Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: The Wolverine

As I’ve indicated in the past, I’m something of a huge X-Men fanboy. Watched a lot of the TV show when I was a kid, X-Men was the first superhero movie I ever saw in theaters, X2 is still one of my top 3 favorite superhero movies, period. But that franchise became more and more difficult to like, as X3 was really bad and Origins was just plain fucking awful. Still, First Class was good, hell great, and despite mediocre trailers and a director with an incredibly uneven career, I was optimistic, albeit cautiously, for The Wolverine. So, how did it turn out?

Well…pretty good actually. I don’t want to oversell it, it’s nowhere near as good as X2 or First Class. What it amounts to is a pretty sold, B to B- blockbuster, some good action sequences and decent character work, despite some flaws. And given the option, I’d take that over the D- of  X3 or the flat out F that was Origins (never mind some of the other blockbusters of the year) in a heartbeat. Call it the beneficiary of low expectations.

The plot is VERY loosely based (adapted is entirely the wrong word) from Frank Miller’s famous miniseries about Wolverine in Japan. Several years after the events of X3, Wolverine is handling X3 roughly the same way I did: Retreating into the frozen wilderness and waking up screaming (although he’s hallucinating Jean Grey; I mostly hallucinated Brett Ratner tormenting me). A woman named Yukio shows up, telling him that a man he saved from the Nagasaki bombing is dying and wishes to say goodbye. It turns out the man actually wants to remove Wolverine’s healing factor in order to save his life, as well as end Wolverine’s torment, as he’s grown tired of life. Wolverine refuses and his friend dies, but winds up having to protect the man’s granddaughter Mariko from various attackers, complicated by the fact that his healing factor has begun to mysteriously weaken anyway.

The plot is actually pretty solid, which still surprises me, even after having seen it. It’s constantly threatening to fall over into being an overcomplicated mystery plot, but it’s actually pretty solidly engaging, helped by the fact that it doesn’t have too many moving pieces. Unlike Origins and X3 which were overloaded with Marvel character cameos and shout outs, Wolverine has only a relative handful of characters which helps keep it focused. It also helps that most of the actors are really solid. Hugh Jackman is more into playing Wolverine than he has been since X2. Rila Fukushima is an interesting screen presence as Yukio and Hiroyuki Sanada is pretty solid as Shingen. Will Yun Lee and Svetlana Khodchenkov have too little screen time to really get a bead on them. The only irritation in the main cast is Tao Okamoto as Mariko. She’s not bad, but she’s playing the character a tiny bit too flat and I have to say, Wolverine and Yukio really do have more chemistry (but that’s an issue it inherits from the original comic).

Another major boost the movie gets is in the action scenes. All of the action is well put together and a couple of the action sequences are genuinely pretty inventive. Also, and this might be a personal opinion, but I kinda dig how comic-bookish the action scenes often are. The very first big action set piece involves Wolverine chasing Yakuza across a funeral while Ninja Hawkeye (I don’t know if he has an actual comic name) runs interference. And if you can’t dig that particular bit, you better be on your way to the lobby around the time Wolverine storms the mountain fortress defended by an army of ninjas.

Okay, I’m starting to oversell it, it does have its share of issues. The script is on the weak side and it has trouble keeping a consistent tone, due to being indecisive about how gruesome it wants the action to be. A lot of the mystery is accomplished via hiding information, which is the cheap way of creating mystery. Also, as much as I like seeing Famke Janssen back as Jean Grey, the movie can’t really decide what it wants to do with her.

The Wolverine is an imperfect movie, but it’s an engaging and enjoyable one, with good action, a solidly involving story and, it must be said, a kickass post credits sequence. It shows a continued good trajectory for the X-Men franchise and indicates that this year might finally be looking up. So call it recommended.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he promises he’s not giving this a good review because he got to see Hugh Jackman’s ass.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review: The Lone Ranger

You know what my official favorite thing about The Lone Ranger is? Aside from the fact that it opens with a pan over the Golden Gate Bridge, a fact which had me wishing Tommy Wiseau was playing The Lone Ranger. No, my favorite thing about this movie is that Johnny Depp’s eye-poppingly awful, garish, stupid, bizarre, racist, offensive on a hundred levels, holy-shit-what-were-they-thinking, turn as Tonto isn’t the worst thing about it. Wrap your head around that before you follow me down this particular rabbit hole.

The Lone Ranger is an odd property, in that everyone seems to have a working knowledge of it’s basic tenants and concepts, but it hasn’t been popular since the late 60s, reaching it’s most popular form as a 60s TV series. And since my extremely bizarre childhood involved watching a lot of things from that era (The Avengers, with John Steed, Wild Wild West, Star Trek: The Original Series and a LOT of Errol Flynn movies) you’ll be unsurprised to learn that I watched it a lot as a kid. And you know what’s interesting? Jay Silverheels’ (IE an actual fucking First Nations actor) portrayal of Tonto is not that stereotypical. Okay, so he did the whole ‘How White Man’ dialogue bullshit, but other than that he didn’t have many of the clichés. He didn’t talk to the animals, he didn’t have any Earth magic shit, hell he didn’t even do the ‘Noble Savage’ bull. Which makes it even more offensive that Johnny Depp’s performance ticks off every fucking goddamn Native cliché.

It’s actually kind of pointless to recount the Lone Ranger’s setup; Only about half of the Lone Ranger mythos winds up in the movie, and most of that is destined to be derided or straight up mocked. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For the record the plot is concerned with John Reid, a bookish big city lawyer who arrives in the West to help his living legend brother hunt down an outlaw Butch Cavendish. But Cavendish ambushes them, killing (and eating, believe it or not) Reid’s brother. Reid’s life is saved by Tonto who believes Cavendish to be a Wendigo and needs Reid’s silver bullet to put him down. But since the enemies think Reid is dead, they decide to have him wear a mask to protect himself and thus become the titular character.

This movie has such a plethora of issues that it’s hard to know where to start, but the script seems like a big fat target, so we’ll start there. Put quickly the script is fucking awful. The movie is bloated and overlong, the dialogue is awful and the plot somehow manages to be both barely there and overcomplicated (something about stolen silver and a train and…I dunno, I lost interest at the halfway point).

And that’s even before the bizarre plotholes. The whole Indian Spirit Magic bullshit runs the plot till about the halfway point, when the movie suddenly announces that none of the magic is real and Tonto just had a psychotic break. Which would be kind of interesting…if we hadn’t already seen the horse do supernatural stuff and the silver hadn’t given the Ranger a flashback. And the horse doing supernatural stuff (which it continues to do) is already problematic as it seems to be the driving force behind the Ranger doing…well anything. He seems to be vitally important and barely competent at the same time, as Tonto just drags him into being a hero. And while I’m complaining, if the main villain isn’t actually a wendigo, then why is he a cannibal, because it’s both unnecessary and a little overly gruesome for a summer blockbuster.

Most of the actors are on autopilot, as the movie revolves around Johnny Depp’s Tonto to a ridiculous degree (a performance which borrows so heavily from his Jack Sparrow persona that I’m surprised he didn’t just dress like him). The focus on Tonto, incidentally, had me hoping for a Big Trouble in Little China twist on the story, but since the Ranger is literally chosen by the spirit magic (set eyes to roll), that never arrives. Armie Hammer is a good actor but his performance here reminds me of nothing so much as George Clooney in Batman and Robin, alternately embarrassed by what he’s having to say and frightened at what this is going to mean for his career. The more bizarre inclusion is Helena Bonham Carter, who’s character shows up at the midpoint, gets a ton of characterization and even a backstory. She then drops some exposition and drops off the face of the movie. Hell until she showed up (very briefly) at the finale, I was actually under the impression she’d gotten killed. None of the other actors are even worth mentioning, although I will say that Cavendish’s crew is such an obvious knockoff of Barbosa’s crew from Pirates of the Caribbean that when one of them started wearing a blouse and carrying around a parasol I barely even noticed.

The action sequences could almost be a saving grace, and the first one is well placed and actually moves at a fairly brisk pace, but they’re not. For starters, the big finale commits Gore Verbinski’s big cardinal sins in being too long and having too many moving parts. The second is that…well they’re barely there. There are two big train action sequences, one at the very beginning and one at the very end and there’s pretty much nothing in between, just the Ranger and Tonto snarking at each other.

And now I can finally address the offputting contempt the film has for its source material. The movie jettisons most of the Ranger’s mythology, and the stuff it keeps is basically openly insulting. One of the last scenes is openly mocking the Ranger’s iconic catchphrase, which is particularly annoying since fans of the old show are probably the only people who would actually be interested in seeing this. This is not the movie for you if you’re a fan of the old TV show. Hell, this is not the movie for you even if you’re not. I dunno who exactly this show is for, other than anti-Native racists.

Usually, at the end of a movie this aggressively bad, I feel angry. But this time, I just feel tired. Not just of the Depp/Verbinski thing, though that had pretty much worn out it’s welcome at the midpoint of Pirates 3. No I’m tired of the whole blockbuster scene. This happens every year at some point, but I cannot remember it happening so early or so forcefully. I’m tired of seeing bad movies make money and good movies lose it. I’m tired of watching Pacific Rim open in 3rd while Adam Sandler and Michael Bay laugh all the way to the bank. I’m tired of bloated, stupid, boring movies where exciting, engaging movies should be. Perhaps Elysium or World’s End can turn it around, but either way, stay far away from The Lone Ranger.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he would pay green money to hear Tommy Wiseau say “Hi-ho Silver, away!”

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Director Retrospective: Michael Bay Part 2

(Terribly sorry this took so long…between CTCon and just plain not wanting to watch these movies, this took much longer than I expected. And if you’re a new reader from CTCon… Hi. Thanks for coming here.)

The first half of Michael Bay’s career brought him unprecedented success and, with the exception of The Rock, heaps of critical scorn. As the new decade dawned, Bay began producing films, mostly horror remakes under the heading of his new Platinum Dunes production company, and both he and Producer Jerry Bruckheimer began moving away from each other. But, while Bruckheimer would begin to improve, for a time at least, with some solid titles, Bay would somehow get worse outside the influence of Bruckheimer. And given that he did Armageddon and Pearl Harbor with Bruckheimer, that’s pretty impressive.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review: Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim is the first movie in a very, very, very long time to make me break my cardinal rule of film going: Don’t get excited. There are movies that I want to see, movies I’m eager to see even, but I almost never get excited, it’s a one way ticket to disappointment. But this time…I couldn’t help it. It’s directed by Guillermo del Toro, the director of previously awesome movies like The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy, in addition to the flat out masterpiece that was Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s got a top notch cast and fantastic looking CGI. It’s also a movie about giant freaking robots fighting giant freaking monsters. So, I broke my own rule and got excited over this movie, which is typically tempting fate (looking at you X3) so I was both excited and nervous going in, as I imagine a lot of people here were.

So I’m here to tell you, I had no reason to fear being excited; Pacific Rim is a triumph of blockbuster filmmaking. Combining brutal brawls, epic disasters and competent (if not exactly exceptional) story-telling, Pacific Rim is not only instantly the best blockbuster of the year, but a high water-mark for big budget action movies overall.

The plot takes place a few years in the future. A rip has opened up on the ocean floor near Japan and giant ass creatures known as kaiju start coming through and tearing shit up. Since using conventional weapons is too costly and destructive to stop them, humanity builds giant robots to fight them, known as jaeger’s to fight them, which require two mind linked pilots to work them. But 12 years in; things are going badly. Kaiju are getting bigger, their attacks are getting more frequent and they’re losing jaeger’s faster than they can build them. As humanity puts it’s faith in a giant wall on their coasts (yeah, cause that worked so fucking well in Attack on Titan) and Commander Pentecost (Idris Elba) is gathering his few remaining jaegers for a final stand. To that end he calls in a long retired pilot Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) who lost his co-pilot and brother in battle to help him out.

For those of you who are only interested in seeing summer blockbusters for the action, I have good news; Name any recent action movie (especially giant robot movies) and I will explain to you how Pacific Rim’s action sequences are better. With perhaps one exception, all of the action scenes are huge scale brawls, huge robots engaging in increasingly brutal and epic fistfights with giant monsters. Notably, del Toro understands that in order for us to enjoy an action scene, we actually have to be able to see what’s going on, and so the camera is, for the most part, way back and steady, all the better for us to see what’s happening. The film’s big final action scene has basically not been in any of the trailers, and when you see it you’ll see why it was better to be surprised.

The CGI is top notch, easily some of the best of the year and one detail that I like about it is how both the jaegers and their kaiju opponents actually move like something that’s really big, rather than something small blown up to huge proportions, each move huge and lumbering, causing the earth to shake with each step. The jaegers are incredibly well designed, each reflecting their country of origin and being immediately distinguishable from one another. The really brilliant designs come from the kaiju though, each loosely based on a real life creature with interesting additions and weapons that make them ridiculously cool and unique.

The storytelling is perhaps not going to be winning any Oscars any time soon, but it’s definitely well put together enough for a summer blockbuster. The main plot, devoted to humanity’s last ditch effort to close off the portal that the kaiju are coming through, doesn’t actually get as much screentime as a variety of subplots, the biggest one being Raliegh’s attempt to learn about his new co-pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi, one of the better female characters in a blockbuster this year). The most fun however is undoubtably Dr. Newton’s (Charlie Day) attempts to find a working kaiju brain, which is awesome because it includes Ron Pearlman.

The script is extremely good for a summer blockbuster which is to say not exceptional, but good enough. I think it succeeds, despite it’s occasionally simple characters and setup, because of 2 things. 1, all of the actors commit to the material completely (especially Idris Elba) and 2, that the movie understands that simple doesn’t mean stupid. Yes, the characters can run on the stock side of things, but they work, because they let their actions and the actors flesh them out.

It’s this approach, the deliberately simple and the show-don’t-tell approach, that give this film a good portion of its energy. Minor details like cities and buildings built out of kaiju bones are shown in the background, with the understanding that we’ll get it without being told, and the deliberate simplicity keeps the film tight and fast moving, with none of the tiresome attempt at mystery or bloat that most blockbusters come frontloaded with. Even the character work, which usually gets shoved off to the side in movies like this, is in the forefront in this movie, as the two-pilot system means that the characters have to get their issues out of the way so they can more effectively fight giant monsters.

Pacific Rim is a movie I’ve been looking forward to all year and given how crowded my midnight showing was, I think I’m not the only one. And multiple times throughout every single fight the crowd roared and applauded, not even applauding entire fights, but individual punches and blows. And unusually, I was applauding and cheering along with them. Bottom line, Pacific Rim is one of the best pure fun blockbusters of all time, and easily the best action movie of the year thus far. Unless you are physically allergic to blockbusters, you owe it to yourself to go out and see this.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he thinks that people need to shut up about how they think this looks like Evangelion.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Con and Panel

Alright my...what 5 followers, it's that time of year again, so you know what's happening: I'm going to be at Connecticon this weekend. BUT, and this is an important but, I am not merely attending this time. No, I shall be contributing by hosting (along with two of my friends, IE Todd, the awesome human being behind Heckling From the 3rd Row which is like my blog but better in every way and his girlfriend and equally awesome human being Liz) a trio of panels. The titles and times are all below so if any of my followers are gonna be there, you'd best show. Or don't. It's cool.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25 Years of Riffing, Robots, and ROWSDOWER! on Friday at 10:30 AM.
Dark Knight, Big Screens on Saturday at 8:30 PM and
How to Survive the Game of Thrones II: It’s a Nice Day For a Red Wedding on Sunday at 2:30 PM

Review: The Way, Way Back

If naming Moonrise Kingdom as the second best movie of 2012 didn’t give it away, I have a weakness for quirky indie comedies about alienated outsiders. This doesn’t guarantee I’ll like them of course (still not too fond of Silver Linings Playbook) but I do like them a lot. And while The Way, Way Back isn’t a perfect example of such, it’s pretty good, and buoyed by some great performances.

The plot is concerned with Duncan (Liam James, who you may remember from absolutely nothing) a quiet and alienated youngster, who is heading out on summer break to the beach with his mother and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell in an…interesting performance) who is a bit of a jerk. Oh and I guess Trent’s daughter is there too, whatever the movie doesn’t care about her, neither should I. Anyway, while there he meets not only the increasingly weird neighbors (and one of the neighbor’s hot and yet also alienated daughters) but also eventually finds his way to a water park, where he meets the eccentric owner (Sam Rockwell, 80 percent of the reason I went to see this) who gives him a job and helps him come out of his shell.

So yes, it’s yet another movie about the Summer That Changed Everything, a plot that depending on how many movies you’ve seen, you’ll have seen anywhere from 10 to 100 times. But it’s very well put together version of that story, with very few missteps. It’s a good script, as almost all the characters (including a couple of absurdly minor ones) are well characterized and interesting. The direction, while occasionally on the nose, is quite good. It’s the first directorial outing by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (two of the writers of The Descendant, one of the better films of 2011 and both of whom show up in minor roles) and I’m officially looking for great things in their future. Oh and it's funny. Really, really funny. That's important too. You remember funny right?

But if there’s a single reason to see this movie, it’s the actors. Sam Rockwell was my primary motivation for seeing this and he does not disappoint, completely dominating any scene he’s in. But he’s still a good dramatic actor and it shows, as he’s capable of finding the darker, or at least more depressing side of a character who feels that he has to be always ‘on.’ Also turning in good work is Steve Carell, who we’re so used to seeing play nice guys that it’s almost weird seeing him turn up here as someone who’s casually, almost accidentally, cruel or at least callous. But it works, partially cause it seems to be a tiny bit meta; Trent is just good enough on top of that for us to believe he could fool Duncan’s mother and certainly good enough to give us the feeling he’s got some good in him. And I have to mention Liam James, just because he acts enough like a real teenager to remind me why I hated being a teenager.

It does have more than a few flaws, the most glaring being the way it refuses to characterize most of the few teenage girls who are, with one exception, flat stereotypes of bitchy mean girls. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is a little irritating. It also has a little difficulty with some of the secondary adult characters, in particular Rob Corddry’s Kip and the ending goes on a little bit too long. Oh and this is a minor thing, but is there a ‘generic quirky comedy soundtrack’ list that people just go to for movies like this?

Look, I went out of my way (way out of my way) to see this because it hit two of my personal buttons; Quirky indie comedies about alienated outsiders and Sam Rockwell. But even if you don’t share those particular preferences, The Way, Way Back is a mostly well made movie with a good script and a great cast. This year is shaping up to be kind of a weak year, so I suggest you take what you can get. Or you could just go see The Lone Ranger since that looked so fucking great.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he hopes that the Academy’s fetish for quirky comedies means we can finally get Sam Rockwell an Oscar Nomination.

Monday, July 1, 2013

DVD Review: Warm Bodies


Warm Bodies is a good natured, well made, often amusing and regularly endearing romantic comedy built up around the zombie fad (which at this point, is getting past it’s expiration date) and which, if I’m being honest…genuinely surprised me by how much I enjoyed it. It’s not a great movie (Shaun of the Dead doesn’t have to worry about being dethroned as the definitive zombie parody) and I doubt it’ll still be on my top 10 come year’s end, but it’s enjoyable enough for me to give it my recommendation.

The plot is concerned with a zombie named only R, who is feeling alienated and alone because, you know, he’s a zombie. Incidentally, the rules of the zombies in this movie work like this: The slow zombies still look human and retain some semblance of their human memories and minds, but will eventually turn into the more skeletal fast zombies which are all animal instincts. Anyway, while attacking a human, R eats the guy’s brains and winds up absorbing memories of him and his girlfriend Julie (R and Julie…haha) and falling hard for her, which somehow starts his heart beating again and begins to reverse the zombification.

Okay so yes, the mechanics of the zombification work a lot better as metaphor than they do as science or even pseudo-science but it’s a zombie movie, I can roll with it. And while the entire thing threatens to devolve into being just too adorable, it manages to walk that line very carefully. Okay so it kinda starts to push into that territory towards the end, but it works, because it sticks to it’s guns the entire way through and the total commitment to the theme and tone makes it work.

For that matter, while there is a lot of fun to be found at making fun of zombie clichés, most of that stuff is relegated to first act. No, what takes up the majority of the film is an extended Beauty and the Beast riff, with its eyes on parodying Twilight. And while it gets it’s punches in on Twilight (a series that is absurdly ripe for parody) it takes it’s story and characters seriously, which really helped me get involved in the movie.

Aside from that, there’s not just a lot to talk about. The actors are all pretty solid, though I would like to know where they found Teresa Palmer, because her face throughout the entire movie looks like a more expressive version of Kirsten Stewarts in the Twilight movie. And while an internal monologue is hard to pull off, since it’s typically distracting, here it works, probably because it’s used to cover the fact that R. can’t speak throughout most of the movie. Nicholas Holt is a good lead in this and Rob Corddry shines in a minor role. And hey, while I hate to bitch at another movie with this one, but is it weird to anyone else that the romantic comedy zombie movie is gorier than World War Z?

It has a few issues, nothing deal breaking. The script, while mostly clever, is a little too formulaic for my tastes and while I like John Malkovich a lot, his character (for the record, Julie’s military and zombie hating father) feels a little perfunctory, mostly needed to be the ‘human antagonist,’ and he doesn’t really get enough screentime to move past it.

The zombie craze is beginning to feel a little worn out and I’m starting to hope it dies down a bit, just so we can miss zombies again. But, if they can make a few more original movies like this one, maybe there’s life (ha) in the zombie craze yet. If nothing else, it’s officially given us one of the more offbeat ‘date’ movies in a while.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s still a little surprised by how much he liked this movie.