RoboCop (2014)

RoboCop (2014)Released: February 12, 2014. Directed by: José Padilha. Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Abbie Cornish. Runtime: 117 min.

In a time where remakes are a dime a dozen, MGM comes out with a remake of the 1987 cult-classic “RoboCop,” which isn’t nearly as good as the original, but who would expect it would be? I just can’t understand the notion why someone (José Padilha, in his Hollywood directorial debut) would want to remake a near-perfect film. At least this isn’t a poor film. Like the original, it follows police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman); a loving husband and father, and a good cop – something that seems to be hard to find in the corrupted 2028 version of Detroit. When he has a lead on the main villain of the film – Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow) – his car gets blown up. OmniCorp, a leading force in robotic technology, sees Murphy’s condition as the perfect chance to make the so-called RoboCop – half-man, half-machine.

The most refreshing thing about this remake is to see the new versions of the ED-209, where the advancements in filming technology is able to create some great robots; while the movement of the ED-209 in the original in film is just laughably bad. This also takes some liberties in altering the original source. In the original, Murphy is actually brain-dead, if memory serves me correctly. In this one, Murphy is kept alive, only receiving bad burns from the explosion. This way, it helps the film become a question of who’s control in the robot suit; the robot or the man? That aspect of the film isn’t that compelling. It’s okay at first, but it’s not entertaining as it can be when Alex’s control instincts are altered to be quicker in combat; bringing about the theme of freewill. One other part some might not like about the film is when Alex isn’t all there, and he experiences a shift in personality. From this, themes of consciousness come about.When Murphy becomes unlikeable for a stretch, it’s reminiscent of that stretch in “Spider-Man 3” when Peter becomes distinctly unlikeable because he’s been overpowered by the venemous substance.

Since the wife and child are present characters in this film, one would think the filmmakers would want Murphy to communicate with them; but for a fair deal of the film, that enjoyable aspect is taken away from this feature. This stretch is poor because Murphy doesn’t feel like a layered character anymore, he is simply RoboCop. Viewers can tell they are trying to make RoboCop more human this time around; because of the fact that Murphy’s face is shown largely throughout the film, and his guard mask only comes down in combat as protection. For me, I believe that if Clara (Abbie Cornish), the wife, and David (John Paul Ruttan), the son, are present – they should be there to communicate with Alex, build each other as characters, as well as being used to show Murphy’s humanity. Alex’s family is his drive to keep going. Joel Kinnaman portrays him believably; but he’s often too depressed in parts, too robotic and vacant in other parts, and by the time he says a classic line, the delivery feels so forced that the film might be better without it. Abbie Cornish also portrays a character affected by the whole situation, and her performance is enjoyable.

Some other positive aspects of this film are the visual effects, the explosive action and the suit design; the black is nice. The film is pretty entertaining even if some plot components feel a bit empty (particularly when Murphy is too robotic). One thing I do miss is the gore of the original. A lot of the times there is a gunshot and a random henchy just goes down for the count. Lame. There is some gore, but it’s not that enjoyable – it takes place in a hospital room, where we see what is left of Alex – his lungs, throat and head. It’s oddly compelling, but in a sickening way. The story isn’t nearly as engaging as the original, either, because the originals’ villains are much stronger. Who can forget Kurtwood Smith as one of the meanest cats around town? Also, what happens to Murphy to be put into the suit is more underwhelming because the motive for the hit is to just get him off the main criminal’s tail; I think, like in the original, no motivation to kill Murphy (unless you count sheer meanness as a motivation) is a much more terrifying idea.

Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Gary Oldman occupy supporting roles on the OmniCorp team. Keaton is Raymond Sellars, the mastermind behind OmniCorp; Gary Oldman is Norton, Murphy’s doctor; and Haley seems to be a weapons expert who makes sure everything is in tip-top-shape with the robots. Michael K. Williams portrays Murphy’s partner; I couldn’t help but wonder at some points what it would be like to see a black man in the RoboCop suit. Well, not just any black man, him in particular; because I find myself to be impressed by his acting capabilities, and I just can’t wait to see him in a leading role. Sam L. Jackson is another supporting character, portraying a TV personality who is present from time to time with developments on the Dreyfuss Act, which doesn’t let robots on American soil. At the story’s heart, this is really about how robots might be able to better an intensely corrupt Detroit, and, to a greater extent, the rest of the world if this test deems successful. It would decrease crime levels, but with robots occupying spots on the police force, one has to wonder how many jobs will be lost. How would the police officers make a living? Would there be a job waiting for them at OmniCorp? Just some food for thought, there, to finish off the review.

Score65/100

The Lego Movie (2014)

The Lego MovieReleased: February 7, 2014. Directed by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller. Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman. Runtime: 100 min.

“The LEGO Movie” isn’t just a great animated film, it’s filled with humour and satirical jabs at corporate America, namely the leader of the lego world being called President Business; the fact that if you’re on TV, people are going to listen to you; and coffee being priced at $37 for the public (here’s looking at you and your overpriced coffee, Starbuck’s). It’s a clever take on totalitarianism, a sort-of dictatorship where a leader has full control over a part of society. President Business (voiced by Will Ferrell) takes control by giving good citizens tacos, distracting citizens by a TV show called “Where’s my pants?” after he says “Non-behaving citizens will be put to sleep!” If that show wouldn’t be distracting, I don’t know what would be. He also keeps the people satisfied by a catchy song that literally plays on every radio station called “Everything is Awesome.”

How did the tyrannical President Business get into power, you might ask? In another realm of the LEGO universe (where he is known as Lord Business), he stole a super weapon called the Kragl from the master of all master builders, Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman), which grants him ultimate power. Before Business is able to take it, V speaks of a prophecy – a master builder who finds the piece of Resistance will come along and be the most talented, most brilliant and most important person ever and challenge Business’ plans to glue the universe together.

The person who fills this prophecy is not one that you might expect. He, Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a completely ordinary LEGO minifigure that looks like all the rest of the LEGOs, and he becomes the one to fill this prophecy completely by accident. There’s a charm about it because it’s so unexpected that the one will be so ordinary, making this feel like a subtle underdog story, at least to me. It boasts a message that everyone is special in their own way, even if you don’t think so at first. To all the master builders of the universe, this guy looks totally useless; mostly because he’s a victim of conformity in the realm Pres Business rules. Emmet’s favourite song is “Everything is Awesome,” his favourite TV show is “Where’s my pants?” and he follows instructions because he wants tacos. Building instructions helps Emmet, and otherwise, he doesn’t know what to do without them. (The difference between him and other master builders is funny because it’s hard for original thinkers to follow instructions, it seems).

Business is a clever ruler because by giving these people instructions, he doesn’t let them have a solitary original thought. He needs everything to be in tip-top-shape, and he asks for perfection at every turn, not letting anyone build anything that they want. I think a main message of the film is imagination, something the President doesn’t believe in, at all.

Since master builders can build something out of nothing, I think this film urges children all over the world to use their imagination and create cool LEGO structures, and use their imagination in other parts of life. To build something out of nothing, and it says that everyone can be a master builder if they want to be. I think there’s sheer brilliance in the idea that this world looks like it could be derived from the minds of children, but I don’t think the story would be as smart. The settings are just stunning and creative, and some might particularly like the animation used in the smoke, explosions and water. It’s a whole world made of LEGO, and it’s incredibly detailed (the great animation is thanks to Animal Logic) This film is, of course, also nice advertisement for the LEGO product, but it is a lot more layered than just a big toy advertisement like the “G.I. Joe” flicks or the blockbuster franchise “Transformers”.

The humour will keep both children and adults entertained, because writers and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have such referential and clever senses of humour. They reference things from “The Terminator” to “Clash of the Titans” to “The Godfather”, and one of the realm’s names is a clever play on the world in “The Lord of the Rings” franchise (Middle Zealand – a mash of Middle Earth and New Zealand, the filming location of those films). There are a lot of big laughs in this, and some spectacular action sequences, where teamwork is used; making this sort-of like the superhero teamwork movie many anticipate. I enjoyed this as much as I wanted to enjoy “The Avengers.” With the film’s humour, Lord and Miller are experienced to entertain both children and adults, by tackling animated movies (the two “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” films) and R-rated action comedies (“21 Jump Street”). The real charm about the Lord/Miller pair is that they keep surprising us with films that could be decent, but turn out to be pretty extraordinary; and this is no different. One character they created I was amused by is Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson), who plays to the Good Cop/Bad Cop strategy used by interrogators. He has a bit of a split personality, you can say, but I’ll let you watch that hilarity unfold for yourselves.

The other characters are great because they are great presences. Emmet is a relateable hero because he is so average, and his love interest Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) is great because they are so alike in ways. Other characters on the lovable LEGO save the world team include a crazed pirate called Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), an all-too positive cat with a unicorn horn called UniKitty (Alison Brie), 1970s Space Guy named Ben (Charlie Day) and the hilarious caped orphan himself, Batman (Will Arnett)! There are many other classic characters at the meeting of the Master Builders (ones from the DC Universe, among a lot of others), and they’re great cameos – but nothing more, really. It’s good because if they were more, the film would be too crowded. There’s enough characters and hilarity to keep the film moving at a brisk pace.

Score96/100

Pompeii (2014)

PompeiiReleased: February 21, 2014. Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson. Starring: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland. Runtime: 105 min.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson steps onto new territory for him with “Pompeii,” after directing a deadly fast car race (“Death Race”), aliens and predators (“AVP: Alien vs. Predator”) and mutated creatures (three of the “Resident Evil” movies). “Pompeii” has been described as a mix between “Gladiator” and “Titanic.” A good marketing statement considering those are both Best Picture winners; and successful at the box office, “Titanic” being wildly successful. It’s easy why people might think of “Gladiator,” because there are indeed gladiator scenes and it follows a gladiator; its “Titanic” connections are because of the class differences between the two lead love interests, and because this is a disaster film. But you know, this really doesn’t have as much Oscar potential as those two films.

Milo – a.k.a. The Kelt (portrayed by Kit Harington) – is a slave-turned-gladiator who comes to Pompeii to entertain the people with a fight to the death. He finds one thing in Pompeii that he was not anticipating; the love of the Princess of Pompeii, Cassia (Emily Browning). Cue the love triangle because corrupt Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) has his eyes set on her hand in marriage. Milo soon enough finds himself in a race-against-time to save Cassia, risking his life as Mount Vesuvius erupts, as Pompeii crumbles around him.

The fact that the relationship between Milo and Cassia is described as true love is funny considering the little they actually talk to each other. Because of that, this feels like a Disney fairy tale romance, but not particularly the charming kind. At least the relationship in “Titanic” is believable because they spend a lot of time together (enabled by the film’s runtime), but the couple here probably share twenty minutes of screen time; an hour or two real time. They’re likeable enough, but their chemistry is only okay because of that. Kit Harington is good in his role, as a slave-turned-gladiator who is the last of his villagers – the Horsemen. When he was young, he witnessed his fellow villagers be killed by Romans. Because of that his motivation is revenge, his love for Cassia, and survival. I can see some action movie star potential in him.

Emily Browning is good as Cassia, too; the pretty Australian portraying an independent woman who is put in an awkward position having to choose between an unhappy life, but good one where she’d get all she wants, with Senator Corvus; or choose a happy life with Milo, even if it doesn’t have guaranteed economic greatness. Love still seemed simpler in 79 A.D., at least the falling in love aspect of things. I mean, they hardly know each other; she’s just amazed by his kindness, and Milo sees a beautiful, independent woman. All just have to question the realism of the fictionalized romance.

Kiefer Sutherland sports a weird British accent that’s unidentifiable and inconsistent (mostly when he projects his voice) but he’s pretty good as the villain. Corvus came to Pompeii with plans of investing in the city of Pompeii, and he just happened to run into Cassia after they met in Rome. Coincidence? I think not. Anyway, Jared Harris and Carie-Anne Moss are patriarch and matriarch of royal family of Pompeii. The cast’s a good ensemble. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (TV’s “Lost”, “The Bourne Identity”) portrays Atticus, a fellow gladiator in the town of Pompeii who is one fight away from freedom. Freedom and survival is his drive, and I think he is the most interesting character out of the bunch. It’s funny, that even in non-prison movies – when a new gladiator (Milo, said to be the best) is on the block, he always gets challenged by big brutes. I find it funny.

The characters are fictionalized because the historical accuracies are based on a first-hand-account by Pliny the Younger. He couldn’t know these characters, and the relationship developments are so tailored for the big screen they couldn’t be true. I’m not saying the characters are bad, I’m just saying that if they didn’t have them, the volcano eruption would just be depicted on the Discovery Channel. People are coming to see this because it’s a disaster film with blockbuster visuals, great production design and sets that are built just so they could get destroyed; woo-hoo! It has one of the unwritten rules of disaster films; if the floor is crumbling, a character has to jump over it in a car (a horse in this case) in slow motion. I don’t think W.S. Anderson could resist doing that.

The gladiator scenes are actually exciting, too, sometimes brief – which I’m a fan of because if it’s a lesser villain against a main character, the audience knows who will win – so it’s nice that those fights don’t get dragged on. The editing during those scenes is good, not too quick and during some fights there are far away shots which I like. The disaster aspect of this is exciting (but it isn’t a fun disaster film like “The Day After Tomorrow” because, keep in mind, this is true) and it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the eruption by the end of it all; I learn there was an initial eruption on August 24, 79; and then another the next day that was much more powerful, even though in the film it’s depicted as a powerful one erupting, and then a few others eruptions as they try to escape. For the audience, the disaster aspect is about thirty or forty minutes I’d guess; in real time, this lasted about 25 hours.

Another inaccurate portrayal is that it only portrays Pompeii as the only city that’s affected; Herculaneum and Stabiae were also affected by the eruption, but only Pompeii is mentioned. And heck, I don’t even clearly remember the name of the volcano (Vesuvius) being said. The eruption is foreshadowed by the volcano bubbling, and by horses going crazy when earthquakes occur. In all, thirteen thousand people died from the eruption; and it all happened so fast, most citizens were cemented in place (because of the mix of rain and ash, turning them into statues so to speak) in their position until the site was uncovered in 1595, over 1500 years later! Fascinating, right? Anderson depicts this tragedy with accuracy as far as the disaster goes; using blockbuster visuals, a good score, and the great cast lifts a fairly weak surrounding story to good.

Score70/100

3 Days to Kill (2014)

3 days to killReleased: February 21, 2014. Directed by: McG. Starring: Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld, Amber Heard. Runtime: 113 min.

French writer and producer (sometimes director) Luc Besson is back at it again writing the story and co-writing the screenplay (with Adi Hasak) for “3 Days to Kill.” Music video director turned filmmaker McG takes over directing duties; tackling a bunch of genres in once that sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t. It’s part-actioner, part-drama, and part-comedy – and wow, that’s just too many genres at once for some directors. McG produces some great TV shows (“Supernatural,” “Nikita”) but the films he’s directed are usually only okay for me (I’ve only seen three of his – the two “Charlie’s Angels” flicks and “This Means War”); and his newest movie is fun and good for what it is: a generic actioner.

Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is a dying Secret Service agent who’s given three to six months to live because of a disease that starts out with a bad cough. When he learns of his fate, he decides to reconnect his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld). When he goes to Paris to visit them, he has to promise his wife that he’s done working for the Secret Service. He promises, but just his luck – a CIA operative named Vivi (Amber Heard) tasks him with taking down a notorious criminal called the Wolf (sadly, not the Wolf of Wall Street). He’s only given three days to take down the criminal for some reason that doesn’t get explained that well. My suspicion is that they just needed a title. If you blink at the beginning when they explain the criminal’s crimes, you’ll forget why he’s being hunted. If Ethan is able to kill Wolf within three days, he’s given the chance to receive an experimental drug that could save his life. On top of that, he’s trying to reconnect with his daughter. Since he didn’t call before going to visit them, the wife is going away for business. He has to act as a babysitter for the time being.

Film Review 3 Days To KillAs you can tell, it’s a lot for McG to juggle. With this film, I think he expresses that he is perfectly competent to direct actioners, some big laughs and even some decent drama – but put it all in a blender and shove it into one film, it ends up being a decently fun, but tonally uneven actioner. There’s enough action to entertain fans of Besson’s work, and it’s at least better than “Taken 2.” It’s going to entertain action fans outside of his fanbase, too; and we should all just be thankful that he resists the urge to put Zoey into mortal danger and get kidnapped. The action is a bit generic, but I’ll admit, I say that about a lot of action movies! It’s just difficult for an action film to be not generic these days, because components of this plot feels like it’s been done in “Crank.” The editing is dizzying and too quick during some of the action scenes, but otherwise decent in the dramatic sequences. When Ethan is dizzy because of his disease, the cinematography is shaky and has that drug-induced haze about it (if you know what I mean) – so that’s fine because that’s the point. These temporary dazes happen at climactic times all too convenient for the villains.

The reason why this is tonally uneven is because it goes from one scene where he is in his bathroom using the PG-13 version of torture (ripping tape from a man’s armpit, ouch!) on a suspect that could lead him to the Wolf, and he’s called to visit his daughter’s school because she got in a fight.There are a lot of scenes like that, where you can tell an action scene is on the way by the score; but it gets interrupted by a call from the daughter. Is the film trying to express that children are annoying little shits, and that parenting is difficult? It seems like it. Regardless of the tonal shifts, I think this is a fun movie with some good laughs. Costner and Steinfeld share a few good scenes that show the struggles of reconnecting, and when there’s sweetness – it’s much more pleasant than the daughter being sour towards her father. The two stars share a great chemistry, and they elevate their respective characters to a finer level. Costner’s chemistry with Connie Nielson is just fine; there’s a much bigger focus on the father-daughter relationship. The film expresses how much of an impact being in the Secret Service can have on one’s relationships; because one has to put their needs in front of their own by keeping them out of danger. More on Costner: It’s nice that he’s staying busy in action movies, already being in two in 2014 thus far. This one as the secret agent doing the killings; the first one, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” as the recruiter/mentor – giving people the intelligence to do their jobs well.

3 DaysAmber Heard takes on that role here, always sporting a different hairstyle in each scene. Either she was going through from serious identity issues herself while filming, or she’s just trying to stay way undercover. She gives off a dark and mysterious vibe, where many won’t be able to tell if she’s a protagonist or an antagonist throughout. She’s decent, but she’s probably present for the sex appeal. She gives Ethan his orders, but the fact why he must kill this guy within three days is so bloody forgettable, that it just squanders some have high-stakes intensity it might have had.

Heard’s character shows up at random times to check in, but there’s a lot of other random crap going on in this flick. Ethan has an obsession with this purple bike he intended to give to Zoey as a present, where McG feels the need to present a montage of Ethan riding it home. One other main, and random sub-plot concerns a family of squatters in Ethan’s apartment. They’ve made themselves comfortable, and it seems that they’ve been occupying his apartment for a few months, probably more. Ethan’s relationship with the squatters might be to portray his humanity – but his love for his wife and daughter does that enough; so it’s rather redundant. I learn that squatting is an issue in Paris, so it is an accurate portrayal – but with the already crowded plot, Luc Besson’s socio-economical comment (making more people aware of it) in the film is another thing that feels out of place.

Score58/100

Her (2013) Review

HerReleased: January 10, 2014 (wide release). Directed by: Spike Jonze. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson. Runtime: 126 min.

Love is sometimes a strange, but such a beautiful thing. Oftentimes, one can’t help who they love romantically – the heart wants what the heart wants, as some say. In “Labor Day,” Kate Winslet’s Adele falls in love with a fugitive (weird), and in “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore falls in love with his operating system (even weirder). Yet, the dynamic in the sappy former has been done to death; the dynamic in “Her” is quirky and charming, and totally new. This film follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely writer in Los Angeles recovering from a recent divorce with his ex Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theo develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that is designed to meet his every need.

Theo’s operating system is named Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. In the ad for the OS1, it is said to not only be an operating system, but a consciousness. She’s an artificial intelligence with a programmed personality that is very charming. Since Samantha in new to the world, she has a refreshing perspective about everything – and she gets excited about all the little things, and she wants to know what it’s like to be alive. Sam may not have a face, but Johansson portrays emotions well with her compassionate voice, and the wonder that is apparent through it. I think the really crappy thing for Phoenix is that he actually doesn’t get to have a sex scene with, you know, Johansson’s body. If I were Phoenix, that’d piss me off to no end!

I think Jonze thinks of a creative dynamic to solve that whole no body problem. At least he doesn’t think of a similar way to “Movie 43,” where there’s a human version of an iPod called the iBabe, that’s a hot girl who plays music. And when a lonely guy buys it, and it’s a realistic hot girl, you know how that’s going to turn out. Let’s count our blessings this isn’t a story about that, and by the way all, I’m sorry to remind you of that bad film. Speaking of lonely guys, Samantha is a great thing for Theo because it seems to me the OS1 is a great way to reduce loneliness because these artificial intelligences are funny and they have charming personalities (that are based on personalities of programmers), so it seems like incredible company. Theo has also been in a bit of a dark place lately after his divorce (he is skeptical to sign his divorce papers because it further symbolizes a chapter in one’s life closing), and he hasn’t been having enough fun lately. He’s an everyday character because of his fear for real emotions, and he’s relateable – and he’s embodied so well by Joaquin Phoenix, and it’s a real joy to watch him experience new things with the help of Sam. He’s such a likeable character that you really root for him, even though he’s in a bittersweet romance that is way worse than trying out long distance.

Her 1It’s an uplifting story that love can bring someone out of their shell, and since he writes letters for couples; he gets way more into in his work when he is in a relationship. One would think such a likeable guy deserves love. The characters help the quirky film always entertain and often sadden, making it a great blend of romance, science fiction, drama and comedy. It’s a science fiction because of the artificial intelligences and futuristic technology and it’s a comedy because it makes the audience laugh a lot with its unique sense of humour. I think it has a great blend of drama and comedy, often blending the two genres (and adding in some intensity in scenes) and one might not expect the chemistry between a man and an operating system to be so great, but it truly is. Spike Jonze is the right person to make such a unique story come to life, because it breathes new life into all of these genres.

Another thing that helps bring this story to life is the incredible score that rouses emotions, a primary objective of film’s scores; and there’s some great music, here, too. It’s also brought to life by great editing, beautiful settings and cinematography. I think some people might be offput by this film’s great premise, because, admittedly, it is a bit strange – but myself, I was hooked when I first heard of it. It’s just so brilliantly original. One other character I haven’t mentioned is Amy Adams’ character, Theo’s best friend – a documentary filmmaker named Amy.

In one scene she is discussing an idea for a documentary about her mother simply sleeping, posing the idea that people are at their most free when they are dreaming (meaning we don’t have to deal with the real world,  and we take a break from it); Samantha also says a line where she wonders if her personality is just programming or if her feelings are real, which made me think of humans. Sometimes I wonder if people are legitimately feeling their emotions, faking them, or like they’re just on auto-pilot and going through the motions of feelings, if you see what I mean by that. It seems to me that technology is diminishing some of our social capabilities in that perspective, and technology is advancing so much that we don’t have to deal with human interaction as much as we used to; which contributes to Theo’s fear of real emotions. These two quotes are directly linked together, and Jonze uses them to make a smart and honest assesment of humans.

One other hidden meaning that I picked up on was that this whole human-operating system relationship might be a whole new sort-of sexuality (for a lack of a better word) that gets talked about around the office in hushed tones. Is this a new thing society will have to accept in the future, if this sort-of relationship ever comes about? Falling in love is said to be, by Adams’ character, a socially acceptable insanity; but could this be accepted by most? All I know, this premise makes for a thought-provoking, original and special film.

Score100/100

In Secret (2014) Review

In SecretReleased: February 21, 2014. Directed by: Charlie Stratton. Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange. Runtime: 101 min.

Note: I saw this way back in September at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere, I just forgot to post my review of this.

“In Secret” is a period piece that has a lot of history behind it. It is classical French literature written by Emile Zola, and this version is adapted by Charlie Stratton, from that novel and the play by Neal Bell. It’s great to see a movie that feels so fresh, yet has so much history behind it – it’s been around for ages!

Elizabeth Olsen takes on the challenging role of Therese, a woman who is haunted by her own personal demons after an unspeakable act. She is forced into a marriage to her cousin Camille (Tom Felton) by her despicable aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange). When they move to Paris to open up a shop, Therese meets Laurent (Oscar Isaac), someone who might just be her way out. What happens next introduces themes of betrayal, murder, adultery and guilt.

“In Secret” is a fascinating character study. I can see why it’s such a cherished novel; compelling yet deeply unsettling. Therese is sent to live with Madame Raquin and Camille after her mother dies, and she is basically treated as a servant girl, but perhaps near-servant girl was the role of young women in 1860s Paris. Camille tries his best to make her happy. It makes for some incredibly uncomfortable, yet HILARIOUS, scenes. It’s great to see such comic relief in such a sordid ordeal. Since I am not familiar with the source material, I have no idea if this is an adaptation that stays true in tone. All I know, it’s immensely enjoyable.

The comic relief mostly comes from two characters: Olivier (Bridesmaids’ Matt Lucas) and his wife, Suzanne (Shirley Henderson), and the humour is just priceless. Interestingly enough, Henderson was the oldest woman to portray a student in the “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (and “Goblet of Fire”) as the ghost who haunts the first floor girl’s lavatory, Moaning Myrtle. Her voice is very distinctive. It’s a bit of a reunion for Malfoy and her.

Initially, the character of Therese gains our sympathies, because this seems like a horrible life. After the acts she commits, she wrestles with receiving the audience’s repulsion and sympathies. At the beginning, it was a bit gross to see her marrying her cousin – but she was forced. For the half of the film, Madame Raquin gains more of our sympathies than Therese. Jessica Lange is such a powerful actress, she can easily portray emotions through her eyes – that’s talent. Some of the comic relief members of the cast portray characters that aren’t bright enough to understand the look of fear. It’s a clever way to get a few big laughs. Jessica Lange is a strong supporting, but Elizabeth Olsen brings such power to the role of Therese. It’s such a treat to watch an Olsen who can truly act.

Stratton’s vision is impressive. The primary cast is all around impressive. There are surreal scenes that are as compelling as they are terrifying. Their roles are fascinating, and it’s a great tale of how guilt can eat a person alive. It does raise one primary question in my eyes: How far would you go to live a possibly happier life? It brings other poignant and eerie thoughts to mind, but I better not spoil them.

Score88/100

Winter’s Tale (2014) Review

Winter's TaleReleased: February 14, 2014. Directed by: Akiva Goldsman. Starring: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe. Runtime: 118 min.

“Winter’s Tale” is a story about destiny. It also has spirit guides in the form of flying white horses. That’s the first hint that it has a larger focus on the fantasy aspect of it, and it’s almost like a fairy tale with all of its themes. There’s an idea proposed that when people die, they don’t go up to Heaven per sé but they go up into a place in the sky, where their souls become the stars that we see at night. The film also proposes the idea that everyone has one miracle within them to give to someone else. This is the story of Peter Lake’s miracle.

Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is an ordinary thief who is running from a mob of fancily dressed folks at the beginning of the film, led by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). He escapes them by hopping on a flying white horse and proceeds to wander the streets until his fancy horse stops in front of a big house. He decides to go into the house with intentions to rob the house, but instead falls in love with a young dying heiress who lives there, named Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). He loves her deeply and when he learns he has the gift of reincarnation, he sets out to save her.

The film also expresses the idea that light connects everything. The dying heiress Beverly in one scene is talking about this in what at first seems like a crazy daze, that the sicker she gets she sees that light connects everything. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, is why some might ask “What are you going on about?” The villain of the film also likes light, a master thief who really likes pebbles and fancy stones. It’s because when he puts the dish full of pebbles against the window it makes a funny holographic psychic shape… Or something like that? Anyway, some might legitimately think he’s a tall leprechaun because of his fascination with all the valuables, and since there are flying horses, it wouldn’t be far-fetched for him to ride a horse to the end of the rainbow.

Pretty colours! Pretty colours!
Pretty colours! Pretty colours!

Well, he’s not a leprechaun but he’s a demonic evil boss that you certainly wouldn’t want. The higher power he works for is played by a surprise actor one wouldn’t expect in the role, but do yourselves a favor, and if you wanted to be surprised, don’t browse beyond principal cast of the film on websites. Pearly leads his large group of other fancily dressed thieves who wear suits and those black bowl hats, the ones that Charlie Chaplin would wear. He’s a god-awful villain who has been “blackening souls and crushing miracles” for as long as he remembers. Crowe is a really good actor who makes do with the laughably bad dialogue he’s given; and he deserves praise for delivering some of his lines with a straight face. But I do wonder why he didn’t question the silliness of head-butting Farrell repeatedly in the face. He’s in this sorta bounty hunting business again after his turn in “Les Miserables,” but at least he didn’t have an awful accent in that one, but we should be thankful he’s not singing his stupid lines in this one. Why these folks want to crush miracles and have such a problem with goodness happening isn’t really explained. But all we have to know is this guy is evil and he has a bone to pick with Peter Lake.

They might intend to capture our hero, but don't they look dapper?!
To capture an enemy, you must dress well.

The way it shows good vs. evil is through, at least one way that I picked up on, the different colours of horses. Peter rides a white one, Pearly has a black one. Anyway, the romance between Peter and Beverly is heartwarming; but it’s elevated to another greater level by the performances given by Farrell and Findlay. The disease Bev has is consumption; and she can never let her body heat get too high. It’s a bit of a pity that their romance is great and that the story in general can be so laughably awful. I found myself laughing in scenes that were supposed to be serious, but it’s so poorly written many can’t take it seriously at all. This is one of the most unintentionally funny films I’ve seen in the past few years; so if you want to see it for a laugh, give it a shot. There are five occasions where, even though it’s not a comedy, I was laughing my ass off – and I mean, when it’s laughably bad, it’s hilarious. There are some profoundly heart-warming scenes, but so much of this is profoundly stupid. I mean there’s some CGI effects that make people’s faces all evil-like and there’s one character who, when he’s finished talking, viciously turns off the light above his head. How silly. I think this is my early favourite for the “so bad it’s almost good” movie of 2014.

The idea that everything is connected by light is just too uninspired for me, and Pearly’s motivations to get rid of Lake are stupid and uninspired, too. There are some good aspects. I like the performances by Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay; I think their chemistry is electric. The cinematography for this part period-piece is quite great; but it seems like the authour Mark Helprin intended this to be a mythical New York, and it looks pretty ordinary to me. It seems like that is writer/director’s Akiva Goldsmith’s fault with that aspect. (I might give the book a shot, this seems like it’d be good in different hands.) The third act is heartwarming, and the film’s finest stretch.

This is where Jennifer Connelly’s character is introduced late in the film. The film starts in 1914, but Lake meets her in the year 2014 making the fantastical flick span a whole century. What Lake did for those one hundred years with no memory is what I’d like to know. Job interviewers would say: “What’s your name? Do you have any references?” He’d answer “I don’t know” to both, and never get hired. And what I’d like to know is if Lake is human or if he’s a supernatural being? And why does Lake have an Irish accent if he was raised in Brooklyn? Pearly’s accent surely couldn’t be influential if it’s so awful, right? These are things that would be simple to explain, but we never get that convenience.

Score50/100

February 14-18 Box Office Predictions

On this long weekend, for new films are being released. The remake of a 1987 action classic “RoboCop” (released on Wednesday); “Endless Love” a romance flick starring Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde; “Winter’s Tale” starring Colin Farrell;” and another 80s remake with Kevin Hart, “About Last Night.”

The original “RoboCop” has a big fanbase as a cult classic, because it’s so gory and awesome. The remake looks like it could be good, but my hopes aren’t that high for it, because sometimes remakes aren’t so great. People love their robots, and the similar movies opening average is an ode to that, standing at $40.88 million. It seems to me that “RoboCop” will do numbers around Real Steel’s $27.3 million opening. My prediction for this film is $28 million for the four-day weekend.

Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde seem like a good enough fit as a couple for this weekend’s “Endless Love.” It seems like a traditional romance flick, so I’m a bit more excited for the romantic fantasy movie “Winter’s Tale” and the comedy “About Last Night” because of Kevin Hart. Anyway, similar films open at an average $14.77 million. This looks like it could have a similar opening to last year’s “Safe Haven,” so I’m predicting the four-day weekend at a bit less at $19.5 million.

“Winter’s Tale” intrigues me. It stars Colin Farrell, Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe. Similar movies open at $11.28 million. The director is Akiva Goldsman in his directorial debut on the big screen, but he’s written “A Beautiful Mind” (winning an Oscar for his screenplay) and “Cinderella Man,” so hopefully he brings his A-game to the screenplay since he has such an impressive resumé. My prediction is $18 million for the four-day weekend, because the buzz hasn’t been very large.

The last new release is “About Last Night” starring Kevin Hart, who broke records in January with a huge opening from “Ride Along.” This movie also stars “Scary Movie” vet Regina Hall. Similar films open at $19.6 million. I think this will do well this weekend because it’s been marketed well and it has a bankable star, so a second place opening behind The LEGO Movie‘s holdover seems likely. I’m predicting this at $32 million for the four-day weekend.

Which new films are you seeing this weekend? Are you like me and going to see “The LEGO Movie” because you missed it last weekend? Share your opinions in the comments! And happy Valentine’s Day to all!

The Monuments Men (2014)

the monuments menReleased: February 7, 2014. Directed by: George Clooney. Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray. Runtime: 118 min.

“The Monuments Men” follows a platoon of unlikely heroes at the end of the Second World War who are tasked with retrieving art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their rightful owners. It’s a story about not letting culture die, because if all of this art is to be destroyed, that’s one less piece of history to state that the culture that made it existed.

I think this raises cool cultural ideas because history is an interesting thing, especially seeing and knowing how a culture evolves over time. I’m sure that’s what inspired the real life characters to be a part of this platoon. It’s an educational feature because I hadn’t realized that the Nazi’s stole so much art. The lengths these generically developed characters went through to try to get the art back makes for an okay film.

It’s billed as an action-drama but there’s a limited amount of action throughout, and only a few brief exchanges of artillery, which I find to be a defining trait for any war film. Since that is the case, any action fans out there who are looking for a good war movie with lots of action should seek entertainment elsewhere with the gritty “Lone Survivor.” That one at least has good characters, too. The drama’s okay when it’s happening, but there’s a lot of comedy so its sometimes goofy tone and sometimes serious tone is what makes this have a poor tonal balance.

Director George Clooney is just too eager to please with this one, because he adds so much funny banter it makes many scenes feel quite goofy. I’m one for comic relief in dramas, but the comedy takes too much precedence here for a film billed as a wartime drama, and there are even a few scenes that don’t complement the story, and could just be seen as mere opportunities for the actors to remind us that they can be funny every once in awhile. The scenes are funny, but it leaves me thinking “Well, it might have been funny, but how pointless was that?” There is also one scene that’s pointless, but not that funny, it just feels hollow. Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who seems to be Viktor Stahl’s secretary. Stahl is one of the Nazis responsible for hiding the art, and when Claire spots him moving the art to another location via a train, she says “I see you Stahl!” He looks at her, hops on the train and starts shooting at her as it’s going along. Well, he’s not going to hit her at the distance they are from each other; so is he trying to be menacing, or is he just trying to lighten his gun for no apparent reason?

At least the humour hits when it isn’t too predictable, and they have to spice up a plot so simplistic somehow, if there’s not much action going on and if the characters aren’t the best overall. It’s difficult to remember what exactly their role is within the platoon, but they are introduced at the beginning of the film at their work – in one of those early-on recruiting sequences. Clooney is simply the leader of the platoon, the Lieutenant. Hugh Bonneville portrays a man named Donald Jeffries, who gets the most character development as a recovering alcoholic. Matt Damon portrays a painter who is best characterized as a man who cannot speak French to save his life, as the French person he speaks to tells him to speak in English after two sentences.

As previously mentioned, Cate Blanchett’s Claire is Stahl’s secretary, and also a valuable intelligence source. Bill Murray portrays an architect but really only gets depicted as a guy who likes to tease Bob Balaban, who looked like he was directing a stage play in his recruiting scene where George Clooney just sits behind him smiling. John Goodman portrays Walter Garfield, a sculptor who might as well just be the Funny Guy. Jean Dujardin plays a character I’d just refer to as The Guy Who Can Actually Speak French. The cast does their best because they all do get a few laughs in, and it’s quite an ensemble; but when their characters are generic like this, it’s hard not to think that a certain few (Clooney and Damon in particular) are surprisingly phoning in their performances.

To me, this feels like a film with a clear A to B plot. Only a few surprises, a few brief action scenes, but enough humour to keep viewers mildly entertained throughout. The tonal choice to be serious at times, and often too goofy, is fatal. I don’t know if Clooney intended to make this part caper part wartime drama feel as goofy with its humour as “National Treasure” (a fun movie) at times, but that’s the result. Compared to his [Clooney’s] other works as a director, this is disappointingly sub-par.

Score55/100

Vampire Academy (2014)

vampire academyReleased: February 7, 2014. Directed by: Mark Waters. Starring: Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Danila Kozlovsky. Runtime: 104 min.

“Vampire Academy,” based on the novel of the same name by Richelle Mead (adapted by Dan Waters, writer of “Heathers”), follows a young woman, the wild and dangerous Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch). She’s a Dhampir, half human/half vampire who is sworn to guard the Moroi, peaceful vampire race living within our world. She protects her best friend, princess Elissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), the last in the Dragomir line. She protects her from the race of evil vampires that kill humans to survive – the Strigoi. They’re merciless and they’re the stuff of our nightmares, the ones that die by a stake to the heart. Their eyes are very red, so they look as if they had a crappy night’s sleep or they’re simply high as a kite. Rose also protects her bestie from the dangers of high school, where Lissa is being tormented by arbitrary threats to leave the school, or else.

Even though these high schoolers are vampires, they’re very alike to everyday human high schoolers, and one might even suggest they’re boring since they’re so normal. Like every other high school, vicious rumours arise – like the rumour that when Lissa and Rose were on the run for a year, Elissa had to drink Rose’s blood to survive for so long. Director Mark Waters is familiar with such dynamics of high school life by directing 2004’s “Mean Girls,” a film with great humour and clever dialogue. This time, the humour’s okay when it’s actually funny, and just because a vampire film is aware of things like “Twilight” (Rose mentions that vampires don’t sparkle in the sunlight) and iPhone 5’s to indicate an often meta and pop-culturally relevant sense of humour, doesn’t mean it’s always clever.

It’s so relevant, it has a whole lot of high school romance drama going on. Mead writes in the fact that Rose (supposed to be 17 years old, but in dialogue I could swear Dimitri says she is 20) has a crush on her older guardian trainer Dimitri Belikov (Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky), but her guy best friend Mason (Cameron Monaghan) is crushing on her. That relationship is meaningless this time around, but it depicts all the romances of high school. I imagine the relationship grows to something stronger as the Vampire Academy series goes on,  but I’m not sure if a sequel will happen given its poor box office performance, us movie fans who won’t read the books aren’t going to see the relationship grow. It doesn’t matter to me that the series won’t continue on-screen, because while this isn’t a bad high school/vampire flick, it’s not a very good one, either.

Mostly because the plot is rough around the edges. There’s only an arbitrary villain behind the curtains threatening the safety of the characters, making this a capable mystery. The rest is just a traditional high school flick, really. Lissa’s relationships with the opposite sex is partly a love triangle. She likes this dark and mysterious vampire named Christian Ozera who’s a little more Damon Salvatore on “The Vampire Diaries” than Edward Cullen. The thing they share in common is that both of their parents died. Ozera’s parents turned themselves into Strigoi (to do so, a Moroi has to entirely drain a human of their blood) and were then killed by guardians. Lissa’s parents (and brother) were killed in the opening scene in a car crash (they were hit head-on by a drunk driver) where only herself and Rose survived.  The scene might have been a bit more powerful if the opening song (M.I.A’s “Bad Girls”) wasn’t such a distraction to me tonally, because when a vampire flick opens up with a pop song like that I think “Oh god, what have I signed up for?” But this is often more a high school movie in more than a few ways.

Anyway, Lissa wants to date Aaron for “so high school” reasons, to become popular and be accepted again. The popularity she confuses for power makes her mean at points, making her and Rose be at each other’s throats at times. (Get it?) That’s another thing that reminded me of a popular vampire show, this time “True Blood,” when Rose wants to get her attractions for Dimtri out of her system – she hooks up with a generic Moroi, who I think is named Jesse (Ashley Charles, a Robert Pattinson looking guy) where he says “A bite during sex is awesome.” If I wanted a film to remind of so many other vampire shows and films, I would have just watched those. This is still okay for what it is, because it’s mildly amusing and there’s some fun to be had.

The best friend relationship between Rose and Lissa is depicted well because they have a good chemistry. Lucy Fry (Lissa) is impressive in one scene, graceful and okay for the rest of the film. Deutch is a good fit for Rose, she’s a bit more sexy, witty and kick-ass than the actual film itself, and I can see the charismatic potential in her. As for the bond between Rose and Elissa, there are several scenes where Rose’s eye color changes from brown to a pretty orange hazel, signalling that she can see through Elissa’s mind to see what she is seeing. She can watch her dreams like a TV show. It’s cool in ways, because it will really help Rose as a guardian, but it could be considered a too convenient plot device. The rest of the cast is just okay for me, Sarah Hyland (as the nerdy Natalie, not hot Haley on TV’s “Modern Family”) and Olga Kurylenko (as the school’s Headmistress) have supporting roles, and the only veteran actor in sight is Gabriel Byrne (from “The Usual Suspects). Byrne looks like he has aged ten years because of a disease his character has, so that’s worth mentioning to get the make-up artists some praise.

As a comedy, the film works to some effect – it isn’t consistently funny, but there are a few times I laughed out loud and there is a one-liner I won’t forget any time soon. Some shots at comedy where the target audience might laugh, might make critics and audience members dragged to it by dates groan. Me, I was mostly smiling and sometimes laughing out loud, and I’m not the target demographic, so that’s an okay sign. As an action movie, it’s often predictable but the Dhampir training sequences are good, and there are two decent action sequences. The cinematography is shaky during some action scenes, which is something I don’t like about action movies because it makes it hard for me to concentrate on whatever is happening on-screen.

The high school aspects are depicted well by Mark Waters, just not to the same effect as “Mean Girls.” You can’t really expect it to be, even though the personalities are the same, these girls and guys just have fangs. Except the Dhampir guardians who seem much more human than vampires, I think they’re just human with incredible strength and training. As for a high school movie, something that might have been clever would have been that, instead of a water fountain, Lissa should drink from a blood fountain in one scene. It would be worth the smile if that were the case; but St. Vladimir Academy does have volunteers for the students who let them feed from their arms, which is where they get their blood to drink.

The Dhampirs train throughout the day because sunlight doesn’t phase them, and the Moroi learn at night. The peaceful vampire race have fangs, but they also have elemental magic (they choose to manipulate either air, earth, fire or water). The races created by Mead are intriguing, because she’s made the Moroi vampires and wizards/airbenders; making me wonder if they should be attending St. Vlad’s, or if they should just go to Hogwarts. We are shown the students learning magic more often than they are at learning techniques of drinking blood, or whatever vampires are taught in school these days.

Score: 55/100