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Reviews and articles on movies, music, video games, and more

“Gravity” (2013) Review

gravity-poster

Looking back, the last time I had been anticipating a movie as much as “Gravity” was probably almost a year and a half ago with “The Dark Knight Rises”. Between being a big sci-fi fan, having read reviews about the great visual presentation, and knowing Alfonso Cuaron (director of one of my favorite films, “Children of Men”) was directing, I don’t know how much higher my expectations could have been going into the theater. Despite these massive expectations, I was not ready for what I got with “Gravity” – a film that is a ground-breaking cinema experience and one of the best films I have seen in a long time.

While it’s easy to start by talking about the visual feast in “Gravity”, it is better to start by saying that “Gravity” is about more than just good looks… It is a film about survival. Space is a lonely and dangerous environment, one where Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) find themselves trying to survive in after debris destroys their space shuttle. Outside of a few opening scenes, this is the main overarching plot of the film – two astronauts trying to find a way back to Earth. This may sound like a shallow plot, but Alfonso Cuaron has developed a lot of depth within such a seemingly narrow framework. Conversations between Kowalsky and Stone are well-written, and reveal a nice depth of character that connects the viewer to the film’s main characters. This, in turn, makes each twist the film takes more impactful, leaving you wondering what will happen next.

Story aside, the most awe-inspiring part of the film is easily the overall presentation. Sure, I heard the visuals were amazing and broke new ground for the cinema world. However, “Gravity” doesn’t seem to be content with raising the bar for visuals in a film – it wants to create a new idea of what you can expect from a film. From the zero gravity physics, to beautiful shots of space and Earth, to the incredible detail in the debris, “Gravity” is a sight to behold. I can easily say that it is the best looking film I have ever seen, hands down. Even with the major effects and visuals, what really pushes it to another level entirely is the little things. There is a striking attention to detail present in every single scene that makes every piece of the film feel as realistic as possible. In the words of George Clooney’s Matt Kowlasky, you really “can’t beat the view”.

Above all else, "Gravity" is the most visually stunning film I've ever scene. As George Clooney's character rightfully remarks, you really "can't beat the view".

Above all else, “Gravity” is the most visually stunning film I’ve ever scene. As George Clooney’s character rightfully remarks, you really “can’t beat the view”.

Speaking of visuals, it is necessary for me to touch on the 3D effects in the film. As you know, I have felt that 3D film-making was more a gimmick than anything, never adding anything to a film – at best you get a few interesting touches, at worst it takes away from the experience with poor use of background blurring and effects that make each quick camera movement jarring. In “Gravity”, however, the 3D is spot on, and enhances the visual experience enough that I would highly recommend seeing the film in 3D over 2D. Between these 3D effects and the overall visual presentation, “Gravity” is an incredible film that must be seen in theaters at least once.

Further adding to my praise for the film is its sound design. The soundtrack itself is perfectly ambient and unsettling at times, fitting right in with the challenges faced in and emptiness of space. Also, the clever use of volume and suppressed noises and music to mimic the vacuum of sound in space is a nice touch that draws the viewer into the setting. In particular, I have to give credit to the opening credits and scene, where the aforementioned items start the film nicely.

Lastly, it is necessary to give mention to both Clooney and Bullock for their roles in the film. Both play their parts wonderfully, with Bullock in particular turning in a tremendous performance as Dr. Ryan Stone. When you are tasked with being the only two characters on-screen for basically the entire film, you need to be able to turn in a special performance. This is exactly what Clooney and Bullock have done, and through Cuaron’s direction, the character interactions become entirely natural and the audience quickly connects with the two on-screen.

“Gravity” is not just good looks. It is a complete package. It has been a long time since I can remember leaving a film in awe, but “Gravity” did just that for me. It is a complete package – from visuals and sound, to plot and acting, “Gravity” is about as perfectly executed as they come. Don’t miss the chance to enjoy one of the most incredible experiences you can see in a theater, or even wait for it to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray. Do yourself a favor and experience “Gravity” in theaters, the way it is meant to be seen. You will not be sorry.

Final Score: 10/10

“Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) Review and Second Opinion

Silver Linings Playbook poster

Silver Linings Playbook was off my radar for a while. Then, I heard some good things about the film, saw it got nominated for a list of Oscars and other awards, and saw my fiance had an interest in seeing it. This caused Silver Linings to quickly jump up to the top of my Netflix queue. I have to say that I was legitimately looking forward to seeing it. However, once I popped in the film and sat through its two-hour run time, I was sorely disappointed. I honestly can’t even say I liked Silver Linings Playbook – it just really wasn’t good. The only thing I was left thinking about the film about mental illness, romance, and the Philadelphia Eagles was where all the praise came from.

I might as well start with the main redeeming quality of the film – the acting. Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro both give great performances as expected – the surprise is Bradley Cooper who delivers an excellent performance. Cooper and Lawrence play well off each other and some of their back and forth banter is genuinely well acted. The supporting cast also does a great job of enhancing the central characters’ performances. Despite my negative opinion of the film as a whole, one thing I have to give Silver Linings credit for is its high quality acting. Still, while I say the acting is high quality, I want to clarify that I didn’t think it was award-winning – as such I don’t think Lawrence deserved her Academy Award for Best Actress (while I may be biased toward the incredible performance given by the young Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, I still think other actresses were better than Lawrence last year).

So, sure, Silver Linings has a positive in its acting. Unfortunately, this positive is quickly wasted on poorly designed characters and asinine dialogue. Don’t get me wrong – I know Silver Linings is a film with a heavy theme of mental illness. But, throughout the whole film, it felt like every single character had some kind of mental issues, bouncing unbelievably back and forth between emotions, changing moods multiple times within a scene, and carrying out some very unnatural interactions. This causes the characters, as a collective group, to bring down the film despite the cast doing the best they can with what they are given.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence work quite well together and both give great performances in the film. It's a shame that that's about all the film has going for it.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence work quite well together and both give great performances in the film. It’s a shame that that’s about all the film has going for it.

To make matters worse, the dialogue is quite poor. Personally, I’d classify the dialogue into three categories – writing that is genuinely smart, writing that tries to act smart, and writing that almost seems schizophrenic (no pun intended) to the point where all the characters’ lines become a jumbled mess of words that are totally incompatible with each other. The majority of dialogue falls into the latter two categories, while the few scenes that fall into the first are pretty enjoyable.

Outside of the above, the rest of film is generally underwhelming. The central plot feels like nothing more than a clichéd romance drama with a heavy dose of insanity and some obsessive Eagles fanaticism thrown in. The cinematography is not bad, but not great. Even the soundtrack is virtually non-existent for most of the film, and when it does appear, is mainly just licensed songs layered in.

I really expected more out of Silver Linings Playbook. As a multiple award nominee and having received much critical acclaim, I was looking forward to seeing this drama/black comedy. Having seen it now, I can say that I don’t understand the reason for the praise. The film feels shaky and inconsistent in its execution with some poor dialogue and characterization. In the end, Silver Linings has so many flaws that the wonderful acting by the cast cannot save it.

Final Score: 4.6/10

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Second Opinion:

Silver Linings Playbook was a big hit last year among critics and fans alike, but after finally seeing the film for myself, I cannot jump on the bandwagon. The movie’s main plot, focused around mental illness, seems so forced that almost every single character ends up acting like they have some sort of illness. The love story between Cooper and Lawrence gets lost in a flat story line, forced acting, terrible dialogue and just a lack of many qualities that make you connect with a film.  

The film lost my attention multiple times, which is a rare thing when I am the one who was genuinely interested in seeing the film. I was truly disappointed in the result. As mentioned in the main review, the cast does their best in trying to make the film the best it can be, but the great acting jobs of the cast could not redeem the clichéd, forced plot line of this film. As a romance, it lacked the emotional connection that many films can easily create to intrigue at least the female audience and as a drama, the story line was so two-dimensional that you become easily uninterested. I just could not get myself to enjoy this film one bit, which I really thought I would, given the widespread praise and award nominations. Better luck on the next film I choose. 
Second Opinion Score: 4/10

Song of the Month (June 2013) – The Dear Hunter – “Girl”

I decided to start a new monthly entry for the blog, namely the “song of the month”. I will pick one song each month that really grabs my attention and write a quick discussion on it here. Check out each month’s song to possibly find some new artists you may not have heard of or just to hear some good jams.

For the first song of the month, I have selected The Dear Hunter’s “Girl”. “Girl” is the seventh track off their recent release, Migrant (you can read my review of the album here). The album as a whole is stunning, but “Girl” manages to stand out due to its heavier feel amidst a more calm album. “Girl” starts chunky with some powerful vocals, but manages to transition right into a clever chorus that combines some back and forth vocals between Casey Crescenzo and his sister, Azia, with some intricately layered guitar work. This results in one of the most interesting sounding pieces on the album. The song moves back to its chunky roots and back to its calmer chorus once more before lastly bursting into an attack of searing guitars, drums, and bass, along with some powerful vocals by Casey before finally settling back at its chunky roots. Whether you enjoy excellent vocal work, heavy-light transitions, or clever guitar work, you will find something to enjoy here – not to mention the track fits nicely for a summer jam. If you enjoy “Girl”, I cannot recommend Migrant enough (as noted in my review). I hope you enjoy the new recurring entry – let me know what you think of the song.

One Epic Pub Crawl to “The World’s End” Preview

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are teaming back up for what seems to be another hilarious adventure. The duo, whose past credits include Shaun of the Dead and more recently Paul, have a way of taking popular movie topics (zombies, aliens, and action films) and turning them on their heads. With the upcoming film, The World’s End, the focus is an epic pub crawl. A group of five friends fail to complete an epic crawl when younger and now reunite to finish the deed – until things take a crazy turn and the crew end up becoming humanity’s last hope for survival. The film should be a nice breath of fresh air compared to more brainless comedies (i.e. Identity Thief) which I always try to avoid. Look for The World’s End when it releases this October and let me know if you enjoyed Pegg and Frost’s past films or are looking forward to this one.

“Iron Man 3” (2013) Review

I wasn’t really hyped to see Iron Man 3 when the first trailer was released. Truth be told, I enjoyed the first two Iron Man films, but didn’t really think they were that amazing by any means (the same goes for The Avengers). Sure, Robert Downey Jr. is a perfect fit as Tony Stark, but the films often felt high on style, low on substance for me. With Iron Man 3, Marvel has gone in a different direction – this entry features less Iron Man and more Tony Stark. Does this change work for or against the new film?

Looking at the plot, Iron Man 3 succeeds in focusing more on its characters. This helps make each event more impactful, as the viewer can connect with the film’s characters. Good thing, then, that Iron Man 3 has some great new characters. The Mandarin is a well constructed character (played perfectly by Ben Kingsley) and Harley is played nicely by the young Ty Simpkins. Still, not every character is great, and the main villain, in particular, is underwhelming in motive and characterization. Despite that though, the cast as a whole does a great job bringing the characters to life and Robert Downey Jr remains an absolutely perfect Tony Stark.

This focus on characters causes a shift in typical “superhero” film content. The majority of the plot is centered on Tony Stark outside of his suit. That is not to say that there isn’t any action in the film (there is, and it looks awesome), but there is much less of it. This will certainly turn off some fans, though this change was a breath of fresh air for me.

One thing "Iron Man 3" always has going for it is Robert Downey Jr. - he has always been a perfect choice for the character and fit the personality of Tony Stark perfectly.

One thing “Iron Man 3” always has going for it is Robert Downey Jr. – he has always been a perfect choice for the character and fit the personality of Tony Stark perfectly.

As far as the other components of the film go, the cinematography is fairly standard. There are some incredible shots during the more frantic action sequences, and the chaos looks beautiful. Despite this, you know exactly what to expect going in, and the presentation of the film does nothing to break free of the general “superhero blockbuster” standards. This goes dually for the soundtrack, which features some intense compositions, but again feels like I’ve heard it in every other Marvel hero film.

In the end, Iron Man 3 combines some genre standards and adds a few twists to them (mainly its focus on characters and not on action). This works in the film’s favor, as this newest entry into the Iron Man series feels more fresh than its counterparts. Despite its many typical pieces, the formula of sarcastic humor combined stunning action sequences works for Iron Man 3 (as it did for its past entries). What sets this third film apart from and ahead of the previous two is its choice to take a risk and focus more on Tony Stark and less on Iron Man. It’s just a shame that a better central villain wasn’t present, or even some better characterization. Thus, as it stands, Iron Man 3 is the best entry in the series (for me), but still lacks the pieces it needs to move from being a good film to a great one.

Final Score: 6.8/10

“Upstream Color” (2013) Review

Upstream Color cover

 

I have never seen a film like Upstream Color. Simple as that. Shane Carruth’s recent release is a film that can be described in many different ways – “experimental”, “art film”, “abstract” – however, no classification could really do it justice. Even in broad terms such as sci-fi or drama, Upstream Color cannot find a home. Be assured, you have never seen anything like Upstream Color – and I mean that in a good way.

If you’re familiar with Carruth through his first film, Primer, you know he has talent. Upstream Color has a similar, yet completely different style than that first release. While both films are highly complex, revealing most secrets upon repeated viewings, they differ in their approach. Primer was a rational, sci-fi story with a heavy emphasis on dialogue to push the story forward and make sense of the film’s logic. Upstream Color relies mostly on its audiovisual presentation to portray its story – there is much less of a focus on dialogue (with the last half-hour being nearly free of any spoken words) and more attention on ambient sounds, thematic imagery, and striking visuals. This focus allowed Carruth to create on of the most original films I’ve seen in a long while.

As far as plot goes, the less you know going into Upstream Color, the better. While I will avoid any major spoilers, I still recommend not reading ahead if you are definitely going to see this film in order to get the most out of the experience…..

Still there? Okay. The easiest way to give an idea of the plot of Upstream Color is to say that the film is about the life cycle of an organism, the players who continue the cycle, and those who are affected by it. This basis becomes much more elaborate as the film weaves many themes into its story and presents the viewer with a multi-layered puzzle that at times can be both simple and incredibly complex at the same time. As it stands, the film places the viewer as an inanimate object observing these natural cycles and people and forces you to put all the pieces together actively and pass your own judgement at times. The story may seem to be abstract nonsense to some (and those that don’t enjoy experimental film-making will surely dislike the film), but I assure you there is a coherent narrative here that allows for some personal interpretation.

The Sampler is just one piece in the cycle playing out in "Upstream Color", but he is certainly the most interesting and complex.

The Sampler is just one piece in the cycle playing out in “Upstream Color”, but he is certainly the most interesting and complex.

With this narrative in place, both sound design and cinematography take over and breathe life into the story. While it is often easy to look at the visuals and sound areas of a film separately, here it is not possible – the two are intertwined and integral to the experience. That being said, the overall presentation is absolutely stunning. From Carruth’s ambient soundtrack, to his adept editing, to the striking cinematography, the film amazes its audience in each and every scene. The only real negative for this piece of the film is the dialogue volume. For some reason (possibly due to the focus on ambient sounds and nature throughout the film), the volume of the dialogue in the film is too low. In one sense, this serves to put more of an emphasis on the aforementioned ambience – in another, it is maddening as the viewer has to struggle at times to make out some of the dialogue. Still, this is a small price to pay in the scope of the overall presentation.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that both Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself (yes, he wrote, directed, did the soundtrack for, produced, and starred in his film) both did a great job with their roles. With little dialogue in parts of the film, the cast must speak through expressions and actions – something that the entire cast does a wonderful job of doing. The nuances in each performance really help bring the viewer further into each character’s mindset and perspective.

In conclusion, as I said before, you have never seen a film like Upstream Color. Still, you will be glad you saw Upstream Color (unless, of course, you are not a fan of experimental film-making). The presentation and plot of the film are stunning and highly original, and Carruth is surely someone of talent to keep an eye on in the film industry. While there may be some issues with the dialogue audio levels, this hardly detracts from what will be the most original film you’ll see all year. Even if you don’t understand exactly what you saw, I think you will  have a hard time saying you didn’t enjoy it.

Final Score: 9.0/10

Making Choices Matter – “Beyond: Two Souls”

Are video games art? How much do your choices in games really matter? Can video games ever come close to movies as an entertainment media? These are all questions that have been brought up and discussed many times over, but never seem to quite have a definitive answer. David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream are trying to change the opinions on those on one side of the fence with their upcoming release, Beyond: Two Souls. The game is meant to put the player through a fully interactive movie/story – one where each decision matters and weighs heavily on the outcome. Looking at their past releases, in particular their most recent game, Heavy Rain (one of my favorite games ever), the team is incredibly talented and knows exactly what they are doing. Heavy Rain broke many gaming barriers and managed to allow you to take so many different paths through its storyline, with main characters being able to die and still have the story continue. With Beyond: Two Souls, David Cage wants the player to be fully immersed in the story and wants to make his presentations perfect – something the inclusion of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe in the lead roles will certainly help. This game will make waves when it is released, so get ready to experience something different from this game if you haven’t played any of Quantic Dream’s past releases. This is one game that I can say has a good chance at actually coming close to Bioshock Infinite as Game of the Year for me. If anyone has played Heavy Rain, I’d love to hear what you think. If not, what do you think about Beyond?

Ryan Gosling Teams Back Up with Nicolas Winding Refn for “Only God Forgives”

Just knowing that Nicolas Winding Refn is directing Only God Forgives would be enough for me to want to go see it. However, after seeing the above trailer, it quickly jumped to one of my most anticipated films in the coming months. Nicolas Winding Refn has proven he is a talented director (see Drive and Valhalla Rising) and with Only God Forgives, he rejoins Ryan Gosling, who starred in his prior film Drive. This bodes well for this release as the two seem to work quite well together, with Gosling able to really let his acting skills out with Refn’s characters. Let’s hope Refn can continue his streak of high quality films. If you enjoy crime thrillers and striking visuals, and don’t mind some quite graphic violence, look out for Only God Forgives when it releases this July.

“Castle in the Sky” (1986) Review

Castle in the Sky poster

As I have mentioned previously (in my review of My Neighbor Totoro), Studio Ghibli is one of the most imaginative studios in the film business today with films spanning more than three decades. The other night I watched another of their films, Castle in the Sky. With Hayao Miyazaki at the helm as usual, the film is certainly an enjoyable experience filled with great animation, excellent characters, and an imaginative story enjoyable for those of all ages. While Castle in the Sky has all of these Ghibli standards, it also has some flaws that hold it back from reaching the same heights as some of their other works.

Castle in the Sky features a story about a young girl with a mysterious necklace, a young boy with dreams of proving a legend true, and the groups of pirates, military, and special interest personnel that quickly become interested in both of them. For the most part, this tale is just as imaginative and interesting as some of the studio’s other works. Yet, one of the biggest flaws in the film is the story’s pacing. About halfway through the film, the plot stalls and the film hits a stagnant period of chase scenes with no plot development. The foundation is there for a great plot, but this section breaks up the two better sections and takes away from the overall film. Had Castle in the Sky been cut to about 90-100 minutes (as opposed to the 125 minutes it stands at), the plot would be more powerful and the film better for it.

Though the plot has its struggles, the animation does not. Castle in the Sky is a visual masterpiece for its time. The film was made nearly 30 years ago and still looks phenomenal today. As always, there are a ton of little details that go a long way to making each scene even more impressive and complete. Even in its more action-packed scenes, the visuals remain exceptional. Though it may be flawed in other areas, Castle in the Sky‘s visuals are not.

For an animated film that is 27 years old, Studio Ghibli crafted some absolutely stunning visuals for the film.

For an animated film that is 27 years old, Studio Ghibli crafted some absolutely stunning visuals for the film.

Similarly to the plot, the sound department has some highs and lows. On one hand, the soundtrack is wonderful, capturing various landscapes and sequences nicely and enhancing each scene. On the other, the voice acting for the film is not up to par. It’s nowhere near the worst voice overs I’ve heard, but it’s still disappointing. James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin’s performances really cause the characters to suffer due to poor vocal work.

This voice acting is a shame since the characters designed by Studio Ghibli are exceptional. Each character is given a unique personality that the viewer can easily connect with through each character’s visual design, dialogue, and interactions. With how well designed the characters are, combined with the overall animation, the imagination of Miyazaki and the artists at Studio Ghibli seems limitless. Truly each Ghibli/Miyazaki film is a work of art.

Overall, Castle in the Sky is a great film – not just a great animated film. Its visuals, story and characters are all wonderfully crafted – a standard for Ghibli and Miyazaki films. Still, some shortcomings in voice acting (on the English Disney dubs, not the original Japanese) along with pacing issues hold the film back from standing at the top of Ghibli’s resume. Despite its issues, Miyazaki fans will enjoy, and the film is great for viewers of most ages. If you’ve seen Castle in the Sky, let me know what you think about the film and where it stands against your other Ghibli favorites.

Final Score: 7.8/10

Guillermo del Toro Is Back – “Pacific Rim” Opens July 12th

With how much I’ve been staying on top of movies this year, I have absolutely no idea how Pacific Rim flew under my radar. I mean, a sci-fi film with aliens and robots directed by Guillermo del Toro (whose “Pan’s Labyrinth” is my second favorite film ever) and Charlie Day of Its’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame is in it? How could I not know about this? Regardless, Pacific Rim looks pretty damn awesome. Knowing del Toro’s knack for imaginative visuals and stories, this should be an incredible film – well above your typical alien/robot films. If you enjoy sci-fi or have enjoyed any of del Toro’s previous works, put this film on your radar (as I have) and look for its release on July 12th.

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