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.

Friday, June 27, 2014

BABES, BOOMS, BOOZE, ‘BOTS…BOREDOM. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” Edges The Franchise Closer To It.

Within the first ten minutes of Michael Bay’s Transfomers: Age of Extinction, an ancillary character says something to the effect of “sequels and reboots are all a bunch of crap”; a metatextual line of acknowledgement that, in Michael Bay’s hands, can either be taken as a challenge to belie the statement or as serve a “f*** you” to the audience as he’s about to fling it at you like a pissed off caged monkey. The film, and I term it loosely, is more latter than former.

Taking place five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), the Transformers, both Autobot and Deceptacon, are deemed unwanted aliens and are systematically hunted down by a government agency run by rogue CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), with the help of an alien robotic force led by an entity called “Lockdown” (Mark Ryan), whose mission is to find the gone-missing Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). In the meantime, a down-on-his-luck, single father inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), discovers Prime's remains and finds himself, his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), and her race car boyfriend Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor) drawn into events that involve…

…remember that analogy about monkeys above? Well, that’s kind of what the plot feels like. After the relatively poor performance of the previous installment (in comparison to the first two that preceded it), there was a need to up the ante on this one.  While Ehren Kruger is credited with writing the film, the narrative is so disjointed it barely holds itself together as such.  It’s as if someone took a monkey, gave it poo with plot ideas written on them, flung it against the wall, and saw what stuck which, given what’s packed in the overlong running time, seems like everything. That’s the whole tragedy in this film.

One of the major rules of storytelling (never introduce an element if it is not intended to be used, a rule especially espoused by Alfred Hitchcock) is violated many times. There are some really good ideas (one of which never before explored in the entirety of the “Transformer” mythology), which are built up without any payoff, playing more as a“wouldn’t this be cool if…” pastiche than an actual cohesive, linear story line. 

Directing actors have never been Bay’s strong suit, but at least in his previous films his characters had a sense, however thin, of consistency. In Extinction, character motivations change at a moment’s notice to a simian-head-scratching degree. Mark Wahlberg would be a welcome addition to the franchise solely for the fact that he’s NOT Shia LeBeouf, but he earns his place as he is certainly the most enthusiastic and sympathetic member of any Transformers film. His character is the anchor for the human point of reference; despite being a gifted tinker, his inventions never work and he is due to lose his home. The only other human performance worthy of note is John Turturro stand-in Stanley Tucci as a blatant Steve Jobs rip-off who is out to destroy the Transformers for his own purposes.  His character is completely disjointed, but at least his over-the-top histrionics make for entertaining fare. The rest of the cast are nothing more than the usual Michael Bay stock cut outs (the "hot girl", the "rebel boyfriend", the "homicidal muscle", etc.) that do their jobs adequately for the purposes of what passes for a film. The CGI is perhaps the best this series has seen, despite some weaknesses in translation to 3D.  However, I can honestly say that for the first time in a Transformers movie I could identify which robot was fighting whom with each ‘bot having a look as distinctive as their personality.

However, this is a Michael Bay party, and he’s brought his usual testosterone-jacked bag of tricks:  Ascending point-of-view car exits, babes in short shorts that would make Catherine Bach blush, sssslllloooooowwww-moooooooo, hardware (military and otherwise), booze, Steve Jablonsky’s staccato military rhythms, product placement galore, and the boom, Boom, BOOM! But much like the lens flare in a J.J. Abrams Star Trek production, the elements are so overdone here Extinction comes across as a Michael Bay parody; some moments so obviously pandering that they are groan-inducing caricature. The movie could have been significantly improved if Bay hadn’t seemingly fired his editor as the action sequences go so long that by the time the “money shots” are arrived at, one is either past caring or just relieved that it’s finally over. More and more is thrown into the ramped up battle scenes, with John Goodman’s “Hound”, Ken Watanabe’s “Drift”, John DiMaggio’s “Crosshairs” and Robert Foxworth’s “Ratchet” reminding us that this movie ostensibly about "robots in disguise" is really a study in machismo excess (everybody’s running around chasing a “seed”…yeeeeaaaah….); not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it weren’t so disjointedly blatant. As far as I’m concerned, so long as Peter Cullen continues to voice Optimus the character itself can do no wrong. But even actor and character are slaves to the story. By the time Optimus gets to his own “money shot” of riding the Dinobot “Grimlock”, the movie has gone so far off the rails for so long the viewer is left too confused about the shenanigans to care. Situations, motivations, and locations all jump around to such a leap frog extent that it feels like someone tried to condense all six Star Wars films into a two hour plus running time. When one says that an episode of the original Transformers (1984) cartoon was better executed in story and presentation than a big-budgeted, big screen adaptation, there’s a problem.

All in all, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a poorly designed robot; some parts work, others are mismatched and grind like nails on chalkboard. The sad fact is it really is like visiting monkeys at the zoo.  The cute monkey will fling the poo at you with disdain, but the audience will still shell out the money to watch without realizing they’re essentially paying for the privilege of being shat on.

Monday, June 9, 2014

MALEFICENT IS LESS THAN MAGNIFICENT: Angelina Jolie's Performance Saves The Film From Crashing Down Upon Its Revisionist Foundations [MINOR SPOILERS]


Put succinctly, Maleficent is Disney’s Man of Steel.
 
That’s not necessarily a good thing.
 
The most curious aspect about the release of Disney’s live action feature Maleficent, directed by first time director Robert Stromberg and starring Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones with supporting assist by Angelina Jolie, is the missed opportunity of rereleasing 1959’s Sleeping Beauty on DVD. Upon viewing the movie, it is crystal clear why the action did not take place.  Clearly, Disney has jumped upon the revisionist bandwagon to such an extent that it has employed that most insulting and lazy of fictional tropes: Everything you know is WRONG.
 
Given the Maleficent’s character design (as well as that of the castle) and the fact the film carries the distinction of being Disney, there’s a reasonable inference that the film was to tell the story of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s point of view.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The studio subverts its own 1959 animated presentation to such an extent it is barely recognizable, turning one of the  most (if not the  most) deliciously, unrepentant villains in Disney’s Pantheon of Evil into a vengeful but sympathetic anti-heroine; one barely recognizable from the source material.  Now, the 1959 film is by no means 100% faithful to its source material either (with permutations too long to summarize here), but this is a unique take in that Disney is revising its own "history"; interesting, if not satisfying.
 
In this retelling, Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy (pre-teen); Ella Purnell (teen); Angelina Jolie (adult)) is reimagined as a good fairy that protects the kingdom known as “The Moors”, a land that is populated by fantastical, supernatural beings that abuts a human kingdom in an uneasy truce. When young Maleficent is called upon to see to a thieving human boy Stefan (Michael Higgins (pre-teen); Jackson Bews (Teen); Sharlto Copley (adult)) who has trespassed into the “The Moors”, they strike up an unlikely friendship that becomes something more. Upon adulthood, Copley betrays her in his quest to become king. Violated and disillusioned, Maleficent becomes vengeful, hard, and aloof.  Years later, when the married King Stefan presents his daughter Aurora, the uninvited Maleficent arrives to invoke the infamous sleeping curse, albeit in circumstances altered from the original Disney film.
 
Most everyone knows the story of “Sleeping Beauty” (at least, the Disney cinematic version).  But here, this is less a fairy tale for adults and more of a study of cultural inversion. There has been a trend since the early 90s in pop culture media to have the hero become the villain and vice versa.  Both Wicked and Oz: The Great and Powerful show the Wicked Witch of the West in a more sympathetic light. In the world of comics, both Doctor Octopus and Lex Luthor have supplanted their respective super-heroic foes by becoming effective heroes in their own right. Both the Dark Lords of the night and the Sith have become tragic pawns in the name of love, with Van Helsing and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively, represented as unsympathetic antagonists. General Zod isn’t “bad”, he was just, to borrow from Lady Gaga, born that way, etc. Regardless, the above-mentioned characters retain their now-somewhat-muted villainy. Maleficent goes one step further.  She herself is completely reimagined to such an extent that she goes from “villain” to “violated victim” and “anti-hero”, bringing a logical (and in the wake of the recent events in Santa Barbara, California, a decidedly uncomfortable) justification for her actions, and it changes the story into something other than “Sleeping Beauty”. The names remain the same, but the characters and motivations are so different as to render them practically unrecognizable; that it could have conceivably been its own story without affiliation to the source story. It further pushes a theme introduced in Disney’s latest animated release, Frozen, regarding the notion that a “one true love” does not necessarily mean romantic love. Conspiracy theorists would have a field day with this film regarding the advancement of hidden agendas, given how some of the characterizations play out.
 
The question remains as to whether or not Maleficent is a good film on its own merits. The answer is, like so many other recent films, it's a lustrous moving painting that reveals its flaws upon further scrutiny; a mixed bag as a film proper.  The story penned by no less than seven credited screenwriters, which gives credence to the old adage of “too many cooks.” For example, a few events that take place within the story, including the climax, requires the viewer to fill in a few blanks for themselves from inference without providing sufficient pre-established cues to justify them (an example involves a Deux Ex Machina in the climax).
 
It's not hyperbole to say that without Angelina Jolie there would be no live-action Maleficent. While her physical disposition makes her the perfect actress, it is her innate intelligence and bearing that make it work. As the pre-betrayed Malificent she is serviceable. It's when the character goes to the dark side that she allows herself to gleefully relish the role with dry, witty, cheeky acerbity. Her comedic timing is impeccable, and it's only near the end where she raids Michelle Pffeiffer's fetish closet does her performance hit a sour note. In truth, she is really the only reason to watch this film; she manages to make the incongruous motivations of the character plausibly work. It's certainly not for the slipshod special effects. Half the time they're a work of picturesque artistry.  Others, the digital effects are so cheesily obvious (even in 2D) it's a wonder how the Disney studio allowed its name to be attached to the project; most egregiously with the three fairy godmothers, all of whom look like Gollum's little sisters. Instead of magical, the CGI renders them grotesquely.
 
Elle Fanning is sufficiently beguiling as Aurora, the unwitting pawn in the film's game of vengeance. She's acts as quasi-foil for the titular character and manages to build a credible relationship with her. It’s their revamped relationship that becomes the focal point of the film. While the onus of the burden of the film’s carriage falls on Jolie’s shoulders, Fanning assists in carrying the weight quite nicely.
 
Sharito Coplay, as King Stefan, manages to lose all the crazy charm he displayed in The A-Team for just plain crazy. His performance is disjointedly interesting, if bordering on one-note, as it’s left for the viewer (again, via inference) if his descent into madness is due to conscience, fear, or both. His performance is inconsistent and perhaps that was the intent. However, like the story beats, the relationship dynamics are filled in by the viewer via inference. Unfortunately, this compromises the dynamics between protagonist and antagonist so that when they finally, inevitably meet in the climax, the result is not as satisfying as it should have been.
 
The less said about Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple as the ersatz “Fairy Godmothers”, the better.
 
Special note must be made to actor Sam Riley who plays the anamorphic Diaval, who provides a much needed balance and reason to the film. Given all the subtextual misogyny the majority of the male characters portray in this film, he provides the one example that, gosh darn it, not all guys are bad (but then, it’s an easily obviated argument given that Diaval is a crow transformed into a man, not vice versa, and thus a magical creature, not a true man). Actor Brenton Thwaites is just window dressing as the ineffectual Prince Phillip.
 
James Newton Howard's score tries to be a mix of Disney Classic and vintage Williams and it works for the film, even if there isn't one particular melody which stands out.
 
The film will undoubtedly be a hit and does have a few things going for it. It’s a lush production with a strong feminist foundation and does provide positive messages regarding true love and strength of character. Yet it would have been more risky, daring, and interesting to portray Maleficent as the character in the original Sleeping Beauty. However, here Disney plays it safe, leading to a transmogrification of character that defangs Maleficent both in film and in person. In trying to explain the magic, the producers have done nothing but totally undermine it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

“EDGE OF TOMORROW” WILL LEAVE YOU ON THE EDGE OF YOUR SEAT.

If you were to ask someone “what would you get if you crossed Groundhog Day (1993) with Mecha Anime[?]”, one of the most unlikely responses you’re liable to get is “a kick-ass Tom Cruise vehicle”; yet that is exactly what you get with Edge of Tomorrow.
 
Based on the Hiroshi Sakurzzaka novel ”All You Need Is Kill”, the story takes place, in what is implied through the use of real life cable news anchor cameos, to be the near future.  A race of aliens, known as “Mimics” (due to their ability to copy and anticipate military battle strategies), have overrun and decimated most of Europe.  However, despite their seeming invincibility, a series of successes effectuated by Special Forces solider Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) bolster the war effort to the extent that a final assault to eradicate the threat once and for all is planned.  Self-aggrandizing, cowardly advertising executive Major William Cage (Cruise) is ordered by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to film the battle at the front lines. When he tries to charm his way out of said duty, he is forcefully subdued and sent to the front lines as an infantryman and falsely identified as a deserter, much to the delight of J-Squad infantry unit leader Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton, whose presence, along with the set-up of J-Squad, heavily recalls Aliens (1986)). Terrified and way out-of-depth his depth, Cage is killed within five minutes upon arrival at the battlefront; but not before kills a rare, large blue-alien known as an “Alpha”.  Upon his death, he “resets” back to the present day. The character is well named as he is “caged” in a Ragnarokian time loop as time resets itself upon his death(s).*  It’s not until he saves Vrataski’s life that Cage begins to unravel the mystery of his condition and use his newfound power to aid in the war effort.
 
The advance trailers for the film depicted a bleak dystopian future, filled with the oppressive, hopeless desolation that has become the hallmark of modern sci-fi actioners. However, what sets this film apart is that it balances the proceedings with a healthy sense of humor due in no small part to Doug Liman’s direction and Cruise, who’s given the opportunity to poke fun at his own acting clich├ęs (a scene where he repeatedly flashes his pearly-white chompers is especially amusing) and makes the humorous most of the film’s “videogame reset” conceit (thus preventing the trope from becoming tiresome). Eventually, he defaults into his “dependable action-hero” persona, but he is effective in this playing-against-type turn.  In any event, the film shows that Cruise still has a few more “action hero” years left in him.
 
The film’s true star, however, is Emily Blunt, the resident "Valkyrie" who makes “The Angel of Verdun” a compelling, complex character; she is both dangerous and vulnerable all at once, and Blunt and Cruise share a great give-and-take dynamic. Credit must be given to Cruise in the fact that he knows when to dominate a scene and when to let his costar shine, which Blunt does. In their respective roles, both Gleeson and Paxton are stubbornly gruff, but Paxton is (in a rare case) especially entertaining; almost stealing every scene he appears in. 
 
Both the visual effects and cinematography are top notch; a gritty realism permeates each frame despite the fantastical nature of the elements.  Like last year’s Pacific Rim, it is an anime come to life; however, one that is slightly more convincing and, dare I say, compelling. The aliens are disquieting, tentacled monsters reminiscent of the robots in the Matrix films, and the battle suits are sufficiently convincing. Christopher Beck’s score is by turns pulse pounding and insidious, effectively highlighting both the action and the suspense.
 
The script, by Dante Harper (uncredited), Christopher McQuarrie, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, is surprisingly clever, catching the viewer unawares with certain revelations via dialogue throughout the film.  If there’s any weakness, it’s in the third act, where the lighting and editing make for a more muted visual experience.  Some might find the ending a bit pat but, given the bleakness in most summer blockbusters to date, it’s rather refreshing.
 
A clever script, heavy action, humor, and solid performances blend to make Edge of Tomorrow better than it should be. It is a highly enjoyable film that carries dramatic heft but does not take itself too seriously, and one that merits big screen viewing. You’ll LIVE through the action, you won’t DIE of boredom, and you’ll want REPEAT viewing.
 
 *Special thanks to Ian Morris for the analogical assist.

Friday, May 23, 2014

DAYS OF SEQUELS FUTURE: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” Guarantees the The X-Men’s Cinematic Future

Admittedly, 20th Century Fox’ X‑Men franchise (including the spin-offs) has been somewhat floundering in quality since Bryan Singer’s departure from directorial duties after 2003’s X-Men 2. Some have been quite good (The Wolverine) and others…not so much (X-Men: The Last Stand). So much so that a “soft” reboot in the form of Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) was necessitated. Bryan Singer himself has taken a few hits, both professionally (Valkyrie, Superman Returns) and (in recent days) personally. However, X-Men: Days of Future Past ushers in a return to form for both the director and the franchise.
 
The story begins in the not-too-distant future wherein mutants are being systematically slaughtered by giant robots known as “Sentinels”, who were conceptualized in the early 1970s by a millionaire industrialist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) for the sole purpose of their eradication. When Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinates him for his slaughtering of mutants in the name of science, it sets of the chain of events that lead to the true “last stand” of Homo Superior.  In a last desperate bid for survival, the few remaining mutants, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan), devise a plot to send the consciousness of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into the past in order to prevent Mystique from succeeding in her task. However, in order to do so Logan will have to engage the help of the younger versions of Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively); no mean feat as, given the events chronicled in First Class (2011), the two men couldn’t be any further apart ideologically or emotionally.
 
In a sense, Days of Future Past is Bryan Singer’s Star Trek: Generations (coincidentally starring Patrick Stewart) as he has to juggle elements and casts from two iterations of the same franchise and balance them out.  For the most part, he succeeds where Generations failed. While Hugh Jackman is the ostensible star, every main character is given equal weight; an impressive undertaking as he served only as a producer of First Class and, thus, had not worked with the new cast in a directorial capacity until now. Yet, the film feels like he’s deftly handled those characters this entire time. Given that the bulk of the film takes place in the past, much of the returning regulars from the previous X-Men films, such as Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore),  and Rogue (Anna Paquin), get the short shrift in screen time. But in their case, quantity does not equate to quality as their characters, and newcomer to the franchise Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, are pivotal to the story in their own ways, as is scene stealer Evan Peters as Quicksilver, the fastest mutant alive. A super speedy smart-ass, he practically owns the movie in just one stellarly-rendered scene that borrows from the climax of the animated film Over The Hedge (2006). 
 
As far as the main players go, the performances are indeed sublime. The real life bromance between McKellan and Stewart adds to their characters’ relationship in the future and heightens the contrast of said relationship of their younger selves. The contrast between the young and old is powerful. McAvoy’s Xavier is self-loathing and depressed, while Fassbender’s Eric Lehnsherr, while still duplicitously arrogant, is much more conflicted and unsure. The tension between them, the hurt and longing, is practically palpable. Interestingly enough, Hollywood’s current “It” girl Jennifer Lawrence’s performance makes one forget that she is the second actor to play the live-action Mystique. As the villain of the piece, Peter Dinklage is rather…ordinary; not that that assertion is an indictment. As Trask, he is Americanized Tyrion Lannister in a polyester business suit; a study in charismatic banality, providing contextual logic to his monstrous actions (only in one moment in the film does his performance seem to slip into "Simon Legree" territory; a hiccup in an otherwise interesting turn). Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy/Beast is given much more to do this time around, with the producers having taken a page from Marvel’s The Avengers, to give McCoy the appropriate “hulk out” moments (though not nearly as satisfying).
 
Hugh Jackman has come a long way since he first donned the Adamantium claws. What’s always interesting about Jackman is that despite the amount of times he’s played the character he always seems to find a new facet to explore.  This time, Logan is the guide instead of the guided. He must mentor the self-destructive Xavier. Despite having the experience and knowledge of Xavier’s history, he is as unsure as the young Xavier is. It is a unique and unfamiliar position for the character to take and Jackman evinces this superbly.
 
The X-Men: Days of Future Past screenplay by Simon Kinberg, (very loosely…I repeat, VERY LOOSELY… based on the comic book storyline of the same name by writers Chris Claremont and John Byrne) coupled with the editing from Singer’s partner-in-crime John Ottman allows for a film that is mostly tight. There are a couple of set up scenes that almost Tarantino-esque (meaning, goes way too long), but they are few and excusable. The time travel theories used in the film are plausible for the story logistics (so long as one does not dwell on them too much). Ottman’s score, as usual, does justice to the film but is eminently forgettable out of context. The special effects are top notch, though 3-D does call attention to some of its weaknesses but it’s not too distracting. Some die-hard X-Men fans may scoff at the design of the Sentinels themselves, but as rendered in both the past and the future they are appropriately menacing.
 
Singer plays fast and loose with continuity, both in terms of history in general and the X-Men films in particular.  However, he does have an eye for detail and a sense of pop culture kitsch of the era (one to particularly humorous effect), and does a good job of tying in some subplots from the previous films, thereby placing First Class and this film firmly into the fold. For anyone who had issues with Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (and those numbers are legion), let’s just say that this film offers vindication.
 
The film, however, is big...nay, epic...in scope; arguably as much as Marvel's Thor: The Dark World. As the film progresses, it gets bigger in visuals, in scope, and in stakes, building to a resounding crescendo. Despite the change in directors, the sense of anything-can-happen begun in First Class is continued here; especially as the film rushes to its conclusion. And what a finale it is. Singer’s direction is so tight that it literally ratchets up the suspense. Many of the people who will view this film will be more than familiar with the story upon which it is based. However, it is a testament to his skill that despite this, the viewer catches their breath waiting to see how these things play out.  If only Singer had brought this sort of deftness to Valkyrie and Superman Returns. Singer’s predilection towards themes of isolation, segregation, and persecution are on display here, but here they’re tempered with a sense of family. At least to this reviewer, for the first time the characters feel as though they are part of a larger family. Without that feeling, this film would not be as potent.

It’s been a while since I have seen Singer’s previous X-Men films but I can say that I was not as invested in these characters cinematically until this particular film. Despite the fantasy, the film is anchored in very relatable, human emotion. The fans will enjoy the little Easter eggs that pepper the film and the game of “name that mutant” that goes with it. For the non-fans, there is enough action, suspense, and emotion to satisfy. In whole, this is a film on par with Marvel’s The Avengers. The torch has been passed between the original and new cast (though expect to see Jackman as Wolverine in a film or two to come), and with this film, the future of the X-Men franchise on film is practically assured.
 
Sorry, Marvel Studios.