Ride along (2013)

In an effort to impress his girlfriend and gain the acceptance of his brother in law James (Ice Cube), high school security guard Ben Barber (Kevin Hart) endeavors to fulfil a lifelong dream of becoming a police officer. Unimpressed by Ben’s care-free demeanor, hard-as-nails cop James grants him one day in the field to prove his worth as an officer and a man. Together, they get involved in a violent case of arms smuggling and corruption on a grander scope than they’d imagined.

Ride along (Story , 2013) seemingly started as a fresh take on a tired genre. Despite the uninspired character of James, who never is allowed to be anything more than ‘cool’, the character of Ben was given more depth. His ambitions are believable, his relationship with his girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter) has certain chemistry, and his hobby of competitive gaming is rather unique.

Sadly, it takes no more than ten minutes for Ride along to succumb to clichés. The banter between James and Ben is the main focal point of the film, but the combination of a veteran and rookie cop has been done so often and so much better before that one is left to wonder how this film could have been made, let alone be rated as exceptionally high as to warrant a reign at the box office upon its release.

Kevin Hart delivers his lines in his trademark high-speed squeal, making it very easy for the film to get annoying very quickly. Some jokes do hit their mark, and in certain moments of intensity the hyper-activity may cause a smile, but the incessant remarks range mostly from banalities to lazy racial stereotypes. Combined with the blank meaninglessness that is Ice Cube, the film is carried by a very lackluster duo, indeed.

The film’s plot is as generic as the characters that inhabit it. The case of smuggling and corruption has not only been done before, a very large part of the surprise reveal of who the mysterious ‘Omar’ is, is spoiled by the appearance of a major actor’s name in the opening credits.

Ride along is not necessarily awful, it is simply pointless.

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Bronson (2008)

Before growing up to become Britain most violent prisoner and spending the majority of his adult life in solitary confinement, Charlie Bronson was born as Michael Peterson to respectable parents. Driven by his ambition of becoming famous he turns, in turn, from a temperamental young man into a petty criminal and a notorious bareknuckle boxer.

Bronson (Winding Refn, 2008) presents several assorted points from his youth and adult life, intercut with Charlie (portrayed by Tom Hardy) on stage before an audience and addressing the viewer directly from inside his prison cell. This unorthodox way of narration does take some getting used to, especially since the subject matter of the film and its advertising campaign hinted towards a film in a vein similar to Lock, stock and two smoking barrels (Ritchie, 1998). Bronson does not take this route, opting instead for an intimate and highly stylized study of character.

Much of the film’s strength lies in the hands of Tom Hardy. Hardy’s portrayal of Bronson as both charmingly unapologetic and sadly deranged is very poignant, which make scenes such as the several minutes long dance sequence in an insane asylum pack as big a punch as those in which he bare handedly fights off attacking pit-bulls in shabby sheds for a few quid. Commanding absolute dominance over every scene, Hardy is more than his impressive (and explicitly shown) physique. His ability to show the glimmers of fear and sadness through the cracks of his madness is brilliant, and helps greatly with offering understanding and sympathy for an otherwise two-dimensional and cartoonish character.

This humility makes Bronson an exceptionally brave film. Opting to focus upon Bronson’s descent into madness over his career in bareknuckle boxing, the film shies away from sensationalism and cheap thrills. That is not to say that they skimped on violence. The sudden and explosive outbursts of aggression are filmed with such intensity and realism that the viewer groans over every muffled punch and kick, especially in the dramatic light of Bronson’s obvious yet untreated mental illness.

Those hoping for exceptionally expressive violence need look elsewhere. Those, however, willing to give this underappreciated gem a chance will be treated to a mammoth performance of the insanity of a man unable to get a grip on reality. I, for one, bet a week’s wages that Christopher Nolan found this film to be very inspiring, indeed.

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300: Rise of an empire (2014)

300: Rise of an empire (Murro, 2014) can be seen as a companion film to 2007’s 300 (Snyder), as the events take place before, during and after the battle of Thermopylae between 300 Spartans and the Persian army. Threatened by King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) attempts to unite the Greek city states as one nation whilst battling the fleet of Artemisia (Eva Green), the Persian naval commander.

300, at first glance, seemed overtly reliant on special effects and cursed with predictable and uninspired characters. However, I could not stop smiling during my first and subsequent screenings of the film, as the sheer brutality of the action and the grandeur of the monologues were impeccably timed and preformed. Blessed with a charismatic cast, led by Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender, the film grew to be a somewhat guilty pleasure I fully enjoyed. Despite my enjoyment, the film had a clear story arc that ended satisfactory, leaving little anticipation of a possible sequel.

That this step eventually was taken, is disappointing more than surprising. With a majority of the principal actors of 300 not returning for Rise of an empire, secondary characters are explored in further depth and new character are introduced. In the former category, the origins of Xerxes are a fitting example. As the son of the murdered king of Persia, the young boy swore vengeance against the Greek and descended into the madness and power of his familiar godlike state. This evolution succeeds in exploring the humanity of Xerxes, yet it was his utter lack of compassion that made him a formidable and ruthless opponent. In showing the manipulation and politics that were instrumental in his rise to power, the ‘God King’ is reduced to insignificance.

Taking his place as the main villain is Artemisia, his late father’s second in command. As a young girl, her parents were killed by a band of Greeks, which held her captive and sexually abused her for years. Taken in by a Persian missionary, she was trained as a fighter and soon rose to prominence in the Persian army. Albeit her origin story is unoriginal, her insanity and bloodlust are believable.

Her foe is Themistocles, the protagonist. Successfully portrayed by Sullivan Stapleton as an intelligent and compassionate leader of his men, a sense of drama and importance is brought to the battle scenes. This, however, cannot be said about the political subplot. Themistocles’s endeavors of uniting Greece as a nation are both too reminiscent of the political subplot in 300 and less coherently executed. Meant to showcase the birth of Western democracy, the film never is able to rise above squabbling old men and contrived dialogue. The finale, when the Spartan fleet comes to the aid of the faltering Athenians, is even brought about by little more than a Spartan thirst for vengeance, showing implicitly the downfalls of the very democracy the film promotes.

More than a film about politics, Rise of an empire of course is first and foremost an action film. Whilst the creative team could’ve been praised for transporting the war from the desert in 300 to the ocean, this shift does not result in significantly different warfare. The differences in commanding a fleet of ships as opposed to an army of men could’ve resulted in an interesting spin, yet the ships quickly are demoted to mere plateaus for the warriors to fight on. The action is still highly stylized and impressively filmed, it does not innovate. On the contrary, 300 saw more variations on the theme than ever are shown in Rise of an empire.

This leads to an important issue. In 300, the waves of enemies increased exponentially, as the might of the Spartans was fully revealed. This premise was believable. In Rise of an empire, the strength of the Athenians is never quite explained. Shown initially as fighters capable of Spartan feats of skill, the warriors comment on several occasions on their daily professions as poets and painters. This is not explained, and made even more opaque in the scenes where the Persians with ease murder countless Greeks. This confusion can be attributed to the exposition of the plot. Whereas in 300 the first half hour of screen time was reserved for explaining the characters, the first half hour of Rise of an empire is used to bring those unfamiliar with its predecessor up to speed. As a result, the characters are severely underdeveloped.

Whilst the violence is equally explicit and gruesome as its predecessor’s, Rise of an empire curiously has copious amounts of profanity and nudity. Anyone familiar with the first instalment would agree that this film could not and needn’t be made any more ‘mature’ or ‘edgy’, which made the fucks (double entendre intended) seem out of place and immature. This can be seen as a metaphor for the entire film, as it expands upon the original source where there is little left to be gained.

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The Hobbit: The desolation of Smaug (2013)

In The Hobbit: The desolation of Smaug (Jackson, 2013), the fellowship from 2012’s The Hobbit: An unexpected journey continues said journey to reinstate Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) as the king of the dwarves and reclaim his people’s homeland from an occupying dragon.

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films have been met with criticism. His proposed trilogy has been seen as a cash grab, or at the least as a little excessive. Despite the intrinsically drawn-out nature of adapting a book of a little over 300 pages into a trilogy of films, The desolation of Smaug’s main downfall is its overtly large and undistinctive cast of characters. The fellowship of thirteen dwarves, a wizard and a Halfling suffers from the general jolliness of the dwarves. Their lack of individual motivation sets them apart from the fellowship in the original Lord of the rings trilogy, as it is difficult to care for (or even tell apart) characters who seemingly differ only in name and beard.

The emotional focal points of the film thus are Bilbo and Gandalf, both of whom are explored in greater detail. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is required to use all of his cunning and wits when he is called upon his contractual obligation to steal an artifact of the dwarves from the titular dragon. Played masterfully by the brilliant Freeman, Bilbo’s gradual descent into madness after having acquired the Ring from Gollum in the previous film is excellently juxtaposed with his intelligence and initiative, proving again that Bilbo is a far more engaging and interesting protagonist than The lord of the rings’s Frodo, whose reliance upon his fellowship made him seem like an item more than a character.

The desolation of Smaug also marks the first time we see Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shy away from his role as a leader and moral guide, in favor of a more active stance. His encounter with the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch), a spiritual form of ‘big bad’ Sauron, showcases the wizard’s formidable magic powers in an almost Dumbledoresque manner. These scenes are riveting, and a much anticipated payoff.

The same can be said for the dwarves. Although their individual characters remain underdeveloped, as a unit they are far better utilized than in the previous instalment of the trilogy. The action sequences have lost the childish and rather absurd nature of the first film (no musical acrobatics with china and cutlery!), opting instead for fast-paced and well-choreographed action that creates both a sense of real danger and a feeling of deep-rooted familiarity between the dwarves.

Fans of the original series will be much more pleased with The desolation of Smaug than with An unexpected journey. The plot of the film is more focused, resulting in enthralling action sequences and a greater sense of purpose. The nods to the original trilogy, such as the appearance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), have risen above the level of gimmicks to contributing to the story, which is enjoyable as well as useful.

All in all, this film does not justify the choice for a trilogy, yet increases the anticipation for the final closing chapter.

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The secret life of Walter Mitty (2013)

In The secret life of Walter Mitty (Stiller, 2013), Ben Stiller plays the titular character; an ordinary man whose longing for adventure manifests itself in vivid daydreams and fantasies. When he misplaces the cover photo for the last printed issues of the magazine he works for, he feels forced to follow a string of clues in pursuit of the picture’s illusive photographer, all the while fighting to keep his job and win the affection of the woman of his dreams.

The character of Walter Mitty is not completely alien to Stiller, as the actor lately has been shying away from comedic roles in favor of more dramatic films. Whilst not terribly original, Stiller succeeds in making Walter charismatic and believable. The daydreams are visually stunning, and work very well in showing the deeper reaches of the character’s insecurities and ambitions.

However, Stiller’s layered portrayal seems misplaced amidst the grotesque and cartoonish characters that make up the rest of the cast. Both Kristen Wiig as Cheryl, the object of Walter’s affection, and Adam Scott as the main antagonist never are able to create depth in their two dimensional personalities. This is emphasized by the gaping irrationality of the plot. The premise of Walter as a bland and passive persona who has done nothing worthy of mention is carefully built up, only to be discarded completely when he travels to Greenland, Iceland and the lower Himalayas successively with little to no hesitation. The aptness with which he fights a shark and skateboards down a volcano is out of character, whilst the arc of his development as a person is unrealistic. The cookie-cutter end makes matters worse, as Walter ends up in a relationship with a woman whom he has shared minimal screen time with and the underdeveloped family-subplot is resolved by oddly selling the piano he has spent ¾ of the film desperately trying to preserve. All of this makes the film feel out of balance and unfinished.

Despite all this, the biggest downfall of the film is its blatant product placement. Whilst it is completely understandable that the funding of a film is dependent on sponsors, the products’ contrived inclusion in the plot is both annoying and unnecessary. The recurring mention of franchises and services in both dialog and image is really quite offensive.

The film has a great message (‘Act upon your ambitions’), has a charismatic protagonist and is shot on location in some of the most beautiful places on earth. Who can overlook the inconsistencies in the plot and characters, as well as insistent product placement (that at times feels as if watching a commercial) will surely be entertained, yet I could not shake the feeling that Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes were but a wisecrack away.

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Anchorman: The legend continues (2013)

Anchorman: The legend continues (McKay, 2013) continues the story of news anchor Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his news team exactly where predecessor Anchorman: The legend of Ron Burgundy (McKay, 2004) left off, showing us Ron and his wife Veronica (Christina Applegate) working as co-anchors for a New York network. When Veronica is promoted in favor of Ron, their fractured marriage spirals Ron into alcoholism and obscurity. Spending his days harassing dolphins as an entertainer at the San Diego zoo, Ron is given a second chance when he is recruited for America’s first 24 hour news channel. Inspired by an office feud and a bet, Burgundy and his team revolutionize reporting and reinstate their former glory.

After having become a financial success and having amassed a cult-like following, the exceedingly quoted The legend of Ron Burgundy understandably was given a sequel. Whilst the premise of the film was promising, and the revisiting of these beloved characters surely welcome, The legend continues is much more a continuation than an expansion. Apart from Ron Burgundy hardly any characters are explored in further detail, as the sexist, homoerotic and idiotic traits of the news team are presented in scenes marginally different from the previous film’s originals. Even the addition of a love interest for dimwitted Brick (Steve Carell), played by the ever capable Kristen Wiig, is a disappointment, as the relationship’s development is nearly completely glossed over. The continuous reinterpretation of old jokes does not necessarily make the film unenjoyable, but rather quite pointless.

However, some new elements are added to the story. In The legend of Ron Burgundy, much of the film’s plot and subsequent humor was derived from the stereotypical male chauvinism of the 1970s. In The legend continues many more social issues are tackled, as questions of race, drug use, international politics and the moral and ethical responsibilities of American broadcasting have somehow found their way into a film that also features a battle royale between a werewolf and the ghost of Stonewall Jackson. It, thus, should come to no surprise that these themes are not developed to a satisfying extend. Who would have thought that an Anchorman film would be accused of being overly ambitious?

In short, Anchorman: The legend continues is certainly enjoyable for fans of the original film, as the surreal absurdity and mildly offensive humor are still very much intact. Those, however, expecting more than whatever they got from Anchorman: The legend of Ron Burgundy will be disappointed and leave unfulfilled.

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Oldboy (2013)

Oldboy (2013) has had a well-reported difficulty being produced. Initially brought under the attention of Steven Spielberg (whose son is a great fan of the original film Oldeuboi), rumors of his planned adaptation starring Will Smith gained notoriety quickly, due to the graphic and morally contested nature of the Korean original. As both Spielberg and Smith backed out of the project, the film’s future seemed grim, until production was resumed and Spike Lee was announced as the director.

In Oldboy, Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett. After a night of heavy drinking, the absent father of his three year old daughter is kidnapped off the streets and framed for the murder of his estranged wife. When he wakes up, he finds himself locked in a room where he will be forced to stay for 20 years without any word of explanation.  When Doucett is released as suddenly as he was imprisoned, his captor gives him only a few days to figure out why he was taken and to save his threatened daughter.

It should not come to anyone’s surprise that Spike Lee’s Oldboy was received with predominantly negative reviews. Chan-Wook Park’s 2003 original has been a prime example of recent Asian films that have transcended the language barrier to reach both international success and cult-like reverence, leaving many fans critical about the possibility of a Hollywood remake that could do justice to the source material. Whilst the reviews have been harsh, it is not just the scorned fans that are to blame.

When Oldboy is taken at face value, momentarily forgetting the masterpiece it adapted, there are several redeeming features that can be pointed out. First and foremost, it is impressive that a film about some of the most silenced taboos of the Western world could be made in the first place. Leaving the plot (and the surprise twists it entails) largely intact might have been necessary to give the film a fighting chance of being accepted, it is bold nonetheless. Furthermore, Josh Brolin portrays Doucett’s transformation well, and his believability in both the action and the dramatic sequences is formidable.

However, despite the general degree of faithfulness to the original film, Spike Lee felt it necessary to add 20 minutes of extra exposition. This addition has been detrimental of the finished feature. Many lovers of the Korean original would agree that is the ambiguity of the protagonists’ and antagonist’s morals, memories and actions that resulted in the incredible emotional impact of the film – all of which has been lost in explanation. What we are left with are slight caricatures, all of whom cannot capture the visceral emotions that loaded every scene of the original with a dominant sense of significance.

 All in all, it is impossible not to conclude that the original has not been surpassed in any significant way.

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CBGB (2013)

Alan Rickman has forged an impressive reputation as one of England’s most well-respected and versatile actors, capable of lifting a film above mediocrity with his performance alone.  That said, it is disappointing that a film about the ferocious first steps of punk rock into the world could turn out so generic.

In CBGB (2013), Alan Rickman plays Hilly Kristal, the manager of music club CBGB that famously provided a stage for unorthodox American punk and new wave bands such as the Ramones, Television and The Police. With the help of old friends, his mother’s money and his estranged but intelligent daughter, Kristal helped 1970s youth find its voice in music.

The main problem of the film is the structuring of the plot. Initially proposed as a story-within-story, the framework of the origins of Punk Magazine is quickly discarded to tell the tale of Hilly Kristal. The remnants of the cartoonish framework amount to little more than annotated scene transitions that can be described as disruptive more than original or even whimsical. This stylistic flaw could have been overlooked if the main story about Kristal had been engaging, but this is not the case. Portrayed as a failed businessman more than a music industry icon, what should have been his visionary idealism and love for music can only be seen as disillusioned incompetence and greed. These flaws, combined with the character’s hard-headedness and disregard of advice, make it very difficult to sympathize with Kristal. Come the miraculous happy ending of the film, in which all personal and financial troubles are resolved without much explanation, the viewer cannot help but feel cheated.

Fans of the musical genre will be delighted by the excellently cast portrayals of icons such as Lou Reed, Blondie and Iggy Pop, as well as enjoy the classic and rather eclectic soundtrack. Those indifferent or adverse, however, will not be converted, as the jumbled plot and forgettable dialogue turn a great 20th century movement of rebellion into a generic story of money conquers all.  

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Sherlock Holmes (2009)

After the incredible and very recent international success of Sherlock Holmes, triumphantly translated both to modern-day England (Sherlock, 2010-) and the United States (Elementary, 2012-), it is quite easy to forget that the renaissance of world’s most beloved and quick-witted sleuth was brought about by none other than Guy Ritchie with Sherlock Holmes (2009).

Whilst the choice for Ritchie might seem odd at first, following the director’s slate of tough-as-nails action films such as Lock, stock and two smoking barrels and Snatch (his momentary lapse of reason called ‘Madonna’ well forgiven), his apparent understanding of the underbelly of London society works wondrously. Both in depicting the tribulations of 19th century England and in updating the characters of Holmes and his trusted dr. Watson from bookish detectives to bare-knuckle brawling bad-asses, Ritchie finds the right tone between action, adventure and comedy.

An instrumental part of the success of this intended franchise reboot is Robert Downey Jr.’s idiosyncratic portrayal of the titular hero. Whilst critics have made the (arguably excellent) point that Downey Jr. has been portraying one and the same character since Larry Paul on Ally McBeal (2000-2002), his wit and charm elevate Sherlock above obnoxiousness, much in the same way how Johnny Depp was able to create a memorable character of (Captain!) Jack Sparrow.

Whilst highly enjoyable, the film is not without flaw. The break-neck pace of both the character introductions and the plot exposition would leave any viewer unfamiliar with the source material dazed and confused, or at the very least unappreciative of the long running relationships between Holmes, Watson and the many secondary characters such as Irene Adler and Inspector Lestrade. It is of course impossible to demand Sherlock levels of character development, but with plans of a trilogy established early on in the development process the pacing could have been handled with a little more care. However, these flaws are minor, and in no way degenerate the exciting reimagining  of one of the greatest and most adapted literary characters.

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This must be the place

Almost a month ago, I wrote about how afraid I was to review This must be the place (Sorrentino, 2011). I simply could not yet grasp what exactly this movie inspired in me, and why it touched me in the ways it has. In the past week, I watched the film again, and without having lost any of my initial excitement I have gained a greater insight in my once inexplicable love.

Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is a gloomy and retired rock star, living off his royalties in Dublin. Growing ever more depressed by his mundane life, he views the news of his dying father as a chance to reconcile with his estranged family. Sadly, he arrives too late. Back in the United States for the first time in thirty years, he learns of his late father’s humiliation in Auschwitz, a trauma he vows to avenge.

In chronicling Cheyenne’s quest, the film soon unfolds from being a quirky tragi-comedy to a road movie about regret and acceptance.

Taking the time to set up elaborate personalities, This must be the place convinces completely, and Sean Penn portraits Cheyenne with the wits and insecurities that raise the character above its larger-than-life appearance. More than a rock star is he a man who struggles with the choices he has made, the relationships he has been in and taking the responsibility he is ought to. The trip he sets out on through America’s heartlands is visually one of the most stunning I have ever seen. From New Mexico’s breathtaking deserts to panoramic northern mountains, in long and calm shots the movie allows itself to wander.

After long consideration I have concluded that it is this pacing that is the true strength of the film. No matter how absurd the premise may seem, in steering away from quick humor and cheap thrills the viewer will be grasped from the very first opening scenes.

How this movie could be described in one sentence? Maybe Wes Anderson meets Robert Smith will do. But this film is far more than that, and an absolute recommendation for everyone with two hours to devote to absolutely pure cinema.

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