Monday, March 31, 2014

Films I am looking forward to in 2014

Keeping up my tradition from last year, here are some films I'm looking forward to in 2014. This list is not comprehensive and in no particular order, but simply twenty movies coming out this year that I'm interested in right now.

The Lego Movie

I loved playing with Legos as a kid and this movie has been getting rave reviews with an astounding 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. If that isn't enough, The Lego Movie was directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, creators of one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Clone High!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
While I'm looking forward to all future Marvel Studios movies, this is the one I'm most excited about other than Avengers: Age of Ultron. Although the recent films in this series have been getting more fantastical, The Winter Soldier looks like the most grounded Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man. Nick Fury and Black Widow seem to play crucial roles from the trailers and this is looking like what I wanted from The Agents of  S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. Marvel has billed The Winter Soldier as a political thriller so it seems that this comic book movie will bring something new to the genre. I'm also hoping for some WWII flashback scenes as I loved the retro style of Captain America.

Guardians of the Galaxy
The Marvel Studios movies will show their full range this year as Guardians of the Galaxy heads in the opposite direction of The Winter Soldier by showcasing the cosmic aspects of the Marvel universe. I'm guessing that Guardians of the Galaxy will help set up Thanos for Avengers 3. Like the general public, I don't know anything about the comics this movie is based on. However, the trailers make this look like a lot of fun and Marvel Studios hasn't disappointed so far. If Marvel Studios can pull off a talking raccoon and giant tree guy then they can pull off anything, even Ant-Man!

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I don't think that the X-Men films get enough credit for popularizing superhero movies. Sure the first Spider-Man movie made more money (and had a bigger budget), but without the success of X-Men (2000) setting a precedent it's possible that things may have played out differently. It's also important to keep in mind the serious tone of X-Men, which opens with a scene at a concentration camp, just three years after the goofy Batman & Robin. While I haven't seen the X-Men trilogy in a while, I liked them a lot at the time. I also thought X-Men: First Class was very good and made up for the disappointing X-Men: Origins Wolverine. X-Men: Days of Future Past will use time travel to bring the older and younger casts together. I think this is a great idea (though maybe should've been saved for the final movie in this new trilogy) and can't wait to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen together again as Professor X and Magneto.

The Hobbit: There and Back Again
I've read the book and seen the first two Hobbit movies, so of course I want to see the final part of this film trilogy, which will also be Peter Jackson's last adventure in Middle-earth. It will be interesting to see what is added this time as there isn't much material from the book left to cover.


I'm not too familiar with Godzilla but the trailers for this movie look fantastic and don't give away much. I was impressed with the visuals and tone and hope this movie will be as good as advertised. I might miss the 2001: A Space Odyssey music used in the trailers though.

The Raid 2: Berandal

I liked The Raid and am interested in the sequel. It looks like The Raid 2 has a bigger budget, story, and scope so I think this movie has what it takes to be a good sequel.

Muppets Most Wanted
I liked The Muppets and am looking forward to the next one. While The Muppets was a "getting the band back together" movie with a plot reminiscent of The Muppet Movie, its follow-up Muppets Most Wanted seems to be a throwback to The Great Muppet Caper.

Now that I'm done with the franchise movies and sequels, it's time to get to the original films. Interstellar is the next film from director Christopher Nolan and will be released this November. Not much is known about the story other than that it deals with space travel, a topic Nolan hasn't covered yet. Now that we live in a post-Gravity world Nolan will have to step up and deliver a great film about space but I'm sure he's up for the challenge. Interstellar stars Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, and of course, Michael Caine.


Christopher Nolan's usual cinematographer, Wally Pfister, will make his directorial debut this year with Transcendence. Although the concept of uploading a human mind to a computer has been done before, it's particularly relevant in today's world with constant advances in technology. Besides Johnny Depp, Transcendence also stars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, who Pfister worked with on Christopher Nolan's Batman movies.

No, this is not a movie based on the Hanna-Barbera Birdman cartoon or the Adult Swim show Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. Birdman is a comedy film starring Michael Keaton as an actor best known for playing a superhero as he tries to star in a Broadway play. Keaton is famous for portraying Batman so it'll be interesting to see how Birdman plays off of that.

Killing Hasselhoff
Birdman is not the only comedy meta film coming out this year! Killing Hasselhoff is about a down on his luck man whose only chance at fixing his life is to have David Hasselhoff killed in order to win half a million dollars in a celebrity death pool. Hasselhoff stars as himself!

The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch has been all over Hollywood recently and this movie could deliver his first Oscar nomination. The script for The Imitation Game came out on top of the Black List (best unproduced screenplays) in 2011 and quickly ignited a bidding war eventually won by The Weinstein Company for $7 million. The Imitation Game stars Cumberbatch as Alan Turing and tells the true story of how he helped break Nazi Germany's Enigma code but was later convicted by his (British) government for being a homosexual.


Another movie based on real events, Foxcatcher is about Olympic wrestling gold medalist Mark Schultz and how his brother and fellow Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz was killed by Olympic sponsor John Eleuthère du Pont in 1996. It'll be interesting to see how Steve Carell and Channing Tatum will do in dramatic roles.

Jon Favreau rose to prominence after directing the first two Iron Man flicks but his last movie was the lackluster Cowboys & Aliens in 2011. Chef proves to be very different from his recent films as it's about a chef who decides to start a food truck business after losing his restaurant job while also trying to get his family life sorted out. Chef will star Favreau as the lead and also features Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and John Leguizamo.

The Judge
The other Robert Downey Jr. movie before Avengers: Age of UltronThe Judge is about a lawyer (Downey) who returns home to attend his mother's funeral. However, while back in his home town he finds out that his father, the town judge played by Robert Duvall, is suspected of murder.

I've been looking forward to Frank since I first saw the above photo from this movie. What I didn't know until recently is that the film is partly inspired by real life musician Chris Sievey. Frank also incorporates on-screen tweets instead of a voice-over. The more I hear about this odd-ball movie, which stars Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the more I want to see it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
I've been meaning to watch a Wes Anderson film but simply haven't gotten around to it yet. The Grand Budapest Hotel may be a good place to start as it has an all-star cast and has been receiving rave reviews.

Big Eyes
Tim Burton has almost become a parody of himself in recent years in that he's been directing the movies everyone would expect him to make. However, Big Eyes seems to be a far cry from Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland as it's a biographical film about artist Margaret Keane. Big Eyes focuses on Keane's success as a painter as well as her legal battle with husband and fellow artist Walter Keane. Burton hasn't done a biopic since Ed Wood so hopefully this will be a return to form for him.

Under the Skin

Although the basic plot for this movie sounds like Species (an alien takes the form of a beautiful woman to seduce men who are later killed), Under the Skin is actually based upon the novel of the same name by Michel Faber. Despite my comparison to Species, it seems that Under the Skin goes in a different direction and is more serious. Parts of this movie were unscripted and feature non-actors so it'll be interesting to see how that experiment works. Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as the main character, a sexy alien.

Bonus 2015 movies:
Avengers: Age of Ultron

It's the sequel to The Avengers and the first Marvel Studios movie of 2015. 'Nuff said!

Mad Max: Fury Road
Last year I put the fourth Mad Max film in my bonus movies for 2014 section. However, Mad Max: Fury Road got pushed back again and is currently looking at a May 2015 release. The various delays are worrisome but I trust director George Miller. Hopefully a trailer will come out later this year and we'll get our first look at Tom Hardy in the title role.

Crimson Peak
2015 is gearing up the be the "year of the franchise" even with the Batman vs. Superman movie being pushed back to 2016. However, there will still be plenty of original movies coming out next year. Crimson Peak, described as a "gothic horror story," is the next film from director Guillermo del Toro and will star Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, and Mia Wasikowska.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The 86th Academy Awards

I would've liked to have done a post on this year's Oscar nominations back when they were announced but had to focus on getting caught up instead. It also doesn't help that, yet again, I didn't see a ton of movies that came out in 2013. One year I'd like to see all the Best Picture nominations before the awards. The 86th Academy Awards took place on March 2, 2014. This was a week later than usual due to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

I missed most of the last two award shows so the last one I watched in full was the 83rd Academy Awards on February 27th 2011 which was hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco. I'm not familiar with Ellen DeGeneres outside of knowing who she is, but I thought she was fine and certainly performed better than Hathaway and Franco did. I think Ellen was a safe pick but it worked out as her show had a better reception than Seth MacFarlane's hosting duties last year.

While a pizza delivery and the 'selfie' seen around the world may have been surprises, the awards pretty much lined up to what I thought would win. I didn't expect Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, 20 Feet from Stardom, or Her to win their awards but predicted everything else.

I only saw eight 2013 films so I'm going to do a brief run down of what I saw and how they did at the Oscars. Gravity, which I felt the best film of what I saw last year, took home the most awards with seven out of ten total nominations. A technical masterwork, Gravity certainly deserved the attention of the Academy, winning such awards as Best Director (Alfonso Cuaron) and Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki). I'm glad Lubezki finally won his first Oscar since he was previously nominated five times and always came up empty. Despite receiving the most awards, Gravity was unable to win the big one, Best Picture, which went to 12 Years a Slave. American Hustle matched the ten nominations of Gravity but didn't win a single award. Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence have recently won Oscars and with the stiff competition I wasn't surprised American Hustle was left out in the cold. That said, I still thought it would win something due to its sheer number of nominations. Given the circumstances I wouldn't say the film was snubbed, but I felt American Hustle was certainly deserving of some wins.

Besides Gravity and American Hustle the rest of the most I saw didn't get many nominations, though this was to be expected. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug received three nominations for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing but lost out to Gravity in each category. The Desolation of Smaug did a great job in all of those areas, but had no chance against Gravity. Gravity not only had revolutionary visual effects but also looked amazing on a relatively low budget ($100 million) given the film's huge scope.

I would've liked to have seen The Desolation of Smaug get a nomination for Best Production Design but it was a very tough category this year. I don't understand why the film didn't get nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling as there were only three nominations, two of which were The Lone Ranger and Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa. The previous Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, had nominations in both these categories but like its sequel was unable to win anything.

Iron Man 3 got a nomination for Best Visual Effects. Like The Desolation of Smaug it was deserved but no contest when compared to Gravity. Star Trek Into Darkness also received a nomination in this category. I thought the movie had good special effects but they didn't blow me away. I was disappointed that Star Trek Into Darkness and The Lone Ranger (which to be fair I'm judging only by the trailers) were recognized here but Pacific Rim (which also had top notch production design) was unable to score a nomination. Thor: The Dark World (which had better visuals and production design than I was expecting) and Man of Steel didn't get any Oscar nominations which was no surprise. Still, they would've be decent choices in the Visual Effects category since Star Trek Into Darkness and The Lone Ranger did get nominations there.

It wouldn't be an Academy Awards post without discussing the Razzie awards! The winners of the 34th Golden Raspberry Awards were announced the day before the Oscars. Grown Ups 2 received the most nominations with nine but got shutout. The dubious prize of Worst Picture went to the sketch comedy Movie 43 which tied M. Night Shyamalan and Will Smith's After Earth with three award wins. I'd still like to see a version of the Razzies that includes non-Hollywood movies so stuff like The Room or Birdemic would have a shot!

Fun fact: Now that Matthew McConaughey has won an Oscar, the two leads of Reign of Fire (the other being Christian Bale) are now Academy Award winners. Does this mean Gerard Butler has an Oscar win in his future?!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gravity (2013)

My favorite movie released in 2013 is Gravity. I only saw eight theatrically released films in 2013 but was lucky to see two Best Picture nominations (the other being American Hustle).
Gravity is an amazing cinematic experience. I'm sure it will look good on Blu-ray but see it in IMAX 3D if you still can. The IMAX 3D experience is immersive and will make you feel like you left Earth. It's also stressful to watch at times, especially on a first viewing!
Gravity had a $100 million budget which for this type of movie isn't as much as you would expect. They certainly got their money's worth as Gravity is an incredible piece of filmmaking with fantastic visual effects.
The excellent cinematography is from Emmanuel Lubezki, who finally won his first Oscar this year for Gravity. I was impressed with Lubezki's work on The Tree of Life and he knocked another one out of the park here. Lubezki frequently works with Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón and has also been the director of photography for Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow) and the Cohen Brothers (Burn After Reading). Somehow he worked on The Cat in the Hat so I guess the cinematography was the least of that movie's problems!

Gravity is the second movie I've seen from director Cuarón, the first being Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I know that I saw A Little Princess as a kid but don't really remember it. I still need to get around to seeing Children of Men at some point.
Both leads, Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney as veteran astronaut Kowalski, do a good job. Clooney is likeable and witty while Bullock does a nice job portraying a vulnerable scientist trying to survive her first space mission.
Stone's backstory of having a daughter who died didn't work for me. I think this could've been replaced with something that would have enhanced the themes of isolation and survival in a better way or perhaps simply been cut altogether.
Gravity is not really science fiction as there are no aliens or advanced technology. The film is still in the realm of speculative fiction but more of a thriller set in space.
If you want to know my thoughts on how Gravity did at the Oscars then read my post on the 86th Academy Awards.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle
This is the first movie I've seen from director David O. Russell and the final 2013 film I watched in a theater. American Hustle begins with the disclaimer "some of these things happened." I thought this was a good idea since it allows the film to use the true events (Abscam) as a starting point and tell the story in the most interesting way possible. I don't have a problem with films based on historical events doing this, as long as they state it up front like American Hustle. Most films based on true stories make changes anyway so it was nice to see a film, about con men no less, be honest about it. Plus this encourages people to find out more about the real people and events, which is always a good thing.

The acting was great all around from the four leads to the supporting cast. Comedian Louis C.K. only has a minor role but steals every scene he is in. There's a fantastic surprise cameo which I didn't know about coming into the movie. I won't spoil it so you'll have to watch the film to find out who it is! There are a good amount of main characters but I thought they were all handled well, not just in regard to acting but also with the writing and their roles in the story. Jeremy Renner was fantastic as Mayor Carmine Polito and deserved an Oscar nomination even though he didn't get as much screen time as Christan Bale or Bradley Cooper. American Hustle became only the 15th film to score Oscar nominations in all four acting categories. Check out my post on the 86th Academy Awards for my thoughts on how American Hustle fared at the Oscars.

When I first saw the trailer for American Hustle I was very interested in the film but thought it looked like the characters were playing 1970s dress-up. While the clothes and hairstyles of the main characters are over the top, even for the period, it's there to hammer home the themes of the film. These con artists are affiliated with government agents in exchange for their freedom, but still must make use of fakery and deception, often on multiple levels and in several different ways.
I was talking to somebody about the film and they mentioned "the villain." I stopped to think for a moment then asked who they thought the villain was because I didn't think this movie had one. The person viewed Bradley Cooper's character, Richie DiMaso, as the bad guy but I didn't see it that way. DiMaso is a government agent who doesn't have a great life and tries to turn nabbing a pair of con artists (Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams respectively) into improving his career and living a glamorous life. DiMaso is blinded by the pursuit of these goals as he is willing to stoop to entrapment to bust politicians, even honest ones. DiMaso's work with the con men is a form of escapism as he gets to leave his world (he lives with his shrill mother and has a fiancée only to make her happy) to work with the con artists. We see how eager DiMaso is when he keeps trying to skip to the climax of his boss's ice fishing story and therefore never gets to hear how it ends. DiMaso thinks he can hang with the big boys and take down anyone, con man, politician, or gangster. However, DiMaso may not have the amount of control he thinks he has over these convicted con artists and finds himself way out of his league. Since Irving and Sydney are our protagonists I guess DiMaso could be considered an antagonist, but he is on their side for most of the film.

Russell's directing is very good and there is also some nice cinematography, such as the dry cleaning scenes. While watching American Hustle I could definitely see the influences of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. I could also hear the influences since like many Scorsese and Tarantino films, American Hustle has an awesome soundtrack! If there was an Oscar for best soundtrack made of up previously recorded songs American Hustle would easily win that category with its mix of great 70s songs from different genres such as pop, rock, R&B, and disco.
Just before the movie began I looked around the theater and noticed the audience was a full house and made up mostly of senior citizens. American Hustle had already been out about a month so the packed house was a bit of a surprise, though to be fair this was around the time the Oscar nominations were announced. I expected the audience to be older, especially with a late afternoon showing, but not mostly made up of people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Most of these people were older than I am now back when this movie takes place!
American Hustle has a running time of 138 minutes and while watching the film it felt even longer. I mean this in a good way though since I was never bored and always interested in what would happen to the characters. American Hustle seems like it would hold up on multiple viewings and I look forward to watching it again.

Fun Facts:
Before American Hustle, the last film to receive Oscar nominations in all four categories was David O. Russell's movie from the previous year, Silver Linings Playbook. But before Silver Linings Playbook this hadn't happened since Reds (1981). Besides American Hustle, the only films to have been nominated in all Oscar categories but not win any are Sunset Boulevard (1950) and My Man Godfrey (1936). None of these films won Best Picture either, with My Man Godfrey not even being nominated in that category.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
I wrote about my background on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in my post on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey so I'm just going to jump right into this one and keep things fairly short. I found The Desolation of Smaug to be an improvement over the first. However, this is mostly because the characters and story are now set up and more fun by this point.
Unlike the first Hobbit movie, I watched The Desolation of Smaug in the theater in IMAX 3D with the 48 frames per second frame rate. Overall I thought it was a great, immersive experience. I can see why some people didn't like the look of the 48 fps as it does kinda have a shot on video feel and exposes the makeup a bit. I don't think that 48 fps will ever catch on for all movies as it simply isn't meant for that. There is no reason a Will Ferrell movie needs the high frame rate! However, for a film like this one on a big scope with a lot of outside landscape shots the 48 fps generally looks magnificent and the pros outweigh the cons.
The film's action and visual effects are excellent. My favorite scene was the barrel sequence which besides looking great flowed well and had nice choreography.

Other than the barrel scene, another standout moment for the special effects is Smaug the dragon. Smaug is brought to life by Benedict Cumberbatch who did a nice job not only voicing the character but also performing the motion capture for the role.
If you still can't get past the fact that Peter Jackson's Hobbit films are more prequels to his LOTR movies than an adaptation of the book, The Desolation of Smaug won't win you over. There is a love story added for the movie which involved one of the dwarves and a female elf. Although this subplot is unnecessary and could've been cut, I actually thought it worked well and fit naturally with the story. It also helped tie in the elves to this movie more which makes sense given the stronger connection to LOTR the Hobbit movies have when compared to the books.
The decision to make three movies out of The Hobbit is still a stretch but the pacing is better this time around. That said, The Desolation of Smaug leaves the story off near the end of the book. I guess this means we'll see a lot more of the final battles and there will be more added material in the next one. The final part of this film trilogy, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, comes out in December 2014.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Thor: The Dark World
As I wrote in my Iron Man 3 review I am a fan of the Marvel Studios movies. My least favorite movie of the series was Thor so I wasn't too excited about this one. I held out hope that Thor: The Dark World would be an improvement over the original but found it to be a lateral move. Director Alan Taylor has mostly done TV work but I guess his Game of Thrones credits helped get him this job. The only other thing I've seen from Taylor was the pilot for the TV show The Playboy Club. I didn't care for it but thought the premise could've made for a good movie. Taylor's next film will be Terminator: Genesis.

The best part of Thor: The Dark World, like the first Thor movie, is Loki. Tom Hiddleston puts in yet another dynamic performance as Loki and does a great job drawing from his background as a Shakespearean actor. It's kinda funny that Loki is a more interesting and nuanced character than Thor, who is supposed to be our main character. But since Loki has been portrayed so well I can't really complain about this. I'm also not sure if there was much more to the Thor character in the comics as I have never read them. While Chris Hemsworth has a nice presence as Thor, he's not the greatest actor. However, he has a good chemistry with Hiddleston and their scenes together are not just the best in the movies of some of highlights of the entire franchise. Thor's companions, the Warriors Three along with Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), get a bit more screen time in The Dark World. I particularly liked the scenes where they plan to break Loki out of prison and how each one kept telling Loki not to betray Thor, or else! I thought the humor worked in Thor and it's just as good this time around. Another strong point of the film are the stunning visuals ranging from the Aether to alien planets and even creative portal battles.

The Dark World has Loki and great production values but there are several flaws. The weakest part of the movie is the bad guy, the Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith's motivations aren't strong. He once battled Thor's grandfather, Bor, over a powerful weapon called the Aether. Bor defeated Malekith, gained the Aether, and hid it in safe place, but Malekith is able to escape into suspended animation. Malekith wakes up due to the release of the Aether and wants it back. Malekith doesn't even get that much screen time which is odd since he is supposed to be the main villain. We should've gotten to know this character and his motivations much better as it would've made the conflict and final battle more meaningful.
The relationship between Thor and the human Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is phoned in again. It doesn't help that Portman is one of the least convincing scientists I've ever seen in a movie. While Loki is trying to discover who he is and what his place is in the universe, Thor's biggest decision is whether his love interest should be Jane or Sif. This brings in some conflict but is basically dropped as the story progresses to include Loki more.

Also like in the original Thor movie, the scenes on Earth aren't as good as the Asgard and cosmic scenes. While it made sense for Thor to be on Earth a lot in the first movie, this time there is too much time spent on Earth that could've been used to play up the fantasy elements.
Some people found Darcy (Kat Dennings) annoying in Thor but I thought she was fine as the comic relief and at the very least had more of a persona than Jane. This time I just didn't find her schtick funny except for one joke that was a callback to the first movie and the fact that she has her own intern despite being an intern herself.

The Dark World brings us a little more into the cosmic aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but not much is set up for Phase 2 outside of the after credits scene. I've been watching the TV show Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and there was an episode, "The Well," which followed up on the events of The Dark World. I would've liked a stronger tie-in to the movie such as a cameo appearance but the Asgardian Beserker staff made for a cool MacGuffin.
I don't need another Thor movie (honestly I'd rather have a solo Loki movie or give a new Marvel character a chance) but Thor 3 was recently announced thanks to the success of the first two as well as the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Next up for Marvel Studios is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which will be released in April 2014.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness
As a Star Trek fan I was cautiously optimistic about Star Trek Into Darkness. I liked the 2009 Star Trek reboot a lot when I first it in theaters but watched it a couple more times and enjoyed it less and less each time. I'm glad '09 Trek brought back the joyful optimism and fun of the original series but just wished it had more substance to it. I was hoping that the sequel would fix this problem now that the crew has been introduced but we still don't get much social commentary or philosophy here. I'm not asking for a dissertation, just something to think about while leaving the theater.

I didn't like the clunky title since it was first announced. I guess they wanted to avoid using numbers or the one word subtitles of the Next Generation movies but is this really the best they could come up with? It also doesn't help that the acronym is close to both STD (sexually transmitted disease) and STI (sexually transmitted infection)!
Star Trek Into Darkness was actually better than I expected and I liked it more than '09 Trek. The villain of this movie is much better than the over the top Eric "Fire everything!" Bana as Nero. I also liked how each main character had more to do this time around. I understand that this was partially because '09 Trek had to set up the characters but it was still nice to have Scotty do more than simply be comic relief. The opening scene felt like classic Trek to me and I would've liked to have seen more of it. I enjoyed this cast the first time around and thought they did a good job with the roles again. I particularly liked the addition of Peter Weller as Admiral Marcus, the father of Kirk's love interest, Carol Marcus. The Klingons are re-introduced and while I was glad to see them back instead of the Romulans yet again, I was not a fan of the re-design. It looked too CGI to me and if it ain't broke don't fix it. The planet Vulcan was destroyed in '09 Trek which I thought was interesting as it opened up a lot of new story telling possibilities. However, the idea is never followed up in this film other than a line from Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy does make a brief cameo, probably so his last movie didn't have to be Transformers 3!) about helping Vulcan survivors. I have a bad feeling that the destruction of Vulcan was not done as a commentary on attempted genocide or displaced persons but just because Alderaan blew up in Star Wars and to show that anything can happen in this new timeline.

Now it's time to get to the elephant in the room. By this point anybody who is a Star Trek fan and hasn't seen Star Trek Into Darkness yet probably knows that the villain of the movie is Khan from the original series episode "Space Seed" and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of my all-time favorite films. Unlike a lot of Star Trek fans, I had no problem with Khan being used in a reboot. In fact, I actually thought it could be a good idea as long as it was handled in a "what if" way. For instance, Khan could be discovered by a different Federation ship and then start to build up a new empire. This could shake things up in various ways by for example, causing a split in the Federation or making peace with the Klingons or starting a war with the Romulans. Into Darkness certainly does things different such as how Khan and Kirk interact as well as the lack of the Genesis device subplot. However, simply using Khan at all forces an unfair comparison. This isn't like when a comic book movie uses a well-known villain since Khan only has two canonical appearances while a character such as Joker for instance has had many incarnations over the years.

It also doesn't help that Khan is played by a white man when the character is supposed to Indian. Ricardo Montalban was not Indian either but first played the role in the 1960s when actors like him played a wide range of ethnic characters so it's understandable in that context. I don't think the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch was racist since the character is never referred to as Indian and really is a new character merely inspired by Khan. It seems to me that Cumberbatch was cast more for his marketability than fitting the role, even though he is a fine actor and does a good job here. Still, I don't know why somebody like Faran Tahir couldn't have played the part. Besides fitting the ethnicity of Khan, he is not unknown to audiences as was in Iron Man and even very briefly at the beginning of '09 Trek. I doubt that most viewers would've remembered him from the last film, and casting the same actor in different subsequent roles is nothing new for Star Trek. But what I really don't understand is why the marketing and movie go out of their way to make the reveal of Khan (who is referred to as "John Harrison" for half the film) a surprise. Maybe they were afraid of the fanboy backlash but if that was the case then why do it at all? I think this is just J.J. Abrams' mystery box at play but after all the buildup whatever is in the "box" will seem underwhelming no matter what.

I felt that Into Darkness was an improvement over the last one and had fun with it. But like '09 Trek it wasn't as memorable as other Star Trek movies, partially because it plays off of Wrath of Khan more than it tells a brand new story. I didn't have a problem with the callbacks as they usually changed things up from Wrath of Khan or other episodes/movies, but would've rather had something completely different than anything done before. I'm surprised that many Star Trek fans hated Into Darkness yet had no problems with '09 Trek as the tone, style, and characters aren't much different. If you couldn't accept Star Trek as a popcorn movie the first time around then Into Darkness won't win you over. However, if you liked '09 Trek I think you will enjoy this one as well. I liked Into Darkness as a sci-fi action blockbuster. But as a Star Trek movie, like '09 Trek, it still misses the mark.

While there have been some very good Star Trek movies it really works best as a TV show and I hope to see it return to that medium at some point. In the meantime I just hope that the next Star Trek movie more evenly balances ideas and exploration with the action and villains. Many recent movies have tried to copy how The Dark Knight accomplished this but in the wrong ways ("dark" in the title, focus on the villain, etc.) instead of doing so in a unique and organic fashion like TDK did.
Fun Fact: Two actors in this movie have voiced Batman (Bruce Greenwood and Peter Weller). We also have Robocop (Peter Weller), and Judge Dredd (Karl Urban).

Monday, February 24, 2014

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3
As a fan of the Marvel Studios movie since I first saw Iron Man in the theaters in 2008, of course I was going to see Iron Man 3 the weekend it came out. Iron Man 3 was the first Marvel Studios movie to follow the huge 2012 blockbuster The Avengers so even though it was highly anticipated, this was one of those movies that was going to make a lot of money regardless of quality. Iron Man 3 was the top grossing movie worldwide in 2013 (second in the USA behind The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) making over $1.2 billion internationally. Coming in to Iron Man 3 I was just hoping it would be on par with Iron Man 2. Iron Man 3 met my expectations, though the movie is pretty different than the last two films in both story and tone.

Jon Favreau directed the first two Iron Man movies but was replaced for Iron Man 3 with Shane Black, who gives the film a noticeably different feel. I found this a refreshing change of pace as Black puts his own sense of style and humor into the picture. I found the comedy to be the film's strong point as I was already in stitches as soon as Eiffel 65's "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" started playing over the opening credits! Robert Downey Jr. is hilarious as usual in these movies with some great snappy dialogue. Downey tends to ad-lib a lot and there are some hilarious moments where he is basically riffing the movie with references to A Christmas Story and Westworld. I laughed more throughout this movie than I do for many straight-up comedies, though to be fair I tend to find humor can work better in non-comedies simply because it's not expected as much. There is more to Iron Man 3 than just comedy as there are some cool action sequences such as the "monkeys in a barrel" scene. It's also interesting to see Tony Stark out of the suit for the majority of the movie since he is Iron Man and the question is raised if he more than just a guy in powerful battle armor. This also allowed supporting characters Happy Hogan, Pepper Potts, and War Machine/Rhodey to be more involved with the story.

Besides directing Iron Man 3, Shane Black also has a writing credit on the film. I discovered that
Black also worked on the screenplays for The Monster Squad and Last Action Hero which is evident in this one with the meta humor and way the kid (Harley played by Ty Simpkins) was handled. I liked the portrayal of the Mandarin and the tacked on kid sidekick as a satirical commentary on more serious superhero and action movies. I wonder if the Mandarin was intended as a parody of Ra's al Ghul and Bane in Christopher Nolan's Batman films. I'm guessing it was probably playing off them a little but was more of a riff on movie villains in general. Either way I liked the take on the Mandarin and thought it worked well here, but can see why fans of the Iron Man comics (which I never read) would've preferred a more traditional approach.

Despite the clever and witty writing there are some issues here. For example, what are Aldrich Killian's motivations? I understand his beef with Tony Stark but we're supposed to believe that he turned evil just because Stark, an idiosyncratic playboy, didn't show up for a meeting one time? I know this incident was supposed to be the last straw for Killian but it simply doesn't work. If we saw Killian pushed to the edge before meeting Stark or if he was truly wronged by Stark it would've been fine but it seems that he's only bad guy because that's what it says in the script. This is an odd incongruity given the meta stuff in the rest of the movie which you'd think would parody something like this. I'm guessing Killian came from the film's other writer (Drew Pearce) or they just ran out of time to develop Killian more.

I think the Iron Man trilogy may be a bit underrated as a whole since it is part of the Marvel Studios franchise and most people focus on the first one. I still think that the original Iron Man movie is the best of the three. To be fair though I need to re-watch that one as it's been a while since I've last seen it and I've watched the other two more recently. I had a ton of fun with Iron Man 3 in the theaters and it held up a second time, which is great given the film's surprises and emphasis on humor. Iron Man 3 is neither as consistent as the first nor as thought provoking as the second, but despite some plot and pacing issues it's a still fun ride that is always entertaining
It will be interesting to see how exactly Iron Man will come back for Avengers: Age of Ultron since Iron Man 3 felt like an ending story, especially with the montage over the closing credits. Will Tony Stark return to the suit or contribute to the team in a different way? We'll have to wait until May 2015 to find out.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim
Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite current directors. I still need to catch up with some of his earlier work as Pacific Rim is the third del Toro film I have seen with the others being Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy.
Pacific Rim is a great summer movie and I wish that more blockbusters could be like it since it's a fun ride that knows what it is without ever getting cheesy or stupid. The film is about giant monsters that come to Earth from an interdimensional portal located at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. These monsters, dubbed Kaiju, (as a throwback to the Japanese giant creature feature films such as Godzilla) begin attacking major cities. Humanity responds by building Jaegers, giant robot machines controlled by human pilots, to fight the Kaiju. The Jaegers are successful at first but eventually most are destroyed by the Kaiju which are increasing in size and number. The Jaeger project is discontinued, but the remaining Jaegers and their pilots must band together in a last ditch effort planned by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) to save Earth from the Kaiju. Our main character is Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a former Jaeger pilot who retired after the death of his brother and co-pilot but returns in order to end the war between the humans and the Kaiju.

I liked the characters in Pacfic Rim. Sure, their arcs may not be the best ever, but this is a big action movie with a decent amount of characters not a one man character study. The characterizations are fine for what is required in a film like this and are done better than those in many of its peers. For example, the Raleigh/Mako relationship was well written and felt organic, especially compared to the forced, afterthought relationships in other blockbusters like Thor or Transformers. Mako is not just the requisite love interest but a three dimensional character. Idris Elba puts his great acting chops to good use and his character has an interesting backstory. I also enjoyed the scientists (who felt right out of a 50s sci-fi flick) who had important stuff to do that fit in with the main story. The main mission for the scientists (one of whom is played by Charlie Day from the TV Show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) is go to Hong Kong to find a Kaiju brain. In order to do so they must first go through black market dealer Hannibal Chau (played by Ron Perlman who steals every scene he is in). While in Hong Kong a Kaiju attacks so we get to see the battle from the perspective of the scientists and Chau, as well as from our protagonists in Gipsy Danger who are fighting the beast. Both the plot and characters were more involved than many people expected when they heard the movie was about robots fighting aliens.

Pacfic Rim does a good job of world building and summarizing the backstory of the Kaiju attacks in the opening scenes. However, the title screen came up surprisingly late and took me out of the film a bit since I was already into it and just assumed we weren't getting opening credits. Other than that I thought the movie was well paced and just as long as it needed to be.
The humans from other countries don't get to do much. I understand this from a storytelling perspective since it would mean more characters we would have to get to know better, but I was hoping to see the Chinese Jaeger (Crimson Typhoon) with three arms that piloted by triplets get more fighting time.
Our main character, Raleigh, was fine but could've stood out a little more. Also, the Australian pilots are a father and son team but they looked fairly close in age so I thought they were brothers at first. I looked it up and the actor (Max Martini) who played Herc Hansen was only 14 years older than the man (Robert Kazinsky) playing his son. It might've been more interesting to cast an older actor in his late 50s or early 60s as Herc to mix things up a bit anyway.

The Kaiju wall and Kaiju categories (1-5) show how the humans mistakenly considered the monsters to be merely animals or acts of nature. We find out later that there is more motivation to the Kaiju than simply being rampaging beasts, which I thought was an interesting development.
The use of colors in the movie is spectacular. Whether it is the neon lit streets of Hong Kong, the cool blue Kaiju blood, the shiny Jaegars, or the jars containing Kaiju organs in Hannibal Chau's hideout, Pacific Rim is feast for the eyes.
The concept of the Drift is another neat idea the movie has going for it. Each Jaeger needs to be controlled by two pilots through the Drift, a mind meld of sorts in which memories and emotions are shared. This means that pilots need to have a high level of compatibility in order to control the Jaegars, which sort of reminded me of ice skating pairs. The comradery (and at times competitiveness) between the pilots also called to mind old war movies, with Jaegers being the substitute for fighter aircraft.
The Hong Kong battle sequence was awesome and my favorite part of the movie. I found this scene even better than the final battle, which may be a bit of a problem since that is supposed to be the climax. I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with that (swapping the scenes wouldn't have worked at all) so I just chalked it up as Iron Man 2 syndrome where the best or biggest action scene isn't near the end of the movie.

It's clear that a lot of thought and effort was put into it Pacific Rim. The productions values and special effects are both excellent, with the detailed textures of the Kaiju bodies being particularly impressive. Pacific Rim had a big budget but every dollar of it is seen on screen and well spent. The great visuals are assisted by an awesome guitar heavy score from Ramin Djawadi, who also did the soundtrack for Iron Man.
Del Toro really cared not just about making a good movie, but about paying respect to the Kaiju and giant robot movies that he loves. Pacific Rim has homages and references to other films and TV shows but they are done in a way that is never distracting, like in the original Star Wars or Indiana Jones movies. I haven't seen much of what Pacific Rim is paying tribute to, but didn't need to either. I noticed some references to Alien and Aliens such as a character named Newt, Kaiju acid blood, and the way the crew went inside the Kaiju to collect samples was similar to how the crew of the Nostromo investigated the derelict space ship in Alien. Was the pregnant Kaiju a callback to Godzilla '98?!

Although Pacific Rim did great at the international box office, especially in China, it underperformed domestically. The movie had several things going against it since it features no big name stars and the current film climate favors franchises. The fact that some people associated it as a Transformers knock-off from the poster and trailers didn't help. Pacific Rim received good reviews from critics and got positive word of mouth from audiences so it may get more popular in the U.S as time goes on. Del Toro says he is working on a script for a sequel with his Pacific Rim co-writer Travis Beacham so we'll have to wait and see if it gets the green-light. I loved Pacific Rim but feel it stands alone and don't need a sequel. Of course I would still watch one as long as del Toro is involved.
I first saw Pacific Rim when it came out it theaters then watched it again after it was released on Blu-ray. It held up well the second time around which is always the sign of a good movie.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Wild Wild West (1999)

Wild Wild West
Want to see a ridiculous Hollywood train wreck? Then watch Wild Wild West. This movie is notorious for being a disaster and boy does it live up to its reputation. Thanks to a heavy advertising campaign and star Will Smith, the movie ended up making its budget back in its worldwide gross. Keep in mind though that production budgets usually don't factor in the marketing budget which was probably expensive. Wild Wild West is an infamous example of "WTF Hollywood" and went on to win a lot of Razzie awards. The only thing this franchise non-starter launched was the silly but catchy theme song. And the best part about that is the sample from the song "I Wish" by Stevie Wonder!

I was about 10 years old when Wild Wild West came out in 1999 and remember that it was heavily marketed to kids with a line of Burger King toys and even a junior novelization! I saw the movie for the first time a few months ago and was surprised that the film contained sexual innuendo, ass shots, an attempted lynching, and a lot of racial jokes. Of course none of that made it into the trailer! Maybe if Wild Wild West decided to be a movie for kids or go all the way and be made for adults with an R rating it would've clicked. Instead they tried too hard to please everyone and in the process nobody was happy with the result. Speaking of the marketing, Salma Hayek is all over it but disappears about halfway through the movie. From the trailer I assumed she was a main character but she's not in the movie as much as you would expect and doesn't have much to do either.

I should mention that Wild Wild West was based on the 1960s TV show of the same name. Out of curiosity I watched a couple episodes of the show on YouTube and liked it a lot. It was playing off the popularity of both James Bond and Westerns at the time for fun, anachronistic stories along the lines of steampunk. The show was pretty violent for television which was actually why it was canceled despite doing well in the ratings. The show was light years better than this movie in every aspect. The episodes I saw even dealt with race relations in the Old West in a more respectful and nuanced way. Changing the race of Jim West for the movie was probably mistake since you can either go two ways with it. The first would be to ignore the racism the character would've faced during this time period, which would then make it the elephant in the room. The second is what Wild Wild West chooses, to engage it head on, but this comes with a lot of baggage that just shouldn't be there for what is supposed to be a mainstream action movie intended for audiences of all ages. Wild Wild West makes an attempt at a serious subplot with the New Liberty town of freed slaves but it doesn't work at all. The racial jokes like "I haven't seen him in a coon's age!" are just plain uncomfortable. Although Will Smith says he turned down the title role in Django Unchained because he "wasn't the lead," I can't help but wonder if his involvement in Wild Wild West was part of the reason.

Wild Wild West
takes place in the late 1860s and is about gun slinging cowboy Jim West (Will Smith) and inventor/master of disguise Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) who are secret service agents. The pair are forced to team up in order to save President Grant from the evil ex-Confederate scientist Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh). It's clear the producers of this movie were hoping for director Barry Sonnenfeld and Will Smith to duplicate their success of Men in Black in a different franchise with Kline being the stand-in for Tommy Lee Jones. Both movies even had a Will Smith theme song and accompanying music video to go along with them. Will Smith isn't the problem with Wild Wild West, but lacks chemistry with Kevin Kline who didn't seem into the role. George Clooney was the original choice for Gordon and made the right decision by dropping out even though he probably would've been a better fit. I know that this isn't Kline's fault, but I didn't like how the movie cheated by having President Grant and Gordon impersonating Grant both played by Kline. The 60s show didn't cheat when it came to this so I don't know they had to do that in this movie.
Kenneth Branagh is hilarious as an over the top villain with a ridiculous Southern accent. His performance is enjoyable but Loveless never comes across as a serious threat as intended. I wonder if Branagh was originally considered for the role of Gordon, which would've made more sense, but somehow ended up as the villain.

Wild Wild West
feels like a long movie but not much happens. I was surprised that it was only 106 minutes since it felt over two hours long. The movie doesn't really have a middle as it's basically two halves. We have the beginning and set-up for the story, which then leads to West and Gordon being stranded in the desert by Loveless. The two must work together to escape in order to stop Loveless in the climax and that is pretty much it. It doesn't help that plot points are brought up then dropped and never followed up on such as West telling Gordon he was raised by Indians after the death of his family. I thought this would lead to a group of Native Americans helping them out or West using something he learned from then but instead its just forgotten about. These problems are probably due to the fact that this movie had six writers! The jokes are hit or miss but actually hit more than I expected. However, a lot of the humor does not come from simply being funny since lines like "East meets West!" and the "That's a man's head" scene are so cheesy and bizarre that I couldn't help but laugh. A lot of the humor simply falls flat like "Air Gordon" or when West tries to emulate Gordon's cross-dressing shenanigans.

While on the subject of strange moments in this movie, I must briefly discuss the giant mechanical spider. Jon Peters produced Wild Wild West and earlier in the 90s tried to get a Superman movie made. Peters hired Kevin Smith to write a script and one of his demands was that Superman must fight a giant spider. Peters apparently has a thing for spiders and eventually got his fix by putting it in Wild Wild West. While I get that Loveless has an obsession with spiders to overcompensate for the loss of his legs, I don't understand why there are a lot of sheep in this movie too. But these things are what make Wild Wild West a watchable bad movie, and even entertaining at times, as you never know what crazy thing will happen next!

There was an earlier attempt to bring The Wild Wild West to the silver screen in the early 90s. Mel Gibson was attached to star as Jim West with Richard Donner in line to direct and Shane Black to write the script. Donner actually directed a few episodes of the show and Mel Gibson even resembles the original actor who played Jim West, so this movie probably would've ended up a lot better than what we actually got. Donner and Gibson decided to make a movie out of a different Western TV show and did Maverick in 1994 instead. Hollywood has been all about rebooting franchises lately but I bet they wouldn't touch The Wild Wild West with a ten foot pole. I think this is a shame as the original TV series could still provide source material for a good movie and a reboot of the 60s show would make more sense then the seemingly endless remakes of 80s flicks.
Fun Facts:
The official website for Wild Wild West is still up here. Looks like it hasn't been updated since 1999!
Director Barry Sonnenfeld started his career as a cinematographer and worked on several films directed by the Cohen brothers. Acclaimed cinematographer Michael Ballhaus did the cinematography for Wild Wild West.