Friday, May 31, 2013

After Earth (2013)

Is the twist that M. Night Shyamalan and George Lucas are really the same person?

That's the thought that kept running through my head through most of After Earth.  It has many elements that reminded me of the Star Wars prequels: weird accents, flat characters, bad dialog, overreliance on CG, and it centers around an annoying teen you never really care about.  Is there a typical M. Night twist in the film?  If you count a totally predictable plot/character development that's telegraphed from the opening scene of the film, then yes.

After Earth takes place 1000 years in the future.  Humanity has relocated to another planet outside the solar system called Nova Prime.  While on Nova Prime, they encountered an alien force that operated on sensing human pheromones, especially fear.  Cypher (Will Smith) was able to defeat these aliens, as he has no fear, so he's effectively blind to these aliens since he doesn't give off any fear pheromones.  This is all explained in the first five minutes with a really awful narration delivered by Cypher's son Kitai (Jaden Smith).  What makes it awful is that he's speaking with a weird, made-up accent that made it very difficult to understand what he was saying at times.  The other characters in the film spoke with it as well (Will Smith's seemed to disappear as the movie went on).  It was a totally unnecessary detail thrown in the film that added nothing to the story, other than make it harder to understand the characters.  It's odd that they even spent so much time creating an accent for this society (even though they are from Earth), and desigining all of these cites when they spend maybe five total minutes on this planet.

Cypher and Kitai don't have much of a relationship, so his wife (Sophie Okonedo) urges him to take Kitai along on a routine mission.  The ship is damaged in flight, however, and they are forced to crash land on Earth.  Coincidentally, Cypher and Kitai are the only two survivors.  Their ship is beyond repair and Cypher is hurt and cannot move.  Kitai must get to the tail section of the ship to activate an emergency beacon, but it's several days away.  Earth is a much different and dangerous place since humanity left it, but if Kitai follows Cypher's instructions he believes they will succeed.

That's pretty much all there is to the story, which is a problem as it slugs along.  It's never very exciting or even all that interesting.  We're forced to follow Kitai as he continues to disobey his father's direct orders for no reason.  He even falls asleep at crucial moments.  Part of the problem is that Jaden Smith is just not a strong or charismatic enough actor to carry the movie in the first place.  It's worsened by the fact that his character is written as a typical, annoying teen.  Plus, he always looks like he's about to cry.

If you think his Dad could save this, he doesn't.  In fact, Will Smith barely even feels connected to the film.  Since he can't move, he spends the entire film sitting in a cockpit delivering instructions through a communication device.  If this was supposed to be a movie about a father and son bonding, it would have been more effective to keep these two together for the duration of the adventure.  There's no connection or chemistry between the two as a result.

The CG was terrible.  Most of the creatures looked completely fake, and was of the quality you'd expect to see on an original movie on SyFy.  The main threat not only had a bad design where you can't tell its head from his ass, but it does that thing I can't stand where it moves so impossibly fast that there's no way anyone would last in a fight for more than two seconds against it.  It's as if the CG was almost an afterthought, and then I find out that when Will Smith came up with the story for this, it wasn't even originally conceived as a sci-fi film.  In fact, the title itself is misleading as this could have taken place anywhere, or at any time.  It didn't need to be in the future, or even on Earth.  It could have taken place in just a random forest for all it mattered.  It's like Smith, Shyamalan, and co-writer Gary Whitta randomly decided to set in the future simply because they thought it would be cool.  Plus, they could pump up the budget with unnecessary CG.  Instead, they created a world that we're all totally detached from, when it could have been an uplifting stroy about a father and son.

After Earth is a boring, lifeless, uninspired sci-film that seems to serve only as a vehicle to push Jaden Smith on us again.  It also shows us that M. Night Shyamalan is completely out of gas as a director.  This was not worthy of a release during the Summer blockbuster season.  Skip this one.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Star

Friday, May 24, 2013

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

They're still making Fast & Furious movies?

I complained in my The Hangover Part III review that The Hangover franchise was a good movie where they forced two sequels of descending quality, because they didn't know where to take the characters or the story.  The Fast & Furious franchise seemed to be following a similar path of each sequel being worse than the original, but at some point after the fourth, it's as if they all sat down and said, "You know what?  Let's just make these movies as over-the-top as we can!"  It seems to have worked as many consider Fast Five to be the most entertaining of the series, and now we have Fast & Furious 6, which continues the trend.

This is one of those testosterone-fueled action films that just gets your adrenaline going.  I left the theater well after 1 a.m. and all I wanted to do was go lift weights and drive my car home really fast, and I drive an old Honda.

You want car chases?  They got car cases!  You want gunfights?  They got gunfights!  You say you don't like gunfights, but want brutal fist fights?  Girl fights?  There's lots of that!  Oh, want a tank?  There's even a tank!  You want sophisticated?  Go look for that somewhere else, nerd!

The plot is pretty ridiculous, but this isn't a movie you're watching for it's nuanced and solid plot.  Even the film seems to be saying, "Whatever, just go with it."  An ex-British Special Forces soldier Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) has committed a series of heists and the DSS needs help catching him.  Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) works a deal with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew.  Help him bring Shaw in, and it's full pardons for the team.  To stir the pot even more, Hobbs reveals that Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who's been presumed dead (since Fast 4), is working with Shaw.  Dom's in no matter what now, as he just wants to find out what happened to Letty.

From that point, it is just an orgy of car chases and fighting.  Almost all of it is ridiculous, and the rational side of your brain can't help but watch some of these sequences and wonder how they are always escaping serious bodily harm, or even death, with each crash or bone-crushing hit.  Then again, it just so fun to watch that you really don't care that much of it doesn't obey the laws of physics.  Some of the scenes are so crazy that it becomes cartoonish.  Cars get flattened, yet there's no blood or bodies even though you didn't see anyone get out of the car.  You can actually tell what's going on in these scenes though.  They actually trusted that their action sequences would entertain without having to distract the audience with weird camera movements, quick cuts or shaky cam.  My eyes were so glued to the screen during some of these scenes that they would keep drying out (I'm a contacts wearer) from lack of blinking, and I would always look for an opportunity to put eye drops in.

Another thing that impressed me was that the film managed to avoid looking fake despite the craziness of some of the action scenes.  I don't know how much CG was used, but it sure seemed like a lot of it was practical.  In some ways this felt very old-school.  Even most of the cars used were older, muscle cars.

There are a few lulls here and there, mainly when there's any kind of dialog or exposition in between action scenes.  However, much of this is made bearable by the surprisingly humorous dialog.  There's good chemistry within the group, and you get that feeling that these guys are really friends just ripping on each other.

Overall, I really enjoyed the cast.  This is a group not exactly known for their acting chops, but for the type of film Fast & Furious 6 is, there's nothing wrong with them, and they all looked like they were having fun.  I have to give special notice to Gina Carano, who plays Hobbs partner, and has many of the best fighting scenes in the film.  I think at this point any film that features women fighting must star Gina Carano.  This should be enacted into law.  Also, I could have used a little more Dwayne Johnson.  He only pops up from time to time, but maybe they had to limit his time on film when they'd run out of baby oil or arm butter.  Jeez he's a beast of a man!

Director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan, who've been collaborating on the series since Tokyo Drift, really seemed to have hit their stride with the series, and turned it into something that is simple, audience- pleasing, Summer fun.  They even managed to tie up the continuity with Tokyo Drift really well (note: for those that aren't aware, despite Tokyo Drift being the third film in the series, chronologically it takes place after Fast Six).

Oh, and there's a really great surprise as the credits roll.  You don't need to stay at the very end, but there's a scene during the credits that might be one of the best sequel teases I've ever seen.

If you want some crazy, balls-to-the-wall action and don't want to have to think too much, Fast & Furious 6 is for you.  It's not going to win any Oscars, and sure it's a little dumb, but it's the type of film that fits in just fine during the Summer blockbuster season.  It really does have a little bit of everything for action lovers and I think it's a fun way to spend a few hours.  I thought it was a blast to watch, and definitely worth a matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Hangover Part III (2013)

Just like real hangovers, the more you have them, the less fun they become...

After the lazy, disappointment that was The Hangover Part II, I heard many reports from people involved in the production of The Hangover Part III that we'd be getting a much different story this time around, as opposed to yet another rehash of the first (which Part II was).  While Part III is finally a different story than either Part I or Part II, that doesn't mean it delivers on the fun or laughs promised.

The Hangover franchise is a perfect example of trying to squeeze blood (money) from a stone. The first Hangover was a perfectly-contained, raunchy comedy.  There simply wasn't a need for a sequel.  There were no unanswered questions that we needed to revisit in later chapters, and we didn't catch up with these guys to see how their lives turned out.  It's one of the reasons why there's not much of a story in either of the sequels.

Case in point, the main plot of Part III has more to do with Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) than it does with The Wolfpack.  Chow wasn't much more than a side character in the first film.  Hell, the movie doesn't even revolve around the premise of these guys recovering from a hangover and trying to piece together the previous night.  It's more of an attempt to refer back to events of the first film and close the circle.

After the death of his father, Alan's (Zach Galifianakis) friends and family stage an intervention.  He's been off his meds for a while and needs help.  While driving him to a care facility, The Wolfpack is attacked and kidnapped by a mob boss (John Goodman), who wants them to track down Chow.  Chow has stolen a large amount of gold from him, and thinks The Wolfpack are the only ones that can find him.  Why a mob boss would force these doofuses to track Chow down instead of using his own henchmen is beyond me, but whatever.

The Wolfpack spends the rest of the film catching up to Chow.  They don't even end up in Vegas until almost the very end.

The most disappointing aspect of Part III was the lack of humor.  Sure, there are a few chuckles here and there, but otherwise, there just isn't that much to laugh at.  It's more of a action movie, with a few comic elements thrown in.  Many of the biggest laughs in the movie come from longer versions of what you've already seen in the trailer.  So, if you really love that scene where Zach Galifianakis is singing at the funeral, or when he cries at his intervention, you can look forward much longer versions of those.  The giraffe scene played out a little differently than I expected though, and that was probably the biggest laugh of the movie for me.  Unfortunately, that was the opening scene of the film.  I've always said that hallmark of a good comedy is quotability, and this definitely lacks that.  It's actually pretty forgettable.

The rest of the film is Alan saying weird stuff, and Stu (Ed Helms) and Phil (Bradley Cooper) reacting to either him or Chow's antics.  This leads to another big problem I had, which is after three films you can only conclude that Alan really is an awful person.  Granted, he's mentally ill, but there's no reason for these guys to be friends with him.  There's a scene of him involving a kid that I found a little disgusting and not in a raunchy way.  It just illustrated to me what a terrible person Alan is.  Don't get me wrong, awful characters sometimes make for the best comedy, but the schtick has gotten old.

I don't know why director Todd Phillips, who also co-wrote with Part II writer Craig Mazin, didn't bring back the original writers of The Hangover (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) to give this film the energy it desperately needed.  It's clear they didn't know what to do with these characters, and the script desperately needed some punch up.

Most of original cast returns, along with a few cameos.  Forgotten member of The Wolfpack, Justin Bartha, once again is barely in it.  Poor guy, he never gets to have any of the fun.  Then again, maybe it's better that that nobody will remember his involvement in this series.

There's a short scene after the credits start (which actually was kind of funny and makes you wish the movie would have followed that story more), but nothing else, so there's no need to stay to the end of the credits.

The Wolfpack disappoints again.  The Hangover Part III is yet another uninspired sequel to a film I used to love.  It's not so bad that it made me angry, but it's just not that funny or even entertaining.  It's missing all the energy of Part I or even Part II.  Part III is a movie that I have no desire to ever watch again.  Hopefully, this really is the last of the series. I know you guys probably really want to see this, but save your money and wait for rental.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Disconnect (2013)

Every year I make a resolution to 'disconnect', but it never lasts more than a few days.  It's not that I have any kind of internet addiction, it's just easier to ping someone on Facebook than it is to pick up a phone, even if it's the same phone I'm using to look at Facebook.  Kind of sad, really...

Disconnect follows a familiar format where you have several stories that eventually intertwine as they develop.  There are three main stories that all center around some kind of technology.  First, we have a reporter (Andrea Riseborough) that's investigating underage teens being used in online, sex chat rooms.  She interviews one boy (Max Thieriot) and hopes her report will be her big break as a reporter.

Then, we have a couple (Alexander Skarsgård and Paula Patton) that's having marital issues after the death of their child.  They've grown apart and she spends her time reaching out to people in chat rooms as her husband won't talk to her.  While on a business trip, they find out that someone has stolen their identity and cleaned out their bank account.  As the police are moving too slow, they hire a private investigator (Frank Grillo) to track down the man that stole from them.

Finally, a boy (Jonah Bobo) is cyberbullied by two classmates (Colin Ford and Aviad Bernstein) by creating a fake Facebook profile and tricking him into an extremely embarrassing situation.  Things spiral out of control and his father (Jason Bateman) is left trying to find out what happened.

Sometimes these types of films suffer from having too many characters, or not giving them enough depth, but one of my favorite things about Disconnect is that you learn a great deal about everyone without tons of exposition or explicitly being told.  You aren't spoonfed info and director Henry Alex Rubin trusts the audience to be smart enough to figure this stuff on their own.  I found myself caring about each story, so there was no drop off or drastic shift in tone when going back and forth.  A lot of times when watching movies that follow this format, I find that there's usually one story or set of characters that's not as interesting or that I don't care about.  That's not the case here and I credit writer Andrew Stern as well as Rubin for creating a story with relatable characters and situations.  I also credit them for staying away from too much melodrama while gradually building tension as things escalate.

My only real complaint about the story, is that I thought some of the details regarding the identity theft thread felt a little forced to me.  I'm primarily basing this on my own personal experiences with identity theft, and I understand that not every situation is going to be the same, but my experiences have been much different than what they went through in Disconnect.  It's a minor complaint though.  It didn't ruin the film for me or anything like that.

It's interesting that the title is called Disconnect, when that seems to be the message or goal for the audience, rather than what actually happens in the film.  I see the phrase "cautionary tale" being thrown about a lot in discussion of this film, but I didn't really feel that it was preachy enough to be a cautionary tale as much as it was a character drama.  After watching Disconnect though, I did come away from it feeling like I need revisit my resolution to stop spending so much time on Facebook or Twitter and work on actual in-person interaction.  I think the world would be better off if we all worked on that a bit.

While there aren't a lot of huge names in the cast, there really isn't a weak performance in the group.  All of the characters (even the bullies) manage to come off as sympathetic.  I give Jason Bateman crap for playing the same role over and over, but Disconnect is a movie finally that allows him to play a different type of role and show a side of him we don't normally see.  It really is well-acted across the board.  Even scenes where characters aren't even verbally communicating, but communicating through online chat, you get some kind of emotional depth from them.

Disconnect is easily in my top five of the best films I've seen so far in 2013.  It's a wonderfully acted dramatic thriller, that'll make you think a little about how we use technology in today's world.  It might actually get you to disconnect a little yourself.  Don't miss this one.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Peeples (2013)

Peeples is a brilliant, original movie about a man struggling to gain acceptance from his girlfriend's family, while the family struggles with their own internal secrets and an overbearing patriarch.  Who am I kidding?  Peeples is basically Meet the Parents, and yeah, I know what you're thinking, "Oh, it's Tyler Perry Presents Black Meet the Parents."  While that's not far from the truth, there's really nothing distinctive about Peeples that makes it unique to any ethnicity.  You could literally swap out the entire cast, and you'd still have exactly the same movie.

I usually find myself in the minority when I tell people that I didn't even like the first Meet the Parents (I liked the subsequent sequels even less).  Movies that follow this format really frustrate me where you have an overbearing father figure that everyone seems to walk on eggshells around.  Nobody speaks up to him, even when he's clearly wrong.  Then, you've got the boyfriend who's meeting the family for the first time, and despite not really knowing anything about the guy, the father (and sometimes the entire family) just beat him up.  The boyfriend won't stand up for himself, because he doesn't want to cause any drama, and takes way more abuse than I think a normal person would put up with if this actually happened.  Sometimes, even the girlfriend doesn't defend him enough, which makes it even more frustrating.  We also learn that much of the family is hiding secrets, and the father not being entirely truthful with everyone either.  Finally, the boyfriend finally speaks up, all the secrets come out, everyone gets mad, the couple breaks up before everyone comes together and reconciles.

In Peeples, Wade (Craig Robinson) shows up at his girlfriend Grace's (Kerry Washington) family beach house to surprise her and hopefully propose to her.  Only he learns that she's never even told her family about him.  Grace's father, Virgil Peeples (David Alan Grier), as if mandated by movie law, clearly doesn't like Wade.  They also point out he's a judge so we know he's an extra-hardass.  Wade desperately wants to impress and win Virgil's approval and get his blessing to marry his daughter.  Wade's able to able to win over the rest of the family, which is a slight departure from the formula, and his girlfriend even defends him to Virgil on a few occasions.

Another key difference to me is that I feel like Craig Robinson has a little more of an easy going charm about him.  He's a bigger guy, so he also has that teddy bear quality.  He still puts up with more crap than he should, but there's nothing mean spirited about him.  You'll watch Peeples and wish he'd speak his mind a little more, even if some feelings get hurt.

he biggest disappointment about Peeples though is that it's just not that funny.  There are a few lines here and there that got a chuckle out of me, but overall, it's another tame, inoffensive family comedy.  I guess I was expecting a little more, because if you've seen Craig Robinson on The Office, or his various roles in other comedy film, he's a really funny guy when given good material.  Also, I've come to be a big fan of David Alan Grier from his many appearances on Adam Carolla's Podcast.  He's an absolute riot on Carolla's show, and he doesn't get a chance to show that here.  I don't either of these guys gave bad performances, I only wish the movie would have taken advantage of their considerable comedic talents.

There are also tons of musical numbers, which many times felt really out of place, and simply weren't funny.  With a different cast, you could easily see Jack Black playing the lead role, only this is a vehicle to show Craig Robinson's musical chops.  He has the ability, but I don't think kiddie songs like 'Speak It, Don't Leak It' are gonna win you any Oscars for best original song in a movie.

This could have been a sitcom with how many of the scenes didn't have any setup from one to another.  At one point, Wade's brother (Malcolm Barrett) shows up out of the blue for no real reason, and it feels like an attempt to inject some new blood into something that doesn't have a lot of life in it at that point.  Tina Gordon Chism's script (she also directed) doesn't have any flow about it, as well as being extremely predictable.  I could even take the predictability if the film had any bite to it.  Peeples is tired joke after tired joke.

Peeples is nothing you haven't seen before.  It's yet another inoffensive, predictable family comedy that offers few laughs and wastes a talented cast.  It's a less annoying rehash of Meet the Parents.  I didn't hate the movie, it just didn't do anything for me.  This is the very definition of a rental and is not something there's any reason to see in the theater at all.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

What are Star Wars and Star Trek fans gonna argue about now that the franchises share the same director?  Can you just imagine how it would go?

"The last Star Trek movie had superior direction than Episode VII.  Ugh, and those lense flares on the lightsabers!  Are you kidding me?"

"Um...weren't they directed by the same guy?"

"Oh yeah..."

J.J. Abrams, uniting geeks since 2015.

It's really weirding me out that there's no colon in the title of Star Trek Into Darkness.  Shouldn't there be a colon between Star Trek and Into Darkness?  Otherwise, isn't the title saying that they are taking a trek, based in the stars, into darkness.  And what kind or darkness?  Space is dark, or do they mean darkness as in emotional tone?  I don't know why I'm hung up on that.

If you've been following my blog at all, or just look at my online name, it won't be a surprise to you that I'm not a huge Trekkie.  I didn't get into Trek until The Next Generation, which I loved.  I've also watched a fair amount of the more recent shows like Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise, but I never really got into the Original Series.  Even the films featuring the original crew I've only seen once or twice each.  I understood the characters and the relationships, but I always felt like the Original Series and crew was a little before my time.

I was one of the guys that embraced the reboot and changes made in 2009's Star Trek.  I thought it was a good way to introduce Star Trek to the mainstream and a new generation, while still showing some respect to the Original Series.  In some ways I enjoyed Into Darkness even more than the previous film.  I didn't have to spend any time accepting a new cast or wrapping my head around the fact that it's set in an alternate timeline.  I was able to just sit back and enjoy the movie for what it is, and for most of the film that worked for me.  However, many things happen in the second half that really detracted from the film, and not just from a Star Trek perspective, but from a general storytelling one.

I can't really get into the plot too much without spoilers, but I will say that if you've been following the rumors about what Into Darkness was going to be about, I can say that much of what I heard was true, to varying degrees.

Everyone is back for another adventure.  This time the crew is responsible for tracking down a terrorist that has committed several attacks against the Federation.  This terrorist is a rogue Starfleet member named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).  He's retreated to Kronos, the Klingon homeworld.  Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) tasks Kirk (Chris Pine) and the Enterprise to hunt him down, even though this may risk full on war with the Klingons.  This manhunt, as well as travelling so close to Klingon territory isn't something that sits well with several members of the crew.

Without revealing anything, they do a twist on a familiar Trek story, but I felt that many of these elements were totally forced.  Even if you weren't aware of any internet rumors or spoilers, the film has few surprises.  This will be especially true if you're familiar with the previous Star Trek film Into Darkness mostly references.

Another thing that really bugged me about the story is that they setup a climax that's supposed to have all this emotional significance, but a previous scene in the film has already let you know that what you're watching is not going to have any real consequence.  Knowing this takes all the impact out of it, and you could feel that the audience wasn't really affected by this either.  They should have been moved by it.  Another twist in the film is spoiled simply by having Peter Weller playing the role.  This isn't Weller's fault, but he's become one of those actors that when you see him in a role, you kind of have him pegged.  I didn't find these things plot holes (there are a few though), as much as just telegraphed storytelling.  It doesn't completely ruin the movie for me, but the more I think about certain plot elements, the more they bug me.

Plus, with shoehorning these familiar Trek elements into it, it takes away from this being original.  Why go through the trouble of rebooting Star Trek and going in a different direction if you're just going to spend a good portion of your second movie doing fan-service to previous stories?  The sad part is that until we get about halfway through the film, it still felt like it was going for something original.

Even though the story was a bit of a disappointment, I wasn't disappointed at all with the look of the film or the action.  J.J. Abrams certainly knows how to make an action packed film that's filled with great effects and is never boring to look at.  There are some great sequences throughout the film and it doesn't let up for a minute.  People have joked for a while that when he made Star Trek he really just made a Star Wars film, and now it's clear that he really is ideally suited for Episode VII.  I can't wait to see what he does with it now.

Seriously, this is only a slight exaggeration this time around.
The 3D is actually good for a change.  I saw this in RPX and this is an example of where I thought it enhanced my enjoyment of the film.  I just heard that 30 minutes of this was shot in IMAX, so even though I didn't see it in IMAX, I'd recommend seeing it in that format if it's available to you.  Oh yeah, this movie's got lense flares galore.

Another strength is that it does have some very funny dialog.  The cast still has great chemistry, and that's holding these films together.  I was a little surprised by how much people say "shit" in the future though.  You'd think we would have phased that out by then.

While in the last film, I thought Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and especially Bones (Karl Urban) had their moments, I felt like this time the real standouts were Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Spock (Zachary Quinto).  Simon Pegg in particular is a total scene stealer.  I also enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch's performance even though there were many things about his character that bugged me.  I wasn't quite sold on Chris Pine this time around though.  While I really liked him in the first film, I had a harder time buying into some of the scenes where he was trying to be intense and angry.  I think some of this comes from how the characters were written though.  The motivations of both Kirk and Harrison weren't consistent for me.

As far as summer blockbusters go, there's a lot to like about Star Trek Into Darkness.  If you're a fan of the last Star Trek or sci-fi action in general, then it delivers on exactly what you're expecting.  However, if you're a Trekkie, your mileage may vary, especially in the third act where even a non-Trekkie like myself had issues with some of the forced plot elements.  Still though, it has great effects, tons of fast-paced action and enough funny moments to please those looking for a good time at the movies.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

More like the "So-So" Gatsby...

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby isn't a terrible movie, but I found myself going through various stages of irritation and interest throughout it.  Fifteen minutes in, I was so nauseated by the visuals and music that I considered walking out.  Gatsby hadn't even shown up on screen yet.  Once he did though, I found myself taken in by his charm and story.  However, as it continued on, I started to care less and less about the characters and what was going on with them.

Let's start with those visuals.  I think part of my experience was compounded by the fact that I saw this in RPX 3D.  I heard this was actually shot in 3D, and if it was, it's one of the worst examples of unnecessary 3D I've seen.  It didn't add anything to the film, and just made the visuals that much more distracting.  Several scenes were simultaneously in and out of focus and weird digital camera tricks were used that won't help anyone that already has motion issues watching movies in 3D.  In some ways the look of the 3D reminded me of the effect that The Hobbit has with it's 48 FPS motion.  Much of the film felt and looked fake to me, whether it was wide shots of houses or cities, or scenes of cars racing around at impossibly fast speeds.  Some shots looked so clearly computer generated, that I thought I was watching a video game cut-scene version of The Great Gatsby.  I don't think I've ever said this about a film before, but I'd call it over-directed.  The whole film was just too busy and there were times I wish Luhrmann would just stop playing around with the look of the film, moving the camera around, and just concentrate on telling the story.  This did calm down a bit as the movie went on though, especially during some of the more dialog-heavy scenes.

The music I found extremely distracting as well.  In what felt like a lame effort to try to give this more of a modern feel, there are lots of hip-hop and dance songs throughout.  This is worsened by the fact that many times this is mixed with the actual background music heard, so you've got this cacophony of musical styles and songs with different tempos being played over one another.  During the credits I saw that Jay Z co-produced the score, and then it made sense.  Who else would shoehorn a remixed version of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" in The Great Gatsby?  I'm not kidding, that song is in the film.

So, what's the story about?  Nick (Tobey Maguire) is a bond salesman in 1920's New York.  He lives in a small, but comfortable house on the outskirts of town.  This house is dwarfed by a huge mansion directly next door inhabited by the mysterious and elusive Gatsby.  Little is know about Gatsby; who he is, where he got his money, what he does, but the one thing everyone does know about him is that he throws great parties.  People come from all over (uninvited, I might add) to hang out at Gatsby's mansion even though none of these people actually know him.  Nick gets a formal invite, a rarity, to one of these parties and meets Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).  The two become friends, and eventually Gatsby asks Nick for a favor.  He wants to reconnect with an old love of his, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who happens to be Nick's cousin.  They have not seen each other in five years, and in that time Daisy has married rich sportsman Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

My only real familiarity with F. Scott Fitzgerald is when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) played him in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, so yeah, I haven't read the book and didn't have any ideas about the story going in.  After hearing what a classic novel this was, I thought I was going to be in for a treat as far as depth of story and characters, but that's where I thought this adaptation really let me down.  All of the characters felt very one-dimensional to me, with the exception of Gatsby, but like with Daisy, there's just nothing to her character that makes you see why these men are in love with her (other than the fact that Carey Mulligan is very pretty).  She's just there.  In other cases, they go out of their way to make sure you don't have any reason to like them.  For example, Tom Buchanan is not only is cheating on his wife, but he's jealous of Gatsby, and he's a racist.  I've often railed against movies that romanticize extramarital affairs, and this is no exception.  Daisy and Gatsby begin their affair, and they don't appear to have any conscience about it.  It's not until Gatsby finally pushes her to leave her husband, and then you see a little bit of internal conflict.  I felt like I was watching a very slick looking soap opera.  I'm guessing that Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce's script didn't capture the depth or these characters or story.  Otherwise, I'm not sure what makes this a classic.  Most of the movie hints that there's more to Gatsby than he's letting on, but when it's revealed I couldn't help thinking, "that's it?"

I'll give credit to the performances though, especially with Leonardo DiCaprio.  He really was charismatic as Gatsby, and turned in another fine performance.  He was easily the best thing about the film for me, and was the only character that went through any kind of emotional range.  I also liked Joel Edgerton's performance, despite not really liking his character.  Another standout for me was Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan.  I believe this was her first role, and I thought she looked like someone plucked right out of the 20's.  While I think Tobey Maguire's wide-eyed enthusiasm worked for his performance, I thought there were problems with his narration, especially as the movie began.  It sounded like he was speaking with a labored voice, as if to convey he's much older, but then when you finally see him, he's the normally aged Mcguire, so what's with the voice?  It didn't sound like that throughout the film, so maybe he was sick that day?  The cast is rounded out by Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke, who were fine, but not given a ton to do.

Gatsby might have been great, but The Great Gatsby isn't.  It has it's moments, but the visuals were too flashy and distracting for their own good and the soundtrack was annoying.  Leonardo DiCaprio was great as Gatsby, but found myself really not caring about anyone else in the film or what was happening.  It's another case of style over substance.  I suppose it's going to come down to whether or not you like the visual style of the film, but it didn't work for me.  DO NOT see this in 3D!  I'm calling this one a rental.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Company You Keep (2013)

The company you keep, you put yourself above.  I'm on to you!  I still have a soft spot for Hurricane...

Not that the hair-band Hurricane has anything to do with The Company You Keep, the latest Robert Redford directed film, based off a Lem Dobbs screenplay, which was based off the (presumably boring) book of the same name by Neil Gordon.

I might have just played my hand with the previous paragraph, but that pretty much sums up my thoughts on the film.  It's boring.  The Company You Keep is one of those films where they've assembled a great cast of pros (it's well acted at least), then setup a what appears to be a nice thriller/mystery, only to have it play out extremely slowly, with each reveal having no real impact.  This, again, is compounded by the fact this poorly paced film is over two hours.  BROKEN RECORD!  Hey, who said that?  At first glance, when you see the people involved in making the film, and the great cast, you think it might be an early Oscar contender.  Unfortunately, that isn't what we got here.

The Company You Keep begins with Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) being arrested.  We learn that she was a former member of a radical group wanted for a bank robbery and murder of a bank guard nearly 30 years ago.  Local reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) investigates and finds that Sharon was about to turn herself in anyway, and through friends tried to get a local lawyer, Jim Grant (Redford), to take the case.  Grant wasn't interested in the case even though it seemed like something in his wheelhouse.  Shepard presses on, only to find that Grant was also involved in the radical group, and was a suspect in the same bank robbery.  Don't worry, this isn't a spoiler to tell you this.

Grant goes on the run, contacting estranged friends and family in the effort to find Mimi (Julie Christie), a former partner of Grant's.  We aren't sure exactly why Grant is so desperate to find her, but upon seeing that Grant is wanted by the police, she goes out on her own to find him.

This is where The Company You Keep let me down.  You've got all these threads going on with Grant and Mimi, then The Beef (that's what I call LaBeouf) investigating, and the FBI (led by Terrence Howard) hot on their trail, but there's never any urgency to it.  Plot threads and characters are just dropped without any resolution or given much development.  It felt like a TV series that was meant to stretched into a season long arc, but was streamlined to only be two or three episodes.  You might think that means it has a frenetic pace with all the things going on, yet we got the opposite.  It's so slow that I actually had to fight off falling asleep for much of the the last third of the film.  Plus, the conclusion is so anti-climactic that you're left wondering why you bothered sitting through it all.

I'm not sure if this was an issue of the book not translating well, or maybe having to condense too much of it to fit into a movie.  There isn't even an entry for the book or author on Wikipedia, so my research is limited.  From what I can see on Amazon, the book's synopsis seems to have a much different setup than how the movie was, so perhaps too much was changed for the sake of adapting it.  It's shame because I really like Lem Dobbs as a writer, but it looks like he really misses working with Steven Soderbergh (they've done at least three films together).  I don't even think Robert Redford did that bad of a job directing, as he did a good job with the actors, and managed to make it interesting enough in the first half.

It is really well acted though.  Redford is great, as well as Julie Christie.  As hard as I am on The Beef, I actually thought he had the right blend of arrogance, mixed with an honest drive to uncover the truth.  The supporting cast is fleshed out with actors like Stephen Root, Nick Nolte, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper, Anna Kendrick, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott and Brendan Gleeson.  When you have such notable actors in smaller roles, you tend to think their characters may be more significant to the actual story, and are disappointed when they aren't in it more or aren't fleshed out enough.  It's just a shame to not see these people get something meatier to work with.  It makes me wonder if Redford just called in a bunch of favors to fill out his cast, or the actors just really wanted to work with him.  Can't say I blame any of them though.

The Company You Keep is yet another well-acted film with a star studded cast, but unfortunately the story comes up way short with its slow pacing and disappointing resolution.  It's not a bad movie, but it is pretty forgettable.  I actually saw this over a week ago and forgot that I never got around to posting my review.  This is not something you need to rush out and see, and has rental written all over it.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Fixing/Rebooting the Prequels - From an obsessive Star Wars geek that won't let it go...

Ever since Episode I came out I've often thought about what could have been done to make the prequels better or what would I have done differently.  I would actually fall asleep at night thinking it through.  Yeah, I know, I'm a massive dork, but I'm guessing I'm probably not the only obsessive Star Wars fan that's done this at some point.  After Revenge of the Sith came out though, it's something I kind of gave up on.  Star Wars was 'dead' at that point, right?  Thoughts would still pop in my head from time to time.  My interest was rekindled after watching the awesome Red Letter Media "Mr. Plinkett" reviews of the prequels.  They made mention of several ideas that could have been done to make the prequels better (and you'll likely see some references to that below).  Then when Disney announced the purchase of LucasFilm and that more movies were coming, it really got Star Wars on the brain again.  Also when you consider the J.J. Abrams is directing Episode VII, and he already did a successful reboot/re-imaging of Star Trek, maybe it's possible that down that line someone decides to take a crack at a similar thing for Star Wars.

I guess you can consider this blog post a living document.  I'm sure I'll revisit it from time to time and update it as I think of more stuff or mix it up a little.  This is also a really long post, so I've broken it up into several pages for the overview and each Episode.  Hopefully, that'll make it a little easier for you all to read.  With it's length, this might have a 'draft' feel to it, so let me know if you catch something I should fix.

This is all just done for fun, so hopefully you enjoy it, and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below.

First off, I know how this completely breaks the prequels. but since they're already broken, then who cares at this point.  I'm also not going to bother with renaming any characters and planets just to make things easier.

One of the easier and more obvious fixes is to first get rid of the whole concept of midi-chlorians.  Just throw Episode I.  This was mentioned in some of the Plinkett/RedLetterMedia stuff, but an example of this was that once the Jedi were aware that there was likely a Sith hiding at the top levels of the Senate, and there was a quantifiable way through a blood test to tell if someone has Force ability, then why wasn't everyone forced to submit to a blood test?  How is it any different than any employee having to submit to a drug test?  Anyway, I'm guessing that the whole idea of midi-chlorians was born out of George Lucas coming up with the name, thinking it was too cool not to use, and then throwing it in Episode I without any thought of how it would play out, or how it pretty much contradicts everything Obi-Wan and Yoda said about the Force in the Original Trilogy.  Then when he realized it didn't work, he just said screw it, and didn't bother with them for the rest of the prequels.  Getting rid of midi-chlorians would hopefully restore some of the mystery around the Force.
that out right away.  It's such a poorly thought out idea that I don't even know why it was put in the film. Not only did it ruin the mystery of the Force, but it wasn't even consistent in the prequels or referenced again after

This kind of leads into the second thing I would get rid of:  younglings.  Not kill them like Anakin did, or even the idea that there would be younger Jedi in training, but the idea that babies are taken from their families once it's discovered they have a high midi-chlorian count.  A better idea would have been to handle Force ability similar to how mutants are handled in the Marvel universe, where their powers typically manifest during puberty.  I'm pretty sure this is how Betazoids in Star Trek handled telepathy, as well.  This would also allow some interesting stories where you have 'prodigy' types showing significant Force ability at younger ages.  Anakin could easily be one of these kids, and that fact that he didn't get training until much later in life is one of the reasons why the Jedi found his power so dangerous and difficult to control, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Jedi Academy on Dantooine
Another thing I would change about the universe is to show that becoming a Jedi is a revered thing and a great honor.  Kids would aspire to be Jedi and hope powers manifest when they are old enough.  Like imagine finding out around 11-13 that you're going to become a famous superstar athlete?  However, the random occurrence of manifesting Jedi powers is very low, and happens more amongst families that have a known Force sensitivity to them (I'll get to that later, as well).

When it's discovered a child has Force sensitivity, they contact the Jedi (or in some cases the Jedi sense them and they initiate the contact) and representatives show up to test the child.  If they pass, they are offered the privilege of training with the Jedi and moving to the Jedi Academy.  The families are financially compensated for giving up their children, so you can even show how desperate families attempt to 'fake it' and try to trick the Jedi in order to get the money.  It never works though. You can't fool the Jedi that easily.

Now, if they fail the initial test, or decline the offer to train with the Jedi, a ritual is performed that cuts the person off from using the Force.  They can't exactly have Force sensitive people running around the galaxy unchecked.  Also, in the case of trainees that wash out of Jedi training, they are also put through the ritual before being sent home.  Being a Jedi is not easy, so even though you may pass the initial tests, there's no guarantee you make it through the Academy.

A concern was brought to my attention regarding the ritual and someone being cut off from the Force.  There was a concern about this ritual being used for evil purposes (which I actually think could make for some interesting subplots in different stories), or that anyone Force sensitive may be subject to this.  While the idea of being cut off from the Force draws from Expanded Universe, I figured I'd expand on this a bit to clarify.  The ritual itself would only be known about by the highest Masters of the Order, and would require several people with extensive Force knowledge to carry out.  So while someone could potentially steal this knowledge  they'd have to be a considerable Force user to do this.  It could also be a reversible process, as losing powers never seems to be a permanent thing in any media.

This wouldn't necessarily apply to anyone that's Force sensitive either.  Force sensitivity would be in a range, where people on the lower end may not be noticed by the Jedi or show any outwards signs of it, but it could give them enhanced abilities or senses.  That allows for someone like Han Solo, who has often been said must of had some level of Force sensitivity to be such a great pilot and get out of so many sticky situations, but never actually giving off any detectable signs of Force use.

Once at the Academy, they go through a schooling period with Yoda and other masters on the history of the Jedi, basic Force use, meditation, swordplay, etc.  Eventually, as their rite of passage, they make their own lightsaber, and are then paired with a Knight or Master in the field as an apprenticeship, going around and doing diplomatic things, settling disputes, etc.  This schooling period has no time limit.  Stronger users get through it within a few years, while other can take decades.  Most are able to finish around the time they are between 18 and 20.  Students that take a longer time to pass the Academy, are usually put on a scholar's path, and are more likely to become instructors themselves.

All Jedi are expected to make sacrifices though.  Jedi are not allowed to marry.  Marrying is an honor bestowed only once achieving the rank of Master, as they've shown they have a mastery of their power and emotion.  Since the chances are greater that a Force sensitive will also have a Force sensitive kid, this isn't something that they want any Jedi being able to do.  By the time time most Jedi reach the rank of Master, they are too old to have kids or no longer have the desire to, fully devoting their lives to the Jedi code.  The option is there for them though, and longer living species usually benefit from this more.

Jedi are allowed to have emotion though.  This whole Jedi as emotionless monks just isn't realistic to me, especially when you consider all the different cultures and species that can become Jedi.  You can't expect species from thousands of different systems to conform to the same emotional range.  It makes sense when you take a single race, like Vulcans, and make it part of their culture and history that they decided to purge emotion, but again, it doesn't work in the Star Wars universe.  Throughout the Star Wars films, you see Jedi express emotion, so again, it's not even consistent in it's own Universe.

The whole marrying thing though can be another point of contention with Anakin.  You can show that Anakin doesn't always play by the Jedi's rule, and that the Jedi Council is extremely upset with him once they find out he has married in secret.  The Council can look at this as just yet another example of Anakin circumventing the rules and jumping ahead of others.  Many on the Council are already upset with how quickly he's advanced and they feel he's skipped past much of his training even though it's a time of war.  His age in the first place was one of the reasons that some didn't want him trained.  Anakin sees this all as resentment and jealousy towards him.  You know, it's like of like how veteran sports players sometimes have issues with young players skipping college and not having good fundamentals as a result.  As Anakin hasn't always shown maturity, this is another reason the Council isn't super happy about this.

So this is more of an overview of how I think the Jedi should have been, let's get to some of the actual story elements.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Given the choice, I would definitely rather be Tony Stark than Bruce Wayne...

So, it's finally here.  The conclusion to the first Iron Man trilogy, and the beginning of Marvel: Phase 2.  Right off, I can tell you that Iron Man 3 is definitely a step up from Iron Man 2, so if you're like me and was disappointed in IM2 (and thought it suffered from sequelitis), then you're going to enjoy IM3 a whole lot more.

Iron Man 3 is loosely based on the "Extremis" story arc from the Iron Man comics.  I can't claim I'm super well versed in the Iron Man comics, so I can't comment on how faithful it is to them.  I am a little more familiar with the Mandarin though, so I was initially a little concerned about his choice as the main villain for IM3 and casting Sir Ben Kingsley to play him.  I'm a huge fan of Kingsley, so it's not an issue of ability, but in the comics, the Mandarin was of Chinese descent, where Kingsley isn't to my knowledge.  I just didn't think the character was going to translate particularly well on screen.  Comic book purists may be a little upset with how his arc plays out, but I think that that not only did Kingsley do a great job, they actually did a pretty clever twist the character that made it work.  This is one instance where I don't mind that the movie took some liberty with a known comic character.

In the film, the Mandarin is a terrorist that has the world on edge with a series of bombings and menacing threats.  Little is known about him, or where he even is.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), on the other hand, isn't too concerned with this yet.  He's been dealing with severe anxiety issues since the events of The Avengers, and can barely sleep.  The only way he can deal with everything is to constantly tinker and build more Iron Man suits.  He's still with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who's continuing to run Stark Industries.  Some old associates, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), approach Stark Industries about working with them on their Extremis project, an experimental treatment that has a variety of uses.  Meanwhile, Rhodey (Don Cheadle) has been rebranded as Iron Patriot (complete with new paint job) and is tasked with finding the Mandarin.  However, when the Mandarin finally hits Stark close to home, Stark threatens revenge on the Mandarin.

There are issues I had here and there, but in the interest of keeping things spoiler-free, I'll hold back on any specific criticism.  A friend and I were discussing IM3 right after seeing it, and we both felt that many of our complaints were nitpicks.  I think you'll understand what I'm talking about when you see the film.  I'll just say this, if I can accept the premise that a super-genius is flying around in a self-made, robotic suit, with a glowing power source implanted in his chest, then I can accept some of the things that bothered me a little in IM3.  They even made a joke about this in the film saying something along the lines of 'everything changed once the big guy with the hammer landed.'  So yeah, in a universe that has Hulk and Thor, I can look past some stuff.  It's the whole Flying Snowman thing.

The one complaint I can talk about is the ending.  Don't get me wrong, it's action packed and a blast to watch for sure, but there's such an orgy of Iron Man suits that at times you really can't tell who is fighting whom.  There's just a little too much going on, but this is just the kind of stuff that will likely get multiple viewings out of fans, and people breaking down these scenes in slow motion in order to catch everything.  I'll admit that I'm going to be one of these people.  Do you see what I'm saying about the complaint being a bit of a nitpick?  I'm complaining that that super entertaining and explosive conclusion had too much going on.

There are several entertaining action scenes in the film, and despite being over two hours, the film is briskly paced and there's never a dull moment.

As you'd hope, the effects are great!  I love these small, independent films that do what they can with a modest budget.  I saw this on IMAX 3D, and maybe I sat too close to the screen, but I could barely even tell the film was in 3D.  It's still worth seeing in a premium format for the overall look of the film and the sound, but I didn't anything out of the 3D.

Besides the action sequences, another strength is the humor.  As I hoped with bringing in Shane Black, his pairing with RDJ would net us some great, Lethal Weapon-like dialog, and that's exactly what we got.  It's a little mean-spirited at times, but that's part of Tony Stark's character.  It's definitely a contrast from Iron Man 2, where I felt everyone was just smarmy and snarky.  This time it's pretty much contained to Stark, and the overall level of the dialog in an improvement across the board.  Shane Black, along with co-writer Drew Pearce, really know how to write snappy, witty dialog, and Black knows how to get the best out of everyone.  There honestly isn't a weak link in the entire cast, and the chemistry is great with everyone.

Robert Downey Jr. was great as Tony Stark again.  Back when originally cast for Iron Man, I thought it was a perfect casting based on his life experiences.  It's a little interesting to note that he worked with Black on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which many feel was the movie that really got RDJ back on the path to superstardom (check KKBB out if you haven't seen it).  RDJs contract is up with IM3, so I don't know if this is the last for him and Iron Man, but I really hope it's not.  I've heard RDJ is willing to extend his contract and said he has a few more in him, so hopefully they can keep this going for at least another Avengers and IM flick.  If something doesn't happen though, then at least he's going out on a high note.

Iron Man 3 is a great addition to the Iron Man franchise and picks up from the high note left off by The Avengers.  There are lots of great action scenes, and funny dialog, so whether you're a fan of Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr., or just Summer blockbusters, then you're sure to be entertained.  Don't miss this one, true believers!

4 (out of 5) Death Stars