“Winters Bone” review

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“Winters Bone” is an independent film that has received a load of accolades in the past few months, including the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It stars Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, a 17-year old girl who lives with and basically cares for her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings in Missouri’s Ozark mountains. One day, the town sheriff shows up and tells them that her meth-cooking father has posted their house for bail, and then disappeared. In order to keep her house, Ree must find her father within a week, and in her investigation both exposes a web of local corruption amongst her townsfolk, and realizes strength and will she never thought she had.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree, and gives one of the most compelling female performances in recent memory. Lawrence simply put, makes the film. She’s alternately fierce, terrified, battered and determined, and absolutely fascinating to watch. She elevates this film from mere thriller to fascinating coming-of-age-story. The production values are admittedly low (Do remember this film was made for $2 million) but it doesn’t detract from the film’s quality, and honestly you don’t notice the lack of polish. The dialogue is spot-on perfect, although once again, the film has such a natural flow that one doesn’t notice such things.

“Winters Bone” deserves every bit of praise that critics have been giving it. Not since “Frozen River” or perhaps “No Country for Old Men” have I seen such a tense, involving thriller. The thing that makes “Winters Bone” so tense and quietly terrifying is that the villains, or for that matter the characters, don’t feel like traditional “movie” characters, but real, genuine characters whose lives we are given a brief insight to. That’s the sheer genius of “Winters Bone”, in that as the film progresses, it slowly but unrelentingly grips us in ways few recent films have. A small-scale, but undeniable masterpiece.

4

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“Salt” review

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Angelina Jolie stars in the latest action movie, “Salt”. This is the latest in a seemingly endless cycle of action films this year where government agents go on the run for a crime they supposedly didn’t commit, such as “Knight and Day”, “The A-Team”, “The Losers”, the upcoming “Red”, and now this. Now, the quality of these aforementioned films have been hit-or-miss, so I had mixed expectations for this movie. Which makes me somewhat happy to tell you that “Salt” is a wholly enjoyable, though equally forgettable action romp.

Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who goes on the run after she is accused of being a Russian spy. Jolie delivers a great performance here, blending the dramatic intensity she brings to films like “Changeling” with her action-girl-persona she’s cultivated in “Wanted” and “Lara Croft”. Jolie is easily the best, most interesting part of the movie and I am very impressed with her work here. Liev Schreiber plays Salt’s CIA superior who is convinced of her innocence, and continues to prove he is one of the more underrated actors working today.

The action sequences are quite thrilling and are capably shot, although not particularly memorable or original. The twist with this particular film is that throughout the majority of the running time, we don’t know if Salt is who she says she is, or as accused, a traitor. This uncertainty adds a certain mystery and to an extent, intensity to the first two-thirds of the film that really sets it apart from most recent action films.

Now onto the complaints for “Salt”. My biggest gripe with this movie is that plot twists and developments are hurled at the audience non-stop, and after a while they become infuriatingly nonsensical. For example (minor spoilers ahead), a character who is very, very close to Salt is shot in the head in front of her, and she simply shrugs it off and forgets entirely about it. It’s events like this that ultimately unravel a good deal of the film’s character development, which is a shame. Also, the ending is left unresolved, and I don’t really mind a cliffhanger, but it makes the film feel incomplete, which is quite frustrating.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of “Salt”. Despite some huge gripes with plot and character development, there’s lots to be enjoyed here, such as the compelling action and Angelina Jolie’s great performance.

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‘Predators’ review

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Allow me to begin this review by saying: “Predators”, the new Robert Rodriguez-produced reboot of the franchise, does not in any way live up to the standard set by the 1987 original. Then again, what can? “Predator” was one of the finest action films Hollywood has ever produced, a perfect blend of tension, action, and sheer machismo (courtesy of Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers and the like). Not even the mediocre sequel and the failed tries at initiating an “Alien vs. Predator” franchise could tarnish the greatness of it. So to see the second official sequel to “Predator”, oddly enough entitled “Predators”, actually be a very good sequel and compelling stand-alone film, is a great surprise.

The first “Predator” didn’t necessarily have a compelling story, but then again it didn’t really need one. “Predators” follows in its footsteps, with very little exposition, character development, or whatever. And the thing is: It plays only to the film’s advantage. The characters are admittedly solely archetypes, but they serve their purpose to the story and in all honesty, for a film this low-brow that’s really all it needs.

“Predators” is about a group of people suddenly dropped onto a planet where the sole inhabitants are vicious alien creatures that give the film its title. Oddly enough, all of the characters seem to be mercenaries, spies, assassins, or killers of some form, so when the predator creatures begin to hunt them, they fight back.

The action in this film is done quite well. The sequences are well-shot, varied, and yet constitute a fairly small part of the film’s 107-minute running time. Like the first “Predator”, the film is more reliant on suspense and atmosphere than it is action, and I consider that a good thing. That said, where this film fails where the first succeeded is that even if all the characters were stereotypes in “Predator”, the cast made them likable enough that we had at least some emotional stake in the events. Here, although the performances are skilled (Adrien Brody in particular is a thrill to see as an action star), they aren’t likable or interesting enough that we really care when the characters start getting picked off one-by-one.

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“Inception” review

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Christopher Nolan is one of the greatest directors of this generation. The man has made some of the true cinematic masterpieces of the last several years, “Memento” and “The Prestige”, not to mention his billion-grossing-juggernaut “The Dark Knight”. I can’t quite put into words what makes his films so compelling and so popular, but the fire-cracker intensity and brilliant scripts he brings to them are likely the main components (Nolan writes his own scripts). And his latest film, “Inception”, is the thematic culmination of all his work thus far. Take the action from his Batman films, the mind-bending narrative tricks of “Memento”, and the emotional intensity of “Insomnia”, with a dash of “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix”, and you get a slight approximation of just what “Inception” has to offer.

Leonardo DiCaprio has slowly, albeit surely, cemented himself as one of the finest American actors of this generation. Here, he plays Cobb, a man who possesses both the ability and the technology to break into people’s dreams and steal their secrets, a process called “extraction”. Cobb is on the run for an initially unknown crime, but receives an offer from wealthy businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe), who wishes to utilize Cobb’s skills to plant the idea in the mind of a rival businessman, Fischer, to dissolve his father’s empire, which gives the film its title, inception.

You see, inception is the process of planting an idea in someone’s head and making it seem as if they came up with it, something considering largely impossible. (After all, the mind always traces the root of an idea.) In order to pull off this reverse-heist of the mind, Cobb must rally together a team of specialists and plant the idea deep enough in Fischer’s mind that he takes the idea as his own. Cobb, however, is plagued by projections of his dead wife, Mal, and may or may not have had a hand in her death.

The film’s greatest strength is without a doubt it’s creativity and originality. In a time where the vast majority of films are remakes, sequels, reboots or whatever, it is an unbelievable breath of fresh air to get a film as inventive, as creative, as visionary, and as just plain good as “Inception” is. Christopher Nolan reportedly spent up to 10 years crafting the script to “Inception”, and the time he spent pays off in spades. Nolan doesn’t merely make a movie here, he creates his own universe, with new ideas and concepts unlike anything seen on film before. And the thing is, Nolan’s dialogue explains the ins, outs, and rules of the film’s universe, yet feels entirely natural. It feels as if it comes naturally out of its character’s mouths instead of a screenwriter over-eager to explain and spoon-feed the film’s ideas to the audience.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Leonardo DiCaprio leads the cast with his fantastic, borderline Oscar-worthy performance as Cobb. Marion Cotillard is stunning here is Cobb’s wife, Mal. She gives a truly great performance, and some of her more emotionally charged scenes are nothing short of haunting. Joseph-Gordon Levitt, star of “500 Days of Summer” and one of my very favorite actors, proves in addition to be a truly great dramatic actor, he can be a truly awesome action star. Ellen Page of “Juno” demonstrates more range and emotion here than any of her previous performances.

All of its heady concepts and great performances aside, “Inception” is also excellent in terms of being an action film. Let it be said that “Inception” simply put, sports some of the coolest action sequences I have ever seen in film. In every single action scene, I am not exaggerating when I say my jaw dropped. “Inception” uses special effects to more inventive, more creative, and just simply cooler effect than any film this side of “The Matrix”.

I could easily write a 4,000-word essay about this film, singing its praises, noting its highlights, and so on. I’ll spare you that unpleasantry for now. But allow me to make some declarations: Not only is “Inception” one of the greatest science fiction films of all time as well of the best films of the last decade, it just may be the masterpiece of one of today’s greatest filmmakers.

4

“The Last Airbender” review

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M. Night Shyamalan has made a name for himself for coming up with small-scale, yet interesting thrillers, often with twist endings. Some are pretty awful (“The Happening” and “The Village”) yet some I feel are simply fantastic (Unbreakable” and “Signs”) and one, “The Sixth Sense”, has become a cultural juggernaut. (Overstatement? How many times have you heard ‘I see dead people’.) His latest film, “The Last Airbender”, is the first film he’s made based off of a previous source material, and considering the main problem Shyamalan has is that he isn’t very good at writing, I was reasonably excited for “The Last Airbender”. Sure, he’s made big movies before, but this is his first summer-tentpole blockbuster film, and I was interested to see how the guy would handle an action-fantasy movie. Which makes me very disappointed to say that this is certainly the worst film of Shyamalan’s career and probably the worst film thus far this summer.

“The Last Airbender” is based on the popular albeit short-lived Nickelodeon television show, in which a young boy, Aang, used his ability to manipulate the four elements (earth, wind, fire, water) to unite the war-torn world. (The show was set in a Tibet-esque area.) The show was divided into “Books”, each book representing a season of the show. “The Last Airbender” adapts the first of three books, so the basic plot is Aang coming into his own, and harnessing his powers to save the earth from the evil Fire Nation.

Let’s begin with the acting for this film. Shyamalan hired a relative unknown, Noah Ringer to play the young boy, Aang. Ringer turns in one of the most lifeless, charmless, zombie-like performances I have ever seen. The kid simply sleepwalks through the whole film, and considering the film is entirely about his character, the whole film is about is dreary and bland as he is. Dev Patel (yes, the Dev Patel who was so fantastic in Slumdog Millionaire) plays the villain, Prince Zuko, leader of the Fire Nation. Although Patel is way over-the-top in the first few scenes of the film, he soon finds his footing and ends up being perhaps one of the most redeeming qualities of the film. It’s quite unfortunate that in this film, the villain is far more likable than the protagonist.

The main problem I have with “The Last Airbender” is that it all seems somewhat joyless and mechanical. It doesn’t once feel as if anyone in the film really has their heart in it, and the result is a boring, middling film that runs 105 minutes and feels 200. I mean, come on. This is a $150 million summer movie about a young boy who can manipulate fire, and there is not a single moment where you feel any joy, or satisfaction, or anything at all. It feels like a chore to sit all the way through this film.

The film’s marketing revolves almost entirely around its special effects and action. Sadly, the effects look simply terrible. Come on, Hollywood! The special effects from 1991’s “Terminator 2” look more convincing and real than this. And the action is solely in the last 20 minutes or so, interestingly enough the trailers have pretty much only drawn footage from these 20 minutes. Also another curious fault this film has: It can’t seem to keep a consistent sense of location. For example, in one of the moments of the film, a character is in a rowboat, about 2 miles off shore. In a scene that’s meant to take place minutes after that one, the same character is in a temple. This occurs really often and goes to prove just how little effort was really put into this film.

Another large gripe I hold with this film is that there is a ton of exposition and backstory. Yes, the film is set in an alternate universe with lots of new creatures and powers and such, so some backstory is necessary, but literally half of the film is devoted to explaining the world of the film, thus preventing the film from really beginning. It feels like the film is simply a prelude to a larger pay-off that never comes around.

This is likely because this is the first film in a suggested franchise (that all depends on the film’s financial success) and to quote a certain conservative radio host, “I hope it fails”. The most abysmal film this side of “The Human Centipede”. 5

“The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” review.

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Twilight was not made for me. I know that. Twilight was not made with the thoughts or feelings of non-“Twihard” males in mind, and you know what? I’m totally fine with that. 95% of all large movie franchises are geared towards guys, so to see a franchise made with females in mind is actually something of a breath of fresh air. That said, the first two “Twilight” films were nothing to write home about, “New Moon” in particular being pretty horrible. My main complaint with those two films is that you never got a sense of why exactly Bella and Edward are so completely in love, or never really got a sense of any of the characters’ motivations at all. So although I didn’t expect (or want) “Twilight Saga: Eclipse” to be horrible, my hopes were admittedly not all that high for it.

Which makes me somewhat happy to say that “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” (henceforth referred to as merely ‘Eclipse’) is actually pretty entertaining, and is at the very least much better the first two installments in the franchise.

First off, the performances are much improved from the first two. Rob Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner are much less awkward here than they were in the first two, bringing more more charisma and depth to their roles, which ultimately elevates the film as a whole.

The film is a better blend of genres and elements than the first two. In “Twilight” and “New Moon”, it was mainly romance with half-hearted attempts at humor. Here, the primary element remains romance, but the incorporation of action and humor feels much more natural and just works very well in the film.

These things aside, there are a fair amount of problems I had with “Eclipse”. First off, a lot of the side characters’ performances were very weak. Most of the side cast give very wooden performances, and are simply put, boring to watch. A lot of the dialogue is incredibly bad, a few lines in particular had me laughing out loud. And as I said earlier, my main gripe with “Twilight” and “New Moon” was that the characters’ motivations were often incredibly vague and were never really explained. Unfortunately, that same complaint holds true for “Eclipse” as well.

So overall, “Eclipse” was made for Twilight fans, and Twilight fans will eat it up. Yet speaking as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of the “Twilight” franchise, I was fairly riveted and entertained during “Eclipse”. Bravo, Edward.

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