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Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up where the first film left off and after Captain America 2. Shield is still dismantled but our heroes are keeping busy. The movie starts with the team trying to retrieve Loki’s scepter from the first installment and more specifically the glowing orb that powers it. In a be-careful-what-you-wish-for type of scenario, the Avengers claim the orb and the AI power within it that emerges through Tony Stark’s Ultron program.
The film is nearly non-stop with plenty of action along with some dramatic moments, some funny moments (the contest to pick up Thor’s Hammer is worth the price of admission), and the exploration of new characters such as Vision, Scarlett Witch, and Quicksilver. War Machine and Falcon show up in here too. There’s a lot going on and it’s every bit as much fun as the first movie as this film shares the same magic touch of writer/director Joss Whedon. There’s some twists and turns to the storyline with some pleasant surprises and unexpected moments along with some set up for Infinity War.
The effects are amazing to watch on the big screen of course, I would highly suggest seeing this one in a theater (the first time anyway). One of the more gratuitous moments for me was the Iron Man vs. Hulk fight with Iron Man balancing the scales using his Hulk container unit, such a blast. As usual, the Marvel quality seal of approval is all over this, that company knows how to do it right. My buddy Paul put it best “I don’t know how you couldn’t like that film”.
In terms of the talent, it’s a major lineup including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron-Taylor Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bethany, Cobie Smulders, and James Spader as the voice of Ultron. Spader’s voice and demeanor make for a great AI villain hell bent on saving the world by destroying humanity. As for the rest of the actors, simply put, they all kick ass.
If you’ve seen the first one, if you appreciate fun, entertaining, action-packed popcorn flicks, this is right up your alley.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
There are more people in involuntary captivity now than in any other time of our nation’s history. In other words, there is more slavery and human trafficking taking place than ever before. How can this be? This seems like such an outrageous concept to me, I had thought (hoped) that we, as humans, have evolved a bit more than I’m giving us credit for I guess as evidenced by this documentary…
Tricked dives into the world of human trafficking and more specifically how people are forced into sex slavery. Several cities are examined including Las Vegas and Denver among other locations. The topic is shown from several different angles including from the women that were forced into these positions, their families, the police, the johns and the pimps. Some of the pimps are surprisingly cavalier about how they view the women as commodities rather than humans. Their ignorance and cruelty pushed me to the point where I wanted to jump in there and just punch them right in the mouth; some of them were just truly loathsome people (if they really classified as people at all).
The stories are shocking. I know at first for me, it was hard to imagine how someone got “forced” into this kind of a position. I mean, why not just run away? It turns out, it’s not that simple. Threats against their families are made by the pimps as they really take time to get to know their victims and then work to exploit weaknesses and put the girls in a position where they think there’s no hope and no escape. They fear for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.
The frustration of the police is evident too as they’re forced to arrest the women but the pimps and the johns tend to not be pursued with the same vigor, if at all. I would think the other way around would be more effective, that sentiment was echoed by the police officers involved as well. Either way, our system here is broken as confirmed by the interviews throughout the doc.
Tricked is a great resource for learning more about this disturbing problem, a problem that’s being tragically ignored and dismissed as being unimportant. If you think that way, take a look at this film and tell me if you think the families and the victims of this issue find it “unimportant”.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
It’s not often I get to provide an insider viewpoint when I’m reviewing a documentary but this time I do. I was fortunate enough to experience the ceremony myself and since I’m a filmmaker too, I have unique insight to share with relation to both the experience and the documentary portraying it, so here we go…
Ayahuasca: Vine of the Soul provides an overview into the ceremony conducted by shaman using a drink brewed from the ayahuasca plant. The plant is protected by the South American government and is seen as a national treasure, kind of the opposite how the US regards plants like this and marijuana which fall into the same category as heroin in the government’s eyes.
The documentary follows several people going through the ceremony and focuses a bit on their lives both prior to the ceremony and after it. People have different reasons for trying the medicine (in circles close to it, the plant is referred to as a medicine) including addiction, self-esteem issues, traumas from their past, as well as wanting to see the face of God, among many other reasons. In terms of it being medicinal, it’s also being used for cancer treatment and other physical ailments.
The presentation of the film is done pretty well. My only complaint are the production tricks like some of the transitions they use for example that are used to make the film feel “trippy” at times. There’s no way to capture visually what happens when deep in the process and visual production effects make the film feel cheapened as a result. The ceremony is typically done in the dark, night filters are used which gives the night shots a green, alien kind of feeling which again kind of makes it feel a little hokey. These distractions diminish the important, underlying messages about the experience at times but luckily the message is still there (just disregard the cheesy parts).
It’s interesting to see the transformations some people go through, it’s not for everyone and you need to be open to it. Most of the people featured in the doc seem to be receptive to it in different ways. They each get different messages and lessons to go through in varying degrees, sometimes nothing happens at all, it’s all dependent on the person. The shaman plays a central role in the process and is instrumental in guiding the journey so there are various factors that influence the overall experience.
If you have an interest in shamanism, as well as spiritual and mental exploration and development, this documentary is definitely worth a viewing.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
Well, this one’s a bit of a downer, it’s very well done, but damn, it’s a downer… Based on the play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay), August: Osage County features the story of a family broken, very broken, mostly by their own devices and attitudes. Plagued by dreary, depressing attitudes, drug abuse, cancer, suicide, incest and a lot of denial, the whole story feels doomed and at times is hard to watch as there’s very little joy found anywhere in here. Even during the few moments of positivity in the film they become quickly overshadowed by the dour outlooks of the main characters…
This is the kind of film I’ll only watch once and only out of curiosity and wanting to watch the actors do their thing. Rightly so too as the actors are great. The screenplay is well-written for what it is, the dialog seems true to the characters and is compelling (which is hard to pull off in a drama sometimes). The problem is that the attitudes of the main characters are so hopeless and depressing that even when some light is offered from the less-depressing characters, it just doesn’t cut through the dark of the leads with the exception of an outburst from Chris Cooper’s character towards his wife in the film. Meryl Streep’s character has just lost her husband to a suspected suicide, she’s battling cancer herself and her 3 daughters are a complete mess too. Julia Roberts is the oldest daughter, going through a divorce and dealing with a teenage daughter that doesn’t like her. Juliette Lewis is the youngest of the 3 and is engaged to a materialistic man who is definitely going to cheat on her if he isn’t already (he even hits on her 14 year old niece) and the middle daughter just found out that she’s involved in a incestuous relationship with a brother most of the family thought was a cousin. Wow.
While the story sounds dramatic and interesting (and it is), the delivery is hard to get through and if you’re looking for relief at the end of film, you’ll be sorely disappointed as noone seems to find redemption. I’m not sure why people write stories like this or what compels people to even watch a film that’s so entrenched in darkness and depression. That’s what I found this film to be, simply a character exercise exploring depression and hopelessness. John Wells directed and does a great job capturing the dire sentimentality that runs through the spine of the script.
The only quality that kept me wanting to finish watching the film was the actors. Streep is her usual tour-de-force and sets the bar high for everyone else to match. Luckily the cast is strong enough to match her intensity and authenticity. Julia Roberts is especially good and stands out on her own as one the more engaging, intense actors to watch which is impressive considering the lineup of talent here. The lineup includes Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Margo Martingale, Dermot Mulroney, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, and Misty Upham.
Bottom line: if you appreciate films just for the acting or you’re ok with films that offer no redemption or happy ending, you may like this one.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
Coincidentally, I just happened to watch this documentary/comedy film a few weeks before Comedy Central announced Trevor Noah as the successor to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. It was cool to see him get the hot seat but he has some big shoes to fill, it will be interesting to watch him and how his style compliments the show.
You Laugh But It’s True is a little hard to define, it’s a hybrid for sure. Docu-Comedy? Comediomentary? I’m sure there’s a name for it but there’s way too many sub-genres to keep up with. It’s a bit documentary and a bit stand-up performance, and no matter what you want to call it, it’s worth checking out. There are interviews with Trevor, his friends, his family, and his fellow comedians from South Africa, some of whom have no love for Trevor. The main complaint about him is his ego, and they’re right to a degree, the guy’s got a big ego. Some of their disdain is also based on jealousy though because not only is Trevor a seemingly natural talent, but his career is also really taking off both in South Africa and beyond it’s borders as well.
And you know what? Once I heard more of his story, the less I cared about his ego and the more I appreciated his talent and what he’s gone through to get where he is. He earned his success and is still in touch with his roots and his humility when with his family. He’s working hard to take care of his mom too, gotta love that.
There are lots of laughs throughout the doc with various stand-up performances from Trevor and a number of other comedians. There are some emotional and insightful moments too. If you want to get to know a bit about the next host of The Daily Show, You Laugh But It’s True will provide some great insight.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
Set in a small town that could be anywhere, The Judge revolves around the relationship between a father named Joseph Palmer and his family but mostly his son Hank in particular. The relationship between father and son(s) has always been strained as the father (played by the excellent Robert Duvall) is a bit of a rigid, strict kind of person and isn’t an easy guy to get along with. Joseph also happens to be a judge of the town the story takes place in and has been the town judge for something like 41 years. The conflict of the story comes from Joseph getting into a car accident right after his wife’s death. The accident involves him hitting someone on a bike and killing them that just so happens to be a person that the judge put away in prison for awhile. His son Hank (portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.) also happens to be a lawyer and ends up representing his father during the trial deciding the judge’s fate…
The story might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world but there’s some great drama here. The writing overall is solid although I did think the movie was a tad bit long (almost 2 and half hours, which could’ve been trimmed down to 2 hours) so there are times it drags a bit in terms of pacing. Overall the story sheds light on the characters through some backstory exposition and of course keeps things moving along when it gets to the trial of the judge. The moments leading up the trial deal with the death of the family’s mother and the dysfunctional unit that’s left behind to cope. Some tension shows up during the family interacting with each other (like most families experience) and things get ramped up a bit as the details of the trial shed light on other elements related to the family’s tension. The conclusion I thought was both satisfying and fair along with being a bit bittersweet and hopeful at the same time, very well written overall.
In terms of performance, the acting is one of the main reasons to see this film. The actors all turn in passionate, tight performances. Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. are particularly compelling to watch, especially in the scenes with each other. There’s some masterful acting going on here, lots of great subtle moments as well as big passionate points as well. Other performers turn in engaging performances as well, I thought that Vera Farmiga (as Hank’s high school girlfriend) was fun, flirtatious and intriguing and Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney was slick and interesting as a protagonist. The cast is well rounded and includes the talents of Vincent D’Onofrio, Dax Shepard, Jeremy Strong, Leighton Meester and Ken Howard.
Generally speaking, The Judge is a well-crafted (and acted) drama. If you like drama and enjoy good dialog along with a multi-layered storyline, you’ll probably enjoy this one, I did.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
The Imitation Game is based on the real-life story of Alan Turing (played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch), who invented one of the earliest versions of the computer to break the code the Nazis were using during WWII. The computer, which came to be known as a Turing Machine at the time, was created to not only decipher secret codes but to explore the concept of artificial intelligence which Turing had a fascination with. Turing’s machine became pivotal during WWII as a means of providing intelligence, some say the invention helped to shorten the war by at least 2 years and saved millions of lives in the process.
Part of the twist to Turing’s story is that he was gay. These days being gay doesn’t quite carry the stigma it carried in the 1940’s when it was considered illegal. Unfortunately Turing’s secret was exposed and he was sentenced to hormone therapy as a form of “rehabilitation” for his gay “condition”.
From what I’ve read, most of the story in this film is fairly close to the events being portrayed. The writing is compelling although the dialog at times is a bit dry and intellectual. Ultimately the story kept my interest as I was interested in Turing before I saw the film and found the dialog and presentation of the details really entertaining. I don’t see many intellectual films that keep my interest this much, many of them get lost in their own pretense but The Imitation Game keeps things moving albeit at a gradual pace.
The acting and directing are both superb. The film has an authentic style that recreates the 40’s in an all immersive visual presentation taking the viewer through a convincing portrayal of the time period. Morten Tyldum directs and puts together a detailed, emotional film that should become a classic. Cumberbatch is powerful, subtle, cocky, and vulnerable all within the same space of the character he plays. His performance is one of the reasons to see this film. The rest of the cast is tight too and includes Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, and Mark Strong. All-in-all the cast is passionate in the deliveries of their characters.
Cumberbatch was nominated for an Oscar and the film won for Best Writing from an Adapted Screenplay. If you like intellectual dramas and have an interest in some of the stories you don’t get to hear so much about WWII, check out The Imitation Game.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
Presented by District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, CHAPPiE both entertains and raises a lot of questions about the future of AI (artificial intelligence). Set in the not-to-distant future (2016-ish), CHAPPiE centers around robots that act as our future police force. The robots are set up to be self-sacrificing, fierce and efficient in terms of how they handle policing Capetown, South Africa (also where District 9 was set). One robot in particular is damaged and on his way to the scrap heap when his creator (played by Dev Patel) saves him from destruction so he can experiment with a new AI software program he’s developed. With the new upgrade installed, CHAPPiE becomes self-aware after falling into the hands of some bad people who want to use him for bad things…
The story explores this theme of self-awareness through CHAPPiE’s interaction with the people around him such as his creator and his new-found gangster family who eventually find themselves attached to the robot as his “personality” emerges. The film builds to some conflict as one of the competing engineers at the company that built CHAPPiE wants him out of the way so he can have his own human-piloted robot take over police duties from the robot force currently in place.
The writing is well crafted (Blomkamp is also one of the writers) and compelling. The 2-hour film flies by quickly as there are plenty of emotional moments as well as engaging action sequences. The dialog and interaction between the characters kept my interest throughout the film. The ending (as well as some other spots here and there) takes a cool left turn and had me somewhat surprised as to the direction things were going. Very satisfying by the way, I love films that include moments you don’t see coming which isn’t easy to do these days.
The acting is well done for the most part. The only weak links here are the gangster antagonists that act as CHAPPiE’s “parents” played by Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not terrible but they’re not great either and at times come off a bit forced in their performances. I can’t say that I’m a big fan of Die Antwoord (they sound un-original and dated, Ninja’s rapping is sloppy and incoherent and Yo-Landi’s voice makes me want to punch something) so I’m not judging based on that, but I don’t know that I would’ve cast them either. Meh, they do anger and frustration fairly well emotionally but not much beyond that although both of them have some decent acting moments occasionally.
The standout acting-wise is Sharlto Copley who portrays CHAPPiE himself. Ironically, the way Copley portrayed CHAPPiE actually made him seem more human than his actual human counterparts at times and the robot was the only one I consistently rooted for. The rest of the human characters were all assholes basically (even the creator at times was kind of an ass) so I found myself feeling a lot of sympathy for CHAPPiE but very rarely for anyone else.
The effects (courtesy of WETA) were all top notch and blended in seemlessly. Copley’s motion capture performance is a testimonial to just how good of an actor he is in addition to his emotionally charged and variant dialog. Kudos to Blomkamp and his cast and crew for putting together such a tight and exciting film. The cast includes the talents of Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman.
If you liked District 9 and enjoy good sci-fi drama, I highly encourage you to see CHAPPiE!
reviewed by Sean McKnight