Popparazzi

Edge Of Tomorrow Review

"Live, die, repeat, my ass. You get one last take, Liman, or we walk!"

“Live, die, repeat, my ass. You get one last take, Liman, or we walk!”

First was War Of The Worlds. Then Oblivion. Now we have Edge Of Tomorrow. Earlier this week, I posted on Facebook whether or not Tom Cruise is contractually obligated to work with aliens. After seeing this film, turns out it took three attempts to get it right.

That’s not to say the previous films weren’t good films. But what they lacked, this film makes up for in spades, namely a just right amount of humor intermingled with wall-to-wall action. This is a film that knows precisely when it needs to be serious and when it needs to relax, go with it and have fun. Are you listening, Godzilla?

On the surface, the story is a mashup of 1986’s Aliens, with all the futuristic weapons and exo-suits employed by the military, even down to aliens with acid for blood; a dash of Starship Troopers, and a heaping dose of Groundhog Day. Tom Cruise plays former ad-exec William Cage, now a major in a unified Western military that is at war with an alien race called the Mimics. Cage is essentially a cheerleader for the military, using his marketing skills to convince the public that the war is winnable, which in fact it is not. After insulting the general of the allied forces, Cage is thrown on the frontline of battle, although he has no combat training. Seems a little harsh (and contrived) to sentence a man with no fighting skills to death for mouthing off a little, given he’s in fear for his life, but no matter. Predictably, Cage doesn’t last long when deployed on the battlefield, in a scene that, perhaps in slight bad taste, is reminiscent of the Normandy invasion (especially given the fact that the movie opened on the 70th anniversary of that event). However, despite the comparison, the opening battle scene is a wonder and through a series of circumstances, Cage finds himself in a time loop, where he repeats the day every time he dies. Which is frequently.

It’s in these scenes where Cruise just absolutely shines. I cannot begin to tell you how much of a joy it was to see the usually indomitable Cruise portray a feckless powerless grunt who has absolutely no clue what he’s doing, in advance of the hell he’s about to experience. It’s Cruise playing totally against type and he nails it. The first time his unit is deployed, I genuinely felt pity and sorrow for the guy because he reacted just as I would were I forced into a heavy metal exoskeleton which I didn’t know how to operate, with an inadequate number of rounds, surrounded by soldiers who couldn’t care less if I died, and I were forced to jump out of an exploding plane into the midst of a battle with multi-tentacled aliens. As the story progresses, of course Cage gets better and better with each reset, until he becomes the superhuman Tom Cruise we’re all familiar with. As a matter of fact, the last act of this film, plays like Cruise’s Mission Impossible franchise; all humor is jettisoned for all-out action. But it works. Even the ending, as hokey as it is, plays out exactly as we expect and it’s exactly what we want.

As far as the cast, Emily Blunt is awesome. It shows that she trained her butt off to perform many of her stunts and I wonder if her agent didn’t screw up by not getting her an audition for the Wonder Woman role in the upcoming Batman v. Superman film. Noah Taylor, otherwise known as Locke, the guy who cut off Jaime Lannister’s hand on Game Of Thrones, has a small role as an engineer who assists Cruise and Blunt in their mission to defeat the aliens. Bill Paxton appears as Master Sergeant Farrell, Cage’s commanding officer, and he does what he does best. Paxton, throughout his career, has proven there’s pretty much nothing he can’t do; he goes toe to toe with Cruise onscreen and more than holds his own. I love that Paxton is back at playing smug wiseass characters as also seen on Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD, because he’s so damn good at that. But as is usually the case in a Tom Cruise movie, the film belongs to Cruise. No matter what you may think of him offscreen, the guy consistently delivers, and does no less here. Despite the impossibly good looks and fit build at 51 years of age; unlike many of his films in the last decade or so which occasionally played as vanity projects, here Cruise brings humor, humility and vulnerability to the role. He doesn’t come off as a superman, as he so often does in his action films. That is, until he is required to become the hero, and by the time he assumes that mantle, we’re absolutely ready for it and we demand it.

The aliens were a bit of a letdown. While they are monstrous, their design is CGI overkill. They’re imbued with abilities that don’t make much sense, given their appearance and the fact that they seem as personable as the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise. They’re afforded all the cliches that many summer movie alien hordes of late have suffered. The logic behind some of the plot makes little sense. The title sounds like a soap opera that your mom watched back in the 1950s. But this is Cruise in top form and the movie fires on nearly every piston. Edge Of Tomorrow demands that you see it today. 4/5 reels

X-Men: Days Of Future Past Review (MILD SPOILERS)

"Well, yeah, it's convoluted, but are you not entertained?"

“Well, yeah, it’s convoluted, but are you not entertained?”

I’m old enough to have read the classic Days Of Future Past storyline when it originally came out in the X-Men comic book back in the 80s. The story, broken down to it’s basic components is rather simple: due to the assassination of Senator Robert Kelly at the hands of a mutant, Trask Industries creates the Sentinels to wipe out mutantkind. The Sentinels go awry and proceed to wipe out both mutants, superhumans, and much of humanity, thus in the future, the X-Men send Kitty Pryde back to the past to prevent the senator’s murder in the hopes of normalizing relations between mutants and humans. After seeing the debacle that was X-Men: The Last Stand in terms of the portrayal of the even more classic Dark Phoenix story arc, I was concerned this would be a debacle as well. Well, I wouldn’t say it was a debacle, because the basic storyline is intact, but it is somewhat of a convoluted hodgepodge of corporate decisions and questionable direction.

Want to ensure you get the most bang for your buck? Then rather than send Kitty Pryde back in time, you send Wolverine back in time. Okay, I can forgive that because, yes, I’d rather see Jackman’s Wolverine anchor the film as opposed to Ellen Page. However, other signs of corporate interference include the introduction of certain characters and the altering of well-known characters. East European Pietro Maximoff, a mutant speedster and highly arrogant adult in the comics, becomes Peter Maximoff, an American emo teen. And his function in the film is nominal, save for a visually interesting set piece which demonstrates how remarkably fast he is (although as a former reader of X-Men and Avengers comic books, I didn’t buy that he is that fast). Kitty Pryde, a mutant who can pass through solid objects, is inexplicably endowed with the ability to send people’s conscious minds into the past. Well, that’s convenient. Especially given that Charles Xavier, a mutant telepath, actually possesses that ability! But I suppose the bean counters saw Patrick Stewart as a bigger bean than Ellen Page, so bada-boom, bada-bing, Stewart keeps his dialogue, Page grimaces in the background. And most egregious, the bean counters couldn’t have a crippled young Xavier, thus the creation of a serum that allows him to walk. Unfortunately, to hide this superficiality, the writers devise the notion that the serum blocks Xavier’s telepathic abilities because he can’t deal with all the voices in his head. Despite the fact this wasn’t a problem for him in any of the previous X-Men installments. And to round it out, the Beast, for reasons I can’t understand, is required to perform a spot on impersonation of the Hulk, similarly limited to growls and roars while in Beast mode. I can only assume the writers found it too much of a challenge to write dialogue for a furry blue guy.

Other issues with this movies I attribute to Bryan Singer. He seems to have difficulty with pacing. And plotting. Events occur and dialogue is spoken that have no consequence or necessity. Was it necessary to insert John F. Kennedy into dialogue in such a preposterous fashion? Did we need the added tension of Kitty being mortally injured in the future? Camera shots are blocked as if to purposefully confuse the audience. Is that actually Xavier or a mental projection of Xavier? Actions and motivations are murky. If Magneto is willing to sacrifice a beloved member of his team to assure that humans don’t embrace the Sentinel program, why is he later so gung-ho to assassinate the president in front of a global audience? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the X-Men to stop the assassin prior to the national event where the assassination is to take place, where cameras from around the world are focused on the terrifying battle and the public couldn’t give a damn if the X-Men were acting out of good intentions? But worse yet, in the climactic scene, certain characters that have been set up to be pivotal to the action are rendered completely feckless. The climax undermines everything that we’ve seen prior. I don’t want to say any more than that so as not to completely spoil the film. But it makes a viewer like me very frustrated in that I maintain this silly notion that a good plot involves A leading to B leading to C and so on.

Having said all that, I recommend this film. I give the filmmakers credit for creating a story that’s massive in scope. I also have to respect the fact that they wanted to erase the slate clean of the past X-Men films, as their attitude towards franchise continuity is decidedly “NFG” (No F–ks Given).*  I applaud them for addressing some instances of possible continuity error, however, I had to eventually give up trying to determine where this film resided in the timeline of the X-Men cinematic universe; I believe the past storyline takes place a few years after X-Men: First Class (although many of the young mutants in that film are unaccounted for here) and the future storyline takes place ten years after 2013’s The Wolverine. There is plenty of action and exciting visuals–Magneto uses RFK stadium to entrap the White House. There’s absolutely no reason for it, but it looks amazing. There’s great chemistry between the characters and the acting is top-notch. Michael Fassbender is once again awesome as Magneto; Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart are all great. The future is convincingly dystopian, downright dark. Unfortunately, Halle Berry and Ian McKellen don’t contribute much. But the unlikely casting of Game Of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage is brilliant. His Bolivar Trask, while a character in the comics, replaces the comic’s Robert Kelly. More importantly, is there anything this man can’t do? As much as I want to refrain from commenting on his diminutive stature, I can’t help but point out this guy is the definition of a good actor being able to deliver, no matter the circumstances. Although only 4′ 5″, Dinklage’s presence is one of the most commanding throughout the film. I’m convinced he could play nearly any role. The only criticism I have is that it seems unlikely there’s no mention of Trask’s appearance in terms of genetic anomaly, yet his entire crusade is against people with genetic anomalies.

Is it a bad film? I guess I’d say no. Could it have been better? Absolutely yes. While I enjoyed X-Men: First Class far more, this film is worth seeing. Although unnecessarily confusing and murky at times, it’s worth a second viewing to determine if the confusion is the fault of the film or the fact that I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Actually, during the 9:15 am screening I attended, the film froze in place during one scene and we were informed that it would be fixed quickly. Rather than wait, I took the opportunity to sneak into the 9:45 am showing down the hall, hoping that going back a half-hour into the film, I’d pick up on some of the more confusing plot points. That didn’t help much. So I recommend you go see it and report back to me; you can help clear up the stuff I missed. 3/5 reels

*Michael Dean™

P.S. I should point out that while leaving the theater, I heard another viewer on his cell phone say, “Yeah, it was pretty good…but not as good as Captain America.” Hear, hear.

Godzilla Review

"What was that ish you were talking about canceling the apocalypse?"

“What was that ish you were talking about canceling the apocalypse?”

I wasn’t that much of a Godzilla fan as a kid. I seem to recall thinking it was a bit silly, given Godzilla was obviously some guy in a latex suit (I was a huge Ultraman fan, probably because Ultraman was more anthropomorphic). But then, when other monsters were introduced for Godzilla to fight, it became a little cooler. Still, I maintained a distance. I watched the 80s cartoon (“Up from the depths, thirty stories high, breathing fire, he stands in the sky!”) and enjoyed that. Fast forward nearly twenty years later and I’m watching a leaner, refined Godzilla from Roland Emmerich. Maybe because I wasn’t a devoted Godilla fan, I liked the new more realistic look. Sure, I hated most of the cartoonish characters and the Jurassic Park cribbing, but I walked away mildly entertained by the creature. Still chasing Godzilla fandom, I watched Cloverfield and Pacific Rim, both of which I consider to be in the same wheelhouse as Godzilla. Again, I was mildly entertained, despite the silliness. Then came news of Godzilla, a film that reverts the creature back to his upright-standing roots. Listening to all the buzz, I figured this would be the film that would finally, after nearly four decades, lock me in as a Godzilla fan.

Unfortunately, I walked away from this film only mildy entertained, slightly bored, perhaps even less of a Godzilla fan. Why less? I’ve narrowed it down to two main reasons:

1) All the movies and programs I previously mentioned, including the widely-reviled 1998 film, had one thing in common that this film lacks in spades: at a minimum, they were FUN. Let me be clear, I have no problem with taking a campy property or concept and injecting a more serious tone. In fact, I welcome it. But you gotta know when to let up. With Godzilla, the filmmakers clearly don’t. The first half hour is devoted to the always amazing Bryan Cranston setting up the story. As Joe Brody, supervisor of the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan, he comes across as the stereotypical “lone person” who knows the truth about what is yet to be, but is marginalized. Although his character is a familiar trope, Cranston holds the screen. The nuclear plant is destroyed in an alleged earthquake and Brody pays a huge price.

Fast forward fifteen years and, as you would expect, he’s become the lunatic no one takes seriously, even his grown naval munitions expert son (Kick-Ass‘s Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It’s not until creatures start sprouting from the ground that his warnings are taken seriously and of course, by then, it’s too late. Whenever Cranston is the focus of the plot, the film maintains an intriguing gravity. But that becomes trying nearly a half hour into the film with no appearance by Godzilla. And when Cranston is not the center of the plot, it becomes expositorily leaden. If you thought Man Of Steel wrung all the fun out of Superman, you’re likely to be similarly disappointed. As a nuclear scientist, Ken Watanabe, another reliable actor, punctuates the fact that there’s not much fun to be had here, because he’s given very little to do outside of scowling and frowning in subdued panic while delivering all his lines in the stereotypical clipped and stern fashion that speaks of IMPENDING DOOM, reserved for two-dimensional Japanese characters in hokey martial arts films. 

2) I would assume that a film entitled Godzilla would feature…Godzilla. Godzilla seemed to be an afterthought in this film. Put it this way: as I mentioned earlier, the first act involves much character definition along with plot setup. We exit the first half not having seen Godzilla, but two large creatures resembling metallic stinkbugs. I can’t overstate that much of this portion of the film is devoted to the portentous admonitions of Brody, warning of impending doom if they don’t heed his advice that the tremblings underneath their feet are more than an earthquake. It’s beaten over our heads that SOMETHING is coming and sure enough, once the first stinkbug appears (they’re referred to as MUTO: Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), all hell breaks loose. The creature lays waste to Honolulu and soon thereafter runs rampant in Las Vegas and San Francisco, joined by a companion MUTO.

Putting aside the odd design of these creatures, from a CG standpoint, they are impressive. Although like nearly every other kaiju film of late, they’re rarely shot in broad daylight, only in fog, mist, rain and night. The populace and we the audience are awed by their size and mass. And they do look convincingly massive. Their presence and the havoc they wreak are in direct proportion to the awe and fear they’re afforded prior to their appearance. But this is a Godzilla movie. And surprisingly, Godzilla’s introduction comes across as merely an afterthought. Godzilla is just all of a sudden…there. It makes one scratch one’s head why all the shock and awe that any of these MUTO creatures could exist when apparently this movie wants us to believe that some of the characters are fully aware that Godzilla has been in existence for some time. And for whatever reason, when he appears out of the blue, or more accurately, out of the sea, his only motivation is to fight the MUTO. No explanation is given, as far as I could tell, why he suddenly appears, other than he’s been tracking the creatures. For nearly 60 years. Okay, moving on. Godzilla’s sudden appearance, with the flimsiest of setups, is rationalized as his being akin to a force of nature. More than that, Godzilla comes off as deus ex machina with scales.When the fighting ensues, the destruction is akin to an extinction-level event. Throw a red cape on Godzilla and it’s Superman vs. Zod in Metropolis all over again. At least, the mayhem here is warranted, given it’s caused by mindless monsters.

The film is peppered with ostentatious nods to the Asian audience, one of which is glaringly obvious involving a lost Asian child. It borders on insulting, particularly given that it goes absolutely nowhere. Nonetheless, I think I speak for us all when I say we come to a Godzilla movie to see Godzilla stomp around, breathe fire (blue fire?), and fight other monsters. Sure, it’s great when the source material is taken seriously. But if that’s the approach, why cut corners and limit an actor of Cranston’s abilities to a handful of scenes and why not give Godzilla the setup he deserves, force of nature or not? Having said that, there’s a fine line to walk when making a film of this nature too serious. Because at the end of the day, let’s remember that the source material revolves around a guy wearing a latex suit. 3/5 reels

P.S. I don’t know if it’s the innate immature schoolboy in me or if I should submit myself to a series of Rorshacht tests, but something about seeing a female MUTO, despite the fact it’s a horrifying creature, take a phallic-shaped nuclear missile and stick it between it’s legs makes me think of Samuel L. Jackson’s proclamation that Redtube is one of the greatest contributions to pop culture in the last 50 years.

 

 

DRIZZLES: Revisiting Man Of Steel on Blu-Ray

I watched Man Of Steel on Blu-Ray last night. In my original review, I gave the film 3.5 reels out of five, but wow, I don’t know if the home viewing experience tainted me or if seeing it a third time resulted in viewing fatigue, but I had far more problems with it than before. The word that kept coming to mind was “dreary.” Way too weighty for a Superman film. And far too much violence and destruction. What kind of a world do we live in where I have to think twice about letting my seven year old watch a Superman movie? Again, I don’t know if it was the smaller confines of a 46″ flatscreen vs. the theater screen, but the wanton destruction by the hands of Superman was far more off-putting on this viewing. And so many plotholes in regards to Superman’s secret identity that I must have simply overlooked before, but they’re gaping. If this were any other superhero character, I would drop the 3.5 down to two, but for those who read my original review, you know I’m biased when it comes to Superman onscreen, so as a result, I’m yanking just a half reel. 3/5 reels

Thor: The Dark World Review

Please hammer, don't hurt 'em.

Please, hammer, don’t hurt ’em.

Near the beginning of this movie, Jane Foster is interrupted on a dinner date by her intern Darcy (Kat Denning) who begins to ramble on about something or other pertaining to the film’s plot. Whereupon Jane says, “Is there a point to this? There needs to be a point to this.” Little did I realize so early on in the film that Jane was speaking for me.

J.J. Abrams can rest easy knowing that Star Trek: Into Darkness has a worthy challenger for worst film of the year. By the time I arrived at my car to head home after seeing this, I reflected on the movie and nothing whatsoever stood out for me. Nothing memorable came to mind. I reflected on how Tom Hiddleston deserves his own Loki movie because he was one of the few interesting things about this production and also how, if I were into guys, Chris Hemsworth would be near the top of my list, as he is damn good-looking. And there you have it. A movie so boring and uninteresting that I as a straight man, am ruminating on the hotness of Hemsworth. Wow.

The story involves a race of pale white beings called “dark elves” (how’s that work again?), led by Malekith (Chris Eccleston) who leads the pack as the most uninteresting villain in a major motion picture to date. The lazy convention of a voice-over is employed at the beginning of the film to exposit on how Malekith was beaten eons ago by Odin’s dad while trying to attain the Aether, a…liquid thing that is made out of pure evil (?) and will grant omnipotent power to its possessor, such as the ability to destroy all the Nine Realms during the Convergence, when all Nine Realms apparently come into alignment and create a cosmic portal, allowing access to all of them. Jane Foster comes into contact with the Aether and it enters her body, so Malekith hunts her down to retrieve it.

Stay with me. Malekith’s motivation for destroying the universe? I guess because it’s there. That and because the writers need a villain with evil intentions. In the first Thor film, Loki discovers that he is not an Asgardian, that he was adopted from an enemy race by Odin and that he will never gain the throne; see, those are compelling and dramatic motivations which add to the dimension of Loki as a villain. Malekith just is not compelling at all; 1) the beginning of the film sets him up as a loser as he is defeated by Asgard’s army; 2) no reason is given why he wants to destroy the universe and 3) if Loki is in your Thor movie (as portrayed yet again flawlessly by Tom Hiddleston), then you better make sure your main villain is interesting. Which the writers fail to do.

All the characters from the original Thor are back and are given hardly anything to do. Kat Dennings is a study in comic relief overkill, Stellan Skarsgard is pointless and apparently insane as many of his scenes are filmed in the nude or in his underwear. New characters are introduced that are completely pointless, such as an intern who seems to be a leftover character from the juvenile Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Just as I wonder why S.H.I.E.L.D. would employ some of the characters on that pathetic program, I found myself wondering why a scientist such as Jane Foster would hang around these annoying losers. Time is wasted setting up plot points that are undone minutes later, leaving you wondering, as I mentioned Jane did in the beginning, “What was the point?” As one example, why give Idris Elba such a cool action sequence if the results are negated in the very next scene?

I was plainly bored through the majority of this movie. I didn’t care about anything or anyone onscreen. The scenes with Loki and Thor escaping Asgard were entertaining, if not weird. Why try to introduce elements of Star Wars into a Thor movie? If Asgard has laser cannons and high tech defense screens, why are the main characters fighting with swords, spears and hammers? There was a moment during one of many scenes of interminable dialogue that I decided to go to the lobby to get a drink and I didn’t care that there was a small line. When I got back into the theater, it was clear I had missed a good ten minutes, but I was able to pick up quickly. And that’s not a good thing.

Once the film reaches the climactic battle, I was just too far gone. Listening to other critics, I was expecting the last act to save the film, but it didn’t. It was just confusing and disorienting. It’s always cool to see Thor swinging his hammer and throwing it at the bad guys, but that won’t sustain me for an hour and fifty-one minutes.

This Thor is a bore. 2/5 reels

 

 

Gravity Review

Bullock's impression of the space baby from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Bullock’s impression of the space baby from 2001: A Space Odyssey

In 1977, the underbelly of a huge star destroyer engulfed the screen.

In 1978, a man in blue tights and a red cape flew across the screen.

In 1981, a guy in a fedora with a bullwhip kicked ass onscreen.

In 1982, a short squat alien became the friend everyone wanted to have.

In 1993, dinosaurs came back to life onscreen.

In 2001, a fellowship, a Balrog, and a weird little green guy with a ring fetish dominated the screen.

What does any of this have to do with Gravity, you ask? Well, the aforementioned films all instilled a sense of jaw-dropping amazement in me, validated my decision to go into film and video as a career, and made me love the medium of film. Here, in 2013, is the film that does that same thing for me all over again. From the very first frame of Earth’s horizon in space  that encompasses a screen nearly three stories high (oh, it’s a given you’re seeing this in IMAX, right?), the jaw drops and doesn’t relax for the next hour and a half. Walking out of this completely immersive experience, I felt like I had just gone through an advanced course in space aeronautics.

How did director Alfonso Cuaron manage to get such long unbroken shots that are incredibly realistic? How did cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski get his camera to do the things it did? How did George Clooney and Sandra Bullock prepare for what must have been the most grueling wirework in any movie ever? How is it that the two leads (plus the obligatory Red Shirt* character) look convincingly weightless in space? How does Bullock come off the uninspired, albeit hugely successful film The Heat, looking ragged and then in the same year, knock it out of the park in this film and even manage to outshine Sigourney Weaver in a pair of shorty-shorts? Going in, I wasn’t thrilled about seeing Bullock, who I really have only liked in Speed (1994) and Crash (2004) (what an interesting coincidence, those two titles) and I liked her in Demolition Man, early in her career. I was thinking how great it would be to see Julianne Moore or Jodie Foster (who really stunk it up in Elysium) in this role. But Sandra Bullock, who essentially is playing Sandra Bullock with all the familiar tics and stutters, nails it. George Clooney comes off as slightly cocky and a little sexist, but given that I’ve just partially conflated Bullock’s performance with her ability to fill out a pair of shorts, I don’t have much leg to stand on. And hey, it’s Clooney, one of our last great male leads. Short of Batman And Robin , I’ll cut him some slack.

The story is pretty simple. Two astronauts are on a mission to repair the Hubble telescope when debris from a demolished Russian satellite in orbit rampages towards them and causes havoc. I think it was Newton who determined that a body in motion stays in motion. Well, as there is no friction in space, a body going in excess of 20,000 mph with nothing to slow it down is not a good thing. And when said object smashes into another object creating more debris going at 20,000 mph, it’s definitely not a good thing. For the duration of this film, which at only 90 minutes, seemed much longer (and I mean that in a good way), Clooney and Bullock have to find a means to return back to Earth.

Earth, which looks at once beautiful and absolutely terrifying in the opening shot. This movie makes it clear that the most mundane things we take for granted here on terra firma can quickly become deadly in space. Simply breathing in and out too fast, air pressure, atmosphere, a spark of flame no bigger than the head of a match can mean the difference between life and immediate death. I used to think that I would gladly take a trip into space if afforded the opportunity, no question in my mind. Ironically, despite the real and actual tragedy of the 1986 Challenger mission, it’s this movie that has me thinking, hmmm, maybe I would think twice about that.

This is a must-see movie and if I haven’t put a fine enough point on it yet, let me emphasize once again that it must be seen in IMAX 3D. If, as posited by Star Trek, space is the final frontier and it’s doubtful that I’ll ever make it up there, then this film is the next best thing and safest means of getting there. And once it’s released on Blu-ray, I’ll be re-visiting the final frontier from the safety of my couch over and over again.

*It’s a Star Trek reference. For a mild spoiler, look it up.

Note: I’ve heard tell of critics, mostly scientists and engineers I believe, complaining how the film is not realistic because the debris is travelling in the wrong direction for geosynchronous orbit, and also because Bullock’s hair should be floating in zero-gravity. I suspect this is why her hair is bobbed in the film, as an attempt at addressing this issue, because it would be more than a little distracting to see long hair fanning out in every shot. But I would also say this to the critics: Where have you been since the mid-1960s, when the USS Enterprise first travelled in space? How about the late 70s, when the Millennium Falcon and TIE fighters were audibly whooshing through space and firing lasers (laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Yet there’s no light in space per se (visible light in space is due to reflection off an object or atmosphere, otherwise light passes through the void of space, which is why space is dark). There’s definitely no sound. Yet you come forward in 2013 to criticize Sandra Bullock’s hair?

Blue Jasmine Review

"Yeah, baby...this expression's got 'Oscar' written all over it."

“Yeah, baby…this expression’s got ‘Oscar’ written all over it.”

In 1988, Woody Allen released Another Woman, a film about a woman whose delicately constructed world unravels as she learns that she is not well-liked by her family and friends. Twenty-five years later, Allen releases Blue Jasmine, where a similar character’s troubles have been amped up 100%. Gena Rowlands played a woman who alienated everyone around her with her judgmental arrogance. Cate Blanchett plays a woman who alienates herself from everyone around her by existing in denial.

Blue Jasmine tells the story of Jeanette Francis who adopts the name Jasmine, and is herself adopted improbably along with Ginger, her adopted sister, but of no blood relation. I say improbably, because these two are the definition of “different sides of the track;” Jasmine grows up to become a wealthy socialite, while Ginger (Judy Hawkins) grows up to become a hardscrabble working class single mom. The obvious differences between these two are pretty apparent, and it’s a little hard to swallow that their paths would be so divergent being raised within the same household. But more interestingly is the difference between these two in regards to how they deal with life’s blows. Ginger is much more of a streetwise pragmatist, dealing realistically with the knockdowns of life and love, whereas Jasmine is poorly suited to deal with anything as her bubble collapses around her.

The bubble that Jasmine has created is one consisting of material wealth, social connections, and objectivism as a trophy wife by her philandering real estate investor husband Hal, played smoothly by Alec Baldwin. Jasmine arrives on the doorstep of her sister’s San Francisco walkup after her husband is jailed for felony theft (in a “five minutes ago” nod to Bernie Madoff) and hangs himself in his prison cell. She lives in denial of her husband’s affairs and unethical business practices because, to put a fine point on it, it’s convenient. She’s the upper Eastside Carmella Soprano. It’s clear that Jasmine could never accept anything less than the best, as seen in flashback when Ginger and her one-time husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, who, with this role and his role on Entourage, is more entertaining than his “Hickory Dickory Dock” standup ever was) visit Jasmine and Hal at their Hamptons home. Jasmine’s disdain for the two of them and what they apparently represent is palpable. And even when she imposes upon Ginger in her desperate, now bankrupt widowed state, Jasmine attempts to maintain that bubble, by harshly assessing Ginger’s life and her relationship with current boyfriend Chili (Bobby Canavale, who adds a little dash of Tennessee Williams by way of Stanley Kowalski to Jasmine’s Blanche).

From there, we view, sometimes cringe, at a woman who literally unravels onscreen. Cate Blanchett is so effective portraying a character who is wholly ill-equipped to deal with adversity, there were times I wanted to jump onscreen and put her out of her misery like a horse with a broken leg. Even when she is afforded modest to grand opportunities to regain the life she had, either fate or her own machinations sling her back down, as evidenced by her interaction with a socially awkward dentist (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Stuhlbarg) and an affable statesman (Peter Sarsgaard). The movie alternates between the present and the past, where we learn how Jasmine arrived at her desperate present situation. I’m not usually a fan of the flashback within the present narrative, but it is done very effectively here. Actually, the flashbacks, to a certain degree, provide relief from the misery of Jasmine’s situation in the present narrative.

There are a few of the Allen tropes here; of course, the character of Jasmine allows us to be privy to the lifestyles of the upper crust Manhattan set, a familiar setting in much of Allen’s work. Ginger, Augie, Chili, and a too-briefly onscreen Louis C.K. provide the typical Allen love triangles, but thankfully, it’s much less farcical here. As with many of his films in the recent past, all is awash in a light sepia and I suspect that, like all his film titles and credits, Allen’s tombstone will be scripted with a Windsor Light Condensed typeface. He also returns for portions of the film, to his New York home. After setting his last few films in London, Barcelona, Paris and Rome, I was beginning to wonder if Allen was knocking out a film each year while on vacation.

All the cast are pitch-perfect, but make no mistake about it: this movie belongs squarely to Cate Blanchett. As the movie starts, I was made to feel like I was watching just another neurotic stand-in for Woody, but she quickly dispelled that assessment. Her performance is so convincing, I literally found it difficult to watch her onscreen as she descended into near-madness. I care nothing for Oscar buzz or predictions, but there’s no way she goes unnoticed by the Academy. This is such a well written, well directed and well acted film that, between Woody and Cate, I don’t know who should be more appreciative of the other. 4/5 reels

 

The Wolverine Review

In this corner...Edward Scissorhands!

In this corner…Edward Scissorhands!

I’ve always had a problem with the Wolverine character in comics and in the movies, particularly in the movies. My problem was that the nature of Wolverine’s fighting ability, using six foot-long claws, meant that in order to defeat a foe, it would mean killing them. What else can you do with claws against an enemy? And that would always mean that in a Wolverine fight scene, he would have to get his ass kicked for a good five minutes before delivering a death blow, so as not to make the fight scenes ridiculously short. Witness the fight scene in the original X-Men with Mystique. Witness the fight scene in X2 with Lady Deathstrike. Witness the fight scene in Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine where…oh, hell, I don’t remember much about either of those films.

Well, all that’s out the window with The Wolverine. This movie, whose story is loosely based on the defining Wolverine comic mini-series of the early 80s, is easily the best portrayal of Wolverine in any of the X-Men films. This is Wolverine doing what he’s supposed to do, mainly slash, gut and eviscerate anyone who steps to him. Granted, most of the people he goes up against are secondary characters, but as there are technically no true supervillains in this film, we finally finally finally get to see Logan square off against his adversaries in true “let’s get it poppin'” badass form. The fight scenes are excitingly choreographed, although they suffer from the PG-13 rating, which means when Wolverine uses his unique weaponry against a bad guy, we see the bad guy crumple over and we hear a sound effect akin to a heavy boot stepping into a pile of thick mud. If only this were an R-rated movie, so we the audience could see Logan engage in his bloody handiwork unfettered. The fact that you don’t see the blood doesn’t make it any less violent, in my opinion. So why not go all out? If I’m allowed to see zombie heads being severed on AMC, why not a little blood splatter in a movie about, um, the Wolverine, hello? But no matter, this is Wolverine at his fighting best. In full disclosure, I’ll also say that I never really took to Jackman in the role, not because he was too tall (the comic character reportedly stands at 5′ 3″) but because he was too much of a pretty boy. I always pictured Gary Sinise in the role, an excellent actor with the right stature and a natural scowl. But after reading about 44 year old Jackman’s training regimen and insanely rigid diet of seven chicken breasts a day around the clock, and seeing him acting every bit the part (for the first time, in my opinion), Jackman definitely earns his stripes in this one. Or his claws, if you prefer.

The underlying story is simple. Dying Japanese billionaire industrialist Yashida summons Logan to thank him for saving his life during the bombing of Nagasaki (Logan’s healing factor renders him veritably ageless) and offers him a proposition: the chance for Logan to transfer his mutant healing ability into Yashida’s body, thus saving Yashida’s life and ending Wolverine’s curse of virtual immortality. Things get hectic when it becomes known that Yashida has willed all his holdings to his daughter Mariko; everyone from the Japanese mob to the mutant Viper set their sights on Mariko to gain control of the industrial empire, or so it seems. Wolverine, for reasons not completely clear, becomes Mariko’s protector and these initial scenes grab a tight hold and don’t let up. The first act of the film culminates in a stunning fight scene aboard (literally) a 300 mph bullet train. This is a scene to rival the Air Force One midair rescue acrobatics in Iron Man 3. As the film convenes its second act, it become a little muddled and slows significantly. While there are still some really kick-ass fight scenes, characters and motivations become hard to follow. However, by this time, I was completely enthralled by the noirish aspects of the film (who doesn’t like being a little confused by a good whodunit?) and the Japanese mise en scene.

I’m hearing that the third act is where the film falls apart for most people. Whereas the beginning and middle of the movie takes itself seriously, and justifiably so, the third act devolves into a trite comic book film. It becomes rather silly. I completely understand why these criticisms are leveled at the last half hour of the film, but I say that if we were able to accept that in the first X-Men movie, Magneto was able to build a machine that would turn regular humans into mutants by hooking Anna Paquin up to it, there’s really no ground to criticize the third act of this film whatsoever. It requires about the same amount of suspension of disbelief. That is to say, it does become a bit of a head-scratcher, but I would say the same for some of the previous X-Men installments as well. I will say that once you exit the theater, if you stop to analyze it a bit, you will pause and ask yourself, “Well, why did this/these character(s) go through all THAT when they could’ve just done THIS?” I engaged in that for about three hours afterwards. I will say that I was less bothered by this last act than by the numerous dream sequences that hit us over the head with the fact that this movie picks up where X3: The Last Stand ended.

However, my bottom line is that this is the Wolverine that I’ve been wanting to see since the year 2000, when the X-Men debuted onscreen. The supporting characters; Yukio, Mariko Yashida, Shingen, Harada and Viper are all on point. I loved the noir mystery tone the film sets once Logan arrives in Japan. I loved the fact that the movie is set in Japan and that Japanese dialogue is subtitled, adding realism and an international dynamism to the film (as well as increasing its chances to make a mint overseas). I loved the Silver Samurai. But most of all, I love being able to say finally that Hugh Jackman killed (again, literally) as The Wolverine. 4/5 reels

P.S. I’d heard that the bonus scene, which appears soon after the credits begin to roll, was as good as the entire movie. I guess I’m in the minority there. If you’ve read the X-Men story arc entitled “Days Of Future Past,” which by now, should be no spoiler to say is the basis of the next X-Men film, then I’m not sure why you’d be more than just mildly entertained by this scene. What it did for me was show how the great Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan have aged since X3.

 

Pacific Rim Review

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 1.19.23 PM
"Make one black C3PO joke and I'll give you a right pasting, you wanker!"

“Make one black C3PO joke and I’ll give you a right pasting, you wanker!”

Pacific Rim is about giant robots (Jaegers) fighting giant monsters (Kaiju).

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. I could end this review right there. Because it doesn’t matter that Charlie Hunnam is as bland as vanilla ice cream and sucks the life out of the set whenever he’s onscreen. It doesn’t matter that there’s hardly any plot other than what I mentioned in the first sentence of this review. Doesn’t matter that most of the beats of this film are lifted directly from Independence Day. Doesn’t matter that there are completely implausible premises, the most glaring (to me anyway) being that humanity would have the technology to create 60′ tall robots in the present era. All that matters is that this is a movie that delivers on what it promises: big robots fighting big monsters. On that level, the movie is a success.

So even though I acknowledge that this movie doesn’t set out to be more than a live action anime, with all the tired tropes we’ve seen thousands of times–the reckless hero who must redeem himself after experiencing a tragedy, the young rookie upstart who has something to prove, the rival out to steal the hero’s glory even though they should be working together, the hard military leader who has no problem kicking ass to get things done, the gratuitous martial arts fight scene–we’ve seen it all before and it would be an injustice to a movie like this if those elements weren’t included. But I think about a movie like Starship Troopers, which had a similar tone but presented these mainstays so much better, including the lead actors (one of which was Denise Richards, so that’s saying a lot). I also look back to Independence Day, which as I said, Pacific Rim cribs heavily from. Maybe it’s not fair to pit the preternaturally charismatic Will Smith against Mr. Hunnam, but it is what it is.

While Idris Elba gives his usual command performance and Rinko Kikuchi does a decent job, even at times when she comes off as a lost puppy dog, two standout performances are delivered by Charlie Day and Ron Perlman. In any other film, these characters both would have come off as extremely annoying, but perhaps here amidst all the so-so performances, these two breathe a little life into their scenes. There’s another character of a rival scientist, played by Burn Gorman, who is a full out cartoon and easily the most grating character on the screen. But then all is forgiven for the most part, when the big robots start fighting the big monsters.

If anyone had a problem with the carnage in Man Of Steel, this movie should have been pure torture because it’s worldwide carnage. But unlike MOS, here at least we get scenes of people being evacuated before mass destruction ensues. Of course, the global economy would collapse under the burden of rebuilding all the decimated infrastructure around the world. But let’s stick to the theme at hand: it doesn’t matter as long as there are giant robots and giant monsters fighting each other. The Jaegers make the Transformers look like Tinker Toys. The monsters are misshapen bulky spewing masses. They were spectacular. That is, when you could make them out. I counted about two and a half fight scenes that took place in daylight (I added the half because one of those scenes was from the perspective of a TV monitor). The rest of the scenes all took place at night in the rain, making it very difficult to make out the action. And at the conclusion of one spectacular fight scene north of an hour into the film, where a kaiju hurls a Jaeger out of the bay deep into the city, one would think the movie would start to wind down. Not by a long shot. After that, there are a good 45 minutes to go and it becomes a test of endurance for the audience. Not to say there weren’t entertaining moments yet to come; a scene where Ron Perlman does a great impersonation of Samuel L. Jackson in 1999’s Deep Blue Sea comes to mind. And I appreciated a scene where we’re treated to some back story for Kikuchi’s character, where she’s portrayed as a little girl (warning: the scene ends in a terribly corny fashion). But by the time the final showdown takes place, it’s to the point where you’re looking at your watch and asking the filmmakers to move it along. And to top it off, after squinting through the darkness and rain to make out what’s going on during the numerous fight scenes, the big showdown takes place underwater, making it even more difficult to follow what’s going on.

By the way, if you should find yourself piloting a 60′ tall Jaegar while in a battle with a giant kaiju, lead off with the sword. 1) It looks cool as sh*t and 2) um, it actually works!

I didn’t feel as though I wasted my money sitting through Pacific Rim. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for it. What I didn’t know was how bland some of the performances were going to be, how similar to Independence Day the plotting was going to be, and how murky some of the fight scenes were going to be. Which is the real injustice in a movie where all that matters is–all together now–giant robots fighting giant monsters. 3/5 reels

 

Fruitvale Station

Strange Fruitvale

Strange Fruitvale

I saw Fruitvale Station in the wake of the ubiquitous media coverage of the Trayvon Martin verdict. I’ve had some pointed opinions on the whole affair, namely how tragic and seemingly unjust the verdict was, then I tell myself that only Zimmerman and the departed Mr. Martin know what happened that night and the jury deliberated purely on the evidence presented to them. I also scratch my head at how the African-American community mobilized in the wake of the initial shooting and the verdict, whereas the death toll of blacks at the hands of other blacks have reached nearly genocidal levels in Chicago, yet not much is said or done. With that in mind, I went into this film determined to keep my intellectualism and my penchant for discernment intact. I’ll come back to this point later.

In a prologue, we see the actual cell phone footage of the shooting, which was viewed over and over on You Tube by the entire country, yet more than four years later, it’s still shocking. After the credits, we’re eerily plunged into the relative calm of the life of Oscar Grant, as portrayed almost sedately through the majority of the film by Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle, The Wire). By way of handheld camera work, and the utmost natural, unaffected performances by Jordan, Melonie Diaz as girlfriend Sophina, Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother and the majority of the remaining cast, we feel like voyeurs watching the latest reality show, only this show has a premise that we’re not likely to see on TV: a young black man who has made mistakes in the past but is attempting to atone for the sake of his girlfriend and their daughter. I say you’re not likely to see this reality show on TV because this young black man doesn’t have numerous women on speed dial, he doesn’t rock gold chains or teeth, nor does he have a gaggle of kids. And as evidenced by current reality programming featuring African-American performers, Oscar is way too tame.

That’s not to say he’s an angel. When we’re first introduced to the character of Oscar, it’s during a late-night argument with his girlfriend over an affair. In subsequent scenes, his temper drives his mother away during a jail visit. He can’t hold a job due to irresponsible behavior. He sells weed. He and his friends use the N word with each other far too much (well, that’s a personal pet peeve of mine, but that’s a debate to be had in another forum). In other words, this guy has problems. But wait a minute. Does director Ryan Coogler go a bit overboard in trying to elicit sympathy for Oscar? The opening argument with his girlfriend concludes with him proclaiming his devotion to her only and forevermore, as their daughter jumps into bed with them and they sleep in each other’s arms. After displaying a flash of bad temper to his ex-boss at his former job at a local market, he calmly goes back to assisting a young Caucasian woman who has no idea what kind of fish to fry for her husband’s black friends. And in scenes that are particularly transparent in their foreshadowing, he’s almost brought to tears over the death of a stray dog, a victim of a hit and run in the shadow of the BART train (the train he was riding on the night he was shot) as well as the scene where he’s play-fighting with his daughter who has him pinned to the ground while he smiles broadly, in direct contrast to his demeanor while being pinned to the ground by the BART police.

Scenes like this make one wonder if, somewhat like Jackie Robinson’s portrayal earlier this year in the film “42,” the director is overly eulogizing Oscar. Even though he shows us a bit of his negative side, as I outlined previously, some of these scenes are obviously meant to pander to a certain degree. There’s a scene near the end of the film where a Caucasian gentleman engages Oscar in a conversation while waiting for his wife, a little after midnight on New Year’s Eve. Not to be cynical, but I would like to visit the world where white businessmen openly converse with black urban youth on the street at night (would that we lived in that world today); the gentleman, an entrepreneur who has a successful internet business, offers Oscar a business card and tells him to call if he needs anything. In light of the events on the night Trayvon was killed, this scene smacks of ingratiating political correctness, but more than that, it’s clear that the scene implores us to see hope in Oscar’s circumstance, so as to make the outcome of the film all the more devastating. It’s the reverse of Ricky’s mom getting his college acceptance letter in the mail after Ricky has been shot dead by a gang-banger (for the uninitiated, see John Singleton’s film debut).

Now, back to my intellectualism. Let me first say, there’s a really implausible and contrived coincidence in the third act whose only purpose is to push the plot forward to its inevitable conclusion, but for the most part, as manipulative as some of these scenes are, the movie is powerfully effective. And eerily timely. After having seen the You Tube clip, after having seen that same clip at the beginning of this film, the crowd still gasped when the bullet was fired into Oscar’s back. The tension was palpable when Kevin Durand, an actor who plays slimy characters a little too well, appears as a cop who is downright abusive to Oscar and his friends on the Fruitvale platform. Durand is the one character who is played almost as a caricature in the film, then again, who’s to say the real cop wasn’t a living caricature? During a credit summation when it’s revealed that the cop who shot Oscar was sentenced to only two years for involuntary manslaughter and released after only eleven months, there was audible cursing in the theater. My breath caught as well when I read that. I say all this to make the point that, while watching this film, I knew I was being manipulated at times and I was proud of myself for being able to discern that and maintain objectivity. I was sufficiently moved, mind you (I’m not a robot for God’s sake), and I remained emotionally attached but intellectually intact, even when Oscar’s daughter asks her mother the next day after the shooting, “Where’s Daddy?”

Flash forward and I’m walking out of the theater feeling surprisingly positive and energized, I guess due to endorphins released as a counteragent to the downer experience I just had. I’m sitting in a diner in NYC near the theater having dinner. I look up to a bank of TVs to see Piers Morgan discussing the case of Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman in Florida who received 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot at her abusive husband. Her attorneys used the Stand Your Ground law in their defense. Piers goes on to compare that case to the Martin case, in which Zimmerman went free based in part, if not completely, on the same law. Then I see in my head once again the onscreen text which proclaimed that the cop who shot Oscar went free after only eleven months. The shooting scene replays in my head. The scene of the doctor delivering the news of Oscar’s death to his mom replays in my head (none of this can fairly be considered spoilers at this current time).  My bottom lip starts quivering, my eyes well up. Intellectualism and discernment be damned. At that moment, I was angry. I was sick and upset with all the foolishness perpetrated by white people AND black people which continues to lead to more senseless violence in the black community. What this movie did was sneak up on me and disarm me. I left the theater with a rating in mind but I hadn’t yet finished digesting the film. I can say that despite a few scenes that pander for emotion, this film does what it’s meant to do; humanize a young man who, despite all his flaws and errors in judgment, despite how society may view him, even in a clearly unjust death, didn’t deserve what fate had in store for him. Particularly given that he was turning his life around.

I said earlier that this movie plays as a 90 minute eulogy to Oscar Grant. I want to amend that; this movie is not a eulogy to only Oscar, it’s a eulogy to Trayvon Martin as well. 4.5/5 reels

Fruitvale Station in limited engagements.