Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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Edited by: Pat Aldo (cousin, co-author, Marvel expert)

Avengers: Age of Ultron is an exciting, action-filled spectacle and a new mark in the timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since the first Avengers, I’ve been waiting for this group of heroes to team up again, and here it is. I thought it would be hard to recreate the same kind of magic as seeing them assemble for the first time, but it wasn’t. There’s more character development this time around and we get to see the relationships within the team evolve. Everything I loved about The Avengers is back in Age of Ultron, with the addition of some new, interesting heroes and a different kind of villain. Marvel fans will likely be pleased with the result, but for those who aren’t quite on that bandwagon, it’s still a pretty fun blockbuster and there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it too.

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are back together as an epic team to take down a HYDRA bunker run by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who is in possession of Loki’s scepter and is using it to experiment on humans. Siblings Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are two such humans who have developed abilities as a result. Scarlet Witch is capable of telekinesis and mind control, while Quicksilver can run at the speed of light. Because they have a personal vendetta against Stark, they allow him to take back the scepter, knowing full well what he’ll use it for will backfire. Ultimately, he and Banner use it to jump start a peacekeeping program called Ultron. Ultron, after seeing the kind of destruction people like the Avengers can cause, becomes a new threat who believes the only real path to peace is their extinction.

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Despite whatever feelings one might have about the movie’s flaws, Joss Whedon deserves a ton of credit for creating such a giant film that successfully juggles a large group of characters, ties up loose ends from the previous events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and sets up for the next few films to come, while at the same time, still maintains its own unique story. That may sound daunting, I know, but it never gets as overwhelming as you’d expect. What’s necessary to accept about the MCU is that “it’s all connected,” which means you’re going to get a lot more out of every film if you’ve been following the timeline up until this point. That’s not to say that none of the movies can stand up on their own, because many do, including Age of Ultron, but knowing what’s going on in regards to the bigger overall story is certainly going to affect your experience with it.

For me, there’s a special nerdy excitement I get out seeing these characters that I’ve been watching for the past 7 years interact with one another. What makes this experience different from the first Avengers is that the characters all know each other now so the relationships between each have had a chance to evolve. The smaller moments in the film where the team’s hanging out together are some of the best scenes, like when they’re partying at Avengers Tower and Thor challenges his fellow Avengers to try and lift Mjolnir. It’s also nice to see that some of the supporting characters from other movies aren’t totally forgotten about, like James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) from the Iron Man movies and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) from The Winter Soldier.

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The action is just as good, if not better than in the first movie, starting out with a tracking shot following the team while they work together to breach the HYDRA bunker. It’s quickly paced and full of adrenaline, and of course, you’ve got the trademark humor and one-liners spread throughout. Take it how you will, some people enjoy the humor and others don’t. The jokes are excessive at times and it does down play the threat a little bit, but Marvel’s thing isn’t to be super serious, and that’s a theme that runs throughout all its films. If you haven’t accepted that by now, you probably never will.

The formula for Age of Ultron is definitely cut from the same mold as the first. There’s some build up of story which leads to a climactic battle, and then it winds down towards the end. Most, if not all superhero films follow this formula, so it may seem a bit repetitious, but the way it is executed definitely helps. There are plenty of epic moments in the action that make up for the over-familiarity and I love seeing the teamwork in play.

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One thing I was somewhat disappointed with was that Ultron wasn’t as menacing as the trailers made him seem. I think James Spader did a good job, but the most threatening aspect of his character was the fact that he can travel through the internet and access anything he wants, gaining him the upper hand. He’s also able to upload his consciousness to any of his robot legion as well. But these individual bots are pretty easily defeated, and thus prevent Ultron himself from contributing to the larger battle sequences. I think that besides Thanos, who’s been portrayed as the puppet-master of sorts, Loki remains the MCU’s best villain to date.

Additionally, I wasn’t overly fond of what they did with Black Widow’s role in this film. I like how both her and Hawkeye have more to do this time around, and Hawkeye’s character development is great, but I can’t help but feel like Widow was reduced to a stereotype. The romance between her and Banner seemed unwarranted, and it was too random for me to get behind. Their scenes together seemed cheesy and forced, and basically, I just wish they hadn’t made the only established female character on the team a love interest. I enjoyed finally discovering Widow’s backstory, but her character can be so stiff at times. This could just have something to do with Whedon’s take on her. Something my cousin, Pat, actually pointed out to me was that Widow and Scarlet Witch don’t exchange any dialogue in the film. I think if Marvel can improve on anything in the future, it’s the way they handle their female heroes, and I’m eager to see how they fare with the Captain Marvel movie, since it’ll be the first film in the MCU centered on a female character.

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The Maximoff twins, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, are both incredibly welcome additions to the film. The Witch’s abilities are, admittedly, cooler than Quicksilver’s speed, but they both work well together. I found her capability to manipulate the Avenger’s minds particularly awesome, allowing the team’s human nature and vulnerability to be revealed. Though the twins’ Eastern European accents may have proven to be a struggle at times, I think Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson fit their roles perfectly. I only wish that they had a little more screen time.

The best addition, however, would have to be the Vision. Hands down, Vision is the MCU’s latest breakout character, and his presence was insanely rewarding. This beloved comic book character, often referred to as “the Android Avenger,” is especially visually appealing, showcasing phasing abilities and powerful energy blasts. It’s fantastic to see Paul Bettany, who has been voicing Tony Stark’s A.I. program JARVIS for years now, finally assembling with the Avengers on-screen in physical form. He serves as a wealth of knowledge and powerhouse for the team, moving forward, and his addition to future installments is incredibly exciting!

The next adventure for our heroes will be in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. Judging by the emerging conflicts shown between Stark and Rogers, I’d say Age of Ultron has already set a pretty solid foundation for this upcoming plot. Despite whatever small faults I may have had with it, I think Whedon did a job worth recognizing with such a difficult task. Avengers: Age of Ultron is an enjoyable addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and an exciting reunion for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. I truly loved it.

4.5/5

Ex Machina (2015)

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There’s little I enjoy more than some quality sci-fi. Even though many of the themes have been redone over and over again, it’s the way these themes are presented that separate a good sci-fi from all the rest. If you’ve seen the trailer for Ex Machina, you can probably guess that the film is about a man’s creation of an A.I, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Alex Garland, who penned the scripts for acclaimed movies like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd, makes his directorial film debut here. It’s a beautiful, confident and smart first shot at directing, as well as a completely enjoyable and thought-provoking experience that just might be the best of the year so far.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an intelligent programmer who works at an internet company named Bluebook. He wins a company lottery for a one week visit to meet the CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote home somewhere in the mountains. When he gets there, he learns that Nathan wants him to perform a Turing test on his humanoid A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) to try to distinguish whether or not she is a conscious machine.

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Nathan’s home is beautiful and sleek, but it’s also claustrophobic, empty and uninviting. All doors are sealed off and can only be opened by a special key pass, of which Caleb’s access is limited. Yet somehow, it seems the perfect reclusive dwelling for a genius billionaire.

Nathan, played impressively well by Oscar Isaac, whose career seems to be really taking off ever since Inside Llewyn Davis (and rightfully so), is an unpredictable character. When Caleb first meets him, he is quick to skip the formalities, acting not like the typical genius billionaire you’d expect him to be, but rather like more of a “dude bro.” You’d think this would make him more likable, but on the contrary, it makes him more suspicious. You know right away there’s something off about him, but you don’t know exactly what it is.

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Caleb is exactly what you’d expect him to be. Polite, smart, and excited to take part in an important event of scientific discovery, even if it means he has to sign off his freedom to tell anybody anything that transpires during his visit. His sessions with Ava are meant to be nothing more than a simple conversation between the two of them in a room that is separate by reinforced glass. Ava is a remarkable looking robot, with a human face and a translucent body. Alicia Vikander brings a human elegance to the character, but even when she hides her robotic parts under feminine clothing, you never forget exactly what she is.

Although Ex Machina does feature some impressive special effects and some beautiful cinematography, it thrives on its story and small number of characters. It doesn’t have to resort to inconsequential action scenes to be involving, and that’s what I like about it. It’s slow paced, but that doesn’t mean it comes anywhere close to being boring. It slowly builds up tension as the relationships between all the characters continue to change.

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Ava and Caleb’s sessions together are mildly uncomfortable, since it’s clear there’s some sexual tension building between the two. All the while you have Nathan watching everything that transpires through camera and audio. None of these characters are black and white and the story is mostly unpredictable. I thought I knew exactly what direction it was going in right off the bat, but then it turned. That’s really all I can say without giving the plot away, and I already feel like I’ve said too much. For anyone who hasn’t seen this yet, avoid as many spoilers as you can because you don’t want to deprive yourself of the wonderfully oblivious experience.

It’s not all technical, serious and tense, though. There’s some genuine comedic relief spread purposely throughout, including an unexpected scene with one of the characters that I don’t even want to give away in this review because it’s so random and perfect that I refuse to take the “wtf” factor away from anyone.

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Filmmakers have been interested in the idea of artificial intelligence for years. Everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to The Terminator, to this year’s Chappie. Perhaps the most interesting idea about artificial intelligence is that it isn’t completely fictional. The very questions these characters bring up in this film about consciousness, humanity and sexuality are no doubt some of the same questions we’ll be asking ourselves one day in the near future. If a robot can achieve consciousness, then what will continue to separate humans from machine? There’s so much more presented here, though, which I can’t get into due to spoilers, but you can see for yourself if you watch it. It’s a really incredible film.

Ex Machina is a wonderful sci-fi, full of amazing visuals, a great script, and complex characters who are played by some very talented actors. Alex Garland has shown that he can do much more than write the hell out of a script, this is an impressive directorial debut. It’s a smart, tense film that stuck with me and left me thinking after I exited the theater. I know it’s only April, but in my opinion, this is the best theaters have had to offer so far this year. It’s an absolute must-see for 2015.

4.5/5

Genre Grandeur – Akira (1988) – Justine’s Movie Blog

My choice this month for Movierob’s Genre Grandeur is Akira, a landmark in Japanese animation and a cool dystopian sci-fi.

As always, thanks Rob for putting these together and for letting me participate!

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For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Dystopian Movies, here’s a review of Akira (1988) by Justine of Justine’s Movie Blog

Thanks again to James of Back to the Viewer for choosing this month’s genre.

Next month’s Genre has been chosen by S.G. Liput of Rhyme and Reason.  We will be reviewing our favorite fantasy/sci-fi animated movies (non-Disney or Pixar) . Please get me your submissions by 25th May by sending them to animated@movierob.net  Try to think out of the box! Great choice S.G.!

Let’s see what Justine thought of this movie:

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akiraposterThe dystopian genre is always an interesting one. There’s so many great movies that have come out of it, Blade Runner being my all time favorite. But since I’ve already gushed about it on my own blog, I’ve decided to focus on a less obvious choice. Akira, aside from being a great dystopian sci-fi…

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Furious 7 (2015)

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It’s absurd, heartfelt, action-packed, hilariously corny, physics defying, balls-to-the-wall, zero to sixty in three seconds, turn off your brain kind of fun. Furious 7 is everything I expected in a 14-year-long running franchise that’s only getting better with age. While not perfect, even according to my “dumb fun” popcorn movie standards, it still delivers the kind of entertainment one hopes to experience at least a few times a year at the theater. “This time it ain’t just about being fast,” so don’t overthink it, embrace your guilty pleasures, and just sit back and enjoy the ride.

After the events of Fast & Furious 6, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), and friends are now being hunted by Owen Shaw’s (Luke Evans) big bad brother, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). Meanwhile, a government official who calls himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) recruits Dom and his team to save a computer hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who has been kidnapped by a terrorist named Jakande (Djimon Hounsou). He wants to get his hands on a program she created called “God’s Eye,” which will allow him to tap into any device with a lens and track anyone anywhere on the planet in a matter of seconds. Mr. Nobody promises Dom that if he saves her and retrieves this chip, he can use it to track down Shaw and kill him before he does anymore damage to their family.

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James Wan, who is known for directing horror movies like Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, takes over Justin Lin’s seat in the director’s chair. Wan has a knack for elements like tension and suspense, and you can feel it here more than in the previous films. Not to mention, Statham’s character is like a Furious version of a Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees, a near invincible human being popping up out of nowhere without explanation of how he got there, and wreaking havoc on anyone he can. Unfortunately, Wan doesn’t quite have the same eye for action, resorting to the old shaky cam, close-up shots, and quick cuts, making for quite a few nauseating fight sequences. But there are plenty of insane set pieces rivaling anything that has come before to make up for some of that. You’ve got cars parachuting out of an airplane, Paul Walker running on top of a bus teetering off the edge of a cliff, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson jumping out of tall buildings, and cars flying through skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. A lot of great, crazy fun is packed into this movie, and if you ask me, it blows the sixth film right out of the water.

Now let’s look at a few of the things I had issues with. First off, I have to inform everyone that I’m a huge supporter of “The Rock” and that I believe he’s the best thing to ever happen to this franchise. I’m serious. Sure, the fifth film was good because it had united all these characters together and it was a cool heist movie that was wildly entertaining, but don’t even tell me the addition of The Rock had nothing to do with the turning point of this series. They threw him in Fast Five and he totally owned the screen. His character, Hobbs, is the most ridiculous character in the entire franchise, he’s got gigantic muscles and the cheesiest one-liners you could imagine, but best of all, he’s a badass–he’s got everything you would want in a character for this type of movie. It was a sin he was so under utilized, and whoever’s idea it was to reduce his role to a mere cameo needs a good old slap across the face. But I’ll admit he still owned the little screen time he had, which included scenes walking the streets of L.A. with a giant machine gun, busting out of an arm cast like the Hulk, and getting to say awesome lines like, “Woman, I am the calvary.” Long live Dwayne Johnson.

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Still on the topic of under utilization: Tony Jaa. I’m really not surprised, because with the exception of Gina Carano in the sixth film, the awesome fighters they cast in these movies usually get reduced to a small henchman role with little screen time. It sucks. He shined brightly with the small time he was given, though, but Hollywood really doesn’t know what to do with martial artists. Oh, and Ronda Rousey really needs to take some acting lessons if she’s going to be doing movies on a regular basis now. She’s a badass and I love her, but her facial expressions are ridiculous and she really gives Vin Diesel a run for his money on the bad acting front.

They also made Jason Statham’s character a bit of a side story, which I wasn’t expecting to happen. He doesn’t have as much screen time as you’d think, and I wish we could’ve had more of him. He was great and he makes a genuinely threatening villain, he can also throw a punch or two, or fifty, and that’s definitely not a bad thing.

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I also found it hilarious in the scene that’s supposed to take place on the same day Tokyo Drift ends, Lucas Black, who is supposed to be a high school student, looks like a 40-year-old dude now. He’s only 32, but man, it is obvious as hell this film is taking place nine years after that one, and it takes you right out of the movie for a bit. On the same kind of subject, the CGI’d Paul Walker face in the some of the scenes is a little noticeably distracting. I’m not going to complain, though, because what kind of a person would I be, right? I’m just saying, you’ll probably notice.

I’d be lying if I said that the sadness related to Paul’s death didn’t overshadow this movie a little bit. Dying young and so sudden like that is an awful thing, and seeing him in this is a bit like watching a ghost. There’s a few sentimental moments in the movie involving his character, Brian, and Mia (Jordana Brewster) as he struggles to adapt to the fatherly life, but the last few minutes of the film are a full blown tribute to him, allowing his co-stars and us as an audience to say good-bye to both Paul and Brian. Yes, I got choked up, really choked up, it’s hard not to when you’ve spent so many years of your life watching him. All I can say is that it was done in a tasteful way, and I’m pretty sure Paul would’ve been pleased.

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Furious 7 is totally over-the-top absurdity, but it’s some honestly good popcorn entertainment for sure. I really enjoyed seeing the characters again, I think that the theme of “family” that seemed so forced in the previous movies actually holds some real sentiment now, and I’m sure that Paul’s real life tragedy has something to do with that. I liked the addition of Kurt Russell and Jason Statham to the cast, there were some underused actors like Dwayne Johnson, Tony Jaa, Djimon Hounsou, and Statham to an extent, but the action makes up for some of what’s lacking in character.

In the end, it does a decent job delivering on what you’d expect, if you’re a fan of the franchise, you most likely won’t be disappointed. It’s good, dumb fun with a real emotional element, and includes a lovely send off to the late Paul Walker.

4/5

Genre Grandeur – Elite Squad (2010) – Justine’s Movie Blog

My entry for Movierob’s Genre Grandeur for the month of March (Latin directors) is Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, a great foreign crime drama from Brazilian director José Padilha.

Thanks again, Rob!

intro_clip_image004For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Latin Directors, here’s a review of Elite Squad by Justine of Justine’s Movie Blog

Thanks again to Anna of Film Grimoire for choosing this month’s genre.

Next month’s Genre has been chosen by James of Back to the Viewer.  We will be reviewing our favorite movies featuring a dystopian world (past or future). Please get me your submissions by 25th April by sending them to dystopia@movierob.net  Try to think out of the box! Great choice James!

Let’s see what Justine thought of this movie

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Brazilian director José Padilha may be more widely known for his recent attempt at a Hollywood reboot, RoboCop. I admit I still hadn’t bothered to watch the film, because…well, Hollywood reboots generally suck. I had read, though, that he was frustrated with the lack of creative control he had over the film. Welcome to Hollywood…

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It Follows (2015)

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For those looking for a mainstream horror film where the story and characters are sacrificed to provide a gamut of cliché and conventional scares, you’ll probably be disappointed in what It Follows has to offer. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has created what some critics are calling “the best horror film in years.” That’s a little too much of a superlative statement for me, but I can agree that it is smart, unique, stylish, and a breath of fresh air to the horror genre, much like The Babadook was last year. If you liked that film, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It’s a slow burn horror in that it takes its time building up tension and suspense in a very effective way through the use of setting, a wide-angle lens camera, and an awesome synth score. You may go home afterwards and have no trouble sleeping, but you might be looking over your shoulder on your way back to the car.

The movie opens with a young girl running out of her house in high heels (serious props to her, I couldn’t run in those things), looking past the camera in fear of something we can’t see. She runs in a half circle, back into the house, grabs her purse and keys, and then we see her on the beach, talking to her father on the phone and apologizing for ever being a pain in the ass. Later we see her with her body mangled in an awkward position, thus setting the tone for the horror that will ensue. Focus shifts to Jay (Maika Monroe), a 19-year-old college student living in suburban Detroit, who contracts what can only be described as a sexually transmitted monster after a night of consensual sex with a guy named Hugh (Jake Weary). Hugh does the gentlemanly thing by tying Jay to a wheelchair and forcing her to feast her eyes upon the monster that will now be relentlessly following her until she decides to pass the curse to someone else. It’s slow, but not dumb. It can take the form of a stranger or someone you know, but don’t let it reach you, because if it does, it will kill you and then it will make its way back down the line of people who contracted it. That’s pretty much the gist of “It.”

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Mitchell does a great job of bringing us into this almost dreamlike world. The time period is irrelevant, although it’ll be sure to confuse and maybe even frustrate some. The characters watch black and white movies on old television sets that look like they’re from the ’70s or possibly even earlier. On the other hand, you have the girl in the beginning scene using a modern day cell phone, and another character reads books on what looks like a kindle in the shape of a clamshell. The ambiguity of the setting is supposed to make us feel like this isn’t our world, this is like some alternate universe where sexually transmitted monsters might exist, a world I wouldn’t want to live in. Most of the film takes place in suburban areas of Detroit, where poverty hasn’t yet spread to their turf. But you would never know it was Detroit unless one of the girls didn’t mention how her mother warned her never to go past 8 Mile (I can thank Eminem for even knowing what that is).

The cinematography plays a big part in the suspense of the film. The 360 degree panning shots are wonderfully effective, as well the wide-angle lens that always leaves more than enough background in view just in case “It” decides to creep into the frame at any point. No matter what’s going on in the foreground, you’re sure to always be looking behind the characters, because you know it’s coming, but you don’t know when. Along with this, the music is a complete mood setter. It’s composed of a John Carpenter-esque synth soundtrack that works so well in helping create and maintain the tension throughout the film.

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The most obvious connections you can make with the plot is that “It” is an allegory for an STD, and Jay is a symbol for “innocence lost.” Yeah, that works on some level. There’s a lot more than that you can take from it, though. For example, if you look past the surface you can find themes of morality, mortality, trust, love, and fear of entering adulthood. After Jay sleeps with Hugh, she lets him in on a little fantasy she used to have about being an adult and having the freedom to go on dates, but when she reaches adulthood and obtains this freedom, it’s not what she expected. Freedom isn’t really freedom at all when there’s responsibility and consequences that come with any action. Ultimately, she and the other characters, like Paul (Keir Gilchrist)–the childhood friend who clearly has a thing for her–end up reminiscing of the days when they were young kids without a care in the world.

When you reach adulthood, that’s usually the time when you become most aware of your own mortality as you shed the naïve image of yourself as being almost invincible. For Jay, this mortality is as real and fearful as ever, because, well…there’s a horrifying monster following her now. One of Jay’s friends, Yara (Olivia Luccardi) spends a lot of the time in the film reading Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, of which she quotes at one point, speaking about the inevitability of death. Death is an obvious symbol in a lot of horror films, but It Follows has a distinct way of showing how our main character figures out how cope with it.

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There are a few ways you can watch this movie. You can try and pick out whatever deeper meaning or symbolism you can possibly find in the plot, and I’m sure any one person can find quite a few if they tried, or, you can just sit back and enjoy it for what it is. It’s a stylish Halloween meets Final Destination meets whatever throwback to ’80s horror you can think of. Or you can choose to dismiss it as a “not scary at all” arthouse piece of crap. I’ve seen plenty of mixed audience reviews regardless of the mostly positive critics’ opinions, and when it comes down to it, this type of movie isn’t going to work for everyone. If you want a lot of gore and a lot of jump scares (and it’s okay if you do), you aren’t going to find that here.

For me, personally, I loved it. It’s visually stunning, I loved the soundtrack, I thought the acting was definitely above average, and the story is a refreshing and unique take on horror. I like how Mitchell created this very unsettling, creepy atmosphere without having to rely solely on gore and jump scares. Is it the most terrifying movie in recent years? I don’t think so. Does it get a little weird towards the end? Yes. But I’ll stand by my initial response to it, I liked it, it stuck with me when I left the theater, and I think that it’s a very well-made film in general. And admit it, being followed is scary, if you were being followed by even a non-paranormal being–especially if you’re a girl or maybe a drug dealer who screwed over your boss recently–you’d be scared, am I right?

4.5/5

Chappie (2015)

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Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi is a bit more intelligent than people are giving it credit for. It’s a flawed film, for sure, but it hits a lot of the right notes. Chappie touches upon the surface of themes like morality, humanity, consciousness and religion, but sometimes fails to really peel back the layers to expose something deeper and more meaningful inside. Where it does really succeed is in humanizing the titular character and allowing us to see him like we would a child, a pure soul that is molded by his environment. Chappie might not present a whole lot of new ideas, but it has a lot of heart, and it isn’t afraid to be silly, and that’s what I liked most about it.

Among one of the many resemblances to District 9, Chappie starts with talking heads giving exposition about what’s going on in the world. Thanks to people like Anderson Cooper, we find out that the police force has been replaced by robots called Scouts, and Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the creator. Thanks to Deon’s Scouts, crime in Johannesburg has decreased dramatically.

One robot, Scout 22, suffers a big blow in the field, causing his battery to become fused inside him, so he’s due to be crushed. Deon, who has recently figured out a formula to give the robots a mind of their own, steals 22 to test it. Before he can, he is kidnapped by Yolandi and Ninja (of “Die Antwoord” fame), and their partner Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). They want Deon to turn off the robots so they can carry out a successful heist. When he assures them this isn’t possible, they force him to reprogram 22 so that they can train it to work for them. When he wakes up, Yolandi gives him the name “Chappie” and he eventually becomes a part of their gangster family.

Chappie is essentially a child. When Deon gives him a mind of his own, it’s like a baby being born, not knowing how to speak or being able to recognize the world around him. Deon, as the creator, is a God-like figure if you’re looking at this in terms of religion. Chappie actually learns morality from him. Before Deon leaves him with Yolandi and Ninja, he makes Chappie promise that he won’t hurt other people. It’s like God giving Moses the Commandments, you know…”Thou shalt not kill,” that sort of thing. The funny thing is that it sticks with him. Throughout the film, he remains adamant about not using guns on people, despite Ninja successfully molding him into the gangster lifestyle in other ways.

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Yolandi is the compassionate mother figure who comes to really love and care about Chappie. She teaches him about mortality and “the beyond.” Ninja, aside from being a selfish jerk who tries to manipulate him, is the father who tries to teach Chappie that the world isn’t a nice place, and that he has to be tough if he wants to survive in it.

Chappie’s consciousness is brought into existence by humans and shaped by humans, and so he logically becomes a human in a robot body. He feels fear, sadness, love, and like all humans, becomes fearful of his own mortality. As his irreplaceable battery begins to run out, he questions why a creator would bring him into the world just so that he could die, a question I’m sure plenty of us have asked before: what is the purpose of life if we are only meant to die? Now this is what I mean when I say this film touches upon the surface of interesting themes. Unfortunately, it eventually does get bogged down by action, violence, and a couple insignificant and ridiculous characters.

I haven’t yet mentioned the role Hugh Jackman plays in this, and that’s mainly because I hated his character. No, not because he was evil (yes, he’s evil), but because he was mainly dull and annoying, and I got tired of him really fast with his stupid mullet and cargo shorts. Hating Hugh Jackman? Yeah, that’s a first for me. He plays Vincent, who is a bastard former soldier and an engineer obsessed with wrecking Deon’s robots and promoting his own human-controlled, giant robots who are decked out with all the weapons you’d need for destroying an entire city, let alone fighting urban street crime. For most of the movie, he seemed like nothing more than an insignificant side story, and his character was like an annoying fly buzzing about that you couldn’t swat down. I’d like to just pretend he didn’t exist. Sigourney Weaver can join him in the void of wishful nonexistence because she was equally as stupid and even more insignificant.

Let’s talk about the purpose of having “Die Antwoord” as main characters in this film. I mean, why? I have to assume it’s for the same reason Blomkamp wanted Eminem to play Matt Damon’s role in Elysium. What that reason is, I’m not sure, weird fascination with rappers I guess? I went into this fully expecting to be annoyed by them, but truth be told, the scenes with them teaching Chappie how to live the gangster lifestyle was hilarious and very entertaining. Yes, it’s a little annoying that they wore their own merch and that the soundtrack was basically all Die Antwoord, making this film kind of seem like a 2 hour music video at times, but I still enjoyed most of their scenes, and I thought they had an interesting and dynamic relationship with the main character.

The CGI and mo-cap in this film is excellent. Along with these things, Sharlto Copley, who plays Chappie, does a great job with making him feel human. For example, in scenes like when Chappie was getting abused by thugs I felt like I was watching an innocent child being abused, I was actually upset and disgusted by it. He’s a piece of metal, but you care about him like you would any other human in any other story. It’s the same way I felt watching the aliens being oppressed in District 9. Blomkamp may miss the mark sometimes, but he knows how to present those human elements and make them feel real, and of course, having the right actor to portray them is a plus.

The only other issues I had with this film is the ending. I can’t get into it without giving too much away, but I felt like it was rushed. I wanted the film to spend more time with the idea, and for those who have seen this already, you know what I’m talking about. Instead, what we got was a long scene involving a shoot-out and Ninja making ridiculous facial expressions. I didn’t like how some of the truly interesting sci-fi elements took the backseat to the ultra violent action. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an action fanatic, but I know when it is and isn’t appropriate. Blomkamp does know how to handle action scenes well, I’ll admit, but I just wanted…more, more than just that.

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In the end, I feel like most critics were overly harsh on Chappie. It wasn’t perfect, but I think it’s far from the derivative piece of crap some are making it out to be. Chappie is an extremely likable character who is easy to sympathize with and care about. The film does touch on interesting themes, focusing more on an A.I. discovering consciousness and mortality, as opposed to focusing on clichèd plot devices like the A.I. threatening humanity. Unfortunately, the action does drag the plot down a bit, and there are a couple of characters who I wish were never written into the script, but Blomkamp does a mostly good job presenting plenty of silly and humorous elements to remind you this is a sci-fi film involving a child-like robot being raised by rappers. Let yourself have fun with it, and you may come out with a more positive view.

3/5

’71 (2015)

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’71 places Jack O’Connell in yet another impressive role as a British soldier who is left behind by his unit in a hostile territory in Belfast during “the Troubles” in–you guessed it–1971. This is director Yann Demange’s feature film debut, and it safely borders the line between action movie and political thriller.

What was the Troubles, you ask? As someone born and raised in the U.S. and never taught a single thing about Irish history in my 19 years of schooling aside from maybe where St. Patty’s Day comes from, I asked myself the same question. As the movie quickly describes it, there was a conflict going on between the Protestants and the Catholics. From a British point of view, the Protestants were the “friendlies” and the Catholics were the “hostiles.” To be more specific, it was a political conflict between Protestant loyalists and Catholic nationalists or republicans. There were quite a few issues going on between the two groups, one of them involving whether or not Northern Ireland should stay within the UK. Without giving a history lesson or sounding stupid to those who were better educated than I was, let’s just say militant groups on both sides, like the IRA for example, were rioting and killing each other. The British army was involved, the government and police force was corrupt, and so on and so forth.

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So how does O’Connell fit into all of this? He plays a British soldier named Gary Hook, who, upon being caught in the middle of a riot, is accidentally left behind by his unit and has to try to survive on the deadly streets on his own. He is hunted and helped by people from both sides, and he is never really sure about who is a friend or a foe.

Last year was a break out year for O’Connell, after having starred in the critically acclaimed drama Starred Up and the not-so-acclaimed Unbroken, as well as the really terrible 300: Rise of an Empire. Regardless of how good or bad the movie was, his performances never failed to impress. It’s the same deal here, although thankfully, this movie does not suck.

’71 is seemingly a simple story about a young man who has to try and survive the night in a foreign land, but there’s actually a lot more going on in the plot than just that. You’re dealing with corruption, double agents on both sides, civilians who are coerced into acting out violently due to blind loyalty, children suffering the consequences, and many people living in fear. Hook is at the center of all of it, never knowing where to turn, having people shoot at him and bombs going off around him, you can sense his confusion and desperation to get to safety.

O’Connell is mostly silent throughout this film, but still affecting. You don’t get to know much about his character aside from the fact that he has a younger brother who is in some kind of state care facility, yet you still care about what happens to him. I will admit that the most thrilling scenes in this movie are the ones that are focused on him. His attempts at survival are, if nothing else, suspenseful. There’s an intensity I felt while watching him running down alleys and ducking into the shadows. It’s mostly well balanced, though, with O’Connell’s scenes being something closer to an action movie, and the secondary characters setting up for what would seem like more of a political thriller. Captain Browning (Sean Harris), for example, is playing both sides of the field throughout the film, but his true intentions are clear to the viewer, he is not a good guy. The suspense in these scenes come from whether or not the other characters will figure this out before it’s too late, and if there will even be consequences when they do.

Demange depicts a world where corruption goes far up the ranks, where young people get caught up fighting for causes they probably don’t fully understand, struggling between what they know is right and what they’re being told is right, and where innocent people are shot at and blown to bits. I’m not sure how true this depiction is, there are some people out there who have actually lived through these conflicts and witnessed them first hand and maybe think this plot is too simplified or not political enough, whereas others will think the opposite. I like the balance, but then again, what do I know?

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Aside from the sometimes excessive shaky cam, the cinematography successfully captures the essence of a war torn city, there’s fires in the streets, people running about and shouting, and a general dark and grittiness to the film. Jack O’Connell, as usual, excels in the lead role and so do a lot of the supporting characters, especially Sean Harris, as well as a young, foul-mouthed boy O’Connell meets at one point in the film. Good people die, bad people live, and justice isn’t always served, ’71 is an emotional and thrilling film that illustrates these sad but true elements that often accompany violent, political conflicts. I really enjoyed it and I believe it’s one of the better movies released in the U.S. this year.

4/5

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

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Who knew that a mockumentary about four vampires living together in a flat in New Zealand could be so genuinely entertaining? Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi co-wrote, directed and starred in this gem of a comedy that has sadly seen very limited release in the U.S. despite positive response. What We Do in the Shadows is a fresh twist on the vampire genre and it delivers consistent laughs while never straying far from old vampire clichés, and that’s not a bad thing.

So many vampire movies are either focused on horror elements or romantic elements. This movie throws both of those out the window, and what we’re left with is a lot of deadpan humor involving legitimate problems you could imagine would arise in a household of centuries-old vampires. Tension over someone not doing their chores, accidentally hitting main arteries while feeding on humans and spraying blood all over the place, not being able to enjoy a night on the town without being invited into nightclubs, and the difficulties getting dressed while not having a reflection to judge yourself in. The mundane issues that follow a group of immortal creatures who are out of touch with the modern world actually provide a lot more laughs than you would think.

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Viago (Taika Waititi) is a 379-year-old vampire who is a bit of compulsive character. He calls flatmate meetings so that he can discuss who is and who isn’t doing their chores, and why it’s necessary to put down newspaper when one of them decides to sink their teeth into their victims while sitting on the living room sofa. He still dresses like a 18th century European aristocrat with the puffy-sleeved shirts, and he tries to maintain a semblance of civility, but in the end, he’s still a vampire who needs to feed on people. The difference is he tries to give his victims a good time in the last moments of their lives, like a true vampire gentleman.

Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) is an 862-year-old vampire whose appearance is reminiscent of the Gary Oldman type in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. When we first see him, he’s in a red silk sheeted bed with three women, hissing at the camera. We learn later that he has his own torture room, although he rarely uses it anymore. He also used to have a skill for mind control, but has never been the same since an encounter with a creature only referred to as “The Beast.”

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Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the “cool, young vampire” at a ripe 183-years-old, looking like he stepped right out of a slightly older version of The Lost Boys, with his leather pants and stereotypical “vampires are sexy” attitude. He gets scolded for letting the dishes pile up for five years, and he has a “familiar” named Jackie (Jackie van Beek), who he orders to do daytime errands for him with the false promise that one day he might turn her. One of these errands involves finding two virgins to bring to the house for dinner. The fact that virgins are hard to come by is just one of the many problems these vampires face on a daily basis. While there’s no real need to have virgin blood, Vladislav explains the preference, saying, “I think of it like this. If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” Fair enough.

One of the humans she brings to dinner is Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer). When he figures out he’s just been lured into a pit of vampires, he tries to escape, leading to a hilarious chase down dark hallways, with some funny wire work and use of CGI. Fortunately, he’s caught by Petyr (Ben Fransham), the fourth flatmate who has a habit of turning people instead of killing them. He doesn’t speak and he lives in the basement and sleeps in a cement tomb. He’s the Nosferatu of the four vampires, and he’s relieved of household duties and flatmate meetings due to the fact that he’s 8,000-years-old.

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With the addition of Nick, the vampires lives become a little less mundane. Now they are dealing with a very young vampire who can’t keep his mouth shut about who and what he is. His struggle to adapt is hilarious. He has trouble flying in through windows, but has an incessant need to do so just because he can. He doesn’t know that eating chips leads to projectile vomiting of blood. He also comes out to his best friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), who accepts him as a vampire. Stu is quickly accepted as a friend by them all for being a genuinely likable guy who works at an IT company. He helps the old vampires get reconnected with the modern world through technology. It’s funny how they take to him like a new pet.

Oh, and if the vampires weren’t enough, there are werewolves, too. The vampires run into a pack led by Anton (Rhys Darby), who insists that his pack maintain their tempers, reminding them, “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves.” Yes, there’s a lot that this film offers in terms of fantastical details, and they’re all presented humorously.

Is this one of those corny, cheap parody type films? No. It’s so much better. It’s witty and the actors have a great sense of comedic timing. I laughed the whole way through. The mockumentary style of filming is so fitting, it’s never distracting, and it contributes to the bizarreness of what goes on in the movie. What We Do in the Shadows is more on the level of films like This is Spinal Tap than anything else. There isn’t too much beneath the surface here, it’s a simple plot, but it’s a worthwhile comedy and at a brisk 84 minutes, it’s a very easy watch. It didn’t get the wide release it deserved, but if it happens to come to a theater near you, you should drop what you’re doing and go see this.

4/5

Meathead March – Stand By Me (1986) – Justine’s Movie Blog

Thanks again, Rob, for letting me participate in another of your wonderful blogathons! My choice for a Rob Reiner directed flick is Stand by Me. I bet you couldn’t guess that I love coming-of-age films.

meathead march blogathonFor today’s first review of Stand By Me (1986) for the Meathead March Blogathon, here’s a review by Justine of Justine’s Movie Blog.

Thanks Justine!

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Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me is probably one of the most successful classic examples of a coming-of-age film that has touched many people’s hearts. There’s plenty of things in this film that just work, there’s no other way to put it really. The cast, the music, the story, and the overall themes of childhood friendship and loss of innocence are elements that work towards this creation of the first successful adaptation from a Stephen King short story, “The Body.”

The story begins with an older Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss), who, upon looking at an article in the newspaper about one of his friends, reminisces of the days when he was a young boy. Flashback to Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman), and…

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