War For the Planet of the Apes

July 24, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

“I can only imagine what you think of me.”

“I think you have no mercy.”

That’s an exchange between Caesar (Andy Serkis), leader of the apes; and The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who leads a paramilitary group known as Alpha-Omega. It borders on religious zealotry, with the way he has control over his soldiers, and what he wants to do with apes.

We are now 15 years removed from the original simian virus that began to plague the earth when Caesar was young. Beyond “Rise” and “Dawn”, the apes and humans are in a full out…war. Caesar still wants to believe in peace, while his apes have become an extremely strong and effective army. They are isolated in the forests, away from humans. But the Alpha Omega wants to wipe them all out, no matter what.

This is clearly stated after a group of AO tries to infiltrate the apes’ domain. Caesar’s army wards them off, but instead of killing their captives, he sends them back to the Colonel as a peace offering. He wants to show him that they are not savages, and that they can come to terms.

But there is no negotiating with the Colonel. He comes to the camp himself, later that night, with another group of his men. They find a group of apes sleeping, and he kills them. What he doesn’t realize, and somewhat comes to regret, is that he has taken almost everything away from Caesar. He was mostly after Caesar, who had evaded his attack; and now, Caesar wants revenge.

He has dreams of Koba, the ape who was his friend and became his enemy in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, in which Koba is still trying to convince him that all humans are evil. The Colonel makes it very easy to believe that belief.

In fact, unlike “Dawn”, there are nearly zero sympathetic human characters. We have The Colonel, who is cold and icy, extremely clinically played by Harrelson–one of his strongest roles to date. He has a right hand man, Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria), who was spared by Caesar but seemingly unaffected by his good gesture. Preacher is a killing machine, doing the bidding of The Colonel without much else of a personality.

Also doing the bidding of Alpha Omega, surprisingly, are other apes. Known as “donkeys”, these are basically servants of the humans. They load cannons, carry their loads, and sometimes are used as human shields. They are defectors from Caesar’s group, believing moreso in Koba. When Koba was killed, I guess they believed all hope was lost for them. They seem to resent Caesar and still want to survive, so they put up with humans and are treated like animals.

Caesar starts to allow his hate consume him, and goes on a revenge mission to find and kill the Colonel. The other apes had found a peaceful relocation in the desert, where they would be far away from humans and their relentless pursuit of genocide. Caesar wants to go alone, but his closest friends and soldiers won’t let that happen. We’re reintroduced to his inner circle: Maurice the Orangutan (Karin Konoval), who still can mostly only use sign language to speak, much like many of the other apes; Rocket (Terry Notary), a chimpanzee, and Luca, a gorilla. They set off, while the other apes go their own way to find the desert.

The troupe run into a home, occupied by a single man, who tries to kill them. When he is killed first, the apes enter the house, and find a little girl (Amiah Miller). They try to find out her name, but she cannot speak. Maurice convinces Caesar to take her with them, even though he is reluctant.

They also come across what is basically the film’s only comic relief, a zoo chimp named “Bad Ape” (that’s what he calls himself), played by Steve Zahn. Some of his antics are a little off in tone; but for the most part, he’s a needed mood breaker, as the film is very bleak nearly throughout.

This comes to a head when Caesar reaches AO’s compound, only to find that his ape companions that were set off to find the desert have been captured and are being used for hard labor to build a wall. Political undertones, anyone? Quite timely.

As stated above, this film pulls no punches in its narrative. The seemingly heartless Colonel truly is wicked and incessantly cruel to the apes. He has some exchanges personally with Caesar, whom he begrudgingly admires in a way. But then we learn why the Colonel is the way he is: he had a son, who had the virus, but survived. Apparently, the side effect is…devolution. He began to lose his ability to speak, and was reduced to being “an animal” in his fathers’ eyes. When Caesar accuses him of being without mercy, the Colonel throws the virus in Caesar’s face, and asks what’s merciful.

We learn that this devolution has affected a great deal of humans. Along their way to the compound, Caesar and his group come across soldiers left for dead, that also cannot speak–much like the girl. It is assumed she is affected by this as well.

So, the Colonel wants to “purify” the human race by doing away with any survivors who are still infected with the disease. It’s never explicitly explained, but that seems to be why he’s building a wall. Isolate the pure, and destroy everything else.

It would first seem that the Colonel represents the rest of the human race–but that’s not the case. AO is a defector group themselves. And apparently, the other armies are coming for them.

All of this, of course, sets up a large battle as Caesar tries to free the apes, meanwhile the Colonel prepares for the other human armies to come after him.

The film does a fascinating job of steering clear of cliches and tropes that usually bog down a narrative like this. It’s not that humans are bad, they’re misguided. It’s not that apes are savages, either, obviously. But beyond that, there are things that happen that are unexpected, and the surprises are very satisfying. Of course, the strong performances by Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson help the film greatly. And, like in “Dawn”, the CGI is amazing. Even more brilliant in this one, I think. I really never felt like I was watching computer generated images. The apes, interacting with the humans and landscapes, all felt real.

There are some tough parts to watch: there is torture, and senseless deaths. There are times where you really do get emotionally involved to the point where you forget you’re watching a science fiction film. Of course there’s symbolism here; but it can be appreciated on a very literal level as well. Mercy, forgiveness, and intolerance are at the forefront. But even subtle hints at language and communication are handled well. In fact, in the last half hour or so of the film, there is almost no dialogue at all.

Caesar’s struggle with dealing with humans is challenged by the innocence of the girl, whom he grows an affection for. The Colonel should be an easily hated villain; but something happens that changes your perception on that as well. And just when you think you know where the climax is going, something else happens that shakes everything up–literally.

This is a rare rebooted series, in which it got stronger with each film, culminating in this film, which I believe is as close to a masterpiece as you can get. The weaker elements (the tonal shifts with Bad Ape, and the underdeveloped Preacher) are far outweighed by the strengths of everything else. This is a visually remarkable film; but it’s also emotionally gripping, and extremely intense in its third act.

It certainly belongs in the discussion of great trilogies; and even if the series continues, if it is left in the hands of Matt Reeves and the others that made these films, I think it has limitless possibilities. We’ve seen the “rise”, the “dawn” and now the “war”. If that’s the end, I have no complaints.

But I can’t deny that I’d be hungry for more, if they continued to surprise me like they did here.

My rating: :D

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

Star Trek Beyond

July 26, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

The third installment of the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise takes the best elements of the 2009 film and leaves out the weakest elements of the 2013 sequel, “Into Darkness”. The series has hit its stride with “Star Trek Beyond”, this time directed by Justin Lin (“The Fast and Furious” series), and packs an entertaining punch while also keeping a comic tone intact.

The screenplay was co-written by Simon Pegg, who plays Montgomery Scott on board the Enterprise. His keen awareness of the importance of the chemistry between the characters is very evident, making this probably the most rewarding experience of the three films so far.

The film begins much like “Into Darkness” did, with Kirk doing everything he can to mess up what seems to be a simple mission. The creatures he speaks to look a bit like “Star Wars” prequel rejects, but turn out to be cute little miniature Jumanji hybrids. Though chuckle-inducing, I hope this doesn’t become the standard in subsequent scripts. In fact, the series should probably take a new direction after this one, so as not to become stale too quickly.

The main plot of the film involves a husky lizard-like villain named Krall, who is looking for a relic that Kirk had in his possession in his mission to appease the creatures in the beginning of the film. Apparently this artifact has a lot of unknown power, but Krall is after it. They first encounter him after agreeing to a rescue mission from a distressed former captain of her own ship, Kalara (Lydia Wilson), and seek to aid her while going into the Nebula. While there, they’re greeted by a slew of aggressive ships, and it’s fairly evident that it was a trap laid by Kalara. It’s not at first clear why, until she admits that her crew is at the mercy of Krall (Idris Elba). This is no consolation to Kirk, whose crew is now also taken captive.

Kirk, Chekov, Scotty, Bones and Spock have evaded capture, and are aided by a rogue female being, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who has been living in an abandoned Starfleet ship, the USS Franklin. At first confused why there would be an older Starfleet ship stuck in the rock of this planet, it becomes evident that Krall may have had a link to Starfleet Academy.

Meanwhile, Uhura and Sulu try to release the captives, as they themselves are prisoners as well. Uhura is the one who realizes Krall may not be as simple as a foul tempered, scaly antagonist. There seems to be something deeper within his anger and resentment toward their race.

As mentioned before, the film is directed by the man who gave us much of the “Fast and Furious” sequels, and this film has moments of being too fast and furious for its own good. But for the most part, it’s very well paced and the character interactions are a joy to watch. Bones and Spock have some great scenes together, and Scotty and Jaylah enjoy some nice chemistry as well. The film is probably the most action packed of the three, but it’s never uninteresting; and even at its most brazen and contemptuous of†suspension of disbelief, it doesn’t go so far as to take you out of the moment. As unbelievable as some of the stunts are, you’re still rooting for these characters to be safe and return home in one piece.

The strength of the series has always been its cast–that goes back to the original cast of the 1960’s in the first series. It always felt like an ensemble, and this cast preserves that. These characters like each other, and we like them for it. It’s bittersweet to see Chekov one last time, as actor Anton Yelchin tragically died this summer. But he has a nice role in this film, and we will definitely miss him.

Also mentioned before, the series should probably start to take a new direction after this one. They’ve rebooted the cast, rehashed a villain, and now I think we’ve had our fill of revenge plots. Much like the first series of original films, which went in new directions, this series needs to find other stories to tell. They have the cast at their prime, now give them something different. This film is forgivable for its messy antics at times and even confusing narrative; if this is repeated in a fourth film, the series could start to lose itself, and that would be a shame.

For now, though, sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s entertainment at warp speed.

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 Martian

October 13, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

If we ever had an astronaut on Mars, I’d want it to be Mark Watney. Actually, nevermind that. I’d want it to be Matt Damon. Like in many “lone survivor” films, an appealing lead is vital. And here, Matt Damon absolutely owns the film and makes a somewhat agreeable film into a piece of outstanding entertainment. Fleshing out the attractive cast is the always faithful Jeff Daniels, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, and…Kristen Wiig.

The story, based on a 2011 novel by Andy Weir, is about a group of astronauts on a planned mission to Mars that gets thwarted by a major martian storm, sending them back to their ship to leave the planet. During the storm, Watney (Damon) gets whacked with a piece of equipment that partly saves his life, and his crew has left him behind. Being a botanist, he finds that he can grow his own food with the crew’s excrement, and ration food long enough for a rescue mission–he hopes. Meanwhile, the news has leaked back to planet Earth that there was a problem with the mission and someone was left behind. That story doesn’t sound enticing, and the head of NASA (Daniels) begrudgingly concocts a plan to help Watney out. The crew on board their ship Hermes initially does not find out about Watney’s fate, as Daniels’ character Teddy Sanders believes that they will want to go back and rescue him–putting all of their lives in potential danger.

So you have three subplots going on: Watney’s survival on Mars, NASA’s attempts at rescue and sending him supplies, and the Hermes crew once they do inevitably find out about Watney still being alive. Commander Lewis (Chastain) feels the most guilt about leaving him behind, being former military, but also knows the risks involved in rescuing him. The rest of the crew, including fellow astronaut Rick Martinez (played well by the always reliable Michael Pena), want to go after him and get him back.

NASA’s Mars mission director, Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor), also wants him to be rescued. Ditto for the flight director played by Sean Bean. The outside influences try to force Sanders’ hand, but he stays on course with the plan to send a probe full of supplies to last Watney another few years before another manned space mission can be executed.

Meanwhile, Watney plods along. At first he cannot communicate with NASA, but then finds a way through an old device that was part of a 1996 mission. He has a few missteps, and he has a few catastrophes. It feels at times like “Cast Away” or “Moon”, “Gravity”, or “Silent Running” (which bears some similarities). But one thing that those films share that is missing in this script, by Drew Goddard, is a little more depth in Watney’s character. While Damon is outstanding, he is…who he is. I’d have liked to see some scenes of him feeling his loss, his isolation, like Hanks in “Cast Away”. He does have a will to live, which is a big theme in the film. It could be the most inspirational movie to be released that wasn’t based on a true story–that feels like one. Up until maybe the last 15 minutes, the film feels like it’s depicting something that really happened. There’s a lot of cheeky dialog, modern mannerisms and throwaway lines (that’s Goddard’s style, after all). But my favorite thing are the 2 references to old Infocom games: “Zork 2”, and “Leather Goddesses of Phobos”, which provide Watney with his only source of entertainment. That is, of course, besides Commander Lewis’ extensive disco collection, much to the chagrin of Watney.

The film is breathtaking, directed by the always reliable Ridley Scott–who is a visual master. It has a lot of tension, even though most of it is predictable. Again, the mark of a great filmmaker. Nothing ever feels out of place, and you do get caught up in the story, pulling for Watney and enjoying his wit as well as his perseverance. Some of it gets a little cutesy, but it’s forgivable. “The Martian” delivers what it promises. Its tagline is “Bring him home”. And this film certainly does.

My rating:†:-)

Terminator: Genisys

July 8, 2015 by  
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“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:†:-)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

I was not a big fan of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”; however, I was not averse to the series being rebooted. I was hoping for something a little more brazen and daring, maybe. Like the original Rod Serling-penned film was. I know that Hollywood isn’t what it used to be and it’s harder for mainstream films to have a “message” that isn’t politically correct or sometimes downright cloying; but the “Apes” series was about change, and progression. It was a social commentary about race relations and bigotry–something that still and always will permeate society. “Rise” seemed to fall short on that, and the storyline just felt predictable and easy. That said, I did appreciate Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar. He seems to be right at home as a CGI enhanced character.

Here he returns as Caesar, but things have changed dramatically for planet earth. The virus hinted at in “Rise” has now wiped out a good portion of the human population, and apes are unaffected. They are, however, pretty smart and have evolved (oops, careful) into a healthy society. Caesar is their leader, with his old friend and wingman, Koba (Toby Kebbell) at his side. He also has a son named Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a newborn with his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), who is suffering from an illness after the second son is born. The apes seem to be living happy as a tribe, until they are met with a group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke). Koba hates all humans, but Caesar isn’t so quick to dismiss them all. He knows there is good in them, he just has a hard time trusting them. When it’s discovered that the humans need to access a dam to give power to their dwellings outside the forest, Caesar has to make a choice to trust them. The dam happens to be in their jurisdiction. The humans are desperate, with only enough fuel at their compound to last another week. The leader, Drefyus (Gary Oldman), doesn’t really have an opinion on the apes, he just considers them animals. But Malcolm has seen their intelligence and isn’t intimidated as much as he is fascinated. He and Caesar strike a bond, with Caesar most likely remembering his younger years as a subject with Will (James Franco, making a cameo appearance in an old video that Caesar stumbles upon when he is in his old abandoned home). Caesar lets the humans do their “human work”–then, Koba reminds him, in a well done scene, that he, too, has had “human work”. He points to his scars, and simply says, “Human work”. The apes can talk, but primitively. They can complete sentences, but they cannot yet talk as well as, say, Dr. Zaius.

The strongest performances come from Serkis and Clarke as Caesar and Malcolm. Director Matt Reeves is wise to allow the film to breathe once in a while and give some time to flesh out the characters. Malcolm has a son, but lost his wife to the virus. His love interest, played well by Keri Russel, lost a child as well, and tries to form a bond with Malcolm’s son, named Alexander. Alexander begins a bit of a friendship with the Orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval). But it’s Caesar’s friendship with Malcolm that pushes this story along–although I will also mention that the story of Caesar and his son Blue Eyes is strong as well. Caesar finds that he can trust Malcolm, but not everyone. A member of his crew, Carver, hates the apes and plays one of the unfortunately strawman villains that is simply in there to stir things up. Koba, who is a stronger villain, somewhat dwindles into a stereotypical antagonist by the end as well but he does have some strong earlier scenes. I think the best scene with Koba involves him infiltrating the humans’ military compound where two moronic guys are testing guns. He acts like a dumb circus ape (a bonobo to be exact), and gets the guys to lower their defenses when he suddenly grabs their gun and “accidentally” kills one. The other one, terrified and astounded at the same time, suffers the same fate except Koba shows that he knows exactly what he’s doing this time.

The climactic battle between humans and apes is an exciting one, and impressive for it being almost entirely CG. Nothing looks phony or out of whack (although I wouldn’t recommend wasting the extra money to see it in 3-D, it does absolutely nothing). In the end, both Caesar and Malcolm know that no matter how much they want peace, it’s always the violence that wins out. Finally, we get a bit of that old “Apes” film feel when we know we’re just all doomed. The end certainly sets up another sequel, and I won’t give away how it all unfolds. But it is very strong, and very convincing, something that I just felt was lacking in “Rise”. This is a very well done sequel, and should be considered among the “better than the original” sequels like “The Godfather II”, “Empire Strikes Back”, and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”. It moves at a good pace for a film that’s over two hours, and the performances are all very well done.

If there was a necessary injection to give life into the franchise, this one delivers and is just what it needed, even after a soft origin film.

My rating:†:-)

RoboCop (2014)

March 6, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

I had initial reservations about this remake–first, because I’m tired of remakes. Second, because what exactly was lacking in the 1987 film? It never really left you wanting more as far as themes and characters go–and even if you did, you had 2 sequels to…well, enjoy may be a strong word.

In the past few years, though, there were talks about a reboot. Names got thrown around like Darren Aronofsky and David Self. But it was like one of those things you just wanted to pretend wasn’t happening. It seemed to be more of a realistic thing coming to fruition when the “Total Recall” remake was released. And then we knew it was only a matter of time.

So, now, in 2014, ready or not, we have “RoboCop” the remake, directed by Jose Padilha (director of the “Elite Squad” films). I didn’t have high hopes going into the film; but from the opening sequence to the final frame, I have to say this is a remake that does what few remakes do–have its own story and idea.

There are films I”d love to see be remade–such as “The Stuff”, which is a timeless plot about consumerism and certainly has plenty of relevance nowadays, and the original film was actually kind of weak. “RoboCop” was certainly not one of them. But this film takes the idea of a cop KIA turned into cyborg and does something a little different. For one thing, this time, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is not killed. He is set up after a sting goes wrong with a criminal syndicate, and a bomb is planted in his car. He is horribly burned and loses most of his body parts–but his brain is very much intact. His wife has to make the decision to keep him alive.

Meanwhile, OmniCorp is a very successful robotics corporation run by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) who is not allowed to produce robots for the United States, but has a highly lauded campaign going on in the Middle East with robot soldiers that are cleaning up the streets much like police officers would. Detroit is a city that’s still riddled with crime; and, according to Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), host of the show “The Novak Element” (serving as the bookends of the film), we need these machines just as badly. But, there is a bill in Congress known as the Dreyfus Act which denies the use of robots as enforcers, because they don’t have morals or a sense of right and wrong. They’re too clinical. Sellars tries to convince the Senate that the Dreyfus Act should be repealed, but he isn’t getting any support. He believes it’s due to the fact that Americans need a “face”. So, “put a man in a machine”, and suddenly there will be support.

Murphy is one of the candidates for the program. Chief Scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman, borrowing his Commissioner Gordon accent and persona) is hired to create what’s going to be known as RoboCop. He designs a mechanical body for Murphy, covering most of his eroded body. Murphy is at first horrified by his appearance and wants to shut down the program and be put down; but the whole operation came about because his wife authorized it, and she wants to see him again. This, along with wanting to be with his family again, prompts Murphy to continue with the program.

Then, RoboCop is completed and becomes a powerful tool of the police, cleaning up crime easily. But there’s a problem–he has a conscious, and he’s still haunted by his attempted murder and wants to find the men who did it. He has a new set of tasks, however, and isn’t authorized to continue his search. Unfortunately for Murphy, he is mostly machine and can be controlled. Norton is ordered to shut down his emotional system in order for him to perform his duties clinically, as a machine would. But this alienates his old partner (Michael K. Williams) and his family which is tearing them apart.

Norton then finds himself with his own moral dilemma, and decides RoboCop should retain his emotions and memories. What RoboCop uncovers after changing his prime directive back to locating his attempted killers drives the climax of the film, and it’s a satisfying one. There’s a character, Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) that comes into play as a somewhat shady guy and has a lot to do with RoboCop’s programming and de-programming. It’s a bit of a predictable angle, but Haley adds a nice touch to the character where in some situations he’s borderline likable; and other times, you love seeing him get his. And speaking of performances, Kinnaman’s is very strong as Murphy/RoboCop. He isn’t your typical cardboard cut out hero. There is a lot of pain behind the visor, and we see that come through.

But what really makes the film separate from the original is that it constantly asks questions about compromising our emotions in favor of efficiency. Are we losing our touch with humanity? Do we want to? As amusing as the Novak Element is, it stands as a symbol and a commentary on where the world seems to be right now. We have all of this access to social media and everyone has a voice–but does anyone really know what to say? Or are we content with drones carrying out our dirty work?

The film could have developed these questions further–but it only has so much time and has to sew up its plot in two hours. What I’d like to see is a TV spin off that allows the characters to grow along with the themes the movie introduces us to.

Overall, though, the film works enough and is entertaining. The second half of act two drags a little bit, just because so much is going on and it starts to break down in its direction on where it’s going–but it certainly finds itself enough in the end. There are a few nods to the original; I definitely missed the amusing satirical ads such as “Nuke ’em!” and the interview with Keva Rosenberg. Other than that, though, I actually started to forget about the original while watching this film–and that hasn’t happened to me in regards to a remake in a long time.

My rating:†:-)

Her

January 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

We live in a very interesting time when it comes to social interactions and relationships. With the advent of social networking through this Technological Age, it seems as though we can be impersonal and personal at the same time without it being a dichotomy or contradiction. In Spike Jonze’s “Her”, we are taken through a very personal journey for the characters that is as real for them as it can be for the viewers watching. It doesn’t try to stand alone as a statement of what technology is doing to us as people, however, nor does it make some kind of general social statement about humanity devolving in any kind of way.

It tells the story of a seemingly lonely guy named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who may seem detached but is able to successfully write love letters for clients at one of the most curious companies ever. It may be arbitrary but it certainly serves as a good purpose for the theme of the film. In some cases he’s known his clients so long he can actually come up with thoughts of theirs that they may not have even told him to put down in writing. He’s lauded for his efforts by a co-worker, Paul (Chris Pratt), and he seems to be happy with the job. But he has an emptiness in his life that we learn comes from the impending divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he’s known since childhood. Fragments of their relationship are spliced throughout the film, giving us a glimpse into their happiness, and demise. We’re not exactly sure what broke down between them, but it becomes more apparent as we get to know Theodore more. He is immersed in technology. He’s one of those guys who will always have the latest tech gadget–but instead of being introverted about technology, he seems to use it for social reasons. He logs into a one-night stand hotline to have phone sex with strangers (sort of like Chat Roulette) and has a rather amusing if over the top encounter with a random girl (voiced by Kristin Wiig). He is turned onto a new kind of AI operating system that grows in intellect the more you use it, and Theodore decides to invest in one, choosing a female voice that names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).

Her relationship with Theodore starts off more like Siri for iPhone but quickly develops into a more familiar one, and then a romantic one. Theodore is instantly hooked, but has some distractions…such as a first date with a girl his friend has set him up with (played a little too convincingly by Olivia Wilde). His friend Amy (Amy Adams) is in a relationship herself, married to a somewhat inauspicious guy, Charles (Matt Letscher) who is never afraid to criticize her even when she’s showing a film she made to Theodore. The date starts off well but goes awry and Theodore confides in Samantha, drawing them closer together.

This is where the film really becomes absorbing. Once they fully accept being in a relationship together, all of the parallels of what a relationship is are explored. He calls her his “girlfriend”, even to his soon to be ex-wife, who mocks his relationship and tells him he can only have a meaningful relationship with “his laptop”.

But things aren’t so rosy for Theodore and Samantha. There are jealousies, accusations, things that happen in a normal relationship, that begin to challenge their situation. It’s all very natural–but it’s all very synthetic at the same time. In a way, Theodore is Samantha, programmed to be a way that cannot change. But can he accept himself being alone, and not being lonely?

This sort of plot is not exactly wholly original. We’ve seen stories of Artificial Intelligence being used as characters in relationships. Spielberg’s “AI” and Andrew Niccol’s “S1m0ne” come to mind. But I like that Spike Jonze makes this a very intimate, personal story. One that you become so wrapped up in because you start to put yourself in Theodore’s place. And Johansson’s performance is so instantly appealing, you start to fall for her as well. Every jolt of something unpleasant between them is felt, and when you feel something is slipping away, you get that same feeling you would if you were going through the same thing with your significant other.

Even though it sounds a bit heavy, it’s emotional impact is embraceable, rather than something that weighs it down. It gives the film so much more depth by exploring the ups and downs of a serious relationship. In a way, it’s more powerful than some films about two actual human beings in a relationship. Never seeing Samantha allows our imaginations to conjure up what she’d look like, what her expressions were, and I didn’t necessarily actually picture Johansson a lot of times. There are some laugh out loud moments, too, such as when Theodore is stuck at a certain point in a video game he’s playing. The character he interacts with (voiced by Jonze) is very funny, if a bit obnoxious and rude.

The film is very satisfying, and I think it could pass as a date movie. Not a first date movie, though. That may be a little much…and a bit too revealing. It’s like going to a palm reading for couples on your first date. You want to have a little mystery.

But even watching alone, it can be greatly appreciated. The performances are very strong, and credible, and the journey is one that’s very sweet and endearing throughout. Try not to hit on any computers on your next visit to Fry’s, though. May be a little awkward.

My rating:†:D

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:†:-)

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