinematography, is actually quite good. The film takes place on opposite sides of the world, so you have one very clean looking, Minority Report style metropolis and a much dirtier, Blade Runner-esq style slum. Both are rendered quite well, giving you no confusion as to where the action is taking place between the two locales. If I had to make a gripe about how the film was shot, it would be the nearly Star Trek (2009) level of lens flare that shows up in nearly every shot. It's distracting and really adds nothing to the film. 

In short, you have a mediocre movie that's a remake of a great movie. This was a bad idea from it's inception. It never should have been green lit, let alone actually written, shot and released to a public that, when looking at the box office numbers, gave it a collective "meh".

2.5 out of 5 stars
Total Recall (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Dec 15 2012
Rating: 2.5

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Skyfall (2012) Review

Last night, I put on my tux, fixed myself a martini, hopped in my Aston Martin and drove to the cinema to check out Skyfall (2012) starring Daniel Craig and directed by Sam Mendes. Don't worry, I didn't actually drink the martini.

Skyfall is the 23rd official film based on Ian Fleming's James Bond. It is Daniel Craig's third outing as the titular British spy after the groundbreaking Casino Royale and the disappointing Quantum of Solace. While those two movies were linked plotwise, this is a standalone feature.

In this film, Bond starts off chasing down a list of all the deep cover operatives in terrorist organizations around the world. The entire list was conveniently stored on a single laptop hard drive, which an enterprising young thief has stolen. A chase ensues that finds Bond accidentally shot by Eve, the agent working with him, and the thief making off with the list. Bond is presumed dead and M (his boss, played by Judi Dench) pens his obituary. Several months later, MI6 (the British intelligence agency Bond worked for) comes under attack. Bond resurfaces, very much alive, and begins the process of getting back into the spy game.

The movie starts off well. We're offered a high octane chase scene over rooftops that Christopher Nolan could've taken notes on when filming Batman Begins. The classic Bond opening is great and it's accompanied by Adele's theme for the movie, which is actually pretty good too. After that, the film focuses on Judi Dench's character M while she tries to run MI6 without Bond as well as hunting after the stolen list. In fact, Judi Dench has more to do in this Bond film than all the other Bond films she's appeared in combined. It's quite a shame it's taken this long for the filmmakers to realise what a brilliant actress she is. She is absolutely fabulous in this film. She has a steely-eyed gaze and a confidence on the screen that is second to none.

As the plot thickens, Bond makes his return much the worse for wear after spending the ensuing months drinking and screwing and god knows what else. It definitely marks a bit of a departure from most Bond films that usually have the character an invincible, infallible British Superman. Even during the action sequences, Craig doesn't look all cool and suave. If you look at his face, most of the time he just looks pissed off, which seems the right reaction when chasing a bad guy that keeps eluding you.

Bond gets introduced to a couple of new/old characters after his return. The first is Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes. I have to say, this is a wasted role for an actor of Fiennes stature. He's fairly wooden throughout, has very little to do and, worst of all, I kept waiting for him to turn out to be the bad guy! Maybe that's my personal bias, but I've grown so accustomed to seeing him play the villian that I spent the entire movie expecting him to turn any moment. I won't spoil anything by telling you one way or the other...

The other new/old character Bond meets is Q, which I finally learned stands for Quartermaster. Q is played by Ben Whishaw and, if Fiennes is a little wooden in his role, Whishaw is positively stoic. Hardly an emotion is spared for the camera. I know these are British actors in a British film, so I'm always expecting some reserve to be displayed but, honestly, would a facial expression now and then kill you?

Bond finally tracks down the film's antagonist, Silva, played by Javier Bardem. Bardem starts out pretty cool and the interplay between him and Craig is quite good. Unfortunately, Bardem begins to come across as more and more mentally unhinged as the movie develops, leading him to begin hamming it up for the camera and playing it way over the top. I'm not sure why most actors playing a villain in a Bond movie feel they have to do this. These latest Bond films starring Craig have strived to eliminate the cheesiness of the previous installments. Bardem almost single-handedly undoes all this hard work.

Not all of this can be blamed solely on Bardem, though. Some very cliched villain mistakes get made in this movie. A good example of this is towards the end of the movie. Bond is out on a frozen lake, unarmed and completely exposed with no cover. Suddenly, two shots patter at his feet, stopping him short. Silva is 40 feet away with a gun trained on him. Bond has no means of escape or defense. What does Silva do? He shoots and kills him! The end! Roll credits! Wait, what? Oh. No, that would make sense. Instead, Silva starts to monologue while a henchman comes up behind Bond. Bond uses the henchman along with Silva's loquaciousness to escape the predictament. The villain could have shot Bond with Bond completely unaware of his presence. Instead, a warning shot and a bunch of dialogue later, Bond escapes. Sadly, Silva winds up doing the very same thing in a different situation not 10 minutes later! 

Another example of classic villain blunders that make their way into this film is having all the evil henchman shooting from a covered position, only to break cover at the moment our hero needs to shoot them. This happens so often in this film I actually found myself laughing at the result. 

Not all is bad, though. This film is absolutely gorgeous, and I mean that literally. It's beautifully shot, taking full advantage of the exotic locales. Smooth, wide, panning shots give the viewer a real sense of space, place and size.

Also present are some Bond throwbacks that were nice for nostalgia fans like myself. Of course, he introduces himself as "Bond. James Bond". While he doesn't ask for it by name, the bartender making his drink very clearly shakes it, not stirring it. At one point Bond whips the tarp off an old Aston Martin complete with ejector seats and headlight machine guns. We even get to hear the classic theme a time or two in the film. All welcome reminders that this is a franchise celebrating 50 years.

The film also did an admirable job of humanising Bond. As I said, when he comes back from his supposed death, he's in very rough shape. More than that, though, they take Bond back to his roots. We learn about his childhood and his parents. We get to see his ancestral home. We may even get to see him shed a tear or two, though I certainly won't say why here. All in all, the movie works as a character study for both Bond and M and does so brilliantly.

Some people are calling this the best Bond film to date. Some are even saying it's one of the best films of the year. I don't if I can agree with either statement. Parts of this film are truly excellent with Judi Dench absolutely stealing it for me. Others parts, like a very long, meandering second act, not so much. Still, overall, this is a good film that will keep the storied Bond franchise going for at least one more outing.

4 out of 5 stars
Skyfall (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Nov 22 2012
Rating: 4

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Wreck-It Ralph (2012) Review

This week, I put on my best cardigan, loaded up the mini-van and took the kids to see Wreck-It Ralph, starring John C. Reilly and directed by Rich Moore.

Wreck-It Ralph is a character in a classic video game called Fixit Felix Jr. Ralph is the bad guy who's signature phrase "I'm gonna wreck it!" starts every game. Of course, being the bad guy, Ralph finds himself face down in the mud at the end of every game. To the person playing the game, that's the end of it. To Ralph, it's just the beginning of his miserable existance. He lives in a dump while all the other characters in the game live in a lovely apartment building. Even when Ralph tries to interact with any of the other characters in the game, they shun him like the bad guy he is.

The game in which Ralph is a character, Fixit Felix Jr., is about to hit a milestone as it celebrates 30 years in the arcade. Despite attending "bad-anon" meetings where Ralph hears from other classic video game villains that being the bad guy is ok (in the words of Zangeif from Street Fighter II, "Just because you are bad guy, doesn't mean you are ..bad guy), Ralph starts to feel like he's missing out always being the bad guy. Ralph then "goes Turbo" and starts jumping into other games (a big no no), trying to prove he can be a hero as well.  

The story is a little cliched, as usual for any Disney outing, but not badly written. John C. Reilly is good as Ralph, Alan Tudyk is great as King Candy but the real star and charmer of this film is Sarah Silverman as Vanellope VonSchweet, a lovable little scamp from a racing game called Sugar Rush. I was rather intrigued when I heard Silverman was cast in a Disney film. Her standup act isn't exactly kid friendly. Still, she does a fantastic job bringing this character to life. She's cute without going overboard and becoming "Disney-cute". The movie is a tad too long and there are definitely some slow parts, but the third act is all action and everything turns out pretty much as you'd expect.

When I rate a kids movie, I usually look at two things. First, how well did my kids sit through the film without fidgeting, asking when it would be over or straight out looking to go home? Second, how often do they talk about or reference the movie once they've seen it?  For Wreck-It Ralph, my kids hung in there pretty good (my son asked "how much longer?" about an hour in when there was some plot stuff going on) and they haven't stopped shouting "I'm gonna wreck it!" since we got back. Both of these facts point to a movie that captured their attention and kept it even after it was over. Which, for me, means it was worth the small fortune I spent taking them in the first place. 

 If you're looking for a cute, endearing movie to take the kids to this weekend, you could do a lot worse than Wreck-It Ralph.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Nov 14 2012
Rating: 3.5

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Amazing Spider-man (2012) Review

Hello, True Believers!

This week, I had a chance to watch The Amazing Spider-man starring Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker/Spider-man directed by Marc Webb.

I don't think I need to go into any details when it comes to the origin story of Spider-man. We've all seen it before. Heck, we saw it not so long ago with the Sam Raimi directed franchise starring Toby McGuire that  ended a mere 5 years ago. I know it's been said elsewhere but it bears repeating here; this movie was made entirely too soon. This is not linked to the previous franchise in any way. This is, essentially, a reboot of the first Spider-man film that was released 10 years ago. If it seems a little odd to reboot it that quickly, that's because it is. There are reasons, though, that I'll touch on quickly.

First off, Sam Raimi apparently had a falling out with Sony Pictures (the company that owns the movie rights to Spider-man...more on that in a bit) over the direction of Spider-man 4 and who the main villain should be. Raimi wanted the Vulture as the villain with Sony wanting the Lizard instead. Already sore about having to shove Venom into Spider-man 3, which ended up being critisized for having too many villains sharing screen time, Raimi voiced his displeasure. Sony, in their infinite wisdom, decided to move on without him. Now you might be thinking that 5 years since the last Spider-man film is awfully quick to introduce new actors in the same roles that we'd all just watched and you'd be right. However, there's a rights issue at stake here. Sony owns the movie rights to Spider-man, not Marvel (the comic book company that created him), which is why you didn't and won't see Spider-man in The Avengers or Ironman or any of the Marvel shared universe films. Marvel sold the movie rights to Sony before they got into the movie making business. There is a stipulation to these movie rights, however. If the companies that own these rights do not begin production on a movie with said characters within a certain time frame, they lose the rights and they revert back to Marvel. Since Spider-man has made a truckload of money for Sony Pictures, there was no way that was ever going to happen. So we get a Spider-man reboot 5 years after Spider-man 3.

Now that the details are out of the way, on to the movie itself!

I had a hard time with this film. I found myself mostly looking for the differences in the two origin movies and not really giving myself a chance to just sit back and enjoy it. It was very hard not to notice that a lot of the changes that were made in this outing were likely made to make sure this movie kept it's distance from it's predecessor. A few examples of this are basics in the Spider-man mythos. There is no Mary Jane Watson in this film, played by Kirsten Dunst in the first franchise. There's no J. Jonah Jamison either, Peter Parker's boss at the Daily Bugle. Oh yeah, there's no Daily Bugle! In this film, we get to see Peter going to school, then Peter becoming Spider-man. No part-time photography gig for our new wall-crawler. There's no Norman Osborne, though we do get a glimpse into Oscorp and he is referenced in the film, if never shown. No Harry Osborne either. We even get to meet Peter's parents at the beginning of the movie. See what I mean? Other than Peter himself, his Uncle Ben and his Aunt Mae, everyone is either brand new or missing entirely.

His new love interest is Gwen Stacey, played by Emma Stone. One thing I will say for Garfield and Stone, they have good onscreen chemistry. In fact, I should point out that Garfield does an admirable job strapping on the web-shooters and giving us a very unassuming take on Spider-man. As the movie progresses, and especially once he's been bitten, he seems to get all caught up in what's going on and it's pretty clear things get above his head and out of his control rather quickly. Garfield portrays this flawlessly. As I said, his chemistry with Stone is great and his interactions with his Aunt and Uncle are very genuine. Rhys Ifans plays Dr. Connors/The Lizard and while his performance isn't bad, it isn't anything to write home about either. Overall, the acting and casting in this movie was fairly well done. I should also point out that, unlike the Raimi films, the action involving Spider-man is almost entirely live action and not CGI. This is great at first as Raimi over did it on the CGI effects in the first outing, making Spider-man look entirely too cartoony for my tastes. However, this mostly gets taken away since the villain in the film is all CGI. You win some, you lose some. None of these issues are my biggest gripe about this film, however.

My biggest gripe is the story itself. I just found myself not really caring one way or the other. The main plot of the film is rather boring for an action/adventure movie. They tried to make it interesting with some very vague kind of conspiracy thing involving Peter's parents, capped off by one of the worst end credits scenes in a comic book film ever. The conspiracy angle didn't really add anything to the film, though. I've since read it was put into this first film so the thread could be picked up by the sequels. Shouldn't they have found a way to make it compelling then? Shouldn't I be sitting on the edge of my seat with baited breath just waiting for The Amazing Spider-man 2: The Return of Mr. and Mrs. Parker? Because I'm not. Not even a little. No, the story just never grabbed me. That could be because of my bias at having scene the previous films. But then again, who hasn't seen the previous films?

All in all, a failed effort at rebooting a franchise. Perhaps they'll do better with the second film, already confirmed to be taking place. The 3 stars I'm going to give this film is almost entirely due to Andrew Garfield and the job he did as Parker and Spider-man.

3 out of 5 stars
The Amazing Spider-man (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Oct 31 2012
Rating: 3

Monday, 29 October 2012

Moon (2009) Review

It's that time again! Time for another weekly movie review! This week's film is a little different as it's not currently in theaters like Looper was last week and it's an indie film to boot. 

This week, I watched Moon (2009) directed by first time director Duncan Jones, son of legendary rocker David Bowie, and starring Sam Rockwell. 

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a man working on the moon for a large corporation gathering Helium-3, a new clean burning fuel that 70% of the world relies on for energy. He's coming to the end of a 3-year contract where he has worked in total isolation on a base on the far side of the moon. His only real-time interaction is with a very Hal-9000 like computer called GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey. As Sam nears the end of his contract, he starts having hallucinations and fears he might be losing his mind. And that's all I want to say about the plot!

When I say the film stars Sam Rockwell, I mean it. Other than Kevin Spacey providing a mostly emotionless voice for the computer, Sam Rockwell is the only actor in this movie. There are clips of his wife and daughter as well as some suits from the corporation running the base from earth, but these clips are few and far between. I'm not sure there's a single scene in this movie that does not have Sam Rockwell in it. Which is good since it was amazing to watch one of Hollywood's most under-appreciated actors really step up and deliver. Rockwell is absolutely fantastic in this film. I'm amazed he wasn't nominated for an Oscar. Yes, he's that good in this. Even if you're not a fan of the concept, watch this movie just to see how great an actor he is.

The look and feel of Moon is fairly unique, especially when compared to today's big budget, CGI heavy films. All the effects are done practically, meaning miniatures and models and such. It gives the film a much more tangible feel to it as everything moves the way it should. It's all done quite cleverly, especially when you realize this film was shot for around $5 million. I also wanted to mention the soundtrack for Moon. Without going off on a rant, most movies these days seem to spend very little time on the soundtrack. Largely gone are the days when the movie's soundtrack was so well done and so in sync with the material being presented, it almost became a character in the movie itself (Jaws, Star Wars, etc). Clint Mansell does the soundtrack for Moon and I have to say he does an incredible job with it. The music is exactly right for this type of movie with this kind of setting.

If you're looking for a solid piece of film making with a great soundtrack and an absolutely fantastic, break-through acting performance, find a way to watch this movie. You won't be disappointed.

4.5 out of 5 stars
Moon (2009)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Oct 29 2012
Rating: 4.5