DVD Review: Gangster Squad

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Inspired by a true story, and based on a book by Paul Lieberman, Gangster Squad is a sleek and stylish, but ultimately predictable, mobster-cop flick.

Set in sepia tone, the first few minutes of this noir film shows just how much the city of LA has deteriorated. The city’s police and its politicians are all in the never-ending pocket of ruthless, power-crazy mafia don Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who doles out brutality without a second thought.

Deciding to put an end to the corruption, honest cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) starts recruiting an undercover, off-the-books team to secretly destroy Cohen.

Enter Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), and a host of other miss-matched personalities; Central Avenue black beat cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie); old cowboy sharpshooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick); eavesdropping techy Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi); and Latino novice Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena).

Acting-wise, Brolin holds steady as the man who seems to be carrying the world on his shoulders, though he is regularly upstaged by Gosling with a cool, off-handed approach. Sean Penn as Cohen is just downright scary – he nails the heart-piercing, droopy-eyed stare – but without such a fine cast of actors behind it, this movie would be little more than a high-gloss caper.

The only other good thing about Gangster Squad is how cinematographer Ruben Fliescher got the trappings of the 1940s spot on. The coupes and sedans, the people, the Hollywood stucco, the band singers in neon-lit clubs and Mafioso bars – it’s just about as good as it gets from that point of view.

Unfortunately, those looking for the depth and complexity of the best of the genre are in the wrong place, but take Gangster Squad for what it is and it’s not a bad way to spend an evening. But be warned – it’s not as deep, or as smart, as it thinks it is.

 

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DVD Review: Life of Pi

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Life of Pi is a true masterpiece, and is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen.

Director Ang Lee has done what many thought could not be done, he turned the best-selling novel into a larger-than-life work of art. Not only that, but it is actually one of the best book-to-movie adaptations for a long time.

The film tells the story of Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma / Irrfan Khan), zookeeper’s son. Pi is uprooted from his home in Pondicherry, India, when his father decides to move their zoo to Canada. The family catches a ride on an ocean freighter along with the animals – imagine a modern-day Noah’s Ark. When a massive storm rocks the freighter, the boat sinks – and Pi finds himself one of the few to survive. He is all alone in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Yes, it sounds far-fetched and unrealistic – that’s what I though too. At every twist and turn, I expected to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. But I didn’t.

It is genuinely one of the tensest, most captivating movies I have seen in a long time. It takes a story of fantastical proportions and not only makes you believe it, but makes you care about it. The acting is magnificent, to say the least, with newcomer Suraj Sharma (teen Pi) tugging the heat-strings in all the right places, and Irrfan Khan (adult Pi) reservedly superb as naval-gazing narrator.

Simply put, Life of Pi is glorious. A marvel that takes cinematography to new heights with its crisp rendering of dreamlike landscapes and its fierce yet fascinating feline co-star, all while delivering a poignant and inspiring story of human endurance.

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The Blu-ray disc includes the following HD special features:

  • A Filmmaker’s Epic Journey: Not many Blu-Ray can tout over an hour-long documentary, The four-part making-of documentary shows the four-year filming process, and covers everything from the adaptation of the novel, filming, and the lengthy post-production process. The documentary includes interviews with the cast, and focuses heavily on Ang Lee and newcomer Sharma.
  • A Remarkable Vision: The award-winning visual effects are spectacular. Bill Westerhofer and the team at Rhythm and Hues visual effects show how they were able to make the film look realistic.
  • Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright: This feature focuses on the CGI used to create the tiger with the help of a real-life tiger.
  • Gallery: The feature gives a peak at the pre-production art, which you can watch in an auto-play slide show.
  • Storyboards: The feature shows the storyboards used for seven of the big scenes in the film.

If you have not seen this Academy-Award winning movie yet, buy it on the spot. You won’t regret it.

DVD Review: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

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Framed as a flashback, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is the story of Jim and Cindy Green (Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner), who live in a dying industrial town whose economy depends on the local pencil factory.

At the film’s start, Jim and Cindy get some terrible news – after years of trying everything, they are told that they will never be able to produce a baby of their own. One of the films most heart-wrenching moments, we see Jim and Cindy go through sadness, anger, and eventually denial.

Sick of mourning, they get drunk and start imagining the kid they would have had, writing each of his awesome attributes on a piece of paper, then putting the slips into a wooden box, which they bury (or plant) in their garden (along with their dreams apparently).

Overnight, something magical happens – there’s a rainstorm localized specifically over their house and garden and something crawls out of the earth. In the morning, Jim and Cindy discover muddy footprints leading to what would have been the baby’s room – and inside, a mud-covered 10-year-old (CJ Adams) who announces that his name is Timothy and that he is theirs.

Timothy is a strange little strange little cookie to say the least. He doesn’t pick up on social cues—he’s oblivious to bullying and can’t figure out the fun of sports – and persists on photosynthesising at the most inappropriate moments. Timothy is a unique soul, but it’s a struggle to get really excited about his arrival, excepting the fact that he’s growing leaves along his shins.

Luckily, the camera often follows Cindy and Jim. The majority of scenes are reliant on their connection, which Garner and Edgerton pull off spectacularly – they really work as an on-screen couple. Both deliver fine performances as parents who desperately want to become parents, but even their combined efforts can’t save this movie from its own overbearing sentimentality.

Having said that, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is definitely a different kind of film and one that the whole family could enjoy. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but it has its moments. A safe bet if you’re looking for a family friendly tear-jerker.

DVD Review: Magic Mike

There are guy movies and girl movies, the latter of which the guys label “chick flicks” and often only ever see under protest.

Is Magic Mike a chick flick?

If it is, it may the first of a new breed. It’s a crisp, unsentimental story, with none of those lingering sunset shots you find in Nicholas Sparks’ adaptations, and a heroine who spends most of the movie tutting her disapproval on the sidelines. But while it’s not necessarily a chick flick, you can be sure that the primary audience to this film are indeed women.

Why? Because Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) is a stripper, and so is his mentor, club owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), and his 19-year-old protégé, Adam (Alex Pettyfer).

From the opening shots of a buff, naughty McConaughey teasing the audience in tight leather trousers (“What can’t you touch?”), it’s clear that Soderbergh has the measure of what his audience wants. He’s going to give it to them, too, but not too much, too soon because the tease is as important as the strip.

A college dropout who draws the line at taking any job that requires him to wear a tie, Adam is living with his big sister Brooke (Cody Horn) when his new buddy Mike ushers him into the delights of the Xquisite Male Dance Revue. In time-honoured backstage musical tradition, “the kid” gets thrown on stage when one of the stars can’t go on. Next thing he knows, Adam is shopping for a stars and stripes thong for the Fourth of July special.

Scripted by Reid Carolin and inspired by Channing Tatum’s own experiences as a Tampa stripper in the 1990s, Magic Mike is honest about the attractions of the job (money, girls, fun) without pretending it’s a smart choice in the long run (too much fun, too many girls, not enough money).

Brawny and bruised, Tatum doesn’t look like it but he is one hell of a dancer. If the movie was in 3-D you’d probably be stuffing bills into his briefs.

Magic Mike hits DVD outlets on October 23rd.

DVD Review: The Cabin in the Woods

Out on DVD Next week we have The Cabin in the Woods, the horror genre hybrid of writer-turned-director Director Drew Goddard and co-writer/producer Joss Whedon.

On a surface level, the film follows five friends Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Holden (Jesse Williams), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Marty (Fran Kranz) and Dana (Kristen Connolly) as they go on holidays to a country cabin for a weekend of drinking, skinny-dipping, and other suitably scandalous antics.

As their journey comes to a close, the fivesome encounter an ill-tempered gas pump attendant who, despite his disdain for college kids, warns the group about their destination and asserts that visitors regularly disappear up in them there woods. Dismissing the warnings, the group reach the cabin where, surprise surprise, things quickly turn sour.

In the same way that Scream winkingly riffed on the slasher film template, The Cabin In The Woods is aimed at audiences who are already familiar with haunted house movies. Wry nods to The Evil Dead, Hellraiser and A Tale Of Two Sisters, among others, will delight fanatics. But it’s also an admirably reflective send up, and readily questions the horror film industry’s ritualistic obsession with specific stereotypes.

A surprisingly entertaining effort, The Cabin in the Woods strikes a smart balance by embracing, as well as rejecting, the viewer’s expectations and knowledge of the horror genre.

The set-up is executed with a tongue-in-cheek attitude but presented with a straight face that could be off-putting for viewers who are expecting a straightforward slasher film or a “gritty” and serious scare-fest (such as The Descent or Hostel).

The final product, however, succeeds in paying homage to the movies that inspired it, poking fun at the often static state of the horror genre, all while simultaneously delivering a few fresh surprises. Anyone willing to suspend a bit of disbelief and not get too bogged down in the film’s logic will likely be ready for an entertaining and worthwhile experience. Definitly worth a rental.

DVD Review: Battleship

Out on DVD this week we have Battleship starring Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgård, Liam Neeson and, unfortunately, Rihanna.

The film starts reasonably enough with Kitsch playing Alex Hopper – a reckless and irresponsible youth whose wild ways consistently disappoint his brother Stone (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård), a respected officer in the US Navy.

Shortly after giving his brother an ultimatum, Stone finds his brother committing a totally unneccessary burrito-related felony and offers him a life at sea as an alternative to prison. Finding that the US Navy life agrees with him, Alex resolves to turn his life around, both to please his brother and impress his girlfriend’s father (Liam Neeson).

At much the same time, scientists have been sending transmissions to a newly discovered planet in the hope that its inhabitants might be friendly. They’re not.

And quicker than you can say Independence Day, Battleship goes from being a mediocre movie, to downright incomprehensible drivel.

If they had stuck to a basic plot, with one or two offshoots, they might just have been on to something… but the whole thing is weighed down by totally unnecessary sub-plots. We have the unrealistic love story and the short-lived sibling conflict, but that’s just the tip of the narrative iceberg. We also get Japanese-American hostilities between Hopper and Nagata, a group of grizzled war veterans taking one last shot at glory, and a bizarre sub-story in which a double amputee teams up with a physical therapist to do battle with aliens in a forest…

At times it almost feels like director Peter Berg – whose previous credits include Hancock, The Kingdom, and Friday Night Lights – is out to satirize the genre, sending up the work of Michael Bay rather than aping it, but the film is played with such po-faced stoicism and flag-waving jingoism that this theory has to be rejected.

Instead, the sub-plots mount and mount so that come the finale, the film threatens to collapse under the weight of its many tangents, and it’s a testament to Berg’s skills as a director that he reins proceedings in for the final few scenes… though even he can’t make the sight of two ships firing at each other particularly interesting.

Those with a fetish for weapons and hardware will doubtless enjoy proceedings to some extent, but if plot logic and character development are what you’re after, you may want to give Battleship a miss.

The Lucky One: full of vapid, useless beings

The Lucky One, starring Zac Efron and Taylor Shilling, is due for release on DVD next month. My advice? Stay as far away from it as possible.

The movie begins well with Efron sporting a fetching army get up and braving guns and bombs in a war-torn Iraq. While the initial sequences are action packed, gritty, and realistic, it’s not long before things take a turn for the worse.

After finding a photo of a pretty blonde woman, Logan (Zac Efron) and his company are attacked. Calling the mystery woman his guardian angel, Logan credits her with his survival and makes it his mission to find her once he is discharged.

Thanks to a conveniently placed landmark, Logan is able to make his way to the place where the photo was taken. Once there, he starts questioning the locals and finds out that his mystery girls name is Beth (Taylor Shilling). Having found her, he accidentally secures a job working for her and her grandmother (Blythe Danner) and finds himself playing an important role in her life.

While The Lucky One does have its share of touching, gut-wrenching and tummy-flipping moments, it ultimately falls short of the benchmark, especially for an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. The majority of the characters are vapid, useless beings, and while Zac Efron is an admittedly fine specimen of a man, I’m afraid he wouldn’t be able to act his way out of a paper bag if his life depended on it.

If you’re looking for a film where you can drool over Zac Efron, this is definitely the one to watch. If you’re just looking for an interesting chick-flick, however, I’d keep looking.

DVD Review: John Carter

John Carter, a tale of otherworldly mysticism, came out on DVD last week. Upon its release, the Disney movie received many an unfavourable review which undoubtedly had an adverse affect on its box office performance. Much like Mirror, Mirror, which I reviewed a few days ago, I believe a lot of these reviews to be misleading. Sure, John Carter isn’t one of the greats, but by God was it enjoyable!

Carter himself is played by the ever handsome Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, X-Men Origins) who is absolutely to die for. The fact that he is the main focal point for the entire 132 minutes is reason alone for any straight female to watch this movie. That he spends most of it topless is another bonus.

The film follows a very basic plot. Carter, a Civil War veteran, accidentally transports himself to Mars when he encounters and kills a strange man holding a strange device. After finding his feet, so to speak, he is captured by tall, eight limbed creatures and brought back to their home in chains. Before long, he encounters a princess in dire need of assistance and, gallant to a fault, he makes his escape to save her city and win her hand.

Based on a classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter is an excellent visual spectacle full of great special effects and many a tense fight scene. It is pure escapist, adventure cinema at its best. Yes it has flaws, no it’s not perfect, but I really don’t think this film is deserving of its flop status. All too often, perfectly passable films are slated by pretentious, douchebag movie critics who elevate themselves above the average cinema-goer.

You probably won’t love this movie, but it definitely won’t bore you. Perfect for anyone looking to immerse themselves in another world and not think too much about it.

DVD Review: The Grey

Hitting the shelves of DVD outlets nationwide as of May 22, The Grey, starring Liam Neeson, is definitely one to pick up.

In the flick, Neeson plays brooding oil-rig worker John Ottway. We learn that most of the workers in this remote environment are ex-cons, which is apparently where Ottway ‘belongs’. The last day ‘on the job’, so to speak, the oil-rig roughnecks board an airplane that goes through extreme turbulence and crashes somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness.

After the initial shock wears off, Neeson takes charge of the seven survivors in a bid to escape the cold, the hunger and a pack of vicious wolves and return to civilisation. What follows is a heartwrentching struggle for survival against all odds.

The men soon realise that nature has no pity and no forgiveness and much of the drama lies in the interaction between survivors. The film remains tense throughout and some of the wolf scenes are nothing short of chair-gripping. The wolves themselves look extremely realistic if not a little Twilight-y but it is a bit hard to believe that Neesons character knows as much as he does about the everyday habits of a wolf-pack.

Never-the-less, the film is emotional, action-fuelled and darkly poetic. Surprisingly enough, it also makes one hell of a statement about religious beliefs, with Ottway roaring up into the sky at one point demanding a sign that never materializes.

The ending is also one of the finest I’ve seen, with an important piece of information being relayed to us in the final few moments. If you see nothing else this month, pick up a copy of The Grey. But don’t forget the tissues, because this one will have you blubbering like a schoolgirl by the end.

DVD Review: Underworld Awakening

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Out on DVD as of May 8th, the fourth movie in the Underworld series saw badass vampiress, Selene, make a blood curling return to the big screen. This installment, however, lacks a lot of the substance that made its predecessors so popular.

The movie opens with Selene, played by the ever-svelte Kate Beckinsale, and Lycan lover Michael (Scott Speedman) on the run from the latest threat to their survival – humans. Captured by armed forces, Selene is placed in a cryogenic state and unwittingly lends her body for medical experimentation. Upon her violent awakening, twelve years later, she finds the world little different to how she left it.

In an era where the existence of Vampires and Lycans is common knowledge, Selene discards all the secrecy she was taught to uphold. Leaving a trail of body parts in her wake at every turn, the film is a gloriously gory transportation back to the time before Twilight made vamps and weres all fuzzy and cuddly.

Having said that, blood and guts is just about all this movie has to offer. Beckinsale, while being an effortlessly cool and vicious vampiress, struggles to take the sole lead. The film as a whole suffers from the lack of another role such as Bill Nighy’s Viktor or Michael Sheen’s Lucian. There is very little storyline throughout with the writers chosing to focus on action and blood spatter rather than some actual character development.

I, for one, missed the backstory that each previous installment furnished us with. The history of the war between Vampires and Lycans is an interesting one and yet Awakening mentions nothing of it in any way shape or form. There are only minimal references to ‘the old ways’ and all the lore seems to be forgotten entirely.

Despite its many faults and a severe lack of story progression, Underworld: awakening isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It has plenty of action, its fair share of blood and guts, and it’s a welcome return to the gory days of vampires and werewolves. If that’s exactly what you want, then you won’t be disappointed but if you’re after something with a little more depth, you may want to look elsewhere.

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