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

Getaway, Reviewed

GETAWAYCar chases have long been a staple of Hollywood, from a Model-T zooming along at 30 miles per hour, to the enormous spectacles of today. Just earlier this year, the sixth installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise, a series of films based on little more than watching cars go fast, made almost $700 million worldwide. A car chase, when executed well, is exciting, suspenseful, exhilarating, and is as much an integral part of cinema as a damsel in distress or a bad guy with a mustache. However, what the hundreds of movies featuring car chases do differently than Getaway is both elementary and crucial to the quality of the film — the characters actually get out of the car. Of course the flaws of this film go far beyond the lack of things like walking around, but it all stems from the fact that our hero is little more than an upper body behind the wheel of a cool car.

The premise of Getaway is a familiar one — bad guys from a criminal past kidnap a hero’s wife, forcing him to do “one last job” in order to rescue her. There’s even the clever young sidekick in a terribly miscast, and rather annoying, Selena Gomez. All of the ingredients are there for a nice, familiar action flick. Sure the lapses in logic are a bit more numerous than even the most vapid of popcorn movie, but we can let that slide when the rip-roaring action takes us on a fun ride. However, that fun ride never comes. Instead we go on a manic ride of millisecond-long cuts and an apparent aspiration to outdo the destruction of the car chase sequence in Blues Brothers. The safety of the heroes is quickly removed from our concern, as their seemingly invincible car repeatedly smashes into every truck, police car, and other obstacle they can find. There is no visual coherence, no suspense, no logic, and no chemistry to be found anywhere, leaving us with nothing more than two crash test dummies behind the wheel of a very nice, very fast car.

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of Getaway is that of the villain, played by Jon Voight, credited as simply “The Voice.” With a generic Eastern European bad guy voice, he acts less as a villain, and more as the surrogate voice of the utter misguidance of the film. Communicating with lead Ethan Hawke and his plucky sidekick through the car’s Bluetooth, Voight doesn’t provide any sort of menace or moral conflict, he simply tells Hawke where to turn in order to cause the coolest looking car crash. In perhaps the most ridiculous sequence in the film (there are several contenders), Voight barks commands like “ram into that truck full of water bottles” and “drive onto that ice rink” in what sounds like a 6-year-old describing what he’s pretending his Hot Wheels are doing on the living room floor.

Getaway may not have set out to be ambitious, but it at least seemed to have a handful of sure-fire crowd-pleasing staples of Hollywood. But just like the countless cars in the film, these staples were smashed beyond recognition with an impressive lifelessness. Shot on location in Sofia, Bulgaria, even the beautiful location is laid to waste by rampant cuts and an astounding prevalence of low resolution shots from car-mounted cameras. I would say that Getaway never gets out of first gear, but a more fitting analogy would be a 16-year-old who can’t figure out how to start a car with a clutch. Steer clear of this one.

My Rating: 0.5 Stars

The World’s End, Reviewed

the_worlds_end_movie-wideComedy teams were once a staple of Hollywood; from Abbott and Costello, to Laurel and Hardy, to The Three Stooges — they weren’t just two stars working together, but their team itself was the star. But I suppose all good things must come to an end, as the studio system fell apart and things became more about the individual, as well as the stand-up comedian boom of the 70’s and 80’s, the idea of a comedy team has become a thing of the past, with the focus moving to the solo comedy star. However, since 1999 and the debut of the cult classic television series Spaced, we have been graced with the comedy team from across the pond, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, along with director Edgar Wright. They of course haven’t exclusively worked together like the teams of old, but whenever the three of them do get together, we can always count on some of the most clever and creative comedy around, and The World’s End is no exception.

As the final installment of what has been dubbed “The Cornetto Trilogy” (the first two installments being Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), The World’s End continues in the tradition of being an homage to beloved films and film tropes. Shaun of the Dead took on zombie movies, Hot Fuzz paid tribute to buddy cop action extravaganzas, and here we are treated to an invasion flick. With their past successes giving them plenty of budget and creative freedom, the filmmakers seem to take this as a challenge as to just how far they can take things. What starts out as five buddies taking on a pub crawl they had unsuccessfully attempted two decades before, The World’s End goes for broke as this most ordinary night of nostalgia turns into a fight against a worldwide overtaking, in a sort of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers meets The Terminator. Of course a little nuisance of global takeover doesn’t stop the excellent ensemble, led by Pegg and Frost, along with Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan, from attempting to finish their journey through the watering holes of their hometown.

In addition to the truly great ensemble performance, The World’s End is guided by the brilliant hand of director Edgar Wright. Wright, who co-wrote the film with Pegg, brings a creative and ambitious design to the film, in a time where comedies are so often directed by simply pointing the camera at the stars and letting the cameras roll. From the manic action scenes to a very fun bit of subtle choreography in a little musical montage, the camera work, music selection, and even emotional resonance are brought to life in a way that is so rarely seen in the bargain comedies that get thrown together today, banking on little more than the likability of the stars and some overplayed bathroom humor. The World’s End isn’t just fishing for a few laughs, but strives to be a well-made film, both behind the camera and in front.

The only thing that does manage to slow The World’s End down is its own go-for-broke ambition. While everything is of course anchored with humor, the details of the whole invasion do occasionally toe the line of being just a bit too much. It is also worth nothing, I think, that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost do reverse their usual roles, with Frost now acting as the straight-man and Pegg as the rube. While they do both have the chops to pull off these roles, it does take a bit of getting used to, altering the chemistry that we’ve come to know and love. Overall, The World’s End may not be on the same level of brilliance as Shaun of the Dead, but it still stands head-and-shoulders above the common comedy, with imagination and wit to spare.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

the-butler-movieIt’s obviously rather easy to be cynical about the filmmaking industry. Your common cinema fare does little to benefit anyone, beyond providing an opportunity to buy some expensive snacks and spend a couple of hours in air conditioning. Thankfully, another function of Hollywood is to bring to life certain historically important events, which otherwise would be nothing more than a headline on an old newspaper. Of course that doesn’t always mean that these films are well made, but they can at least bring a little awareness to something that might otherwise be overlooked in our social consciousness. The Butler (officially titled Lee Daniels’ The Butler, for a very silly legal reason) may be a flawed film, but it provides a vivid slideshow of our nation’s recent history through the eyes of a silent insider.

It is embarrassing to admit, but for someone my age, the civil rights movement can sometimes seem like something of the distant past. Growing up in Greensboro, home of one of the first sit-in demonstrations and now the International Civil Rights Museum, it’s hard to believe that it was during my parents’ lifetimes that it was illegal for white people and black people to sit together for a meal. The triumph of The Butler is in reminding us that it was not so long ago that real men, women, and children were forced to deal with segregation, and countless other forms of racial discrimination, in order to live what we consider to be a basic standard of living. Forest Whitaker, as the titular butler, shows that the civil rights movement did not just involve those at the forefront of action, but everyday fathers, mothers, friends, and coworkers. Working in the White House of course afforded him access to the highest level of discussion, but when he went home, there was still a family to provide for, and the struggles of being a spouse and a parent. This everyman viewpoint, contrasted with the inside workings of the highest level of government, as well as the brave and occasionally radical civil rights leaders, gives an incredibly powerful vision of just what it takes to bring about meaningful change.

While The Butler excels in bringing these historical moments to life, they can unfortunately occasionally feel more like a slideshow than a fully cohesive film. Director Lee Daniels, best know for 2009’s Precious, seems to focus more on gravity than pacing, giving us waves of excellence, separated by periods of awkward exposition and character development. However, these flaws are simply bumps in the road, not dead ends. The Butler may not be a lesson in filmmaking, but much more importantly is a lesson in the human struggle and our history.

The Butler covers a breadth of important events and situations, never pausing too long on any one topic. There were various points in the film where I’d wished that they had made an entire movie focusing on one subject or another. However, at the end of the day, this film isn’t about these historical events themselves, but rather the impact they have on a man’s life as a whole. The Butler shows that one’s character is not defined by a single experience, but from a lifetime of struggles and victories.

My Rating: 3 Stars


11elysium-blog480One of the most crucial elements of a science fiction film is the world created by the filmmakers. There’s a delicate balance between intriguing technologies and goofy gadgets that seem to serve no purpose beyond proving that they could come up with something so crazy. One of my biggest complaints against the Star Wars prequel trilogy is that George Lucas seemed to focus far too much time and energy on making every character a different alien species, droid, or some combination of the two. But before this turns into an in-depth analysis of Episodes I-III (which I have no problem doing), let’s turn our attention to the world created by Neill Blomkamp in Elysium.

The most important thing one can do to create a successful sci-fi world is to maintain the human element, whether you go 10,000 years into the future, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, or to the year 2154, the year in which Elysium is set. In a future where the wealthy have moved off Earth’s surface to the titular utopian space station, the everyday struggles of human life are just as real 150 years in the future as they are now. The major folly of the film is that Blomkamp can’t seem to decide which struggle to focus on. The Elysium space station serves as an allegory for both the struggles of immigrants in America, as well as the class struggles that exist between the haves and the have nots of every nationality. While the metaphors too often tread the line between powerful and heavy-handed, overall the parallels made in the film are done quite well. Unfortunately, the lack of focus simply leaves both issues never fully explored, taking away the full punch of Blomkamp’s message.

Despite the confusion of the political messaging, Elysium does still have some rather strong legs as an action flick. Essentially a Macguffin chase for access to a cure-all med-pod (one of the most overused sci-fi plot devices in history), Blomkamp creates several truly stunning visuals and action sequences that find an excellent balance between futuristic weapons and good old fashioned hand-to-hand combat. While the brains of the bad guys is security secretary Jodie Foster, sporting a superb futuristic mystery accent, the muscle and life is brought by Sharlto Copley as a most decidedly evil gun-for-hire. Matt Damon is rather replaceable as the lead hero, but his character’s story holds a great deal of relatability, making it all the more easy to despise Copley’s vile villain. The camerawork does occasionally get a little too stylish for its own good, making the combat a bit muddled, but overall the ambitions of the action pay off more often than falling flat.

After the surprise success and quality of writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, we have been waiting to see what comes next, and Elysium both falls short and meets many of our expectations. Armed with a budget and reputation this time, the greatest praise I have for Blomkamp after watching this film is that he still isn’t pulling any punches. Things may have gotten a little muddled, but the tenacity to make a film with a strong message and no-holds-barred action are as prevalent as when he was making District 9 and miles away from anyone’s radar. Elysium is without a doubt a flawed film, however the rising star of Blomkamp is brighter than ever, and I for one cannot wait to see what he brings us next.

My Rating: 2.5 Stars

Thoughts on ‘2 Guns’

2 guns movieOften when headed into a movie theater, we know exactly what we’re going to get. Sometimes the trailer will give away a twist, or perhaps the story is something we’ve already heard a hundred times before. And every now and then, a movie gives itself away in its title (see: Snakes On A Plane). 2 Guns is an excellent example of just that — the adventures of a couple of gunslingers. Sure there are other characters and plot points along the way, but it always comes back to a pair of makeshift desperados who do their storytelling with their pistols, leaving the dialogue avenue open for all the banter and wisecracking you could hope for. Part heist film, part revenge flick, and part buddy-cop comedy, 2 Guns may be doing things that we’ve seen before, but they make sure to get there in the most fun, slick way possible.

The first thing you need for any heist or buddy-cop movie is the team of heroes, and the filmmakers really found some great chemistry in stars Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. After winning his leading actor Oscar for Training Day, Washington has seemed more than happy to play a renegade cop at least once or twice a year, and after a decade of honing this role, he seems to have the wisecracking gusto down to a science. The other side of the coin is Wahlberg as his impromptu partner, who seems to improve his own performance in supporting his co-stars. Both actors have the comedic chops and shoot-em-up experience to play off each other, without ever having to rely on one character or the other to fill one narrow role. While the heroes may get to leave their dramatic forces on the bench for this film, they bring out all the tools they need to keep things cooking.

Of course the good guys aren’t much good without a formidably entertaining bad guy, and 2 Guns most certainly delivers on that end of things as well, with a handful of baddies coming from all directions. There’s double-crossing, back-stabbing, and good old-fashioned greed at every turn, and the fact that it only barely makes sense is left far in the back seat thanks to just how much fun all of the villains are having. It may not be anything new for international drug cartels and corrupt government agents to be chasing after stolen cash, but it’s hard to care with so many wonderfully hammy performances being doled out all around. The kingpin behind it all is slimy CIA agent Bill Paxton, in a moustache-twirling bad guy performance that fits as well here as it would in a 1960’s Hanna Barbara cartoon. Sure we all root for the heroes to win, but what’s the fun without a good villain?

There are some stories that we don’t listen to because we’ve never heard them before, but rather because we enjoy the story so much, we don’t mind hearing it again and again. 2 Guns may not have anything we haven’t seen before, but they sure do have a blast telling us that familiar tale. When the endgame is to have a great time, we might not get the emotional resonance that makes a truly great film, but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy every step of the journey. 2 Guns might not be a game changer, but it’s certainly a game I don’t mind playing again and again.

My Rating: 2.5 Stars

The Wolverine, The Review

the-wolverine-cover-creatorPicture General George S. Patton. Chances are, the first image that popped into your head wasn’t from a history book, but of George C. Scott playing the famous general in 1970’s Patton. Every once in awhile, an actor comes along who was born to play his role, and just as Scott was born to play General Patton, Hugh Jackman was born to play Wolverine. More than a decade since he first donned the claws, it’s almost hard to imagine that they didn’t use Jackman to model the original character some 50 years ago. From the hairdo to the attitude, to the way he chomps down on a stogie, this classic character comes to life through Hugh Jackman, whether he’s fighting with the X-Men, or on his own.

The Wolverine marks the fifth official turn of Jackman as the Wolverine, in what seems to be Hollywood’s way of saying, “just give us one more chance, I know we can get this right.” After the critical failure of 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, rather than scrapping the idea of a film focusing solely on the Wolverine, the powers that be simply decided that they just needed to give it another try (not to mention they probably didn’t want to give up the rights to Disney after their purchase of Marvel).

This summer has taught me a very interesting fact I never realized before — whenever someone with superpowers needs to clear their head, they just go to a remote town in the Arctic. In Man of Steel, Clark Kent took a trip up north to find out about his origins, while in The Wolverine, Jackman takes a trip to escape his world as a superhero. After an interesting bit of foreshadowing, he is taken off to Tokyo to say goodbye to an old friend. Of course things don’t quite go as planned, and with an excellent blend of of Wolverine’s brute strength and plenty of over the top samurai fighting, The Wolverine starts on a promising path as a pulp adventure, with the vibrant, exciting feel of a comic book come to life.

Unfortunately, when The Wolverine comes to a fork in the road to choose between rip-roaring action or introspective development, it chooses the more boring path, bringing everything to a screeching halt. Pacing is what ultimately undoes the film, leading us down a handful of rabbit trails that never go deep enough to add anything to the story, but still manage to slow things down enough to take away the fun. It’s never really established who is meant to be the villain, so you never quite know who you’re supposed to be looking out for, creating less an air of mystery than simply fostering apathy.

Whenever he isn’t being hampered by convoluted development, Jackman proves that he can still chew his fair share of scenery in the titular role, even when no one else does much to pull their own weight. Jackman’s female samurai sidekick does manage to do a bang-up job keeping up with things, but any good action movie always needs a lively face of villainy, which simply never turns up nor has any sort of direction. For fans of the clawed crusader, The Wolverine will likely provide your fix of Jackman’s attitude and aggression, but you will have to wait through a bit of dull development along the way. The Wolverine is a unique breath of fresh air as a superhero movie that doesn’t feel like a superhero movie, but it unfortunately can’t seem to reach a decision on what it does want to feel like.

My Rating: 2.5 Stars

RIPD, Reviewed

RIPD-WongMarisa-78SIt’s interesting to look at how comic books have re-emerged as such a major cultural influence over the past 15 years or so. Since the first comic books started coming out nearly 100 years ago, they have had varying impacts and reputations, from being overly childish, to encouraging youthful rebellion. By the 1990’s, the comic book industry was struggling to stay afloat, seen by many as as worn out fad of the past. Jumping ahead to 2013, comic books have managed to earn their rightful respect as an imaginative, innovative storytelling medium — something that must have seemed almost inconceivable to the early comic industry. In addition to the timeless superhero stories, we now have comics that cover everything from zombie apocalypse to social commentaries without any hint of the supernatural, or in the case of the RIPD series, a deceased police force that keeps the undead from overtaking the living. However, while comics may have a reputation of imagination and new ideas, Hollywood has a less than stellar track record in that department of late, and with RIPD, we are left with an imaginative framing device for a very uninspired buddy cop flick.

The largest elephant in the room with RIPD seems to be that it looks like Men In Black with dead people instead of aliens, and that comparison is most certainly a justified one. However, after having seen the film, I must say that actually works as one of its strengths – there’s no time wasted explaining the premise, we already learned all the rules from Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones a decade or so ago. The real problem with that is the Smith and Jones did is so much better. While Jeff Bridges has a blast as an old-timey zombie-corralling sheriff, the rest of the cast just doesn’t seem to be able to have any fun. Ryan Reynolds does his best to keep up as Bridges’ no nonsense partner, but just can’t seem to find the rhythm you need for a good buddy cop pairing, while a strangely cast Kevin Bacon seems to think he’s supposed to be playing an actual corpse, sucking any potential fun from his turn as the maguffin-toting villain. For a bunch of characters who are supposed to be invading the world of the living, it too often feels like a trip to the cemetery.

What RIPD lacks in characters, the filmmakers do their best to make up for in special effects and dazzling camera work, with mixed results. Particularly with the aid of some above-average 3-D work, several scenes are truly impressive, though they do often get a bit carried away with the dizzying camera movements that sacrifice comprehension for style. While the effects team was most certainly bringing their A-game, the lifeless story often makes the action scenes seem like inane inevitabilities rather than suspenseful or enthralling parts of the plot. There were plenty of nice flashes in the pan, but there just wasn’t much coming out of it.

In the end, RIPD comes off as a half-formed rehash of a dozen other movies, rather than the exciting, fun, and imaginative film it could have been. There seemed to be plenty of the right ingredients, from an all-star cast to special effects work that most films would envy, but things just never could come together. Breakneck pacing keeps things from getting boring, however nothing ever seems to be able to come together to form a complete film. Despite a few chuckles and some nicely polished action, RIPD just can’t seem to keep both feet out of the grave.

My Rating: 2 Stars

Pacific Rim, Reviewed

Pacific_Rim_Main_Trailer_32Let’s begin by taking a step back and look at a roller coaster. When you stop and think about it, a roller coaster really has no right to be fun. You’re essentially strapped into a tiny runaway train and thrown around with nothing controlling you other than a few laws of physics. However, if you take this runaway train and set it up in the right place, with the right dips and curves, it becomes an fun, exciting ride that you don’t want to end. It doesn’t teach you anything, it doesn’t make you think about the world around you, it simply puts a smile on your face. Sometimes we forget that a movie can have that same effect. Thankfully, Pacific Rim reminds us that every now and then, we just want to take a fun ride.

There have been countless films through the years with the message that, in one way or another, “everything happens for a reason.” I suppose you could say the same thing about this movie, except that in the world of Pacific Rim everything happens for one reason, and one reason only — so that giant robots can fight giant monsters. This premise is explained within the first five minutes of the film, because we don’t need to have an in-depth understanding of why there is now a world full of giant robots and monsters, we should simply be thankful that they’re here and we get to watch.

Now from this explanation, I want to be clear: I don’t mean that this is a dumbed-down movie, and it is certainly miles from being cerebral. To describe Pacific Rim as “smart” or “stupid” would be to miss the point of the film. Just as no one would attempt to assess the intelligence of a roller coaster, there is no need to look for the same in this ride of a film. It is perfectly engineered to do exactly what it should — leave you with a big grin and ready to take another spin.

While the biggest thrills in Pacific Rim come from larger-than-life robot versus monster battles, the greatest joys come from the larger-than-life characters. With simple motivations and well-laid out roles, each character fits in perfectly as a part of the fun machine, and the actors couldn’t be having more fun doing it. Particularly noteworthy are Charlie Day, an eccentric scientist passionate about understanding the monsters (or ‘Kaiju’ as they’re dubbed), and a delightfully hammy Ron Pearlman as a black market kingpin of Kaiju body parts. Sure everyone is over the top, but when you’re competing for screen time with a bunch of 500 foot tall behemoths, over the top fits in just fine.

Over the course of its 132 minute run time, Pacific Rim asks a lot of questions, and they all have the same answer — giant robots and monsters. There was untold destruction, danger, and mayhem, and through it all, I just couldn’t stop smiling. It’s hard to call a film with a nearly $200 million budget a B-movie, but like a good drive-in picture, they remembered that above all, we just want to have a little fun, or in the case of Pacific Rim, a whole lot of fun.

My Rating: 3 Stars