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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

23 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Summer 2011: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is released to theaters. I decide not to see it. “Really? What’s the point? We all know how it’s going to end.”

Spring 2012: I catch “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” on one of the satellite movie channels. To my surprise, it’s pretty good. I write my three-star review, stating one major problem I had with it: the ending. I write that the story grinds to a halt, obviously setting up for a sequel. “I guess the origin story isn’t enough to set up the events in the previous movies,” I wrote. (Though, in hindsight, isn’t it deliciously ironic to see a film where man’s defeat is the happy ending?)

Summer 2014: No, the origin story is not enough to set up the events in the other “Planet of the Apes” movies, for now we have “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Let’s see how this one turns out… Well, that was one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen. I did not expect that…

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the seventh entry in the “Planet of the Apes” film series. (Actually, it’s the eighth, but who wants to acknowledge the 2001 Tim Burton re-imagining?) Frankly, I think it’s the best in the series by far. It’s a solid sci-fi action film, but it also works effectively in its dramatic and allegorical elements.

The film is set a decade or so after “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” left off, when a virus plagued humankind, leaving much to ruin. A band of humans lives as one in San Francisco and an ape colony lives in the nearby woods. The apes, now more advanced than before, are led by Caesar (again played with stellar motion-capture performance work by Andy Serkis), who recalls the good in humanity more than most of his followers who were caged and horribly treated by their human captors. None of the apes have seen a single trace of humans until one day, when a small group of the San Francisco survivors enter the woods unexpectedly. They attempted to pass through to restore the power grid. Caesar has learned to speak, and so the group’s leader, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), reasons with him for help. But the mutual cooperation unfortunately doesn’t last long, as members of both man and ape clash, leading to the beginning of inevitable war.

The allegories of hatred and prejudice are done quite well in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” without getting preachy or too heavy-handed. There are blunt points that are made, but for the most part, it’s handled efficiently with visuals, interaction, and just the right amount of dialogue that helps get the point across. It makes for an intruging tragedy amongst the blockbuster-expected explosions and gunfire. And what helps even further is the characterizations of both the humans and the apes—the personalities that get the most focus are fleshed out. There are some humans and apes that see a mutual connection—they include Malcolm, Caesar, a nurse named Ellie (Keri Russell), Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi-Smit McPhee), and a wise orangutan named Maurice. (I’m not gonna lie—Maurice stole my heart.) But there are many of the other human survivors and many of the other apes who share a mutual hatred for each other and would like nothing more to see them exterminated if only for their own selfish desires of annihilation. The humans that represent it are Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo), and the ape that stands for warfare is Kobo, who often butts heads with Caesar, who tries to keep peace by keeping humans and apes separate in the beginning. But tragically, despite the sincere efforts of Malcolm, hatred breaks free and everything starts going to hell. The parallels of human and ape are effectively done and help make this allegorical tale even more powerful.

Andy Serkis is once-again outstanding as Caesar, hands-down the best, most compelling character in the whole “Planet of the Apes” series. He’ll always be known as the king of the CGI/human blend of acting, and someone at the Academy should give the man a special Oscar for his work. With his work in “Lord of the Rings,” “King Kong,” and now the “Planet of the Apes” reboots, I’d say he’s due for Academy recognition. Exaggeration, you may say? I don’t think so.

Director Matt Reeves (who is also making the upcoming sequel, “War for the Planet of the Apes”) does a great job with the action and gives the audience what they crave in a summer movie, such as a lengthy battle sequence on the streets of San Francisco. But he’s also very efficient in the quieter moments, particularly in the first 15+ minutes, which show the home life of Caesar and the rest of the apes.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” did something I didn’t expect it to do: it made me anticipate the next “Planet of the Apes” movie. Will “War for the Planet of the Apes” be just as good if not better? I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out. If there’s anything I’ve learned from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” it’s not to be cynical about a continuing reboot that comes my way.

Chef (2014)

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I admire the work of Jon Favreau. As an actor (best known for films like “Rudy” and “Swingers”), he’s fun to watch, and as a director (best known for films like “Iron Man,” “Elf,” and “The Jungle Book”), he comes across as a man who knows and loves movies. So, it was interesting to see a film starring & directed/written by Favreau and even more interesting to make comparisons to Favreau’s career within said-film…even if Favreau reports that these parallels are coincidental.

The film is called “Chef,” written and directed by Favreau, who gets away from Hollywood for a while to create this film independently. In the film, he also stars as Carl Casper, a passionate, talented chef who feels burned out from his job at a fancy L.A. restaurant run by pushy Riva (Dustin Hoffman). Carl works hard but isn’t given an opportunity to get creative, as Riva wants him to stick to the menu. But when a popular food blogger (Oliver Platt) pans the menu (and makes a horrid remark at Carl about his weight), this makes Carl snap. Upon getting a Twitter account and angrily calling the blogger out to return, his chance at redemption is ruined when Riva demands he stick to the menu or lose his job, and it’s made even worse when a video of Carl angrily confronting the blogger goes viral.

Carl is having trouble finding work, which leads to an idea from his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) for him to get his own food truck and travel across the country to serve the food he makes. Carl, Inez, and their 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) go to Miami, where Carl got his start as a culinary artist, and manage to get a truck. Inez goes back home, giving Carl and Percy plenty of much-needed father-son time, as Percy helps Carl fix up the truck and cook & serve Carl’s food. As their relationship grows, Carl goes back to his roots.

So, let me get this straight. Jon Favreau (er, I’m sorry—chef Carl Casper) started out as a happy, independent filmmaker (er, culinary artist) making films (er, treats) such as “Swingers” and “Made” (er, Cuban sandwiches), but then he found success in California with “Iron Man” (er, as a master chef at a trendy eatery), only to make “Cowboys and Aliens” and “Iron Man 2” (er, predictable, standard menu options) and annoy film critics (er, food critics), and so he steps away from the Hollywood system (er, the L.A. restaurant) and decides to try something more like the days in which he started out, and so he makes an independent film called “Chef” (er, he gets a food truck and makes his own food the way he wants it done)…

Obviously, I’m not the only one to think “Chef” was an allegory to Favreau’s career as a director by going back to his independent roots after “Cowboys and Aliens” failed at the box-office. And even though Favreau has denied this comparison, it’s difficult to believe that Favreau didn’t have some part of that in mind while putting the film together at the start. I can’t help but think he wanted (and needed) to try something new, away from Hollywood, and he succeeded in making an independent film that is both funny and endearing…and also will make anyone who watches it hungry for Cuban sandwiches. (Seriously, don’t watch this film on an empty stomach—there are plenty of close-up shots of food being grilled, served, whatever.)

Favreau turns in his finest performance to date, playing a chef with the right amount of passion and devotion, leaving room for regret as he realizes he isn’t spending as much time with his son, who admires him. Speaking of whom, Emjay Anthony is perfect as Percy, turning in a natural juvenile performance. I buy the two as father and son, and I thought the scenes that deal with their bonding were well-done. The rest of the cast consists of big names all of which do well in smaller roles. Among them are the aforementioned Vergara, Hoffman, and Platt, but also featured are John Leguizamo who’s quite good as Carl’s friend and fellow kitchen master, Scarlett Johansen as a former co-worker/part-time lover of Carl’s, Bobby Cannavale as a sous chef, and Robert Downey Jr. in a very brief but funny turn as Inez’s (other) ex-husband.

“Chef” is a small film with big-name actors, and it’s entertaining, funny, and will make you hungry for some damn good food afterwards. And if you doubt this was Favreau’s way to take a step back before returning to Hollywood, just remember the critical/financial success of “The Jungle Book,” released two years after “Chef.” The man needed a break, and to make “Chef” was to make the right call.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

10 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When Marvel Studios brought us its Marvel Cinematic Universe, movie audiences found themselves looking forward to a new continuing chapter in…well, whatever adapted-from-comics saga it would throw at them. It began with a promise made in the first “Iron Man” movie that an “Avengers” movie would actually happen, and it released movie upon movie upon movie to assure us it would come, from “The Incredible Hulk” to “Iron Man 2” to “Thor” to “Captain America: The First Avenger.” And when “The Avengers” finally hit, it gave them a hell of a good time and exactly what they wanted to see—superheroes working together and a load of action scenes for them to partake in. Then, after seeing the origin stories of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, audiences were curious to see where they were going to go next before the next Avengers movie. With Iron Man, they had “Iron Man 3.” With Thor, they had “Thor: The Dark World.” Both were decent movies, but there needed to be something more. A lone-superhero sequel that truly upped the ante in terms of action, thrills, story, and even comedy and drama; and not just filler to catch up with the heroes. (I may like “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World” fine, but when I really think about it, it is sort of “filler” before the next Avengers movie.)

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is that movie.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” was a fun origin story for whom people say is the bland Boy Scout of the Avengers. Adapting the comic-book hero for a movie was a difficult task, but thankfully the movie was fun. However, you have to wonder: how do you make something complex out of a patriotic do-gooder? Well, with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” sibling directors Joe & Anthony Russo and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely have found a way.

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (played again by Chris Evans), is adjusting to life in the modern world, after awakening from decades of suspended animation. Not only does he have a list of pop culture to catch up on (for a treat, pause the DVD/Blu-Ray to see what else is on the list), but many of the people he knew are gone and his old girlfriend is now an ailing elderly woman. But that’s not all. His old-school ideals must make way for subtler threats and difficult moral complexities—nothing is as simple as he was brought up to believe. Things get even more difficult when it seems SHIELD is slowly being taken over by HYDRA, an enemy organization. Before Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) falls victim to a HYDRA attack brought on by the ominous Winter Soldier, he instructs Captain America to trust no one. So Cap, along with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen), go rogue as they find answers as to who exactly is behind this. They partake in battle after battle as they discover some harsh truths about the people they know/meet as well as the identity of the Winter Soldier himself.

What elevates this exciting action-thriller to more compelling levels is its dramatic aspect, mostly centered around the character of Steve Rogers. The struggles he faces as a person are heartbreaking, as he tries to get used to living in this world he’s not too familiar with—a world in which his old friends are either gone or fading. The scene in which he visits his old girlfriend, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), is particularly affecting. And as a hero, he has more to deal with, such as being hunted by the people he works for, facing newer threats with political agendas alien to him, and even the upsetting idea that he’s not doing as much good for the world as he wants to. All of this helps make the character of Captain America more interesting and complicated than we would’ve expected. I appreciate what went into his development in this movie. And when it becomes revealed who the Winter Soldier is, it only makes it more difficult and gripping.

But whatever. People weren’t there for its psychological issues; they were there for the action. And “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” doesn’t disappoint. They’re perfectly executed, fast-moving, and exciting. That’s really all I can say about it, except that because the film takes time out to establish the environment and develop the relationships of the characters, we care about what’s at stake here. It doesn’t feel like a typical superhero movie; there’s more than meets the eye with it.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is one of the best movies the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer. It knows how to tell the story, it knows what to focus on, and it knows what to deliver when the time calls for it. There’s more to the film that I already explained in the review, so if you want to find out what I mean by that, I recommend you check the movie out and see what else it has to deliver.

The Babadook (2014)

31 Oct

 

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

From looking at the trailer and the cover art, you would think “The Babadook” is a monster movie/creature feature. But, to be fair to the marketing team behind the film, “The Babadook” is a hard film to sell to the general public. This is first and foremost a psychological thriller in which the monster (the “Babadook” of the title, named Mister Babadook) may or may not be real. That doesn’t even matter when you consider what the film is really about. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

“The Babadook” is Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut that tackles two very human (and very dangerous) emotions: depression and loneliness. Its central focus is single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis in an excellent performance) who lost her husband shortly before she gave birth to her son. Six years later, her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is more than a handful; actually, you could say he’s a pure terror. He won’t stay out of trouble, he plays with weapons, he throws temper tantrums, he says he sees monsters, and he tends to hurt people, intentional or not. Even Amelia can’t seem to stand him, even though she won’t admit it to herself or to her sister, who hates him (even before Samuel causes her daughter to fall from a treehouse and hurt herself). Both Amelia and Samuel are dealing with their loss.

One night, Samuel requests Amelia to read him a seemingly children-oriented book called “Mister Babadook.” It’s about a tall dark figure that will visit you and haunt you if you left him into your life. That’s when things start to get a little freaky…

“The Babadook” is one of the scariest films I’ve seen in the past few years, and its effective horror aspects had very little to do with the Babadook itself as a physical presence and more to do with Amelia’s mental state. Much of the torment Amelia faces with her son is psychological, and what she’s feeling ranges from depression to anger. She feels alone, not being able to connect with her son, and as horrible as it is to admit to herself, she sees him as the cause of her mental illness, which she felt ever since she lost her husband the day Samuel was born. And Samuel sometimes annoys her to the point where she lashes out irrationally at him. These two need to find some way to connect with each other, or they’re in for a dreadful life together out of which they can never escape.

I stated above that this isn’t a monster movie. You barely even see the Babadook at all in this movie, but you can feel this thing’s presence looming over these people. It is kept in shadow and it’s a frightening presence, but more importantly, it represents the monster within Amelia trying to get out and extinguish her son, whom she sees as the source of her mental struggles. I know that sounds pretentious when described like that, but the way it is handled in this movie, as well as the way Kent executes the material, is exceptional in addition to horrifying. This movie got under my skin. And it did that without having to resort to many of the tropes mainstream audiences are used to with horror movies these days—there are no loud jump scares, there’s no CGI monster, and there’s no easy way out in the scriptwriting/storytelling. And it means something. The monster represents more than many other horror-movie monsters in recent memory.

“The Babadook” is a very effective representation of what grief and mental illness can do to a person as well as an unsettling horror movie. If you go to this movie and fully expect a monster movie, you’re not going to get what you want and you’ll be disappointed. But if you look deeper under the surface of what is already a disturbing psychological thriller, you might find something better than what you were expecting in the first place. This is a masterful, smart thriller that scared me, kept me on edge, and left me glad that it explored more real horrors than most filmmakers (and even audiences, for that matter) wouldn’t have bothered to try.

V/H/S/2 (2013) – V/H/S: Viral (2014)

27 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As someone who enjoyed the found-footage horror anthology “V/H/S” as more-or-less a “guilty pleasure,” I was curious to see what could be done as a follow-up. Would “V/H/S” be a worthy horror franchise or would it wear out quickly after a desperate cash-grab attempt?

“V/H/S/2” (or “S-V/H/S,” as it was originally called) is about on par with “V/H/S” in that it’s uneven yet enjoyable for the best parts (just enough for me to recommend). There is one big difference, however—“V/H/S/2” has a middle segment that is creepier, more outrageous, and more fun than any of the other segments in either of the two “V/H/S” films. It itself is a terrific horror film worthy of a recommendation.

Once again, the wraparound story for the anthology involves people sneaking into a house and watching unsettling VHS tapes. While I thought the previous film’s connective tissue had some chilling subtle moments, I felt it was weak overall with a lack of clever resolution. But with this one (directed by Simon Barrett), I surprisingly found myself more involved in what was happening, as once again, little things change here and there that had me edgy—the surprise was I thought the twist was actually unique and well-done. My only problem with it is after the characters watch the segments in between. The things they see don’t seem to faze them very much; they just seem to shrug it off and continue to the next one each time.

The first segment (“Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” directed by Adam Wingard) is shown through a man’s ocular implant with a camera. The doctors warn him that the implant is experimental (hence the camera, to see how things go at first). Shortly after he gets it, he starts seeing visions of people who shouldn’t be there. It’s an unsettling, effectively done chiller with an ending that made me look away.

The second segment (“A Ride in the Park,” directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale) is shown mostly from the POV of a Go-Pro attached to a bicyclist’s helmet. The bicyclist is attacked by a zombie and soon becomes one himself. He turns others into zombies and they set off in search for fresh meat. This is a neat twist on the zombie-movie, with enough visceral gore to appease genre fans.

The third segment is the aforementioned best: “Safe Haven,” directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. The narrative here is more intricate than any of the previous segments, and it definitely works as its own short horror film. It involves a news crew getting the scoop on a cult run by an Indonesian deportee (played chillingly by Epy Kusnandar) who promises immortality to his followers. I could tell where this was going as soon as I knew a cult was involved, and it seemed to lead to where I thought it would. But after that, there was still about 15 minutes left to go…and man, I was way off! Would you believe me if I said Kool-Aid was the least of the worries here? This segment has a ton of surprises, neatly horrific developments, and unforgettable additional elements that make it worth recommending for all genre fans, if they can take it.

Unfortunately, after that, we get to the weakest segment in the series: “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” from Jason Eisener (best-known for “Hobo With a Shotgun”). With a goofy fun-sounding title like that, I expected much more than what I got. Maybe it was because nothing could top “Safe Haven,” but I just wasn’t interested in this part at all. It’s fairly straightforward—teens have a sleepover, aliens invade, they try to get away, they get abducted, the end. Oh, and there’s a camera attached to a dog. It might be enjoyable for some, and it may not be fair comparing it to “Safe Haven” after all, but I expected a better end portion than this.

I recommend the film overall, but it really comes down to “Safe Haven.” It’s worth seeing just for its own insanely entertaining bit of craziness.

But then we take a step down in quality and quantity; the ultimate end of a promising horror franchise; the final nail in the coffin…

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V/H/S: Viral

Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“V/H/S: Viral” is not merely bad—it’s obnoxious. With the previous films, you could tell they were labors of love from indie filmmakers having fun with this style of “hyper-realistic” horror. But with this, you can tell it’s a feeble cash-grab attempt. I don’t feel any passion put into this at all, and everyone else seemed to agree with me, as no future “V/H/S” films were planned since this film’s release.

I think what this film is trying to say is that we’re all obsessed with viral videos and many members of our generation are looking to capture the next best online hit. I think (but I’m not sure, as the motivations are muddled at best) that was the intention of the wraparound story to present that message. But the result is so confused and baffling that it’s hard to find the sense in it. Even the ending, which should spell out what it means, left me scratching my head. But on the plus side, it made me feel better to know it was over and I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

From what I could gather, it’s about teens trying to make their own viral videos and weird things happen that endanger their lives…and that’s all I got.

There’s no structure of people finding VHS tapes and watching horrific shorts. It’s just a bunch of random shorts thrown in between this strange supposed-wraparound.

(Just to state up front—I won’t list any names of the directors of these segments. I like to think I’m doing them a favor.)

The first random short is “Dante the Great,” which is about a magician who obtains a mystical cloak that truly is magic and gives him unbelievable power, which goes to his head. His assistant has to confront him and fight him one-on-one and somehow gain the upper hand against his real magic. This actually would be a neat idea and the effects are decent, but its execution is all over the place. Sometimes, it’s shown as a documentary. But then there’s hidden camera footage that no one could have gotten. There’s cheating in “found-footage,” and then there’s this.

The second segment is “Parallel Monsters” is a little better. It has an intriguing concept of a guy unlocking a portal to another dimension and switching places with his counterpart, only to find that it’s not what he expected at all. What he finds is creepy enough and it leads to some effective imagery. But unfortunately, it ends on a disappointing note.

After the passable “Parallel Monsters,” we are then cursed with the most detestable part of the film: “Bonestorm,” about a bunch of loud, rude, crude, vulgar, obnoxious, detestable skateboarders who go to Mexico and fight off a bunch of cult members looking for a sacrifice (I think; it was hard to tell exactly what was happening). This is what got me over the edge, as I facepalmed myself and wondered if it was even worth sitting through the rest of this thing. But I faced it head-on, as painful as it was. “Bonestorm” was such an aggressively bad short. Its shot choices are repetitive and with no style put into it, making it painful to look at—even skateboard videos and video games have more style than this thing.

Even the message of the film makes no sense! I just realized that even though there’s this stupid wraparound story that’s supposed to talk about young people and their obsession with “going viral,” neither of these three segments have ANYTHING to do with that in the slightest! They’re just random shorts trying to recapture that spirit of the previous films and failing miserably. No thought went into this at all. “V/H/S: Viral” is a lazy, badly-done conclusion of a “trilogy” made by people who I would guess didn’t care for what it was going to be as much as how quickly they could turn it in. I hated this movie.

Left Behind (2014)

15 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: 1/2*

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The End is near.

That’s what I had to remind myself every few minutes as I was watching this film—“The end [of the movie] is near, the end [of the movie] is near…”

You would think that a disaster movie in which the priceless enigma known as Nicolas Cage (who can either be a very gripping actor or a wacky presence that brings most bad movies up a notch) desperately tries to find his family while also trying to land an airplane when the world is in shambles would at least be entertaining in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. But this re-adaptation of the popular “Left Behind” Christian book series is so lifeless and boring that it makes the original 2000 adaptation (starring Kirk Cameron) look like “Casablanca.” And unfortunately, Cage doesn’t help—he seems half-asleep throughout the entire movie, when all that could be done to raise this movie to entertaining levels is a trademark Cage freak-out performance.

It shocks me that this remake was directed by the director of the previous version, Vic Armstrong. It’s almost as if he was wondering how he could possibly make it even worse than before. Give the original film some credit—the political intrigue presented in the dawn-of-the-Antichrist story gave some indication that there was some effort to make it thought-provoking. This remake is just throwing “Airport”-type clichés in with fundamentalist Christian theologies repeated over and over to make sure we get the point.

And I’m not kidding—much of this movie consists of spelling out the evangelical Christian message that the Rapture is coming, the End is near, etc. and so on. It’s like the makers of this film want to remind us who made this piece of uninspired propaganda.

Oh, and there are a few car crashes, a prop plane crash, and a big explosion thrown in just to try and wake up the small audience outside its target demographic.

Oh right, the story. Well, Nicolas Cage is a pilot named Ray Steele, who is called into work on his birthday, just as his adult daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), arrives in town. Chloe believes her father is having an affair with a flight attendant, Hattie (Nicky Whelan), and tries to reconnect with her newly religious mother (Lea Thompson), but differing beliefs (and ignored warnings from mother to unaffiliated daughter) cause more friction between the two. The Rapture occurs while Cage’s plane is in mid-air and Chloe is taking her little brother to the mall. The brother is gone (in fact, all the children are gone all over), many passengers on the plane are gone, much of the townspeople have vanished as well, and it becomes clear to many that these disappearances have happened all over the world. Cage’s co-pilot has gone as well. With help from investigative journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray, who I’ll give credit to for trying to make something out of a nothing role), Cage tries to land the plane safely before the remaining, scared passengers go even crazier with paranoia.

“Left Behind” feels so proud of its portrayal of the first stage of the End (first is the Rapture, next is the Tribulation, and on and on until finally, Judgment Day) that it ends on a blatant cliffhanger. How blatant? Well, it ends with this exchange—“Looks like the end of the world.” “No. I’m afraid this is just the beginning.” I don’t think so. I sat through this thing, I don’t intend on sitting through it again, and I definitely don’t intend on seeing this story continue any further.

And to think this thing came out the same year as “Joe,” the film that reminded us how good of an actor Cage can be.

The Wind Rises (2014)

24 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Visionary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has claimed that “The Wind Rises” is his final film. It’s not the first time he’s made that statement, but this film truly is his last one, it’s a great one to end his extraordinary career with. It showcases the best of his abilities—it’s visually stunning, tells a good story, is beautiful in its own way, and is a truly terrific film. What else should I expect from the man who gave us such animated classics as “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Castle in the Sky,” among others?

Miyazaki wanted to try something different for his swansong, so he apparently decided to add his usual touches to a biography, loosely based on the life of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi who came up with the design of the Japanese Zero fighters, which were used in World War II. From that description alone, you may be thinking this is not a good thing. But the character has no political agenda—he dreams of creating something truly unique and innovative just like his idols. He wants nothing to do with war; he just wants to create.

The film doesn’t have a political agenda either—it’s merely a fable about dreams, creativity, and passion. Though the film doesn’t necessarily ignore the controversies involved, they’re not the central focus. Instead, the central focus is breaking new ground with technology and bringing something incredible to life.

“The Wind Rises” begins in post-WWI days, with Jiro as a teenager (voiced by Zach Callison) who would love to fly but his poor eyesight discourages him. (Even in his dreams, he ends up crashing a plane he’s piloting—a definite bad sign, as flying is one of the most common traits of dreams.) But he is truly fascinated by aircraft and reads up on an Italian aviator (Stanley Tucci), who often visits Jiro in his dreams, and learns that he never actually flies the planes he invents. This inspires Jiro to craft his own designs. As time goes by, Jiro (now voiced as an adult by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) follows his dream by helping to create one plane after another.

One of the best things about “The Wind Rises” is the way it explores the creative process. It takes us into Jiro’s imagination; his dreams and fantasies, in which he mostly converses with his heroes. The film also shows us how little things inspire him—shooting stars, debris being whisked off by the wind, and even something as small as the curve on a fish bone in his lunch inspire his ultimate design. There are realistic dialogue-based scenes in which Jiro talks about his inventions with fellow engineers and others, but for the most part, what we need to know about his passion for creating is told through his dreams and fantasies, which are beautifully realized and, being a Miyazaki film, visually amazing.

And speaking of “visually amazing,” I can’t neglect to talk about the best-animated sequence in the film, which is the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. It’s intense, impactful, and well-drawn, and the aftermath of the earthquake is effectively handled, presenting a dread that would of course come from such a disaster.

In addition to showing Jiro’s work, “The Wind Rises” is also a sweet romance, as Jiro meets Nahoko Satomi (Emily Blunt) years after he assisted her when she was injured in the earthquake. You could say destiny, the wind (which, if you notice, whooshes them toward each other), or both brought them together after they lost track of each other, but they become reacquainted, spend much time together, and eventually get married. But unfortunately, due to her tuberculosis, their relationship is doomed.

The film doesn’t lose sight of the characters, and given its visual inventiveness, that’s no small feat. We enjoy these characters, especially Jiro, whose likeability equals his passion, who we root for when he inventions fail and he constantly has to try again, and who we feel sorry for when people take what he sees as wonderful and original and use it for dangerous, horrible purposes. His goal was never to create a war machine—it was to develop something that no one else had before, even if, in the end, it resulted in the deaths of many, many people. It leads to a haunting, bittersweet ending in which Jiro takes in what his invention has done in the wrong hands—writing about it would decrease the film’s impact and meaning, so I’ll leave you to interpret for yourself what it means.

Disney made a wise choice in having Touchstone present “The Wind Rises” for North American distribution and the MPAA, who I usually mock, I have to give credit for rating it PG-13. It may be animated, but that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for children. The film is very much adult (that is to say, “mature”) in its storytelling and historical content, and I also think the earthquake sequence would be too intense for younger children to take. Miyazaki went out of his way to tell a great story, regardless of his target audience, which really should be those looking for visionary ingenuity. The result is one of the best animated films in recent years. Would this be the end of Miyazaki’s long career? We shall see, but this is a pretty impressive film to go out on—one of his absolute best.