Cramming: 2013’s leftover Movie reviews

Over the course of the year, I wrote a few movie reviews on this blog (though not as many as I had hoped). However, I also watched a few other movies that I didn’t get around to reviewing. So, as 2013 closes, I still want to give my two cents on each of them (though since we don’t use pennies in Canada anymore, I guess that’s not worth much).

pacific_rim-still

Pacific Rim

A movie about giant robots versus giant monsters (the kind regularly featured in Japanese anime), all directed by Guillermo Del Toro, was going to be so good. Unfortunately somewhere along the way, the story and the characters got dumbed-down. Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam plays the lead, hot-shot, mech (i.e. giant robots that are called “Jaegers” in this movie) pilot with all kinds of emotional baggage. Apparently they need him to win the war on giant undersea monsters (called “Kaijus”). Del Toro wanted a light, matinee-movie feel. Unfortunately that seemed to result in every character being somewhat stock (we’ve seen them all before in other movies) and the storytelling being weak, so they really should have focused more on the robots and monsters. While those scenes where the Jaegers fight Kaiju are spectacular, they ended up being exceedingly loud, rainy, and set at night, so they didn’t look as amazing as they could have. If only the script had been better (Aargh, I don’t want to hear how we’re “cancelling the Apocalypse” anymore!), Pacific Rim might have opened the way for a whole new sci-fi subgenre (at least in American movies). I guess we’ll leave it with the Japanese until that happens. (3.5 out of 5)

Kon-Tiki-(2012)_36631356626094Kon-Tiki

I had heard great things about this exciting based-on-true story about Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdal, who intended to sail a wooden raft from Peru to Polynesia to prove that’s how the ancient peoples migrated. What follows is a thrilling ocean adventure (complete with many many sharks!) and other exciting nautical challenges. The film was technically a 2012 movie and nominated for the foreign language Oscar (though the cast amazingly did two versions of all dialogue scenes — in English and in Norwegian — obviously I watched the English version), but it was only widely released in 2013. I was amazed at how good the acting was and I still don’t know how the scenes were staged (I compare it to the CG masterpiece that is The Life of Pi and wonder if any of those similar techniques were used, though their budget must have been way smaller) — Norwegian cinema just continues to blow me away! The cinematography is also quite good. I think this is definitely the overlooked gem of the year. (4.5 out of 5)

Iron-Man-3-2013-Movie-PosterIron Man 3

I’ve never been a big fan of the Iron Man franchise, and to be honest, Marvel movies are beginning to wear me out. Nevertheless, Iron Man 3 was alright. This time around, Tony Stark goes mano a mano with The Mandarin (who’s been transformed from a Chinese supervillain equipped with ten powerful, magic rings, to a middle-eastern terrorist fond of blowing up American targets). There is a bit of mystery and investigation to the story that sends Stark (played again by none other than Robert Downey Jr. at his mouthy best) on some wild goose chasing. Unfortunately, too much of the focus is on Stark’s relationship to Pepper Potts (his executive girlfriend), played again by Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m frankly sick of the “super-heroes just cannot lead normal lives” motif. Similarly, Stark’s famous alcoholism has been transformed into anxiety disorder for the sake of cameras, but again it’s a wasted attempt to humanize a superhero when all it really takes is Downey Jr.’s snappy and intelligent acting for that. Finally, there is an overindulgence of explosions and buildings being destroyed, but whatevs. (3.5 out of 5)

thor_2_the_dark_world_movie-wideThor: The Dark World

Another big budget genre movie that could have been a little more sophisticated. I was really looking forward to this sequel because it was going to have more of Thor’s homeworld of Asgard (and other mythical realms as well), but the fantasy elements were diminished in favour of bringing back Jane Foster and other human characters from the first movie. Granted, Kat Dennings as Jane’s intern made for some humourous lines, but between them and the endless fighting/destruction (We get it, Hollywood, you can make scenes where really powerful beings pummel each other and destroy their surroundings. Enough already, it’s not good storytelling!) there was only a very unmemorable story of how a powerful force gets unleashed, and the bad guy wants to get his hands on it for his own ends. Fun, but a lot of wasted potential and too much service to the mighty Marvel movie machine. (4 out of 5)

the_croods_characters-Cartoon_HD_Wallpaper_1680x1050The Croods

I enjoyed this animated family adventure a whole lot more than I expected. I imagined that this movie would be full of crude humour (y’know, because of the title), but instead it was a touching tale of how one family (possibly the last family) of cavemen dare to leave their cave, and its rules, to try to make it to a new place. Nicolas Cage (who I never prefer) wasn’t half-bad as the over-protective dad, and Emma Stone is great (as always) as the curious and adventuresome daughter. As you’d expect, they encounter all kinds of hazards and creatures along the way (creatures which made me wonder whether this was really supposed to be prehistoric Earth), and the top-notch animation brings it all to life. Of course, in the end they become closer as a family. It’s kind of cliche, but pulled off surprisingly well. (4 out of 5)

epic-movie-1920x1440Epic

I’m not exactly sure why this pro-environment kids movie was set in a microcosm of someone’s backyard rather than in an alternate fantasy world, but apparently there was an entire civilization of tiny people living in the yard owned by a scientist (and more importantly, his daughter). She gets shrunk magically and sucked into a miniature war between the good leafy guys who fly on hummingbirds, and the evil goopy decaying guys who fly on bats. The animation is lovely (and Parks and Recreation‘s Aziz Ansari is really fun as the voice of a snail), but I wish that the story could have involved more world-building. For such an ambitious title as “Epic”, this is a very small movie (no pun intended). An outsider comes to their “civilization”, bringing some spunk and new ideas to save the day. The End. (3.5 out of 5)

Percy-Jackson-Sea-of-Monsters-Image-1Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters

Of all the movie franchises based on beloved kids fantasy novel series to follow Harry Potter onto silver-screen success, the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series by author Rick Riordan probably has the best chance. This sequel features many of the same actors as the first movie, including Logan Lerman as the eponymous hero. As the children of the legendary Greek gods, these kids are all full of power, ambition, and destiny (at least that is what they’re told). While this is no Harry Potter, it’s still a relatively fun story. Percy and friends need to repeat the mythical quest for the Golden Fleece in order to save a special tree that protects their camp from the bad guys. Percy has to face down his nemesis, Luke, a similar demi-god scion who’s gone bad. Along the way, there are special effects galore (including a giant monstrous whirlpool, a giant angry cyclops, a giant titan made of magma, etc.). The themes of personal courage, self-determination, accepting outcasts, family ties, and the follies of blind ambition are fairly transparent. As a bit of a surprise, Nathan Fillion (of Castle and Firefly fame) has a great cameo as the god, Hermes (he runs a delivery service — ha!), but otherwise this is your typical B-level fantasy adventure (3.5 out of 5).

Now You See MeNow You See Me

From the trailers, I expected to love this movie — four crafty magicians pull off an incredible heist? That sounds like a smart, slick, stylish, twisty movie right up my alley. But when the reviews came back trashing the film, I hesitated to watch it. When I finally did, I found my reaction to be somewhat in between. I really enjoyed the theatrics of the movie and the actors (including Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Mark Ruffalo). The plot was not quite as inventive (and it had some logical flaws) as I’d hoped, but I did enjoy the movie. Its pace is quick (all the better to pull the wool over our eyes) and some of the scenes are literally spectacular. I could have done without the silly cat-and-mouse with Ruffalo as the investigator chasing the magicians down. Plus the ending was a big letdown (despite its attempt to be a bit sparkly), but still worth a watch. (4 out of 5)

warmbodiesWarm Bodies

I expected to hate this movie about zombies (yuck and yawn!) who fall in love (eye rolling now) with humans (as if!) but it was actually very well done and nicely acted. Plus, the voiceover narration helped a lot (considering the zombie characters have a hard time communicating). This story actually added some wonderful new elements to zombie mythology and the actors were not half-bad either. It takes a little time to warm up (which is fitting, I guess, given the subject matter) but it leads to a nicely satisfying climax and resolution. So if you are like me and thought this movie would only be good for silly teenagers obsessed with romance and zombies, think again. (4 out of 5)

city of bonesThe Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Speaking of teenagers, I had mixed feelings going into this movie about another set of pretty teenagers full of magical abilities, encountering monsters and other assorted supernatural beings, and falling in love with the first brooding bad boy to come along. I’ve seen Twilight. The teen girl perspective (especially when she’s got some supernatural destiny) is hard for me to get into. When Clary Fray (played by Lily Collins) needs to rescue her kidnapped mother from the clutches of forces that are part of a supernatural underbelly of New York that she never knew existed, she discovers all kinds of amazing things about herself and her family history. She’s helped by fellow pretty teen, Jace (played by Jamie Campbell Bower), who helps her navigate this new world. The story has become kind of cliche, but I had read (though not really enjoyed) the novel that this was based on, so I want to give it a chance. Frankly, it was alright, but surprisingly too short. There was a lot of the world created by author Cassandra Clare in her novel that didn’t get a fair shake in the film. For what it’s worth, it seemed that the movie succeeded in at least being faithful to the book. I doubt I’ll read on, but if a sequel movie comes out, I might give it a watch (3.5 out of 5)

oz_the_great_and_powerful_2013_movie-wallpaper-1280x800Oz the Great and Powerful

I have very little to say about this disappointing take on the Wizard of Oz story. I don’t know whose idea it was to take that children’s literary classic and make it about squabbling petty sisters, swooning (kind of) over some on-the-run flim-flam artist. The visuals were quite good, but they were wasted on a decidedly mediocre movie (3 out of 5)

trance1Trance

Another disappointment. Danny Boyle is one of my favourite directors, so when he takes on a twisty, neo-noir, head-trip about a guy who discovers (while under hypnosis) all kinds of mysterious, crazy things that he’d said and done, that seems like a great premise for a great movie. Instead, it’s a bit of a trippy mess and the actors don’t really feel right for their parts (not even Scottish everyman, James McAvoy). (3.5 out of 5)

OblivOblivion

The first out the gate in the unofficial trilogy of “scorched Earth” movies that came out this year, I think Oblivion was probably the best of the three. It had an interesting (and more sci-fi than the other two) story, featuring Tom Cruise as one of the few remaining caretakers of a desolate planet Earth after humans have mostly left. Visually the scenery and art direction is excellent. The story also takes some interesting twists when Cruise’s character Jack Harper discovers a cryo-frozen body that he kind of recognizes and starts to learn that things are not what they appeared to be. From there the story only expands to a somewhat triumphant and hopeful ending. Hooray for future #1! (4 out of 5)

matt_damons_elysium-wideElysium

While I’m glad that this movie didn’t end up being called “Baja Dunes” (I guess that was just an IMDB.com joke), it was a huge letdown in many other ways. It had the direction of District 9‘s Neil Blomkamp, so it should have been some good, gritty, socially-conscious sci-fi. Too bad the story was a so thinly-veiled over its political message that it might as well have been an Obamacare commercial. Matt Damon plays a slum-dwelling labourer who ends up strapped to an exo-suit trying to storm Elysium (that’s an orbiting hive of rich, white people) in order to hack their computer system and make their “heal-all” machines available to the rest of the world. Jodi Foster is also there, playing a moustache-twirling villain in a designer suit (by that I mean jacket and skirt, not mechanized armour). There were a number of exciting action scenes with great production values, so it wasn’t all just a public service message, but I really wished that this movie had been more about what a realistic future might have been like rather than a blatantly obvious placard for the problems of the present. (3.5 out of 5)

After_Earth_reviewAfter Earth

Last, and sadly least, came After Earth (an apparent vanity project for Will Smith and his son Jaden) which should really not have bothered having the name “Earth” in its title. More about a son living up to his military hero of a father (and the way you do that is by exhibiting no fear before a monstrous enemy who literally smells fear — duh!) this movie/story has really nothing to do with Earth. When the Smiths crash land on a planet that happens to be the former home of the human race, the landscape looks similar, but the animals have changed a bit. Though it has many of the trappings of science fiction (mostly in its backstory), they could just as easily have set this movie in the present-day Rockies, with Jaden trying to survive in the harsh, 21st century wilderness (though I guess his injured dad might not have been able to be talking in his ear — What is the cell reception like in the Rockies?). Director M. Night Shyamalan really needed a smart, sophisticated hit movie on his hands to turn things around on his freefalling professional rep. Again, the visuals are quite amazing, but I guess he’ll have to try again next time if he wants to create a great, career-redeeming film. (3 out of 5)

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