Movie Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

March 19, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The original Anchorman, released 10 years ago, is remembered as a classic of random laughs and weirdness, hilarious political incorrectness, memorable characters and masterful improvised dialogue. It’s not actually as funny or as good as you remember it to be, but that’s the way it goes sometimes with movies that end up developing its own legend.

In all likelihood, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, will not be as revered as its predecessor, but the truth is that it’s probably just as funny and irreverent. If you enjoyed the zaniness of the original and developed an affection for the characters, then there’s a good chance you’ll have a great time with this one too.

The “legend” picks up several years after the end of the first film, with Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) sharing anchor duties with his now-wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). Their boss, played by Harrison Ford, drops a bombshell on Ron and his ego is too fragile to take the hit. Just when he’s down in the dumps, he gets a visit from an exec played by Dylan Baker (I’ll always remember him as the deranged dad from Happiness), who offers him a job on a new 24-hour news network that no one in the industry thinks will succeed. The story really begins from here, as Ron starts to track down his own team of misfits including Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell), and together they head to New York to challenge the big boys of national TV.

The bizarre absurdity of Anchorman 2 is no doubt an acquired taste. If you get it, however, chances are you’ll love it. Without giving too much away, there are some brilliant sequences that will either have you clutching your gut in laughter or shaking your head at the stupidity of it all. There are also some skits that pay homage to some of the classic moments in the original, including a really epic climax that keeps rolling in one huge surprise after another (best to avoid spoilers). You have to give props to Ferrell and his crew for not sticking to conventions and really going for the weirdest, most non-nonsensical shit they could come up with. While it’s still often hit and miss, the hits are usually big hits, and the misses can be swept aside rather quickly because the gags keep coming at a furious pace.

Even if you take all the randomness aside, Anchorman 2 still has some clever satire and witty social commentary weaved into its narrative tapestry. Again, I don’t want to play spoiler, but let’s just say it takes a fairly sharp stab at the state of Western media networks today and makes intelligent use of information we know in the present but won’t be known to the characters for a decade or two.

For me, Anchorman 2 is still never quite as funny as it should be or thinks it is. I kept feeling like the actors were having a better time than I was, and I sense the reason they even made the sequel in the first place is because they all loved hanging out with each other so much. The chemistry between the characters is definitely there, but if you’re not in the right mood then some of the gags will come across as lame and unfunny. Steve Carrell’s mentally challenged Brick, for example, is more creepily insane than ever, and this time they’ve paired him up with a female version of his character, Chani, played by Kristen Wiig. It was one of those things where you’re thinking, “This should be really hilarious,” but in the end turns out to be “meh”.

That said, Anchorman 2 still probably has one of the highest laughs per minute ratios of any film released in 2013. Part of the reason is that there are so many strong characters that you’ll likely find at least a couple of them funny. My personal favourites were Paul Rudd’s sex-obsessed Brian Fantana and, surprisingly, Ron Burgundy himself, who seems somehow both wiser and dumber than he was the last time around. James Marsden, who plays the new network’s douchebag poster child, and Greg Kinnear, who plays Christina Applegate’s lover/psychologist, are the highlights from the supporting cast. And if you like seeing a lot of A-list stars doing things you wouldn’t expect of them, you’ll love all the great cameos in this too.

Ultimately, despite its flaws — including the excessive running time of 119 minutes — I think there is enough quality stuff packed into Anchorman 2 to call it a worthy sequel. It’s never easy living up to expectations following a cult classic original, but even after 10 years the story and the characters’ goofy charm have not waned. Not everything works, but when things occasionally fall into place the result is comedy magic.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: Pretty awesome gag reel, but I’d recommend watching the movie first.

Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

February 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I liked the first Thor movie more than I expected thanks to the crafty direction of Kenneth Brannagh and the performances of Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman, which struck the right balance between fantasy and reality and humour and seriousness in the Norse god adventure. The success of that film and The Avengers always meant a sequel was forthcoming, but could it be done correctly without Brannagh at the helm?

I suppose the answer is yes, but there is still something about Thor: The Dark World that makes it feel a little pedestrian compared to some of the heavyweights in the Marvel universe. There is nothing, strictly speaking, wrong with it, but I don’t think it would have made much of a difference had they skipped it entirely and moved straight on to The Avengers sequel scheduled for next year.

Like Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World is set after the events of The Avengers. And like the first film, it splits screen time between Thor’s world of Asgard and Earth. The story is frankly too complicated and convoluted for me to even try and explain, but all that needs to be known is that the Asgardians are facing an threat from an alien race because of yet another magical weapon (this one’s called the Aether) and Thor must enlist the aid of his imprisoned adopted brother Loki (the brilliant Tom Hiddleston) to get the job done. Meanwhile on Earth, his love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) conveniently stumble onto portals that can transport them into other worlds.

Anyway, there’s lots of Thor hammer action, epic battle scenes and a good dose of comedy that aligns the tone of the movie with Joss Whedon’s wit in The Avengers. The charisma and chemistry of Hemsworth and Hiddleston provide the backbone to the movie and keep it afloat throughout all the muddled exposition, though Portman feels like a bit of an unwilling participant who’s only there because she’s contractually obliged. Kat Dennings, who plays Portman’s sidekick, gets to stand out more by providing the quirky one-liners, while Stellan Skarsgard provides a welcome return as Dr Selvig, a physicist who is now questioning is own sanity after what he has experienced.

The Thor franchise has always been the most difficult to translate to the screen out of all the other Avengers heroes and director Alan Taylor deserves a lot of credit for the solid action sequences and for finding the right vibe for a film about alien warriors in two very different worlds. And kudos for creating a sequel that is more personal and different to the original rather than just doing the exact same thing except with bigger noises and brighter special effects like what MIchael Bay did in the Transformers franchise.

Having said all that, I found the experience of watching Thor: The Dark Work somewhat tedious at times. Perhaps you need to be a fan of the comic to get into it because I didn’t think it was doing much more than scraping the surface and going through the motions without the same enthusiasm as its predecessor.

The final battle sequences in London provide something different but there was no exhilaration because both Thor and his adversary are so bloody indestructible. The fight reminded a lot of Superman vs Zod in Man of Steel, in which two dudes just keep throwing each other through a lot of buildings without hurting each other.

So, despite reasonable expectations, I came away relatively disappointed with Thor: The Dark World. Technically speaking it ticks the right boxes for a superhero sequel, but with so many similar flicks in recent years it struggles to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack.

3 stars out of 5

PS: And what the heck was that post-credits scene?

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

December 25, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Why is Jennifer Lawrence so awesome?

Finally, back to the cinema! I had been dying to watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy, since the credits started rolling on the first film, which I thought was a brilliant adaptation of a fine book. Expectations were especially heightened given that the second book is my favourite of the entire series.

My first impression of Catching Fire is: very good again, on par with the first film in terms of execution and remaining faithful to the source material, but falling a little short of my lofty expectations. In many ways, it’s simply an extension of the first film (despite replacing director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence, who did I Am Legend and Water for Elephants), with the same structure, mood and tone (unlike the first few Harry Potter movies where each installment was like a standalone adventure), a tale that has no real beginning and no real end, which I’m sure affected the overall experience.

No time is wasted in setting up the premise this time as audiences are presumed to know the kind of world the film is set in and what the characters just went through. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has returned back to District 12 along with co-winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and live in the almost ghost town-like winners village previously inhabited by the only other District 12 winner in history, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The trio are about to embark on a tour of the country to celebrate their victory, but the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearing that Katniss is becoming the symbol of a potential uprising, wants her dead. If you didn’t get any of that, chances are you’ll need to brush up on your Hunger Games knowledge, because there’s no spoon feeding of information this time around.

While the story is a continuation, it does go into more depth and explores their world and history in more detail. The characters are fleshed out more and relationships and alliances are questioned and tested. And don’t forget, there is that semi-love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which is played out with a minimal amount of cringe (at least when compared to Twilight). The love story is a key part of The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t dominate it, and we can all be thankful for that.

What I love about the book, which the film follows closely, is the clever way in which (I suppose I should say spoiler alert here) the story finds a way to bring Katniss and Peeta back to the Hunger Games arena again without making it feel like a rehash. The stakes are raised, the dangers are magnified, and the creativity of the head gamekeeper (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on full display. We are comforted by the return of familiar characters and excited by the addition of intriguing new ones, each with their own eccentricities and backstories and all appearing to be hiding a secret or two.

 

Unfortunately, the time in the arena is relatively short, or at least it feels that way. I complained about the overlong set up in the first film and I make the same complaint again here. It’s actually worse this time as the amount of real interaction between Katniss and her enemies feels quite limited, whereas the time out of the arena — the preparation, the training, the political posturing — felt much longer by comparison. And even though her foes this time are much more formidable we don’t get to see them nearly enough, especially after they have been hyped up beforehand.

One other complaint I have is the ending, which was incredibly exciting and cliffhangery in the book but came across as somewhat anti-climatic in the film. It was rushed, strangely, given by that time the film was already pushing 2.5 hours, and didn’t do enough to set the stage for the final chapter.

On the whole, there is still a lot to like about Catching Fire. For starters, Jennifer Lawrence is as awesome as ever, and this time she is joined by some really impressive names such as the aforementioned Hoffman, as well as Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone and Sam Clafin as a surprisingly good Finnick Odair. Returning stars such as Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz also make their mark without stealing any of Lawrence’s thunder. The second film in a planned trilogy is always tricky, but for the most part Catching Fire delivers with its star power, intriguing visuals and engrossing storyline. I do think the script may have followed the structure of the novels perhaps too closely — resulting in some of my gripes — and could have benefited from a less linear narrative structure, though when all is said and done it’s a solid effort and an enjoyable 2.5 hours of drama and action. I just think it could have been better.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I’m lowering my expectations substantially for the next two installments . Yes, they are also splitting the final book, Mockingjay, into two parts, damn moneygrubbers.

Movie Review: Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

September 6, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The original Kick-Ass, released in 2010, was a breath of fresh air amid the cascade of superhero movies that continue to rain down upon us to this day. It was edgy, ultra-violent, and contained a lot of swearing, and it didn’t apologize for all the insanity one bit.

Three years later, the long-awaited sequel, Kick-Ass 2, attempts to relive that magic by continuing the story with roughly the same formula. It’s not a bad film if you enjoyed the first one, as the story is a natural progression from how it ended, and there are still lots of over-the-top violence and uncomfortable moments to satisfy your sick urges. That said, the freshness and edginess of the original are gone, and what we’re left with is just a pretty stock standard comic book movie that will satisfy some but leave others disappointed.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Kick-Ass, has decided to hang up his green suit and secret life of being a crime-fighting vigilante after the events of the first film, which culminated in the death of his mentor, Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage). Big Daddy’s daughter, the lovable Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), is still doing her thing, but she has been forced to pretend to be “normal” by attending Dave’s school under the guidance of her new guardian.

Kick-Ass then meets Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), who has set up a kind of Avengers initiative/support group for fellow vigilante crime-fighters, which finally makes Dave feel like he belongs. Meanwhile, Kick-Ass’s former partner in crime, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), continues his progression towards supervillain by renaming himself The Motherf*&#er and collecting a team of baddies to take down anyone that dares to stand in his way.

If you were writing a sequel to Kick-Ass, what I just summarized above would probably be the most obvious plot you could come up with. This is one of the reasons why Kick-Ass lacks the punch of the original.

Another reason is because Kick-Ass was full of dark humour, one brutal hit after another, whereas Kick-Ass 2 shifts away from that somewhat and towards a more conventional coming-of-age story, especially the arc about Hit-Girl trying to fit in with the school’s mean girls. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s just not as titillating. I didn’t like all the jokes in Kick-Ass, but I found it funny enough for the most part. Kick-Ass 2, on the other hand, had more lame jokes and was probably more “amusing” than genuinely funny.

When it comes to the fighting sequences, however, Kick-Ass 2 still delivers, complete with crazy blood splatters and thudding sound effects. It’s probably a little less stylized than the shocking violence from the original but there are a few cool comic-book sequences that will have fanboys spraying their shorts. A guaranteed crowd favourite would have to be the female Drago from the baddies gang, Mother Russia.

For all its flaws, I still had a good popcorn time with Kick-Ass 2, partly because I had low expectations given its lukewarm reception from critics. Hit-Girl is still very cool, even if Moretz looks a lot more grown up than she did three years ago, and Mintz-Plasse was surprisingly solid holding up the baddie end of the movie. Taylor-Johnson impressed me by managing to look like a high school dork again after his unrecognisable turn in last year’s Savages, though I felt like he lacked the charisma he had from the first film. If they do decide to make a third film (depending on the box office performance of this one), it will need to be drastically different for it to be worth it.

3.25 stars out of 5

ATJ in Kick-Ass 2 (left) and Savages (right)

ATJ in Kick-Ass 2 (left) and Savages (right)

Movie Review: World War Z (2013) (2D)

June 25, 2013 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’m just going to come out and say it: World War Z is possibly the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen.

To be fair, I can’t recall many worthy zombie movies off the top of my head. I haven’t seen the George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, widely regarded as the GOAT. 28 Days Later was very good. Shaun of the Dead is very funny. I Am Legend had its moments. Resident Evil is a guilty pleasure. REC is terrifying. But as of now, I’d still rank World War Z on top.

Why? Well for starters, while it is one of the most intense cinematic experiences I’ve had with a “zombie film”, World War Z doesn’t feel like your conventional zombie flick. Yes, there are loads of zombies, carnage and people fighting for survival, but the mood of it feels…different. Perhaps because it is less camp, the tone feels more like a plague film, say like Outbreak, the 1995 Dustin Hoffman movie, or the more recent Contagion, made in 2011. Throughout the 116-minute running time I never got the sense that I had “seen it all before” and never felt like I knew where the story was heading.

There are also heavier political elements in World War Z than typical zombie movies, though I don’t want to say much more than that because of potential spoilers.

The film centers on Brad Pitt, who plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations employee, and his family (wife played by Mireille Enos, whom I am unfamiliar with), as the zombies start to take over the world. Using his connections, Lane is able to get to safety, but his skills are needed to help find out the cause of the outbreak so scientists can develop a cure or vaccine. Lane travels to several locations around the world in search of an answer, battling hoards of zombies and scraping through extremely close calls along the way. A few of the particularly pivotal scenes are still vividly floating around in my mind, a sign that director Marc Foster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace, The Kite Runner) really got them right. They were intense without overdoing the whole crazy-mutilated-zombies-jump-out-of-nowhere routine we’re so accustomed to seeing in these types of movies.

The second half of World War Z is not quite as good as the first half, and unfortunately the ending, after a stellar finale, was quite disappointing. The special effects were better than the trailer suggested (I initially thought they looked terrible) but some of the scenes with masses of zombies still looked a little too CGI. But these are my only complaints.

I would compare World War Z to my favourite film from a couple of years ago, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Sure, there are lots of flaws and holes, but it’s one of those rare films that kept me engrossed from start to finish, and at one stage during the movie made me want to say out loud — “this movie is freaking awesome!” It’s intense, exciting, entertaining and clever without trying to be too clever for what is, after all, still a zombie movie. I can’t wait for the planned sequel(s).

4.5 stars out of 5!

PS: I have not read the 2006 horror novel of the same name by Max Brooks upon which the film is based. Apparently it is completely different.

 
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