Terminator: Genisys

July 8, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“A straight line. You keep moving forward and never look back.” That’s a line frequently used in the 5th film of the “Terminator” franchise–a franchise that probably didn’t need more than 2 movies (the first two, which were the best). But, here we are, far removed from the era of Cameron’s masterpieces. The ironic thing about that line, though, is that “Terminator: Genisys” hardly moves in a straight line. It’s about as all over the place as you can get. There is so much time travel in this film, it almost borders parody. I thought of “Back to the Future Part II”, in which multiple timelines are crossed and crossed again–but the film always made sense and cleaned up its mess.

Here, director Alan Taylor leaves it to us to clean up the mess. And about halfway through, you are basically the 8 year old kid who decides to go play with his friends and ducks out of the bedroom window, climbing down the tree touching the window. It’s not worth trying to figure out. The question is: do you sit back and enjoy the ride? Or do you pick apart the flaws in the time travel?

The story is basically a sequel, a prequel, and a reboot, all in one. It starts with the war against the Terminators, when John Connor (nicely played by Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), and mate with her to produce…him. He has to do this because Skynet has invented a way to send Terminators back in time, so that humanity has no chance of ever posing a threat to their domination. But when Reese is sent back, there is a bit of a breach in the nexus while he is being transferred. When he gets to 1984, he finds that Sarah not only knows about Terminators sent to kill her, but she’s already befriended one that was sent to protect her. She calls him “Pops” and he fights a fresh T-800, and has to fight another T-1000. Arnold Schwarzenegger proudly returns as the monotone voiced Terminator, and he fights his younger self in a pretty entertaining early battle scene. While this probably should have been more like the concluding climactic fight, it still works as a shot in the arm to get things going.

The T-1000 is a bit out of place in this film, as its technical effects just don’t seem all that impressive anymore. After all, we’ve seen this in the first two “Terminator” sequels, and I felt that it exhausted its welcome there. Here, it seems just thrown in. But I will always have a hard time arguing against seeing a Lee Byung-hun. Pops takes him down fairly early, indicating that they know the T-1000 is just chump change at this point.

But from there, the story gets more complicated. The issue mainly surrounds John Connor, which is typical in a “Terminator” film. But the time travel element gets extremely liberal in its narrative usage, and your head will probably spin when all of it is thrown at you.

My advice is, don’t worry about it. You aren’t going to need to know the “why” in this film. All you need to do is accept it based on the fact that, well, time travel doesn’t really exist anyway. All the questions you have are too logical for such a thing, and if you start thinking too much about it, you are going to miss a pretty well paced and entertaining action film. And that’s all this is. And it’s basically saved by Arnold’s winning performance. I didn’t care much for Courtney as Kyle Reese, nor Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor. Not because they weren’t played by the original actors (I liked Anton Yelchin as a young Reese in “Salvation” anyway), but because I feel like they were the wrong actors to play the parts. Both are capable actors, both I’ve liked in other things. But here, they just don’t look right to me. But Arnold does, and he really gives an A grade performance that makes this film watchable. I will admit, as decent it is as an action film on its own, there are many flaws in it that I forgave once I saw that forced smile by Arnold. I also liked J.K. Simmons, as usual, turning in an amusing supporting role.

This is not a great film by any means, and I didn’t enjoy the resurrection of the franchise quite as much as I did “Jurassic World” with the “Jurassic Park” franchise. But it did deliver a good enough payload for me to recommend it–mainly because of Schwarzenegger’s trademark charisma and appeal, and because the action sequences size up to the rest of the franchise as well.

No one’s walking in a straight line, but certainly no one’s looking back here, either. For a franchise that should have stopped with “Terminator 2”, you could probably just skip 3 and 4, watch this, and be satisfied enough with a trilogy–even though the first two are in a very different, and superior league.

My rating: :-)

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

August 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

In the fall of 2006, I started mining YouTube after hearing so much about it being this outlet for people to make videos of themselves and whatnot. At first I thought it’d be just a passing fad, something that would be like an internet version of America’s Funniest Home Videos (which in some ways, it still is), but have no staying power. Obviously, I was completely wrong. It grew, and grew, and by the time I got into it, there were already internet celebrities.

The one that immediately caught my interest was a guy who went by the name The Angry Nintendo Nerd. The first video I watched was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, his rant on the NES version of the game. Immediately, I felt like I was 8 years old again, remembering all the frustrating things about it. I remember all the insane little jumps and the electric seaweed in the underwater stage. As nostalgic and classic as the game was, it certainly caused many headaches. And I liked this refreshing look at these old games–sure, AVN was angry. But you could tell he had a love for these games as well–or at least gaming in general. I subscribed immediately, and through the years I grew beyond just the Angry Nintendo Nerd stuff (renamed Angry Video Game nerd as he got bigger and tapped into bigger markets–plus there’s that pesky trademark issue). I watched “Monster Madness” on his Cinemassacre site, and followed some of his short films like “Rocky Jumps a Park Bench”, and even watched some of his old films he made as an adolescent. His fame grew wider, and I had a feeling he was going to do something more with the Nerd. Of course…the obvious thing was…make a movie.

In 2011, I saw that there was a posting about auditioning throughout the country. Being based in Chicago, I immediately responded saying I was interested. I went to the audition, got to meet The Nostalgia Critic (Doug Walker) and have my picture taken with him, and I wound up on an audition video that was compiled sometime after. Not to brag (because I thought my audition was terrible), but The Critic gave me a thumbs up and said he liked it. Sure, he was probably just being nice. But so what!

Anyhow, I didn’t know what to think of the movie once I started seeing the trailers and such. I knew he was putting a lot of effort into it, as his quality of his other efforts dipped a bit (time constraints will do that); but I wasn’t really into the plot I guess. And I didn’t know if he could sustain this character for a whole two hour movie. I still remember being disappointed with feature-length adaptations of short themed sketch-like endeavors such as “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie”. So once the film was finally completed, and release dates were published, I knew I had to go see it. I just didn’t know that I was excited to.

I decided not to follow his progress, or read any blogs relating to the movie. I didn’t watch any updated trailers. I wanted to go in fresh. So, August 14th, a second showing opened for Chicago, and I went.

Before I start the review, I will admit that I am a total fan of James Rolfe and the AVGN brand. I feel like I’ve followed his career through the thick and thin (there were some lean years) and I have always admired his acumen in both film and gaming. That said, I am not reviewing this film as a fan. I feel like I can’t do that. I have to do service to the film itself and knowing how hard Rolfe worked on this, how many sacrifices he probably made and how wonderful of a wife he must have to go through this with him (and now having a child on top of all that), I will fairly critique the film.

The film opens with an homage to AVGN as a celebrity, and his fans. It references some of his trademark reviews an signature riffs and rants, and splices shots of fans saying how much they are a fan of his. These are genuine videos made by the fans, presumably by those who donated to the film as well.

I’m mentioning this because, even though I am a fan, and I love the Nerd and his rants…this has to be the most useless way to start his film. I realize that Rolfe has a soft heart, and loves his fans dearly (I can’t say enough how much I appreciate his devotion to his fans)–but this wastes some time and it starts the film off wrong, and slow. And no, I didn’t make a fan video and am just disappointed he didn’t use mine. But if you are a fan of his, you already know how funny and awesome he is. If you aren’t, do you really need to sit through 5-10 minutes of people adulating him? I think that’s a bit self aggrandizing, even if Rolfe doesn’t mean to make it that way.

It does serve a narrative purpose, slightly (not enough to justify it completely though). We learn that the Nerd (Rolfe) will do anything for his fans–except review The Worst Game Of All Time–“E.T.” for the Atari 2600. The Nerd, who works at GameCops (ha…) is egged on by a fan of his, and friend, Cooper (Jeremy Suarez), who also does game reviews as well. You could call Cooper a protege. The Nerd is shocked to see that a gaming company, Cockburn Gaming, is launching a sequel called “EeeTee Too” (they also refer to the original as EeeTee). A representative of the company, Mandi (Sarah Glendening), tries to entice the Nerd to review the game. But he is fearful that if he reviews that game, it’ll only stir up more interest in the original, which traumatized his childhood so much (in a very amusing scene) he can’t bring himself to relive it.

There’s also a myth he wants to debunk that there are countless copies of the original buried in the Alamogordo dump in New Mexico, which apparently is very close to Roswell. An irate and insane general, General Dark Onward (hilariously played by Stephen Mendel), goes after the Nerd thinking that he is after the UFO remains at Area 51, not the landfill dump.

Another subplot involves a scientist named Dr. Zandor (Time Winters) who is partly behind the “EeeTee” conspiracy, and his plot was to uncover the UFO conspiracy to help the alien that crash landed here in the 40’s. The alien, voiced by Robbie Rist, is one of the most entertaining characters in the film. Rist, if you’re not familiar, is the voice of Michelangelo in the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film.

One more subplot that adds to the last third of the film involves a theory of a mechagod that will destroy the universe and ultraverse and everything in between…existence as we know it will no longer…exist.

All of this actually winds up working well. The film is part buddy movie, part caper, part monster movie, and part sci-fi yarn. It all comes together nicely, and I credit that to the writing team of James Rolfe and Kevin Finn. They also do a nice job of throwing out references to other films (“They found me. I don’t know how, but they found me.”) and paying homage to old 1950’s B movies.

The special effects are purposely simple; and, in some cases, downright ridiculous. But even though it’s self-aware, there is never once a wink at the camera. Nobody cries out, “It’s a miniature!” or “That’s a spaceship?” While the Nerd references his own trailer (“I only said that for the trailer!”) there isn’t much more of that self-referential humor bogging the film down.

Really, the only two problems I had with the film were the first fifteen minutes; and I thought the character of Cooper should’ve been more well developed. While I get that the in-joke is that he’s a sidekick and they’re mostly useless, he could’ve been stronger as an adversary–or, someone who is the complete opposite of the Nerd. It just creates more possibility of tension, and in some ways Rolfe takes the easy way out of any character conflicts.

There’s another character named McButter (Helena Barrett) who is amusing as well, and gets involved in a predictable catfight later in the film. Most of the cast, actually, is quite charming. And the film does have some really big laughs.

I’d say that I enjoyed the final third of the film the best. And that would be when it becomes a monster movie. Knowing that Rolfe had trademark limits, I liked his clever little ways around any copywritten material or names (Vegas casinos, for example). Again, this film knows it’s low budget. But it’s not trying to be low budget, if that makes sense. While I know Rolfe prefers practical effects to CG, he also knows its constrictions when you don’t have millions of dollars to spend on them.

The film works overall because you can tell how much fun they’re all having with the material, without it being too self indulgent. It walks that line throughout, especially in the beginning; but it never crosses into anything too groan-inducing.

There are some fun cameos in the film, too, which I won’t give away. But a certain bad bird movie heroine has a sighting. OK maybe that was a giveaway. But I didn’t give away the biggest ones.

And stick around at the end, and you will finally see AVGN’s review of “E.T.”

My rating: :-)

Guardians of the Galaxy

August 6, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

I thought when I first saw ads for this film that Marvel Studios was really scraping the bottom of the barrel and trying to pluck anything out of their catalog to sell to kids so that they could rake in money and dominate another summer. Then I saw that James Gunn’s name was attached and I started to change my mind a bit. I had never heard of “Guardians of the Galaxy” before learning of the film’s release; after reading up a little bit on it, it actually looked like it could be a fun vehicle. Another thing I was hesitant to be excited about was the casting of Dave Bautista. He doesn’t ever come across as charismatic or endearing. Finally I stopped my preconceived notions like a nosebleed and decided to just go see the film and draw an opinion on what I saw on the screen.

What I saw was pure, absolute, 100% entertainment. This is what summer action movies are supposed to be like. While the first twenty minutes or so are quite a lot to take in–lot of backstory–once it settles in and our feet are firmly planted, it is a real treat. Gunn’s flair for humor permeates the whole film, which is a good thing. It’s funny to think a former Troma filmmaker could pull this off. But he does. And he even includes his old pal Lloyd Kaufman (former founder of Troma Films and director of “The Toxic Avenger” among other films) as a prison inmate in one scene.

The story involves a group of criminals in their own way thrust together by a nice MacGuffin (a little metal orb) that is worth a lot; but what it is, nobody really knows. We begin with the backstory of the main character, Peter Quill (very nicely played by Chris Pratt), as he’s a child tragically watching his mother die before him in a hospital. The only thing that seems to comfort him is his walkman (this is 1988), with an “Awesome Mix” playing. He is told he is going to be taken care of by his grandfather; but once he runs outside, tears streaming down his face, he is picked up by a large spacecraft. Decades later, he is a grown man and a thief working for the alien that abducted (and ultimately raised) him, Yondu (Michael Rooker, always a pleasure to see) and steals an orb that is meant for Yondu so he can sell it. Only Quill is attacked by a group led by someone named Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and escapes with the orb, enraging Yondu. It turns out Korath wanted the orb for a Kree alien named Ronan, whose assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is hired to track down Quill and take the orb from him. Meanwhile, there’s a price of Quill’s head that draws the attention of a scruffy raccoon-like being, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his companion, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and all parties converge on the planet Xandar, and are thrown in prison after some shenanigans take place.

There is a lot going on here, so I’ll just summarize: Rocket, Groot, Gamora, and Quill, all pretty much team up to escape prison. They are helped by another inmate, Drax (who has a back story involving Gamora that’s too complicated to get into in this review), played by Bautista. They escape, and are wanted by just about everybody–but they discover that the orb is actually a casing for something called the Infinity Stone that–wait for it–can give you ultimate power. Ronan wants it, but he has someone to answer to as well–Thanos. Ronan turns out to be a rogue and wants it for himself, and Gamora’s half sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), fights for Ronan. The team basically has to save the planet Xandar from Ronan and his quest for the Infinity Stone.

So try to follow all that. Actually, even if you’re extremely confused, the film never gets bogged down too much with plot that it takes away from the action and adventure of the story. The film’s two hour length is perfect and timed and paced well so that it’s rarely a dull moment.

But it’s really the characters of the Guardians that shine. Quill is your everyman, someone we all can relate to, and his sense of humor is charming. Rocket is a loudmouth but also amusing; Gamora is stunning and of course her chemistry with Quill is palpable. The surprise to me is Bautista’s performance as Drax. While Drax is hardly charismatic by design, it is his droll demeanor that actually winds up being what’s appealing about him. He has no reflection, no identity for irony (he once is told something “went over his head” and he retorts: “Nothing goes over my head. I would catch it immediately.”) and he speaks with a ridiculous vernacular for someone of his brawny size. Bautista plays it totally straight, no winking at the camera, and that makes Drax one of the strongest presences on screen, regardless of his physical prowess.

There are also some very tender moments, and one of the most touching actually involves Drax and Rocket. I won’t give away what it is, because it’s a major plot point, but I will note that it tugged at the heart strings. Of course Quill’s tragic back story with his mother resonates, and he is always seen carrying his walkman, trying to impress anyone he can with his awesome music (which for me was hit or miss).

The film reminded me of “The Avengers” in its spirit and emphasis on character and humor. The camaraderie between the gang is fun, and even when they’re at odds (which happens occasionally), it’s still a hoot.

Even though it seems like Marvel reached for this one, it proves there are some gems even at the bottom of whatever barrel they are scraping at. And because Marvel believes religiously in sequels, I know we will see these characters again.

And I look very much forward to seeing them.

My rating: :D

Godzilla (2014)

May 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

I suppose it’s not really a necessity to have another Godzilla film, especially made in America–but if we were going to have one, this one is certainly passable. It has a very complex plot for a monster film (but then again, so did “Pacific Rim”), and it misses out on a few notes in its character narrative; but as a monster film, it’s pitch perfect. We don’t get to see the King of the Monsters in all his glory for a long time; but when we do, it’s pretty fantastic.

The story begins with a credit sequence that takes us through little snippets of classified documents that show pictures revealing something that looks like an island in the ocean. During the 1950’s the US tries to destroy it, identifying it as a monster, with nuclear weaponry. Instead of killing it, however, it is later revealed that these giant creatures actually feed off of radiation. When we first meet one of our main characters, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (well played by Ken Watanabe), the year is 1999, and he works on a project called Monarch after discovering fossilized remains of a giant creature, as well as two eggs. We also are introduced to Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, who work at a power plant in Japan that is reporting seismic activity. Something ruptures in the earth, and the core is shut down, but not before the plant collapses, and gases are released inside, killing his wife.

Fifteen years later, in present day, Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is in the Navy, returning home from duty, when he is told his father has been arrested. His wife tells him to go visit since it’s been so long, and Ford reluctantly goes to bail him out in Japan. He leaves behind his wife and his own son, to help his father. When he gets there, he finds that the town he grew up in is still considered a danger zone with radiation; but Joe, after being released, takes him back and the two realize they do not need radiation suits. There is no radiation. Joe’s prediction is that the plant did not fail, it was something else.

We learn that Serizawa still has the eggs; and when one of them hatches, we are introduced to our first monster in the film: a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). The creature has wings and can fly, and has burning red eyes, flashes of light. The creature destroys the base that was holding it, and we find that there is another creature that’s hatched as well. These two creatures are searching for radiation to feed off of.

Then, the big creature returns. Gojira. The rest of the film tries to balance a narrative between Ford returning to his family, his family surviving the destruction of the monsters attacking each other, and the military trying to take down all the monsters. Serizawa suggests to let nature take its course, let the monsters fight; after all, no blast will destroy these creatures and they will simply feed off any radiation of any nuclear bombs that are exploded on them.

The film does a great job showing the monster fights, although the MUTO’s leave something to be desired as far as creative design. I do like that they gave Godzilla real eyes that we can see into. There is a wonderfully subtle scene between Ford and Godzilla, when Godzilla has fallen to the ground, presumably to die, and just stares into Ford’s eyes. It’s almost as if Godzilla’s saying, “It’s a living…” before disappearing into smoke. But it also lets us know that Godzilla has no issue with us. We’re just in his way. He’s trying to kill the MUTO’s.

The other parts of the film don’t bring much to the table, however, which is a shame. I liked the set up of Ford and Joe being like mirror opposites, with Ford being much more family oriented. That would have to come from the fact that he believed his father was too dedicated to his work and that he wants to provide and be a better husband/father. But that never goes anywhere, and we never get to know the humans enough to really care much about them. I liked Cranston’s character, and really believe they make a narrative mistake by leaving him out of most of the film. I also enjoyed Serizawa’s character as well–that stoic, quiet, knowing and understanding person who seems to have a connection with the monster as well. But most of the human scenes come off as very thin and underdeveloped.

Overall it satiates the appetite of anyone who wants to see a good “monster movie” and it makes Godzilla an appealing screen presence again. Much like Peter Jackson did with “King Kong”, Godzilla isn’t just a city crushing behemoth. While there isn’t as much personality as there is in “King Kong”, Godzilla shows us a side that even makes us root for him. The climactic battle between the monsters is certainly worthy of a theatrical viewing, and some of the cinematography is very well done. Grab a bag of popcorn, nestle in your seat, and enjoy watching the King of the Monsters back on the big screen.

My rating: :-)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

December 4, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

So here we go again. Or do we? Well, Katniss and Peeta are heroes and are back in their District, living in better conditions but the District is still impoverished. The rest of the Districts don’t know that they believe Katiss and Peeta are really in love; but most importantly, President Snow (reprised by Donald Sutherland) doesn’t believe it. He knows they faked it to win, and got one over on him. He can’t handle it, so he tries to play a game of his own, to try and out them publicly while the new Gamesmaker, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) comes up with a way to get Katniss to expose herself as a fraud and stifle some sparks of a new Revolution.

Katniss is still in love with her longtime friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but does have some feelings for Peeta. They’re just not strong enough to be considered “true love”. As she and Peeta go on tour through the Districts, they’re given scripts to read to each one; and are basically paraded around to show that the Hunger Games were worth all the death, I guess. I still can’t really figure out the purpose of what the “Hunger Games” is about. I mean, the overall message to the audience. But by now, I don’t think it matters that much. This movie, once it gets going, really is more about the action and adventure…and love. It’s  not really about having a message.

And, like the first one, that’s all fine well and good. Meaning, I still enjoyed it. I think Jennifer Lawrence is even stronger in this film, showing a more emotionally fragile Katniss who has to be stronger than she was in the first Hunger Games. Hutcherson is still likable as Peeta, and we’re introduced to some new characters too: Finnick (Sam Claflin), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Wiress (Amanda Plummer), and Mags (Lynn Cohen), who cannot speak. Her partner in her district is Finnick, who seems cocky and arrogant but does have a soft heart underneath. Beetee and Wiress are sort of nerds who are more tech savvy. And then there’s Johanna (brutally played by Jena Malone) who…really isn’t necessary at all. All of these characters were former winners of Hunger Games as well. Because of the plan to stifle talks of a new Revolution, Snow believes it’s time to make a distraction with a new Hunger Games. So it’s kind of like, Hunger Games: All Stars. Mark Burnett would be so proud. Oh, Woody Harrelson is back as well as Haymitch. Only he’s even less useful in this…but he still is always drinking. Have to love that. What else is there to do in a dystopian future?

The Hunger Games begin again and it becomes very familiar territory…although I did like the poison fog. It’s quite disgusting what happens to your skin if it engulfs you. But just when it starts getting too familiar, the game is changed. Literally. And what it sets up is a delicious looking conclusion…which we’ll have to experience in two parts, like “Harry Potter”.

Overall, this is a good continuation of the story. I don’t know that I’d call it a true sequel because it’s just another part of a clothesline story that’s inevitably going to conclude itself in the fourth film. It’s like calling “The Two Towers” a sequel. Just doesn’t sound right. Hey maybe if “The Lord of the Rings” was made now, there would be a “Return of the King Part 1” and “Part 2” as well. Can you imagine how long that would be? Probably as long as it was anyway…

“Catching Fire” is fun, and now that we’ve gotten it out of the way that it’s not anything more than that…I suppose it’s time to start just enjoying it.

My rating: :-)

Kick-Ass 2

August 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

“Kick-Ass” was a fun, if a bit overviolent romp that put a bit of a realistic spin on the superhero genre. Of course, it wanted to have it both ways: cartoonish violence mixed with realistic violence. In most ways, it worked because it had so much fun with itself and didnt take itself too seriously. With the sequel, it packs on more violence and does the same thing; but it also adds another wrinkle, which is a “sexy” angle that comes off more as just audaciously perverse than it does comical or ironic.

“Kick-Ass 2” again follows the exploits of a group of superheroes who are real people and really have no super powers. Dave, or Kick-Ass, played well again by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is now a senior in high school with his bombshell girlfriend and is learning to be a better “ass-kicker” basically with the help of Mindy, or Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). The two here have great chemistry, and there’s even a bit of tension between them because of what Dave wants to accomplish versus what Mindy isn’t allowed to any longer. She’s basically grounded from being Hit Girl after her father (Big Daddy) was killed in the first film and her guardian, a cop named Marcus, wants to protect her from sharing that same fate.

Meanwhile, Kick-Ass realizes he can’t save the city of New York by himself and instead of being a dynamic duo with Hit-Girl, he is enlisted in a team of crime fighters known as Justice Forever, headed up by Colonel Stars and Stripes (well played by Jim Carrey), a born again ex-mafioso who can either beat you up by himself, or have his dog do it for him. Other heroes include Night Bitch (Lindy Booth) and Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison), the former who begins a bit of a romance with Kick-Ass as they patrol the streets fighting crime.

There’s still a “real world” element in this film that they like to play with: in one scene, a group of punks try recording a fight with Kick-Ass on their phone in the hopes it’ll go viral. In another, the new supervillain The Motherf*cker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) tweets his rage and want of revenge for Kick-Ass after he killed his father in the first movie, and recruits a group of evildoers in hopes of making an army of villains to take down the city of New York–for no apparent reason.

That’s all well and good, and there are some comic scenes involving these antics that makes the movie fun. But the whole product never seems to be quite right; and, sometimes when the movie is supposed to be funny or goofy, it just comes off as awkward and even offensive. The bigger faux pas is the more sexual angle the film takes. This is handled in a pretty useless subplot involving Mindy and a group of snobs led by Brooke (Claudia Lee) as head cheerleader. This plot feels more like a sequel to “Mean Girls” than it does “Kick-Ass” as Mindy tries to find a new identity for herself, Popular-Girl (sorry). There’s an entire dance sequence that just feels a bit icky if you realize that Lee isn’t even 18 yet in real life; but in terms of importance of the plot, there isn’t any.

This film is completely unadulterated, and unfiltered. I have no issue with that in theory; but you have to execute it correctly. If you’re going to bill the movie as a black comedy or a cartoonish superhero comedy action film, you have to use the right tone, and this film never achieves that. The satire isn’t convincing, there doesn’t seem to be an awareness that some of the humor is tasteless and unworthy, and there are even pacing problems as the film comes to its climax because there has been so much exposition in the previous two acts that try to pull the movie in too many directions. Some of the narration by Kick-Ass makes it seem like you’re watching a synopsis of a film rather than the film itself.

I can’t say I was bored through any of it, or that it was a waste of time. Some of it is very charming; and since this revolves more around Hit-Girl and Moretz is such a good young actress, it can be very appealing. In some ways it wants to be a coming of age story, and it works occasionally. There are humorous scenes, and some big laughs. And of course, the fight scenes are competent. The sequel raises the ante of stakes and ambition. But with great ambition comes great responsibility, and this film really doesn’t want the responsibility. It just wants to wallow in its indulgence. If that were the point, and it was driven home correctly, then I’d say the film did its job. But writer/director Jeff Wadlow and company needed to do a better job of putting it all together. Maybe the comic book series this is based on does that; but then again, in that medium, you can get away with a lot more and pay less consequences. In the movie world, there are rules. And if you’re going to break them, you’d better have a good excuse. This film’s excuse isn’t much better than “the dog ate my homework”.

My rating: :?

After Earth

June 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

“Danger can be very real. Fear is a choice.” That’s a line from Cypher Raige in “After Earth”, a film that is so very basic and simple in its storytelling, it was refreshing to see a science fiction film that really understood the medium. The film takes place in the future, of course, and Earth is no longer inhabitable. Instead, there are human colonies set up on another planet in the solar system. But humans are not entirely safe after evacuating earth. There is an alien race that wants to destroy humans inhabiting Nova Prime (the new planet the humans have colonized) and their weapon of choice is a creature known as an Ursa, which can sense fear and find and kill humans that way since they can’t hear, smell or see. But there are certain humans who can “ghost”, which means they do not give off fear and can remain undetected by the Ursas, killing them undetected.

General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is one such “ghoster”, and also is a superior Ranger who leads a group of other Rangers on one last mission before retirement (of course!) including his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has failed becoming a Ranger thus disappointing his father. There’s another backstory regarding the father/son relationship as well, though, that complicates it a bit more. We learn that Kitai had a sister named Senshi who was killed by an Ursa while Kitai was a boy, and he watched her die from a little bubble she had put him in to protect him. Cypher believes he should have saved her. While Kitai is riddled with guilt, he also feels his father should have been there as well, instead of just on some other mission.

The two of them are thrust into a very dire situation when their ship hits an asteroid belt and they are forced to crash land on earth, susceptible to all of the problems that the planet has now such as large, primal animals that will kill them; and, tempature shifts that cause the planet to freeze overnight. In the crash, everyone but the father and son are killed. Cypher is badly injured, and so it’s up to his son, Kitai, to retrieve a beacon from the tail end of the ship that landed halfway across the planet. The atmosphere is not breathable so he has to take oxygen capsules with him in order to survive. This sets up what I call the “video game plot”, in which a character’s only means are basic tools that all will serve a very specific purpose in getting to the end and completing the mission. You realize, too, that whatever the character is given will be challenged and possibly taken away during the course of the plot as well.

The story unfolds predictably; but it’s directed at such a good pace by M. Night Shyamalan that it feels okay to just sit back and enjoy it. The morality tale that lies beneath the action is nice, and the performances by Smith and his son work even though the elder Smith is far superior as an actor and has much better range. It rarely is distracting because the two of them rarely share the same screen time since Kitai is off on the planet and Cypher is back in the ship, directing him through a communicator.

There’s a nice little subplot involving a large condor as well that serves as possibly the only other “character” in the story. But the focus is mainly on the father and son, and their journey not only to recover this beacon to send a distress call, but also to mend their relationship. For Kitai, he must get over his fear and guilt in order to survive the final “boss” of the film, an escaped Ursa that was being brought along on the ship in captivity. For Cypher, he too has guilt over allowing his daughter to die and his own fear of losing his only other child.

The climax and resolution is satisfying, mainly because the film does not rely on a deus ex machina like so many sci-fi films do these days. Instead, Kitai must look within himself in order to “ghost”; and while you still have to suspend disbelief a bit in some of the third act, we’re invested enough in the characters by then to forgive some things that are outlandish. This is sci-fi fantasy, after all.

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to enjoy a film directed by Shyamalan and it was nice to see him take a step back a bit. He co-wrote this film, and Will Smith provided the story. I think it was smart for Shyamalan to share this time, and it should benefit him for the future if this film is a success. On balance it is a nice enough film with plenty of thrills and even some touching moments that were unexpected. I hope this is the start of a recovery for Shyamalan. As for Jaden Smith, he still has a long way to go. But this was certainly a big step for him

Star Trek Into Darkness

May 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

In 2009, we were treated to another incarnation of the original “Star Trek” cast. After all, after “Nemesis” it was evident that there was no more room for the “Next Generation” cast as it seemed their film arc was all washed up. I still don’t know how that happened as they were a bright, fun cast with an introspective and classy captain. I chalk it up to unimaginative writing and stagnant directing by Jonathan Frakes, who played also played Riker.

The series was rebooted and at the helm was “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams who had done a nice job taking an ensemble cast in that show and putting them in interesting situations while growing them as characters (for the first few seasons, anyway). Abrams was hired as director for the “Star Trek” reboot even though he was admittedly not a big fan of the show. That’s not always a kiss of death, however. In some ways it can help because there’s no fanboy bias that you have to worry about. The result, too, was a smashing success, putting together a great cast of young actors to reinvigorate the roles of the original star ship Enterprise. Although the villain was a bit cartoonish and weak, the main story of Kirk and Spock becoming friends was extremely well done.

Now, four years later, we say hello again to the same cast, and it’s a real pleasure seeing them again. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have mastered the roles of Kirk and Spock respectively; though they are friendlier, there are still some kinks to work out. When we are first introduced to them this time around, the Enterprise is on an observational mission on a small planet of natives who are about to be wiped out by a volcano. Acting against their Prime Directive, they are seen by the natives and Kirk saves Spock’s life while he is in the active volcano, trying to save the race from extinction. Though it was a noble effort, Kirk is reprimanded by not only his superiors, but also by Spock because saving his life was “illogical”. Kirk is relieved of his captain status, and Spock is reassigned to another Federation ship.

But don’t think that means we’re not going to see them work together. A bomb explodes on Earth wiping out a department in Starfleet, and the culprit is a former officer known as John Harrison who, for unexplained reasons, has gone rogue. Kirk is given First Officer status on the Enterprise and is assigned to accompany Admiral Pike (reprised by Bruce Greenwood). Before their mission is underway, however, they are attacked at Starfleet Command, and Pike is killed by Harrison. Kirk finds out at this point that this terrorist plot is related to a secret that Starfleet is keeping, one that offers a bit of a twist on John Harrison that I won’t reveal–but you will be very familiar with it if you’ve followed any of the “Star Trek” films in your life.

With Pike dead, Kirk resumes his position as captain and reinstates Spock as First Officer. Their mission is also a secret one: to take out John Harrison on the Klingon planet Kronos, in an uninhabited city. The order is given by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), and the Enterprise is sent into Kronos. Once on the planet, however, Kirk decides to spare Harrison’s life and capture him rather than kill him. They are greeted unexpectedly by Marcus in another Federation ship, the USS Vengeance, and Marcus insists again that Harrison be killed. Marcus’ daughter, Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) is on board the Enterprise, and when she learns that Marcus intends to destroy the Enterprise if needbe, she tries to intervene. But all Marcus does is beam her aboard, and Kirk is left in a very precarious situation.

There is a lot more going on in this film than the previous one, obviously. That should always be the case when it comes to sequels. Raise the stakes, make it more interesting, give the characters something more to work with. Abrams and Co. do this as best they can but they are somewhat hampered in this sophomore effort by a sophomoric script, co-written by former “Lost” buddy Damon Lindelof. As in “Prometheus”, Lindelof shows that he cannot seem to handle complexities in character and narrative arc, and some situations are handled more like a Sunday morning comic rather than a feature film. So expect some Deus Ex Machinas, and suspend your disbelief a little bit more than you’re used to, even in a science fiction action film like this.

It especially works against them in the character of Harrison, who is a very convincing villain played exquisitely by Benedict Cumberbatch. There is an open ending which begs for his return and I hope it does happen, because his character felt a bit rushed at times when this character deserves patient and deliberate writing to be a worthy foe for Kirk and the Enterprise.

But it is nice to see the cast again, and actors Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, and John Cho are appealing supporting actors rounding out the splendid Enterprise crew. The only one that seems to still just “impersonate” his counterpart is Karl Urban who plays Dr. “Bones” McCoy. Every time he speaks he is trying too hard to “sound like” Bones rather than just be Bones. Other than that, the cast works perfectly.

The film delivers big laughs as well as big thrills, and although there are a few too many climaxes in third act that wears you down a bit, the ending is satisfying and it made me want to see where these characters will boldly go next.

I just hope the next script provides an equally interesting story that isn’t littered with plot holes and convenient resolutions.

My rating: :-)

The Dark Knight Rises

July 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Back in 2005, Christopher Nolan rescued one of the most self-destructive franchises in movie history when he resurrected Batman in “Batman Begins”. What began as a promising run with Tim Burton in 1989 devolved quickly once it was taken over by Joel Schumacher in the mid-90’s; and the culminating film, “Batman & Robin”, promised that the franchise had completely fallen apart. After that film, I think we were all sick of Batman. At least, we were sick of *that* Batman. But, Batman as a symbol of justice, as a comic book hero, is still intriguing. The costume, the super rich alter ego, and the inner struggle of the character, are still something we yearn to see.

And so, Christopher Nolan, who at the time was still making his way into the Hollywood mainstream, rebooted the whole thing and started from scratch. At the time, we didn’t have an onslaught of comic book movies every year, so it didn’t feel as much as a saturated genre (as, say, watching “The Amazing Spider-Man” did). And Nolan took a serious approach to Batman, someone who wanted to do a character study as well as an action film. The result, “Batman Begins”, was a smashing success. Finally we saw Batman as a real character. The film was dark and brooding much like Burton’s 1989 version; but we learned so much more about Bruce Wayne and Batman in this film. With champion efforts by good actors like Michael Caine and Chrisitan Bale, this Batman movie was thorough, thought-provoking, and sensational.

His follow up was one of the biggest and best comic book epics brought on screen with “The Dark Knight” in 2008. Though that movie was surrounded by the hype of the passing of Heath Ledger, the film stood as a fantastic, big scale action thriller with one of the best “villain” performances in film history. It would be hard to top an achievement such as “The Dark Knight.”

This time, Nolan tries his best with “The Dark Knight Rises”, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at us with big explosions and massively complex action sequences. The result? Well, I said it’d be hard to top “The Dark Knight”. And, it certainly doesn’t come close. In fact, this to me was the weakest of the 3 films. It spends so much time on the action and too much time on corporate politics, and so little on character, that this was an imbalance.

“Rises” begins big with an escape by the villain Bane (played by Tom Hardy), a hulking cross between a roided up bomber pilot and Darth Vader who has a curious wit that could be appreciated if we could understand what he was saying half the time. While the voice is a bit bass amplified and broadcast through surround sound, sometimes it’s so muddled that you just have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Other times, his voice goes so over the top it’s hard to tell if he’s aware of how silly he sounds. But when Bane throws his hands, it’s no laughing matter. There’s no question that he is the most physically imposing villain that Batman has faced in the entire movie series, dating back to the 60’s.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is bankrupt after a venture with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who seemingly comes out of nowhere to help Wayne Enterprises, and has invested in a fusion power project that has ultimately cost him his fortune, and his board removes him from the company. She and Wayne share a brief romance; but there isn’t a lot of time spent on their relationship, and perhaps it’s for the best in the end.

As for Batman, he’s retired. Wayne suffered an injury that has left him a bit crippled. This is taken advantage of by another adversary, who is Selina Kyle, or, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). She’s a burglar who only steals from rich people…like Robin Hood. Only with much more sex appeal. There are two sides to this character, though, and she is actually one of the stronger ones in the film thanks to a brilliant performance by Hathaway. There is a vulnerability inside her; but she “masks” it (ahem) with a hard edge that says she can’t be manipulated. Wayne somewhat sympathizes with her; she feels something for him as well, but she just can’t show it.

Batman does make a comeback, however, as expected. Otherwise I guess the movie would’ve only been 45 minutes long and called “The Dark Knight Says I’d Rather Not”. He’s not as strong as Bane, however, and routinely gets dominated by Bane’s strength and agility. The reason Bane is so similar to Batman physically is because he was trained by the same man, Ra’s al Ghul (reprised by Liam Neeson) in the League of Shadows. Bane was excommunicated, and is seen as Batman as a “rogue”. But Bane wins out, and Batman is cast into the same prison that Bane grew up in, with his only hope of escaping is by climbing out of a hole and leaping to freedom. Allegedly, Bane is the only one who could ever do this, and it was when he was a child.

The city of Gotham is at Bane’s mercy, and he destroys a part of it with explosives in the ground that erupt and blow up a football stadium (one of the more breathtaking sequences in the film), and some of the bridges. It also encases the entire police force underground, leaving the city to a Lord of the Flies-like Martial Law. However, this won’t last very long as he has coveted a nuclear bomb after releasing the core from its fusion power chamber, that will detonate in 5 months. Whomever programmed a time bomb for that long either forgot to carry the one, or is a very patient madman.

The only cops that are above ground are the disgraced former Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and a bright young cop named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Blake still believes in the Batman even though he’s part of a police force that was after him when Batman was still capering in Gotham City.

All of these stories meshing together do make for an ok 165 minute lark. There’s never a moment of boredom in the film because it’s packed with so many intense sequences and climactic action scenes. It does not wear you out. However, because of the scale of the epic, and a drop off in character development, there are some lulls in the storylines that leave some very wide open plot holes. I’m all for suspending disbelief, but this really tries your patience on more than a few occasions, especially at the end. Then it goes beyond suspending disbelief to the point where you have to damn near expel it. Also, Bane is not nearly as interesting or consistent as the Joker was. Granted, it would be hard to top Heath Ledger’s performance. But Bane really doesn’t have much of a personality; and, as I mentioned before, it’s hard to understand a word he’s saying sometimes. Hardy does as much with his eyes and body language to convey his meaning; but the overpowering inability to hear his words really hurts the performance. I blame this on post production and Nolan’s stubbornness more than Hardy’s acting chops, however.

The film’s pace is fine, and it does have some superior effects; on balance, I would have still recommended it…had it not been for the ending, as I mentioned above. Nolan has always seemed to rise above standard movie cliches and even with the somewhat bloated “The Dark Knight”, he still told a compelling story rich in story and character, and here I just felt left out. But beyond that, which I could still forgive, the ending is not only cliched, but ultimately impossible. And in its final shot, more groan inducing than moving. Nolan is an intelligent writer and filmmaker; but here, he seems to take the easy way out to appease the audience. I would’ve expected a more complicated or compromising climax out of such a grandiose trilogy. Instead, it’s very predictable and relies so heavily on your belief in comic book hero magic that it just felt out of place in a film series full of so much…reality. And that’s what had separated Nolan’s Batman series from the others.

This is still a strong trilogy; in time, I may forgive the film for its flaws. For now, I can only give a mixed review and say I would’ve liked to see more out of a filmmaker I respect as much as Christopher Nolan.

My rating: :?