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300: Rise of an Empire – Review


Portraying history on film accurately is often harder to do than portraying pure fiction.  In many ways, it is almost impossible to make a 100% accurate historical representation work, because cinema is all about making the artificial feel real.  Some movies feel more true to history than others, and yet the best loved historical films are the ones that, for the most part, play very loose with historical facts.  Case in point, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995).  The movie is a slap to the face of anyone who takes the history of William Wallace and the Scottish Rebellion seriously, and yet it’s still an enormously entertaining movie, and also a personal favorite of mine.  Gladiator (2000) likewise is pretty loose with history, only it gets away with it more because of the fact that it has a fictional character at it’s center.  When a movie takes real history and changes it to the point where it no longer resembles the truth, it could be argued that the story has crossed into the realm of fable story-telling, which is itself an honored narrative tradition.  People always have embellished real events in order to make them sound more interesting.  George Washington never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, but we like to think he did.  A Roman general never turned into a Gladiator who then defied the Caesar, and yet we still welcome the idea of it.
Basically, we all enjoy telling tall tales to make our heroes greater than they were, and one of the most obvious examples of taking history and turning it into a larger than life fable in recent years is the 2007 Zack Snyder film, 300.  Based off of the real historical account of Spartan King Leonidas’ last stand against the invading Persian empire, as well as the graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 was somewhat of a surprise hit when it was first released.  The years after Ridley Scott’s Gladiator hit the Oscar jackpot were not kind to sword and sandals epics.  Both Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) failed as historical retelling and as entertaining action flicks.  Not to mention Ridley Scott’s own epic follow-up, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) fell flat.  So, when Zack Snyder’s 300 was being developed, I’m sure many people had their doubts as well.  It’s not hard to see why, since the movie (like the graphic novel) doesn’t even remotely try to take the history of the event seriously.  And yet, after grossing $200 million domestic, those doubts went away.  300 was a unique film that actually fictionalized history in a way that everyone could accept.  By making the legend of Leonidas so outlandishly over the top to the point of pure fairy-tale level accuracy, it actually made the meaning behind the event much easier to digest.  Naturally, with a film this successful, it’s inevitable that a follow-up would come in it’s wake, though it’s surprising that it took so long for this sequel, Rise of an Empire, to make it’s debut.
As far as movie sequels go, 300: Rise of an Empire has a lot that works in it’s favor and a lot that that works against it.  One of the things that unfortunately hinders the film is the familiarity everyone has with the original movie.  Zack Snyder did not direct the sequel, instead giving the reigns over to newcomer Noam Murro.  Snyder did co-write the screenplay and there’s no mistaking the fact that this movie strictly adheres to the first film’s formula.  This movie is actually more like a side-quel rather than a true sequel.  The events of the first film happen concurrently with the events in this movie.  So, pretty much if you haven’t seen the first 300, you won’t be lost because this movie will constantly remind you of what happened with Leonidas and his 300 spartan soldiers, since it’s happening at the same time.  Only, Leonidas (played in the first film memorably by Gerard Butler) is barely even seen here, shown only in brief snippets pulled from the first film.  Rise of an Empire instead follows a whole different group of characters not even attached to ancient Sparta.  And this is one of the more jarring problems with the movie.  What made 300 work so well was our interest in the Spartan characters; their culture, their devotion to their king and countrymen, and their fearlessness in the face of danger.  That focus on the characters is a bit more scatter-shot in Rise of an Empire, though not to the point of sinking the whole narrative.
At the center of Rise of an Empire is the Athenian navy, led by their commander Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton).  Themistokles is tasked with holding the Persian navy back while Leonidas’ army delays the invading Persians on land, all in the hope that their brave sacrifice unites all of Greece together to fight as one.  The Persians are led by the power hungry Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, reprising his role from the first 300) and his own naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) who has helped the Persian king rise his way to the throne to become the “God King.”  Most of the movie follows the same trajectory as 300, as the majority of the run-time is devoted to a string of bloody, stylized battles.  To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t merely try to copy 300 exactly in these fight scenes, and having all the action scenes take place on warships in the middle of the Aegean Sea is a nice change of scenery.  The standoff between the two navies is the main centerpiece of the movie, and the film rarely departs from this set-up.  This is both to the film’s benefit and it’s detriment.  The good thing is that the movie is actually very well focused, and like the first movie, isn’t overstuffed with a lot of convoluted plotting.  The downside of this however, is that most of it feels like a retread of things we’ve already seen, with no new ground gained in  the process.  For people who wanted a sequel in the truest sense, this might be a disappointment since the story-line only expands the narrative rather than continues it.
But, as a standalone piece of mindless entertainment, the movie surprisingly still works, though not as successfully as the first film.  Everything in this movie is a mixed bag, from the story to the characters.  When the movie does something wrong, it’s distracting and drags the film down; but when it gets something right, it does it exceptionally well.  There were some action scenes that I did enjoy well enough, and then there were others that were so uninspired that I just tuned out; an opening battle scene in particular felt very bland.  For those who enjoyed the stylized blood splatters and slow mo swordplay in the first movie, you’ll be happy to know that there is plenty more of it in this film; perhaps a tad too much.  The characters and performances are also a mixed bag.  Australian newcomer Sullivan Stapleton has the physique and the fighting skills down for the role of Themistokles, but he’s a charisma black hole every time he speaks, and remarkably enough, only makes you long for the star magnetism of Gerard Butler.  The other Athenians are also equally bland.  I couldn’t care about a single one of them, which was probably the biggest fault of the movie.  The only interesting characters on the heroic side are the ones returning from the first film which includes Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo and David Wenham as the lone surviving “300” spartan Dilios.  Unfortunately, their screen-time is limited to only a few scenes.
The film’s best element, and the one thing that makes this movie work as well as it does, is Eva Green’s performance as Artemisia.  Eva Green steals this movie in a big way and you can tell she’s having the time of her life doing it.  Artemisia is one hell of a villainess and she manages to outshine even the big, bad Xerxes himself.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a character like this who not only worked as a great villain, but actually improved the movie every time she was on screen.  She’s the most three-dimensional character in a film that is severely lacking in them, and her back-story is worthy of a film all it’s own.  She’s the kind of character that actually demands more screen-time and thankfully the film delivers on that.  Every scene she’s in is a gem, and remarkably, her interactions with Themistokles actually help to improve his characterization as well.  It’s actually really surprising to see a character this good in a movie like this, and that’s a testament to how good an actress Eva Green is.  She’s most well known as the Bond girl opposite Daniel Craig’s 007 in Casino Royale (2006), but this performance couldn’t be more different.  Here, she has the right balance between sexy and ruthless, as well as displaying unmatched charisma.  Her fight/sex scene in the movie with Themistokles is a particular highlight, and it displays perfectly Ms. Green’s fearlessness as a performer.  Her performance as Artemesia is much better than the movie is really asking for, and in the end, it is what makes the movie worth watching.
Fortunately, the movie is not without some other positive elements.  For one thing, it does carry over the visual look of the first movie very well, without feeling like a direct carbon copy.  Taking the action to the sea helps to make this film feel distinct, and there are some very spectacular visuals at play here.  Think of the naval battle scenes from Ben-Hur (1959), but in the 300 style, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this movie is like.  To director Murro’s credit, he does keep things from feeling repetitive, and actually makes the action moments feel fluid and easy to follow.  He may not have the same command over the style that Zack Snyder has, but he still manages to keep everything grounded and believable, which is saying something in a film like this.  At the same time, there’s no mistaking this as anything other than a follow-up to 300.  The visual style is what makes these films distinct from every other sword and sandals epic out there.  There’s no dramatic departure from formula or style; you want another 300 movie, you’ve got one.  300 was groundbreaking at the time for having completely CGI’ed environments and set-pieces for it’s live action actors to interact with.  Today, that kind of technique has become more commonplace, so you would think that by doing the same thing in Rise of an Empire it would feel stale, but remarkably enough it still manages to work in it’s favor.
The movie also works well as a pseudo-parody of the first movie.  Though not intentional, I did pick up on some subtle jabs at the first movie’s more notable excesses.  Most of these come out of Artemesia’s sarcastic asides, which play well into her character.  She even manages to mock Xerxes over-the-top extravagance at one point in some biting put downs, and who could blame her; Xerxes is one of the most ridiculous looking villains in movie history, with his golden thong and chain link piercings all over his body.  Also, audiences noticed an underlining homo-eroticism in the first movie that couldn’t be ignored, with all the scantily clad Spartan men forming close, but never sexual bonds between battles.  In this movie, that homoerotic subtext is actually touched upon slightly; sometimes in a joking way, though not always.  In fact, there’s a slight hint that the main character Themistokles could be bisexual, given that he devotes just as much passion towards the men that serve under him as he does to the women that he lays down with, and sometimes he even has a stronger kinship to those same men.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into the movie, but I was happy to see that the film actually touched upon this subtext rather than just cast it aside like the first movie did.  The film also smartly avoids going too over the top with some of the series’ more notorious excesses.  There are fewer grotesque creatures in this film, which actually makes it slightly more historically accurate than the first movie; but of course that’s all in perspective.
So, is 300: Rise of an Empire a worthy sequel, or more importantly, is it worth watching at all.  I would have to say that it is a lesser movie than the first 300, but still an enormously entertaining flick in it’s own right.  The film does work as an action movie, and anyone who wants to see stylish swordplay in action will not be disappointed.  I’d say it’s worth checking out just for Eva Green’s Artemisia alone, because she is that good a character.  As a sequel to 300, it probably could’ve been better.  I certainly wanted to see this movie build more onto the last film’s narrative, especially with the way that 300 ended.  Also, the blandness of Themistokles and the other Greek soldiers in the movie really makes the absence of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans feel all the glaring.  Showing the other side of the story is fine, but not when the more compelling story has already been told.  Other than that, I was genuinely pleased by what I saw.  I actually came to this movie with low expectations, since I saw the 300 as a perfectly fine standalone piece.  This side-quel that we got didn’t blow me away, but it didn’t disappoint either, and in some ways actually exceeded my expectations; especially when it came to the villain.  Overall, I see it as a worthy companion piece to the first movie.  It may be wrong to show little concern for the truth in real history when making a movie, but sometimes it’s the legends that make the history come alive for us today.
Rating: 7/10

The Wolf of Wall Street – Review


Martin Scorsese has rightfully positioned himself as one of the definitive film directors of this or any era, and it’s not hard to see why.  Movies like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990) are considered masterpieces to audiences and critics alike.  But what I like about Scorsese the most is his enthusiasm for the art of film-making as a whole.  Over the years, he has strongly supported the efforts of film preservation and has shepherded the careers of rising stars in the cinematic community, as well as being a strong defender of creative freedom for all filmmakers.  And while he has done a lot for the film community at large, I still am happy to see him take chances with his own projects.  Scorsese may have branded himself early by making gritty crime thrillers like Goodfellas, but his filmography shows that he’s capable of making a mark in other genres as well; such as biblical epics like The Last Temptation of Christ (1986), or historical biopics like The Aviator (2004), or even a family friendly film like 2011’s Hugo.  That’s why I respect Scorsese so much as a director, because he refuses to rest on his laurels and churn out the same kind of movie over and over again.  At the same time, while his films may be diverse, you can still see a distinctive style that’s trademark Scorsese in each one of them, and that’s something that you will find in abundance in his newest film, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Wolf of Wall Street arrives in theaters this week with a whopping 179 minute run-time, the longest film in Scorsese’s career.  That may be off-putting for some people who dislike watching anything over 2 hours long in a movie theater, but believe me, this is not some overblown, contemplative epic yarn.  This may very well be the nuttiest and most demented three hour experience I have ever had watching a movie in a theater, and I got to say, I kind of loved it because of that.  The film is adapted from the memoir of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street hot shot who ultimately went to jail for illegal trading, and the movie doesn’t shy away from every deprave moment of this man’s life.  To give you a good idea of what I’m talking about, no more than five minutes into the movie, you will see star Leonardo DiCaprio snorting cocaine out of the butt hole of a stripper.  That’s the kind of movie that you are in for and it just gets crazier from there.  I for one loved just how ridiculous this movie gets and I’m sure that’s what Scorsese intended for this movie as well.  We’re supposed to infer a lesson from this film, which is seeing the culture of Wall Street and what kind of sick and twisted people we’ve had in charge of our economy over the last 20-30 years. The best thing that Scorsese does is to not turn this film into a moralistic cautionary tale.  Here he’s mocking those who should be mocked and he treats this whole series of events like the circus that it is.
The story begins in the mid-80’s where a fresh out of college Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts a career as a stock broker in a bustling Wall Street brokerage firm.  While there, he learns the true shady nature of the business from the head broker, played by Matthew McConaughey in a hilarious cameo.  When Jordan loses his job after the crash of Black Monday, he starts anew, trading penny stocks in an accounting office which he soon turns into his own brokerage firm in no time.  Soon he adds another shady salesman to his team named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who also introduces Jordan to the world of heavy drugs.  With the combined tenacity of Jordan and his team, they soon create the firm of Stratton Oakmont Inc., which has no meaning other than they needed a name that sounded professional.  For the remainder of the film, we see what lies behind the professional exterior of Wall Street and, as portrayed by Scorsese here, it is a place where a fight or an orgy could break out at any minute.  We also see the depths that people go to when they have unlimited wealth, which seems to be only limited to the imagination of the people perpetrating them.  There’s soon shown a constant stream of hookers, booze, drugs, and even dwarf tossing.  And the most outrageous thing is that not a single character in the movie is ashamed of any of this.  The only character that has any moral center in the movie is a federal agent played by Kyle Chandler, whose dogged investigation leads to the eventual denouement that these characters are ultimately headed towards.
Scorsese doesn’t shy away from any of the more twisted moments in these people’s lives and I do give him credit for not taking the easy narrative angles that could have been taken in the film’s adaptation.  With the help of screenwriter Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), The Wolf of Wall Street gets it’s point across without implanting any obvious moral subtext underneath.  The movie is less about who these people are and more about what they are doing, which is what the filmmakers wants us to focus on.  Given the rough state of our economy, many of us wonder where it all went wrong and this movie gives us one possible answer.  It’s not any one person that brought ruin to the economy, but rather a culture built around doing whatever it takes to become rich, even if it’s illegal.  What Scorsese wanted to do with this movie was to strip back the facade of professionalism and class that Wall Street tries to present itself as, and show us that in reality it’s all just one big frat party.  And to Scorsese’s credit, he manages to make this showcase entertaining without ever making it feel like it’s exploitation.  I’m surprised that of all things that this film would end up being, it ended up a comedy, but upon reflection, how could it be anything else.  The only other time Scorsese made a black comedy, it was the very underrated The King of Comedy (1983), and Wolf of Wall Street is very much in that same vein.
One thing that really helps to shape the tone of this film is the performances of the actors, and in particular, Leonardo DiCaprio.  This is probably the loosest performance that I have seen from Leo in his entire career, and that helps to make him so memorable in this film.  He’s cocky, in-your-face (literally, since the film often has him break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience) and is constantly reveling in his bad behavior, all of which DiCaprio delivers perfectly.  Honestly, it’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who headlined Titanic (1997), because the performances couldn’t be more different.  This is one of the most unashamedly, morally depraved characters I have seen at the center of a movie, and it just looks like Leo is having a blast playing him.  This is DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese, and I think that it’s been a partnership that has really enriched the careers of both men.  Apart from a sleep-inducing performance by DiCaprio in Gangs of New York (2002), he has gotten better through each role in Scorsese’s movies and this is the best one he’s done to date.  I love the fact that Leo is willing to take on an un-glamourous role like this which really challenges him as an actor.  This is especially helpful when you have to play a character that’s both charming and hate-able at the same time.
The rest of the cast also helps to make the film worthwhile.  Jonah Hill manages to create a character that just feels like he was always meant to be in this kind of shady business.  His performance could have easily turned into ugly caricature if done wrong, but Jonah finds just that right balance between funny and sleazy, which helps to put him in the same league as DiCaprio.  In fact, many of the best scenes in the film are the ones where the two actors are working off of each other.  One in particular is an extended fight scene between the two characters after they are both incapacitated from excessive consumption of quaaludes, which leads to some hilarious back and forth exchanges.  The remainder of the cast is full of many recognizable faces, all of whom add flavor to the film as a whole.  Rob Reiner delivers a nice fiery performance as Jordan’s accountant father, as does Jon Favreau as his legal consultant.  The aforementioned McConaughey delivers some great moments in his early scenes.  Australian newcomer Margot Robbie is also a standout as Jordan’s disgruntled second wife Naomi, and she manages to leave an impression among all these other heavy hitters.  It’s an all around solid supporting cast which Scorsese is famous for assembling in many of his movies.
One thing that you’ll also find apparent in the film is the distinctive Scorsese style.  This, probably more than any movie that he’s made since 1995’s Casino, feels like a Scorsese film.  Whether it’s the first person narration, the use of period details and music, or the unflinching excess of violence and debauchery on screen, these are things that have come to define the look and feel of a Scorsese movie.  The Wolf of Wall Street has all of that and feels very close in tone and style to something like Casino or Goodfellas.  Only this time, instead of the mafia, he’s depicting a whole different set of criminals.  I’m really impressed with how Scorsese is still able to make movies with this kind of energy and style after so many years.  You would swear that a movie like this was made by some fresh maverick director and not a seasoned veteran, but that’s a testament to how daring a filmmaker he is.  And the fact that he has made this a three hour long comedy is another sign of how confident he is in his abilities to make a film.  For any one who likes the Scorsese style, this movie will surely be a welcome treat.
One thing that I especially like in Scorsese’s movies is the different ways that he plays around with the formats of his film.  Apart for the aforementioned breaking of the fourth wall narration in the movie, Scorsese also plays around with cinematic styles.  The film actually breaks away from the narrative at points and showcases things like a commercial break for the Stratton Oakmont company that’s depicted in the movie, or showing us a full-length infomercial for Jordan Belfort’s seminar, which ends hilariously with his arrest by the feds while the video camera is still rolling.  It’s clever little injections like these that help to make Scorsese’s movies feel alive and visually interesting.  I especially like how the commercials themselves just reek of eighties nostalgia.  It reminded me of when the movie Casino suddenly introduces the “Aces High” TV show, mainly as a part of the narrative but also to parody shows of that time period in a tongue in cheek way.  Also, Scorsese also has a lot of fun with slow motion photography and extended hand-held shots in the movie.  It’s a clear sign of someone using all the tricks in the filmmakers handbooks to make their film feel alive through every single moment.  This has been a trademark of all of Scorsese’s movies and here he makes the most out of everything he’s learned as a filmmaker.
One thing I will say is that while I enjoyed the film immensely, it certainly is not for everyone.  I know many people will be turned off by the 3 hour run-time, but a good many more people will believe that the film is too indulgent as well.  Scorsese does run the risk of having this film look like an endorsement for this kind of lifestyle, but that’s only because it’s being told from the first person account of someone who is unashamed of what he has done.  I don’t believe that Scorsese’s intent was to ever exploit the excesses of these people’s lives for our entertainment.  In the end, he’s asking us to actually look deeper, behind the facade, and see these people for who they really are and not what they say they are.  In that regard, I believe that The Wolf of Wall Street is a brilliantly crafted film.  It’s visually exciting, brilliantly acted, and it feels right at home with all of Scorsese’s other movies.  This film may generally gets a mixed reaction from audiences, and truthfully I don’t blame some of them if they say that they found the whole thing disgusting.  It’s a challenging movie to sit through, but in the end, I found it incredibly rewarding.  Mostly, I just admire the fact that the film goes to places that you would never expect a 3 hour film to go, and it does it fearlessly and with a great amount of confidence.  Of course, what else would you expect from a master filmmaker like Martin Scorsese.
Rating: 9/10

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Review


Who would have ever believed that adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the big screen would be a more daunting task than adapting The Lord of the Rings.  After all, Rings is grander in scope and breadth, tackling heavier themes and showcasing intricately detailed cultures that exist solely within the world of Middle Earth.  The Hobbit by comparison was a simple standalone story geared more towards younger readers.  And yet, when director Peter Jackson was tasked with bringing Tolkien’s original classic to life on film, he somehow managed to make this short story into a three part behemoth that amazingly was a more complex production than his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  Now, trying to expand a simple 300 page book into a trilogy of nearly three hour long movies was going to be problematic to some, and I acknowledge that there are some hiccups in this translation too, but I still admire Jackson’s attempt to actually make it work.  The pressure that Peter Jackson must be under as a filmmaker has to be overwhelming.  His adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a rare phenomenon in film history.  Fantasy films generally never escape their genre confines, and yet Rings somehow found a huge diverse fanbase, and the third film in the series, The Return of the King (2003), became the first fantasy film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Given the enormous popularity of Rings, it was inevitable that The Hobbit would also be given the big screen treatment.  But The Hobbit is not the ideal way to follow-up something like The Lord of the Rings.  Rings was intended as the sequel to the original novel, and Tolkien used his three volume tome to not only build upon The Hobbit, but to create an entire historical and cultural tapestry that enveloped both stories.  Because the Rings films came first, Peter Jackson had put himself in the difficult position of having to meet those higher expectations.  If Jackson had filmed the book as it was written, he may have alienated the Rings fanbase who wanted something bigger; and if he made it too big, and too much like Lord of the Rings, he might have upset some Tolkien purists.  Hence, this is why I admire Jackson’s determination to tackle the challenge.  He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  He started production expecting it to be a two-parter spread across a two year release schedule, but after having shot so much footage during filming, Jackson made the controversial decision to split The Hobbit into a trilogy.  The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) premiered a year ago to a lot of fanfare and some generally mixed reactions.  Still, it did well enough to make people excited for this year’s follow-up; a movie that no body expected would ever exist, The Desolation of Smaug.
While some people were disappointed in the first film in the series, An Unexpected Journey, and I can completely understand why they would be upset, I was however generally pleased with the movie.  I admired the fact that Peter Jackson managed to recapture some of that Lord of the Rings magic, nearly a whole decade after the fact.  It wasn’t as successful as the Rings films story-wise, mainly because of the stretched out length and the slower pacing, but I still loved the fact that we were revisiting Middle Earth once again and exploring the corners yet unseen, while at the same time revisiting some of the highlights from The Lord of the Rings.  I placed An Unexpected Journey on my Top Ten from last year, so I was eagerly anticipating this follow-up film, and as it turns out, I loved it just as much as the first; but for very different reasons.  Much like the Lord of the Rings films were to each other, the two Hobbit movies are very different in tone.  An Unexpected Journey was more leisurely and light-hearted, while Desolation of Smaug is darker and more action-oriented.  While many moments are still played for laughs, this film does raise the stakes significantly, and hints at even heavier elements left to be seen in the third installment.  Also, like Journey, Smaug encounters some adaptation problems that can’t be ignored, particularly in the ways that Peter Jackson has stretched the story out.  But, even so, I found myself thoroughly entertained by this installment.
The story picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves still on the road to Erabor, the Lonely Mountain, the ancient seat of power of the Dwarf kingdom.  After finding themselves lost and delirious in the diseased forest of Mirkwood, the Dwarves are captured by the woodland Elves and taken to their forest sanctuary as prisoners.  There they meet the Elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace), his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom, returning to the character he played in the Rings trilogy) and a female elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who is more sympathetic to the dwarves plight.  Bilbo manages to help his companions escape by hiding them in barrels and sending them down a river.  Soon they find themselves in Lake Town, a settlement founded by the survivors of the destruction of the City of Dale, a place destroyed by the dragon Smaug.  They are helped out by a noble smuggler named Bard (Luke Evans) and soon leave for their fateful confrontation with the titular dragon, hoping to reclaim their ancestral home, and the treasure it contains, once again.
Anyone who’s read the book knows the story very well, and where it’s all ultimately leading.  The dilemma that Desolation of Smaug faces is the fact that it’s the middle chapter of a trilogy.  It has no beginning and no end (quite literally in this case).  But like with The Two Towers in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson took upon the task of making the middle chapter work on it’s own, and surprisingly came up with something very unique.  The Two Towers and Desolation of Smaug are films that feel freer in form than movies that surround them.  For one thing, they don’t need to spend a whole lot of time setting up characters and plot, because the first film has already done that work for them.  And it doesn’t have to wrap everything neatly in the end like a final chapter does, so that way it can leave more room for ambiguity.  That’s why I really admire these kinds of movies, particularly in Peter Jackson’s adaptations.  Desolation of Smaug succeeds because it has less of a burden put on it’s shoulders and feels more at ease in it’s storytelling.  An Unexpected Journey’s laborious exposition is probably what turned off a lot of people last year, but that’s something that you will not be able to find in this film.
If the movie has a fault, it’s in the extra bits that have been added that weren’t present in the original book.  Most of these additions I didn’t have a problem with in the movie, and for the most part, I think they enriched the movie’s narrative as a whole.  What I didn’t like though were some story elements that didn’t add anything to the film other than to pad the run-time.  This occurs mostly in the Lake Town sequences.  In these scenes, Peter Jackson injects a little political subtext and commentary into the story-line; particularly with a character called the Master of Lake Town (played by Stephen Fry).  Now, I greatly admire Mr. Fry both as an actor and as a human being, but his portrayal of the Master is really disappointing, and a waste of his actual talent.  I chalk this up more to the way that the character is written, which is very one-dimensionally, than to Fry’s performance, which could have been great if given better material.  Not only that, but the inhabitants of Lake Town are also very thinly drawn out, apart from Luke Evan’s Bard.  There’s even a servant character to the Master named Alfrid (Ryan Gage) who just comes off like a poor man’s Grima Wormtougne.  Also problematic is a love triangle that forms between Legolas, Tauriel, and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner); you heard that right.  Neither story element ruins the movie at all, and I kind of found the love story angle intriguing at times, but the movie works best when it moves away from these plot diversions and back to the story proper; which is Bilbo’s journey.
For me, there was a lot more to like in this story than to dislike, and of course the thing that most people will take away from this movie will no doubt be the titular dragon himself; Smaug.  Smaug has to be one of the most amazing creations in these films to date.  If you thought the creatures in The Lord of the Rings trilogy were massive, you’ll be blown away by the scale of this character.  Smaug really is the culmination of all the things that the effects wizards at Weta Digital have learned over the years they’ve worked with Peter Jackson.  The sense of scale is astounding; you really get a sense of how massive the character is through both his movement and how he interacts with his environment.  Of all the great cinematic dragons, including Malificent’s dragon form from Sleeping Beauty (1959) to the fearsome beasts in Dragonslayer (1981), to the charming Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Smaug definitely ranks high among them, if not being the grandest of them all.  A lot of credit for the character should go to actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who not only gives the character a chillingly sinister voice, but also provided the motion-capture movements on which to base the character’s on-screen presence.  All of this helps to make Smaug the film’s greatest achievement.  To be honest, Smaug is a character that I have long wanted to see brought to life, ever since the first Lord of the Rings film was in theaters, and man did he not disappoint.  I’m very grateful that when it came to making this character a reality, Peter Jackson went above and beyond my expectations.
I should also say that the film does a very good job of building up the story-line without loosing its focus.  Apart from the troublesome parts that I already mentioned, the movie does hold together very well.  I actually think this is most briskly paced film in the series overall, Lord of the Rings included.  The movie keeps the tempo up from the very beginning and doesn’t let up even to the final shot.  It still clocks in at a lengthy 161 minutes, but that time will fly by quickly.  Even when the film reaches it’s finale (with the most cliff-hangery moment ever in one of these movies), you’ll  be left hungry for more.  I found this pace amazing, despite the fact that the movie does have its indulgent moments.  One scene in particular, the dwarves escape in wine barrels, goes on for so long and is so needlessly indulgent, that you would think it would hurt the film, but instead it actually is the best action scene in the movie.  With cases like this, we see where it worked better for Peter Jackson to add tension to a scene where there was none in the book.  In the original story, the dwarves escape down the river unopposed, but here they are chased by elves and the evil Orcs for a solid ten minute action scene.  It’s indulgent, but also a hell of a lot of fun and full of creative moments.  The audience I saw the movie with broke out in a cheer once the scene ended, and I certainly agree that it was a definite highlight.  But it also demonstrates how pacing has changed between the first and second movies.  Whenever Unexpected Journey was indulgent, it slowed the pacing down, whereas here it actually amps it up.
I also like the fact that the characters are also finding their footing as the story progresses.  The Dwarves are more fleshed out now, especially Thorin (Richard Armitage) who’s showing a lot more internal conflict in this film than he had in the first movie.  Here he’s a more fully dimensional character, showing moments of genuine nobility followed by soul-crushing greed in the next.  Martin Freeman continues to shine as Biblo, although in this film, he’s somewhat sidelined; more the fault of the lengthened story than how the character is used.  Freeman does have one excellent acting moment in the movie after Bilbo savagely slays a Mirkwood spider in order to reclaim his “magical ring.”  Without saying a word, Freeman perfectly conveys the negative toll that this ring is already having on Bilbo’s character in that moment.  Orlando Bloom returns to good form as Legolas, and the character gets some very bad-ass moments throughout the film.  Evangeline Lilly manages to make Tauriel an interesting new addition to the story (she’s an entirely original character) and carries the weight of being the only central female presence in the whole trilogy perfectly.  Also, the look of the film is still astounding.  More so than the first film, we are exploring parts of Middle Earth that we haven’t yet seen, and they are spectacularly realized.  While I thought some of the Lake Town scenes were dull, the look of the place is outstanding; like if you mixed Venice with some Dickensian slums.  The look of Smaug’s lair is also a remarkable sight; with jaw-dropping mountains of gold.  The set and costume design, as well as the Howard Shore score, also succeed at meeting the high standards that the series has set.
What I find interesting is how the film’s reception may actually play out.  When it came to An Unexpected Journey, general audiences were bored by the more leisurely tone and heavy exposition, while Tolkien purists were pleased by how closely it adhered to the original book’s tone.  This time around, I’m finding that more Tolkien purists are disliking Desolation of Smaug because of the liberties it has taken, while general audiences are enjoying the return to action-paced thrills in the series.  I actually sympathize with the complaints made by both sides, but the way I look at these movies is not by how action packed they are or by how well it accurately they adapt the book, but by how they work as movies in their own right.  That’s why I like both of these Hobbit movies about equally.  They still don’t quite measure up to The Lord of the Rings in overall quality, but damn it if I don’t admire them for trying.  Like I said, there was enormous pressure on Peter Jackson to get these movies right, and I admire the fact that he’s done as well as he has.  I am particularly happy that Smaug turned out as well as he has, and I also liked the fact that Desolation of Smaug has a story that stands well enough on it’s own, and as part of an over-arching story.  The film’s abrupt ending may irk a lot of people, but I commend Jackson for having the balls to leave his audience hanging.  It certainly makes me excited to see the final chapter of the trilogy, There and Back Again, which comes out December 2014.  But in the meantime, it’s well worth taking this continuing adventure into the world of Middle Earth.
Rating: 8.5/10

Frozen – Review


Sometimes Disney Animation has found itself to be it’s own worst enemy.  By this I mean that when they have a hugely successful film at one point in time, it will put a lot more constrictive pressure on whatever they have coming up next.  And when you’re in the business of making animated films that take 3-4 years to create, it’s very hard for a company like them to correct course in order to do repeat business.  For the most part, Disney has had better luck than most, but there has been a pattern in Disney’s history of some of their most ambitious films failing to meet expectations, while audiences gravitate to the less ambitious but entirely groundbreaking follow-ups.  This started back when Fantasia (1940), a film that Walt Disney put so much of his own effort into, flopped at the box office; and in the following year,1941, modestly budgeted and slapped-together Dumbo became a huge success.  The same thing happen again to Disney with the costly Sleeping Beauty (1959) and it’s follow-up 101 Dalmatians (1961), and once again with The Black Cauldron (1985) followed by The Great Mouse Detective (1986).  The trend actually reversed in the 90’s with the disappointing Pocahontas (1995) following-up The Lion King (1994); Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) following The Emperor’s New Groove (2000); and finally with Treasure Planet (2002) following Lilo & Stitch (2002).  Suffice to say, both trends have been common in Disney’s history.
So, when trends tend to dictate the success rate of your output, it’s understandable why Disney has stuck so closely to the genre that has given them the most success; the fairy tale.  In the last five years, we have seen no less than three fairy tale adaptations from the Disney company; 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, 2010’s Tangled, and this year’s new release, Frozen.  It’s clear that they are aware of their tradition and are very intent on carrying it on generation after generation.  But following formula does have it’s risks, and that sometimes comes about when breaking from tradition has actually paid off for the company.  As I illustrated earlier, sometimes a project that looks like a sure winner will fail to perform either when a new trend will appear or when people lose interest in the formula.  Frozen comes to theaters with a lot of expectations on it’s shoulders, which can be both a benefit and a curse to it’s prospects.  Last year, Disney found success with the very well made Wreck-it Ralph (2012), which was a huge departure from the Disney formula that paid off in a big way.  This only puts Frozen in an even more difficult situation of following this success up by returning to it’s traditional roots.  This is the knowledge that I brought with me when I saw the movie, and while Frozen does a fine job of making a beautiful and engaging animated film that I’m sure will please audiences worldwide, I can’t help but feel that some of that tradition did have a negative effect in the end.
Frozen is the 8th fairy tale adaptation from Disney, and the second taken from a story by Hans Christian Anderson.  Based, loosely, off of the story of The Snow Queen, the film follows the lives and adventures of two princess sisters in a fictional Scandinavian kingdom called Arrendale.  The eldest sister, Elsa, has been cursed from birth with the power to magically create ice and snow, which her family tries to conceal from the world and even from the younger sister, Anna.  After their parents are killed at sea, Elsa is soon crowned Queen and forced into facing the kingdom that she has been shuttered away from all her life, all the while struggling to control her powers as they become more powerful and erratic.  After an argument at her coronation ceremony with Anna, Elsa accidentally reveals her sorcery to the public, which leads her to flee into the mountains in exile.  Anna, hoping to reconcile with her sister, follows after her and leaves her fiancee Hans in charge of the kingdom.  While on her journey, she gets help from an ice gatherer named Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and an enchanted snowman named Olaf.  Unfortunately for Anna and Elsa, the lack of control over the Queen’s powers has left the kingdom clouded in an eternal winter, and the bond between them is not so easily mended.
One of the things that I can say that the movie does very well is it’s story-line.  I’d say that this is the most competently put together fairy tale adaptation that Disney has done since Beauty and the Beast (1992).  While I did like aspects of both The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, I do feel that they had something lacking in the story department.  And let’s not forget the complete mess that was Pixar’s disappointing Brave (2012).  With Frozen, it is clear that the filmmakers actually put in the effort to make the story as compelling and consistent as it possibly could be.  I especially like the fact that this movie is a little self-aware of its Disney and fairy tale tradition, and at times finds funny ways to poke fun at it.  At one point in the movie, Anna falls deeply in love with Hans, a very Prince Charming-type character, and they agree to marry, even though they only met that same morning.  Elsa rightly points out that love at first sight is not true love, and I’m sure that many people have been wanting to hear someone say that in a Disney movie for years.  Despite these few meta moments in the film, the story actually does work well within the familiar fairy tale tropes and overall feels very much in line with some of the best Disney fairy tales.
One of the other things that worked very well for Frozen was the voice cast.  I’m glad that Disney chose not to cast any big celebrity names in this film, and instead went for the people who were the best match for the characters.  Certainly the casting of Elsa and Anna were important, and here they cast Broadway actress Idina Menzel (Wicked) and TV actress Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) in the respective roles.  Idina in particular delivers an exceptional vocal performance as Elsa, and helps to make her one of the most compelling Disney characters that I’ve seen in quite a while.  Kristen Bell is charming as Anna, and while the character is a little too perky at times, Bell manages to get the finer parts of the character right.  Another Broadway vet, Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon), shows surprising restraint as the comic relief character Olaf, who would have come across as obnoxious if played by the wrong actor.  Instead, Olaf’s comical hi-jinks actually compliments the film very well, and Gad’s performance has a lot to do with that.  Also, actor Jonathan Groff (TV’s Glee) gives a nice eccentric performance as Kristoff, helping him to stand out from the typical leading man in Disney movies.  I particularly liked how Kristoff externalizes conversations with his voiceless pet reindeer Sven, and yet it seems like it’s exactly what Sven would say if he had a voice.  Overall, everyone does their job well here and creates a well rounded cast of characters that I know will quickly become popular to fans young and old alike.
So, how come my review sounds a bit down on the film.  Well, it’s a complicated feeling that I have about this movie, and it really has to do with where Frozen fits within the Disney formula.  Like I’ve said before, Disney’s legacy has been both a blessing and a curse for some of the movies in it’s catalog, and some of that works against Frozen.  While I think the story is pretty solid, and does a commendable job of injecting new ideas into the Disney formula, the movie as a whole feels a tad too unfocused.  The problem I had with the film is that one character in particular, this being Elsa, was so strong and had such a compelling role to play in the story, that it kind of overwhelmed everything else.  And unfortunately, her story-line is not the thing that gets most of the focus in the film; instead Anna’s story-line is given precedence.  This would be more of a problem if Anna was an uninteresting heroine, but thankfully she’s better than that.  Somehow, I felt that the script put too little emphasis on it’s most interesting character, and that was not a good thing in my book.  Also, as solid as the story-line is throughout most of the movie, it does have a rather weak ending.  And this comes after a really strong final act that has some really out of left field twists.  What I think happened was that the writers didn’t know how to end their story, and instead they just slapped together a really pat and underwhelming epilogue that doesn’t feel at all like it belongs in the same movie.
When it comes to judging new Disney films, I try to leave tradition at the door and just judge a movie on it’s own merits.  But when you have movies that rely so heavily on where they stand among other classics, I can’t help but include tradition as a part of my assessment.  Frozen tries very hard to be a return to the classic Disney fairy tale standard that was set so high with movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  Unfortunately for Frozen, I feel like it’s striving for something that it really shouldn’t try to reach for.  The reason why The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were such astounding successes in their time is because they weren’t trying to match their predecessors.  There was a 30 year gap, between Mermaid and the last fairy tale film before it, which was Sleeping Beauty, so the pressure on it was much less.  As a result, The Little Mermaid could play by it’s own rules and in the end it set a new standard for the Disney fairy tale.  Beauty and the Beast, likewise, built on that new standard while at the same time sticking to it’s own rules.  Frozen, unfortunately, plays it safe and that’s why I feel it falls short of those previous classics.  That being said, it comes the closest to that standard than Princess and the Frog and Tangled, and especially Brave ever did.
One thing I will say that Frozen does live up to with the previous classics is with it’s musical score.  The songs fit much better in this movie than they have in any other previous Disney musical in the last 20 years, which is quite a feat.  Some songs in it are just okay, but there are a few that really stand out.  One particular song called “Let it Go,” sung by Elsa during her exile, may just be the best song I’ve heard in an animated film since “A Whole New World” in Aladdin (1992).  Yes, even better than any song from The Lion King.  It helps when you have a Broadway-trained singer like Idina Menzel singing it, and she uses those impressive pipes to full effect here.  It’s the kind of song that will give the audience chills (no pun intended) and in a good way.  The songs were written by Broadway vet Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, both of whom have written some very non-Disney appropriate music in the past for musicals like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.  Despite their previous work, their musical numbers here actually are very clean and fit right in place in the overall Disney songbook, especially “Let it Go”.  Also, I want to add that the visual look of this film is outstanding.  This is the first 70mm Disney fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty, and the filmmakers make great use of the wider frame.  The landscapes down to the interiors of Elsa’s ice palace are all a wonder to look at, and it really makes this a world well worth delving into throughout the movie.
So, maybe I’m being unfair to the film by having too high a standard, but having grown up with Disney movies all my life, I feel like I have to hold something like Frozen up to some higher scrutiny.  The film for the most part does pass the test, but I would be lying if I said that I thought it was a masterpiece.  It’s just okay.  In the pantheon of Disney films, I would put it somewhere in the middle and maybe a little bit more into the better half.  It’s just a testament to how much I care for the Disney legacy, and how many great films they have made in the past.  On the bright side, Frozen is one of the better films that Disney has made in the last decade; though I will say, I enjoyed Wreck-it Ralph a tiny bit more.  I do hope that the movie does well, and I’m sure that most people will like it better than I did, and they should.  It does do well by the Disney Fairy Tale brand, and both Elsa and Anna have earned their place alongside Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, and the other Disney Princesses.  Despite it’s flaws, it does take the Disney formula in the right direction and elevates the animated medium as well.  It says a lot when Disney actually has done something better in the last couple of years than Pixar.  For all accounts, this is the movie that Brave should have been.  So, while the Disney tradition has clouded my opinion on some aspects of the movie, I do like what Frozen represents, which is a solid story-line with great characters, who more than most films in the last decade, do deserve to be a part of the Disney legacy.
Rating: 7/10

Thor: The Dark World – Review


Marvel Studios has built something up that we rarely see fully realized in movies and that is a wholly compatible universe where all of their comic heroes can coexist within, while at the same time maintaining their own unique worlds in their selective franchises.  From this, we have seen the big screen translations of famed Marvel characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor become hugely successful, with The Avengers movie series being the orbital force that binds everything together.  While this has been a strategy that has brought about some very great results in the last few years, such an ambitious project is bound to hit a few pitfalls eventually.  For me, that happened this summer with the release of Iron Man 3.  While still a huge success at the box-office, the movie suffered from a lack of focus in it’s story-telling and became the first disappointment of the so-called “Avenger Initiative” thus far.  My worry after seeing the lackluster Iron Man 3 was that the individual films dedicated to each super hero were only going to turn into bland appetizers in preparation for the Avengers main course; and they would no longer be able to stand on their own as a singular movie.  With Thor: The Dark World being released this week, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier following in April 2014, I was afraid that these two characters were going to fall into the trap as Iron Man, and were only going to drag down Marvel’s master plan even more.
Thankfully, my worries proved untrue after watching Thor: The Dark World.  This second installment in the Thor franchise is a genuinely entertaining and overall worthy addition to the “Avenger Initiative” project.  Following up on the previous Thor film, as well as The Avengers movie itself, The Dark World manages to build upon what we’ve already seen and make it bigger and more epic without ever losing it’s focus.  I think that’s what helps it succeed where Iron Man 3 floundered; that ability to keep things under control.  The first Thor was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who was an unusual choice for such a project in the first place, given his notoriety as an actor and director of Shakespearean productions and small scale dramas.  But Mr. Branagh not only managed to create a successful first outing for the god of thunder on the big screen, his style of directing proved to be a great tone setter for the series as well.  The Dark World follows through on that foundation and manages to not only work as a sequel, but also stand very well enough on it’s own as a movie worth seeing.
Picking up right after the events of The Avengers, we find Thor (Chirs Hemsworth) leading his armies in battle in an attempt to restore order to each of the Seven Realms, of which Earth is also included.  At the same time on Earth, we find Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a physicist and love interest of Thor in the first movie, discovering dimensional anomalies in the city of London, England.  After examining dimensional portals in a warehouse, Jane is pulled through one suddenly, which takes her into a secret vault containing a powerful super-weapon called the Aether.  Jane unwillingly is turned into a host for the Aether as it enters her body, and she is sent hurtling back to Earth.  In no time, Thor finds her and whisks her away to Asgard, the kingdom of Thor and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  There, they keep her safe, as an ancient race of aliens called the Dark Elves arrive to reclaim the Aether for themselves, which they plan to use to destroy the Seven Realms together in one catastrophic event called the Convergence.  Disobeying his father’s stubborn orders, Thor knows of only one way to take Jane out of danger’s way, and it means calling upon the help of his treacherous brother, and main Avengers villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
For a very complicated plot such as this one, I’m surprised that the filmmakers involved managed to not lose control of it and have everything end up as a convoluted mess in the end.  I believe what helps to carry the story through are the characters themselves.  Chris Hemsworth has now had two films to develop the character of Thor over, and his performance in this movie shows just how comfortable he has become with the role.  He’s charming without coming across as smarmy or self-indulgent.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give him much to do until the second half, which would have been more of a problem if there weren’t any other strong characters there to pick up the slack.  The rest of the cast is more or less in tact from the first movie, and they all fit well within the story-line without seeming superfluous.  Natalie Portman, especially, improves upon her role from the first movie, in that she has an integral part to play this time, other than being the love interest character.  I like her resourcefulness throughout the movie and the ways that she avoids being just another damsel in distress.  Anthony Hopkins also brings great gravitas to the character of Odin, but you wouldn’t expect any less from an actor of his caliber.
The movie’s brightest spot, however, is the character of Loki.  He has been the one that has improved the most over time, and I think that it’s largely because of his evolution, aided by actor Tom Hiddleston.  In the first Thor movie, I found Loki to be a rather bland villain; and when it was announced that he was going to be the primary baddie of The Avengers (2012), I was very doubtful of the choice.  Thankfully, the character went through a major transformation between the films and not only proved to be a great antagonist for The Avengers, but one of the film’s highlights as well.  I think what happened was that they stripped all of the doubt and worry from the character’s persona and just made him unapologetic in his sinister ways, thus making him a much more memorable villain.  That characterization has carried over into The Dark World and the movie is better for it.  Loki gives the film a significant jolt of adrenaline every time he’s on screen, which helps the movie greatly whenever it starts to slag.  He gets all the best lines, and his chemistry with Thor is even more entertaining than the chemistry between Thor and Jane.  Tom Hiddleston looks like he’s having a lot fun here with the role, and that sense of fun becomes very infectious for audiences watching the film.  I’m sure that the growing number of Loki fans out there will be very pleased with how he’s used in this movie.
The downside of having Loki present, however, is that he steals so much of the effectiveness away from this film’s more principal villains.  The portrayal of the Dark Elves is really the one thing that keeps this from being a truly great film.  They are very forgettable and uninteresting bad guys on which to center the film around, and sadly, the movie never really delves deeply into them as individual characters.  They’re not terrible villains by any means; and definitely not the awful, slap-to-the-face villains that Iron Man 3 presented us.  There’s just not much to say about them other than they are mean and they want to destroy.  The leader, Malekith, is played by a former Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston, and he does the best he can with his underwritten character.  The problem that I have with their function in the story-line is that we never really get to understand what the Dark Elves are.  They are an ancient race bent on destruction, but it’s never explained exactly where they come from or what they plan to do once they have enacted their apocalyptic plans.  That being said, their look is unique and they have a very memorable looking spaceship that is used effectively in scenes throughout the film.  Perhaps if there wasn’t a better villain already taking up screen-time in the movie like Loki does here, then maybe the Dark Elves would have worked better, but unfortunately they stand as one of the weaker elements in the film.
That being said, I am glad that the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of being just a lead-up to different movie.  In some ways, that actually makes it an improvement over the first Thor.  Thor (2011) was a wonderful film in it’s own right, but it was also tied a little too closely with the “Avengers Initiative” Phase 1 plan, and that led to some awkward shoehorning of elements from the overall Marvel universe.  In this movie, the references to other Marvel characters are minor, allowing the story-line to stay more focused within Thor’s world.  Sure, there are mentions here and there of the “New York Incident,” especially when Loki enters the film’s plot, but even these moments make sense in their placement within the film.  There’s also a great cameo halfway through the film that I won’t give away, but it makes perfect sense once you see it.
I also think that the film did an excellent job with it’s visual look.  Asgard has been expanded upon from the first movie, which rarely left the confines of Odin’s immense palace.  In this film, we are given more overview of the surrounding world that Thor calls home and it is beautifully realized.  I especially like the different ways that the production design team worked in Nordic styles into the look of Asgard.  At one point in the movie, there is a fierce aerial battle in the skies over Asgard and the warships that the Asgardians use to battle the Dark Elves are made up to look like flying Viking longboats.  It’s clever visual elements like this that makes Thor’s world feel unique, while at the same time easy to understand.  Also, bringing the action on Earth to London helps to blend the visual styles of the different worlds together.  The original film brought Thor to New Mexico, which significantly clashed with the scenes set in Asgard.  Here, by taking the setting to an Old World city like London, the filmmakers manage to keep the blending of styles consistent throughout the whole movie.  Thor feels much less like a fish out of water in the Earth scenes here, which helps with the character’s familiarity with our world in the story.  First time film director, Alan Taylor, tackles both sides very well, and while he may not have the same extravagant style as Kenneth Branagh, he nevertheless manages to keep all of the elements of the film working together.  Perhaps it’s because he’s worked in both kinds of genres for so long, directing episodes of both Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, that he was able to find that right sort of balance.
Thor: The Dark World may have some faults in the story-line and in some of the characterizations, but it mostly succeeds as both it’s own stand alone film and as part of the Marvel universe as a whole.  This was a breathe of fresh air after being severely disappointed with Iron Man 3.  What is most pleasing about the film is that the filmmakers were able to actually make a movie that exists more within Thor’s own world than what we’ve seen before.  I view this film as being only slightly better than the first in that regard, but both films have about the same strengths and weaknesses.  What makes the Thor movies so interesting, and perhaps more interesting than any of the other Marvel films, is that they are grounded more in fantasy than anything else.  Iron Man and Captain America are identified as science-fiction works, but the Thor movies play by different rules, and as a result, you can actually get away with more of the cheesy, swashbuckling elements in the plot.  Marvel films do deliver consistently on the action front, but when a movie like Thor unashamedly indulges itself in some of the more operatic moments, it feels very natural and appropriate.  What I love most here, though, are the little character touches.  It’s hard to think that a small thing like Thor hanging his hammer on a coat rack would be so endearing to me in this film, but that’s how well it works.  I’m happy to see Marvel pick itself up and do well by their hammer swinging hero, and I hope that it marks an improved trajectory for both “Avengers” Phase 2 and for Thor’s own series as well.
Rating: 8/10

Gravity – Review


A realization of someones worst nightmare or a rousing adventure into the outer limits.  Either way you look at it, there’s no denying that director Alfonso Cuaron’s new space-set thriller Gravity is one unforgettable cinematic experience.  I was looking forward to this film ever since the first heart-pounding trailer made it to screens months ago.  I was worried a bit that the film would be a let down, because the marketing was so strong and the trailers were so intense, but thankfully my fears were moot once I saw the final product.  Gravity is a film unlike anything I have ever seen before and may very well stand as one of my picks for the best of the year.  It comes with my highest recommendation, though I should also stress that this film probably won’t be for everyone.  This movie is essentially a survival film set in the most unforgiving environment that mankind has ever ventured into; outer space.  And while this is something we have seen before in other sci-fi films (parts of Alien (1979) comes to mind), none of them have ever been done on this scale and with this kind of authenticity.  Harrowing would be the best word to describe the film’s benchmark action scenes, and believe me, they will be agonizing to some people out there.
The plot is beautifully simplistic; keeping everything focused on the situation at hand without any outside distractions.  In fact, the movie begins with the inciting incident in the very first shot, and the rest of the film just follows through to the very end as if it’s making things up as it goes along.  The story follows a couple of astronauts repairing a satellite in Earth’s orbit when suddenly their shuttle is struck by space debris from an exploded Russian satellite.  This incident leaves only two survivors, Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), both of whom are left drifting in orbit without any way to get down.  Their only means of escape is to get to another space station within a reasonable distance.  This is not without peril considering that their oxygen supply is low and the debris field is headed back their way within 90 minutes.  This is essentially the plot to the film, and without spoiling what happens next, I will say that the film deftly handles this premise perfectly; letting things play out logically and keeping the main thrust of the plot in focus throughout the whole of the run time.
What is remarkable about the movie, and what helps to make it feel so real, is the way that Alfonso Cuaron has edited it together.  If you know anything about Cuaron’s work, you’d know that he is a fan of the extended tracking shot.  This technique is when the camera continues to roll and follow the action on-screen without ever cutting, sometimes for minutes on end.  This was prominent in Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men, which featured two such shots, both of which ran continuously for about 6 minutes in length.  That’s like an eternity in film editing and to pull one of these off requires a lot of pre-planned staging.  If one actor messes up the shot, it means that everything has to go back to where it started in order to get everything right in one take.  This is why the technique is rarely used, because of the extra effort involved, but it’s a challenge that Cuaron has gotten so good at doing, that it’s become a staple in his films.  Gravity is no exception. The opening shot alone runs continuously for 12 minutes before the first cut appears.  Now, of course, I’m sure the staging of this shot was helped greatly by the aid of CGI enhancement, but still it requires a lot of faith in the audience to stay involved.  And the shot is a remarkable way to introduce us into the film.  We see the Earth from space at first and then slowly, a space shuttle comes into view and we begin to hear the com chat of the astronauts, introducing them individually to us, all before the debris begins to rain down.
It’s a remarkable beginning to the film and I can’t think of anyone who won’t be hooked after watching this opening take place.  Cuaron has certainly mastered the art of the tracking shot and best of all, it actually goes a long way towards establishing everything we need to know in this movie, regarding the story, the characters and the setting.  The rest of the film continues to follow along in this style of story-telling, and I don’t think there is more than 20-30 shots in the entire movie.  You would think that a movie wouldn’t be able to sustain it’s tension over a long period of time if it didn’t cut to other things once in a while, but in this movie, it’s an essential element.  It adds to the claustrophobia felt in the characters predicament.  I don’t think any other film has done this good of a job portraying what it actually feels like to be in outer space.  As the characters are drifting around in space, you are right there with them, experiencing the emptiness of the setting. There is no external sound except what we hear from the astronauts’ transmissions.  When something big happens, it builds and builds the longer the shot goes on, which makes the tension even stronger.  Overall, you get that feeling of being un-tethered to existence and being consumed by the nothingness of space, which in the end is a very terrifying thing.
That’s why I think this film will put of some viewers.  I think that everyone will agree it is a good movie in the end, but for some people it will be a one and done experience.  This movie will test you; no doubt about it, and I think that’s a testament to the film’s authenticity.  This movie must have been very well researched because the atmosphere in this film is so fully realized.  Again, the editing has a lot to do with that, but the design and camera teams have likewise done a commendable job here.  I almost guarantee that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki will win an Oscar for his work, not only for the amazing tracking shots, but for the way he utilizes the effects work in this film as well.  This is an outer space that is not stylized or minimized; it looks about as real as actual NASA footage.  The way that the earth fills the screen in many shots is also a chief design element, and it really helps to establish the immensity of the setting.  And by making it all feel real, it all gives the viewer a “you are there” feeling, which only enhances the feeling of anxiety when something goes wrong.  Believe me, the audience I watched the film with was so tensed up by what they were watching that you could have heard a pin drop in the theater.  It’s rare to see a movie do that nowadays, when so many films are geared towards making an audience laugh and cheer at every turn, whether it succeeds or not.  For a movie to leave an audience silent throughout the whole showing is quite an accomplishment itself, so the filmmakers should be pleased in having done that.
And while there’s a lot of great work done with the style and staging in this film, I am pleased to see that the actors involved didn’t get lost in the thick of it all.  The cast is minimal to an extreme degree; meaning there are only two actors in the entire film that have any face time.  I should especially single out Sandra Bullock, since she is onscreen for pretty much the entire film, and she makes the most of it.  I believe this is the most impressive work she has done to date.  She captures both the vulnerability and the strength of the character in a very believable way, and makes Ryan Stone a character that we want to see make it out of this ordeal alive.  She is effectively our guide through this adventure.  We see everything through her eyes and every mishap she encounters is given a personal resonance that the audience will surely feel along with her.  Sandra Bullock manages to embody this character without a single inauthentic note in her performance, and that’s a pleasing thing to see in a challenging movie like this.  George Clooney’s performance may not be as nuanced as Sandra Bullock’s, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be either.  He’s supposed to be the handsome and charming astronaut character in this film, and that’s exactly what Clooney is good at. He provides the film with some much needed levity, and his inclusion is a good balance for the movie.  It’s rare when you get a film with a cast this small, but I’m certainly happy that the two actors involved made it work.
Any flaw you may find in this film may come from the different attempts the filmmakers made in extending the film’s run time, which is a surprisingly compact 91 minutes.  Admittedly, the film hits it’s lowest points when things start to settle down, but that is a rare occurrence.  Also, the authenticity feels as real as it possibly can be, but I don’t know if everything is scientifically sound. Some people may nitpick and say that some moments could never happen in reality, particularly towards the end, but I doubt that anyone will make much of a fuss over this film.  This movie is a standout and rightfully earns it’s place among other sci-fi classics.  Alfonso Cuaron crafted this movie as both an experience and an inspiring portrayal of man’s ingenuity in the face of nature’s extremes.  I can see this film inspiring a lot of other people to take an interest in space exploration, even when it turns just as many people off that kind of idea.  There are even some subtle loving nods to other sci-fi classics, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Alien (1979), which shows where Cuaron had clearly drawn some of his inspiration.  Also, it makes sense that the voice of the unseen Mission Control commander in this movie is none other than actor Ed Harris, who played the same kind of role in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).
This movie succeeds on every level, and I’m glad to see a film actually live up to it’s potential and deliver on what it promises.  The trailers for the film did a good job of conveying the intensity of the film, but the entire experience is something that everyone should take in, even though it will push a lot of people harder than they would like to.  I should also mention that I watched this movie in IMAX 3D, and if there was ever a film that was justified for this format, this was it.  The IMAX screen does a lot towards enhancing the vastness of the outer space setting, which made all of those heart-pounding scenes even more of an experience.  The 3D also was used effectively, if not entirely un-noticeable.  Sometimes you’d see a piece of debris shoot past the camera or a drop of liquid floating in mid-air, but otherwise everything else was subtly done in three-dimensions. Overall, one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve had so far this year, and I’m sure that many will share that same feeling.  I’m pleased to see a director like Alfonso Cuaron pushing his cinematic styles into new places, because it leads to unforgettable experiences like this one.  Hopefully, whatever project he chooses next will be as engaging as this one.  It’s rare to see a movie be “out-of-this-world” and so grounded at the same time; something all audiences must see just for the experience alone.
Rating: 9/10

Elysium – Review


Pollution is bad. Overpopulation is bad.  Economic disparity is bad.  I’m not making any political statements here in this review.  I’m just sharing with you the complexity of the political messages made in the new film Elysium.  From the director of 2009’s Oscar-nominated District 9, Neill Blomkamp, Elysium arrived into theaters amid a lot of anticipation from Science Fiction fans who were looking for a smart, well crafted thriller that would be a worthy addition to the genre.  Blomkamp made an impressive and unique sci-fi adventure with District 9, which was done on a small indie budget, with no known stars in the cast and it touched upon issues that you usually don’t see in many mainstream films.  Given that his follw-up film Elysium has been given a more substantial budget and features a few notable actors like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, you’d think that Blomkamp would’ve delivered amazing based on how well he did the first time around. Unfortunately Elysium is a misfire on every level, and probably stands as the worst movie I’ve seen all summer, if not this year.  It’s clunky, boring, ugly to look at, and worst of all insulting.  Not just insulting on the level of its political subtext, but insulting in it’s storytelling as well.  There’s so much wrong with this movie that it’s astounding to see so many talented people involved.
The story is paper thin, and is essentially a race against the clock narrative.  Matt Damon’s character, named Max DeCosta, is a blue-collar factory worker in Los Angeles in the year 2154.  He trudges through his daily life, dreaming of earning enough money to reach Elysium, a massive satellite colony orbiting around the earth.  Elysium is where all the wealthy people have migrated to, after pollution and overpopulation has made Earth a horrible place to live.  Citizenship on Elysium is extended only to those who can afford it, and everyone else is left to live on earth, policed by an army of robotic officers.  Max suffers an accident at work which leaves him only five days to live and the only cure for him is on Elysium.  This leads to him joining up with a band of underground smugglers, who have been sending up ships filled with people to Elysium in an attempt to get them the health care they need.  Max offers to assist the smugglers in their attempt to hack into Elysium’s security system; even putting a body-enhancement armor wired into his brain as a way to keep him functional as his body deteriorates.  At the same time, the security manager on board Elysium, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), is taking desperate measures to prevent any more illegal immigrants from entering the colony, to the point of staging a coup against the leaders of Elysium and hiring a deadly mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt down the smugglers.
Now, there’s nothing really wrong with the premise itself; it’s the execution.  Elysium feels disjointed and lackluster from the opening prologue all the way to the anti-climatic finale.  It’s as if Blomkamp just crafted the idea of the story and then never bothered to flesh it out.  The film feels like it was stitched together from a bunch of different action set-pieces, with plot conveniences acting as the glue.  There’s a scene about halfway through the film that just left me stunned at how incompetently it was staged.  First off, Max finds himself in the home of a childhood friend, who works as a nurse, and who helped to heal a wound of his in secret.  Max learns that his friend’s daughter is also sick and needs to be healed on Elysium too.  The dialogue in this scene between Max and the little girl is so on the nose that it’s maddening, and you just know that it will come up again later once Max has his “heroic” moment in the finale.  Also, once Max exits the house, almost immediately he’s spotted by a drone spy camera sent by the mercenary Kruger; a plot development so convenient it’s laughable.  It’s scenes like this that illustrate just how phony the film feels.  There’s no logical progression in the character’s motives and actions; it’s all telegraphed beforehand by the necessities of the plot.
Character development is also kept to a minimum, and any attempt to add any is quickly brushed over in favor of more action scenes.  Max makes for a very obnoxious protagonist as he continually does one selfish thing after another.  It seems like he was meant to be representative of the average blue-collar guy who always gets short-handed in life, which in turn will make us want to root for him.  But I found Max to be a selfish and cynical wise-ass, and I felt no connection to him at all. Max isn’t some noble crusader for justice; he’s just a selfish guy who doesn’t want to die.  His quest would be more noble if he wasn’t dragging other people into it, many of whom sacrifice their lives to help him succeed, including his neighborhood buddy.  You can make a cynical character work out sometimes in a story like this, as long as there’s some depth to him.  Max unfortunately doesn’t change throughout the whole movie; he’s just a man on a mission and that’s all there is to him.  Any attempts to flesh his character out is usually sidetracked or just plain dropped within seconds in the movie; including an attempt at a romantic connection with the childhood friend, which went absolutely nowhere.
The same is true with some of the other characters.  The Elysium inhabitants have absolutely nothing that distinguishes them apart from one another.  Many of them aren’t even named.  Only Secretary Delacourt is given any amount of substantial screen-time, and even she has nothing special to add to the story.  She’s probably the blandest villain I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. We’re supposed to see her as this tough-as-nails overlord, but the film does nothing more than to show her sitting in her commander’s chair looking stern as she barks out her orders to her security team.  We learn that she wants to take command away from the governing body of Elysium, but that’s it.  Again, Blomkamp is trying to make us feel one way about a character without ever explaining what motivates her characteristics.  Every character in this story is just one cardboard cut-out after another.  The one standout, and the film’s only saving grace, is Sharlto Copley’s Kruger.  His character is still archetypal, but done in such an extreme way that it actually becomes entertaining.  I credit this more to Copley’s performance than to the way the character is written. When Kruger starts to wreck havoc in the film, it’s the only time that the movie comes alive, because here you have a character that is actually doing something unpredictable and actually throws a few twists into plot.  If only the other characters could have been given this type of treatment; then I would have overlooked some of the film’s other shortcomings.
The politics of the film are also problematic; not in the fact that they’re there, but rather in the way they are delivered.  Blomkamp’s political allegories are about as subtle as a bag of rocks to the head, and they’re delivered in the most ham-fisted, patronizing way possible.  Now, it can be said that District 9 lacked subtlety too, and I wouldn’t argue that point.  But what District 9 did so well was to get audiences invested in the personal story of it’s characters while using the political issues as the subtext for what was going on; in this case, the arrival and quarantine of an extraterrestrial race acting as an allegory for Apartheid policies in South Africa.  That film kept the politics and the story balanced well enough to make the film resonate both as a narrative and as a social studies lesson.  In Elysium, that balance is gone, and you can’t help but feel like you’re being lectured to in the most gratingly obvious ways.
Not only that, but I feel like Blomkamp is trying to inject too many political ideas into his film, some which lead to a number of contradictions.  For instance, the movie states that overpopulation is a plaguing problem for people on Earth, while at the same time also saying that one of the unfair inequalities between the rich and the poor is that the wealthy inhabitants on Elysium have amazing health care that cures them of all diseases and age flaws.  Not to sound horribly unsympathetic, but wouldn’t technology like this make overpopulation even worse if everyone had access to it, making it so no one would ever die.  I know Blomkamp is trying to make a case for universal healthcare, but it seems like he undercuts his own statement in the film by trying to mix it with another, completely different issue.  And while I don’t want to fault Blomkamp for wanting to make a politically-conscious film, I just wish he would have at least thought through how all the statements could have worked together as a whole.  I go to the movies to be entertained, not to be preached to, and Elysium just feels like one empty pontification after another.
The film also has many faults in it’s design, as well as it’s pacing.  The film has the unfortunate timing of being at the tail-end of a summer full of post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies.  With films like Oblivion, After Earth, and Pacific Rim already reaching theaters before it, audiences can’t help but feel fatigued by all these similarly themed films.  Pacific Rim was able to distinguish itself because of its playful nature, but Elysium just doesn’t have the same kind of confidence in itself.  The art design feels like a mixture of Blomkamp’s own District 9 with a bit of Kubrick’s 2001, a bit of George Miller’s Road Warrior, and even some oddly-placed Anime inspired visual motifs are thrown about. (Seriously, what the hell was with those blossom trees in a factory during the film’s climax?) For the most part, the film has a grimy and dirty visual look, which would have worked had it not felt so heavy-handed and artificial.  Not helping much is the awkward pacing of the movie.  It runs 109 minutes, but it will feel much longer mainly because the story-line is so predictable.  You’re left impatiently waiting there for the film to reach the conclusions that you already know are going to happen and the fact that no scene in the movie ever concludes on a satisfying note will also leave many people as bored as I was.
Elysium is a colossal disappointment from beginning to end.  There are so many other good Science Fiction films that touch upon political issues out there, including Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, and I recommend everyone should see that film instead of this piece of junk.  The film’s reception has been a tepid one, but it has received some mild reviews from the critical community.  Sorry to be a little cynical about other critic’s opinions, but I feel like some of them are glossing over the film’s narrative shortcomings because they agree so heavily with the politics behind it.  Again, it’s not the political messages that I have a problem with here; it’s the execution of the story.  I can excuse some cases where a film has an agenda driven message as long as it functions well enough within the story-line.  Elysium just felt like such a shallow attempt to make an action movie with a “brain,” so to speak.  If it weren’t so lazy and blatant, I would have probably reacted a little differently to the film.  Elysium set out to make me feel many different things over the course of it’s run time and in that case, it succeeded; it made me feel bitter, apathetic, and wondering why I wasted my money to see it.
Rating:   3/10

Pacific Rim – Review


Michael Bay, take note.  This is how you make a movie about giant fighting robots.  From the gloriously fertile mind of director Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim is a breath of fresh air in a summer full of depressing films.  One of the trends that I have noticed in the recent slate of Summer blockbusters has been the tendency of filmmakers making their films dark and gritty, to the point where it feels out of place.  This is probably due to the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, all of which benefited from a darker tone.  But when filmmakers try to work any kind of intellectual property through that same mold, the results come out awkward and un-inspiring. Movies like The Amazing Spiderman, Green Lantern, Man of Steel, and The Lone Ranger would have benefited from having a less confused tone and more of an idea of what kind of movie they wanted to be.  Pacific Rim manages to avoid that trap effectively and becomes a film with an actual identity.
Remember when summer movies used to be fun?  Del Toro clearly remembers, and he makes every moment in Pacific Rim a treat for audiences.  It’s funny without being corny; playful without being condescending; and artistic without being pretentious.   It’s all something that’s very surprising for a movie that’s basically about giant robots fighting giant alien monsters.  I had my reservations about the movie to be sure when I first saw the film’s trailer.  I couldn’t be happier to see my doubts proven wrong.  It’s a refreshing summer movie that actually takes it’s premise to its full potential; as simple a premise as it may be.  Guillermo del Toro doesn’t try to force feed his audience anything that this movie doesn’t need.  We come to see giant fighting robots; we get giant fighting robots. There’s no unnecessary interplay and buffonery among the characters like you would see in a Transformers movie.  Also, the movie isn’t padded with pointless comedic incidents like with The Lone Ranger.  It’s a simple story done on spectacular scale and in the end, that’s all it needs to be.
Taking place in the near future, Pacific Rim has a story-line familiar to any monster movie buff. Deep in the Pacific Ocean, an inter-dimensional rift opens up and unleashes giant alien monsters that wrecks havoc on the major population centers along the coastlines of the titular Pacific Rim.  In response to the threat, human beings have invented giant robots named Jaegers to battle and destroy these monsters that they’ve called Kaiju.  To pilot the Jaegers, there needs to be two people sharing the controls and they both have to be linked neurologically together.  To make the mechanisms work perfectly inside the robots, the two pilots have to be compatible physically and psychologically; so the pilots are often related by blood to one another.  One pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) has lost his brother in a fight with a Kaiju, which leads him to abandon the Jaeger program altogether.  But, soon he’s brought out of retirement by the program’s director, Marshall Stacker Pentacost (Idris Elba).  Paired up with a fresh new co-pilot named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who also has a tortured past of her own, Raleigh reenters the fight with a renewed purpose.
There isn’t much of a story beyond that premise.  The Jaeger team must seal the rift with a nuclear device, but are met with interference from even bigger Kaijus.  There is a subplot involving a set of eccentric scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) attempting to study the true intentions of the Kaiju, and there’s a run-in with a black market dealer played by Del Toro-regular Ron Pearlman, but together it all doesn’t matter.  They are just the connecting thread for the spectacular fight sequences that make up most of the film.  I’ve never been more content with a film that had thinly drawn characters like these in it.  The characterizations in this movie would make the ones in Top Gun look Shakespearean, but I believe that was the intention of the director and the stars.  We are only given enough development to have the characters earn our sympathy, and then the movie moves on quickly to the action.  Overall, the writing in this movie, from a script by Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham, is deceptively balanced.  By having characters that are simple and strong, the story is able to breathe and stay focused, because it’s not overly complicated with personal dilemmas.  Like Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” and Pacific Rim‘s characters seem to understand that.  What do our petty issues matter when there is a giant monster coming at us?
Because of this, Pacific Rim is a refreshingly breezy film.  It runs 2 hours and 11 minutes, but it feels a lot shorter.  The pacing is invigorating and doesn’t waste a moment, with only a couple of brief lulls throughout.  The tone is also consistent, demonstrating Guillermo del Toro’s skill as a storyteller.  We’ve seen director Del Toro tackle stories that have ranged for the tragic (Pan’s Labyrinth) to the disturbing (The Devil’s Backbone) to the playful (Hellboy).  Pacific Rim is his most ambitious film to date, and it shows all the work that he’s done to build himself up to this point.  Del Toro is clearly a fan of the kind of monster movies that inspired this story, and that love is felt in every frame on screen.  From the production design of the creatures (many done by Del Toro himself) to the staging of the fights, everything is perfectly crafted to excite and satisfy audiences. Sometimes a crowd-pleasing film will sink to some baser elements just to get a rise out of people, but this film deftly avoids being just a stupid actioner.  There’s creativity on display here and action that actually serves a purpose in the story rather than creating a lot of noise.
The performances also work to the advantage of the film.  Everyone involved knows what kind of movie they’re in and they play their parts accordingly.  I liked how the characters we’re playing off of the archetypes in the genre, very much like how a comic book would portray its characters. There’s no brooding, introspective personalities here; everyone is a walking stereotype, and that’s part of the fun.  I particularly liked the scientist characters, because they were about as cartoonish as you could possibly make them; which is in sync with the tone of the movie, and the actors were perfectly cast.  Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy fame makes a fine protagonist and he thankfully keeps his character consistently simple throughout.  He just needs to look good fighting, which he does very well.  Rinko Kikuchi is given a little more darkness to her character, but she doesn’t feel out of place here and also plays the part well.  Idris Elba gives a strong commanding performance that helps to anchor the film perfectly and hopefully this movie boosts his star power, because he deserves it.  And I’m probably not alone in saying this, but Ron Pearlman is so Badass.
The film only has a couple, very minor low points; and while they don’t spoil the film overall, they do stand out.  It’s clear that the film is conscious of the cliches of the genre, but every now and then they do affect the movie negatively.  The dialogue is definitely tongue-in-cheek ridiculous throughout, but I could sometimes find it irritating too.  Idris Elba’s Stalker delivers your typical rousing speech to the troops near the end, and while I liked his delivery, I wish that the speech had been stronger.  A moment like that make me think that Del Toro took a “good enough” approach to the scene, which clashes sharply with the more creative parts of the movie.  Other moments like this happen sporadically, though they are thankfully few.  Also, there are a lot suspension of disbelief moments in the film, which audiences are not likely going to think about, but if you start to, they can be hard to swallow; particularly one near the end (At what point did we invent inter-dimensional radio technology?).  But still, they are minor complaints in an otherwise overwhelmingly solid movie.
This was the first movie this summer that made me want to watch it again right away.  That’s a good sign of the movie’s staying power.  This is a textbook example of how to make a Summer blockbuster.  It delivers on its potential and doesn’t try to complicate things with needless plotting. Giant Robots fighting Giant Monsters for a whole movie may not be for everyone, but I can see little else this summer will satisfy anything else that an audience wants.  I personally couldn’t be more grateful to Guillermo del Toro for this movie.  This made my inner 10 year old boy squeal with delight.  It’s the kind of movie that we all created in our minds when we played with our action figures as kids, and now Del Toro has brought it to the big screen.  This is a dream come true for the teenage boy crowd, though I think most girls will also come away entertained as well; and most people too, regardless of age.  It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a movie just forget about trying to be all things for all people and just be what it wants to be, which in the end does make it appeal to all people.  Hollywood should take note.  This is what happens when you let a quality filmmaker make something fun and entertaining without making it follow a trend.  Sometimes it’s better to be different.
Rating:   9/10

The Lone Ranger – Review


One thing you’ll be asking yourself once you leave the theater after watching this film is, “was The Lone Ranger really a character worth investing $250 million dollars into?”  This new film, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and directed by Pirates of the Caribbean helmer Gore Verbinski, arrives this Fourth of July weekend amid a lot of bad buzz surrounding its bloated budget and lack of interest from advanced audiences.  To their credit, the production company, Disney, did show concern over the production problems early on and nearly canned the project when the first budget estimates were made.
But apparently producer Jerry Bruckheimer reassured them that the film would be worth the huge investment and that by having Disney’s “golden boy” Johnny Depp involved, the production would be a guaranteed international success.  Unfortunately for Disney, it seems that their worst fears are coming true.  There’s little excitement for this film, despite a valiant effort by the Disney marketing team that managed to get someone like me interested.  But the opening night showing I saw was only half full, which doesn’t bold well for the film’s chances this weekend.  All this would lead you to believe that Disney has a huge mess on their hands and yes, the film is a spectacular mess; but it’s also an entertaining one.
The problem that the movie faces is that it is trying to jump-start a franchise that hasn’t been relevant since the WWII era.  Even my parents didn’t grow up that much with the Lone Ranger, so we have a character whose several generations removed from the audiences who knew him best.  The filmmakers are probably aware of this to some extant, so what we have in The Lone Ranger is a story that borrows what we know best about the character (the mask, Tonto, his horse Silver, the William Tell Overture theme music, etc.) and places them within an prototypical Western plot.  The story involves a lawman named John Reid (Armie Hammer), who’s tracking down a notorious criminal named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner).  Butch ambushes Reid and his posse of deputies and leaves them dead in the desert.  Reid, however, was not mortally wounded and finds himself being buried alive by a quirky Indian guide named Tonto (Johnny Depp).  Tonto believes that Reid has been brought back to life for a reason and the two agree to help one another out as they uncover Cavendish’s villainous plan, which involves silver mining and the Trans-continental railroad.  In order to protect his identity, Reid soon assumes the name of the “Lone Ranger.”
The film’s best aspect is that it does present the world of the “Lone Ranger” very well.  The film is gorgeously shot and feels quite epic at times.  You can defiantly see where all the money went on screen.  The movie presents a version of the West that’s both familiar to audiences, but also skewed a bit to feel unique and of it’s own world.  This was very clear in a scene where The Lone Ranger and Tonto visit a brothel owned by a madam named Red (Helena Bonham Carter).  First of all, I think this is the first time that I can recall seeing prostitution depicted openly in a Disney film, and second of all, it’s a spectacular set piece.  There’s a lot of macabre details thrown about here that really shows off the scale of the film, like an elevated boxcar used to create an arched entrance to the brothel, as well as a carnival atmosphere surrounding it.  Gore Verbinski seems to be channeling Sam Raimi a bit in these scenes, with a mix of both the weird and the epic working throughout, which is understandable given that he did much of the same in Pirates of the Caribbean films.  Though it may have the same vibe as Pirates, I do credit the film for not being a carbon copy of that franchise.  It does have a unique tone that helps it stand apart.
Where the film falls apart, however, is in it’s story.  The Lone Ranger is 2 1/2 hours long, and most of that is due to a lot of needless padding.  You’ll find a lot of scenes that could have been resolved with a simple 30 second conversation turned into lengthy ten minute long action set pieces that have no point to them.  This is clear at the beginning when Tonto and John Reid are trying to escape from a runaway train.  The scene is action packed and features some nice effects work, but it just goes on and on, and in the end has nothing to do with the rest of the plot other than to have the two heroes meet for the first time.  Many other scenes are like that and they do little to enhance what is ultimately a very paper thin plot.  The writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (the same men who wrote the Pirates movies) throw out a lot of twists and turns in the story that show some cleverness, but in the end don’t really add up to much.  The plot is cliche riddled and the big plot mysteries could be figured out within five minutes by a kindergartner.  While some of the Pirates movies could feel bloated at times, there was a sense of urgency that helped to propel the stories along.  Here, it’s missing because the writers seemed to put more effort into the story’s tone rather than the plot.
The characters are a mixed bag as well.  When it comes to the main characters, The Lone Ranger and Tonto work for the most part.  I’m actually glad that Johnny Depp doesn’t just copy his Jack Sparrow shtick in his portrayal of Tonto.  You can tell he put the work into crafting a whole new character, though like Captain Sparrow, the character is mostly played for laughs.  Depp certainly helps carry the film along, and you can see why the filmmakers wanted to play upon his charisma here.  The Lone Ranger is not as smoothly portrayed unfortunately.  Here, John Reid is more Jimmy Stewart than John Wayne.  But, to Armie Hammer’s credit, he plays that aspect of the character very well.  I found myself enjoying his performance and I believe that he can work well as a leading man.  The fault in the character is in how he’s written and not how he’s portrayed.  A lot more could have been done with the development of the Lone Ranger, who unfortunately has the spotlight taken away from him by his more colorful sidekick; as well as a scene-stealing horse.
The villains are also a mixed bag.  William Fichtner gives what is probably the film’s best performance as Butch Cavendish; one of the most loathsome and graphically violent villains to ever appear in a Disney film, if not the most.  Fichtner chews up the scenery throughout the whole movie and brings some much needed life into the film whenever he’s on screen. Most importantly, he brings real menace to the character, which is missing from the film’s other villains.  Part of Cavendish’s characterization involves his taste for human flesh, which he demonstrates by cutting out someone’s heart at one point and eating it.  Graphic onscreen cannibalism, another first for the House of Mouse.  It all makes for a gruesome, but ultimately memorable character.  The same can’t be said for the film’s other villains.  Tom Wilkinson plays a railroad tycoon named Latham Cole, your typical corporate A-hole character who ultimately is behind everything.  Cole’s a bland, forgettable character and a complete waste of an actor as talented as Wilkinson.  Barry Pepper also appears as a prototypical and bland military hotshot, though Pepper does try to add a bit more depth to his performance.
Most of the problems that you can attribute to these characters and the plot is that there is a lot of time wasted on nothing but indulgent visual stimuli.  It all looks good for a second, but after a while, you just wish the story would move on.  The movie suffers a lot from this, until you get to the final climax, which truth be told is one of the best things I’ve seen this whole summer.  The final climax is actually a great, almost perfect finale, which makes you wonder why the rest of the movie wasn’t like it.  It involves a chase with two steam locomotives that’s both playful and heart-pounding at the same time; like something out of Indiana Jones.  I won’t spoil any more, but it almost makes the movie worth it in the end.  You just have to sit through a long 2 hours to get there.
So, again, why was this story worth $250 million?  I’m sure that Disney is asking that question right now.  There are flashes of brilliance thrown about, particularly at the end, but there’s a whole lot of nothing as well.  I think that if they had trimmed this film down to under two hours, they could have had a better movie.  It’s not a bad film by any means, and to be fair I did enjoy my time watching it. But I’m sure not many people out there share my same level of patience.  I think the movie is going to have a bad run domestically, and it might be a hard sell overseas; Westerns are not that big outside the U.S., unless they can capitalize on Depp’s popularity.  As far as bloated, over-budgeted Westerns go, this is still way better than Wild, Wild West (1999), which was just garbage.  There’s some value to The Lone Ranger in the end and you can admire the work that went into it.  Fans of the “Ranger” should be pleased as well as fans of the Western genre in general.  It maybe be an expensive and fatty meal, but it will still fill you up if that’s what you’re looking for.
Rating: 7/10

Man of Steel – Review


Superman has always had a shaky history making it to the big screen.  The character has single-handedly been responsible for some of the most beloved superhero films of all time, as well as some of the absolute worst.  Undoubtedly, there have been more iterations of this character on both the big and small screens than any other superhero, but is it because no one can get the character right?  Hardly.  The Richard Donner-directed, Christopher Reeve-starring Superman:The Movie (1978) is rightfully considered a classic and is still considered a gold-standard by which most superhero movies are judged by today.
The problem with Superman is that he’s a somewhat out-of-date character who constantly needs to redefined to appeal to modern audiences.  Superman was created in a more innocent, pre-WWII period in comic publishing when readers were able to accept the idea of a super-strong man solving crime in tights and a cape.  In the years since, as the world had become a harsher place, more grounded characters like Batman and Spiderman eclipsed the Man of Steel in popularity, and have found an easier road to box-office success.  Superman has had to re-adapt more times than these characters who stay unchanged across history, and this has become the common thread in his cinematic adventures.  Ever since the Christopher Reeve era, we’ve seen no less than 6 new Superman reboots in film and television;  2 on the big screen, 2 on the small screen, and 2 in animation.  Following 2006’s lackluster Superman Returns, we have another, more grittier reboot of the Superman franchise in 2013’s Man of Steel.  Does the film mark a triumphant return of the character, or does it reinforce the character’s irrelevance in modern times?  The former is thankfully what I experienced after watching the movie; for the most part.
The story covers familiar ground for anyone who is a fan of Superman.  It’s pretty much the origin story retold again, but with some significant departures here and there.  In this version, we see Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sending his infant son Kal-El to Earth as the planet Krypton is in it’s final days.  At the same time, the vengeful General Zod (Michael Shannon) is sentenced to exile for attempting a military coup on Krypton.  Zod vows to escape his imprisonment with the intent of finding the son of the man who betrayed him, Jor-El.  Young Kal-El makes it safely to Earth and grows up on a farm raised by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who name him Clark and help him learn how to focus his unusual powers as well as teach him the moral ways to use them.  As an adult, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) searches out the clues to his past and learns the purpose of why he was meant to be Krypton’s last survivor.  Once he finally dons the cape, he encounters a tireless journalist named Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who becomes both a confidant and a resourceful ally as he begins to build his new identity as Superman.  Unfortunately, this also draws the attention of General Zod, who has made it to Earth with the intention of building a new Krypton, committing mass genocide in the process.
The film takes a few liberties with the Superman mythos and I’m sure that it will split the audiences’ reaction to the film.  For the most part, I really liked the new direction taken with the story of Superman.  It’s more grounded and less reverential to what has come before it.  The good aspects of the Superman character are expanded upon in a big way and the film takes on a very epic feel.  When Superman flies in this movie, it’s with the speed and velocity of a fighter jet, and the film conveys that adrenaline rush perfectly.  At the same time, the movie downplays or outright removes some of the cornier aspects of the character and his mythology.  The relationship between him and Lois Lane is much more maturely portrayed here than in previous installments.  Sorry Donner’s Superman fans, but there’s no romantic nighttime flight with Lois in this version.  The role of Jor-El in this movie is also expanded upon in a way that actually benefits the film’s structure without getting in the way.
A lot of credit goes to director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan for resisting the urge to play it safe with the character.  This film is a reboot in the truest sense of the word.  The problem that I had with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was that it was trying to hard to be a continuation of the original Richard Donner Superman, which caused it to lack an identity and in the end made it a complete bore of a film.  In Man of Steel, there is no confusing this with any other version of the character.  This is a Superman film we have truly never seen before.  I would compare this to how different the Christopher Nolan Batman films are to the Tim Burton ones.  Both have their merits and are interesting interpretations of the character, but can stand on their own apart from one another.  Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel does what Batman Begins did, which is make a clean slate for the character, unbound from everything that has defined him in the past.
The difficult thing with doing a franchise reboot is that you’ve got to deliver a whole lot of back-story that audiences already know and still make it feel fresh.  Man of Steel does manage to fit in a lot of story without feeling forced or bloated, but not everything works so well as a whole.  One thing that does drag the film down is the lack of character development, particularly with Superman himself.  Clark Kent is a fairly one-dimensional character here, who doesn’t go through a whole lot of change throughout the story.  The film is missing a lot of his inner-turmoil, which is briefly touched upon in childhood flashbacks, but never fully fleshed out.  Once Clark becomes Superman, it feels more like an inevitability rather than a payoff to the man’s journey in life.  To his credit, actor Henry Cavill does the best he can to give the character some weight, and he does come off charming as the character, which is a good thing.  But I believe that writer David Goyer should of done a better job of fleshing out the characters here, because they mostly feel like archetypes rather than individuals.
The most rounded character in the film oddly enough is Jor-El, who manages to become a surprisingly involved character in this story-line.  I won’t go into too much detail as to what role he plays in the movie, but his presence does add a little extra depth to the overall story.  Thanks to a balanced performance by Russell Crowe, Jor-El manages to come off as noble, heroic, resourceful, and even sometimes funny, which helps the character stand out amid the rest.  I also like the portrayal of Lois Lane in the film.  We see a lot more of her tenacity and resourcefulness as an investigative reporter here than in any other version of the character.  Amy Adams manages to make the role her own without straying too far from the essentials of the character.  She especially captures Lois’ determination, showing us just how good she is at her job.   Michael Shannon chews up a lot of scenery as the villainous Zod, but he manages to keep it from becoming a distraction and works it well into this film.  In addition, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner give nice grounded performances as Clark’s adoptive parents.  Most of the performances do manage to work in this movie, even if the material is lacking.
Comparisons to Nolan’s Batman reboot are going to be inevitable, and I’m not going to say that Man of Steel reaches that level of success.  What Batman Begins did so well was to build up the character of Bruce Wayne and explain to us why he became the Batman.  Man of Steel doesn’t have that same kind of depth and instead we are shown the “how” of Superman’s origin and not the “why”.  What the film does deliver well is the action.  We see Superman doing what he does best in newer and bigger ways.  This is far and away the most ambitious Superman film I’ve ever seen; at least on a technical level.  Zack Snyder is a visual filmmaker first and foremost, and he does not hold back on the imagery here.  Man of Steel is a very pretty film to look at, and thankfully it is a stylish departure for the franchise.  While it may anger some fans, I am glad to see DC Comics and Warner Bros. taking risks again with this iconic character.  Whether or not everything works in this reboot, it is a step in the right direction and I’ll eagerly anticipate whatever comes next for Superman.
Rating: 7.5/10