Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Brothers Bloom

Not only was Rian Johnson's follow up to Brick an amazing movie, but it's one that I almost don't feel comfortable writing about until I've seen it at least one more time. There are so many levels of subtext and symbolism thrown into this flick; I'm going to try to write up a more analytical piece on it after I see it again. Just know that if you enjoy con/heist movies, you'll greatly enjoy The Brothers Bloom.

The Brothers Bloom
Writer/Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Rinko Kikuchi

Writer/director Rian (pronounced like Ryan) Johnson has traded in film noir for adventure caper, and the result cements his rising status in Hollywood. This guy is equally talented with a pen or a camera in his hand, and it's amazing to me that both elements shine so clearly through in his final products. The Brothers Bloom is exactly what many before me have said - it's a demonstration of what Johnson can do with a budget. The film was shot on location in Montenegro and Prague, and is reminscient of In Bruges with its portrayal of medieval skylines and the movie's overall respect for the architechture that inhabits it.

The plot surrounds a pair of con men - Stephen Bloom and his younger brother (who only goes by "Bloom") - who target one last mark before Bloom retires. I realize that sounds like every other con man movie of all time, but let me assure you that this film is anything but. The characterizations separate it from similar films in the genre, and the writing is fantastic. The movie strikes a good balance between humor, fun, drama, familial relations, and romance, but its one flaw (that I've found so far) was that it goes a little too heavy on the romance in the third act and loses a slight bit of lighthearted fun that it exhuded so well in the first two thirds. [I suppose the nature of the story doesn't allow to keep that same level going throughout the whole thing, but the difference felt a little too drastic to me.]

Rian's cousin Nathan, who recorded the score for Brick in his bedroom with one microphone, returns here in full force. Similar to the director, it was impressive what Nathan could conjure with little to no budget and even more so to see what he can do with bigger resources at his disposal. With a boisterous score featuring a full band and tunes that echo classical heist films like The Sting, Nathan Johnson has created melodies of New Orleans jazz bands that fits perfectly with the astmosphere of The Brothers Bloom. A score has to be truly great for me to recommend it (sorry, most of them don't do it for me), but this is one that I'm actually considering purchasing. Listen to Dave Chen conduct an epic interview with Nathan on the Slashfilmcast here.

The acting was great all the way around. Mark Ruffalo was actually an engaging character for once instead of his recent romantic comedy-type good guy. He does really well with this mastermind role, always giving a hint of a smirk to let the audience know he's one step ahead of the game. Adrien Brody, who I've slowly come to admire because of his work in The Village and Peter Jackson's King Kong, played the lonely younger brother with such a combination of sadness and childish enthusiasm that I can't imagine anyone else in that part. [I thought Stephen could have been played by any number of actors, but that shouldn't detract from Ruffalo's performance.] Rachel Weisz played Penelope with that same mixture of sadness and enthusiasm, which makes for some great on screen chemistry between the two. Weisz's Penelope was a joy to watch - an eccentric heiress who "collects hobbies" and is looking for an adventure. And not enough can be said about Rinko Kikuchi as Bang Bang, the silent partner of the Bloom brothers who plays seamlessly off of Mark Ruffalo. Her comedic timing was perfect, and she did a lot with a role that required very little verbalization.

The film starts out with an inventive introduction of the brothers and their first con, told completely in rhyming verse by the different cast members. You'll know it when you hear it. The writing is so good, in fact, that the movie itself plays out as a con, leading the audience along as if we're part of one of Stephen's elaborate planned schemes. This theory is supported by the wonderfully designed title cards that appear at each step of the con, which also double as scene changes for the film. I apologize for not jumping further into it, but this is one of those movies that you're better off heading into with no preconceived notions.

This was definitely one of my favorite movies of the year so far - I don't know how it'll hold up in my Best of 2009 List when that finally rolls out, but as of right now it's looking like it will be hard to top The Brothers Bloom. Bring it on, 2009 - I dare you to throw something better at me. Until next time...

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Drag Me To Hell

You have no idea how terrified I was last night when I saw Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell. This was the single most intense theatrical experience I've ever had, and I don't foresee it being topped any time soon. Part of it comes from the fact that I'm not a big horror movie guy, and as such don't see a lot of horror movies in theaters. But as I was sitting there, sunken in my seat, I cursed myself for seeing the film - but at the same time loved almost every second of it.

Drag Me To Hell
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver

As you all will surely remember from the solid theatrical trailer, Drag Me To Hell centers on Christine Brown (Lohman), a loan officer for a bank who refuses service to a gypsy woman (Raver) and is subsequently cursed. Christine and her cynical boyfriend (Long) must remove the curse within three days or spirits come to literally drag her to hell for eternity, where they will feast on her soul.

The plot is ridiculous and barely makes any sense. Why would this old woman take out her aggression on a loan officer? Why not, I don't know, an old boss who fired her, or any other person who has contributed to her sucky position in life? As long as you can put this logical flaw out of your mind and just allow the movie to wash over you, you'll have a much more enjoyable experience. Remember, this is a Sam Raimi flick: the same guy who once directed a Bruce Campbell movie where he ends up with a chainsaw in place of his hand. While he went on to make the Spider-Man films (number 4 is in development), he started with extremely low budget horror movies like Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, which have since gone on to become cult classics. With this film, you could tell Raimi wanted one more shot at his favorite genre before he gets bogged down with Spidey and its inevitable sequels over the next seven or eight years.

Raimi (who wrote the script with his brother, Ivan) boils down this movie to its absolute basic elements and takes out all the BS that has been so exhaustingly stupid in horror movies over the past decade. With most of those films, it takes a solid half an hour before we really start to feel the suspense and terror building with the protagonists. Here, there is none of that - there's a quick prologue, an introduction to the characters, the gypsy woman is rejected in the bank, and from that point on there is no stopping. There are huge scare moments in 90% of the scenes following. Raimi teases us with long shots that any movie fan can recognize (ex: after turning down the gypsy, Christine goes into the parking garage alone at night. Hmm, wonder what will happen?), but does a great job of alternately rewarding our expectations and blowing them away with something far more outrageous than we would have imagined (talking goats, anyone?). And while 1408, one of my other favorite horror [well, perhaps suspense rather than horror] films from the past few years builds suspense in service of mysterious forces that haunt John Cusack's character, Drag Me To Hell gives the enemy a frightening face in Mrs. Ganush, played wonderfully by TV actress Lorna Raver.

Alison Lohman is convincing in a role originally given to Ellen Page (Juno). She devotes herself to the part and really goes for it, which is refreshing to see even if she didn't quite turn in an Oscar-worthy performance. Justin Long serves his purpose well as the loving boyfriend with the skeptical heart. But this movie isn't about winning awards - it's all about the scares, and Lohman works really well as the character with whom the audience most identifies.

The one complaint I have with the film is the fact that almost every big jump scare moment is accompanied by a THUNDEROUS sound effect that makes it impossible for you NOT to react. [You all know what I mean by "jump scare," right? Where something just comes out of nowhere and everyone screams? Making sure.] Even if you weren't scared at all by the images on the screen, you'd be a corpse yourself if you didn't jump due to the out-of-nowhere burst in volume that Raimi and Co. decided to turn up to 11. That said, I didn't feel the same sense of "being cheated" that I normally feel during these jump scare moments. You knew nearly every time one was coming, but the fun comes in trying to predict exactly when and what would happen, only for my expectations to be subverted every time.

I thought this would be simply a suspense movie, but there were so many gross things involved here that I didn't expect. If I listed them all out for you, some of you would never see this movie, and that would be a shame - so I'll keep them to myself. But suffice to say that if you're grossed out easily, you may want to bring a vomit bag. Also, if you get uncomfortable with the notion of spirits and things of that sort, you may want to skip this one. (But come on people - it's just a movie!) The thing is, for a horror movie to be rated PG-13 like this one, you'd think it'd be rather tame. While I was in the theater, I could have sworn it was riding that hard line between PG-13 and R, but after I got out and started playing the scenes back in my head, I think the MPAA made the right call on the rating here. Nothing realistically gruesome happened, and it was all about the build-up to those moments anyway; if you isolated all the "scary stuff" into one clip, it wouldn't be that bad.

The ending? Oh, the ending - totally awesome. I wouldn't dare give it away, but it's the only ending I would have been happy with and they didn't let me down. If you're a horror buff or just want a good scare, this is definitely the movie for you. Until next time...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Kyle Newman's Fanboys was supposed to hit theaters in August of 2007. Thanks to development problems, it managed to squeak into a few theaters in February of 2009 and finally arrive on DVD this past Friday. Since a lot of you have never heard about this movie, I'll give a brief plot synopsis: Set in 1998, the film follows five friends as they travel across the country with one goal in mind - to break into Skywalker Ranch and watch an early print of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Director: Kyle Newman
Starring: Sam Huntington, Kristen Bell, Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, Chris Marquette

If you're a Star Wars fan, you will definitely find something to appreciate in this movie. The film is a labor of love created by a director who has clearly been heavily influenced by Star Wars and the ensuing cultural phenomenon it inspired. The direction is amateurish, but still has enough skill to make this look like an actual film and not something that you or I would throw together in our backyards. There isn't much going on visually, and the music is practically nonexistant. But with all that said, I had a great time watching this and it managed to keep me laughing all the way through.

The concept is original, but the movie eventually devolves into slipping Star Wars references into standard road trip movie situations. Is this a problem for me? Not at all. Fanboys knows what it wants to be and doesn't strive for anything more, aiming simply to please fans with the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" moments and give us a fun ride toward the crew's final destination. Like every good road film, though, it's all about the journey - and this one was pretty awesome. Conflicts with Star Trek nerds and crazy cameos from the "who's who" of the geek world push this otherwise-average movie up into a very enjoyable place. The attention to detail made specifically for the Star Wars fan, down to Sphinx-like quizzes and a really awesomely painted van, is spot on and felt genuine. It's rare to find a genuine film these days, but this is one of the few.

The cast is fantastic, playing each scene so well that it truly feels as if these guys (and girl) have been friends for years. That's a testament to the quality of both the dialogue and their ability to read it convincingly. Kristen Bell is quickly becoming a Ben's Movie Reviews favorite - after seeing her in this and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I've decided to throw Veronica Mars into my queue list (it'll take forever for me to finally receive it and watch the whole thing, but it'll happen eventually). Dan Fogler, who I haven't seen on screen before, did great work as the funny fat guy generally reserved for the likes of Jonah Hill and Jack Black. He brought a wild craziness to the role that was really fun to watch. Jay Baruchel (the upcoming Sorcerer's Apprentice with Nic Cage) was great as the nerd who went by the name Windows, and his subplot about his internet relationship reminded me a lot of the rather-funny-but-little-seen Sex Drive, even though Fanboys was filmed prior to that movie. The main two guys, Sam Huntington and Chris Marquette, did adequate work but all of the side characters interested me more than either one of them did.

The movie was cut and re-cut multiple times by the studios (way to go, Weinstein Company - another great decision on your part), and they even brought another director in to do some reshoots. They cut a major story aspect out of the movie entirely, giving the characters piss-poor motivation and a wildly different feel to the movie overall before they finally rescinded and gave Kyle Newman his movie back so he could cut it back to the way he originally intended. Oh yeah - and they only gave him 36 hours to re-cut it. What a bunch of tools. Needless to say, the movie suffers a bit from these behind the scenes problems and can't completely shed the imminent presence of the looming Weinsteins over the director's shoulder, trying to craft a marketable hit out of something that was made only for the fans in the first place.

For fear of spoiling this for the few of you who want to check it out, I'm going to stop this review short. But I will say that there are some interesting parallels story-wise that can be made between this and the original Star Wars: A New Hope. Cool stuff. And the "find your Death Star" speech stuck me as particularly poignant and is something I'm sure I'll be quoting (at least to myself) for a long time to come. Suffice it to say that you'll definitely get a laugh out of this and I'd say it's definitely worth the price of a rental. Until next time...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Terminator Salvation

[Note: I'm not including this film in the "Countdown From Judgment Day" series we ran a few months ago. In case you missed those entries, check them out - that omnibus is one of our best, if I do say so myself. Start with the First Impressions for Terminator Salvation, then move onto thoughts of the now-cancelled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show, a retrospective about the T2: 3D Terminator experience at Universal Studios, and reviews of the three previous films: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Terminator.]

For any die hard Terminator fan, the prospect of Terminator Salvation should have been very exciting. Finally, we get to see the war between the humans and the machines that we've been hearing so much about since 1984! When McG (Charlie's Angels, We Are Marshall) came on to direct, I can understand some wind being taken out of those proverbial sails. But the casting of fanboy demigod Christian Bale as the legendary John Connor allowed me to hold out hope for this film - hope that spurned me on to see it on opening weekend and not allow the surprising bad word of mouth to dispel me from taking my chances with a franchise I've come to love. As it turns out, the bad word of mouth is no longer surprising.

Terminator Salvation
Director: McG
Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin

It's hard to talk about this film without first mentioning the stunningly mediocre script. This movie leads me to two conclusions: either this script was a casualty of the Writer's Strike, or the writing team of John Brancato and Michael Ferris simply isn't that impressive. T3, while enjoyable as a stupid action movie, does not possess the same level of commentary on the human condition as its predecessors. For some reason unknown to me, these same guys were allowed to write Salvation, which has become the first in another planned trilogy. I should have known, then, that Terminator Salvation would not live up to the massive hype that followed the film up to its release date. It is also an unfortunate indication as to the direction this series is headed over the next few years. Spoiler alert - it's not "up."

Does all this mean that I wouldn't recommend seeing the movie in theaters? Well...yes, actually. Hardcore fans should see it anyway (and you probably will, if you are one), but as far as the casual Terminator fan goes, I would wait for the DVD/Blu-ray. There are a lot of solid-looking movies coming out this summer, and I'd save your hard-earned money for something like The Brothers Bloom or Public Enemies. As far as an action movie goes, there was definitely some cool stuff present here: I'm thinking specifically of the gas station set piece where we see a giant robot releasing motorcycle robots out of its legs and the ensuing chase and explosions resulting from that. The rest of the action felt like we'd seen some variation of it before, and wasn't really that stunning to me.

Visually, Terminator Salvation is pretty quality. Shane Hulbert (whom Bale ranted against months ago) knew what he was doing when he was shooting post-apocalyptic environments. Something about his style gave the impression you could almost feel sand blowing across the frame, making it easier for you to relate to these characters because you subconsciously feel like you're there in the desolation with them. Another fantastic sequence was the long shot of Connor getting into the helicopter, the crash, and the explosion in the first few minutes of the movie. While not really one take (it was pieced together to make it look seamless, Children of Men-style), I don't think I've ever seen a helicopter crash from that perspective before; when a movie can present something new that I've never seen before, I can at least respect it for that reason if nothing else. That's not to say there weren't a few other things I can respect about Salvation (the aforementioned gas station scene), but it just didn't live up to my high expectations for this franchise. But that sequence placed you right there with John Connor as he endured those bumps, scrapes, and rattles, and allowed the cool visual reveal of the explosion from right behind his shoulder, placing the audience beside him and begging us to feel what he's feeling.

For all the attempts to keep us invested in the characters, it's too bad that they are so poorly written it's hard to care about any of them except for Marcus Wright. The cyborg (the trailer gave it away, not me) has the most complete story arc of anyone presented, as one dimensional as that arc may be. In fact, Marcus is a microcosm of the movie itself: a hollow robotic thing with identity issues posing as something more, ultimately predictable, and kind of ridiculous. That being said, Sam Worthington definitely showed some promise in the role, giving sci-fi fans a glimpse of the talent expected to be displayed in December when he plays the lead role in James Cameron's highly anticipated Avatar.

Anton Yelchin turned in his membership card from The Cheesy Impersonation Academy that he used in Star Trek and subsequently churned out a great performance as Kyle Reese in this movie. Aside from Marcus, his character was the only one that was interesting to me. As I was trying to realize why this was the case, I came to this conclusion - in Terminator Salvation, Kyle Reese serves as a kind of surrogate John Connor from the earlier films. He is the one that needs protecting this time around. Unlike Connor, though, who is totally aware of his impending future and the responsibility that holds, Reese is just a ballsy kid trying to survive and make it through another day. I liked the juxtaposition of those two iconic characters and give the writers some credit for shaking up our expectations a little.*

As much respect as I have for John Connor in other Terminator incarnations, this time around he was stale and bland. The thing that makes Connor such a great character is this ticking time bomb down to Judgment Day and the future, when he has to finally step up and become the man that he knows he is prophesied to be. The inner struggle with that legacy and the pressure put on him as a kid makes his arc so interesting to watch. But in Salvation, he's already reached his peak and the mystery of how he got there is gone. All we're left with is a grizzled military soldier who retreats to back rooms to listen to tapes that his mom made for him. As much as I rag on Christian Bale for his growling and snarling, that was the least of my worries when it came to this version of Connor - originally Bale was supposed to play Marcus, but when he took a liking to John Connor, the script had to be rewritten (again) to give the role a little more substance. FAIL. No wonder Jonathan Nolan (Chris' brother, and co-writer of The Dark Knight and The Prestige) didn't have his name show up in the credits - I'm guessing he knew how this would turn out and wanted to keep a perfect track record (he was brought on late in the game for some rewrites).

It was a nice surprise to see Michael Ironside (Jester from Top Gun) as the Resistance leader on the nuclear sub. Everyone other actor in the movie was pretty worthless, including Ben's Movie Reviews favorite Bryce Dallas Howard. Taking over for Claire Danes as Kate Connor, Bryce was pregnant and barely in the film at all. Not only that, but they didn't mention her pregnancy at all. No one even glanced at her stomach. That shot from the trailer, where John pats her stomach as they share a tender moment? Never happened. Way to go, writers. Moon Bloodgood was violently stupid, parading under the guise of the "kick ass girl," but in actuality serving to hurt the female presence in the film with her idiotic actions. [I'm thinking specifically of releasing Marcus and running with him through a mine field, although there were others that I can't recall at the time of this writing.] Common (who? Oh, that guy from Smokin' Aces) was laughably awful with the thankfully small part he had. Someone named Jadagrace (who I'm guessing is related to Halle Berry due to the same surname) played a mute child who accompanied Kyle Reese everywhere, and I'm grateful to her for keeping her mouth shut. Helena Bonham Carter jumped in her Weirdsmobile again and gunned the engine, coming off as equally cold while she was alive as when she wasn't. (That'll make sense if you've seen the movie.)

Danny Elfman's score was such a nonfactor that I can't even remember one track in the entire film. McG's direction was passable - it's not like he was Brett Ratner or anything. He showed some pizazz with the long shots and made some good decisions with the big action scenes. I also credit him for not using the shaky cam technique that is prevalent in action movies these days. Would I be down for watching another McG-directed Terminator movie? If they get really solid writers, then sure, I'll give the guy another shot. I'm convinced that the script was the major problem here. The special effects were fantastic, especially evident in the robots themselves. They finally have reached a point where stop-motion endoskeletons aren't the norm, and the film's aesthetic is greatly improved because of it. It was great to finally see the T-600's that were mentioned in previous films, and the Harvester and its motorcycle minions were really badass. [I will say that I liked the idea of Arnold's cameo, but the digital representation that we saw in the final cut left me shaking my head at how cheesetastic the CG was in that scene.] And whoever designed Skynet Central should be heralded as a visual genius and get work for the rest of his/her life. That shot where the camera comes over the top of Connor and the city is revealed for the first time was breathtaking.

Sadly, the few little things that Terminator Salvation got right are not enough to give this movie a free pass from me. The film completely lost its roots (sci-fi and horror blended together), instead opting for a more crowd-pleasing formula that failed to hit its target. The loss of one major Terminator hunting someone down hurt the movie in the end, since the Resistance was fighting a surge of never-ending machines that we couldn't identify as a singular villain.

This is probably worth seeing at some point in your life, but I'd have a hard time recommending that you drop 10 dollars in a theater to accomplish that. The summer has just begun, and there are many more movies on the horizon. Until next time...

*Yes, I'm aware that there is a reveal at the end that suggests ulterior motives. I didn't want any spoilers in this review.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Angels and Demons

It's become cliche over the past couple years to refer to Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code by using some variation of the following: "Every time the characters went anywhere, they would pause to give you a history lesson." While mostly true, this statement belies the fact that The Da Vinci Code was actually rather entertaining. Yes, it was rooted in Dan Brown's brand of fictionalized history, but it balanced speeches with car chases and, more importantly, offered a character arc for Hanks' Robert Langdon that was arguably as important as the controversial subject matter for which he was searching.

Where Angels & Demons fails, though, is exactly where the book triumphs over it's counterpart: the breakneck pace that works so well on the page falls flat when you actually grab a camera and start to film the events taking place. This leaves Angels & Demons with much to be desired, and sentences it to the film world's worst nightmare: being a boring movie covered in weak sauce.

Angels & Demons
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer

It doesn't help that this movie was adapted for the big screen by two of the most incompetent writers in Hollywood right now. Akiva "Batman and Robin" Goldsman and David "Indy 4" Koepp have taken all the fun and excitement out of Robert Langdon. In The Da Vinci Code (which in the book world took place before the events of A&D, but in the film world is a sequel to it), Langdon was a wild-eyed professor thrown into the field for the first time, excited to be a part of a legendary quest that had been going on for centuries. This time around, he's not as energized.

Could this be considered the writers' attempt at character growth, making Langdon more of a man hardened by his past experience than a newbie out for the glory? Possibly, but that would imply a level of depth that I doubt these particular writers possess. Even Indiana Jones had passion in his fourth go-around: Langdon has none here, in his second outing (with at least one more in the pipeline, since Dan Brown's new book finally drops in September). It seems the only thing he truly cares about is selfishly finishing the second volume of his book, which seems strange with the lessons he seemed to have learned by the end of his last adventure. Langdon is a pure academic, through and through. Even when he meets a beautiful scientist (who seems to mirror his intelligence in other fields), she's not enough to attract little more than a glance from the asexual professor.

It's kind of embarrassing how desperate Howard and Co. are to trick the audience into believing something interesting is happening. The camera is always moving, panning, sweeping, implying motion and big things when nothing really takes place. Sure the characters move from location to location, but when they do it's in the most boring manner possible. (Hanks gets in a car, camera cuts to headlight as it peels out. Cut to car arriving.) In the "talky" scenes, the camera circles the actors, trying to lure us into believing the pace is a lot faster than it really is. Why can't Ron and his crew realize that this type of film really isn't that much different from his recent Frost/Nixon? There's not much action in that, either - but the difference is that he knows what kind of film that is and doesn't try to dupe the audience. He relishes in the long takes, the slow camera movements, the close ups, the static shots. If only he could have employed some of those tactics here, A&D might have been a movie that I would consider watching again.

Another way in which The Da Vinci Code shows its superiority is through the acting of the secondary characters. Audrey Tatou was enchanting as usual in the role of Sophie Neveu, Jean Reno was great as Captain Bezu Fache, and Ian McKellen added a nice touch of flair as the flamboyant Leigh Teabing. Angels & Demons gives no help to Langdon (this time when he desperately needs it), instead giving him only Ewan McGregor to contend with and even that only lasted one scene. That scene stood out as being particularly strange to me. If I recall, at the end of The Da Vinci Code, Langdon seems to have come to grips with a higher power existing. But when Camerlengo McKenna (McGregor) asks him if he believes in God in Angels & Demons, Langdon gives him a vague excuse and doesn't commit to anything. Maybe my memory is shaky, but I found that to be a little bizarre.

Spoilers ahead.

One other huge thing that I wanted to mention was the way this film handles confrontation differently than its predecessor. The Da Vinci Code dealt mainly with visceral realities - the slice of Silas' whip as he tore his own skin, the constant presence of guns, the imminent threat of violence, the impact of a car chase. Angels & Demons chooses to go with a much more detached view of the world. The main threat comes in video form; a feed depicting a ticking countdown of a bomb poised to destroy Vatican City. Interestingly enough, the church decides that technology (aka science, their mortal enemy!) is the way to solve this problem, opting to shut down the city's power grids one by one until they can determine the location of the bomb. Robert Langdon discovers the true villain through a video capture system in a computer, and turns the Camerlengo in to the authorities by revealing the footage. He never gets in a fist fight with the culprit, never matches wits in the climax, never shoots or stages an elaborate trap. He finds a video and turns it in.

Even the bomb itself is detonated above the clouds outside of the onlookers' view (ie: detached, keeping with the theme), forming a beautiful but ridiculous shock of color across the sky, as if heaven's doors had opened on the audience in St. Peter's Square. Howard is making a statement: he understands the YouTube world in which we live, and realizes the effect that it's having on us as a society. I can't imagine that he approves. [Small aside: that helicopter sequence was RIDIC. And the setup for it was painful to watch. "I used to fly rescue helicopters..." Give me a break.]

End of Spoilers.

If you couldn't infer as much by what I've said so far, I'll spell it out for you: skip this one. It's one of the few movies that I've considered walking out of - not because it was bad, but just because we could have found something better to do with our time. As for the third film being developed? I'm not paying to see it. I'll read the book, and I might see it on DVD/Blu-Ray, but I'm not paying to see it in theaters. I've given enough money to this franchise and they haven't sufficiently rewarded me, so I'm taking a stand. I suggest you do the same - not just with this movie, but with all franchises that you feel have slighted you in some way. Hitting them in their wallets is the only way to get any changes made in Hollywood, so take the power you have as a consumer and exercise it! Until next time...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek

J.J. Abrams has accomplished his goal with Star Trek, providing an entertaining spectacle that should satisfy die hard Trek fans and newcomers alike. I'm going to preface this review with a reminder that one of my staff writers and I reviewed the first seven films here and here back in 2008 (I recommend you watch all those films and read the reviews if you've got a boring summer ahead), and say in summary that I really enjoyed the original crew of the Starship Enterprise. The fact that I respect almost all of J.J. Abrams' work, combined with my affection for Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, lead to my inevitable appreciation and admiration for his vision realized in Star Trek.

Star Trek
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Zoe Saldana

I don't want to build your expectations too high for this movie, but it was definitely my favorite of the summer so far. [To be fair, the only other "summer" movies I've seen as of this posting have been Fast and Furious and Crank 2: High Voltage.] The best part about this film is that even if you have no idea what the heck Star Trek is about, you can appreciate it nearly as much as the Trek-initiated. Sure, there are some built in crowd pleasers for the Trekkies (Kobayashi Maru, etc), but writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (quickly approaching levels of celebrity not unequal to Abrams himself) have done their best to craft a popcorn summer action flick out of material considered sacred by its most intense fans and geeky by the casual observer. They largely succeed - I would say this is one of the best written projects the two have embarked on in recent years (beating out the rather weakly-written Eagle Eye and Transformers). Some film critics will undoubtedly rag on these guys, telling you that they write nothing but mindless crap and feed the corporate studio system by pumping out blockbuster content. While the latter has certainly been true in the past, the duo have proven themselves capable producers, writers, and television show creators ("Fringe" is their brain child, along with co-creator Abrams). And say what you will about their past work, but I really dug Mission Impossible: III and The Island even though those are not popular films to like in the movie reviewing world. The pacing in Star Trek was perfect for this type of movie - a great blend of character work for Kirk and Spock and wild space battles for those of you with ADD.

Speaking of Mission Impossible: III, that was the only feature film J.J. Abrams had to his name before this project hit theaters this past Thursday. That film, which had the highest budget of any film by a first-time director, was a movie that allowed Abrams to translate his visual skills cultivated in TV's "Alias" to the big screen. Star Trek, therefore, is the next logical step (pun intended) in his path to Hollywood domination. Given a substantial budget and a clean slate for Star Trek history thanks to a clever writing gimmick involving time travel and alternate realities, Abrams took the material and turned into a viable property again. The use of lens flares (bright shines of light directly into the camera lens) has been called excessive by some, but after reading his explanation of why he included so many, I wasn't distracted by them in a negative way during my experience watching the movie. The camera work was outstanding, with Abrams and Co. equally adept at filming huge space action and close-up oriented character moments. Many of the space shots, by the way, feature the snap zoom that was the call sign for Joss Whedon's Firefly (and subsequent Serenity).

As great as the CG was (and it was phenomenal at points), the acting was what really set the film apart for me. It reminded me of Iron Man in that regard, featuring some exceptional special effects but still relying heavily on character to carry us through the film so that we cared about what was happening on screen. Abrams and his casting team tried to replicate their success on Cloverfield by hiring relative unknowns for the crew of the Enterprise, and I think this was a great idea. That was a huge part of Cloverfield's success for me; we didn't recognize these actors and therefore could attach them directly to the characters they were supposed to be portraying. The cast of Star Trek wasn't quite as unknown as that of Cloverfield, but I found the tactic just as effective for most of the cast. It was hard to watch John Cho and not think of his cult role as Harold in the Harold and Kumar films, but he wasn't on screen enough for it to become a real problem for me. The only cast member I had a real problem with was Anton Yelchin (who I thought was great in Charlie Bartlett) - that kid did a horrible Walter Koenig impression (the original Chekov) that deserves a Razzie nomination for Worst Acting. Let's hope he doesn't come near that level of suckage as Kyle Reese in the next big blockbuster of Summer '09, Terminator Salvation.

Chris Pine, where the heck did you come from? After wallowing in Lindsay Lohan movies and TV shows over the past few years, this is without a doubt his breakout role and one that will shoot him to the top of casting directors' piles for the next few years. Look, taking on William Shatner's most iconic role is no easy task. Shatner's performances, while campy and cheesy at times, possessed both a bad ass brashness and a cool charm that is impossible to mimic. Luckily for Pine, he doesn't even try. He embodies James Tiberius Kirk with the cockiness, charm, intelligence, and wit that are necessary elements for my favorite types of film characters [see: Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone]. It's obvious the writers favored Kirk's character, giving Pine the best lines in the movie ("You are fine without it," "Go get more guys and then it'll be a fair fight.") But he deserves those lines, and as much as this film keeps up the pretense that it's about the ensemble cast, Kirk, as always, shines above the rest. Zachary Quinto, apparently from Heroes on NBC (of which I've only seen one episode), is a solid pick for young Spock, filling in adequately for Nimoy even when acting opposite the legend himself (yep, thanks to that alternate reality thing I mentioned).

The supporting cast (aside from Cho and Yelchin) was nicely chosen also, especially the sexy-but-not-sex-object-because-she's-smart-and-qualified communications officer Uhura, played by Zoe Saldana. (Side note: She's going to be in Cameron's Avatar coming out in December - I'm guessing her phone's about to blow up.) Simon Pegg, from Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, was funny and entertaining as Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, but I'm glad we weren't subjected to any more of his character than we were; I think he would have become annoying rather quickly in the confines of the story being told here (next time, Scotty). The other complaint I have is that there wasn't enough of Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, played very capably by Karl Urban. In the other Trek films, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy form a triumvirate - all parts are nearly equal to each other, and the characters form the central bond around which the Star Trek universe is based. In this incarnation, however, it seemed that Kirk and Spock had the forefront and all the other characters were relegated to the sidelines. Like I said - I'm thankful this is the case for some characters, but I thought Bones deserved a little more time in the spotlight. It was great seeing Bones and Jim hanging out briefly in Starfleet Academy, though. Urban delivered his lines with deadpan humor that surely would have pleased DeForest Kelley (RIP). The seeds were planted for the triumvirate - Bones and Spock had a little verbal sparring along the way - so I'm hoping we see those relationships develop quickly in the sequel(s).

Bruce Greenwood was a quality addition to the cast as Captain Christopher Pike, and gives a performance that I can't imagine coming from anyone else. His powerful presence added a commanding seriousness to the film that sorely needed a legitimate authority figure (even though he does basically turn into Captain Amazing from Mystery Men by the end). The depth of the cast kept getting more shocking as the film progressed. Was that Winona Ryder? Been awhile, ma'am. Tyler Perry? Is this a joke? No? All right, fine. And kudos to Eric Bana's makeup person, who managed to turn the relatively recognizable actor into a Romulan that I wouldn't have known was him had I not possessed previous knowledge of his casting before seeing the movie.

The score, by "LOST" composer Michael Giacchino, was both hugely epic and quietly personal at appropriate times, and accentuated Abrams visual flairs throughout the movie. Great filmmaking all around. The editing was pitch perfect - no frame lingered too long, no cutaway came too soon. The lighting was fantastic, especially in the villainous Romulan ship where a green tinge barely illuminated the faces of the bitter aliens.

I'm not going to go into the plot of the film here - you'll just have to see it if you're curious - but I will highly suggest that if you have any interest in science fiction or big summer action movies, to go see this in the theater. There are few movies worth paying exorbitant prices to see on the big screen, but in my opinion this is definitely one of them. Until next time...