Tag Archive: special effects


REVIEW: JURASSIC WORLD

JURASSIC WORLD (2015)
Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, & Nick Robinson
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, & Colin Trevorrow
Produced by Frank Marshall & Patrick Crowley
Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg
Cinematography by John Schwartzman
Score by Michael Giacchino
Edited by Kevin Stitt

jurassic-world-own-raptors-poster

Not pictured: Axl Rose shredding a mean guitar solo in front of an explosion

(WARNING: There are a few SPOILERS laced throughout this review. Watch your step!)

   Everybody loves Jurassic Park. Seriously, in all my years on this planet I haven’t met anyone who’s been like, “fuck that movie.” It’s pretty much universally regarded as a milestone in cinematic history, a game-changer which revolutionized special effects in popular filmmaking, revitalized dinosaurs in the mass public awareness, and also managed to spin a pretty damn exciting yarn all at once. 22 years after its release, I think it’s safe to say it’s now a classic in every sense of the word. Hell, it was once the highest-grossing film of all time until Titanic came out in 1997 and knocked it off its diamond-encrusted pedestal. Sure, it has its flaws, but they’re mostly small technical things, and don’t weigh the entire film down as a whole. It’s a genuinely iconic, groundbreaking adventure film, intelligently crafted by one of the all-time great filmmakers (Steven Spielberg) and told with a genuine love & appreciation for the dinosaurs it depicts. It’s just a neat movie!

   As far as the sequels that followed…well, not so much. The Lost World: Jurassic Park was Spielberg’s attempt to pack more energy and more dinos into the mix, but it wound up being lackluster in the story/character department and treated the dinosaurs like common monsters. Despite all this, it was still pretty cool if you’re a 9 year-old, which I was when it was first released in 1997. Jurassic Park III, on the other hand, was a pretty forced effort on all fronts, with an oversimplified rescue plot which definitely paled in comparison to its predecessors, despite having some fairly decent sequences. That one came out in 2001, and all has been slow on the dinos-in-cinema front since then. Well, hold on to your butts, fellow meatbags, because the meat-eating meatasauruses are back for a FOURTH time with the newly-released Jurassic World!

jurassic-world-raptors-970x546

He’d probably score a lot of sick props rolling up to a club like that if his wingmen didn’t always brutally murder everyone on sight.

   So how does it fare against the stiff competition of its own predecessors? Well…not so well, I’m unhappy to report. Jurassic World, while trying its damndest to be on par with the first film and weave its own web of dino-riffic action, corporate intrigue, and cautionary man vs. nature sentiment, unfortunately falls flat on its face in its contrived construction & mixed-bag execution. It’s pretty disappointing, to say the least. The film was in development hell for more than a decade, and now that it’s finally here it seems like very little attention was paid to the story and character development aspect which made the first film so enjoyable to watch. It’s really a damn shame, because considering the amount of hype this movie has received over the past year, it’s kind of mind-boggling to me that they just decided to take the straight up B-movie route with it. But, I’m getting ahead of myself a bit on that front. First let’s get into the “meat” of this beast. (Oh god I’m so sorry about that.)

   Jurassic World, the reboot/sequel (or “requel”) of the Jurassic Park franchise, takes place some 20-odd years after the events of the original. By now, billionaire entrepreneur/dino-cloning enthusiast/depraved vorarephile John Hammond has passed on, leaving behind his multi-billion dollar genetics corporation InGen and no doubt millions of dollars in lawsuit fees. (Seriously, how the fuck is InGen still in existence after 3 movies worth of death & destruction?) In his stead, somebody got the ingenious idea to try out that whole “Jurassic Park” idea again, this time calling it “Jurassic World” and making sure nobody hires a fat, greedy, disgruntled guy named Dennis to run literally everything. And what do you know, it worked! Jurassic World turns into a flourishing, exciting, and highly profitable tourist destination, with people traveling from all over the globe to bear witness to the awesome power of dinosaurs reborn unto the world.

Mosasaur_Feeding_Show

She ate Shamu’s heart out.

   Well, at least for a little while. Taking a very cynical stance on the average human attention span, the movie states that people are no longer wowed by the prospect of seeing live dinosaurs like they once were, relating their jaw-dropping attractions to nothing more than “big elephants” in the eyes of the consumer. In an attempt to bring in more attendees/moola, the corporate bigwigs make the brilliant decision to genetically manufacture a big, scary & hopelessly intelligent hybrid dinosaur-monster. The creature is given the oh-so appropriate name of Indominus Rex, and is poised to frighten & bewilder the cash right out of the visitors’ pockets. Unfortunately, these corporate bigwigs don’t know they’re in a sci-fi/action B-movie, so the obvious & inevitable backfiring of such a boneheaded move are not immediately clear to them.

   With the dinos in play, it’s time to (unfortunately) bring in the human characters! Jurassic World’s park operations manager, Claire Dearing (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) is an uptight, organized, and overtly business-minded lady who’s always focused on work. So focused, in fact, she doesn’t bother to spend time with her visiting nephews Zach and Gray (played by Nick Robinson & Ty Simpkins, respectively) who are attending the park for the weekend and serving the role of mandatory children in a Jurassic Park movie. Meanwhile, the cool, laid-back but focused & stern ex-Navy man Owen Grady (played by Chris Pratt) is engaged in a relationship of “mutual respect” with a group of Velociraptors, training them to obey commands and interact with human beings without ripping them to shreds and feasting on their vital organs. If that sounds silly to you, don’t worry – that just means you’re still a sane & rational human being. Throw all of this into the mix with a ready-to-escape Indominus Rex and you’ve got the makings of a perfect B-movie!

o-JURASSIC-WORLD-facebook

Owen takes a moment to imagine just how freakin’ sweet his new tooth necklace is going to be.

   So of course, everything goes wrong. The Indominus escapes, begins wreaking havoc all over the island, and it’s up to Owen & Claire to bring down the horrible beast before it starts ripping innocent park-goers limb from limb. And that’s it, pretty much. Seriously, the story is so straight-forward and simple that it’s almost a perfect example of Screenwriting 101 – a clear, concise monster movie plot which hits all the basic plot elements you need to create a solid, 2-hour creature feature. Vincent D’Onofrio also turns up as the InGen Head of Security, who is primarily interested in utilizing the trained Velociraptors as weapons for the military to use against its enemies. Big surprise there! Seriously, it’s a plot so contrived on clichés and familiarity that predicting what’s going to happen is not only inevitable, it’s almost invited.

   When I first saw the trailer for Jurassic World, I got a bad feeling in my pits – a movie about a super-intelligent, genetic hybrid dino-monster which breaks loose and starts wreaking havoc? Well that’s just about as horribly low-grade B-movie as you can get, man, no joke! “Are they really going to turn Jurassic Park into low-grade action schlock?” I thought to myself. And the filmmakers’ answer was, “YES, you silly bastard, of course we are!” And then I saw a clip of a “romantic” dialogue sequence between Chris Pratt & Bryce Dallas Howard a couple months ago, and I was almost dumbfounded at how laughably bad the dialogue and characterization was. Seriously, she pulls up to his little bungalow, and he’s outside working on his motorcycle. She tries to recruit him to check out the Indominus’s containment area, and he starts schmaltzing on about how uptight and rigid she was when they went out on a date, and she fires back about how he “showed up in board shorts” or some shit. Seriously, it’s like a scene out of a below-average romantic comedy! It was with these expectations in mind that I sat down in the theater to watch Jurassic World with, and lo & behold, those expectations were perfectly met. So in that regard, Jurassic World lived up to what I thought it was going to be…the problem is, those expectations are NOT the kind you want to have when going to see a big, fancy reboot of a beloved franchise with massive hype and anticipation.

jurassic-park-4-photos-2-bryce-dallas-howard

A frame from the scariest scene in the film.

   Things continue along on a predictable path – they try to isolate the Indominus in the closed-off section of the park, it keeps killing its way to the main area where all the tourists are, the kids sneak into a restricted area for mandatory endangerment reasons, the trained raptors are set loose in an attempt to bring down the Indominus, which fails, and so it goes. If I seem a little flippant about the story of this film, it’s because it seems like the last thing on the filmmakers’ minds was telling an original, creative story that tries to equal the gravity of the original. I get that this is basically a dinosaur movie for little kids, but the Jurassic Park franchise is 20+ years old – if you’re going to reboot something with this much cinematic creditability, you should definitely try to bridge the gap between the old and the new by offering something with a little more substance than the typical monster B-movie.

   The thing about the original Jurassic Park is that it was certainly NOT a B-movie. Sure, it had elements of your average monster movie, what with the giant creatures chasing and eating human characters and all, but Jurassic Park had so much more going on with it intellectually. Steven Spielberg went out of his way to portray the dinosaurs with respect, with specific attention to detail about how these creatures are animals, not big, dumb, lumbering beasts. They weren’t stalking and chasing you because they were evil, they were doing so because that’s just how they are. And what’s more, Jurassic Park actually had meaningful things to say about mankind playing God, and the drastic repercussions of meddling in places you shouldn’t be meddling in. The dialogue-heavy lunch sequence, in which all the main characters discuss the philosophical ramifications of what John Hammond is doing, is so well-written and thought-provoking that I can’t even believe it comes from the same franchise as Jurassic World. With the JP movies, we’ve seen a gradual dumbing-down of the material from movie to movie, going from a mature-yet-accessible discussion about scientific progress and its dangers in the first film, to generic running & screaming action schlock in the fourth one. Jurassic World tries to address these man vs. nature themes, but it’s handled so clumsily and on a pedestrian level that it pales poorly in comparison to the first film, which did it so much better.

JWSuperBowlTrailer-Raptors1

Raptor dance instruction: not as easy as it looks.

   Not only that, but the writing in the film is so stilted and on-the-nose that it’s staggering. Every time a character opened up their mouth to spout some obvious, overwritten dialogue I just wished I could watch the movie on mute and look at the amazing visuals being displayed. When D’Onofrio’s character was trying to convince Chris Pratt’s to weaponize the Velociraptors (a phrase I can’t believe I just typed), he goes on about how he once saved a 2 month-old wolf from dying and formed a bond with it. He talks about how his wife once tried to stab him with a steak knife, and how the wolf took a chunk out of her arm because of their bond. When he said that I was just like…What?! Where did that tidbit come from? How is that relevant? He just drops it like it’s no big deal, and Owen doesn’t even give it a second thought. D’Onofrio goes on and on about how war is a natural part of life, and how it’s part of nature’s pecking order, and yada yada yada so on and so forth. It’s a speech we’ve all heard a thousand times in a thousand different movies. Owen at least has the sense to ask “Do you even hear yourself when you talk,” which is a pretty smart question to ask, but I would have much rather heard him ask, “wait, WHY DID YOUR WIFE TRY TO STAB YOU WITH A STEAK KNIFE?!?!”

   There are other questionable choices made with the writing as well. Once again, the kids in the movie serve no purpose in the story other than to be Kids in Jeopardy, and get saved by Owen time & time again. The older sibling, Zach, is your average angst-ridden and apathetic teen, who’s constantly ogling anything female in front of him (except the dinosaurs, naturally) and the younger sibling has this weird obsession with numbers, for…some…reason. I guess they were trying to give them “quirks”, but literally nothing is done with these traits at any point in the movie. It doesn’t help the plot that Zach is a pervy ogler, and Gray’s number-obsession doesn’t assist them in some abstract, specific way. They’re just…there, and you’d better get used to it. At least in the original Jurassic Park, the kids actually served a functional purpose in the script, and their quirky traits were utilized appropriately. Lex, being a computer nerd (or “hacker”, as she preferred), was able to get all of Jurassic Park’s systems back online at a crucial point towards the end of the film. And Tim, while he was less useful than his sister, supplied dinosaur knowledge here and there and provided some occasional comic relief. You can argue about how unrealistic it is that Lex was able to get an entire theme park’s complex electrical systems back online with a few simple mouse clicks, but my point is, the kids in that movie actually served a PURPOSE – unlike World’s boring, angst-ridden youths.

Jurassic-World-Gyrosphere-Ride-Ty-Simpkins-Nick-Robinson

Wow, those kids sure are BALLS-y! Haha, right?? Eh? Eh? Yeah….I’ll stop now.

   There’s a cringe-inducing scene that really should have been cut in which Zach and Gray, while riding a tram in the park, begin discussing their parents’ presumed “divorce”, with Gray tearily worrying that their parents are going to split and the two brothers are going to be separated. Zach then blows off his little brother’s concerns by basically saying it’s no big deal and that “all of [his] friends’ parents are divorced so it doesn’t really matter.” The thing is, this conversation happens FOR NO REASON and serves 0 purpose in the overall movie. When we saw Zach & Gray’s parents earlier at the start of the film, they seemed perfectly fine! They lovingly wished their kids farewell at the airport, and even shared a few wisecracks with each other. Definitely nothing to make the audience think their marriage was on the rocks. Then, at the end of the film, their parents inexplicably show up AT Jurassic World to retrieve them (even though I’m pretty sure nobody would be ferrying people to the island after such a horrific, death-and-injury-inducing disaster), further solidifying the strength of their marriage and love of their children. The conversation comes completely out of nowhere and serves no overall purpose in the film, other than to shoehorn in some feels for the audience in a really cheap and obvious way.

   In fact, there are several moments in this film’s script in which plot elements are introduced and then never addressed again at any point. The biggest and most glaring one comes after the Indominus has escaped and the security team is dispatched to go find it and bring it down. They’re bumbling around in the woods, cautiously looking around, when they find that the monster tore out its own tracking device. Right after this happens, the foliage begins moving strangely and it’s revealed that it’s actually the Indominus, perfectly cloaked and ready to fuck shit up. As the poor infantry man puts it right before he becomes lunch, “IT CAN CAMOUFLAGE!!!” Ok, great! That’s a really cool trait for a dangerous monster to have, I can’t wait to see how it plays out in the rest of the film! But oh, wait…….they never use the camouflage again. For anything. Ever. It just happens in this one scene and is never featured again. Tell me, what the fuck was the point of introducing something SO COOL and then NEVER using again in the rest of the film?! A killer, intelligent dinosaur that can cloak and set up traps for dumb humans to stumble into? That’s like the perfect scary movie monster right there! But no, they’re just gonna use it for this one scene and that’s it. What’s the point of turning your movie into a schlocky B-movie monster flick if you’re not even going to fully deliver on those promises? Talk about a failure of imagination.

jurassic-world-rex

Spoiler alert: he doesn’t move.

   There were seriously parts of this movie where I felt like I was watching one of those cheesy SyFy Network original movies. The big, climactic dinosaur fight at the end between Indominus and Tyrannosaurus was visually impressive, but ended in such a ridiculous fashion that I couldn’t help but think about Deep Blue Sea, or Sharknado, or any other random B-movie. It was pure exploitation, and nothing more. And hell, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s so far removed from what the original Jurassic Park was that I couldn’t help but feel let down by it. The movie went out of its way to show that the Indominus was evil – the fact it was killing for sport, the way it gets other dinos to turn on the humans – it got to a point where it stopped being a film about real creatures and it became just another monster movie, which is not what the Jurassic Park movies were originally about. I couldn’t help but think what Michael Crichton, author of the original Jurassic Park novel would have thought of this shit. Would he have approved? It’s hard to say, but even if he was still alive, Hollywood would have churned out this flick regardless of what he thought, so it might not even matter at the end of the day.

   I will say this – Jurassic World was VERY much fun to look at. The special effects are dazzling, and the CGI and practical effects are blended so seamlessly you can’t really tell which is which. I gotta hand it to ‘em, they REALLY sold the awesomeness of the park at the beginning of the movie. The realistic attraction design, the displays and interactive activities they had – it was all very effective and enticing. I found myself wishing I could actually go to that theme park, and check out all the attractions there. You can definitely tell they put A LOT of effort into making Jurassic World a visual extravaganza – and shit, who can blame them? It’s a movie about dinosaurs breaking loose and attacking people, you better damn well make sure it looks good! There are some neat dinosaur setpieces, the most notable of which is the sequence in which the Indominus smashes open the Aviary and frees all the flying dinosaurs, who proceed to attack and maul the panicking herds of consumers who only minutes ago were having the time of their lives. I love it! It’s just shame these visuals weren’t featured in a more intelligently written, thought-provoking story, or else the film would have been above and beyond the call.

ZoPAIEC

Real cool genetically modified mutant dinosaur hybrids don’t look at explosions.

   Despite my problems with the writing and the dialogue in the film, the movie was pretty well cast and acted for the most part. It’s a testament to Vincent D’Onofrio’s acting ability that his character didn’t come off as a generic evil caricature when he was delivering his clichéd, militaristic “make everything into a weapon” lines. He actually added a bit of warmth to his character, and even though he was your basic war-mongering antagonist, he never came off as unrealistic or over-the-top – unlike a similar character played by Hugh Jackman in this year’s Chappie, a movie so terrible I’m kind of bummed I didn’t write a review of it back when I saw it. I might get around to it eventually. Anyway, Chris Pratt fared extremely well as our hero Owen. I’ll say right now that I really enjoy Chris Pratt – he’s charismatic and likeable, and a natural fit for a leading man in big summer popcorn flicks like this. He killed in Guardians of the Galaxy, and despite his underwritten character whom we learn very little about in this film, he knocks it out of the park. If he’s careful with his role choices and doesn’t typecast himself as an “action movie hero guy”, he could have a very promising and rewarding career ahead of him. Faring not so well was Bryce Dallas Howard, whose perfomance came off as kind of forced in the movie. She seems a bit too nice to play an uptight killjoy, and she didn’t really bring anything special to her oh-so engaging character. A much colder, rigid actress would have been better for the role.

   By the way, heads up screenwriters – it’s 2015. Rigid, uptight spoilsport women are kind of a passe stereotype in movies now. After seeing the powerhouse writing and characterization of the women in Mad Max: Fury Road (another film this year which I should have reviewed), the portrayal of Claire’s character in this movie is downright archaic. Hell, the original Jurassic Park came out 22 years ago and it had a stronger, more realistic female lead than this turd. Remember Laura Dern as Ellie Sattler? Remember “Dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the earth?” Yeah, compare THAT shit to this stereotype-laden farce. Can we stop portraying women as stuck-up bitches in movies now? And also stop having them fall in love with the loose, laid-back-yet-stern male stereotype? “Oh, it’s soo romantic because they’re soo different from each other!” Blecch. You couldn’t get more basic, stereotypical or clichéd than the “romance” between the two leads in this movie. There’s a very awkward moment in the movie where Claire saves Owen from an attacking pterosaur, and he just promptly grabs her and kisses her – even though there’s been very little setup for their romance before this. Like, yeah, they went on a date once, and there’s some definite sexual tension between them, but are they really at that point where he can just randomly grab her and start making out with her? I mean shit, maybe, this is a B-movie after all.

jurassicworld-production-stills-2

Indominus gets into a heated yawning competition with some flying dinos; most just end up flying into its mouth.

   And in the end, that was my main problem with Jurassic World – it’s a dumbed-down, oversimplified shade of what the original film set out to be. There wasn’t any subtlety, or nuance with this film, just a bunch of blunt action setpieces for what the producers consider to be the dimwitted masses. And look, I know I’ve been really hard on Jurassic World up to this point, but I should clearly state that I was genuinely entertained while watching this movie. Yeah, I knew it was stupid while I was watching it, but it does a pretty good job of pulling you into its world and popping your eyes with some sweet dinosaur action. And on that level, it’s a success – Jurassic World is a really good action movie, and if that’s all you’re looking for, then more power to you, enjoy the film with all your heart. For me, being a lifelong fan of Jurassic Park since I was a little kid, and having seen the original so many times and falling in love with its craft and charm, this movie was a very strong let down for me. It was dumbed down to the point where it was insulting, explaining everything for the audience and not letting us come to any conclusions of our own. I know JP’s sequels got progressively stupider, but the whole point of these reboots is to recapture the magic of what made the first one so great, right? Well…apparently not, I guess.

   Overall, Jurassic World is a harmless film, but it really could have been so much more. It failed to connect with me on a deeper emotional level, and for that I have to fault it, even though I was genuinely entertained by its effects and spectacle. It was predictable and clichéd with blunt, on-the-nose writing and one-dimensional characterization. I really have no desire to watch it again, at least not for a long while. It was well-made enough, but what I was really craving was a genuine story, which makes me feel sort of silly now that I know it was not trying to deliver that in the slightest. Really, this franchise is all about spectacle now, and I’ll just have to accept that from here on out. At least if more sequels come, I’ll have my expectations tempered to match their standards, and it won’t be such a disappointing experience for me. But man, the potential here was certainly wasted. Oh well. I’d like to say I can hold on to a little sliver of hope, and comfort myself with that familiar Ian Malcom adage: “Life will find a way”. Unfortunately, in Jurassic World’s case, it’s not life which finds a way…it’s dollar signs.

REVIEW: PACIFIC RIM

PACIFIC RIM (2013)
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Rob Kazinsky & Ron Perlman
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro
Produced by Thomas Tull, John Jashni, Guillermo del Toro & Mary Parent
Cinematography by Guillermo Navarro
Music by Ramin Djawadi
Edited by Peter Amundson & John Gilroy

pacificrim_main_poster

The Blood-Bot rapidly approaches the unsuspecting Crip-Bot, and the age-old struggle continues to perpetuate itself.

   The big-budget summer blockbuster, as you’re probably well aware, has been a staple of American cinema for decades now. Designed to enthrall the senses of the casual moviegoer during the slow, hot & sticky months of the middle of the year, summer blockbusters as a rule typically feature extravagant amounts of style over any sort of substance. Obviously, the best summer blockbusters are the ones which manage to feature plenty of both – movies like The Matrix, or Jurassic Park, or The Dark Knight for example, offer enough action to wow the escapist thrill-seeker residing in all of us while simultaneously providing enough clever dramatic embellishments to stimulate the muscle up in our head-parts. Nowadays, the average summer blockbuster tips a liiiiittle bit too much in the “more thrills, less brains” side of the scale. Okay let’s be real here, a LOT too much. I mostly blame the Transformers movies for this disturbing trend, although to be completely fair, there’ve always been those summer films which err more to the dumb side – that’s just the way it goes. (Although I could definitely argue that it’s just gotten EXTREMELY out of hand in recent years.) But you gotta admit, older blockbuster films at least tried to tell a cinematically pleasing story, with semi-developed characters and rationally legible plots that focused on wit and charm instead of explosions and…explosions. They were movies which understood that it was important to not only excite the audience with super-cool movie wizardry, but to emotionally connect with us as well; to actually engage the casual movie-goer in the film, and be a part of its world.

   Pacific Rim, the new film from the truly talented and visionary director Guillermo del Toro, is a film which tries to reconnect the audience to the magic and spectacle only the best summer blockbusters can provide. And for the most part, it succeeds – particularly in the spectacle aspect of things. Del Toro specifically aims to recapture the kind of wonder a 10 year-old boy would experience when seeing a movie like Godzilla for the first time, essentially trying to turn everyone in the audience into a kid again. And dammit, I give him mad props for even attempting to create something which could be considered quaint in this modern age of cynical cash-grab cinema. With the love of old school creature features and classic action blockbusters in his heart, del Toro has crafted a film which truly demonstrates how epic summer blockbusters ought to be handled. HOWEVER – despite the truly wonderful and patented visual marvels del Toro cooks up in this flick, Pacific Rim unfortunately weighs a tad too heavy on the “style” side of the scale – leaving little substance to be had for anyone looking for something a bit deeper than the average action battle flick.

3166992-pacific-rim-charlie-hunnam-rinko-kikuchi2

Mako looks nervous to ask, but Raleigh, an experienced Jaeger pilot, already knows the answer: yes, you can in fact go in your suit.

   On one hand, Pacific Rim is a cinema lover’s dream come true. For one thing, it’s actually an original idea, not something adapted from a comic book or TV show or some other kind of pre-established intellectual property – HALLELUJAH!!!! It boasts some of the most incredible visuals you’ve EVER seen, truly stunning battle sequences which excite and dazzle, and much needed moments of levity and heart which modern movies like Man of Steel are sorely lacking. But, on the other hand, it begins to slip into standard boneheaded action movie territory. It features such wonderful tropes as underdeveloped characters, clichéd and stilted dialogue, average performances which border on being too grating to sit through – basically it falters with anything actually involving actual human beings delivering dialogue and trying to emote. This of course is a HUGE detriment to a film which is trying to conjure up some semblance of human community and connection while simultaneously trying to astound our senses. For this reason, I found Pacific Rim to be a little disappointing – especially coming from a director with a track record as estimable as del Toro’s.

   BUT, it’s not all bad! Truthfully, I had a lot of fun watching Pacific Rim. As a summer blockbuster, it is leaps and bounds more accomplished and repeat viewing-worthy than most of the dreck thrown up on theater screens these days. I was looking forward to this film quite a bit, and I’m just a little sad about the fact my expectations were slightly let down – but not so much that I wouldn’t recommend the film to anyone, or give it a terrible review. I guess I just expected more out of the man who gave us a film as nuanced and layered as Pan’s Labyrinth – a truly engaging cinematic dream. Pacific Rim features precisely 0 nuance and subtlety – it’s like being beaten over the head with a schmaltzy brick and being hazily entranced by the pretty stars you see. It’s pretty, but your brain doesn’t get much out of it. But of course, this brings up the argument (one I’m still having with myself, actually) about del Toro’s intentions with this flick – has he purposely created something short on brains and high on action to remind us how pointlessly fun action movies can be? Is this all part of his grand design? I’ll elaborate more on this intriguing notion in a little bit – but first, let’s talk about the story.

PACIFIC RIM

Things got a lot more peaceful when they finally realized the kaiju just wanted someone to help with its really bad toothache.

   Pacific Rim is basically your standard otaku (basically the Japanese synonym for “geek”) film, a movie about giant monsters which utterly decimate large cityscapes, seemingly just for the fun of it. It’s also a mecha film, sporting the biggest and baddest robots this side of Voltron. Del Toro is himself an otaku for these genres of film, and decided to combine the two into the most ass-kickingest sci-fi smash ‘em up in cinema history. SWEET! In the not-so-distant future, an inter-dimensional portal has opened up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, out of which gigantic horrible creatures are ejected that level cities whole and kill tens of thousands of people easily. After being thoroughly ravaged enough times by these beasts, mankind decides to cut the bullshit and put aside their differences to construct a new weapon to wage war with these creatures, very appropriately referred to as kaijus (Japanese for “big ass motherfucking monsters”). These new weapons are equally gigantic robots known as Jaegers (German for “hunter”) which require two human pilots to operate. Apparently, the strain of being mentally linked to a gigantic robot suit is too much for one human to handle, so a duo of mentally-connected humans must share the load to effectively beat monster ass together. This mental connection process is known as “Drifting”. One you’ve Drifted with someone, you essentially know everything there is to know about them – their hopes, dreams, fears, secrets, memories, etc. The Jaeger project begins to turn the tide against the kaiju, and for a while humanity can once again rest easy knowing that we can finally assert ourselves against these inter-dimensional assholes. Over time, however, the kaiju begin to adapt and grow stronger against our defenses, and Jaegers start getting defeated left and right. Cue the entrance of our main character, Raleigh Becket (played by Charlie Hunnam from TV’s Sons of Anarchy), a Jaeger operator alongside his brother Yancy. Together they pilot the Gipsy Danger, a pretty badass looking Jaeger that thwomps with the best of them. However, at the start of the film the Gipsy Danger is overpowered by a wily kaiju and Raleigh’s brother is killed in action. Raleigh manages to survive the encounter but is heavily traumatized by the ordeal (he was still mind-linked to his bro at the moment of his death…not pleasant), so he spends the next 5 years helping construct a “Wall of Hope” being built to keep the kaiju out. Since the Jaegers are no longer as effective at defending humanity as they once were, the powers that be decide to discontinue the program and send the last remaining Jaegers to defend the wall until its completion.

   In charge of the operation is Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba), your standard tough-as-nails, no-nonsense type of commander dude. Pentecost coaxes Raleigh back into service, as one of the last remaining Jaegers is Raleigh’s old mecha Gipsy Danger, completely rebuilt and refurbished since his last time in the cockpit. Joining this ragtag defense group is Mako Mori (played by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi), Pentecost’s second in command, and a quirky and eccentric kaiju-studying scientist named Dr. Newton Geizler (hilariously portrayed by Charlie Day, of TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, oddly enough). Mako wants to co-pilot one of the Jaegers but Pentecost won’t let her, and Geizler wants to try and Drift with a still-active kaiju brain but Pentecost won’t let him. (Pentecost is kind of a dick.) Mako and Raleigh quickly form a bond, and Raleigh pressures Pentecost to let her be his co-pilot. Meanwhile, Raleigh gets bullied by some asshole from another Jaeger crew and Geizler Drifts with a kaiju brain against Pentecost’s wishes. Then, some badass fights happen and the plot continues on in a fairly straightforward manner.

PACIFIC RIM

The kaiju, seeing the Sydney Opera House, finally locates a suitable looking mate while the horrified crowd looks on.

   The #1 problem with Pacific Rim is that the plot basically exists as an excuse to showcase kickass kaiju/Jaeger fights, and nothing else. It chugs along at a nice pace, but there’s this hollow feeling to all the intermediate scenes between battle sequences. You sort of get the feeling that way too much emphasis was put on the battles, and not enough on the rest of the movie. Plus, there are a few glaring logical problems in the flick. Throughout the entire thing, I kept watching robots punching the kaijus to no avail, and I kept thinking to myself Man, why don’t they just give these robots a giant sword or something? A big weapon would deeefinitely help, and then at one critical point in a battle towards the end, they actually activated a sword in the Gipsy Danger and killed the kaiju they were fighting in one blow! I was just like “for real? You couldn’t have just slashed him to pieces with that giant sword 10 minutes ago?” And then after they do that, they continue to use the sword until the end of the movie. What is up with that? Oh and hey, let’s not forget about completely convenient plot developments, either. The relationship between Mako and Raleigh seems almost forced out of necessity to the plot – they meet each other and just happen to be instantaneous Drift mates. Curiously, Raleigh happens to be completely fluent in Japanese seemingly out of nowhere and can understand Mako when she first speaks it to Pentecost. This is a little out of place when you consider earlier in the film, Raleigh stated that he and his brother weren’t really great in school, or anything else for that matter – they’re just really good at fighting, so they were a perfect match for Jaeger piloting. Then suddenly Raleigh just seems to know Japanese for some reason. I dunno about you, but that just seems extraordinarily convenient and out of character to me. And characters suddenly being able to do things they logically shouldn’t is something that really shouldn’t be present in a film of this supposed caliber.

   The #2 problem with Pacific Rim is that all the characters are extremely one-dimensional. Raleigh is a strong-willed hero-type with a troubled past. Pentecost is a stern, hard-nosed leader who is stubborn and authoritative. Mako is a determined and qualified yet underestimated fighter who just wants a shot. Geizler is a weird, eccentric comedy relief character who knows exactly what must be done to defeat the kaiju. I wish I could go into more detail regarding these characters but that’s literally it – there’s nowhere else to develop these characters, no deeper connection to be had. They’re all just cardboard cutouts being wielded around to further along the plot until the action scenes arrive. By far the worst character in the entire film is Raleigh’s half-assed rival – he basically exists because the script needs an asshole dude to create a sense of conflict. In the first scene they meet, this bully (his name is Chuck and he’s played by Robert Kazinsky) basically says to Raleigh “I don’t like you. I think you’re dead weight. Stay out of my way, buddy!” for…no real reason whatsoever. This kind of half-hearted antagonism is supposed to create a sense of tension for our main character, but it’s so obliviously one-dimensional and forced that it almost feels banal. Later in the film, these two characters inevitably gain respect for each other and proceed to work together in the final mission…much to no one’s surprise. I read that del Toro did this to illustrate how even though humans can be fighting, arguing assholes, at the end of the day you might just have to go into battle with the very same asshole you were fighting with, and at that point your petty beef doesn’t have a point anymore. This is a very admirable theme to have and I appreciate him trying to pull it off, but quite frankly it’s so blunt, simple and predictable that it ends up feeling contrived.

la_ca_0621_pacific_rim

Every now and then they like to let the Jaegers go out for a nice, relaxing dip…fully supervised, of course, those things are pretty damn expensive.

   I’m disappointed with Pacific Rim because even though its special effects are wonderful and genuinely engaging, the human aspect of the story is severely lacking – and what’s worse, it’s trying to pass itself off as a human story. The reason this is so troubling is because I just know del Toro is a stronger storyteller than this, and this sort of problem just feels like it shouldn’t be there. I mean, I get the feeling this movie is actively trying to be a stronger, more engaging film than most of its contemporaries, yet it experiences much of the very same problems that plague them. This is sort of why I’m almost willing to give del Toro the benefit of the doubt and say that this one-dimensionality and hokey storytelling is actually what he was going for – like he is trying to sort of capture that cheesy, gung-ho feeling of adventure that a lot of older B-movies tend to have. I mean, let’s face it – this is a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in the face. It’s a movie for 13-year-old boys, and little kids in general. Del Toro has explicitly stated that he wanted to introduce the kaiju/mecha genres to a new generation of children, and based on THAT level alone, Pacific Rim succeeds with flying colors. Despite the lack of enriching, developed characters, the movie is still a hell of a lot of fun to watch. You won’t be able to believe your eyes when you watch the battles in this movie – they look incredible and pump the Action Receptors of your brain up to the maximum! Honestly, in the grand scheme of things, this movie isn’t really about deeper human connections – it’s about punching giant monsters in the face. It’s a silly and overblown premise, and the production values and performances are silly and overblown in return. So I guess under those stipulations, Pacific Rim is absolutely perfect – it hits the mindless action notes perfectly and with extreme style.

   Although, on the other hand, the movie goes out of its way to show these people making intimate connections and working together to overcome a horrifying obstacle. It’s trying to tell a human story. And when you start looking at the movie from the perspective of an adult moviegoer, not a little kid, it starts to fall apart at the seams a little bit. Sure, it’s a movie for little kids, but I mean…I was excited to see it, as I’m sure a lot of self-respecting adult moviegoers were. This movie is blunt, loud, and oversimplified – just like the vast majority of summer blockbusters coming out in 2013. In a way, Pacific Rim is falling right into the same pitfalls as the very blockbusters it’s trying to outdo – and that is a very real and contradictory problem for it. On a spectacle level, it’s unparalleled – but on a basic film level, it’s just not up to par with some of the more nuanced, detail-oriented action movies I’ve seen and loved in the past. This movie didn’t have to be underwritten or simplified – it could have been deep and resonant with rich characters and deeper themes that appeal to a mature audience. Instead, it’s got blunt, stiff dialogue that seems like it was written for people who aren’t able to understand what’s happening easily. It was just really hard for me to identify with the characters in this one – during the climax of the movie, I was honestly a little bit bored because I didn’t really care about any of the people, even though I knew what the stakes were. By that time I was so bogged down by the clichés and hokey writing that I didn’t even care if the humans would win (which I knew would happen, because duh). There’s a scene in this movie where Pentecost delivers a pre-battle speech, and it feels like it was ripped out of Independence Day so bad that after he delivers the highly quotable line “Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse!” I turned to my friend Frances in the theater and whispered, “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!” It was just one of those moments that you’ve seen in countless movies before, and the movie is full of them. Clichés with a side of more clichés, if you will.

3167023-shine

Alright, did somebody set off a Jaeger bomb in here? (I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry I just had to. Oh God please forgive me.)

   Before I close up I just want to state that I didn’t dislike Pacific Rim in any major or debilitating way. In fact, you could say I enjoyed this movie a hell of a lot more than I disliked it – I was just disappointed by several aspects of its overall execution and I wanted to adequately express them with this review. I also loved several aspects of this movie, which I’ll go into now. For one, it somehow manages to be HUGELY entertaining despite its many script flaws. There were a few boring parts, but even during things that didn’t make sense I was still going along for the ride and anticipating where it was going next. Also, despite what I said about the characters, the writing and some of the performances, a few people in this flick shine and are worth mentioning favorably. Idris Elba handles his one-dimensional role quite eloquently, and imbues it with a proper authoritative sheen that is highly believable. He was definitely the right man for the job. Also, I particularly enjoyed Charlie Day’s performance as the eccentric Dr. Geizler – he was actually my favorite character in the whole film. Charlie Day’s just a really funny guy, and seeing him be funny and wild in this serious action flick was a nice break from all the melodrama happening everywhere. I haven’t mentioned him yet, but there was another scientist character played by Burn Gorman who was sort of the serious-toned foil to Day’s character, and the two of them had excellent comedic chemistry together. Out of all the humans in the movie, they were definitely the highlights. Del Toro regular Ron Perlman also makes an appearance as Hannibal Chau, a black marketer who sells kaiju body parts for various practical purposes…like curing erectile dysfunction, for instance. No, really. Perlman stood out as one of the more memorable characters of the film, even though he was handled a little shakily. He was still a lot of fun, though!

  There are a lot of things to appreciate in Pacific Rim. The action sequences are astounding, the tone of the movie is solid and enjoyable, and it’s a lot of fun at times. But at other times it can be a hokey, overly simplified cliché factory that makes it a little difficult to adequately connect with the characters on a true emotional level. It’s not a perfect movie in the slightest, but I will say that it is incredibly imaginative and filmed with 100% honest devotion by its director, Guillermo del Toro. If they work out the kinks in the armor and add a little bit of depth to the story and characters, I’d be very interested in checking out a sequel to this flick in the future. I definitely recommend it to anyone who’s looking to have a fun time at the movies, and also don’t mind a little dumb mixed in with their action. With Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro at least attempts to valiantly remind us of the glory days of the Hollywood blockbuster, and just for that effort alone, I’m willing to give him and his entertaining yet flawed film some much deserved kudos. And shiiiit, at least it plays a hell of a lot better than Man of Steel. Yeeeesh!

Review: RED TAILS

RED TAILS (2012)
Starring Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Daniela Ruah & Bryan Cranston
Directed by Anthony Hemingway
Written by John Ridley & Aaron McGruder
Executive Produced by George Lucas
Produced by Rick McCallum & Charles Floyd Johnson
Cinematography by John Aronson
Music by Terence Blanchard
Edited by Michael O’Halloran & Ben Burtt

Did you guys hear?! They're making a Tuskegee Airmen video game! It's going to be SO awe....oh, wait.

   If there’s one thing that I feel should be eradicated from the face of the planet, it’s racism. Seriously, it’s probably the stupidest notion that mankind has ever conjured, one that gets absolutely nothing accomplished and feeds on people’s fears and lack of knowledge about others. I’m happy that racism seems to be less of a problem today than it was as little as 50 years ago, but it’s definitely still there, and frankly, I feel the people who practice racism today need to get with the fuckin’ program. We don’t need to be afraid of each other anymore! We’re all people! It’s literally mind-boggling to me that anyone would treat someone else cruelly based solely on their skin color. But hey, this is a movie review, not a dissertation on racial ethics. The reason I bring it up at all is because race is topic #1 in Red Tails, the new project straight from George Lucas’s vast and unfathomably bottomless wallet. This film is based on the amazing true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black regiment more officially known as 332nd Fighter Group of the Air Force during WWII, and is the first Lucasfilm production since 1994 that has nothing to do with Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Now I don’t know about you, but I felt much appreciation towards George Lucas for doing something beyond his multi-billion dollar franchises, and finally producing one of those “great film ideas” he’s been touting for so many years. So here we are – a brand new Lucasfilm movie based on the stories of a group of true American heroes, featuring a nearly all black cast and badass recreations of exciting WWII aerial battles. With a setup like that, Red Tails should be, like, the greatest thing EVER, right?! Well….the sad truth of the matter is no, my friends. No, it definitely isn’t.

   Red Tails was, according to the G-man himself, “designed” to look like the aerial battle films of the 40’s. And, given the exorbitant amount of detail put into the CGI dogfights in the film, I could say this “design” worked perfectly. But Red Tails, despite having excellent production value and a promising cast, unfortunately falls short of its seemingly infinite potential. And while the movie is by no means excruciatingly terrible – it provides some great visuals and a couple exciting moments – it just isn’t very good either. It’s kind of just….ehhhhhh. Which is disappointing, because honestly, I would’ve LOVED to give a movie like this a glowing review full of hyperbolic complimentary adjectives, praising it for its character depth, its execution, its style, its themes & message, the works! But each of these things I’ve listed are all where the movie just completely, utterly misses the mark.

Now THAT'S how you hit a mark! You know, these filmmakers could learn a thing or two from their own fake little plane pilots.

   My real, main beef with this film is the performances. I really don’t know what happened, because the cast in this movie is potentially GREAT and chock full of talented actors, but nearly every line in this movie is delivered with a hokey, unnatural undertone that completely takes the viewer out of what’s happening! I knew it wasn’t a very good sign when the very first line of dialogue in the movie actually made me laugh out loud in the theater. The line is delivered in German, actually, by an evil Nazi fighter pilot – I know he’s evil because his over-the-top and deliberately evil delivery of the line was meant to imbue that sense into my brain. While I was laughing I was thinking to myself “seriously….THAT was the take you used? The one that completely sounds equivalent to what a little kid would sound like while pretending to be an evil Nazi in a school playground game?” And not only that, but the dude’s facial expression – it was just soooo overplayed and corny! Like he was so obviously trying to convey that he was AN EVIL NAZI and he was ABOUT TO TAKE OUT THE AMERICANS! And then the American pilots start talking, and they sounded completely unconvincing as well! It’s like everybody in the movie deliberately decided to act terribly, and for all I know, that could have been their decision….but if it was, they didn’t do a very good job of conveying that was their intention. It just sounded like shitty, amateur line reads in a major multi-million dollar studio movie.

   In the very first scene of the film I was already taken out of what was happening because of the wooden performances by these people! Oh, and get this – during this seemingly exciting and intense battle sequence, they decide to let the opening credits roll using a VERY plain font in a very distracting shade of bright red that takes up the entire middle of the screen! So while this “action” sequence plays out – I put “action” in quotations because there isn’t any reason to care about anything that’s happening yet, thus making the “action” boring – there are giant red letters blocking our view of what’s happening! There’s these gloriously rendered CGI airplanes shooting the shit out of each other, and we can’t even kind of enjoy it because there’s giant letters in the way! So even if you wanted to enjoy the battle taking place onscreen, you couldn’t because they shoved the opening credits right in the fucking way! Couldn’t they have devised a less distracting method of rolling the opening credits? This whole opening sequence is, without a doubt, one of the most boneheaded openings for any film I’ve ever seen. I was seriously dreading the rest of the movie after viewing this haphazardly constructed sequence, and it wasn’t even 5 minutes into the film yet!

   Luckily, things started to get slightly better in the very next scene, once we actually meet the Airmen themselves. After the disaster of an opening sequence, we finally meet the main characters of the movie, and it’s refreshing that they actually have some personality and charm. I have to say that, despite my criticism of the acting in this film, the young African-American actors portraying the Airmen do a damn fine job of establishing a sense of camaraderie to the audience. You get the feeling these guys all like each other, and have been through some shit together. This is where I can actually give some credit to the filmmakers – in terms of character relatability, they actually managed to convey something extremely crucial, and that is the true brotherhood of the Tuskegee Airmen. So we start to get to know the pilots as they trade casual insults and witty remarks with each other, and they’re all pretty likeable dudes – the main two we get to know here and throughout the movie are Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), the latter of which blows up a German train by himself by disobeying orders and taking it head-on – effectively establishing his recklessness and penchant for disobedience. Although individually, almost every actor in this movie comes off as a little stale and wooden, as a group these actors shine, and since this is a movie about a group of courageous people, I can’t really knock them for achieving that. I can give ’em a pat on the head for it, at least.

It's a little known fact that the Tuskegee Airmen did, in fact, invent the badass pimp strut.

   Soon we’re treated to a scene that establishes the 332nd’s struggle to be recognized as legitimate fighter pilots in the war – a war room scene in which Col. A.J. Bullard (portrayed by Terrence Howard) takes on the clearly bigoted white warlords (for lack of a better term), the head of which is portrayed by Bryan Cranston. It’s no secret that the 332nd are pretty much regarded as a joke amongst the high brass of the war, who have no intention at all of letting these dudes see any real combat. Bullard is there to push these racist assholes into letting his men fight in a real battle, and he’s got his work cut out for him. The scene is pretty well done, but I want to take a moment to focus on the truly talented Bryan Cranston. For one thing….he’s barely, barely in this movie at all!  Now, this is a small point, since the movie is clearly not about him, but I feel like more could have been done with his character to justify the very fact that an actor of Cranston’s talent is in this movie! For those not in the loop, Bryan Cranston plays Walter White on TV’s absolutely amazing show Breaking Bad, and if you’ve seen even one episode of that magnificent show, then you understand just how great of an actor Cranston is. When I saw him in the trailers I thought he would be a formidable antagonist in this film about race issues during the war. But the dude’s literally got two scenes in the entire thing and they were BOTH in the trailers!!! I’d say his grand total was….about 4 minutes of screentime, give or take? It’s just disappointing, because I was really excited to see Cranston bust out his formidable talents in this movie – but no, he was only there to serve as a small hurdle in Bullard’s fight for equality. I dunno, I just feel like if they were going to give him such a small role, they should have cast a different actor in the part…but like I said, this is absolutely just a personal beef I have with the movie, it doesn’t really effect it as a whole….but man, I was achin’ for more Cranston! And I really think he could have made the movie just a LITTLE better! But anyway, back to bigger things.

   I really have to pick apart the tone of this movie, because frankly, I feel like it’s just completely off. Now, I know the point of this movie (according to George Lucas at least…a “man of his word”, no doubt) was to harken back to the days of simple, jingoistic, flag-waving war films, complete with the corniness and over-sentimentality that notion implies…but I’m not really sure if the story of the Tuskegee Airmen was really the right one for G.L. to do that with. The Airmen faced a LOT of hardships while fighting to attain some respect in the harsh times of the war, and I don’t feel like their story is one that can be dealt with lightly. This movie tries at once to be an examination of race issues that unfortunately plague society and also a big, dumb action flick with badass CGI dogfights. It just…doesn’t…WORK!!! There have been countless films made in the past that deal with the exact same issues this one does in much more profound and meaningful ways…Remember The Titans comes to mind, as does A Soldier’s Story, and Glory. This movie feels like it’s trying oh-so-hard to be in the same league as those movies, but it ends up brushing over the very things that made those movies emotionally notable and thematically strong to get to the mind-numbing dogfights. And while racism is definitely a big issue in the movie – there’s a scene in which Lightning goes to a military bar and is immediately told to leave by the white men in uniform there, and later scenes which show the Airmen slowly gaining respect amongst the ranks for being badass pilots who escort bombing raids to relatively casualty-free success – I just feel like overall, it wasn’t really given the attention that it definitely should have received. This is another reason I felt Bryan Cranston should have been in the movie more – his character would have been the  perfect antagonist for the 332nd! I mean, that’s what I was expecting him to be, at least! He could have been actively trying to sabotage the Airmen or sully their reputation somehow, or SOMEthing! But after the Airmen get their new planes and respect from the higher-ups, he’s just gone – as is any real form of racial bigotry in the upper ranks of the Air Force. To me, this just signifies that the movie didn’t really know what to do with its own themes, and sort of just abandoned them for glorified, CG aerial acrobatics. And while the dogfights are definitely exciting and fun to watch, there just isn’t that much depth to what is happening to make it truly captivating.

Bet you never thought you'd be yawning at something like this, did you?

   Instead of a truly deserving antagonist who could very well screw everything up for the Airmen on the beauracracy side, we’re given some kind of weird, half-assed antagonist in the form of one German dude who is affectionately dubbed “Pretty Boy” by the pilots. This guy REALLY DOESN’T LIKE the Tuskegee Airmen, and for some reason, happens to be on the opposing side every time they have a new mission. I mean, I guess that could be plausible, but it just feels really dumb and coincidental to me. Basically, this dude’s job is to look mean and shoot at the Airmen in an attempt to give us a sufficient “bad guy”, but we literally learn NOTHING about him, other than the fact he’s evil.  He really serves no purpose AT ALL in the movie and even gets shot down midway through. Seriously? This is what we get? You’ve got a kickass actor like Bryan Cranston and you completely waste him so we can see some shitty actor pretend to be all evil? What a gyp, man!

   Anyway, back to other stuff that doesn’t work. I really didn’t like the way this movie looked – everything has this over-lit, glossy feel that really detracts from the gritty reality the Airmen faced. It just feels so fake and sterilized, much like the Star Wars prequels did. While this helps the dogfight scenes have a distinctive look, it makes the rest of the movie seem as artificial as the dogfight scenes themselves. And think about this, kids: there was a time, way back in the day, where people would actually go up into the sky and stage dogfights with REAL planes, and the director and DP would be up there with them trying to capture all the frenetic action. Um, can you imagine anybody NOW doing something crazy like that?! Of course, the answer is NO! Now, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, any actual filmmaking effort can be thrown to the side in favor of convenience. I mean, if they could do it 70 years ago, why can’t they do it NOW? I dunno, this doesn’t really matter in the long run, but my point is you can go ahead and have CGI dogfights in your film, I don’t care, whatever….just please, try to make them feel real, please!

"Nice job, the green screen looks great! How much am I getting paid for this again?"

   There’s a few more things worth mentioning because they definitely drag the movie down too. I almost don’t even want to mention the romance subplot with Lightning and a local Italian woman named Sofia. Never before have I seen a romance subplot so shoddily shoved into a movie. It’s really just there to make you sad when he gets shot down at the end, so I can’t really say it adds much more depth than that to the story. Seriously, it’s not even worth going into elaborate detail for, because I honestly think my brain would explode if I attempted to do it, and it would get boring anyway, so I’ll just spare us both the strain. Just know that it SUUUUCKS. The dogfights are really cool, but even those have this otherworldly, Star Wars-like feel to them, even down to the sound design. Basically, this movie has so much going for it but never really lives up to what it could have been – a really great action flick with a solid social resonance. It simply juggles too many things at once, and what’s more, it heaps on pounds of cliches and features some truly crummy acting from most of the people involved, even the big names like Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr., both Oscar-recognized actors. I would normally mostly blame this on first-time film director Anthony Hemingway, who has made a name for himself directing episodes of TV shows like CSI:NY and The Wire. I’m sure he’s quite talented and can direct well on the little box, but for a big-budget action flick of this magnitude, he probably wasn’t the right choice. But I dunno, in the end I’m really just going to blame George Lucas for it all anyway, because let’s face it, it really just boils down to him in the long run. You can’t tell me that George Lucas didn’t have complete creative control over this movie. It was his money financing it, for God’s sake, you can’t just tell the guy with all the moneys NO!

   Believe it or not, I actually think Red Tails has one or two redeeming qualities about it – it captures the spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen and their camaraderie, and in that regard, it is a success. I’m definitely more aware of these people because of this movie, and even if it was lame, I’m glad I’m more conscious of them and the fact more people will be too. When I went and saw the movie, there were a LOT of people in the theater. Not only that, when it was over, a lot of them applauded it. It did somewhat capture a rousing spirit of adventure through somewhat likeable (if extremely one-dimensional) characters, but I doubt the people who applauded it picked up on the incredibly half-assed manner in which it was executed. But hey, if the people are entertained, what’s the difference in the end? It might just be one of those things that strikes a chord with audiences, even if the thing in question is schlocky as hell and shoddily made. Hell, just look at Troll 2.

No seriously, look at Troll 2. It's excruciatingly hilarious!

   I had really high hopes for Red Tails.  I wanted George Lucas to prove to everyone that he’s really not a soulless, money-grubbing businessman, that he actually has some filmmaking ability left in him and that something bearing his name – aside from the original Star Wars trilogy and first three Indiana Jones films – could be crafted, creatively inspired and genuinely poignant in its actualization. But instead, we get a corny, simplified, just-entertaining-enough-to-get-by action flick that could have been so much more. They’ve made the point of saying it’s like that on purpose and it still isn’t even passable under such stipulation! There’s just so many things wrong with it strictly in a filmmaker’s perspective…things like cliched writing techniques, wooden acting, awkward editing, and trivial and unneccessary subplots that don’t add anything to the story! I really feel that real American legends such as the Tuskegee Airmen deserve a lot better than this. Making a corny, pandering 40’s B-movie throwback in 2012 that simultaneously tries to honor the story of highly respected war heroes completely cheapens and makes light of what said heroes went through…even if your intent wasn’t to do that at all! The movie is just a failure. On many, many levels.

    So I guess in the end, while I managed to find a few redeeming things about Red Tails, it’s generally just another multi-million financial investment from George Lucas, in a grand-scale attempt to add some credibility to his one-trick pony name. Let’s see if it pays off.

Review: SUPER MARIO BROS.

SUPER MARIO BROS. (1993)
Starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper & Samantha Mathis
Directed by Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel
Written by Parker Bennett, Terry Runté & Ed Solomon
Produced by Jake Eberts & Roland Joffé
Cinematography by Dean Semler
Music by Alan Silvestri
Edited by Mark Goldblatt

If this awesome poster doesn't make you want to see this, then brother, I don't know what will.

   It was bound to happen eventually – a big-budget, full-length feature film based on a video game. After decades of adapting from other mediums, it was only a matter of time before somebody in Hollywood decided to make a movie inspired by the interactive worlds that games offered. And in the early 90s, the video game market was still relatively new – still evolving and growing to the level of sophistication (depending on who you ask) that we know and understand today. And at the forefront of the video game revolution was Super Mario Bros. – undoubtedly the most successful video game of all; the game that singlehandedly made Nintendo a household name and saved the video game industry from becoming a forgotten, irrelevant fad during the mid-80s. Mario was the Mickey Mouse for the gaming generation, a veritable icon for the ages and beloved mascot for a titan entertainment company. So it’s really no wonder that Super Mario Bros. became the first ever movie based on a video game – and unwittingly set the unfortunate precedent for almost every video game-to-film adaptation to come.

   Upon its release in 1993, Super Mario Bros. was universally despised by pretty much everyone who saw it. It was loud, strange, tonally inaccurate with the games that inspired it, and generally boneheaded in its execution. The film cost $48,000,000 to make and only recouped $21,000,000 from the box office. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down – an unavoidable kiss of death for movies during the 1990s. Bob Hoskins, who had the distinction of portraying Mario in the film, would go on to say that it was the worst thing he ever did and that he wished he could delete the film from his life – and this is coming from the dude who was in Heart Condition. If there were a picture in the dictionary to go alongside the word “failure”, the poster for Super Mario Bros. would surely do the most justice.

Or maybe this one, actually.

   But, my friends, I have a sort of deep, dark secret I would like to confess to all of you right here and now: I actually kind of enjoy Super Mario Bros. I know, I know, what the hell could possibly be wrong with me?! How can any of you trust my word on films when I actually enjoy a travesty such as this film?! Well to that I can assure you that Super Mario Bros. exists for me purely in the realm of guilty pleasures – something that is so horrendously, appallingly terrible that I just have no choice but to love it for being so bad. I first took a shine to the movie as a young lad, when I rented it from Zip’s Video without any knowledge of its abysmal performance at the box office or any care what critics thought of it – I was just a little kid who loved the Mario video games, so a live action movie was pretty much the coolest idea ever! I really liked the movie as a little kid, so maybe that effects my judgement of it as an older, semi-wiser adult. But, to reiterate, I definitely do understand that the movie is bad. And to be fair, Super Mario Bros. isn’t bad in the way that a movie like, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is bad. Super Mario Bros. actually has several redeeming qualities about it that save it from the realm of evil, offensive, mind-destroying crappiness that so many other movies fall into. What could those qualities possibly be? Read on, my friends, read on!

   For one thing, Super Mario Bros. actually tries to take itself seriously – which can either be construed as a bad thing or a noble thing, depending on your view. There is a sort of devotion to the reality the film is trying to present, even if it is a silly and over-the-top one. You get the feeling that the characters in the movie actually believe they’re participating in the ridiculousness being put upon them, and because of this, it’s actually possible to be drawn into the world of the movie, rather than being alienated from it and detached while things are going on. I guess what I’m trying to say is, while the tone of the film is COMPLETELY different than the tone of the games, it establishes itself for what it is and remains consistent throughout its running time. This is something which cannot be said for a LOT of movies considered to be in the same vein as Super Mario Bros., so I give the movie some credit for actually staying faithful to its own grand design…unfortunately, it’s just a very misguided one.

   Anybody who’s ever played a Mario game knows what the deal is: Princess Toadstool (later renamed Peach) gets kidnapped by Bowser, a big, menacing, fire-breathing, evil & spiky-shelled turtle, and it’s up to Mario (and sometimes his brother Luigi) to go on a magnificent quest through bright, colorful worlds to rescue her – all while defeating troublesome enemies along the way. There’s not really much else to the early Mario games – they’re lighthearted platform adventure games with catchy music with a VERY thin plot to give you an excuse to bop digital bad guys on the head. I’m sure when people went to go see the movie back in 1993, they were expecting something similar to this, since – you know, it was based on the game n’ shit. But instead of seeing this bright, colorful world filled with smiley happy characters, they got a grungy, dilapitated hellhole populated by unfriendly and ugly dinosaur people and controlled by Dennis Hopper. The plot is, Mario and Luigi are plumbers from Brooklyn, and get sucked into an alternate dimension where dinosaurs have evolved into intelligent beings (who happen to look exactly like humans), and are now actively being pursued by King Koopa (NOT Bowser) for harboring a piece of meteorite which belonged to Princess Daisy (NOT Toadstool) that can be used to merge the dino-dimension and the human dimension into one. If you’re saying “What the fuck?” to yourself after reading that sentence, trust me….you are NOT alone. The makers of the film, in a vain attempt to modernize and ground the film in some kind of reality, completely morphed the concept of Mario into some kind of sci-fi/action/comedy spectacle flick….and the effect is, needless to say, quite confusing.

Seriously, how do you go from THIS........

..........to THIS?!

   Gone were the bright green pipes which housed chomping Pirahna Plants. Gone were the mushrooms which made Mario grow larger and stomp enemies. Gone were the green-shelled turtles and mushroom-shaped Goombas which populated Mario’s world. Gone was anything that even remotely tied in to the Super Mario Bros. franchise visually, save for the appearance of Mario & Luigi themselves and one sole Bob-Omb. It was all replaced by lavish, S&M-inspired hysteria and dystopian grunge with only mild references to the actual games themselves (a nightclub called “Thwomp” and another called “Bullet Bill’s”, for example) in a sort of send-up of 90’s New York culture. I think this is primarily why so many people rejected Super Mario Bros. upon its release: it was just way, WAY too different from what they knew and loved from the video games. Not only that, but it was a lot more violent and harsh than the games, which exemplified kid-friendly cuteness in almost every way. I’m positive there were MANY parents out there who stormed out of the theater with their children once they laid eyes on the dark, dystopian society the loveable Mario & Luigi found themselves trapped in and the surreal, violent antics which occurred there. You go from such simple themes as adventuring and saving a princess to fascist rule by an oppressive dictator, childhood abandonment, the concept of evolution AND de-evolution, and inter-dimensional domination, to name a few.

   So what hell happened here? Well, I think that when time came to develop the Mario license into a live-action movie, there were several problems that instantly came into play:

1. There’s no plot.
2. Nothing in Mario’s world tangibly exists in reality.
3. Faithfully recreating the exact style of the games would cost a shit-ton of money.
4. The only people who played video games were little kids….and maybe weird adults.
5. Nobody had ever made a video game into a movie before.

   I think this last one was the most troubling for the creators of this film, since they had absolutely nothing to go off of – they were essentially creating a brand new genre of films. Now personally, I think that notion would be incredibly exciting and open up a nearly endless well of creativity, and maybe it did for the movie’s producers – but they didn’t necessarily use that creativity in a very productive way. I still believe it is VERY possible to make a good, solid Mario movie using the actual style and characters from the universe of the games, but apparently at the time the filmmakers thought they needed something a bit more substantial to make a live action movie with. The result, unfortunately, was something wholly unworthy of being considered anywhere near the quality of the games which inspired it.

   But, if you recall, I did say that I actually enjoy Super Mario Bros., and I really, truly do. I completely understand that it is is a terrible movie, with a hopelessly inept script and somewhat hammy acting from all parties involved, but for some reason, I can’t bring myself to completely write it off as another failure from the bowels of Hollywood. There’s a sort of quirky charm to the movie, a kind of lightheartedness that endears itself to me. The movie begins with what could possibly be the worst animation ever committed to celluloid – I don’t know if they were trying to emulate the 8-bit look of NES games, but the poorly-drawn, barely lip-synced dinosaurs in the intro look laughably terrible. Then a cheesy-sounding narrator with a bad New York accent begins to awkwardly expose the plot before the opening credits even begin, effectively showing that these filmmakers have absolutely no idea how to begin their own movie. Seriously, they could have done away with this entire opening segment and the movie probably would have made at least 10,000 more dollars…but this is just speculation. Anyway, the movie really begins with a mother leaving her baby (a giant, unhatched egg) on the front stoop of a nunnery in the middle of the rain, along with a mysterious piece of blue rock. Then, when she goes back underground to go into her dimension, Dennis Hopper comes out of the shadows and grabs her by the shoulders….which makes the whole cave shake for some reason, and the mother screams while the rocks presumably bury her alive. We don’t know for sure because it cuts away instantly to present-day Brooklyn, where we meet Mario and Luigi, two plumbers who are dangerously low on funds. We follow them around and get to know their personalities, and they eventually run into Daisy, whom Luigi falls for and which gets out plot going. I’ll stop summarizing here because I think you get the idea – this movie is pretty damn ridiculous.

Koopa wants to hit it too.

   Despite the shortcomings of the heavily flawed script,  it does actually make sense in its own way – I know what motivates each character, I know what the stakes are and what happens if Mario and company fail, and because of that, I can actually squeeze a small amount of dramatic tension from the story. The characters have a sort of goofy charm about them, and the actors try their best to breathe a little life into them. It’s not Shakespeare, but c’mon, it’s a stupid movie based on a video game! And hey, the production value on the film is GREAT! It really is a fun film to look at, even though what’s transpiring onscreen is enough to make you question what the hell the directors were thinking. The set designs are creative and elaborate, the makeup effects are pretty damn dazzling, and the creature effects are very impressive. It’s very clear that a lot of money went into this production, and they actually used it to create a believably hostile environment filled with strange and perplexing characters. This is all part of what makes movies fun to watch – complete immersion into a make believe world.

   Although, for this feat, I should really give credit to production designer David L. Snyder – the same man who designed the sets for Blade Runner. He’s pretty much the reason why the movie looks cool, because the film’s directors – the husband and wife team of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel – probably didn’t have much to do with that. Stories of the duo’s inability to control what was happening on their set are now infamous, but needless to say just from watching the movie, these two people were in way over their heads. It’s really mind-boggling to me that the movie’s producers (including Roland Joffé, the director behind the critically lauded filmed The Killing Fields….WTF?!) didn’t try to find someone with a bit of a track record for big-budget adventure flicks….the only movie these two yahoos had directed was a little noir film called D.O.A. (1988) which was critically accepted but bombed at the box office. Their biggest success was creating the popular 80s commercial character Max Headroom. Other than that, Rocky and Anna were pretty much hacks whose “arrogance had been mistaken for talent”, according to Bob Hoskins. Inexplicably these two people were put in charge of a big-budget video game adaptation and this was the result. Not to mention the screenplay had been rewritten several times by several different writers and wasn’t even completely finished by the time production began…in essence, making Super Mario Bros. was almost more unbearable than the movie itself. It’s really a shame, because the potential for something great was squandered by people who thought they knew what they were doing.

When we said we wanted to "gross millions" this isn't exactly what we meant.

   Super Mario Bros. exists as one of those rare movies where everything goes completely wrong but is, for some reason, still somewhat entertaining. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo actually have pretty good chemistry and are pretty believable as Mario and Luigi, and Samantha Mathis, who plays Princess Daisy, tries her damned hardest to be a convincing emotional center for this movie and somehow manages to succeed at doing so. Dennis Hopper gets to have the most fun by being a completely over-the-top asshole, and I’m pretty sure he just agreed to appear in the film to score drug money – but his performance is memorable nonetheless and one of the saving graces of the film. And for all the silly antics and ridiculous occurrences that happen, the movie is actually smart enough to give Mario and Luigi character arcs – Mario is portrayed as a sort of average Joe everyman, someone who doesn’t believe in supernatural phenomenae or wild stories until he finds himself in the middle of one, while Luigi is portrayed as a goofy younger guy who has trouble talking to girls, until he falls for Daisy and eventually gains confidence…ok, I might be reaching with that one, but it’s still a small semblance of an arc nonetheless. My point is, things actually happen in this movie, and the characters have things to do and are developed semi-well. It’s not complete garbage, as most people who see this movie would have you believe. It’s harmless popcorn entertainment, just smart enough to provide some inspired moments but ultimately an unfocused, flawed production. I’d only recommend it to those who like to sit around with friends and watch subpar movies for fun, but other than that, I can’t really recommend it in any serious fashion – even though I personally like the film for what it is. What could have been at least marginally great is now instead one of the biggest blunders in recent cinematic history, and it set the stage for even more atrocious video-game-to-film adaptations that are still being made to this day. I guess there’s something about the interactive experience games provide that gets lost in translation to movies – or maybe the people who make video game movies think that the movies themselves have to be like actual video games, instead of actual movies. Whatever the reason is, it’s definitely been one of the worst genres to exist in film history – and it all stems back to Super Mario Bros.

   Oh, I almost forgot to mention the best part: the movie ends with Daisy running back to our dimension to fetch the Mario Bros. for another adventure, ostensibly setting up a sequel which would never, EVER come. Such high hopes, yet nothing to show for it…in a tragic way, it pretty much sums up the entire movie.

Review: THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011)
Starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg & Nick Frost
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Stefen Moffat, Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish
Produced by Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg & Kathleen Kennedy
Cinematography by Janusz Kamiński
Music by John Williams
Edited by Michal Kahn

Yeah...Tintin's a pimp like that.

   So, it’s finally arrived. The one, sole film I was eagerly anticipating for alllll of 2011. And now that The Adventures of Tintin, the 30-years-in-the-making dream project of uber-director Steven Spielberg and big-budget adaptation of Belgian comic book artist Hergé’s brilliant masterwork has finally seen the light of day, there’s only one real question left: was it worth the wait?

   The answer, my friends, is an exhilarating & doubt-relieving “YES!”

   Spielberg completely knocks The Adventures of Tintin out of the park. It’s a nearly pitch-perfect tonal appropriation of the legendary and still-popular series of Tintin comics, the first of which was published in France in 1930. Spielberg, co-producer Peter Jackson and their army of technological wizards at WETA (the special effects company behind the Lord of The Rings trilogy….need I say more?) have turned the beautifully simple yet stunning 2-D line drawings of Hergé into fully three-dimensional animated lifeforms through the still-evolving artform of motion capture filmmaking, and the resulting visual effect is sincerely mind-blowing. Spielberg and his team have not only made one of the most exciting and cinematically pleasing films of 2011 and adventure films in general, they’ve also made the absolute best motion-capture animated film thus far. It’s still a relatively new technology, and only a few such films have been released, but this movie easily sets the bar of quality at a very high level for any more to follow.

Ah yes, good shit, let me peep this further.

   Before I continue, a little history lesson – because I’m almost certain that the average American citizen out there has little to no idea as to who or what the hell Tintin even is! Steven Spielberg wasn’t a fan of Tintin until 1981, when a French review of his new film Raiders of the Lost Ark compared the thrilling adventure flick to a series of comic books known as The Adventures of Tintin. Curious, Spielberg looked up the classic books and instantly fell in love with the tales of Tintin, an upbeat young reporter with a flair for mystery-solving and adventuring, as well as the other characters that populated his world. And get this: Before his death in 1983, Hergé himself declared Steven Spielberg to be the only one capable of appropriately adapting Tintin to the big screen – and with an endorsement like that it’s safe to assume some kind of creative energy was going to go along with these proceedings. Once he managed to get the film rights in his pocket shortly after Hergé’s death, Spielberg set about a 30-year quest to bring Tintin to life on the big screen – a quest which has finally come to fruition with The Adventures of Tintin.

   I’m quite happy to say that Tintin factors quite heavily into my life as well. I was about 11 years old when I first came upon the comic books. They were available to check out from the library at Brichta, the fondly-remembered elementary school I attended at the time. As soon as I completed my first book I was hooked, ever-fervently returning to the library as often as possible to try and get my hands on a new Tintin adventure. Herge is easily one of the best storytelling talents of the last century: his stories were intricately plotted out and unfurled with a captivating pace, his drawings were detailed yet stylistically cartoony enough to please the eye, and his characters were so richly defined and developed. Tintin’s travels took him all over the world, allowing him to explore all sorts of places a young lad like myself would only dream of seeing, and what’s more, he had an always-questioning nature and a devotion to figuring out what was really going in his surroundings – something I identified with heavily then and now.

This is the stuff dreams are made of, kids.

   So when news came that two excellent filmmakers – Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson – were collaborating to create a trilogy (that’s right! There’s gonna be 2 more! Oh joy!) based on the Tintin books, I nearly leapt in the air and shouted “yippee!!!” but then didn’t because such a thing would be considered silly. And just my (and everyone else’s) luck, the two die-hard Tintin fans – Jackson being of the lifelong type – have created a film with so much love for the source material that it shines brightly as a triumph in visual medium adaptation. Tintin pretty much gets everything perfectly right – the tone, the character’s personalities, and most importantly, the sense of pure, unapologetic adventure. You feel the rush of the film as you’re watching it, and get swept up in its grandiosity. It’s really an experience like no other.

   One thing that really needs to be pointed out is the way this film is shot. It literally feels like it was filmed in a cartoony reality, a place that exists on planet Earth where these cartoon people exist and go about their lives – such is the realism of the camerawork done by the extremely talented Janusz Kamiński, Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer since they worked together on Schindler’s List in 1993…and if you’ve seen that movie, you know why Spielberg’s doesn’t let this guy out of his sight. The film looks like it was shot in a physically tangible realistic environment, but was in fact completely created in a digital world. The technological wizards I mentioned earlier created the digital environment, giving Spielberg the ability to literally control the camera with his thumbs via a small, Game Boy-like monitor. And what’s great about this is that because of this new technology, Spielberg can get shots that he could only dream of before – shots that would be utterly IMPOSSIBLE to achieve through conventional camerawork. Shots such as having the camera point directly into a mirror, shots where the camera hovers above a speeding car, or shots like the genuinely epic and complex chase sequence through a Moroccan port town that weaves in and out of buildings while all sorts of chaos happens at once – seriously, one of the best sequences in the entire film. And it all happens in one shot!

"I say, ol' chap, this appears to be quite a bitchin' interactive whatsit!"

   Because of this blend of realistic and extravagant camera styles, the hyper-real looking animated characters look even better. The producers did a brilliant thing by making the characters look, as Peter Jackson says, “exactly like real people – but real Hergé people!” The characters’ designs are stylized to be what a person would look like if Hergé was the one makin’ the humans. The effect is pretty breathtaking, even if the character designs seem kind of awkward-looking at times. One of the biggest concerns about motion capture animated films is that the human characters portrayed in them often come off as more creepy than realistic – as human beings we can sense when something else is human or not, and seeing something fake and digital trying to closely mimic a human is a little strange for the mind to experience. This is a big reason why films like The Polar Express and Beowulf didn’t really resonate with a lot of audiences – it’s hard to make your digital characters emulate all the specific and intricate details that make us human. The Adventures of Tintin sort of falls prey to this problem at some points – mainly in scenes with a wide variety of people – but I can happily say that for the most part, Spielberg has attached a sense of human relatability to his digital characters. Facial expressions are KEY in this, and Tintin’s characters have a wide variety of authentic-looking expressions and emotive qualities. There were a few moments where I could actually see Daniel Craig performing underneath the digital puppet that was his character Ivan Sakharine, the antagonist of the film – the way his eyes moved, his movements. I definitely got the impression that a real, live human being was underneath all that digital makeup.

   Which brings me to the most crucial aspect of this film – the performances. All the technical wonders would be for naught if the actors portraying the characters didn’t convey the vibrant personalities of Hergé’s creations, and thankfully, everyone nails it right on the head. Jamie Bell is impressive as Tintin, perfectly capturing his youthful eagerness for adventure and positive, intelligent outlook on all situations. Andy Serkis, the motion capture titan who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, has the honor of being the most memorable character in the film: the hilariously drunken Captain Haddock. As a fan of the original comics, I can say that Serkis perfectly gets everything about Haddock right, and it is wonderful. Comedic dynamos Simon Pegg and Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead fame portray the bumbling Thomson and Thompson, two identical detectives who are high in the running for the title of Dumbest Duo in Creation.  Everybody does their respective character justice, and as a fan of the books, it’s a truly delightful thing to see!

"Aw dude, what hell happened last night? Look at the plane, man! Aw, my dad's gonna kill me!"

   The attention to detail and deft direction by Spielberg show that he has a love and deeper understanding of what exactly makes Tintin work. He’s made a live-action animated film, one that seems like it jumped off the comic book page and implanted itself into the movie genome. The unfortunate downside to all this is, while the movie is definitely good, I’m worried of it finding an audience in America. The movie has already been out for 2 months overseas, where it is being very well-received as the Tintin series is very popular in other parts of the world. But while still being relatively well-known here, American audiences might not be the type to flock out in droves to see this very different looking movie based on a Belgian comic book. The film and comic book series are generally for younger audiences – this being the first PG-rated film Spielberg has made since 1991’s Hook.  The film carries over the abundant slapstick humor present in Hergé’s comics, and while it was a treat for a fan of the series like myself to see, I kept wondering if somebody who wasn’t already affiliated with Tintin and was just seeing these characters for the first time would even know what the hell they were watching. It’s not the typical modern American film, which is one of the most complimentary things I can say about the movie, but also something which might hurt its chances here. There weren’t that many people in the audience with me when I saw it – I’d say around 10 to 14, including myself. It’s not bad, but not nearly the amount of attention I feel Tintin deserves. Time will only tell if the movie resonates with audiences – but, I do feel that the sheer power of Hergé’s characters and story plus Spielberg’s strong directive vision will be enough for audiences to identify with and appreciate.

   So bottom line? Tintin is WELL worth your time and money. I HIGHLY recommend it for anyone who is a fan of fun, mind-blowing cinema and thrilling adventure stories. We’re in the hands of Hergé, Steven fuckin’ Spielberg, and Peter fuckin’ Jackson here! There’s really no way this movie could be bad! It’s a film that was brilliantly handled by above-average filmmakers who not only blew every other motion capture film out of the water, but perfectly translated a timeless and precious universe of richly defined characters onto film in the process! And what’s more, the movie is just fun to look at, even if there weren’t incredible performances and involved storytelling going on at the same time (which, thankfully, there are). The Adventures of Tintin is an expertly crafted film-going experience, and it did the awesome task of living up to my VERY high expectations. For that alone it is my favorite film that’s been released in 2011, and probably one my favorite Spielberg films overall.

   Now it’s time to see him bait the Oscars with War Horse. Two huge movies coming out in one month? And in this year in cinema? No one else should even bother coming to the Academy Awards next year.

Review: SUPER 8

SUPER 8 (2011)
Written & Directed by JJ Abrams
Produced by JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg & Bryan Burk
Cinematography by Larry Fong
Music by Michael Giacchino
Edited by Maryann Brandon & Mary Jo Markey

I didn't know they remade Star Wars with little kids!

   For my very first review on this site, I have chosen a very recent film directed by the quite talented JJ Abrams. It’s actually the review which sort of inspired this entire website, so I think it’s a fitting place to begin for a variety of reasons. Primarily, Super 8 is a movie which exemplifies everything that is wholly thrilling about the art of cinema and also inadvertently displays several things that are wrong with it. In essence, Super 8 is a confounded labor of unabashed love – it’s completely adherent to a style of filmmaking and thoroughly well-composed, but is overall crippled by its own reverence. For what it’s worth, I think JJ Abrams’ intent with the way this film ends is in the purest of best intentions – but he unwittingly betrays the very conceit his film is based around, and it’s slightly disappointing to watch.

   Before I go any further I just want to state for the record that I actually really enjoy this movie for the most part – I think it’s exceptionally well made, the child actors are all talented and have great chemistry together, it has great special effects, and it successfully evokes that sort of 80’s movie feel of ordinary people taking part in something extraordinary. It’s also very funny; I found myself laughing quite a bit, even during some of the more intense action scenes – Abrams’ characters are just that good. But after I saw it for the first time, I left the theater with a sort of conflicted feeling….something that was poking at my inner film critic incessantly. I wasn’t really sure why, but now I’ve put my finger on it and can accurately put it into words.

   Now before elaborating on all of that, I’m going to elaborate a bit on JJ Abrams first, because I think it applies to how his art can be understood. JJ Abrams is a wunderkind. The dude straight up knows, understands, and respects the art of storytelling through motion pictures. His passion and devotion to cinema is truly a humbling thing to see, and it shines apparent through everything he touches. He’s very well known for being the brainchild behind many hit shows on television – including Lost, which admittedly, is one of my absolute favorite shows of all time. He directed the pilot episode of that show, and let me tell you, I would be very comfortable with saying that it is one of the best first episodes of any television series in history. (The last episode, however, is another debate entirely, harharhar….) One thing that stands out about Abrams’ style is that he is VERY good at making things intense. The guy can wring excitement out of actors standing in place and pretending to run while he jiggles the camera around – it sounds silly but the guy can make it work! He’s an artist who finds the means to get the fucking shot he needs, when he needs it, and he does it like a boss. He is truly a director born, filled to the brim with creative ideas and the pathos to execute them.

   So now that I’m done kissing his ass, I’m going to emphasize his knack for making things INTENSE!!! Abrams has clearly seen a jillion movies with characters and situations that command focused attention; he’s learned how to build character enough to make you care about if they’re in danger or not and he knows how to manipulate this to his advantage. The way his action scenes are shot and edited are key in this, and what’s better is he uses the story to add emotional heft to what’s happening in them. I’m going to use a positively fascinating scene from Super 8 as an example – the train crash sequence.

Yeah....you're probably gonna want to run now.

   This is my favorite scene in the entire film, and it leaves me jaw-dropped and speechless every time I watch it. I’m almost certain that no other train crash in the history of cinema has been as intense as this one. In the movie, the main cast – a group of young friends who we’ve spent some time getting to know – have arrived at a lonely train station in both the middle of nowhere and the night to shoot their zombie flick on a Super 8 film camera. *Note to all – this is where the title of the film comes from. Ya get it?* While shooting a crucial scene with a train rolling by (for “production value” the lad director specifies), the hero of our film – a boy named Joe (Joel Courtney) – notices a truck turning onto the tracks and driving straight towards the oncoming train. Train and truck collide, and the train starts to de-rail violently – right next to these kids. Scared beyond all recognition, the kids run for dear life while the train literally rains from the sky all around them. If you haven’t seen this train crash, you’re just going to have to take my word on it – it is scary. The raging speed and deadly velocity with which the impacts of the derailing train are imbued with are truly a sight to behold; it’s really quite frightening. And what’s more, these kids who we’ve come to know and (hopefully) like are caught RIGHT in the middle of it!!! RUN, GODDAMMIT!

   The train wrecks in such a violent fashion you kind of roll your eyes a bit when absolutely nobody dies in the scene – not even the dude who ran his friggin’ truck into the train in the first place. And I’m NOT saying that somebody NEEDS to die, like movies are better when characters are getting mowed down left and right – but c’mon, if there was a group of REAL people caught up in a swirling mass of metallic carnage and mayhem like the one we just witnessed, I’m pretty sure SOMEBODY would perish, or at least be mortally injured – but this is getting beside the point!!!

   The point is, in this scene Abrams raises the stakes for his characters by putting them in a death-defying situation that not only sparks the plot of the flick, but also sets the precedent for what is going to follow. The reason this train crashes is so the creature can escape and get the story moving – and if you’re going to crash the vessel which carries your main plot point/focus of the film in such an intense and violent manner, it sort of hints that the creature in question will itself be intense and violent. And it is!…..for a while. What I’m saying is, if you’re going to introduce something so pants-wettingly intense into a film, it would only be wise to continue with that same tone of intensity whenever the creature is around, so the rest of the movie doesn’t pale in comparison to that one scene. And Abrams, for a majority of the movie, does an excellent job of this. Whenever the creature attacks, we only get fleeting glimpses of it, and we are given a sense of its power and attitude towards human beings through its destructive actions.

   Weird things also start happening around town after the train crash: dogs start evacuating town in large numbers, the engines are torn from all of the cars at the local dealership, microwaves and other electronic devices are starting to go missing – and people are as well. To us, this is clearly the work of the monster, doing whatever its pissed off alien creature heart is intent on doing. As the plot chuffs along, things continue to get complicated for the characters, situations occur, and things start to come to a head when the town is evacuated and the military rolls in to go to war with this extraterrestrial nuisance. While all of this is happening, the kids uncover information about the monster and its plight: it’s bein’ held prisoner by the government and just wants to go home goddammit! During this information download, we are told by a very reliable source (the former government scientist turned high school teacher/dude who ran his truck into the train and started this whole crazy mess) that the monster has come to despise all humans and has developed a pretty surly attitude. And this holds true, because we’ve seen the creature murk any and all humans he comes into contact with thus far. But there’s a crucial moment near the film’s end that drives a hard, rusty nail into its own heart – and there’s no coming back for the poor little monster flick.

I swear, this image is a lot less hilarious when viewed in context.

   So Joe and his buddy Cary (Ryan Lee) are traversing through the beast’s underground lair, where Joe’s kidnapped crush Alice (Elle Fanning) is being stored as an afternoon snack alongside a bunch of other townsfolk who have disappeared. When Joe and Cary get there they see the alien with a leg literally dangling out of its mouth – this alien digs on human flesh. After creating a distraction, Joe saves Alice and some of the other adult humans and make an escape, but the monster finds them and picks off the two adults in a manner most becoming a pissed off subterranean alien (and he’s homesick too….you think Radiohead has a right to be miffed here?)

   The film begins its unfortunate decline from a glorious sprint to a saddening limp when the creature backs the kids into a corner menacingly. It is at this moment in the movie where things begin to make an almost preposterous turn for the warmhearted. Joe, understanding the alien creature towering before him, bravely steps forward and imparts upon it the knowledge that not everyone is horrible. The monster picks Joe up and examines him carefully, presumably making a psychic connection with the boy, as we’ve been given such information numerous times at this point. It’s at this point the monster sees the overwhelming goodness in Joe and – in a moment of “humanity” – the monster’s eyes change to that of a happy puppy (seriously…it’s almost enough to elicit “awws”) and he lets Joe and his friends leave with their lives. The kids are then reunited with their parents, all is well with the world, and the alien rebuilds its ship and takes off into the night sky while everyone watches solemnly.  Sounds pretty happy and cathartic, right?

   Well, it is. But see, the thing is – up until that point, the movie was NOT that type of movie. That monster had every inclination in the world to rip those kids limb from limb (like he had done to pretty much every other human he came in contact with) but through the power of childhood innocence he changes his mind and leaves without harming a hair on their heads. I think I’m sounding a little more critical than I intend to, but this is basically what happens at the end of Super 8.

   Now, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing ever. I GET that Abrams is saying that the power of good and understanding is a universal thing, and even the most savage of beasts can be calmed if only they get a little empathy from somebody. I GET that it’s all well and good that the kids are reunited with their fathers, who have come to their own moral victories. These are all strong thematic choices that are perfectly capable of resonating effectively with an audience – but one thing I ALSO get is that a movie shouldn’t compromise its own stylistic integrity to satisfy the sappy resolution the filmmakers think the audience needs – that is just bad storytelling, and worst of all, it’s insulting to the audience.

   Super 8 seems to operate on this principle that if you conjure up images of catastrophic calamity and danger and then wrap it up at the end with a safe, risk-free bow, it’ll all work out to cinema gold. But even though Abrams’ intentions are good, his film doesn’t seem to realize that it’s pandering to its audience by doing so. The fact is, he expects us to do away with all of the information we’ve been told about this creature and its behavior and accept its newly found heart of gold. It doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, merely because the script wants to get to its sugary, please-everyone conclusion. It’s almost like Abrams created this powerful, angry, truly terrifying movie monster to raise all hell but then put a leash on it, domesticating it so he can impress the guests coming over for dinner. The doe-eye scene that Abrams gives the monster makes it look downright cute – and that is NOT something you want your big, scary movie monster to be!

The Super 8 monster, seconds from unleashing its unspeakable terror

   So what am I saying, exactly? That JJ Abrams should have had the kids who we’ve come to know and root for torn to shreds and ended the movie that way? Well, yes and no, actually – I believe if you’re going to create that kind of situation, then the characters need to be true to themselves and react accordingly. Quite frankly, I feel that the monster would have torn the flesh off those poor little kids and gone about his merry way – that’s just the kind of intensity I picked up from this savage creature. But, the characters didn’t necessarily have to BE in that particular scenario – I feel that there might have been a more effective way of getting these characters to confront that stayed true to the nature of the monster and also provided the kind of wonderful closure Abrams was striving for. What could that scenario have been? I dunno, maybe there could have been a dramatic standoff with the military where the kids come between the war of the worlds and convince the trigger-happy Americans that this alien came in peace and just wants to leave in the same vein! It’s just as believable as Joe reaching into the monster’s heart and convincing it to spare him. The fact is, there’s a gaping logical flaw in the movie’s climax solely to get to the happy ending Abrams wanted, and it sacrifices all the artistic choices he made in the first 90 minutes of the flick to do it.

   My main beef with this turn of events in the film is I know Abrams is a smarter filmmaker than this. I know that he’s a dude who likes to push boundaries, and I know he’s the kind of dude who likes a good, thrilling story – his work on television and as director of Mission Impossible III and the new Star Trek is evidence enough of this. So why does the immeasurably strong and volatile creature that kills humans on sight have a completely inexplicable change of heart when it comes to gobbling children at the end of Super 8? Because I think JJ wanted to remind us that – hey, monsters are people too, and in movies, children never get hurt! It’s just been predetermined that we (the audience) would choke the ending down better that way, even if it’s completely contradictory to everything that came before it. And again, I’m NOT saying that the kids HAD to be killed in that scene, or that the movie would have been BETTER if they did – I’m just saying that if you’re even going to put your characters in that situation, don’t have one of them (the monster) act completely against its own motivation just to satisfy our “need” to see the children go unharmed.

   I’ve been singling out Abrams for the way this all turned out…and in being the director I do think he fields most of the blame…but I think it might be a little more fitting to lump producer Steven Spielberg into this paradigm as well. Spielberg is well known for having noble, sappy, Hollywood-friendly endings in his films, and hey, that’s just his cup o’tea. But it seems his knack for making the end of his films look like Norman Rockwell paintings has bled over to this venture, and it has completely neutered what could have been a wholly satisfying cinematic experience. I can’t say anything for sure, since I am not privy to the process behind how this film was made, but I’m willing to bet Spielberg’s influence is (ironically) a key factor in the harming of this film’s potential.

Like father, like illegitimate son!

   So final verdict? Super 8, overall, is a pretty decent movie…certainly one of the best to come out of this foul year for cinema, the year 2011. It captures a feeling of excitement and wonder that is admittedly absent from mainstream cinema these days, and it’s because a talented director was at the helm. There are true, heartfelt character moments in the film that other films would give their right arm for! But the glaring flaw in storytelling logic cannot be overlooked, and even though I believe the film is trying to pass along a positive message and provide the audience a good ol’ happy ending, it ends up betraying its own conceit and is therefore weakened as a whole. It’s really quite a shame, because the movie IS good and it stands up on its own legs – they’re just kicked out from underneath by overzealous good intentions.

   But at least the dogs knew to get the hell outta there! There wasn’t even potential for one to become a snack in this movie – that’ll show that flesh-eating alien!