Friday, December 6, 2013

Welcome to the Family

The Family stars Robert De Niro as mafia boss Fred Manzoni, whose family is relocated to a sleepy town in France under the witness protection program after snitching on the mob. However, assimilation is never easy for the Manzoni family. Despite the best efforts of CIA Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) to keep them in line, Fred and his family revert to their old habits and attract trouble along the way.

De Niro breaks no new ground in this role, but he plays what he does well, which is a mafia type role. This is a relief considering that he has been doing a lot of subpar projects in recent years. The Family even has some meta-humor thrown in with several references from past mob movies like Goodfellas, which also starred De Niro. This makes the movie even more enjoyable.

The Family is darkly comic, but most of the action and gun play does not come until the end of the movie. Director Luc Besson does not break any new ground with the film, but it is better than some of his latest. The other members of the family, which include Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, and D’Leo share some good chemistry with De Niro ,and it shows on the big screen. They all make for a very convincing family. In addition, Tommy Lee Jones brings some much-needed deadpan humor to the movie. The only factor this film lacks is a menacing villain. A truly frightening villain could have brought this film to a new level and increased the stakes for the Manzoni family. Nevertheless, the film still succeeds, and it is enjoyable for a September release. While this is not one of Besson’s best films, the strong performances and dark comedy help the film rise above your average mob movie.

The Family - 3.5/5

Giant Robots Vs. Big Monsters (Pacific Rim Review)

Pacific Rim takes inspiration from the elements of any material that involves giant creatures and robots. When monstrous creatures, known as Kaiju, start rising from the ocean, a war erupts that destroys cities and consumes humanity resources for years. The nations of the world come together to face this threat by building Jaegers. Jaegers are basically giant robots controlled simultaneously by two pilots whose minds are locked in a neural bridge. However, kaiju get stronger with each battle and the forces defending mankind must turn to two unlikely heroes – a washed up former pilot (Charlie Hunnam) and an untested trainee rookie (Rinko Kikuchi) – who are teamed to drive a legendary, but seemingly obsolete Jaeger. Together, they are mankind’s last hope against the upcoming apocalypse.

Pacific Rim is the latest film from visionary director Guillermo del Toro, who has directed films like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Devil’s Backbone. Pacific Rim is easily his most mainstream and blockbuster film. The large-scale battles between the Jaegers and Kaiju are spectacularly well done and are very thrilling. The designs of the creatures and robots are simply marvelous and stunning. The backstory involving the Kaiju, the mechanical details of Jaegers, and how society has become affected due to the Kaiju attacks is very fascinating. Basically, the film plays homage to monster movies, which is filled with anime inspired robots.

Nevertheless, while the film does satisfy on a visuals effects level, it is greatly lacking in substance. The story is rather weak and is filled with clich├ęs and generic plot points. Plus, while the cast is talented they are only playing stock characters, which are the norm in almost every other science fiction movie. In addition, while the film looks extraordinary, the majority of the battles take place at night, sometimes in the rain. While the battles are amazing in that setting, it does make it hard to keep up with the fighting sometimes. Despite those problems, it is still a fantastic movie.

While Pacific Rim is not completely groundbreaking, it is still a movie that is best experienced in theaters. The film is intriguing and action packed, but sadly the plot suffers from some lackluster storytelling and one-dimensional characters. However, it is a monster vs. robots type of story, so I cannot expect too much depth from it. If you liked the Transformers series, then you will definitely appreciate this movie.

Pacific Rim - 4/5

The Man of Steel Returns

Superman is the most iconic superhero in the world. Although you would not know it judging by the last several films released. It seems like the last great Superman film was Superman II, but that was nearly decades ago. Superman III was a joke, and the less said about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the better. Superman Returns, which was supposed to relaunch ended up falling flat despite its good intentions. So I was hesitant when Man of Steel was announced. I was even more apprehensive when Zack Synder was going to direct it. Synder knows how to direct action well, but his last two projects are mediocre at best. However, Christopher Nolan was a producer on the film, so I still had some optimism about the film. After seeing the film,I have to say that it greatly exceeded my expectations.

Everyone should know the origin of Superman, but here it is anyway. The planet Krypton is in ruins. After years of depleting the planet’s natural resources, the Kryptonians face imminent destruction. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara have given birth to their son Kal-El, which is Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries. Before Jor-El sends his son off to space, he implants him with the genetic codex of the entire Kryptonian race. Decades later Kal-El, now named Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), is living on Earth and trying to find his purpose in life. However, when General Zod (Michael Shannon), Jor-El’s old nemesis, comes looking for him, Clark must embrace his Kryptonian heritage and protect his adopted home world.

The movie is simply fantastic as it provides exhilarating action and spectacle. The frantic battle scenes in Man of Steel are some of the best I have ever seen. It even beats Iron Man 3, which came out earlier in May. Henry Cavill is a great Superman but still does not reach the same heights as Christopher Reeves. Cavill does not try to imitate Reeves, which is what Brandon Routh tried to do in Superman Returns. He puts his own spin on Superman, and it works for the most part. Amy Adams shines as Lois Lane because the script actually gives Lane something to do this time. She is not just the damsel-in-distress and actually contributes to the main plot.

The main problem I had with the film is the tone. Superman is supposed to be upbeat and inspiring, but at times the film can be dark and brooding. That kind of dark tone is okay for a Batman film, but Superman is supposed to be a little more uplifting. However, it still did not prevent me from liking the film.

Man of Steel is a great summer blockbuster with spectacular action, good performances, and it is definitely the best Superman film I have seen in a long time.

Man of Steel - 4.5/5

Oblivion Review

Oblivion is takes place in the year 2077, which is set 60 years after Earth is attacked by aliens known to humans as Scavengers. The humans and the aliens go to war, with the human race emerging victorious. Sadly the earth is left largely uninhabitable due to the moon being destroyed and the overuse of nuclear weapons during the war.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, a technician and one of the few humans stationed on the planet with the task extracting the earth’s remaining resources for the new planet called Titan, where the rest of the surviving humans have settled. He does this by fixing drones, which help drain the resources and are used as weapons. One day everything that Jack knows is brought to a halt when he discovers a beautiful stranger in the wreckage of a downed spacecraft. Jack is drawn to her arrival and it triggers a chain of events that makes him question everything he knows about his mission and himself.

Joseph Kosinski directs the film and it looks beautiful. It is a visually striking movie that portrays apocalyptic earth brilliantly. Of course, this is not a surprise considering that he also directed the visually stunning "Tron: Legacy". Although the drones look simplistic, they also give off a menacing vibe at the same time. Plus Tom Cruise gives a pretty good performance compared to his last several films.

However, this film suffers from the same problem that Tron: Legacy suffered from, which is that the film is stunning, but thinly scripted with weak characters. With the exception of Cruise, all of the actors are flat and undeveloped. It is especially disappointing that despite giving Morgan Freeman top billing, he is still given nothing to do.

Unfortunately, Oblivion ends up being an empty experience despite having flashy special effects and a good performance from Cruise. Kosinski will make a great science fiction film someday, but as long as he places special effects over character development his efforts will be mediocre.

Oblivion - 3/5

Iron Man 3 Review

The first Iron Man movie was an immediate blockbuster mainly due to the casting of Robert Downey Jr. The smooth-talking actor fitted the role of the eccentric billionaire and philanthropist turned superhero perfectly well. Iron Man 2 was not as good as the first one, but Downey Jr.’s performance still made the film bearable. However, in The Avengers, Downey Jr. shows that he is still one of the most beloved superheroes in film today.

Iron Man 3 takes place several months after the events of The Avengers. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the battle in New York presented in The Avengers. He seals himself off of the outside world and keeps building Iron Man suits to try to forget about the trauma. As a result, his relationship with girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) becomes strained. Soon, a terrorist who goes by the name of the Mandarin, (Ben Kingsley) starts a series of bombings that concern the American people. When Stark’s limo driver Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) gets injured in one of the bombings, he issues a televised threat to the Mandarin. Of course, things do not end well as Tony’s house in Malibu is destroyed, Pepper gets kidnapped, and he is left stranded somewhere in rural Tennessee with a low powered Iron Man suit. Now, Tony must overcome his demons and must find out: does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?

In the third installment of the Iron Man franchise, Shane Black takes over the director’s chair from Jon Favreau who previously directed the first two films. Black, who also co-wrote the script, is basically one of the pioneering screenwriters in the action genre for films like Lethal Weapon. He has previously worked with Downey Jr. in the very underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It is a good idea to bring in Shane Black because his style has a nice fit with Iron Man. Black draws a nice balance between action and humor. Naturally, it’s a Shane Black film so it takes place around Christmas. I think it is a nice touch because we never really see any superhero movies take place around the Christmas season. 

The action in this film is spectacular, and what makes it stand out is the fact that for most of the movie it is just Tony Stark. Tony’s armor is out of commission for a good chunk of the film, so he has to rely on his intellect and instincts. At its core, it is kind of like a detective story. In his battle against The Mandarin, Tony is forced to go on a full-tilt investigation, revisit crime scenes, dig through evidence and even interview witnesses. The scenes with Downey, Jr. and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) are very enjoyable. Black really taps into a Lethal Weapon type of relationship between these two characters.

However, I did have a couple of gripes about the film. Halfway throughout the film Stark teams up with a little kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins) while he is stuck in rural Tennessee to investigate the remains of a local explosion caused by The Mandarin. While Downey, Jr. and Simpkins play well off of each other I really did not understand why the kid needed to be in the story. Also Iron Man 3 was marketed as a story where Tony Stark would meet an opponent that would break him physically and mentally. The trailer made it seem like the film would be dark and gloomy. In reality the film basically had the same tone as the previous Iron Man films. I ultimately had no problem with it, but it felt like a classic bait-and-switch, which I do not care for. Speaking of bait-and-switch, there is a big twist involving the identity of The Mandarin. I did not like the twist, but fortunately the film did not suffer too much from it.
Iron Man 3 was not the superhero film I was expecting, but that is not a bad thing at all. It has surprising twists, thrilling action, good amounts of humor, and another flawless performance from Downey, Jr. Recently he signed another contract to appear in The Avengers 2 and The Avengers 3, but no word on whether he will be in another solo Iron Man film. If this is indeed the last Iron Man film with Downey, Jr. as the title character, then this was a great final solo outing despite its flaws.
Iron Man 3 - 4.5/5

42 Review

Brooklyn, we go hard.
I am not particularly a big fan of sports dramas. It is mostly because they are too formulaic and overly sentimental, but this movie is a notch above most of them. 42 is about the life story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the first African American baseball player to break the color line in Major League baseball.

The film focuses on Robinson’s first couple years in the big leagues. Robinson is recruited by Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to come over from the Negro Leagues to try out for the Dodgers. He spends his first season playing for the Montreal Royals, but the next year he is signed to the Dodgers and the rest is history.

Boseman turns in a fine performance as Jackie Robinson and really portrays all of the quiet strength and internal struggle that Robinson went through during his first major league baseball season. Boseman absorbs the role and you really believe that he is Robinson himself. Harrison Ford gives one of his most lively performances in years as the over-the-top baseball manager.

The director of the film, Brian Helegand, best known for penning Oscar winning films like L.A. Confidential and Mystic River does an adequate job with the film, but you can definitely tell that he is a better screenwriter than director. Events that sound epic on paper do not necessarily translate great on the big screen. It seems like Helegand wants every scene to be Oscar worthy when it is really not. The film does look good and he does direct the cast well, but it seems like at times he plays it too safe.

Plus while I liked Boseman’s performance, I would have liked to see more of Robinson’s background. For example, we never see Robinson’s days at UCLA and only see a tiny part as his days playing in the Negro Leagues.

42 is a good film, but it could have been a great one. It plays it too safe and is too old-fashioned for my tastes. If the film went a little deeper it could have been an early Oscar contender. However, 42 is still an earnest and respectful tribute to one baseball’s most iconic figures and will satisfy audiences.

42 - 4/5

Dark Skies Review

Writer and director Scott Stewart, who has made awful special effects extravaganzas like Legion and Priest goes the original thriller route this time around. However, Dark Skies is not really that original at all. The movie seems to be a compilation of bits and pieces of movies like Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Birds, and more. Since all the second-hand ingredients are delivered without much style or flair, the movie makes for a pretty insipid dish.

Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton play Lacy and Daniel Barrett, a couple whose world has been shaken ever since Daniel has lost his architect job. After a couple of weird, unsolved break-ins, their teenage son Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and his little brother, Sam (Kadan Rockett), start acting strangely. Sam insists “the Sandman” has come to visit them each night, and strange things keep happening to the family until they realize who the culprits are.

There’s nothing really new in this story, but the Stewart does initially get some mileage out of the economic anxieties reflected in the family’s descent. Russell and Hamilton actually do a good job and take their roles seriously, and this helps the emotional impact of the movie. The movie starts off strong, but for a while it just wanders around as the pace is tedious, and the action is not that thrilling. It’s really a pleasure when J.K. Simmons shows up as a wise paranormal expert, but it’s disappointing since he’s only in the movie for about five minutes.

Ultimately, Dark Skies is one of those mediocre genre mash-ups that really has no reason to exist and will be forgettable in a few months.

Dark Skies - 2.5/5