Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Review

This week, I put on my Kevlar vest, got to the choppah and flew down to the local theatre to check out Best Picture Oscar nominee Zero Dark Thirty (2012) starring Jessica Chastain and directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is the tale of the decade long hunt for Al-Qaeda leader and alleged 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden. Said hunt is lead and championed by Maya (no last name given) who is relentless in her determination to track down the terrorist leader.

I'll give you fair warning, folks. Unlike the movie, this review will be short, sweet and to the point. 

I'm not entirely sure why this movie is up for a Best Picture Oscar this year. And by "not entirely sure", I mean "I can't believe" this movie is up for a Best Picture Oscar this year. Like the hunt for Bin Laden upon which this movie is based, it's just too damned long and incredibly boring for the vast majority of it. Not only that, I spent most of the first half of this movie having zero idea, and I mean I was completely in the dark (zero...dark...get it? yeah, sorry) about what was going on. Names and places are flung out in rapid fire succession to the point where you're not sure where they are or who they're talking about but they're sure talking about it a lot!

Some things are just introduced with barely any explanation at all. Take Mark Strong's character in the film, for example. He doesn't appear at all in the first half of the movie. Then he shows up, yells at everyone, and ends up sticking around for the rest of the movie, running the whole show. Who is he? What's his title? Is he CIA as well? If he's so integral to the hunt for Bin Laden, where was he for the first hour and a half of the film? If the time is taken to explain any of this, I clearly missed it.

There's also some terrible setups in this film. At one point, a high ranking Al-Qaeda member is "turned" by the CIA with the promise of millions of dollars. Said betrayer won't come to the CIA with his information but insists they meet on sacred ground, or some such. Already, warning bells are going off. They arrange the meet at Camp Something-Or-Other and spend about 20 minutes telegraphing the most obvious twist you will ever see in modern film. I heartily wish I was exaggerating. I'm not.

The acting just isn't great either. Jessica Chastain spends most of the movie doing an amazing impression of an emotionless robot. She's the star of this movie and there's hardly a scene without her in it. Most of the other actors in the film sort of hover around her with nobody really knocking one out of the park.

For all of it's issues, the film's single biggest stumbling block was the way in which the story unfolded. The entirety of the film ends up being broken down into two major plot points. The first is whether or not any of the leads, and especially the lead Maya finds fairly early in the film, will actually lead to Bin Laden. The second is whether or not they will get the green light once they think they've found him to go in and get him. The main problem here is, we already know the answers to both of these questions!

I'm not saying you can't shoot a decent movie when it's based on real life events. There are tons of such films out there. This film, though, spends a truly staggering amount of time teasing at both of these plot points. First, Maya is convinced that her early lead on Bin Laden is good and spends a ridiculous amount of time trying to convince other people of it. When the lead does, in fact, turn out to be good and points them to the possible location of Bin Laden (shocking, I know), she then spends a ridiculous amount of time trying to convince other people that he is, in fact, at that location and ready to be taken out. When we finally get to the climax of the movie, the actual incursion into the compound that lead to his alleged shooting death, it's a complete letdown since the entire build up to that moment was dragged out for so damn long. How can you possibly try to create that much suspense and anticipation for things we already know the outcome of? 

Hell, start the movie with the incursion, then show me how they got there in a matter-of-fact, clearly explained, brilliantly written, acted, shot and, most importantly, concise manner. Alas, my friends, this is not what you will see if you are unfortunate enough to be dragged to this film (not that I was dragged or anything....).

I thought this film might end up being a recruitment film for the US Armed Forces much like Act of Valor was. I was wrong. It was an anti-recruitment film for the CIA which appears to be largely run by a collection of boobs that, once they pulled their heads out of their collective asses, ended up getting extremely lucky. Allegedly. 

2 out of 5 stars

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Jan 29 2013
Rating: 2

Monday, 14 January 2013

Looper (2012) Review

This week, I called Mr. Peabody, jumped in his Wayback Machine and caught Looper (2012) at the cinema starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis and directed by Rian Johnson. 

Looper (2012) centres on Joe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Joe is a killer for hire. The twist is, he's hired by people 30 years in the future. Apparently, you can't just kill someone 30 years in the future. If you want someone killed, you have to send them back in time to these specialized assassins called "loopers", of which Joe is one. You kill and you kill and dispose of future bodies until, one day, the mob of the future sends your future self back to be killed by you, thereby "closing your loop". You then get to spend the next 30 years living it up. When Joe has his future self appear before him (Old Joe, played by Bruce Willis), he hesitates, allowing Old Joe the chance to knock Young Joe out and take off. Most of the rest of the movie is about everyone chasing down Young and Old Joe (in an effort to close the loop) while Old Joe goes about trying to fix the future.

I don't know about you, but when I hear a movie is going to deal with time travel as it's central plot device, I usually let out a loud groan. I'm sad to say Looper is no exception. The sheer number of times paradoxes are introduced over the course of the movie is staggering. Without giving away major plot points or spoilers, there are even paradoxes that conflict with other paradoxes. It's so bad that, on two separate occasions, characters in the movie practically tell the audience not to think too hard about the time travel aspect of it. This doesn't necessarily make the movie harder to understand. It just means you can't spend a lot of time thinking about or discussing the time travel aspect of the film as you'll soon be left feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. Because of this, the movie has a hard time finding it legs throughout. Which brings me to my next point. Expectations.

Having seen two different trailers for Looper (2012), the movie was presented and even reviewed as a sci-fi, tech-noir action adventure style movie. Nothing could be further from the truth. This movie is long. Very long. There seems to be an inordinate amount of time sitting around waiting for things to happen. The pacing is hard to get around. On top of that, a goodly chunk of the movie takes place in a rural setting, eliminating the sci-fi, tech-noir look and feel. Maybe it's my fault for having watched the trailers and read the reviews, but aren't those there specifically to garner interest in the film? If you're going to put trailers together to showcase your film, do so honestly.

That's not to say everything about this movie is bad. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a good job with the role he's given and clearly sinks his teeth into playing a young Bruce Willis. The prosthesis applied to JGL to make him look like a younger Willis is absolutely flawless. There was not a single moment where I looked and thought I could see where the makeup lines began and Gordon-Levitt ended. And his take on Willis is spot on, right down to the characteristic sideways glance and even the little smirk Willis is so famous for.

Willis himself turns in his best performance in years. He has about half the screen time that Gordon-Levitt gets, but he definitely steals the show as far as I'm concerned. It's a far, far more emotional role for Willis than any he's done in recent memory.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't at least mention Pierce Gagnon, who plays Cid in the movie. Child actors are always a risk. Entire franchises have been mercilessly killed based on a bad performance by a child actor (Jake Lloyd and the Phantom Menace, anyone?). Pierce Gagnon does an excellent job with his role, giving us one of the best child performances I've seen in recent memory. I have no idea how old this little boy is (were I to guess, I'd say he was probably 6 or 7 when this film was shot), but he has a bright future ahead of him if this film is any indication of what kind of actor he will grow up to be.

Unfortunately, good performances are not enough to save this film from itself. I mentioned earlier how the characters on the screen make light of trying to figure out the time travel aspect of the plot. For some weird reason, this has given way to a lot of critics and fans of the genre giving this facet of the film a free pass. I'm sorry folks, but just because one of your on screen characters apologizes for all of the future plot holes and sloppy, lazy writing, that doesn't make it ok. 

I've heard others saying you, as the viewer, should just ignore the time travel part of the film and enjoy the action instead. I have two issues with that. First, there isn't much action on display. At least, not enough to ignore the central plot of the movie. Secondly, like I just said, it's the central plot of the movie! That's like saying "Se7en is a great film if you just ignore the murders and focus on the relationship between Pitt and Freeman". You can't chuck the time travel plot and you can't ignore how badly that part of the movie is executed. 

Even apart from the time travel paradoxes, there are major plot holes in this film. Ask yourself a couple of questions; Why aren't the victims from the future sent back unconscious? Why have the loopers kill themselves instead of setting up a system where loopers kill each other's future loops (thereby eliminating the possibility of recognizing one's future self)? Why, if you can't kill anyone in the future, do we see at least one person killed in the future and get referenced to a whole lot of people getting killed in the future? In truth, I could ask at least a dozen more, but you get the idea.

This is a high concept movie that gets bogged down in it's own high concept. A decent netflix viewing if you're bored, but I don't think you'll miss much by not seeing it in theatres.

3 out of 5 stars

Looper (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Jan 14 2013
Rating: 3

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Bourne Legacy (2012) Review

Today, I decided to kill some time with a new movie based off an existing franchise. I checked out The Bourne Legacy (2012) starring Jeremy Renner and directed by Tony Gilroy.

The Bourne Legacy (2012) is a side-quel that takes place, chronologically, at the same time as The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross, a field agent with a lot of the same skills as Jason Bourne, but he's been enchanced through chemical pharmaceuticals that he must take on a regular basis to maintain his high degree of intelligence and physical prowess. When the project is scrapped during the chase for Jason Bourne, the other agents in Cross's "Outcome" project start getting eliminated one by one. Cross finds a way to avoid getting killed but needs to track down more of the pills that give him the skills he requires to stay alive. This leads him to Dr. Shearing, played by Rachel Weisz. Dr. Shearing is one of the people Cross has seen during his routine examinations while part of the "Outcome" project. The two are then targeted for elimination with Cross keeping Shearing alive while Shearing tries to find a way to get Cross the pills he needs. 

Yeah. That's the plot. Gone is the haunted young Jason Bourne trying to piece his life back together after losing everything that was important to him, including his very identity. No, what we get is a guy who knows exactly where he came from and actually prefers the life of a super secret, juiced hitman. The only motivation Cross has for continuing with the project is the fact that, before the enhancements, he was dumb. Like, country dumb. Like, failed the IQ test to get into the Army kind of dumb. They let him in anyway and earmarked him for the project. So, in point of fact, they took advantage of a young man who didn't even have the smarts to know what he was getting himself into. When they're done making him chemically dependent as well as making him a skilled assassin....he does everything he can to stay that way!

It's like someone looked at the existing Bourne franchise and said "You know all these great elements that really click and work with these films? Let's not only ditch them all, let's do the exact opposite". 

So, Jason Bourne is still on the loose during the film. Matt Damon's picture is flashed a few times. More than a few of the characters from Ultimatum find a way to make an appearance on the screen. It's like director/writer Tony Gilroy wanted to make sure nobody forgot that this movie is tied to those movies. 

This is another example of a movie who's concept could be decent with some tweaks and could be turned into a standalone action film. Probably not a great one, but maybe an ok one. Instead, they try to squeeze as many bucks as they can out of a franchise who's main director and lead actor left the project. Paul Greengrass, who directed Bournes Supremacy and Utlimatum said, after he departed, had he stuck around to do Bourne 4, he would have called it the Bourne Redundancy. Matt Damon has gone on record numerous times saying he wouldn't do another Bourne movie without Greengrass at the helm. Instead, we have to suffer this dreadful movie.

Jeremy Renner is one of the up and coming stars in Hollywood right now. Somebody probably should have told him that when he took this role. They also might have wanted to tell him this film could have launched a whole new franchise with him as the star. I'm sure you can guess by now, but I thought he was pretty bad in this. He just seems to walk through most of this film. He never captured my attention and there was nothing special about his performance. I'm not saying he's the only reason this movie doesn't work. Far from it. But if someone handed me an established and beloved franchise and said "Here, we're giving this to you..run with it", I'd have acted my ass off. He didn't. Rachel Weisz isn't bad and does a better job than Renner, but I'm willing to bet they aren't going to base the franchise around her...

Don't even get me started about the ending to this movie. You'll actually start to wonder if you're being punished for something you did in a previous life.

Poorly written, poorly acted and poorly directed, this movie has almost nothing going for it. Give this one a miss.

1.5 out of 5 stars
The Bourne Legacy (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Jan 03 2013
Rating: 1.5

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexptected Journey (2012) Review

This week, I slung on my best geek duds and headed out to check out the first movie in the new Tolkien trilogy The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) starring Martin Freeman and Ian McKellan and directed by Peter Jackson.

I'm going to start this review with a confession. Initially, I didn't have much desire to see this film. The trailers looked interesting, but entirely too familiar. I was going to wait for this to be released on DVD. Then I read an article that said the new Man of Steel trailer and the first 9 minutes (yeah, NINE MINUTES) of the new Star Trek: Into Darkness movie would be playing in front of it if you watched it in IMAX 3D. So, for the first time in my adult life, I paid $17.50 to sit at the extreme left-hand side of a packed movie theatre, just to watch the opening trailers.

This review is not about said trailers, awesome as they might have been. No, this review is about Peter Jackson's latest homage to J.R.R. Tolkien. 

I'm going to get the obvious out of the way so I can actually talk about the movie. This movie is only the first movie in a trilogy. It clocks in at 2 hours and 50 minutes. The second and third movies will likely clock in even longer. I'm guessing nearly 9 hours of screen time will be dedicated to telling a tale that was originally a 400 page children's book. If that seems like an awful lot of hours of cinema for a 400 page children's book, that's because it is. Nobody is quite sure why this movie started out as a single feature, then ballooned into two films and finally bloated it's way into a trilogy, but you can bet some dollar signs had something to do with it. So, like every other reviewer is saying, this entire enterprise comes across as an enormous cash grab. There. That's out of the way. Let's talk about the film!

The story of this first film centers on Bilbo Baggins, shown first played by the same actor who played him in the LOTR trilogy, Ian Holm. Old Biblo (as he's credited) begins to write down the one tale he didn't tell Frodo (played by Elijah Wood, who makes a brief cameo) about how he came to possess the One Ring. The action shifts to 60 years in the past to a young Bilbo played by Martin Freeman. Young Bilbo is then thrown, quite to his surprise, into a group of rambunctious dwarves on a quest to regain their homeland. This group is put together by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), who apparently didn't age at all in the ensuing 60 years. 

I'd like to tell you there's more to the story than this, but I'd be lying. Other than meeting some elves, discussing copious amounts of past events, shoehorning as many characters from the previously successful trilogy as possible (whether they appeared in the book or not) and getting into some pretty pointless battles, the group starts off walking to the old dwarven stronghold and ends up still walking to the old dwarven stronghold.

Even though there isn't a ton of story to follow, the visuals are stunning. This is probably the prettiest movie you'll see this year. The only problem with that is it's exactly what you're expecting. I could still appreciate the wide vistas and the beautiful landscapes, but knowing it was a Peter Jackson film based on a Tolkien work filmed in the same areas as the previous trilogy, I wouldn't have expected any less. For all it's grandeur and majesty, it comes across as something we've all seen before.

Ian McKellan does a great job with the role of Gandalf. In the previous trilogy, Gandalf spent much of it as the returned Gandalf the White. He was very serious and foreboding. In this film, he still gets to be Gandalf the Grey and you can tell he's having fun with it. He spends a little too much time arriving just in the nick of time to save the day, but we can forgive him this as he's just fantastic in the role.

Martin Freeman plays the young Bilbo Baggins. Unfortunately, he kind of gets lost among the large cast of characters. Between 12 dwarves, Gandalf, all the various baddies and the aforementioned shoehorned characters, Freeman just doesn't get that much to do. It really didn't help that I had recently watched The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005) in which Freeman stars as Arthur Dent in a role nearly identical to this one. An outsider thrust into a role he's woefully unprepared for in a land completely different from his own surrounded by people who all seem to have a much better grasp of what's going on than he does. And in the end, he turns out to be the hero of the story. Honestly, talk about being typecast to a role.

As for the dwarves, other than Thorin (played by Richard Armitage who, most of the time, looks like he's a very frustrated male model working on his smokey glare) and Balin (Ken Stott),
most of them just wind up getting lost in the shuffle. The makeup and hair is pretty great and the camera work to make them all look a few feet shorter than Gandalf is very well done. They just don't really seem to connect with the audience most of the time.

Then there's the soundtrack. I know most reviewers don't really talk about a film's music much, but I think it's a vital component to making a great film. Fairly early in the film, the dwarves all gather around and start to sing a deep, throaty ballad that helps to explain their plight. At the time, it's moving and quite stirring at the same time. Unfortunately, the composer (Howard Shore) must have really liked it as it crops up in the orchestral music about 27 times throughout the rest of the film. That's a very rough estimate, but it feels about right. Twenty seven. I can tell you by the 13th time or so, I was all done with the little ditty. Little did I know how much more I'd be hearing it.

And that takes me to the biggest problem I have with this film. It's length. I don't hate long movies in general. Never think it. But if you're going to put nearly three hours of film on the screen, you'd better have some damned good pacing to keep me interested. This film didn't. At about the 90 minute mark I distinctly remember looking at my watch and thinking "wow, how am I only halfway through this thing?". Make no mistake, this movie is a behemoth. The funny thing is, I went to see this movie with my best friend and he was thinking the same thing around the same time and nearly asked me if I wanted to go. It seems he and I share the same taste in pacing.

In short, McKellan is great, Freeman is typecast (watch him as Dr John H Watson on the BBC series Sherlock and you'll see how badly he was used in this film), the visuals are pretty and my ass was numb after an hour and a half. If you're a fanboy, go see this film. If you're not, wait until it comes out on DVD/Bluray and wait for a Sunday afternoon where you have absolutely nothing else to do for a few hours. Then do something else anyway.

3 out of 5 stars.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Jan 02 2013
Rating: 3

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Dredd (2012) Review

This week, I revisited a movie I had seen in theatres but had neglected to write a review for. Dredd (2012) stars Karl Urban and is directed by Pete Travis.

Dredd (2012) is based on British comic book series 2000 AD, which began publication in the 70s. Wildly popular in Britain, the character has made it's way into American comic books as well, typically published by DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman.

The movie takes place in a future dystopian society where 800 Million people live in the remaining part of the United States that's still habitable. To house all these people in an area designed for a quarter that number, Megablocks are built. 200 stories of residences housing 75,000 people each. Most of the Megablocks end up being a breeding ground for unemployment, prostitution, gangs and drug trade. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie Judge Anderson (a psychic, played by Olivia Thirlby) respond to a call to the Megablock called Peach Trees, which is home to a new drug called Slo-Mo and is run by the MaMa gang. Slo-Mo is a drug that makes the brain think time is moving at 1% normal speed. When one of the MaMa clan who knows too much is captured by Dredd, the block gets shut down. MaMa (played by a barely recognizable Lena Headey) orders the entire block to hunt down and kill the Judges. Dredd and Anderson then need to find a way to survive while also trying to take the fight to MaMa herself. 

The property has been adapted for film once before. Judge Dredd (1995) starred Sylvester Stallone as the title character and it was pretty awful. Theme and tone of the film was way over the top. More importantly, the vast majority of the film has Stallone helmetless (the comic book character has never been seen without his helmet) and cast out of the Judges ranks, pretty much making it a standard Stallone actioner and not a Judge Dredd movie. The inclusion of Rob Schneider as comic relief only made matters worse. The owners of the character have since disavowed the film.

This time around, the movie stays much truer to the source material. In the opening sequence, we see Dredd suiting up to dispense justice for the day. Mostly in shadows, we see him put on the trademark helmet. It's never taken off again throughout the film. There is no first name given for Dredd nor any background. You get the sense right from the get go that Dredd isn't so much a person as he is a force for law and order in a city severly lacking both.

Karl Urban is cast as Dredd and does an admirable job with what he has. Sure, some of the dialogue is clunky and he's portraying a character pretty much devoid of emotion. Still, Urban is able to instill a sense of controlled intensity throughout the film. He never loses his cool but always seems like he's teetering just on the edge of it. Pretty impressive when you realize all of his acting had to take place without ever seeing his eyes. 

Olivia Thirlby is rookie Judge Anderson. She plays an orphaned psychic who actually failed the testing to be a Judge but, because she's the best psychic they've ever seen, she's given to Dredd to evaluate to see if she can make it on the streets. Thirlby isn't terrible in this, but she isn't great either.

The action is fast and violent. It starts early and never really lets up. This movie is not for the squeamish as there's quite a bit of blood and gore.  If you're a fan of the genre, you will not walk away disappointed.

Early in the film, the effect of slo-mo on someone is shown quite a bit. Initially, I was worried it was going to be overdone. Thankfully, the filmmakers wisely spent most of the second act focused on the action. I will say that, in seeing the movie in 3D in theatres, the slo-mo effect was one of the better uses of the technology that I've seen to date.

The look and feel of the movie is spot on. Gone is the spotless, spandex uniform worn in the 1995 film. Dredd's duds look like they've been to hell and back and so does he. The cityscape is done very well, making MegaCity One and it's Megablocks look just like any North American city might under the same circumstances. Peach Trees itself is a dull, dingy, 200 story ghetto that gets downright claustrophobic at times as the action moves from the ground floor all the way to the top.

The movie has it's flaws. As I've said, some of the dialogue is pretty corny, though it could've been a lot worse. The action scenes are fairly generic with nothing new brought to the table. The Anderson character is pretty much a throw away and didn't really need to be included in the film.

Despite it's flaws, though, this is a great action movie, a definite step up from it's predecessor and a fantastic adaption of a much beloved comic book character. It really is a shame it didn't fair well at the box office even with solid reviews as there is still a ton of story to be told here. Alas, I don't think we'll see a franchise develop.

4 out of 5 stars
Dredd (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Jan 01 2013
Rating: 4