Movie Reviews

The Gambler (Movie Review)

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A movie about a teacher who does high stakes gambling on the side? What a ridiculous premise for a movie. No one like that exists. Yes, I know I haven’t posted a poker session in a while. My plan is to do one tomorrow, but I digress. I did feel a little obligated to go see the movie. I wasn’t really drawn to it based upon any of the trailers. After seeing the whole movie I should have went with my gut.

I would like to note I have not seen the original at all, so I’m unable to compare it to this remake.

There are good parts about the movie. They all revolve around John Goodman. He is the only character in the movie who actually delivers the excellent lines given to him with more than one facial expression. His monologue half way through the movie about getting your life to a place you can just say, “Fuck you!” to everyone is particularly excellent. Granted, it is tough for Mark Wahlberg to emote behind the sunglasses he wears for half of the movie, but even when we can see his eyes, they are as monotone as the rest of his performance.

If it seems like I’m being harsh on the movie, I most definitely am, but not because it was across the board terrible. Several excellent themes are presented but promptly ignored. The main underlying theme seems to be the source of geniuses. Are they born? Do they require stressful lives in order to reach potential? If you’re born into luxury can you self flagellate enough to have genius appear within you? These are all good questions and you can definitely weave a narrative around them, but this movie just wants to present some great dialogue about the questions and then promptly hope you forget about them.

The ending was irritating not just for the way it ignored the themes of the first two acts, but also because I don’t really know what was accomplished and I certainly don’t understand why the main character took the route they did. I could name dozens of simpler paths to the ending that occurred if that’s really what our protagonist was going for, but I’m still not certain what if any closure we got.

There was one gambling trope that got repeated several times in this movie and I need to point out. When someone(in a movie) walks up to a table in a casino and goes to put a big bet down, the dealer will get this nervous expression and the player has to encourage the dealer to keep the game going. This doesn’t happen. Dealers are prepped not to react at all when a player puts a bet down. As long as the bet is within the limits of the table, they’re not going to give any strange look when a player places a large bet. This is the dealer’s 9-5 job, odds are they are bored, and another addict coming to the table to put down a big bet isn’t going to turn them into an unprofessional mess.

Maybe my low expectations going in tainted my experience, but if this movie can’t appeal to someone who is also a teacher and a gambler, I’m not certain who will come out of it feeling satisfied.

★★☆☆☆ – The great dialogue is ruined by the poor story and John Goodman’s character is ruined by not having a big enough part. A reminder of my rating system


Snowpiercer (Movie Review)

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Generally when a movie has acting talent like Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, and John Hurt you don’t have to work so hard to find a theater playing it. In this case though the film’s distributor, Harvey Weinstein, was in conflict with director Joon-Ho Bong. According to Tony Rayns, “The Weinstein Company people have told Bong that their aim is to make sure the film ‘will be understood by audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma,'”[1] The direct conflict was over 20 minutes that TWC wanted cut from the movie that Bong wanted to keep in.

The compromise was that the director’s cut off the film is the one being released in theaters, but it is only a limited release with the possibility of a full roll out later. Regardless of anything else I write or how interested you may or may not be in the movie, I’d recommend seeing it if only to make a point to distributing companies that they shouldn’t be dumbing down movies to protect our delicate American sensibilities.

The movie itself is set in a dystopian future where the earth has largely frozen over thanks to a failed(successful?) attempt to reverse global warming. The survivors are all on a train called Snowpiercer that never stops moving. Your social standing is directly related to how close to the front of the train you are.

One thing that makes this movie stand out from many other dystopian future movies is how much the group of people on the train is a believable group of people. What I mean by that is unlike plenty of space operas in which everyone looks and talks the same, this train is full of people with skin tones as varied as their accents. The language barrier is overcome with small translation devices, but its presence made the scenario much more plausible. Seeing artists, drug addicts, chefs, preachers, and not just your standard mix of people with plot relevant skills added to that feeling as well.

The interior sets of the train are dynamic and well crafted. Unfortunately this only highlights the CGI exterior shots of the train in the frozen wasteland looking more like a Coors Light commercial than anything else. It was one of the only things that reminded me I was watching a movie, but it is a minor complaint overall.

The other small negative for me was some of the dialogue. There were a few lines that left me scratching my head, but considering the movie is an adaptation of a French graphic novel and this is Joon-Ho Bong’s first english language film, I’m willing to give some leeway for things being lost in translation.

That only applies to a few lines though, the themes of the movie came through loud and clear while still leaving several layers to dig through. This is definitely a movie to see with a group because you’ll want to talk about it afterwards, particularly the ending. I will not spoil anything, but I will say Weinstein is correct that it isn’t your typical hollywood ending. The Iowa parts of my brain didn’t melt out my ears upon watching it though and I wouldn’t want it changed.

I would make this a group outing, but I wouldn’t necessarily go for a dinner/movie combo here depending on your stomach. This is a movie that likes violence and particularly enjoys amputations. These are not Tarantino-esque Kill Bill amputations. They do serve the overall plot and one of the poor passengers getting their arm forced out of the train until the cold freezes it off effectively sets an early tone. It lines up with the movie’s raw nature as a whole, but you might not feel like a restaurant afterward.

The last two movies I’ve seen Tilda Swinton in, this and Grand Budapest Hotel, she has had to perform under what must be pounds of prosthetics and makeup but she still comes through. Her character will likely stick with me the longest though and her mix of holier-than-though self preservation and entitlement is a big reason for that.

Sci-fi is in its element when it is taking an aspect of society and shining a light on it from a different angle. In this case it’s class warfare and Randian Objectivism that get center stage treatment and Snowpiercer handles it well throughout. People who are not sc-fi fans will still get lots out of it and even if it isn’t coming to a theater near you it is worth tracking down.

★★★★★ – If nothing else, see it because TWC thinks you’re too stupid to get it. A reminder of my rating system.

X-Men Days Of Future Past (Movie Review)

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This is the 7th movie since 2000 set in the x-men universe, and the series has been in a bit of a down turn as of late. Looking at adjusted opening weekend ticket sales of the last four movies there is a clear trend.

X-men the last stand earned 124 million in May of ’06. IMDB rating of 6.8

X-men origins wolverine earned 90 million in May of  ’09. IMDB rating of 6.8

X-men: first class earned 54 million in June of ’11. IMDB rating of 7.8.

The Wolverine earned 53 million in July of ’13. IMDB rating of 6.8

Again, those were adjusted opening weekend ticket sales.[1] The pattern is not hard to spot here. I’m writing this on Sunday night, so all the ticket sales might not be tallied yet, but DoFP is currently sitting at 90 million(if I tell you the IMDB rating it kind of ruins you reading the rest of my review, so I’m keeping it secret). A rebound in ticket sales definitely, but does the quality increase to match? (the IMDB rating is 8.7, I’m bad at keeping secrets, I swear I still have things of value to add!)

On one hand the answer to that question doesn’t matter too much since there are already three more x-men movies in some level of production. X-Men: Apocalypse is set for 2016(the post credits scene in DoFP gives us our first glimpse of the namesake villian). Wolverine 3 is coming out in 2017. There is also supposed to be an X-Force movie coming out at some point but there is no release date attached to that yet.

People who have read the comics or remember the early 90s cartoon show are familiar with the Days of Future Past storyline. For everyone who thought it was a weird jumble of words for a title, I can assure you the plot is pretty straightforward. Things in the future have gone terribly wrong for both mutants and humans, so a team of mutants sends Wolverine back in time to attempt to change the fate of the world. In the comic books it is Kitty Pride(played in this movie by Ellen Page), not Wolverine who is sent back, but 20th Century Fox didn’t make two movies specifically focusing on Kitty Pride.

This movie does deal with Wolverine fatigue pretty well. He starts things moving at the beginning of the movie, but is largely unhelpful for much of the movie and is even bodily removed from the climactic fight scene so the main movers and shakers of the plot can take center stage. It was nice to see some of the other characters get to show off a bit. There was less flashy showing off compared to the previous movies.

There are still two futuristic battles in which we get to watch a few established mutants(storm and iceman) fight alongside some newcomers to the big screen (warpath, blink, sunspot, and bishop). We also get to see Magneto lift the entirety of RFK stadium into the air. The movie didn’t lose sight of the story for the effects though.

The acting talents of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence are all on display as the three characters go back and forth about the ethical questions that get brought up in the movie. One of the things that has always attracted me to the X-Men franchise is that the antagonists all tend to make fantastic points. This movie has a slightly more clear cut villain with the iconic sentinels who appear in a trendy 70s purple, but the battling philosophies will make for much better post movie discussion.

In the end I don’t think this movie will bring anyone into the X-Men fandom who hadn’t enjoyed any of the previous movies, and if you aren’t familiar with the X-Men world at all I can’t recommend this as a place to start, but for people who had become disillusioned with the direction the franchise had taken, DoFP is a welcome relief and an assurance that once again we can be mutant and proud.

★★★★☆ – Continues the trend of great movies to start the summer. A reminder of my rating system

Godzilla (Movie Review)

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This review will be relatively spoiler free.


The setup for this movie begins well before you take your seat in the theater. One of my reactions to the first trailer for Godzilla was surprise that the king of monsters himself made an appearance. Monster movies normally guard their reveals closely, so a full frontal roar in the promos took me by surprise. By the end of the movie I was convinced this was intentional to alter the viewers’ expectations. More on this later, I just want to impress upon everyone how much work went in to every detail surrounding this movie.

If it hasn’t been said enough already, Brain Cranston is an exceptionally talented actor. Not ground breaking I know, but he really carries the opening. The other characters have been receiving some criticism, but I think there’s a point that has been missed. Ken Watanabe plays the scientist with an excellent mix of reverence and panic. Aaron Taylor-Johnson didn’t make me too excited for his upcoming Quicksilver roll in Avengers 2, but still holds down his part alright.

Overall though, the people were well acted, it’s just that they were ineffective. The people in the movie had little impact on the movement of the plot, but I’m relatively certain that was intentional. Much of the movie holds up this idea that humanity needs to take a long look at exactly what we control and what we think we can control. There’s the line in the trailers that says as much, but we also have almost every character at one point delivering lines via their reflection in either a mirror, broken window, or computer screen, and Watanabe’s character’s powerful moment bringing up Hiroshima in the context of consequences of wielding unknown power. Making the characters ineffective were another level of this and I think it’s important to not confuse intentional impotency with poor acting or writing.

The reflection shots aren’t the only example of fantastic directorial choices. The movie really gets the scale of these monsters correct. One series of shots that really stood out to me was a moment on a bridge. Two soldiers are walking along the bridge and the camera is just overhead looking down into the valley so we understand how high up they are. When a monster rises out of the gorge the soldiers lay flat on the bridge and the camera pulls back so we have the bridge and the soldiers in the foreground with the monster towering over them. These are giants and the movie takes every opportunity to exhibit their size.

Going back to my opening paragraph, when I saw Godzilla revealed in the trailers I figured there would be plenty of him in the movies. He wasn’t really there for the first couple scenes and I started to get anxious. The movie even goes so far as to cut away from some early fight scenes with no closure or winner revealed. By the time the climactic battle comes along I was practically drooling for Godzilla to be on the screen. I was impressed at the restraint of the movie and the way they teased his appearance in the early scenes and in the trailers.

I went to go see this movie in a group of nine people. Every one of us either had a degree in some science field, was active duty military, or both. This led to some fun nitpicking afterwards about some of the details in the movie. Radiation doesn’t work that way. EMPs don’t work that way(I really think EMPs are the new ‘reverse the polarity’). Why on earth would they scramble a C-17 out of Edwards Air Force Base when there are two bases closer that are both better equipped? EODs don’t receive HALO training. I could go on. Most of us went out to dinner afterwards and after having fun poking at some of those things for a while one of us said, “What about Godzilla’s finishing move at the end?” Everyone started talking over each other gushing about being on the edge of their seat and feeling the need to cheer. Honestly if the science had added up, I’m not certain it really would have been a Godzilla movie.

In the end, this is the best monster movie I’ve seen in years: the pacing is solid, the scale is appropriately monstrous, and there is a point that’s being made other than just insurance companies are all going out of business after the credits roll. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy a movie as much or more than Captain America again for at least a couple months, but after seeing Godzilla and with X-Men debuting this coming weekend, I’m going to need a bigger popcorn bucket.

★★★★★ – Writing, cinematography, and Godzilla. Oh my! A reminder of my rating system.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Movie Review)

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This review will be entirely spoiler free.

This is a tricky kind of movie to review because generally I see the purpose of a review is to help people decide whether they should go and see it. I don’t think there were many people on the fence about seeing the most recent addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. You either had the date circled for months or superhero movies are not your thing period. Personally I was the former even though I didn’t actually see the movie until this last weekend and I’m not writing the review until now. That means I’m going to spend more time on aspects of what Marvel is doing with the franchise as opposed to discuss the cinematography or musical accompaniment(both were excellent).

Although it certainly would help to have seen the rest of the movies Marvel has put out since Ironman first came out back in May of 2008, the only real movie you need to have seen is the first Captain America movie. Seeing the Avengers is a strong second, but even going into this movie fresh, I don’t think you’d lose too much. Marvel knows they’re picking up fans as they go so the writing is doing a good job with keeping everything pretty tight. The movie even tied in well with the ongoing TV series Agents of Shield, a show that started pretty weak but has truly found its stride.

This is the ninth film set in the MCU. When you’ve done that many it’s easy for the characters to start to blend together a bit. This movie stays a Captain America movie throughout the whole thing though. What I mean by that is Captain America isn’t the same type of hero as Ironman. Tony Stark wants the spotlight for himself and his movies are going to have the badass moments all feature him. In Winter Soldier the other characters get seem to get substantially more badass moments than Cap does. That’s the way it’s supposed to be though. Cap is a leader, he enables other people to reach their peak and work together. Black Widow, Maria Hill, Falcon, and Fury all receive their own moments in this film.

One quick historical note about Falcon. He was the first African American Marvel superhero. Blank Panther was the first black Marvel superhero, published first in 1966, but he’s from the fictional country of Wakanda.[2] Falcon was introduced in 1969 and was born in Harlem.[3] The thing I found interesting about Falcon’s character in this movie is that Sam Wilson’s job is shown as some sort of councilor for veterans dealing with PTSD. Ironman 3 strongly indicated Tony Stark was suffering some variety of PTSD following the events of the Battle of New York in the Avengers movie. Marvel isn’t shying away from the psychological implications of extended violence.

This can also be seen in some of the dialogue options for Black Widow in Winter Soldier. One of the few criticisms of this movie I read ahead of time mentioned they thought she was presented as too ‘goofy’. She certainly has several of the funnier lines during the movie and several of these lines take place during intense scenes. I didn’t read these lines as her character being goofy. It seemed more as if her character had just become so habituated to violence that discussing dating options after kicking someone off a roof wasn’t actually a non sequitor for her. Now that Marvel has announced Black Widow will be getting her own movie, we’ll see for certain what direction she’s being taken.

Speaking of future movies, there has already been a release date set for Captain America 3. Not too shocking as Marvel sets their release dates well in advance. There was even an article back in June of 2013 that stated a marvel release in early May of 2016. [4] The reason the date bares mentioning is it happens to be the same weekend Warner Brothers and DC plan on releasing their Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman crossover movie. The question now is will DC move their date or simply allow both movies to be released on the same weekend. I’m certain the fans will be happy for the double feature, but DC has been losing the movie market by a large margin.

It’s a genius move for Marvel. There are three outcomes. 1: DC moves their release date, and it looks like a big win for Marvel because it proves DC thinks Cap 3 can beat the combined efforts of DC’s three biggest hitters. 2: The movies are released on the same weekend and DC brings in a bigger gross. No statement is made because it’s expected Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman should beat Captain America. 3: Captain America brings in a bigger gross. This is disastrous for DC. After the massive failures of Catwoman and Green Lantern, DC can’t take too many more missteps when trying to catch up with the juggernaut that is Marvel/Disney.

That last scenario isn’t too unlikely either. The Man of Steel movie that was released last year made 668 million worldwide.[5] Winter Soldier has made 505 million worldwide so far and it hasn’t been out two weeks yet.[6] We’ll see if Warner Brothers can keep the box office draw of Batman that Nolan had which was over a billion worldwide with Dark Knight Rises alone.

I would get a corner cut off my nerd card if I didn’t mention a really meaningless continuity nitpick. There is a scene in which Captain America goes as a civilian to look at an exhibit about him in the Smithsonian. The problem is the exhibit is in the Air and Space Museum. Why is it there? Sure there is plenty of military history in that museum, but wouldn’t an exhibit about a soldier be more appropriate in the Museum of American History? Even if Captain America isn’t there now, by the time Marvel is done adding movies to the already impressive catalog they are building he’ll be there some day.

★★★★☆ – It’s a fantastic movie and what Marvel is attempting to do is unprecedented. It won’t win you over to the superhero genre if you already loathe people in tight outfits doing heroic things though. A reminder of my rating system.

The Grand Budapest Hotel(Movie Review)

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Spoiler Disclaimer- No real issues with that in this post. I’ll keep everything spoiler free.

I’ll always put that spoiler disclaimer at the start of any post in which I’m reviewing a work of fiction, but it feels odd here. I don’t think anyone really goes to see Wes Anderson movie for the plot. Characters? Yes. Dialogue? Absolutely. Cinematography? Yup. Sense that you’re in a completely different yet somehow plausible world? Without a doubt. Plot? Possible, but it always feels like Wes Anderson makes interesting characters and a good plot simply falls into place as a result.

Make no mistake, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a Wes Anderson movie. Within the first ten minutes we’re inside a flashback that’s inside a flashback that’s inside a book. Maybe 30 seconds of the movie is set in what would be the present. We follow the story of a young and newly hired lobby boy at the Grand Budapest as he grows up and takes ownership of the hotel. It is set in a fictional country somewhere in eastern Europe with the decent into world war one playing a roll in the background.

A special note should be added about the casting. This movie has Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum. Between them all that’s 17 Oscar nominations. I do have a minor nitpick about such a star studded cast, particularly with so many of them playing small cameos. Bill Murray’s character has maybe one minute of screen time. When he appears I felt suddenly pulled out of the movie because it didn’t feel like a character on screen. It felt like Bill Murray and I think much of that feeling is due to the brief nature of some of the actors’ appearances. Don’t get me wrong, much of this cast has worked with Wes Anderson before and it’s a compliment to him as a director that so much talent is happy to appear in his movies even for just a cameo. I also wouldn’t want to deprive the world of Bill Murray’s mustache in this film, see the following link. [1]

Another special note(if I do too many of these they won’t really be special will they?) should be added about the hotel itself. It is presented in typical Wes Anderson pink, and although it can be tough to ignore the people on screen, try to pay attention to the hotel. The wallpapers are ever changing and brilliant. All the little backrooms, cubbyholes, nooks, and crannies shown make it feel like there is so much more to this building. The slow aging of the building as it suffers through the years along with our main character is also on enthralling display.

In my intro I mentioned the world being obviously different but extremely plausible. There is a piece of writing in this movie I found to be absolutely brilliant. At one point there is an organization brought in called the Society of the Crossed Keys. They come in to move the plot along and then leave. If this were to happen in a different movie it would have felt like a contrived Deus Ex Machina. Somehow Anderson makes this organization feel like they’ve always been there and of course this is how they operate and it would make sense for this to happen. It is an impressive bit of writing and world building to throw in details you don’t need to give back story to because they already feel at home in the setting you’ve spent the whole movie fleshing out.

There are some scenes that I felt went on too long, one scene in a prison in particular. Overall the movie clips along at a good pace and has an enchanting combination of formality and vulgarity. If someone really doesn’t like Wes Anderson films, this won’t convert them. If you do like Wes Anderson then I doubt I could have said anything to dissuade you from going to see it, but if you’re near a place that is showing it and you have a friend who is on the fence, bring them along and they’ll consider it time in the theater well spent.

★★★★☆ – Wes Anderson isn’t for everyone, but this is high quality film making that deserves your time.  A reminder of my star system. [2]


The Monuments Men(Movie Review)

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Spoiler Disclaimer-I will not discuss specific plot points, but I will discuss a few specific scenes. This movie does have some powerful reveal moments, and they will lose some weight if you know about them ahead of time. Proceed at your own risk.

Inner Dialogue Voice 1:  Reed should really do a review post. He made that rating system post early on and hasn’t used it yet.

Inner Dialogue Voice 2: He knows, he just doesn’t think the movies and books he might review are particularly interesting to a lot of people.

IDV1: Why doesn’t he just use us(something he hasn’t done since his second post) to introduce the idea that these are simply what he is reading and watching and if you aren’t interested, then don’t read.

IDV2: He should also bear in mind that if he keeps to his resolution he’ll write 104 posts and to quote Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the holiday classic Bad Santa, “They can’t all be winners.”

It’s important to remember The Monuments Men is not Ocean’s 14. Yes, it is George Clooney assembling a team of experts that includes Matt Damon for the purposes of a grand redistribution of wealth, but Monuments Men seems to have trouble assembling these proven elements into a flowing narrative. Clooeny wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this movie. It is clear he cares a great deal about the real events that inspired this film, the problem is the story is just too large to be crammed into 110 minutes.

The Monuments Men was a real group of men assembled to reclaim the art that the Nazis were stealing as they conquered parts of Europe. This was a mission that spanned the entire length of the war and included the recovery of over 6 million works. The film tries to focus in on two specific pieces, the alter piece of Ghent and Michelangelo’s Madonna.

I say ‘tries to focus’ because my number one issue with this movie was how much it jumped around in focus and tone. Towards the beginning of the movie tragic scenes are closely juxtaposed with comedic scenes and I figured this was the movie demonstrating how these men were not soldiers and they were trying to adapt as they were thrown into the thick of things, but this continued throughout most of the film.

As the movie went on, the comedic scenes felt more and more out of place especially as the dramatic scenes became more and more poignant. I mean it when I say there are few world war two movies that so closely highlight some of the atrocities committed in the war. There’s showing action scenes with brave men dying as they fight on, and then there is showing a barrel of teeth extracted from Jewish bodies for the gold.

I have little doubt both the comedic and dramatic scenes in the movie have their roots in true stories that happened to this platoon. The issue again becomes cutting this legacy down to two hours. If you’re dead set on including both the highs and the lows, then you need to find a better way to arrange them so that you give the audience’s emotions enough time to keep up.

Even with that complaint, the dramatic scenes really do leave lasting impact. The reveal of the barrel of teeth, the burning of a Picasso, the confrontation with a German who has many famous works of art but all the paintings have Jewish surnames on the backs of the canvases, these are powerful moments and I give Clooney full credit for including them. It’s just that putting a scene about accidentally stepping on a landmine and now being stuck because you can’t step off in between some of the more serious moments makes it harder to fully appreciate everything.

I enjoyed the movie and if you have even a passing appreciation for art or world war two you will probably enjoy it too. If you’re not a big fan of either I don’t think there is enough to keep you interested. The action scenes are minimal(on purpose), the characters aren’t enough to drive the plot on their own, and the movie can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. But there is great discussion created about what art is worth in the face of genocide and, I know this sounds impossible, but you will hate Nazis more at the end of this movie than you do right now which is an impressive feat.

★★★☆☆ – Worth your time if you like the subject. A reminder of my star system.

As always, questions, comments, and concerns are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.