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The Walk

This Is Life!
If there was ever a worthy utilization of 3D on that prodigious silver screen, it's The Walk. The appearance of another studio film trying to capitalize on an incredible true story–one that was already satisfyingly revealed, no less, in the awe-inspiring 2008 documentary: Man on Wire— was certainly working against this production, only baiting the cynics in their preparation to deride the typical inaccuracies and manipulations. Surprisingly though, The Walk is truly laudable due to its utter respect for this legendary wire-walker named Philippe Petit—a man that gave us the show of a lifetime by daring to walk a tight wire from one of the twin towers to the other; actually, scratch that, maybe even two or three lifetimes.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt inhabits this eccentric character with the utmost dedication and methodology, livening every element of the individual with a remarkable magnitude of authenticity whether it's the perfection of a thick French accent, or even his pronunciations when he's actually speaking the language for extended periods of time. He's clearly working with such a burden here, and at the same time, he's also infusing the maximum dose of charisma into this character. Pleasantly observe the totally natural French-like mannerisms he subtly permeates into his confrontational arguments with those around him–friends who're incessantly vexing him with their distrust in this insane stunt he's so eager to pull. Thanks to the support of an exceptional cast—including the lovable James Badge Dale; the great Ben Kingsley; an unfamiliar, refreshing actress in Charlotte Le Bon; as well as all the other cohorts and their comic relief next to them—strengthens Levitt's energy on the screen that much strongly.

It's a gripping portrait of artistic obsession—that inability to admit defeat even in the face of impossible odds. Perhaps, sometimes,the more incensed and impatient side of this otherwise amiable guy might be exposed, but once he finally reaches the roof of the southern twin tower with mounds and mounds of imperative (daredevil) equipment, you want this for him almost as much as he does. Thus, it becomes an undeniably fun caper with a mischievous score that recalls the audacity of Ocean's crew. Subsequently, a beautiful, soaring score greets us as the vastness of the city and the romantic posture of the horizon comes into view on the roof; if Phillip falls, it would surely be a glorious death. Inevitably but understandably, some doubt the necessity of a documentary remake. In this case, what was frankly unclear throughout those interviews was lucidly visualized here. Vague descriptions and mappings could only take your imagination so far, which is why veteran director Robert Zemeckis prioritizes absolute audience involvement by implementing suspenseful excitement into sequences that see this group break in past security, maintaining feverish pacing in the process.

But, of course, what we're really here for is the sheer potential of incredible thrills from the famous wire-walking. As I've hinted at previously, this is an absolute must-see in IMAX 3D just like Avatar and Gravity were. The beauty of Paris and New York City are greatly enhanced in all their lavish detail, and the depth in those daunting shots that look down from lofty heights makes the experience drastically more immersive. As the camera glides from the top of a tower down to the very streets of New York, you could almost feel that rush. The Walk finds every possible technical maneuver in amping up the audience's anxiety during these scenes–close-ups of Phillip's sweat or carefully- placed feet balancing on a slightly vibrating rope, followed by the camera's panning and circling around Petit's various tricks on the wire which only increase in difficulty.

Essentially, this film has achieved an astonishing feat in wholly justifying a cinematic retelling of the true story. With that being said, there are details that're over-dramatized as can be expected from a Hollywood production in order to build superficial tension, or even those that're fictionally inserted to give a scene the fullest dramatic effect. Occasional moments remind us we're only watching a movie after all, whether it's some inspirational dialogue or the predictable action beats like someone tipping over at the worst time. Overall, its rare (live-action) PG rating allows the whole family to attend and enjoy the classic thrills, the frequent humor, and the ravishing vistas—what a charming feast!

Black Mass

Yes, Gangsters Are Actually Terrifying!
Black Mass, Hollywood's newest mafia entry directed by Scott Cooper, follows the true story of Boston's baleful phantom during the 70's and 80's: Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp). Hearing his name now just chills you to the bone. The film commences with an FBI interrogation with one of Bulger's crewmen, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), and as the conversation carries on, it slowly builds up to finally saying that name. "I need to know everything you know about the Winter Hill gang…and, specifically, what you know about your former boss…and now fugitive… JAMES WHITEY BULGER." As soon as you hear his name uttered in such a solemn tone—mixed with Weeks' dour countenance—the exact significance behind this legend is impactfully conveyed.

Told through convenient voice-over, we retrace Bulger's beginnings all the way through his rise and, eventually, his downfall. Initially, the film's flaws were drastically more pronounced for me: it was quite unfocused in its direction, telling an overly familiar gangster tale that felt slightly messy and poorly-paced in its execution. Too much screen-time is paid to some of the rather uninteresting elements of this otherwise endlessly fascinating history. What kept me genuinely enthusiastic and engaged though were the incredible performances across the board, the majority of which are unfortunately brief but exceptionally memorable from the likes of Dakota Johnson (as Whitey's wife), Julianne Nicholson, and Peter Sarsgaard in particular. In addition, Joel Edgerton continues to prove his pure thespian prowess; he's just utterly captivating and dedicated in every role, and here, he becomes just as detestable as Matt Damon in The Departed–a foolish yet manipulative weasel. Of course, the other standout is Johnny Depp's terrifying portrayal of Bulger–easily his best showcase in the past five years.

Now, the cast and crew seem to be flip-flopping on their intentions in terms of properly handling this character. Suddenly, they're clarifying that they wanted to humanize Whitey, and that has ultimately become the annoyingly uninspired cliché of modern biopics and cinema, in general. Everyone has to be humanized; the most despicable figures in our world's history have to be humanized because it makes it oh-so-complex. Regardless of what the filmmakers claim, I saw little to no humanity in Bulger's face–his irritated mannerisms and enigmatic contemplations– which was certainly fitting in this case. It makes for a more unique venture in a genre that always tries to create sympathy and relatability out of the criminals–yes, he's soulless; he's morally vacant; and he is just as shallow as you would think. And like most biopics, the film is more so a rushed series of events in this subject's life, followed by the usual verbose "what happened to everyone afterwards?" outro before the cut to credits, rather than actually thematic and narrative cohesion.

With that being said, it's been six days since I viewed Black Mass but the more I reflected on its substance since, the more eager I've been to write up a review and get some things off my chest. As a result of the frankly unoriginal criticisms that have been thrown at this film (accusing it of simply mimicking Scorsese in a fruitless way), Black Mass's refreshing inventiveness to the genre remains understated. The fact of the matter is that never (or, at least, rarely) do we get to see actual anti-gangster pictures. No, we have Goodfellas and The Godfather and The Departed–all films that either create amusement and fun out of such twisted individuals or, essentially, turn them into dignified badasses for entertainment sake. "Man, these guys are so cool; they're alpha-males with so many friends and so much power and bam bam bam!" Black Mass, however, treats this environment like an unmitigated horror movie. There's nothing romanticized or hilarious about the disturbingly authentic murders here, not to mention the totally demented look on Depp's face–his decaying teeth biting his lip, and those frightening deep blue eyes forever widening–as he mercilessly chokes the life out of a possibly innocent young woman. The powerfully haunting and sinister score by Tom Holkenborg superbly complements the arrantly dreary atmosphere of South Boston in these times.

Much like Foxcatcher was a downright condemnation of (competitive) sports, the similarly morose grayness in the shot compositions here makes Black Mass an undeniable condemnation of this community (even though it's not nearly as thematically profound as the former). There is absolutely nothing cool about these people. Perhaps you'll lambast Depp's overt make-up for making him appear a whole lot like a vampire– even if that's true, in a way, that's certainly an interesting and effective way to exhibit the sheer eeriness of this unbelievable being; in fact, it might as well parallel the bloodthirstiness of a vampire, lurking in the shadows and prone to attack when you least expect it. Aside from Al Capone, he was the most notorious mobster who actually found his way atop the FBI's Most Wanted list right next to Osama Bin Laden–a mythic unstoppable figure that signaled dark times for Boston indeed.

Fantastic Four

Careers Are At Stake Here!
Fantastic Four has had one of the most controversial, fascinating behind-the-scenes stories in recent years, and it seems like nothing but negativity has followed the production to its end. Critics and audiences alike are now completely ripping the film apart, but–in my opinion–for some of the wrong reasons. Many apparently just expected another fun, endlessly humorous superhero movie (with boring non-stop action) as if there aren't enough of those. Director Josh Trank had the right idea to implement some more refreshingly unique elements into the superhero genre though. Fantastic Four starts out its first five minutes introducing us to Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) in their childhood where their friendship truly sprouted. Seven years later, and these kids are now teenagers working on a fairly interesting science fair project that apparently irritates the school's administration more than impresses them with its ability to teleport small objects. I mean, who wouldn't scoff at those "pure magic tricks," right?

From there, Richards and Grimm's lives take a wild turn when they're recruited by a professor named Franklin Storm who runs a government- funded research institute. His daughter, Sue Storm (Kate Mara), and he run into this school demonstration and invite them to participate in a scientific experiment that could fully envision interdimensional travel. That's when every major character, at some point or another, runs into each other and the real journey begins. The movie very concisely takes us through all of their introductions and the fateful meeting. In fact, this first third of the film is grounded in science and is utterly focused on exploring the sci-fi origins of the property. Geniuses are conversing about compelling scientific theories and concepts, and several montages detailing the experiment's progress ensue.

However, after their expedition into another dimension goes terribly awry, the four friends wake up to sheer horror (their bodies have been horrifically mutated and their physical abilities frighteningly enhanced). At that point, Fantastic Four immediately turns into a cool body-horror movie where the superheroes painfully struggle with what their newfound powers have transformed them into: total monstrosities. Richards' limbs are stretching six feet forward, and an ominous score hits. (That's surely a new take on a genre that's been growing increasingly stale–the wait for Batman v. Superman is frankly unbearable). We even witness an eerie introduction to Dr. Doom in his full villainous form as he walks down a facility hallway—dim lights flashing—and blood thereafter lines the walls. The demon's pressurizing force and telekinesis faculty ruptures the soldiers' heads into gory stains. Honestly, the entire sequence made for a boldly gritty scene in a big-budget PG-13 film. So, when moviegoers criticize it for lacking fun and humor, I frustratingly think to myself, "is humor now part of this firmly defined criteria for a superhero movie?" It doesn't need to be "fun" if the tone is going for something far more intriguing and inspired.

Now, how could a film with such a promising start turn into such a comical, cheesy mess by its climax? When you take yourself so seriously as a movie and set yourself in a creepy, haunting atmosphere where you're battling with the unpredictability of science and then, all of a sudden, turn into a generic CGI-infested superhero movie by the last twenty minutes–that's when you really deserve to be called a disaster. That, in essence, is the problem: there are so many tonal shifts that you have no idea what the overall vision of the film even entails. At first, it's a Sci-fi feature about youthful inventions and imagination. Then, it turns into an incredibly dark and bloody horror film, and then, once everyone realizes they only have 25 minutes to conclude the story, there comes the pressure to finally end on the typical superhero note.

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Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Still Agelessly Cruisin'
I keep hearing that the Fast and Furious franchise is this epitome of a series in resurgence. Well, the latest Mission: Impossible entry comes quickly on the heels of Furious 7 and squashes that assertion. Instead of simply bloating its cast and pitting muscle-heads against one another, the Mission: Impossible series chooses to ramp up the sheer velocity of its action and the inventiveness of its setpieces. Rogue Nation reunites us with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) who's now searching for a secret terrorist organization named "The Syndicate" (accidentally birthed from British intelligence) while his own agency, the IMF, is facing its own problems when the CIA and Senate oversight committee begin questioning its legitimacy. Yes, the convoluted type of plot is back, but that's honestly what keeps this brand of movies refreshing.

Above all, Rogue Nation finds the perfect balance between a spy thriller and a purely volatile action movie. We see plenty of extended sequences where agents from different intelligence agencies share extensive dialogue about government secrets and confidential documents—the colors are worn out and the background is grayish. About ten minutes later, Hunt is suddenly zooming through Moroccan highways on a speed-bike in a wild chase. Sometimes, non-stop action can exhaust me (The Avengers 2 and The Expendables 3 being recent exemplars), but when one creative and memorable action sequence leads into another and then blends with another one, you can't help but excitedly tap your feet along and join the sweet ride. Contrary to the style of most modern action flicks, the destruction is executed so carefully and lucidly here. One segment, in particular, transpires within the beautiful edifice of a Vienna opera house as we see the pieces falling into their respective positions, slowly and tensely piling each detail/obstacle into the fray until everything collides into a delightfully (not exactly literal) explosive result.

For some reason, I still struggle in believing that Tom Cruise actually performs his own stunts, which only seem to continually grow in apparent impossibility. How could he scale up the scary enormity that is the Burj Khalifa or speed-run and jump onto a plane taking off, hanging onto the hatch as the plane rises and rises to frightening heights? What kind of movie star has the balls for such risky ventures? In that case, the action choreography is absolutely spectacular, also managing to masterfully fuse itself with some noteworthy physical comedy. In addition to the sheer energy of these scenes, a terrific cast raises the level of entertainment to an even greater point, especially when you have such hilarious comic relief in Simon Pegg and a new female addition in up-and-coming actress, Rebecca Ferguson. She basically replaces Paula Patton with so much more emotional complexity, heroism, and an incredible skillset that easily rivals Ethan Hunt's with the two oftentimes fighting side-by-side throughout the films' duration. Thankfully, she isn't required to fill that dull romantic interest role; instead, Ilsa has a mysterious part in all this, and a lot of focus is paid to her well-rooted arc and its fair share of twists and turns.

Continue the review at: nation-review/


Gyllenhaal Does Most of the Punching
Actors, studying how to make the most out of their careers, need only look at Jake Gyllenhaal's brilliant role-selecting strategies. Last year, he completely freaked us out as an emaciated, bug-eyed nightcrawler. Fast forward eight months later, and he's suddenly a burly furious boxer with an incredible eight-pack. The man seems to be challenging himself past intensity as a thespian, putting him on the same track as Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Joaquin Phoenix in terms of sheer range. Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw gives us a gut- wrenching look into champion boxer Billy Hope's life–a man who seems to be living the American Dream, displaying pure ferocity in the ring and taking hard punches to the face like an unfazed rock only to deliver the final blow. Every night, he comes back to a stupendous mansion and to a beautiful wife and kid (poignantly played by Rachel McAdams and Oona Laurence)…until all the walls around him start crumbling.

As a moviegoer who entered the theater expecting a Rocky-like sports drama, I was pleasantly surprised by the immediate dark turn the movie takes. All of a sudden, gunshots are ringing, and Billy is slipping a hood over his head with a silver firearm tucked into his pants and his face convulsing with unalloyed fury. In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal was this absolute Machiavellian, deliberating his every move and knowing where each piece fits. In Southpaw, he's taken one too many punches to the skull and is absolutely clueless in his current state of circumstances, unable to direct his own life without the help of his wife, Maureen. A blatant lack of intelligence and an undisciplined lifestyle is more or less sending him down the opposite path from Lou Bloom. It's through yet another undeniably powerful performance though that we feel the utmost pity and sympathy for the once-celebrated Billy Hope as the luxurious carpet is swept from under his feet.

Fuqua's very urban and gritty visual style is a perfect fit for this subject matter, capturing the boxing scenes with the greatest level of authenticity. Gyllenhaal, himself, rigorously trained in the gym for many months so that he could fully sink into this boxer's skin rather than allow a stunt double to take the glory, which beautifully translates into what looks like just another HBO PPV fight. With sweat spraying and blood spurting in slow motion, everything makes us feel tense while the visceral energy on the screen is clearly pulsating. At times, the ferocious pummeling is even shot in first-person as the audience sees monstrous fists/gloves flying at the screen.

Unfortunately, it's in the second hour where little can be done to add any freshness into the plot, and thus all the innovative effort is concentrated in the pivotal boxing segments. In those moments, Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore utilize the coolest angles and camera techniques in order to dramatically convey to the fullest extent how this man really is fighting for his livelihood. Again—when it comes to its narrative—as soon as the film reaches the second hour, Southpaw apparently has no other tricks up its sleeve and consequently reverts to the old sports-drama formula that has been recycled for decades since Rocky's thunderous release. Critic Scott Tobias said it best on the Filmspotting podcast: "it's a Rocky movie that thinks it's Raging Bull."

Suddenly, its edginess begins to subside at a rapid rate and so does Billy Hope's savagely aggressive, anti-hero temperament. Essentially, it transitions from an initial hour of gripping unpredictability and emotional turmoil to a second hour of wild predictability and banality. Hope's redemptive arc is sharply evident at that point. And this is exactly what frustrates me about the sports movie genre in general: there's very little room for original storytelling anymore. There's only so much you can do in this limited space: either the underdog wins or loses in the end. (The only sports films I hold dear are Raging Bull, Moneyball, Foxcatcher, and of course, Rocky.) It's okay though; even when the story dulls and loses its flare, Gyllenhaal's impeccable vehemence is enough to keep us glued to the screen. Whenever he steps into that ring and the match commences, any Hollywood artificiality immediately wanes. There are no actors on-screen anymore; we're just witnessing two fighters swiftly jabbing one another.

Paper Towns

Nothing Beats Youth
Cutesy teen love stories have been generating loads of money for Hollywood in the past decade, filling themselves up with mawkishness and teenage stereotypes. Add to that, the trite coming-of-age message of these films usually hit you hard without any mercy in the subtlety department. Then, author John Green comes along and with that an adaptation of his novel, The Fault In Our Stars, arrives to the big screen. What could've easily been a manipulatively sentimental story about romance and cancer turned out to be a surprisingly genuine tale featuring heartfelt performances and dialogue that's unusually authentic and clever for the genre. Paper Towns is another adaptation of a John Green book, and to much delight, it possesses even more personality and sweetness than its predecessor.

This time around, we get Quentin (Nat Wolff) and Margo (Cara Delevingne) as our two charming lovebirds on an endearing adventure through adolescence. In fact, this film is the first stepping stone into the film industry for model Delevingne. On the runway and red carpet, she simply couldn't hold back her energetic and down-to-earth personality, so it only felt natural to translate into a more fitting career. She plays a crazily rebellious girl who is just sick and tired of the high- school atmosphere. The oppressive and daunting nature of a regular suburban life–the multitudinous responsibilities that await in her future— is sucking the soul out of her with little room left for fresh air. Wolff, on the other hand, plays an 18-year-old boy across the street who has shared a fond friendship with Margo since their early childhood.

Their fading youthfulness puts them on disparate paths as Margo joins her own school clique and Quentin falls in with his group of socially awkward friends. Though for a time suppressed, Quentin's love for Margo lasts through all those years and has now fiercely rekindled at the worst time. A moment of returning intimacy between the two comes only on the eve of her departure from the town. The next day, Quentin wakes up to a panicking neighborhood. Where did Margo suddenly disappear? To great relief, he discovers a few clues she ingeniously left in her room, and that's when the ultimate investigation and search for this quintessential enigma begins with the assistance of his two goofy, dorky friends: Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith).

Paper Towns effectively captures that bittersweet feeling of losing some of the best years of your life and imagining a life-long crush to unreasonably high expectations. It's as if the girl is an absolute mystery but also a luminescent miracle, always out of reach but yet emanating vibes of destined reunion. Wolff grabs this character of desperate, innocent yearning with such pitch-perfect execution, and on the other hand, Delevingne utilizes her best traits and this undeniable magnetism to envision this cool, fun, and defiant individual. From there, the chemistry between them effortlessly demonstrates itself. In addition, Paper Towns offers a pleasantly diverse cast of interesting personalities where each one of the teens are given more humanity and sincerity than the typical flick of this kind would even consider.

Whereas Hollywood usually portrays the popular girl as an unbelievably shallow and promiscuous mess, this movie gives us the popular girl who struggles with her persona and has developed enough maturity to want to break out of that pressured shell. The African-American kid doesn't have to talk with a particular lingo. The girlfriend isn't totally uptight and distanced. Eventually, all of these various characters we've gotten to know and relate to throughout the first half of the film all join together for an utterly entertaining road trip to find Margo. Finally, the conclusion to the tale approaches with a meaningful twist rather than ending on the same predictable note every other entry in the genre chooses.

Of course, there's inherent sappiness in Paper Towns' thematic substance, as well as the fair share of unconvincing, naive clichés. Moreover, the screenplay is saturated with jokes, some of which awkwardly fall flat and others that unexpectedly deliver and include well-appreciated literary references. Either way, in the end, you could say that you had a lot of fun with the characters and found an earnest connection with its story. Beyond the dull and repetitive parties, Paper Towns shows us the true excitement of being a teenager, stumbling upon one of life's many surprises/mysteries after the other from powerful friendships to helpless infatuation.


Paul Rudd vs. The Marvel Formula
Imagine if a female co-lead went through an entire Marvel movie without kissing the protagonist. Imagine a Marvel villain who has realistic motivation and a complex personality. Imagine a Marvel plot that is confident enough to refrain from utilizing humorous quips after every line of exposition. Okay, do you have that vision of a unique superhero movie in your head? Well, you might want to hold on to that idea and head to Marvel Studios with your pitch in the future because Ant-Man offers none of that. It is a little structurally different; instead of a non-stop explosive superhero vs. supervillain tale (a la Age of Ultron), it's actually a heist movie…the same way Captain America 2 is a "spy movie," of course. That means that it's not exactly edgy or narratively revelatory; it's just a refreshing take for kids and families new to the genre.

Ant-Man centers around an adept thief, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who has just been released from prison . After failing to reconcile with his family, he is again forced into another heist operation after discovering a miraculous suit that transforms one into an ant—the perfect capability for a man who's required to sneak through various tunnels and vents. I guess I'd have to thank Marvel this time on not giving us another abnormally muscular and chiseled hero. No, we get Paul Rudd, and you know how everyone has their man-crush even though they don't want to admit it? Well, Rudd is definitely mine. The guy is so charming, and thankfully, Marvel allows his quirky-toned sarcastic humor to truly shine from time to time here. He's the perfect man to play this goofball who ruins emotional moments between father and daughter and endlessly struggles to finally adapt to his superhuman abilities, and that's why he's one of the best characters/heroes in this universe alongside the guardians of the galaxy. Unfortunately, he somewhat gets lost in the shuffle as Michael Douglas brings his terrific acting chops along and Evangeline Lilly once again showcases her sheer badassery (the woman refuses to pick gender-humiliating roles).

At that point, Rudd is expected to just stick to his guns and play the typical action hero with the ultimate goal to save the world. The more I think about it though, the more I absolutely love the cast that was assembled for this film—probably Marvel's most intimate and lowest- budgeted production. We also get Michael Peña and rapper TI together, and they totally deliver when it comes to nicely-balanced comic relief (even though Peña is basically playing the Mexican stereotype). These two are not solely present for a couple of scenes. No, Peña is given ample screen-time to steal the screen whenever he's there, rambling on with his convoluted monologues that bounce from stories about one contact of his to another and on and on until we finally get to the point with a dumbfounded expression on our faces. It's certainly one of the film's most clever elements, which makes me wonder if it was due to Edgar Wright's prior involvement (before he unfortunately left the set for a new director, Peyton Reed, to step in—few films made me lose enthusiasm quite as fast as the day those news came out a year ago).

Now, I feel like I mention this every year, but Marvel simply doesn't understand the importance of introducing stakes into films and occasionally taking itself seriously in order to successfully convey the true danger of the situation. This movie, more than any other of theirs, commits this narrative crime. It continues to juxtapose action scenes between Ant-Man and his equally-sized rival with a wider shot that reveals just how silly this concept is. So, for example, Ant-Man's fighting on a train with the villain in what looks to be a cool action sequence. Cut to a further shot that reminds us this epic fight is really transpiring on a toy train, which lightly bumps into another object. At this point, Marvel is more focused on producing a light comedy that we can all laugh at than a legitimate action movie with a menacing villain and a hero who's fighting against the odds.

On the other hand, Douglas is given a lot of meat to work with in a role that I surely appreciated. He's a once-successful scientist who chose to shut his work and the company behind him only for the wrong person to take his place. His daughter, Hope (Lilly), continues to profess her desire to stop this corporation from leading down the wrong scientific path while also working there. She's the kind of female character that's understandably stubborn and ambitious at first only to hand over the reins to the leading man halfway into the movie. "Okay, my work here is done. Time to let you save the world…and now I just really want to be with you even though we spent a lot of time competing with each other earlier in the film." When we go back and consider Black Widow and Gamora in addition, we come to the epiphany that Marvel can't resist the temptation to create boring and useless female characters. Speaking of boring, phenomenal actor Corey Stoll plays this evil mastermind, Darren Cross, who plans to use these shrinking experiments/technologies for–of course– murderous means. It's yet another villainous role in this world that has nothing to offer beyond "I'm evil just because!"

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A Familiar Rom-Com Stacked With Humor
Following off of a critically disappointing reaction to This is 40, director Judd Apatow decided to move on to his next project, titling it "Trainwreck" as if generously handing critics an easy opportunity for a pun should this next movie go bad as well. "Well, that sure was a trainwreck. Get it?" Thankfully, Apatow returns with a bang and scurries all the haters away quickly. The joke is on them now. Trainwreck follows a female lead this time around, Amy (played by rising-star comedian Amy Schumer), who lives an incredibly promiscuous lifestyle. One-night stands with burly jocks and wealthy dentists provide her with enough emotional/physical comfort, and so much as a romantic gesture from a partner scares her away. However, what happens when she suddenly falls for the sports doctor (Bill Hader) she's assigned to interview for a men's magazine feature?

Schumer is joined by an amazing cast including appearances from Lebron James, John Cena, Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei, Tilda Swinton, Brie Larson, and more. Honestly, it's thanks to the actors surrounding Schumer that make this film so damn funny. Cena (who's easily the best part of the movie) and James, in particular, essentially poke fun at themselves throughout the entire film without any fear of embarrassment. What's it like having sex with meatheads, for example? Of course, then there's Bill Hader who is incredibly likable as usual, carrying brilliant timing and sarcasm around like an instant comedic weapon. The awkward and ill-fitting dynamic between him–a normal man who wants a normal relationship–and Amy–a woman who's having trouble hiding her highly licentious history and maintaining her composure–never drains of amusing entertainment.

Lebron James apparently watches Downton Abbey. Such a riot! Schumer herself, however, when the spotlight is solely focused on her– while occasionally funny as well–really just relies on the raunchiest of sex jokes the whole time. At that moment, it turns into a competition of just how descriptive the sexual conversations and insults can get. Personally, that sense of humor has grown fairly tired since Apatow's debut twenty years ago (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), and I haven't been a fan of Schumer's comedic work so far anyway. Then again, a month ago, Melissa McCarthy actually impressed me and forced me into incessant, painful laughter with Spy–something I never expected from her. In this case, Schumer is exactly the same foul-mouthed, dirty-minded comedian we see so much of nowadays (Sarah Silverman being another example).

Now, like Woody Allen, Judd Apatow treats the comedy genre with respect. We see dozens of lazily-shot comedies every year; the cinematography is always crystal-clear and modern without any sense of visual flair. However, Apatow makes his comedies look like actual films rather than the careless, 90-minute quickies Hollywood is known for. We see beautiful lighting in classy restaurant scenes with the right level of depth of field. (The fact that the movie was shot on film rather than in the digital format certainly helps bring that nicely saturated look to the screen.)

That being said, Trainwreck unfortunately feels like another romantic- comedy with nothing really new to say once we truly start looking at the plot. Okay, monogamy is stupid and senseless? Interesting concept. The main character lives with that mentality until she meets "the one" and decides to go the romantic route once all is said and done. What made her change her mind? What is the solution to monogamy or crass human nature? Trainwreck gives us an extremely conventional conclusion to the rom-com story but never a fitting climax to these fascinating societal themes, thus failing to drive its semi-unique premise to the end and losing the originality the further we delve into the duration. The story hits its predictable beats right at the most predicable points. So, is it Apatow at his most creative? I really don't think so. With that being said, considering a summer that's lacking in laughter, Trainwreck will undoubtedly regenerate your sense of humor and get you back on Lebron James' side.

Jurassic World

Lighten Up and Enjoy the Return of Cool Dinosaurs
One of the most fascinating thematic aspects of the Jurassic Park franchise has always been its exploration of man vs. nature–about man's delusions in actually believing they can control nature for the sake of (artificial) progress. How can we turn any natural facet to our own advantage–for war, for food, for simple amusement? The latest entry in the series, Jurassic World, has finally arrived after fourteen years of dinosaur-less cinema, and I'm proud to say that it's distinct enough from its predecessors. It chooses to go even deeper into the idea of not only genetically creating dinosaurs, but also genetically modifying them to the point where we begin to see hybrids of two different species.

Following the severe mishap that was Jurassic Park because of–again– man's delusions (in that case, good-intentioned but seriously mistaken John Hammond), a new theme park has been built on the same island of Isla Nublar that seems to be working just fine and accepting thousands and thousands of visitors. It's Disney World except with dinosaurs–my god, how cool would that be? Aquariums, vast dinosaur-populated plains for touring, and other fun rides make up the majority of what this magical place has to offer. Of course, with such an ambitious idea, something terrible is always bound to transpire at one point or another. Suddenly, the boundaries we thought could easily keep humans safe from those spine-chilling carnivores are somehow demolished, and in comes chaos.

This time around, instead of series favorites like Sam Neill as Dr. Grant or Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm, we have 2014-born-movie-star Chris Pratt in the lead role as a muscular Velociraptor expert/trainer with the return of Bryce Dallas Howard as well (seriously, what happened to her? I thought The Help and Spider-Man 3 were financially successful). The two charismatic actors are surrounded by astounding production design and dazzling visual effects. You can whine about the pervasiveness of CGI all you want, but I've revisited the first film– Jurassic Park–a few days ago. Aside from the T-Rex, let's just say that those dinosaurs haven't been exactly aging well. In this film, I thought all of them looked completely believable and impressively- conceived; so I'm not complaining for the next few years (we'll see how it looks two decades down the road), especially when you get some amazing dino-versus-dino sequences. I won't spoil anything, but I'm sure you've always dreamed of seeing your favorite dinosaur species fiercely fighting it out and ripping each other to shreds with one's strength and the other's speed and calculation.

Unlike The Lost World where the first half honestly bored me to a point where I was crazily yearning for some dinosaurs to finally pop up on- screen, Jurassic World presents you with such an immaculately-designed amusement park, using its two adolescent characters {13-year-old Gray (Ty Simpkins) and 20-year-old Zach (Nick Robinson)} to navigate through the various spellbinding museums and park tours while intercutting with the scientific/corporate storyline that shows us what's really going on behind all that awe and wonder. You're entertained from the get-go, and the long build-up to the appearance of the first killer dinosaur only excites you that much more.

Now, the highest points of the series have always come in those times of real suspense and fright. That's precisely why I enjoyed Jurassic Park III a lot more than everyone else; almost everything in that forest was incredibly menacing and every step the characters took in whatever direction might've been their very last. I loved that dark, horror element. Unfortunately, save for one very particular end to a character, the deaths here are hardly creative and impactful. Very little blood and gore is shown in comparison to the last two movies (which were rated PG-13 too), and there's nothing that can show the sheer danger of an approaching carnivore more than the amount of damage it inflicts on human flesh. No, the villains are killed off rather quickly, and most of the major characters with a given name make it through alive. In sum, Jurassic World is definitely one of the lightest and most humorous entries in the franchise for better or worse. It's undoubtedly a lot of fun even when the situations turn to obvious implausibility.

For future reference though, please, filmmakers–just please–stop this trend of self-awareness. Your movie isn't magically better and cooler just because you make some subtle remark about how you're a sequel/remake in today's heavily corporate Hollywood. "Get it, guys? We're on the same page!" No, just stop… Jurassic World does as much as it can to get all of those original fans back with pleasure; every moment seems to be carefully guiding itself along without upsetting and offending the viewers with unexpected, outlandish dinosaur segments like the "Alan!" dream in Jurassic Park III or the T-Rex's King Kong-style rampage across San Diego in The Lost World. Of course, I just know that as I say this, some hardcore nitpickers, who have no sense of what lightening up and purely enjoying blockbuster entertainment means, will be ripping this film apart as well. I guess some people will have to get used to the fact that future sequels will never capture the magic in seeing dinosaurs on the big screen for the first time like the original did. That can only be accomplished once. Duh! Anyway, I fully commend the series for constantly reinventing and keeping each entry unique from the others.


Brad Bird's First Misfire?
After the (commercial and/or critical) failures that were John Carter and The Lone Ranger, Disney's latest venture into original storytelling territory shows the involvement of impressive talent, including esteemed director Brad Bird, bonafide movie star George Clooney, and possibly the most divisive screenwriter in Damon Lindelof. This film shifts between two different dimensions throughout its runtime–that of our world and the one of the magical Tomorrowland, which features a population predominantly of kids. This is one of those transparently sci-fi cities that has been built to escape the ills of Earth and its consumptive, selfish inhabitants. When Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) receives the ultimate tease of an invite to this wondrous place through an unremarkably-branded pin, her elated scientific spirit naturally sends her on a Disney-caliber journey to find the entrance to this mysterious land.

As you can expect, the absolutely alluring visuals effectively convey the sheer spectacle of this adventure in classic family storytelling; the contrast between the two different worlds is especially noticeable as the characters navigate from a very much modern and darkly-hued aesthetic to a totally glamorous, fairytale-like one. Newcomer actress Robertson successfully translates to the big screen, reminding audiences of that teenage naivete and defiant behavior we have identified with throughout Steven Spielberg's filmography. The most notable performance of all though comes from a little girl (Athena–played by Raffey Cassidy) who's sent from the future to help Casey out on this mission. Cassidy is just infused with so much surprising maturity and deadpan expression, ultimately unyielding in her purpose.

Now, the picture itself seems to be quite optimistic about a society that clearly isn't doing anything to improve environmental conditions. It also certainly doesn't help when those people pan a movie with any environmental messages as "heavy-handed" or "preachy." So, you won't do anything to improve Earth's health and when someone reminds you that something must really be done about it, you write them off as annoying and preachy. It all sounds logical, doesn't it? Anyways, I found those thematic ideas substantially more compelling than the actual plot, which felt like it was only slightly progressing narratively from Point A to B to C to D and so on without any real necessity to the overall story. The characters reach one creatively-designed destination only for it to lead them to a further creatively-designed destination.

The first time you see the city of Tomorrowland, of course you're astonished by its visual and architectural splendor, but the pleasure of the beautiful image wears off rather quickly. The pattern of this film largely comprises sequences that run on for far too long. For instance, the opening sequence that takes us back to Frank Walker's (Clooney) childhood–meant as an introduction to the miraculous setting– drags on and on, forcing you to continue waiting for the inexperienced, confused true protagonist (Britt Robertson) to finally show up. In addition, the premise is definitely not as original and memorable as Disney and Brad Bird promises it to be.

The film is obviously wrapped up with so much optimism, kiddy delight , and overall lightness that it occasionally feels like nothing more than an expensive commercial for Disneyland and, more specifically, one of its attractions with the same name: Tomorrowland. Even when contemplating its environmental themes that are never afraid to discuss the frailty of the future and the frequent ignorance of humanity, it's never pushed to that final honest conclusion because the real hard truth-tellers in the movie, who unwind a whole rant on how pathetic apocalyptic fiction and the human acceptance of the planet's imminent collapse is, blatantly turn out to be exaggerated villains that need to be defeated for "real hope" to win the day.

Some of these elements can be forgiven because it is a very family- friendly feature at the end of the day, but many other parts of it end up being deeply frustrating because of how terribly trustful the movie is in humanity after vividly displaying plenty of footage that underlines their severe mistakes. Last year's original science-fiction exhibition of brilliance, Interstellar, stunningly managed to balance the cynicism with more convincing optimism–it will take a lot of loss to eventually continue the human race because Earth is frankly hopeless at this point, but the species of scientists and engineers have always discovered an answer in the darkest of times. Tomorrowland's one suggestion for a solution to all these daunting predicaments seems to be "just believe!" Classic Disney mottos.


The Battle of Ego, Power, and Wealth
After the gripping character studies and intelligent social commentaries that Bennett Miller has become such a master of, there's no better filmmaker to tackle this shocking true story—a tragedy about people who ambitiously chased the American Dream and actually fell for its seduction. Coming off of a championship win, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is near the top of Olympic wrestling but lacks the proper wit, ambition, and strategy to further himself until he is fatefully invited to meet John du Pont (Steve Carell), a member of the most famous and wealthy dynasty in the country, who instills him with athletic fury, drive, and infectious motivational philosophy. Mark truly wants to be the best in the world, but his lacking astuteness has now led him away from his fatherly and encouraging brother, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo)—a respected coach and wrestler who Mark enviously realizes is a whole level above him—and into the psychologically unpredictable hands of a creepily uncanny, eccentric stranger who he admittedly hasn't even heard of.

With the help of absolutely convincing make-up that shapes the noticeably wicked/large nose and eerie teeth, Carell delivers a powerfully haunting performance as a socially isolated and awkward man, raised in an out-of-touch environment all his life, who is struggling with numerous egoistic and trust issues that endlessly vex him from within. However, this is also Tatum's show as we follow the rise of this naïve meathead (how can I more politely describe him?) who is clearly vulnerable to being essentially puppeteered by exploitive, power-hungry men. It's worth to point out just how Tatum's childlike, innocent personality here infuses us with total pity for his character while Ruffalo's usual warmth makes us sympathize as well. In fact, Ruffalo's performance is most subtle of all; he's obviously not as flamboyant as the other two and is instead relied on to reflect a certain human quality in an otherwise utterly cold picture. Dave Schultz is a big brother who's undoubtedly talented in the sport, but unlike the other two, his pride doesn't get the better of him since he continually seeks to improve his brother on that path to fame and success as well.

Here is where it gets worryingly complicated though because these three personalities develop a paranoid, unreliable dynamic that sees each other vie for that ultimate glory. Foxcatcher thoroughly utilizes the sport of wrestling as not only a point of critique but also as a stark metaphor for this dangerous power struggle between complex individuals behind the scenes. There's no better feeling than being called a winner—being recognized as a man who achieved tremendous victory and success. The fierce competitiveness and the frequent sense of disappointing failure that is so inherent in the very essence of sports has produced an abundance of psychologically and ideologically conflicted, twisted men that are battling with intolerable arrogance and blindness. In the case of John du Pont, the feeling of invalidation and complete disrespect beleaguers him through his days, including the sharp disapproval from his own mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who only views wrestling—her son's sole passion—as a lowly sport. As he witnesses the admiration people express towards the actually capable coaches like Dave and the brawny athletes like Mark, he's sort of put in between—in a position where people recognize him as that one lucky, wealthy son of a gun but nothing more.

Through the use of deliberately-timed editing, the constant grapple of jealousy—the lingering sense of betrayal; the sense of unrelenting determination to shine above the others and escape each other's shadows —between these three is realized. The film also paces itself so slowly with countless scenes of dead silence and the absence of a score that would've just easily manipulated our impressions of the people on- screen. It's almost as if Foxcatcher intends to remain as cold and distant from its subjects as possible. Perhaps—gasp—it means to take a more objective perspective of its protagonists (unlike most biopics in recent memory) and allow the final consequences to make its ultimate point.

From scene to scene, we witness the amusing awkwardness of du Pont in the wildly slow intonations and recurrent pauses of his speech. In fact, seeing du Pont's erratic behavior and the uncomfortable homoerotic undertones throughout, there's a hilarious black comedy lingering beneath the surface, to the most deceptive extent where laughter seems wholly out of place once you recognize the sheer bleakness of this material. The history of his childhood—of his fortunate birth into and the inheritance from an insanely rich family, is incredibly fascinating. He was born into money without a single clue how to best use it or what to really do with himself.

Most of all, what I most admire about Foxcatcher is the perfectly uncompromising, dark direction that Miller takes with this tale. The exceptional cinematography makes sure to emphasize the arrant somberness of the fog that encompasses its characters as the chilliness of a colder winter closes in. There's no tenderness to please mass audiences with here; there's only brutal honesty. Using the frustration with the typical cop-out approaches most biopics take nowadays by becoming a little too close to their subjects and portraying them as completely perfect specimens (hello, The Theory of Everything), Foxcatcher never gets scared away from showing just how flawed and disturbed its characters really are—how frightening and enigmatic the mind of a real human being can eventually become. The film takes the advice of du Pont in absolutely exhibiting its confidence and never backing down from depicting tragedy and human nature at its worst. Now, excuse me: I'm going to go read up some more on these peculiar people and the system that brought them together.

American Sniper

A Dubious Portrait of American Patriotism
The heavily disturbing image of the Twin Towers falling to their burning end and of people leaping off from its heights lit an unstoppable fire in many Americans on that day. Since then, many patriotic Americans have enlisted in the army, hoping to find some form of fulfilling resolution to all this terror. Some of them even agree with the war's never-ending duration in that it will protect the homeland from any other terrorists as long as they "protect and serve." American Sniper follows the true story of one of these soldiers: Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper)—a tall, sturdy All-American who continually chooses to leave his beautiful wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and later on his two sweet kids for the sake of protecting this ultimate American ideal. He's a man who truly believes in the war, and thus, he also turned out to be the deadliest sniper in US history with a confirmed kill rate of 160 people throughout his tours of duty. How could a human even tolerate the responsibility and sight of so many corpses and gore without a particular psychological toll? Well, unsurprisingly, the answer is that one can't, and Kyle only displays the kind of issue here that many individuals choose to irresponsibly gloss over when they're on a support campaign for war: PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). Following yet another visit to Iraq, he comes home to the pain of looming anxiety and lengthy sessions of completely zoning out from reality.

With American Sniper, Clint Eastwood manages to create a thoroughly intense war film. As the deafening gunshots ring around the IMAX audience, the film's meticulous sense of gritty realism ensures to keep the viewers in pervasive suspense. Even when Kyle isn't focusing on deadly shots at a suspicious man's or kid's head, the brilliantly tense score sounds off with a foreboding build-up of what sounds like a sniper rifle reloading, followed by its haunting discharge, so as to never ease the tension in the room and keep us on the edge of our seats. There's no way I can emphasize the excellence of the sound use enough (the sound mixing and editing) in this epic, installing you into an observational post right there on the battlefield as many get blown to bits left and right. It's rough; it's graphically violent; it's unsettling.

Bradley Cooper once again makes a smart choice for his latest role; this one though might not be as showy as his performance in Silver Linings Playbook, but his distressed eyes and failing psychological condition tell us everything we need to know through his journey. In which case, it's also supported by an impressive actress in Sienna Miller who works with fairly little material but adds so much more of her own emotional meat into the role than expected. The look of worry never leaves her face; even for those small intimate moments of family time and reunions with her husband in which excitement and merriment briefly spring out, she eventually returns to her emotional default—to a sort of declining hope for the future of a soldier's life. It's a shame Miller isn't receiving more attention in the awards circuit. In sum, from a technical level, American Sniper is one of the more memorable experiences in the modern war genre, but when we regard what's supposed to be an enthralling narrative, we start to witness questionable elements.

Like with Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, the major problem here is the sheer closeness to its subject. As the narrative flows along, it becomes more transparent just how much of a tribute American Sniper intends to be to Chris Kyle's legacy, followed in the end by the standard biopic footage that shows us the outcomes of his life and history. Eastwood's obvious jingoistic attitude here unfortunately adds a lot of bias when an objective and more intelligent perspective would've made for a far more fascinating study of a man who has sniped and brutally killed more people (whether innocent or genuinely criminal) than a normal human being can possibly endure in a state of sanity. There is no absolute morality in this tale as right as (simplistically) cheering on your nation, no matter what, sounds.

Every time American Sniper hints at hesitation from its protagonist, it refutes any possible anti-war arguments by reverting to blind patriotism again and again through heroic dialogue, the numerous American flags sighted across the movie's mise en scène, and the obvious tributary segments. "This war was just destiny, and it's up to us to enthusiastically back America up in its undoubtable bravery and (supposed) righteousness," says American Sniper. Then again, considering something as heavy-handedly named as the film's very own title, you know exactly what position in the debate it will take.

Continue the review at: a-dubious-portrait-of-American-patriotism/


Sentimentality Might Either Sway Or Throw You Off
Every year, there has to be a civil rights/slavery film, right? Well, in case you hadn't understood the inhumanity of slavery and/or segregation yet, here's another history lesson to remind and make you cry. Selma focuses on a very, very brief portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life in his valiant march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama so as to protest and pressure Lyndon B. Johnson into finally passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although African-Americans technically had the right to vote during this time, there was nothing stopping the white authorities from intimidating black people far away from voting booths. Martin Luther King, Jr. will not have any of it though, and David Oyelowo, in his remarkable depiction of King, certainly conveys this through his partially melancholic and partially fierce "enough-of- this!" eyes. Aside from the striking resemblance to the esteemed civil rights leader, Oyelowo absolutely brings everything he emotionally has within him to the platform during every one of his profound and furious speeches.

And given the perfect timing of the film's release, relevant more than ever in the midst of relentless police brutality and continuing African-American injustice, the ferocity of the movement here is undoubtedly inspiring and rousing. The wonderful ensemble—including the likes of Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, and Common—all know what's at stake in the past and present, but Tom Wilkinson (as President Johnson) and Tim Roth (as the repugnant George Wallace) also add contemplation and determined vehemence, respectively, to the opposing side. The lachrymose 60's soundtrack plays to ferociously shot and edited sequences of the marches and the consequential police brutality that strikes back.

If you can't tell by now, my writing seems to be largely formed by sentimentality and closeness to the horrific predicament at hand in 2014 America. Frankly, Selma is a film that affects more through sentimental bias than anything else. Once everything is said and done— once a colder and more objective perspective that strips the relevance of the subject matter has been established—Selma really is a standard biopic that actually doesn't develop King into that much of a compelling character. The picture does make sure to highlight the usual family drama that occurs behind closed doors in every biopic from Malcolm X to Lincoln, but I just couldn't see enough of the man besides the obviously glorious, saintly portrait in which he's painted.

Moreover, with the exception of the few marches/protests that rivetingly transpire throughout the film's duration, the pacing is unexpectedly plodding, and that's in large part because of how little material the film has to work with. Conversations that drag on for far too long essentially focus on one element of conversation: the planned march and of its hopeful results. Imagine that continuing on for a 2+- hour movie. Add in the fact that Selma suffers from quite a bit of historical inaccuracies, including the more negative representation of Lyndon B. Johnson, solely to implement further dramatic weight and conflict as overly-dramatized Hollywood films typically love to indulge themselves in.

Of course, it'll still be an overwhelmingly celebrated film in its year of release much like 12 Years a Slave was last year (even though The Wolf of Wall Street and Her come up in more discussions a year later). It happens every time with the critics and awards industry players. Ask yourself: will Selma—a finely-crafted film that means well but is narratively and creatively forgettable/safe—honestly be remembered more than fascinatingly daring content this year like Inherent Vice and Interstellar?

Big Eyes

Tim Burton Can Make Insane Biopics Too
In the forefront of gorgeously-decorated, painting-like scenery, Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) is an exceptional painter who's struggling to financially get back on her feet after leaving her intemperate husband for San Francisco with her young daughter by her side. Luckily, she quickly receives some assistance from another painter/realtor named Walter (Christoph Waltz). Eventually, they agree on how to develop potential success out of all this beautiful artwork of hers. It just so turns out that people love the art and style of her paintings while ignoring Walter's rather dull constructions. However, you have to remember that these are the fifties, and female artists aren't overly respected. Thus, due to Walter's more charismatic presence and salesman experience, they decide to advertise him as the owner of these exquisite works of art. Sooner than later, they're lying in heaps of money, and the praise is simply prodigious. The very obvious question endlessly lingers though: is the sacrifice of artistic integrity and identity worth the amount of money/success earned as a result?

Adams' classical beauty and quintessential appearance of naïve sweetness fits her nicely into this role of a gullible, delicate woman on the brink of emotional disaster. Playing opposite her, the usually eccentric Waltz depicts ultimate villainy as a strongly egotistical man who's hungry for wealth and recognition. There is never a moment you question the mysterious man's probity as soon as you sight that frightening grin of his. The other star of the film, of course, is its famous director, Tim Burton, who helms a departure from his typical Gothic productions and unexpectedly follows through a sizable portion of Big Eyes with restraint. Frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman, also returns to compose an occasionally mellow and innocent score that's yet interjected with Reznor-like sinister notes throughout.

The fact of the matter is that there's a lot of technical wonder and imaginative vision to this work, which is wholly refreshing coming from someone (Burton) whose stylistically monotonous filmography has already been staling and dulling. However, Burton's well-known quirky touches can definitely still be identified as they grow ever more transparent. By the time the finale approaches, Big Eyes appears to be a tonal mess. While we have Amy Adams patiently, subtly glooming and sticking around with her character's pain, Waltz begins to considerably increase the volume on his performance to the point of eventual comedy. One side of the screen is earnestly dramatic and the other shockingly silly. The sober themes/issues surrounding an artist's integrity and the sheer number of barriers on their path to triumph, particularly that of a woman's, are impeded by troublingly strange scenes that awkwardly/unfittingly play out with an abundance of humor.

Big Eyes had plenty of potential in its first hour, slowly charming and enwrapping the audience with its picturesque presentation and fascinating true story, but the film essentially couldn't keep its self-indulgence in long enough because it basically loses its patience halfway through and suddenly turns its characters into truly over-the- top caricatures. The narrative's results also don't do a very fine job in explaining their sense, but revealing the actual uneven consequence that befalls the story's characters would clearly spoil the film. So, long story short: Big Eyes is insane, which is unsurprising because Burton always finds a way.

The Interview

American Humor vs. North Korean Dictatorship
Never has a Hollywood comedy garnered so much controversy—the kind of controversy that's built out of potential international conflicts. Based on credible reports, North Korea (Kim Jong-un) itself was so bothered by the film's premise and content that a devastating cyber- attack rained down on The Interview's distributor, Sony. However, was the quality of this movie actually worth all the hoopla? Well, first of all, no film would ever be worth this much commercial mayhem; The Interview, especially, hardly pretends to be some profound satirical piece that really says anything new about the creepily cultish country that is North Korea. No, it's about a celebrity tabloid talk show host, Dean Skylark (James Franco), and his producer, Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen), who've landed the perfect opportunity to interview one of the world's most notorious figures, Jong-un. As soon as the CIA catches word of this, they well know that they can't miss this once-in- a-lifetime shot at terminating this unequivocal threat to humanity and global politics, and thus arrange for these obnoxious newsmen (the unlikeliest of capable assassins) to be the ones to do it.

The end result of this product turns out to be yet another Seth Rogen comedy (with the usual low-brow, vulgar humor) under the guise of this political semi-thriller. On one side, it truly frustrates me that probably the last Hollywood picture we could ever witness about North Korea is just a 2-hour vacuous (mean-spirited) roast on Kim Jong-un. Then again, the degrading material is the callous leader's worst nightmare as it continually humiliates him, exposing the ruthless dictator as an obsessive fan of America's pop culture and an overly tearful baby when it comes to sentimental subjects like the life-long disappointment from his father. None of these demeaning jokes are particularly hard-hitting or original, essentially only basic and filled with the raunchy type of humor expected from Rogen.

Now, although Rogen plays himself (or, more accurately, the same character) in every single one of his films, including this one, James Franco invariably brings his acting chops along. His intrinsic charisma, flamboyant personality, and sundry amusing facial expressions help him in absolutely stealing the show here with most of the laughs coming as a result of his comedic, as well as thespian, repertoire. Randall Park, who indelibly portrays Kim Jung-un, is a total comic riot as well—though his exact resemblance to the real ruler is slightly questionable, he undoubtedly wins you over with how he depicts this hysterically solemn (and very likely, more human) fantasy of Jong-un.

Although I've never been anywhere close to an enthusiast of Rogen's work, his directorial career alongside Evan Goldberg has certainly been proceeding in a more creative route than I imagined, considering 2013's distinct post-apocalyptic ensemble in This is the End and now a comedy that centers on the assassination of a nation's leader. Vapid humor aside, admittedly, it's still an exceptionally fun ride with the addition of some singularly hilarious, inspired cameo appearances; the film varies from straightforward comedy to espionage thriller to pure action in a consistently entertaining manner. At the same time, the plot of the film is terribly predictable, and the pay-off in the end—after such a unique, dare I say "ballsy," journey—is wholly anti-climactic and blandly conventional. Obviously, Rogen has to give himself a romantic interest in between there, and the typical ingredients for a buddy comedy can all be discovered throughout. From a more personal and informal perspective though, I honestly don't see how one can be bothered by the lack of wit in The Interview and then go on to say that they loved Neighbors, a film with less heart, intelligence, and even more repulsive characters/behavior.

Into the Woods

Into the Never-ending Muddiness of the Woods
When a Broadway musical meets incredible success, it's bound to hit the silver screen sooner or later, and in 2014, Into the Woods makes that highly anticipated transition. 'Tis a story that places all of our favorite fairy tales (Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood) into the same universe and in close proximity of one another, for that matter. As a result, many of these characters end up bumping into each other as they selfishly focus on their own separate goals, consequently causing disastrous conflicts in the meantime—quite an original concept for a genre that's frankly been growing stale in the world of modern storytelling.

However, what frightened me most about this particular cinematic adaptation was the fact that it was being produced by none other than Disney who has put it upon themselves to brighten every story nowadays and turn every slightly mature tale into a kid-friendly blockbuster (recently completely ruining the essence of one of their most diabolical villains for the sake of appealing to little kids in this year's Maleficent). Being that the stage play of Into the Woods is such a refreshingly dark and twisted take on the fairy tale, chances were that Disney would find some way to substantially tone down the material in the end, and—what do you know—it's exactly what happened. In fact, a certain major character is revised to avoid her gruesome death, which makes for an awkward result in the story.

The majority of the film takes place in the sheer darkness of the woods and the menacing fogginess of the swamps. It's with this persisting bluish hue and the vastly darkened multitudinous colors that Rob Marshall is able to create an utterly gorgeous and unique fantastical production. In my mind, there's no doubt that the film's strongest elements lie in its art/set design and overall visual presentation. Of course, the music is its central showcase as well, and it's totally satisfying, riddled with plenty of (dark) humor and clever rhythm. If you're not into musicals however, there's very little here to convince and draw you in unlike something to Les Miserables' effect, given the prolonged music numbers and their recurrent frequency throughout the narrative's duration.

With such an impressive ensemble from the likes of Emily Blunt to Meryl Streep to Chris Pine and Anna Kendrick, there's enough personality here to entertain until its elongation becomes ever more transparent towards its last half-hour. Meryl Streep, in what I expected to be a fully hammy performance, once again manages to showcase her stunning talent and rein the silliness of the role in. After being defied and transformed into ugliness, she entrusts a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) with a task. In order for the wife to become fertile (after a curse the Witch placed on the baker's family tree due to a misbehaved father) and finally birth a baby for the married couple, they have to retrieve four objects for an ultimate magical spell that will also restore the Witch's beauty: "a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold."

The premise of the picture, itself, promises a sharply satirical and considerably grimmer version of the fairy tale world but its themes, messages, and intentions become so heavily muddled by the end and are delivered with such a weakened impact that Into the Woods largely concludes without its initial charm. Not to mention, the musical drags on for far too long (despite only running for a little over 2 hours), especially in its last act which seemed very out-of- place and unnecessary. The issue with this entire production is that it goes on from making one obscure point about the unrealistic nature that fairy tales traditionally possess and starts chasing another one as yet another predicament falls into the characters' laps. By its last act, the narrative—more than ever—just appears sloppy and ill- conceived/executed, not knowing exactly when to end and when to move on from its loquacious characters and long-winded songs. Hopefully, the Broadway musical is more competent.

The Imitation Game

A Worthy Celebration of Geniuses
The secrets behind the true victors of World War II were only divulged not too long ago (interestingly enough, it's hard to come by the exact date of the reveal). This tale is about Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who went on to break the Nazis' enigma code and help win the war. Now, there's always that one Oscar-bait film every year that I like much more than I expected. Unlike the rubbish biopics like The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game actually celebrates the genius. It doesn't try to sentimentally conclude that there's a genius in everyone (because there's frankly not)—not another inspiring story about how everyone can achieve monumental achievements just like Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing. It was very clear from the beginning that Turing wasn't "normal"—that he deviated from other people for a reason. Normality usually never ends with a tremendous legacy; it's the people who were ignored or unappreciated during their lifetime—the people who were condemned; the people who really didn't care about expectations and general rules—that eventually reach glory. In this case, it takes fifty years for Turing's vast accomplishments to finally be disclosed to the public—let the countless biographic novels and films about him now come.

Benedict Cumberbatch's sheer charisma never appears to end as he, once again, encapsulates another sort of personality—the socially inept loner whose solely logical mind and utter arrogance centers on one goal, one total passion of his: the sizable computing machine he's building to crack the impossibly indecipherable German messages. (Keep in mind I've never seen the Sherlock series; so, I'm totally new to this refreshing side of Cumberbatch after seeing him portray a frighteningly menacing villain in last year's Star Trek sequel.) This might sound like typical Oscar-bait material, but it sometimes also largely depends on the particular film's execution. Take 2010's The King's Speech, for instance; what could've easily been another Oscar- checklisting inspirational narrative ended up transcending its material with absolutely believable and natural characters and performances that suck you in beyond any failures in the story's quality and lack of inventiveness.

Again, unlike The Theory of Everything (which I have a feeling I'll be knocking down more and more as this review proceeds), we don't hear a lot of that soapy, Lifetime music that shadows the emotional moments. Alexandre Desplat's score here is incredibly emotional without the help of some manipulative, weeping piano notes. The music takes more of the tone of a grand, majestic story, or occasionally perhaps something that makes it feel more like a spy thriller rather than a standard soap opera. Another admirable trait of the film that further defied my expectations was the integrity that stayed with Turing's character to the bitter end; he never loses his conceit or eccentric personality. That clichéd Hollywood arc of character development (the distant bigot suddenly becomes a compassionate benefactor a la Dallas Buyer's Club) thankfully can't be found here. Right from the get-go, Graham Moore's impeccably sharp screenplay wastes no time in shaping these characters, especially Turing, himself, who's given a few humorous scenes to profoundly introduce himself to the audience. Kiera Knightley plays opposite Cumberbatch as an intelligent, dignified woman in the midst of a male- concentrated environment in a male-dominated time period. The dynamic between Cumberbatch and Knightley's Joan Clarke is sweet and amusing; there's no need for a traditional romantic interest/shallow plot line since this relationship is strictly platonic (and Turing, of course, is homosexual anyway).

The complexity and intricateness of the heavily mathematical, scientific code-breaking concept of The Imitation Game is satisfyingly condensed so that the plot doesn't continue with frustrating convolution that of which frequently hinders many spy thrillers. Personally, a great screenplay can always simplify complicated ideas to the extent that it still feels natural and realistic. With all that being said, the script does tend to deliver some of the film's themes quite heavy-handedly in moments to the point of that sappiness that's become a staple of Oscar-bait biopics. Reciting the same line several times throughout the picture as to persist that thematic idea ("Sometimes, it is the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine") usually doesn't work, impacting with a mawkish taste rather than with sincerity.

On another note, while I appreciated the inclusion of the disarmingly tragic conclusion to Turing's story, it seemingly glossed over it all as if in a rush to avoid a lingering gloomy mood to close on. The Imitation Game, regardless, is fully effective in its shuffling of undoubtedly significant subjects, including topical mentions of homosexual ostracism (and worse, punishment) and the important technological advancements of mankind—the capability of the human mind and the lengths of its imagination—and how much that has all reshaped our world…from then to now. Most of all, as the credits roll and the beautiful score surfaces, your eyes water for the men and women that lived in stress and died without recognition or appreciation.


Exactly What You'd Expect From Angelina Jolie
There are some filmmakers/storytellers that carry a very cynical and cold vision when depicting people and their stories—filmmakers that are reluctant to get too close to their subjects so that a cornucopia of biased tenderness doesn't consume them and birth a fully reverential (blandly extoling) tale about this particular subject. Angelina Jolie happens to have a different agenda, on the opposite end of this spectrum, and considering we know quite a bit about her after all these years already, the most accurate adjective I can give to her second directorial entry: "unsurprising." Jolie has a very warm, sentimental, and hopeful attitude about her. In this case, I can't confidently criticize her for overreaching on the sentimentality scale; the fact of the matter is that it gets tricky when one readies himself to review a true story. I, myself, can't take that away from the film or Louis Zamperini who is an incredible human being that survived an unbelievably incredible life—from an impeccable runner representing the US in the Olympics to a soldier who's stranded out in the middle of the ocean to a helpless prisoner in a ruthless Japanese internment camp.

This all sounds very well like an "Oscar-bait" kind of Hollywood motion picture, but again, it actually happens to be an insane true story. However, just because it's true and oh-so-inspiring, it doesn't mean that I can be easily swayed into absolutely admiring it. You can call me cold-hearted or you can just call me objective and hesitant. Admittedly, I don't have the ability to question the exact accuracy of all the miniscule heroic, unrelenting details of Zamperini's journey presented here, but I definitely can scrutinize the quality and appropriateness of its translation to the big screen. After this year's earlier blockbuster, Maleficent, which shamelessly transformed one of Disney's most horrifying villains into a sympathetic, compassionate caretaker, and now this total motivator, I have doubts that Jolie can commit to something that's (much) morally grayer in her artistic pursuits. This film tonally deceives you; while it presents us with truly disturbing scenes of torture and endless suffering (that almost becomes tedious in its uneventful repetition), Unbroken nonetheless sweeps you up from under your feet and tries to fill your heart with that final, last-minute dose of forceful effusiveness.

What compelled me to keep my eyes on the screen throughout honestly wasn't the grandeur of the story but Jack O'Connell's magnificently transformative performance as Louis—a performance that exhibits despair, satisfying confidence, mania, optimism, and sometimes even near-defeat. Obviously not on equal ground with the sheer courageous strength of the man he's portraying, O'Connell still possesses his own strong-rooted (thespian) commitment that sees him losing a frightening amount of weight to bare bones less than mid-way into the narrative. The primary villain, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka "The Bird"), is played very eccentrically by Japanese musician Miyavi. Watanabe is the central prison guard with an interestingly feminine appearance along with that deceptive soft voice of his.

Of course, you can't deny the utterly monumental nature of this story and its structure as you're taken from one tremendously perilous and insurmountable predicament to another, from famished sharks to the desperate-to-win Japanese. The haplessness never ceases and only worsens. But "a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory," so it seems and only proves to be true once everything is said and done and a legacy has been made out of Zamperini's adventurous lifetime. Some of the scenes here are almost too excessive in their long-winded suffering, seeming to drag on for too long, but it seems to be in the strength of the director to keep the pace and interest afloat. For instance, a scene that shows a group of people filing in a line to punch Louis real hard in the face for his misbehavior might seem like it'd eventually reach monotony, but the scene is edited and shot with impressive diversity (one shot focuses on Louis' failing posture and another on The Bird's fascinating expressions, and so on) to effectively maintain that drama. Another sequence, probably the best of the overall movie, sees an aerial battle as American soldiers, along with Louis, fend off fierce Japanese planes; it's all executed with a staying sense of tension and intrigue despite the occasional slowing of the pace.

Now, on the other hand, the weakest link of the movie is surely its screenplay, which is unexpectedly disappointing considering that it was written by the Coen Brothers who, by the way, aren't really known for their affectionate writing—so, a very odd and unrecognizable choice there. Unbroken is littered with saccharine, fortune-cookie inspirational lines ("if you can take it, you can make it," guys!) and unrealistic dialogue. If you can make an inspiring movie that feels more natural and convincing than simply emotionally manipulative, or frankly emotionally/psychologically simplistic, then you have some undeniable talent. This film, however, plays it very safe and formulaically; this tale is about forgiveness, religion, idealism— hardly something that sounds like it could be a little more subtle and restrained.

Top Five

In The Top Five of 2014 Comedies?
One of the greatest things to come out of Top Five for me is the realization that Chris Rock is actually a very smart individual. His sheer knowledge of politics and social affairs, as well as the witty and honest rants/commentary he provides on pop culture, is particularly refreshing to see from a comedian. Ironically, his newest film—which he directed, wrote, and stars in—shows us just how our culture treats and underestimates the celebrity, or more specifically the comedian. Andre Allen (Rock) has risen from his stand-up days to a bonafide (comedic) star who's now a part of $600 million-grossing franchises (albeit of questionable artistic merit). Unfortunately, the money and fame come with an ultimate price: no one really takes him seriously. The public is always expecting something hilarious to come out of his mouth—no room for an earnest conversation to ensue instead. "Show me Hammy the Bear, Allen! Let's hear that terrific (ridiculously silly) one-liner." Allen is frankly tired of his image and hopes to branch out and show the people a more dramatic side of himself when he takes a role in a serious film about a slave rebellion: "Uprize." Still, everything from the interviews to the fan meetings continue with certain expectations, incessantly touching on his comedy and wild private life.

It's with this satire that Top Five most impresses, offering the audience an authentic insight into the mind of a mega celebrity on the run from the paparazzi and reality-show coverage. Chris Rock gives a nicely charming performance, endlessly supplied with clever banter and mean-spirited truth-telling. In fact, the movie's screenplay oftentimes resembles a (overtly naughty) Woody Allen film, largely following a woman and man (in this case, Rock and Rosario Dawson) who try to find out more about each other through fast-paced, revealing dialogue as they navigate the busy streets of New York City.

While this surprising comedy at times reflects the intelligence of its director, there's also plenty of the usual raunchy and sexual humor throughout to bring it back to immature levels. Disappointingly, I wasn't allowed to witness enough of the quick-witted, thoughtful Chris Rock from interviews and personal essays. Additionally, I would feel more comfortable labeling Top Five a "drama with comedic moments" rather than a downright comedy. There are about four or five truly laugh-out-loud scenes that're lengthily separated by utterly solemn moments or, otherwise, humorous segments that aren't as effective as they hope—perhaps, more witty than outright funny.On the other hand, the fully complementary soundtrack (Jay Z and Kanye West's "Ni**as in Paris" playing as the theme song throughout) still allows for a profusion of fun to be had along the way. If the music isn't your cup of tea, some of the cameo appearances from well-beloved comedians within will surely satisfy you in the meantime.

Now, in regards to the story—in my eyes, if a comedy fails to consistently force you into hysterical laughter, it better have a creative, memorable narrative to cover up its faults. Well, after learning more about Allen's interesting career and seeing multiple flashbacks into the unbelievably insane times of his life in the first thirty minutes, the bulk of the film after that centers on a three-way romantic plot line, involving Gabrielle Union as his reality-star fiancé and Dawson as a journalist who's eager to cover a day in Allen's shoes, that takes highly predictable rom-com routes and certainly doesn't provide the overall story with that extra touch of inventiveness that it needs to truly soar higher than the current climate of the comedy genre. At the end of the day, there definitely are hints of Rock's utter potential in directing clever, ingenious comedy; he just has to notice that there's no pressure to implement cheaper, populist humor to entertain his crowds.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

All Hope Is Not Lost
Once upon a time, Peter Jackson was overwhelmingly lauded for translating a literary masterpiece into a cinematic masterpiece: the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Despite their immense runtimes, there was never a wasted moment—in fact, the fans begged for an even longer cut of these films (these cuts turned out to be 20-40 minutes longer, still without any hint of overstretching). There was so much to explore in that classically grim and grand tale, adapted from three separate sizable novels (the original LOTR—although once compiled into one enormous book by J.R.R. Tolkien—was split into three books by the publisher later on).

However, Tolkien's prequel, The Hobbit, doesn't have that much material in one single novel to warrant three 2 ½ hour movies, which is why this recent trilogy has honestly overstayed its welcome and presented us with a seriously disposable middle point—The Desolation of Smaug—that barely contributed to the overall narrative. Jackson, like George Lucas, has simply become so fanatically passionate about this world that he'd be willing to showcase every acre of Middle Earth if it was his choice; in a way, that's sweet (or there could be a more cynical aspect to it), but few people are asking for this much. The Battle of Five Armies immediately begins with the ultimate clash against Smaug (that last segment of Desolation of Smaug could've just been inserted here and everything else therein scrapped), which ends fairly quickly only for the situation to now center on Thorin's gradually corrupting mind—his obstinate, greedy hold over the treasure he has finally reached in the vast caves of the Lonely Mountains. A colossal war soon ensues, involving the dwarfs, the humans, the elves, the eagles, and the orcs, over this gold—lust for wealth and power has always been a motif in the tales of Middle Earth.

Entering the theater with lowered expectations following disappointment from the last entry, I actually walked out surprised with how wildly entertaining the film was throughout most of its duration. At this point, some of the more central characters and relationships were fully developed, allowing for more audience investment in their arcs and endgames. The riveting dynamic between Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman), in particular, remained the highlight, as well as the fuel to carry the film from a slower build-up to a climactic finale with satisfying pace. Aside from its ending, which was dragged out with a totally relaxed and plodding speed almost to the excruciating extent of Return of the King, there was never a dull moment that even remotely compared to the boringly prolonged sequence with Smaug towards the end of its predecessor. When there wasn't interestingly-choreographed and colossally-scoped action on-screen, the intriguing evolution of certain characters' paths was placed at the forefront. Moreover, while the orcs were as effortless to kill as ever, the primary villains (Azog, Bolg) took arduous, calculating confrontations with powered warriors like Legolas, Tauriel, Thorin, Gandalf, and more to overcome.

On the other hand, instead of putting effort into utilizing impeccable practical effects to meticulously assemble a believable Middle Earth like Jackson accomplished with the LOTR trilogy, the use of CGI this time around really makes everything appear so cartoony and cheap for such a big-budget epic. The first twenty minutes of the picture specifically exhibit The Hobbit at its visual worst with the sight of an animated-like village being ravaged by unconvincing fire effects. Perhaps, the creatures seem fascinatingly-envisioned, especially Smaug, but the whole production occasionally looks like one giant cartoon— totally unlike LOTR.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

An Epically Bloated Spectacle
Biblical epics seem to be making a promisingly grandiose comeback, helmed by respected filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott. Well, as for the latter, it's quite heartbreaking to witness the downward spiral of a man who once graced us with one of the greatest, if not the greatest—most perfect, epics in Gladiator. Scott's famed production values surely haven't deteriorated since then, but his creative vision certainly has. Exodus: Gods and Kings retells the classic biblical story about the ferocious rivalry between two regal "brothers": Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton). They grow up together under the wing of Egypt's pharaoh, Sati I (John Turturro)—their support and love for one another never defied until their differences on the state of Egyptian slavery materializes and their dutiful father passes away for Ramses to take the throne. On completely opposite moral ends of the spectrum, Moses accepts his destiny as God's prophet to aid the people while Ramses only worsens the citizens' situation—in their poverty and captivity—during his mercilessly tyrannical reign.

To most audiences, this tale is already very well familiar, not just for those who have read the religious text but also for those who witnessed the narrative unfold on the big screen before through classics like The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. Yes—first and foremost—Exodus' production design and sheer visual splendor is simply impeccable. Like with Gladiator, Scott seems to have built an entire kingdom, permeated with astonishingly imposing ornate structures and gaudy decorations. It took me back to the first time I saw Ben- Hur's jaw-dropping, larger-than-life sets and reminded me of this particular genre's current drought in the industry. Still, nothing you see in the first hour and a half of Exodus remotely compares to the wildly entertaining segment that bedevils Egypt with the infamous ten plagues. It's not every day we see a studio film with the disturbing imagery of dead children; Exodus dares to be that uncompromising in its few thrilling moments.

On the other hand, those occasional scenes are interrupted by painfully lengthy stretches of walking and then some more walking. At 150 minutes long, the film is overly bloated, smugly comfortable in its every minute (or just unnecessary) story arc and overly reliant on its spectacle to entertain the crowd throughout its never-ending duration. The exciting specialty of Homeric battle sequences is utterly diluted herein; the amount of executions and monumental clashes is innumerable to the point of forgetfulness. The finale's runtime extends far beyond necessity and eventually strikes you with boredom. Now, we can question the correlation between a truly boring story and one's attention span; frankly, I hate that entire (condescending) argument because it's purely subjective to the eye and mind. If I were to assume that mentality, a moment of hypocrisy would soon follow. For instance, I honestly found Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Expendables 3 to be incredibly soporific while finding myself totally riveted by a slow-paced European film like Force Majeure.

Actually, the first half of this picture appeared wholly by-the-numbers and fairly predictable in its direction without any unique events to justify this modern remake. The premise and story are spectacularly compelling indeed, but the execution is acutely poor (again, the pace and uninteresting Hollywood tropes stand out). "Let's waste a considerable portion of the movie on a romance that's, funnily enough, unconvincingly rushed in its first stage and seriously dragged out post-marriage." So, the plot of the film isn't handled exceptionally well, but does Exodus at least offer something thought-provoking— something profound to say about religion or societal traditions? There's a clear opportunity for that sort of material, but it's either incoherent or downright nonexistent. The ambiguity in interpreting one's (religious) faith/god—intriguingly presented in Noah— is largely absent in this biblical entry. There are hints of an insane man rambling within Moses (seeing a messy-haired, heavily bearded, and gritty personage in the climax, for one), but it doesn't go anywhere from there. With Bale's recent comments on Moses' frightening mania, I was expecting something more of a new, nuanced rendition of the character—again, something like what Aronofsky pulled off with a renowned character like Noah and put quite a topical, stimulating spin on it all.

In addition, yes, the level of whitewashing here is utterly transparent (with the striking presence of Sigourney Weaver as an Egyptian particularly laughable), but I'm not going to pretend like the performances didn't make up for it. It's up to the Hollywood system to birth more colored actors/stars in order for the future ridiculously expensive blockbuster to cast them. In short, this might be too profound and controversial of a topic to sufficiently cover in a film review, but there's yet a silver lining in all this: Christian Bale's and Joel Edgerton's performances are definitely notable as usual. Ben Mendelsohn and Ben Kingsley also make disappointingly brief, but absolutely memorable, appearances while Aaron Paul's talent is completely wasted.

In its closing, the end result that came of Exodus: Gods and Kings frustrates me because I really desired to like this film more—in this day and age, it's undoubtedly an ambitious task to produce a film of this scope. There are only several filmmakers that Hollywood entrusts with this kind of mountainous project, and unfortunately, it fell into the hands of Ridley Scott—a director whose peak is far behind him.

The Theory of Everything

An (Ironically) Uninspired Effort
Despite not being a total genius like Stephen Hawking, everyone should take pleasure in living during a time when they have their own Einstein or Edison. The Theory of Everything tells the tragic, yet inspiring, story of Hawking from his youthful Cambridge years to the miserable deterioration of his body through the following decades by ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). A brilliant mind, this man has birthed a totally new path for quantum theory/mechanics that is so crucial to our understanding of the universe—his ceaseless search for the answers or just that single convenient explanation of what this largely enigmatic world truly is and how it came to be. Are the answers simply derived from our perceptions of time and space? There's no denying that Hawking is an ingenious and fairly eccentric individual, but does his life exactly warrant another Oscar bait of a biopic? Or rather, does it translate well?

Well, without even any attempt at establishing an authentic and aesthetically distinct atmosphere, The Theory of Everything rushes us right into the romance as soon as it commences. Main character attends a crowded party with his more enthusiastic friend. He sights a beautiful girl. Girl, out of miraculous coincidence, notices him with a fancy as well and learns his name. Boom, they meet there and then. Storytelling can't get any lazier and more formulaic than that. Moreover, that concisely introduces us to the tone and style the rest of the film will assume. The screenplay is simplistically boiled down to please crowds with every inspirational platitude and heartwarming comment. As a deliberate tearjerker through and through, it will oftentimes slip in a brief humorous exchange of dialogue to calm the weepers down. Fundamentally, the script is highly predictable in its structure and manner—something you would expect a traditional mindset to adore, which includes the Academy. Bless its heart, the film is so naïve and overly optimistic that its complementary visual appearance/cinematography turns out so bright and unremarkable that might suit it more for a BBC show.

This is exactly the result I expected from another entry in the period piece/biographic genre that follows an extraordinary human being but tries too hard to make him sympathetic and relatable to audiences. We witness a very saintly portrait of Stephen Hawking—never losing temper or making moral mistakes. Even when touching on the more controversial aspects of Hawking's beliefs like his attitude towards religion and the "Creator," the picture executes this all in a way that appeases everyone once again and sweeps any atheistic ideas under the rug quickly, surely believing that such material might prove to be too condescending or alienating for its viewers.

On the other hand, the majestically melodic score by Jóhann Jóhannsson remains one of the film's greatest elements, but the sheer exhibition of acting talent here is definitely what takes the spotlight. Of course, there's the showy, but very effective, performance from Eddie Redmayne, which is juxtaposed with a much more subtle and nuanced performance from Felicity Jones who wears the mien of utter exhaustion and deep concern with her throughout a depressing, albeit very admirable and encouraging, life that's spent nurturing her "companion." It's these two wonderful performances that provoke wild emotion from moviegoers and essentially take the movie beyond the level of generic fodder that it occasionally comes frighteningly close to. At the end of the day, if you're one to allow sentimentality to take over and thus excuse a transparent lack of inspired, brave artistry, then The Theory of Everything might very well win you over. Otherwise, this is the kind of film that might possibly be included in numerous discussions during awards season and then placed into the group of forgettable made-for-Oscars biopics a year later.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

The Plot Thickens, Or Does It?
Just when we thought we had a new complex and interesting female character—a true heroine—this latest entry shows her spending half (or even more) of the time talking about and crying over boys. Her motivations become so muddled by yet another generic YA love triangle (screaming over Peeta and listlessly kissing Gale). This all certainly isn't helped by the fact that Jennifer Lawrence seemingly just doesn't understand the acting technique of subtlety. Her highly hysterical/overreacting character leaves much to be desired in regards to actual nuance—a case that would allow the viewers to look into her eyes and judge for themselves. Lawrence's sheer overacting has dominated most of her work since the Oscar win (actually, including Silver Linings Playbook as well) with this manner becoming even more noticeably cringe-worthy with Mockingjay Part 1. Her loud- mouthed/attention-provoking, apparently "real" persona has won many people over and her way of forcing her "acting" in audiences' faces (weeping, yelling, or generally acting in aggression in almost every other scene) makes it unsurprising as to why she's still in the public's favor.

As for the narrative, the stakes always appear so heightened and forcibly gloom, but the resolutions are always so perfect to the point where it's difficult to seriously believe in the peril of the story's characters. In this addition, Katniss Everdeen has fully assumed the "Mockingjay" symbol—a public leader for the final revolution against the Capitol. More and more of the district's citizens have become aware of the atrocities committed by its government and the vileness of the Hunger Games. It's time to courageously fight back! Each one of these films possess very obvious—perhaps, even heavy-handed—analogies to the contemporary climate and the world's current circumstances when it comes to "radical" revolutionaries, government control/failure of democracy, media influence, etc.

Considering that the series' premise centers on people who're forced to kill each other in order to survive, our primary characters always end up fine by the conclusion. "Is he dead?" "Did they die?" No, not for a minute am I convinced that anyone is on the brink of death. Maybe they'll make the drama and danger genuine in the finale next year, maybe not. Then again, it's the same annoying issue every expensive blockbuster suffers from these days, especially the Marvel films. (Yes, I know this is a film adaptation of a book series that's following an already-created narrative; it still doesn't change anything about the tale's quality or the right to criticize it.) On the other hand, this time around, we thankfully don't have to deal with the utterly predictable and tedious hunger game sections. Part 1 of this two-part climax reminds me of the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in that it focuses more on the set-up and grounded drama rather than the explosive ultimate battles, meaning that I'll likely prefer this one to next year's (yes, I much preferred the first part of Harry Potter's finale to the last half).

Moreover, the stunning visuals/cinematography really does improve with every installment. The look of these films always seem to darken and grow starker with every new entry; the style of the franchise is very much its distinctive own. As a matter of fact, the exceptional sound mixing and grand production design drastically help distinguish this franchise from the innumerable cheap YA rip-offs that came after its success.

Nonetheless, the overall cast, filled with bland pretty boys and unremarkable veteran performances, makes the entire film (which, keep in mind, is considerably shorter than its predecessors) feel like somewhat of a bore to get through. The objectives for the characters are set into motion fairly quickly, but most of the film is wasted on needless dialogue and repetitious scenes ("I love Peeta," and then, "we have to rescue Peeta!" about a dozen times throughout). It only makes it that much more obvious that the studio simply separated the films to blatantly cash in on the property—the newest irritating trend in the industry.

Big Hero 6

Disney's Latest Gorgeous, Yet Formulaic, Offering
Despite any dissatisfaction I generally have with Disney's recent stream of films, they always deliver in the visuals department. There's no doubt that Big Hero 6 is absolutely visually beautiful, further pushing the boundaries of realistic animation. Everything from the subtle muscle movements to the utter skin complexion is ever more impressive. The vibrant colors of rainbow variety and the stunning attention to the setting's many details surely represent Disney's masterful technique and way of extravagance in animation.

The movie opens up with an intriguing first thirty minutes that exposes the audience to a fascinating world of battling mini-bots and a genius 13-year-old kid who gets accepted into a prestigious science university —a white kid with a Japanese name, for whatever reason. Well, actually, this totally fictional city is part of an apparently hybrid world that blends Tokyo with San Francisco—a world that's never explained in the story but only clarified by the filmmakers themselves. Anyway, Hiro (Ryan Potter) shares a very intimate and encouraging friendship with his older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney)—two brothers perfectly getting along in a Hollywood picture. Who knew that archetypes don't always have to play a part in these stories? Tidashi is another talented scientific mind who has created a personal healthcare assistant in the form of an intelligent, useful marshmallow- like robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit). It's only later that some very exceptional code programs this innocently-designed robot to suddenly transform into a "superhero."

As a matter of fact, Big Hero 6 does an outstanding job with character development—an outstanding job in properly fleshing out its multitudinous fun characters, especially in regards to turning Baymax into the sympathetic pet of the year and also giving life to a group of "nerdy" college kids who befriend Hiro along the way (all with their own distinct personalities, including T.J. Miller's usual dude-bro goofiness). Most of all, the story prioritizes the heartwarming dynamic between the kid in need of assistance, Hiro, and his new compassionate pet robot, Baymax.

With all that being said, the story is largely formulaic and unoriginal as we've come to expect from Disney's recent crop of storytelling. A checklist is practically floating around, checking itself off with every emotionally manipulative moment and primitive, predictable turn. "Okay, now smile; now laugh; now tear up; and now smile again!" The ending is also very deceivingly sad and ultimately misleading...not unlike what Disney has done with every one of their endings as of late, including the Marvel ones. Either stick with your route or go with an alternative one instead.

By now, it's become already apparent: gone are the mature, creative days of Pixar who consistently found a way to appeal both to adults and children, or even classic Disney who still had their inspired, magical tales to tell. Nowadays, you have predominantly juvenile comedy—solely consisting of body humor and outdated quips—that always gets the naively-minded mom and her exuberant child laughing off their seats. One can argue that Disney still makes entertaining pictures, but no way will I ever understand any adult that considers their animated work particularly humorous (like, say, the actually hilarious animated films we used to receive in Shrek or The Emperor's New Groove—I honestly think DreamWorks Animation just has a sharper sense of humor).

Dumb and Dumber To

More Awkward and Just Sad Than Funny
Racism, misogyny, bestiality, horny grandmas—it's hard to emphasize just how purely insensitive Dumb and Dumber To is, and it's probably because—confession—I've never seen the original. Therefore, I'm not entirely sure about the level the insolence reaches to in that film, but its sequel is just shockingly offensive to an awkward degree. The situation is made even worse when the majority of the jokes don't come out hilariously either. Honestly, only a few chuckles came out of me from the nearly-two-hour duration, and the rest of the time was spent cringing at the sheer (heartbreaking) humiliation on display.

Don't get me wrong, Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey play their characters very well. The two clumsy lovable imbeciles, Harry and Lloyd, return to the big screen after twenty years of absence for a wild road trip to find Harry's daughter. Yes, he's only just now discovered that he has a 22-year-old daughter, and also that Lloyd has really just been pretending to be completely catatonic at a psych ward all these years, even though he mournfully visited him every single Wednesday for the past twenty years. Carrey's ceaseless reliance on random, bizarre facial expressions and Daniels' fidgetiness are utilized to the fullest here for those that find this type of humor laugh-out-loud funny. Personally, it's just painfully sad for me to witness how these talented actors passionately attempt to recapture those prime days of laughter with their age ever more transparent here.

With that being said, the lengthy trip through various states is still arguably fun as you continue to (occasionally) laugh at these depressingly sad characters rather than with them. The non-stop ridiculous antics are certainly entertaining, keeping you agog to see just how much more over-the-top the plot can possibly get from here. The rest of the cast—you have Laurie Holden, Rob Riggie, Rachel Melvin, and more—is almost as cartoonish and flamboyant in their performances. They're clearly not taking any of this seriously, and I assume the message they wanted to get across was that we shouldn't take the whole thing seriously either. That's fine, but the promised humor is still nowhere to be found.

Actually, seeing Dumb and Dumber To just made me that much more aware of how utterly difficult it is to successfully do comedy. Despite all of this amusement and zany behavior, the comedy still failed to get me guffawing in my seat. At the end of the day, it all boils down to the viewer's sense of humor. If you're one who enjoys a plethora of potty and body humor, you might have a blast with this one. Otherwise, if you're searching for something slightly more witty and creative (there are recent comedies like that, so don't even start on defending the genre—22 Jump Street and The Lego Movie are great examples), you clearly won't be having the exceptional time you were hoping for. (Then again, for all I know, the original was just as dumb.)

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