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Captain America The Winter Soldier, A Brainless Action Film Lacking in Depth

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I went into “Captain America The Winter Soldier” with high expectations. The critics seemed to be generally in agreement that it was well made. In the end I was rather disappointed. It was better than the first film in some ways and worse in others. The first film seemed to have a more interesting plot but lost out in the action by making Captain America too human. This one seems to have tossed out the interesting plot in favor of solid action.

Now Captain America is shown as more of a superhero than before, coming across as something a bit better than the average soldier of before. Sadly, though this makes the film more exciting, it doesn’t really make sense considering the antics he goes through. The action is mostly a combination of Bourne style hand-to-hand and modern FBI style of shoot outs. Some of the action is quite well-done so if you are able to ignore some of the plot issues you might enjoy the action.

After a fairly solid opening, the film seemed to loose steam and lost me with what makes The Winter Soldier a particularly strong threat. Though it succeeds in delivering engaging action, it feels ultimately pointless plot wise in the end. It also makes little sense that Captain America is not joined by any of his buddies now that the film takes place after the events of “The Avengers.” If the threats were so great that Director Fury was in harm’s way, why leave it all up to Captain America?

Jackman’s score largely blends with the picture in a style that would fit a Greengrass film and fails to impress thematically. Much of the music is driven by drum loops that overpower the orchestra. The film-makers decided to rely on Silvestri’s earlier work for the themes used at times but it is used sparingly just as the original film.

Overall, “Captain America The Winter Soldier” might satisfy those looking for brainless action but anyone wanting more will be disappointed in how the plot resolves. Compared to the story delivery in Agents of Shield, this should have been a lot better.
3/5

Noah, a Disappointing Attempt at a Modern Biblical Epic

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Biblical movies have a bit of a high bar to live up to thanks to some powerful cinematic achievements during the 50s and 60s. Despite some high expectations from the director and cast, Noah doesn’t live up to expectations. It has some engaging visuals but doesn’t reach the same heights as other similar films.

Noah opens with a creation story and takes its sweet time to get to the juicy part. While in some films this would be much needed character development, it felt to me like it was dragging its feet. As things finally get to the building of the arc and what happens after, it still feels unnecessarily fleshed out. The film spends too much time on minor characters who shouldn’t be given much development at all.

There is also the problematic story element of the fallen angels in the movie. Though they bear striking similarities to the living trees in Lord of the Rings, it was a bit surprising to see them helping Noah build the arc and fighting off other men who tried to board the giant vessel. Though it is hard to believe that Noah and his family would have been able to build such a giant boat without assistance, I found they removed all sense of realism from the story. It makes me wonder why nothing of them was shown in the trailers.

Musically, Clint Mansell provides a largely droning atmospheric score for the film that is heavy on simplistic motifs. The music largely feels cheap with the film because of a lot of synthesizer effects applied. The music takes on a strange ephemeral character that only furthers the lack of realism in the movie. While it did enhance the dark feel of the movie, it might have been more effective if the music was more traditional.

I wouldn’t be particularly bothered by some of the variations from the traditional story if they had resulted in an engaging film. Most of the movie left me feeling like the characters weren’t particularly sincere in their belief. The darker side of some of the characters, though in line with the recent trend in film-making, felt forced and didn’t really make the characters any more interesting.
2.5/5

Rush, an Exhilarating Thrill Ride

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When I first saw the trailers for Rush I was not expecting it to be very good. It looked like the movie was all about two idiots who managed to act like children while racing against one another. Thankfully, something about the trailer made me want to watch the movie so I later rented it when it showed up on Netflix.

Rush is an exhilarating film that explores the various things that drive us as people. By exploring the characters of two different racers at the same time, we get to see what racing was like for two totally different personalities. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) gives us an idea what a hot headed playboy in racing is like. Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) gives us a taste of what a more calculated approach brings to the same sport.

Early on the film tells us that the focus will be on the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt. Though I have never watched Formula 1 before, I found the rivalry to be quite engaging. It gives deeper meaning to the film as races come and go. I would have liked to have seen more of some of the races, especially because of the exotic locations where they were set. Still, I recognize that budgetary concerns and the realities of recreating some of these races make that difficult.

Hans Zimmer wrote a magnificent main theme for the film that captures perfectly the spirit of competition at its core. At times the music is primarily instrumental rock but once the orchestra comes in with the main theme, it feels as powerful as it should. I had heard some samples of the music prior to seeing the film and wrote off Zimmer’s score as boring rock. Thankfully, it proved to be much more than that.

In a world where many films feel shallow and lacking in meaning, Rush races ahead with plenty of energy and enthusiasm. Recognizing the true story behind the film makes it even more exciting. I can only imagine what it must have been like to follow this glorious rivalry as it was unfolding in real time on the Formula 1 Circuit. Thankfully, “Rush” manages to deliver plenty of thrills of its own.
4.5/5

Philomena, a Touching Film that Explores Many Difficult Religious Themes

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In “Philomena,” Judi Dench gives a lovely performance that helps make it one of the most touching films I’ve seen recently. I’d heard about it from a few people while it was in theaters but never got around to watching the trailer. Now I wish I had gone to see it in theaters. Thankfully it was available on a plane flight between Tokyo and incheon airport. It was a great way to get through a flight.

I found the story to be quite engaging and well presented. It is hard to review this film without spoiling some of the major details. There will be some spoilers here contrary to my typical style of reviews. I’ve was raised in the Catholic Church so many of the themes really resonated with me. The shaming of young girls who have sex and the church teaching on sex in general has troubled me for some time.

Growing up as a young bisexual man in the Catholic Church I faced some issues with these same teachings when I realized the church wouldn’t ever recognize a relationship I had with another man. Since marrying my husband I left the church. I find the teachings on sex to be a way of dealing with a subject that otherwise can’t be explained to the satisfaction of young people. It is easier to tell them that God wants them to deny themselves than to actually address sex for what it is.

As we see in the film, many young girls are inadequately prepared for meeting men and give in to the desires to have sex. Because birth control is described as a sin these women ultimately have babies but for a time were shamed by their families when this happened. Understandably the church wanted those children to be sent away and in Ireland many of them were sold to the United States.

Although it isn’t addressed as a problem with church teachings there are also some gay themes addressed in the film. Philomena’s missing Son turns out to have been gay and died of aids. This brings to light issues of gay shaming through his involvement in the Republican party and how he had to pretend to be straight to succeed.

In some ways this could be seen as a theme of the power of the truth. The reporter character is an example of ways the truth is not so useful because of how his negativity tends to bring others down. My husband would suggest that I have a similar way about me but I prefer to call myself uncensored.

The same things I enjoyed about the film got others complaining that the film is another example of liberals trying to present a story that would validate the pro birth control approach. I find the multiple viewpoints presented give the viewer plenty of choice to agree with the nuns and condemn the young women for their sexual choices or to agree with the reporter and mock the Church’s teachings.

Musically, Alexandre Desplat provides a delightfully tender thematic score with a number of old-style themes. The music largely stays in the background but when it becomes noticeable I slowly fell in love with the theme for Philomena. This, along with The Monuments Men, give Alexandre Desplat a good chance of being known for some of the best scores of recent memory.

If you like to see difficult subjects explored through a character study, Philomena is a worthwhile watch. It will be especially interesting for anyone who was raised in a religious household and knows all of the strict rules explored quite well.
4.5/5

300 Rise of an Empire, Improving on the Original in Almost Every Way

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“300″ ended at the perfect time for a sequel to come through with even bigger battles. Eva Green steals the show with her enthralling performance as Artemisia, the commander of Xerxes’ navy. She gets plenty of screen time and fights like a fiend. Sullivan Stapleton gives a solid performance as Themistocles, the leader of the Greek army. His clashes with Artemisia are quite fun. Fighting wise, things are pretty much the same, with the exception of the new naval battles. I found many of the bigger naval battles to be more interesting because we actually get to see strategy behind them rather than just a bunch of hand-to-hand combat.

There is plenty of time for multiple battles because “300 Rise of an Empire” doesn’t have to spend too much time on back-story. Sadly, Lena Headey still has a relatively minor part here, and we will probably have to wait for the inevitable third film to see her shine. While it is slightly disappointing that we don’t get to see full resolution in this new film, I am glad that the studio is taking enough time to flesh out all the different battles as much as they should be.

Musically, this film falls far behind the first. While Tyler Bates didn’t write the best or most original music for “300″ at least his music elevated the film beyond what was on screen. Newcomer Junkie XL wrote a largely cheap sounding generic score heavy on percussion and middle-eastern vocals that lacks any central themes to keep it together. While it fits fine with what is on screen, a more accomplished composer would have been able to raise the film a bit higher. Most action is accompanied by repetitive drums. The orchestra sounds so bad that it might as well have been synthesized.

Like “300″ before it, “300 Rise of an Empire” is a solid popcorn flick that delivers plenty of spectacle and demands to be seen on the big screen. I didn’t see it in 3D and I don’t recommend it because it was converted in post-production. If you enjoyed the power and blood of the first film, you will find a lot to love in this bigger sequel.
4/5

The Monuments Men, A Delightful Film in the Style of the Greats

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This week was the perfect example of why I am not going to give up reviewing movies anytime soon. I like to think of myself as the anti-critic, sometimes appreciating something the critics hate and hating on something the critics love. I still can’t figure out what led to so many positive reviews of “The Lego Movie.” Today I am now left wondering why so many critics didn’t give “The Monuments Men” positive ratings. As a sign of the times it seems even most critics don’t appreciate the older style of film-making and scoring. It is no surprise that “The Monuments Men” will probably be the only film I watch this year where the music is so deliciously thematic.

Unlike all of those war films focusing on battles, “The Monuments Men” focuses on the attempts of a few art experts to save major artwork from being destroyed during World War 2. I can understand some of the disappointment considering the film doesn’t have the same tone as we saw in the early trailers. Rather than some lighthearted comedy, this is mostly a serious film, but rightfully so. Admittedly, it does move along at a slower pace than we have gotten used to lately but it never drags or feels in need of serious editing. This older style of filming is a homage to earlier war films with ensemble casts, and it gives composer Alexandre Desplat a chance to write perhaps his greatest score to date.

The music is reminiscent of scores like John Addison’s “A Bridge Too Far” and Elmer Bernstein’s “The Great Escape.” It has a jaunty main theme and a number of sub-themes that show up at times. The main theme re-appears in a number of different forms, including some somber sections, and some more heroic ones. The music is thankfully given a chance to shine like we rarely see these days. Most sequences are devoid of sound effects as the music carries the scenes. While some found this to be distracting, I found it quite engaging and endearing to the film.

I can tell from George Clooney’s performance in the film that he deliberately choose to take a more reverent tone to the film. I was quite glad he did, because it helped focus on the seriousness of the story behind it all. This film might be too slow for some, and the music might be too manipulative for others. But if you appreciate the classic style of film-making and the thematic style of film scoring, this is a gorgeous film that will re-kindle the joy you felt when you first heard some of the great film scores of the past fifty years.
4.5/5

The Lego Movie (2014) Movie Review

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After all the positive reviews I was ready to write a review similar to the one I read on Badass Digest, titled “I Really Wanted to Hate the Lego Movie.” The article explains all the reasons the author thought it was going to be stupid and he fell in love with it. Sadly, I can’t say the same thing. I was expecting the movie to be completely stupid and it largely was, but was still funny and witty enough at times that I don’t feel like I completely wasted my money. I haven’t really seen enough from this new wave of comedies to know if this is some separate style of comedy that I just don’t connect with. I do have a problem when the only reason I am laughing at something on screen is because the character is acting like an idiot.

The plot as generic as they come. Take every movie about an unexpected hero who saves the world and you have the plot of “The Lego Movie” minus the interesting twist at the end. What makes it unbearable is the painful dialog. I get that the movie is trying to parody this sort of film but rather than laughing at how witty the whole thing was, I just shook my head and felt embarrassed that I actually fell for the reviews praising this thing. Until I read the reviews I was ready to write this off as a pointless stupid film that was as dumb as the trailers, which made me shake my head. If you thought everything was awesome in the trailers from the start you might fall in love with this like everyone else.

Musically, I was expecting a lot more than the end result. I won’t blame Mark Mothersbaugh too much because the film he scored totally called for the throwaway score we get. Then again, if I actually thought the song “Everything is Awesome” was catchy, like every other review I’ve read, I might giggle at its re-appearance here and there in the music. To me that song was just as disgustingly trashy as the style of music it is trying to imitate. Mothersbaugh uses some different musical styles to fit the different worlds we get to see but mostly it sounds cheap, with any orchestra that he used barely getting heard among his cutsey synthesizers. I was hoping that this half-assed hero would get a nice heroic theme but it seems writing a score that sounds like it would fit the serious version of the film being parodied isn’t in style anymore.

Despite expecting this to be a total waste of time, I did get a few chuckles here and there. I also quite enjoyed seeing the Lego bricks come alive in 3D. There is something strangely intriguing about seeing Lego flames and Lego water throughout. I also thought the twist in the last act was quite brilliant. It almost redeemed everything that came before it. Sadly, this is still pretty much a children’s movie with a few little gags thrown in there for the adults, like “Wreck it Ralph” before it. As much as the critics like to give props for a few gems hidden in a kid’s movie, it seems their bar is a bit low for even this material. It might be miles ahead of a lot of the trash that passes for animated films these days but it isn’t going to be remembered as some stroke of genius.
3/5

Majestic Prince (2013) Anime Review

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Though slightly different than a film, I feel that certain Anime series are deserving of a review as a whole. Single series shows especially are great for this. “Majestic Prince” is a recent mecha Anime that has some interesting ideas and some solid action but otherwise failed to reach the higher marks that it set for itself.

In typical Anime fashion, the story focuses on a group of five friends from the same school who get recruited to join in the fight to defend humans from alien invaders. It turns out that these five kids were specifically raised for compatibility with a new kind of mecha suits that connects with the pilot’s DNA. At first I was wondering if these five would ever learn to work together. Though they grow closer throughout the show, they never truly gain the proper bonds I would hope to see.

Other problems I had with the show were many. For one, it seems that the commanding officers of the Human armies are ridiculously incompetent. We watch helplessly as their underlings warn them of the problems with their strategies only to see them arrogantly ignore the warnings and go ahead with the mission.

I also had a big problem with the believability of the scenarios in general. The large battles seem poorly set up and we are led to believe that the Human military commanders are unable to do much more than react to this new enemy. The big reveals we get later that attempt to explain the setup of the show largely fall flat. The final episode ends abruptly with very little explanation given as far as how things went after the resolution of the final conflict.

I found the soundtrack a bit disappointing as well, especially considering what Toshiyuki Watanabe has written for other recent Anime, especially Space Brothers. I could guess why he decided to write the big choral work for the invaders, given their similarities to medieval royalty, however I found the majority of the music to be lacking in anything that stood out. The battle music never really presented any memorable themes that stuck with me when I finished watching.

Despite all these problems, the characters were fairly well developed and moderately interesting. You should expect that most of these characters are going to be typical Anime stereotypes but I did find they grew on me as the season progressed. Despite my initial problems with the character designs, they turned out better than I expected once things got going.

I also found the action sequences to be impressively animated. There were a number of times during the one-on-one mech battles where I noticed some pretty spectacular animation. Sadly, this didn’t hold true to some of the bigger battles where it turned into a bunch of generic lasers firing from each side. The different ways the mechs reacted to difficult fights and found extra stores of energy were well done even if the general concept is typical for this sort of Anime.

Overall, if you are a fan of mecha Anime and are interested in checking this one out, I think it is worth your time, although don’t expect it to be without its faults. If you are able to overlook some pretty annoying oversights in the plot and enjoy the big fights for what they are, you might find something fun here.
3/5

The Great Gatsby (2013) Movie Review

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I never had the pleasure of reading The Great Gatsby in school. Though I recall clearly certain classmates walking around with it, I never considered reading it. When I first saw the trailers for “The Great Gatsby” I was not particularly enamored by what I saw. The glitz and glamor at the heart of the story became the center of the advertising. For a time it was rumored that Jay Z would be doing the music, which meant I would never watch the film in theaters. What if it was just some big wasteful party film filled with hip hop?

Thankfully, though it has short snippets of extravagant party music, it does not get over-used and is always used tastefully. Many of the songs central to the film are much more elegant, along with the music by Craig Armstrong. Armstrong’s score captures the outward appearance of royalty Gatsby portrays while also exploring the softer emotions hiding beneath.

Though I can’t say how accurately the film portrayed the novel, I found Baz Lurhmann’s portrayal to be enchanting. The true story is revealed in bits and pieces so that the unfamiliar viewer is pulled along wondering what little details will come out next. Leonardo DiCaprio’s powerful performance only serves to sweeten the allure.

Perhaps the marketing department relied on enough people knowing the true story under the shiny trailers. However, the marketing that was meant to lure in those without a clue simply served to push me away. “The Great Gatsby” is a fine film that is especially important to watch given the similarities between the time portrayed and recent times. I highly recommend it.

4.5/5

American Hustle (2013) Movie Review

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“American Hustle” captures the style and flair of the 70′s beautifully. Each of the characters has a unique personality and there is plenty of comedy in the dialog. It isn’t easy to describe but instantly pulls in the audience. The trailers do a fantastic job previewing the characters and the feel of the film.The film has an enchanting aura that will capture most people and stick with you for quite some time. Though it opens with a statement that some of this actually happened, I expect the connection to real life is much attenuated.

Director David O Russel splashed into the awareness of modern audiences with the 2012 film “Silver Lining’s Playbook.” For “American Hustle” he manages to bring back a classic style of cinema that has all but disappeared from theaters. Though Danny Elfman wrote a few pieces for the film, I was hard pressed to identify any of it. The songs in the film take center stage and help drive home the 70s setting with plenty of jazzy tunes. I noticed a distinct lack of bass in the sound mix, refreshingly so. It is nice to remember a time before all music needed to be mastered so that the bass shook the room.
What makes American Hustle so refreshing is that it surprises audiences with many unexpected things. Little actions the characters take seem like what real people might do in that situation but yet are unlike what you typically see in a film. This also leads to quite a bit of comedy. I probably laughed more in “American Hustle” than I have for most comedies. Unlike a comedy, the rest of the film is engaging in other ways.
“American Hustle” has a cast that showcases the new generation of stars. Though some bigger actors show up at times, the film focuses on characters played by Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner. If there was any doubt of the talent of any of them the performances given here dispel that. Louis C.K. has a small role in the film as well and fits the part perfectly. Out of all of them, I found Christian Bale the most enchanting, in part because of how over-the-top his character was.
“American Hustle” is a delightful film that will enchant you from start to finish. I expect it would stand up nicely to repeated views. If you need a reminder of what made films so alluring in the past, “American Hustle” will renew your spark.
5/5
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