Lockout

18 04 2012

Going into the movie theatre, I didn’t expect much from Lockout. From the trailers, it looks like it has all the elements of a traditional action movie. That usually means a predictable plot, boring characters, and lots of explosions.

After watching Lockout, I was pleasantly surprised. While it does have lots of explosions, both the plot and characters are a cut above the average action movie.

Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is the President’s daughter who plays the damsel in distress. After embarking on a humanitarian mission to an experimental outer space prison, her life is put into danger when the prisoners stage a riot.

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"This is going to sound weird, but I need to stick this into your eye later in the movie"

There’s only one person who can save her, and that’s lead character Snow (Guy Pearce). Snow used to work with the Special Forces before becoming a ‘loose cannon’. He’s a risky asset, but he’s America’s only hope. How many times have we heard that one before?

Emilie’s life is in grave danger. After all, she is trapped in a prison surrounded by 500 angry men who have just been set free.

Oh, and did I mention that the outer space prison causes the men to develop psychosis and dementia?

Clearly, time is of the essence, and Snow fights his way through the prison in an effort to reach Emilie. Finding her is the easiest part: the hard part is escaping.

Lockout’s traditional plot is saved by a strong lead character. Snow is funny, arrogant, and abrasive, but still manages to be likeable. He has a witty one-liner for any situation and never seems to be caught by surprise. By the end of the movie, I realized he was one of the most entertaining action heroes I’ve seen in recent years.

I also liked Lockout’s self-deprecating attitude. Yes, it’s a cookie-cutter action movie in many respects, but it isn’t afraid to poke fun of itself for that.

In one scene, a Secret Service agent sacrifices himself in order to save the president’s daughter. They are stuck in an airtight chamber that is quickly running out of oxygen. After he shoots himself, the oxygen levels in the room jump back up (science doesn’t play a big role in this movie).

Usually when people sacrifice themselves in action movies to save a buddy, it’s meant to be a tear-jerking moment. In that scene, it felt almost comical, and I can’t help but feel that scenes like this were deliberately sarcastic.

This guy has the most terrifying Irish accent I have ever heard

There’s also a car chase that looks so bad that it needs to be seen to be believed. I think Lockout’s special effects crew had used up their entire budget on shots of the massive space station before realizing that they had one more scene to do. Thankfully, the chase is less than 20 seconds long.

If you look closely, there are even a few homages to Star Wars: A New Hope in Lockout. How do you dislike a movie that pays subtle tribute to a classic like that?

Lockout is a light-hearted way to spend an evening. Its lead character walks a fine line between irritating and hilarious, and there are more funny scenes than there are tense ones. While it still fits firmly into the mould of a traditional action movie, Lockout is well aware of that at all times, and it rarely misses an opportunity to make fun of itself.

If you like an action movie with less intensity and more humor, then Lockout is one to see. It’s cheesy action at its finest.

3.5 stars out of 5





American Reunion

10 04 2012

People view their high school days as being a lot more fun than they actually were. We remember the good times much better than the bad times. Instead of remembering acne, changing hormones, and homework, we remember partying, friendship, and young love.

The American Pie series has always been there to remind us of what we didn’t do in high school. Or at least what we wished we did in high school.

Now that the guys from the original American Pie have grown up, they wish nothing more than to return to their high school days. Careers and babies have made their lives more complicated than ever before and ‘the real world’ sure isn’t as fun as it was supposed to be.

That all changes when, for one weekend, the graduates of East Great Falls High School get to celebrate their 13 year reunion. Personally, I haven’t heard of any grad class celebrating their 13 year reunion, but I guess somebody decided that 2012 was a good time to make another American Pie movie.

The characters that we grew up with in the first three American Pie movies all head back to their hometown for one crazy weekend of partying. Jim and Michelle, Oz, Kevin, Finch, and, of course, Stifler, are all in attendance, and numerous cameos are made by other minor cast members.

To say the American Pie series is good at creating awkward moments would be a huge understatement. Awkward moments are the series’ bread and butter, and American Reunion doesn’t disappoint in that category.

Jim is particularly unlucky. One hilariously awkward scene had Jim driving a drunk 18 year old girl home. During the drive, she takes off her clothes, throws them out the window, and passes out in his lap. He is faced with a decision: drop the naked girl off at home, or get his friends to distract her parents while he sneaks her into the upstairs bedroom.

Guess which one he chooses.

Of course, there are also plenty of awkward conversations between father and son about the birds and the bees. Where would the American Pie movies be without that? Eugene Levy is once again perfect as that dad who likes to tell awkward sex stories.

Basically, if you’ve seen the first few movies, then you know exactly what to expect. American Reunion knows how to create the most hilariously awkward situations, and I was laughing nearly the entire time.

The movie does slow down a bit when we watch characters like Jim and Michelle try to solve their marriage problems. No matter how much you care about the characters in a comedy movie, it’s just not that fun to watch two adults argue over who gets to change the baby’s diaper.

Thankfully, these moments don’t take up a lot of time.

This isn’t the end of the American Pie series. As the guys part ways at the end of the movie, they promise to make their reunion an annual event. If those inevitable sequels can continue to walk the line between raunchiness and hilarity, then I expect I will enjoy them just as much.

If you’ve seen the other movies in the series, then you know exactly what to expect from American Reunion: raunchy humour, awkward moments, and plenty of nudity. It’s a great way to remember all the stupid things you didn’t do while you were a teenager.

4 stars out of 5





Wrath of the Titans

3 04 2012

If I rated movies based on visual effects alone, then Wrath of the Titans would get 5 stars out of 5.

Unfortunately, movies need a lot more than special effects to be entertaining, and Wrath of the Titans never concerns itself with things like character development, plot, or intelligent dialogue. Instead, it’s all about top-notch special effects and ridiculous Greek-on-god action. For some, that may not be a bad thing.

If you missed the first movie in the ‘Titans’ series (2010’s Clash of the Titans), then it’s easy to get caught up. Perseus (Sam Worthington) is the half-human, half-god son of Zeus (Liam Neeson). After slaying a kraken in the first film, he has chosen to settle down and enjoy life as a simple fisherman.

Zeus interrupts his son’s peaceful lifestyle when the legendary god Kronos starts trying to escape from his underworld dungeon. Hades and Ares have already switched allegiances and sided with Kronos, while Zeus, Poseidon, and Perseus are alone in their fight for humanity’s survival.

So no, if you were wondering, Wrath of the Titans is not based on a true story.

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Perseus and his friends dodge, duck, dip and dive their way through all sorts of perilous adventures, and Perseus should have been killed about three hundred different times by the time the credits roll. At one point, his head smashes through ten different stone pillars, after which he gets up and kills his assailant. I guess having strong bones is one of many benefits of being the son of Zeus.

The entire movie is about humans facing impossibly long odds. At one point, the characters travel through a labyrinth with “one million” different pathways to take. Along the way, they’re fighting gods who have Jedi-like abilities and are impervious to normal weapons.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot because, as I mentioned above, it’s pretty forgettable. The most important thing the plot does is create situations where the film can show off some amazing special effects.

One of the visual highlights occurs when the characters travel to the island of Chaos, a dense coastal rainforest guarded by deadly booby traps and several frighteningly large Cyclopses. The creepiness of the forest comes to life, and watching massive, shadowy humanoid shapes approach out of the fog is eerie, to say the least.

Frequent readers of my column will know that I’m not a big fan of 3D. In most movies, it’s a frivolous addition that contributes little entertainment value to the film – and a lot of money to the pockets of film producers (I’m looking at you, Justin Bieber 3D).

Fortunately, Wrath of the Titans changed my opinion on 3D – at least for 99 minutes. It uses 3D in spectacular fashion, and seeing a Cyclops face burst out at the audience from behind a log is both chilling and exhilarating.

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Kronos, the legendary father of Zeus. Yes, they get to fight this thing.

The 3D technology works particularly well when exploring some of the fantastic environments constructed for the film – like the massive underground cavern of Tartarus or the impossibly complex labyrinth. The camera frequently zooms away from the characters to give the audience some perspective, and it’s easy to feel like you’re in an IMAX theatre as you fly through the worlds of Greek mythology.

Kronos, the legendary god imprisoned underground, caps off the special effects showcase. The final battle has him towering over a puny Greek army, throwing lava at anybody who stands in his path. Larger than a mountain, Kronos is a walking volcano, and he is truly terrifying to behold.

The visual effects are great, but everything else is below average. Even average action movies give you a reason to cheer for the protagonist, and that aspect was sorely lacking in this movie.

Wrath of the Titans earns 5 stars in the special effects department, but just 1 star for everything else. What does that average out to?

2.5 stars out of 5 





The Hunger Games

26 03 2012

I like stories that try to stand out from the crowd. It seems like too many books nowadays are focused on copying the same formula in order to generate mass appeal.

Fortunately, The Hunger Games is far from formulaic. Instead of edging away from controversial topics – like watching 12-year olds kill each other with swords – it tackles them head-on. It’s a refreshing shift from the norm, and the movie adaptation is entertaining from start to finish.

The Hunger Games are an annual event in Panem, which is what North America is called in the future after some apocalyptic event destroyed most of our continent. The audience doesn’t learn much about Panem during the movie, but it’s just enough to whet the appetite and leave you wanting more.

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What we do know is that there are 12 districts surrounding the Capital. Life in these districts is primitive and short: food is scarce and modernization is far away. Meanwhile, the Capital is futuristic and overflowing with luxuries.

Every year, one boy and one girl are chosen at random from each of the 12 districts. Their prize? Getting the opportunity to kill other boys and girls in some sort of virtual arena. Citizens of the Capital love the Games and see them as a massive sporting event, while citizens in the districts live in constant fear of being chosen.

When I say ‘arena’, I don’t mean something like the Coliseum in Rome. The arena chosen for this year’s Hunger Games is a large, densely packed forest. The contestants must fight against the elements and each other in order to survive. With boys attacking girls, girls attacking boys, and makeshift alliances being formed, it’s kind of like a hardcore version of Survivor.

The premise is cool, but what else does The Hunger Games bring to the table?

Well, for starters, it has characters that are both relatable and easy to love. It isn’t difficult to sympathize with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from the moment we meet her. She acts selflessly to protect her mother and her younger sister, and after her father died at an early age, it’s up to Katniss to lead her struggling family.

After Katniss’ younger sister is chosen to represent District 12 at the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers in her stead. She travels to the capital for several days of training before being sent into the Arena. The plot really starts to heat up at this point, and it’s interesting to see how each character copes with the extraordinary situation. Twenty-four boys and girls enter, but only one can leave.

The film shies away from making any grandiose statements on war, reality TV, or anything else about our current society. There are certainly deeper themes, but thankfully, they’re not forced upon the audience.

Interestingly enough, Suzanne Collins got the idea to write her trilogy after flipping between channels showing the Iraq war and a reality TV show. After the two images became disturbingly blurred in her mind, she knew she was onto something.

Feel free to make your own interpretations, but The Hunger Games never feels like anything more than a pure adventure movie – and that’s a good thing.

I liked pretty much everything about The Hunger Games. I like the setting of Panem, the characters, and the extraordinary odds which they all face as they struggle for survival. As I left the theatre, I realized that I didn’t feel like reading the books: I needed to read the books.

4.5 stars out of 5





21 Jump Street

19 03 2012

Call me strange, but I’ve never been a big fan of buddy cop films. Between the car chases, explosions, and other clichés, something always seems missing – an emotional connection. If I don’t care about the relationship between these two guys, why am I going to care about the rest of the movie?

21 Jump Street is a refreshing shift from the norm. The two lead characters, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) were raised on a steady diet of buddy cop comedies. While going through police school together, they fantasized about shooting down drug lords after graduation.

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Instead, they end up bicycling around a local park telling homeless people to stop relieving themselves in ponds. And they’re not even very good at it: Jenko is a dumb, athletic jock while Schmidt is nerdy. They make for a clueless combination.

After an arrest goes wrong (Jenko told the perpetrator that he had the right to suck a d*ck instead of the right to remain silent), the chief of police sends the pair to a new undercover division called 21 Jump Street.

The goal of this new division is to infiltrate local high schools and limit the supply of a new synthetic drug. That drug has already killed one student, and the chief of the division, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) wants to find the supplier before it gets out of control. Seven years after their own senior prom, Jenko and Schmidt are headed back to high school for a victory lap.

They dress like teenagers, move back in with Schmidt’s parents, and try to fit in with the cool kids. At this point, the movie could have quickly degenerated into a jumble of awkward scenes involving grown men trying to relate with high school kids.

Fortunately, this never happened. While there are plenty of awkward moments, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum steal the show with their happy-go-lucky attitude and crazy antics.

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One highlight is when the pair is forced to ingest the new drug during classtime. What follows is an afternoon of mayhem. They start tripping while talking to a teacher whose head appears to be a melting chocolate ice cream cone. In band class, Jenko dives through a big drum while his classmates watch in confusion.

I’ve never liked watching Tatum in drama movies. I know girls like him for his pretty face, but I’ve always felt that his acting ability was lacking. That being said, he is perfectly suited for his role as Jenko, the dumb jock. Watching him fight crime side by side with Schmidt manages to stay fresh and entertaining throughout the movie, and he’s a surprisingly funny guy.

Lately, the buddy cop comedy genre has been particularly bereft of quality films. Remember The Other Guys? That has been the only standout over the last few years, and it wasn’t even that good.

21 Jump Street is different. It makes you care about the characters involved, and by the time the credits roll, you realize that 21 Jump Street is basically everything you would want from a comedy movie: entertaining characters, plenty of laughs, and even a few explosions and car chases.

A lot of movies end with a hint at a possible sequel. 21 Jump Street basically makes an official announcement that next time around, Schmidt and Jenko are going undercover at college. If it manages to recapture the magic of the first movie, then 21 Jump Street 2 will definitely be one to see.

4 stars out of 5





John Carter

13 03 2012

If you liked Avatar and Star Wars, then you might like John Carter. While it’s not as good as either of those movies, it heavy-handedly tells an epic story about a 19th century Civil War veteran’s trip to Mars.

The storyline is actually adapted from a series of eleven books by a man named Edgar Rice Burroughs. Published in 1917, Burroughs’ work is considered the forerunner of many modern science fiction stories. His first novel, called A Princess of Mars, forms the basis for this movie.

As you may have guessed from the title of the book, John Carter is set on Mars. In the movie, the characters call the planet ‘Barsoom’. It stars Kelowna-born Taylor Kitsch as the title character, a former Confederate soldier who stumbles upon a strange cave in the deserts of 19th century Arizona. Instead of finding gold nuggets, he finds a key that takes him to Mars.

Conveniently enough, Mars and 19th century Arizona are not all that different from one another. At least, not at first glance. They’re both dry, barren deserts that seem devoid of any major settlements.

However, it doesn’t take long for John Carter to meet up with a group of twelve-foot tall barbarian aliens with four arms called the Tharks. Just like the Anasazi in Arizona, these aliens have carved a dramatic looking city out of the sides of a cliff.

That’s not all that the Anasazi and the Tharks have in common. They’re also being pushed out of their land by white men with frightening technology. The two human cities on Mars have been battling for thousands of years, and a dangerous new technology threatens to give one group the upper hand.

John Carter arrives just as this battle is reaching its climax. One group has proposed to end the conflict by marrying a princess (Lynn Collins) to a prince. This seems like a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but, as the movie explains, one group has hidden intentions that threaten to destabilize the planet.

John Carter eventually gets wrapped up in this plot and makes an effort to rescue the princess from her unwanted marriage.

The plot shouldn’t be difficult to follow, but something about the storytelling makes it so. Some key aspects of the plot – like what exactly this strange new weapon can do – are never fully explained. None of the villains are ever fleshed out, and it’s difficult to figure out the reasoning behind many of the characters’ actions.

Fortunately, the storytelling is overshadowed by some fantastic visuals. The human and alien societies are especially interesting to look at. Stunning panoramas reveal massive Martian cities set against the desert background. Unfortunately, these societies are never investigated as fully as in movies like Avatar.

Releasing the movie in 3D was a poor decision. It is used so subtly that it never really adds anything to the movie. And, to make things worse, 3D tends to make many scenes appear darker than they actually are, as if viewing the movie through thin gauze.

This is particularly noticeable in any scenes that take place at night. And unfortunately, some of the most intense moments of the movie occur at night, making it difficult to follow the action. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good 3D movie, and after watching John Carter, I still think that 3D has a long ways to go before I start to like it.

Like most Disney movies, John Carter has some cute and funny moments, as well as several thrilling action sequences. However, the storytelling and dialogue always seems to miss the mark.

Ultimately, the plotline behind John Carter seems interesting and epic. Unfortunately, Disney’s take on it doesn’t quite live up to the standards it sets for itself. The fantastic visuals and otherworldly setting can’t make up for poor dialogue and heavy-handed storytelling, and John Carter needs a few major tweaks before it can compare itself with films like Star Wars or Avatar.

3 stars out of 5





Project X

6 03 2012

Parents should stay far, far away from Project X.

In fact, anybody who cares about the safety of teenagers should avoid this one. Featuring absurd amounts of alcohol, ecstasy, and cleavage, Project X is the most ridiculous movie of the year thus far.

It starts off a lot like Superbad (I can’t help but compare every teenage party movie to that comedy classic). Three teenagers are tired of being loners at school, so they throw a birthday party that people will never forget.

Thomas, the birthday boy, hosts the party while his parents are out of town for the weekend. His parents tell him he can have four or five friends over, and Thomas agrees. Meanwhile, he tells his friend at school to invite a maximum of 50 people.

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Unfortunately, Thomas’ friend Costa, the chief organizer of the party, tells everybody he knows about the party, including local radio stations, colleges, and even Craigslist. By the time word of the party has spread, over 2000 people show up.

What follows is complete mayhem.

People start jumping off roofs into the pool. A pint-sized security guard tazes a neighbour who shows up to shut the party down. A dog even floats away on a bunch of balloons at one point while somebody yells “It’s like Up!”

To list all of the crazy activities here would spoil the movie, because that is the only content that Project X has. There’s no plot, no meaningful characters, and no semblance of realism. It’s just a bunch of drunken party scenes scrambled together to form a movie.

That’s not really a bad thing, since Project X has plenty of funny moments. The dialogue isn’t always clever, but it’s an accurate reflection of teenage humour, and the bantering between the three best friends is entertaining to watch.

With insults about fat people and mothers flying back and forth between the trio, it’s clear to see that Project X is designed for those who appreciate adolescent humour and slapstick comedy.

However, as funny as Project X can be, it has some serious and unforgivable faults.

First of all, this movie is going to be a nightmare for people trying to limit drug and alcohol consumption in high schools. At one point, somebody plays baseball with a garden gnome that was stolen from a drug dealer (don’t ask). After the gnome shatters into pieces, ecstasy tablets fly everywhere.

In a movie that tries to cross the line at many points, this was the only time I felt that that Project X pushed things too far. It’s uncomfortable watching hundreds of teenagers swarm onto the ground and pop ecstasy onto their tongues like candy.

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Hey kids, when you give ecstasy to 17 year old girls, they take off their clothes!

Second, most party movies suffer from one major problem: it’s more fun to throw a party yourself than it is to watch other people have one. It’s hard to live vicariously through any of the characters when you don’t even know their names, and no matter how ‘epic’ the party is, there’s nothing like being there.

Every party movie has this problem to some degree. However, since Project X is basically 90 minutes of party footage, this problem is especially noticeable.

I’ve never been to a party like the one seen in Project X, and I don’t think I ever want to. Somewhere between the cars driving into pools, the fireworks going off, and the random flamethrower attacks, I think I would die if I had gone to this party.

If you’ve seen the trailers, then you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into: a raunchy party movie with lots of boobs, booze, and bawdy behaviour. If you like watching other people have a really good time, then you’re going to love this movie.

3 stars out of 5