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Archive for the ‘Two Stars’ Category

11174328_det ‘Ender’s Game’ is a classic novel that had a unique twist in focusing on child soldiers in a sci-fi setting that few other stories touched upon.  Now as a film adaptation, ‘Ender’s Game’ has to bear the weight of what many other adaptations face – the balance of telling the plot of the original source material along with creating smart adaptations that fit better to a film format.  Even beyond these points, though, the ultimate question becomes how does the story fare on film alone.  ‘Ender’s Game’ unfortunately feels like potential that is never reached – a film that may entertain on a surface level but does not resonate when audiences step outside the theater.

‘Ender’s Game’ follows Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a young, intelligent boy is being recruited to join the International Military in the fight against an alien race.  This child soldier program is being headed, on the ground, by Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) who sees potential in young Wiggin and brings him up to Battle School.  Ender has a tough journey ahead as he has to assimilate with his competitive classmates and a series of trials that only grow harder in preparation for the battle against the alien invaders.

Some of the best parts about the film lie in the actors and some of the themes/visuals.  The actors, for the most part, are fairly good in their roles.  The two standouts and well-cast parts belong to Butterfield and Ford who both do a great job with creating multi-faceted characters.  Butterfield is at his best when given tactical reign and brings great conflicted emotion when the situations arise.  Ford, on the other hand, is playing one of his better roles in recent years – feeling manipulative yet patriotic.  When the two interact, there’s a great conflict that continuously plays off the two actors and pays off by film’s end.  In addition, some of the visuals are fairly impressive such as the Battle School itself and it’s huge circular Battle Room that hosts some of the more fun action sequences.  In addition, some of the themes resonate well such as the use of child soldiers and the effects of ‘modern’ warfare.  One of the film’s best sequences come after the climax between Ford and Butterfield that presents more than enough shades of grey to really create some good food for thought.

It’s a shame, unfortunately, that this great final scene showcases the few moments of brilliance that feels underwhelming throughout the rest of the film.  One of the biggest issues come within the film’s rushed pacing.  Especially noticeable in it’s first half, the film zooms off – not exactly in an enthralling way but in awkward, rushed cuts that make emotional scenes lack gravitas and understanding.  This pacing issue eventually starts to get better by film’s end although by this point, it feels too little, too late.  This issue is not even about a long running time since the film runs a little less than two hours – it is an issue of strange editing.  Characterizations are also exacerbated by this issue in addition to the film’s script.  Although Ender and Col. Graff feel like well-rounded characters, secondary characters that Ender meet feel woefully underdeveloped and rushed.  Much like in any movie with a big cast, it’s understandable that many side characters will not be as noticed, yet many of the important smaller characters here are given very little to do and ultimately come off as one-note.  Dink, for instance, has a role to play by film’s end, but his relationship with Ender is never really fleshed and his presence in the final scenes of the film feels confusing than celebratory.  The final issue is in the visuals themselves.  Although the Battle Room and a few other scenes have a relatively interesting, modern look, many scenes seem to lack a more serious aesthetic – falling more towards feeling like props and costumes than natural and organic with the world being created.  The film just always has a quality of aloofness associated with it rather than a natural pull.  Overall, all these issues lead to a lack of nuance and a much more emotional weight that many may have experienced with the books.  Instead, the film ends up being a simple sci-fi action film adaptation with only some more serious thoughts peppered throughout.

‘Ender’s Game’ is the classic case of a film adaptation that just does not do enough to condense and focus it’s original narrative into a film that still feels in spirit like it’s original source material while retaining deeper themes and characterizations.  There are some good points to be noted here including some great acting from Butterfield and Ford along with retaining some general gravitas about themes like child soldiers and warfare.  However, the film is so content on trying to be close to it’s dense source material that it feels more like a summary of the book rather than a compelling film with a rushed first half and a host of secondary characters that feel underdeveloped and underwhelming.  Indeed, the question perhaps comes up – being who this film is ultimately for?  Perhaps the ultimate goal is for fans to read the original source material or for a general audience to consume such content in simpler manner.  In any case, the end result feels disjointed and strange – only hinting at the potential of a greater story that would have worked had the film either trusted it’s source material more to create a grand epic or to hone the film more in on it’s main characters and thoughts.  

Director: Gavin Hood
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 Minutes

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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There is no exact rule for what a film can and cannot do (granted, if we dig deeper, there are intrinsic elements that people do expect but for the sake of the review, I wanted to focus on this general aesthetic).  Instead, it has a sense of purpose in what it wants to try and accomplish.  One of the most important elements I believe a film has to prove before the film ends.  However, even after trying to generally prove it’s central purpose, the said film needs to make the purpose worthy of discussion and prove that it brings a unique insight into the table, especially one that challenges the audience with a powerful question.  So comes Compliance, a film based on true events, that falls very much into the center of this category.  It asks and presents a large moral dilemma, but unfortunately falters when trying to give meaning and purpose behind it all.

Compliance follows Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a fast food restaurant who gets a call from a police officer one day that one of her employees, named Becky (Drema Walker), had been caught stealing from another person and needs to be detained until police could arrive.  Sandra detains Becky into the back and thus begins a long ordeal between the police officer, Sandra, Becky and a host of other people connected to the incident in the film including the person on the other line, Officer Daniels (Pat Healy).

Compliance’s strong suit is in the good aesthetic value of the fairly simple story.  Very little of the plot happens outside of the fast food restaurant and the interior is not exactly filled with interesting set pieces.  The problem that creeps up is simply all the attention of the film being put onto other elements of the film other than the scenery and a close inspection of context and narrative.  At least on a purely aesthetic level, the film is fine.  The colors are muted and dark to reflect the tone of the film while the actual actors seem to fit their roles in terms of appearance.  Compliance also sets up interesting ideas and themes with it.  The narrative explores obedience and power in different facets whether it is over a faceless medium or a manager and her employee.  It also asks about what common sense would be and the levels of relationships that affect the final outcome.  The fact that it is based on a true story definitely adds a bit more at stake to what may seem like an outlandish premise.

The problems, however, creep up in terms of how much one buys the premise and the lack of little else other than the conflict.  Although the film opens up in gigantic letters that it is based on a true story, the film does little to provide the audience with much context and conflict.  Instead, it gives out little morsels of character exposition and is too set on telling the plot straight than trying to imagine and think about more of the relationships of these characters inside and outside the fast food restaurant.  Personally, the lack of this context was a strong factor in feeling that the film did not do enough to explain itself and ended up more ridiculous than shocking.  Showing the audience the perpetrator as well felt as more of a scare tactic than much usage of trying to explain his motivations.  Under the film’s current guidance, hiding the perpetrator under a veil would have serviced the story much better.  Yet the presentation style and the film order felt so by the books that it did not do the end product enough justice.  Such a laid back approach felt to skew the film with more questions than answers – questions that the film could have either filled with it’s own assumptions or at least give scenes of provocative thought to.  The best scene in the film perhaps is in it’s final scene between the manager and another character, discussing the events that had transpired – a scene that had some weight in terms of character development and thoughtful questions on it’s subject matter.

Compliance is a tough pill to swallow, not exactly because of it’s subject matter but the decisions made in it’s presentation and characterization.  The central tale of Compliance is told fairly clearly with little room for the imagination and in that sense, makes for an interesting character study and moral issue of obedience to authority and personal sensibility.  However, personally, the film’s stand as an omnipotent passerby feels inadequate for the subject matter, only subtly hinting at why characters may have acted in a certain way.  This slight glance at the characters’ back story only fuels more of a desire to see how characters acted in different situations compared to the moral challenge presented in the film and to present more characterization that seemed lacking.  The end result is a fairly sad ordeal into those that abuse power and those that don’t do more to recognize such abuse but failing to put much substance behind the spectacle.   

Director: Craig Zobel
Rated: R
Running Time: Approx. 90 Mins.

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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Imagine you prepare for the perfect pitch for a new product to your clients that you feel can do wrong, which slowly crumbles as the meeting progresses and only by the very end do you realize the mistakes you had made.  So too is the viewing of some films in which it becomes so aggravating to watch a movie that has all the right elements watch come apart by the film’s climax.  Great potential, whether from the cast to the set-up and the premise, means little if the execution and all the other elements don’t correctly match up.  So becomes the fate of Safety Not Guaranteed, an intriguing comedy that unfortunately never finds its correcting footing until the very end of the film.

Safety Not Guaranteed follows a Seattle magazine journalist, Jeff (Jake Johnson)  and two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), who are assigned to write a story on a man who wrote a classified, asking someone to to time travel with him on a mission.  When they travel to their destination and meet the author of the ad, Kenneth (Mark Duplass).  After trouble coaxing him to talk more about the ad, Jeff assigns Darius to do his best to infiltrate and get Kenneth to trust her.

Safety Not Guaranteed runs into a number of problems from beginning to end from it’s haphazard plot, numerous hit-or-miss jokes, and a lack of much emotional resonance.  Although the film starts out interestingly enough, the meat of the film never really finds it’s rhythm or pacing.  Instead, it feels like it tries to hit it’s story beats with some interesting indie-like insights that never quite connect well with the main plot at hand.  For instance, it tries to deal with youthful experiences while on the other, it deals with identity and acceptance.  However, the result is a main plot dealing with the Darius and Kenneth with a strange romantic subplot with Jeff and his old high school love interest and Arnau’s ‘coming-of-age’ type story that all feel disparate than cohesive.  This disconnect also comes within the not-so-great comedic timing and jokes.  The film is technically a comedy/pseudo dark comedy, but the actual result is not so rosy.  Although some of the jokes come off as somewhat funny or insightful, the usual result is much more awkward, mistimed or more odd than intriguing.  These problems finally lead into a lack of emphasis and emotional empathy the audience has with much of the characters.  The relationships that are effective in the film feel much more rushed and haphazard compared to the slow-moving and unlikable juxtaposition of Jeff and his love interest which seemingly is given much more time in the spotlight.  These problems as a whole simply feel so haphazard and unfocused.

However, there were still some good parts to the film such as it’s premise, some chemistry and the eventual ending.  The foundation on which the film is built upon is interesting to look into with an interesting lead and set-up into the eventual proceedings of the plot.  When the film is focused primarily on it’s ‘mission’ in the first half and in some smaller parts in the second half, the premise is initially promising.  Chemistry-wise, the two leads, Plaza and Duplass engage well with each other and have that interesting awkward bond that is an intriguing relationship to see grow. And finally, the best part about the film (not to overhype the film) is in it’s ending.  The way the film ends is fairly brilliant given the circumstances of the rest of the film and does answer some of the stranger proceedings that happen through the film.  More importantly, it does show promise in the young creative team here in the fact that something very interesting can happen given the right circumstances and elements.

Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie that you’re rooting for because it has the right ideas and makes an appealing emotional case, but the end result is not as impressive.  The premise for the narrative is fun and interesting; time is made to explore most of the characters’ background and there are some heartwarming moments with some insights.  However, the execution comes off much more ho-hum with stilted moments, jokes that fall flat, and developments that seem inconsistent and odd to pinpoint.  Amazingly, though, the ending makes up for some of these dryer and inconsistent moments with a satisfying answer to many of the film’s problems.  It’s just unfortunate that the entire package wasn’t filled with an equal amount of whimsy and tighter execution that could have elevated the film so much more.  

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses:  ** 1/2 out of *****

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Creating a film is no easy task, of course.  There are a ton of elements that go into the production from the art design, sets, special effects, acting, screenplay, and so forth.  That’s what makes an impressive film all the more satisfying to watch because all the elements mesh together to create something fascinating unfolding on screen.  Snow White and the Huntsman is an interesting case on this thought process in that it shows too well how a film can falter under the weight of a lack of a cohesive vision.  The film is quite chock full of ideas from all of the different elements around it from some intriguing art design to some good acting talent to a different take on the Snow White mythos.  However, for those that look anywhere beyond the aesthetic value and just the ideas, the problem becomes quickly apparent – the film is messy and convoluted, undermining the story it tries to present.

Snow White and the Huntsman follows the titular character, Snow (Kristen Stewart) who has been imprisoned for her entire childhood by her evil stepmother, Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron).  Having lived off of her strange black magical powers, she takes the youth of beautiful young women to continue to live on and take over kingdom after kingdom.  One day, Snow White escapes imprisonment and Ravenna orders her men to go after her including a rogue huntsman (Chris Hemsworth).  When the men finally catch up with Snow White in the dark forest, the huntsman must make a choice to help the princess or the Queen along with what to do next.

The film’s greatest asset must be in it’s art design and plethora of ideas.  There are some beautiful moments that do shine through in the film.  For instance, a scene during the Queen’s coronation in a cathedral looks pretty magnificent and similar visuals throughout the film are peppered with some thought into giving the film a good majestic look along with some nice hues throughout the film.  Secondly, there definitely are quite a lot of ideas that come through, some actually being interesting takes on the Snow White mythos.  For instance, the dwarves in the film are much more embedded within the lore and exhibit some of the more entertaining characters while having small enough tweaks from the original story.

Unfortunately, these positives are seemingly negated by the mishmash of ideas that both are not fleshed out and lack a cohesive bond along with other problems in the production itself.  Although some of the ideas do work out in the film’s favor, most of the story unfortunately does not and even those that are effective are thrown by the wayside since they are rarely expanded upon.  The tendency seems to be to try and introduce a new idea and element with each scene from Snow White’s plight in the castle to her escape into the woods.  Unfortunately, many of these ideas don’t work whether because they are simply too nonsensical given the reality set by the world or non-cohesive to the story at large.  The film tries too hard to become too many elements it didn’t need to be.  For instance, it tries it’s hand in trying to paint a hardened, Shakespearean world to a much more wondrous fantasy land (ala Alice in Wonderland) to a fantasy epic in the vein of Lord of the Rings.  In another, it tries to make us care about characters we’ve known for little more than a few minutes in the film and create an empathetic connection, when in reality, the audience could care less.  The end result is any lack of emotional attachment to what’s happening on the screen due to confusion about the consistency of how this iteration of Snow White’s world ‘functions’ and lack of emotional attachment since the film never lets the audience connect properly with a scene and it’s players.  The proceedings aren’t helped by strange moments in the script and acting as well.  Actors such as Charlize Theron bring about fairly good performances, but some roles such as Stewart’s comes off as strange and wonky.  Even stranger is the script which seems to have a very bipolar attitude and aura.  Even Theron is affected by such proceedings with hushed whispers that suddenly turns into screams of very similar lines over and over to another scene with a kiss between Snow White and a prince that comes off as silly and awkward than nostalgic and surprising.  These problems constantly crop up and sully the enjoyment of what the film is going for.

Snow White and the Huntsman is a complete showcase of style over much substance with an array of interesting visual ideas but lacking any cohesiveness and semblance of an engaging narrative.  Some of the ideas within Snow White seem like interesting ventures and visually, there are some striking moments.  However, first-time Director Sanders seems trapped with simply too many disparate ideas and a lack of a cohesive, emotional tale along with other problems in terms of some of the acting and script.  In the end, a good film is buried somewhere underneath the myriad of ideas in this confused fantasy epic.  

Director: Rupert Sanders
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: ** out of *****

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How should I approach Men in Black 3…a film in which it’s last film came out nearly a decade ago?  We could discuss some of the supposed motivations according to it’s film creators/creative team about how the time travel idea was discussed since the end of the last film or the focus could be on the fact that the film had to be rewritten midway through the shoot and halting production for nearly six weeks.  But in my opinion, the big issue that ran through my mind while watching the film was – did it prove itself to be necessary in the franchise?  The end answer is that it unfortunately doesn’t completely make its case well with a fairly lackluster build-up that hinges too much on the familiar and doesn’t have a great selling point, but the second half and some nice touches make it at least worthwhile watch for fans of the series or anyone in the mood for a random sci-fi comedy.

Men in Black 3 comes back to Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Will Smith) who are still working for the Men in Black and keeping Earth safe from evil alien forces.  However, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) recently escaped from his prison on the moon and is out to kill Agent K for blowing off his arm decades earlier.  To do this, Boris travels back in time.  When J wakes up one day and finds that K has disappeared and is stated as deceased, he must go back in time, meet a much younger K (Josh Brolin) and try to set time right.

Men in Black 3 starts off as a film that plays it a bit too safe by feeling reeled back both in terms of it’s visuals, it’s plot structure and even it’s humor.  Director Sonnenfeld and his crew do their best to really create this feeling of continuity between the first two films and this one in terms of the atmosphere and setting, which at first, may seem like a pretty simple and expected task.  However, along with these set pieces that were supposed to be nostalgic, little has changed other than a new villain, a small shake-up in the concept and a few new characters and scenarios.  The formula of the film feels predictable with the plot beats being too familiar and easy-to-follow.  Even the newer elements that are constantly touted in the film as being shocking end up feeling more innocuous than it really does and bleeds into the best part of the film, it’s ending, which after much musing, feels forced and robotic (both the emotional and action endings).  This lack of effort comes over into the visuals and humor as well – the CG feels like a weak point, with the exception of a scene in Cape Canaveral, and the humor, especially in it’s first half, feels rough and stuck back in time (no pun intended).

So even after all these complaints, is there much left about the film?  Luckily enough, there are some redeeming moments that play enough and especially for the fans.  One strong element is that the actors are still endearing enough from both the older to the newer entry of characters.  (Mostly) Gone are the gimmicky, slapstick or one-note characters and instead, effort is put int building up some of the central characters.  Smith’s endearing and gung-ho attitude is still fun to watch and plays well off of the pretty pitch-perfect Brolin who doesn’t bat much of an eye as he plays a great interpretation of Agent K/Lee Jones’ character.  It’s a gag that may not stay funny throughout the film but emotionally, the connection is there.  Personally, I found a character introduced midway through (with has some obvious deux ex machina mechanics at his disposal) to be one of the most endearing characters of all.  For fans, there are tons of nods and winks to the older entries that should keep them pleased throughout the film along with some fun cameos along the way to try to keep audiences guessing at who else is included.  And even the weaker humor in the first half is supplanted with some better gags and past observations that are played fairly well.   Finally, perhaps most importantly, there is at least an attempt at creating some emotional context with the audience and the characters.  Even though the end implementation may feel artificial, the attempt and the proceeding will at least, superficially, feel wholesome and is at least appreciated in a summer film that could have simply tried to be completely cool.

Men in Black 3 is a strange sight to see – being taken out of retirement (and by the looks of things, most likely being put right back) for an entry that doesn’t completely sell itself as being necessary but still should be enough for fans to enjoy.  The film does have it’s moments such as a great performance from Brolin, some good nods back to the other films, and a relatively strong ending.  However, time has not been so kind to the series and much of it’s humor is relatively ho-hum and a standard narrative that feels too familiar than nostalgic along with relative problems with it’s CG and editing.  Even the ending feels a bit shoehorned.  All-in-all, series fans should enjoy it and as an enjoyable rental, Men in Black 3 is innocuous, but was it all that necessary to bring back and explore? At least in this film’s case, even jumping back in time proved for naught.  

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 103 Minutes

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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