Sunday, June 21, 2015

Travel back in time – to 1993 – with Jurassic World

Any movie fan worth his weight has certainly seen Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking dinosaur movie Jurassic Park. You may have seen it on the big screen when it was released in 1993, or a few years ago when it was re-released in 3D, or on video or television. Even if you haven't seen you're probably familiar with it.

The story concerned a rich old coot who bought and island in the middle of the Pacific, set up a lab facility and began engineering dinosaurs from preserved DNA in the hopes of one day opening the island as a theme park for dino-crazy tourists. Except, it was the dinosaurs that were crazy and dangerous because the cloning process also included the DNA from other species to fill in the blanks. Many people die and the hope to bring visitors to the island seems to die as well. Two sequels followed, but they are inconsequential to the new film Jurassic World.

It's twenty-two years later and the late John Hammond's dream did indeed come true as the island is now home to the Jurassic World theme park with a Main Street promenade (complete with Starbucks, Margaritaville and other major retailers) and thousands of visitors enjoying relaxing trips down a primordial river surrounded by docile, plant-eating dinosaurs, and exciting tours among larger and faster creatures in gyroscopic orbs.

Of course, dinosaurs are still being manufactured (courtesy of Dr. Henry Wu from the first movie) and designed from scratch to be bigger and scarier, something to give even the adults nightmares. The island's newest creation is called the Indominus rex, smaller than a T rex but much more frightening because it's smarter and can camouflage itself visually and from heat detecting sensors (courtesy of the designer DNA). It also hunts for sport. What could possibly go wrong? If you've seen Jurassic Park, you'll have a pretty good idea.

It seems that everyone who has seen Jurassic World so far, and with earning almost a billion dollars worldwide in two weeks time, many have, is proclaiming this one of the greatest summer action movies ever made. Except it isn't. It's fun and entertaining and the CGI dinosaurs are as realistic looking as ever, but I've already seen this movie. In 1993! The story is virtually the same right down to the two brothers (replacing the brother and sister from the original) sent to the island to hang out with their aunt (replacing the grandfather) while their parents are going through a divorce. The brothers even get trapped in a gyro orb, coming face to face with the I rex in a scene that apes the Jeep scene of the original with the siblings and the T rex.

We have a new character in Chris Pratt's Owen, but he seems to be a bit of Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum rolled into one as he comments that building dinosaurs and keeping them in captivity is not a good idea. The one new twist to the story is Owen's ability to train the original film's stealth killing machines, the Raptors. He is their Alpha, and he can actually take them on a hunt as if they were a pack of bloodhounds. The only problem is they're just as intelligent as the I rex, so together they could spell real trouble. Pratt, however, demonstrates that his on-screen charm and charisma was no fluke in Guardians of the Galaxy.

While, to me, Jurassic World is a tad too derivative of the original, there are some bits and pieces here and there that are interesting and disturbing. The massive aquarium housing an aquatic beastie was pretty cool, and the little nod to Spielberg as it munches on a Great White was amusing. Not so amusing, however, was the film's one needlessly horrific death of a peripheral character that makes one wonder exactly what that character did to deserve such an awful demise. It really puts a pall over the film because it's so out of place.

There's also been a lot of yammering about the sexism on display in the way the film treats Bryce Dallas Howard's character Claire, the aunt who is in charge of keeping Jurassic World financially viable. It started with a tweet from filmmaker Joss Whedon (who, himself had been accused of sexism after the way Black Widow was handled in Avengers: Age of Ultron) who questioned why Claire had to be the damsel in distress. He only saw one scene out of context, and then apologized, but the issue has remained and it's a silly one. People complain about how she dressed while running through the jungle. Umm, she was working when all hell broke loose, so she would naturally be dressed business professional and wearing heels. It's as simple as that. She really didn't have time to change while being chased around the island by things that want to eat her. Claire is actually a strong female character with a high position within the company, and the skills plus a good head on her shoulders to get herself and her nephews out of danger. And she basically saves Owen and the kids (again) in the film's last act. Take that as you will.

When Jurassic Park came out, people were awed by the amazing computer generated effects combined with actual mechanical creatures that were on the screen because we had never seen anything like that before. The wow factor, at this point, is not there because we can see pretty much anything any special effects artist can imagine these days, so a few CGI dinosaurs are no big deal. The effects are still nothing to sneeze at and are quite realistic, so the film certainly succeeds in that department. I just wish someone had spent a little more time developing a new story that didn't feel like it needed to rely on the original so much. If you just want a big, summer popcorn movie, however, Jurassic World is worth the trip, even if it does give you a sense of deja vu.

Friday, March 20, 2015

More action and twists make
Insurgent better than Divergent

I'm coming late, but not too late, to the Divergent series having only seen the first film in preparation for the press screening earlier in the week. The plot of the first film basically tells us that a post-something future which has ruined the world sees its surviving humans divided into factions which are supposed to help society rebuild with everyone in their proper place.

The factions all have names like Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peaceful and welcoming), Erudite (intelligent), Candor (honesty) and Dauntless (bravery). In a bit of plotting that's not quite explained, every citizen is tested to see which faction suits them best, but at a certain point during their teenage years there is a choosing ceremony where they get to decide which faction they want to belong to. Once you choose, you can never go back and if you don't fit in you become "factionless." Some people test with traits belonging to more than one faction, the Divergent, and they are seen as a great threat to society.

The new film Insurgent (or The Divergent Series: Insurgent … the title is presented on screen both ways) picks up some time after the events of the conclusion of Divergent with Tris (Shailene Woodley), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Peter (Miles Teller) and Dauntless leader Four (Theo James) hiding out with the Amitys until they can gather the rest of the Dauntless together and try to fight Jeanine (Kate Winslet) after she secretly starts a war with the Abnegations, fearing they are trying to take over rule from the Erudite.

Of course, there are many monkey-wrenches thrown into the plan when Four's mother, whom he believed was dead, shows up and offers to join him in the fight with her Factionless tribe. There's also a mysterious box which Jeanine has possession of, found buried in the family home of Tris, that only a 100% Divergent has the ability to open. One guess on who Jeanine needs. But is what she thinks is in the box going to help her cause or destroy everything she believes? (If you've read the books, you probably already know the answer to that question … and there is at least one more book/movie in the series).

I found Divergent to be an overly long origin story that had too many unanswered questions about this world, this society and who/why people are divided and why they can choose to go against their inborn faction. The sequel does amp up the action quite a bit, gives us some answers as to who came up with the factions idea, but has discarded the whole choosing thing as Tris, Four and their group have pretty much sent their society into a tizzy. There is action, betrayals and unlikely heroes by the time the second chapter ends, and of course it lays the groundwork for the next film (and hopefully they won't feel the need to divide it into two movies).

Woodley, James, Elgort, Teller and Winslet have all settled into their roles, but it's nice to see a little bit of shading as some of them begin to rethink what they're doing. Some flip, some don't and those make for some nice surprises. New additions to the cast include Octavia Spencer, who is woefully under-used as the Amity leader, and Naomi Watts, also under-used but will perhaps have a larger role in the next film. Bad guys Jai Courtney and Mekhi Phifer also return.

Robert Schwentke takes over the directorial reins from Neil Burger and he gives the film a bit of a different look, from the sunny outdoors of the Amity village to the cold, sleek lab where Jeanine uses a host of Divergents to try to open that box (which looks almost like a large version of the cube from Hellraiser). The film also features quite a bit of off-screen violence (people clearly being shot in the head by Tris, Four and others) but very little blood. The special effects are also amped up quite a bit, especially as Tris is hooked to Jeanine's machine. The film is also presented in 3D this time around which makes the environment feel bigger but rarely does anything leap off the screen at you.

Divergent was a bit over-long at two-hours-twenty-minutes, but Insurgent is a little leaner with a two-hour run time that doesn't seem to lag a bit. With the story now past the Tris origin story, it becomes more engaging, interesting and surprising. I even found myself getting a little teary-eyed at the end as I started to relate the Divergents to those in our society today that are seen as different and scary for no real reason. This social commentary does add another layer to the story and I'm now curious to see how it all ends.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Will Smith keeps a heist plot
in Focus

Heist movies are sometimes difficult things to pull off. Some are successful (like Ocean's Eleven) and some are not (like Ocean's Twelve). Some are very dramatic, some have humorous undertones. The new heist movie Focus falls in the latter category, and adds a bit of romance into the mix.

Will Smith stars as Nicky, a seasoned con man who runs a team of master pickpockets who target large events like conventions and sporting events. One night in a restaurant, Nicky is approached by the beautiful Jess (Margot Robbie) to help get her out of a situation … pretend to be her date. Turns out Jess is also a pickpocket, a rather amateur one at that, who is called out by Nicky for her technique. Realizing he's a master, she begs him to mentor her in the fine art of theft.

He does, reluctantly at first, but her skills win him over, the team pulls off a million dollar day at a vaguely Super Bowl-ish event, and he sends Jess on her way with no explanation, breaking her heart in the process. Three years later, Nicky is working a new job in Brazil and it just so happens Jess is there too, now the girlfriend of his new mark. But is she really, or is she working a game too? And just who is playing whom?

Focus, thankfully, is a fun heist movie with beautiful leads pulling off impossible crimes, and no one really gets hurt (well, not until the last third of the movie). Smith is back in fine form, turning on the charm and looking great at 45 (trivia: Smith is now older than Uncle Phil was at the start of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air). After a series of much too serious films which culminated in the bomb that was After Earth, Smith is actually having fun again as the romantic lead who can talk a good game.

Margot Robbie, who made a big splash in The Wolf of Wall Street (and who will play DC Comics villain Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad alongside Jared Leto as The Joker), should become a huge star after this movie. First of all, she's simply gorgeous (I have a little gay crush on her now). But besides her beauty, the girl can act! There is a pretty funny scene with Nicky trying to teach Jess how to be alluring, but she can never get the look on her face right. She shows her confidence and excitement during the pick-pocketing, and she is incredibly vulnerable when Nicky forces her to potentially gamble away all of the money they just took in. Robbie truly sells that Jess feels completely betrayed with such honesty you just want to jump into the movie and give her a big hug.

The film is filled out with some great character actors in key roles including Adrian Martinez as Nicky's closest friend Farhad, Brennan Brown as Horst (who really runs Nicky's game but disappears midway through the movie) and Gerald McRaney as Owens, the chief of security for Nicky's mark in Brazil (played by Rodrigo Santoro). The movie, however, belongs to Smith and Robbie who have a great scene with B.D. Wong at the aforementioned Super Bowl-ish game that is the highlight of the movie.

While the movie is great fun overall, it does suffer from a bit of disjointedness and has just a few plot holes. First and foremost, the first "meet cute" between Nicky and Jess. Was it a coincidence that two pickpockets just happened to cross paths in that restaurant, or was Nicky actually watching Jess from afar? Who knows. And in the second half of the movie, did Jess know Nicky was going to be in Brazil three years later, and was she really there just to steal a $200,00 watch or to play Nicky? Never explained. Too many of these coincidences can sink a movie, but the stars are just so engaging that you accept it all and go along for the ride.

Besides the star power, the film looks gorgeous, particularly in the first part of the film with some of the most beautiful lighting I've seen on film in a while. The look of the film also changes from that dark, but lush winter in New York lighting to harsh, bright Brazilian sunlight in the last part of the film but it all serves a purpose. The film also has one of the best soundtracks of recent memory, using the music to set the mood. Focus may not be the best heist movie ever made, especially with the major plot holes, but the twists and turns, the constant guessing of who is playing whom, the music and the great performances of Smith and Robbie make it a worthwhile getaway from our wintry weather.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Selma' is the most important movie of the year

Usually when a message movie like Selma is released during the holiday season, the first thing I think of is "shameless Oscar grab." But Selma is definitely anything but a brazen attempt by a filmmaker to win an award. Selma truly is the most important movie you will see this year.

If you don't already know the story of Selma, the film focuses on one moment of the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized African Americans to peacefully protest for their rights in the deep south. A time when blacks could not easily register to vote, or were forced to sit in special sections of restaurants (if they were allowed in at all), drink from separate water fountains, sit in the back of the bus...

While King is the leader and the face of the movement, the film wisely focuses on the movement rather than making King the central star of the film. King, his wife Coretta, and everyone else who was a part of the movement are integral to the film. The story does take some brief looks into the Kings' personal lives, with the alleged indiscretions of King being used against him by the FBI to destroy not only the movement but his family.

But the story here is about the Civil Rights Movement and the people who were affected by the racial discrimination of the time, and how they joined together to affect change in the country. It wasn't easy but they made it happen and this is a very important lesson that people today need to see, in the same way that the LGBT community needs to take lessons from the movie Milk.

Watching Selma, it's frightening how the story absolutely resonates today. There's that old saying that if we don't remember our history, we're doomed to repeat it and judging by the way the Supreme Court dismantled the very act this film depicts people of all races and religions fighting for – The Voting Rights Act – we are headed back to a time where white people seem to think it's okay to discriminate against black people.

King was the face of the Civil Rights Movement, but where is our King today? Where is our Harvey Milk? There are plenty of organizations like the HRC putting out press releases condemning the kind of discrimination that is currently being implemented against blacks, gays and anyone else who isn't a white Christian, but where are the movements, the peaceful protests, the public faces to get on TV and speak for the masses? A person speaking directly to the public can get much more done than a press release. Until we see those faces leading the charge, we will continue to slip back in time.

Director Ava DuVernay has done a magnificent job bringing this moment in history to life without being cloying or overly reverent. She lets us see the strife within King's camp, the rifts that began to form when he suddenly canceled the second march to Montgomery (thinking it was a trap when the police stepped aside to allow them to pass) after the disastrous end to the first march. If you aren't horrified and moved to tears by the violence inflicted upon the marchers as they peacefully walk across a bridge then you need help.

David Oyelowo is perfect as King, showing us both the personal and public sides of the man, and delivering his speeches (or variations of the speeches as the filmmakers were not grated the rights to use the actual speeches) with the power that truly moved people to act. Carmen Ejogo is stunning as Coretta, a doppelganger of the real Coretta, and Tom Wilkinson pulls off a credible LBJ (even in the face of much criticism that his portrayal is inaccurate, a move some think is simply a way to discredit the entire movie). Everyone in the cast, from Common to Lorraine Toussaint, is excellent and though much has been made of Oprah Winfrey's role in the film as Annie Lee Cooper, a woman who is constantly being denied the right to even register to vote by any means necessary, she's only in a few brief scenes.

The film closes out with the moving song "Glory" (which just won a Golden Globe) by Common and John Legend, and it is a very powerful accompaniment to the film. We should be seeing an Oscar coming its way as well.

If you've been hemming and hawing about sitting through a true-life historical film, put those doubts aside and head to your local cinema to see Selma. You'll be moved, you'll be entertained, but most of all, you will learn something that you can actually apply to your life and the lives of others today.

My 10 Favorite Movies of 2014

Happy New Year! As we prepare to begin a new year of movie-going, it's time to take a look back on some of the better films of 2014. This is a list of the films I enjoyed, not necessarily a Top Ten Best Films of 2014 list (some of the prestige films like Selma didn't open in Baltimore until after the new year). For this list, I chose the ten films of 2014 that entertained me the most.

Big Hero 6 – Disney hit one out of the park in the animation department, something usually reserved for their sibling company Pixar. But this tale of teenaged superheroes scored major points for introducing the world to Baymax, a medical droid who becomes pivotal in saving the world (or at least the fictional city of San Fransokyo) from destruction, and for injecting real heart-tugging emotion into the story. When children and adults are sniffling and wiping away tears, you know the filmmakers have done their job.

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesRise of the Planet of the Apes was better than it had any right to be, and with its combination of popcorn entertainment and amazing CGI characters and performances, a sequel was inevitable. Dawn, which takes place ten years after Rise, takes the performance capture and CGI to whole new levels (Andy Serkis really should be considered for an Oscar nomination as the ape Caesar) and takes the story to another, more thoughtful level as well. The film really sets out to make you think about our society and the directions we could go if we're not careful, and that's something you don't usually get from a summer SPFX blockbuster. It loses a few points for some of the much too stereotypical human characters, but overall it really whets your appetite for the next chapter.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – This is the film X-Men fans have been waiting for, the one that merges the key players from the original trilogy with the new cast from the most recent film. X-Men: First Class was a triumph in the way it showed us the younger versions of Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lensherr/Magneto and other future X-Men and how the plot tied into the history of 1962. The new film also plays with the past, present and future using Hugh Jackman's Wolverine as the connective tissue, and even when it gets a little goofy towards the end, it's still hugely entertaining and shows that there's still plenty of life left in the franchise (unlike Sony's Spider-Man).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The first Captain America film was a real gamble, setting the main part of the story in the 1940s and bringing Cap to the present right at the very end. The new film was also interesting in that, while it has a modern setting, the tone is very 1970s political thriller like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. To strengthen this narrative, Marvel even went so far as to cast Condor star Robert Redford in a pivotal role as a top dog at S.H.I.E.L.D. The film even touched on a government's over-reach into personal privacy, something that Cap is against, and will continue to resonate through to the next Avengers and third Captain America movie. It was all brilliantly realized and a little CGI-heavy at the end, but still one of the best of the Marvel superhero flicks to date.

Into the Woods – Disney took a bold step in making a film based on fairy tales … but this isn't your traditional Disney fairy tale movie. Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical finally made it to the big screen, and for an adaptation it really works. The actors acquit themselves well handling Sondheim's complicated lyrics, and director Rob Marshall works his magic as the film goes from the bright, color tales that we (think we) know to a much darker place where "happily ever after" really is just a fairy tale. It's definitely not for little kids, and a downer of an ending may color how you feel about the film as a whole, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Marvel's Guardians of the GalaxyCaptain America: The Winter Soldier was the best Marvel film of the year … until this one came out a few months later. Marvel gambled hard on bringing a little-known cast of comic book characters to the big screen, but with director James Gunn's obvious affection for the material and a star-making performance from Chris Pratt, the gamble paid off. It was also one of the few summer blockbusters that wasn't a sequel or reboot, and proved that if the studios can produce a great movie that can make people talk, they can have a hit with original material. The film was great fun with a great 1980s mix tape soundtrack and some eye-popping visual effects and makeup. Definitely one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Edge of Tomorrow – I'm still baffled as to why this tanked at the box office, but it's obvious the studio had no idea how to market the movie, changing the title from the source material's All You Need Is Kill to a more generic Edge of Tomorrow, and they still don't know how to promote it on home video, hiding the title in the smallest font possible and using the film's tagline "Live. Die. Repeat." as the title. The film is a clever Groundhog Day story of a man who has to re-live the same day over and over again in order to fight an alien invasion of earth. Terrific performances from Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt (who is getting notice for her Into the Woods role), some amazing action scenes and an ending that will keep you guessing should have had people lined up to see this. They didn't, and they missed one of the most exciting films of the year.

PridePride tells the story of a group of gay men and lesbians who started a group to help support British miners during a strike which shut down the country under Thatcher's rule in the early 1980s. Picking a small mining town to deliver their donation, they faced some resistance but were also welcomed by many in the town. The situation is one of those things that can only happen in the movies, but this is a true story! The film doesn't hold back in showing the fight for gay rights of the time (and touches on the beginnings of the AIDS crisis), both in London and in the small town, but it's ultimately an uplifting, emotional, funny, triumphant story that never becomes sugar-coated. There are also some great performances from Imelda Staunton, Ben Schnetzer and Jessica Gunning, all worthy of awards consideration. The only misstep now is the US home video packaging that has completed erased any mention of the gays. For a movie about acceptance, it's shameful that Sony felt they had to whitewash the video package to sell a few more copies (although it would be fun to sit with some unsuspecting viewer in the Bible Belt while the story unfolds).

Birdman – This is one of those movies that just puts your jaw on the floor for the entire running time. Michael Keaton stars as a washed-up actor, who once played the superhero Birdman (wink, wink), trying to get his star to rise once again by mounting a Broadway play … something he's never done before. As the production and his psyche spiral out of control, we're taken on the ride in what appears to be one continuous shot (even though it takes place over the course of several days). With ironic performances from Keaton and Edward Norton, and wonderful support from Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifiniakis and Andrea Riseborough, Birdman is one of those films that just stays with you long after you've left the theater. A definite Oscar contender for Best Picture, Birdman could be this year's Gravity.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – When this finally came out in March, we had already endured two months of lackluster films like The Legend of Hercules, At Middleton, That Awkward Moment and The Monuments Men, so Wes Anderson's twisted tale of romance and (possible) murder was a welcome respite from the winter dreck. I'm not even a fan of Anderson's films and I found this to be utterly charming from beginning to end, with Anderson's whimsical visuals firmly grounded by a bravura performance from Ralph Fiennes as the hotel bellman who keeps things running while attending to his own needs. The film becomes a caper when a painting goes missing, and then a jail-break movie, almost veering into Pink Panther-like slapstick before settling back at the hotel and a poignant ending. Incredibly enjoyable from beginning to end, and definitely a contender for Oscar gold.

If you missed any of these movies in theaters, you can still find Into the Woods and Big Hero 6 on the big screen. The rest are currently available on home video. Do check them out!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Big Hero 6 isn't just for kids

Everyone, by now, is familiar with the Pixar name and the high quality animated movies that studio produces, from the original Toy Story to WALL-E. Pixar has become known for the length of time they take to develop a story or nurture a script before even rendering a single pixel of information. They do have the occasional stumble (Cars 2), and are facing some backlash after announcing a fourth Toy Story movie, but for the most part they put out the best of the best in CG animated films.

Disney's CG animation arm has not been as successful, at least as far as critics are concerned. Most of their animated films are geared more towards the younger crowd … who will want all of the merchandise that goes along with the movie … and scripts usually are too juvenile for adults to bear. But, since Disney has folded Pixar into the company (complete with Pixar's John Lasseter heading up the animation unit), their CG films have grown up. Their Secret of the Wings was a pretty solid effort considering it was a direct-to-video film with limited theatrical release, and that also seemed to be a test run for the studios best (and most popular) CG animated film yet, Frozen. And now Disney has released a new CG animated film with the curious title of Big Hero 6.

Big Hero 6 tells the story of Hiro and his older brother Tadashi (who live in the mash-up city of San Fransokyo). Both are scientific geniuses, and while the older Tadashi has made something of himself, the teenaged Hiro spends time gambling in (illegal) robot fights. Knowing he can't stop Hiro from going, Tadashi offers to give him a ride to the next fight but ends up taking him to the institute he attends. A new world opens up before Hiro's eyes, and before long he is creating a new type of robot to present for consideration for admission into the institute.

The robots are a success, a "shady" businessman offers to buy them from Hiro but he is convinced it is better to accept the invitation to join the institute. After leaving the competition, the building bursts into flames, Tadashi runs in to save his professor, but an explosion spells the worst for anyone left inside the building. Depression takes over Hiro's life, but his brother's invention Baymax, a personal medical robot, Tadashi's friends and a mysterious supervillain who seems to have replicated Hiro's microbots give Hiro a new purpose in life – find out who stole his invention and killed his brother.

This really is some heady stuff for something that could be looked down upon as just a kids' movie. There certainly is more than enough colorful scenery and laugh-out-loud humor (courtesy of Baymax) for the kids, but the idea of death, revenge, retribution and sacrifice will keep adults heavily invested in the story and the characters. Tadashi's funeral scenes are very reminiscent of the wordless life story of the characters in Pixar's Up, and it will definitely leave you with some very moist eyes. Even though these characters are animated, you feel real human emotion from the "performances" that just tug on your heart.

Another scene near the end of the movie, the one involving selfless sacrifice, not only had tears rolling down my face but had the children behind me having complete emotional meltdowns. That certainly demonstrates the power of the characters to make you believe in them, and the power of the writing to fully engage you in those characters' fates. The only real weak link in the story is the villain, who comes out of nowhere and wears a kabuki mask for no other reason than associating it with the city in which they live. The final battle between Hiro and his friends (the Big Hero 6 of the title, a name they give themselves as they become real superheroes through science) is action-packed and made even more impressive with the stunning use of 3D.

Of course, the real star of the movie is Baymax, a big marshmallow of a robot that is designed to attend to anyone's medical needs, from a slight rash to emotional heartbreak. Baymax is designed to be non-threatening, hence the squishy inflatable look, kind of like a Christmas lawn decoration come to life, but he's equipped with everything one would need for medical assistance. To help fight the villain though, Hiro has to alter Baymax's programming to make him a badass fighting machine, which sometimes confuses the robot, but once Hiro pulls the disk containing the medical programming, Baymax changes into something morally questionable. It certainly is a bold move on the filmmakers' part to take what and who should be the film's good guys and turn them to the dark side, especially in a film with children as its main demographic. But by the end of the movie, you will be wanting your own Baymax.

For some reason, I find myself getting drowsy during CG animated films maybe because of the over-stimulation of the colors or the movement, or maybe even the 3D, but Big Hero 6 had me fully engaged for the entire running time. If you think cartoons are just for kids, then have your attitude readjusted by Big Hero 6. As an added bonus, the animated short Feast precedes the film, a story about the life of a cute pooch (and his owner) as they go from bachelorhood to romance and break-up, all told through the dog's eyes (and appetite). It's a charming film that has as much, if not more, heart packed into its short running time than most live action, feature length films can muster. Together, these films are a real treat for all ages.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Vote for issues, not people

There is an election coming and if there's one thing the Republican party is counting on, it's that you won't vote. Voter apathy is the best tool Republicans have to win this mid-term election. It's been hammered home that even though this is "just a mid-term," it is a crucial election. The Republicans only need a few seats in the Senate to have complete control of Congress. Do you really want Mitch McConnell, the person who stated six years ago that his one mission in life was to make President Obama a one-term president, running the show?

And Democrats, what the #@!$% is wrong with you, running away from President Obama? Can we stop allowing the RNC and Fox News to constantly bombard voters with total misinformation and outright lies about the President's administration and accomplishments? A couple of weeks ago, they were blaming the President for high gas prices. Now that prices are at their lowest in four years, they're putting in voters' minds that low gas prices are bad for the economy! For the record, the President has no control over gas prices (and he's golfed and vacationed much less than Bush).

But we apparently live in a Bizarro World that is completely controlled by Fox News. They keep telling people what a terrible president Obama has been to their viewers who are so mind-numbed by the constant barrage of propaganda that they can't be bothered to look at any other source of information which provides actual facts. Because of this, we now have Democrat candidates who refuse to be associated with Obama, from turning down offers to have him campaign for them, to refusing to say whether or not they voted for him.

We live in a world now where gas prices have tumbled, the economy is growing extremely well, the stock market closed at an all-time high this week, unemployment has dropped from 10.3% to 5.9%, the Affordable Care Act is working ... I mean, what in any of this makes people run FROM Obama? Oh, that's right, no one who watches Fox News hears any of this. They're too busy now focused on the ebola epidemic that is sweeping across the country. Except that it isn't. One person has died in the United States from ebola, and that person didn't contract it here. The handful of people who did contract it on US soil ... are alive and recovered! But now we have politicians who repeat the GOP scripted "I'm not a scientist" when asked about climate change who are suddenly trained medical experts when it comes to dealing with ebola (not to mention that Republican men seem to also be trained gynecologists). If you haven't heard, Rand Paul is an ophthalmologist, so I would take anything he says about ebola with a grain of salt. And, people of Maine, IT'S NOT AIRBORNE! If Kaci Hickox wants to go for a bike ride, you're not going to catch it as she pedals on by.

So, yes, Republicans are either counting on you not voting because it's a mid-term, or because you don't like the President or a particular candidate in your own party. They are counting on the stupid vote. They don't want informed voters at the polls. They really don't want minority voters there either judging by the way they've tried in many states to limit voting rights (and let's thank the Supreme Court for helping make that possible by striking down the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as no longer relevant!). A low-information voter is the Republicans' best friend.

It has really bothered me lately to see that some people who say they are total liberals have decided to vote with the Republican party in this mid-term simply because of the gridlock over the past six years. Seriously? Do you realize which party has caused the gridlock? Can you not see the progress the President has made IN SPITE OF the Republican party? At this point, you're playing completely into their plans by believing that giving them all the power will fix things. How will giving even more tax breaks to corporations and the extremely wealthy fix things? How will completely taking away women's rights to make decision with their medical professionals fix things? How will allowing even more money into political campaigns fix things? How will making guns even easier to obtain fix things? How will cutting school budgets (and transitioning teaching from science based facts to religion-based theory) fix things??? Is this really the party you want to help put in control of this country?

Let's look at just a few of the things that Congressional Republicans have voted AGAINST:
  • Voting rights
  • Paycheck fairness
  • Ending outsourcing tax breaks
  • The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014
  • The Violence Against Women Act
  • An amendment to extend equal benefits to active duty service members and veterans in legal same sex marriages
  • Minimum Wage increase
  • Campaign finance transparency
  • The Buffett Rule (a minimum tax on millionaires)
  • The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)
  • U.N. treaty to protect the equal rights of the disabled
  • The Affordable Care Act
  • Gun control legislation
  • Infrastructure funding
  • Confirmation of a Surgeon General (under pressure from the NRA!)
The Republicans changed the rules of voting in Congress to make everything have to pass by a 60 vote "majority" because that was the only way they could block things from happening. Now, Mitch McConnell says that when he's the new Speaker of the House, the first thing he's going to do is change the rules back to a 51 vote majority and repeal the Affordable Care Act. He's boldly telling HIS constituents, the ones who are benefiting most from Obamacare, that he's going to take that away from them ... and they're still planning to vote for him! Because the other person has been painted as being Obama's twin (and because he loves coal). Seriously.

When it comes to voting, you can't look at the person and say, "I don't like that person so I'm not voting for them." You have to look a the party's platform and ask yourself if you agree or disagree with that. Taxes are always a sticking point for voters. No one wants to be taxed. But no one seems to understand how states are run. They don't just print money and hand it out to people. Taxes pay government employees, taxes fix schools and roads, taxes keep your fire and police departments running. You cut taxes, that make up in the decrease in funding has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is usually deep cuts to various programs voters rely on. And when those things are cut, the voters complain.

Kansas voters happily put Sam Brownback in the governor's mansion because he promised to give everyone massive tax cuts. And now the state is virtually bankrupt because there is not enough money coming in to keep things running. And somehow, Brownback is almost assured to win the election come Tuesday. Same thing in Florida. Rick Scott has done nothing but profit handsomely from the sleazy things he's done while in office, yet he's tied with his Democrat opponent and could very well be re-elected. Huh? In Maryland, the Republicans are painting Democratic candidate Anthony Brown as nothing but a tax loving politician and his opponent as the state's tax breaking savior. If Maryland elects Larry Hogan, we're all but assured to become the new Kansas. Hogan is known to have deep Tea Party ties, so we can expect attempts to curtail Obamacare and possibly repeal the state's marriage equality law. The legislature, thankfully, will still be predominantly Democrat, so the chance of those things happening right away are slim, but if Republicans do gain control, we will become Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin and Florida.

So, if you haven't voted yet, all I'm asking is that you vote SMART. Look at the issues, look at the party as a whole, look at where things are going now, look at how a party has voted on crucial issues and if an individual simply votes along party lines or actually has a singular voice on some matters. It's not a popularity contest, it's an entire population you put at risk by note voting or just voting because you think it's going to fix the gridlock in Washington. If that's you're thinking, then you are the voter the Republicans are counting on. And if you don't vote, then you absolutely don't get to complain about anything.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy is the
most comic booky comic book
movie yet

There's been a lot of talk about what the movie of the summer will be. A few weeks ago, everyone seemed to be in agreement, for the most part, that that movie was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But it looks like Marvel Studios has hit another home run ... make that a Grand Slam with their latest offering, Guardians of the Galaxy.

The studio has certainly been cranking the hype machine for several months now trying to get audiences who only know Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers familiar with this new group of characters from a comic that has many fervent fans, but that fan base is considerably smaller compared to those who are at least familiar with the characters who have already hit the big screen from the Marvel Universe.

Guardians of the Galaxy tells the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a human who had been abducted from earth as a child moments after his mother dies. The story moves from that moment to Peter as an adult, apparently some kind of treasure hunter working with a blue alien, Yondu (Michael Rooker), to retrieve an orb for a client. Quill gets the orb, but also finds himself captured and incarcerated after a fight for the orb with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that draws the attention of Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered creature that looks like a racoon, and Groot (Vin Diesel), an ambulatory tree whose vocabulary consists of "I am Groot" (only Rocket seems to understand what he's really saying).

Needless to say, things escalate as the four escape prison (with another prisoner, Drax the Destroyer, played by Dave Bautista) and they learn what the orb contains -- an Infinity Stone -- and who wants it to potentially destroy the galaxy -- that would be Ronan (Lee Pace) who is supposed to deliver the orb to galactic villain Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Guardians of the Galaxy, as directed by James Gunn, is a visual feast. It is the most comic booky comic book movie that's come along in quite some time. It really is one of the most wildly colorful movies out there with a color wheel of aliens of all hues: blues, green, pink, just about any color in the crayon box. The film, for the most part, is also very bright with most of the major scenes taking place in full daylight. It's far from a depressing movie.

But all that light and color doesn't mean the movie is light and fluffy. Yes, the movie is very, very funny with a script full of one-liners fans will be sure to be quoting for the rest of the summer (one of my favories involves the words "pelvic sorcery"). But with all of the comedy and action, the film has a great big heart too. You'll laugh a lot and you'll cry (or get a little weepy) a couple of times too. It's this great balance of action, laughs and heart that makes the movie work so well.

The cast, of course, also gets as much credit as Gunn and his scriptwriters. Pratt, whom most people know as paunchy, lovable oaf Andy on Parks & Recreation, cuts a fine form as the film's hero. Most people know he can pull off the comedy, but he puts all of his heart into the role too and makes Quill a fully rounded character, even when he's being an "a-hole." Saldana kicks ass with the best of them, and Bautista is surprisingly good delivering his very funny dialog with dead-on earnestness.

But whodathunk the film's real breakout stars would be a talking racoon and a talking tree? The CGI artists have done some amazing work bringing them to life, but Cooper and Diesel have done outstanding work lending their voices to a couple of characters that could have ended up as the butt of the joke and brought the movie way, way down. But they both elevate their characters to the same level as their human counterparts, becoming just as integral to the story and just as heroic as Quill by the end.

There really isn't much more to say about Guardians of the Galaxy. It's definitely a movie that needs to be seen to be appreciated, and it needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. After seeing the 17 minute IMAX preview, it was a bit of a letdown to see it on a regular screen but credit must be given to Gunn for really planning and composing each shot for 3D. This is a conversion, but it's one of the finest conversions I've seen. Thank you, James Gunn, for really using the format to its best advantage. If you've had any reservations about seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, put them aside now and make plans to see what is undoubtedly the most entertaining movie of the summer.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Captain America: The Winter
Soldier changes everything

It's a pretty safe bet to say that since Marvel started making their own movies under their own banner (unlike Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Daredevil and … Ghost Rider), it's hard to say that there's been a stinker in the bunch … well, Iron Man 2 for me has been the worst of the bunch. So expectations are exceptionally high for the second outing for the First Avenger in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Whereas the first movie played out like a 1940s war movie with comic book overtones (in the guise of Red Skull himself and the super soldier program), The Winter Soldier has a nice 70s political thriller vibe to it. Think The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and even All the President's Men; and two of the three star Robert Redford who is not so coincidentally cast as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Alexander Pierce, Nick Fury's right hand man. (And it seems that Three Days of the Condor is especially required viewing to further appreciate The Winter Soldier.)

The Winter Soldier is set some time after the events of The Avengers, but the battle that ravaged New York City is the jumping off point for the story as S.H.I.E.L.D. is preparing to launch a new global security system called Insight which, in a sort of Minority Report kind of way, scans every human on the planet, examines all of their personal data and then determines if they will eventually commit a crime with the end result being their elimination. Fury tries to convince Cap/Steve Rogers that this is the way the world is now and without this we don't have freedom. Cap comes back at him with a line sure to stir up some folks, “This isn't freedom, this is fear.”

But something causes Fury to ask Pierce to delay the launch of Insight and after an attempt is made on his life, he tells Rogers to trust no one … but why? That's pretty much all I'm willing to say about the plot because there are some major developments that completely destroy everything we know about S.H.I.E.L.D. (and if you've been watching ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the ramifications are going to significantly alter the series as well).

My expectations for Captain America: The Winter Soldier were very high, and I can confidently say that they were exceeded. I know some folks want more connection between the films, but I see these solo character movies as their own thing with threads to the other movies. The Winter Soldier does prominently feature Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, but there's no Hawkeye, Hulk or anyone else besides Fury. The film does introduce Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon, Emily VanCamp's Agent 13 (who may eventually be named Sharon Carter if they follow the comics), Frank Grillo's Brock Rumlow (who may become Crossbones), while bringing back Sebastian Stan (the presumed dead Bucky Barnes), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill) and Maximiliano Hernández as Jasper Sitwell. Sitwell has appeared in Thor, The Avengers and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and has a very pivotal role in the events which drive the movie. I'd love to know if this has been in the cards since he was introduced into the filmic Marvel Universe.

Since I can't say much about the plot, I will say that the film itself looks spectacular (and I can't judge the 3D version since the press screenings were only 2D this time around). Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have done a terrific job of grounding the story in reality while shooting on actual Washington, D.C. locations (and Maryland's own Fort Meade even gets a shout out). While I'm sure there are a ton of digital effects throughout the movie, they are virtually invisible, helping to sell the realness of the story. The story itself is pretty deep, a bit dark, very violent and not at all cartoony. I would actually hesitate to take small children to see this just because it is so realistic.

The performances are all terrific as well, but I would have liked to have seen just a little more character development for Pierce. I think his part in the story's events would have been even more surprising had we seen him in some of the previous Marvel movies. As it stands, though, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is now at the top of the Marvel movie heap for me. I loved the style and tone of Captain America: The First Avenger, but I enjoyed even more all of the plot twists and turns and the “where do we go from here?” feeling we're left with at the end. 

Of course, it wouldn't be a Marvel movie without a post-credits stinger, and we get two this time – one sets up The Avengers: Age of Ultron (introducing “the twins”) and the other all the way at the end of the credits maybe setting up the future of Captain America himself. And do take note: if you are a viewer of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., do not watch any more episodes until you see the movie! You have been warned.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

My 2014 Oscar predictions

It's Oscar night, so I just wanted to make a quick list of all the awards I'm predicting (or guessing, since who has seen any of the documentary and animated short subjects?! Okay, I did see Get a Horse because it was shown with Frozen.) for the March 2, 2014 ceremony. I'll update with the actual winners after the ceremony is over to see how well (or poorly) I did.


  • Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
  • Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey
  • Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto
  • Best Actress: Cate Blanchett
  • Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o
  • Animated Feature: Frozen
  • Cinematography: Gravity
  • Costume Design: American Hustle [The Great Gatsby]
  • Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
  • Documentary Feature: Dirty Wars [20 Feet From Stardom]
  • Documentary Short: Prison Terminal [The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life]
  • Film Editing: Gravity
  • Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty (Italy)
  • Makeup and Hair: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa [Dallas Buyers Club]
  • Original Score: Gravity
  • Original Song: "Let It Go," Frozen
  • Production Design: The Great Gatsby
  • Animated Short: Get a Horse [Mr. Hublot]
  • Live Action Short: Helium
  • Sound Editing: Gravity
  • Sound Mixing: Gravity
  • Visual Effects: Gravity
  • Adapted Screenplay: Philomena [12 Years a Slave]
  • Original Screenplay: American Hustle [Her]
My final score: 17 out of 24. Biggest surprise -- Her winning Best Original Screenplay. Biggest disappointment -- Bad Grandpa not winning for hair and makeup.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Her is a sweet love story,
but is it original?

There's a lot of hype surrounding the new Spike Jonze movie, Her, a story of a man who falls in love with his computer operating system. The film takes place in a retro future where people are more connected to their personal devices rather than the humans around them. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is trying to come to terms with an impending divorce that has left him devastated in the relationship department. Oddly enough, he works for a company that "writes" personal letters for people and Theodore is constantly praised for how heartfelt his letters from a husband to a wife, or parent to child, are. It's a totally bizarre concept, and makes one wonder what kind of world these people live in. I've heard of people writing poems for other, but personal letters with intimate details takes the concept just a bit too far.

Theodore goes through his day writing lovely letters for people and trying to satisfy his own needs at night, usually through a kind of online, cybersex hookup (the one we see does not turn out so well for him, but is hilariously voiced by Kristin Wiig). When a new personalized operating system hits the market, he decides to give it a try and discovers a very human sounding voice helping him sort his email, his calendar and his personal life (it goes so far as to find a date and book a restaurant reservation for him). But the OS is designed to truly interact and grow as it communicates with its owner, and the fact that it sounds like Scarlett Johansson is a definite plus. The OS names itself Samantha, and Theodore begins to feel that he's found the perfect woman … even if she doesn't have a body.

The film deftly follows the developing relationship, and both Phoenix and Johansson give terrific performances … made even more amazing as Johansson was not the original voice of Samantha. We see their ups and downs, and are introduced to Theo's friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband along the way, as well as his boss (Chris Pratt) who wants to go on a double date with his new girlfriend, Theo and Samantha. With Amy's introduction, we learn that she and Theo dated in college for a minute … and that they really would be perfect for each other if they could only see that for themselves. Both actors are so good that we ache for her to ditch her controlling husband and pull the plug on Samantha so she and Theo can live their lives happily ever after.

Aside from the excellent cast, Jonze's direction and eye for production design are impeccable, but I do have to take issue with the pants all the men wear. Does Jonze think everyone loses any sense of fashion style in the not-too-distant future? All the men wear tweedy, very high-waisted pants that are this side of ugly. Chris Pratt even seems to be wearing a pair of "The Pants That Ate Fred Mertz" that come up to his nipples. Not a good look on anyone. The script, by Jonze, is sweet and sad and is being praised for its originality but … is it all that original?

I can think of two cases of stories that have computers and humans falling in love. Electric Dreams (1984) had a human, Miles (Lenny Von Dohlen), and his computer (the voice of Bud Cort) vying for the affections of neighbor Madeline (Virginia Madsen). It got some notice at the time for its depiction of technology becoming intelligent but is mostly forgotten today. There was also a TV movie anthology (a pilot for a proposed series) called Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love which also had a segment in which a computer falls in love with its programmer (I remember watching this when it aired and bawling my eyes out when this story came to a tragic end). So while Jonze's twist on the story and execution are emotional, I wouldn't really call the foundation for the story "original."

The one thing, though, that does stand out is the voice acting of Johannson. Many people are saying this is truly a case for rewarding a voice only performance with an Oscar nomination, but we know that will never happen. She is, however, excellent and even though we only hear her voice, the performance is so powerful that you could almost swear she is actually in the movie. If Her deserves praise for anything, it's the decision Jonze made to recast the voice with Johansson, who in turn brought a lot of humanity to the artificial intelligence. That's not to take anything away from the movie as a whole, but I do think this one is a case of over-hype for a movie that could have just been a sweet but strange love story and now has the burden of being Oscar bait resting on its shoulders.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks is practically perfect

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't love Walt Disney's Mary Poppins. The film is practically perfect in every way … but I'm sure there are a few sourpusses out there who hate the movie just as much as the character's creator, author P.L. Travers. The new film Saving Mr. Banks takes a look at Disney's twenty year struggle to get the film made while battling Mrs. Travers at every turn. You may never look at Mary Poppins the same way.

Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of the making of Mary Poppins, and gives us an insight into Mrs. Travers as well. When we first meet her, it's 1961 and she's just about out of money. Disney has been beating on her door for twenty years to secure the rights to her book (the movie actually uses material from three books), and with the prospect of losing her home before her, she agrees to her agent's requests to fly from London to Los Angeles just to meet with Disney to see what he has planned.

Disney tries his best to charm Mrs. Travers, but her demands of what he can and cannot do with the character turn to task of creating a film into a much larger chore than anyone thought it would be. No singing, no animation, nothing red! Travers holds an iron grip on the characters, and things come to a complete deadlock when she realizes that Disney and his creative team actually have no clue what the story is truly about.

But we do as the movie presents Travers' life as a child in flashbacks peppered throughout the film, showing us her doting father allowing her to run wild with her imagination … but also his darker side of alcoholism that constantly has his job in jeopardy and eventually leads to major health issues. When he become totally incapacitated, an aunt arrives to take care of the family and all of the pieces fall into place. Disney also eventually puts the pieces together, and it's no spoiler to say the film gets made and everyone lives happily ever after … at least in the movie world. The real life conclusion to this tale is a little less bright and shiny than we're led to believe.

That one little flaw aside, Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful film that's really targeted more to adult fans of Mary Poppins than it is to children. Emma Thompson portrays Travers as a tough-willed dame who comes off as a total bitch most of the time, but in the context of her life you have to have some understanding of why she holds on to these characters so tightly. They are her family and she does not want to let them go or be mistreated or misunderstood by some Hollywood bigwig (she hated the finished movie so much that she refused to sell the rights to any more of her Poppins books, although she did agree to the stage musical on the condition that only British writers worked on it and no one from the movie had any participation, which kept the Sherman Brothers from writing any new songs). A lot of people may find Travers unbearable, but I understood where she was coming from and Thompson manages to take some of the edge off of her while still keeping that steely will intact. She's definitely due some awards consideration.

Tom Hanks plays Disney as a down-homey business man. He knows what he wants and he'll do what he has to to get his way. It's a fine performance, but I'm on the fence about the way he uses a kind of sing-songy voice when he speaks to Mrs. Travers. I felt it was a little condescending, and perhaps Travers did too which was way she was so difficult to work with. She probably felt like she was being treated as a child or some rube from the countryside of England who had no idea how Hollywood worked (she didn't, but that's beside the point). It's a fine performance, but this being a Disney film, I don't think they really portrayed Disney on screen as he may have been behind closed doors. I mean, he had to have lost his temper at some point with the demands Travers was making. It would have been nice to see a little more of the dark side of Disney.

Colin Farrell gives a nice turn as Travers Goff, Travers' father (yes, she took her father's name professionally), never letting him be anything but a damaged soul. Goff may have been his own worst enemy, but he has nothing but love and kindness for his daughter even in his darkest hours. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman play Robert and Richard Sherman, the songwriting brothers who had to convince Travers that "responstible" was a real word (that they just made up) and that they could compose songs that weren't just fluff. Schwartzman gets most of the screen time, and he does a great job of sticking to his guns and never giving up in the face of Travers' naysaying. Paul Giamatti also gives a nice performance as the driver assigned to Travers during her stay in LA, and becomes the only American she can tolerate. He and Thompson have some very nice moments together.

Director John Lee Hancock keeps the film moving along once Travers arrives in Hollywood, getting out of the way and letting his actors do their work. Special mention must be made of the production design and art direction by Michael Corenblith and Lauren E. Polizzi, who have kept the film's period detail remarkably accurate, from a vintage stuffed Mickey Mouse to the look of Disneyland at that time. They really nailed the era.

Saving Mr. Banks may not be Best Picture material – it would have benefited from giving Disney and his team a little more depth instead of making Travers the complete villain of the piece – but it is pleasant and tells a very interesting story that's mostly true (stick around during the credits to hear some of the actual recordings made during the pre-production process and you'll get an idea that Thompson's Travers isn't too far from real life). It's one of those movies that actors are attracted to for rich characterization and awards possibilities, and the audience wins with a quality production that's both enlightening and entertaining.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Elysium is full action and
subtle social commentary

I confess, I have not yet seen director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 so I really had no idea what to expect when walking in to see his latest sci-fi/social commentary flick Elysium, except that they were both filmed in some squalid location in Mexico. The story is fairly simple: Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con trying to make an honest living without falling back into old habits. He lives on an earth slightly more than a hundred years from now, one that has been over-populated and under-fed, with a lack of decent education and health care. Yes, these are the 99%. The 1% have fled the planet, living on a giant spinning wheel in earth's orbit, Elysium, which resembles a posh Beverly Hills neighborhood on steroids. Anyone from earth who tries to get to Elysium, illegals as they are called, faces immediate deportation or worse.

After an accident at Max's factory job that gives him a full dose of radiation and five days to live, he goes back to his criminal past to try to buy his way onto Elysium. But his former boss wants something in return … a code that can reboot Elysium and grant all of the "illegals" citizenship, allowing them to travel to the space station and partake of things like their miraculous healing machines. Max desperately wants to get to a machine, so he agrees to intercept the code from his former boss at the factory (who works for Elysium's Secretary Delacourt, who will stop at nothing to keep Elysium immigrant-free, including staging a political coup and installing herself as president), but finds out the operation will require an actual operation as the code is downloaded into his boss' brain … and it comes with a self-destruct code in case someone else tries to access it. Will Max survive long enough to get to Elysium and carry out his mission? Will Delacourt get the code from Max and fulfill her desires? Or will Delacourt's mercenary Kruger catch on to her plan and try to steal the code for his own military-style coup?

Right from the start of the movie, you know where Blomkamp's social commentary is heading with a space station full of "Haves" and a planet full of "Have Nots." This is set up in the film's prologue (with Max as a child) and carries through the film yet, unlike the social commentary of the baffling Oscar winner Crash which hit you over the head with it, Blomkamp simply establishes this future as what it is. It's been this way for a long time, so it's really just a matter-of-fact part of the story. Some people have questioned whether the commentary should be more in your face, but I don't think it's necessary. I appreciate not being pounded with the whole issue, but it's always there. It's why Max needs to get to Elysium to get healed, it's why Delacourt wants control of Elysium (and Kruger as well, to some extent). Even when the story shifts to the machinations of the coup, you don't forget why all of this is going on. It was subtle, and for that I applaud Blomkamp for showing that restraint.

While Blomkamp reels in his social commentary, he really cuts loose with the visuals and the action. The scenes of shuttles and androids are simply jaw-dropping. I would assume these are all CGI-created special effects but everything looks real. Placing these kinds of effects in the dirty, dusty environment of earth and having them blend seamlessly with the elements totally sells this as a real place and helps bring the viewer into the story. Matt Damon's performance also helps ground the film in reality. When Max gets sick and then risks his life to retrieve the data, you really feel for him. Even when his story takes a little detour when his childhood friend's daughter is dying, you feel his struggle when he has to tell her he can't help get her to Elysium.

On Elysium, Jodie Foster gets to sink her teeth into what may be her first real villain role, spitting out her dialog with pure venom. Her accent is a little off-putting though, because it looks like Jodie Foster but it doesn't sound like Jodie Foster and sometimes it seemed as if her dialog was dubbed. I just had a real disconnect, but it was still great to see her be pure evil (and interesting to note that she and Damon have only one scene together). Sharlto Copley, who starred in District 9, plays Kruger as a totally unhinged maniac with only one thing on his mind – killing. I was also jazzed to see William Fichtner pop up, however briefly. He always makes things more interesting. Kudos to Blomkamp, too, for not shying away from dealing out some gruesome fates to some of his characters (yes, some people actually explode).

Elysium may get slammed for what appears to be a big set up then shying away from the social commentary, but I appreciated the restraint. Blomkamp tells his story with a great cast and some amazing visuals, and you couldn't ask for anything more from a summer blockbuster. It's got a lot of intricate moving parts that keep propelling the story forward, but it's not going to make you feel that you just got preached at for two hours. I think the fact that the conversation among those who have now seen the movie, discussing the commentary or lack thereof, shows that Blomkamp have have accomplished exactly what he set out to do.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wolverine has claws,
but they're a little dull

I'm probably the last person who should be reviewing a movie based on a comic book. I read a few comics when I was younger (and worked at a comic book store!), but I have not really moved on to the graphic novels that have taken comic books to a more mature level. I love the movies made from these comics and graphic novels, but I really have no reference on which to base an opinion except for the movie.

And so it is with Marvel's latest superhero movie, The Wolverine, a sequel to the pretty dismal X-Men Origins: Wolverine which was a prequel to the X-Men trilogy, and now works its way into being a lead-in for the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past (make sure you stay part of the way through the end credits). Got all that? Apparently, The Wolverine is based on a graphic novel in which the plot takes Logan, tired of being a superhero after having to kill his love Jean Grey in the third X-Men movie, out of the wilderness he's banished himself to and straight to Japan at the request of an "old friend," a former Japanese soldier whom Logan saved from the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

Logan believes he's going to say goodbye to the dying old man, but the man actually has a deal for him: he has a cure for Logan's immortality. Haunted by the spectre of his beloved Jean (Famke Janssen, reprising her role), Logan briefly considers the deal, but the man dies before he can come to a final decision. Meanwhile, the yakuza are after the old man's granddaughter, Mariko, because she is now the most powerful woman in Japan after being the sole benefactor in the will … something her father is not too happy about. Logan suddenly finds himself as Mariko's self-appointed bodyguard, but there seems to be much more going on than meets the eye.

The Wolverine is certainly a better movie than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, adding a few bits of much-needed humor, but it's also a missed opportunity. Plopping Logan down in the middle of Japan was an inspired bit of plot development, and casting mostly unknown Japanese actors in the supporting roles (plus Russian Svetlana Khodchenkova) puts the audience in Logan's fish out of water shoes. The best of the Japanese cast is Rila Fukushima as Yukio, a Harajuku-looking girl who is a badass with a sword and has some special powers of her own. Will Yun Lee is probably the most recognizable of the supporting cast, but he really has very little to do but react to situations and fight. The film's downfall is Tao Okamoto as Mariko. Okamoto is just perpetually blank throughout the film, whether she's in danger or attempting to romance Logan. Her performance is so bland that I could never tell if she was truly a victim who needed saving or if she was in on the plot to steal Logan's immortality. Okamoto is basically the Japanese Kristin Stewart.

Where the film succeeds is in its action sequences, which are unfortunately top-loaded in the first third of the film, which leaves a truly leaden middle section where Logan and Mariko are hiding out, plotting their next move. The attempted assassination/kidnapping of Mariko at her grandfather's funeral is staged brilliantly, and even as silly as it is (think the Chunnel Train scene in Mission: Impossible), the fight on top of a bullet train is one of the film's highlights. The problem with the plot, though, is the fact that we know that Logan is never in danger of losing his abilities or dying, so where is the suspense? It's hard to care about a character's journey when we know he ain't really going anywhere.

I went into The Wolverine with the lowest of expectations, so to say that it wasn't as bad as its predecessor is at least faint praise. I was just really hoping it would have been better, but a predictable plot and some bad casting have nearly de-clawed everyone's favorite mutant.

Photo: Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox/Marvel