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Movie Review: “Passengers”

Starring
Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Director
Morten Tyldum

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum may not be as flashy as some of the other filmmakers who’ve broken into Hollywood recently, but between his little-seen 2011 thriller “Headhunters” and his Oscar-winning drama “The Imitation Game,” it’s evident that he has serious chops behind the camera. Despite that past success, Tyldum’s latest project is easily his biggest movie to date – a heady slice of genre-hopping sci-fi developed from one of the hottest scripts in town and starring two of its most bankable stars. Though the film fails to reach its lofty ambitions, “Passengers” is still a surprisingly thought-provoking holiday release that’s biggest misstep is succumbing to the very formula that it works so hard to resist.

Sometime in the distant future, interstellar space travel has not only become a reality but a way for humans like blue-collar mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) to immigrate to other planets. Jim is one of 5,000 passengers traveling aboard the Starship Avalon, a luxury cruise liner currently en route to the colony world of Homestead II. The Avalon is just 30 years into its 120-year journey, however, when it sustains damage during a meteor storm that causes Jim’s hibernation pod to malfunction, waking him up 90 years too early. Stranded on the ship alone with no way to contact the sleeping crew and only a robotic bartender (Michael Sheen) to keep him company, Jim spends the next year slowly spiraling into depression until he becomes smitten with a fellow passenger named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and decides to wake her prematurely against his better judgement. Jim keeps his involvement a secret from Aurora at first, but as the two grow closer together over time, he becomes racked with guilt. Meanwhile, a larger threat looms in the background when the spaceship inexplicably begins to break down.

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Movie Review: “X-Men: Apocalypse”

Starring
James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Olivia Munn
Director
Bryan Singer

In 2000, director Bryan Singer launched the X-Men franchise (on a shoestring budget by today’s superhero movie standards), helping to pave the way for future comic book films. While the director’s first installment doesn’t completely hold up, especially in the visual effects department, it was a good example of how less can be more; the characters were more thrilling than the action. 16 years later, Singer’s third sequel “X-Men: Apocalypse” comes from the “more is more” school of thought, and though it’s his biggest X-Men film to date, it’s also his most disappointing.

The fifth sequel in the series takes place ten years after the events of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (although none of the characters have aged a day). Long before any of that happened, mutants ruled the world. En Sabah Nur, who sees himself as a God, is on his last days. As he prepares to take over one of his devoted follower’s (Oscar Isaac) bodies, he’s betrayed by the humans. His four (mutant) horseman do everything they can to protect him from the attack, and as a result, his body is left safely guarded underneath a demolished pyramid.

In 1983, En Sabah Nur awakens and is horrified by what the humans have done with his world. The powerful mutant believes the planet must be cleansed, and he recruits four new horsemen – Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Angel (Ben Hardy) – to assist him in building a new world. Only Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his young mutant students, including Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), can prevent En Sabah Nur and the four horsemen from destroying the planet.

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Movie Review: “Joy”

Starring
Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Elisabeth Röhm, Édgar Ramírez, Virgina Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd
Director
David O. Russell

David O. Russell has developed a repertory of players akin to “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy. Including Russell’s new film “Joy,” Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper have been in each of his last three films, while Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Elisabeth Rohm have been in two of his last four. Russell had some hiccups with actors early in his career (George Clooney and Lily Tomlin come to mind), so it’s nice to see that Russell has found the balance between the directorial process and ego management, and that is crucial to a director’s continued success. If you have a reputation for treating actors poorly, you will no longer have good actors auditioning for your films, or accepting your calls.

With “Joy,” Russell has a motherlode of talent ready to carry the weight, but his own script undercuts them. It begins with an “American Hustle”-style bolt of adrenaline, but it quickly shifts into ‘kick the shit out of Joy’ mode for the rest of the movie. Joy is dealt a terrible hand, and the movie’s message seems to be that that is why she became a success, that it was her awful family that gave her the drive to succeed. So for you parents out there who are encouraging their kids to think positive and believe in themselves, we’re all clearly doing it wrong. If you want your kids to be super-rich, you clearly have to raise them to be sociopaths.

Joy (Lawrence) was encouraged at an early age by her grandmother (Diane Ladd) that she was meant to use her creativity to do greater things for her horribly broken family. She has a half-sister Peggy (Rohm) from her father Rudy’s (De Niro) first marriage, and by the time Joy married singer Tony Miranne (Edgar Ramirez), Rudy was on his third marriage, which of course ended in divorce. Now divorced herself with two kids, Tony living in the basement, and her mother (Virginia Madsen) watching soap operas nearly nonstop, Joy has yet to act on her promise, until a moment on the boat of Rudy’s new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) gives Joy the idea of a lifetime: a mop that people can clean without touching the strands. Joy draws it up with the help of her daughter, and meets nothing but disapproval and resistance from the people who have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from her success.

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Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2”

Starring
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin
Director
Francis Lawrence

Amid the glut of YA book-to-film adaptations, “The Hunger Games” has always stood head and toe above the competition – a movie franchise that actually improved upon its source material by treating the audience with respect. That’s what makes “Mockingjay: Part 2” such a hard pill to swallow, because while it seemed like the stage was set for an exciting finale after the tedious third installment, it’s yet another incredibly slow burn that only highlights just how boring the final book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is. If anything good comes out of “Mockingjay: Part 2,” it’s that it will finally convince studios to stop dragging out these stories for the sake of their own greed.

The film picks up almost immediately after the events of the last movie. As Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) recovers from the brutal attack by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), rebel leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) plots her assault on the Capitol now that all 12 districts have been united under one cause. Katniss wants to go fight on the frontlines, but when Coin refuses because she’s too valuable to the rebellion, she sneaks into the Capitol on her own to assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Coin and her right-hand man, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), decide to use Katniss’ defiance to their advantage by assigning her to a specialized military unit – which also includes Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and a mentally unstable Peeta – to shoot more propaganda videos on the war-town streets of the city. With Capitol soldiers and deadly booby traps awaiting them at every turn, Katniss and company slowly make their way to Snow’s mansion. But as is usually the case with war, casualties are inevitable, and that’s something Katniss has difficulty accepting.

For a franchise that’s always relied on deliberately paced storytelling that gradually builds towards each film’s climax, “Mockingjay: Part 2” never really gets going. It hits all the major moments (including the countless deaths) within Collins’ grim novel, but there’s very little emotion to it, as if director Francis Lawrence is just ticking off boxes as he goes along. There are a couple of good action sequences once Katniss arrives in the Capitol, but while the story tries to replicate the feeling of being inside the arena with the addition of booby traps (called “pods”), it doesn’t provide the same thrill. In fact, it’s actually quite repetitive, as the second act is largely comprised of Katniss’ unit scanning for pods, safely activating said pods and resting for the night. Wash, rinse, repeat. Further compounding the lack of action is the monotony of the dialogue scenes, which dwell on the same issues (the love triangle, Peeta’s condition, Coin’s true intentions) over and over again.

“Part 1” may technically be the worst installment in the series, but at least that movie felt like a necessary evil in order to deliver a satisfying payoff in “Part 2,” which is why the latter is a much bigger disappointment. It doesn’t even have the strong performances to fall back on this time around, because with the exception of its main trio, no one else has very much to do. Julianne Moore fades into the background for most of the second half (likely due to some adjustments made as a result of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death), while Hoffman himself is in maybe two scenes total, his big speech at the end now awkwardly delivered by Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch via a letter that Plutarch penned. Even Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t appear particularly enthused about having to slog through this downer of a finale, and it’s hard to blame her, because instead of going out on the high note that the franchise and its loyal fans deserved, my first thought when the film ended was, “Thank God it’s finally over.”

  

Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”

Starring
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks
Director
Francis Lawrence

Upset over Lionsgate’s decision to release “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” as two films instead of one? Blame Harry Potter. That was the first movie franchise based on a popular book series to split its last installment into the dreaded two-part finale. But while that decision appeared to be made only partly due to studio greed (this was Harry Potter, after all, and it was an event meant to be celebrated and savored), every successful YA book-to-film adaptation since has taken it upon itself to use a similar strategy for no other reason than to squeeze more money out of moviegoers. The “Hunger Games” trilogy (except that it’s no longer a trilogy at all) is the latest series to go this route, and quite predictably, it’s resulted in a “Part 1” that’s almost completely void of excitement, proving once again why this model is never a good idea.

After being rescued from the Quarter Quell by a secret resistance group headed by former Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is transported to District 13 along with her fellow Tributes, Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and the survivors of District 12. It seems that Katniss’ actions in the last Hunger Games have stoked the flames of rebellion throughout Panem, and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) intends to use her as the figurehead for the revolution. Katniss agrees on a few conditions – namely, that they rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s being tortured and used by the Capitol as the voice against the resistance, as soon as possible – and begins filming a series of propaganda videos intended to recruit more soldiers for the war effort.

One of the biggest problems you typically run into with two-part finales like “Mockingjay” is that the filmmakers are no longer forced to think economically in terms of what material is essential to telling the story. Though it made sense to split up “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” due to the sheer size of J.K. Rowling’s book, “Mockingjay” doesn’t have that issue, especially when “Catching Fire” (which is the exact same length in book form) was adapted just fine into one movie. Add to that the fact that “Mockingjay” is hands-down the weakest entry in the series, and it was always going to be an uphill battle for director Francis Lawrence and writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig. There are some really powerful emotional beats littered throughout, but it often feels like Lawrence is just twiddling his thumbs in fear of getting too far ahead, with most of the film spent setting up the next installment. It’s a necessary slog in order to get to the good stuff (and one that fans of the Harry Potter and “Twilight” series will be all too familiar with), but it’s a slog all the same.

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