Sunday, June 16, 2013

Roll Over Superman, Here Comes Your Hollywood Look Alike

Man of Steel (2013)
Dir: Zack Snyder

Like many other big summer blockbusters that have come out post-Dark Knight, this revamp of Superman tries too hard to be a cynical, modernist take on an icon. Man of Steel is not a Superman movie, but rather, a generic, bloated, and predictable Hollywood action movie that features Superman, but even then it seems like he is barely in it.

Back in 2006, Bryan Singer directed Superman Returns, a great tribute to the Richard Donner Superman movies of the late 70's. However, apparently I'm the only one that liked that movie enough to want to see it's story continued. Now we have the first Superman movie since the original that is completely new. This gave Superman the chance to be refreshing and revitalized, but instead we are given a massively overblown film that offers nothing new other than trying to make Superman, well, less like Superman.

The film starts on Krypton, and from the get-go we are assaulted with heavy, unoriginal computer animation, over the top action, and a convoluted-as-hell story. Jor-El, Superman's daddy, is trying to convince the leaders of Krypton that their planet is doomed, due to the fact that they used up all of their natural resources. However, he barely has time to finish explaining, when General Zod shows up and stages a coup against the leaders of the planet. Meanwhile, Jor-El and his wife have just had the first naturally born child on Krypton “in centuries”, and to save his life and perhaps the Kryptonian race, they send their baby to earth. After this, we see Clark Kent all grown up, and living a life in exile, still not knowing who he is. We get flashbacks of his childhood throughout the film, which are fine in and of themselves, but the constant back and forth gets old fast, and creates a lopsided mood to the movie. And it seems to take forever before we finally get to see Superman appear.

The movie is covered head to foot in action, and it is overblown, loud, and often ugly. When General Zod shows up on Earth, he and his cronies use spaceships instead of flying around, and when Superman is fighting them, there are also military planes shooting at them constantly, creating an overwhelming and chaotic scene that ends up being little more than headache inducing. The final battle between Superman and Zod is well done, as they fly through the city of Metropolis, even though they ridiculously crash into seemingly every possible building they can.

And if that weren't bad enough, the film's dramatic moments are often rushed and half hearted. The romance between Clark and Lois is virtually non-existent, and what the hell is up with her knowing Clark is Superman from the beginning? Lois and every other Metropolis character get shortened, undeveloped roles, and Metropolis itself is reduced to nothing more than a backdrop for the bad guys and Superman to destroy. We don't even see a shot of the Daily Planet logo, or get a feel for what this city is like, something that very important even in The Dark Knight.

Zack Snyder, who has directed the overblown 300 and Watchmen gives this rendition of Superman an ugly, loud, drawn out touch that is reminiscent at times to the Transformers movies in their blandness and lack of aesthetically pleasing visuals. At times Snyder's chaotic direction almost works, but he never allows for a moment to breathe, and the camera work is so sloppy that we barely see anything that goes on. When we do get a brief glimpse at Superman punching a villain, it seems weightless; there's no power behind any of the action, and as a result it becomes boring, monotonous, and annoying to watch.

The acting is decent, Henry Cavill does good with the lines he has, but Superman is never made into a character; instead he has a few lines here and there between scenes of action and the occasional heavy handed dramatic moment. But mostly he stands there, looking like a superhero should. Amy Adams is decent as Lois, but she is hardly in the movie at all. Russel Crowe does a very good job as Jor-El, and Michael Shannon is great as Zod, but none of this can make up for the script's lack of intelligence. Lines seem like they were ripped from a textbook for Screenwriting 101, and the movie can never find a good pace.

Some people may enjoy the never ending explosions that this movie offers, but the film fails to capture the essence of Superman (who happens to be this reviewer's favorite superhero). Instead, the movie gives into the cynicism of modern day, and tries to cover up Superman's beliefs, ideals, and image in a vast array of computer animation and loud noises. But at least we get to see a man fly, if only for a little bit.

NOTE: I rate movies 1-5 stars and never use half stars because they are pointless.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Where Every Action Movie Has Been Before

This review has a good amount of spoilers so, keep that in mind.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Dir: JJ Abrams

This sequel to the 2009 reboot of Star Trek is a sad disappointment. While it delivers on spectacle and high production value, with good fights and way more than enough action, it suffers from what most Hollywood movies suffer from; stupidity.

This film takes place sometime after the original film, and although I recall the ending of the first movie giving us the impression that they were starting their five year mission into uncharted space, that doesn't happen at all. Which is a shame, because what made the Star Trek show interesting were new planets and weird, freaked out dangers. Before the opening credits roll, we get a brief taste of that feeling, with Kirk and company trying to stop a volcano from exploding on a primitive alien society. This is the most exciting part of the movie, with fantastic sets and makeup that really put completely computer animated worlds to shame. But the rest of the movie takes place far too much on earth.

So here is the derivative, trying-to-copy-the-success-of The Dark Knight plot. An international terrorist (yeah, that's right) has blown up a top secret place in London, and then fled to Klingon space with his advanced technology. Following a good 20 minutes of what I assume is supposed to be character development, in which Kirk loses the enterprise and then gets it back almost instantly, the Star Trek crew are sent on a top secret mission to sneak into enemy space and strike out the terrorist with drones...I mean, photon torpedoes. Anyway, Spock convinces Kirk that he's no Obama, so Kirk decides to go down and capture the terrorist to bring him to justice. After a lot of fighting and talking, it is revealed that the terrorist is, surprise, Khan! At which point it turns out this is just a remake of the exceedingly overrated The Wrath of Khan, and we are forced to come to the conclusion that there are really no original ideas in this movie.

Don't get me wrong though, the movie has a lot of visuals to offer, if nothing else. JJ Abrams knows how to make things exciting and create action that is actually exciting and not just padding. The climactic battle is well done, if a little bit similar to the flying car sequences in Attack of the Clones and The Fifth Element.

The problem with this movie is that it is derivative in the worst ways. Abrams' last effort Super 8 showed us all of the good aspects of Hollywood clichés, and made an exciting, meaningful, and heartfelt film in the process. Into Darkness however, continues some of the worst, most overused aspects of huge budget movies. For instance, towards the end of the movie, Kirk has to sacrifice himself to save the ship from being destroyed and is killed by the radiation (kind of like Spock in Wrath of Khan, get it?), only to be magically revived barely 10 minutes later. I mean, of all the goddamn cheap, stupid, useless plot points to have—it is really hard to believe that they actually pulled that shit in this movie.

The movie's failure rests on the script, which is uninspired, stupid, and extremely pandering to fanboys. The characters from the first film—all portrayed by very good actors—are reduced to caricature versions of themselves, spouting out the most basic quips you would expect them to say. Watching Captain Kirk cry when General Pike is killed is only hilariously terrible; the movie lacks any semblance of subtlety in the slightest.

The film isn't helped by some of the new actors that show up. Benedict Cumberbatch overacts the hell out of Khan, not seeming to realize that over enunciation of every single word is best reserved for the stage, not when the camera is two feet away from his face. And Alice Eve who plays the daughter of a Starfleet Admiral is absolutely terrible, with nothing but a completely blank expression on her face the entire film.

I probably would have liked this movie more if the first one hadn't been so good. I guess Into Darkness gets points for being topical, but it would have been nice if this movie had offered something that we hadn't already seen in every other “dark” sequel that thinks it can get away with being like The Dark Knight. Terrorists and political turmoil don't really fit into Star Trek, a series that was based on the philosophical ideas of knowledge and humanity. It would have been nice to see some of that stuff in here, but that isn't guaranteed to make the big bucks.

This installment of Star Trek was fun to watch on the big screen; it had plenty of explosions, plenty of good fights and battles, and certainly no lack of high budget computer animation. But there was nothing that made me want to see it again, and it also just wasn't very good.

NOTE: I rate movies 1-5 stars and never use half stars because they are pointless.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

21st Century Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby (2013)
Dir: Baz Luhrmann

This 5th film adaptation (including a lost silent one) of F. Scott Fitzgerald's seminal novel is an expansive, gaudy, and beautiful movie that captures the extravagance of the Roaring Twenties. Baz Luhrmann's huge production brings the world of the novel to stunning life, while never losing track of the core soul that makes up the story.

Nick Carraway is a young man from the Midwest, who has come to New York City to be a part of the fevered dream of life that city promises. He rents a small cottage by the bay on long island, situated in between the huge mansions of the insanely wealthy. Across the bay lives his cousin Daisy with her husband Tom. And Nick's neighbor is none other than they mysterious Jay Gatsby, who's mansion is host to the largest parties in all of New York.

Either you've read the book or you haven't, and either way there is no point in describing more of the plot. The film is extremely faithful to the book in it's plot, dialogue, and narration. The frame story consists of Nick talking with a psychiatrist about the events of that summer he spent in New York, and he begins to write about his experiences, becoming a vessel for Fitzgerald's soulful aesthetic to make its way into the film.

The performances are all stellar, bringing the characters depth; and the film does a wonderful job of getting us inside each of their heads. Tobey Maguire is great as Carraway. He brings a boy scout quality to the idealist character, and as the high life of decadence slowly consumes him, he loses his childish aura and essentially becomes Fitzgerald himself. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast as the mysterious Gatsby, with that unstoppable smile, and secrets that seem only not to slip out because of the smoothness of his speech. Carey Mulligan gives the difficult role of Daisy a sincerity that makes her character much more sympathetic than in any other film version.

Baz Luhrmann directs the movie with marvelous spectacle. The party scenes at Gatsby's are breathtaking in their fullness and extravagance. Luhrmann has always had an eye for flare, and that comes to dizzying heights in this film. The soul of the movie, however, is not at all lost in the glitz and glamor of the Jazz Age. Luhrmann creates scenes that are intensely personal and dramatic. The climactic scene in a New York hotel room is devastating.

In watching this film version, I was struck for the first time at how sad the story truly is. All of these people have the potential to be good right in front of them, but they are all so blind they can't help but hurt everyone that surrounds them.

Perhaps the most noticeably interesting thing about this film is its soundtrack. Consisting of all modern music, including rock & roll, rap, and electronica, the score at first seems to be a strange, if not bad, fit. However, the music seems to bring the Jazz Age alive in a way that connects it to our modern age of glitz, glamor, and fun times.

Gatsby is a wonderful movie. The film is a marvel to look at, and its wholehearted embrace of the story is moving and entertaining in the most Hollywood of ways. And that plays out quite well for a movie like this. It's characters hide their true feelings and thoughts behind the cloud of booze and lies, and the movie guards its honesty behind the production and sets, but it heart is there, and boy can it sting.

NOTE: I rate movies 1-5 stars and never use half stars because they are pointless.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Kind of a Bad Trip

Trance (2013)
Dir: Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle, the director of such movies as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and 127 Hours, stumbles hard on his most recent project; an overwhelming, convoluted film that aims to a mind bending thriller but only achieves the rank of an entertaining failure.

It starts out interesting enough—Simon is a security guard for high priced paintings at auctions, and he walks us through the rigorous steps of protecting a painting if a robbery should occur, setting us up for what may be a rather trippy heist movie. However, the only heist that happens is over rather quickly, and Simon is hit on the head, suffering from amnesia. When he awakes, it is revealed that he was in on the robbery, but hid the painting for himself. Unfortunately for him he cannot remember where he hid it, so his former partners take him to a hypnotist to try and remember.

The script is the movie's biggest problem. Explanations are given after the fact, as if they are just making excuses for the plot. As Simon becomes more and more susceptible to the hypnotism, it becomes impossible to tell which scenes are real and which are fantasies. This seems like a good load of fun, but as the movie drags on (and believe me, it drags) it becomes prevalent that the film cannot make the characters or story interesting enough for it to matter. And when all is revealed in the climax, nothing seems to add up satisfyingly; the movie seems like it couldn't even figure out what was supposed to have happened.

I wanted to like Trance. Danny Boyle's direction is intense, thrilling, and fun to watch. There are several scenes that are brilliantly crafted, but the movie just can't hold itself together. The acting, too, is at times quite good, with James McAvoy's performance as Simon being a standout. At times though, the acting seems insincere in their dialogue, as if the actors cannot fully commit to the bit.

None of this is helped by Rick Smith's score, which is gaudy and overbearing trance music that only serves to distract from the movie. It desperately tries to create a sense of uncertainty or insanity, or something, but it just doesn't work.

Trance is a clusterfuck of a film, and the more I think about it the less it works, and the more I resent it. Unless you feel like being disappointed and leaving the theater with an empty feeling in your gut, avoid this one.

NOTE: I rate movies 1-5 stars and never use half stars because they are pointless.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Dead Rise Again

Evil Dead (2013)
Dir: Fede Alvarez

The original Evil Dead from 1981 is a classic, grotesque, and visceral movie experience that very few other horror movies have achieved. Creating a remake of Sam Raimi's twisted film seems folly from the beginning, like the remakes of Halloween or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, as things turn out, I found myself truly enjoying this version, both for its call backs to the first film, and its pleasantly surprising originality.

The story focuses on the archetypal characters that usually go to a remote cabin in the woods to awaken an ungodly horror. We have a lead male David, a dumb blonde, a nurse, a long haired guy, and Mia—David's little sister—who must suffer through the worst of it. This version of Evil Dead gives up some of the absurd humor of the original in favor of creating characters we are supposed to care about before they are all brutally destroyed.

Sometimes the movie succeeds in making us care for these doomed characters, but at certain crucial moments it come off as cheesy and forced. The acting by most of the cast is somewhat lackluster, with David often proclaiming “This is insane!” and the blonde stammering her lines awkwardly until she meets her inevitable demise. But Jane Levy gives an enjoyable performance of Mia, creating an admirable character that can at least somewhat see what is going to happen next.

Like last year's Cabin in the Woods, this film is a nice toss up of the predictable slasher genre, and although it is certainly not as good as the original, it brings a level of creativity that is often seriously lacking in remakes. There is a significant less amount of grotesque monsters; instead the characters still have pretty faces even though they have been possessed, but this aesthetic is made up for with gallons and gallons of blood that pour throughout the movie.

Obviously this movie is extremely gory, and as a result some people will hate it. However, the movie is entertaining and unlike almost every other horror movie that comes out these days, is actually a little bit scary and unsettling. The film does a good job of treading that line of being violent and bloody while not entering the overused and dull realm of torture porn. Having said that, the movie is a bloody, brutal mess.

NOTE: I rate movies 1-5 stars and never use half stars because they are pointless.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Garbage Like You've Never Seen Before!

Gangster Squad (2013)
Dir: Ruben Fleischer

Gangster Squad, a movie based on the events surrounding the fall of Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen, begins by touting that “This Is a True Story”. The movie's confidence in itself only seems to grow from that point, even though it is marred significantly by its juvenile script, clunky direction, and at best hammy acting.

The movie is an embarrassing mess of clichés that are so painfully obvious and awkward that it seems to have literally been written by a child no older than 14. Josh Brolin plays a cop in the late 1940s who is assigned to take down Cohen with his elite team of “misfits”. Ryan Gosling plays the designated loner of the bunch, and I guess we are supposed to care about him, even when his voice sounds like a cartoon character. Gosling and Emma Stone pair up again in this movie, but unlike Crazy Stupid Love there is no chemistry between them, just a lot of dead air and laughable lines. The rest of Brolin's team is filled with equally good actors forced into roles that are as shallow as they are useless. Sean Penn overacts as if this were supposed to be a comedy in the role of Cohen, but at least his performance is fun to watch.

The film's downfall comes mostly from the wretched script, written by some hack by the name of Will Beal. With lines like “I don't just want to get out of town, I want to get out of this life!” and “The war is over, we don't have to fight anymore”, Beal seems to have taken the most obvious lines from the most obvious movies and compiled them all here in one package for us to shake our heads and laugh and the gaudiness of it all. Beal tries to make his characters seem “cool”, which means good at killing people, shooting off guns wildly, and making wisecracks that were stale even in the 40s. The plot is thin as paper and utterly uninteresting. Brolin is supposed to take down Cohen by meticulously shutting down all of his operations, but there is never a plan, never even an idea other than 'lets go in here and shoot at people that may or may not be the guys we want to kill'. I could go on ripping into the pathetic script, but the more I think about it, the more it makes me sick.

Ruben Fleischer, who directed the fantastic Zombieland in 2009, seems to have phoned it in when it comes to making anything look remotely interesting. Fleischer tells the entire story in a bland series of close ups. There is not a single moment of excitement in the whole damn movie, no matter how many bullets were fired. So, with an extremely flimsy plot, dull acting, and painful dialogue, the only thing that is appealing in this movie is too look at Sean Penn's face covered in makeup to make him look more like a baseball mitt than a human being.

Gangster Squad is terrible. It is as obnoxious, ill spoken and desensitized as a 7th grader, as entertaining as watching paint dry, and about as pleasing as stepping on a nail.

NOTE: I rate movies 1-5 stars and never use half stars because they are pointless.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

Well, we made it through another year. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy my reviews.

This year was pretty damn good for movies, and there are still some that I haven't seen that I wanted to, so just because I didn't mention it on here doesn't mean I won't think it is great. Except The Avengers, I didn't think that was that great.

2012 wasn't without its stinkers, though. We had garbage like Wrath of the Titans to insult our intelligence, Battleship to give us headaches and remind us how bad Transformers 4 will be, a bloodless remake of Total Recall, and don't even get me started on anything Adam Sandler was fucking in this year. But, on the plus side, most of those movies didn't make much money.

So, here is a list of my 10 favorite films of the year, in ascending order. Plus a few other good movies.

This is a thought provoking character study with two of the best performances of the year. Joaquin Phoenix is phenomenal as the alcoholic war veteran that becomes consumed with Phillip Seymour Hoffman's cult. The two actors create a hypnotic connection that permeates throughout the entire film. Paul Thomas Anderson's film about Scientology is as bold as it is disturbing, capturing the essence of cult mentality, and the desperation of undiagnosed mental illness and shell shock.

Okay so, I guess it is cheating to put two different movies here. However, they are both fantastic comedies that are down to earth in their strange, ridiculous ways. Not to mention that they are at the very least semi unintentional companion pieces. The Duplass brothers directed Jeff, starring Jason Segel as the title slacker, and Ed Helms as his stressed out and self involved older brother. Jeff is a touching and humanist film that really understands and loves its characters and their universal problems. Safety stars Mark Duplass, as well as Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Rec and the hilarious Jake Johnson of New Girl. The plot of this movie is slightly more fantastical and predictable than Jeff, but the two movies understand their characters and connect with the audience in such similar and fulfilling ways that it is impossible to not feel the bond between them.

Writer-director Rian Johnson crafts an excellent film about the self defeating circle of violence with this smart, disturbing, and cynical look at the future. The film takes place in the near future, in an economically crumbled America, where the preferred form of currency is Chinese money. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic as a killer for the mob that gets rid of the bodies they send back in time. Through a series of complicated events, his older self appears in his time, played with style and coldness by Bruce Willis.

Here we have a movie that is at times silly and obvious, but without a doubt it creates a true sense of wonder. Directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, it is a great achievement of cinematic experience. The intertwining stories that span across centuries connect with a dizzying clarity. The two stories set in the distant future are probably the best, creating both great characters and phenomenal worlds that are dazzling to behold.

This sortof-prequel to Alien combines horror and sci-fi perfectly. Co-written by Damon Lindelof, and directed by Ridley Scott, Prometheus is a phenomenally well crafted film. Weirder, stranger, and darker than most any Hollywood movie, this film gets the benefit of both a huge budget and competence. Michael Fassbender's role as the android is mind blowingly intense, and the bleak cinematography makes the entire movie unsettling.

Zero Dark Thirty is really fucking good. Jessica Chastain is powerful and beautiful as the main character, obsessively searching for Osama bin Laden. Kathryn Bigelow's exciting thriller is amazingly well done. The scenes of torture are brutal, and the climax is powerful and disturbing. The film is an unflinching look at the state of the world and America's messy and morally ambiguous role in it.

This is writer-director Wes Anderson's most personal film, and as a result probably his best. Filled with romance, sentiment, melancholy, and humor, Anderson creates a stylized look at childhood and the 1960s. The Romeo and Juliet style romance between the two kids is touching and beautiful, and the two actors are excellent at being funny and honest. The likes of Bill Murray, Francis McDormand, Edward Norton, and Bruce Willis populate this movie, and they all bring their ingenious characters to life. Anderson's movie laughs in the face of modern cynicism, and brings us a refreshingly sentimental and sweet look at love and youth.

First time director Benh Zeitlin creates a mesmerizing film about life in the flooded remains of Southern Louisiana in the near future. Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives in the small, almost aboriginal community, must deal with living with people who have given up on the world. Her mother left long ago, and her father his an angry, self interested alcoholic who cannot take care of her. The sad, melancholy of this situation is not always present, as Hushpuppy takes joy in her surroundings and her carefree life. The film is very sad, but it also breathtakingly beautiful, as it rises above the depressing idea of rising sea levels to create a movie that connects to the soul.

Who would of thought that a movie with Shia LaBeouf in it could be so great? Based on a true story, this film is a brutal look at bootleggers in the backwoods of Virginia during the Prohibition. The screenplay by Nick Cave is violent and old school, inspired by tall tales of outlaws and criminals of that old, weird America. Tom Hardy, who also gave an excellent performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, plays the eldest of three brothers, and he is a walking legend. Guy Pearce is pure evil as the corrupt federal agent looking for a piece of the bootlegging business. Director John Hillcoat paints a stunning picture of these characters and their lives in the wilderness of America.

This is a movie that takes the art of cinema to its incomparable heights. Ang Lee's majestic adventure movie about a 16 year old Indian boy and a Bengal tiger engulfs the viewer into its cosmic world. As a boy names Pi travels with his family and their zoo animals to America, their ship sinks. Miraculously Pi survives on a lifeboat, only to be accompanied by the tiger. Pi learns to live with it, and eventually he and the tiger's destinies become inseparably intertwined. The film pierces into the soul, connecting inner space with outer, and delivering literally breathtaking images. Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest movies I have seen in a very long time.

Now, here are some movies that were also really good, but didn't quite make the list: Haywire, for being a kick ass movie staring Gina Carano who delivers the coolest fight scenes of the year; Bernie for being hilariously dark and featuring Jack Black in one of his best roles; The Pirates! Band of Misfits was the year's best kid's movie, with fantastic stop motion animation and smart, clever humor; Lincoln for delivering a classic look at one of histories most important people; Men in Black 3 for its absolutely unexpected goodness, and Josh Brolin's role as the young Tommy Lee Jones; Skyfall for being the best James Bond movie; The Dark Knight Rises was fantastic, delivering a satisfying end to the series and thankfully not sacrificing its story for action; Cabin in the Woods for making horror movies smart again; Frankenweenie, for letting us know that Tim Burton's creative juices aren't entirely gone; Premium Rush was a fun and exciting movie that was reminiscent of days when blockbusters weren't all 2 and a half hours; and The Man with the Iron Fists, for obvious reasons.

Thanks for reading, as always, and let's look forward to the first year since 2007 without a Twilight movie!