Monthly Archives: June 2013

Monsters University Review

Monster's Ball

Monster’s Ball

I’ve always thought that my four years of college were the best years of my life. Living on my own, experiencing life, partying, getting into trouble every now and then, oh yeah, and learning. Not just book learning, but also learning what I’m made of, dealing with decisions that have to be made, wondering if I’m good enough to overcome challenges that come my way.

Well, it turns out that monsters are burdened with these issues as well. Monsters University is an enjoyable sequel that surpasses the original. We meet one-eyed Mike Wasowski (Billy Crytal) and big blue Jim “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman) before they become partners and they don’t really hit it off at the beginning. They both aspire to be scarers at Monsters Inc.; Mike pushes himself as an overachiever, perhaps because he grew up as an unpopular outsider and his ability to be scary is always in question; while Sully, who is actually scary, chooses to skate on his alumnus dad’s reputation.

The movie provides genuine laughs, particularly when the two future best friends become members of Oozma Kappa fraternity, which consists of a bunch of misfit monsters. The movie becomes Revenge Of The Nerds with claws and fangs. Through a series of mishaps, Mike and Sully are expelled from the Scarer School on the campus of Monsters U. but then cut a deal with the dean, a mix between a millipede and a dragon (played icily by Helen Mirren), wherein if they win the all-campus Scare Games, they’ll be allowed back in the school. Seeing Mike and Sully begrudgingly partner up to whip their brothers into shape and compete in the games is the source of all the fun.

As usual, Pixar delivers stunning CG animation and the 3D is worth paying for. All the voice talent put in top notch performances. As a bonus, there’s an absolutely gorgeous animated short called “Blue Umbrella” that rolls before the feature. The visuals blew me away.

I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing this initially. My six year old son had a good week, so I decided to treat him to a movie and he chose this one. I wasn’t interested all that much because of the nearly twelve year span since the original was released. But I think I enjoyed it more than my son. I know I laughed a lot more. Below is an extended clip of a scene that cracked me up. Watching it now, you will rob yourself of a good laugh during the film, but I wanted to provide it anyway. When it’s time to compile my five favorite films for the Geeked Out year end podcast, I’m pretty sure this one will be on the list. 4/5 reels

World War Z Review

"OK, just to be clear...no touching the face, right?"

“OK, just to be clear…no touching the face, right?”

Ever since I started reading the Walking Dead comic book, I’ve become a fan of the genre, even though I’ve never understood how zombies work. Aren’t they comprised of necrotic tissue? If so, how do they manage to shuffle for such great lengths? Wouldn’t they decompose or succumb to environmental extremes like heat or cold? How does dead muscle tissue allow them to ambulate? Or in the case of modern zombie films, including World War Z, how are they able to run like Kenyans in a marathon?

So that raises a nitpick question I have about this film. Are the creatures here really zombies? At the beginning of the film, we see people being attacked, and within seconds, they turn, rather violently, in herky-jerky spasms, I might add. So, I’m led to believe there’s no death involved, rather viral mutation. And the fact that Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane goes globe-hopping to find Patient Zero as well as the source of the pandemic makes it seem like a disease rather than preternatural undead activity. For those of you who read the book, maybe you can clear that up for me. And if you have read the book, my understanding is you probably won’t like the movie because it diverges from the source material significantly.

I didn’t read the book (I plan to now) but in what I’ve read about the differences between film and novel, it strikes me that, while this was a very effective horror-thriller, the filmmakers may have missed a chance to do something really unique with this quickly-becoming-played-out genre to make it stand out from the 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, Dawn Of The Dead series of films, and of course not to mention the awesome Walking Dead program. My understanding is the book’s narrative unfolds through a series of reporter interviews and news reports in the aftermath of the Zombie World War. Imagine how original this film would have been, had it been presented like a documentary; the zombie set pieces could’ve been shown in flashback or in vignettes as the interviewees recount their stories. I remember only recently, after I became somewhat of a fan of zombie lore, I bought Romero’s classic Night Of The Living Dead on DVD and I was amazed at how ahead of its time it seemed. In that film, the zombie onslaught is reported very realistically over TV and radio; that technique was effective back then and it could’ve been put to good use here.

But despite the fact that towards its conclusion, the film becomes just another series of horror cliches, the cliches are presented masterfully. I like the fact that it starts out very innocuously, where we see the Lane family rising out of bed, preparing to take on another ordinary day. Without warning, in the middle of Philadelphia gridlock, the zombies attack. Perhaps in reality, a zombie uprising would garnish a little more advance attention, but I imagine it would probably happen as suddenly as portrayed in this film. As an allegory, much like a cold virus overtakes me with no advance notice, so might a zombie apocalypse. Right away, we see how zombies are quickly able to overrun the global population. Apparently, these zombies don’t take the time eat you; they bite and move on. Once you’re bitten, you turn. The efficiency of it allows the zombie horde to increase exponentially. And these zombies can move. They jump, they hurl themselves, they climb over each other, they move like a swarm of insects (cleverly alluded to in the opening credits).

But as I mentioned, the film moves along and serves up a series of derivative set pieces, but they’re so well done, I kind of didn’t care that they were cliched. Tense and exciting scenes included the refueling of military air carrier in North Korea, the overtaking of Jerusalem (if zombies are attracted to noise, it’s probably not a good idea to shout your midday prayers over megaphones), a zombie attack on a plane (“I’ve had it with these motherf**king zombies on this…”–no, no I won’t go there), and most effectively, a standoff at the World Health Organization.

I was a little conflicted by the scene at the W.H.O. You have this film which does manage to stand out from all the other zombie films and TV shows because this is the first time I’ve seen a zombie apocalypse on a global scale. Usually, we’re dropped in the middle of the story after the zombies have infested the world. Here, we get to see humanity address the crisis as it unfolds. Considering the Walking Dead, one could imagine that this film takes place in between the time lawman Rick Grimes is shot and after he wakes up alone in his hospital bed. I really liked seeing the onset of the pandemic, and seeing things before they completely go to hell. I also, once again, liked the worldwide scale this film presented. So, I was slightly disappointed that so much of the weight was reduced to a scene at the W.H.O. But once the scene unfolded, I got over that disappointment quickly. It’s a great setup, which I don’t want to spoil, it’s a thrilling series of obstacles the hero has to overcome. I will say that the W.H.O. has some of the noisiest doors and machines I’ve ever seen in an office. But I wouldn’t have expected any less in a sequence like this.

There are places where the filmmakers drop the ball and some things are a little hard to swallow. Unless young Hispanic boys are not really attached to their parents, one would think a kid would evince a little more sadness at losing his entire family. And I’m going to start sitting near the front when I book my plane tickets because apparently sitting in front makes it possible to survive a crash where the front of the plane splits off from the rear, burst in flames, and rolls over a couple times. And the outcome of the W.H.O scene might ring a little false, as maybe our protagonist is a little too lucky with a choice he has to make, but overall, none of these leaps take away from the entertainment value of the film.

I’d forgotten how good an actor Brad Pitt is, because even though he still maintains some pretty boy features and he sports a hippie pageboy haircut, he managed to make me believe that the U.N. would send a retired investigator into these deadly zombie hot zones. It’s not an original piece of work by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s an entertaining entry in the zombie pantheon. 3.5/5 reels

My Top Ten All-Time Favorite Movies: #8

Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

"You think THIS is hot? Wait'll you see me in my slave outfit."

“You think THIS is hot? Wait’ll you see me in my slave outfit in three years.”

 

Um, it’s Star Wars.

Seriously, do I need to say more? Oh, maybe I do. It’s ORIGINAL trilogy Star Wars. Anything outside of that–OK, I won’t get started. But we all know that this is still the best of all the Star Wars films.

This is the film that gave us dialogue that lives in pop culture history.

“I am your father.”

This is the film that gave us one of the best improvised lines of all time.

Leia: “I love you!” Han: (all together now) “I know.”

This is the film that established Han as a “scoundrel.” This is the film where not much was made of a sister kissing her twin brother full on the lips (we weren’t aware at the time, but I don’t recall hearing any “ewwwws” when Luke and Leia’s kinship was revealed in ROTJ. And don’t try to sell me that this subplot was planned all along). This is the film that introduced us to Boba Fett, and although I wasn’t taken with him, I know my friends, along with legions of other kids, loved the character. The film where we first see Luke and Vader duel! And perhaps best of all, this is the film in the hallowed franchise which proved that sometimes it’s better for visionaries to delegate rather than remain hands on, as George Lucas, for whatever reason, relinquished the director’s chair to Irvin Kershner.

The movie first crash lands on the icy surface of Hoth, where whites and blues mix to create a vast desolate but beautiful landscape.

Gorgeous miasma of blues and whites

 

Then there are arachnid evil probes and impressive elephantine AT-ATs.

Spidery probe

AT-ATs in all their stop-motion glory

New rebel fighter ships retrofitted for the cold.

New rebel fighter ships

Here it is the year 2013 and the Battle In The Snow still does not look dated, at least not to me.

(Bonus points if you can tell me what current insanely popular pay TV show the actor playing the Imperial commander appears in).

Then the movie drops us in the middle of a murky, damp and misty swamp in the Dagobah system, where we meet a diminutive pop culture giant who has a funny way of speaking and is a master of the Force.

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 10.41.17 AM

After that, we travel to the beautiful cloud city of Bespin, a warm locale that always looks lit by “golden hour” sunlight.

Bespin

Ironic that the most inviting of the three locations proves to be the most dangerous. I loved how this movie transported me to all these contrasting environments, a theme which continues in the subsequent sequel and the prequels (but we don’t speak of the prequels, ever).

Then there are the visual effects. I don’t care what anybody says…the asteroid sequence in Attack Of The Clones, with all its weightless CG, gargles monkey balls compared to the asteroid sequence in this movie. It is NO CONTEST.

Now, go back and watch that clip again, and this time, listen to the music. Listen to how brilliantly John Williams’s score meshes with the visuals. I contend that when you consider the visuals (which were completely non-CGI!!) as well as the music, the asteroid sequence is the best scene of all the Star Wars films. The score for this film, in my humble opinion, contains some of the best motifs in any of his work. It is absolutely beautiful. Outside of the title march from Superman, this is by far my favorite soundtrack by any film composer. How many times as a kid, when you were playing good guys and bad guys, did you hum this ditty:

And then, there’s the love theme. Williams created different love themes for each of the three original films and they’re all great, but this is one is magnificent. It evokes classic Hollywood dashing heroism, undying love and a touch of adventure. I mean, I cannot adequately express how this piece of music affects me, it does something to me on a genetic level; I melt, I soar, sometimes I well up, I’m taken away with this music. Here’s a clip from the soundtrack, “Rebel Fleet/End Credits,” which is heard at the end of the film; it’s all brilliant, but listen to the movement at :58, then go to 4:45 to hear how absolutely beautiful this theme is:

I mean…wow. Williams’s use of brass, timpani, swelling strings and his signature touch of pizzicato counterpoint, in this case with wind instruments (I’m guessing flute and piccolo) is just–I want to meet this man before I die. I could write an entire article on how John Williams inspired my love of music. The themes he creates for Yoda (heard at 2:28), for Lando Calrissian (heard as the group first meets Lando on Bespin and are walking through the city, right before C-3PO wanders off and gets shot), are all masterpieces.

Then there’s Yoda. Can you even remember a time when you DIDN’T know who Yoda was? Do you recall wondering, who the hell is that pointy-eared green thing that’s stealing Luke’s food? Can we move this along so we can find out who Yoda is? This film introduces us to one of the most well-known, oft-quoted characters in the history of pop culture. And compare the maquette in this film to the fully CG Yoda in Clones and Sith. Do you REALLY want to go there? The Yoda in this film gives a fully realized, nuanced and excellent performance. He comes close to stealing the show from the human actors. It is difficult to fathom that this is merely a puppet that has Frank Oz’s hand shoved up it’s ass. Well, Frank Oz also provided the voice, and he KILLS it. The only performance from a non-human character that is equal to or better than this is Andy Serkis’s Gollum. That’s it. Just like the asteroid sequence, this puppet demolishes the CG Yoda of the prequels.

This movie makes my list because watching it transports me back to 1980 when I was just getting out of grade school, ready to enjoy the summer, completely carefree and eager to see the new Star Wars movie. So many things just blew me away in this movie, most of which I’ve already described. I was surprised at how dark it was; who would have thought we’d see a severed head in a Star Wars film? And I remember thinking, after Lando, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids fail to rescue the carbonited Han from Boba Fett, that the movie must be extremely long because surely, they’re not going to make me wait for another two years to see what happens to Han. And then the end credits came up. And I was FURIOUS! I was LIVID! Oh, HELL NO! I HATED this movie for doing that to me.

But somewhere along the way, I got over it. And I paid to see this movie at least three more times (back then, in a pre-internet, pre-smartphone, hell, even a pre-VCR age, that’s the only way you could see a movie, actually in the theaters). I’m still waiting to see a Star Wars that will top Empire Strikes Back; so far, the only movie to top this one is Empire Strikes Back, the special edition, with re-tooled footage. I don’t mind the tinkering, as a matter of fact, I like seeing more of Bespin. There is one shot that bothers me, where Lando and Leia are running to save Han and they run by these windows which were originally solid walls. But other than that, as I’ve said, this is the best Star Wars yet. If J.J. Abrams wants to match this with his new Star Wars film, he better fire his Star Trek creative team (he should’ve done that already), and bring his A-game.

"Told ya." Ed. note: I was able to flash forward three years to ROTJ and insert this pic, even though it has nothing to do with my review of TESB...cuz it's my blog and I can.

“Told ya.” Ed. note: I was able to flash forward three years to ROTJ and insert this pic, even though it has nothing to do with my review of TESB…cuz it’s my blog and I can.

Man Of Steel Review

"I just flew in from Krypton and boy, are my arms tired."

“I just flew in from Krypton and boy, are my arms tired.”

Before I dive into my review, please indulge me for a moment. I want to admit something: with the exception of John Byrne’s take on Superman back in the mid 80s, I never liked Superman in the comics. I found the books to be extremely juvenile and corny, what with Supergirl, Superboy, Krypto, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the bottled city of Kandor, red K, yellow K, green K, etc. I even tried reading the updated New 52 Superman as of last year and it left me cold. But then came the Superman movies.

I was eleven years old when Superman: The Movie came out. I was young, so at the time, it was just something to watch and it held my attention. Then two years later, Superman II was released…and it blew my head open. Superman II was my Star Wars; much like that movie inspired a generation of filmmakers, Superman II was what led me to take up film and video production as a career. When I say that to people, they look at me like I have two heads; maybe I’ll write a piece on why that movie had such an impact on me, why it made me run out and buy the soundtrack (along with Thriller), which was the first piece of music I ever bought. Admittedly, the movie is hard to watch now, but back then, I saw it in theaters at least five times. And that movie made me go back to the original movie and I love it now. I think the original actually holds up better than Superman II.

That’s a long-winded way for me to say this: Superman in film has always been special to me ever since the first sequel came out and I’ve been waiting ever since for another Superman movie to thrill me like that. When I saw Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in press photos for Superman Returns, I knew that was going to be a disappointment as well, and I was right. So, it goes without saying that I went into Man Of Steel feeling like a 14 year old again, excited, prepared to force myself to like it. Which is to say, as I write this, I will try to divorce my prejudicial nature from having craved a good (or just decent) Superman movie since 1980.

The fact that the name “Superman” doesn’t appear in the title of this film is the first clue that this is a new take altogether. As much as I hate this cliché, this is not your dad’s Superman. This is a post-9/11 Superman, one who has been retooled to fit in the 21st century where paranoia runs rampant over illegal immigration, Islamic fundamentalism and a malaise from two wars whose history in terms of benefit or liability is still being written. This is a Superman where all those fears are fodder for subtext within Superman’s arrival on Earth, Zod’s jihad-like attack on humanity and a blasé attitude in depicting the destruction of a large portion of Metropolis, which becomes a wartorn panorama akin to Beirut, Mogadishu, or Baghdad. We’re living in dark times and our heroes are reflecting that. Even Superman is not immune. His costume is dark. He’s brooding. He’s conflicted about his identity. And in this film, he makes decisions that are decidedly un-Superman-like.

We all know the origin: Jor-El and Lara place the infant Kal-El into a spaceship and send him to Earth as Krypton explodes. Zack Snyder must have known how boring it would be to re-tell that story in traditional form because he masterfully creates a fully-realized Krypton, with incredible and original sets and costumes (I question the pin art hologram floating devices used for communication; the retina display on my iPad has better resolution) and there are just enough new touches to make this portion of the universally known story completely fresh. I loved seeing Russell Crowe’s Jor-El as a badass. I loved how Zod was incorporated into the origin. I loved the concept of the phantom zone pods. We see Kryptonian creatures we’ve never seen before. The first twenty minutes or so, I was amazed and I was immediately invested. I thought Ayelet Zurer as Lara was kind of bland and there’s some convoluted introductions of genetic codexes, social engineering, etc. But all in all, I was satisfied that the movie spent only a little time to get the basics of the origin out of the way and more time on the little tweaks to the origin story. I felt like this was going to be a great ride.

Once the story gets to Earth, the brooding really kicks into full gear. When we first see a pre-Daily Planet Clark Kent, he’s a bearded nomad. The film palette is awash in greys and moody blues. Through a series of flashbacks which are artfully placed at first, but become distracting later on, we see little Clark struggling with and fearful of his powers.  Seeing Martha Kent talk him through the pain of honing his abilities was a nice and fresh touch. Unlike most takes on Superman, where the discovery of his powers as an adolescent is a joy, in this film , it plays more as a curse. Even when he tries to use his powers for good, his father chastises him. Jonathan tells him that the world is not ready for him. And this theme is central to the film and sets the tone for the duration: this movie is as much a superhero story as it is a first contact story. It’s made clear thematically that Kal-El is an alien and is received as such by the human race. His alien nature is exacerbated when Zod arrives on Earth, demanding that Kal-El be delivered to him. Superman is initially taken to be as great a threat as Zod. Again, I thought this was a fresh take on Superman’s arrival; unlike all previous incarnations of Superman where he’s accepted and loved immediately, this time he’s seen as something to be wary of, possibly to be feared. All this comes off as original and new. Snyder also provides a welcome explanation as to why the Els chose Earth for Kal-El, something that always nagged me. I always wondered how an advanced civilization would know anything about Earth, so much so that a dying family would send their child here. This movie explains that.

Zod also gets a nice spin. While he’s still a bad guy, he’s made more sympathetic because of his motivation. At least I understood why he was hunting Kal-El and why he wanted to eradicate humanity. Whereas Kal-El struggles with his duality, Zod is crystal clear in his conviction: he is a Kryptonian. His first duty is the preservation of his people. Unlike the Zod of Superman II who only wants to rule humanity out of hubris (“finally, to rule”), this Zod wants to repopulate a new planet with fellow Kryptonians. In other words, this Zod doesn’t want us to kneel, he wants us to die, to make room for his people. Thus, while he’s without a doubt a villain, he’s also suffered the loss of his entire species. When compared to Kal-El, who was raised on Earth as an infant and knows of no other culture than humanity, who’s the more tragic figure? I’d say it’s the guy who knows the immense depth of what is forever lost. Some reviewers have criticized Shannon’s performance as too downbeat, but maybe what they see as downbeat is a choice the actor made to imply that Zod is simply doing what he feels he has to do to insure the survival of his people.

Now here’s what the film gets wrong.

Let me first say that as much as I love love love John Williams’s score, and even though it felt wrong not hearing that music, I completely understand why Snyder chose to go a different direction. This movie had to stand on its own and that music was as identifiable with the older films as Reeve was to the Superman character. Snyder had to go completely fresh, make it his own. I don’t fault him for that at all. So I don’t know if it’s appropriate to put this in the “wrong” category. But anyway, on to the meatier stuff.

Much like last year’s Amazing Spider-Man, there are elements of Superman that have become canon that are either omitted or altered to the detriment of the film. In all Superman incarnations, Jonathan Kent instills in Clark the idea that he is destined for greatness. In the original film, Jonathan tells Clark, “You are here for a reason…and it’s not to score touchdowns,” or something to that effect. Subsequently, he suffers a heart attack and dies. So, a being as powerful as Superman could not prevent his father from dying from a mundane natural cause. Clark then becomes Superman because, as he muses, “All these powers..and I couldn’t even save him.” The irony is clear and powerful: he was unable to save his father from dying of natural causes, emphasis on natural, so he chooses to become Superman and use his powers to save the world from itself. In this new film, Jonathan pushes Clark AWAY from his powers, he suggests that maybe people should die rather than Clark reveal himself by saving others. So, in the original film, Pa Kent dissuades Clark from using his powers to score touchdowns, while in this film, he dissuades Clark from using his power to save lives. As I said, it’s a nice take and probably more realistic, but then where’s the fatherly motivation to don the cape?  In one farfetched ham-handed scene, Jonathan refuses to accept Clark’s help in dire circumstances; he once again compels Clark not to reveal himself by using his powers because he feels the world isn’t ready for him. While this remains consistent to the novel theme of Clark as an alien living among us, it makes for a film that doesn’t sufficiently explain why Clark chooses to become Superman.

In Donner’s original film, Superman is introduced to the world in a glorious rescue of Lois dangling from a helicopter atop the Daily Planet building. We all remember Clark ripping open his shirt, spinning through the revolving door and coming out as Superman! Cue John Williams’s rousing score! In Superman Returns, we recall Superman catching the airplane in midair, landing it in the middle of the baseball field, walking onto the plane, striking a pose and asking, “Are you all right, Miss Lane?” We get none of that in this film. No grand introduction to the world. Our first introduction to Superman is him hovering in midair over the military who has come to arrest him. It’s an awesome visual, but underwhelming when you consider this is the FIRST time we’re seeing him in costume. In a sense, I was as mystified as the military personnel, seeing this flying guy in a cape for the first time. We all remember in Donner’s film the reflective scene in the Fortress of Solitude, where the spirit of Jor-El councils Clark about his history and his destiny. Through a series of elegant audio dissolves, and a visual journey back to Krypton, we are made to feel that much time has passed and our imagination fills in the blanks as Kal-El is instructed in Kryptonian ways and he learns about the hero he is to become to the people of Earth. “They can be a great people, Kal-El. They just need someone to lead the way. That is why I’ve given them you…my only son.” Then Superman soars off on his maiden flight as he exits the fortress in a breathtaking long single camera shot. We get NONE of that here. What we get here is Krypton For Dummies by way of a metallic powerpoint presentation by a Jor-El who has apparently found a way to not only overcome death, but also suspension of disbelief (I, for one, didn’t buy what his ghost/hologram was capable of). Nothing is left to the imagination and once again, Jor-El’s speech does not give me enough payoff to understand why Clark chooses to become Superman. And it takes little time for Jor-El to get through his monologue because it’s all laden with bottom line exposition, which is necessary, but there’s nothing really inspiring or grand about it.

Also, much like the last Spider-Man film, Snyder goes too far to the other end of the spectrum in making an effort to present Superman as a grave and nuanced character, not just a comic cardboard, one-dimensional, “truth, justice and American way” character. I do hate it when characters are just thrown into the thick of it without a sufficient catalyst or reasoning. But by the same token, it’s not necessary to take ALL the lighter moments out of the film. One of the film’s lighter joyful moments is when we see Superman mastering his flying ability. A truly fun moment. We see Superman smiling, laughing. For the first and only time during the whole movie.

Now here’s the biggest problem I had with this film. This film has some really kick-ass fight scenes. Other reviewers have complained that the fight scenes go on way too long and become repetitive. Given that the only fight scenes to date are the outdated scenes in Superman II and the horribly corny ones in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, I had no problem with the length or repetitiveness of these battles. I loved seeing Superman duke it out with Zod’s minions in Smallville and with Zod himself in Metropolis. Here’s the problem: You may have heard me complaining in the Geeked Out Star Trek: Into Darkness review (GEEKED OUT 5/19/13) about how filmmakers today have a penchant for scenes of wholesale carnage and destruction, where there’s no doubt that thousands of lives are lost during the course of the good guy dispatching the bad guy. Well, this film provides that IN SPADES. The movie makes the mayhem in last summer’s Avengers look dainty. It makes the Federation battleship crashing into San Francisco in ST:ID look quaint. Zod’s terraforming machine lays waste to a large swath of Metropolis; hundreds of cars, debris and presumably pedestrians are hurled into the air only to crash back down to pavement. Buildings topple, ash and soot waft in the air, recalling chilling photos and amateur video of 9/11. Then Superman arrives…and it gets worse. Remember I mentioned those un-Superman-like decisions? Superman hurls Zod through populated office buildings, runs him along the facade of skyscrapers, as rubble falls to the ground, again presumably on top of panicked pedestrians. Do you remember in Superman II when Non and Ursa toss the bus at Superman and he stops it from crashing into a building? “Don’t do it! The people!” There’s a scene where Zod tosses an oil tanker at Superman and rather than stop it, he jumps over it! And of course, it crashes into a building and explodes. Superman, who has chosen to fight for humanity, causes as much destruction as the bad guys. Then there’s a pivotal scene where Superman makes a decision that is totally against his character. It borders on being disrespectful to the character and is so easy as to be a cheat. I’d just as soon see Superman fly around the planet and turn back time again than see this lazy bit of screenwriting play out onscreen.

Nitpick alert: I want my Superman to sport the cowlick across his forehead and I want my Lois Lane to be a brunette! Also, how in the hell does Superman get into that suit? And doesn’t it look damned uncomfortable?

At the end of the day, this is a Superman film that atones for the crimes of the last three Superman films. We get a dynamic Krypton, we get a more human, down to earth, accessible Clark Kent, we get Superman battling it out in tremendous action scenes, we get a decent performance from Amy Adams as Lois Lane, even though I didn’t like how much access she has to Superman in this movie–I think she learns too much too soon; we get a visual feast, we get a more realistic take on Superman, one that could possibly co-exist with Nolan’s Batman, should DC and Warner Bros. ever get their act together (and if this movie brings in the bucks). I’m going to say it’s the best popcorn summer film thus far. But as I said earlier, I’m prejudiced when it comes to Superman movies. I saw it in 3D (waste of money–absolutely no more 3D conversions for me), I plan to see it again, this time in IMAX.  It’s not a perfect film, but it gave me two-thirds of what I wanted in a new Superman movie. So, although I may be off on my math slightly, two-thirds satisfaction adds up to roughly 3.5/5 reels.

This Is The End Review

So this is what R.E.M. was talking about?

So this is what R.E.M. was talking about?

Yes, it’s the end of the world as we know it in this new comedy starring James Franco, Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride and a host of cameos, including Rihanna and a really grown up Emma Watson.

I never would’ve guessed that a comedy with this amount of comic talent would go in so deep in providing such a clear vision of the apocalypse. There were genuinely funny moments that made me laugh (I never knew a severed human head being used as a soccer ball could be mined for laughs), but they were surprisingly not in abundance. What made the movie pop for me was the fact that the filmmakers did not skimp on portraying the end of days in terms of the special effects and the set pieces. There were some genuinely tense moments as well as some “wow” moments. I, for one, was happy to see the demon dog from Ghostbusters working again.

While it was entertaining, I found I wasn’t laughing as much as I would’ve expected. And I love seeing stars play versions of themselves, whether in shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Episodes, particularly when they satirize the entertainment industry and themselves in the process. But maybe some of the scenes were too insider, I guess. At times, I felt like the actors were playing a scene for their own amusement rather than ours. Some bits that start off funny go on a little too long; there must be a rule of nature which states that masturbation jokes are funny for the first minute, after which time, it’s time to move on. And when considering last year’s 21 Jump Street (which I’m surprised to say made me laugh more), you wonder if Jonah Hill has a clause in his contract that his movies must have at least one scene where he gets f**ked up on drugs and makes an ass of himself. The movie predictably hits all those tired beats one would expect in a film with six guys trapped in a house together. But in terms of presenting these tired tropes, there’s one scene that could have been really cringeworthy, but they play it perfectly, and it’s one of the funnier moments of the film. I won’t spoil it, at least no more than the trailer does, but the aforementioned now twenty-year old Emma Watson appears at Franco’s home after the world’s gone to hell; she’s dirty, sweaty, clothes sticking to her…basically, she’s damn hot…and she’s staying in a house with six guys. Yes, the movie goes there, and it’s hilarious.

Another surprise is Craig Robinson’s performance. His last movie, The Peeples, didn’t do much to advance his career, if nothing else than so few people, including myself, didn’t go to see it. But he is given a lot to do here and he pulls it off. After watching him play the downbeat Darryl on The Office for many years, it was fun to see him cut loose here. And James Franco holds his own against the other comedic actors very well. But getting back to Craig, I think he pulls off the biggest surprise of the whole movie. POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT: as the only black guy in the movie about the apocalypse and the deaths of millions of people, he doesn’t die! That alone makes this movie apocalyptic. 3.5/5 reels

 

My Top Ten All-Time Favorite Movies: #9

9) Midnight Run, 1988 

"Make yourself a sandwich, drink a glass of milk... Do some f**kin' thing." - mob boss Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) to his henchman, right before a sit-down

“Make yourself a sandwich, drink a glass of milk… Do some f**kin’ thing.” – mob boss Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) to his henchman, right before a sit-down

I was working as an intern right out of college at WRTV-6 Indianapolis, when someone whom I’ll never remember at this point gave me two promotional tickets to see this movie. I thought, Midnight Run, what the hell is this about? But it was two free tickets, I was broke, so I asked my then girlfriend if she wanted to go. What happened over the next two hours and seven minutes was pure comical magic.

Looking back, I find this hard to believe, but this was the first movie I had ever seen Robert DeNiro star in. I remember telling a good friend of mine how great a performace that Robert DeNiro guy gave. He, being a cinephile, looked at me both ironically and sarcastically and said, ” If you thought he was good in that, you might want to check out his body of work.” Which I did. Which we’ll get to later on in this last, believe me.

What made this movie so great was the chemistry between DeNiro’s bounty hunter, Jack Walsh and Grodin’s mob accountant Johnathan “The Duke” Mardukas. The writing is excellent. The dialogue between these two borders on Seinfeldian, but with more “f**ks.” And the entire cast is spot on. Yaphet Kotto as an incompetent FBI agent, the great Joey Pantoliano as a hustling bail bondsman, a post-Beverly Hills Cop John Ashton as a rival bounty hunter; Dennis Farina as a Chicago mob boss, and Philip Baker Hall as his consigliere; all performances are on point and are hilarious.

Even the actresses who play DeNiro’s ex-wife and daughter are good, no matter that they’re only onscreen for one scene.

With the exception of maybe Meet The Parents, I find that the best comedy is not what passes for comedy today, i.e. shock value, scatalogical references, etc. Not to say that kind of humor can’t be funny, a la Bridesmaids or maybe Horrible Bosses. But the funniest stuff happens when people just simply talk to each other, when they react to each other, the patois of the language they use with each other. Referencing Do The Right Thing, my #10 pick, anyone who’s seen that film must agree that the funniest scenes are between the three guys just sitting on the street corner, talking sh*t (it doesn’t hurt that Robin Harris is one of the three guys). Same here; although the action is exciting and the plot keeps you engaged–will Jack get the Duke to L.A. before midnight to collect the bounty, will Marvin Dorfler grab the Duke from Jack and collect the bounty for himself, or will Serrano wack all of them?–even with all that to keep you interested, it’s the dialogue, the writing, the relationship between Jack and the Duke that make the film totally worth seeing.

My Top Ten All-TIme Favorite Movies: #10

I’ve always wanted to do this. I’ve always wanted to share the movies that I enjoy time after time. Not that anyone should care about my preferences, but hey, it’s my blog, and I felt like sharing…

I compiled a list of my top ten all time favorite films. What makes these films my favorite is that no matter how many times I see them, I will watch them over and over again. Some of the movies on my list are staples of TBS and they’ll play them day after day, or over a weekend. But if I’m surfing channels and I come across them, even if I saw them the day before, I’ll watch them yet again. Maybe a film had amazing performances, an engrossing story; in some rare cases, much like a record, CD, mp3 that no matter where you drop the needle, click the cursor, or hit play on the iPod, the track is going to be bangin,’ so it is with some of these films, where every single scene is perfection. So without further ado, in no particular order (unless I note it), here is my list of my all-time top ten favorite movies:

10) Do The Right Thing, 1989

"D, Motherf**ker, D! Learn to speak English first!" - Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) trying to buy D batteries from a Korean sotre owner

“D, Motherf**ker, D! Learn to speak English first!” – Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) trying to buy D batteries from a Korean store owner

When I first saw this movie, I didn’t like it. I attribute that to the fact that I wasn’t a very mature filmgoer at the time, I was right out of college, I needed a story to spell it out for me in black and white. Who was I supposed to cheer for in this movie? Was it Mookie, a slacker who seems satisfied with his pizza delivery job and rarely sees his kid, and oh yeah, throws a garbage can through the pizzeria window, igniting a riot; Sal, the hard-working pizzeria owner who presents himself as a decent guy, but when pushed, resorts to using the N word (which some people would argue is true for most of the melanin-challenged public). Is it Radio Raheem, the intimidating black man with the boomin’ system who is killed ultimately over a boom box? Is it Buggin’ Out, who acts out to conceal the insecure child inside, possibly representing a segment of black society?

After multiple viewings, I came to the conclusion (and thus, grew as a filmgoer and a human being) that maybe I’m not supposed to cheer for anyone in particular. That things aren’t always black and white, no pun intended. Things are complicated, things are messy. Sometimes there are no heroes, just people who are doing the best they can with the cards they’re dealt. And sometimes they get pushed to the limit. I think the uncertainty of who’s good and who’s bad in this movie is best shown on the special features of the Criterion laserdisc, in a behind-the-scenes segment where Spike admits that he and Danny Aiello (Sal) had a difference of opinion as to whether Sal was a racist or not. But you set these questions against the backdrop of a hot summer day in Brooklyn, which is captured so beautifully by Eric Dickerson, and you have a masterpiece that will make you question the state of race relations even today.

And by all means, “Thank God for the left nipple…thank God for the right nipple.”

 

 

 

 

 

After Earth Review

"You said WHAT about my movie??"

“You said WHAT about my movie??”

 

So I went to see After Earth tonight and I walked out of the theater going through what I had just seen in my head, and I kept thinking that it’s the old “good news/bad news” routine. The good news is that it’s not as bad as I was led to believe. The bad news is, but for some simple questionable choices, it could’ve been a really good film. And when the flaws are so obvious, making one wonder, “why didn’t they notice that,” it’s disappointing. I will admit that being an African-American father, I went to support this movie despite my misgivings because I don’t recall ever before seeing a film recently depicting a black father and son in a relationship, let alone a sci-fi film. Coincidentally, the last one that comes to mind is Pursuit Of Happyness, also starring the Smith duo in what I thought was a far superior film to this one.

But now here’s where the questionable choices nearly derail the film (most are saying there’s no “nearly” about it). Will Smith’s character (Cypher Raige, no subtlety there), is estranged from his son, Kitai (Jaden) and I suppose that Will made the choice to depict this somewhat fractured relationship by constantly scowling throughout the entire movie. At the beginning of the film, we’re placed right in the mise-en-scene, and in only the first few scenes (which also outline the details of why humans have left Earth and settled on Nova Prime), we learn about the distance between father and son. And I found myself thinking, um, Cypher’s got issues.

We never really learn why Cypher is such a stick in the mud. We ARE given a lot of possibilties as to why. Is it because he is a “ghost,” which means he can biologically suppress any notion of fear? And does this ability mean he has to remain a Spock-like figure, always in control of his emotions? Is it because he faults his son for not coming to his sister’s aid in a time of need? Is it because Cypher is the baddest of the badass Rangers and his own son washed out of the program? These are the only explanations I can come up with, but lacking any kind of exposition or back story, they fall flat, particularly given that, prior to a family tragedy,  Cypher is SO stoic, he has to be begged into helping blow out his daughter’s birthday candles. To be fair, we’re given some exposition in flashback scenes involving the death of Kitai’s older sister, played by the stunning (and legal!) Zoe Kravitz. But again, here’s the problem; it’s not clear that the flashback events are the catalyst for Cypher’s aloofness. I personally think, from the beginning, it was a mistake to relegate a potentially pivotal moment in the Raige family past to lightweight flashbacks, as opposed to full scenes. These scenes, as well as Cypher’s battle scenes, deserved to have been more fleshed out. While these flashbacks clearly demonstrate why Kitai carries a burden of guilt and fear, they do little more than to provide the audience with the notion that the Ursas, blind beasts that hunt prey (including humans) by sensing fear, are vicious. It may have helped to have filmed just one scene where Cypher comports himself as a family man, but then by seeing Cypher’s immediate reaction to the death of his daughter (which we don’t), he then becomes the aloof character he is. We see his immediate disappointment that his son failed to become a Ranger, but he’s already established as a stern, emotionless…well, cipher, at this point. Yes, he’s a die hard military man, but that doesn’t mean his character can’t have multiple layers, does it? And this is how Smith plays it throughout the entire movie. When you contrast him with the beautiful charismatic Sophie Okonedo, who plays his wife, it makes you wonder why she hooked up with this grumpy second rate Morpheus in the first place.

Jaden, on the other hand, did not do nearly as bad an acting job as I was expecting. Yes, he tended to overplay the fear, to the point where the change in his character at the very end is pretty much unbelievable and unwarranted. But for the most part, I bought was he was doing onscreen. The biggest problem I had with his character was that, perhaps because I didn’t feel like I had any context for Cypher’s apparent disdain for him, perhaps because the story starts with father and son already in a dysfunctional state, I didn’t feel the heart tugs I felt like I should have while he’s trekking through the dangerous jungle. Because I never saw Cypher EVER express any loving emotion to his son, I didn’t have any emotional reaction to seeing the son risk his life for his father. The father/son dynamic throughout the first two acts was lost on me. It could’ve just as easily been an estranged buddy or subordinate of Cypher’s trekking through the woods. It’s just a shame the filmmakers spent so much time on the front end with a bunch of convoluted exposition about why humans left Earth, a nonexistent subplot about a war with an alien race who use the Ursas to do their fighting…all the time spent on that could’ve been better spent, once again, on showing the Raige family in better times, with a well-adjusted father and son, whose relationship undergoes a transformation to the dysfunctional one we see at the beginning of the movie. That being the case, I think Kitai’s struggles on the trek would more effectively have mirrored his struggle to earn back the respect of his father.

Other issues I had were relatively minor: it’s ridiculous that a beacon that can travel through wormholes across the galaxy can’t penetrate ionic interference. The production design was a head-scratcher. None of the human infrastructure on Nova Prime looked like anything that would’ve been designed by humans. The living areas, the spaceship, the corridors within the ship all looked like they were being repurposed by humans from a quasi-H.R. Giger type of alien culture. It just doesn’t make sense that a spaceship would have a design like that, with such a long tail. Of course it would break off, haven’t their engineers heard of weak design links? And some critics are panning the film for references to Scientology. I can’t really speak to that, but it sure sounded like some quasi-spiritual mumbo-jumbo to me. I get it all about fear not being real, but Will Smith’s monotonous intonation comes off as him headlining one of those weird religious cult camps in some compound (it’s always a compound) in the middle of nowhere…where no one can hear you scream. And I’m sorry, the shot with Jaden kneeling with the volcano perfectly framed in the background looked like some L. Ron Hubbard Dianetics book cover concept to me.

Having said all this, I want to repeat that the movie is not as bad as everyone is saying. Could the negativity be due to some subtle racism (again, a black father and son starring in a summer sci-fi movie directed by a person of Indian heritage)? Perception that Will Smith is just providing his son a $140 million sandbox to play in as he tries to thrust him into stardom? That Will Smith has little to do in the movie and all the heavy lifting is done by Jaden? Or could it be that some legitimately didn’t buy into the flaws of the film? As I said at the beginning, the bad news is it’s not that great a movie overall. Maybe it’s because M. Night Shyamalan has become a whipping boy and the public wrote the movie off simply because his name was on it. There could be some merit to that, because Shyamlan’s style may not have been suited for a big budget summer sci-fi film. For me, this was made clear in an INTERMINABLE scene where the dour Cypher is describing in detail the moment when he realized he could “ghost.” He goes on and on, his voice a monotone, the camera never wavering; I thought to myself, if ever I needed a flashback, IT’S RIGHT HERE! This technique may have worked in a purely character-based film, such as when Cole describes to his mom how he sees dead people in The Sixth Sense, but not in a summer sci-fi movie starring Will Smith. But I’m shedding the negativity. The film works to a certain degree in terms of suspense (I was genuinely tense at certain moments; there are specific setups that are nerve-wracking, such as a scene involving a leech) and there are scenes that are genuinely moving, such as the moment Kitai decides to stand up to his father before plunging off a cliff (although calling his father a coward was a bit much, a strange bit of writing). The ending in particular, while corny and telegraphed, is made for a father and son.

So maybe because it wasn’t horrible, because despite all I’ve said, I was able to enjoy the movie to a certain degree. And maybe I went so deep into criticism here because I wanted it to be a better movie. I just hope that Jaden gets another shot at a film that will do better business. And it goes without saying I hope history won’t record the summer of 2013 as the year where Will Smith’s star first started to plummet. 2.5/5 reels

1 reel=poor, 2=fair, 3=good, 4=great, 5=classic (every scene is on point)

 

Geek Shop, Episode 1: Comic Shop Collection

Walking Dead graphic novel #1

Walking Dead graphic novel #1

I finally admit it: I’m a geek. I watch The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones. I’ve started reading comics again for the first time since 1999. I like Star Wars and Star Trek. I once volunteered to come in to work on my day off at the news station so I could cover a Star Trek convention and ended up paying $250 for a Next Generation captain’s jacket. That $250 pales in comparison to the money I’ve spent recently on geek-related items. So join me in my sanctum sanctorum and check out my collection…