Posted on 8/27/14 05:47 AM
August 22, 2014
The original "Sin City" (2005) was mostly an exercise in style and atmosphere, but oh, what an exercise it was! Under normal circumstances, this would be problematic since we naturally crave substance and characters to which we can attach ourselves, but because the film was so rich and glorious with its visuals, its presentation more than made up for the simplified narrative.
Now comes "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," and just like the first movie, it's amazing to behold. Directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have once again crafted a stunning black-and-white world, full of sharp, pulsating contrasts, that's about as close to a manifestation of Miller's graphic novels as you can get. And, once again, the only primary colors are red, yellow and green, which underline the film's brutal, prolific violence and make certain character traits, like hair, eyes and skin, jump off the screen.
But, and here's the catch, we've seen all this before. Because "A Dame to Kill For" is a sequel, Rodriguez and Miller are faced with the more difficult task of making a movie that doesn't rely on its cosmetics to hold the audience's interest. We can still be mesmerized by the images, and we are, but the individual stories and characters have to give us something more than just superficial narration. In other words, "A Dame to Kill For" needs to give us reasons to watch it instead of simply resorting to the same qualities that made the first "Sin City" so distinct.
And there are reasons, but perhaps not enough. Each of the film's three stories stands on its own and is interesting and energetic in its own right, and the actors and actresses who fulfill the archetypal film noir roles are easily up to the task of engaging us with their presence and body language, but there's just something about the film as a whole that makes us feel like we've already been down this road. Watching it is like going on a rollercoaster you've ridden before: it gives you pleasure and a rush for the simple fact it's a rollercoaster, but because you already know where the first drop and flip are going to be, it's ultimately less special. Going into "A Dame to Kill For," we don't know exactly when or how everything is going to happen, but after a while, we can guess and we're mostly right.
That's not to say it's not worth seeing, and not only for its look and design, but also for the way the cast exuberantly sinks their teeth into their respective parts: Mickey Rourke as the chain-smoking, weathered-faced Marv, who'll still protect women at any cost to himself; Jessica Alba as Nancy, the dancing showgirl wounded by the death of her only love and savior, Detective Hartigan (Bruce Willis), who shot himself in the head at the end of the last movie so as to protect Nancy from the corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Booth); Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, an over-confident poker player who thinks he can beat the senator fairly and squarely but perhaps bites off more than he can chew; and Josh Brolin as Dwight (played by Clive Owen in the last film), who gets mixed up with ta dangerous and money-hungry vixen named Ava (Eva Green).
These are just some of the players. The all-star cast also features Rosario Dawson, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven and Christopher Lloyd. Each of their characters is specific and memorable enough that you could easily dress up as one of them for Halloween and say to your friends, "I'm [name of actor/character] from 'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,'" and they'd know who you mean.
Unfortunately, "A Dame to Kill For" has come after "Sin City," and because it's so similar in style and narration, it's not as fresh or impactful as its predecessor. It's not that it's a lesser film--either one could have served as the inaugural chapter in the series--but its timing yields it extra narrative responsibility that Rodriguez and Miller don't seem willing to bear. Perhaps they figured that because audiences liked the first one so much, or because enough time had passed, they could just employ the same devices as before and we wouldn't care. But we do care, and although the filmmaking duo proves yet again they're smart, creative storytellers, we wish they'd either given us a more original sequel or no sequel at all.
Posted on 8/17/14 06:00 PM
August 15, 2014
"The Expendables 3" isn't a good action movie or a bad action movie. It's simply an action movie, one that clings to the traditional formula so tightly it could serve as a template. We walk away from it feeling neither excited nor disappointed. We just walk away, no better or worse off than when we went in.
With this in mind, and because the point of any movie is to impact the audience in some way, hopefully positively, "The Expendables 3" is ultimately unnecessary. If you merely need an action movie fix, then I suppose it gets the job done, but given the cast and budget, and today's movie theater ticket prices, shouldn't our standards be higher than just "gets the job done"?
If you're up to speed on "The Expendables" franchise, then you know it follows a mercenary team that tackles our nation's "dirty work," which means going into war zones, taking out foreign enemies and conducting rescue missions. This being a Hollywood action movie and all, each of the Expendables' assignments also requires they blow a whole bunch of stuff up and perform death-defying stunts, all while making jokes and delivering cheesy one-liners.
The group is mostly comprised of tattooed, muscle-bound, gun toting tough guys--and one woman in this case--and features a lineup of action stars from the past three decades. Joining the gang of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and Jet Li are some people you may have heard of and others you may not have: Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer, Antonio Banderas, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Ronda Rousey (she would be the one woman) and Kellan Lutz. The movie doesn't allot any time to develop the characters beyond their specialty, be it guns, knives, mountain climbing, boxing, mixed martial arts, dirt biking, parkour, etc., but rest assured, it does give them the opportunity to show off their skills during the big climax.
The plot, if there was ever a clothesline one, finds the Expendables on a mission to seize an international arms dealer named Stonebanks (Gibson), who just happens to be a former Expendable turned dark. He's been selling weapons to warlords and gangs across the world and has made billions doing it. When Barney (Stallone) and his good guys team are nearly decimated trying to capture Stonebanks, Barney decides it's time for his crew to retire because they're just too old for this sort of thing.
But the CIA, led by Agent Drummer (Ford), still wants Stonebanks taken alive, so Barney and his pal Bonaparte (Grammer) head out on what seems like a nationwide tour to recruit younger, more tech-savvy individuals to complete the mission. Naturally, the operation goes awry and it's up to the old Expendables to save the new ones, and then for the entire group to come together and, well, you fill in the blanks.
"The Expendables 3" is chock full of chases scenes, explosions, fist fights, etc., and each of the players, especially Gibson, is serviceable in his or her own right. But the movie, either as a straightforward genre picture or one that's more hip to what it's doing because of who it stars (at one point, Snipes tells us why his character was once imprisoned, which is an obvious reference to the actor's off-screen troubles), is incredibly ordinary. It stays completely within the standard action movie lines, never bothering to make new waves or delve into fresh territory. It's basically vanilla moviemaking, and although the cast seems happy to have made it, they don't seem overly ecstatic, which also dilutes its entertainment value.
Don't get me wrong: I have a deep appreciation for Stallone and friends, and the undeniable roles they played in defining the modern action genre, but their time has passed. When it comes to traditional action movies, these veterans really should step aside and let the newbies take over. Maybe then we'll be able to describe action movies without using the word "traditional."
Posted on 8/11/14 06:26 PM
August 8, 2014
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014) essentially tells the same story as, well, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1990). There are some key differences, of course, like the former adding a new layer to the turtles' upbringing, not to mention the means by which their sworn enemy, Shredder, plans to take over the world, but by and large, this is the same movie, only updated to 2014 standards. This means, among other things, smartphones play an integral role in the plot and the majority of shots contain digital effects. Oh, and the primary pizza sponsor is Pizza Hut instead of Domino's.
With such trivial changes in mind, why the remake? My guess is the current "Ninja Turtles" cartoon show on Nickelodeon has proven popular enough that studio executives figured it was high time to re-launch the live-action movie franchise and assumed it'd be best to start from scratch.
But a shadow of the 1990 film remains attached to this latest incarnation, which unfortunately isn't as good on a storytelling or filmmaking level. It lacks the darkness, rawness and tangibility of the first movie, which used life-sized turtle suits and puppets instead of CGI to bring Leonard, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael to life. This gave them presence, which made the idea of four adolescent turtles, who love pizza and spew out surfer jargon, all the more believable, as well as enjoyable. The new turtles simply aren't as attractive, if you know what I mean.
Not that this new version is an all-out disaster. In a nutshell, or turtle shell, it's brainless, by-the-numbers kiddie fare on special effects overdrive that (I'm guessing) projects the zany characteristics of the cartoon onto the big screen. Compared to the original, it's expectedly bigger, louder and faster, but none of these qualities necessarily make it more fun or exciting to watch. True: I'm no longer the target demographic for this material, but I'd be curious to know which movie modern Turtles fans would respond to more. My money is on the first one, which, silliness and absurdity aside, had a heightened sense of craft and intrigue...for a "Ninja Turtles" movie anyway.
Save for the presentation, not much else is different between the two. The personalities of the turtles, as well as their unique skill sets and weapons of choice, remain the same, as does the wisdom and discipline bestowed upon them by their sensei-father, Splinter, a giant rat. Leonardo is still the leader of the pack; Donatello the brains; Michelangelo the wisecracking jokester; and Raphael the no-nonsense loner.
Then there's April O'Neil (Megan Fox), the plucky New York City reporter looking for her first big break. She tells her cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett) she wants to report hard, substantive news, which is why she's on a mission to uncover the current crime wave sweeping Manhattan at the hands of a mysterious gang known as the Foot Clan. They report to Shredder, the metallic suit-donning megalomaniac from Japan who has nefarious ambitions to take over the city, and then the world. He's in cahoots with Eric Saks (William Fichtner), the CEO of a giant security company, and we know right from the get-go he's a baddie.
If you've seen any "Ninja Turtles" movie, old or recent, or watched an episode of the TV show, or played the video games, or read the comics, this latest rendition won't bring anything new to the table, which is exactly my problem with it. I wasn't expecting a masterpiece or anything, but couldn't the three screenwriters forge a more original narrative than this? The entire movie merely underlines the things we already know about and expect from the turtles. So again, I ask, what's the point? Why even have this reboot retell the origin story? Surely anyone going into a "Ninja Turtles" movie will be aware of the heroes and the universe they inhabit, so why not have them dive headlong into a brand new adventure, one that doesn't bother to re-introduce us to them or their world? If this was the case, the movie could have also been given a more original title.
As it is, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014) is simply unnecessary. Perhaps if the Turtles were given something new to do or a different villain to face, it would have been more interesting and entertaining. Writing as a Turtles fan, I was surprisingly bored with it, probably because I couldn't shake the idea I'd seen it before.
Posted on 8/03/14 06:04 PM
August 1, 2014
Sometimes the best reason to see a movie is for its attitude. When the story, characters and overall production come across as sort of "been there, done that," it's the filmmakers' approach to the material that determines the movie's success, and in the case of "Guardians of the Galaxy," they employ a lot of sass and charm. The result is a droll and irreverent superhero movie that's not at all shy about subverting the classic qualities of the genre for the sake of humor and maintaining momentum.
And momentum and energy are exactly what's needed, because this is yet another adaptation of a Marvel Comics property, albeit a lesser known one. Though the "Guardians" comics debuted in the late 1960s, born from the minds of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, as a movie, the franchise fits right in among contemporary science fiction, fantasy and superhero films, including the heavy-hitters like "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Avengers," not to mention TV shows like "Firefly." Its story and endless parade of colorful characters are sort of an amalgamation of all these series, and on this level, it's enjoyable but also familiar, even derivative. What makes it stand out is the way it continually undermines the hand it's been dealt.
We can easily imagine "Guardians" as a straightforward and traditional adaptation, in which we learn the origins of the heroes and their enemies and then watch as the story goes from point A to point B until it reaches the standard climax. This method probably would have appeased fans of the source material, but director James Gunn and his writing partner, Nicole Perlman, have opted for a more offhand approach. Just about every time we think the movie is headed in a usual direction, it goes somewhere unexpected, and though its overall destination remains the same, by choosing witty and unconventional means of getting there, it keeps us on our toes.
Just how much like other science fiction/fantasy/superhero movies is it? Well, consider the main hero is written as sort of a younger version of Han Solo (in fact, the two of them could be brothers), and like Solo, he's a loner with selfish motivations. He goes by the moniker Star Lord, though one of the running jokes is that nobody really takes him or his label seriously. His real name is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and following the death of his mother, he was abducted from Earth in 1988 by a group of pirates called the Ravagers. Twenty-six years later, Peter is flying around space in his dirty and beaten down ship looking for various goods and artifacts to steal, all while listening to pop hits from the 60s and 70s like "Come and Get Your Love" by Redbone on a mixed cassette tape (yes, a cassette tape).
The latest object Peter comes across is a mysterious orb from the planet Morag. He isn't exactly sure what the orb does, but once he discovers just how many people and aliens are after it, he assumes its contents are important and wield a lot of power. He would be correct, which is exactly why the evil Ronan (Lee Pace), who rules with a giant war hammer under the Titan Thanos, wants it in his possession. Ronan craves revenge against the government body Nova Corps. Oh, and he also wants to rule the entire galaxy (of course). To retrieve the orb from Peter, he sends his green-skinned and slinky assassin, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), but her loyalty lies elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the blue-skinned Yondu (Michael Rooker), head of the Ravagers, places a bounty on Peter. Word of this reaches a couple oddball hunters: Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon with a busy mouth and feisty personality; and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a walking tree whose mouth is anything but busy (he only speaks three words). Groot is gentle, but you don't want to get on his bad side.
When a public fight breaks out between Peter, Gamora, Rocket and Groot, they're all arrested and sent to prison, where they meet the last member of this soon-to-be "Guardians" group, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a once-human, muscle-bound being who's mentally thick but physically powerful. His motivation to join the team is revenge against Ronan for killing his wife and daughter.
Initially, these diverse individuals ban together to merely sell the orb for a hefty sum to The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), but as the story goes, their alliance turns more altruistic when they realize it's for the greater good to thwart Ronan and Thanos. All this leads to a giant battle not unlike the Death Star sequence from "A New Hope" or the ending from "Independence Day."
As far as action is concerned, this holds our attention, but what keeps "Guardians of the Galaxy" moving is its flippant attitude and inclination to be fun and jolly over serious and emotional. Yes, its underlying plot and structure are conventional, but it's the interplay of the characters that make the movie fresh, funny and cheeky. There are several moments when we think the story is going to adjust itself and become just another superhero movie, but then it breaks the mold again. To give you an idea, just as Ronan is delivering his typical villain monologue, complete with his intentions to kill and rule innocent people, Peter...well, Peter thinks of a way to distract him. I won't give anything away, but it goes back to a conversation he had earlier with Gamora about Kevin Bacon and "Footloose."
It's these scenes that make "Guardians of the Galaxy" special and memorable, and they're enough to sustain it...for now anyway. When it comes to the sequels (the closing credits promise at least one), I would encourage the filmmakers to combine their attitude with more depth. As amusing and appealing as the characters are, I'd personally like to see them in a more original story--one with a greater purpose. It'd be great if the filmmakers could retain the movie's current wit and audacity but expand upon the substance. Then we'd have more than one reason to see the movie. The more, the better.
Posted on 7/16/14 05:56 PM
July 11, 2014
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a rich, artistic and often heartfelt blockbuster. These days, such a statement might seem oxymoronic, especially when a movie like "Transformers: Age of Extinction" rules the box-office. But "Apes," along with "Godzilla" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past," reinvigorates us with hope that mainstream films can still be relevant and good, or in this case, very good. It reiterates the simple notion that when a movie's essential narrative elements are given proper weight and attention, they can collectively yield an intellectual, emotional and, above all, entertaining experience.
The film is the sequel to "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011), itself the first prequel to "Planet of the Apes" (1968). This may be a little confusing, but all you need to know, and probably what you already know, is that in the future, Earth is taken over by apes, who displace humans as the ruling party. They become hyper-intelligent, learn to talk and start treating humans as the inferior species. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," and now "Dawn," set out to explain how this happened.
"Rise," you might recall, ended with the apes, led by the first intelligent one of their kind, Caesar (a motion-captured Andy Serkis), storming a revolt through San Francisco and establishing an apes-only residence in the forest. The opening of "Dawn" also reminds us a fatal virus was released into the general population that quickly spread across the planet, rendering it a dreary and near human-less dystopia. Ten years have now passed and only those genetically immune to the virus--and those lucky enough to survive the ensuing civil unrest--remain.
A small colony of human survivors still live in San Francisco, not far from Caesar and his growing clan of faithful simians, who remain cautious of humans and their high-tech weaponry. Leading the humans are the sensible Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and the more impetuous Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Both men have lost a great deal since the violence and mayhem broke out, but Malcolm has since found love with Ellie (Kerri Russell) and has a son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), both of whom make him more willing to listen to reason. He inadvertently leads a group into Caesar's territory while seeking a dam that could potentially serve as a source for electricity.
But the apes, many of whom were previously caged or experimented on, don't take kindly to humans, especially when they appear to be so quick with a trigger. Caesar, however, longs for peace. Like Malcolm, he has a family and doesn't see things in terms of simple black and white. He allows the humans to conduct their work on the condition they surrender their guns. All seems to be going fine until a series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings pit the humans and apes against one another, leading to a foregone climactic battle and the start of a greater war.
Under normal circumstances, the narrative trajectory of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" would come across as standard and routine for a sci-fi action picture, but the film's advantage is that it's a prequel, and therefore its obligatory devices and scenes, such as character misinterpretations or an effect-laden ending, don't come across as tiresome or hackneyed. We accept them because we know this story must eventually come full circle with the original, and we already know how that begins. Of course, it would have been really inspiring had the screenplay found a fresher and more unpredictable way of connecting the two instead of settling on the traditional action and fight scenes, but we're willing to forgive it since these are so well-executed.
With that said, Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's script does contain some arguably touching and emotional moments, which is what we really take away from the film. It takes the time to develop the primary characters, human and ape alike, beyond just their superficial motivations. For instance, there's a particularly heartrending scene when Dreyfus gets power back on his iPad and we understand why he's blinded by anger and grief.
On the other hand, the movie also has its fair share of stock elements (the trigger-happy drunks, for example), but they're fortunately overshadowed by its better qualities, including the superb special effects. The digital apes are so well rendered that we immediately accept them as real and tangible. We barely, if ever, re-realize the human actors are responding to and interacting with computer imagery. What's interesting is that a movie like "Transformers" has equally impressive special effects, but they mean so much more to us here because of the accompanying narrative, which further proves just how much story and effects go hand in hand.
How many more "Planet of the Apes" movies will be made until this modern prequel series finally catches up to the original? I guess that depends on how well they do at the box-office, so perhaps the better question is how many more should be made? I'm thinking just one more ought to do it, because it'd be a real shame if the overall story line meandered and grew stale by no longer having a purpose and final destination. I would also encourage the director of this film, Matt Reeves, and the current writers, to helm it, because they obviously have a firm grasp on the material. They take it seriously and treat it with respect. An obvious social commentary is at work but it's not forced and we walk away from "Dawn" feeling touched, empathetic and simply roused by the narrative and spectacle that unfolds on-screen. Wouldn't it be something if all blockbusters had this effect?
Posted on 6/30/14 06:40 PM
June 27, 2014
I feel sorry for anyone whose first experience with the "Transformers" movies is "Age of Extinction," which might be the worst in the series so far. I use the phrase "might be" because it's not altogether clear if this is, in fact, the worst or not. For those of us who've seen the previous three films, we've developed a sort of immunity to the pain and discomfort they cause, which could prevent us from realizing just how bad this latest one truly is. Without this prior exposure, I may have walked out of "Age of Extinction," feeling angry, bitter and cheated, but because I knew what to expect, I was able to endure the nearly three-hour ordeal. Newcomers might not be so lucky.
What can you expect from "Age of Extinction"? In short: the epitome of stupidity. Like its predecessors, it adheres to what we can now safely call the "Michael Bay syndrome," which means it's loud, obnoxious, overlong, and features the same, boring cinematic devices the director uses to near exhaustion, including low angles; lens flare; characters running in slow motion amidst falling debris; muscle-bound, gun-toting agents dressed in black who drive giant SUVs; and shot after shot of things breaking, be they automobiles, houses, shops, skyscrapers, you name it.
Once again, we feel like we're simply watching money burn, and despite the enormity of this movie's budget (reported to be $210 million), it doesn't contain a single thrilling, exciting, funny or poignant moment. Given its resources and runtime, how is this even possible? I'm not sure, but it is.
And yet, did I walk away from "Age of Extinction" enraged or distressed? Not really, because I expected everything I just described.
The plot, if you even care, takes place a few years after the events of the last movie, "Dark of the Moon," in which the two feuding groups of Transformers--the robot alien race from a far off galaxy--waged war on one another in Chicago. Their battle resulted in over a thousand casualties and left the city in shambles. Now there are signs around town that read "Remember Chicago" and the alliance between the "good" Transformers, called Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, has been broken. He and his fellow bots have gone into exile, while their enemies, the Decepticons, have allegedly been annihilated.
Members of the federal government and an obviously evil corporation called KSI are now asking all humans to report where any and all Transformers may be hiding in order to rid the planet of them for good. But of course there's corporate malfeasance taking place, as the brains behind the government and company (Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci) are in cahoots. They're secretly spearheading an operation that hunts Transformers and breaks them down to their elemental properties. A team of scientists has discovered their genetic makeup is actually a programmable metal, which they've deemed "transformium," and so humans can now make their own Transformers, giving them free reign to control the entire planet's robotic industry, among other power trips.
Out to stop them (and save the entire world, of course) is an ordinary, hard-working American from Texas, an inventor-engineer named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). Along with his long-legged, blond daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her Irish, professional car driver-boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), they team up with Optimus Prime to thwart the government's collusion with the Transformers original Creators, whose agenda is to plant a transformium seed in Earth's biggest city and wipe out the human race.
And, yada yada yada, there's a seemingly infinite number of chase sequences, shootouts, explosions, hanging-ons for dear life, etc., all executed in the most patronizing and macho-American of ways. Would you believe there's even a scene when Cade conveniently spots a football to throw at one of the bad guys? How patriotic!
There was a time when "Transformers: Age of Extinction" would have been an "event movie," despite its quality, and at the very least, it would have provoked enthusiastic criticism of just how audaciously bad it was. But nowadays, seven years after the original, this no longer seems to be the case. Judging by the other members of the audience, everyone has moved on and the reactions to what was happening on-screen were muted and lethargic at best. People only seemed to be in the theater for the hell of it, not because they actually wanted to be, which is sad and discouraging.
Nevertheless, as I write this, "Age of Extinction" is already a phenomenal success at the global box-office, and so no matter how negatively I write about it, it won't matter. There will be another "Transformers" movie in the future and all we can do is hope that Bay and company will finally recognize what they have at their disposal and try to deliver something better, or, at the very least, different. We've seen this type of movie from them time and again, and if it's this boring and pathetic to us, wouldn't it be the same for them? Don't they want to diverge from their standard practices simply for their own sakes? Again, we can only hope.
Posted on 6/29/14 02:26 PM
June 13, 2014
"22 Jump Street" might not have worked as well as it does had it not been so vocal and self-aware about being a sequel. The characters explicitly state, on more than one occasion, the plot "should be just like last time" because that's what people want to see. There are also several cracks about the movie's budget being "unnecessarily higher," and it ends with faux previews of what seems to be an endless supply of future "Jump Street" installments (my personal favorite: "38 Jump Street: Dance Academy"). By the end, these self-conscious and self-deprecating themes run a little thin, but luckily the screenplay has other rich and often inspired humor to fall back on.
Yes, in many ways, "22 Jump Street" is nothing more than a carbon copy of its predecessor, only bigger, louder and more expensive. But it'll also be the first to tell you this, and once it does, the humor rolls out freely and we simply enjoy it for its outrageous antics and sweet, likable characters. As before, this isn't so much a send-up of the original "21 Jump Street" television series (although it still is) as much as an attack on Hollywood conventions, particularly those pertaining to the buddy-cop movie.
The plot finds our favorite odd-couple police partners, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), once again on a mission to track down the dealer and supplier of a new synthetic drug called "WHY-PHY" (Work Hard? Yes. Play Hard? Yes). And, once again, their investigation requires them to go undercover as younger students in order to penetrate the drug's primary demographic. The difference this time is Schmidt and Jenko head to college instead of high school, which is slightly more credulous.
Naturally, the mission becomes personal and winds up testing Schmidt and Jenko's friendship. There's some clever dialogue when Jenko suggests they try a separate, "open" investigation, followed by an amusing couple's therapy session.
For Schmidt, college proves to be just as awkward and difficult as high school--he doesn't fit in among the jocks and frat boys with whom Jenko so easily bonds. Jenko, on other hand, is having the time of his life playing college football, lifting weights and partying hard with his new BFF, Zook (Wyatt Russell). Schmidt gravitates toward the more artistic crowd (after posing as a poetry slammer) and strikes up a relationship with the beautiful Maya (Amber Stevens). All the while, he and Jenko must keep up the rouse they're 19-year-olds and brothers, although it's clear none of the other characters truly believe them on either count.
The movie isn't at all shy about going through the motions of most buddy cop movies, but on top of these, it offers some surprisingly witty, original laughs. I particularly liked when the irascible Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) explains they've exceeded their operations budget and Schmidt and Jenko must consciously avoid causing any collateral damage during a car chase out of fear they won't have the money to pay for it. They're being pursued by a group of thugs in a Hummer and I wonder if this scene was a direct attack on the ending of "Bad Boys II" (I would hope that it is), in which a Hummer recklessly drove through a shantytown in Cuba. At one point, Jenko even comments, "It's like they're running into things on purpose. What a waste!"
If you even remotely liked "21 Jump Street," there's no reason to think you won't like "22 Jump Street" just as much, or perhaps more. Instead of being just a spoof of a TV series, it becomes an all-out parody, falling somewhere between "The Naked Gun" and "Rush Hour" movies, cheerfully recycling its own humor while trying its hand at new hijinks.
With this in mind, though, I think the "Jump Street" series has a reached point where it can simply leave us wanting more rather than become too self-aware and confident for its own good. The original told the same jokes first, and the sequel successfully expanded up on them, but I don't think we need to hear them a third time. Otherwise, any future "Jump Street" might succumb to the very conventions these first two mock, only the joke would be on it and probably not as funny.
Posted on 6/09/14 05:57 PM
June 6, 2014
"Edge of Tomorrow" subscribes to several conventions already planted across the science fiction landscape, including the notion that the human race is on the brink of total annihilation; or supreme alien creatures with confounding fighting tactics; or high-tech weaponry that seems more bulky than strategic; and, of course, time travel. Many of the movie's individual scenes also mirror those found in other sci-fi thrillers. In fact, there's one in particular that seems yanked right out of "Minority Report," which, coincidentally, also starred Tom Cruise. In it, Cruise's character leads a female around in a detailed choreography so neither one of them get noticed. The difference is that in "Minority Report," it was the female calling the shots; here, it's Cruise.
You'd think that because "Edge of Tomorrow" rehashes so many of its ideas and sequences, it would come across as either boring or cheap, but it somehow manages to make its qualities fresh and meaningful. The reason, I think, is because in spite of all the action and special effects going on around them, the characters remain the movie's focus. Even though we can easily sense a highly mechanized plot at work, the people seem free of it, which is actually inline with the movie's theme that nobody's fate is pre-determined. Such a message has also been used time and again in science fiction plots, but the filmmakers' approach to the material seems to be that if something worked before, there's no reason it can't work again. Not all movies can get away with this, but "Edge of Tomorrow" sneaks by.
Cruise plays Major William Cage, a media relations hotshot for the United Defense Force, a global military coalition that formed when the world began fighting what has now become a five-year war with an alien species called Mimics, aptly named for their incredible agility and shape-shifting skills. Cage will be the first to tell you he played an integral role in recruiting soldiers for the UDF as well as spearheading its adoption of a metallic exoskeleton that allegedly gave the human soldiers an upper hand in a key victory at Verdun, led by Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), an exemplary female warrior with a not-so-friendly disposition.
Cage will also tell you he's not a soldier and is no way ready for combat, but his new commanding officer, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), sees things differently. He decides to throw the smart-mouthed Cage in with the wolves during Operation Downfall, which will be the UDF's full-scale attempt to close in on the remaining Mimics in central Europe and crush them once and for all. Cage tries to resist but he's arrested and relegated to private under Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton), who deems him a dissenter and has no faith Cage will survive.
Farrell would be right. Shortly after Operation Downfall gets underway, the UDF learns it's an ambush and Cage dies, but not before he kills an "Alpha" Mimic and absorbs its blood. We come to learn that such a transfusion, if you will, gives the receiver the ability to "reset" time every time he dies, which means Cage can loop back to the last time he woke up but still remember all the previous events leading up to his death. This gives him the unique ability to see the future, so to speak, but only because he's already lived it.
I'll not go any further into the plot, because a lot of the movie's fun and excitement stems from Cage trying to wrap his head around exactly what's happening to him, and the same goes for us. Cruise, as usual, makes for a convincing and likable protagonist, and he's well matched by Blunt. Together, their characters must deliberately reset time in order to find the best way of destroying the "Omega" Mimic, which functions as the race's entire single consciousness. As is par for the course for alien movies, when you eliminate the mother, you eliminate her offspring (again, this isn't the most original concept).
It's a testament to the movie's writing, directing and acting that "Edge of Tomorrow" is able to be as intelligent and kinetic as it is amidst its familiar methods and presentation. Don't get me wrong; it's obvious a lot of time and money have gone into the action, stunts and production design, but these assets mesh with those from other science fiction movies, from the "Terminator" series to "District 9." That's why the film's human and narrative elements are so important and why they should always be placed at the forefront of any story-they're what we connect with and respond to.
Fortunately, director Doug Liman, screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, as well as the cast, seem to be aware of this. Together, they involve us in what's happening on-screen, and as predictable as the story may be overall, it constantly adds new layers and complications that carry weight and purpose. These help make "Edge of Tomorrow" a rousing and entertaining sci-fi adventure, even though it's from an original one.
As an aside, when I first saw the trailer for "Edge of Tomorrow," I didn't think much of it, not least because of the somewhat generic title. It left me wondering what the movie was about or why I should care about it. In hindsight, I actually appreciate the way it was cut and presented because it didn't give anything away. This made it much easier for the movie to envelop me when I actually did see it. If anything, the trailer for "Edge of Tomorrow" reiterates why one should never judge a movie by one.
Posted on 5/26/14 11:54 AM
May 23, 2014
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" does what all superhero movies should do: it adds a new and interesting layer to the hero's, or in this case, heroes', universe--one that actually carries weight and dimension. We walk out of it feeling as though the characters have been further developed and their stories have gained a greater sense of depth. Plus, we feel like we've experienced this latest adventure right along with them. In a way, then, the consequences of the plot are more personal to us. This latter effect is actually what all movies should strive for, not just superhero ones.
While "Days of Future Past" is technically another entry in the longstanding "X-Men" franchise, of which there are now seven (including this one), it's primarily a sequel to the 2011 reboot, "First Class," which chronicled how the modern-day X-Men came to be and why the mutants eventually split into two warring factions, one led by the mind-reading Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the other by the metal-manipulating Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a.k.a. Professor Xavier and Magneto.
In all other "X-Men" movies that have featured these two characters, the primary conflict has centered on them and their opposing ideals, and while "Days of Future Past" doesn't entirely stray from this theme, the focus this time is on the survival of all mutants, not to mention humans. This put a fresh spin on the X-Men saga.
The story takes place in the present, but the world is a dark and bleak dystopia. Giant robots called Sentinels have taken over the planet, oppressing humans and hunting down mutants. The Sentinels were engineered with mutant DNA, making them especially powerful and adaptive to their enemies.
One group of mutants, made up of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Bishop (Omar Sy), among others, has found a way to stave off the Sentinels for the time being. Kitty uses her phasing abilities to send Bishop's consciousness back through time so he can warn his past self where the Sentinels will strike next. This buys them a little more survival time, but it's not enough.
A familiar group of veteran mutants arrives to lend help, including the older Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry). Xavier fills everybody in on the history of the Sentinels and how they were originally conceived from the mind of Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in the 1970s at the end of the Vietnam War. Bolivar invented them to track down mutants, which he viewed as valuable but also as a threat, the kind that needed to be controlled, even harnessed. He figured mutants could be utilized as weapons so future wars wouldn't have to sacrifice ordinary human beings.
Trask's intentions never sat well with the feisty Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who went on to assassinate Trask, but this incident led to her capture and the eventual engineering of her DNA with the Sentinel bodies, making them the indestructible forces that now rule.
Xavier's proposal: have Kitty send a consciousness back through time to 1973 and prevent Trask's assassination from ever taking place, which will hopefully hinder the events that followed. Of course, the only mutant who can sustain such a mental warp is also the one who can rapidly heal: Wolverine, who's become sort of the unofficial star and leader of this series. Once he's there, it'll be his job to convince the younger Charles and Eric to work together and help stop Mystique from pulling the trigger and being captured. This will be no easy task, though, especially after the events of "First Class." Charles is now living as a self-destructing recluse with Hank (Nicholas Hoult), a.k.a. Beast, while Eric resides in a heavily fortified prison beneath the Pentagon, for reasons I'll not reveal.
The plot of "Days of Future Past" gets thicker and more complicated as it speeds along, but Simon Kinberg's screenplay and director Bryan Singer manage to weave all the threads together rather seamlessly. The movie is sort of remarkable in the way it's able to gather all the X-Men together and give each of them something meaningful to do, besides just making an appearance. This includes the sure-to-be fan favorite, Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who can move very, very fast. Despite its two-hour plus runtime, the movie has a constant momentum and we always feel like what's happening on-screen actually matters in the grand scheme of the X-Men mythology. This is something any comic book or movie fan will appreciate.
In as little as two months, Hollywood has delivered three high-profile superhero movies, all from the Marvel universe. I feel like a broken record when I say there are too many of these being made, but "X-Men: Days of Future Past" reaffirms that when they're made well and tell a rich, consequential story, they can still serve a purpose, not least that they make for a fun, exciting and entertaining experience.
Posted on 5/19/14 06:28 PM
May 14, 2014
"Masterpiece" isn't the first word you'd expect to describe a "Godzilla" movie, but that's exactly what Gareth Edward's version is, at least on a visual and visceral level. Story-wise, it's pretty good, too, especially in the context of a mindless summer tent pole. But then, mindless is only what we expect of it going in; coming out, we think of it as something else entirely. This is one of the richest, most awesome cinematic spectacles to come out of Hollywood in recent memory. In fact, it reminds us why we love the blockbuster in the first place.
In many ways, yes, "Godzilla" is a traditional monster movie. It contains the obligatory violence and devastation; the widespread panic; the military intervention; the safe love story; etc. And of course, in this day and age, it's padded with an inordinate amount of special effects.
But to our pleasant surprise, the filmmakers actually harness these qualities rather than simply toss them into the mix and have them spin around chaotically. Director Edwards and his team show a surprising amount of restraint and patience when it comes to shots of buildings toppling, the sea rising, people running around scared, and random things exploding. They seem to only include shots that are necessary to get the point across instead of overloading us with effects and sensation just to show off the film's budget.
I actually checked my watch during the screening, and we don't actually catch a glimpse of Godzilla himself until a good hour into it, and the movie is only two hours long. That alone should tell you something--that perhaps "Godzilla" isn't so traditional after all. Monster movies are often too hasty to reveal the monster and then stick with him for the entire duration, as if that's all we want to see. But even though Godzilla is the titular character, his screen time is limited, and that makes his presence all the more precious, if you will. We actually leave wanting more, which is so much better than wanting less.
In the tradition of the original Japanese film series that began in 1954, the movie is about an ancient, dragon-like creature, aptly named Godzilla, who formed from the Earth's natural radiation in the north pacific. He was awakened during nuclear testing in the 1950s and then allegedly killed.
The movie opens in 1999, when two scientists from the clandestine Monarch Company, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), are called to the Philippines to investigate a pair of giant, mysterious eggs that were recently uncovered in a quarry. Labeled MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), one of the eggs makes its way toward a nuclear power plant in Japan to feed off the radiation.
All of this is kept under wraps, but the power plant's head engineer, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston, whose character here isn't all that different from the one he plays on "Breaking Bad"), is convinced the recent seismic activity around the area isn't the result of an earthquake. He sends his fellow-scientist wife (Juliette Binoche) to investigate, but a sudden electro-magnetic pulse causes the plant to explode.
Fifteen years later, Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is an explosive ordinance disposal officer in the U.S. Navy and married to Elle (Elizabeth Olsen). They live in San Francisco with a son of their own, and just when Ford returns home from active duty, he's called to Japan to bail his father out of jail. Joe continues to trespasses into the restricted area that was supposedly contaminated by the explosion from over a decade ago, but he still believes there was a cover-up.
He would be right, and now those same giant eggs from before--one of which still resides at the nuclear plant in Japan, the other in a desert outside Las Vegas--are about to hatch. Their birth, in turn, awakens Godzilla, whom we're told is the MUTO's natural predator. Serizawa explains Godzilla is meant to kill them in order to maintain nature's balance and that the beasts should simply be allowed to fight. Unfortunately for humans, that means being stuck in the middle of all hell breaking loose.
There's nothing overly original about the plot of "Godzilla"--it has the same basic structure as most monster movies, although it was a refreshing twist that Godzilla is made out to be an ally of mankind instead of an enemy.
The movie's excitement and value stem not from what's told to us, but how it's told to us. Edwards is a natural born filmmaker in that he possesses a keen vision and impeccable sense of timing. He knows what to show us with his camera and for how long, which is crucial for a movie like this. He even teases us in the way he reveals Godzilla, first in a clever opening sequence in which the facts and figures of the nuclear testing surround the credits, and then in the smaller details like Godzilla's spikes surfacing from the ocean, or his foot suddenly pounding on an airport tarmac. Edwards waits, and when the time comes to finally tilt up and show Godzilla in all his glory, the result is truly epic and spectacular.
But the movie doesn't stop there. I counted at least 10 more unforgettable shots when my eyes were simply captivated by what was happening on-screen, right down to something as supposedly routine as a fight between the monsters. With the help of top-notch special effects, the filmmakers generate real tension and the sheer scope of the movie and the way all of its parts come together seamlessly practically leave us speechless.
It surprises me to write this, but "Godzilla" exemplifies the pure craft of filmmaking and how the cinema can still do wonders as a visual storytelling medium. To be fair, it does indulge in patronizing the audience a tad too much in the end, but the bottom line is this blockbuster has been made with a great amount of attention and care, and we're filled with nothing but awe and admiration.