Monday, April 20, 2015

'Jurassic World' Trailer is Chewing Away my Excitment

Jurassic World is one of the most highly anticipated big special effect spectacles of the summer from a franchise that somehow continues to have incredible good will and bubble up mass excitement despite only the first movie actually being great. It is interesting how much love can remain for a franchise that hasn't really earned it; it is sort of like people willing to continue going to a theme park that has rides that turn you into the main course.

In my review of the original Jurassic World trailer, I compared it to the Jaws franchise as both have a classic original movie but never really had the material for a sequel because no matter how it is jazzed up, it will always be the same running/swimming away from a carnivorous predator.  

The one major plus is Chris Pratt is dripping with charisma. From what can be seen in both trailers, he plays a perfect balance of humour and intensity. He easily shifts from a "I realize this is all ridiculous" to having the chops of a real action star. A perfect casting for the silly, over-the-top Saturday matinee adventure hero that this script clearly demands.

On the downside, Joss Whedon seems to be rather correct that Bryce Dallas Howard has been left with being the picture's dull stick in the mud. Her job seems to be rolling her eyes at the charming and lovable Pratt and try to defend why she stupidly made a genetically enhanced dinosaur that is now killing all the other attractions. I had hope from the previous trailer where she was wielding a safety flare she would kick ass, but her greater purpose seems to be the humorless, egotistical, workaholic female who either needs to be saved or gets eaten for her mistakes. She doesn't even get to be the smart one as Pratt has to inform her about the fact that dinosaurs hunt and this is why everything is going to hell.

To be fair, despite the fact I'm in agreement with Whedon on this, you can't really judge the character off a trailer or clip. There may be whole lot of story missing here and Howard's character may turn out to be far more important. It doesn't look good here, but maybe the marketing team is scared a strong female will cause all the fanboys to cower in their mom's basement or spend time engaging in Twitter wars against female celebrities instead of going to the theatre to see the movie.

I was pretty overjoyed with the announcement that Colin Trevorrow was directing and Derek Connolly was writing as they were the same team that made the critically lauded comedic drama with sci-fi sprinklings in Safety Not Guaranteed. It gave hope for a character-focused tentpole that doesn't forget we need to care about those running from the giant hungry dinosaurs and the people in the end are more important than the CGIed monsters.  Failing that, it would at least have a sense of humour.

The sense of humour seems to be intact, but this trailer is absolutely ridiculous. Pratt leading a velociraptor army, a pterosaur making off with a park patron, large dinosaurs being eaten by giant dinosaurs, somehow every creature got out of it cage once again, guns blasting everywhere while body fly and I'm sure the dancing dinosaur with a top hat is being saved for the movie. It is all absurd and that can be a glorious thing actually, if the insanity has a focus and a story. But the trailer is just a collection of quickly churned out craziness. If the movie tries to keep that pace with non-stop dinosaur stomping with nothing but Pratt's snark to substitute for real characters we care about then this is just Transformers replaced by giant hungry lizards. It need pacing and atmosphere, but I'll say it again, people we want to cheer.

Pratt is oozing personality to spare and I still trust the instincts of Trevorrow and Connolly. Even if this trailer is just a flurry of images from someone's dream after a binging of rocky road ice cream sprinkled with Doritos then chased by whiskey, I have faith there is still a heart, real story, and characters to be found. No matter what I foolishly think, this is still going to be an insane hit.

'Fantastic Four' Trailer Serves Up Super Hero Deja Vu

It has been a crazy week for dropping trailers for the big heavy hitters lined up for 2015. Due to my already aforementioned fiery nosedive in writing here, I missed them all (but covered a few on this morning's podcast). I may still try to write some pieces on a few of those trailers (specifically one that contained an old furry pal and his scruffy scoundrel friend), but probably best to kick-off my "why yes, I'm writing on here again" with an analysis of the newest trailer for a big summer tentpole in the rebooted Fantastic Four.

Apparently, the last trailer that was released a month or so ago was only a 'teaser', though I'm struggling to decipher the different between those and trailers anymore. Except one is longer and more likely to spoil crucial plot points.

The biggest strengths of this movie reboot has been the great young cast that has actors who have earned their reputation in highly acclaimed works with Miles Teller (Spectacular Now, Whiplash), Kate Mara (127 Hours, House of Cards)  and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) along with having director Josh Trank who made his name on the supernatural teenage adventure Chronicle. Though the found-footage element was a bit of a detractor for me in Chronicle, it had a depth and focus on characters that has been absent in most every other superhero movie. He also proved to have a knack for bringing out great performances as this is where I discovered the great talents of Jordan and Dane DeHaan.

Prior to the first teaser dropping, several sites grabbed snippets of Trank interviews that had him saying his filmmaking style would be very evident in this version of Fantastic Four. This led many to believing we'd end up with a found-footage movie, because apparently, that is all anyone got out of the really good Chronicle. The first teaser quickly dismissed that and proved that wasn't what Trank was hinting at.

The first teaser was more subdued and quieter than every other super hero movie trailer I had seen. It seemed to be spotlighting the humans behind the super powers. It got me to believe this would be a far more character-driven story that much like Chronicle would delve into the internal struggle that occurs when one is suddenly being blessed or cursed with super powers. I had hoped for an allegorical coming of age story that elevated drama and character development over action. I was always aware this was still a big budget tentpole and so it still needed some dazzling special effect laden action sequences, but my deep hope was this movie would stand out from a very overstuffed mainstream film scene by almost trying to be a bit of different genre than all other super hero movies.

This trailer seems to be designed to punch me in the gut and scream, "Hell no, we want to be like every other super hero movie that has flooded the marketplace." Don't me wrong, that isn't the same thing as being bad. I've enjoyed every movie that Marvel Studios has churned out and I like many of the movies that have come out of the other studios (though the track record is far spottier). What I'm saying is that it is time for something different and attempts at change that aren't just cosmetic (to be fair, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Captain America: Winter Soldier are real attempts at that but still action trumps all).

I also much concede this is the official main trailer and not the movie. The trailer is usually the creation of marketing folks with the number one goal of enticing the masses. This usually means making the new movie to look like all the other movies that made Mount Everest size amount of millions. A trailer isn't always what a movie truly ends up being (last year's Lucy is a great example) but you're still getting glimpses of scenes from the actual movie that will be screened (usually).

My first reason for reservation is that the majority of the trailer is the origin story. Though a slight twist, essentially one we've seen twice now in regards to the Fantastic Four. In 2015, I think most of us can agree we're pretty much sick with origin stories especially since they now exist in movies that aren't even with super powers anymore like The Lone Ranger and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It is often a blatant first chapter with the sole purpose to launch several more movies rather than being its own compelling story. I really hope this iteration of the origin story gets wrapped up in the first 30 minutes and we can move on to an original story. Actually, we got all we need to know about their transformation in a 2 minute trailer so maybe we can skip it and call this our primer.

There seems to be a darker and more somber tone in this picture. There are hints that the powers aren't gifts or wanted. We get an intriguing emotional punch with Reg E. Cathey's Dr. Franklin Storm declaring he wants his children back. The statement opens up some interesting story possibilities as either it means there is a long stretch of them truly trapped in another parallel dimension where he wants them to literally return or referring to him not connecting with them in there transformed forms.  There are hints of the new group having to work through the major upheaval in their life. The stars have the talent to bring in that pathos and add lots of subtext to the story.

But "darker" also means it reminds me a whole lot of last week's Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer where Scott and I complained about how everything had to be shot at night and the visuals seemed to be overcompensating with an overly bleak visual sense. The Nolan-esque gritty and somber looking comic book movies are growing tiresome since that visual style isn't distinctive anymore. It is partly what made Guardians of the Galaxy or Kingsman: The Secret Service stand out since they were both visually bright and cheery (even if both still were violent and action intensive).

Speaking of not being distinctive, the Thing smashes stuff and gets to fly through the air, Johnny Storm bursts into flames, and Dr. Doom looks menacing. The special effects are updated and as stated it is all darker, but I didn't see anything all that different from the Fantastic Four movies that aren't that much liked. Based on the trailer, this looks pure special effects action that at this point doesn't seem all that dazzling or distinctive.

At this point, it would better to be almost a bubble gummy callback to the Christopher Reeve Superman pictures that has that "gee whiz" and tongue-in-cheek charm or to dare to use that gritty visual to make an actually hard-edge picture with intense dramatic story arcs. Otherwise, it is just another Man of Steel or X-Men or Iron Man but now called Fantastic Four.

I realize every other site had already spent countless words on Dr. Doom. Yeah, he looks cool even though we see very little. I hope we continue to see very little until it comes time to pay to watch this movie. One gnarly looking villain doesn't make the most anticipated movie of the summer. The very different and rebooted Fantastic Four we were promised seems to be very hidden in this latest trailer. I still cling to hope though that it will show itself, because I do love this cast and director.

Gareth Edwards May Make 'Star Wars: Rogue One' a Cool Prequel

My ambitions of writing on here (more than) daily have been shot down into a fiery rumble this past week, but I have dug down deep to avoid spending a thousand plus words on an excuse disguised as a "State of the Blog Address." Especially since recent Star Wars news has tractor beamed me back here on the site and instilled me with the Force to write several articles on here this week, including several trailers, reviews, and think-pieces that should have been posted here last week.

At the moment, I must talk about news that broke yesterday at the Star Wars Celebration convention in Anaheim, because it is still real hot and feisty.

Director Gareth Edward, best known for helming 2014 very well-done Godzilla and became an indy darling with Monsters, dropped some pretty big news regarding the first of the Star Wars spin-off/standalone movies, Star Wars: Rogue One.

We finally know to not call them spin-offs or standalone pictures but rather they're "anthology films." It is about time we've got yet another studio buzzword that already had a perfectly suitable name but clearly needed to be "branded" so that every other single studio can parrot it. So, now we live in a wondrous age that every corporate bean counter tries to rally the paying customers with words like "cinematic universe", "reimagining", and finally, "anthology films." I can hardly hold my excitement for "anthology films" of Ghostbusters, Transformers, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Okay, maybe there was something a bit more exciting than new corporate movie talk. Edwards also revealed the plot of next year's Star Wars movie, and it has done something that is rather rare, actually get me excited for a prequel.

I usually stand by the belief that if the story contained in a prequel was really worth telling then it would have been included in the original story and it was left out for a reason. Most prequel movies have largely confirmed that belief with the Star Wars prequels often standing up as the ultimate example for most (my hate isn't as strong but still feel it diminished rather than enhanced the canon while also made one of the coolest villains ever into a whiny dork). The only movie prequel (novels are much better at this) off the top of my head that I can really endorse as an absolute "must-watch" experience (though I openly admit I must be missing another or unaware it is a prequel) is Rupert Wyatt's 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In in that case, it was less an actual prequel and more an entire reworking and restart of the franchise that only loosely followed rules established by prior movies (the main one being fixing the silliness of Tim Burton's 2001 Planet of the Apes reboot by putting it back on Earth and making humans the cause of the uprising).

Rogue One's synopsis tells us the movie will be about a band of rebels going on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star. And yes, it is that DEATH STAR, Edwards confirmed that the events will be taking place in-between Revenge of the Sith and the original Star Wars (that some persist on calling A New Hope). The stealing of the plans by the rebellion, which essentially kicks off the major events of the original trilogy, is probably the one unseen event that I've always wanted to witness. It was the rebels first known victory and likely one that took espionage and a daring heist that stars characters that remained unknown in movie canon. There clearly is a fast-paced story that contains a lot of possibility for complex characters and subplots.

The interesting thing is that Edwards claims the picture won't have clear-cut heroes and villains, which is drastically opposed to every previous Star Wars movie that really has never dealt with shades of grey (yes, Han Solo was a scoundrel but there was never any hiding he was one of the good guys), Edwards' comments also oppose the knowledge that the stolen plans were done by the rebels (clearly good guys) from the Empire (very definition of bad guys). How can you have blurred lines with those two groups clearly being what should be the focus of the movie.

The movie is being marketed as a rogue group going on a mission to steal the plans of the Death Star, which leads one to believe these are the event that happen right before the original Star Wars and is about the successful Rebel capturing of those plans. It isn't specifically stated that is the case, though. There is potential this could be a failed attempt at getting the plans. It also isn't necessarily the well-known rebel alliance that tries to get these plans but rather a rogue group with a potentially dastardly agenda for those plans (that is happening while the Civil War rages on). This would then darken the picture considerably with criminals going against the Empire. If it does turn out to be another rogue group that would also solve any need to have characters like a young Princess Leia present in the movie.

Even if this is supposed to be a very different, darker and more ambiguous Star Wars, I can't see the filmmakers ready to serve up a downer ending in a standalone picture where the Empire triumphs by protecting their plans. Plus everyone who is going to watch this particular movie is not only expecting but really wanting to see the Rebels steal the plans. Star Wars is always a crowd pleaser even if our favourite smuggler ends up frozen in carbonite or an appendage goes spiraling down a chasm.

My prediction is that this will be the movie about how the plans actually get stolen. It will also turn out that the Rebel Alliance may have to acquire some outside sources like some less than savory smugglers or bounty hunter to help them out. This may be where Lucasfilms wants to cast Ben Mendelson who is eternally destined to play slimy and untrustworthy folks and would make a fantastic ruthless gun-for-hire that helps out the Rebels for a price.

The picture is also being sold as a war story. I'm sure there will be some in-the-trenches action sequences that are used to provide atmosphere and create the stakes for the big heist. The opening scrolling words of the first movie also makes it clear the plans get stolen during the Rebels first victory that is achieve by a secret base going boom.  At one point I heard an Ocean's Eleven style movie but I'd assume it won't be as light or wacky or comedic, but rather much more action focused. It will likely jump between the first big battle victory to the spies and rogues uncovering the sought after prize.

The other exciting part of this movie is that Felicity Jones is currently being billed as the star. Based off that news and the trailers for The Force Awakens, we will have two straight Star Wars pictures with females in a major role that has them jumping into the action. There was also word bouncing about that we may have our first female fighter pilots in this movie. It is safe to assume Jones is going to have big part in the heist and may even be the leader of the group. All that is clear is she is part of Rebellion and has a strong chance to be the lead. A rather substantial make-up for Edwards' last picture that had the talented Elizabeth Olsen relegated to damsel in distress.

That pesky Star Wars once again has slashed down my pessimism. They've made me actually care about one of these spin-off movies (sorry, anthology), and actually, I'm almost as excited for this movie as I am for this December's big kick-off movie to the newest trilogy.

The Movie Breakdown Episode 85 Podcast: Follow Us in Seeing One of the Best Horror Pictures in Years

Scott and I have been big horror movies fans, but this podcast would often make you feel otherwise. We've had our recommendations like the classic Don't Look Now, but haven't been very kind to most modern horror pictures. This week we're absolutely ecstatic about David Robert Mitchell's foray into the world of horror, It Follows. Following an in-depth discussion of that picture, we also share our thoughts on the latest trailers for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (we're killing them on number of episodes produced) and Terminator Genisys (we're beating them on properly spelt titles). Then from there, our regular listeners get another rare treat in a very passionate and enraged Scott as we discuss the recent craziness surrounding Wonder Women directors.

As always, if you love the show then please pass on the word.

The Movie Breakdown Outline:

00:00 - 00:33 Introduction
00:34 - 11:44 The highly anticipated Devil's Backbone, Texas review ("it was all a ruse" movies)
11:45 - 49:06 It Follows review
49:07 - 53:17 Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens trailer review
53:18 - 57:55 Terminator: Genisys trailer review
57:56 - 1:04:27 The Rover review
1:04:28 - 1:07:17 Monkey Kingdom review
1:07:18 - 1:15:09 Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer review
1:15:10 - 1:18:44 We eat crow as we now gush about potential Flash Gordon movie
1:18:45 - 1:28:58 The chaos and ranting about the Wonder Woman director craziness
1:28:59 - Closing (review rundown)

Movie Ratings:

It Follows **** (CS) **** (SM)
The Rover *** (CS) *** (SM)
Monkey Kingdom *** (CS)

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Movie Breakdown Episode 84: No Movies Watched so We Talk Bodily Functions Instead

Scott and I talk movies this week despite the fact we were able to narrowly avoid the intoxicating lure of the latest Nicholas Sparks epic. Neither of us ended up watching movies since the last show, but we found a whole bunch to talk about -- some of it even had to do with the world of cinema. We discussed and debated such crucial things like the latest movies trailers (that includes Sinister 2), what is happening with upcoming comic book adaptations, the pointlessness of a She's All That remake, the many works of Stephen King that have turned into movie, and of course, my farts. If you love the show then please spread the word around.

The Movie Breakdown Outline:

00:00 - 03:09 Introduction and why we aren't reviewing a movie this week
03:10 - 12:36 Look at how The Longest Ride did at the box office and state of Nicholas Sparks 
12:37 - 18:33 The Roman Polanski Cinematic Universe Pitch
18:34 - 28:08 Me and Earl and the Dying Girl trailer and the state of modern teenage centric dramas
28:09 - 34:39 Sinister 2 trailer
34:40 - 48:08 Stephen King adaptations and why the novels are often better than the movies
48:09 - 55:30 She's All That remake and is it better to just rip it off
55:31 - 57:38 Hot Pursuit trailer
57:39 - 1:02:44 Is 2015 signaling the rise of female-centric summer time movies
1:02:45 - 1:19:56 Crack down on pirated movies and the need to adapt to modern times
1:19:57 - 1:37:30 Dark Tower series looks to finally be a thing and the obsession with cinematic universes
1:37:39 - 1:40:08 The false conclusion and talk about my constant farts and need to pee
1:40:09 - 1:43:49 Pinocchio live-action adaptation and Guillermo Del Toro doing Disney
1:43:50 - Conclusion and threats to review Paul Blart: Mall Cop and things squirt and getting off Facebook

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

'Twin Peaks" Isn't 'The Muppets' and Still Needs its Creator, David Lynch

It is largely accepted that we're currently in a new creative Golden Age of television with critically beloved and original series like The Americans, True Detective, and House of Cards (to name a very few). Of course, House of Cards doesn't fit under traditional definition of television as it is an exclusive series to the streaming service, Netflix, but I'm sure a large group watch it on their TV. Despite a wealth of fresh and innovative programming, we've witnessed networks and cable channels following the sad path of the movie studios by eagerly gobbling up reboots, remakes or extensions of "popular" works (not sure if anyone was demanding a Problem Child series).

While I've rolled my eyes and sometimes even groaned over what is dragged out from the far reaches of the closet, Twin Peaks was the returning series that I was genuinely thrilled to see. In the very least, it gave me a reason to revisit the original and have a reason to sell around the concept of writing retro-reviews. Of course, then Netflix suddenly dropped it from their service when it would have been at it hottest. Then again, maybe they had a crystal ball handy.

David Lynch announced this week that he will be departing from the Twin Peaks series that is scheduled to be made for Showtime. At this point it looks like Showtime has every intention of moving forward with the series. It looks like they aren't quite willing to write-off Lynch as directing and being involved quite yet.

There is a good reason they aren't eagerly moving past Lynch despite his public declaration he is off the project.

As ridiculous as many of these rebooted or reimagined series sound, I know that I have to look past recreations that seem to exist for money rather than creative reasons and accept that each has the potential to be delightful surprises. Fargo sounded like an awful idea, especially with Coen's having minimal involvement, and it ended up being one of the very best series of 2014 and I'm eagerly anticipating the second season. It worked because despite likely being greenlit over the established name, it became its own series and also extended the canon of the original movie and played homage to many of the Coen brothers' movies. 12 Monkeys was another series that seemed like a bad idea, but then it became clear they were also using the initial idea of the movie to launch a very different sci-fi adventure serial. The first episode jarred me a little as it totally lacked Terry Gilliam's visual style and evocative imagery, but then I got hooked on the new story and accepted it as something completely different. The point being that many of these works that can be remade can exist and be good without the hands-on involvement of the creator.

Twin Peaks absolutely needs David Lynch. There isn't any possible reason for the series to relaunch without his direction and vision. "Lynchian" is an accepted adjective in pop culture for a reason, because the director has a very distinct style and storytelling sense. He established himself with films like Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet, but the term is most associated with Twin Peaks. Of everything he has done in his renowned career, it is this series he is most tightly associated with among most and you also don't mention Twin Peaks without thinking David Lynch.

Lynch created an almost idyllic and postcard like small suburban town that exudes warmth and friendliness at the surface but hides an unshakeable evilness. It is a cynical gaze upon small town America, the place that is supposed to be safer and better than the big cities. Lynch unveils the dark side and the nasty secrets while also sprinkling in his own brand of bizarreness and eccentricities. He has a directorial style that feels contemporary and straight from the arthouse with a mix of classic filmmaking of the 1940 and 1950s. Even if his expert incorporation of music and ambitious camera shots didn't exist, he crafted an original and haunting tale.

I recognize that David Lynch isn't the only reason that Twin Peaks is a respected, beloved, and ground-breaking TV series from the early 1990s that has now become one of the most anticipated series to ever be relaunched. Mark Frost is the co-creator of the series and is still attached to write all the scripts for the new series. There is still a very strong chance it will be a high quality series. But the perception always has been that Lynch is Twin Peaks and that is almost impossible to shake, as there are very few series that are so synonymous with one person.

The concept of the picture-perfect small town that is nothing more than a facade hiding dangerous secrets has been revisited several times under different titles after the original series went off the air. The investigator or protagonist that is on a case and believing one thing at first to then be plunged into a labyrinth of bizarre and supernatural twists is even less rare. Twin Peaks has influenced many shows but has also meant that it isn't drastically different anymore and the basic story itself isn't one that viewers are starving to consume. It was largely what came with Twin Peaks -- David Lynch.

We've got a rather Twin Peaks like show coming up in less than a month in Fox's Wayward Pines. Even the title can't really avoid evoking memories of the series. The May premiere slot sort of hints that it may not turn out to be that very good, but we could be surprised and then left wondering if Twin Peaks has what it really takes to truly stand out. The fact "clones" are cropping up again and the potential there will be for competing series filled with the supernatural and macabre, it might be time to revisit how important the actual brand name of Twin Peaks is without David Lynch.

The series may need a renovations and massive upheaval or even a tossing off a cliff and keep the elements of what made Twin Peaks work but not actually be Twin Peaks. Rather follow the lead of Wayward Pines and just become something eerily similar and to be less kind, a knock-off. It is far easier to be compared to a M. Night Shyamalan production than David Lynch's baby that many have been eagerly awaiting to hold and rock again.

Or I could be completely misguided here and fail to see that the Twin Peaks name has usurped the creator. Or it is long enough that the most coveted viewers are only vaguely aware of Lynch. I don't think I'm wrong that the series needs Lynch, but the past week has proven that some creations do far outlive the creator.

Jim Henson has always been connected with the Muppets. In the 1980s, it would have been impossible to imagine a show or movie without his involvement,. Now, it is impossible for him to be attached other than acknowledgement he was the creator. Yet Muppets are at a revitalization stage and have the potential to be at their strongest in decades.

Part of that is that Henson's family is still involved and those close to him are ensuring his vision stays alive. It is also a stable piece of pop culture art that has permeated through many childhoods for several decades and it has a strong enough foothld that other artistic folks can come in with their own touches without causing it to topple. The last few years have also helped in proving it can remain a top notch series.

Right after I watched the great 2011 The Muppets movie, I felt a powerful nostalgia for the old series. Probably partly because the movie was about resurrecting the show and making the Muppets relevant again. It seemed to be the time was right to relaunch the series, but it looked like Disney didn't quite trust it even though the picture was a hit.

Variety shows are now making a bit of a comeback. The idea of event television is even a bigger deal. A short-run The Muppets Show can serve both. It is also just the right kind of nostalgia that will draw back people like me but also be just as appealing to my son and children. It could work to many generations, which is another major thing in modern strategies as it becomes harder and harder to get a foothold in the crowd entertainment arena.

My bubbling excitement for The Muppets Show proves that the art can surpass the artist. I didn't have a single hesitation of the announcement the series was returning despite there not being any Jim Henson. It doesn't flatten me out the same way the announcement of a Lynch-less Twin Peaks.

There is a chance Lynch returns. If he doesn't the series will have a chance to prove it can be so much more than just the original director's vision. For now, I am whole lot more excited for the frog.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

'Killing Season' Review: Movie Watching Can Be Torture

Four Star Rating: *

Starring: Robert De Niro, John Travolta, Milo Ventimiglia, Elizabeth Olin, Diana Lyubenova
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Screenplay: Evan Daugherty
Genre: Thriller, Action
Rated: R - graphic violence, scenes of torture, coarse language including sexual references
Release Date: July12, 2013
Run Time: 90 minutes

A great movie is one that strikes you deep into your gut to where you're emotionally moved and sometimes physically exhausted. This can happen from numerous components of film such as a sterling script, captivating cinematography, invigorating score, and breathtaking performances. The truly great pictures are mood changers that stick with you for days and can either cause you to be flying above the clouds or be overpowered into deep reflection. The truly great movies control our emotions and feelings.

A really awful movie can do the exact same thing. Killing Season aggressively shoved me into depression, which may not be desired but can be a hallmark of a deeply personal and powerful social movie that demands society begins to change. This depression came from the fact that two great actors (Robert De Niro and John Travolta) who were once considered superstars have fallen to the point of agreeing to star in this video-on-demand disaster.

The most intriguing part of the movie is how the two stars approach it. De Niro is clearly in this movie because the money was right and his entire performance seems to reflect a man thinking about what he will do with his new money and desperately hoping no one comes across this picture. The movie should be used for university classes about how once highly revered actors can phone-in a performance for a production they clearly didn't really have any desire or passion to be involved.

Travolta is the polar opposite as he completely throws himself into his role as Serbian Emil Kovac, who is a former Scorpion soldier out for revenge against American military veteran, Colonel Benjamin Ford (De Niro). Travolta's face has been taken over by a furry creature posing as facial hair that rivals his bizarre look in Battlefield Earth and accompanies it with an accent that is best compared to a fourth grader's attempt to imitate Dolph Lundgren with his mouth full of sandwich. It is clear that Travolta is throwing himself into this role and it would be admirable if it wasn't taken so seriously.

Director Mark Steven Johnson and screenwriter Evan Daugherty are making a deadly serious movie. Definitely deadly for anyone tricked into seeing it, because they're fans of the stars or a well-meaning relative gave it as a Christmas gift (because they know how much you love that De Niro). There isn't an ounce of humour here and it is attempting to be a thriller that gives deep reflection on the lasting impact and trials that come from war. The annals of pictures deeply exploring the psychological effects of war is filled with magnificent and masterful works like The Deer Hunter, Platoon and Apocalypse Now. Obviously, those are unfair comparisons for a low-budget thriller but this doesn't even have the complexity and nuance of Red Dawn or Behind Enemy Lines. The point is that this message isn't fresh and needs an engaging story to justify its existence.

Ford lives in an isolated cabin situated in the Appalachian Mountains where in an attempt to forget the ravages of the Bosnian War has cut himself off from everyone including his family. He comes across a hiker in Kovac who kindly fixes his truck and the two bond over drinks, but since we've already at this point seen Kovac trying to track down Ford for the purpose of revenge, we know this is all a ruse. Indeed, when they go on a hunting trip, Ford learns he is the prey and so we get an updated and far less interesting version of Richard Connell's "A Most Dangerous Game." Rather than trying to kill the man that Kovac has been lusting revenge for over a decade, he tortures Ford and unleashes an overly long villain revenge monologue for no other reason than to give an opportunity to escape. Thus the cycle begins where each guy has the chance to kill the other but instead recites an extended speech and enacts elaborate torture that ends with the perpetrator making a stupid mistake so the captive can have his turn.

The picture is bookended by the grander message of being haunted by the atrocities and inhumanity of war, but the ridiculous middle act with the cat and mouse game negates any chance of being profound and thought-provoking (though the end is beyond convoluted and forced). To get an idea of the absurdity of the movie, one of the torture scenes consists of De Niro's character waterboarding Travolta's character with a glass of freshly made lemonade that has the sugar replaced with salt. It would all be great B-movie comedy if it wasn't for being so dull and serious.

The only other small positive outside of Travolta's glorious overacting is the eye-popping north Georgian scenery that provides a beautiful contrast to the gory violence (one scene is Kovac being impaled to a door by an arrow). I got the unsettling feeling that at times the shots were actually stock footage, which is likely inaccurate but feels that way due to most of the best cinematography being wide shots that don't contain any of the characters. One scene where De Niro's character is rushing through the rapids, the shot is so wide that it could have been footage of any bobbing piece of material in the rushing river from any movie (again it was shot for this movie but there is no disputing it was clearly a stunt double or dummy). This is a small genre picture that has action scenes far too ambitious for its budget thus loses any of its impact.

Anything worthwhile in this movie has been done a thousand times better many times before. Instead the viewing experience is its own form of torture as it beats down those that were once optimistic that Silver Living Playbook would signal the revitalization for the great De Niro's career. If you don't heed my advice to stay far away even for a "throw popcorn at the screen and make an array of snide remarks" outing, you'll at least witness Travolta challenge Nicolas Cage for the crown of "once highly-respected actor go way over the top in an otherwise pointless movie."

Monday, April 06, 2015

The Movie Breakdown Podcast Episode 83: Furious Ranting and Fast Movie Reviewing

This week Scott and I rocket out a not-really-fast and way-too-good-natured to be furious edition of The Movie Breakdown. As you can guess, we talk about the lone wide-release and first major blockbuster of the year, Furious 7. The movie also inspires Scott to break into probably his most passionate rant in the history of the show, and the he caps off the show with another unrelated diatribe. In-between that we discuss several new trailers like the latest for Mad Max: Fury Road, Straight Outta Compton, and Poltergeist. As always if you love the show then please spread the word.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

'Straight Outta Compton' Trailer Shakes Up the Biopic Genre

Without even a single clip or trailer, Straight Outta Compton rocketed near the top of my most anticipated 2015 releases. My adrenalin started to rocket when the teaser got dropped several weeks ago. Much like the Mad Max: Fury Road trailer that just got released, the first official trailer reveals more of the actual story. Also similar to Mad Max, I eagerly gobbled up every morsel offered.

The teaser was modeled after rap videos from the early 1990s with its rapid cuts, shots of beautiful women, and chaotic energy. This time around we have a much more traditional trailer designed to actually reveal the plot of the picture. It also means that the delivered snippets show cracks of a movie being closer to a standard biopic than hinted at in the teaser, but this is also the official mainstream trailer that is trying to draw in the average movie-goer, so that is expected. The only major reservation that I have, and I really hope it is only this overt in the two and half minute trailer, is the lazy "genius biopic" trope of several characters telling the protagonists how brilliant they are and how this will change the world rather than just showing us. I'm pretty sure the N.W.A. didn't know they were going to be rap innovators or spend their time being verbally pleasured by others drooling over them.

Fortunately, the trailer provides enough evidence that we will actually get to witness the brilliance of the artists as well. The brief clips of the concert scenes send a chill down my spine and have a raw and authentic power. The soundtrack is going to be phenomenal and big hits like this year's Fox series Empire, hopefully means this will get a true wide release (possibly become a huge "surprise" hit) but won't shy away from including some great full-length musical performances.

Now after a teaser and trailer, I'm also pretty confident it doesn't look like this picture is going to try to deify the subjects. Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre did revolutionize music but the movie seems willing to show the hard-edge and hatred that burned inside them. They're a group that brought some mass hysteria to mainstream America while also ripping off the moldy Band-Aid on the festering wound that still isn't any closer to being healed. Not only are we going to see the rise and witness the message they blasted through America, but there are clips of scenes that will show the dangers and prejudiced that defined Compton thus formed them into the men they became. The picture looks at the late 1980s and early 1990s but sadly still holds great relevance and has the potential to have a social impact similar to classic pictures like Do the Right Thing and Boyz N the Hood.

It will hopefully bring that message by being authentic to the N.W.A and what it meant at the time, which means a picture that isn't safe or sanitized. This will likely knock it out of any Best Picture consideration, especially if it as uncomfortable a viewing experience -- as it should be -- as the status quo shaking N.W.A. was at its peak. Hopefully, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre even at a much older and likely less hateful age, push for a movie that stays true to the heart of the iconic rap group. I want a movie that kicks me in the teeth and rattles every bone in my body.

The trailer gives us much more of a peak into the actual performances. Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller will have a pretty substantial role, and it will be interesting to see how Heller is portrayed considering he is often referred to as the man that broke up the N.W.A. Giamatti is knocking it out of the park from what is shown here and he is a premium talent that definitely deserves more awards-recognition than he has been given, so maybe he'll have a chance at a supporting nod. The casting of the three main members is terrific as O'Shea Jackson as his father Ice Cube, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre all perfectly embody the famous members. Jackson is especially brilliant casting choice as he looks, sounds, and acts perfectly as a younger version of his father. Though the trailer hasn't revealed any clips with Keith Stanfield (who plays Snoop Dog), he is an incredible young actor (he had a stand-out supporting performance in Short Term 12) and I'm really excited to see what be presents here.

This not only will it be great counter-programming for the special effects heavy tentpole actioners that are overstuffed in the summer but this has a strong shot at being one of the very best movies of the year. I can't wait for this one.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Furious 7 Review: A Dazzling Display of a Popular Franchise Spinning its Wheels

Four Star Rating: **

Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Kurt Russell, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel, Djimon Hounsou
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson
Genre: Action
Rated: PG-13 - violence, profanity
Release Date: April 3, 2015
Run Time: 2 hours and 12 minutes

I've seen Furious 7 before, it was created 24 years ago after a late evening of binging on video games, sneaking peeks at the Victoria Secret's catalogue I absconded from the mail pile, bopping to blaring music from ear-muff like headphones, and soaking in a big WWF Championship fight on Coliseum Video. It was glorious and then I woke up to my dad pulling the comforter off me and alerting me it was time for church.

Furious 7 is indeed a teenage boy's fantasy with copious cleavage shots, bulging muscles, speeding cars and video game-like action sequences. In the current atmosphere where studios are finally waking up and realizing women actually love to go out to see big event movies and thus creating a slate of "female blockbusters" or at least mid-list hits with strong female leads, Furious 7 fully embraces "manliness" and testosterone fueled desires. This isn't to say a lovely lady can't enjoy the two hour plus montage of car wrecks, swinging fists, and soaring bullets. She'll just need to endure the army of scantily clad sex objects and dialogue that is often a sanitized version of a high school locker room or a string of clich├ęd action movie catchphrases.

It can be a dangerous minefield daring to compose a derogatory review of the latest installment of an immensely popular franchise for mass consumption on the internet where die-hard fans lurk in preparation to tear limbs. I confess director James Wan has crafted a sleek yet ridiculous over-the-top spectacle that showcases things like parachuting cars. Wan serves up the special effects and real stunt combination that is expected and its fans will gleefully lap it up. Many of those fans are esteemed critics based off the 82% Rotten Tomatoes score, so clearly I'm an out of touch fogey. 

The picture definitely boasts a collage of big event "wow" moments like Dominic Toretti (Vin Diesel) and Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) in an expensive sports car fly in succession through the windows of three luxury towers or O'Connor leaping from a vehicle plummeting down a cliff to catch the back of a sports car. Wan creates the action fan's dream moments with Michelle Rodriguez's Letty tumbling through the air with UFC champion Ronda Rousey or the Rock's Hobbs blasting things from the air with an obscenely huge machine gun.  All the rocking action amounts to a bubble gum adventure that has popping flavour that is easy to chew up but after two hours plus it gets tasteless and repetitive.

Elaborate action scenes aren't enough to make a picture stand-out when special effects spectacles, breath-taking stunts, and dazzling wreckage will be served up almost every weekend for the next several months as has been the modern cinematic summertime tradition.  As the picture progresses the chaotic mayhem starts to bleed into each other making action sequences become indistinguishable. The insane fast cuts during a fight or stunt bring a wild pacing but also overwhelms any chance of attachment or comprehension. You could threaten me with a den of man-eating lions, and I still wouldn't be able to tell you what was actually happening in the climatic final showdown other than lots of fast cars, big crashes, and crumbling concrete.

The Fast and Furious series has never been known for the intricate storytelling but this goes the classic revenge route. Deckard Shaw, played grizzly and nasty by Jason Statham, blows up Dom's crew member Han and for good measure his house as he vows to hunt down everyone responsible for taking down his little brother -- the big bad, played by Luke Evans, from the previous movie. Dom isn't a real fan of this declaration and vows to put Shaw in a body bag. As those pesky villains tend to be, Shaw is hard to track down and we're introduced to Snake Plissken himself, an always endearing and charismatic Kurt Russell as government agent Mr. Nobody. This brings us to the movie's McGuffin in the all-seeing surveillance device the God's Eye. Though the whole gallivanting to Abu Dhabi and back to America to recover the device would have an added dose of excitement if Shaw didn't pop up throughout the escapades and make me wonder why find the tracking device if the man just keeps showing up for a fight.

Absurdity is something that Wan and screenwriter Chris Morgan happily plunge right into. Hobbs gets blown out of a several story high-rise to get his fall broken by a car (the first of many to be smashed) and while a mere mortal would die, the Hobbs character has nothing more than an arm cast, which turns out to only exist so he can flex and cause it to break open when he is ready to kick ass. Rock is a natural action star and plays up the camp well, and at least in his case the scenes are often fun.

Dramatic elements are thrown in to attempt to layer the story but they're just as absurd like Dom trying to reconnect with Letty who is still suffering from her soap opera amnesia from the last movie that can only be cured by a plot point from a classic Disney feature. The frustrating thing is despite all the silliness and over-the-top reality defying stunts, it just isn't all that fun most of the time.

The issues like the action scenes with cars often feeling more like waiting my turn to play a video game, the ridiculously straight out of 1980s dialogue, or the numerous nonsensical plot points would all be easily forgiven and enjoyed if there were characters to care about. Hobbs is entertaining as a transplant from a classic shoot-em up, but everyone else are just flat one note characters. Unfortunately, since the Rock was obviously contractually obligated to battle earthquakes in California, he is only here to bookend the picture.

There just aren't enough of the genuine personalities shining through with the lead Vin Diesel playing a talking statue whose defining trait is he can lift up cars. Tyrese Gibson will pop in a few jokes about being afraid to jump out of an airplane, but other than being the "funny one" there isn't much to him. Ludacris' character is the computer genius more because we're told rather than getting to really see it. It is a collection of stock characters thrown in some well-constructed stunts and effect.

Even if I'm the grumpy party pooper here, the cast seems to be having fun and it is clear they've grown to have a tight comradery. Dom says he doesn't have friends but family, and the chemistry between the leads show a true love for each other. This is why it is really easy to forgive the final ten minutes that feels like a tacked on overly sentimental good-bye to Paul Walker. You can tell that even if it has little to do with the story that it was an important bit of emotional catharsis for Vin Diesel. It has some real emotion and you believe the actors were truly best friends. It is just too bad that same heart and sincerity is hidden for the majority of the movie.