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Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the Movie You’ve Been Looking For

Posted on | December 19, 2015 | 1 Comment

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Spoilers Ahead
After almost exactly three years of unbearable anticipation and careful teasing, the most beloved and important movie series of all time has returned. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this latest installment, may soon become the biggest film of all time yet that hardly matters. There have been so many rumors flying around this movie, but only one question really needs to be answered: is it good? Yes. Sticking closely to the original blueprint, and mixing fresh faces with new ones, it’s a nostalgia ride, a new chapter, and a great time at the movies. This is no Phantom Menace, which was a crushing disappointment for fans and a betrayal of the original trilogy. Director J.J. Abrams and his crew of writers, studio executives, technicians, and actors have learned from the prequels’ flaws: flat acting, plots reliant on forced melodrama and galactic politics, an overuse of obvious CGI, goofy sidekick characters, and appeals to win the adoration of kids not old fans. George Lucas went ahead with his own vision for the prequels, ignoring fans wishes and plain common sense. The Force Awakens works in almost the opposite way.

In 1977, when Abrams was eleven, he saw the original Star Wars. Like so many others, it changed his life. It can often seem like that grade-school kid wanted to remake what he saw on screen, mixed in with some new characters. All along, his friends and parents are whispering in his ear and telling him what to do. Of course, here it’s the biggest blockbuster director of a generation working with a crew of thousands. Yet Abrams is still awestruck over Lucas’ original, and he’s eager to pay sometimes slavish reverence to his childhood.

The Force Awakens doesn’t just nod respectfully to its predecessors; it rips off much of A New Hope‘s plot structure. The story begins with the introduction of The First Order and its Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the masked villain who looks and sounds like a relative of Darth Vader. This organization is the latest incarnation of evil in the universe – after the Sith and the Empire. In these dark times, Resistance fighters rebel against Ren and his master Lord Snoke. One of these fighters is talented pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who is captured by Ren, and then rescued by strormtrooper-turned-renegade Finn (John Boyega). After crashing on the planet Jakku, Finn travels on his own until he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley) a lone scavenger with dreams of great adventure. A droid, BB-8, with a map displaying the whereabouts of the lost Luke Skywalker, unites the pair and sets them off on a great search. Soon, they’re off traveling through space in the Millenium Falcon, which brings them to Han Solo and Chewbacca. The group embarks on a journey to find Luke, reason with Ren, escape the First Order, and meet up with some old friends.

This journey – specifically Rey’s story – is very similar to Luke’s: a restless nobody meets some old heroes and discovers the ways of the Force. That outline was used in the prequels too, but The Force Awakens also includes a new Death Star, another climactic spaceship fight, a lightsaber showdown, a Cantina scene, and a burgeoning romance. Just as Abrams stole the best bits of Spielberg’s hits for Super 8, he cherrypicks and updates his favorite parts of A New Hope. His reliance on familiarity and nostalgia is the movies’s biggest flaw but also a great strength, and hardly dents the overall excitement. After all, did we expect the series to enter some brave, weird new direction?

Perhaps the next film will do just that, but The Force Awakens‘ referential tone also gives it a resonance that pushes it far past the prequels. The filmmakers have studied the original trilogy, and crafted a loving tribute to their childhood movie memories. Almost every beat seems designed to send viewers (specifically fans) into thunderous applause, giddy smiles, somber tears, big chuckles, or some combination of all those. It’s a gloriously entertaining movie, strong enough to remind you of the wit, charm, and action that made us fall in love with this galaxy in the first place.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensHarrison Ford gets a meaty role here, and you can sense his endearing world-weariness and excitement to be back in the role. Han’s line that sent the Internet ablaze – “Chewie, we’re home” – must have some poignance for Ford too. He brings that natural movie-star personality of the character (a mix of charisma, irony, irritation, and head-strong bravery) but with a tired, hardened heart. Carrie Fischer (now “General Leia”) gets far less to do, but she’s still strong and charming as always.

It’s Finn and Rey that give The Force Awakens a personality of it’s own and a next-generation freshness. As Rey, Daisy Ridely is this movie’s Luke, Han, and Leia: she’s a genuine underdog hero, a willful pilot, and a woman in control of her own destiny. John Boyega’s performance as Finn will surely make him a bona-fide star. He’s completely likable, impossible not to root for, has great comic timing, and is surprisingly handy with a lightsaber. (Abrams deserves kudos for not casting a white guy as the protagonist). Adam Driver, as Ren, and Oscar Isaac, as Poe, don’t get a whole lot to do but these talented actors leave a mark on the scenes they are in.

There are other things to gripe about with The Force Awakens, for sure. Its cliffhanger ending sure leaves you waiting for the sequel, but it leaves too many loose ends. With so much going on, some supporting characters get shortchanged. And the movie’s climactic airborne battle is so familiar you’re likely to forget the whole sequence. But after the letdown of the prequels (aside from Revenge of the Sith), this movie is a triumph. Above all, it’s fun. It’s also funny, exhilarating, shocking, and truly moving.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensAs it all wrapped up, something funny occurred to me. People who have never seen a Star Wars movie will certainly enjoy The Force Awakens, partly because they’re new to this strange, wonderful onscreen universe. They may feel a little left-out on some of the story. Thus, the film will resonate much deeper with fans; the deaths, jokes, and characters will bring back memories and trigger emotions. On the other hand, these viewers will chide the movie for not taking enough risks. Basically, though, it’ll work for either type of viewer. The Force Awakens will live on, and it already seems like a fan favorite. The Force is strong with this one. Some new hope has been injected into the franchise. Until the next installment, we can return to this one – over and over, grinning goofily, wiping away tears, cheering, tensing up, and remembering what Star Wars is all about.

Tomorrowland: Imaginative, Optimistic, and Overstuffed (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | May 31, 2015 | Add Comments

TomorrowlandAt a time when violent, male-driven, franchise-continuations dominate multiplexes, Tomorrowland feels refreshing. It’s family-friendly, features two-female protagonists, and isn’t a latest installment in a series. Hollywood rarely releases big-budget action movies based on new concepts, but that’s exactly what Tomorrowland is. It’s also an ode to optimism and imagination, a world-building sci-fi spectacle, a nostalgic Disney adventure, and – maybe too many things, all at once. Brad Bird (who previously directed two Pixar masterpieces, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, as well as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) stuffs the film with ideas and images, touching on big themes, and stressing important morals. Simultaneously, Tomorrowland manages to sustain a light, bright tone. Yet while the film never collapses on itself, it feels a bit incomplete. Bird has made a good movie out of great ideas.

After opening with an awkward narration sequence, the film starts at the 1964 New World’s Fair. Frank Walker, a science-loving little boy, tries to enter his jet-pack invention into the competition, but is quickly rejected. At the Fair, he meets an enthusiastic girl named Athena, who gives him a look at a bold and bizarre future called Tomorrowland.

Fast-forward to the present-day, where forward-thinking teen Casey (Britt Robertson) tries to save a NASA launch pad from being shut down. She is arrested for trespassing into NASA, but finds a mysterious pin at the jail. That pin turns out to be a temporary ticket to Tomorrowland, and an exhilarating promise from the future.

Spilling too many plot details about Tomorrowland would ruin much of the film’s spontaneous surprise, which Brad Bird has been trying to preserve with the film’s secretive marketing. As trailers have shown, Casey eventually meets Athena and a grown up Frank (played by George Clooney). The trio embarks on a globe-trotting mission to save the future and restore hope to mankind.

Based on the snappy humor, fast-paced action, and striking visual sense he brought to his work with Pixar, Bird would seem like an ideal fit for this material. Watching Tomorrowland, it’s hard to imagine another director being able to inject so much life and humor into such a complicated, exposition-dense sci-fi adventure. He keeps the film comical and clever, even when the script he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof threatens to bog down the fun.

The boundless visual capabilities of animation Bird previously practiced also translate well here. The film is filled with a sense of awe-inducing wonder. The sequences set in the world of Tomorrowland have an imaginative, childlike sense of wonder at odds with the blurry, explosive visuals of most modern action films.

The story is aided by a strong cast, led by Britt Robertson as Casey. Despite being 25, Robertson makes a credible and lively protagonist. As Athena, Raffey Cassidy is sharp and clever, while also able to deliver moments of emotional poignance. Clooney’s trademark personality is at first distracting, even annoying, but he gets slips deeper into his role as the film progresses.

For all it’s strengths, Tomorrowland has some major problems. Chiefly, there are too many things going on. All the different plot-lines compete for attention, resulting in a film that feels oddly slight because of it’s ambition.  There are other issues, such as a few scenes that mistake Men in Black kitsch for futuristic wonder. And the movie’s climactic sequence feels too minor for such a grand adventure.

TomorrowlandDespite these problems, the film still resonates. At the center of Tomorrowland is the idea that optimism and imagination conquer negativity and disaster. The movie preaches that lesson insistently, and sometimes too obviously. Nonetheless, this moral is the most unique and intriguing aspect of the film. Contemporary action films rarely have any sense of purpose, instead committed to following the exhausting formula of explosions and more explosions. Tomorrowland features few action scenes, and the chases sequences that are included never stretch to ridiculous lengths. Instead, Bird tries to convey a simple, important message and instill a wide-eyed sense of joy in audiences. Hopefully, the rest of Hollywood gets the broader message: use your imagination.

 

Avengers: Age of Ultron: The Most Marvel-y Marvel Movie Yet? (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | May 4, 2015 | Add Comments

Avengers: Age of UltronFilled with clever comedic character moments, noisy and never-ending battle sequences, and clues to where the franchise is headed next, Avengers: Age of Ultron may just be the most Marvel-y Marvel movie yet. On paper, that makes the movie sound sort of unbearable. (One of the best Marvel movies, Captain America: The First Avenger, felt little like one). Ultimately, that is exactly what makes the movie so entertaining.

Director Joss Whedon, totally exhausted by the all the expectations and pressure and guidelines thrust upon him, makes no attempt to challenge our notions about the superhero genre. Or to comment on the complexities of modern America. Or even to inject some fresh new ideas into the Marvel Universe. All he wants to do is make a solid, sturdy, slam-bang, good ol’ fashioned action movie. Assuming that was his only intention, he’s succeeded. And while I still left wanting more, and wondering what more is left for a director to do with Marvel, this is undeniably fun stuff.

Avengers: Age of UltronWhedon’s script for the movie is centered around four or five enormous action set-pieces, all of which are loud, long, and explosive. Everything else in the movie (the comical team banter, an unexpected romantic plot-line, subtly revealing flashbacks) is structured around those action scenes. This is a classic action movie structure, and the actual plot is a classic doomsday adventure. The movie kicks into gear when Tony Stark/Iron Man and Bruce Banner/Hulk try to end all violence with an AI peace program, though they keep the plan a secret from the rest of the team. Sooner than later, things go terribly wrong and an evil robot named Ultron is stumbling around and discussing his plans for world domination. So, the Avengers are forced back into action in order to stop the end of the universe.

Hold on, isn’t that basically the plot of the first Avengers? And couldn’t that same basic storyline (team of superheroes overcome differences to save the galaxy) apply to Guardians of the Galaxy? The answer is yes, and yes. In terms of plot, there isn’t anything startling or new here. Not that Whedon doesn’t really seem to care. He also doesn’t bother investing any of the action scenes with any clever choreography or calming coherence (the scenes with a potential “wow factor”, like a Hulkbuster suit donned by Iron Man, were revealed in the trailers).

Avengers: Age of UltronWhat does Whedon care about? The characters. It’s always been the little moments that stand out in these films, and the best sequences in Age of Ultron are the quieter ones. Hawkeye, Hulk, and Black Widow were shoved to the sidelines in the first Avengers movie, so it’s both fitting and gratifying that they’re given starring roles this time around. Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and Scarlett Johanson are all more confident in their roles, and Whedon has given them all fine storylines (I can’t say anything more, for fear of spoilers). Ultron (voiced with a touch of wit by James Spader) isn’t a great villain, though he’s not a bad one either. But Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, two damaged twins with great power, are fine new additions to the series.

Unfortunately, that means Iron Man, Captain America, and Thora are all given less to do. Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans (as Thor and Cap) have never been charismatic scene-stealers, so it’s not exactly a shock that their characters’ earnest cluelessness fades into the backround. On the other hand, Robert Downey Jr. has always been the best thing about Marvel movies; surrounded by CGI blurs, he always brings knowing and needed personality. His performance here is easily his most mailed-in, least invested yet (which is not to say he doesn’t get some fine one-liners). You can’t really blame him, though. Seven years ago, the first Iron Man movie gave him a shot at rebooting his career. There’s no doubt he’s thankful for the superstardom these films have afforded him, but he seems a little worn down by it.

What do you I have to say about the movie’s finale? It ends with thirty minutes of things going boom, as every Marvel movie does, and it left me a bit exhausted. Will a Marvel movie ever end another way?

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron has a lot going on in it, more so than any of it’s predecessors. It does not, however, have much to say. Whedon has made a highly efficient, largely effective action spectacle…and nothing more. The resulting movie is a good summer popcorn flick, and that’s a compliment. But the strength of a Marvel film can often be measured by whether or not, walking out of the theater, you are left excited for more. Am I? Not particularly.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: A Pointles Farewell to Middle Earth (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 21, 2014 | Add Comments

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesAt 144 minutes, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest Middle Earth movie by fifteen minutes. That’s a puzzling fact, because of all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, none have been as deafeningly, tediously pointless as this one. It’s 144 minutes too long, and you’ll be wondering what has happened to Peter Jackson, who so brilliantly pulled off the Rings trilogy but left audiences puzzled and exhausted by a numbing three-part Hobbit trilogy that dwindled in quality as it continued.

Jackson picks up right where we left off, with a dragon face-off that hits you over the head, sets the bombastically dull tone, and made me wonder why this scene wasn’t included in the last film. Perhaps Jackson was fretting over a lack of action? Nope. The entire film, as evidenced by the title, revolves around one long battle. After Smaug the dragon is killed by a shot to the neck from Bard the Bowman, the gold-filled lair of the dragon is up for grabs. Thorin, leader of the dwarves, is obsessively determined to keep it all for himself, but Bard and his group of humans from the recently destroyed Laketown, demand their fair share, which Thorin promised. The elves do too, and they have an army to back them up, which leads to (you guessed it!) war. How could I forget the title of the film? There are five armies, which means orcs and more dwarves and Gandalf and some other nasty creatures appear for the solitary reason of stretching the film’s running time to ridiculous lengths.

Throughout this Hobbit finale, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Peter Jackson and his Hobbit trilogy has failed at nearly everything that made The Lord of the Rings great. Remember the characters (Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir) and all the tiny moments of friendship and humor and bravery they shared? Remember the battle scenes, (Helm’s Deep, Pelennor Fields) which Jackson filled with a scope and seriousness lacking in most blockbusters? The trilogy wasn’t without it’s flaws (The Two Towers was a deeply overrated sequel), but audiences were left with unforgettable scenes (“My precious”; “Here at the end of all things”; “Not this day”) that put the series in the pantheon of blockbuster franchises that Star Wars reins over. Alas, Jackson followed in the footsteps of George Lucas’ galaxy too well. Not content with ending the series on a high note, he delivered his own trilogy of completely inferior prequels.

The dwarves in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesFive Armies puts Jackson’s two greatest weaknesses at the fore: dull, talky build-up and action sequences that just don’t stop. He has a self-indulgent penchant for relishing in every extraneous detail in Middle Earth (these movies involve excessive amounts of battle-planning, alliance-making, and fantasy politics). Worse, he expects non-Tolkien diehards to care (or so one would suppose, based on these running times). The previous Hobbit films haven’t held a candle to The Lord of the Rings with their action scenes, but Jackson had a big chance to stage some engaging, impressive fight scenes with this big finale. Instead, we get blurry, incoherent slashing, hammering, yelling, and crying involving characters we’ve barely gotten to know over eight hours. If the IMAX audio systems weren’t so deafening, you might fall asleep.

Jackson’s attempts at emotionally attaching audiences fail too. The film’s non-action scenes involve an awkward elf-and-dwarf love triangle, speeches of loyalty and courage, and many scenes of Thorin moping in the dragon’s lair. The script’s dialogue, never his strong suit, is clunky, obvious, and laughably humorless, while the ensemble cast of dwarf and elf actors blend into the hollow CGI universe surrounding them. Martin Freeman, who brought wit and charm to the other films, is relegated to the backround and refused opportunity to lighten up the film.

Too bad. The Battle of the Five Armies could’ve used some laughs, or some originality, or some intelligence, all of which it is lacking. There is one rewarding sequence, though. When Bilbo returns to his Shire home at the end of the film, you feel Jackson’s filmmaking muscles ease up with the familiarity of returning to a location often seen throughout the series. For a few moments, the film has the lovable warmth of The Fellowship of the Ring‘s early scenes. Ultimitaely, it just reminded me how much better those Lord of the Rings films were, and how much of a failed opportunity The Hobbit is.

Guardians of the Galaxy (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 16, 2014 | Add Comments

The team unites in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)“What should we do next? Something good or something bad?”, ask the roguish human protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy. “A bit of both!”, he decides. Unfortunately, the film is more bad than good.

For most viewers, the Guardians of the Galaxy will be a new concept. This ever-rotating roster of intergalactic heroes debuted as a comic in 1969. James Gunn’s often tedious, sometimes amusing new film revolves around two MacGuffins (Hitchcock’s term for a desired object that everyone’s after). First is Peter Quill’s Sony Walkman, and the mixtape his mom made for him, which he’s listening to as a kid when the movie begins. He’s interrupted when his grandfather invites him to visit his dying mom, who hands him a mysterious present before her death..

Years later, Quill is a criminal space cowboy raiding the galaxy for cash, women, and Mysterious Objects of Extreme Importance to the Plot. Which brings us to the second MacGuffin, a highly dangerous silver orb. In a scene reminiscent of Raider’s of the Lost Ark‘s opening, Quill is about to plunder the orb when he’s caught by an alien baddie named Korath (Djimon Honsou), who working for Ronan (Lee Pace) who’s working for Thanos (Josh Brolin) who’s out to destroy the universe.

Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)Anyway, Quill escapes from Korath and soon learns that the blue orb is no everyday blue orb. Quill, no with a bounty on his head, finds himself working with four bickering alien outcasts. They are: Gamora (Zoe Saladana), an assassin who betrayed her employer; Ronan; Rocket Racoon (Bradely Cooper), a mutated murderer of an animal; Rocket’s sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel) who’s vocabulary is limited to “I am Groot”; and Drax the Destoryer (pro wrestler Dave Bauitista), a brute force alien out to avenge the death of his family. The five some must keep the blue orb out of the wrong hands, in hope of saving the galaxy.

If this all sounds like a dense, exposition-heavy bunch of plot it’s because it is. And I haven’t even mentioned the planets of Xandar and Nebula. Director Gunn doesn’t shy away from introducing an audience to not just a world, but a galaxy. That he expects you to remember it all is ridiculous; the idea that he wants you take it all seriously is laughable.

It may seem foolhardy to hope for originality in a Marvel movie, but Guardians, with it’s fresh cast of oddball characters, looked like an enjoyably fluffy action-comedy. Too often, however, it’s a familiar, forgettable, slightly frustrating film. The screenplay, by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, is a hackneyed puddle of genre movie tropes: The Avengers meets Star Wars, with a side of Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and the like. Opening with the dying-mother cliche basically sets the tone for the rest of the film, which gleefully rips off better ones. 

James Gunn, a B-movie hand who’s directed gory genre fare like Slither and Super, should’ve done more to differentiate the film from his influences. Sure, the characters are inventive and weird but the story (misfits overcome differences and unite to save the world) has been seen in everything from Seven Samurai to The Avengers. The space battles are no different; none of the action scenes are particularly thrilling. At least, the movie clocks in at two hours, a modest length compared to The Avengers.

That’s harsh, yes, especially because the movie could’ve been worse (and some of it’s Marvel relatives are). When the heroes squabble and quip in a way reminiscent of the all-star banter of The Avengers, Guardians becomes a light, goofy send-up of the genre tropes it’s suffering from. Standing on a balcony with a view of the cosmos, Gamora tells Quill, who’s fallen for her, she doesn’t dance. “Really?”, he responds. “Well, on my planet, there’s a legend about people like you. It’s called Footloose. And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that dancing, well, it’s the greatest thing there is.” Quill’s mixtape-from-mom (perhaps the film’s greatest pleasure) also provides some hilarious incidents of interspecies-misunderstanding, like when a puzzled alien thug picks up the Walkman and listens to Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”. Moments, like this one, of riotous, pop-culture parodying, self-mocking stupid-fun liven up the whole film.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) goes from jokey criminal to galaxy savior in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)So does Chris Pratt’s uproarious performance as Peter Quill. Pratt’s best known for NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and has had small roles in Oscar-bait like Moneyball (2011), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Her (2013). Now, with Guardians, February’s The LEGO Movie, and next summer’s Jurassic World, he’s Hollywood’s next big leading man. Here, he sends up the conventional action-man with a goofy, charming brand of humor pitched between witty and dumb. Pratt is like a relaxedly comical Harrison Ford; a slacker-thief who’s as quick with a gun as he is with a quip.

Guardian‘s disappointing melding of cliches, stereotypes, and instantly forgettable chase sequences with something fresher and funnier makes for a frustrating film. It’s possible Marvel, the all-powerful movie machine of sequels and money, and super-producer Kevin Feige, keeps a steady hold on their directors’ creative freedom. Jon Favreau, with the first Iron Man, managed overcome the obstacles, as have some others. Yet too often do Marvel movies feel like overlong commercials for a comic-book universe meant to sell, sell, sell. What if Marvel is the auteur – albeit a crass, commercially driven one – behind their films. You can see the touch (or crushing, destructive stomp) of the studio in all their movies: similar story lines and themes marked by a goofy sense of humor and explosive action scenes.

Perhaps that explains why Guardians is so comical and fresh in some parts and dull and stale in others. The good parts (the team bickering, the soundtrack) make the bad ones (monotonous action, conventional plot) so much more infuriating. Marvel Studios is the guardian of one of Hollywood’s most important franchises, but it wouldn’t hurt if let in some more creativity.

Godzilla (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | May 28, 2014 | Add Comments

Godzilla isn't happy in this 2014 rebootGodzilla 2 1/2 Stars

The biggest surprise in Godzilla isn’t a twist or unpredictable character death. Instead, it’s a lack of fun. And isn’t fun all you could ask for from a summer blockbuster?

After flashbacks to 1954 and 1999, the film jumps to the present day. Following a visit to his wife and son, bomb disposal Navy officer Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) travels to Japan to bail out his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), recently jailed for trespassing. Cue the “there’s something out there” monologue from Joe, who feels the government’s earthquake tests are really trying to stop something greater. Of course, Ford ignores his father’s warnings and Godzilla and two new beasts are soon stomping all over the world. While Ford regroups with the Navy to save everyone, a pair of scientists try to stop a no-nonsense admiral (David Strathrain) from dropping a city-destroying bomb on Godzilla. The scientists predict Godzilla will save us all, but can the government risk the fate of mankind using a unprecedented scientific theory?

Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are worried...very, very worried in Godzilla (2014)

From Max Borenstein’s formulaic script to the emotionless performances, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is as conventional as you might expect. The film’s fatal flaw, however, is the ultra serious tone. With a wit-less plot and constant dread, Edwards makes everything feel as serious as if this was really happening (not all action movies have to be so dark and brooding). Amidst all the docudrama-levels of horror, it would’ve been nice to have at least one joke about scaly reptiles taking over the world.

Edwards manages to waste an all-star cast (also including Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, and Elizabeth Olsen) on cliched roles. And it shows; none of the actors seem to be having fun, even though they’re starring in Godzilla.

Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) leads a bomb disposal team in Godzilla (2014)Cheesy dialogue, a disappointing ending, overlong build-up…the problems are many. Yet, occasionally this is a fascinating beast. Early on, there’s some plot twists that truly catch you by surprise. Meanwhile, Edwards and Borenstein’s messages about nature manage to pose some interesting, important questions about mankind’s ignorance towards the environment. In the technical departments, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is often brilliant, like the gorgeous tracking shots during the film’s climax. And there’s a truly exhilarating action scene near the beginning that’s one of the most nail-biting in recent memory.

Godzilla wreaks havoc on the Golden gate ridge in Godzilla (2014)

And then there’s the monster fights, which are actually fun. Every so often, the film indulges in the kind of head-to-head kaju (Japanese for monster) fights Guilermo del Toro dreams about. When Godzilla finally breathes blueish lightning down a predator’s throat, you’re reminded of why you came to this movie, and of the kind of uproarious summer adventure Godzilla could’ve been.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | April 5, 2014 | Add Comments

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2 Stars

Everyone’s second favorite red and blue Spandex-clad superhero is back…but not exactly better. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is longer, louder, and more violent than it’s predecessor, 2011’s The First Avenger, and that’s not a good thing.

In his first big-screen adventure, a scrawny Steve Rogers became the Captain America, and fought World-War II bad guys and Hugo Weaving’s super-villain The Red Skull. As the film ended, he was resurrected to the modern day, after sleeping for 70 years. Now, after saving the world in The Avengers, Cap struggles to come to terms with an increasingly scary world. Chief among his worries is who to trust: Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and newbie Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, looking kind of unsure what he’s doing in a superhero movie) all want the titular hero on their side, whether for good or evil. Speaking of good, Cap gets a new sidekick, named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). And speaking of bad, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) wants to kill everyone, even if he may or may not have been Captain America’s best friend long ago. As S.H.I.E.L.D. (the good guy one) and HYDRA (the bad guy one) fight for world domination, things get dark, apocalyptic, and very, very unpatriotic.

As you can tell, there’s a lot going on in this movie. Read: too much. For 2 hours and 15 minutes, directors Anthony and Joe Russo tediously manufacture another boring blockbuster about the end of everything. The major problem is obvious: the Russo brothers are less interested in the personalized flair of past Marvel hits then they are in in low-lit, mopey-faced spectacle. The tone from the get-go is calamitously violent, with only the occasional one-liner.

There's action abound in Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)If there’s one thing  you can never fault Marvel for it’s that they manage to find a different genre for each movie. Last time Cap fought his way around, director Joe Johnston found a delicate balance of serious war-movie patriotism and tongue-in cheek cartoon goofiness that managed to set his film apart. The Iron Man movies are smart comedy-thrillers, while the Thor franchise is a galactic fantasy on a grand scale. The Winter Soldier fits into the “Generic 2014 Action-Movie” genre and the results are what you’d expect.

Starkly contrasting it’s precursor, the film’s script is sometimes hilariously inconsistent with the Captain America myth we know and love. I mean really, why is a flag-waving comic-book icon running around dispatching terrorists like he got mixed up with the latest Iron Man movie? Worse, the film tries to justify this by being “topical” i.e. mentioning present-day issues like national security and global war, while cartoon characters run around shooting each other.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackosn) and Alexander pierce (Robert Redford) are old friends and potential enemies in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)The problems don’t stop there; the two villains of the film are both monotonous retreads of other superhero nemeses. In a coulda-been-great performance, Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce as just another shady government official without much to do. The Winter Soldier fares a little better, but not much. Despite a killer backstory, he mostly just gets to blow things up while looking sad and confused behind a mask. And what about our hero? Chris Evans has none of the relatable do-gooder charisma we saw last time; instead he plays Cap as a frustrated myth with more biceps than brains.

The Winter Soldier is one of the worst superhero films I’ve ever seen but there are a few upsides. Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson actually look alive, while Anthony Mackie has the makings of a real star. Like The Avengers, there’s also fleeting sight-gags and in-jokes (the War Games reference and an inspired use of Marvin Gaye were bonuses). The one thing that really stood out to me, however, will surprise you: some of the time, the film actually surprised me with shocking twists I didn’t see coming.

If you didn’t get the memo, I was pretty disappointed by this film. I could go on about the film’s repetitive action sequences, predictable narrative arc, and ridiculous amount of product placement (really Marvel, you don’t have enough money already?) but if you want to know more, go see the movie. Just know: you’ll be marveling at what a bad decision you made.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 21, 2013 | Add Comments

Martin Freeman is back as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 2 1/2 Stars

With his latest film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson puts on full display the best and worst of his own filmmaking styles. The film is pretentious, noisy, overlong, and half-baked. It’s also spectacular, beautiful, thrilling, and brilliant. Desolation is cluttered but exciting. It didn’t always hold my attention, but there’s always something jaw-dropping to look atIn short, it’s a Peter Jackson movie.

Evangeline Lily dons elf ears to play fierce fighter Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)Unlike others, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series. I’ve read The Hobbit (good fun), read a tiny bit of the first Lord of the Rings (a.k.a. LOTR) book (kind of boring), and seen the the LOTR film trilogy (good fun, brilliant, and kind of boring). Of course, I’ve also seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The latest Hobbit film starts before the last one, which is confusing and unnecessary, with a somber meeting between head dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and master wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Next, we’re back to the now, where protagonist Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, who needs more screen time), Gandalf, Thorin, and the other eleven dwarves are still on their quest to enter a mountain, steal some treasure, and slay Smaug the dragon. Along the way, the heroes must fight spiders, argue with elves, ride barrels, and rally a village. There’s also some notable new characters, including down-on-his-luck rebel Bard (Luke Evans), and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), fierce elf fighters.

Peter Jackson lets his commercial side come out and play in action scenes like these in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)Peter Jackson’s direction is full of clashing instincts makes the movie the messy thrill ride that it is. The artist inside him knows that it’s the small character driven moments, that there are too few of here, that makes his movies great. But the corporate producer battling for control realizes that CGI drenched battles (perfect for 3-D, and IMAX, and 48 frames a second, and therefore making more money) that sell tickets. In Desolation, it’s the business oriented side that wins out too often. Which is a shame, because we know Jackson can do better.

The decision to split a 300 page children’s book into a thunderously thrilling trilogy of 3 lumbering 3 hour CGI extravaganzas often shows. Unlike LOTR, Peter Jackson takes a lot of liberties this time around. And sometimes they work. The elf scenes may feel like sacrilege to many, but they actually provides a human (well, elvish) element to the plot. But apart from Tauriel (a strong female character invented for the film) and Legolas (who gets more to do than in LOTR), there are less outright changes and more just extended versions of scenes from the book. Every two page episode of gentle adventure from the book has been stretched into a 15 minute battle sequence featuring beheadings, jump-scares, and explosions. I often found myself questioning Jackson, “Is this really necessary?”

An astonishing river chase in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)Basically…no it’s not. An early spider fight feels tedious and (considering we basically saw a better version of the same scene in the final LOTR film) a little “been there, done that”.  Actually, early all of the action scenes rely heavily on impressive but excessive CGI and gimmicky, halfhearted story concepts made to stretch out the running time longer than a dragon. I’m still not even mentioning all the improbable escapes that’ll make you think twice about the film’s logic. All that said, there are moments of true awe. The elves’ fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, the (CGI) locations are incredible, and there is one set-piece that truly feels exhilaratingly immersive. At around the halfway mark, we’re treated to an extended chase/fight/battle involving barrels, dwarves, elves, and orcs. Unlike the other action scenes, this one feels fun. You sense Jackson letting his inner 10 year old get out and play with all the fancy toys at his command, not get bogged down by them. The sequence ends up being far-fetched and overlong but it’s also, for once, entertaining. It’s easily the most riotously enjoyable 15 minutes of the movie.

Bilbo stands up to Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

That sense of imagination is almost entirely squashed an hour later, by the time we get to the dragon’s lair. The Smaug climax could’ve been just as fun as the barrel scene. But, alas, no. It’s as lumbering and lengthy as anything else in the picture, and twice as preposterous. Honestly, why doesn’t Smaug just blow Bilbo on fire the moment he lays his beating red eye on him? Nope! Instead, we’re forced to endure another 45 minutes of running and jumping and hiding and yelling and fire-breathing. Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice performance is disappointingly bland. Yeah, Smaug the dragon does look kind of awesome. But by the time we get to see him stand up to Bilbo (a startlingly gorgeous image) you might be asleep.

So overall I wasn’t too happy with the film. It’s simply too long and features too many scenes that have no reason being in the film (i.e. every time Gandalf appears). But, that doesn’t mean die-hard fans won’t like it. And if, for some reason, you’re starting miss the summer movie season (the time of year when 3 sci-fi action epics are released every week) then this is your film. Even though I’ve read the book , the world of Middle Earth is one that’s worth visiting every so often. Sadly, this visit isn’t a satisfying one. So, I guess that means I’ll have to wait to see Peter Jackson smother every hope for a good Hobbit movie with dragon’s breath…next December. Nonetheless, I’ll be there to see it.

Sci-Fi and Survival Abound in Fall Film Offerings, Out Now

Posted on | November 10, 2013 | 1 Comment

Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013)Before Gravity opened on October 4, this year was seeming like another rather ho-hum year for movies, after the very good year for cinema of 2012. But perhaps this sudden flood of great movies should be expected; after all it is awards season. So far, I’ve seen three fall films: Gravity, Robert Redford boating drama All Is Lost, and sci-fi book adaption Ender’s Game. Sci-fi and survival seems to be the current trend in movies, because all three films focus on staying alive under the hardest circumstances and/or jaw-dropping special effects with a dash of scientific smarts. Here are my takes on these three films.

Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning science-fiction masterpiece, Gravity, is one of those films that comes along every so often and simply blows your mind. It’s incredible, beautiful, thrilling haunting, and full of heart; not to mention special effects filled set pieces that you’ll be replaying in your head for weeks. The premise here is fairly basic: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first trip to the moon. Leading her mission is seasoned space vet Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). Everything is going fine when, you guessed it, things start to go wrong. Debris hits, the shuttle is destroyed, and Stone and Kowalsky are separated. As Dr. Stone tries to find safety, a deadly survival adventure begins.

A chaotic space disaster in Gravity (2013)The genius of Gravity is how Cuaron takes this standard disaster movie plot and turns it into a riveting contemplation on life, death, and letting others go. Clooney is funny and likable but he’s basically playing, well, George Clooney The Astronaut. The real surprise here is Bullock, who, as our inexperienced protagonist, gains our sympathy and hope from a brilliant performance. Oscar is sure to come calling.

Gravity is a must-see movie. A must see movie on the big screen. If you didn’t catch it in IMAX 3-D, try just the 3-D, which is probably the most gorgeous, terrifying, and brilliant use of the medium to date. In fact, all of the visual effects are beautiful from the opening pan over Earth to the more showy spacecraft explosions. With awe-inspiring spectacle, terrific performances, and a dazzlingly flawless script, this is truly the best movie of the year so far. From conception to cinema, it took 6 years for Cuaron to make this masterpiece. But trust me, it was worth it. Gravity reminds us of the power of life. And the power of the movies. 5 Stars

Robert Redford fights the ocean in All Is Lost (2013)Another tense adventure, All Is Lost stars Robert Redford as a nameless guy in his mid-70s on a simple boating adventure. When his 39-foot yacht hits an abandoned shipping container and his boating electronics lose power, he must use his tools, his books, and his will to survive against all odds.

Redford is quite good as the only character in the film and his near-wordless performance is harrowing, beautiful, and achingly amazing. But apart from some truly spectacular moments, I can’t say this is the “performance of a lifetime” acting showcase that most critics have been raving about. In fact, I’d prefer the witty daredevil character type that Redford perfected in classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting over the brooding, elderly everyman we get here.

But the film’s big problem is director J. C. Chandor (Margin Call), who does just an okay job with the script. We know nothing about the only character in the film and most of the running time consists of Redford being tossed around his boat. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of greatness. The cinematography is ravishing, the scenery is terrific, and Redford’s breakdown moment is truly affecting. But these stronger elements can’t save the film from feeling a little bit empty… and occasionally lost. 3 Stars

Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield in Ender's GameEnder’s Game, the young adult sci-fi adventure based on the classic 1977 novel by Orson Scott Card, is a surprisingly good film. The first reason is the high caliber cast of Oscar all-stars including Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfield, and Abigail Breslin. These performances vary from slightly laughable to totally enjoyable, bit parts to major characters, but everyone is a blast to watch. Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield plays Ender, a boy who’s a cunning genius at military tactics and battle commands. He must train to lead an army of kid soldiers against an imminent attack by the evil aliens called Formics who almost destroyed the human race long ago.

Battle Room thrills in Ender's Game (2013)Director Gavin Hood keeps the story interesting thanks to a smart script and eye-popping special effects. The sequences inside the zero-gravity training environment, The Battle Room, are worth the ticket price alone. When Ender first steps into the room, I got a sense of “I haven’t seen that one before” magic. The film isn’t flawless, however. Thirty-six years after the book was published, the story isn’t really anything new and the movie occasionally drags. But Ender’s Game is still a worthwhile thrill-ride with a smart script and gorgeous visuals that make it worth seeing. 4 Stars

Well, that’s it for now! Expect an early Oscar race analysis soon…

The Summer So Far Part 2: Even Farther

Posted on | July 11, 2013 | Add Comments

Johnny Depp and Arnie Hammer in The Lone Ranger (2013)I had a lot of fun writing my triple movie summer report (read it here, if you haven’t already!). Now, the sequel to that article has arrived: a double film review. You can expect at least one more of these before summertime’s up but until then enjoy my thoughts on Pixar’s new family comedy Monster’s University and Disney’s epic new fantasy western The Lone Ranger.

The Oozma Kappa team in Monsters University (2013)First up, lets head to college! Following the dismal Cars 2 and the mediocre Brave, I was hoping for a grand Pixar comeback in the old tradition with their new prequel, Monsters University. And, the comeback is an entertaining one, despite not being as sublimely perfect as previous classics like Walle, Up, and the Toy Story trilogy.

The plot is nothing new: two guys (I mean monsters) who hate each other become best friends amidst exciting adventures and pop culture references. We’ve seen variations of this in Finding Nemo, Cars, Up, and the original Toy Story just to name a few. Even Ratatouille (which starred a rat!) featured the storyline. The spin, on Pixar’s sub genre of mismatched animated buddy comedies, is that Mike and Sulley are off to Monsters University college. The film is a prequel and replaces John Goodman’s Sulley with Billy Crystal’s Mike for main character spot. The pair learn to be friends while participating in a Scare Games Contest with loser fraternity team Oozma Kappa. Will they be able to help out Oozma, win the Games, and become friends? We know all the answers but the ride is fun.

The script doesn’t have the multi-layered depth that Pixar normally brings to the table but there are still hilarious sequences (a swearing in ceremony gone wrong and the first Scare Game). Debut director Dan Scanlon doesn’t have the “Pixar touch” that John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird do, but he still knows how to impress audiences with crackling humor, detailed animation, and rousing action.

As usual, the animation is top notch. The most visually striking element is the diversity of the new characters, whether major or minor. And of course, there’s a few delicately subtle in jokes that fans of the original Monsters Inc. will love.

I’m sounding a little harsh on the film but I actually loved it; it’s got everything you want in a family film! The story is a bit simplistic and a few characters are a bit underdeveloped but it’s plenty enjoyable nonetheless. Will it live on to be a classic? Not as much as something like Up will. But if you enjoyed Monsters Inc., you’ll enjoy this. It may be lacking a bit of magic, but it’s still a delightful blast.

Johnny DEpp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013)Next…To the west!!!  Hi-Ho Silver! The Lone Ranger is back…Albeit more bloated, bloody, and blockbusterized than you might have remembered it. But, nonetheless, it’s back! And, oh kemosabe, what a deliriously ridiculous mess it is.

The story is fairly simple: John Reid goes from mundane lawman to masked avenger as he tries to find and kill the men who killed his brother. Along the way he gets help from the mysteriously strange Tonto.

The director, producer, screenwriters, composer, and star (Johnny Depp) of the vastly successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise have reunited for a total reboot of the old Lone Ranger radio series and TV show. They’ve scrapped most of what made the Lone Ranger the Lone Ranger. They’ve traded in family friendly Saturday morning entertainment for bloody battles, physical comedy, new villains, and a slightly altered plot. But the most substantial change here concerns the character Tonto. The always in danger throwaway sidekick has been promoted to main character status with the help of Johnny Depp.

A big shock here is the performances, which are rather good. The always great Depp is hilarious and suitably kooky (or should I say all out crazy?). But Tonto isn’t nearly as interesting as Jack Sparrow and when you compare the jokes of Pirates to Lone Ranger, this seems like a serious drama. The title character is played by Arnie Hammer who surprises with a fine turn. I was expecting him to be bland and boring but he actually isn’t bad. The rest of the cast suffers from an over abundance of characters but the supporting ensemble is okay, though not particularly memorable.

Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if two different versions of the script got mixed up and put in the same pile. That would definitely explain two things: tone mix-ups and the length.

The main people at fault here are the screenwriters of which there were four. They should have definitely cut out half the script. Things to snip? Some excessively gorey moments, way too long action scenes, the flashback framing device, and Helena Bonham Carter and her leg. At 2 1/2 hours, watching the movie actually felt like work: your mission objective for today is to try to sit through this movie!

The other major mistake is the wild shifts of tone. The movie is trying to be a family action comedy but slips into areas of bloodshed filled thriller, romantic old town drama, black comedy, and even bizarro experimental western. If the film makers could’ve stuck to ONE goal the film would have been breezy entertainment instead of drawn out boring.

Is there anything good about this movie? Yes! It doesn’t fail because of the all action-no story trap that most blockbusters fall into. No, there’s something much more intriguing going on here. It’s not a particularly good movie but I’m definitely glad I saw it. As previously mentioned, the leads are appealing. On top of that, the effects are sometimes dazzling, the action scenes occasionally thrilling, and the musical score consistently heart thumping!

As for director Gore Verinski…well he proves he just needs to rein in his vision a bit more. Th screenwriters, editors, and Disney executives are the real issue, though. I also feel that Verbinski might’ve been a bit stressed by the ballooning budget, Johnny Depp’s could have been fatal horse accident, the tragic death of a crew member, and a release date that was moved three times (a record?). It also seems the film might not have stuck to his original vision. The man seems like a savvy director. Next time, he should make an action movie by himself and then sell it to a studio.

The most fascinating movie debacle of the year, The Lone Ranger is a frequently too violent, often overlong, sometimes fun, occasionally genius, and always interesting summer movie. If only Helena Bonham Carter could’ve used her leg to blow up half the running time…

Mike Wasikowski voiced by Billy Crystal in Monsters University (2013)So far it’s an iffy summer for the movies, with only two out of five films I’ve seen being ones I could honestly recommend. More on the summer later but first: the Chatham Orpheum Theater and Jaws.

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