Taken 3 ★★

taken_three_ver2The first action sequence in Taken 3 might baffle you. The scene is edited with so many quick cuts that it looks discontinuous and incomprehensible. On top of which confusion, we are still trying to grasp why Detective Bryan Mills decided to hurt two police officers and flee from them like a fugitive. If he were dealing with bad guys, his actions would make sense. But against law enforcers who are doing their job, Detective Mills seems like the kind of man who would at least accompany them to the station for further questioning.

We might then ask how necessary it is to have a Taken part 3. In a way, it needs to happen. After all the damage that Detective Mills has done in the previous two entries, fate shouldn’t be so simple as to let him off the hook living happily ever after.

With that said, Taken 3 goes for a very grim, cruel approach. As the films trailer revealed, his wife is killed and Mills is being framed for it. The story begins by establishing that Mills’s daughter is pregnant and that his ex-wife is depressed in marriage. We also learn about another storyline, that some gangsters are trying to collect a debt from an unknown debtor. We see them muscling their way into the home of a financier only to take him into a bank and execute him right there for not producing the funds. These are some serious collectors. Then later, Mills discovers his wife dead in his apartment and the police find him at the scene holding a weapon, impelling Mills to run on foot and evade authorities using his famous set of skills.

Some of his skills are still entertaining to watch considering age and a retired status. It’s his quick thinking and instincts. Downloading GPS coordinates from an impounded car and visiting a gas station to ask questions with a fake FBI Id are some examples of his stealthy methods. When he is able to perfectly align his body underneath a corpse so he is unseen during a shootout is another.  

As Mills embarks on his violent quest to prove innocence, the action scenes become more thrilling. They never quite reach the standard of the previous movies but this could be due to motivational factors. In the previous chapters, we felt the urgency of Mills in his reason behind surviving the opponents. In this one, he is trying to prove his innocence but there is a lingering thought as to whether there is a better method besides hunting down the bad guys.

The leader of the baddies is given a bit of a back story that’s typical. A former Russian special forces soldier now turned drug dealer runs a set of feared criminals across the city. They lend money and unleash mayhem when they aren’t paid back. There is a twist towards the end however there is a possibility that it isn’t intending to be a surprise. From the beginning of the movie, we are confident on who the real culprit is.

Does it matter the Mill’s old friends (those guys who he grills steaks with) participate in the action? It really doesn’t have an effect. We enjoy a Taken movie because we want to see the solitary Mills demonstrate his skills. We also want to see an older, wiser man of action test his limitations. Taken 3 is directed by Olivier Megaton and produced by Luc Besson, both involved in Taken 2. Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, and Maggie Grace resume their roles. Forest Whitaker is also included as another detective. But Taken 3 has a story that stretches its logical limits too far that the relevance of the action scenes begin to fade as a result.

Ex Machina ★★1/2

ex_machinaEx Machina is a serious experience that is both contemplative and dull. Its most effective quality would be the atmosphere which brings in feelings of tension and claustrophobia. And then one of the lead characters named Caleb begins to develop deep feelings for an android, and although we can understand that perhaps cabin fever is a factor, it is difficult to accept how one can truly have romantic feelings for a robot.

The android’s name is Ava who has the face of a pretty girl and body that is part skin, part metal. She is locked in the isolated home of her creator Nathan, a proud software engineer who intends to use her for an experiment known as the Turing Test which measures how much she (or it) compares to a human being.

This draws in a lot of philosophical thinking. Some of the conversations between Caleb and Nathan sharply define two points of view. Caleb likes to analyze Ava’s behavior as a machine while Nathan simply asks him to ignore all the data analysis, and simply run with his impulsive feelings. Thus we are given two outlooks towards what constitutes our humanity (the definition of a soul is never mentioned which is depressing). The conversations are  not many but reasonably profound.

Yet the film experience feels uneventful. One can even say that it is predictable. A frequent movie goer would be able to take a good guess on how this all ends. There are only a handful of characters in the movie and none of them are interesting enough. Oscar Isaac as Nathan is laid back for a performance that should be a lot more weird and unsettling, like a mad scientist should be. And Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb is plain and without mystery in his growing anxiety about Nathan’s intentions. And Ava is played by Alicia Vikander as, well, robotic which probably isn’t too difficult. The film’s director and screenwriter is Alex Garland and this is his directorial debut. He also wrote the screenplay for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Ex Machina might be an impressive directorial debut, but for a screenplay, this could just be a warm up for a bigger story that he could write about.

Danny Collins ★★★★

danny_collinsThere have been too many movies about successful careers spiraling out of control leaving lives that are unfulfilled and empty. But Danny Collins, a film about an aging rock star who decides to better himself, maintains its appeal by selecting the right cast and screenwriter.

The casting of Al Pacino is an easy choice given that many of his memorable onscreen characters are “rock star” types. In the lead role of Danny, he doesn’t need to act with effort.  His presence just fits the part and our subconscious impression of him kicks in. He immediately  becomes this weary character who has succumbed to all the temptations of fame and fortune. Danny’s decision to improve himself is inspired by a legendary musician.

Annette Bening is wisely casted as a hotel manager. Her onscreen persona is always remembered as a warm and nurturing kind, the sort of friend that Danny needs as he goes through his personality transition. Her performance is charming because she is required to keep distance from Danny while being charmed by him as well.

Then there are supporting characters played by Bobby Canavale and Jennifer Garner as Danny’s son and daughter-in-law. The story is that Danny has never bothered to meet them in the past and so when he suddenly shows up on their front porch, there is a lot of confusion and pent up feelings.

Christopher Plummer is also in the film as Danny’s accountant. It’s a typical performance for him, being a grumpy and wise advisor. His onscreen presence doesn’t exactly fit the role of somebody in the music business but the acting makes up for it, and he delivers in some of the important moments.

Dan Fogelman is both director and writer and if it matters, he wrote the stories for Pixars Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Both of those movies are effective stories about loss and redemption and so is Danny Collins.

At first the movie seems predictable but later, you will no longer care. The performances are great and direction of the story pulls us in further keeping us deeply curious in the outcome. How can we call this a great performance by Al Pacino? He has given us too many of them that we don’t need to admire him anymore. Let’s just say that his acting in two particular scenes brings in a lot of emotional weight.

But just so it’s clear, this is not a down and dreary movie. It’s contains genuine drama, comedy, and positivity. It’s upbeat without discounting the character troubles involved. The theme is about redemption but redemption is a heavy word. Let’s just say that Danny Collins starts making the right decisions and no longer cares whether he’s forgiven.

 

 

Seventh Son ★★1/2

seventh_son_ver10Seventh Son has a story of epic proportions that is squeezed into a 102 minute movie. Had the narrative not been interesting, that running time would have be fine. But there is a backstory here that deserves to be developed for the screen.

The film is a medieval fantasy, not unlike The Lord of The Rings, because it takes place in a world of knights and dragons, witches and spells, monsters and demons. The evil that torments this unknown land is Mother Malkin, a witch whose intention seems to be forming evil alliances and destroying normal civilizations. But an elderly knight known as Master Gregory and better known as the Spook is informed of the blood moon, an event that occurs every ten years which strengthens Malkin’s powers, making her more dangerous than ever. Spook believes he can stop her but only with the help of a worthy apprentice who must be a seventh son of a seventh son.

The choice of apprentice is a young pig farmer named Tom, a gentleman who is good at throwing blades. It is revealed that his body contains magic which not only explains his skills, but also visions of future events, plus an ability to see ghosts. He is also handed a magic pendant of hidden meaning. This makes Tom an unusual medieval hero. He is gentle, skilled in throwing, possesses magic he doesn’t understand, and is confident in following the Spook, who is frequently drunk.

The films concern is for  the action sequences that are aided heavily by special effects and which are impressive. They earn some of the movies credits. Malkin and some of her allies can transform themselves into mid-size dragons which give them an advantage over any character in the film. There is also a Werebear that Tom and Spook do battle against although using an unclear tag-team strategy involving a cage. And a giant blind beast chases them over a cliff and into a river.

There are a number of deep and unusual relationships that help the movie, some of which are told as a backstory. Tom, being a hero, will naturally develop a love interest in a young and conflicted damsel. But the Spook has a couple of former lovers which, let’s just say, complicates the mission if not our thoughts about the mission.

Tom is played by Ben Barnes in a very straightforward manner, not solemn or grave, but rather inexperienced and chivalrous when necessary. Malkin is played by Julianne Moore who fits the part by her look alone. And the Spook is played by Jeff Bridges like an old drunkard practicing a foreign accent – his performance is mainly entertaining but precariously edging towards parody.

Seventh Son isn’t as bad as the impression created by negative critic reviews. The director is Sergei Bodrov, who directed Mongol (one of the great period epics about Genghis Khan). He knows how to  film medieval battles.  And if you’re still unsure, another measure is this:  If you like the 2010 version of Clash of the Titans, then you shouldn’t be disappointed with Seventh Son.

Inside Out ★★★★

inside_out_ver13Inside Out is probably Pixar’s most intelligent film, about an unusual adventure that takes place inside the mind of a girl. In doing so, it explores the functions of our different human emotions. Watching it is like attending an ingenious educational program for all ages. In this regard, the film impressively balances on a fine line between entertainment and informational.

The balance isn’t perfect. Some of the dialogue occasionally bends towards explanations that could be too mature for some children. Nevertheless, the story is still about a journey taken by a couple of colorful characters inside a marvelous place.

The girl is Riley, an only child whose parents have decided that they migrate to San Francisco. The transfer is naturally troublesome for Riley who goes through the expected struggles of starting over in a new environment. However the real story is in her mind, which begins from what appears to be a mental control tower. Manning the deck are a group of five emotions named accordingly – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Caution, and Anger. The most commonly in charge are Joy and Sadness while the other three watch over their shoulders, still ready for duty. Surrounding them is a lofty shelving system containing small orbs of memories which are transported via glass tubing that extend all the way to the five lands of Riley’s personality.

Adults will understand the relevance of memories to our current personalities, but Inside Out will demonstrate how complex that situation can get in the event of homesickness. Joy, pictured as a girl with bright skin and blue short hair, is the leader of the other four emotions and gets affected the most. Sadness, presented as a short blue mopey girl, is inclined to take over the controls but Joy desperately and kindly keeps her away from the controls. In their struggles, they accidentally get suctioned into a glass tube and find themselves taken to the far sides of the mind. And so begins their journey, through different pockets of the mind, to find their way back to the control tower.

Cleverness and wit are present throughout. One of the funniest scenes takes place at the dining table where Riley’s Mom and Dad try to comfort her sadness and as the emotions escalate, we get a glimpse of their own control towers which aren’t exactly in order.

The film is directed by Pete Doctor, who also directed ‘Up’. He also helped write the story and screenplay. Voice overs include those by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, and Diane Lane. With Inside Out, and after films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Cars, and Up, Pixar films reveals to us more than ever the reason for their success. Their characters feelings are always palpable. And Inside Out not only touches us, but demonstrates Pixar’s depth of understanding of our basic human emotions.

Jurassic World ★★★★

jurassic_world_ver2It comes as a surprise that Jurassic World is able to accomplish two difficult feats: One, that it is just as entertaining as the original Jurassic Park. And two, that it is a more satisfying experience than the stunning, seemingly insurmountable, Mad Max: Fury Road. And what’s really remarkable is how it doesn’t seem to try so hard.

The definition of a blockbuster should not be complex and would probably involve the word formula. Originality would be cherished but if a classic drink tastes good, why not order it again? We still order Coca Cola right? This is the thinking that seems to have driven Jurassic World, a consumer film but delicious nevertheless.

How it works is conspicuous enough. It borrows the best ideas from the other movies to assemble the ultimate Jurassic episode. Let’s skim through some examples. Remember in the original movie, that ominous concrete enclosure where a cow is being lowered to feed a raptor? Well there is a similarly designed enclosure in Jurassic World, only ten times bigger and foreboding to escalate our fears. Or how about the theme park itself in Isla Nublar, being the same park from the original movie, it is now fully developed into a thriving commercial establishment filled with shops, restaurants, and accommodations. This brings to mind- the more innocent people equals a greater calamity. And how about the simple concept of an escaped Dinosaur due to human error. Man messes with nature and nature teaches man. The movie works on these used concepts and borrows the best of them- part Frankenstein, part natural disaster movie, part Spielbergian touch.

But repeated ideas are not enough. Jurassic World has an array of clearly defined characters with a shared fear and concern. One issue with the Lost World and Jurassic Part 3, is that there were too many individual interests. One guy is thinking about discovery, another about money, a third about children, and so on. Jurassic World has all those too but the central concern of the main characters is how to save the people in the park.

And they’re a colorful bunch of personalities. Chris Pratt, as a dinosaur trainer, reminds us of his buccaneering spirit in Guardians of the Galaxy having a good heart and a foolish sense of humor. It also comes as a plus that his performance is able to draw some sympathy and assent to his reasoning. Bryce Dallas Howard is a driven uptight career woman who overlooks the management of the park and the films ability to manipulate her personality for some action scenes is inspiring. But what about the best performance, which belongs to Irrfan Khan as the park owner whose outlook in life is to accept our lack of control and appreciate the challenges (which he does get tested on). But observe his look of anxiety upon first viewing the parks most lethal creation. His countenance alone at that moment elevates the film, which is directed by Colin Trevorrow.

What an enjoyment it is to get fully engaged with Science fiction, regardless of how little science is applied. Dinosaurs did exist so that’s a fact. Many were deduced to be carnivores with keen hunting senses, so that makes sense within the violent occurrences of the movie. Maybe resurrecting Dinosaurs with DNA is ridiculous. Maybe training them as if they were dogs is laughable. But here is some proof of Jurassic World’s effectiveness. There is a slow motion scene of Bryce Dallas Howard running in high heels. There is some unnecessary attention given to her shoes. Some of the audience in the theater chuckled but that faded fast. One guess would be because they were too concerned about her characters survival.

Tomorrowland ★★

tomorrowland_ver2Tomorrowland begins with pure wonder and then slowly settles into its true intention which is to deliver a message for us viewers. Nothing wrong with that we can suppose, but if a film is going to get us started on an adventure of discovery, please stay on that path.

The film is directed by Brad Bird, who is more associated with childrens animated movies like Ratatouille and The Incredibles, which explains the enthusiasm in making this film based on a theme park ride. Tomorrowland is an attraction in Disneyland that features probable inventions of the future. In this film, a girl finds a magic ring that transports her to this place that evokes a futuristic utopian living environment of devices and skyscrapers where everything is so polished and clean that janitors, vacuum cleaners, and flat irons would be rendered obsolete.

These kind of visions can get tiring after sometime if they don’t overlook an intriguing tale. The girl named Casey(Britt Robertson), is one of those inexorable determined types, so in love with NASA, science, and nature. She lives in those typical homes that embrace her presence, offering a terrace where a telescope can be ideally planted so she can observe the Universe. Wait, maybe that would be referring to Jodie Foster in Contact. But the point is that this film has an air of familiarity in that set up.

Now about the ring. It looks like a childrens ring, toyish and with a large letter T on it. But if any ring would exasperate a passionate user, this would be it. When Casey wears it, she is transported to Tomorrowland visually, not physically. Which is why in one scene, as she excitedly runs towards a monorail in Tomorrowland, she ends up trodding in the middle of a marsh land back in Florida. When she moves, she moves in her reality.

The best parts of the film doesn’t really help much because of its lack of development. They tease us with forebodings that don’t really lead to veritable thrills. One is a visit to a toy store where the owners gain a confounding interest on the ring. And another is the visit to a former resident of Tomorrowland, played by George Clooney who is so plain considering his part could relish some eccentricity. Oh and Casey Is given a bodyguard, a smaller girl, who somehow reminds us of the Terminator movies. You’ll understand if you do see her in action.

Tomorrowland is neither weird nor unique, two qualities that may have helped the story. Even the villains lack an impression, looking like human robots dressed in black and designed to show their white pearly teeth. The message of the movie is that optimism leads to a wonderful future and that our current state of accepting apocalyptic visions must change. It’s a valuable message but its how Tomorrowland spends much of it’s final act reiterating and explaining that to the point where the film balances between entertainment and propaganda.

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