Sunday, October 3, 2010

Resuming My Formal Movie Reviews

I have begun reviewing again, but I'm no longer posting my formal reviews on this site. You can read my new reviews here:


Friday, June 25, 2010

Listen to the Considering the Sequels Podcast

Movie critic Jason Pyles is now a part of Considering the Sequels, a monthly film podcast that examines the merits and weaknesses of specific movie franchises. In Episode 1 we consider the "Back to the Future" trilogy.

My fellow film blogger, Andy Howell; my life-long best pal, Bill Barnes; and I, Jason Pyles, host the show. We three and a varying special guest review the individual installments of the franchise in story order to collectively determine whether each sequel is a worthy continuation of the primary film — or if it’s a just another instance of cinematic dead horse beating.

Each episode also features a concept discussion, where we talk about matters pertaining to sequels or the cinema, in general. These discussions are often spawned by listening to excerpts from pre-recorded interviews with various sorts of experts. We also discuss new releases and whatever else we’ve watched recently.

If you were a fan of this site, please give our podcast a try. You can vote on which one of us you tend to agree with most, and you can let us know what state you're listening from. Hope you'll visit us.


Jason Pyles

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Considering Other Matters

In case anyone regularly visits this site, I am laying aside my formal film criticism for a season of indeterminate length, though I have no doubt that I will return to it, sooner or later.

"Invictus," my last review found below, was my final submission to the Wheeling newspapers before leaving West Virginia. I have since moved to Utah, where I have been compelled to pursue other professional pursuits, at least for now.

For what it's worth, I am continuing a rather informal film discussion blog with my good friend, Andy, at this site: Basically, Andy and I watch an unusual film every few weeks or so and write our thoughts about it. These aren't formal reviews, mind you, and they have spoilers, but we enjoy it and hope other readers will, too.

Otherwise, for those who know me personally, I have returned to one of my life's other great passions: music. I have rejoined Dave Eaton's band as his pianist, and I am even considering recording a third album of my own music later this year.

I hope to be able to resume my film criticism again, eventually. In the meantime, for those who visited this site (and my others like it), thank you for reading.

Jason Pyles

Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus (2009)

O Masterpiece

O Excellent

O Good


O Mediocre

O Avoid

Review by Jason Pyles / December 11, 2009

“Invictus” is a film your ninth-grade Social Studies teacher would show in class. You know, the kind of movie you wouldn’t watch on your own, but since it was displacing a lecture, you gave it your attention. In other words, it’s not overly entertaining.

Even though this movie’s high-concept premise seems like it would make a good motion picture property, it’s too shallow a concept to yield rich storytelling — not shallow in principle but in narrative depth.

Adapted from the John Carlin book and based on actual events, “Invictus” is about a political leader who seeks to unify his divided country through a sports victory.

That political leader is South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, an anti-Apartheid convict who was freed and became a benevolent president of the people who had imprisoned him for nearly three decades.

According to the film, during the 1990s Mandela stepped into office when South Africa was on the verge of civil war. In an attempt to rally his people together by cultivating national pride, Mandela commissioned Francois Pienaar, the captain of South Africa’s Springboks rugby team, to win the World Cup.

Morgan Freeman gives us a saintly, sagely depiction of Mandela, while Matt Damon muscles through masculine moments as Pienaar, the patriotic rugby captain. Both actors inhabit their characters with formidable screen presence.

“Invictus” is a film comprised of an odd pairing: a sports movie and a political film. Sports movies are often constructed in such a way that their final, big game is always so much more than just a game: Winning constitutes a dual victory in athleticism and whatever predominant theme pervades the movie.

To cite two examples, in “Remember the Titans,” the team’s victory also signifies their capacity to transform racism into tolerance into teamwork and mutual respect. And “We Are Marshall” depicts a team whose success demonstrates its ability to overcome tragedy and grief as an act of commemorating their fallen teammates.

“Invictus” pairs its athletic accomplishment with fusing a nation, which might seem unlikely in reality until you consider the nationalism that the Olympic games stir.

Though he is most commonly celebrated for his acting roles, Clint Eastwood is a fine director whose films unfold with clarity. His “Invictus” is a decently crafted motion picture, to be sure, but as far as its general power to entertain, it’s merely OK, much like his “Flags of Our Fathers.”

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Morgan Freeman / Matt Damon

Drama 134 min.

MPAA: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Brothers (2009)

O Masterpiece

X Excellent

O Good


O Mediocre

O Avoid

Review by Jason Pyles / December 4, 2009

Art often is a natural reflex to turmoil. The world’s major wars have spawned several cinematic reverberations of artists’ sentiments toward those conflicts. While some films respond specifically to the wars that inspired them, “Brothers” addresses a topic that is relevant to every war: the mentally wounded soldier.

The previews suggest merely a precarious love story: A widow becomes intimately close with her brother-in-law after her husband is reportedly killed at war. But when the not-so-deceased husband returns home many months later, familial complications ensue.

We saw a similar story line in 2001 with Michael Bay’s much lesser movie, “Pearl Harbor.” But the updated version that is “Brothers” is based on a 2004 Danish film called “Brodre.” And if memory serves me, the mistakenly deceased lovers’ triangle conundrum seems faintly Shakespearean. In any case, it’s an old, familiar story that’s reliable for rousing dramatic conflict once again in “Brothers.”

In October 2007 Capt. Sam Cahill, a tough-as-nails Marine, is deployed yet again to fight in Afghanistan. Tobey Maguire is cast as the hometown hero — and believe me — this fierce-eyed actor is no Peter Parker here. He and his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), are the parents of two young girls. Portman possesses her usual rigidity, but she triumphs at conveying tearful sorrow. Jake Gyllenhaal steals the show as Tommy, the family disappointment and a “Cain” in contrast to his able brother.

There’s more to “Brothers” than just its romantic entanglements, and its primary conflict isn’t what you’d expect. As prefaced above, Cahill returns as only a shell-of-a-man who’s haunted by the demons of war.

I won’t describe his shocking ordeal, but as we watch the film, we know the horrors in his head while the other characters do not. This generates effective suspense.

In addition to being a distressing family drama with the tensest 6-year-old’s birthday party you’ll ever witness, “Brothers” aims to depict how the effects of war can break a person, and how sometimes the biggest battle for troops can be readjusting to civilian life.

This movie’s story seems a peculiar cruelty to me, potentially, in that it could derail a widowed spouse’s grieving process and inspire hope in a hopeless homecoming. On the other hand, some families may have no knowledge of their loved one’s whereabouts and may conversely find “Brothers” to be beneficially hopeful.

Directed by Jim Sheridan

Tobey Maguire / Jake Gyllenhaal / Natalie Portman

Drama 110 min.

MPAA: R (for language and some disturbing violent content)

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Blind Side (2009)

O Masterpiece

O Excellent

O Good


O Mediocre

O Avoid

Review by Jason Pyles / November 27, 2009

“The Blind Side” is not a football movie or even a sports movie, though it has a sports-related subplot.

Instead it’s primarily a drama about a family that changes the life of an unfortunate young man, and vice versa.

But the movie also strains to be many other things, attempting to have widespread appeal as a sort of cinematic salad bar.

Based on a similarly titled book by Michael Lewis, “The Blind Side” recounts the true-life tale of Michael Oher, a plagued-by-poverty 17-year-old who is taken in by a wealthy family, and along the way, becomes a formidable football player, due to his large stature and “protective instinct.”

So here we have a sentimental story that’s meant to be a heartwarming and inspirational family film about how love and charity “never faileth.” And so it is.

I suppose on the level of casual, escapist entertainment, “The Blind Side” is enjoyable enough.

But if we watch this movie with a discerning eye, we might resent that this savory story is mismanaged by such sloppy directing.

For starters, “The Blind Side” is all over the place. It aims to shoehorn several types of movies into one, so its chameleon tone shifts drastically. What begins as a gently comedic biopic veers into hard drama, and it’s disconcerting.

“The Blind Side” also contains some conspicuous acting deficiencies: Quinton Aaron, who plays Michael, was apparently cast for his physical appearance alone and not for any sort of performance prowess. Though he has a ridiculously underwritten role to contend with, Aaron does little more than peer downward or off in the distance and attempt to look pensive. Portraying pitifulness requires a more subtle approach than simply looking sad.

Sandra Bullock plays Leigh Anne Touhy. Somewhat like a child driving a car, Bullock is able to inhabit the role of Leigh Anne, but she fails to operate the finer functions of the character, which results in her wrecking Touhy’s southern accent.

Lewis’ subject matter is a worthy filmic property, but the film’s failing falls ultimately upon director John Lee Hancock, who also adapted it.

But if you turn a blind eye to its imperfections, “The Blind Side” isn’t a bad experience.

Note: Watch the still photos of the actual individuals during the closing credits. They are poignant — particularly the final image — and they serve to at least compliment the film’s casting.

Directed by John Lee Hancock

Sandra Bullock / Quinton Aaron / Tim McGraw

Drama 128 min.

MPAA: PG-13 (for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references)

Friday, November 20, 2009

New Moon (2009)

O Masterpiece

O Excellent

O Good


O Mediocre

O Avoid

Review by Jason Pyles / November 20, 2009

Like professional victims, some gals just fall for one monster after another. Bella Swan is one such damsel who’s distressed by her modern “Beauty and the Beast” tale, except in her case, it’s “beasts” — plural.

Yes, in “New Moon” 18-year-old Bella finds herself entangled in a teenage love triangle: One young man, Edward, isn’t young at all; he’s a 109-year-old vampire. And the other brawny beau is a part-time lycanthrope named Jacob.

Neither sharp-toothed suitor seems suitable, so to quote a phrase from Def Leppard, “Love bites” for Bella.

Stephenie Meyer, the author of the addictive Twilight Series, borrows from various “star-cross’d lovers” from the 16th and 18th centuries, which she blends with the mythos of other tragic creatures, such as vampires and werewolves, into a mystical amalgam of melodrama.

Indeed, one plot line found in this latest movie is inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a citation the movie dutifully references.

In “New Moon” Bella becomes preoccupied with aging and expresses her desire to become a vampire. But heartbreak befalls her after Edward decides to vanish from her life, in hopes of protecting her from sharing his soulless existence. In her grief, Bella discovers that reckless behavior will conjure smoky apparitions of a disapproving, disappearing Edward, which only encourages her thrill-seeking further, which leads her deeper into peril. Also, in Edward’s absence, Bella finds a sort of muscle-bound rebound in a shamelessly shirtless Jacob in shorts.

It was exactly a year ago today that the saga’s first installment, “Twilight,” hit theaters nationwide. If you’ve never read the books, viewing the forerunning film prior to seeing “New Moon” is prerequisite. “Twilight” introduces the characters while delivering an intriguing story, but it also has some poorly executed special effects in attempting to depict vampiric powers.

By contrast, “New Moon” lacks the suspense of the first movie, but it improves on its illustrations of super-human physicality. For example, Edward’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” tree-scaling in “Twilight” is much less convincing than Jacob’s Jackie Chan-like ascent up the scenery in “New Moon.”

But still, the portrayal of the werewolves is hit and miss, with some acceptable displays and others that look cartoonish, like animals from “The Chronicles of Narnia” movies.

Both “Twilight” and “New Moon” effectively preserve their allegorical allusion to abstinence (a blatant theme that’s no doubt invisible to most teenagers).

Directed by Chris Weitz

Kristen Stewart / Robert Pattinson / Taylor Lautner

Drama 130 min.

MPAA: PG-13 (for some violence and action)

Friday, November 13, 2009

2012 (2009)

O Masterpiece

O Excellent

O Good


O Mediocre

O Avoid

Review by Jason Pyles / November 13, 2009

If you’re worried that the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012, you can find worthier ways to spend your remaining time than by watching “2012,” a 158-minute, CGI extravaganza by director Roland Emmerich.

Aside from its special effects, which are usually quite dazzling, “2012” is a disaster of a disaster movie.

You may have heard that some people believe the ancient Mayans predicted the cataclysmic destruction of the Earth and its inhabitants on the winter solstice of 2012. A little research reveals that many scholars of Mayan culture have debunked the doomsday prophecies with rather sunny clarifications. But can we all agree that this is an interesting premise for an action movie? Yes.

“2012” opens with scientists making troubling discoveries. If I got all my movie-science notes correct, there is a spike in unnaturally large solar eruptions, which are shooting mutated neutrinos (whatever those are) to the Earth’s core, thereby heating up its crust, producing increasingly violent anomalies internally and externally around the planet. All this is closely related to the exceptionally rare aligning of the planets in our solar system, which is set to occur on Dec. 21, 2012.

Or something like that. In other words, the Earth and its dwellers will undergo horrendous devastation through earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, floods, etc., and we get to watch.

Emmerich ineffectively tackles his usual challenge of portraying large-scale events while conveying their effects on a diverse ensemble of small-scale victims. His method of alternating the dramatic catastrophes with melodramatic exchanges between characters doesn’t work like it does in, say, Paul Greengrass’ “United 93,” because in this film the tearful conversations and syrupy soundtrack are hollow attempts to elicit our emotional responses.

But despite its trite script, “2012” features a large cast of decent actors like John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who all do fine with what they were given.

Emmerich loves to depict destruction. He often makes big, dumb, fun movies like “Independence Day” (1996) and “Godzilla” (1998). “2012” is most comparable to “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004). Both films have the same problem: Special effects are only special when they’re employed to enhance, not replace, the story.

A vast chasm gapes between the filmmakers who design special effects to illustrate their stories and those who contrive stories to deliver their special effects. Unfortunately, Emmerich is mostly the latter.

Directed by Roland Emmerich

John Cusack / Amanda Peet / Woody Harrelson

Thriller 158 min.

MPAA: PG-13 (for intense disaster sequences and some language)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

O Masterpiece

O Excellent

O Good


X Mediocre

O Avoid

Review by Jason Pyles / November 7, 2009

A promising but unembellished shell-of-an-idea, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is a comedy whose purpose is to deride the Bush administration and U.S. militarism, in general. It has surprisingly sparse “jokes,” or moments intended to be humorous, and the instances meant to have comedic effect barely evoke a smirk.

“Goats,” let’s call it, suggests that during the ’80s, in the spirit of exploring alternative warfare technology, the U.S. Army dabbled in extrasensory weaponry by attempting to develop a top secret unit of “psychic spies” — super-solider warrior monks who can fight with their minds.

We’re informed by the narration of Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), an aimless reporter for the Ann Arbor Daily Telegram. While trying to become a wartime journalist in Iraq, Wilton learns of “Project Jedi” and the afore described New Earth Army, which is led by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges in another “Dude-like” role).

The movie’s meandering, stream-of-consciousness narrative follows Wilton who follows the faintly clairvoyant Lyn Cassady, played by a zany George Clooney. These two go everywhere while the thin plot goes nowhere. A characteristically nefarious Kevin Spacey also joins the madness.

Sometimes a film unintentionally will have the misfortune of becoming art that imitates life — distastefully. Through no fault of its makers and by sheer coincidence, “Goats” features a scene where a soldier goes berserk and begins shooting at his fellow personnel stationed at his military base, a sequence that immediately echoes the shootings that occurred Thursday in Fort Hood, Texas.

Films facing this kind of sensitive predicament often will postpone their release date, if possible. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Collateral Damage,” which was initially slated for an October 2001 release — only a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, was delayed four months because of its terrorism theme.

But “Goats” was set to flicker in theaters nationwide Friday only about 24 hours after the Fort Hood incident; unfortunately for this film, the goats were already out of the barn, so to speak. Even so, one wonders why any recent film — much less a comedy — would depict a crazed gunman firing into a scattering crowd in this age of scarily frequent school shootings.

In summary, watching “Goats” is probably not nearly as funny — or as entertaining — as actually staring at real goats. Or put another way, if I were psychic, I would have seen “The Box” instead.

Directed by Grant Heslov

George Clooney / Ewan McGregor / Jeff Bridges

Comedy 93 min.

MPAA: R (for language, some drug content and brief nudity)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Michael Jackson’s This Is It (2009)

O Masterpiece

X Excellent

O Good


O Mediocre

O Avoid

Review by Jason Pyles / October 30, 2009

Named after what he intended to be his final concert tour, Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” is a behind-the-scenes musical documentary that was filmed between March and June of this year.

Like many documentaries, it has talking-head interviews and archival reel, but the majority of the film is rehearsal footage of the preparation for the never-to-be concert series. Introductory screen titles tell us the film is “for the fans.” Indeed it is. Jackson’s devotees will revere its revealing intimacy.

Although his untimely death precluded the realization of the aptly named concerts, the title “This Is It” ironically suits this filmic remnant better than it could have represented the tour. Since echoes of the concert’s conception are immortalized by the film, fans still get to see what Jackson’s final tour would have been like — and perhaps an even vaster audience will now see these performances.

If I counted correctly, “This Is It” features 16 live performances, which have been seamlessly spliced together from multiple rehearsals for each song. (This is evident from Jackson’s varying attire during each performance.)

Ranging from Jackson 5-era tunes to some of his most recent songs, the film’s set includes “Human Nature,” “Smooth Criminal,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “I Want You Back,” “I’ll Be There,” “Thriller,” “Beat It,” “Black or White,” “Earth Song,” “Billie Jean,” and “Man in the Mirror,” just to name a few.

Jackson’s smooth-as-wet-glass vocal quality is reproduced as beautifully as it is heard on his records. And the revolutionary dancer’s movements are as hypnotic to watch as fire, while we wonder how this 50-year-old convulses and contorts just as nimbly as he did when he was half that age.

The best parts of the film are moments when the benevolent singer humbly coaches his cast and crew.

“This Is It” is rated PG. It has some suggestive choreography, provocatively dressed dancers and costumed ghouls that might unnerve younger viewers.

Jackson’s life was unexpectedly and permanently abbreviated on June 25. Like many swooning and brooding artists before him, Jackson was dismissed and relegated to sideshow obscurity until his death exalted his work anew. One cannot help but feel a sense of loss while watching this film, knowing that it is the last we have of this exquisite entertainer. An artistic giant has fallen; a gentle genius has been stilled.

Directed by Kenny Ortega

Michael Jackson

Documentary 112 min.

MPAA: PG (for some suggestive choreography and scary images)