Friday, May 31, 2013

My Tops of 2013 - May

IRON MAN 3 was both an entertaining superhero film and a slick pulp action flick, thanks largely to the talents of writer/director Shane Black. As a so-called finale, it's a bit underwhelming. Still, I will say that it stuck with me.

THE GREAT GATSBY was yet another failed attempt to change my harsh opinion about the novel. Leonard DiCaprio and Luhrmann's first act brought some delight but it then got suffocating pretty quick. Good soundtrack though.

42 was a good ole baseball movie, led heavily by a mighty fine performance by Harrison Ford.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS was more stupid than fun. The refreshing cast returns, along with the entertaining breakthrough performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, but they have to deal with suffocating fan service and terrible direction.

THE HANGOVER: PART III was never funny. Never.

PAIN & GAIN, however, was constantly funny and shocking. A fantastic script, great acting in the leads, and deliriously good direction makes the black comedy/crime flick a nihilistic masterpiece.

FROM UP ON POPPY HILL was a nice little film from Studio Ghibli, with some enjoyable 60's nostalgia, but it trips when a queasy plot twist enters into the romantic equation.

Best Films of 2013

1. Pain & Gain

2. Spring Breakers

3. The Croods

4. Side Effects

Worst Films of 2013

1. The Hangover: Part III

2. A Good Day to Die Hard

3. To the Wonder

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Brief Film Reviews - May 2013

From time to time, I forget or not motivated enough to write a full length review for every single film I have seen in theaters.

As to catch up, here are some short form reviews:


Though I liked 42, the type of baseball movie that is sure to be aired routinely on television, I want to say that I'm getting sick of these black actor led films that rely strictly on past history and racism as the corner-posts of its structure. Of course, this is one of the exceptions where they need to be included in order to showcase the conflicting opinions of a white-run nation and the growing exposure of the injustices held in America. The film is a greatest hits version of the history of Jackie Robinson, roughly his year in the minor white league and his rookie year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it also studies the behind the scenes turmoil in the baseball offices. While Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) must stay stone face against the rising hatred unleashed upon him in the stands, streets, and the field, Brooklyn executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has to keep his drive for racial equality from also collapsing under pressure. It has many moments that will have some questioning the authenticity of events but they become trivial next to the more striking examples, such as a heartbreaking sequence where the Dodgers face off against the Philadelphia Phillies and their manager Ben Chapman (a casted against type Alan Tudyk). Except for the few cloying child actors, the overall cast is genuinely great; Boseman makes a compelling lead and makes Robinson the hero he was and Ford is superb as the wise-cracking Rickey, a role that the actor really loses himself in. A nice hit from writer-director Brian Helgeland.


Pain & Gain

I'll probably be shaking my fist, raising a mighty stink once Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS 4 hits theaters, not to mention his controversial take on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I will have to remember that it was worth it, in order to receive PAIN & GAIN. This is a masterfully done, hilariously disturbing crime flick, where the pulp spreads like butter and the words in the script punctuate the air. A trio of bodybuilding aficionados with nothing to look forward to in life choose to fast-forward their American Dream plans by torturing and robbing a rich slime-ball. Loosely based on a true story, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely pops and never stops, delivering a great line after line. Each scene is richly constructed by Bay, highlighting the corruptible human decay with the pompous modern lifestyle of Miami. The cast is amazing: Mark Wahlberg expertly walks the line between foolishly charming and unbelievable scary, a sociopath who plays with his prey yet at the same time can't take his eyes away from a shiny lawnmower. Able to overcome his performance is Dwayne Johnson; the absolute zenith of his roles this year, as well as his movie career, he steals the show with his white hot intensity and humor as a jailbird beefcake whose newly religious extremity begins to slowly chip away due to his immoral actions and helps return him to his horrific drug addicted past. The only very minor complaint is that Anthony Mackie, one of the best in the business today, isn't as important as the other two in terms of the story but that doesn't stop him from cracking up the screen with his rants about being the beef in tacos and pumping up his succulent muscles. Definitely one of the best of the year, hands down.


From Up on Poppy Hill

The latest Studio Ghibli film to reach our shores, FROM UP ON POPPY HILL is a pleasant coming of age flick but stops quite short from the rest of the magical Ghibli library. Set in 1964, it follows Umi, a 2nd-year high schooler whose days run the same: help around the boarding house of her grandmother's, hike up some sailing flags in honor of her missing father, head to school, and return to the house to cook and sleep. She begins to break out of her shell when the school's old club building is sentenced to be demolished in order to correspond with the summer Olympics and the nation's recent approach to modernism. She helps out with the project to save it and finds companionship with the brash Shun, a sailor's son with a mysterious past. The story is very trite but it has an enjoyable vibe, whether it is the inventive animated backgrounds of 60's Japan (including a brief stop in Tokyo) or a particular sweet moment expertly set to Kyu Sakamoto's legendary "Sukiyaki". However, the main problem with accepting this feature, something that might have been why Disney didn't release it and why it is stuck in limited circles, isn't the redemptive direction of Goro Miyazaki (the poorly received TALES FROM EARTHSEA) but a plot twist that the movie even acknowledges as bad melodrama. Even with the knowledge and expectance that everything will later be straighten out, this plot point warps your feelings about the central romance. The other crucial misstep is that the film is very Japanese yet is being shown in English; that isn't a strike at the great dubbing staff and cast, particularly Sarah Bolger's performance as Umi, but to the fact that there are a lot of Kanji signs to be read aloud and moments involving a soaring chorus of singing, symbolizing the pride and honor of the nation, both of which would have better with subtitles and the actual Japanese audio respectively. Still, the film is a nice film where national and personal identity must be a cooperation of the past and the present.


Monday, May 27, 2013

2013 Cannes Film Festival Aftermath

Leave it up to Steven Spielberg to help bring the Cannes Film Festival into the world spotlight again. Having Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, Christoph Waltz, Lynn Ramsay, Cristian Mungiu, Daniel Auteuil, Vidya Balan, and Naomi Kawase as his back-up also worked.

Blue is the Warmest Colour was the "unprecedented" winner, not only earning the prestigious Palme d'Or for director Abdellatif Kechiche but also a honorary Palme to its two actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. This special commendation was seen to be an avoidance of repeating last year's major development of awarding both of the two female leads of Beyond the Hills the Best Actress prize. The French film galvanized critics and viewers with its frank, unsimulated lesbian sex scenes, one going for a full ten minutes that had its audiences applauding. It had perfect timing with the current turmoil in France (which one?) over the issue of same-sex marriage, which became legalized on May 17. The film was also noteworthy for featuring one of the longest running times of the festival (187 minutes!). Like another acclaimed French epic Mesrine, the film is technically comprised of two chapters, under its original title La Vie d'Adèle. Whether it is to be cut or kept as a whole, the film is deeply expected by the press to be a major Oscar contender. Because a privileged award from Los Angeles is far more important than a ultra-competitive accomplishment.

The Grand Prix, the silver medal for international filmmakers, was given to another favorite, Inside Llewyn Davis from the Coen Brothers. Led by the ready-to-breakthrough Oscar Issac as a young folk singer roaming through quirky characters and scenarios in New York, the film earned many raves.

The bronze and special mention award, the Jury Prize went to Like Father, Like Son from Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. Still riding on the acclaim from Nobody Knows and last year's I Wish, the feature pulls a Switched at Birth to wring out cheap tears.

Best Director went to Amat Escalante for Heli; a bit odd considering the film had one of the lowest scores from the critics (1.6 out of 4 on the Screen chart), most which said the film was too depressing/violent and had no appeal beyond art and film festival theaters.

A Touch of Sin, written and directed by Jia Zhangke, won Best Screenplay. It tells of four separate stories from the four provinces of contemporary China, all ending with harsh consequences. Looks promising.

Bérénice Bejo, the popular actress of The Artist and the OSS 117 films, received Best Actress for The Past, the major follow-up of A Separation's Asghar Farhadi. Seen as the early front-runner, the French(?) film with its Sophie's Choice title (and Kramer vs. Kramer plot to keep the Streep counter going) had many critics fawning.

70's Hollywood star turned character actor Bruce Dern was awarded Best Actor for Alexander Payne's Nebraska. The black and white cinematography and cast of non-professional actors must have helped. Kidding aside, I'm a fan of the underrated Dern and hope the film is better than its generic Hallmark plotline of a dementia-stricken father and son road-tripping. I also pray that it can bring Payne back to my good graces after The Descendants.

They all can't be winners though. Next to the controversy of Blue was the sheer hypocritical dilemma with ultra-violence; Heli and A Touch of Sin got all of the cheers but Takashi Miike's Shield of Straw and Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives got harsh reception (1.3 and 1.5 respectively). The latter got the most press here in the States due to the presence of Ryan Gosling in the film but not at the film's premiere. Of course, violence in a film is only a useful tool when applied properly, which many critics didn't agree with or see. However, to counterpoint, Cannes critics aren't always 100% correct with their early judgments, as many booed films survive with time and become cult classics and/or masterpieces (Taxi Driver, Wild at Heart, Crash, Tropical Malady). I still have high hopes for Forgives and think I might be in the exception. I will also say that I am interested in catching Straw, a police drama where a pack of cops must safely transport a child killer to Tokyo while contending with those who wish to collect the bounty placed on his head by the victim's family.

Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic deemed the last film for a while from Steven Soderbergh, had many picking Michael Douglas to earn Best Actor, though he can now wipe away his solace once the Emmys and Golden Globes come a-calling. The Immigrant has Oscar contention for previous winner Marion Cotillard as the titled character who's reluctant to prostitute herself to remain in 1920's America. Jim Jarmusch's offbeat vampire comedy Only Lovers Left Alive looks to be a sleeper art hit. Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur will sure to get a limited release. Equally named but tonally different The Great Beauty and Young and Beautiful had some nice claps; the former is an Italian, Fellini-esque satire while the latter was the other French coming of age fare involving a young woman. Michael Kohlhaas did okay sliding in at the end, with most of the acclaim going to star Mads Mikkelsen.

As for the failures and forgettables: A Castle in Italy had nearly everybody cursing the name of the egotistical, triple-threat Valeria Bruni Tedeschi; Grigris was a disposable African film (what a shocker!); Borgman was too gonzo; finally, Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian was the strangest and the most laughable, with Benicio del Toro as the titled individual. Apparently, director Arnaud Desplechin was afraid of hiring an actual Native American actor.

Out of the main competition and/or in Un Certain Regard: The Missing Picture won the top prize; All Is Lost, the follow-up of Margin Call's J.C. Chandor, had many interested in its Robert Redford-starring, minimalist survival plot; Fruitvale Station continued to hype up; The Bling Ring had some harsh notices; James Franco's As I Lay Dying had it far worst; Stranger by the Lake delivered the frank gay sex scenes and walked away with the Queer Palm; and Claire Denis premiered Bastards.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Hangover: Part III - Review

Pinhead has a new friend to play with in the bellows of franchise hell because THE HANGOVER has now joined firmly next to HELLRAISER as one of the absolute worst series ever to plague the art of film. There is absolutely nothing of worth to the human soul with THE HANGOVER: PART III. After realizing that you can't get fully away with duplicating your past success for a second installment, the creators instead crafted a new tale that will have everyone begging for more cloned mediocrity. I didn't laugh, smirk, grin, or even eye-roll; I was too busy being utterly shocked at how spellbindingly awful the picture achieves with ease. It's the equivalent of being kicked in the groin and then asked to shake your hand.

There is a very distinct reason why this film has been advertised solely as PART III and not THE HANGOVER: PART III: There is no hangover whatsoever. There is an intermediate scene during the credits that may say otherwise but it feels like an afterthought, has multiple elements that betray the formula developed in the other two films, and is there for plain fan service and a last laugh that doesn't exist. Instead of more consequences of debauchery, the viewer has to sit through a glorified television episode of a series that I hope doesn't come into fruition, even on Spike. Alan (Zach Galifianakis) commits several unhinged, spoiled rich boy antics that literally help cause his father's death, most notably the accidental beheading of a CGI giraffe on a major highway. The rest of the Wolfpack, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stuart (Ed Helms), and Doug (Justin Bartha), agree with their spouses and other family members that Alan should be sent to the New Horizons rehab facility to change his lifestyle and to get him back on his meds. During the trip there, they are run off the road and kidnapped by Marshall (John Goodman), a nondescript kingpin who wants them to find the returning psycho Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) for him. If they can capture Chow and the $20 million dollars worth of gold bars he stole from him, Marshall will let Doug walk away without any bullets to the head.

It is never, never addressed why a major thug should want a metro douchebag, a self-destroying dentist, and a walking contradiction to find two valuable objectives instead of say a crew of highly trained individuals from a private company. Nor is it questioned why Marshall couldn't start finding the lost gold during Chow's prison stay in Bangkok in-between the second and third film, or have several prison insiders to get him to squeal. Instead, he blackmails the Wolfpack like a desperate movie executive to find his money merely because Alan and Chow have a childish and cryptic conversation exchange. Worst yet, any fan with the lowest intelligence can notice that the story and main hook of these films has de-evolved to a significant degree. The free-roam exploration aspects of the series are excised and the search is now entirely linear: Chow tells them to meet him in Tijuana, chaos happens, and then it moves to Las Vegas.

The humor displayed here by the ever-eroding Todd Phillips is more about exclamation points than any sense of truth. His comedy gold book consists of random food placement (Tab!, Arby's!, Sabaro!, Papa Johns!), random song placements ("Hurt" sure is funny in a whacky Asian accent!) and oft-putting snide comments by the mischievous ones (Chow and Alan). In fact, the film is devoted only to those two characters, with Alan being our main figure and focus. Phillips knows that audiences enjoy having the comic relief moved to the center stage; that's why CARS 2 and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES are the best of their series. While Galifianakis gets all the attention, whether he wants to or not, that leaves Cooper and Helms to basically slum it out in the background. Thankfully, both actors have a transparent face, showing the discomfort they have for accepting their roles again. Cooper wisely sums the film up when he turns to Helms and says, "What the fuck am I watching?".

The film must of cost a lot of money yet none of it shows on the screen besides the opening prison riot. The sets are all very limited, one being so much so that the makers had destructive strobe lights pulse constantly to hide the shortcomings. All of the female characters have only three scenes, except for Jaime Chung who has one scene, one line. Everything feels too nice and clean; Justin Bartha is kept perfectly fine throughout his hostage ordeal because he needs to get back to The New Normal set in one piece. There's no tigers, monkeys, face tattoos, incriminating pictures and video, stolen police cars, or another Mike Tyson cameo. They have "In the Air Tonight" play during credits and a couple of callbacks, so those must make up for all of the film's impenetrable void, right?

When I get to the third and final film of a trilogy, I shouldn't be confused as to who "Black Doug" is or the fact that Cooper's character has a wife. The first film is genuinely hilarious and even those who were not amused at least had a crafty and cartoonish mystery to solve. However, this endnote ruins the legacy of the movie that helped keep R-rated comedies alive. It deserves to die.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness - Review

If J. J. Abrams wants to justify his new position as the overlord of the two leading American sci-fi franchises, he needs to both get a creative, original vision of his own cinematic dreams and he needs to remove his best buddies from the writing duties. Nothing in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is visually stimulating or well directed beyond the acting chops of its talented cast. However, Abrams' destructive mise en scene and ear drum-splitting sounds are masterstrokes compared to the rotten script devised by the horror team of Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman ans Roberto Orci. This triple threat have been crafting creatively bankrupt and/or inept products for some time now; look no further than last year when Lindelof had audiences howling at PROMETHEUS while the latter duo saw their baby PEOPLE LIKE US laid to rest on worst of the year lists. Here, they have written the worst fan script ever to be officially commissioned to be an actual Hollywood blockbuster.

Let's break it all down: The picture starts with a space age version of the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK prologue, as Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) engineers a rescue operation of a primitive alien species, from a ready to burst nearby volcano, by stealing their sacred text. Meanwhile, a dark figure named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has a secret Starfleet operative commit a large terrorist attack in the heart of Sci-Fi London. Why? Because of a really cloying excuse that sadly becomes very, very important later and robs the tension away. Instead of instantly dealing with this major crisis devised by a former agent of theirs, and because the film editors do not understand their jobs, Starfleet puts their full attention to acting like a generic television police chief and demote Kirk back to the Academy for his law-breaking actions. Kirk then gets promoted back into being First Officer by his father figure Commander Pike (Bruce Greenwood), and then gets the Commander's chair again after another terrorist plot that Starfleet didn't see coming from a mile away. All of this manufactured melodrama happens in rapid succession, creating the question of why bothering having it in the first place if the status quo returns after a couple of cuts.

Kirk and his Enterprise crew are then tasked by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to go off the books with a suicide mission: Obliterate Harrison, who has taken refuge in foreign territory, with the extreme prejudice of 72 specially made photon torpedoes. So, off they go with their excessive show of force to the planet Kronos, which is under the control of the Klingon Empire. Oh yes, the Klingons are given their grand introduction here with much spoken pomp and circumstance. Too bad the writers botch it all up; Despite the lingering threat of starting a major space war due to any action from the Enterprise, nothing later comes from it, not even when a bunch of Klingon soldiers are killed off. The popular race is only here to pop a few Trekkie cherries and to represent a "brown-faced" civilization, who are driven to violence by their lust and honor. Gee, I wonder if they're a metaphor for something.

Once Harrison comes back into the spotlight, the twists and fan service start splurging out in full force. If you are a Trekkie, have frequently visit Internet forums, made guesses when casting was announced, have a passing knowledge of Star Trek, seen or read about the best sci-fi movies, or like popular memes, then the twist that this film banks solely on is completely easy to spot. After it is introduced, nothing else matters beyond pure fan-wankery and modified plagiarism. The film becomes a distressing mobius strip of Post-9/11 allegories, the second major 2013 Hollywood film to have in such a short time-frame, and elements that were done better without the aid of CGI and lens flare. Worst yet, this includes THE DARK KNIGHT's Joker prison plot twist as a major moment, despite the fact that we just experienced this curveball last year both in THE AVENGERS and SKYFALL. Is every franchise required by law to feature this now?

The last third of the film is a crashing nightmare, finally ending with a flaccid chase on Earth and a quick cleanup of the loose threads the writers deemed necessary to complete. As the credits hit, you'll realize you have come down with a major case of fridge logic, unable to stop pondering why a major organization devoted to space anthropology has a military-happy figure in their command or why Earth has no defenses against spaceships from just plowing into their cities. You'll also notice that despite its world's alien equality, the majority of the women were depicted negatively. The creators had Zoe Saldana and Alice Eve, two very good and charming performers, in major roles and the only thing they could come up with them were boyfriend/girlfriend issues and a pandering underwear shot. You may counter with Saldana's brief shining moment where her telecommunications skills come into great use but it becomes negated by the forcible kidnapping and unnecessary disabling of Eve. With nothing to enjoy from the plot, you then figure you at least had entertainment from all of the action sequences. But due to Abrams' direction, there is no memorable shot or moment to hold on to beyond the exasperating sound design of loud noises and all of the strobing lights.

The only saving grace is the acting talent. Everyone returning from the first and more fulfilling movie continue to play their parts well and make the banter worthwhile. Though his character is a written joke, Cumberbatch is deliciously pleasurable as the heavy or the anti-hero or whatever the creators wanted him to be. Acting can be a good reason to see a film in theaters but here it can't justify all of your hard-earned money. Maybe the Abrams army will learn from their grave mistakes here and build a better film, a nice conclusion to this series. Or, their continuing doomed touch will befall STAR WARS: EPISODE VII. Of course, that land has already suffered much worst.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Great Gatsby - Review

One of the best things currently in our life is that the pieces of entertainment that torment us and cause us to deliver long rants in person or in video can eventually be made for the better. Such is the case for myself with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I loathe the so-called Great American Novel ever since I was a lad, detesting every character, their motivations and dreams, and all of its boring metaphors and allegories. Eventually, thanks to creative and resourceful minds, the novel has been recently modified to be more digestible for my palette, whether it is the mocking series of comic strips wonderfully written and drawn by Kate Beaton or the peculiar notion to adapt it into a NES video game. Is Baz Luhrmann's version of THE GREAT GATSBY able to join these distinctive ranks? A slight yes and a decisive no.

For the first third of the film, where we are sadly introduced to the viewpoint of our narrator Nick Carraway and the first of many extravagant parties run by the titled character, the flamboyant director is able to bring new life and energy to the ancient text. The high excesses and gaudiness of the 1920's, combined with the many anachronisms implemented to give it a modern swing, give the cinematic debauchery a nice looney tunes vibe. All of the money, all of the frivolous lifestyles and decisions of our characters are presented as wasteful as they aught to be. The moral code of everyone is jaded beyond belief: Nick is a glorified goon and yes-man for either Gatsby or his cousin-in-law Tom Buchanan, Gatsby is willing to commit adultery due to his teenage-like hormones, Daisy has no internal presence to speak of or fond for, Tom is a snidely wolf in sheep's clothing, and Jordan Baker is a running party animal who likes to bounce around.

However, once Nick is able to bring Gatsby and his lost love Daisy together one rainy afternoon, the film simply enters into autopilot. Luhrmann shuts down the glitzy and crazy train so viewers can be forced into believing the mighty power of love that apparently resides in the two hollow vessels. Seriousness is the name of the game for the rest of the film despite the still heightened performances and luscious production/costume design. It is as if all of the unions of high school teachers protested to Warner Bros to make the film appropriate for the classroom and to prevent any further seizure outbreaks from their students.

Even with the tonal whiplash, Lurhmann made even more egregious decisions to infuriate anyone. The die-hard fans of the book, who weren't already turned off by the inclusion of rap and dubstep, will find that their beloved text is slapped around in all of the wrong places; key lines are either thrown away under other blaring noises and/or inserted into other scenes. Also, many of the book's memorable moments are still unable to translate well to the big screen, most particularly the horrible final lines between Gatsby and Nick. Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce also wished to insert new fan material to jazz up their interpretation. The film starts with a broken down Nick at a sanatorium, asked by his psychiatrist to write out his troubling life in New York on the typewriter. If you instantly guessed that he be writing the novel, congratulations on earning one point. You would have gotten the grand prize if you also spotted that this is complete retread of Luhrmann and Pearce's script for MOULIN ROUGE! Holy Eric Roth, what a fine display of self-plagiarism.

The script problems don't just end there because the two wanted to make sure all of the guts are to be sprayed all about. For this adaptation, Luhrmann wanted to hammer home the homoerotic subtext between Nick and Gatsby, making sure to close up constantly on the poor boy's longing face and piercing stare. Since Nick can only love men, or as the film calls it "likes to watch", Luhrmann and Pearce decided to severely undercut all of the female characters. Despite being a major character and the MacGuffin, Daisy is often muted and given no screen time for her importance. Jordan Baker is practically exorcised from the second half and her relationship with Nick is just friends at best. But the crowning achievement of bad writing is for Myrtle Wilson, the mistress of Tom and who proves to be a key feature in the later chapters. Four scenes and a paltry number of lines are all she and her performer, the vastly underrated Isla Fisher, are given to work with. Because Myrtle is underwritten and her affair time with Tom boils down to only one instance, this results in an unbelievable hypocrisy of the earnest intentions of the film; Gatsby and Daisy have an entire summer to hump around yet Tom is still labeled as the bad guy.

I was largely and obviously bored by the story and its many changes, though to be fair not as much as the 1974 version, but if there was one saving grace through the tougher times, it was certainly Leonardo DiCaprio. The man was able to deliver the best three-dimensions of the Gatsby character, both as a mega-charismatic, mysterious charmer and as a young fool unable to change or return to the past. Even when crafting a drinking game with every delivery of the phrase "old sport", the dynamic actor was always able to make hearts skip a beat and melt the cheese nicely. Joel Edgerton comes in at second as Tom, making the braggart more lovably and humanly then he's supposed to be. I found myself rooting him on more here due to Edgerton despite the character's belligerent attitudes to racism, which comes into serious question due to Luhrmann's direction since he is present at a black-populated bar in an early scene. And again, as stated above, since the men are the main show, none of the female actors are given any care or concentration, which proves double for Cary Mulligan whose Daisy is far more aggressive that she should be. The only male actor unable to shine is Tobey Maguire as Nick. Still waiting for a perfect non-superhuman adult role, the man frankly looks like a spruced-up teenager and his world-weariness might work in a community theater production but certainly not here.

The only thing I haven't mentioned enough is the film's musical direction. I honestly was never really bothered by it at all to prove itself distracting. The Jay-Z songs were odd ducklings but they eventually and quickly were phased out. By then, Luhrmann wanted to include more melancholic pieces sung by the likes of Florence + The Machine and Lana Del Rey, which proved to be far more effective in expressing star-crossed love than the actual love of the story. The true highlight is the ending theme "Together" by the xx, a song that haunts like the forever blinking green light and will borne you back ceaselessly. If there is one thing always to be fondly expected by Baz Luhrmann, it is a fine soundtrack.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ray Harryhausen - RIP

Ray Harryhausen, the king of stop-motion animation and special effects, has sadly passed away today. He was 92 years old.

The continuing popularity and overuse of CGI imagery, creatures, and beings in action, sci-fi, fantasy and adventure films today wouldn't have existed if not for the likes of Harryhausen, Willis O'Brien, and David W. Allen.

Though I like everyone was first wowed by O'Brien's work with King Kong as a kid, it was the large body of work from Harryhausen that truly captured my eye. I remember glaring instantly at pictures of his works in movie books, reading all about the different monsters, aliens, and gods crafted from his hands and envisioned from his mind. When I spotted his films in TV listings or at my local video stores, I was sure to kick back and watch them with glee.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers was always my favorite of his; the striking terror of the flying saucers and their resulting destruction of Washington D.C. monuments was a spectacular thrill, jump-starting a popular trope utilized in nearly every disaster and alien invasion film since.

Of course, if it wasn't for his work and the scary creature design of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and his early job with Mighty Joe Young, we wouldn't have Godzilla.

He continued his string of frightening animals and sci-fi threats with It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Valley of Gwangi, and One Million Years B.C.; the latter famously had his dinosaurs play second bill to the lovely fur bikini-clad Raquel Welch. However, it was the fantasy realm where his special effects work has become legendary: the man vs. skeleton battle in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the skeleton army of Jason and the Argonauts, and the Pegasus, Medusa, and Kraken of the original Clash of the Titans.

By the time Clash came out in 1981, the visual effects department had evolved significantly due to Star Wars and Harryhausen's work was harshly attacked for being a relic of the past. Despite the critical reception causing him to retire, he continued to spread his legacy through a series of books, film cameos and acknowledgements, and the eventual video releases and box sets of his films, all featuring his name front and center.

He will sorely be missed.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Look at Summer 2013

It is that time once again, for all of the blockbusters and heavily-hyped films to come out to a salivating and desperate public. As said by basically every film glad-hand in existence, this summer looks to be the biggest one yet (Until, of course, next year's offerings). The early months of 2013 has brought a turmoil of troubling films and many unmitigated disasters, even given the usual expectations of these months. It was so bad that one of my top picks soured out and bombed fast and hard. Hopefully, it will get better.

Let's check out and go thoroughly through all of the offerings coming out in the summer months of 2013.

May 3 is of course Marvel Comics's favorite weekend, hence why Iron Man 3 arrives on American shores to conclude the Tony Stark trilogy. Time and fan opinion has kinda sullied the second installment; I still think it is pretty good though a bit lower than my first viewing. Comic book fans are intrigued by the presence of the Iron Patriot suit, more allusions to Warren Ellis' Extremis run, and Ben Kingsley as the big pimping Mandarin. Film fans are intrigued by Shane Black (screenwriter star, director of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) sitting in the driver's seat. Everyone else just wants to see what personal problems Stark will go through after The Avengers and the climax seen in the latest trailer where the Iron Man Army comes a-calling. In limited theaters, the hitman drama The Iceman finally comes out, headed by popular character actor Michael Shannon. Timed expertly to ride on his expected mainstream breakthrough in Man of Steel, the film has been getting mixed reception, except for Shannon of course, and its trailer is a complete spoiler job. There's also Kiss of the Damned, a vampire flick with a Lady Gaga inspired poster, and the cloying and annoying What Maisie Knew.

May 10 finally sees the release of The Great Gatsby, the mega-Hollywood feature that was delayed late last year to get more eyeballs than awards. I loathe the book and don't believe the 3D direction by the forever flamboyant Baz Luhrmann will save the movie from harsh critical notices. Maybe the costume/production design and the actors will make up some of it, especially with Amitabh Bachchan making his big Hollywood debut. The only nationwide alternative is Peeples, or as many want to call it, the nonsensical Tyler Perry Presents Peeples. I like movies with a rich cast of African-American actors but I don't see this going over well beside those that enjoyed the "AIDS is for Evil People" epic Temptation earlier this year. A couple horror entries are also out: No One Lives by director Ryuhei Kitamura, the interesting black comedy involving road-tripping serial killers Sightseers, and the Eli Roth-written, produced, and starring Aftershock.

May 17 is another one release flick, Star Trek Into Darkness. The promotional campaign has been banking on the mystery of the Benedict Cumberbatch's character and his motives against the Enterprise crew, as seen easily from its Dark Knight Rises rip-off poster. If that doesn't work for you, they just threw a bunch of spaceship crashing, people running, and Alice Eve in her underwear into the trailers. I'm interested but not too wowed by anything, except for Alice Eve of course. Indie-wise, we have another Greta Gerwig vehicle with Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, which has been getting some acclaim. There's also the odd horror/mumblecore Deliverance duckling Black Rock, brought to us by the husband and wife team of Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton.

May 24 is to be one of the biggest weekends, as three major heavyweights look to topple Star Trek from the first place crown. Fast & Furious 6 is the favorite, especially after the slick and fun fifth feature that was best described as "The Avengers...but for douchebags!". Since the business move from hardcore car porn to international crime and espionage, the series has had a new chance of life. Judging from the trailer, it looks insanely pleasurable, from the pro-wrestling moves (including the Doomsday Device!), to Gina Carano, to the car stunts. And, of course, it is another major spotlight on The Year of Dwayne Johnson. Next up is The Hangover: Part III, a film that is sure to be deemed a failure if it doesn't get first place. Like Iron Man 2 but far, far, far worse, the second installment in the dark bromedy has been trashed by all for being nothing but a carbon copy of the popular first one. No plot has been given out, so all the marketing has centered around Zach Galifianakis antics, whether it is him singing, placing a lollipop in cameoing Melissa McCarthy's mouth, or the giraffe gag. I'll be lying if I didn't say I have no hope for it. For the families, Blue Sky Studios has Epic, the terribly titled Fern Gully homage. Though I also mock it for being a gender swapped The Secret World of Arrietty, I am interested in the world spun from William Joyce of the little forest people and the teenager girl who experiences the turmoil among them. Of course, given it's a big-time animated flick, the push has all been on the large voice cast assembled to get a paych...I mean to bring the world to life. Seriously, does anyone really care for the method acting skills of Pitbull? Will there be a Miami shout-out for him? Not to be outclassed, the indie markets will be served up with Before Midnight, the surprising third entry of Richard Linklater's famed film series about nothing more than two people in love. Praise has been very high since its Sundance premiere.

May 31 is all about wait and see. This could be a major bummer weekend, since the majority of releases have interest but not in the positive light. The biggest is After Earth, a.k.a. The Will Smith Nepotism Project: Part 4. Standing there right next to Tom Cruise's Oblivion, this major sci-fi film looks incredibly boring, relying on the audience's empathy for the odd vocal inflections of Will Smith and his son Jayden's survival on a primeval Earth. Despite its title, I say the movie will still pull the King Dinosaur twist of this being before our time, instead of being post-apocalypse and future regeneration. It goes double since the director is persona non grata M. Night Shyamalan, the man whose name is so toxic that the marketing has steered clear of mentioning him to fool the general public. Then, there's Now You See Me, the high concept, Ocean's Eleven but with magicians caper. The big cast and idea entices me but given the track record of its director, Louis Leterrier, I think it might be okay for a rental. The Kings of Summer looks to be another boring coming of white age film but The East does at least seem to be a good indie watch, as a deranged Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard go after major corporations.

June 7 has, ugh, The Internship. Talk about a pitiful movie; this feature-length commercial for Google has middle-aged Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson clown around under the direction of hack-meister Shawn Levy. Seriously, have you stared at its banal poster? Steer clear and wait for video, if you must. Then, there's The Purge, a sheer dumb home invasion film where a corrupt America now accepts a brief period where anyone can do anything criminal absolutely free of charge. The only thing interesting to come out is Joss Whedon's low budget take on Much Ado About Nothing. Shot on digital video and black and white, the Avengers director and last year's main man had his personal buddies put on a show of Shakespeare's popular comedy.

June 12 has the desperate scramble for This is the End to get any money it can before Friday. I like the concept, a group of comedic actors under their real names during an ever elaborate apocalypse, but I'm trepidatious about its execution. Of course, I was one of the few who enjoyed Evan Goldberg and Rogen's take on The Green Hornet.

June 14 is ever important for Warner Bros., DC Comics, the Internet, and the U.S.A. itself. The power and accomplishment of Man of Steel will determine whether the American public loves Superman in this day and age and whether we will get a Justice League film in the future. So far, I have been responding positively to the trailers, whether they are Malick-esque, somber and foreboding, or more adventurous. I adore the pre-Superman phase of the movie, with the strong showcase of Kevin Costner as Pa Kent, more than the later segments, despite Michael Shannon chewing scenery and the charm of Henry Cavill. Zack Synder better pull it off. Joining with Spring Breakers in the young wild women crime genre is Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring. Previews look good but I will be holding off of it for now.

June 21 is a very troubling weekend. It could feature the next notch down for Pixar because Monsters University comes out. It may surprise me but I didn't really need continuation to the Monsters Inc. series, let alone an prequel that still features the living Aztec Mummy himself, Billy Crystal. Of course, I will probably enjoy that film more than World War Z, the film whose production problems have now become legendary. I haven't read much of the book but its opening interview and story of a doctor encountering a zombie-stricken village is far more interesting than Brad Pitt saving his white middle-class family from the zombie outbreak, when he is not strangely teleporting around the world. Drive-in, second bill only.

June 28 is the new time slot for the delayed The Heat. I still will give it a chance despite being plagued by its green band trailer at every movie screening I go to. The only other major release is the late-to-the-party White House Down, the Volcano to Olympus Has Fallen's Dante's Peak. If there is a buddy cop dynamic with Channing Tatum's secret service agent and Jaime Foxx's President, it might be worth of glance though I don't think it will have the guilty pleasures featured in Olympus.

July 3. Man, what a dog of an Independence Day weekend. Despicable Me 2 will certainly be the audience favorite. The first one was just okay, banking heavily on the delightful Minion characters than the tired orphan plotline or the eye-rolling "steal the moon" race. Maybe Steve Carell's character will finally have a personality here. Then you have The Lone Ranger. Talk about DOA and this year's Battleship; western films have not done very well at all recently, except for say Rango, which director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp did before this film. However, that was animated while this is a giant live-action money pit. Not to mention that nobody knows or cares about the pulp hero nowadays or even back in the 80's, when a terrible adaptation was crafted with a wooden-faced lead literally named KLINTON SPILSBURY!

July 12, please, oh please, let the winner be Guillermo del Toro's labor of kaiju love, Pacific Rim. Why am I scared that mainstream audiences might not enjoy the giant mech battles, the blockbuster feel, the huge, talented and diverse cast, and all of the toys sure to flood toy stores? Because Grown-Ups 2 is in the other corner, sure to suck up the desperate and unintelligent. This is Adam Sandler's first live-action film after the double feature debacle of Jack and Jill and That's My Boy. He was only able to score a minor success with Hotel Transylvania but that was riding on its animated premise than the presence of Sandler and his Best Friends Brigade. The first entry was boffo for Sandler and this might be too but I'm praying for diminishing returns of a high scale. I rather go see The Hunt, the hard to sit through, Mads Mikkelsen persecuted drama that gave the Danish actor an award at last year's Cannes. Or, to kick back at home with V/H/S 2 (a.k.a. S-VHS), the sequel to the 2012 horror anthology that polarized horror fans.

July 19 is utterly stuffed with four major and different features. Red 2 continues the presence of Bruce Willis in action vehicles, which if you have been noticing haven't been very good at all. I frankly wasn't excited for the first installment and I don't care to see this. R.I.P.D. seems interesting, slain cops who come back into a special non-zombie unit, but I was burned by the equally supernatural police flick Men in Black 3 last year. The Conjuring comes from underrated horror director James Wan and seems very close to his previous hit Insidious, which is getting a sequel later this year. I tend to enjoy trailers that are strictly just one long sequence, which this film has a killer one involving a child's game of clapping. Turbo is, well, a not very enticing animated film about a super-powered snail speedster. Dreamworks Animation maybe progressing with better films but this looks too kiddy right now. Not even the use of the Drive soundtrack can made the trailers look good. Speaking of Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn and megastar Ryan Gosling reunite with Only God Forgives, a dark noir involving bloodshed and fighting on the streets of Thailand. Certainly come me in. Also, the hyped up Kristen Wiig black comedy Girl Most Likely (a.k.a. Imogene) is to be a sleeper for art theaters.

July 26 has, yep you guessed it, a single release based on a comic book. The Wolverine has much to overcome: the sheer hatred and stink of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the fan outcry for the X-Men rights to revert back to Marvel, the directoral change-over from Darren Aronofsky to James Mangold, and the absolutely asinine posters it has come out with recently. So far, the only saving graces is Hugh Jackman, of course, and its popular re-telling of the character's journey through Japan as a ronin. Of the comic book movies this season, this is a hard third place; check out the reviews before experiencing what 20th Century Fox has now meddled with. The indie films look far more interesting: another Woody Allen film with Blue Jasmine, which is getting notices for starring stand-up comedians Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay of all people, and the Sundance smash Fruitvale Station. The latter looks highly engaging, given its strong and tragic "based on real-life events" story and is headlined by the up-and-coming Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle).

July 31 is the special Wednesday release of The Smurfs 2. You know, I was thinking the first installment would be genuinely awful, and it is at many times, but I still enjoyed the characters I grew up with and especially the opening segment in Smurf Village. Did the makers learn from their mistakes and create a film centered more around the fantasy world of the Smurfs? No. Instead, we have another real world adventure, this time in Paris, so the creatures can have more annoying clashes with pop culture. Like the Transformers franchise, the studio thinks we enjoy a human appearance more so that the beloved characters.

August 2 is all about male dominated action; I guess the female demographic has to just sit through The Smurfs 2 instead. First, and more importantly, is 300: Rise of an Empire, a prequel to the kooky and frothing with machismo 2007 comic book epic. The producers certainly had different motives, as they wanted to subside the homoerotic subtext (more like main-text) and have been advertising a token female warrior into the proceedings. Because that strategy certainly helped the Clash of the Titans franchise. Next is the banal titled 2 Guns, sure to head into second due to the continuing popularity of Denzel Washington, despite his recent rash of fair to mediocre outputs. His buddy cop antics with NCIS agent Mark Wahlberg against the mob looks to follow the trend. In the indies is the Sundance favorite The Spectacular Now, a teen soap helmed by the man who gave us the exasperating Smashed and featuring one of the top upcoming talents, Miles Teller (Footloose, Project X).

August 7 is the special Wednesday premiere for...Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters? Really? There was a strong need for a sequel to the forgettable Harry Potter rip-off that should have died with the rest, except for airings on Cartoon Network? Whatever, Hollywood; it's your decision to head into the red, unless the international circles make it better.

August 9 will see Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to District 9, Elysium. Coveting the spot once slotted for the troubled Robocop remake, it's the major release of August and banking on Matt Damon's popularity to guide its sci-fi rich vs. poor storyline to the box office. However, as seen before, sci-fi doesn't do well in August. Then, there's Planes, a Disney film designed to be DTV yet receiving a theatrical run. The Cars franchise may still do well in the toy department but the franchise took a major hit with Cars 2 and has been sputtering after everyone laughed off the idea of this film. It also doesn't bode well that its original star, Jon Cryer, had his lines removed and been replaced by Dane Cook. There's also We're the Millers, a pot smoking, indie-like comedy from the guy who did Dodgeball (remember that film? from 2004?).

August 16 sees the release of Kick-Ass 2. I thoroughly enjoyed the first one and the continuing success of Chloe Grace Moretz; however the trailer didn't really catch me at all, not even with the prominence and audacity of Jim Carrey's character, Colonel Stars and Stripes. The Do List is getting buzz of the bad kind, due to the peculiar stunt pulled by its star Audrey Plaza at the recent MTV Movie Awards. Though I like the young star, the film will probably be forgotten and Plaza's plug on her skin will make company with the ugly, album-shilling dress worn by Macy Gray from years past. Paranoia sounds like a corporate non-thriller, there might be a sleeper hit with Austenland, and pompous critics will get to rejoice and be glad because director David Gordon Green has stopped doing stoner comedies and is returning to his indie roots with Prince Avalanche.

August 23 is devoted to cult and niche fans, hence why all of its releases will not do very well. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is the one getting the most attention due to its presence at conventions and the fans of the young adult book series. However, it is sure to be another Twilight-"inspired" failure, as seen by the earlier failures of The Host, Beautiful Creatures and Warm Bodies. I'm more interested in The World's End, another apocalypse film this summer but coming from the hilarious British team of director Edgar Wright and the duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Rounding out the "Three Flavours Cornetto" trilogy from the crew (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz being the others), it is still being kept a secret but I have faith in the product. You're Next is the provocative title for the home invasion horror flick that has been getting buzz from the Toronto and SXSW Film Festivals and its creepy character posters. Rounding out the crew is Grandmasters, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai's take on the Ip Man story that wasn't already thoroughly covered by the popular Donnie Yen films.

August 30 is the finale and what a decrepit, piece of shit way to end the season: One Direction: This is Us, a concert/documentary film of the British boy band that is sure to be a one week wonder; Getaway, not another remake of the Steve McQueen classic or featuring Richard Marx's music skills but a forgettable 12 Rounds-like action film better suited for Redbox; and Closed Circuit, an uninteresting courtroom thriller. Wow, what a line-up.

My Top Picks of Summer 2013

1. Pacific Rim
2. Man of Steel
3. Only God Forgives
4. Fast & Furious 6
5. Iron Man 3
6. Elysium
7. Fruitvale Station
8. Epic
9. The World's End
10. Before Midnight

Of course, there are some films not mentioned here or included because I frankly have a hard time determining their release time frame. Not to mention, the possibility of any of these to be delayed. Check back later this weekend for my review of Iron Man 3.

I hope your movie experiences will be as good as mine, but probably less cynical.