Monday, December 15, 2014

AN UPHILL BATTLE: "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" Is A Feast of Spectacle That Doesn't Justify Its Bloat.

"Will you follow me? One last time?" 


This question is posed by the dwarven king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) halfway into Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies. By that point, the character has used up whatever good will he has left with not only the outer world-at-large, but with his twelve dwarven companions. However, despite all that his character has done through the course of this film, they still follow his lead headless of the bittersweet ramifications. It seems almost a metatextual plea from Jackson himself to the viewer regarding The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies, considering he's turning what amounts to perhaps thirty pages (depending on the edition) of one novel into a bloated two-hour plus film (which ironically is the shortest of all of Jackson's Tolkein adaptations). Mercifully, the bloat is not as egregious as it was in The Desolation of Smaug; here there is a tighter focus as the narrative speeds, in jerking spurts, to it's conclusion.


Well, not until a whole lot of this takes place.


The film takes up where the last one ends, with the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberatch) laying seige on the seemingly defenseless city of Esgaroth/Lake-Town. Meanwhile, Thorin Oakenshield turns his back on the helpless humans, choosing instead to revel in his newfound wealth and seek the yet-to-be discovered Arkenstone, deafening his ears to the compassionate pleas of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), begging Oakenshield to honor his word. As this takes place, Thranduil (Lee Pace) leads his elven army to The Lonely Mountain to reclaim the elven jewels held there, unaware that the orcan general Azog (Manu Bennett) leads a militia of orcs and goblins to claim the mountain and lay waste to all beings they find be they human, dwarven, or elven, Lastly, Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) is slowly dying at the hands of The Necromancer/Sauron (voiced by Cumberbatch) in the abandoned fortress of Gol Dulgur. It all comes to a head at the base of The Lonely Mountain.

It's all about dat base, 'bout dat base, 'bout dat base...

It's difficult to view this film as a stand-alone picture because (a) it's not, as it is dependent upon what the events of An Unexpected Journey and Desolation; and (b) the fact that Jackson's previous Lord of the Rings adaptation trilogy was vastly superior in execution. Granted, Jackson and his team of screenwriters (Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) took lots of liberties with the source material for those film as well. But at least they remained somewhat faithful to the source's tone, if not its themes and motifs.

What irks the most is how much Jackson & Co. miss the point this time around. The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings, despite both works being penned by the same author. The Hobbit is a charming, whimsical tale that, while ostensibly geared for children, is a rite of passage character study; particularly the character of Bilbo Baggins. That charm, that whimsy, is all but lost.  It's only in two scenes towards the end...two small scenes, mind you...the spirit of the source material is captured. Heart is traded for spectacle and, while that spectacle is grand, it's also souless. Jackson's stretching out the novel, along with inserting material from other Tolkein works as well as creating a wholly new subplot that doesn't exit, only calls attention to the weaknesses in the endeavor. As such, we're treated to long stretches of dialogue and soap operaish elements that make what is supposed to be taken seriously teeter dangerously into parody.  With the original films, it was easy to buy into the moments of pathos and heroism as they were interwoven organically through the story beats and the performances. Here, Jackson's direction is so self-consciously heavy handed, as the actors are made to stop and pose for dramatic effect, the moments are constructed in such a way as to seem like a subliminal "applause" message at an sitcom-studio audience taping. Strike a pose, there's nothing to it. Madonna would be proud.


Azog strikes a similar pose.

And what of those characters brought in that had nothing to do with the story? Perhaps by way of apology, given the actor's scenes having ended up on the cutting room floor upon theatrical release, Jackson gives Christopher Lee's Saurman more to do in a rescue sequence that is reminiscent of his turn as Count Dooku in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, with the Galadrial (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) providing back up. The scene is the obligatory foreshadowing of the events in The Fellowship of the Ring, but it makes sense and works within its context.  Unfortunately, Orlando Bloom's Legolas' presence only serves as reminder of how much better the previous series of films were. If you thought his Oliphant battle sequence in The Return of the King stretched the bounds of credulity, what he does in this film makes that sequences feels as though it were within the realm of actual physics. And, as for the shoehorned, exclusive to the films burgeoning romance between dwarven Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evageline Lilly), it would be bad enough to say that it doesn't enhance the procedings...but the most telling indictment is that it doesn't detract from it, either. Despite both actors' charms (which they do have in abundance), and their best efforts, their story is executed so superficially that it fails to make a mark. There's no emotion, no resonance, because the two are simply not given enough time in either of the last two films to make an impression. Tauriel exists only to keep the film from becoming, in crass vernacular, a sausage-fest. Whether that is purist quibbling or not, the bottom line is that to shoehorn a non-existent romance for demographic concerns show a lack of confidence in the material itself and, thus, undermines its presentation.

"Really? THIS is why I'm here?"

While the film gets a lot wrong, what it gets right, it's so RIGHT.  The film is sumptious to look at. Even more than An Unexpected Journey, the viewer gets an idea of scope and scale to Middle-Earth. Alan Lee's drawings come to life in a way that hints at the epicness of Tolkein's world. As for the battles themselves, they are something to behold. The CGI and 3D effects, somewhat disjointed in the last film, are much more streamlined, adding to the film's majesty and worthy of being seen in IMAX. Now, given a 45 minute battle run time, some (not all) skirmishes go waaaaay too long. Further, some of the battles are shot and choreographed in such a way as to be unintentionally humorous, which in turn minimizes the poignancy of some the outcomes of said battles. Nevertheless, they are on par with those in The Return of the King  though, given the rule of escalation in drama, they shouldn't be.

The three of us make for one Aragorn. Honest.

Seemingly an afterthought in the previous film, Martin Freeman makes the most of his expanded role as Bilbo Baggins. While his Bilbo's journey in the film is not as transfromative of character as in the book, Freeman's convincing performance reminds the audience that he is the film's heart and conscience. Freeman manages to make the role his own even as he maintains Ian Holm's idiosyncraces; no easy feat.  He draws you in to Bilbo's joys and inevitable pains, as much as Richard Armitage's Thorin draws you into his own "Madness of The King of the Mountain". Armitage skillfully swings from emotion to emotion with the skill of a trapeeze artist. It's a surprisingly mesmerizing turn, even if one particular sequence is emblematic of the afore said soap opera melodrama. Lee Pace's wood-elven king is as arogant as ever, but Pace deftly shows hints that there are chinks in the emotional armor, and at the film's end, there is a hint of emotional growth in the character. Nothing need be said here about Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf that hasn't been said in over a decade. He basically is that character. Special mention has to go Billy Connoly as Theorin's cousin Dain and Ryan Gage as Alfred, for bringing much needed, intentional comic relief; especially the latter, who ramps up the character's smarm and opportunistic cowardace to great effect.  One of the best actors on set, however, may be the dog who happened to look up at the camera crane as it was panning back for a long shot. Howard Shore's orchestrations give the film the urgency it requires, even if it lacks in some of the punch of his previous efforts in these series of films, Smaug excluded. Yet it compliments the film well, especially at the conclusion and denoument, wherein echoes of The Fellowship come into play. Despite some of the over-the-top elements, the performances will move you. Have a couple of tissues handy. As afore said, there are a couple of moments that capture the spirit of the novel, and one would have to be hard of heart not to be moved by them.

On it's own, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a good film but, ultimately, falls short of the intended mark; a victim of both it's own hubris and excesses, and in comparison to the previous installments, hampered by the very legacy it attempts to bolster. It is in turns plodding and rousing, teetering between the two extremes like a see saw, but thankfully the good outweighs the bad.  Yet for all that, one can find solace in the fact that the film's meaning stems from Martin Freeman's presentation of the virtues found in the heart of a simple Hobbit who tries to make things right. Would that Peter Jackson had remembered that instead of seeking box office riches akin to all the gold in The Lonely Mountain.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

NOT TOO HORRIBLE: "Horrible Bosses 2" Entertains Despite Improvisational Excess

Some films demand a sequel. Some films work as a "done-in-one". Some films get a sequel despite having been a "done-in-one." Horrible Bosses 2 belongs in that last category.  The bumbling would-be murders from the first film, womanizer Kurk Buckman (Jason Sudeikis), terminal worrywart Dale Arbrus (Charlie Day), and their ostensibly level-headed, eternally put-upon leader Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman), trade in homicide for kidnapping in this unnecessary though fun sequel. The boys attempt to go into business for themselves, having tired of working for bosses (horrible or otherwise) and opt to go into entrepreneurship with a device called the "Shower Buddy". When shopping tycoon Bert Hanson manages to trick them into a deal that will leave them without the rights or profits to their invention, the trio enlist the dubious help of Dean "M*****F*****" Jones (Jamie Foxx), who advises them to kidnap Hanson's obnoxious prick of a son, Rex (Chris Pine) and hold him for ransom in an attempt to save their interests. 

Directed by Seth Gordon, the film's strength stems from its players, which also include Bosses alumni Jennifer Aniston as sex-addicted Dr. Julia Harris, and Kevin Spacey as the murderously irrascible Dave Harken. The camaraderie between the big three of Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day is evident in the performances. Unfortunately, not all of that camraderie translates to laughs. This time around, there's more of an improvisational aesthetic in their scenes together. It seems they were given more room to play; however, Gordon did not seem to know when to cut recess short. At times they go on so long (and are painfully unfunny), that you inadvertently feel Nick's frustration at his buddies, like emotional Smell-O-Vision. It's not to say that the actors are bad. The give-and-take between the three is genuine. You get the sense that these guys have the same chemistry in real life as their characters do and, for the most part, they're a pleasure to watch work...most of the time. It's when they veer off-script that the film's flow derails. It would be better if the improv'ed material were up to par. Some of what ended up on screen would have been better off on the cutting room floor. 

The true laughs from the film come from the supporting players. Aniston's Harris is now a nymphomainiac-in-recovery, but she only pays that lip service...among other things. She gamely steps out of her personal comfort zone to hilarious result.  Foxx' MF'er Jones character is given much more to do this time around and fulfills the character's promise only hinted at in the first film. Meahwhile, his Django Unchanined co-star Waltz plays the elder Hanson with matter-of-fact smarm. He treats his character straight, his "it's only business" sociopathy so throughly banal, one can't help not to hate him. The biggest surprise here, however, is Chris Pine; an odd thing to say, given that Pine has proven himself to be a very charming, convincing, and capable actor. However, he is so in sync with the three stars that it seems almost as if he's always been a part of the ensemble. The foursome mesh so well together, you can't help but get drawn in to their scenes together. 

The story itself, from a screenplay by Sean Anders and John Morris, is a convoluted affair, with enough twists to give one whiplash. Had the editing been tighter, it would have been a smooth ride. When it's off, it's off. But when it's on, the comedy's on full cylinders; especially as it leads towards the climax. Some of it is farfetched, but it's appropriate to the lunacy that typifies this film franchise.

Horrible Bosses 2 is a good film. Pacing issues and lack of actor restrainmt keep it from being a great comedy, but it is on par with the first. Just sit back, roll your eyes along with Jason Bateman when necessary, and relax. It won't be a "horrible" experence. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

I AM SATISFIED WITH MY EXPERIENCE: BIG HERO 6 is Fun for the Entire Family.

A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” – C.S. Lewis.

Big Hero 6 is the first Disney-animated production based on a Marvel Comics property but there’s a reason why it’s called “Disney’s Big Hero 6”…The final product is barely recognizable from the source material, having been reimagined as a family film.  The tale follows Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a boy genius and robotics prodigy who uses his unique skills to hustle robot fights until an intervention by his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) gets him interested in becoming accepted into a prestigious robotics university run by science guru Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell). When his prototype nanotechnology is stolen by a menacing Kabuki-masked villain, young Hiro enlists the aid of his brother’s prototype medical soft robot Baymax and Tadashi’s colleagues Fred the geek (T.J. Miller); Go Go, the extreme sports enthusiast, (Jamie Chung); Wasabi, an OCD neat freak (Damon Wayans, Jr.); and chemicals specialist Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) to ferret out how and why.

At the center of all this is Baymax, a plastic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man primed for toy exploitation, who is as cute and cuddly as a Madagascarian penguin.  However, this ingratiating adorableness is achieved without being cloying manipulative, which is definitely attributable to the character’s minimalist rendering combined with guileless vocal performance by Scott Adsit.

To be truthful, co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams know when to be big and when to bring the action down and have an impeccable sense of comic timing. They know when to let the story breath, and when to let it rip. The animation is so good it can almost be mistaken for a Pixar entry. San Fransokyo, setting of the film, is presented as a pseudo, animated Epcot whose design is emblematic of the film’s Asian and occidental pastiche, with the comparison to the theme park made even more apparent by Henry Jackman’s (possibly) “World Showcase” inspired score. The CGI, 3D renderings of location and character represent their hybrid influences without favoring one or the other. Given the amount of futuristic dirigibles that line the city’s skyline, a bit of Gotham City thrown in for good measure. It is so distinctive it is a character in and of itself much like Basin City and the aforementioned Gotham in their respective film franchises.

However, the city seems to have more character than the principals. The film is somewhat uneven in terms of plot and characterization. Granted, the story is well executed, exemplifying all the hallmarks of both the Disney story-telling template and the anime tropes thrown into the mix. However, unlike other similar films (Pixar’s Up and this film’s spiritual counterpart, The Incredibles, immediately come to mind), the balance between pathos and exhilaration is not well balanced. For example, when the requisite loss does take place, the impact is not as profound as would be found in previous Disney efforts (though no less poignant). To their credit, they present Hiro as a genius prodigy without making him overbearing. He’s rather likable; as are his teammates, though they are more personality traits than actual personalities, otherwise far too familiar to anyone who has seen any iteration of a Japanese super-team template. Though, when they have to “Teen Titans Go Go Go Power Rangers” mode, it’s entertaining to watch. In fact, they manage to present an antagonist as menacing as those in the upper echelons of Disney’s villainous Pantheon while, at the same time, provide poignant commentary about the darkening of characters (and super heroes) that need no such treatment.

Does it work as a story/film for both children and adults? Despite a couple of narrative and casting blips, the answer is an absolute “yes”. Big Hero 6 is a film that has a sense of fun and heart that breezes by so fast, you actually wish there were more to watch. Judging from the screening I attended, the primary audience the film is intended for gave it resounding, and loud, squeals of delight. It appeals to both the child and adult within us.

So yes, Baymax; I am satisfied with my care. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

A MOVIE WORTH WAITING FOR: "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" Is Disturbingly Nihilistic, But Uniquely Presented

Deep dish pizza … southern fried chicken … cheesecake … French fries … T-bone steak ... bacon double cheeseburgers … a stack of melted-butter, rich maple syrup drenched pancakes … what do all these foods have in common? A one-way ticket to a myocardial infarction; a caloric, fat-laden miasma of fat and grease that when consumed in great amounts can make one feel sickeningly nauseous…but oh, does it taste so gooooood going down. 

Come on…you know you want me.



Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is a lot like that.

”Sin City”, the brain child of comic book writer/artist and director Frank Miller, was a groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed combination of 90’s grim-and-gritty chic with the style of pulp magazines and classic film noir; a formula that was successfully translated onto the big screen in 2005 by directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez. With A Dame To Kill For, lightning has struck twice…tenfold. It’s akin to experiencing an unfolding disaster; horrifying to witness much less contemplate, yet too tantalizing to look away.  

The film engenders that feeling because it looks so damn good, more likely due to Rodriguez’ guiding hand then Miller’s (as anyone who’s watched Miller’s solo-directorial effort The Spirit (2008) can attest). If last year’s Machete Kills was Rodriguez’ grindhouse pastiche of gory excess, A Dame To Kill For is his art house love sonnet. Rodriguez’ sensibilities combined with Miller’s overall vision captures the look and feel of the source material, while at the same time rising (in varying degrees) above its conventions. Technology has caught up with their combined vision and the visuals are much more powerfully impressionistic than in the first outing (even more so in 3D). The city itself is the main oppressively omnipresent character; an indifferent god engulfing the denizens of its streets. Nihilistic despair rises from the sewers and permeates the air, while corruption and vice ooze from the pores of every piece of brick, mortar, and metal. It’s a seedy world where hope is not unknown but unwelcome. The “city as Hell metaphor” is a benchmark of many a story, but rarely as prevalent as here.  [Ba]Sin City is its own dark dystopia divorced from the real world, its citizens enmeshed in its seductive embrace with no way out save one.

This place is Disney World by comparison… 

Each scene is meticulously and (dare I say) lovingly rendered (with some, as in the first film, practically lifted from the panels of the comics) as if a visually lyrical painting. This attention to detail is evident from the opening scene, which serves as the synopsis for the entire experience: an act of brutal violence rendered in over-the-top animation, with Mickey Rourke's gravelly voice-over describing the unfolding events, his raspy delivery teetering between sincerity and mockery; a confluence of the disturbing and the comical. It leaves you feeling like you have to take a much needed shower even as you revel in the opportunity to get dirty. 
Oooooo, baby…. 

Like the original, the film is made up of vignettes from the original comics which are only tangentially connected within the film’s framework.  Despite a couple of pacing issues, the stories draw you in even as they balance the tightrope between straight treatment and ludicrousness. The majority of the tales ("Just Another Saturday Night", "A Dame To Kill For," and "The Long, Bad Night," respectively) take place before the events of the first movie; hence why, for example, the character of Marv is such a big presence in this film. Each story follows a particular character: (1) Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a lucky guy looking to make a statement in Sin City by insinuating himself into a card game headed by the villainous, corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Booth) (2) A pre-plastic surgery Dwight (Josh Brolin, taking over the reins from Clive Owen) being drawn against his better judgment into protecting his femme fatale ex Ava (a perfectly cast Eva Green); (3) a minor sub-plot involving Detective Mort (Christopher Meloni), a cop who is drawn into the Dwight/Ava dynamic; and last but not least Nancy (Jessica Alba), who is filled with rage, remorse, and regret over Hartigan’s (Bruce Wills) self-sacrificial suicide and desires nothing more than to see Senator Roark dead. The actors clearly throw themselves into their work, even if the characters they portray seem joyless. One of the notable exceptions to this is Booth as Roark.  Having played “Phillip Marlowe, Private Eye” on cable in the 80’s, Booth is no stranger to what is required of a noir villain. He revels in his charismatically cruel character, who wears the City’s dark heart like a comfortable, lived-in leather duster.

Come on…you know you want me. 

If Roark is emblematic of the city’s seedy evil pestilence, then Marv is it’s righteous and vengeful wrath; an idea which is crystallized in this film and makes his fate as documented in the first film even more tragic. It’s been a while since Mickey Rourke got top billing in any film, especially in a film that contains luminaries such as Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Josh Brolin among others, but he certainly earns it as he serves as the lynchpin to all the stories. While his character is the most visually excessive, his bearing is surprisingly the most restrained; a pillar of steely calm in an otherwise outrageously manic word, though he explodes into ferocious violence at the drop of a dime. 

Sadly, with the passing of both Michael Clarke Duncan and Brittany Murphy, the parts of Manute and Shellie necessitated recasting, though of more import is the former.  Dennis Haysbert has the thankless task of stepping into Duncan’s large shoes. Haysbert does better in the role than expected; though he lacks some of Duncan’s presence in both stature and menace, he gives enough to be more than effective in the role even if he does imbue the character with a gentlemanly air the Duncan's interpretation lacked.  


Being a killing machine…that’s Allstate’s stand…Are you in good...oh, wait... 

Brolin’s Dwight is a character all his own, which undermines the character’s connection between the two films but still compelling in it's own right. Pay attention as Christopher Lloyd makes a brief but thoroughly enjoyable cameo as Kroenig, who is imagined as a “Doc Brown” who achieved his degree by way of Gotham City U. Levitt's Johnny is cocky brashness, his buoyant demeanor both compliments and contrasts his environs and makes his particular storyline hit all the right emotional beats.

On the surface, A Dame To Kill For seems to be brutally and degradingly misogynistic. But scratch the surface and you’ll find a subversive subtext extolling of female empowerment, for it’s the women who drive the events of the film (directly or otherwise). As the ostensible dame to kill for, Eva Green is sublime both in visuals (which the film browbeats with as many lovingly rendered nude shots of her as humanly possible*) and in performance; the acting that was derided in Dark Shadows serves her well here, giving her character much needed bite. Rosario Dawson returns as Gail, who’s not given as much to do this time around but gleefully makes the most of it.  Of all the returning players, Bruce Wills as the ghostly Hartigan is the most marked in terms of real-time age. However, his worn and haggard look serves the character well, lending a spectral, heavy gravitas to what amounts to an extended cameo. but who's presence fuels Jessica Alba's Nancy, giving focus to her character's pain and overall wretchedness. She in turns seethes and despairs, transitioning between both sans subtlety.  She's given more to do here than in the last film, and it is her story that drives the film's final arc; one which borrows an element from The Sopranos and, in keeping with this film's tonality, uses it to better effect. 

As a whole, the actors teeter on the verge of parody, but for the most part Rodriguez reins them in just enough to remind the viewer that this is a world of unreality where none of this is to be taken seriously. His judicious yet sparse use of color in a world of literal black-and-white reinforces this sense of fantasy, even as the black-and-white merge into an oppressive, overriding grey. The original score by Rodriguez and collaborator Carl Thiel use the noir hallmarks of brass and woodwinds and ratchet them to the nth degree, further heightening the sense of foreboding. 

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is not just another comic book movie. It’s a film that plays with different opposing motifs and styles, blending them into a fully realized world. There’s no in-between: It’s a film you will either love or hate for it's not a "fun" film in the conventional sense. It is lurid, apprehensive, and morbidly bleak. It is also a vivid, extremely well-crafted and executed piece of modern noir. While the characters are not as well-defined as in the first outing (which is disappointing but expected given the enormity of the cast), the performances are solid. This is a film that must be watched in 3D as it is one of the rare films that deserves the technological treatment (keep a special eye out for the opening credits and a pool scene). It balances macabre hopelessness with wry absurdity.  It’s a film that is a combination of conflicting styles that is not afraid to laugh at itself, making for a cinematic experience that is uniquely it’s own.

*Not that I'm complaining.
**Special thanks to Marjorie Lepowsky of Chatterbox Productions for her thoughts on technological advancement.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

NOSTALGIA ONLY GOES SO FAR: "The Expendables 3" Is Still Enjoyable Despite Being Run Of The Mill [Minor Spoilers]

There's a problem that is inherent with premises based on a gimmick. A gimmick can only go so far. Before 2010, it was practically impossible to conceive of a film that would star a plethora of big screen action heroes from the 80's and 90's; especially given the notorious egos of some (star Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example). Then came the first Expendables, a film that surprised many just by being made in the first place. The second one found the aforementioned 80's action triumvirate engaged in more than just an extended cameo sequence, and added Jean-Claude Van Damme to the mix for what was to have been a career comeback. The gimmick of seeing all these stars together in one blockbuster blowout, with tongue-in-cheek references to actor-specific action tropes, mitigated the need for an engaging story, much less plot. 

But gimmicks wear out fast, which begets a "been there, done that" ennui; which is something that star and primary screenwriter Sylvester Stallone knows better than most. Say what you will about the actor's skill as a thespian, watch his filmography and one would be hard pressed to deny he knows a thing or two about crafting a story. In The Expendables 3, the team is sent to take out yet another enemy to freedom. However, much to Barney Ross' (Stallone) surprise, it turns out to be Col. Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a personal enemy of Ross; one who was thought long dead.  When he takes out one of the core members of the team, Barney comes to the conclusion that the weight of age and obsolescence hangs over his team like a shroud and disbands The Expendables to forced retirement including himself, but not before he settles his score with Stonebanks. To that end, with the help of recruiter Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), Ross recruits a whole new team made of members under the age of thirty. However, things do not go as planned. 

One of the more interesting aspects about this film series is it's metatextual commentary on the action film in general, but the ageist aspect of its performers in particular, which have often been played to humorous effect. The normal rule regarding trilogies is that the third film spins the central conceit of the two films that preceded it. Whereas The Expendables and The Expendables 2 were all about showing that the old guard still had what it took to get the action job done, The Expendables 3 postulates their awareness that perhaps their time has run its course, at least in Barney's mind. So the Expendables become "The Replaceables" with much younger, equally capable, and more tech savvy counterparts. Without giving too much away, it's a given that both generations overcome their animosity towards each other and band together to stop Stonebank's machinations. However, the path to the getting there is somewhat pat and disjointed.  An action-packed first act leads in to a plodding recruitment second act that meanders and tries to find its footing. It's only when the teams finally blend is when the balls-to-the-walls action fest really begins, and this despite a number of plot holes big enough to shoot a missile through.

Characterization has never really been much of an issue for this series, since the entire premise has been comic book-ish in the most basic sense of the term. Yet despite director Patrick Hughes best efforts, this installment suffers from too many characters (some more thinly realized than others) with too little time for their development. All the original Expendables (Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren) return and are their usual, reliable selves. Among the newcomers, the stand outs are former Stallone antagonists Wesley Snipes as "Doctor Death", a maniac ex-member of the original Expendables team, and a manic, looney tunes cartoon come to life Antonio Banderas as a talkative, hyperactive "assassin" who doubles as an anti-aging infomercial guru. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, stiffly walks in and flies a chopper in a manner reminiscent of a scene he's done before but looks bored as hell doing it. On the youngsters side, MMA Ronda Rousey makes an impressive big screen debut, kicking ass as powerfully as her male counterparts.While Kellan Lutz of Twilight and The Legend of Hercules plays "Smilee" as the stereotypical heroic maverick with a heart of gold and ostensible Barney Ross protege.  Mel Gibson relishes his role as the most formidable of The Expendables villains, playing Stonebanks as a mirror universe Martin Riggs. Like most other actors of this franchise, his character's backstory parallels the actor's persona, but used to menacing effect.

In the end, The Expendables 3 is less an actual action movie and more of a string of scenes of a bunch of fan-favorite guys (and girl) getting together to have fun doing what they do best: chew scenery, fire guns, beat the bad guys to submission, blow stuff up, and give pithy comebacks while doing it.  All in all, it's a fun movie...really, what more could you want from an Expendables film?


Sunday, July 27, 2014

A STAR [LORD] IS BORN..."GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY" Is a Gamble That Pays Off With Interest.

Of all the movies in Marvel Studio's current staple, Guardians of the Galaxy was the hardest sell as there was virtually no name or brand recognition with the public at large, and even comics enthusiasts were left with a slight case of head scratching at the idea. As such, this was Marvel's biggest gamble, the one film that had the most probability of being the first major...possibly disastrous...flop of it's impressive cinematic track record since the Iron Man six years ago. 

Given the presentation, Marvel Studios has absolutely nothing to worry about. Guardians of the Galaxy is everything a summer sci-fi popcorn flick should be.

During the lead up to release it's been described as the figurative love child of Star Wars and Firefly and, while there are similarities to both (unsurprising, since much of Marvel's original space opera epics were heavily influenced by the former, even discounting the fact that the company held the comics license for it), triple threat director James Gunn (who serves as director, primary writer, and very minor actor) manages to take those tropes and rework them into something fresh even as it trods familiar territory. 

The story begins in the late 80's when young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) is alien abducted soon after his mother's succumbing to cancer.  Decades later, the grown up Quill (Chris Pratt) is a rakish rouge bounty hunter going by the name "Star Lord" who is on the hunt for an Orb of mysterious origin and power.  When he refuses to give said Orb to his employer/father figure Yondu Udonta the Centaurian (Michael Rooker), Udonta puts a bounty on Quill's head that attracts the likes of Rocket (a cybernetic raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a Tolkien-esque tree named Groot (Vin Diesel, who probably did not have to spend a lot of time rehearsing his lines). Meanwhile, a interstellar Kree religious zealot/despot named Ronin (Lee Pace) sends a "daughter" of Thanos (first seen at the end of Marvel's The Avengers) named Gamora ("Uhura" as Orion Slave Girl Zoe Saldana), a trained assassin of considerable skill, to retrieve the Orb for his own nefarious purpose.  In their mad gamble to retrieve the film's MacGuffin, they come across Drax the (self-proclaimed) Destroyer (Dave Bautista), who loves solely for revenge against Ronin and Thanos for the death of his family.

Why would I check myself out? Is there something wrong with me?
 
While the main story sounds very straightforward, it is surprisingly and entertainingly not. The film has a strong ironic bent, yet it is perhaps the most sincerely unironic modern sci fi film in terms of it's overall themes of family and righteous action for its own sake.  One of the most amazing things about the film it is that it's so bright! Even at it's darkness there's a pastiche of mesmerizing color. On the flip side, the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps (Think Green Lantern Corps with cooler outfits), is the inevitable result of Epcot and Tomorrowland over-running the state of Florida. No matter how you feel about Disney's theme parks, it's an impressive sight. The soundtrack is a combination of the compositions of Tyler Bates and an 60's/70's rock mix tape, encapsulating the tone of the irreverent space epic. The film's CGI is spectacular, even if the 3D presentation does reveal its weak spots as per usual. The visual style is a combination of retro and modern.  Again, influences of previous sci fi films are in evidence, such as Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, and so forth. But here they're combined to provide something that, if not quite new, is at least fresh. It is a visual feast and one worthy of the 3D presentation. In fact, the movie's visuals blend with the selected rock anthems of the 60's and 70's to create an aesthetic evocative of films like Heavy Metal (1981), some shots taking their cues from the works of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. Speaking further on the score, Tyler Bates possibly cribs certain stylistic motifs from Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World (both scored by Brian Tyler). Given the former film's secular tone and the latter's mythical bent, Bates' efforts here fit this movie's sardonic yet operatic bent while at the same time complimenting the Billboard Top 40 soundtrack.
 
But like any film, it is the performances that either buoy or sink a production. As the Captain Kirk/Han Solo amalgam Peter Quill, Chris Pratt proves he'll never have to be relegated to playing just "the friend" again. He's rakishly lovable; a straight version of Spaceball's Lone Star, presenting an earnest, forthright performance even as his character tries to establish himself as an interstellar bad ass. Zoe Saldana's Gamora is a more than capable warrior, with a soft center belied by the tough exterior. The biggest casting gambles in this production were Rocket and Groot.  To say that the two of them steal the movie is an understatement. There's no "cute and cuddly" here.  Rocket is perhaps the most capable of the misfit Guardians, and its presentation in character, both in performance and CGI, gives credence to it. As the main antagonist Ronin, Lee Pace's performance is noteworthy. He makes himself a force to be reckoned with, and one wishes that it were he that Thor had to battle against in Thor: The Dark World.  In what amounts to an extended CGI cameo, Josh Brolin lays to rest any fears about a Texan-drawled Thanos, who emanates menace in a small scene that leaves you wanting more. The most surprising acting standouts in the film, however, are Bautista and Rooker. Drax's character has no grasp of metaphor, which Bautista uses to great comedic effect, proving he's more versatile than one would have believed. As Yondu (in the film the head of the bounty hunters known as The Ravagers but in the comics was a founding member of the Guardians) Rooker is reminiscent of Jason Robard's Cheyenne from 1968's Once Upon A Time In The West, if that character were played by a cross between Woody Harrelson, Mr. T., and Wesley Snipes in blueface. A noted character actor, Rooker has never seemed to have as much fun in character as he seems to have in this one; which is especially evident in a scene that takes place in an alien pawn shop. The story is engaging and tightly paced (even despite a couple of scene drags involving John C. Reilly as a Nova Corps member), which strikes an appropriate balance between tongue-in-cheekiness and sincerity.
 
I pity the fool who messes with my hemp and my blade.
 
 
In short, if you have any trepidation about seeing this film, don't.  Guardians of the Galaxy serves as the apex of this summer's action fantasy output. It works despite (and perhaps because of) it's lack of cultural identity. Without the baggage that comes from preconceived notions, it surpasses all expectation (or lack thereof); a cinematic rockabilly, rollickin' good time. Reportedly, Marvel Studios has already announced Guardians of the Galaxy: War of Kings for a July 28, 2017 release date.

In my opinion, that date cannot come soon enough. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

SOMBER DAWNING: Despite Some Minor Flaws, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” Is A Marvel To Behold.

It’s rare when a fantasy-based film reaches a level of such sophisticated nuance it is on par with more reality based fare.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes achieves that rarified standard despite some very minor missteps.
 
Ten years have passed since the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).  In the interim, the human race is on the verge of extinction due to the Simian Flu (presented with brilliant yet chilling succinctness at the film’s opening). A relatively small colony of survivors living in the nature overrun ruins of San Francisco, led by survivalists Malcom (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), try to eke out a meager existence. Meanwhile, across the bay, a thriving simian colony exists, still led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, reprising the role), and his “lieutenants” Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Koba (Toby Kebbell). When a search party from San Francisco comes across the sons of Ceasar and Rocket (Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Ash (Larramie Doc Shaw)), a misunderstanding occurs which sets of a chain of events which lead down the path to the inevitable conclusion that was presented in the original Planet of the Apes.
 
It has been said that the best science fiction has something to say; that it is allegorical to the prevailing concerns and issues that are taking place in real life. Where Dawn differs from most is that it is not heavy handed in terms of what is being critiqued (no doubt in part due to that one of the opposing sides is not human in the literal sense). Current foreign politics and affairs, LGBT rights issues, gun control, reactionary jingoism, generational disenfranchisement, tragedy engendered by fearful misunderstanding…all of these are represented…or maybe none of them.  The beauty of this is that this film boils down to the primal essence of all of these concerns…the need to survive; a need both sides share, but only a handful are forward thinking enough to understand that survival may only come from mutual cooperation…and that those few may not be enough to turn the tide.
 
For the first time, Andy Serkis is given top billing in a live-action film as a CGI character; and boy, does he earn it!  The motion captured, CGI rendered apes are a wonder to behold (though the CGI is far from perfect at times, especially when rendered in 3D). The film takes a similar route of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) by devoting much of its first act to represent the simian society.  Unlike the latter film, there’s no human in evidence and, in effect, no analogue for the viewer to identify with.  Serkis, in effect, has the Herculean task of making a CGI character identifiable, if not sympathetic. His performance in Rise is child’s play to what he does so beautifully here.  Cesar is now a family man with a sick companion Cornelia (Judy Greer, whose character’s name implies an ancestral connection between Cesar and Dr. Cornelius of the original Apes) and a rebellious teenager (Thurston). These family issues, and the leadership of the tribe, weigh heavy on Cesar’s shoulders and Serkis conveys it powerfully. Praise in this regard cannot be effusive enough.  He is the literal lynchpin of this film and if he did not work, the whole thing would fall apart.  Just for the sheer scope of the responsibility the actor bears in keeping this film together, Serkis should get an Oscar nomination. On the flip (human) side, Malcolm similarly shares Cesar’s situation.  His own son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is just as disconnected from his father in his own way, and initially unwilling to accept his father’s new lover, the medically capable Ellie (Keri Russell). He tries to keep the peace between the humans and the apes, but his partner Dreyfus fear and mistrust of the apes is a practically insurmountable stumbling block.
 
The only problem here is that this film’s 3D presentation is more three dimensional than some of the performances, which causes an odd disconnect between story and viewer at times to the extent that it quixotically lengthens the two hour screen time. In fact, Oldman is an actor of some respect and renown, yet the character he plays could essentially be played by anyone. There’s nothing here for him to really sink his thespian chops into. However, The Walking Dead’s Kirk Acevedo does stand out as a “racist” character that one would love to hate under normal circumstances; however the character’s motivations are so relatable as to make him borderline sympathetic (more on that in a minute). As does his simian opposite number, Koba (who you will recall as horrifically scarred ape who pushed Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) off the San Francisco Bridge), who bears an irrational hatred for humans; but, given the events of the first film, is also understandable. The journey of father/son reconnection is handled well in the end by both Thurston and McPhee, but for most of the film they are so annoying you’re left with the sense of wanting to slap them aside the head (which, given that they’re playing self-involved teenagers, is precisely the point). However, there are practically too many characters for even an accomplished director like Matt Reeves (Felicity) to juggle around and make three-dimensional.
 
The film is lavishly shot, with the set designers and cinematographers working together to create a believably rendered post-apocalyptic world. The City of San Francisco looks to have been assimilated by the practically tropical woodland that the apes inhabit. Michael Giacchino’s score evoking a sense of foreboding unease even as it emulates his Star Trek efforts at times; an unease that is also engendered by the tone of the story by scriptwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback.
 
Ostensibly, there are two characters that can be characterized as the story’s antagonists, but the real villains are “fear” and “mistrust”.  There are no true villains in the fictional sense.  That sets this film apart from others even as it undermines it. The inevitable battle between humans and apes is a sight to behold (after all, who doesn’t want to see apes riding on horseback armed to the teeth with deadly ordinance?). However, the geek power of the scene is balanced by the tragedy that underlies it. What would be an “Aw, YEAH!” moment in any other film is instead a moment of somber tragedy.  There is no joy to be found in the slaughter of innocents on both sides just to satisfy the jingoistic agenda of a very select few. In the end, this film is also about differences; or rather, the existence of similarity within difference.
 
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a standard, feel good summer blockbuster. It’s a film that takes risks, and does so with laudable, beautiful presentation.  While it does have some yawn inducing (i.e. boring) spots, it is a triumph in filmmaking, building on the world presented in Rise. For all its fantasy, it’s rooted in very real problems. Don’t expect any cheers or a pat resolution. This film serves as a sobering indictment of the consequences of allowing fear, antipathy, and hate to rule the day.