Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

In 2014, we were treated to a new batch of heroes from Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was skeptical at first because I had never even heard of this comic book series before. It turns out, the Guardians go back to 1969, however the ones depicted in the film are from a “modern” reinvention, that goes back to the latter part of the 20th century. While there’s history there, this is a relatively new series. Nevertheless, my wariness for a new comic book franchise was diminished when I saw that James Gunn, formerly of TROMA, was attached to it. I’ve been a fan of his work dating back to his early days, and really enjoyed his later films such as “Slither”. When I saw the first “Guardians of the Galaxy”, whatever reservations I had were completely vanquished. I was thoroughly entertained by the characters: Star-Lord, or Peter (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). I actually couldn’t wait for their next adventure, having so much fun watching them in their first film.

Now, we’re treated to that next story; and once again, it was a pleasure. The cast is a bit bigger this time, including previous side characters (and somewhat villains) such as Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). While the core Guardians are still the main focus, there is an ample amount of time given to these other characters, especially Yondu.

The opening credit sequence alone is enough to fall in love with this film. We see a growing Baby Groot (only potted in the finale of the last film), dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the Guardians fight a giant slimy creature as a favor to a group of people known as the Sovereign, who are condescending but open to rewarding them for protecting their (precious?) batteries. Nebula, Gamora’s sister, is being held by the Sovereign, and release her back to the Guardians once the task of destroying the creature (in another amusing sequence) is complete. However, Rocket steals some of these batteries, and the Sovereign goes after them. Their style of space battle resembles old Atari games for some reason. It’s inexplicable, but funny nonetheless.

We also open with another story, that becomes part of the bigger plot, that involves a man named Ego (Kurt Russell), young and dashing, charming a young woman. We later find out what the significance of this flashback is, and are re-introduced to Ego as an older man, who now claims to be Peter’s estranged father.

When the Guardians escape the grasp of the Sovereign, and other shenanigans, Peter and Gamora go with Ego to his home “planet”, along with his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a mysterious but intriguing character that catches Drax’s fancy (although he’s unwilling to admit it). We learn that Ego is known as a “Celestial”, a god-like being, and can control pretty much anything he wants, if he can share that power with someone. He wants that someone to be Peter, who is unsure whether to believe that this is his father.

Father and son relationships are extensively explored in this film–I almost wonder if this would have been better suited to be released around Father’s Day. You have the backstory of Peter and Ego, with Peter still holding onto his resentment that he watched his mother die without his father around. Then, there’s Peter and Yondu, who raised Peter to be a thief and stands by his reasoning: “he was skinny, and made it easy for thievin'” (paraphrased). Yondu, part of the Ravagers–a group of intergalactic smugglers–refuses to admit any other reasoning why he kept Peter around. But we find out why later in the film. It makes sense, and it’s actually quite touching.

That’s the other strength of the film. While it is funny–sometimes uproariously so–it’s also poignant at times. There’s a lot more to this film than just space battles and quick wit. And I think that, like Peter Jackson maturing into his calling for “Lord of the Rings”, James Gunn has found his calling in “Guardians”. It’s like he was made for this series. Yes, it strays from the original comic books and that’s partly why I credit him so much. He made this his own in a sense; and here, in this sequel, he’s really mastered it.

There was never a moment where I was bored, antsy, or frustrated. There are moments when Drax gets a little carried away, and a few awkward moments here and there–but for the most part, all of it works in the grand scheme. The film is almost two and a half hours long, and it really felt like it needed all of that to tell a complete story. Nothing is rushed or slapdash. Gunn takes his time building something and working it into a satisfying conclusion. Yes, there are some cliched, predictable plot twists and devices–I think that comes with the territory of a superhero film. They’re all, by design, franchised to be the same story structure. But there are some really nice surprises along the way, and you might want to keep a few Kleenex handy at a few points.

I know the future of this series ultimately will tie into The Avengers at some point–if the rumors are true–but as they stay in their own universe, I hope Gunn sticks with the series. To me, he’s the heart and soul and foundation of it. Yes, the characters are great–Peter and Gamora have excellent chemistry. Even Mantis and Drax share some nice screen time. Rocket is always a pleasure. And I can’t write this review without completely gushing over Baby Groot. He is adorable, and steals a lot of scenes.

But it’s everything that makes this sequel even bigger, and better than the original. It brings everything up a level, which is what sequels are supposed to do anyway. It’s a great way to start the blockbuster season; but more than that, it stands alone as probably the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year.

My rating: :D

La La Land

January 24, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

“La La Land” is a musical that begins like any other musical does, but doesn’t end like many I’ve seen. It’s written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who made 2014’s “Whiplash” and co-wrote “10 Cloverfield Lane”. “La La Land” has moments of the delirium of a typical musical, mixed with some realism and cynicism that is usually saved for another genre. It is an interesting concept, and for the most part, it works quite well.

It begins with a musical number that you’d think would set the tone for a very upbeat, silly, and theatrical experience. We’re introduced to our two leads: Mia (Emma Stone), on her way to an audition; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who’s driving around learning music. Both are stuck in an endless traffic jam that sets off the song “Another Day of Sun”, boisterous and toe-tapping, but not necessarily memorable musically.

From there, we see that Mia works on the Warner Bros. lot as a barista, one of thousands of hopeful actresses who is always either on her way to work, a party, or an audition. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who is stuck playing simple Christmas tunes at a bar, working for tips and a little money. The two first meet inauspiciously on the highway, with Sebastian and Mia exchanging annoyed glances due to the traffic jam. When she finds herself in the bar that he’s playing, she witnesses him break from his script and start playing a jazz riff that winds up getting him fired. But she’s taken by the moment, even though it’s not shared by him. When they meet again, we’re treated to a much nicer song (“A Lovely Night”), after they run into each other at a party in which Sebastian is now with an 80’s cover pop band.

Of course, they fall in love, each encouraging each other to follow their dreams. Sebastian wants to open his own jazz bar, and Mia finds that she’s at her best if she creates her own role and is prompted by Sebastian to write a one woman show for herself. In Los Angeles, the city of angels, it’s also the city of dreams. While the pair try to make it through together, moving in with each other, some opportunities arise. Sebastian is offered by an old friend (John Legend) to play in his band. They’re more modern, and pop influenced, but still considered “jazz” enough for Sebastian to join. They also pay extremely well. The only other drawback, besides going against Sebastian’s purity roots, is that they’re always on tour or recording a record. For Mia, she stays at home and works on her play, setting up a premiere night that doesn’t go as well as she’d hoped. To make things worse, Sebastian misses it due to an engagement in photo shoots and a music video production.

The strain of the relationship, on top of the pressures of trying to “make it”, cause the two to drift. The third act of the film is predictable, with them going their own way–but the ending is a bit of a surprise, for a musical. This was what I liked most about it. Some of the structure reminded me of the 1981 film “Pennies from Heaven” with Steve Martin, especially how the film concludes.

While the film is a love story, it’s more about the pursuit of one’s goals rather than the pursuit of happiness with another person. After all, that’s Hollywood. Much of your life in tinseltown is spent sacrificing, compromising. Falling in love, but not staying in love. But can Mia and Sebastian break those chains, and make it together? It’s certainly something we want to see happen.

The film’s strength is in its little doses of humor and Gostling and Stone’s performances. The musical numbers are, for the most part, very average. There are a few exceptions–“City of Stars”, the film’s key song, and the catalyst to drawing me in completely; and, “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme”, which is sprinkled throughout the film. Some of the jazz numbers are very well done as well. It has a few stagnant sequences, and can be a bit laborious at a little over two hours of running time; but it’s most enjoyable watching these two actors enjoy their screen time together, singing and dancing (Stone better at the singing and Gosling better at the dancing).

In a time of over saturation with remakes, reboots, sequels, and countless adaptations, it’s also refreshing to see a wholly original work, even if it is sometimes a cliche’d musical. It’s a nice break from the grind of moviegoing these days, and there are definitely moments in the film where you’d like to stay there just a little longer. After all, it is la la land.

My rating: :-)

Doctor Strange

November 8, 2016 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

The Marvel Universe, like any universe, can always welcome Benedict Cumberbatch with open arms. He takes the character of Doctor Strange–that’s his real name, not just his super hero name–an arrogant, callous, selfish surgeon who is involved in a car crash that nearly destroys his hands. This of course renders him useless as a surgeon; and even though the crash was 100% his fault, he still goes on a quest to try and heal his hands because he doesn’t think that maybe he deserves this punishment for being such a mean guy.

His love interest, Christine (Rachel McAdams), tries her best to stick by him professionally and personally. Professionally because she works with him, and personally because she is in love with him. But he turns her away, and he goes on his own to find his cure. He hears about a former patient that was cured of paralysis of his spine. He was told he’d never walk again, and he defied that. Strange can’t believe such a thing, but he’s given his file which convinces him. This takes him all the way to Kathmandu in Nepal, to a compound called Kamar-Taj. There, he meets The Ancient One–that’s her real name, not just her super hero name–an intelligent, wise, and has incredible powers that intrigue Strange. She also happens to be bald, but Tilda Swinton can pull anything off.

Strange learns that we can harness an energy and use it, divining from other universes and multiverses and whatnot. It’s like Hawking mixed with Confucius. With time, belief, and training, Strange can harness the energy himself, and cure his hands. More importantly, the Ancient One and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) want to recruit Strange to fight against a dark entity who wants to control all universes–Dormammu. Dormammu has his own disciples, including Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who is the resident adversary in this yarn.

Dormammu eventually makes an appearance–he isn’t all that intimidating, looking more like a cross between a Michael Bay Transformer and a Disney ride prop (I wonder why). The dark realm that he controls actually looks a bit inviting. Not a murky, dangerous looking place but rather a blue hued star system you’d see at a Planetarium. But Dormammu means business, and the Ancient One needs to find as many soldiers as she can to destroy him.

He acts as a devious type who can lure you into using dark magic, thinking that you will be more powerful and use it for immortality. Strange, for the most part, doesn’t want any part of the revolution–but he’s roped in, and decides he can actually serve mankind humbly. Somehow he has a cosmic draw to the magic and sorcery, and attracts a sharp looking cape that becomes his pal, and protects him.

There are some really big laughs in this film, which adds to its entertainment value. While the origin story plays out as standard fare, and there really are no surprises in the storytelling, the spikes of humor are a nice touch. One involves a running joke with a resident Master, Wong (Benedict Wong–that’s his real name, not just–OK you get it), who is quite a treat. There is some play with the name “Strange”, which is a little more predictable but still elicits laughs.

Mordo and Strange have nice chemistry working together to fend off the evil forces, and the action sequences are pretty spectacular to watch. As a spectacle, it’s what you’d expect from Marvel. Again, it’s not anything better than what we’ve seen in previous films in the MCU–but Cumberbatch, Swinton, Wong, and Ejiofor all make it something a little more special.

It’s a good two hour venture into a new piece of an ever expanding universe–and that’s better than what DC is giving us so far.

My rating: :-)

Independence Day: Resurgence

June 29, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

Back in the spring of 1996, I was a junior in high school, and I was intrigued by a very short but extremely effective movie trailer: July 2nd, they arrive. July 3rd, they attack. July 4th is…Independence Day. And a lot of things blowing up. It was as simple a concept as you could have, and yet it was all I needed to be absolutely stoked to see what “Independence Day” had to offer.

Back then, there was really no internet (although I was a frequent patron of America On-Line and its chat rooms), and even though you could watch entertainment access shows to get a glimpse into a movie you were into seeing, you mostly had to wait until it came out and see it for yourself before you really knew all about it. When I went with a group of friends on opening night, I didn’t even know who was in it.

That film experience to this day ranks as one of the best I had ever had. I wasn’t born yet for the first “Star Wars”, and I was very little for “Return of the Jedi” (which I still loved dearly, even at my young age). Throughout my childhood, I certainly had great movie experiences. But for some reason, “Independence Day” stuck with me. 1996 was a great year for geeks, during a period of time when geekdom wasn’t a thing. No one catered to us. We didn’t have numerous conventions that we could attend and make like-minded friends or have “nerdgasms”. But we did have “The X-Files”, which had just switched to mainstream Sunday nights and became popular, a “Dr. Who” TV movie (no matter how hard I try, Eric Roberts cannot be wiped from memory as the Master), and “Mystery Science Theater 3000” released a full length feature film in theaters.

So in the middle of the summer comes “Independence Day”, surely a retread of sci-fi yarns we’ve seen before. But the audience I saw it with lapped it up like popcorn butter, and all of us were cheering like crazy by the end. It was patriotic, bombastic, and a feel good action film. What more could you want? Well, it was fleeced by critics, and maybe your parents too–but it made a killing at the box office, and everyone I knew loved it. Myself, I saw it 3 times in the theater and even bought a tee shirt of it.

20 years later, we have a sequel. A long time coming, or far too late? Well, I never really thought the first one needed a sequel. It wrapped everything up and let us celebrate the victory against the aliens. It was satisfying. But after 20 years, you get nostalgic. And that’s what I wanted from the sequel. Just nostalgia. Doesn’t need to be great, doesn’t need to be better than the original or blow my mind. After all, the first movie was released during one of my most cynical periods of life–and yet I still loved it. So I couldn’t be that let down by this, right?

Well, let’s get into the plot first: 20 years after ID4, the earth, and America, is thriving again. It looks like we’re using the alien technology for vehicles and space related engineering, and we’ve picked up the pieces and are right back on track–and maybe in an even better position than we were. There are a few casualties: former president Whitmore (a disheveled Bill Pullman) looks to be suffering from an early onset of dementia. Captain Hiller (Will Smith) is dead, killed in a test exercise. And Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) is in a coma–wait, wasn’t he dead? Yes, he was clearly killed by the alien who took over his brain back in the original film.

OK, so now he’s in a coma and actually survived. Then, he wakes up, and starts having visions again. Whitmore experiences the same thing, along with an African warlord (Deobia Oparei) who had close encounters of his own when the first alien attack happened.

Apparently, these aliens are coming back with a vengeance. But it looks at first as if they send a homing device to a space station. Two pilots, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Jessie Usher) are stationed there and when the device is seemingly destroyed, it sets off the aliens to come back to earth. Unsure of what the significance of the device, Madam President Lanford (Sela Ward), asks David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) who is now in charge of Area 51 to come back and help stop the incoming invasion. But Levinson wants to check out this device, which could be a key into why the aliens are attacking us again.

Meanwhile, the aliens do attack–sending a giant mothership crash landing into our planet along with a queen and many, many soldiers.

From there, the film is a real spectacle, with whizzing lasers and explosions. The plot itself gets a bit muddled, and there are so many characters to keep track of, we get lost in the shuffle, trying to remember whether we should care or not what happens to them.

David’s father Julius (Judd Hirsch) makes a triumphant return, now an “author” of a book called “How I Saved the World”. Judging by his book tour headlining at a nursing home, it doesn’t look to be that much of a best seller (so who published it?). His plot includes saving a group of kids and ending up on a school bus getting chased by the space invaders. I think this may be the first time I’ve seen Judd Hirsch in a car chase. Even though it’s a bus.

There are things to like in the film: the chemistry between Hemsworth and his buddy Charlie (Travis Tope, who grows on you) is cute, and better than the chemistry between Hemsworth and Usher, who should have been reminiscent of David/Steven from the first film. Unfortunately they don’t share enough screen time without those pesky aliens interrupting everything to enjoy each other’s company. That and there’s a dubious subplot involving Hemsworth’s character Jake accidentally almost killing the young Hiller–which could’ve been scrapped and probably made for a smoother transition into these characters liking each other. That would’ve helped the narrative a little. I did like seeing Goldblum and Hirsch reunited, and it’s always great to see Brent Spiner. Jake also has a love interest, Patricia, Whitmore’s daughter (Maika Monroe), who is also a pilot. Their story also leaves something to be desired.

Overall, the film is overstuffed and almost claustrophobic in how much it tries to pack into its two hour running time. If I were a 16 year old seeing this now, I’d probably be disappointed and deflated from sensory overload. Then again, that’s probably what a thirtysomething would’ve said about the first film, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Maybe it just depends on which part of your life cycle you end up on in whether you can enjoy a movie like this. Of course this is a sequel–but it’s not like the original film was all that original.

It is an experience. But it’s one that you already had 20 years ago, maybe better, and maybe you don’t need to try and recreate it. That’s probably what I would’ve told the filmmakers on this one.

My rating::?

The Revenant

January 28, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

“The Revenant” is a brutal film to watch, and can make one feel a bit unclean after viewing it. It’s the kind of film you’re glad you saw, and are even more glad you’ll never have to see it again. The film stars Leonard DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, an expert tracker and fur trapper, who assists a group of trappers led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), and is mauled by a bear after fleeing from a tribe of Arikara who ambushes them. The group is less than thrilled to be with Glass, as he has a half-native son, and is seen as some sort of a traitor for that. Glass is very close to his son, Hawk, and in the beginning shots, we’re privy to knowing that something bad happened to Glass’s wife (or Hawk’s mother). Hawk has scars on his face, implying burning, and is only close to his father. The man who is most affected negatively by Hawk’s presence is John Fitzgerald (played by an unrecognizable Tom Hardy), who doesn’t seem to really like anybody including himself.

After the Arikara attack the group, they flee on a boat and find refuge on a bank, in which Glass recommends they go back to their fort, Fort Kiowa. Many of the men are not high on this idea, including Fitzgerald, but they go through with it anyway. Then, Glass is attacked when he accidentally runs into a grizzly with her cubs. He survives, barely, but most of the men think he won’t make it. Henry enlists two men to stay with Glass while the rest track back to the fort–he promises a handsome payment for staying with Glass. Desperate for money, Fitzgerald agrees to stay along with a young trapper named Bridger (Will Poulter). Bridger thinks they will actually nurse Glass back to health, or is hopeful of it; Fitzgerald cannot wait for Glass to die.

We learn very quickly that Fitzgerald will be the villain in this film, and from the time that Glass is laying in his makeshift death bed, we can pretty much dictate where the story is going from there. This is easily going to be a story about revenge. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu (“Birdman”, “Babel”) throws some symbolism and tries to deepen the theme about revenge, but ultimately this is a pretty simple-minded story. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is not engaging. The performances by DiCaprio and Hardy are very strong, and we really feel for Glass as he suffers through unimaginable turmoil (the least of which sometimes are the bear injuries). The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezky (who also worked on “Birdman”) is outstanding, including his penchant for continual shots, not cutting away (the entire film of “Birdman” was like this). Sometimes the camera will spin around, giving us a panoramic feel, and it’s almost like we’re there in the mountains with these men. It adds to the realism of the film itself, which is what makes it so brutal to watch.There are very few light moments, but we welcome them with open arms when they happen–including a nice scene with a Pawnee native assisting Glass through treacherous weather.

But the main driving force is the story between Glass and Fitzgerald. The film tries to push a subplot involving an Arikara chief in search of his daughter. The payoff is decent, but the addition of this story adds to a seemingly unnecessary run time that makes the film a bit bloated at over 2 and a half hours. Still, overall there are not too many dull moments and the story keeps moving at a good pace. The climax is strong, and the resolution is satisfying.

The film is hard to watch, and the purpose is to show what man is capable of to survive. Once Glass has resolved what he set out to do, we are left with little ambiguity on what happens to him next. The idea of revenge is such that it is not “in the hands of man, but of the Creator.” That’s a fine message, but it leaves a heavy handed feeling clenched between the muck and mauled flesh and bone of an otherwise thin plot. The strength of the characters makes up for the somewhat weakness of the story, and there are enough powerful scenes that will make this a worthwhile viewing. But one really is enough.

My rating::-)

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

December 23, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“Star Wars” has become less a film franchise and more a cultural phenomenon in the past decade, and a new film–the first not to be helmed by George Lucas–seems almost moot when it comes to critiquing its merits as a film. We know what to expect at this point. Episodes IV, V, and VI all told the story of the Rebellion versus the Galactic Empire. Small fry versus big guy. David vs. Goliath. It was a story we all could relate to; we all wanted to be like Han Solo, but were probably more like Luke. The Force, the Jedi, the Dark Side, were all defining storytelling elements that made that trilogy a classic. Next, Lucas wanted to go back and tell the story of Luke’s father Anakin with episodes I, II, and III. He attempted to tell a backstory that really fell flat, and didn’t create very engaging characters. He certainly managed to create some really annoying ones, though. Through the years, the vitriol for the prequels has abated, and now–for better or worse–they are a part of the “Star Wars” film canon. There’s even a DVD release that puts them in order so you can watch I-VI, as George Lucas, er, intended (if you really want to believe that).

Episode VII resembles the first trilogy (that is, the middle episodes). It begins with action and ends with action, and in between we have a very predictable story arc that is plucked right out of “A New Hope”. We are introduced to a few new characters: a disgruntled Stormtrooper (cloning went out of style) named FN-2187 (well played by John Boyega) opts out of the program and joins a new rebellion called the Resistance to overcome the First Order, which are the remnants of the old Galactic Empire. FN is paired with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, in an appealing role) who nicknames him “Finn”. The big driving story is that Luke, the last of the Jedi, has gone missing and both the Resistance and the First Order are trying to find him. The Resistance obviously wants him to help their cause; the First Order wants to vanquish him. The map to Luke’s whereabouts is given to a cute little droid named BB-8, and that map becomes an obvious MacGuffin very quickly. Meanwhile, a girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley), comes into contact with the droid, and also Finn after his ship crashes on the planet she’s on, presumably killing Poe. Finn, Rey, and BB-8 stumble upon the Millennium Falcon, and we are soon reacquainted with two familiar and very welcomed faces: Han Solo (Harrison Ford, always a pleasure), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Solo is back to being a smuggler, but he has left a little legacy behind: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who just happens to be a part of this First Order, taking orders from a mysterious leader, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) that looks a little bit like a middle earth reject from “Lord of the Rings”. It’s fitting Serkis would play him. Ren has the Force, because his mother happens to be Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), a General with the new Resistance. Ren obviously is torn by two worlds, in a way that Darth Vader was. Ren also wears a mask and has his voice modulated–but here it’s by choice, rather than because of being disfigured and dismembered. Ren is younger, and more unsure of who he really wants to be. It’s a good choice for a character arc, as we know Ren will most likely be the focal villain who we want to like a whole lot more than we wanted to like Darth Vader. But Kylo Ren is capable of some pretty horrible things as well, including dispatching a very well liked character. I still think it was a mistake to be rid of this particular character. But J.J. Abrams, the director, must have wanted to shake things up early.

He does a very good job of balancing the action with the character narrative, and the film’s pace is snappy. Like the original trilogy, the film never feels as long as it actually is. There’s even some good humor peppered in, something that was severely lacking in the prequels, and something that really added to the entertainment value of the film.

And as a film, it does work quite well. As a sci-fi yarn you do have to suspend disbelief at times. But there’s never a point where I felt “out” of this movie. I was sold, from the first moments of the opening crawl, and the film never let me go as an invested viewer. Of course, it ends on a cliffhanger, and so it’s hard to judge how this will all work out in the end.

But it certainly is a very strong start to hopefully a redeeming trilogy, one that can stand the test of time that the original has. It has a lot of pressure riding on it, but I think Abrams & Co. are up to the task.

My rating::-)

Dark Places

August 12, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“Dark Places” is the second adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel. The first, of course, was the acclaimed “Gone Girl”, which was adapted by Flynn herself. Here, her work is written for the screen and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who has mostly done French language films (except for 2009’s “Walled In”). The two films could not be farther apart in terms of quality of narrative execution, and adaptation itself. Where “Gone Girl” successfully brought page to screen with the same depth and care, “Dark Places” feels like it’s merely a recitation of the book.

The story revolves around Libby Day (Charlize Theron, who may be miscast for this role), who when she was a child, witnessed the murder of nearly her entire family save her older teenage brother Ben, who is convicted of the killings. She is coaxed into witness testimony that sends Ben to life in prison–but years later, a group of people called the “Kill Club” (they follow serial murders and try to solve cases on their own) believe that he may be innocent. One of the leaders of the group, Lyle (Nicholas Hoult), tries to persuade Libby to reevaluate her stance that her brother is guilty. There are inconsistencies in the crime scene itself and Ben doesn’t seem to have a real motive. Back in 1985, during the mass hysteria of satanic occult witch hunts, it was easy for a jury to believe that Ben was a devil worshiper and wanted to make a sacrifice to Satan. In actuality, Ben (Tye Sheridan) is a meek, quiet, reserved normal boy who gets in with a crowd that claims to be Satanists. Older Ben (Corey Stoll) now claims he is innocent, and wants Libby to change her testimony in order to clear him. But she still doesn’t necessarily believe that he didn’t do it. What she begins to discover is that there were other people involved with that night–including Ben’s girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace-Moretz) and even his own father, Runner (Sean Bridgers). When his mother Patty (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters Michelle and Debbie are murdered, they are killed in different ways, suggesting there may have been more than one culprit.

The film, like the book, jumps around between timelines, sometimes going back to 1985 on the day of the murders and the hours preceding them, and then going to present day where we have the older versions of the characters being visited by Libby to try and piece together what really happened. In the book, this is all done in a way that makes the story more a thriller than a character study–but it succeeds in being both, really. The movie tries to replicate that, but because it begins jumping around too early (in a book you can get away with that because you can always go back and use reference points), anyone who hasn’t read the book would probably be confused and check out emotionally rather quickly. The story seems like it would be compelling enough to string together a 3 act story easily, but there are too many characters and too much going on to be able to follow it if you’re not already familiar with the material.

The individual scenes are nicely acted. All of the sets are well done, and there is a sense of desperation in the murky atmosphere of the rural midwest. Instead of using that as a theme, however, it’s more like a backdrop. A set, simply to set the stage. The characters speak to each other but they don’t interact. There is no real conflict, no stakes, nothing to gain or lose. We don’t really care if Libby sets her brother free or finds the truth because nothing was established in the first 15 minutes that made us really care about the outcome.

In “Gone Girl”, Flynn is able to reconstruct her novel and keep the theme intact with David Fincher’s masterful directing ability. Not to say that Paquet-Brenner is incapable–but it’s disappointing to see someone completely botch a compelling story simply by missing the point that you need to set everything up credibly and with enough simplicity that the story unfolds naturally and comprehensively. Here, we are given little cuts of meat rather than the whole steak. And it definitely leaves one starving for a bettermovie.

My rating::(

 

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::-)

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

February 10, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

To better appreciate this film, I recommend reading up a bit on short story writer Raymond Carver, and his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film plays out as sort of a movie within a play within a movie, linked with an abstract narrative about self discovery and self release. The reason I’d recommend knowing a bit more about the background of Carver and the story is to diminish distractions like trying to figure out how the play revolves around the story–it may make things less confusing.

The main story of the film is about a has-been actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who was once a big star because of a superhero movie called “Birdman”. Since that fame, he has faded into obscurity and a generation of parents whose kids have no idea who he is. His irrelevance bothers him, so he wants to try and do something else–but something with more substance. He wrangles up some stage actors and gets some money behind a production of one of his favorite writers, Raymond Carver, and adapts his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” into a Broadway play. None of the people involved have that much experience. His main actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), has never been on Broadway. His producer and friend (and lawyer) Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is doing his best to keep Thomson together emotionally, while the production has a bit of a problem since a light falls on one of the principal actors. The actor, whom no one thinks is very good, is replaced by a much more seasoned–albeit dangerous and unscrupulous–actor named Mike (Edward Norton). Mike can recite the lines before even knowing what they are, and has the ability to lose himself in the character while being on stage. His problem is that he is very unpredictable, and that he’s almost impossible to control. He starts to take a liking to Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who Riggan hardly knows due to all his years spent acting instead of being a father. Riggan and Sam share an understandable strained relationship, but it still seems amicable.

While Thomson tries to whip the show into shape during its preview run, he is tormented by the voice and sometimes appearance of his old character, Birdman. Birdman represents his “dark side”. Birdman believes that Riggan is denying himself the joy of being a superstar by trying to do something as small as theater. Thomson tries to get him out of his head, but he nearly tears his dressing room apart while battling the imaginary “devil on your shoulder”.

He desperately wants to be recognized. He knows that he does not have a good reputation in theater, and is afraid of a prominent critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), will eviscerate his efforts and make him look bad once the play opens. Without even seeing it, she tells him, she will write a bad review.

With every doubt in his mind, Birdman becomes more powerful and manifests himself more to Riggan. His ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) doesn’t believe in him, and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) simply seems like a replaceable understudy in Riggan’s life.

The film is shot to give the feel of watching a play. There are no cuts, only occasional fades that let us know that time is passing. Most of the film feels like it’s one ongoing shot. So in a way, Riggan is on stage throughout the entire movie. When he’s acting in his play, he can come undone just as easily as he can when he’s in his dressing room hearing voices.

The performances are very strong, with a spotlight on Michael Keaton, obviously. He is at his best in this film, utilizing his entire range from ominous to manic to brooding to bright. He is everything at once, and can fall apart at any moment. Norton is also exceptionally funny as the “foil” in much of the storyline, and Emma Stone is appealing as always, as well as Watts and the rest of the “actors”.

There are two titles for this film, and I kept both in tact for the review. “Birdman” seems obvious, but what about “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”? What’s that supposed to mean? Well, the meaning to that title comes within understanding the film itself. And that can be a few different things, culminating in the film’s mysterious and purposely puzzling final shot. But you are definitely watching more than one story when you watch this film. That’s why you’re talking about more than just love when you’re talking about love. The emotional states the film touches on, the play on people’s actions and reactions, mixed with some satire and black comedy, all make for a thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking film.

My rating::D

Boyhood

January 30, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

Richard Linklater has a way of turning the mundane and ordinary into something fascinating and hypnotic. Whether it’s the sweet, comical “Dazed and Confused” or the more subdued “Before Sunrise”, Linklater can pull you into his narrative with his aloof style that somehow keeps you watching. Maybe it’s the engaging characters or the appealing dialog, but I’ve never sat through one of his films and felt bored and detached, even though the atmosphere sometimes brings those kinds of characters to life.

With “Boyhood”, Linklater really tests your patience because the film clocks in at almost 3 hours (2 hrs 44 min). It follows 12 years in the life of a family, focusing on Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) growing up–but even though the film is called “Boyhood”, I think it deals with life in general as well as adolescence and maturity.

The story begins when Mason is 6 years old, living with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) in an apartment. Olivia has a bachelor-like boyfriend who doesn’t like that she has kids and a lifestyle that doesn’t fit his, so the two breakup. She decides to move back near her mother, taking the kids with her, so they can start a better life. She wants to go to school and she wants the kids to be in a house. Their biological father steps back into the picture (played by Ethan Hawke), and he represents the cool, irresponsible life that Olivia’s trying to leave behind. Mason Sr. lets the kids have fun and tells them about current events and things, but has very little to share about what it means to be accountable for anything.

As Mason grows up, they move in with various families, and home situations that are less than ideal. One stepfather seems like a good guy and has it all together, but soon unravels and shows himself to be an abusive drunk behind the picket fence and pretty white house. There’s an ex-military stepdad who tries to be nonchalant about the kids’ lives, but he seems unhappy and uninterested in helping them out too. He also is keen on drinking. But the film doesn’t have big dramatic moments or steep itself in sentimentality or melodrama. There’s almost a lazy eye feel to the insight into the characters’ lives. It’s not unfeeling, it just doesn’t have an agenda of obligatory drama.

The film, while lengthy, never stays in one place too long–much like the characters. There are a lot of elements thrown into the story, moving at a pace that lingers just long enough to reflect on a situation. In some ways I felt like many of the little stories could have been their own movies. This could’ve been a miniseries.

It still works as a film, though. Mason’s life is interesting, and as he grows up, he does become a bit insufferable as the artsy, pretentious, hipster-like “intellectual”. The film begins with him being very quiet but ends with him always having something to say. I didn’t feel that Linklater was trying to make a point of saying Mason was “what you should be” when you grow up, or make some statement about how intelligent kids can be. This is what an adolescent does. His sister Samantha forms the same kind of life, shutting out most of her family as she grows up. And Olivia, being the wanna-be responsible but utterly hopeless nomad, seems to be stuck in the middle rather than taking control.While she seems to criticize Mason Sr.’s instability with his own life, she doesn’t show that she has much of a handle on her own.

The flaws of the parents can be seen as destructive to their kids’ lives–but this film is not about judging them. It’s not a judgment at all. It’s simply a glimpse into people’s lives. You can take whatever you want from their decisions, opinions, lifestyles, what have you. Many people won’t agree with how they go about their lives. But Linklater’s not lecturing or proving a point. Sometimes life is just about observing, and reflecting.

As Mason Jr. states, rather well, late in the film–“It’s always right now”. And this film is living in that moment throughout. It’s engrossing, sometimes chilling, sometimes funny, but always interesting; and in the end, satisfying.

My rating::-)

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