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





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





The Grey

30 01 2012

I’m usually pretty good at predicting when a movie is going to scare me. The sudden lack of music, the subtle shift of the camera, and the uttering of phrases like, “Is that it?” are all clues that suggest something is going to jump out at you.

The Grey, however, shocked me every time.

Starring Liam Neeson as John Ottway, The Grey isn’t strictly a scary movie. Instead, it’s a survival-horror story about men fighting for their lives after crash landing in the cold, desolate wilderness of northern Alaska.

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Ottway works on an oil rig deep in the Arctic Circle. Like many of his coworkers, he prefers to keep to himself. He keeps his head down and quietly does his job, which consists mainly of hunting wolves that try to prey on rig workers.

However, Ottway is dealing with some serious personal problems. His wife recently left him, driving him into a deep depression. He doesn’t see a reason to live anymore, and he contemplates suicide on a daily basis.

While flying home on leave, the plane carrying Ottway and his coworkers goes down, killing most passengers on board and stranding the survivors in the middle of nowhere. Ottway miraculously lives and, as the only person who knows how to survive in the wilderness, appoints himself leader of the ragtag group.

At this point, I was beginning to think that The Grey was just another plane crash movie. I began to make predictions: some of the survivors are going to die, others will live, and one person is going to make some heroic sacrifice that allows the final one or two men to make it to safety.

Fortunately, The Grey isn’t like any survival movie I’ve seen. Before the men have time to set up a campfire, they become surrounded by a pack of ravenous wolves. Ottway, the wolf expert, claims that wolves have a 300 mile hunting range and a 30 mile kill range around their den. If the plane crashed in the wolves’ hunting range, then they should allow the men to pass through.

You can guess what happens if they’re in the kill range.

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As the men struggle to outwit the wolves, the combination of desolate winter conditions and raw fear start to chip away at their sanity. Since The Grey made me jump more than most horror movies I’ve seen lately, the adrenaline starts to pump, and the audience ends up feeling like they are there with the men, huddled by a campfire fighting for survival.

Suddenly, each crack of a tree branch gets your heart racing, and each wolf howl sends chills down your spine. These scares force you to pay attention, and fortunately, The Grey is a movie that deserves your attention.

Fear does strange things to the men. Some crack immediately. Others drink. A few put up a mask of false confidence. And some, like Ottway, choose to fight. The motivation behind each character’s actions is revealed in a surprisingly subtle way, and director Joe Carnahan is able to draw plenty of emotions out of the audience by the time the movie concludes.

The characters approach their philosophy in a very ‘real’ way. The men don’t speak eloquently: they’re rig workers, not poets, after all, and this makes the entire storyline more relatable.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another survival-horror movie. But it’s not. With deep, moving characters and a compelling theme about struggling against all odds of survival, The Grey goes above and beyond what I expected of it.

Ultimately, it made me appreciate life a lot more, and it’s easy to see the entire storyline as a metaphor for survival against any adversity. No matter where you are in life, that adversity is something we can all relate to.

4.5 stars out of 5

 

 





Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

23 01 2012

When watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, you’re going to want to do one of two things: press the fast forward button, or press the rewind button.

Those who enjoy it will want to rewind to catch up on any scenes that they may have missed, while those who dislike it will be waiting a tortuously long time for the movie to end.

Most spy movies (I’m looking at you, James Bond and Jason Bourne) have lots of guns, girls, car chases, and explosions. Unfortunately, the real world of espionage isn’t quite as entertaining. Instead of constant action, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy features middle-aged men sitting in a soundproofed room arguing whose source is better.

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Shut up. My source is better.

Obviously, each type of movie has its audience, and if you’re not willing to sit through 2 hours of dialogue – as good as that dialogue may be – then you shouldn’t see this movie.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is based on a 1974 novel by John Le Carré. It’s the Cold War, and there is a mole within the very upper ranks of Britain’s MI6 spy agency. A former spy, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is brought out of retirement in order to investigate.

Since the mole is supposedly placed in the very highest echelon of MI6, it can only be one of four different people. These men are code-named Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Poor Man. Smiley’s investigation forces him to revisit his past, and the plot twists and turns, and then twists some more, to eventually reach its conclusion.

It’s the kind of movie that rewards those who pay close attention and harshly punishes those who don’t. Brief, five-second scenes can have a profound impact on your understanding of the plot, and you can’t afford to let your mind wander.

Turning a classic novel into a 2-hour film is undoubtedly a challenge, which explains why the film version is so densely plotted. Where other directors might have lengthened it to 2.5 or 3 hours, Tomas Alfredson is able to squeeze it all into a relatively short timeframe.

Gary Oldman’s performance deserves to be mentioned, and his portrayal of the lead character, Smiley, is completely convincing. Smiley doesn’t speak very often, and the audience is forced to rely on minute facial expressions and body language in order to fully appreciate the character.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was released in a selected number of North American theatres a few weeks ago, and the general release was delayed until this past weekend. After watching it, I can understand why: while it will appeal to some people, modern audiences may be frustrated by its slow pacing and unforgiving plot density.

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Ultimately, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a movie that you will either love or hate. If you pay enough attention to understand what is going on, then you will be rewarded with a powerful character piece and an engaging, intelligent storyline.

If, on the other hand, your attention lapses for a few minutes, and you suddenly have no idea why anybody is doing anything, then you’re going to wish you had seen a movie like Haywire or Contraband tonight. Like I said, each movie has its audience.

In an age where studios often choose glitzy and brainless movies over powerful and intelligent ones, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a refreshing change from the norm. If you feel like giving your brain a bit of a workout, then Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one to watch.

4 stars out of 5





The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

3 01 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the best movies of 2011. Set in Sweden and carrying a distinctly dark tone, it features strong acting from its lead actors and an extremely engaging narrative.

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a magazine editor in Stockholm. After being convicted of libel in one of his recent articles, he feels the need to take a break. Fortunately, a wealthy industrialist, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) has heard about his investigative skills and enlists him to write a memoir.

However, this is no average memoir: Vanger’s family is extraordinarily strange and has a dark past. Specifically, his niece Harriet disappeared from the family’s island in the 1960s. Her body was never found, and it was a clear turning point in Vanger’s professional and personal life.

In order to write the memoir, Blomkvist needs to find out what happened to Harriet. The narrative that follows winds its way through Sweden and other parts of Europe, and the movie becomes darker as Blomkvist digs up more and more dirt on the Vanger family’s history.

While much of the movie revolves around Blomkvist, the true heroine is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who, as you may have guessed, has a dragon tattoo on her back. She’s an expert investigator with a perfect photographic memory. Sadly, she doesn’t often put it to good use.

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That changes when Daniel Craig invites her to aid in the investigation of Harriet’s disappearance. Her hacking skills are particularly useful for this case, and the pair quickly find themselves unravelling a devastating family secret.

Lisbeth is a thoroughly unique character, and she ends up being the most interesting part of the movie.

In the eyes of the government, Lisbeth is a social outcast. This is a problem because Lisbeth is a ward of the state, and she depends on government welfare in order to survive. They see her as being unfit to manage her own life, and strictly limit her welfare payments.

Director David Fincher is a master at portraying dark themes. This was seen most notably in The Social Network and Fight Club, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is no different. The long, dark Swedish nights provide an ideal backdrop on which to frame the storyline, and Fincher expertly controls the dark mood and theme throughout.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has something else in common with The Social Network: Trent Reznor scored it. In both movies, the music does an excellent job of giving tense scenes an extra jolt of intensity, and draws out emotion when needed.

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The musical score is often undervalued. However, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’s noticeably good.

There are so many good reasons to watch this movie. The fantastic storytelling will keep you guessing to the end, while the character of Lisbeth is equally as engaging. The top-notch acting, directing, and musical score are the cherries on top.

It’s a movie that deserves to be seen – as long as you’re over 18. The 18A rating is warranted, as the movie contains an infamously graphic rape scene and very mature themes.

Good, dark mystery movies are a rarity these days. Having not read the book, I didn’t know what to expect. To say I left the theatre pleasantly surprised would be an understatement.

4.5 stars out of 5





Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol

3 01 2012

There are a lot of bad action movies out there, and there are a few good ones.

Fortunately, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is one of the good ones

Featuring Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, it has just the right blend of ridiculous action and gripping drama to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, but manages to retain its unique Mission Impossible identity and humour along the way.

The storyline, at first, seems just as silly as other Mission Impossible movies. Ethan’s primary target is an individual named Cobalt, whose goal is to antagonize Russia and the United States into global nuclear warfare.

This plotline has already been played out in video games like Call of Duty, but fortunately, Ghost Protocol introduces its own twists and turns into the mix.

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Ultimately, what starts off as an average action movie turns into a surprising international thriller that keeps audiences guessing throughout. The storyline picks up steam along the way, and the plot meanders – in an easily understandable way – to its exciting conclusion.

After a bomb goes off in the Kremlin, the President of the United States initiates ‘Ghost Protocol’, which pins the bombing on Ethan and his team, who must then escape from the elite special forces teams of both Russia and the United States (among other interested parties).

This mission takes them to a number of remarkable locales, including the Kremlin and the United Arab Emirates. These locations help keep the action fresh throughout the movie, and feature some particularly scene-stealing moments along the way.

Tom Cruise, who performed many of his own stunts in the film, is seen at one point leaping from the tallest building in the world, the Burj-al-Khalifa in Dubai. Since the camera follows his character, Ethan, while he is attached with only a terrifyingly small rope, scenes like this help to put the audience in the midst of the action.

Of course, what would a Mission Impossible movie be without a few devices to guide the team along its way? To make the job easier, the team is equipped with tools that seem to do everything. From turning off cameras to hacking into complex government databases, there is no job that these magical devices cannot do.

But in that respect, I suppose Ghost Protocol is simply continuing a legacy left by the three Mission Impossible movies before it: using insanely advanced technology to beguile every enemy that stands in Ethan’s way.

Fortunately, this technology makes for some pretty cool scenes, like the one where Ethan uses an iPad to automatically film the surrounding environment, displaying it on a portable screen that fills up a hallway in order to mask his presence. Sure, it may be overt product placement, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

Interspersed within these moments are scenes with complete self-realization: the creators of the Mission Impossible franchise know exactly what people like about their movies, and they use that knowledge to their full advantage.

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In one scene, for example, Ethan is considering whether or not to jump forty feet into a pile of garbage. The person chasing him – an evil Russian – comically waggles his eyebrows suggesting he do it. Instead, Ethan takes off his belt, latches it onto a conveniently placed wire, and slides down onto the top of a van before tumbling off awkwardly onto the concrete.

Moments like this separate Mission Impossible from other movies of its ilk. Instead of taking itself too seriously, Ghost Protocol provides that silly action that keeps movie audiences entertained, while still retaining those compelling plot pieces that prevent us from completely dismissing its storyline.

You may not always know what he’s doing, but Ethan Hunt and his team rarely fail to entertain. Whether you see the film for its crazy stunts or the exotic locales, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is certainly an action movie to remember.

4 stars out of 5