Reel Opinions

Friday, May 31, 2013

After Earth

Generally, Sci-Fi is supposed to fill us with awe with its visions of other worlds and of the future.  All After Earth managed to fill me with is an overall sense of boredom.  This is a lifeless adventure story about a gruff military father and his son bonding when they are both stranded on a futuristic Earth that has been abandoned by humans, and is now home to various wild animals.  The father and son dynamic, which is supposed to be the main dramatic force which drives the story, fails because we don't believe in the relationship, and the actors have zero chemistry.  This is odd, considering said actors are the real life father and son, Will and Jaden Smith.

picAfter Earth is the latest movie from director M. Night Shyamalan.  Not that the studio would like you to know this.  You might remember how just a few years ago, the studios heavily hyped each release from the director, plastering his name all over the poster and ad campaign.  However, after a series of expensive flops such as The Last Airbender, Lady in the Water and The Happening, Shyamalan's name is no longer a selling point.  And so, they literally have hidden his involvement, making no mention of his name in the ads or press material.  The way I see it, he got lucky, having his association with this bomb all but covered up.  This is a stillborn movie that fails to generate the slightest emotion in the viewer.  It also contains some of the shoddiest CG effects I've seen in a big budget summer movie.  Just look at the CG baboons, lions and eagles that threaten our heroes during the course of the film.  Compare it to the work done with the CG animals in Life of Pi, and the end result is almost comical.

picThe plot - We learn through endless, droning exposition that humans have been forced to flee Earth for another home planet.  Considering the recent Tom Cruise Sci-Fi film, Oblivion, opened in a similar manner, it only made me wish I was watching that film instead.  The humans have generally been living peacefully on their new world, except for some pesky encounters with some big, ugly aliens called Ursa who are blind, and can detect people only by smelling their fear.  That's really all we learn about these creatures.  They're yet another hostile alien race who devote their lives to leaping out of shadows and screaming at the camera.  They've mastered the art of the jump scare, but not intelligent conversation, since all they can do is roar, growl, and generally look and act like generic CG.

picOne of the main war heroes in the battle against the Ursa is General Cypher Kaige (Will Smith).  Cypher is a tough, battle-hardened military man who seems to have a hard time differentiating his work life from his home life.  How else to explain that when he sits at the dinner table with his family early on, he barks commands to his teenage son like a drill sergeant?  His son is Kitai (Jaden Smith), a young boy who desperately wants his father's approval, and is trying for a position in the military, but fears he will never live up to dad's lofty expectations for him.  Kitai is also haunted by the memory of seeing his older sister, Senshi (Zoe Kravitz), being killed by an Ursa right before his eyes, while he was helpless to do anything.  Cypher's wife suggests a father-son space voyage, so that they can bond.  This doesn't go very well, as the two have little to say to each other.  It gets even worse when the ship is severely damaged in an asteroid belt, killing everyone on board except Cypher and Kitai, and sending the ship crashing on the abandoned planet Earth.

picSo, now they're trapped on Earth, and must rely on each other for survival.  Cypher has broken both of his legs in the crash, so it is up to Kitai to journey across the ruins of Earth to find the other half of the crashed ship, so that he can find an emergency beacon located on that half of the ship, and signal for a rescue.  The journey Kitai undertakes is supposed to make him into a man, while allowing his father to win respect for him.  This could be effective, if it weren't portrayed in such a crashingly obvious way.  Each adventure he undertakes is small in scope - He runs away from a pack of baboons, he fights off some lions, he is briefly poisoned by a parasitic creature...All of these encounters seem like annoyances, rather than grand adventures.  There is no sense of scope here, no sense of awe or wonder.  We don't feel that rush of excitement, or that thrill of danger that a survival story like this needs.  We also don't care if Cypher or Kitai survive this journey, since both characters are so comically underwritten, and are forced to act as if they are total strangers to one another, instead of father and son.

picHow could something like that happen?  How could the performances by both Will and Jaden Smith be so wooden, unemotional, and unconvincing?  I'm not exactly sure, but my best guess is that they took their character descriptions completely to heart.  In the case of Will Smith, I imagine his character bio read something like this - "Cypher is an emotionally distant, gruff military man who has a hard time showing emotion, or being open with his son".  And so, Will Smith interprets his character as if he is completely devoid of any emotion whatsoever.  I have never seen a worse performance from him before.  He reads all of his lines in a passive, monotone voice, almost as if he's afraid that if he raises an eyebrow or changes his stone-like facial expression, it will cause permanent damage to his face.  It got to the point where I found myself wondering if I wasn't watching the wax statue figure of Will Smith from Madame Tussaud's museum instead.

picThe performance by young Jaden Smith is not much better.  He often comes across as shrill and grating, his voice pitched at this high and whiny tone.  Maybe this is supposed to make him sound naive and innocent.  It just made me want to peel him right off the screen and replace him with another actor every time he opened his mouth.  Who is to blame for these awful turns by these actors who have been likable in the past?  Did they know the script was a dud, and so they just weren't on their game?  Doubtful, since Will Smith is credited with the story.  Was the director's heart just not in this project?  That sounds reasonable.  Say what you will about Shyamalan's recent body of work, but I've often found something to admire in the look of a lot of his films.  Here, we get no interesting visuals.  Even the fleeting glimpses we get of humanity's new planet home are disappointing, and look like they were shot on a studio soundstage.

After Earth is the kind of movie experience you want to forget as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, I'll have to remember it, as I'm sure it will wind up somewhere on my Worst Films of 2013 list come December.  In a year that has already brought us Sci-Fi films like Oblivion and the flawed-but-enjoyable Star Trek Into Darkness, this movie feels all the more insignificant and lame.

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Monday, May 27, 2013


The second animated movie in less than a year to be based on one of William Joyce's books (the other being Rise of the Guardians, from back in November), Epic doesn't quite live up to its lofty name, but its a perfectly entertaining film nonetheless.  The movie borrows heavily from other films, but at least it attempts a plot and features characters I found myself liking, unlike The Croods, and it doesn't feel as generic as Escape from Planet Earth.

picThe movie reveals to us a hidden war that has supposedly been raged within the balance of nature for centuries.  This war happens within a forest, and is fought between the noble Leafmen, tiny armored insect-sized people who ride on hummingbirds and represent life and growth, and the evil beast-like Boggans, who represent decay and want to destroy the forest.  Watching the movie, I had to wonder - Do the Leafmen and Boggans only exist in this one forest, or are they fighting all over the world?  It's an interesting question that this movie unfortunately avoids.  The plot kicks off when Mandrake, the ruler of the Boggans (voice by Christoph Waltz), attacks the Leafmen Queen (Beyonce Knowles), and steals a magical flower bud that can represent new life for the forest.  With the control of the magical life-giving bud, Mandrake can pervert its powers to darkness, and turn the the entire forest into rot.

picInto this fierce battle for control of nature walks an ordinary teenage girl named Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried).  With the recent passing of her mother, she's been sent to live with her eccentric scientist father (Jason Sudeikis), who knows of the existence of the Leafmen, and has been trying to learn more about him.  Mary Katherine is inadvertently pulled into the Leafmen's world when she is shrunk by the power of the magical flower bud, and is chosen by the Queen to guard it and bring it to safety.  She's paired up with a cocky young Leafman named Nod (Josh Hutcherson), who serves as her romantic interest, as well as his stoic and serious protector and soldier mentor, Ronin (Colin Farrell).  Also along for the journey are the prerequisite comic relief, this time a comedic duo of a slug named Mub (Aziz Ansari) and his snail friend Grub (Chris O'Dowd).  The comedic bantering of this pair is actually quite funny, and helps soften the somewhat serious tone of the film itself.

picEpic has a strong eco-message behind it, though it's fortunately not as heavy-handed as the one employed by another animated film that this one somewhat resembles, 1992's Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. (Both concern ordinary people being shrunk and brought into a magical forest world of hidden, tiny creatures.) Besides, it's more interested in telling a thrilling adventure story for young children, and I think that's what got me involved.  Yes, I would have preferred a slightly less "black and white" approach to the characters (the Leafmen are all good and fair-skinned, while the evil Boggans are dark-skinned, lurk in shadows, and wear animal husks), but I understand that such a simplistic approach is unfortunately common in animation.  Regardless, director Chris Wedge (Ice Age) and his team of five credited screenwriters still manage to create a beautiful fantasy world out of ordinary woodland surroundings, and the characters have just enough personality that they don't come across as total dullards.

picSpeaking of the characters, I should bring up my one major complaint in the film, which is some unfortunate stunt casting that the filmmakers employed just so they could put a few more famous names above the title.  I have no problem with the voice performances offered by Seyfried, Hutcherson, Farrell, Waltz, Sudeikis, Ansari, or O'Dowd.  Where the acting goes a little astray is how the filmmakers hired recording artists to play some of the supporting roles.  I already mentioned Beyonce Knowles as the voice of Queen Tara, ruler of the Leafmen.  Besides that, we also have Pitbull in the very minor and pointless role as a gambling frog, and Steven Tyler (yes, the lead singer of Aerosmith) providing the voice of a wise old caterpillar who holds ancient scrolls of knowledge.  It's somewhat distracting hearing their voices behind these characters, and harkens back to the early days of Dreamworks animation, when they used to put more emphasis on the celebrity name than the character they were playing.  I'm sure kids won't mind, but adults will probably spend more time focused on the voice, than what's going on in the story.

Epic is not all that original, but it has enough adventure, humor, beautiful artwork, and individual moments that work that I am recommending it.  Kids are sure to love it, while adults will find themselves laughing from time to time, and enjoying the well-staged action sequences.  It's not the great animated film that 2013 has been waiting for, but it certainly does its job well enough.

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Hangover Part III

It would seem that director and co-writer, Todd Phillips, took to heart the main criticism audiences had with the last Hangover movie - That it was essentially the same movie as the first, only with a different locale and fewer laughs.  And so, with The Hangover Part III, we get a new premise, some new characters, and a story that nicely wraps up the comedy franchise.  So, at least it's not another rehash.  Unfortunately, he didn't see it fit to fix the "fewer laughs" problem, so we still have a movie that ultimately disappoints compared to the original.

picOf course, The Hangover cannot really be replicated.  That 2009 film was a true lightning in a bottle comedy that exploded beyond anyone's expectations.  We know it can't be replicated, because 2011's The Hangover Part II tried, and failed.  So, what are we to make of the new direction this film takes?  It's a lot darker, more action-oriented, and doesn't even try to follow the formula of the first two, with its three heroes blacking out after a night of partying, and then trying to piece together the clues of what happened the night before.  Speaking of our heroes, this movie essentially belongs to Alan, the scruffy-haired eternal man-child played once again by Zach Galifianakis.  He not only drives the plot, he's in pretty much all of the scenes.  His two friends from the earlier films, Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) are essentially in supporting roles here.  Given how Cooper's career has taken off the past few months, he probably viewed this as a contractual obligation more than anything.

picThe plot kicks off with Alan having just made an impulse buy of picking up a pet giraffe.  After an ill-fated ride down the highway, which results in said giraffe getting decapitated and a massive multiple-car pile up accident, Alan is flung into the center of a media storm, with his long-suffering father (Jeffrey Tambor) at the end of his rope - so much so that the poor guy dies from a heart attack brought on by the stress Alan has added to his life.  At the funeral,  Alan is reunited with Phil and Stu, who witness his erratic behavior first hand, and learn that he's been off his medication for the past six months.  A family intervention is staged for Alan, and Phil and Stu are charged with the task of delivering the guy to a treatment center in Arizona, so he can get help with his emotional issues.  Alan's brother-in-law, Doug (Justin Bartha) comes along, too.  If you've seen the earlier films, you'll know that Doug usually doesn't play a large role in this series.  The trend does not change here.

picOn their way to Arizona, the four friends are suddenly attacked by another car carrying some hired goons who work for a crime kingpin named Marshall (John Goodman).  It seems that Marshall has had some bars of gold stolen from him by the psychotic Chinese criminal, Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), who not only returns in this movie, but has almost as big of a part as the main characters do this time around.  This is a miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers.  The character of Mr. Chow works better in small doses.  When he assumes a leading role, the one-note trait of the character is almost impossible to ignore, as is the one-note performance by Jeong.  Marshall has learned of Alan's history with Mr. Chow, and wants him to track him down and get back the gold he stole.  For leverage, he takes Doug hostage, essentially writing that character out of most of the movie, allowing Alan, Phil, and Stu to race around places like Mexico and Las Vegas in their search.

picI'll be frank, I did not walk into The Hangover Part III in the best of spirits.  The last sequel was completely unnecessary, and while this one is equally so, I must admit despite its obvious faults, I liked this one a little more.  I appreciated the new angle the story takes, as well as the way that the screenplay pretty much ties up every loose end, as well as brings back some surprise cameos from the first movie.  Even if I wasn't laughing that much, the movie held my interest.  There are some well-executed stunts and action sequences here, such as when Phil is forced to repel down the outside wall of Caesar's Palace casino, or when Mr. Chow takes an impromptu parachute flight over the sights of Las Vegas.  At times, it almost seems like Todd Phillips thinks he is making a flat-out action movie, rather than a comedy.

picI wonder how the fanbase will react to this.  Yes, there are certainly laughs to be had, but they don't fly as hard or as fast as before.  If anything, this movie seems a little bit more sentimental and sadder, as part of it deals with Alan finally having to face the fact that he's going to have to grow up, and start living life as an adult.  At the very least, the movie doesn't go into all-out sentimentality, like this year's earlier release, Identity Thief, which started out as a raunchy comedy, then turned into a sappy little thing.  Speaking of that film, its star, Melissa McCarthy, has a funny turn here as a pawn shop dealer who strikes up a potential relationship with Alan.  The movie could have used more of her character.

I do hope that this is the last Hangover film as promised by the ad campaign, as I can't imagine this premise being successfully strung out much longer.  Of course, should the movie score at the box office, there is a scene during the end credits which does hint at a possible fourth entry.  It's worth sitting through part of the credits for, as it's funnier than anything in the actual movie itself.  Not funny enough to make me wish for a fourth movie, but a strong note to end the movie on.

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Friday, May 24, 2013

Fast & Furious 6

Reviewing Fast & Furious 6 is kind of pointless.  You already know whether or not you enjoy the movies, so you already know whether or not you'll be seeing this over the Holiday Weekend.  If you loved the last two movies, you'll find just as much to love here.  I could probably end my review right there, and I'm tempted to do so.  But since I believe in full reviews around here, I'll go into a little more detail.

picThe Fast & Furious movies pretty much live or die by their stunts and action sequences.  And ever since he took over the helm with the third film in the series (Tokyo Drift), director Justin Lin has provided plenty of over the top thrills for the fans.  He does the same here, including a high speed chase with an armored tank down a heavily populated highway, a scene I kind of admired.  But, to tell the truth, a little of these movies go a long way.  I understand that these films are all about big, dumb fun, but this time, I felt like the emphasis was a little too much on the dumb, and not enough on the fun.  The fact that the movie runs just over two hours also feels a little excessive.  A movie like this need only run 90 or 100 minutes.  It's not like it needs the extra time for character development, as there's very little to find here.  And maybe it's just me, but I found the rapid fire editing a little hard to follow this time around.

picThe plot for this film reads kind of like a cross between a Saturday morning cartoon, and a soap opera.  And don't even bother walking into this film if you haven't seen the previous entries.  It assumes you're up to speed on the characters, the events, who has died in previous films, and who is seemingly back from the dead, though stricken with amnesia.  This time, a hi-tech criminal named Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) has gathered a band of thieves who like to hot rod around exotic locales like Moscow and London as they attempt to steal the parts they need for a military super weapon.  On his team is Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), whom fans of the franchise know used to be the girlfriend of our lead hero, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel).  She was thought to have died two movies ago, but she somehow survived, is stricken with amnesia, and is now working for the evil Shaw.

picDom learns that Letty is still alive from special agent, Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who is on a mission to bring down Shaw, and wants the help of Dom and his crew.  Thus, the old gang of street racers, weapons specialists, hot women who are proficient in martial arts (for whenever the screenplay requires a cat fight scene), and tech guys are reassembled.  Also along for the ride is Dom's best friend, Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker), who used to be a leading character, but in later films, has pretty much been reduced to the role of sidekick.  He has a baby with his lovely wife early on in the film, but both the wife and the kid exist so they can be threatened by Shaw and his cohorts in the third act.  Speaking of the third act, the film's big climax involving a fight in and outside of an airplane goes on way too long, as do a lot of the action sequences in this film.  The climax also includes a main character switching sides at the last minute, which I guess is supposed to be shocking, but has absolutely no impact, as the movie never bothered to make the character relevant to us in the first place.

picI've been able to enjoy some of the past films in this series, but Fast & Furious 6 really just did nothing for me.  I never got involved, and the movie goes on for much longer than it needs to.  If you're a fan who has followed these characters from the beginning, then don't let me stop you.  You'll have a great time, and I'm sure the teaser for the next movie that's hinted at during the end credits will have you screaming for more.  Maybe I'm just worn out on this series.  I just couldn't care about anyone, and the action and stunts weren't enough to distract me from the fact that I wasn't much enjoying myself.  The heroes came across as being either scowling, or spewing one-liners non-stop, while the villains were a rather faceless and uninteresting bunch.  This movie wasn't made for me, I guess. 

I will say this in the movie's favor - The reveal of who the villain is going to be in the next movie actually has me interested in seeing it.  I guess if a movie doesn't really work for me, but I'm still interested in finding out what happens next, the filmmakers must be doing something right.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

It's next to impossible to review Star Trek Into Darkness without diving into some form of spoilers, so I'm warning all of you from the beginning.  I will do my best to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but I can't make any solid promises.  With that out of the way, let's boil down what I thought.  As a summer thrill ride movie, this is almost as good as it gets.  The effects are some of the biggest and grandest seen in a Star Trek movie, there are some memorable action sequences, and the movie on the whole works.  Where I'm slightly less certain is whether it works as a Star Trek movie.

picIt's not that it does any grand disservice to the characters, although judging by some fans' reactions, I may be wrong on that point as well.  That's something else I should get out of the way early on - Outside of the Next Generation TV series, I've never really followed Star Trek.  Oh, I've seen all the movies, but that hardly makes me an expert.  I'm sure there will be many fans who would be able to point things out in this movie that I wasn't even paying attention to.  With that said, one thing I do know for certain is that the series has never exactly been a "thrill ride".  Not that it doesn't work as one, but director J.J. Abrams (returning from his successful 2009 film reboot of the franchise) almost seems to be making this one for the non-fans as much as for the fans.  To me, Star Trek has always been a grand space opera about exploration and discovering alien worlds.  This movie seems less concerned with exploration, and more focused on blowing stuff up real good.  It creates some unforgettable moments (like when two characters jettison themselves into deep space, dodging through a field of space debris), but they may seem out of place to some fans.

picIn fact, Abrams seems to take a lot of inspiration from outside sources.  The film's opening sequence, for example, reminded me of the opening of a James Bond movie.  You know how a lot of those films start off by throwing you right in the middle of a wild action and stunt sequence?  Abrams does the same thing here by throwing us right in the middle of a scene where Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) are running away from some hostile alien natives who kind of look like they stepped out of an Indiana Jones movie.  While this is going on, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is being lowered into an active volcano so he can drop off a device that can prevent it from erupting, thereby saving the planet and its people.  It's a lot of frantic action and chasing, and it so closely resembles the opening of a Bond flick, I half expected the opening credits that follow this sequence to feature the silhouettes of Klingons dancing seductively to the theme music.  Fortunately, we are spared of this, and are instead dropped right into the main plot.

picBecause they disobeyed the orders of their mission, the next scene finds Kirk and Spock being chewed out by their superior officer (Bruce Greenwood), which follows another time honored movie genre - the buddy cop movie.  However, instead of being asked to hand in his badge, Kirk is simply demoted.  Shortly after this happens, a rogue Starfleet Commander named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) starts a war against Starfleet itself, instigating bombings and even an attack on its main headquarters in San Francisco.  Kirk is given back command of his ship by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), under the condition that he track down and kill Harrison, who has gone into hiding on the Klingon home planet Kronos.  Not wanting to start a war with the Klingons, the mission is intended to be small and largely covert.  However, when they track down John Harrison and manage to take him alive, it is revealed that this is a much more complex mission than initially stated.

picIn respect for those who haven't seen the film, I won't go into too much detail, but the truth behind John Harrison has to be one of the worst-kept secrets in recent movie memory.  With that said, once his true identity and motives are revealed, the specter of a past Star Trek movie looms heavily over the entire film.  Once again, out of respect, I won't reveal which one, but fans probably already know which one I'm talking about.  Here is where the movie begins to lose its way somewhat.  Up to this point, Star Trek Into Darkness has been a fast-paced and thrilling adventure.  And while it never lets up, this is also the point where Abrams, along with the screenplay, seems to be trying a bit too hard to invoke past memories of the earlier fan-favorite film.   What made the 2009 reboot successful is that it paid respect to the original series, while at the same time charting its own path.  Here, it pays a little too much respect, by recreating famous pivotal moments, and even pulling a role reversal on one of the most famous moments of the original film franchise.

picThis didn't really bother me up until the last 15 minutes or so of the movie, which is when the "role reversal" moment occurs.  It just does not work, and the way that the actors play it just does not have the same impact that it did the first time around.  The scene doesn't work because it's a tribute.  Not just that, it screams that it's a tribute to the earlier scene.  It so desperately wants to be the earlier movie, it becomes distracting.  It's supposed to be a dramatic moment, but instead, it feels like the movie is winking at us.  It's being cute, and so it comes across as being cheesy.  And because this is intended as a prequel to the earlier films, the fact that it's built around the life or death struggle of a character is greatly diminished.  We know the character is going to be okay, because they're in the later movies.  It's kind of like the climactic light sabre duel at the end of The Phantom Menace between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul.  We kind of know who's going to come out on top before the fight even starts.

picGlancing over what I have written, I seem to have veered to a somewhat negative stance.  This was not my intention, as I had a lot of fun while watching this movie.  It's only when thinking back on it that the cracks and faults show themselves.  That being said, this is an expertly crafted film.  There is some dazzling imagery and action sequences on display here.  The performances also do a great job of invoking nostalgia, while at the same time, coming into their own.  While I'm still not entirely sold on Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and especially Karl Urban as Bones have their respective characters down to a science.  I also admired Alice Eve, who enters in this film as the daughter of Admiral Marcus, and goes on to play a large role.  She's quite likable here, and she somewhat reminded me of a young Nicole Kidman (before she became Mrs. Tom Cruise in the 90s).

picI also should single out Benedict Cumberbatch, who as John Harrison, is a large reason as to why the film works.  One of my big problems with the 2009 reboot is that it did not have a very memorable villain.  This movie, and especially his performance, fixes this problem.  He gives his character depth.  He's much more than the one-dimensional terrorist villain he initially comes across as, or could have been with a lesser actor.  The movie gives Cumberbatch enough screen time for him to flesh out his character, and make him one of the more interesting villains we're likely to see this summer.  I loved the way this movie handles him.  We feel like he's constantly in control of the situation, even when he's shackled and contained within a cell.  I can only hope the inevitable sequel gives us a villain of equal menace.

Star Trek Into Darkness is the second great movie thrill ride of early summer 2013.  I wasn't as taken with it as I was by Iron Man 3, but that does not take anything away from what this movie does accomplish.  It's fast-paced, it's highly energized, and I can easily see it winning over those who normally don't follow the franchise.  The fans may be a different story.  I'm sure they'll find something to like, but certain parts are likely to bug them more.  Whatever the case, this movie is certain to cause a lot of discussion when it's over.

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Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann's take on The Great Gatsby is sure to be one of the more polarizing movies of the summer, if not of 2013 in general.  It's not that it's an unfaithful adaptation of the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it's that the story is almost drowned out by the extreme amount of excess that Luhrmann has used to tell it.  There's not a single moment of this film that's not trying to impress us, or wow us visually.  It's overbearing in the worst way.  And then, just to make sure the filmmakers have checked off every item on their "overblown movie" list, they decided to reshoot the whole thing in 3D. (The movie was supposed to come out last Christmas, but was pushed back so it could receive an unnecessary 3D transfer.)

picMaybe I should have expected this.  Anyone who has seen one of Luhrmann's films knows that the guy is not exactly familiar with subtlety.  Here, he seems to be trying to recapture the success he had with his 2001 musical, Moulin Rouge, with its garishness, special effects, modern musical numbers set in a time of the past (in this case, it's 1922, and the soundtrack is filled with rap and dance music), and overall go for broke style.  The thing is, that kind of stuff worked in Moulin Rouge, because that was a romantic musical fantasy.  Fitzgerald's story is supposed to be set in the real world, and these elements come across as being distracting instead of clever here.  It also doesn't help that this is a largely dry adaptation.  We feel nothing for these characters.  The glitzy musical and dance scenes, the endless CG effects used to recreate 1920s New York, and the flashy editing, sets and costumes are all impressive on their own.  But when paired up with this largely soulless and overall emotionally cold take on a classic story, you feel like Luhrmann is trying to hide the fact there's not much going on here.

picThe film opens with a framing device, featuring Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) writing down his story while in a sanitarium.  Not only does this added plot device not go anywhere, it's completely unnecessary.  This leads us into the main story, where Nick arrives in New York in 1922 in order to make a living in the booming stock trade.  He is quickly reunited with his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, who plays the role as if he were a villain in a melodrama).  Nick moves into a modest home, which just so happens to be next door to the massive mansion belonging to the mysterious and reclusive millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).  The man is seldom seen (except for brief fleeting glimpses from a window in his mansion), but he throws lavish parties every weekend.  It's through these parties that Nick is introduced to Gatsby, who quickly builds a friendship with the young man.  Eventually, Gatsby's motives for seeking Nick out becomes clear - He was once romantically involved with Daisy, and he wishes to meet her, so they can rekindle the love they once had for each other.

picThe Great Gatsby essentially tells the same story as the novel, only in such a way that it never grabs us.  The pacing is erratic, with some scenes bouncing with so much energy that the movie starts to resemble a live action cartoon at times, while in other scenes, everything slows down to a deadly dull crawl.  With a running time of nearly two and a half hours, the on-and-off style of the pacing eventually becomes quite the endurance test.  The movie is constantly trying to grab our attention with glitter, special effects, out-of-place modern day music, editing and camera tricks, and overly-stylized flash.  It's a hollow spectacle, to be sure, because nothing resonates.  Not the characters, not their relationships, and certainly not the dialogue, even the passages that are lifted directly from Fitzgerald.  The scenes between Gatsby and Daisy are supposed to be filled with passion, but lack any feeling.  Nick is mainly an observer, and never really gets involved in the action.  And what little emotion the characters do manage to generate are fighting a losing battle against the assault on our senses that's going on around them.

picI don't really blame the actors, as they're obviously doing the best with what they've been given.  While this is certainly not the best work DiCaprio has ever done, he at least looks the part of Gatsby, and brings the right essence of charm and aloofness to the character.  However, just like everyone else who walks into this movie, he's overcome by the amount of big budget excess that's swirling all around him.  The performances simply cannot compete.  Carey Mulligan's Daisy ends up being a bore, because there's just nothing that really stands out about her in the entire film.  And the only noteworthy thing about Tobey Maguire is that he doesn't look all that much older than when he did the original Spider-Man movie 11 years ago.  It's bad enough that the heart and soul of the story has to be drowned out by the $100+ million budget, but so do the performances.  I constantly felt like I was watching actors cast adrift in a production that went out of control.

The Great Gatsby ends up being as big of a miscalculation as anyone could probably make in adapting the story to the big screen.  While the themes and the power of the story are still there in some form, they are simply dwarfed by everything else competing for our attention.  I'm just glad I didn't end up seeing this movie in 3D.  Not only is there nothing in this movie that would benefit from wearing those stupid glasses, but the last thing this film needs is yet another pointless distraction.

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Friday, May 03, 2013

Iron Man 3

I'm sure I will be in the minority of this opinion, but Iron Man 3 is quite possibly my favorite of the recent Marvel film line up.  It is everything a superhero movie should be - Incredibly fun, great characters, amazing effects, and action sequences that make you just want to scream with joy while you're watching them, if only you weren't in a crowded theater.  The movie successfully pulls off a tricky feat, as it's technically a sequel to two movies - 2010's Iron Man 2, and last year's The Avengers.  But more than that, it's just one hell of a ride, and as much fun as a summer blockbuster can be.

picTony Stark, the man behind the iron mask, is once again played by Robert Downey, Jr.  However, we can sense something slightly different about the character, and of Downey's performance.  While he's as quick-witted as ever, he seems to be using his humor as a shield to hide a lot of private pain.  This is a Tony Stark with the weight of the world on his shoulders.  His experiences in The Avengers have made him a shell of a man, and brought on sleep deprivation and severe anxiety.  You can't really blame the guy.  After experiencing aliens, vengeful gods, a massive wormhole, and the near-destruction of New York City, sleep would be the last thing on anyone's mind.  The movie actually opens by flashing back to New Year's Eve in 1999, where we witness the beginnings of Tony's personal demons that will haunt him for the rest of the film.

picIn this flashback, we're introduced to two different scientists whom Tony encountered that night.  One is a beautiful young woman named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), who is experimenting with new ways to cure illnesses.  The other is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a man plagued with various physical handicaps.  Aldrich tries to get Tony interested in his research, but he brushes him off, and spends the night with Maya instead.  Both of these decisions will have consequences for him in the future, as we learn when the film flashes forward to the present day.  In the present, a terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is staging a series of seemingly random attacks across the U.S.  His true intentions and purposes are unknown, but judging by the video recorded messages that always pop up after one of his attacks, his ultimate goal seems to be tied to the President of the United States (William Sadler).  When one of Tony's personal friends, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) becomes injured in one of the attacks, the search for The Mandarin becomes personal for Stark, and he must don the Iron Man armor once again.

picStepping into the director's chair previously held by Favreau is Shane Black, the man best known for writing the original Lethal Weapon, and who previously directed Downey in 2005's crime film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  Black's screenplay (which he co-wrote with Drew Pearce) is expertly crafted, mixing the fun and humor of the earlier films, with some new elements.  Amongst the new elements is a much twistier plot, filled with revelations that, quite frankly, caught me off guard.  Without giving too much away, one of those twists is centered around the character of The Mandarin, one of Iron Man's oldest villains from the comic books.  Even though I cannot claim to be an expert on the comics, I do know enough about The Mandarin character that this movie's depiction is likely to create a huge divide amongst comic fans.  As for me, I found the interpretation to be quite brilliant within the context of the film itself, and Kingsley's performance to be nothing less than a scene-stealer. 

picAnother aspect of the script I enjoyed is how it gives us a greatly humbled Tony Stark.  After a crucial scene where he loses everything he knows and loves, it allows the character, and Downey's performance, to become much more human.  He still has his one-liners and sense of humor, but this forces him to lose much of the arrogance that slightly derailed Iron Man 2.  It's right about this point that Tony is also briefly paired up with a young boy (Ty Simpkins), whom the movie is smart in using.  He's not annoying, nor does he become Tony Stark's "sidekick" or partner.  He does help him out, but he doesn't become the focus of the film, nor does he become a desperate attempt to speak to the younger audience members.  They create an interesting relationship.  Speaking of relationships, Gweneth Paltrow is back as Stark's love interest, Pepper Potts, and is given more to do this time around.  She not only gets to share some great scenes with Tony, but she plays a bigger part in the plot as well.

picI actually found all the characters a lot more interesting this time around.  Don Cheadle returns as Stark's closest friend, James Rhodes, and gets more action this time around in his personalized suit, War Machine, or "Iron Patriot", as it has been renamed here.  Yes, he is pushed into the background for a good part of the film, and I would have liked to have seen more of him.  But Cheadle's performance seems more at ease here than in the last film, and he gets to hold his own in a few scenes.  Finally, there's Guy Pearce, who makes a fine new addition to the cast.  I must be careful to avoid spoilers here, but his presence adds greatly to the film.  He's sympathetic in his early moments, and becomes forceful later on.  It's a great character, and Pearce is obviously savoring every second up on the screen.

picI realize I've spent most of this review talking about the characters, which is odd for a summer blockbuster review.  And while this film is certainly full of rewarding character moments, it's the action that left me breathless.  These are some of the best action sequences I've seen in a film in quite a while.  The kind of white-knuckle, all-absorbing action that makes you want to scream out "YES!!" on more than one occasion. (Pumping your fist in the air as you scream is optional.) Shane Black brings his expertise for writing action here, creating some unforgettable moments that will be hard to top as the summer rolls on.  I do want to bring attention to one particular sequence, in which Iron Man must rescue people who have been sucked out of a plane, and are falling.  Watching the sequence, I was certain there was a lot of clever CG and green screen work going on.  And yet, watching the end credits, I noticed that there were actually professional sky divers employed for the scene.  That makes it all the more impressive.

If I haven't made myself clear, Iron Man 3 is everything a superhero movie should be - It's smart, it's engaging, it has wonderful characters, it has a sense of fun and humor, and its action sequences will leave you gripping the arms of your seat while you try to lift your jaw off the floor.  It's the kind of giddy thrill ride we seldom get at the movies.  Yes, there are plot holes to be found if you are inclined to nitpick. (As many on the Internet are prone to do.) But when the movie is this much fun, I really don't care.  This is just a hell of a ride.

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