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The Revenant is Intense, Thrilling Filmmaking (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 22, 2016 | Add Comments

The Revenant (2015)Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant hurls audiences into the frosty Frontier right away, with a thrillingly disorienting opening battle. For two hours and thirty-six minutes, it immerses us in a cold, bitter, unforgiving world where survival and revenge reign supreme. It’s a mythic epic with a Western-movie plot, fantastical realism touches, and bloody-thriller action. This is bold, brave, singular filmmaking, and even when it doesn’t quite hold up, it leaves you in complete awe. 

 After the Oscar-winning Birdman, Inaritu plunged into an even more challenging project: a nine-month shoot set in some of the most demanding settings you could film in. Rumors swelled around the film in the months leading up to its release: a dozen incompetent crew members were fired, a producer was banned from the set, actors faced hypothermia and ate raw liver, and Inaritu proved himself as a testy perfectionist. What’s true and what isn’t about the shoot doesn’t matter, but the movie sure feels real and immediate. Technically, The Revanant is flawless: there is not a single wasted shot, and many are stunningly beautiful. Inaritu uses seamless CGI, long takes, and a pounding yet subtle score to throw us right into Glass’ extraordinary journey. He has used all of his tools, and energy and patience, to create this movie and it has largely paid off.

The film opens with a ruthless, violent attack from the Natives that sets the tone for the film: gorgeous imagery, carefully orchestrated direction, largely physical but highly expressive performances. Amidst the carnage is a familiar face: Leonardo DiCaprio, in full fur coat, gun in hand, his teen-boy face hidden under a bushy beard. He plays Hugh Glass, a fearless, resilient hero who’s love for his family leads to a mad hunt for justice.

The Revenant (2015)Glass’ wife, a Native, was killed in a village attack but their biracial teenage son, Hawk, still stands by his side. The father and son are part of an expedition of fur trappers trying to escape the Natives, led by Captain Anderson (Domhall Gleeson). The vain, racist John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) despises Glass and Hawk because of their relation to the Natives and Glass’ high ranking status. After the opening battle, a mama bear attacks Glass and leaves him with almost dead and with nasty scars everywhere. Glass is carried along by the men men for a while, but Hawk, Fitzgerald, and the young Bridger are soon left alone to care for this dying man. Selfish, evil, and scheming, Fitzgerald kills Hawk as his father watches (while unable to move) then buries Glass alive, lies to Bridger about it all, and walks off to reunite with Anderson. Glass is infuriated and heartbroken, having lost his wife and now his son. So, against every conceivable odd, he climbs out of his burial and begins to walk hundreds of miles to find and kill Fitzgerald and have his revenge.

This is not a terribly original story. The Revenant is part Western revenge thriller, part contemplative and spiritual man-versus-nature drama. Inaritu, working from the screenplay adaptation of Michael Punke’s novel he co-wrote with Mark L. Smith, spells out the central relationships between Glass, Hawk, Fitzgerald, Bridger, and Anderson with sparse, sometimes unintelligible dialogue and the expressive performances of his cast. Here, he builds on the style he developed in Birdman: long-take intensity that boils and builds to showpiece sequences. His cinematic virtuoisty sometimes felt more than a little showy in Birdman, but it works perfectly here. The film begins with two astounding sequences: the relentless and perfectly choreographed opening battle and the much-discussed, violently suspenseful bear attack. Both are difficult to watch, but equally captivating.

This really is a technical triumph. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki does some astonishing work here, focusing on the details while immersing viewers in the panoramic sights of the wintery forest. Not a single shot is wasted, and almost all are stunningly beautiful. The terrific long takes don’t draw attention to themselves, but add to the visual power of the film. Lubezki tracks the action and observes the locations in a way that doesn’t bring us out of the movie but right into it. The word immersive may be overused, but it’s dead-on here. Inaritu uses largely seamless CGI, convincing make-up, and a pounding yet subtle score to throw us right into Glass’ extraordinary journey.

Inaritu has no struggles with crafting fabulous, ferocious action scenes. Inaritu isn’t only aiming to make an action flick, but also a film that has a lot about nature, death, and survival. The movie’s long middle-section consists mainly of Glass fighting nature on his way to vengeance, coming to terms with his grief, and eating a fair amount of raw animals. Plot-wise, this is an uneventful stretch and it is no small feat that Inaritu keeps us (mostly) enthralled. He throws many questions at us: how does Glass find the will to persevere and survive? What are Fitzgeralds’ motives? Can nature’s strength over man be challenged and even defeated? What comes after death? There’s a lot of ambiguity and question marks that loom after the credits roll. The movie relies on a whole lot of showing and barely any telling. That can sometimes be frustrating, but we are left to project our own ideas onto Glass.

With this immensely demanding role, DiCaprio has garnered enormous praise. Much of it is certainly based on the “Look what he did for a movie” factor; DiCaprio reportedly ate raw fish, raw meat, slept in a dead horse, and endured subzero temps and the constant threat of hypothermia. In a sense, it’s sort of a purposeful non-performance.He didn’t have to do much acting to showcase a sense of suffering. But his reliance on a few grunts and his piercing eyes shows a sense of subtlety and strength only capable from a very confident, composed actor. He conveys loss, grief, triumph, madness, anger, and pain while barely saying a word. As the truly evil Fitzgerald, Tom Hardy is all bulging eyes, pissed-off mumbling, and sudden violence. When he finds moments to reveal the character’s motives, we see that Fitzgerald is a man trying to beat nature and fellow men just like Glass himself.

For all it’s greatness, The Revenant an imperfect beast. The bare-bones story has a beautiful simplicity that pushes visuals to the forefront and leaves much for the viewer to decide, but it’s simplicity can feel like a one-dimensional sketch of a greater painting. There are times when the 156-minute run-time strains, and we wish things would speed up. But Glass wishes things would speed up too, and Inaritu, DiCaprio, and Lubezki throw us into his journey with breathtaking realism. The film might have worked better with a stronger, more sophisticated, script (some characters are hardly developed, dialogue can be a bit obvious). Instead, the movie relies on near-wordless visual storytelling to convey grand emotions and bloody conflict. It has a truly unique power all its own, and that is partly due to the sparse script.

The Revenant (2015)The film loses some steam during the second act, but (spoilers for rest of this paragraph) the movie amps up the suspense and conflict once Glass reunites with Anderson and heads off to confront Fitzgerald. The climactic fight is not a simple shootout but an over-the-top explosion of knives, guns, and horses. It’s intense, over-the-top, and extremely satisfying. In the final moments, Glass realizes there is nothing left for him: his wife and son are dead, and he’s hardly fit to repeat his harrowing journey back home. The taste of the revenge was sweet but brief, and now he’s hardly sure the trek was worth it. The ambiguous final image, of a lost and frightened Glass staring into the camera, gives the movie a haunting final chill. In an attempt to come to terms with his loss, a lost man loses himself further in his quest for justice. The fulfillment of movie violence turns into an existential chill, and Inaritu has effectively pulled the rug out from under our feet.

In the hands of any other filmmaker, The Revenant would be a vastly different film, perhaps more of a straight action movie or an average historical drama. Inaritu, along with Lubezki, DiCaprio, and the rest of his crew, have made an extraordinary film. At times, it is almost an endurance-test for viewers but a soulful beauty still slips through it all. The Revenant puts us through a difficult, challenging, sometimes gorgeous journey, not unlike Glass’ experience. It is intense, suspenseful, thrilling, and terrifying; a cinematic creation of startling immediacy and beauty. Inaritu has used all of his tools, and energy and patience, to create an epic and it has paid off.

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.

Skyfall: An 007 Adventure with a Sense of Mortality (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 28, 2015 | 1 Comment

Skyfall (2012)In many ways, Skyfall (2012, streaming on Netflix) embodies many of James Bond’s signature qualities. It’s suave, sophisticated, and sexy, wryly and quietly amusing but also grandiloquent and self-indulgent, yet somehow still sleek and stylish to the end. It’s quite the ride: 143-minutes of set-pieces, locales, a couple of Bond girls, and a whole lot of things going bang.

In the opening shot, we see an out of focus figure slowly approaching; we slowly realize he’s James Bond, with gun pointed and steely gaze directed up ahead. He quietly prowls around an Istanbul house littered with dead colleagues, searching for a computer that holds the identities of all MI6 members. That search leads him across city streets on a car chase, which segues into a motorcycle pursuit. Finally, one on one on the top of a speeding train, he confronts his nameless, who holds the keys to the downfall of MI6. With barely a trace of remorse, the bitter and acidic M (Judi Dench) orders agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to “take the bloody shot”, sending Bond falling into the ocean and leaving the organization in jeopardy. But because we’re only twenty minutes of the movie, Bond survives, and is “enjoying death” while staying far away from anything relating to espionage.

When a deadly organization starts leaking the identities of MI6 members, however, he pulls himself back into the game. For once, Bond is seen in less than perfect condition: during target practice, his arms shake and he misses the shot. Lucky for him, M shows a trace of compassion by letting him stay an agent, even though he’s failed all of his tests. Bond’s adventures lead him to Shanghai skyscrapers, a Macau casino, and, after an hour of set-up, face to face with the villain of the picture: the psychotic Silva (played by Javier Bardem, with a head of bad blonde hair and a deliciously nasty smile). Physically, he’s not too much of a scare for 007 but, like the best bad guys, it’s the psychological game of wits he plays with our protagonist that makes him so lethal. Part hacker, part terrorist, he shows no mercy in taking out agents and endangering everything and everyone Bond holds dear.

Plot-wise, this Bond flick is a twisty, layered delight. The stakes have rarely been higher, the villain nastier, the surprises more surprising, or the Bond more flawed. But much like the overrated but enjoyable Casino Royale, the film often suffers from insufferably prolonged action scenes that last up to fifteen minutes. The shootouts, explosions, chases, and fistfights are certainly spectacular, occasionally balletic, and technically impeccable. But these sequences are so ceaselessly tiring you start to wish director Sam Mendes had picked a Bond-averse average joe off the streets and had him snip off a solid 45 minutes of the final cut.

Skyfall (2012)

Still, there’s plenty to marvel at. Despite the flaws, it’s hard to imagine director Sam Mendes having constructed a better Bond movie. There’s a terrific opening credits montage, scored by Adele’s foreboding “Skyfall” song. And the film has a fine sense of the franchises’s history, with familiar cars, characters, and, of course, music popping up at just the right moments. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives the images a mathematical precision with clean, sharp framing, along with an artsy and atmospheric sense of color and shadow.

Skyfall also has a fine supporting cast. Judi Dench, as M, finally gets a chance to be a character (and not just a one-note bit of crusty cynicism) and she relishes every second of her screen time. So does Ben Winshaw as a new, tech-savvy Q. Thank goodness he’s in this movie, which might be entirely lacking of fun without him. Bardem, however, simultaneously lightens and darkens the mood with his instantly creepy performance. His one-take entrance, both dreadfully disturbing yet lightly playful, is utterly unforgettable. In his first confrontation with Bond, he manages to frighten, seduce, and reduce  him all at the same time. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes gets a plump part as an old-school Intelligence Committee chairman, though I spent most of his scenes thinking he might’ve made a fine Bond twenty years ago.

What about the Bond we’ve got, Daniel Craig? With his immaculate build, threatening stare, and reluctant smile, he’s the most self-serious and brutally efficient Bond I’ve seen; a Dark Knight 007 for the 21st century. Yet Craig, a man of few words, is lacking in the lively personality that made audiences fall in love with Sean Connery all those years ago. Beneath the muscles and menace, there’s not much there, or at least not enough. I’m not suggesting we need the droll jokiness of 60’s Bond; Craig doesn’t seem to know the meaning of humor, let alone have any sense of comic timing. But it would be nice to see some him show more layers of character.

Skyfall (2012)Luckily, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan have concocted a doozy of a finale. With few options left, Bond and M travel, by way of the trusty old Aston Martin, to his childhood Scotland home. For once, Silva will be the one playing catch-up. Bond, M, and a paternal figure (Albert Finney) from 007’s past hide in the dusty old mansion, and face Silva and a team of henchmen. As Silva and his henchmen approach the house, Mendes and Deakins imbue the confrontation with a classic Western vibe; the bad guys severely outnumbering the good. But once inside the house, the tone shifts to that of a horror movie climax, replete with shadowy atmosphere, around-the-corner scares, and delightful booby traps.

What ultimately makes the film, and the final sequence, so powerful is its surprisingly knowing sense of mortality, an awareness of the limits of Bond’s endurance (for once, the time-to-get-back-in-shape training sequence isn’t completely ridiculous). Hey, the later scenes give us the best sense of Bond’s backstory we’ve ever gotten, detailing a Batman-like origin story. During 50 years, 007 hasn’t shown any signs of aging; rarely does he allow us glimpses of weakness, either. But this time, we’re faced with a shocking revelation: he’s still human.

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.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 13, 2014 | 1 Comment

Caesar (Andy Sekis) isn't sure if he can trust humans in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, an inferior sequel to the surpassingly enjoyable 2011 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, truly pushes the boundaries of motion-capture (the process of using actors’ motions as the basis for creating animated characters) in ground-breaking ways. The scale is truly unparalleled: dozens of ape actors performing in the wild, not a green-screen box, and filmed in non-conversion 3-D. And the results are often extraordinary: a horde of running apes, a brutal simian showdown, facial performances with sentiment and humanity. “They’re just apes, man”, a human character tells another. “Do they look like just apes?”, comes the response. Thanks to a cast that stars Andy Serkis, as human-sympathizing ape Caesar, they look like apes, but also characters with thoughts and emotions.

It’s a shame, then, that director Matt Reeves doesn’t put the technology to use in a better movie. The action picks up long after James Franco has been wiped out by the Simian Flu, while what’s left of humanity congregate in a war-torn dystopia filled political metaphors. Power is running low, so a group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his new wife (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), attempt to make peace with the apes and gain access to a hydroelectric dam that could restore electricity. Malcolm forms a bond with ape leader Caesar, but fellow chimp Koba (Toby Kebbell) wants to lead the apes to war against humans. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a human leader, also wants to protect his species in any way he can, which he thinks will lead his species to battle.

Reeves, a horror helmer known for Cloverfield and Let Me In, knows how to stage some rousing action sequences but struggles with making audiences care about his take on the end of the world disaster film genre. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s obvious, unsubtle script is also to blame, with dialogue that rarely conveys that isn’t already clear, and human characters that seem plucked from disaster movie past. In action scenes, there are moments of laughably strained credibility. And the moments of human drama are nothing we haven’t seen in better, smarter movies.

The humans are torn against saving apes or killing them in Dawn of the Planet of the Planet of the Apes (2014)Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, and the rest of the human cast do little with the lines they’re given. Clarke, bland as can be, seems entirely miscast as Malcolm, while Russel and Smit-McPhee do their best with characters that seem like forgotten strands from a poorly-drawn first-draft. Oldman is surprisingly tender in his brief scenes and lends some depth to a not-quite bad guy, though even he succumbs to the laughably overblown script in his final moments.

While the mo-cap animation is gorgeous, there’s simply too many apes to keep track of. Differentiating animated characters who speak in hand-gestures and look confusingly similar is not an easy task and the director and screenwriters are too busy dividing their time between two species to give either enough thought. Serkis and Kebbell, though, give phenomenally affecting performances, though their costars don’t get enough focus. The opening scenes, meanwhile, could’ve used a bit of cleanup from the animators.

Not everything about Dawn is awful. Michael Giacchino’s score is filled with eerily effective piano and stirring strings, while Michael Seresin’s cinematography is rough and real (and reminiscent of Wally Pfister’s work on The Dark Knight trilogy). If there’s one thing Dawn does better than Rise, it’s the sense that the characters are living in a fully-developed world, thanks to James Chinlund’s rough, real production design. Matt Reeve, meanwhile, makes a few daring directorial decisions: spending long stretches with the apes, killing off the first film’s lead characters before this movie even begins, and holding back on big acton for an hour. Speaking of which, the apes’ fiery attack on the humans is pretty thrilling.

Koba (Toby Kebbell) is ready to kill some humans in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)At the end of the day (or world, in this case), a few adventurous ideas and some neat technical tricks can’t save one of the most boring, bloated blockbusters in recent memory. Dawn of the Planet Apes is more clever than some action movies but it rarely makes us care about its characters without being formulaic. Yes, the motion-capture technology behind all those apes might create new opportunities for future films-but that doesn’t mean you should see this one.

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 (Flick’s Review)

Posted on | April 5, 2014 | Add Comments

2 1/2 stars

Think back to 2008, long before Marvel Studios was at it’s current world dominating state, when the first Iron Man film came out. It was a witty, fun film that had a hero who wasn’t as perfect or brave as Superman, nor as dark and brooding as Batman. He was somewhere in between, with added parts wit, snark, and humor. Now skip ahead six years, to 2014. Not only have two more Iron Man films been made, but Thor and Captain America films have also been added to the mix. They have all had a couple of sequels, and as if that wasn’t enough, they’ve been thrown together along with other heroes in The Avengers. And now, here we are, in 2014 with Captain America returning to the big screen.

This time around, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo are squeezing into the director’s chair, taking over after Joe Johnston directed the first installment, The First Avenger, but they unfortunately lack any artistic flair that you can tell is theirs. With Thor, Kenneth Branagh put his Shakespearean stamp on the caped demigod and in Iron Man, Jon Favreau mixed witty humor with frightening realism. Here, the Russos don’t seem to know where they want to head with the film, other than follow the lead of Kevin Feige, the mastermind president of Marvel, who has schemingly connected all of these superheroes into one, big money-sucking giant. I’m pretty sure I would have liked the film a good deal more if there was less of the Marvel universe setting-up and more of a down-to-earth superhero story.

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

That being said, once I realized that the film wasn’t going for superheroism told through poetic direction, I did manage to sit back and enjoy the never-ending twists and turns of the film. And boy, are they fun. Every scene involves some new character being either thrown into the mix, being reintroduced, or dying, to the point that that the film reaches beyond exhaustion and into guilty, giddy fun. The film is part sci-fi, part paranoia, part mystery-thriller, part action caper, part rogue-on-the-lose…and that’s much of what makes it enjoyable. The fact that the film isn’t going for an obvious tone (i.e. Shakespearean or witty-dark) gives it an all-over-the-map aspect that is ridiculous, but also crazy fun in it’s own right.

That brings me to one last point and that is the fun. If you were asked what a superhero film was ten years ago, you might have answered “a fun, enjoyable adventure”. But today, that is becoming less and less true. Superhero reimaginings almost always seem to go darker and more violent and that is certainly true here with The Winter Soldier. The fun of the ’40s shtick in the first film gives way to the “Don’t trust anyone!” tone that is evident from the beginning. Early on in the film, Captain America is tasked with rescuing captive members of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization who are being held by pirates. When Cap lands on the ship, I expected him to heroically maneuver his way past the pirate guards. But, I was shocked to see that he instead went straight for the kill, knocking them off in different, equally violent ways. As I watched the film develop, I yearned for the excitement and adventure of not only the first film, but other earlier superhero flicks. Unfortunately, the way Marvel is heading, the chances of an honest-to-goodness adventure, are becoming slimmer and slimmer.

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