Tron: Uprising Review

            You may not have noticed but this past summer and fall in the darkest corners of your television in the middle of Friday nights Disney XD attempted to air a Tron: Legacy animated prequel series, Tron: Uprising.  Shocked?  Not surprising considering ratings were so bad that Disney XD was forced to move it around this way and that way to the point where there is no confirmation if it will ever air the remaining episodes that have been completed.  Since I don’t want to keep waiting for the series to finish (just in case it actually takes forever for the show to make a return to the air and I forget about it), I have decided to review the episodes that have aired.  That is a real shame because Tron: Uprising is one of the better animated series to come out in recent memory.

            Tron: Uprising follows Beck (voiced by Elijah Wood), a program, as he sows the seeds of rebellion against Clu’s reign with the help of Tron (voiced by the actual actor of the part, Bruce Boxleitner).  The show was created by Lost and Once Upon a Time writers Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz who have since handed the reigns of the show to a talented director (Charlie Bean) and a solid group of more experienced animated program writers.

            For a dramatic animated series, Kitsis and Horowitz and the writing team have created an engaging plot and some well developed characters.  Sure the writing gets cheesy at time but that comes with the territory.  The writing team does a fantastic job of giving each of its characters enough screen-time and have created an atmosphere that is frankly more interesting than either of the feature film installments in the Tron franchise.  A lot of that has to do with Charlie Bean’s direction.  It’s great to have a presence on a show like this that is always there (Bean has directed every episode), however, it’s even better than Bean really understands the material and has a complete command of it.

            The most exciting part about this show though is that it has an A-list set of voice talents.  Elijah Wood voices the main character and Emmanuelle Chriqui does some surprisingly strong work as the voice of an antagonist.  It is also great to see the show get some of the actual talent from the films to do voice work here including Bruce Boxleitner and Olivia Wilde in a memorable guest appearance.  Even when they couldn’t get the actual talent from the films in the case of Clu, they found an uncanny replacement (Fred Tatasciore taking over for Jeff Bridges).

            While some of the episodes can get a bit repetitive, Tron: Uprising is made with a lot of care and admiration for the Tron franchise.


Silver Linings Playbook Review

            For all its admittedly good performances and originally interesting premise, Silver Linings Playbook ultimately ends up just being your typical romantic comedy.  That is a shame because the first half of this film promised something special.  Despite that, there are enough silver linings in the film itself to make it an enjoyable time at the theater.

            Silver Linings Playbook follows Pat (Bradley Cooper), a man trying to pick up his life after he was committed to an institution for a bi-polar outbreak he had when he caught onto his wife’s affair.  In order to get back into his wife’s good graces, Pat decides that his best chance to do so is through a family friend’s recently widowed sister (Jennifer Lawrence).  The film is directed by Academy Award nominated director David O. Russell (The Fighter).  Russell is also the film’s sole screenwriter.

            David O. Russell has had a history of getting great performances from his cast.  Some may argue with the manner by which he gets those performances but you can’t argue with the fact that he knows how to get a good performance out of his actors.  In his last film, Russell ended up getting too much of a good performance from Christian Bale and ended up having one performance overpower his entire film.  That is not the problem this time around as he gets one of his best performances from an ensemble yet.  Russell also brings some nice visual touches to a film genre (romantic comedy) that desperately needs some fresh air.  This is really apparent in the last act’s stunning dance sequences.  The problem with this film is that there is nothing about the material that is worth remembering.  The story just dissolves into the usual romantic comedy tropes and some of the actions these characters take are just ridiculous under any circumstances (especially one act that Robert De Niro’s character does while another character, a trained psychiatrist, sits in the background and does nothing to stop him).

            That being said the cast is charming enough to make you overlook many of the film’s flaws.  Bradley Cooper is revelatory as the bi-polar riddled main character.  Bi-polar disorder seems like such a tough condition to act out on the screen but Cooper makes it seem realistic and never hammy.  Jennifer Lawrence is also quite good as the female lead.  It’s not as complex or worthy as her performance in The Hunger Games, but she does a great job of handling both the comedic and dramatic moments her character goes through.  Robert De Niro does his best work in years as the gambling addicted father to Bradley Cooper’s character.  The writing for his character is awful (he just seems tacked on to the film at the last minute and goes through a ridiculous plot), but De Niro somehow makes you sympathize with the character.  Chris Tucker and John Ortiz are good in short roles, and newcomer Brea Bree is fantastic in two short scenes.

            A fantastic cast overshadows a troubled script and a boring plot in Silver Linings Playbook.


The Dust Bowl Review

            Ken Burns’ documentaries for PBS are probably one of television’s finest institutions.  Well detailed, impeccably edited and containing outstanding voice acting, these are easily some of the best nonfiction programs in television history.  However, every once in a while there is a misstep on Burns’ part, and many complain that his works are too long and repetitive.  With The Dust Bowl, I for once find myself in the latter camp.  Trying to take on a subject that is just ill suited for his style, this is Ken Burns’ worst effort to date.

            The Dust Bowl follows one of the worst environmental disasters in American history and the culture it (as well as the Great Depression) caused.  The documentary miniseries takes a look at its subject through journals, pictures and (in a rarity for a Ken Burns documentary) firsthand account interviews.  The documentary miniseries is directed by Ken Burns and written by frequent collaborator Dayton Duncan. 

            Burns and Duncan are able to bring in a vast variety of material into this topic.  They bring in the usual photographs and journal readings, but they are also able to include firsthand account interviews (many of which are either extremely insightful or really gives you a humanistic picture to put over one of the darkest times in our countries history) and videos (which end up giving a bit of fresh air to Burns’ style, which normally never includes videos).  Despite this the documentary miniseries ends up failing.  It turns out that the Dust Bowl is just a subject that is ill-suited to the Ken Burns style.  While Burns is more interested in the what’s and how’s, a normal viewer is probably more interested in the why surrounding the Dust Bowl.  The program does try to answer the why but only in the context of the present day thinking at the time of the Dust Bowl, which was not enough to satisfy this viewer.  This results in very repetitive accounts of peoples’ experiences during the Dust Bowl instead of an informative look into the actual Dust Bowl. 

            Another disappointment in this program is the shallow roster of voice actors.  Peter Coyote returns as the narrator, which is great because the collaboration between Burns and Coyote is now just as important as Burns’ iconic visual style.  Other than Coyote though there is only Patricia Clarkson in terms of recognizable names.  Not to beat on Clarkson (who does solid voice work), but it is a shame Burns wasn’t able to get his usual roster of A-listers (like Tom Hanks).

            The Dust Bowl will definitely end up as one of Ken Burns’ least memorable efforts.


Moonrise Kingdom Review

            Featuring a talented and fun cast, a strong and touching script and some of Wes Anderson’s best direction to date, Moonrise Kingdom is simply one of the best films of the year.  Following Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is clear that Wes Anderson not only has come back to form but might have created his best film yet.

            Moonrise Kingdom follows a New England island community as they try to search for an escaped boy scout (Jared Gilman) and a “troubled” girl (Kara Hayward), who ran away to live a romantic life together.  Wes Anderson directed and wrote the film.  Anderson’s recent collaborator and son of the great Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Coppola, co-wrote the film.

            Wes Anderson brings his trademark quirk to this film, but then again he brings that to each one of his films.  What really makes this film soar is that it has a lot of heart.  The characters Anderson and Coppola create are not only instantly likeable but actually feel like real characters.  Anderson and Coppola provide a lot of depth to them.  Anderson also has a great hold on the material.  He finds the perfect balance between charm and fun and the much darker elements of the film (and they are definitely present).  It also helps that Anderson might be working with his most talented crew to date.  The cinematography is stunning.  The production and costume design are noticeable, but more importantly contain the uniqueness that Anderson’s directing style normally has.

            The cast is also extremely delightful.  Anderson puts a lot of pressure on his child actors, but Jared Gilman and (especially) Kara Hayward deliver.  The two have great chemistry together.  While Gilman seems a bit miscast early on, he eventually makes you believe in him when it really counts.  Meanwhile, Kara Hayward delivers what should be a star making performance.  Her acting style is perfectly suited to Anderson’s quirkiness, and she really creates a three-dimensional character while taking little time or antics to do so. 

            The supporting cast is filled with famous actors and some do their best work in years.  Edward Norton may be the highlight here as we are originally introduced to his scout master character as the villain of the film.  However, slowly and with seemingly little effort on Norton’s part, his character becomes one of the more sympathetic in the film.  With not as much screen time, Bruce Willis takes his police officer character on a similar transition.  Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are well cast as the main girls’ parents, and Tilda Swinton makes the most of her small part.

            Even the cameo appearances in this film are memorable.  Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel show up late in the film as members of the local Boy Scout brigade, and they are a joy to watch.  Bob Balaban shows up as the quirkiest element of the film, but he really sells it as a narrator that gets a lot more involved than you would think.

            Moonrise Kingdom is simply delightful and gives a wealth of great material for its ensemble.


Lincoln Review

            You would think a film about one of the greatest leaders in human history directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis would make for a great film.  Lincoln is a great film, but it’s one of the least Spielberg-ian and Day-Lewis-ian efforts in either’s filmographies.  Instead Lincolnsucceeds on a fantastic script and a large ensemble of talented actors led by Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance where the subtleties of it are the best part.

            Lincoln takes place during the closing months of the American Civil War as Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his cabinet try to get the 13th Amendment passed in Congress before they are pressured into a peace agreement with the South.  The film is directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by renowned playwright Tony Kushner.

            After a disappointing year in 2011 (where he saw most of his television projects bomb and his two films being some of his worst efforts yet), Steven Spielberg needed this film to be a good one.  While it is a good one, this is still one of Spielberg’s lesser directorial efforts.  Spielberg brings one of his most restrained efforts yet to this film as he smartly lets Tony Kushner’s script lead the film.  Kushner’s screenplay is filled with tense, funny and just plain out well-written dialogue.  Each character gets his moment and Kushner really makes you fall in love with Lincoln the man instead of Lincoln the legend.  It’s not until the final act when Spielberg’s restrained direction betrays the film and becomes a problem.  This is when the film needed a director to lead the script to the finish line as it focuses on some more visually demanding events.  By letting Kushner’s script lead the way in the closing act, Spielberg bungles the conclusion to the passage of the 13th Amendment arc.  Instead of an intense moment, we get a paint-by-numbers congressional vote that seems like it came straight from CSPAN.  The film then proceeds to give us almost ten endings instead of one really impactful one.

            That being said this film is worth it alone for the loaded cast (between this, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty this is going to be a great year for ensembles).  Daniel Day-Lewis is going to be the closest we ever get to seeing a video of the real Lincoln.  Instead of going for a bunch of big, grandstanding moments like he normally does (and don’t worry he still gets one or two), Day-Lewis really makes this performance work on all of the subtle mannerisms and quiet moments.  While Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field don’t give as great a performance as Day-Lewis that each get one really good moment (an argument with Day-Lewis over her sanity for Sally Field and an impactful facial expression from Tommy Lee Jones upon a final act twist).  Meanwhile, David Strathairn (as Lincoln’s Secretary of State), David Costabile (a leading member of Congress), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a swing voter in Congress) and especially James Spader (as a lobbyist for Lincoln) and Lee Pace (as the film’s main antagonist) do phenomenal work in small roles.

            With a powerful script and one of the most talented casts of the year, Lincoln is able to surpass its flaws.


Killer Joe Review

            As much as every work of art deserves to be seen, there are just some of those films that just get way too dark and disturbing for any sane person to sit through.  Look at the works of Gaspar Noe for example.  The man is clearly one of the most talented directors currently working, but Irreversible and (at times) Enter the Void just get way too disturbing (and unnecessarily so).  There hasn’t been one of those types of films in American cinema recently.  However, William Friedkin’s Killer Joe gets really close.  While definitely uncomfortable, Killer Joe is an interesting portrayal of a family on the brink.

            Killer Joe follows Chris (Emile Hirsch), a shady kid who has gotten into trouble with the wrong people, as he concocts a plan to kill his mother in order to get the insurance pay from her death.  In order to do so, however, he hires a contract killer, the eponymous Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey).  The film is directed by William Friedkin and written by Tracy Letts who also wrote the play the film is based on.

            William Friedkin does a fantastic job of straddling the line between uncomfortable darkness and disturbing bleakness.  There are many points where in lesser hands this film could have been unwatchable, but with Friedkin in command, this film takes a script with many great character moments and makes it visually interesting.  This is an extremely gritty film filled with characters that make terrible and unflattering decisions, but Friedkin and Letts are able to find moments where you actually feel for these characters. 

            The real highlight of this film is the cast though as almost everyone goes to insane physical lengths with their performances.  Emile Hirsch was stunning in Into the Wild but it seems his career has regressed quickly in the years since that performance.  This is easily his best performance since then.  An almost irredeemable punk becomes a sympathetic loser in the hands of Hirsch.  Matthew McConaughey gives an unusually charismatic performance (and I for once am able to see why everyone is saying this is a banner year for him).  Thomas Haden Church gets some nice moments to chew on even if he is the least noteworthy of the cast while Gina Gershon goes so far with the physicality of her role that you have to admire the ridiculousness of it.  The highlight of the film though is Juno Temple, who is perfectly casted as a socially awkward teen.

            Disturbing and chilling Killer Joe gets almost too uncomfortable too stomach, but is saved by some solid directing from William Friedkin and a game cast.


Skyfall Review

            Skyfall is not the greatest Bond film ever.  It’s not even a top 5 greatest Bond film ever either.  However, it is a solid edition to the long running franchise and sets the franchise up for a bright future.  This installment follows James Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench) as they try to recover the stolen MI6 hard drive that contains the identities and whereabouts of all undercover agents from a master hacker (Javier Bardem). 

            When it comes to directors, the James Bond series has never really gone after big names.  Marc Foster was an interesting choice for Quantum of Solace, but he wasn’t exactly a name or even respected director.  However, for the 50thanniversary of the Bond film franchise producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli went all out and snagged Oscar winning director Sam Mendes.  Considering his success with the gangster genre with Road to Perdition, it seemed like Mendes could be a great fit for Skyfall.  He could bring his prestige filmmaking background to this blockbuster to find the perfect combination of brainy and popcorn-y filmmaking.  Mendes does just that, but the film still somehow falls short.  It’s gorgeous, no doubt, and features some great characters.  However, that becomes a problem when most of the sequences have a “been there, done that” feeling to it.  One sequence is straight from Home Alone while it would be difficult to find an audience member who isn’t reminded of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy.  Sure, the entire Bond series has always been just a mish-mash of things that have been done in film before, but with Roger Deakins’ phenomenal cinematography and such interesting characters it feels like a major disappointment this time around.

            Mendes doesn’t deserve all the blame as the script by John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade tries to do way too much.  However, they deserve credit for building up such great characters.

            So does the loaded cast.  Daniel Craig returns for his third outing as James Bond.  Craig continues to do great work in the role even if he is hampered by a symptom of “too many characters in too short of a film”.  He still has trouble landing all the quips, but he brings a physicality and seriousness to the role that no previous actor has come close to matching.  Javier Bardem is the highlight of the supporting cast.  He is just playing a version of Heath Ledger’s The Joker but he leaves almost as big of a shadow in the film as that character.  Judi Dench gets her best material to date with the franchise and she really delivers.  Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris get some surprising roles and they do justice to them while Berenice Marlohe leaves a lasting impression in a brief role.

            Skyfall tries to do way too much and some of that is unfortunately just rehash of better films.  Despite that the film leaves the James Bond franchise in a good place for it’s 50th Anniversary and don’t be surprised if we are still talking about this franchise fifty years from now.


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