Tag Archive: Steven Spielberg


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

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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   Hello there, dear readers! Soooo due to both crazy scheduling in my daily life as well as my laptop being MIA for almost two weeks, I haven’t been able to post in quite a long time, and for this, I am most apologetic and ashamed. HOWEVER! In lieu of this vast gap in movie review posting, I have decided to go ahead and do my very first ever MOVIE REVIEW COMBO to make up for lost time! That’s right, instead of one long, giant ass review of one movie, you get several semi-long reviews about a variety of films! Don’tcha just love the feeling of compensation? Well get ready, my friends, because this is like a movie review OVERLOAD…in the best sense of the word! COMMENCE!

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LINCOLN (2012)
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Daniel Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, Hal Holbrook & Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner
Produced by Steven Spielberg & Kathleen Kennedy
Cinematography by Janusz Kamiński
Music by John Williams
Edited by Michael Kahn

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It was a nice touch for them to accurately depict the angle at which Lincoln actually had to tilt his head when talking to most people.

   There’s a certain type of feeling when you’re walking into a movie with this much pedigree. It’s an almost curious, theme park-like sense of wonder, the kind that fills you with anticipation for some kind of experience you’re about to have while you’re shuffling in to find your seats with the rest of the congregated citizens. You know you’re about to see something significant unfold…but you’re not really sure what. At least, that’s what I was feeling as I walked into the theater screening Steven Spielberg’s latest sprawling opus, Lincoln – the kind of feeling that this certainly wasn’t gonna be any regular come-and-go, fast-food type of flick. This was gonna be a four-course gourmet meal type of flick, the sort of dish served to you by the utmost professional and fancy chefs, all with exceedingly gi-normous track records for producing the zestiest types of exotic film flavors. Translated from weird, I’m saying that this movie has pristineness and dignity embedded into its DNA right from the start: It’s a biopic directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, about one of the most iconic and legendary figures in American (and world) history – Abraham Lincoln. Oh, and not to mention John Williams and Janusz Kamiński – legends both – doing the score and the cinematography respectively, for a film written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. Plus, a huge cast of talented character actors. GEE. I wonder how much THIS is going to suck?!

   Of course, Lincoln delivers every bit of cinematic esteem, credibility and bliss you could ever hope for in spades. It’s a 2 ½ hour-long exploration of the trials and tribulations a wise yet worn-out and weary leader of a fledgling, self-destructive nation must endure to somehow try and keep the whole damn thing from falling apart…oh, and also make some fucking real progress in the process. In 1865. Obviously, this is going to be a long, dialogue-heavy piece that focuses on performances and features little-to-no massive explosions. If the thought of sitting through something like that somehow startles or frightens you, then I suggest you go watch the completely relevant and entirely necessary new Red Dawn remake playing in the theater down the hall, because this is pure old-school film drama-cy turned up to Maximum Nobility Overdrive Power (MNOP). Long, slow-paced, contemplative, moment-focused, politically charged, philosophically complex, mood-building filmmaking that – despite those seemingly droll adjectives I just listed – never ONCE feels boring. Now that’s a damn hard thing to do, and Spielberg & Co. got juuuust the precise amount of baller cred to pull the whole damn thing off. Quite simply, they’ve lived up to every expectation I could have had for a movie of this caliber – it’s a damn fine piece of filmmaking.

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Lincoln looked around the room cautiously, hoping someone would eventually do the right thing…for he had indeed smelt it, but he was surely not the one who dealt it.

   Now, that isn’t to say that the narrative-bound Lincoln is a perfect movie. It isn’t. But, it’s far above the standard set by the average modern film, and it is sensationally executed by everyone involved – most especially the gifted cast, populated by all types of actors from all over the place who will have you saying “don’t I know that guy from somewhere?” a couple of times. Essentially, Lincoln is the story of our 16th president’s valiant efforts to both end the morally, physically, mentally, and financially taxing Civil War, and to pass the controversial 13th amendment, which would effectively end slavery in America for all time. Having just been re-elected to a 2nd term, Lincoln doubles his efforts to accomplish these two goals by any means necessary – even risking his reputation as an honest man at one point to pull it off in a pinch. The movie focuses on the political atmosphere of the era, with many scenes detailing the somewhat petty and unproductive arguments in the House of Representatives and the political bulldogging to get one’s own agenda accomplished. (Some things never change, huh?) Lincoln knows the 13th Amendment will never pass if the war is ended before it goes to vote, so he focuses all the attention he can on getting the Amendment voted upon before the bloody war reaches its conclusion…a dangerous ploy, given that the war is claiming lives everyday and most people would not approve of Lincoln’s stalling just to free some people from eternal enslavement. Such are the risks taken when trying to make history.

   The film also explores Lincoln’s personal relationship with his family as well, particularly with his wife and older son. This is where things begin to get a little shaky in the film’s narrative, specifically with the subplot involving Lincoln’s son Robert and his desperate attempt to participate in the war that his presidential father is trying to end. Robert is portrayed by the talented but tragically underused Joe Gord-Lev, in a role that provides a teensy bit of familial drama compounding upon Lincoln’s overbearing burdens, but is ultimately overshadowed by Sally Field as Lincoln’s devoted but overemotional wife, providing all the familial crises needed for Lincoln to be thoroughly stressed. The way the film sort of skims over this juicy conflict with his son makes it feel like it shouldn’t have really been in the movie in the first place – I mean, it definitely gives us another insight into Lincoln’s life, and there are a few really nice scenes with Robert and Abraham, but overall the subplot ends up feeling tacked on and underused, mainly because there’s so much more important stuff the movie’s trying to focus on. Joe Gord-Lev does nicely, but it just starts to stray into “we had to throw this in here too” territory. It’s really the biggest problem with the movie, apart from its length – but I’m not really bothered by long movies (unless they FEEL long, which Lincoln does not) so I give that a pass.

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Lincoln drifts off, using his large mind to ruminate on the possibility that someday, somebody somewhere will create a mediocre depiction of him as a hunter of some kind of supernatural creature…the thought does not sit well.

   Now of course, Daniel Day-Lewis tears acting an even newer asshole with his warm, thoughtful performance as the title character. The role was originally going to go to Liam Neeson, who might have been nice in the part, but since he’s recently become more of schlocky actor in recent years (Wrath of the Titans, anyone?), an actor of Day-Lewis’s pedigree is far better suited for this monumental role. You pretty much forget you’re watching an actor whenever Day-Lewis is onscreen – such is the strength of his acting prowess. Now, personally, I still prefer Day-Lewis’s powerhouse performance as a greedy oilman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece There Will Be Blood –that is simply one of the greatest performances in all of cinematic history.But in this film, he really imbues Lincoln with a sense of almost godly prestige, yet totally approachable openness all at once…it’s a subtle and tricky balance, but he pulls it off nicely. I really liked how pretty much everyone around Lincoln was portrayed as having a sort of reverence towards him – like they were standing in the presence of someone clearly beyond them. It’s juxtaposed sublimely with Day-Lewis’s human portrayal of this man, a man who was obviously already a legend in his own time. There’s a great scene in the movie where Lincoln walks into a busy and frantic war room, with people running to and fro in a storm of hurried chaos. Lincoln simply begins telling a lighthearted story to seemingly nobody in particular, but everyone in the room stops everything they’re doing and shuts the fuck up, just listening to the man tell his seemingly out of place yet highly relevant tale. This scene – as well as a few other storytelling moments – really show how Lincoln was not just a gifted public speaker who knew how to address a crowd, but also a warm and friendly human being who’s not above taking a moment to sit back and spin a yarn despite pressing matters weighing down constantly. It’s a tricky nuance to pull off, and Daniel Day-Lewis pulls it off with absolute expertise. Basically what I’m saying here is, there is absolutely no hope for any other actor nominated for the 2012 Best Actor Oscar next year – Day-Lewis has this one in the bag.

   Lincoln isn’t really a biopic in the conventional sense of the term – it doesn’t focus on his entire life, in a somewhat vain attempt to convey a person’s entire complex story. Instead, it centers on perhaps the most important period of Lincoln’s life, in which almost every single aspect of the world was against him and yet he somehow managed to pull off ending a bloody, gruesome war and freeing an entire group of people from horrible servitude. In this sense, it’s more of a political thriller than anything, with Lincoln as the main character. As an audience, we’re left to sort of fill in the rest of his story with the information presented to us, and that information presents Lincoln as a determined yet calm and patient individual who knows how to play his cards right. Like Lincoln, the movie knows how to take its time, and the end result is considerably elegant. Overall, Lincoln is a competently made and genuinely though-provoking portrait of one of America’s most compassionate and honorable leaders during a time of considerable crisis.

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FLIGHT (2012)
Starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood & John Goodman
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by John Gatins
Produced by Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes, John Rapke, Steve Starkey & Robert Zemeckis
Cinematography by Don Burgess
Music by Alan Silvestri
Edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll

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As if you need any other image to sell your movie with.

   Let me just get this out of the way first: Denzel Washington is my absolute favorite actor. Of ALL time. The dude simply commands the screen whenever he’s on it, playing every role that’s handed to him with honesty, intensity, emotional complexity, and obvious skill. He’s definitely been in a few clunkers in his time (Heart Condition, Virtuosity, Ricochet) but even in the worst films of his catalog he ALWAYS turns in a great performance. Besides, the amount of quality films he’s been in far outweighs the schlock, so he can easily be forgiven for a few early career missteps. He’s just a natural actor, someone who was clearly born to be a performer of the highest form. He can take an otherwise mediocre and somewhat formulaic cop flick like Training Day and turn it into a grade-A film simply based on his performance alone. Basically, the D rules. Okay, now that my showering of overblown fanboy praise is out of the way, we can focus on his latest tour de force: the emotional, tense, and dramatically powerful Flight. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, in a welcome return to live-action filmmaking after some hit-or-miss forays into the realm of motion-capture animation that his homie Steven Spielberg utterly upstaged him in with The Adventures of Tintin, Fight is a compelling if sometimes questionable character study that focuses on the struggles of alcoholism as well as the pressure of being in the public light. And if you’re going to be focusing an entire story solely on a single character, you best get a damn fine actor to fill the part. Luckily, Zemeckis was wise enough to hire Denzel Washington for the role.

   Flight begins in a trashed hotel room, one that has obviously been filled with lots of booze-drinking and sex very recently. We’re introduced right away to William “Whip” Whitaker, who groggily answers the ringing phone to argue with his ex-wife while the naked woman he’s with goes about her business in the background. Clearly, this guy is of the self-destructive sort. After having a few drinks and few snorts of cocaine, Whip cleans himself up and goes in to his job – being a pilot for a commercial airliner, with this specific flight travelling from Orlando to Atlanta. Yup, he’s pretty responsible. Right off the bat, Flight throws us an interesting curveball – it gives us a lead character that we just might not want to support very much over the next 2 hours. Whip himself is clearly a likeable guy – he’s charismatic, charming, and has a pretty good sense of humor with the people around him. He just happens to make some incredibly poor decisions, especially when you take into account he’s personally responsible for the lives of more than 100 people aboard his aircraft. So, we’re shown that Whip is actually a pretty damn good pilot despite his inebriated mindset by successfully navigating the plane out of a very nasty storm right after takeoff. After making himself a nice mid-flight blend of vodka and orange juice before passing out, Whip is knocked conscious by a sudden jolt in the flight. Something is wrong with the plane’s mechanics, and the plane begins to nosedive. While his co-pilot begins to freak out, Whip stays utterly calm and begins trying to save everyone on board. After one of the most intense and harrowing plane crash scenes I’ve ever seen, Whip manages to sustain the plane’s gliding speed by inverting it – as in, flipping the plane upside-down. It’s an insane and visually stunning move that miraculously works – the plane crashes in a field, and most of the passengers walk away with their lives.

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The D proves you can never be too drunk to look fly.

   Instantly, Whip comes to be recognized as a public hero – someone who managed to save nearly every soul aboard a seemingly doomed flight. Unfortunately, the few deaths resulting from the plane’s malfunction – including Katerina Marquez, the flight attendant Whip had gotten busy with the night before – bear down upon Whip’s psyche far more than the saved lives do. Not to mention the toxicology reports taken from Whip’s unconscious body upon arrival at the hospital, which verify that Whip was indeed inebriated at the time of the accident. This pretty much means that even though Whip was able to miraculously rescue most of the people aboard the doomed airplane, and the accident itself wasn’t his fault, he’s still liable for being drunk and flying a goddamn airplane. Ya just can’t do that, ladies and gents. Wrought with guilt over his drinking problem, Whip immediately tries to quite alcohol cold turkey, and looks like he’ll be successful at first, but once he receives word of his toxicology report and his impending lawsuit he…starts…drinking again.

   Flight does a pretty good job of showing a man confronting his own guilt while simultaneously struggling with addiction, and it handles it in a mostly realistic way. I say “mostly” because something about Whip actively quitting drinking before he’s made aware of a toxicology report, then immediately starting to drink afterward, rings a little false to me. I just don’t know why somebody would make that sort of decision, especially after they have already resolved to STOP drinking in the first place. Wouldn’t continuing not to drink be the most sensible thing to do? Now, I myself am not an alcoholic, so I can’t speak on the logical machinations of a mind not only addicted to alcohol, but overcome with guilt, but basic deductive logic would denote that if you’re under scrutiny for drinking on the job, and you quit drinking before you’re even aware you’re under said scrutiny, that you would probably just say “well, good thing I stopped doing that shit” and continue being sober. However, it also sort of makes sense that the overbearing guilt of the entire situation would lead to that mindset being eradicated, so I can see it working that way too.

   What I’m trying to get at here is, it simply doesn’t make any sense for Whip to just keep drinking irrationally when it’s been established that he knows the drinking isn’t a great idea in the first place. I understand that’s the point of the whole movie, but it’s just really hard to remain sympathetic for a main character when he is continuously making self-destructive and boneheaded decisions, with seemingly no effort to even try and stop. Apart from the brief period of time Whip tried to stop drinking right after the crash, there’s no other point in the film where we see him struggle with trying to remain sober – at least, until it’s forced upon him by other people. Some scenes with him deciding to quit, and then slowly but surely turning back to the bottle would have been appreciated! He stubbornly and inexplicably sticks with getting wasted, to the point that it just starts to get ridiculous and you can’t help but say “is this guy a damn moron?” Now, I understand that alcoholism is NOT an easy thing to kick, I really do. But in terms of movie logic, why was it even shown that he tried to kick his alcoholism before he was even aware of his toxicology report when he makes absolutely no effort to remain sober AFTER he is told about said report – the results of which are extremely incriminating and could land him in TONS of trouble?! The logic there just doesn’t add up to me. I totally get that Whip is acting irrationally and self-destructively, perhaps even somewhat purposefully because he might believe he should be punished on a subconscious level, but his complete lack of effort to even try and be a little sober is not only frustrating to everyone around him in the film, but to the audience as well. I found myself questioning his actions many times throughout the film, and not really in the way I feel like the filmmakers intended…less in a concern-for-the-character type of questioning, and more in the “is this realistic?” type of way.

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Whip sits anxiously, trying as fast as he can to muster up a cooler story about how he obtained his flashy head bandage.

   That being said, Flight still packs a powerful dramatic punch, and it really gets under the skin of what addiction truly is. We see a pretty unorthodox relationship build between Whip and Nicole, a young heroin-addicted woman whom Whip meets in the hospital right after the crash. (She was in the hospital because of a heroin overdose.) Whip and Nicole take an instant liking towards each other, both broken people crippled by addiction who are able to console each other in times of need. Their relationship blossoms, but Whip’s alcoholism and pride begin to drive a wedge between them, and it’s pretty sad to see. It’s actually easier to sympathize with Nicole’s character, because she actually makes an effort to recover from her addiction without any outside reason while Whip egregiously continues on with his, despite the fact he has an overbearing burden directly related to that addiction weighing down upon him. She gives him support and even tries to get him to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (which he attends but scoffs at and leaves, brilliantly enough), but his pride ends up ruining everything…it’s pretty heartbreaking stuff.

   As I said before, Flight takes the interesting choice of having a main character you can’t really sympathize with all the way through. It’s a gamble, but luckily, one that really pays off in the long run. Denzel Washington, predictably, turns in yet another incredible performance; it’s arguably his best one since Training Day, or Man on Fire at least. He really makes Whip a well-rounded character, giving him a lot of humor and seriousness all at once, and really driving home that this guy is troubled and wracked with too much grief for one man to handle. I will be both disappointed and shocked if Denzel doesn’t gain an Oscar nom for his performance in this movie – it’s just a damn shame it has to be this year, when Daniel Day-Lewis is being critically lauded and singled out as the prime contender for the Best Actor win for Lincoln. I definitely think Denzel would be a shoo-in for the win if it weren’t for Day-Lewis and his damn fine acting skills, but oh well – that’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. Overall, Flight is a dramatically sound yet slightly logically flawed film that delivers on several emotional levels, and offers a pretty devastating look at the nature of addiction and being in the public eye. It shows that Robert Zemeckis is still a very competent director, and the guy to go to if you want a harrowing and realistic plane crash sequence in your movie – this flick and his earlier one Cast Away both sport the best movie plane crashes I’ve ever seen. It has great performances from the entire cast (Don Cheadle and John Goodman both do great, I didn’t really talk about them but they shine in this movie, especially Goodman as Whip’s profane yet loveable drug-dealing friend) and it takes considerable chances, and for that I can only give it my most emphatic recommendation. Plus, it’s a friggin’ Denzel movie – that alone is worth the price of admission!

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JOHN CARTER (2012)
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong & Samantha Morton
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews & Michael Chabon
Produced by Jim Morris, Colin Wilson & Lindsey Collins
Cinematography by Daniel Mindel
Music by Michael Giacchino
Edited by Eric Zumbrunnen

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In case you were wondering, he’s the not-red guy.

Some movies just don’t hit the mark they’re supposed to. This year’s horribly named yet excellently executed sci-fi/adventure epic John Carter is, unfortunately, one of those movies. It’s a movie that pretty much does everything right – methodical pacing, fun action scenes, interesting story ideas, epic and engulfing music, decent performances, and solid characters are all features of this unique flick. Sadly, some movies are destined to not find a solid audience, no matter how well-made they are. Who woulda thunk that a Disney-funded sci-fi/adventure flick that’s actually pretty well made would end up being a box office bomb?

   Personally, I blame the title. John Carter is an absolutely terrible name for this film. Anything, literally anything would have been better than simply naming the flick after the main character of the movie. It could have been called Mars Battle Adventures or something generic like that and that still would have been a better name for it, because then it at least describes what you’re getting. But John Carter? That sounds like a damn inspirational sports movie or something, or some kind of character-based story about some boring schmuck. It’s just NOT evocative of what kind of movie this is. I don’t know why they didn’t just call it A Princess of Mars, the name of the sci-fi/fantasy pulp novel written in 1917 by Edgar Rice Burroughs which this film is adapted from. I guess having “Princess” in the title is just WAY too gay, so they opted to take both that word and “Mars” out of the equation – even though those are by far the most exciting and descriptive words in the whole sentence – and just lazily name it after the main character. The fact that the word “Mars” does NOT appear in the title of this film is baffling to me. Why would you pass that opportunity up?! And then you consider how the sequel – I mean, the hypothetical sequel at this point – was going to be named John Carter of Mars, which by all logic and reasoning should have been the name of THIS film, if we’re changing names and shit….aggh it just really pisses me off, because this movie totally deserved to find a wider audience and its stupid ass name probably made people think it was about some real-life asshole they never heard of. SUCH a wasted opportunity.

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John and Tars are awed by the sight of the Mighty Budget slowly rising from the horizon.

   Because, my friends, despite its tepid reaction upon its release, John Carter is actually a pretty damn fine film – it’s exciting, it’s humorous, it’s got all kinds of crazy alien shit going on in it, and it keeps your interest all the way through. And SOMEHOW, it actually gets you to care about and sympathize with weird events and strange aliens (respectively) that don’t even correlate to our planet in the slightest. If that isn’t some good filmmaking, I don’t know what is. And hey, I’m not too surprised about that aspect either – this movie is the live-action debut of Andrew Stanton, a two-time Academy-Award winning computer-animated film director of Pixar fame, specifically Finding Nemo and WALL-E. That pretty much means that this dude is an accomplished filmmaker (even if his previous movies technically don’t take place in reality) and can definitely be trusted with material such as this.

   So why did this film flop? Well, apart from the title problem I’ve already addressed, I’d have to say that it’s also because this film is pretty esoteric for the most part. It’s based on an almost 100-year old series of sci-fi books, cost a good $275,000,000(!), and featured no massively major stars of any real sort. It was pretty much a gamble from the get-go. In fact, I’m not entirely sure how or why Disney even let this film get made, and why they gave it the budget they did. I mean, they must have believed in the subject matter if they were willing to drop THAT many millions of dollars on it, right? A film this epic and large-scale surely would have been a sure bet, right? Well……no. Quite simply, the lack of any kind of public interest is the main reason this movie flopped. But the movie itself does not suck, despite what some critics out there have said.

   Speaking of the movie, well, it’s about a guy named John Carter (played with Indiana Jones-esque fervor by Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War Confederate Army Captain who is accidentally transported to Mars (known as Barsoom to the locals) via a magic medallion belonging to a mysterious figure John ends up murdering in a cave. Due to the planet’s lower gravity and his different bone density, John Carter is something of a Superman on Barsoom, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and knock the shit out of enemies with extra strength. He’s instantly picked up by some aliens known as Tharks, whose leader Tars Tarkas (motion-captured by Willem Dafoe) recognizes the power within this stranger. Before long, John Carter is wrapped up in an interplanetary conspiracy and war, and must fight to protect the residents of Barsoom from an otherwise unstoppable force.

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You know when something’s so adorable you just want to rub your face in its cuddle parts? ……This is not one of those occasions.

   It’s a wild setup, but then again, it’s a wild movie. John Carter simply looks fantastic, executed with a visual style that shouldn’t be too surprising once you realize an animated film director made the flick. The colors are vibrant, the locations are rich, and the special effects looks extremely realistic – you can see where that $275,000,000 of Walt’s money went. Elaborate set pieces and costume design really drive home the “epicness” of the project, as well as the somewhat overblown acting. If there’s one negative thing I should say about John Carter, it’s that the acting is just a liiiiittle bit subpar. Not so bad that it’s groan inducing, but you can definitely tell that working with real, live actors is something this animation guy Stanton will have to learn over time. As lavish and elaborate as the sets and special effects are, it tends to shine a bigger light on the somewhat mundane acting. The actors do their part, and it doesn’t necessarily bog the movie down, but you can feel the somewhat forced feel coming out of the performances on occasion. It’s a shame because the rest of the movie that surrounds them is really quite vivid and wonderful. Another slight complaint I have is that the ending feels a bit rushed and forced…I don’t want to give too much away, but the film’s ending suffers from the Super Mario Bros. Ending Syndrome…a setup for a sequel that just might never be.

    John Carter isn’t the game changer Disney was most likely hoping it to be. It won’t be making any huge appearances at Disneyland anytime soon. But, despite the fact the film probably came about 40 years too late, it really does a good job of being solidly entertaining, and for that I give it some credit. I’m actually pretty glad that it just exists and is now out on home video, where perhaps it will find a new life from people who missed it the first time around. It certainly deserves some kind of accolades, if only just for its production design and nothing more. But, I was very entertained while watching it, and even though I didn’t go very in depth with this review, I highly recommend it to anyone kind of on the fence about it. It’s worth your time, and maybe – just maybe – there will be another one with a better title coming out soon.

    Although I highly doubt it.

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   Well, that does it for my first review combo. Hopefully in the future I’ll be more consistent with my updates so I don’t have to punish myself with epic multi-reviews such as this one. But, keep checking back for new reviews, and happy viewing to you all!

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!