Movie Reviews

Mad Max: Fury Road

Gleefully off-the-rails, this reboot is a glorious romp you won’t soon forget.

————————————————————————————————

BY RYAN MILOWICKI

Have you ever gone into a theater with practically zero expectations, and left with an irrepressible feeling of joy that can only stem from the most pleasant of surprises? Last week, I was fortunate enough to experience that at an advance screening of Mad Max: Fury Road. My skepticism at the “let’s reboot franchises 20+ years later” mentality of modern blockbusters is well documented, so I understandably wasn’t sold on the concept of bringing Max Rockatansky back to the big screen after a 30-year hiatus. But let me tell you this: I’ll be hard-pressed to think of a movie in the past decade which delivered more action per minute, more breathtaking practical effects, or a more gleeful sense of self-awareness and uniqueness. How else can I say it? Mad Max: Fury Road is the best popcorn movie I’ve seen since my childhood wonder faded into the critical eye of growing up.

One reason Fury Road works so well is that the mythology of the original mythology is not a necessity to enjoy this offering. As Max (Tom Hardy replacing Mel Gibson) narrates in the first minute, he is a former cop in the desolate wasteland of post-apocalyptic Australia who has lost his family. His only motivation left on this barren continent is the will to survive at any cost. Finding himself reduced to a prisoner in the clutches of the iron-fisted leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Mad Max‘s original villain), Max is a “blood bag,” a living, breathing IV who keeps the nearly-skeletonized army out of the clutches of death. His story intertwines with that of rogue lieutenant Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who embarks on a treacherous journey to smuggle the leader’s five wives (and apparently the only fertile women left) to safety.

What follows is a nearly two-hour chase scene as the unlikely duo fight to drive their seriously weaponized big rig across the Outback while pursued with the entire army of Immortan Joe. As the action escalates, so too does the world-building as we learn more about this ruined landscape and the motivations of those within it. Simply put, this is a bold piece of filmmaking, less interested with advancing a popular franchise than with crafting an exciting new world for a modern audience.

And boy, does it deliver. Director George Miller, who helmed the original trilogy, shows incredible confidence in turning one of the most bizarre premises ever seen in a mainstream movie into a supremely satisfying piece of entertainment. Beginning with the orange and yellow palette that frames the entire film, the feeling of fantasy takes hold almost immediately. The whole film plays out as some sort of wildly entertaining fever dream, from characters who look several degrees separated from humanity, to a military vanguard which features a musician shredding a flamethrowing guitar diegetically to Junkie XL’s frenzied score. None of these elements would work with the slightest bit of hesitation, so it’s imperative that Miller goes full bore into every single element, creating a world which more than lives up to the insanity suggested by its title.

The vehicular warfare in this movie is nothing short of breathtaking, and it easily puts Furious 7 to shame. Consisting almost entirely of practical effects, the explosions, stunt work, and cinematography of these action sequences are spectacular and never feel repetitive. As the stakes increase, Fury Road finds ways to use the landscape more, or introduce new weapons, or have another character take the lead to ramp up the action even further. Explosions abound, vehicles flip, and Miller imbues the treacherous path of the characters’ redemption with every ounce of fury the title would lead you to believe. The sheer adrenaline rushes associated with these scenes would be more than enough for me to give a glowing review.

But hidden among the constant wreckage are characters who get to grow and interact surprisingly well throughout the course of film. Stepping into Mel Gibson’s shoes, Hardy is a wonderful new inhabitant of the title role. Speaking fewer than 50 lines throughout the entirety of Fury Road, Hardy’s Max is an animalistic, almost mute warrior who lets his actions and his eyes do the talking. While Hardy does great work, the movie really belongs to Theron. Her gruff, ass-kicking and even endearing performance as Furiosa was a complete surprise to me, and learning her backstory and motivations was one of the film’s most rewarding elements. Her and Hardy make one heck of a team, seamlessly dual-occupying the roles of protagonist and leader, each stepping up when the other begins to falter. X-Men‘s Nicholas Hoult turns in an excellent performance as Nux, one of the nearly-dead infantrymen who has more character to him than meets the eye, and the five wives are each played with a unique set of skills and emotions. In fact, in Fury Road‘s post-apocalyptic worldview, the role of gender has been virtually erased. Men and women fight side by side the entire movie, as the wives (and even a tribe of aged yet merciless female warriors) have more than plenty to contribute to the proceedings. Who’d have thought that the fourth installment in a long-dormant franchise could serve as an ideal depiction of equality in the testosterone-filled world of action movies?

 It will be a long time before I forget the sheer originality of Mad Max: Fury Road. Shot in reach-out-of-the-screen 3D and a frenetic visual style, this movie gleefully dares to be off-the-rails, and revels in each twist which takes it further from reality. The result is a clinically insane romp that reminds us why we see action movies in the first place. Throw in a wonderfully executed story which features multiple-dimensioned characters, and you have a unique piece of cinema which redefines the 2010s blockbuster as we know it. As Nux bellows early on, what a lovely day indeed.

RYAN’s RATING: 4 Stars out of 4

Advertisements

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Solves most of the issues with the first Avengers and brings Phase 2 to a satisfying conclusion.

————————————————————————————————

BY RYAN MILOWICKI

How do you follow up one of the biggest blockbusters of all time? The Avengers was an unprecedented spectacle of ensemble, destruction, and even humor, but it wasn’t without its flaws. Fortunately, Joss Whedon and company appear to have taken copious notes from their previous endeavor, and the result is a polished, electric sequel which builds upon what made The Avengers such a thrill and improves several of areas in which Marvel has repeatedly been weak.

Age Of Ultron earns its title when Tony Stark uses the mystical power of Loki’s scepter to complete the titular initiative to create artificial intelligence. His aim with Ultron is to create a benevolent peacekeeping force to allow the Avengers to live their lives without constant threats of global destruction which only they can successfully defeat. However, in typical superhero movie fashion, Ultron turns out to be a brooding philosophical sociopath, who believes that humanity must either evolve or be rendered completely extinct in order to secure the future of Earth. As Ultron works to see his plan through to fruition, Earth’s greatest heroes must fight a most formidable enemy as well as themselves in order to prevent a threat of global annihilation which becomes increasingly imminent.

Right from the getgo, Age of Ultron‘s story is a big step up from the first film. Instead of spending 90 minutes waiting for a cryptic alien army to swarm on New York through an inter-dimensional wormhole, the presence of evil is felt immediately and often. The trope of creation rebelling against creator is a long-present one, but here it adds a tantalizing layer of personal responsibility to the superhero formula.

Marvel has had a problem with villains in the past, with all due respect to Loki. Oftentimes, the bad guys are merely just dark versions of the protagonist or quippy personalities who sit back while our heroes take out their minions. This problem is solved in a big way, something I never would have expected from a rogue robot with an army of flying doppelgangers. A big reason why Ultron works so well as a villain is the devastatingly effective vocal performance of James Spader. The level of nuance to his dialogue is a welcome rush of excitement, filled with equal parts poignant monologue and dark wit. The ability of Ultron to vocally inhabit any of his robot minions at any time permits a unique opportunity to infuse even more humor and meaning into the climactic fight sequences. Captain America hurtling a robot to its destruction out of a plane receives so much more meaning when accompanied by Ultron’s dry “Dear God, not again” as he tumbles to his demise. A villain able to undergo so many miniature deaths while still remaining active and present is an effective and terrifying duality, which Age Of Ultron parlays into a nonstop fanfare of destruction and humor.

The other problem with the original Avengers was a seeming overabundance of characters. Every hero has their own specialty and appeal, but I couldn’t help but think to myself, “what did Hawkeye really do to help in those last scenes?” As if hearing my plea for explanation, Age Of Ultron grants the less-godlike characters much more agency, crafting compelling storylines which play a big role in advancing the plot forward. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I got more out of the scenes between the fights than I did from the admittedly euphoric action sequences. This film delves deep into what makes characters like Hawkeye and Black Widow Avengers, even if their skills might not hold up beside the awesome power of Thor or Captain America. Simply put, these characters are the relatable human faces of the world’s greatest team, and they save the day on more than one occasion,whether it be Black Widow successfully calming the Hulk down (the interplay between Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo is indisputably the best part of the movie), or Hawkeye being the only one to evade the mind-warping tactics of Scarlet Witch. Speaking of the newcomer, the Maximoff twins were a welcome addition to the Avengers canon. Sequels always roll the dice when adding characters to the fray, but Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch bring an interesting backstory with them, one which underscores the film’s overarching theme of being responsible for the consequences of your actions.

This isn’t to say that the big characters aren’t without their phenomenal moments as well. The whole movie revolves around Iron Man’s desperate fight to save the world from his own creation, a task handle with the typical Robert Downey Jr. bravado. And Cap and Thor alternate seamlessly between kicking butt and continuing to be the funniest characters in the universe. All your favorite supporting characters say their hellos as well, from Nick Fury and Maria Hill on the SHIELD side of things, to Iron Patriot and Falcon stepping in to help the fighting, to Heimdall and Peggy Carter tipping their caps in brief cameos. As a conclusion to Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is fitting that almost every major character still alive from the past 12 films climbs aboard to play their part.

If there’s one area where Age Of Ultron falls a little short, it’s in the overall scope of the film. With a $250 million budget, you knew that everything would be bigger and bolder than before, but this occasionally results in a desensitization to the destruction depicted on screen. There’s nothing wrong with what is shown; in fact, the visual effects are as stunning and hypnotically gorgeous as you’d expect. But Whedon squeezes just a bit too much spectacle into these 150 minutes, in an effort to assure that every character has multiple chances to show off their powers and send another of Ultron’s robots to the junkyard. As I said before, I was a bigger fan of the interactions between characters which occurred outside of the fighting, so I found myself clamoring for more character development at times, as the battles raged on for minutes on end. That being said, this is far from a fighting-only action movie, so enjoy the top-notch effects but remember to take equal pleasure in watching the character studies which lurk beneath the surface. We’ve watched these characters grow over the past seven years, and this movie does a great job at showing us how far they’ve come.

So overall, Age Of Ultron takes the world of the Avengers to a new level, bringing filmgoers a globe-trotting adventure filled with action, humor and a surprising amount of heart. It fixed nearly all of the gripes I had with the original Avengers, while still retaining the sense of awe that accompanies a blockbuster of such a scale. With Civil War lurking on the horizon, I am curious to see how Phase 3 will take what we’ve learned about each of these characters and use it to pit our beloved heroes against each other. Most importantly for the immediate future though, Age Of Ultron kicks off summer blockbuster season with great style, and has set the table wonderfully for the rest of what 2015 has to offer.

RYAN’s RATING: 3.5 Stars out of 4

Focus

Will Smith gets his mojo back in a glossy and seductive comedy with brains.

————————————————————————————————

BY RYAN MILOWICKI

You might not guess from my penchant for terrible comedies, but I do rather enjoy movies that make me think. There’s something unique to the medium of film which allows a story to veil important details while setting the table for climactic and game-changing revelations. Too many films use this concept to slink into “Gotcha” territory, but every now and then you’ll see a film that carefully builds its world and subtly drops its hints along the way, justifying the buildup and leaving the audience thinking long after the credits roll. Despite their obvious flaws, movies like Now You See Me and Danny Boyle’s Trance were extremely entertaining to me for that very ability to keep me on my toes while still enjoying the ride.

“This is a game of focus,” Will Smith’s character Nicky says early on in the aptly-named Focus. Since he’s describing the intricate choreography of expert pickpocketing, I took him at his word and settled in for what I imagined to be a predictable yet fun 100 minutes of banter between Smith and Margot Robbie. But by the film’s second act, I began to realize that the con was ever so seductively being played on myself and the rest of the audience too. Focus goes above and beyond what it needed to be, giving us a surprisingly intricate mindbender while still soaring with the charm that’s been lacking in so many of Will Smith’s recent films. The end product is a stylish and pulpy jaunt that glides through seamlessly with a winning combination of never taking itself too seriously and firm confidence in front of and behind the camera.

As mentioned before, Focus examines the labyrinthine relationship between a veteran con man (Smith) and his deceptively skillful ingenue (Robbie). Split into two acts set three years apart, the film feels like a series of vignettes (in a good way), each of which contain their own payoffs while setting the stage for a cryptic finale. I spent the majority of the first half hour anxiously triple-checking my pockets to make sure my wallet was still there, so suffice it to say that the movie’s depiction of manual theft was tantalizingly effective. As the stakes increase steadily throughout the course of the story, so too does the skill of the protagonists, dragging us further down the rabbit hole and tempting us to forget to think along the way. But viewing Focus with a cautious and vigilant eye will reward you in the end, making so many of the interesting directorial and plot choices along the way make more and more sense. It’s the rare movie that gives you an equally enjoyable experience whether you think it through full bore or if you shut off your brain and let the story develop.

One of the reasons this works so well is the chemistry of the two leads. Despite their sizable age difference, Smith and Robbie play off each other quite well while each setting up their own cons. Focus is not high cinema, nor does it intend to be. Thus, what makes it such an easygoing experience is that the actors never take themselves too seriously along the way. In treating it as a comedy first and foremost, the witty banter between Smith and Robbie keep the film from ever slipping into monotony. Because of how much fun you can tell they’re having, I’m more than willing to forgive a movie with a fairly weak antagonist in favor of developing their relationship to the fullest. It’s good to see Will Smith in a role like this again, because it’s been a few years since we’ve seen him truly in his element. Focus won’t be enough to make moviegoers forget the disaster that was After Earth, but it certainly is a more-than-adequate first step in the right direction.

It also doesn’t hurt that Focus is an objectively beautiful movie. Full of vivid color, detailed and lavish setpieces, and expressive camera work, the visual eye candy perfectly complements the seductively decadent behavior of our protagonists. The world of high-stakes crime hasn’t looked this pretty since Ocean’s Eleven, and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who also co-directed 2011’s Crazy, Stupid Love) make several interesting choices along the way which keep everything from feeling formulaic.

As I said, Focus is far from a perfect movie, and no one should go into it expecting to have their lives changed by the heartrending struggles of its characters. But this is a movie that basks in its imperfections, daring itself to straddle the line between thrilling and campy, and toeing it with a sleek grace. It’s great to see Will Smith back in his element, and this is a film which gives him full reign to show us all the reasons why we fell in love with him in the first place. Throw him into a world with dazzling bursts of color, give him a screenplay with enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing, and you’ve got yourself a darn good way to spend a wintry February evening. For what it is and intends to be, Focus is nothing short of a success.  I can’t wait to see Smith and Margot Robbie team up again in Suicide Squad.

RYAN’s RATING: 3 Stars out of 4

Ryan’s Predictions for the 2015 Oscars

BY RYAN MILOWICKI

The Best Picture marathon was an absolute blast, and today we get the added benefit of having the Oscars! It’s now time for me to go to work and publicly lay my cards out on the table. I’m tempted to throw in a few more upset picks than I ultimately did, but I’m also entered in a fairly lucrative Oscar pool, so I’m also erring a bit on the side of caution. The predictions you’re about to see are identical to the ones I submitted to my pool, so you’ll have a pretty good idea of how I did by the time the night is over. So without further ado, here’s the names I’m hoping to see called tonight!

BEST PICTURE

Nominees:

  1. American Sniper
  2. Birdman
  3. Boyhood
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  5. The Imitation Game
  6. Selma
  7. The Theory of Everything
  8. Whiplash

PREDICTION: Boyhood

BEST DIRECTOR

Nominees:

  1. Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  2. Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman)
  3. Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
  4. Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)
  5. Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

PREDICTION: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

BEST ACTOR

Nominees:

  1. Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
  2. Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
  3. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
  4. Michael Keaton (Birdman)
  5. Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

PREDICTION: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

BEST ACTRESS

Nominees:

  1. Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
  2. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
  3. Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
  4. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
  5. Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

PREDICTION: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Nominees:

  1. Robert Duvall (The Judge)
  2. Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
  3. Edward Norton (Birdman)
  4. Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
  5. J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

PREDICTION: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominees:

  1. Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
  2. Laura Dern (Wild)
  3. Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
  4. Emma Stone (Birdman)
  5. Meryl Streep (Into The Woods)

PREDICTION: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Nominees:

  1. American Sniper
  2. The Imitation Game
  3. Inherent Vice
  4. The Theory of Everything
  5. Whiplash

PREDICTION: The Imitation Game

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Nominees:

  1. Birdman
  2. Boyhood
  3. Foxcatcher
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  5. Nightcrawler

PREDICTION: Birdman

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Nominees:

  1. Big Hero 6
  2. The Boxtrolls
  3. How To Train Your Dragon 2
  4. Song of the Sea
  5. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

PREDICTION: How To Train Your Dragon 2

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Nominees:

  1. Birdman
  2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  3. Ida
  4. Mr. Turner
  5. Unbroken

PREDICTION: Birdman

COSTUME DESIGN

Nominees:

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. Inherent Vice
  3. Into The Woods
  4. Maleficent
  5. Mr. Turner

PREDICTION: The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST DOCUMENTARY – FEATURE

Nominees:

  1. Citizenfour
  2. Finding Vivian Maier
  3. Last Days in Vietnam
  4. The Salt of the Earth
  5. Virunga

PREDICTION: Citizenfour

BEST DOCUMENTARY – SHORT SUBJECT

Nominees:

  1. Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
  2. Joanna
  3. Our Curse
  4. The Reaper (La Parka)
  5. White Earth

PREDICTION: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

BEST FILM EDITING

Nominees:

  1. American Sniper
  2. Boyhood
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  4. The Imitation Game
  5. Whiplash

PREDICTION: Boyhood

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Nominees:

  1. Ida
  2. Leviathan
  3. Tangerines
  4. Timbuktu
  5. Wild Tales

PREDICTION: Ida

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING

Nominees:

  1. Foxcatcher
  2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy

PREDICTION: The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Nominees:

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. The Imitation Game
  3. Interstellar
  4. Mr. Turner
  5. The Theory of Everything

PREDICTION: The Theory of Everything

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

Nominees:

  1. “Everything Is Awesome” (The LEGO Movie)
  2. “Glory” (Selma)
  3. “Grateful” (Beyond The Lights)
  4. “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me)
  5. “Lost Stars” (Begin Again)

PREDICTION: “Glory” (Selma)

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Nominees:

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. The Imitation Game
  3. Interstellar
  4. Into The Woods
  5. Mr. Turner

PREDICTION: The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST SHORT FILM – ANIMATION

Nominees:

  1. The Bigger Picture
  2. The Dam Keeper
  3. Feast
  4. Me and My Moulton
  5. A Single Life

PREDICTION: Feast

BEST SHORT FILM – LIVE ACTION

Nominees:

  1. Aya
  2. Boogaloo and Graham
  3. Butter Lamp (La Lampe au beurre de yak)
  4. Parvaneh
  5. The Phone Call

PREDICTION: The Phone Call

BEST SOUND EDITING

Nominees:

  1. American Sniper
  2. Birdman
  3. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  4. Interstellar
  5. Unbroken

PREDICTION: American Sniper

BEST SOUND MIXING

Nominees:

  1. American Sniper
  2. Birdman
  3. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  4. Unbroken
  5. Whiplash

PREDICTION: Whiplash

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Nominees:

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy
  4. Interstellar
  5. X-Men: Days of Future Past

PREDICTION: Interstellar

I’ll update this post after the actual Oscars tonight to see how I did overall. Hopefully this helps any of you filling out your last-minute predictions. Good luck in all of your Oscar Pools!

Kingsman: The Secret Service

A sleek, witty, and adrenaline-pumping spy romp that defies genre conventions.

————————————————————————————————

BY RYAN MILOWICKI

Like bunting in baseball, the spoof has become one of modern cinema’s lost arts. Despite living in a world more self-aware than it’s ever been, we’ve really lost touch with a genre that has provided my childhood with some of its most memorable films. Matthew Vaughn has been known for pushing the envelope of genre in his four prior directorial efforts, and his fifth film Kingsman might just be my favorite one yet. Perfectly straddling the line between being a comedic send-up of James Bond films and being a darn good spy-action film in its own right, Kingsman is the perfect antidote to the traditional slog of February in theaters.

Developing the world of a covert British organization of gentlemen spies, the film centers around the rigorous audition and initiation process to becoming a prodigious member of the Round Table (King Arthur parallels abound). At the center of it all is Harry Hart, code name Galahad (Colin Firth), a debonair mixture of wit and physicality. When his colleague Lancelot is killed, he nominates a streetwise delinquent named Eggsy (newcomer Taron Egerton), in stark contrast to the upper-crust youths put forth by the other Kingsmen. The trials and tribulations of the training quickly collide with a nefarious plan from eccentric billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who seeks to severely trim the Earth’s population in an attempt to stop humanity’s destruction of the planet.

From its dizzying array of gadgets, to its quippy megalomaniac villain, Kingsman borrows more than a few plot points from the prototypical Bond screenplay. But, by keeping its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, the film never manages to feel derivative, making it feel like a fresh (and yes, satirical) take on the spy genre. Take the young Eggsy, for example. The duality of the posh Victorian feel of the Kingsmen stands in stark contrast to his rough urban upbringing makes a very interesting commentary of the oft-idealized image of Britain in most spy films. His journey to reconcile his ties to the life he leaves behind with his aspirations for something more make him far more complex than the Connery/Moore-era Bond, who thrived on his one-note bravado. Egerton is a diamond in the rough, and a remarkable find for this film. He exudes equal levels of energy, action prowess, and charm, and I truly believe that he has the chops to be a star in the future. Despite being billed as a showcase for Firth and Jackson, it was Egerton who really made the film click for me.

That isn’t to say that Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson don’t put out their finest work either. Seeing Firth in an action film feels bizarre at first, but extremely quickly becomes right on a whole array of levels. We’ve always loved him for his verbal dexterity, and a role like this gives him a comedic chance to quip to his heart’s delight, all the while beating the living hell out of anyone who stands in his way (a certain extended sequence hilariously set to “Free Bird” makes this point abundantly clear). As a mentor and as an action hero in his own right, the character of Galahad is a wonderful addition to the film. And as for Jackson, he received far more screen time than I would have been led to believe. By giving him a chance to steal more than a few scenes, we also get to see the motivations of Valentine, which extend beyond the usual “destroy the world because I’m evil and that’s just what evil guys do.” In addition, his comical aversion to blood and violence provides Kingsman with one of its most consistent running jokes.

Vaughn directs Kingsman with a rush of confidence, from its frenetic pacing to its constant “yes, we did just go there” moments. You won’t find too many conventions in this film, and just when you think you’ve figured out the rules of the world, a huge fight scene will break out to the tune of K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “Give It Up” (my personal favorite of the band’s). 129 minutes fly by thanks to excellent pacing, converging storylines, and an editing style which both accentuates the impressive choreography and lets us soak in the cartoonish levels of violence on display. Did this movie lose some profitability by being R instead of PG-13? Probably. But what it gained was an unshakable personality, and the film feels like the cinematic equivalent of playing a particularly violent video game with your friends; continuous fits of martial arts and gunfire punctuated by rapid-fire bursts of profanity. Throw that aesthetic into the pot with the posh allure of the tuxedo-adorned spy, and you have an experience which looks and feels unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time.

The more I talk about Kingsman, the more I realize that I’m really drifting away from treating it as a spoof. That really is a credit to the uniqueness of the film, as it takes a concept as simple as “let’s turn James Bond into an R-rated comedy” and runs with it to the ends of the earth. It’s safe to say that Matthew Vaughn is now 5-for-5 in crafting memorable experiences from familiar ideas. And I think Kingsman might just be the best of his work yet, blending the sleek action of Layer Cake and X-Men: First Class with the acerbic wit of Stardust and Kick-Ass. It might take second fiddle to 50 Shades Of Grey this weekend in terms of popularity and financial intake, but make no mistake that Kingsman is the best time you’ll have in a movie theater this winter.

RYAN’s RATING: 3.5 Stars out of 4

Black Sea

Fun enough, but ultimately bogged down by a frustratingly obvious screenplay.

————————————————————————————————

BY RYAN MILOWICKI

One of the more oddly-specific genres in film history is the submarine thriller. Almost always playing on the themes of claustrophobia, trust, and the relentless pursuit of Germans, Soviets, or something belonging to them, it’s very hard to follow in the footsteps of Das Boot or The Hunt for Red October and not tread familiar ground. While Black Sea is often quite enjoyable to watch, it fails to break any new ground in the subgenre, all the while being bogged down by a laborious and obvious screenplay.

The film follows a ragtag team (half British, half Russian) of submariners and divers who have frustratingly seen their jobs become superfluous in the 21st century. When they hear about a Nazi U-boat filled with gold and sunk at the bottom of the Black Sea, they hatch a plan to covertly go down to the depths and claim the gold before either the Russian government or their greedy ex-employers recover it. Led by the crusty Captain Robinson (Jude Law in a thick Aberdeen accent), tensions between the Brits and the Russians erupt underwater over the tantalizing “equal shares for every man” policy implemented at the beginning of the voyage. Each man begins to realize that their respective share will increase if there are fewer people with whom to split the treasure.

Despite some familiarity, it’s a solid premise for a thriller, and there is plenty to like about the film. For starters, the actual setpiece of the submarine is equal parts constricting and expansive, and is shot quite eerily with a reddish tint that only slightly prevents entombing darkness. And when things inevitably go haywire around the second act, there’s something undeniably entertaining about watching underwater explosions and Jude Law’s trademark bug-eyed scowl. The mix of desperation and technical skill embodied by Law results in a very solid performance, and he does his best to keep the stakes high and unpredictable.

But the screenplay is an utter mess, straining the pacing and creating more confusion than a movie this inherently simple should have. I was expecting Black Sea to devolve into a mile-a-minute fight for survival at the first sign of trouble, but instead large swaths of time elapse between climactic incidents. This made me feel every one of its 115 minutes, and the dialogue contained within these lulls in the action did little to advance the plot. The more the film tries to explains its characters’ motivations, the less sense they make. The impulses with which some of the characters act are head-scratchingly improbable, and the way the screenplay tries to justify the rationale as general psychosis is a bit of a cop-out.

The dialogue also moves at a mile-a-minute at times, making the film unintelligible at times with the thick accents each actor sports. As a result, I was often forced to pay a great deal more close attention than I would ideally like to in a thriller of this nature. This turned into a bizarre duality of sorts, as certain facets of the screenplay were dizzying in their slap-you-over-the-head obviousness (particularly in the first act). Seeing Law’s character watch his son from afar in an early scene isn’t enough to explain his character, he needs to say “my boy” at least five times in the ensuing pub conversation. Seeing the submarine’s depth gauges point to extreme readings isn’t deemed enough diagetic information to signify our heroes’ location; we need a particularly buffoonish character to hold his head and yell “Ow, my ears!” Further examples of this abound throughout the film, and do a disservice to the audience by not allowing us to fill in the extraordinarily easy blanks.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is a lot more here than we’ve come to expect from January release (I’m looking at you, Wedding Ringer and Mortdecai), and I would describe my overall experience as a fun one. But there’s two ways in which I would have thoroughly enjoyed Black Sea: either a taut and tense thriller which kept me spellbound throughout and continually raised the stakes, or a B-movie camp fest so over-the-top in its craziness that I couldn’t help loving it. Unfortunately, Black Sea is neither of those, resulting in a middling end product that shows just enough flashes of excitement to leave me wanting for so much more. The trailer had me expecting an off-the-rails combination of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, a promise that the film ultimately couldn’t keep. There’s always a saddening level of disappointment when high hopes aren’t met, but if you lower your expectations enough before walking into the theater, Black Sea can be a pleasant way to spend two hours in the bleak midwinter.

RYAN’s RATING: 2 Stars out of 4

American Sniper

Eastwood’s best film in years, and thoroughly deserving of all its recent Oscar accolades.

————————————————————————————————

BY RYAN MILOWICKI

Far too often, movies like American Sniper get brushed aside as guns-a-blazing, violence-glorifying exercises in shooting. And while Clint Eastwood’s second film of 2014 certainly features moments which could inspire some good-natured patriotic revelry, the story of Chris Kyle, the United States’ deadliest sniper of all time, is anything but a happy one. Bursting with kinetic energy, heart-stopping sequences of suspense, and aching amounts of melancholy character development, American Sniper is Eastwood’s best film in years, and thoroughly deserving of all its recent Oscar accolades.

Spanning from Chris Kyle’s initial drive to join the military to his tragic death in 2013, the film shows Kyle turn into the most brutally effective soldier in memory, often at the expense of his relationship with his wife Taya. Divorced from the usual overt political overtones that permeate most war films like this, American Sniper focuses solely on the perspective of Kyle, showing him unflinchingly as one isolated man (or a pawn in the game, if you really want to get political) who had a major impact on the events of the war in Iraq, whether or not his motivations ever aligned with anyone else’s.

Right from the first of his over 150 documented kills, we see that Chris Kyle is not the type of man to celebrate his “achievements.” After his first shots (in a grippingly taut sequence which functioned as the first theatrical trailer), his nearby colleague whoops loudly and praises Kyle’s ability. Rather than commiserate in this joy, Kyle forcefully tells his fellow soldier to be quiet, setting the tone for the rest of the film. In Chris Kyle, we have a character who balances precariously between a devastating lethal weapon and a man wary to use his skills unless absolutely necessary. Whereas Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker was addicted to the idea of war, Chris Kyle is a man whose mental imperative to serve his country is the only thing which makes him able to kill. This moral dilemma constantly brewing in his head ultimately allows him to not be destroyed inside by all the lives he ends up taking. In one scene, he tells a psychologist, “I’m willing to face my creator and answer for every shot that I’ve taken.”

Anchoring the film is a revelatory performance from Bradley Cooper, who personifies Kyle in one of the year’s finest turns. Packing on 40 pounds of muscle, Cooper is almost unrecognizable when his new physique is paired with a convincing Texas drawl. American Sniper plays the duality of cacophonous gunplay and eerie silence perfectly, so much of the film rests on the ability of Cooper to silently emote in these tense buildup moments. And as the camera focuses entirely on Cooper’s face in these important sequences, we get to see a soul-baring performance of heartbreaking proportions. Without a doubt, this is the finest role of Bradley Cooper’s career, and his third consecutive Best Actor nomination is well-deserved.

Playing Kyle’s wife Taya, Sienna Miller gives a moving performance as well, although given much less screentime than Cooper. She plays a major part in several of the film’s most crucial moments however, which stem around phone calls between the two. As a sniper usually several stories above the most gruesome action, Kyle has the luxury of being able to call his wife throughout the movie while technically on the battlefield. But in a few instances, the battle manages to find him anyway, often cutting short their conversations abruptly. In the chaos that usually ensues, the scene cuts back and forth between Taya’s stunned and frantic listening to the gunfire in her ear and Chris Kyle’s immediate transformation into an instinctually superior soldier, completely forgetting about his wife on the other line.

This dual personality which plagues Kyle throughout the movie lends it much of its conflict. As he served four tours of duty in Iraq, the film spends plenty of time focusing on the times in which he comes home between tours. As his family grows, his relationship with them seems to ebb, much to his wife’s chagrin. Much more than the standard filmic depiction of PTSD, the situations Kyle faces at home (such as meeting an amputee who invites him to visit other fellow veterans) are equal parts heartbreaking and maddening, because we can see how much the war has affected him.

On the technical side of things, American Sniper is a visual masterpiece. Usually movies like this turn the cliché sniper-sight crosshair view into an overused gimmick. While the crosshairs certainly show up throughout the movie, they never seem to diminish the sensory experience surrounding the events. Since Chris Kyle spends much of the film looking down from rooftops, the cinematography matches his unique perspective, giving us sweeping views of the haunting beauty of the devastated Iraqi landscape. The sound design of this film is also top-notch, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I could hear the bullets flying from every direction.

American Sniper is also an incredibly visceral film, unafraid to show the grotesque realities of modern warfare. We see many of Kyle’s colleague shot down around him, and often are forced to watch his hurried attempts to bind their wounds and coax them through their final moments. In a more pedestrian war movie, escalating death tolls can leave an audience desensitized to the loss of life, but these scenes never lose their emotional context, giving Chris Kyle the drive to fulfill his duty.

Eastwood’s depiction on the Iraq war is one focused on the power of individuals, and offers some truly interesting narrative choices. As Kyle’s fame grows, a bounty is placed on his head, and the remainder of the Iraq scenes play out as one of the most twisted rivalry stories in Hollywood history, as he squares off continuously against an equally-effective Syrian sniper. Not to be relegated to a one-note villain, this rival sniper is given enough screentime to show his humanity as well, as we learn that he competed in the Olympics and has a loving wife at home as well. There is true evil displayed in American Sniper as well, but Eastwood’s film isn’t interested in wantonly dividing it cleanly into Iraq vs. USA. Rather, we see how good and evil play out on both sides of the battlefield, resulting in a moving tale of war that turns the story of one of the most interesting individuals in military history into a telling morality play about impossible choices which can’t be analyzed until long after they are executed. This is one of the year’s finest pictures, and its inclusion as a Best Picture nominee is a testimony to its ability to transcend so many other war films which preceded it.

RYAN’s RATING: 4 Stars out of 4