Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit review

January is probably the worst time to be a film critic. Sure, the award ceremonies are fun, but almost without exception, the movies are just terrible. I’m looking at you “Devil’s Due.”

Fortunately, though, Hollywood just released, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” last month and it turned out better than expected.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars, the film follows the title character.

Jack Ryan, played by Chris Pine, is a former marine who now works as an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency. While analyzing financial reports with Russia, Ryan notices an irregularity and the CIA, namely his superior Thomas, played by Kevin Costner, sends him to Moscow to investigate.

While there, Pine discovers who the person is behind the problems in the financial reports and discovers a more sinister plot. He finds Viktor, played by Branagh. Pine begins to put together his plan to uncover more intelligence on the situation, however, at the same time, his fiancee, played by Keira Knightley, comes to Russia to surprise him but doesn’t know he’s in the CIA.

“Shadow Recruit” isn’t a perfect spy film and isn’t a contender to be on par with some of the greatest of all time. The most glaring reason is the plot, especially the climax, is rather predictable. What helps it be more than just mediocre, though, is the direction, acting and the fact the story moves at a fast pace to keep things fun and entertaining.

The character, Jack Ryan, has been portrayed by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck in past movies, but Pine does a good job making the character his own. Pine captures a good balance as the action spy in the movie, showing that he’s not invincible but can still kick butt when he needs to. The character is also written to have a fair amount of wit, which makes him more likable.

A person who really steals the show in many scenes is Branagh, though. He plays the role of the charming, yet menacing villain extremely well and arguably delivers the best performance in the entire movie.

The supporting cast do fine work in the movie, too. Costner, for example, plays the role of an experienced intelligence agency director with a subtlety that shows he has seen his fair share of action. Knightley, who surprisingly does a really convincing American accent, also does well with the material she’s given, making her more than just a love interest for the Ryan character.

In terms of action, the film isn’t filled to the max with it, but the scenes that are in are shot intensely well, thanks to Branagh’s direction. One scene in particular features a fight in a hotel bathroom where Ryan is the clear underdog in the struggle and it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.

Despite not being perfect, “Shadow Recruit” is still an entertaining espionage action movie and is a good place to start for a film series reboot. I wouldn’t mind seeing the series continue with Pine in the lead role. High 3 out of 5.

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January 2014 Mini Reviews

Devil’s Due – 0.5 out of 5
Probably the laziest and an early candidate for worst movie of 2014. Every bit of so called horror this movie tries to shove in your face has been seen before in the “Paranormal Activity” series. On top of that, the plot just stumbles along without ever really having a structure making for a confusing story that in the end never really goes anywhere. On top of that, the performances were terrible.

Labor Day – 2 out of 5
A movie that felt like a rather hollow shell, “Labor Day” just never had much emotion going on in it. Everyone just has stern looks the entire run time and it results in never feeling the true feelings that are suppose to be delivered. The movie shows Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin’s characters falling in love but doesn’t show really why or how besides Brolin just being there.

On top of that, the story includes the young character Henry developing a father son relationship with Brolin’s character. The problem is it’s only material ways that the two bond. Brolin’s character Frank shows Henry how to fix a car, he shows him how to throw a baseball, but he never really teaches him life lessons.

The film never pushes the emotions it should and it fails as both a romance and a coming of age film.

That Awkward Moment – 3 out of 5
The film came off as a basic rom-com, except this time it was told through the vantage point of a guy rather than a girl. The movie falls into a lot of familiar tropes that keep it from being anything really special, however, the movie does have a couple of really funny moments.

Plus, the three lead actors, Michael B. Jordon, Zac Efron and Miles Teller all have a very believable friendship and the rest of the relationships feel real, which helps the viewing experience.

Gimme Shelter – 1 out of 5
The biggest problem with Gimme Shelter is how the story moves along. In each of the film’s three acts, it seems like it is trying to be a different movie. Instead of having a beginning middle and end, the film instead just keeps opening up new subplots and introducing characters way too late to have any real impact

Vanessa Hudgens really does put effort into the movie and the acting is alright, but for the most part it’s nothing memorable.

To make matters worse, the film seemed to be more focused on an agenda and getting a point across, which is probably why the story structure suffered.

The Monuments Men – 2 out of 5
For such an interesting concept, this movie for the most part felt really boring.
The reason for this is the pacing, as the movie takes forever to really allow the plot to thicken. And by forever, I mean over an hour.

It must have been nearly 70 minutes, or more, before the Monuments Men make their first big discovery. Before that the movie just plods along.

What’s worse is that the movie splits up the crew, so there isn’t as much time for everyone to interact and get to know each other, which doesn’t allow a sense of camaraderie to be built.

The humor didn’t work for most of the film either, it just fell flat for the most part and made it more difficult to take seriously.

The acting was OK in the movie, but for a good portion of the movie it just felt like watching actors on stage instead of characters.

The Lego Movie – 3 out of 5
There is a lot to enjoy about “The LEGO Movie,” it has really great, vibrant and most of all creative animation and design work, an expansive voice cast that does a good job and a really nice message to tie everything together at the end.

The problem is that the first 80 percent of the movie has a rather familiar plot and the jokes didn’t work for me at all times. The main character was also a bit too clueless at times.

The part that’s probably going to divide audiences a bit is the twist near the end of the film. It’s not a bad twist, in that it does help with the message of the film, but it’s not done very seamlessly.

February 2014 Mini Reviews

RoboCop – 2 out of 5
The remake of the 80s remake was just OK. For an action movie with a sci-fi element, it’s not bad, but it lacks the over-the-topness and R rating that made the first one such a fun flick. On top of that, the movie spent a little too much time on the main character training and not enough time on the streets of Detroit. The movie did get a good boost from the acting of Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman and Jackie Earle Haley, though. Plus, Samuel L. Jackson added a fun element.

Endless Love – 1 out of 5
A classic tale of love at first sight is what makes “Endless Love” so annoying. The problem is, the filmmakers have the relationship between the two main leads too perfect and flawless and have the father character be way to antagonistic. It creates a simple world of black and white when there should be some grey. To make matters worse, the acting isn’t anything all too special.

Winter’s Tale – 0.5 out of 5
Here’s a movie that really takes a dive because of its plot structure and story telling elements. One can see from watching the trailer that a portion of the film takes place in the future, the problem is that the movie doesn’t introduce the future until nearly the third act. The problem is that the characters who appear in the future don’t really have enough time to develop which makes it hard to care about them. Maybe the movie should have tried a bit of flashforwards and flashbacks.

On top of that, the story doesn’t exactly give enough exposition for an audience to fully understand everything that’s going on. By the end of the (very cheesy) ending, there were still multiple questions left unanswered. Not to mention the fact that the romance in the film once again feels rushed. Plus, the character Beverly who is supposed to be terminally ill doesn’t even look a hint frail or pale. Did the movie not have a makeup budget?

3 Days to Kill – High 2 out of 5
This was a film that seemed to have a lot of potential, but unfortunately, it wasn’t fully realized. The issue is that the movie has a little too much going on, juggling multiple subplots. It creates a bit of a problem with its tone, sometimes feeling like it should have been a darker rated R movie, and at others, seeming like it fit right at a PG-13. The movie did have some nice action bits and Kevin Costner was alright, though, making the film an OK experience.

300: Rise of an Empire review

If there’s one thing I didn’t expect to be in a “300” movie, it was bored.

The film “300: Rise of an Empire,” takes place before, during and after the events of the original “300.” Instead of focusing on the Spartans again, this film focuses on Themistokles, played by Sullivan Stapleton.

Themistokles is an Athenian leading a small group of ships to combat the Persian navy, commanded by Artemisia, played by Eva Green. For the most part, like the original movie, everything plays out in a sort of “David vs. Goliath” manner.

In terms of plot structure, “Empire” comes off as a mess. The film takes too much time focusing on characters’ backgrounds and exposition to start off with. It just takes way too much time to actually get into the movie, unlike the first “300,” which knew how to get to the point.

This led to the movie being boring for a while, not exactly what an audience should expect out of this kind of flick. As things moved forward into the second and third acts, though, despite actually having some battles, the film’s pacing still felt off. So much so, that the film practically ends abruptly, right when it looks like things are going to finally get good.

It might have helped if the film was a true sequel to “300.” Maybe the first half hour could have been dedicated to the naval battle and then what happened next, like at the Battle of Plataea. The battle that was hinted at in the first movie? Instead, the story just felt awkward.

Stapleton really tries his best with the material he’s given in “300: Rise of an Empire,” carrying the movie on his back. However, he doesn’t have the screen presence Gerard Butler brought to the first film.

Sadly, out of all the warriors fighting for Greece, Stapleton was the only memorable performance. Despite the film’s efforts – including a rather lame subplot about a father and son fighting together on the battlefield – I found myself not caring about any of the other characters.

One performance that should get recognition, though, is Eva Green. She does her best in giving a menacing presence to the picture. She was a bit more cool and calculating than Xerxes, which made for an overall better antagonist.

Unfortunately, for all the actors in the movie, the writing was very poor, mostly noticeable in the lame dialogue the characters used throughout. On top of that, there were some jokes that fell flat, having too much of a self-awareness to them. It was as if new director Noam Murro was nudging me with his elbow, saying ‘hey, see what I did there?’

The worst part of the whole movie, though, was it just wasn’t exciting. There were only a few battles, most of them coming at sea, and they were just OK.

Plus, there was too much CGI blood in the movie. Gallons of the pixilated red liquid were thrown on the screen. It becomes desensitizing and gets old after a while. This was a factor where the film could have benefited from some more practical effects for the blood.

Speaking of getting old after a while, even the combat wasn’t anything special. By now, the slow down-speed up filming original director Zack Snyder made popular is all over the place and the combat itself isn’t better choreographed than the first movie.

The original “300” felt like lightning in a bottle where a lot of things went right. This time, it feels like the filmmakers tried to throw together the same things and recapture what the original did. At its best, the most the movie can offer are some cool visuals. Part 2 of “300” gets a 2 out of 5.

This review was first published in the March 7, 2014 issue of the Wahpeton Daily News.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman review

Director:
Rob Minkoff
Cast:
Ty Burrell
Max Charles
Ariel Winter
Allison Janney
Rated: PG

This movie was like an ocean of puns, and it was great.

“Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is a film based on animated shorts that were featured in the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. The movie, which expands on the original concept, follows the title character Mr. Peabody (Burrell), a genius dog who can do practically anything including building a time machine called the WABAC. Mr. Peabody also is the adopted father of a boy named Sherman (Charles) and teaches him about various historic moments.

Conflicts start up, though, when a mishap occurs at Sherman’s school when he gets into a fight with a girl named Penny (Winter). This brings in a social worker named Ms. Grunion (Janney) who doesn’t think Peabody makes for a good father.

On top of that, Penny visits Sherman’s house during a dinner party and in the process the two take the WABAC and upset history. Penny, Sherman and Peabody then have to go on an adventure to fix the many issues they face.

“Peabody” has a fairly straightforward story and there are plenty of plot cliches to go around making for somewhat of an unoriginal experience. To their credit though, the filmmakers didn’t have exactly that much to work with as the source material is just animated shorts. With that in mind, they were actually able to flesh the film out to a feature length using a good heartfelt father-son relationship to build interest in the characters and an exciting adventure to help with the pace.

Despite the rather simple story, the film has a fun and whimsical atmosphere and continues to shoot jokes at the audience which leads to a movie that never drags or slows down. It keeps the film from getting dull or uninteresting. The emotional moments of the film are good, too, especially a solid montage early in the run-time.

The voice performances are nicely done and it never feels as though the actors are phoning in their work. Ty Burrell is great as Mr. Peabody, giving a performance that shows off the genius of the character and at the same time provides the emotion for the more heartfelt moments.

The younger actors are both good, too, giving good characterization to Sherman and Penny. Additionally the film included some nice cameos for the historical figures.

Undoubtedly, though, the best part of the movie is the humor. The film never stops throwing jokes, and while not all of them hit, eight or nine times out of 10, they do. Not only is there a ton of humor, it’s also really smart, witty and most of all funny. It’s always refreshing to see an animated film that uses more witty comedy and doesn’t just rely on pop culture references.

In terms of animation, “Peabody” doesn’t exactly have the best. There isn’t exactly anything that makes a person say “wow.” However, thanks to the comedy, the film didn’t have to rely too much on visuals. The character and setting designs also fit the mood of the film itself.

“Mr. Peabody and Sherman” won’t be remembered as an animated masterpiece or classic. The story is rather simple and the animation isn’t the best. However, the film becomes a good experience through the charm of its humor, characters, and fun adventures. Low 4 out of 5.

Non-Stop review

Director:
Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast:
Liam Neeson
Julianne Moore
Michelle Dockery
Rated: PG-13
Trailer

If Liam Neeson keeps making movies like this he will have a bigger action library than anyone in “The Expendables.”

“Non-Stop” follows the story of Bill Marks (Neeson), a United States Air Marshall who has a drinking problem. As he boards a flight that will go over the Atlantic Ocean, everything seems like “another day at the office,” that is until he starts receiving mysterious text messages from someone making threats.

As the flight reaches higher altitudes, the texts continue, and the culprit threatens to kill a passenger every 20 minutes. From that point on it’s up to Bill to try and stop the threat, however, as time goes on the suspect makes it seem like Bill himself is trying to hijack the plane.

“Non-Stop” takes some suspension of disbelief on a couple of different levels. Surprisingly, the disbelief comes more from what happens in the plot itself and less on the technical side of things with how planes work.

The story of Neeson’s latest action adventure feels very cookie cutter and there is a feeling as if “we’ve been here before.” The usage of text messaging and not really knowing who the culprit is leads to a guessing game and keeps things interesting enough to hold one’s attention, but not much more.

To make matters worse, in the third act, when the film goes “dun dun dunnn” and reveals the master villain’s plot, it just doesn’t really make sense. It all feels rushed and the motivation isn’t as clear as it should be. The big climax just seemed like a simple bookend to a movie that didn’t exactly have much going for it in the story department to begin with.

Thankfully, Liam Neeson was in the starring role, though, which helped the movie be better than it probably should have been. It’s similar to what Neeson has done with other flicks such as “Taken” and “Unkown.” The fact is, the writing simply isn’t very good and the dialogue isn’t the best, but Neeson always makes protagonists worth rooting for and this outing was no different.

The supporting cast is rather unmemorable. Julianne Moore plays one of the major supporting characters and she does a respectable job, but there wasn’t that much chemistry between her and Neeson. Fortunately none of the cast was bad, per se, it’s just that the writing makes the characters seem forgettable.

As an action movie, the film should deliver on excitement, and “Non-Stop” does to a point. There are a few fight scenes where Neeson’s character has to fight with hand-to-hand combat in tight quarters and they work fairly well. What didn’t work as well was the final climactic moment, which has been done before in similar movies.

“Non-Stop” is at its core a poor action film with not that much to offer. There are things that get too ridiculous, the villain’s plot isn’t fleshed out well, and the dialogue isn’t very strong. What pulls the film up and gets it close to being average were a few exciting scenes and Neeson’s acting. High 2 out of 5.

Need for Speed review

Director:
Scott Waugh
Cast:
Aaron Paul
Dominic Cooper
Imogen Poots
Scott Mescudi
Harrison Gilbertson
Rated: PG-13

Video game fans will have to wait for another adaption if they want to see something good.
“Need for Speed” follows the story of a mechanic named Tobey (Paul), who is facing some financial hardships when it comes to his repair shop. That doesn’t stop him and his friends from enjoying some leisurely street racing from time to time, though.

One night after a race Tobey gets a visit from his old rival and professional driver Dino Brewster (Cooper). Dino makes a deal with Tobey and the shop crew to fix up a car in exchange for a large sum of money. After the job is finished, though, Dino challenges Tobey and his younger friend Peter (Harrison Gilbertson) to a street race. The race turns out to be deadly as Peter loses his life in an accident and Tobey is sent to prison. Upon his release him and his crew decide to enter an underground race competition that Dino will also partake in to get revenge.

This video game adaption starts off rather messy and never puts itself together enough to be a good action flick like it wants to be. The race in the first act that killed the character Tobey’s friend was basically a dangerous joy ride where death could have happened at any moment, especially when they are driving towards oncoming traffic. It basically led to a lack of caring about Peter’s death which didn’t fuel any of the major motivation that the film’s protagonist had.

As the film goes on, the middle act becomes somewhat of a road trip movie and Tobey spends time with a character named Julia (Poots). During this time the movie sets up a somewhat underwhelming romance. At the same time, Tobey is trying to get his old crew back together to help him win the big race, however, this just leads to some nonsensical scenes with forced humor.

For example there is a scene where one of the members of Tobey’s crew is asked to quit his job to help with the race, the reason is that the car Tobey is driving needs something repaired. Tobey’s friend then proceeds to quit his job by stripping down to make some sort of statement. The scene is way too long, unfunny and in the end the guy doesn’t even fix the car.

In terms of acting, it wasn’t all bad, both Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots actually do provide somewhat good leads, with both of them trying to raise the material to a higher level than what it actually is.

The real problem comes from the supporting cast. Dominic Cooper, who is a talented actor, just seems to phone in his performance and the rest of the supporting cast is given unfunny material that no one could actually make work. On top of that, most of the supporting cast, mainly Tobey’s crew, come off as generic stereotypes and don’t even have much of an impact on the story itself.

The most ridiculous performance, though, comes from Michael Keaton, who plays the mastermind behind the big race and at the same time produces a video podcast about racing and breaking the law. For a movie that seemed like it wanted to be taken seriously for most of the runtime, Keaton’s character was a really poor contrast, being way too over the top.

To the film’s credit, there were some great racing and chasing scenes, with many of the effects being practical rather than relying too heavily on CGI. The problem is that the plot is so razor thin and there is such a lack of motivation behind what the characters are doing that it creates a lack of caring about what’s going on. Even some of the major action sequences came off as dull do to a lack of investment towards anything that was happening in the story.

“Need for Speed” suffers in some key areas that break a movie. The plot doesn’t hold up, many of the characters are just lame stereotypes and any thing resembling good acting comes from a small portion of the film’s cast. It all makes it difficult to care, which in turn makes all of the wild action lose its luster. There are too many inconsistencies and bad points about the film to even recommend it as a simple popcorn flick. 1 out of 5.