Latest from Vin Diesel in “Riddick”

riddick-3-vin-diesel-throneAs a newcomer to the Riddick franchise, I admit I had no idea what to expect. I knew it had Vin Diesel wearing sunglasses in very beige future from the commercials I’ve seen for this as well as the previous two films, but there wasn’t much more I knew about this action series. I recently found out that in the series, Diesel has had a very different kind of laser eye surgery, giving him the ability to see in the dark, though limiting his daytime vision, hence the shades. Needless to say, I went into this most recent installment in the dark, and what I found was a tale of two movies – one not quite as disappointing as the other.

The first film-within-the-film is made up primarily of a rather confusing exposition. The titular anti-hero is stranded with a severely broken leg on a barren world with seemingly only two native inhabitants – giant alien hyenas and even more giant scorpion-type creatures. While one might naturally expect these animals to pose a threat to Mr. Riddick, in the world of movies, it’s a bit boring to watch them randomly attack someone without any understanding of what is going on. You know that Diesel isn’t going to get eaten by a wild pack of dogs five minutes into the film, yet you are still forced to endure the forced suspense as you wait for any kind of explanation, which eventually comes in the form of vague flashback (that I didn’t understand until I asked my Riddick-experienced friend after the movie). This false drama continues to crawl on and on, in what soon felt like an episode of Man Vs Wild: Mad Max Edition. While I couldn’t say that nothing was happening, it took far too long to have any idea why any of it was happening.

Eventually Riddick does discover a bit of plot, in the form of two teams of bounty hunters, each hunting the fugitive Riddick for their own reasons. Of course their motivations do take far too long to be revealed, but as all of the rabbit trails begin to come together, the second film-within-the-film is revealed. Remember those scorpion-like creatures from before? When I was watching the movie I know I had all but forgotten them, but apparently the screenwriters hadn’t, and now they’re coming to seek revenge on Riddick (apparently). And while this plot development may have been a bit illogical, it did at least bring a little spark of life to the proceedings, in what seemed like a fun homage to the camp classic, Tremors. Holed up in some sort of interplanetary rest stop, the bounty hunters and Diesel are forced to work together to fight of the swarms of scorpion-monsters and get their spaceships back up and running. Again, this is all stretched out far beyond any necessary length, but clear motivations and a well-defined goal is most certainly a breath of fresh air.

In the end, Riddick feels like an episode of a sci-fi television series stretched far beyond its life. What could have been an exciting little adventure is filled out with Diesel coming up with overly complicated and illogical solutions to his problems and a seeming desire by the filmmakers to bludgeon it into our heads every minute conflict and plot point. Occasionally the characters would have little spurts of humor and fun, but these instances were too far and few between to keep any momentum going. I can’t say what the first two films in the Riddick series have to offer, but I can most certainly say that this third installment certainly doesn’t offer much.

My Rating: 1.5 Stars

Movie Reviews: The Great Gatsby


Adapting a piece of classic literature to film is perhaps one of the most difficult undertakings to which a filmmaker could subject themselves. The most common complaint about a movie based on another work is the classic “that’s not how it happened in the book.” However, when adapting a piece such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, people are less concerned about the specific details of the book, but rather the legacy the book has created. While a huge portion of Americans have read the book, for most of us it has been quite a while since we were assigned to do so in English class, and though we may not remember every detail and nuance, we still remember it as an important piece of literature, one that incited certain thoughts and emotions that make it the classic it rightfully is.

While many argue that adapting such an important and beloved novel into a movie might cheapen the source material, in most circumstances I believe that film can be a very effective way of paying homage to and creating new perspective for a piece of work. It certainly never could, nor should it, replace the original work, but can be a powerful complement to it. Of course occasionally, if not often, this complement does not live up to its source, and is dwarfed by the legacy of the original. The legacy is not tarnished, but instead wields its sway to cast the imitator into obscurity. So the question going into director Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby was not how accurate would he get the little details, but would his film be a respectable tribute, or a forgettable knock-off?

At its core, the story of The Great Gatsby is a love story, wrapped up in the glamour and excess of the 1920s, while the films of Baz Lurhmann tend to be showcases of glamour and excess wrapped in a love story. Told from the perspective of a man of little wealth or social status thrust into the world of money, excess, and self-indulgence, we are able to see two sides of this grand culture: the shimmering and spectacular houses, cars, and parties, as well as the strife and struggle of lost love and regrets. Ironically, the film shines brightest not in the elaborately staged and choreographed parties, but when it focuses on the relationships and interactions of the main characters. The most vibrant and powerful scenes take place not in the beautiful halls of the various mansions, but in simple rooms where the timelessness of lost love is able to take the spotlight.

The Great Gatsby essentially lives as two films: as a vast, shimmering spectacle, and as an emotional, confined chamber piece. The primary disconnect is that instead of using the spectacle of wealth and excess as a backdrop to provide context, it is treated as simply an excuse to create slick and sexy imagery, leaving a rift between the social commentary of the original novel and the simple love story we are left with. While it is still a very powerful love story, it is a shame that such a rich story has been stripped to its most basic form.

Despite all of its flaws, I would not say that The Great Gatsby is guilty of any betrayal to its celebrated source material. While its lack of focus and depth may not capture all of the greatness of the novel, the film does grasp the power, conflict, and confusion of the love story at the center of it all, primarily through Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of the charming and tortured titular character. Though some of the scenes do sacrifice story and emotion for show, the vibrant cinematography and excellent production value still make it an enjoyable, scenic detour. The Great Gatsby is by no means a substitute for the classic novel on which it is based, but it does serve as a mostly effective tribute.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Movie Reviews: Iron Man 3

iron man 3It’s always a dangerous thing when a movie has the number “3” at the end of its title. Trilogies are rarely successful unless they were intended from the start. When a third film is made due to profits rather than unfinished storytelling, filmmakers will often go with crowd-pleasing familiarity over interesting new ideas. In the case of Iron Man 3, the continuation thankfully did not follow the mold of “give them more of what they like,” but instead gave us the most engaging portrayal of Tony Stark yet.

Picking up an undisclosed amount of time after the events of The Avengers, this is technically the fourth appearance of the current iteration of Tony Stark/Iron Man, again played pitch perfectly by Robert Downey, Jr. However, in addition to the brass and boldness that carried him through the first two Iron Man films, humanity has at last caught up to the Tony Stark character. Sure Bruce Wayne was a billionaire, and Peter Parker may have been able to climb walls, but they were still easily relatable in their convictions and motivation. You could understand why they would put on a costume and fight crime, and you had a rooting interest for them to succeed. While Iron Man had his share of cool outfits and slick gadgets (not to mention he did save the world a few times, which isn’t a bad thing), there was always a lacking in relatability. Once he put on the suit to fight the super-villain du jour, it didn’t matter who was in the suit, Iron Man was just a faceless means to an end.

With the recent slew of quality storytelling in comic book films, something that I’ve learned is that they best parts of the movie is not when the hero is in costume and kicking butt, but rather when they are out from behind the mask; just a person trying to discern right from wrong. What makes Iron Man 3 work is that the focus of the film is not simply a person in a metal suit, but a man trying to protect the people about whom he cares. Stripped of his futuristic home base and left without a functioning suit, Tony Stark has to trade in his high-tech solutions for old fashioned detective work, and for the first time in the series, despite being a billionaire, super-genius playboy, we can connect with him as a man searching for truth.

Now of course Iron Man 3 does have an epic final battle, but it’s so much more gratifying with the extra care given to the first two acts of the film. The relationship between Stark and his love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as a very entertaining friendship with Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), provide an emotional anchor to the impressive action, reminding us that there is a man in the suit.

The appeal of comic books to me has always been in taking the power of everyday emotions such as loss, longing and love, and bringing them to life through a fantastic alternate reality. While the Iron Man films have always had an abundance of fantasy, they had struggled in finding the heart behind it all. However, by taking off the mask, we are at last able to see Tony Stark as the hero — a man not just putting on a suit and saving the world, but saving his world, and most importantly, the people in it.

My Rating:   3 stars

Movie Reviews: Pain & Gain

Pain-and-Gain-box-officeThe phrase “A Michael Bay film” has a certain stigma amongst moviegoers. Since his debut with 1995’s Bad Boys, Bay’s films have all followed a rather narrow path with one goal in mind: senseless action. However, that isn’t necessarily an insult. While his style doesn’t get much recognition with the Academy, everyone loves to sit back, turn off their thinking caps, and enjoy an exciting escape. True, he isn’t getting any buzz at your local art house cinema, but the films of Michael Bay more often than not have an abundant supply of entertainment value.

Pain & Gain sees Bay take a bit of a step away from his bread and butter of polished, fun action and dip a toe into the world of dark comedy. Based on a true story, the story follows three pea-brained muscle-heads who decide that the ticket to happiness and the American dream is to simply kidnap a wealthy member of the gym where they work and get him to sign over his assets. Of course the plan goes awry and you’re left with three morons trying to play the part of criminal masterminds. If we’ve learned anything from the history of film, inept criminals are pretty much a lock when it comes to comedy.

The biggest strength of Pain & Gain is its performances. There’s a certain degree of difficulty in playing a convincing fool, and Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie manage to bring comedy and even some sympathy to a trio of kidnappers, not generally the most likable of professions. I could attempt to describe it, but I think it is best summed up in a scene in which Wahlberg manages to convince his cohorts into taking part in the kidnapping with the line “Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of movies.” Complimenting the kidnappers is Tony Shalhoub as their wholly unlikable victim, as well as on of my personal favorites, Ed Harris as a private eye. In a story where it’s so difficult to figure out who you should be rooting for, the over-the-top personas of both the kidnappers and the kidnapped leave you too entertained to worry about picking a side.

Where Pain & Gain falls short is that it doesn’t take these huge personalities anywhere. What could have been an interesting character study is left at its bare bones, without ever digging beyond the framework of a few boneheads getting in way over their heads. After three straight movies of playing with CGI toys, Michael Bay seems to have forgotten how to work with regular old, non-transforming, people. While we get to see what the criminals do, and how they do it, there is almost no time spent explaining why. Bay is himself caught in over his head with a story where the motivation could be even more interesting than the action itself.

This all brings us back to the original point: Michael Bay is not a master of nuance, nor is he an expert in storytelling. For nearly two decades, Bay has excelled in one, and only one element of film: entertainment. And judging Pain & Gain on that curve, it most certainly gets the job done. Even when left fully explored and examined, this true story is most certainly interesting, and the chemistry among the cast keeps things moving right along, despite an excessive 2 hour and 10 minute run time. It may be less than intellectual, but this is a movie where that’s kind of the point all along.

My Rating: 2.5 Stars

Oblivion, Oblivi-ous

I remember a discussion I once had with a good friend about the importance of a good screenwriter versus a good director. As a writer, I was of course defending the side of the script, while he argued for the need of quality direction. I’ll always remember what he told me: A good script can be ruined by a bad director, but a good director can save a bad script. In an interesting, and perhaps even tragic twist of fate, Oblivion tells the story of a promising director attempting to salvage his own bad script, based on his own comic book.

The previews for Oblivion seemed to promise something both simple and satisfying; a reliable sci-fi action picture, not too challenging, but still a good time. The film starts off right on this track, with a mediocre script being held up by good camera work, nice art direction, and quick pacing. Sure the storyline is basically Wall-E with the adorable robot being replaced by Tom Cruise looking exactly like he has for nearly 30 years, but there are all the aliens, guns, and spaceships we need for a good time. Then come the twists.

Oblivion leaves the safety of a straightforward action flick, and descends into using cheap twist after cheap twist, the worst of which is an almost heinous theft from 2008’s Moon. Cruise’s character begins to notice some peculiar things happening in his routine life of fixing drones and shooting aliens, culminating in a crashed spacecraft in which he discovers a mysterious woman, and before long his friends start looking like enemies and vice versa. Unfortunately, the film never makes its way out of exposition and into development, so it just feels like we’re having new information piled on top of itself, without ever really understanding what any of it means.

To put it simply, the writers of Oblivion just aren’t as clever as they’d like to think. Every twist that was meant to bring a gasp was instead met with an eye roll or even a little chuckle. Any saving graces to the film are found in the likability of the actors. We all seem to have gotten over Tom Cruises crazy spree of a few years ago, and he is still a generally likable actor who knows how to keep an audience entertained. Morgan Freeman also does a good job hamming things up in a sadly underwritten role that leaves you wishing he got much more screentime. Of course in a post-apocalyptic world there aren’t a whole lot of people left around to fill out a story, and beyond the leads, the remaining characters more often than not fall into painfully token roles, although it is interesting to note that the only people left on Earth are all incredibly good looking.

Despite director Joseph Kosinski’s best efforts, there simply was no life support that could salvage Oblivion’s disaster of a script. The film is for the most part paced well enough to avoid being a complete bore, however a seemingly endless barrage of ridiculous twists derail what could have been a fun afternoon escape, with the whole thing going over a cliff by the third act. While Oblivion is likely far from being the worst movie of the summer, it is likely to be one of the most misguided.

My Rating: 1.5 Stars

Zach Godwin is a web designer, antique picker, and film fanatic who loves uncovering beauty in the world and sharing its stories. You can follow Zach on twitter @zachgodwin.

Movie Reviews: “The Host”

Our story begins in the assumed distant future. Earth has now become a perfect, harmonious utopia where everyone is cooperative, trusting, and respectful of the planet. Conflict and distrust among people have all but been extinguished. Sounds great right? The catch is that this new perfection has come at the expense of losing ourselves to a parasitic alien race that occupies human bodies and minds. The only survivors of this invasion are struggling to remain human in this world. This story is “The Host,” a film based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer, the author of the Twilight series.

I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not particularly a fan of either the Twilight books or the films, but I have to say that I was intrigued to see what type of story Stephanie Meyer came up with outside of sparkly vampires and werewolves. Would this have redeeming qualities? Or would it be just as terrible as Twilight? I dragged my best friend out for a matinee showing to find out.

From a completely objective standpoint, I have to say that the story sounds promising. A parasitic alien race. A utopia. The resistance of the remaining humans. Our protagonist, Melanie, is one such survivor, until she is captured and infected with the parasite. The wrinkle is that she retains her human consciousness, and we hear her speaking inside the alien’s (her name is “Wanderer”) head. On the surface, it sounds like this could make for a good story.

Except that it doesn’t. Or at least, the execution of what otherwise would have been a good story did not work.

For starters, the whole inner dialogue thing was incredibly awkward. Melanie’s voice screaming in Wanderer’s mind wasn’t chilling, haunting, or intriguing. It was entirely annoying, and her sarcastic quips weren’t funny in the slightest. In fact, I was thankful when Melanie’s voice disappeared in the plot for a little bit. Her dialogue always felt like it was trying to explain something to the audience, to assure us of something. The audience doesn’t feel any agency as a viewer to piece things together for themselves.

And it wouldn’t be a Stephanie Meyer piece if there wasn’t some sort of awkward love triangle, square, pentagon, star. The whole thing is one big mess of: this mind loves this guy but not this guy, the other mind likes this guy, this body loves both guys, but we both share this body. It was all a little too “Cartesian,” and I don’t know, maybe it could have been intriguing if it wasn’t just a bunch of teenagers looking for excuses to make out with each other and calling it love.

The biggest problem with the film aside from the lackluster script, awkward pacing, and flat acting was this: We are much too invested in Melanie’s story; there’s no chance to fully grasp anything about this society. If there had been a better description of the way the aliens decided to restructure human life, I probably would have been a little more intrigued. You can’t tell us that an alien race has invaded Earth and show us nothing about how that society works. If the director had built the environment more thoroughly, then maybe we could have understood our protagonist’s place in all of this. Otherwise, we are uninterested observers on the verge of sleep. And yes, I was about to fall asleep.

Don’t get me wrong, the film was slightly more interesting than Twilight. But only slightly. Considering that this story is about aliens, I’m not sure what that says, if it is only a tad more interesting than a story about an awkward teenager who falls in love with a vampire.

So no, I don’t recommend this movie, but if you want to see Stephanie Meyer in action outside of her main baby, draw strange parallels and snicker at awkward lines, feel free to go see it.