Frozen: She’s As Cold As Ice

by Ethan Alter November 27, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Frozen</i>: She’s As Cold As Ice

In 1989, an aquatic princess named Ariel lifted Disney out of its decade-long doldrums, ushering in a new period of creative and commercial success for the once-dominant brand in family animated entertainment. Two decades later, a well-coiffed royal scion named Rapunzel performed a similar feat, righting the Mouse House's course after it struggled to find its sea legs in a new (and largely computer animated) family entertainment landscape dominated by companies like DreamWorks, Blue Sky and, of course, Pixar. And so the hugely enjoyable Tangled beget the equally enjoyable Wreck It Ralph, which in turn beget Frozen, a spirited romp through a traditional Disney princess narrative that ultimately tweaks the formula in ways that make it exciting and new.

Oldboy: It’s Not Terrible, Guys!

by Ethan Alter November 27, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Oldboy</i>: It’s Not Terrible, Guys!

If somebody had to remake Oldboy, I'm glad it was Spike Lee. Arriving a full decade after Park Chan-wook's original film warped peoples' fragile little minds, setting off the South Korean New Wave in the process, this Americanized version is a surprisingly faithful re-do at least in terms of the general arc of the plot. Once again, a drunkard (Josh Brolin this time) wakes up from night of alcohol-fueled revelry to find himself locked in a hotel room, where he proceeds to spend the next twenty years of his life. When he's unexpectedly released one day, he embarks on a mission of vengeance that takes him to some dark, messed-up places that if you've seen the original you already know about and if you haven't, I'm not about to ruin it for you. Where the film establishes its own identity, however, is in its style; while Chan-wook's Oldboy constantly teeters on the edge of the absurd -- finally tipping over in the final act -- Lee rushes full-bore into Crazytown early on and the results are fun to watch, even when Oldboy 2.0 threatens to dissolve into a blood-red puddle of pure ridiculousness.

The Hunger Games – Catching Fire: Now This Is More Like It

by Ethan Alter November 21, 2013 11:55 pm
<i>The Hunger Games – Catching Fire</i>: Now <i>This</i> Is More Like It

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire instantly goes on the short list of sequels that not only surpass the original film, but the source material as well. (For the record, I'd also put the second James Bond outing From Russia with Love and Peter Jackson's thrilling distillation of The Two Towers in that rarefied air.)

Thor: The Dark World: It’s Hammer Time, Again

by Ethan Alter November 8, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Thor: The Dark World</i>: It’s Hammer Time, Again

The original Thor was a timid movie made by a timid studio, still uncertain how fantastical they could make their superhero spectacles lest audiences revolt. That's why the title character -- a godlike being who hails from the otherworldly realm of Asgard -- spent so much time on boring old Earth, where he engaged in lots of lame fish-out-of-water comedy, middling action set-pieces that all seemed to occur in the same three-block radius of a fake, set-bound town and a chemistry-free romance with a visibly bored female lead. So whatever its flaws, Thor: The Dark World leaps and bounds over its predecessor simply due to the fact that it embraces, rather than runs from, its fantasy origins. Much like Thor himself, Marvel has matured since their early days (banking more than $600 million on an unprecedented superhero team-up movie helps with the growing-up process) and is now more willing to take chances, trusting that audiences are with them for the long haul.

All Is Lost: The Sea Will Probably Kill Ya

by Ethan Alter October 18, 2013 6:00 am
<i>All Is Lost</i>: The Sea Will Probably Kill Ya

After his acclaimed directorial debut Margin Call, a movie that was awash in talk (specifically of the Wall Street variety) writer/director J.C. Chandor throws out a change-up with his sophomore effort, All is Lost, where nary a word is spoken. Instead, the majority of the sounds heard during this filmed sea voyage, aside from a stringently-used score, are elemental: the lapping waves, the howling winds, the breathing of the nameless lone sailor (Robert Redford) and -- in some of the most affecting moments -- the simple sound of silence. To paraphrase the immortal words of Missus Mia Wallace, that's how you know when you've found a special movie: when it can just shut the eff up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.

Machete Kills: Oops, He Did It Again

by Ethan Alter October 11, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Machete Kills</i>: Oops, He Did It Again

If Robert Rodriguez decides to stop helming features -- and, based on Machete Kills, he really should -- he's got a big future ahead of him as a director of trailers. The guy is truly gifted at cutting two-minute assemblies of bad-ass money shots and surprise superstar cameos that get you supremely pumped for the movies, which almost inevitably disappoint by comparison. In fact, pretty much every film he's ever made (with the exception of the first two Spy Kids outings as well as his underrated high school teens vs. alien teachers flick The Faculty) plays best as a coming attraction, a format that allows him to fully indulge what he does best (cool action beats, gonzo one-shot gags and gorgeous actresses striking pin-up girl poses) without having to sweat the stuff he has little to no interest in, like storytelling or world-building.

Gravity: Something in the Air

by Ethan Alter October 4, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Gravity</i>: Something in the Air

Considering the title, it's somehow appropriate that Alfonso Cuarón's outer space thriller, Gravity, boasts the most buoyant opening sequence I've seen all year. And I'm not just talking about the space-assisted buoyancy of the central characters, medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who we meet hundreds of miles above the Earth as they're repairing a busted board on the Hubble space telescope. No, the tone of the entire sequence is what's so light and cheery; while Ryan fiddles with the Hubble, Matt floats in a wide arc around the construction site with the aid of a jet pack -- Cuarón's camera gracefully following his path without a visible cut -- cracking wise and sharing stories of his past adventures in the final frontier. All the while, Earth is looming in the background below (and sometimes above) them, beatifically beaming like an oversized nightlight. Simply put, it's a majestic scene, one that rekindles the romance of space travel that's been lost in both movies and real life over the decades. It also provides audiences with an idyllic moment of peace before things start to go wrong.

The Grandmaster: It’s Good, Not Grand

by Ethan Alter August 23, 2013 5:52 am
<i>The Grandmaster</i>: It’s Good, Not Grand

Putting the "art" back into martial arts cinema, Wong Kar Wai's eagerly awaited The Grandmaster is yet another sumptuously photographed tale of romantic longing from one of the current grandmasters of love-found-and-lost stories. This time, though, the yearning is punctuated by high kicks and lightning-fast punches since the would-be lovers in question are a pair of martial arts wizards. In one corner, you've got Ip Man (the director's regular leading man, Tony Leung) a real-life fighting legend and grandmaster of the Wing Chun discipline, who lived through the Japanese occupation of China during World War II and later moved to Hong Kong, where he trained a young boy who would grow up to become Bruce Lee. Facing off opposite him is the fictitious Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of another martial arts master whose designated heir has sullied the family name, requiring his actual child to appoint herself to clean-up duty.

<i>The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones</i>: Your Burning Questions Answered

Is Lily Collins the next Kristen Stewart? Could it be more obvious that she's running around the streets of Toronto rather than the streets of Brooklyn? And what the heck is a "mortal instrument" anyway? You've undoubtedly got questions about the latest wanna-be YA franchise-starter The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and we've got the answers… with some spoilers in the mix as well.

Kick-Ass 2: Its Existence is Futile

by Ethan Alter August 16, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Kick-Ass 2</i>: Its Existence is Futile

There were two central gimmicks behind Kick-Ass, the 2010 Matthew Vaughn-directed superhero satire based on the Mark Millar comic book, which hit stands in 2008. The first was the notion of an ordinary, powerless teenager suiting up in spandex to fight crime… and promptly getting his ass handed to him by practically every lowlife he confronted. The second was the presence of a pint-sized child soldier named Hit Girl, who came armed with a plethora of weapons, martial arts moves and a serious case of potty mouth. Both of these elements proved provocative enough to make the movie (and the comic) seem novel when placed alongside standard superhero fare, allowing it to attain almost instant cult status. At the same time, though, they also happen to be one-shot gags that can't really be repeated a second time, which explains why Kick-Ass 2 spends its roughly 103-minute runtime vainly trying to prove its existence. Watching this ill-advised sequel is like observing a stand-up comic trying to wring one more laugh out of a set-closing punchline when they really should have just dropped the mic and left the stage.



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