Posts Tagged ‘movie reviews’

District 9 Exceeds All Expectations

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

district9posterGuest Review By Troy Wagner

Sometimes movies completely surprise you. They leave an impact that you never saw coming. Perhaps it’s because you go in with lowered expectations, believing that what’s to be on the screen will be nothing more than a formulaic summer movie with some explosions and, get this, aliens. While District 9 has both of those things, there’s no way you will be calling it formulaic, and is likely to be one of the best movies you see all year.

Okay so, movies about aliens. That should seem pretty familiar to most people up to this point. We’ve seen them terrorize countless space crews, attack arctic research labs, and outright invade on plenty of occasions, be it on patriotic national holidays or not. The main problem with these, however, is the fact that they’re not all that rooted in reality. What would realistically happen if aliens were to come to Earth? District 9 has a pretty good guess.

The aliens, later known as the “prawns”, have arrived. Their enormous mothership comes to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. Once the millions (yeah, MILLIONS) of prawns are taken off the ship, they are placed in holding areas sectioned off by the government, the eponymous district 9. Time passes and these areas soon become slums, occupied by the prawns, who have now become dirty, diseased foragers. The government decides to rellocate them to a more isolated area to appease the paranoid public. A beaurocratic pencil-pusher named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copely) is appointed to lead the massive undertaking.

In all honesty, that’s all you should know when going into the theater to see District 9. It is made all the more fantastic the less you know beforehand. This could be said for any given movie, but it really needs to be emphasised in this case. It’s inspiring to see how the filmmakers turn such a simple premise into something pretty remarkable.

Essentially every aspect of District 9 is masterfully executed. It’s director Neill Blomkamp’s first feature, yet it easily excells above other, more well-established films of the genre. However, while nearly all of it deserves praise, lead actor Sharlto Copely is the centerpiece that holds everything together and makes it work so well. He’s the lead amongst very few flesh-and-blood counterparts, and plenty of CGI prawns (not to mention the fact that many of his scenes are improvised AND District 9 is Copely’s acting debut). Wikus is a very complex character to watch on screen. He goes from being despised, to tolerated, to loved, and back again multiple times. It’s just staggering to realize that Sharlto Copely had never truly acted for the camera before until District 9. His performance is incredibly powerful at points. It really just blows you away.

District 9 is right on the verge of being revolutionary. But it’s not flat out perfect. Jumps from the documentary style to being behind the fouth wall can be jarring, and the CGI is dodgy in rare instances. But those are relatively small blemishes on an otherwise amazing film. As long as you’re not squeamish about intense violence, of which there is only a handful, District 9 is a fresh and exciting film that absolutely deserves to be seen.

9 1/2 out of 10

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Review: Public Enemies

Monday, July 13th, 2009
Johnny Depp as John Dilinger

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger

Throughout 1933-1934, the United States fell under attack not to any foreign power, but to a host of notorious gangsters. For 18 months, these criminals wreaked havoc on cities throughout the country, robbing banks and killing dozens. The individuals responsible for such acts would become legends in American folklore: Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie & Clyde, and John Dillinger.

The film Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, gives us a glimpse into the lives of two men, both headed on a course that will lead them to inevitable confrontation and infamy. In one corner is the notorious John Dillinger (Depp), “Public Enemy Number One” – a thief and a murderer at the height of his career. In the other corner is Melvin Purvis (Bale), the FBI agent given the task of bringing Dillinger’s reign to an end.

For those already familiar with the historical accounts of Dillinger and his exploits, the events in the movie will come as no surprise. Ultimately, this is Dillinger’s story and so the film spends much of its time focused on his actions. But its attention to the events comes at the price of character development. Insights into the man behind the legend are just as interesting as the historical facts, but this film provides only a few glimpses into Dillinger’s humanity. When we do see those moments, they are compelling. We watch as he struggles with the realization that gangsters like him are finite and that more sophisticated crimes make his bank robbery methods obsolete.

In contrast to the recklessness and charm of Dillinger’s character is agent Melvin Purvis, the man in charge of the Chicago field office. Bale’s Purvis is a man with razor-sharp focus and unquenchable determination. Although Purvis is mostly one-dimensional, we are exposed to his imperfections. His impatience often leads to errors in judgment, which gives Dillinger opportunities to esacpe apprehension.

From a story perspective, Public Enemies is a solid gangster film, not lacking in the type of action one expects from the genre. Its focus, however, mainly centers on historical fact at the expense of well-rounded characters. From a technical standpoint, the movie falls short. The video shooting format was not handled well in some places. Although it did provide some nice deep depth-of-field compositions, some interiors were flat and underlit, and I couldn’t help but compare some action sequences to re-enactments one might see on TV documentaries. Good film, but it could have been incredible.

6 out of 10

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What I’m Watching: Seven Pounds

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

seven_poundsThere’s no doubt that Will Smith has impressive range as an actor. His emotional performance in The Pursuit of Happyness is one to be remembered, and I suppose he was hoping to capture lightning twice with last year’s Seven Pounds. However, Smith’s performance alone couldn’t prop up a film with very little in the way of story and execution.

The film is a very weighty drama, in which Smith plays Ben Thomas, a broken man seeking redemption for a past mistake. The ideas explored in the film (redemption, goodness, selflessness, sacrifice) are all valid and the story does a good job of promoting all that is good with humankind. However, the biggest failure with Seven Pounds is that it gives away too much too soon, and it’s attempt at a foreceful one-two emotional punch falls flat.

The ending is given away at the onset of the film and then quickly we are rushed back to the beginning to see all the events in chronologcal order. The hope is that viewers will sit on the edge of their seats, waiting to see why Smith’s character made that phone call in the first scene. However, because of what we know in that opening moment, Ben Thomas’ ultimate plan is known a little less than half-way through the movie. We are left to watch as Ben goes around meeting a host of characters upon whom he can impart his goodness, in an ongoing effort to ease his own guilt.

Seven Pounds is certainly an emotional film, but one that lacks any serious impact.

4 out of 10

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Pelham 123 a Mixed Bag

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

taking_of_pelham_one_two_threeGuest Review By Troy Wagner

The Taking of Pelham 123 is a wrong-place-wrong-time hostage thriller involving public transportation. Think Speed mixed with Inside Man. It’s a formula that, for most, should be familiar. And that’s the movie’s biggest problem – it all feels familiar.

Remakes have been the Hollywood house special for a while now. This isn’t news to anyone. The Taking of Pelham 123 follows the trend. It’s based on the 1974 movie of the same name,which in turn, was based on a novel published in 1973. And in 1998 we were treated to a made-for-TV-movie version.

It exclusively tells the story of New York City subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), whose normal day at work is made a little more complicated when a subway train, Pelham 123, is hijacked by four men. The head man, Ryder (John Travolta), demands ten million dollars in one hour, after which he will, surprise surprise, start killing hostages. Garber becomes the middleman between the gunmen and authorities, of which include a hostage negotiator named Camonetti (John Turturro) and the conveniently unnamed mayor of New York himself (played by Tony Soprano…no wait, I mean James Gandolfini).

The pacing of the story can best be described as “boiling water.” From the get-go, the tension steadily increases, leading to the inevitable confrontation. The film is most enjoyable during these tense moments of conflict and violence, but these moments do little to balance out the overall slow pacing of the film.

The performances are competent, with Denzel Washington doing the most with what he is given, becoming the likable, flawed everyman stuck in a hostage stand-off. John Travolta, unfortunately, seems to have lost his action movie edge. I felt as though I should feel sympathy for his character, but Travolta’s performace made it difficult. He hams up the “tough guy” routine so much that I could have served it for Christmas dinner. There’s an inconsistency in his portrayal, shifting quickly from the smooth criminal to the F-bomb-laden frenziness of a guy on the edge. The supporting cast is solid, but ultimately forgettable.

Pelham 123 also seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Mix equal parts drama, action, and comedy, let bake for 106 minutes, and you get one confusing little package. The banter between Garber and Ryder becomes outright philosophical at points, questioning religion and morals, which feels about as out of place as it sounds. This is made all the more disorienting when the comically inept police force join in the fray. They’re on screen for no other reason than to offer director Tony Scott more ways to insert outrageous and unrealistic car wrecks and carnage.

The Taking of Pelham 123 isn’t awful, but it’s not particularly engaging either. There are scenes when I felt completely in the moment, but there were simply too many flaws to overlook. This movie doesn’t rank at the top of the “Worst Remakes” list, but don’t expect any Oscar material.

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What I’m Watching: Rescue Dawn

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

rescue-dawnFor the record, Rescue Dawnis not a war movie. If you go in expecting heavy action, lots of gunplay, and large-scale battle sequences, you will be horribly disappointed. Rather, the film is about friendship, hope, and survival. It’s a character study. The pacing and method of storytelling is more like The Shawshank Redemption- short episodic sections that, when assembled together, form the overall narrative arc.

Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a Navy pilot stationed on an aircraft carrier just off the coast of Laos in 1965. The story follows Dieter’s first mission, subsequent capture by the Vietnamese, and his life in a makeshift POW camp deep in the jungle. Director Werner Herzog made this film as a follow up to his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Flyin order to expound on more of the story and complete what Dengler himself saw as “unfinished business.”

The film itself is honest in its approach. It’s incredibly genuine and we feel as though we are watching actual events as they unfold. Bale’s dedication to the role is admirable and the investments he makes in his portrayal pay dividends in the final cut. Bale and the supporting cast of fellow POW’s (including Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) succeed in developing a level of realism that fills in the for the lack of action and digital effects.

The biggest problem with Rescue Dawn is the fact that it has no real emotional impact. It fails to create a level of intensity that is to be expected from this type of story. At times the narrative seems content just to flow along slowly, like the lethargy of a meandering river. Therefore, it’s hard to connect with Bale’s character. You want to commit to the story 100%. You want to cheer for Dieter. But in the end you just sit back and say to yourself, “Whatever. If he makes it, he makes it.”

4 1/2 out of 10

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