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.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Coming into this movie I had only seen the original Planet of the Apes film, which I previously wrote about on this blog, and the 2001 remake directed by Tim Burton (Ape Lincoln!). Rise of the Planet of the Apes serves as both a reboot of the series and a prequel. It tries to have it both ways in this respect like X-Men: First Class which also came out in 2011. This is a bit confusing as Rise of the Planet of the Apes sometimes goes out of its way to tie itself into the original (mentions of the spaceship) but at other moments features new ideas and concepts from the sequels such as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Honestly, this could've easily been its own movie not part of the POTA series, which is apparently how it was originally conceived. Although I love the original 1968 film, I never understood why this  became a franchise, other than the popularity of the first movie, which felt very stand alone.

The original POTA film implies that a nuclear war caused human civilization to end and apes to rise, but this movie has the apes become intelligent as a result of drug testing while a related epidemic takes a huge bite out of the human population. There are also a lot of callbacks to the original film. While some of these are subtle such as Caesar playing with a toy Statue of Liberty, others are more obvious like the use of the line "Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!" which occasionally took me out of the movie. To be fair these references are done well and fit in naturally (except for the spaceship stuff which was tacked on) and wouldn't be noticed by people who haven't seen the original. There are also parallels to the original such as the main characters being put in captivity and hosed down. I thought these generally worked even though inverting the original film is kinda strange since that story in itself was an inversion of humans and apes. You could title this movie Planet of the Humans!

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes a bio-tech company creates a drug that allows the brain to repair itself and is intended to be a cure for Alzheimer's Disease. When testing seems to go wrong, the apes being tested on the project are all put down except for one baby who is taken in by scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). Rodman only intends to keep the chimpanzee temporarily but discovers that the ape inherited high intelligence from its mother due to the drug and decides to raise it. The ape, named Caesar, learns more as he is raised by Rodman but craves to explore the outside world.

Caesar is the main character of the movie and despite not being human, this his story. The film really shines whenever Caesar is the focus. Caesar has a fascinating character arc going from a subservient chimp living with humans to leader of the apes. Caesar communicates with the other apes using sign language which is subtitled. I thought this was a creative spin on things as it differs from the original film with talking apes while also telling the story well without a ton of dialogue at times. Andy Serkis does a great job yet again with the motion capture acting. The CGI used for the apes was very good. I usually still realized I was watching effects but this was mainly with the eyes and faces. The textures of the hair were better than I anticipated and the movements from (I assume) motion capture are very fluid.

Both Rodman and his father (played by John Lithgow who I didn't know was in this movie coming in but puts in a nice performance as usual) with Alzheimer's Disease are interesting but there isn't much to the other human characters. Freida Pinto's character doesn't have much to do other than her introduction scene at the zoo and is nothing more than James Franco's girlfriend after that. If there must be a love interest can she at least be integrated into the story more? Tom Felton, best known as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movie series, does a good job of playing a mean villain. However, we never get any motivation as to why he is a bad guy. I think the intention was that he has a shitty life and is taking it out on the apes in the primate shelter but this never actually comes across. Besides Serkis, Felton and Lithgow are the acting bright spots but don't have that much screen time. Everyone else is average at best.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
is well paced. I've frequently complained of recent Hollywood blockbusters being too long but this one comes in at a sleek 105 minutes and doesn't overstay its welcome.
The movie is not without some plot problems. For example, if you had a neighbor who has Alzheimer's disease and also owns a chimp, would you leave your car keys in your unlocked vehicle which is parked on a public street? It doesn't help that this is a pivotal scene which sets up the rest of the film.
The climax is a cool action set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge. While the scene is well made and fun to watch, wouldn't it have made more sense for the apes to just get past the bridge (or find a more discreet way) to the Muir Woods as quick as possible instead of making a stand?

Despite some issues I still liked Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I would place Rise somewhere in the middle of the chasm between the great original film and the crappy 2001 remake. I can't say I'm excited for the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, teased in the post-credits scene, but at least it will have Gary Oldman in it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Prince of Space (1959)

Prince of Space
I'm going to follow up my last post on RiffTrax Live with an episode of the show that started it all, Mystery Science Theater 3000!
Prince of Space is from season 8, which means it's a Mike episode from the Sci-Fi Channel era. I watched Prince of Space back in the fall so it's been a while since I've seen or written about a MST3K episode.
This MST3K fodder is a 1950s Japanese kids show that has been poorly edited together and given a bad English dub. Prince of Space reminded me of another Tokusatsu (a Japanese term for a speculative fiction movie with a lot of special effects) superhero movie featured on MST3K, Invasion of the Neptune Men. Prince of Space is a little better than that movie, which isn't saying much of course!

The silly villain Krankor (pictured above) is pretty memorable. Krankor makes an "appearance" in a host segment and is even featured in this episode's stinger!
Prince of Space is not that far off in tone from American serials of the time though with even cheaper production values. While this movie is pretty bad, it's still watchable for how ridiculous it is.
This episode has some fun host segments, my favorite being the one where Mike gets turned into a robot which looks like a ventriloquist's dummy.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

RiffTrax Live - Starship Troopers

RiffTrax Live - Starship Troopers
As you may be able to tell from reading this blog, I love the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, as well as one of its present day incarnations, RiffTrax. This is the second RiffTrax Live I've seen. The first was a brand new live riff Manos: The Hands of Fate back in August 2012 which I wrote about in an earlier post.
In February of 2013, the stars of RiffTrax (Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett) began a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the rights to riff Twilight in theaters. Despite raising almost five times their goal, the rights to Twilight could not be secured as the film distributors of Twilight (Summit Entertainment) felt they could still make money off the movie due to the ongoing popularity of the series. The only Twilight movie I've ever seen was the RiffTrax version of the first one, so I was disappointed when this didn't pan out. I was a little worried when I first heard that the backup plan was Starship Troopers. I like Starship Troopers and consider it to be a good film. Starship Troopers has some flaws and is weaker than Paul Verhoeven's other sci-fi action movies (Robocop and Total Recall) but the satire is excellent and the special effects still hold up well. The tone of Starship Troopers tongue-in-cheek unlike Twilight which is a serious attempt at a romantic story. I've never read the original Starship Troopers novel by Robert Heinlein but understand that the movie version is more satirizing the source material than functioning as an adaptation. I've also heard that several elements from the book such as the powered armor suits didn't make it into Verhoeven's film version. Despite my concerns about the selection (I guess Cool as Ice was unavailable to riff?) I went into it with an open mind as the RiffTrax guys had never led my astray before.

The RiffTrax Live for Starship Troopers was on August 15th 2013. This was a Thursday night as usual for Rifftrax Live since new movies come out every Friday. I went with a bunch of friends who are fans of MST3K and RiffTrax, though not all of them had seen Starship Troopers before. I found this one to be hilarious! My initial concerns about the choice of movie went away pretty quickly as I was immediately laughing my head off which continued throughout the course of the film. Below was one of my favorite riffs:
Movie: "I need a corporal. You're it until you're dead or 'til I find somebody better."
Mike's Riff: "Awww, my wedding vows!"
RiffTrax doesn't use as many obscure references as MST3K did, but I was probably one of the few people to get the Teapot Dome scandal joke. The RiffTrax crew also had a great host segment of sorts which dealt with the nudity. I'm not sure why these scenes were censored since the rest of this violent R-rated movie is not, but the gorilla-grams were so funny that it ended up being a perfect way to handle those scenes.
Watching this movie again made me think that Starship Troopers is more of a propaganda piece from that universe than just a satire of propaganda with emphasis on the romance of the "teens" and the information scenes of "Would You Like to Know More?" I'm glad I got to see this movie on on the big screen, even with the riffs. My friends who hadn't seen Starship Troopers were even interested in seeing the movie without the riffs. I still think Starship Troopers is a good movie, but there is plenty of material prime for riffing such as Denise Richards' performance (which made for some great recurring jokes), the romance subplots (they go on too long though I think this is part of the satire), and all the opportunities for bug/crustacean jokes such as "David Cronenberg's A Bug's Life" and "All the best meat is in the claw!"
I had a blast and highly recommend this RiffTrax. This riff is be available for download here, so if you're a fan of RiffTrax and have already seen Starship Troopers but somehow missed this in theaters, be sure to check it out. Like that 70s disco song, you will lose your heart to a Starship Trooper!

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
I watched The Seven-Per-Cent Solution on a recommendation from my Dad and am glad I did as I probably wouldn't have seen it otherwise. I have read some of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories but not recently. The only Sherlock Holmes film I have seen besides The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was the 2009 Robert Downey Jr. movie which I wrote about previously on this blog. Unless of course you count The Great Mouse Detective!
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
was kind of a Sherlock Holmes reboot for its time as it is different from both the Doyle stories and previous film adaptations. The story is that Watson (Robert Duvall) tricks Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) into going to Vienna in order to be treated for his cocaine addiction by Dr. Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). The addition of a historical figure with Holmes is interesting and two characters complement each other nicely. There is also a different take on Watson from the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce film series as this Watson is physically fit and intelligent. Moriarty (Laurence Olivier) functions differently here though he is just as important to Holmes albeit in a very different way. The acting is great all around with Joel Grey and Vanessa Redgrave rounding out the superb cast.

The cinematography in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is interesting since some parts feel like you are watching a play, while other scenes are very cinematic and have great camera work. There is a nice balance between quieter scenes focusing on characters and creative action scenes or dream sequences. The opening credits are done in the style of a program for a stage drama while the sword fight on top of a train would be tough to replicate in a theater!
The film received two Oscar nominations: one for Best Costume Design and another for Best Adapted Screenplay. The costume and set design do an excellent job of depicting London and Vienna in this era. The movie is well-written as it has a solid mystery with clever twists and turns and a satisfying conclusion that does a good job of wrapping things up. There are some great setups and payoffs such as with the tennis scene.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is based on the 1974 novel of the same name by Nicolas Meyer who also wrote the screenplay. Meyer directed Time After Time, Star Trek II, and Star Trek VI and also wrote Star Trek IV. Herbert Ross directed The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. I've actually seen two of his movies before (Footloose and The Secret of My Succe$s), both of which I've written about on this blog.
Hardcore Holmes fans might not like the new spin on things such as its new explanation for Holmes' three year absence after his "death" or Holmes' backstory with Moriarty. I didn't have that baggage so it didn't bother me, especially since I'm used to multiple interpretations of characters and stories.
Fun Fact: Stephen Sondheim wrote the song "The Madame's Song (I Never Do Anything Twice)" used in the film.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Running Man (1987)

The Running Man
I'm a big Arnold Schwarzenegger fan so it was only a matter of time before I watched The Running Man. Somehow I still need to see Conan the Barbarian, but after that I should be caught up on all the major Arnie movies.
Stephen King wrote the novel this movie is loosely based on under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The Running Man takes place in a dystopian future where convicted criminals are put on a game show and forced to fight for their lives. Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a policeman framed for a massacre he didn't commit. Richards is put on the show as punishment and tries to survive and clear his name.
The Running Man shares some similar themes to Videodrome and They Live, such as the effect of TV and the media on the masses, but is lighter in tone than those two movies. The Running Man is hilarious at times, but still tells a good story with something to think about. The satire continues to be relevant today, perhaps even more so than in 1987, thanks to the popularity of reality TV and the internet.
Arnold is fun as always bringing a bunch of great one liners (like "you're the asshole from TV!") to the table as usual. However, it is Richard Dawson as The Running Man's host, Killian, who steals the show. Dawson hosted many game shows such as Match Game and Family Feud in real life and does a great job parodying himself as a sleazy and egotistical host. Jesse Ventura (as Captain Freedom!), Yaphet Kotto, Jim Brown, and Maria Conchita Alonso also put in memorable performances.

Besides the humor and satire, another strong point of the film are the creative action scenes. As part of the game show, contestants are hunted in different game zones by "stalkers" with gimmicks such as Buzzsaw and his chainsaw, Fireball and his flamethrower, and Dynamo who has a suit that can arc electricity.
The Running Man was directed by Paul Michael Glaser. This is his most well known film but he is also infamous for being the director of Kazaam! That movie effectively killed Glaser's career though he has done some TV work since. Although Glaser was not the first choice to direct, I think his background in TV helped the film given its subject matter.
The music is dated and the dance scenes featuring choreography from Paula Abdul go on too long. While I understand that the cheesy music and scantily clad women dancing for no reason in the TV show are part of the parody, it still could have been limited since it felt like overkill at times.
The Running Man is not on the quite on the same level as other Sci-Fi action movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger such as the Terminator movies or Total Recall, but The Running Man is still a fun ride and a must watch for fans of Arnie.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Moneyball (2011)

Moneyball (2011)
I'm a huge baseball fan so I had read the non-fiction book Moneyball a few years before I watching the movie. I was also already familiar with the events before reading the book and am very knowledgeable about the sport. I heard about a film adaptation after I finished the book and wondered how it would be done. While I loved the book and think it's a great story, it didn't seem to lend itself to film like other real life events. Although I liked the movie version, I still feel that the best way to tell this story would be as a documentary. That said, Moneyball is a nice attempt that manages to be as good a movie as possible with the source material.
Director Bennet Miller does a solid job given the high degree of difficulty here. This is Miller's third film having previously directed the documentary The Cruise as well as Capote. As you can see, Miller is no stranger to making movies based on true events and was therefore a good choice to direct. Steven Soderbergh was originally supposed to direct Moneyball but left the project after creative disagreements. Soderbergh wanted to make the film more like a docudrama and feature interviews with the actual players. I think I would've preferred his version though I still liked the movie we ended up with.

Moneyball chronicles the 2002 Oakland A's as they try to win the World Series despite competing with 29 other teams who have more money than they do to acquire good players. The A's general manager, Billy Beane, uses sabermetrics (analysis of baseball statistics) to find players who are undervalued by other teams but will help the A's win ball games.
As a baseball fan I was able to jump right in with the terms, statistics, and even names of players. I saw the film with my Dad who liked it, though admitted that there was stuff which went over his head. For example, the movie frequently throws around the phrase "five tool player," which is even used to describe the playing career of Billy Beane, without ever explaining what those five tools are. Therefore it seems that Moneyball was made more for baseball fans than the masses.
Unlike a lot of sports movies, Moneyball focuses on the off the field business side of the sport which is a nice change of pace for the genre. Not a lot of baseball action is shown, and most of the games we see are real footage of the 2002 A's.
The acting is very good all around. Brad Pitt and the now late Phillip Seymour Hoffman put in stand out performances. This is only the second movie of his I've seen with Phillip Seymour Hoffman so I'll need to check out more of his films. Jonah Hill is fine but I don't think his performance was worthy of an Oscar nomination (which was one of this movie's six nominations despite not winning any awards).

Some of the facts are changed or conflated but this seems to have been done mostly to shape a narrative out of a series of events that didn't really have one. For example, Art Howe is portrayed as a villainous figure which wasn't the case even though he didn't always get along with Billy Beane. Jonah Hill's character is a composite based on A's assistant General manager Paul DePodesta as well as other scouts and advisers on the A's. Hardcore baseball fans will notice other inaccuracies but this almost always comes with the territory of Hollywood adapting true events into movies. These changes do make sense from a storytelling perspective as they were a way to raise the stakes and add more tension.
I understand why Moneyball didn't discuss how the A's chose players to draft since the movie is only about the 2002 Oakland A's and not Billy Beane's entire tenure as their general manager. However, I still feel that this could've been included briefly as it would've paralleled nicely with Beane's story of being a top draft pick for the New York Mets in the 80s.
Moneyball has slow pacing. The movie didn't need to be over two hours long and several individual scenes could've easily been cut down or out. The editing is fine as I liked how the story scenes were inter-cut with the real footage to give the movie a the feel of docudrama at times. However, Beane's backstory should've been told straight through at the beginning since flashing back to it several times didn't add anything to the story for me.

The book shows that while the use of sabermetrics by Beane and the A's was successful, the system wasn't perfect. Both the movie and book place an emphasis on how moneyball doesn't work in small sample sizes. However, the movie doesn't get much into the fact the playoffs themselves are a small sample size. The book discusses players the A's selected in the draft only for their statistics who ended up failing in ways that regular scouting would've foreseen such as an overweight catcher who can't run and a pitcher who had an arm deformity which ultimately ended his career in the minor leagues. Moneyball implies that sabermetrics alone work while the book doesn't completely discount the old way of scouting and suggests it should be part of the moneyball process. I feel that the film would've benefited by showing that Beane and sabermetrics aren't always right.
I think most baseball fans will enjoy this movie but your mileage may vary if you are a novice to the sport. Still, even as a hardcore baseball fan there are more fun (Major League) and better (The Natural, Field of Dreams) baseball movies out there.
Fun Fact: Spike Jonze has an uncredited cameo!