Weekend Viewing Roundup: Starter for Ten & A Scanner Darkly

There’s nothing interesting at the cinema this weekend, but it’s always nice to catch up on older movies I’ve been meaning to see.

This past Friday was our first Girls Movie Nite since its summer hiatus and my girlfriends and I had initially settled on Water for Elephants. The trailer looks pretty good and the combination of Christoph Waltz and Robert Pattinson in a circus setting seemed intriguing. Unfortunately it’s not available on Netflix yet (another reason I’m canceling my subscription) so we ended up seeing Starter for 10 since one of my friends owns the DVD. The other one I saw was A Scanner Darkly, a sci-fi done in interpolated rotoscoping animation style in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame.

Starter For 10

 

Set in 1985, working-class student Brian Jackson navigates his first year at Bristol University.

Seems like James McAvoy hasn’t made a bad film. At least out of the eight films where he had a prominent role, none of them has disappointed me. Ok so I didn’t love Becoming Jane (despite my love for period dramas) but it’s more because of Anne Hathaway performance than James’.

McAvoy truly carried this film with his earnest performance as the brainy kid Brian who finds out that life education is definitely as important as being book smart. Despite being in his mid 20s when he did this film, he was quite believable as a college freshman. His transformation from the naive geek with bad hair to a slightly older & wiser university student is fun to watch. Scottish director Tom Vaughan peppered the film with witty dialog and whimsical college scenes without relying on silly or inappropriate gags like college films like say, Old School. Even the more sexually-charged scenes are a hoot, especially the one involving Brian and the parents of the girl of his dreams on a Christmas holiday, are funny but not cringe-worthy.

The romance is sweet and engaging. It’s almost unanimous that everyone in my group sympathize with Rebecca Hall’s character. I feel that it’s not only because her character (also named Rebecca) is written that way but also because Hall seems to always come across very affable on screen. The film truly belongs to the über talented McAvoy but Benedict Cumberbatch managed to steal some scenes with his hilarious performance as the ambitious group ‘leader’ competing for the University Challenge quiz show. His character may be one-dimensional but still he made it entertaining. The ending is quite predictable but I don’t really mind it in a movie like this where a lack of ‘plot twist’ is not a detriment.

Starter For 10 is quite a poignant yet funny coming-of-age comedy drama starring the hottest young British talents working today. Many of the cast have now become quite famous: McAvoy himself, Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, The Town, Everything Must Go), Benedict Cumberbatch (Amazing Grace, BBC’s Sherlock, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Dominic Cooper (The Duchess, An Education, The Devil’s Double). Alice Eve is perhaps the least known but she’s starring in The Raven next year.

The music is quite memorable as well with songs mostly by The Cure and other British bands such as Tears for Fears, The Smiths and Wham!.

4 out of 5 reels

A Scanner Darkly

 

An undercover cop in a not-too-distant future becomes involved with a dangerous new drug called Substance-D and begins to lose his own identity as a result.

I’ve been curious about this film for some time, mostly because of the rotoscoping animation style I’ve mentioned about, as well as the fact that it’s a Philip K. Dick adaptation. He’s perhaps one of the greatest sci-fi authors whose work have been a popular subject for films such as Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report and most recently The Adjustment Bureau.

The cast for this film, especially Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr., is also a big selling point. Combine that with an intriguing subject matter and a distinct visual style, this one surely can’t be a misfire, right? Well, I wouldn’t call it a misfire, but I can’t exactly call this one enjoyable. People have said that this movie is not for everyone, but really, one can say that for just about every title, right? Even the most beloved movie would have its detractor. The thing is, I was prepared to really like this one, but I actually found this one to be tedious in parts that I actually dozed off about three-quarters the way through. I did wake up about 10 minutes before the end and found that the story is quite profound, but yet I’m just not interested enough to rewind which parts I had missed.

I think the main strength of the film is the story itself, which made me think that I might appreciate the novel more. The acting is also good overall — both Keanu and Robert are perfectly cast, and Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson are quite memorable in their supporting roles. But the pacing is a bit too slow as the novelty of the animation style wears off. I really think the visual technique is really imaginative and I appreciate that the filmmaker went with this route. Yet I’m not really sure how much that style improve the story-telling. Yes I do believe director Richard Linklater is able to capture the paranoia and perceptual contortion caused by Substance-D, but because of the animation style, I feel that the subtle expressions that we would otherwise be able to perceive from each actor is somewhat lost. I almost feel guilty that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I learn in the Special Features about the dedication of the filmmaker and how personal this project is to him.

Perhaps if I give this film another chance I might enjoy it more, though I highly doubt I’d see this again. The thing about this whole film is how unsettling it is. I hate insects so the opening scene alone of a guy suffering from intense hallucination is disturbing and down right repugnant. But with that said, I’d still recommend this for a rental for people who enjoy sci-fi movies and Philip K. Dick’s stories. Though I didn’t end up loving it, I definitely don’t regret finally seeing this.

3 out of 5 reels

Well, what did you see this weekend? If you’ve seen either one of these films, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Weekend Roundup: Flugtag, Ridley Scott’s Filmmaking Contest, Pillars of the Earth Debut

Happy Monday, everyone! Hope y’all had a smashing weekend. Mine ended up being quite hectic that I didn’t get to see The Prestige that I rented again. As I said in my Top Five Nolan flicks post, I’m curious to see if I understand it better the second time around.

  • I had the pleasure of attending the Red Bull Flugtag event on Saturday, a first for the Twin Cities. What’s Flugtag? Well, it means “flying day” in German, but the Red Bull Flugtag is a competition that challenges teams of everyday people to build homemade, human-powered flying machines and pilot them off a 30-foot high deck in hopes of achieving flight! Well, team Major Trouble and the Dirty Dixies set a world record, as they flew 207 feet, beating the previous record of 195! Woot woot! You can watch the awesome team soared to victory here. Too bad we missed seeing this one as we were stuff in traffic and trying to find parking! But still it was fun to enjoy a day in the sun along with a bazillion people.
  • My friend and blog contributor Ted Saydalavong (who recently gave us Batman Begins & Superman Returns Vision-to-Film posts, the latter happens to be featured on IMDb today!) tipped me a short while ago about this Philips Cinema collaboration with Ridley Scott, called the Tell It Your Way contest. It’s based on the Philips company’s campaign “There are millions of ways to tell a story. There’s only one way to watch one.” What each contestant has to do is create a short film to go along with Philips’ Parallel Lines short films series available on their YouTube Channel. Five very different short films, five different genres, five different directors, but one unifying dialogue. So the challenge is to come up with your own 3-minute version, no matter what storyline, but using the same 6-lines of dialogue provided (i.e. It’s a Unicorn, Never seen one up close before).
    Ted’s one of the aspiring filmmaker hopefuls who’s vying to win the Grand Prize which includes a week’s worth of work experience at Ridley Scott Associates (RSA) in one of their worldwide offices (all expenses paid), as well as one of these magnificent Philips Cinema 21:9 HDTVs. “I’ve decided to enter into this film competition because I wanted to showcase my movie directing abilities, I’m a film fanatic and wanted to tell a good story in 3 minutes. Also, Ridley Scott is one of the judges on this competition and I hope he likes what I created and if I win I get to meet him in person. Scott is one of my favorite film directors, he has such a great visual on all of his films, bad and good ones,” Ted said, “I thought this competition is a great challenge to amateur filmmakers out there, you have lines of dialog to follow but you can tell it in anyway you wish. As a filmmaker wanna be, this is a great opportunity to showcase my talents and I think my team accomplished that with our film.”

    “It’s the competition to find the next Ridley Scott,” says Fame Magazine UK, where three rounds of judging will be held including public voting via YouTube. Ted told me Carl Erik Rinsch’s The Gift, about a futuristic robot butler who flees the police, is his favorite, and I can see why. It’s a gorgeously-shot and meticulously crafted sci-fi short, see it for yourself below:

    It is so impressive in fact, that Warner Bros. and Fox were apparently got into a bidding war in their quest to turn this into a feature film (per HeatVision blog). Though well-known in the commercial world, Risch’s name will soon be known to moviegoers, too, as he’s reportedly working on Keanu Reeves’ samurai film 47 Ronin, and possibly helming the remake of the 1976 Logan’s Run sci-fi adventure-drama next.

    Back to the contest, finalists will be judged on criteria including creative storytelling, use of dialogue, and technical achievement.This sounds like a super fierce competition, but of course with a prize like that, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime! So best of luck to you, Ted!
  • Speaking of sir Ridley, I wish I could watch his epic miniseries Pillars of the Earth, produced by his Scott Free production company. As I said in my previous post on it, the six-part, eight-hour miniseries is based on an International best-seller novel by Ken Follett, which tells a story about building a cathedral set against a backdrop of war, religious strife and power struggles in the Middle Ages (you watch the trailer here).

    Rufus Sewell as Tom Builder

    Starz premiered the show over the weekend and it generated pretty good reviews according to MetaCritic. Prairiegirl and my favorite Brit Rufus Sewell was often praised for his performance as Tom Builder, who apparently lives up to his name as a master builder for this massive Cathedral project. This one particular review even said Sewell pretty much stole the show. Well, I don’t expect anything less from the stunningly-handsome and talented actor! The show’s also got a stellar cast that include Ian McShane, Donald Shuterland, Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfayden, Tony Curran and Hayley Attwell.

    Those who have cable, the premiere last Friday will be followed by one-hour segments until the two-hour conclusion on August 27. I’ll be sure to rent this once they’re available on dvd and write my review of it then.

FlixChatter’s Movie Weekend Roundup

I don’t have time to write a lengthy review for each of these two flix I watched over the weekend, so I thought I’d give you a couple of mini reviews in one post. Whilst one beats my expectation, the other is the opposite.

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Terminator Salvation

I saw this Friday nite despite the dismal reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. And you know what, both my hubby and I actually liked it.

I quite like the classic Terminator movies and the whole story of humanity’s war against man-made machines. The story of this one takes place after the the computer network Skynet has destroyed much of humanity in a nuclear holocaust, as a group of survivors led by John Connor struggles to keep the machines from finishing the job.

I enjoyed the full-throttle action from start to finish, something I expect from a Terminator movie. The CGI and cinematography is pretty cool, with impeccable shots and camera angles, especially the truck chase sequences. The visuals of the wrecked and torn world looks believable, as do the fighting sequences, although I wonder if it had been an R-rated film they’d taken it a bit further to make it feel more ‘real.’ Perhaps the lower, more ‘family-friendly’ rating explains why this movie lacked the ‘bite’ or ‘grit’ of the original two. The dialog wasn’t exceptional but it’s not a deal-breaker either. In fact, there’s quite a few references to the original, such as the line: “Come with me if you want to live” spoken by Kyle Reese to Marcus Wright; and Marcus “What day is it? What year?” to Kyle.

John and Marcus bonded
John Connor and Marcus Wright bonded

I’m not surprised however, by how much I was drawn to Sam Worthington’s character Marcus far more that Christian Bale’s titular hero John Connor. I’ve pondered how Bale is often the second banana in films lately and Worthington’s Marcus definitely steals his thunder here. He’s not as terrible as the reviewers made him out to be though, he does more than just screaming & yelling in this movie (the same erroneous argument critics labeled Gerard Butler in his role as Leonidas in 300). Interestingly, according to IMDb, Christian Bale was first offered the role of Marcus but took more interest in the character of John Connor so rewrites took place to give him more of a substantial role throughout the film. Hmmm, bad move there Bale, it should’ve been more obvious that Marcus is the ‘meatier’ role and the conflicted unlikely hero story is always more compelling than the traditional protagonist. I’ve been touting Worthington for a while based on what I’ve read about him and I’m glad to say that in the first movie I’ve seen him in, he definitely doesn’t disappoint. He’s got an undeniable screen presence and that delicate combination of ‘tough guy with a heart’ a la Russell Crowe. I can’t take my eyes off him every time he’s on screen!

Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese is pretty good, too. He’s a bit more wide-eyed and less sinister than Michael Biehn in T2, but he’s able to be both vulnerable and unflinchingly bold at the same time. His scenes with Marcus are my favorite parts of the movie, save for the John/Marcus face-off when Marcus is captured that’s easily one of the movie’s highlights.

Overall, I don’t think McG ‘ruined’ the franchise as some critics/fans have suggested. Sure it may not live up the two James Cameron originals, but it’s still a decent action-adventure that gives the franchise justice.

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The Informant!

Now, as opposed to TS, I actually had a high expectation going into this movie because the critics seem to leap up anything Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon put out there.

I was intrigued by the trailer but despite some funny parts, the movie just doesn’t deliver for me. It’s almost like the trailer IS the movie as the best parts are already revealed there. It’s a true-story about Mark Whitacre (Damon), an Ivy League Ph.D. who was a rising star at an agricultural company ADM, who ended up becoming a whistleblower over their price fixing tactic. [Spoiler ahead] Basically it’s a satire about a compulsive liar who’s suffering from a severe bipolar disorder.

I think the story has a lot of potential for an enjoyable movie, but it comes across really boring to me. Not sure if the 10pm showtime had something to do with it, but rarely did I doze off in a movie theater that my husband actually had to nudge me a few times. Even one of our guy friends ended up going to the bathroom to ‘freshen up’ but we found him asleep right behind us nonetheless.

I realize it’s a dark comedy so I’m not complaining that it lacked some overt funny scenes, I just wish the subtleties pay off more than it did. It seems to be the case of style over substance, which is fine in most cases, but when it comes to corporate crime stories, there’s only so much amusing tricks they can do to keep us engaged. The use of the whimsical music works at first but after a while it just gets old, and the gag actually makes me cringe, it’s like I’m no longer in on the joke but instead I get irritated by them.

I probably wouldn’t enjoy this as much if I hadn’t seen Matt Damon do the Bourne series, as his physical transformation is amusing in itself. He’s obviously a great actor as he was able to pull off the bumbling and pitiful corporate geek role as believable as he was as a ruthless assassin. IFC awarded him with the “Actor of the Decade” title and given his body of work, he just might warrant that. Yet, be that as it may, he still can’t save this movie. It seems to take a lifetime to end, too. Oh well, at least we saved our money at the $2.50 theater, as this definitely isn’t worth much more than that.

If you’re in for a movie based on a true story about a whistleblower, rent The Insider instead. I’d be hard-pressed to find one thing wrong with that movie and Russell Crowe also underwent an amazing physical transformation by gaining 35 pounds for the role of Jeffrey Wigand.