Review: Jurassic World

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The first movie I remember seeing multiple times in theaters was Jurassic Park.  Pretty sure it was three times.  And I was 11.  I loved this movie and still think it holds up to a ridiculous degree, considering it’s over 20 years old and ushered in an era of CGI-based summer blockbusters.  Seriously, I picked up the Bluray last week and we watched it this weekend.  Those dinosaurs still look good, better than many other heavy CGI movies that come out today.

The sequels were “decent,” at best.  I don’t remember if I saw Lost World in theaters or not, but I know I didn’t watch Jurassic Park III until it was out for rental.  Neither movie had as good a story, and both of them started to try doing too much with their effects.  If I recall, many of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park III looked about as good as what you see on any given Saturday night on SyFy Channel.

Thus, the franchise died.  Until it was revived, over a decade after the third iteration, in the form of Jurassic World.  This movie all but retcons the middle two movies, returning 20 years later to Isla Nublar, which is now fully operational as Hammond’s dream theme park.  They have their own Disney World main street equivalent, roller coasters, hamster wheels that let you drive among stegosaurus, triceratops, and diplodocus – truly a spectacle.

As we’re quickly told by the park’s administrator, Bryce Dallas Howard, they have to constantly introduce new, scarier beasts to attract new guests to the park.  Thus, they have taken to genetic engineering (carried out by BD Wong, the only returning cast member from the original), combining multiple species of dinosaur into a single animal, named Indominus Rex.  Chris Pratt is brought in to consult on the enclosure for this fierce new dinosaur, followed shortly after by the escape of said dinosaur from said enclosure, leading the characters (and audience) on an epic chase through the island.  Indominus Rex is clearly intelligent and uses its genetically-endowed defenses to escape from its captors at nearly every turn.  InGen’s private military force, led by Vincent D’Onofrio, is brought in to try and contain the situation, though he has ulterior motives of proving that Velociraptors would make great soldiers in war zones to fight on behalf of the military.

Yeah, you read that right.  This is about the point where I couldn’t suspend my belief much more.

Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the movie (Brooke saw a movie with me!!!).  I caught myself smiling like an 11-year-old multiple times, any time I saw my “old friends” from the 1993 original, or they made some reference to the characters of that film.  It really was quite good fan service.  But I don’t think it was as good as the first one.  I suspect it’s because I’m biased toward the property I grew up with, and this new one is for a generation 20 years younger than me.  The two things that hold me back from loving this movie are the aforementioned Soldier Velociraptors, and the excess of CG effects.

First, the raptors.  Chris Pratt is on the island because he’s training 4 raptors to follow commands.  That part’s actually pretty cool.  He isn’t doing anything all that complicated with them, but he demonstrates that he can get in the cage with them and can get them to follow simple orders, but only to the extent a trainer could do so with a lion: they’re still very, very dangerous.  But D’Onofrio is there to get these raptors to follow orders, like “go chase that terrorist in Afghanistan,” and at this, I say “okay, that’s kinda nuts…why would you try to train a velociraptor, who were clearly smarter than the humans 20 years ago in the first movie, to act as soldiers?”  It just wasn’t believable for me.  I feel like the plot would have been stronger if Pratt was there training raptors for his own scientific ends, and D’Onofrio came in from InGen to solve the Indominus Rex problem, but they had no prior connection.  The same plot points could have been there without certain key scenes, while keeping all the awesome action scenes.

Secondly, the effects.  Overall, they were good.  We saw it in 3D here in Marshall, where the screen isn’t exactly IMAX, so perhaps I’m clouded by the less-than-stellar visual fidelity.  In short, many of these dinosaurs were obviously computer generated, whereas I’m still fooled by some of them in the original movie from 20 years ago.  Most of that comes from the fact that Spielberg used a mix of animatronics and computer animation to make a seamless experience, where each dinosaur felt huge and weighed down, adding to the realism.  CG has a problem when you integrate it with the “real world,” where the creatures seem to “float” unnaturally and gravity doesn’t actually affect them because they aren’t a real thing.  Animatronic animals from the original were actually quite heavy, and that showed when you watched the film – and the CG dinosaurs they used in certain shots were designed to match those animatronics in their slow, lumbering movements.  That wasn’t a problem in this movie, as nearly all of the dinosaurs were CG animated.  So while many of them shots looked really good in Jurassic World, there were others that pulled me out of the experience because I knew I was watching dinosaurs that weren’t really there, unlike the way I feel when I watch Jurassic Park.

Hopefully that just made sense…

Regardless, it was a great movie.  Brooke enjoyed Jurassic World quite a bit, but for my money, I prefer Jurassic Park so far as this franchise is concerned.  If anything, Jurassic World was spectacular fan service in the callbacks it made to the original, and certain aspects of the original they brought back to this movie to remind you of the magic you felt in 1993.  At least on that level, it completely succeeds.

Review: Avengers – Age of Ultron

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June 28, 2014. That’s the last time I saw a movie in theaters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, in case you were curious…).  To be frank, the movie theater here in Marshall isn’t exactly stellar for seeing big blockbuster flicks.  Sure, it’ll work in a pinch, but my students tell me they can hear the other movies coming from adjacent screenings, so it isn’t really ideal…

Thus, as I’m now out of classes for the semester, I took a trip into St. Louis to see Avengers: Age of Ultron with a buddy.  I enjoyed the original movie quite a bit, so I’ve been looking forward to this one since trailers first debuted.  While the first movie was just about everything I wanted to see in a confluence of Marvel franchises, the sequel is a bit more convoluted.

As in the previous film, Age of Ultron is informed by events from the other Marvel movies, most importantly, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The last remnants of Hydra are using Loki’s staff from the first Avengers movie (that they got from…somewhere…we aren’t told, though it’s kinda inferred, I guess…) to experiment on humans and the Avengers have “assembled” to get it back.  They reclaim the scepter after an encounter with new villains/heroes Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and then return to New York to celebrate.  In the process, Tony Stark discovers that the scepter has some unique properties that allow him to create an advanced artificial intelligence that, he hopes, could ultimately create machines to take over for the Avengers in defending Earth from threats.  He gets in over his head and Ultron is born: a robot capable of self-replication that can evade capture through the internet, who goes on to produce more machines in an effort to cleanse the Earth of a grave threat (i.e. humanity).

So, there’s four characters already.  We’ve also got the Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America, Thor, Nick Cage, War Machine, Hawkeye, Maria Hill, Hawkeye’s random wife, Falcon, Vision, Peggy Carter, Hemidal and Dr. Selvig to bring into the mix.

Just ruminate on that list for a moment.  Each of those characters is attached to an actor, and not a “no name” actor.  They don’t just show up for cameos: they show up for reciting lines.  These are folks that generally command high dollar contracts and I can’t imagine what’s written into their Marvel Cinematic Universe contracts to get them all to show up in one movie.

Unfortunately, this is the main problem I found with it: there are simply too many people.  It’s all in service of putting them in their own movies (Captain America: Civil War, primarily), and they aren’t all in it for extended lengths of time (Falcon shows up twice…War Machine shows up a few times…).  That is to say, the screen time isn’t massive for many of these additional folks, but every time they appear, that has to take time from the main Avengers from the previous movie, and I think this film suffers from it.

The action and effects are still great (and yes, I think IMAX 3D was worth it for this one), and the story itself isn’t terrible, though it isn’t as strong as Winter Soldier was.  While Winter Soldier makes a pretty clear point about government spying and whether threats should be eliminated before they’re actually guilty of something, this movie dances around its themes a bit more abstractly.  It wasn’t quite as funny as the previous Avengers movie either, though there are a few chuckle-worthy moments.  James Spader is pretty great as Ultron, though it kinda feels like he’s off in the background a bit more than I’d prefer.  The film sets up the conflict between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers that’s going to come up in Civil War, though I think it’s yet another facet to pile up on top of an already large movie.  Lastly, Scarlett Johansson has some great scenes, but quite a few of them this time are spent as a love interest or damsel-in-distress, so I think her character has been turned back compared with her appearances in previous MCU movies.

Ultimately, I still enjoyed it.  There were some awesome battles there interspersed, especially toward the end (obviously) and they even did a decent job working in some Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. references.

I just hope Civil War, which is looking to be even bigger than this movie, will rein in all the guest appearances.  The guys that wrote and directed Winter Soldier (and did a great job) have Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War Parts I and II to hold together, so they’ve got their work cut out for them.

Review: X-Men – Days of Future Past

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You could say the X-Men franchise has been “hit or miss.”  The first and second movies were quite good (though I don’t think the first one ages as well…I guess it did come out in 2000…).  The third one was a train wreck.  The spinoff, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was horrible.  The sequel, The Wolverine wasn’t too bad, and the 1960s era reboot, X-Men: First Class, was alright, but I wasn’t floored by it like some people were (despite having some big-name actors, including James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michael Fassbender).  Critically, the direction of the franchise was set with the first two movies, both directed by Bryan Singer.  He moved on after those two films and entrusted the franchise with other folks, many of which didn’t take the care he did with the story and characters.

Which brings us to X-Men: Days of Future Past.  The fact that this movie exists at all is mind-boggling.  Singer returns (and even retains the music and similar opening title sequence he used in the earlier two movies), the cast from the original trilogy of movies returns (including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, and more), and they merged this cast with the new “first class” from the 60s era reboot, as this film relies heavily on time travel.  With the effects and pedigree of actors (let alone sheer number of them, some without lines, even), it’s a wonder they did it in a $200 million budget.

I kinda wish they’d explained how they brought back Professor X from the dead after the third movie…but whatever…

The movie begins in the future, with the original X-Men cast fighting a losing battle against the Sentinels, oversized robots designed to seek and destroy mutants and mutant sympathizers.  It’s effectively a post-apocalyptic wasteland, as the Sentinels have destroyed much of civilization in their quest.  Knowing their end is near, they hatch a plan to use Kitty Pride’s powers to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to a pivotal moment in history, where they believe the Sentinal threat stemmed from.  As Wolverine doesn’t age like “normal” humans, it was a convenient way to have Jackman play both his older and younger self, bridging the gap between the old cast and new cast.  Wolverine does his best to “bring the band back together,” 10 years after the events of X-Men: First Class (so, now 1973), in order to prevent history from continuing on the course we saw in the beginning.

Overall, I thought it was a strong showing: definitely better than many of the other X-Men outings in the last 14 years (though probably not as good as the first two, in my book).  The action sequences were somewhat infrequent, the story slowed a bit in the middle, and I definitely had to suspend my brain from thinking too hard about the consequences of time-travel (…’cause, yeah…it don’t work that way…).  The acting and effects were all quite good, as expected, and I felt like all of the actors (and there were many) fit together remarkably well.  Granted, there were too many actors to keep track of, but I was in enough awe that I was seeing them all up on the same screen that I didn’t care.

Compared with previous X-Men movies, or even other comic book movies, this one got pretty dark at points.  Singer did his best to make “the future” seem bleak, and he succeeded.  Some of the original cast of X-Men were killed off by Sentinels in pretty gruesome ways.  It was just pretty shocking to see it happen time and again, especially after seeing many of these characters in movies for the past 14 years.  It was a bit unsettling, which I didn’t expect going in.

Finally, they ended the movie in such a way that it could serve as a good “swan song” for the original X-Men cast.  I highly doubt they’re going to let Hugh Jackman leave the Wolverine role (as, like Robert Downey, Jr and Iron Man, no one else can play that character), but many of the other actors are showing their age.  I love Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, but they’re getting older and can’t pull these characters off for much longer.  This movie takes place “in the future,” so it was an easy sell this time.  I’m glad the next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, will focus on the younger cast, though I’ll miss the original crew.

Let’s put it this way: I’m glad that this is the last time I see Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, rather than X-Men 3.

 

Review: RoboCop

John Kinneman and Gary Oldman in RoboCop (2014)
Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman in RoboCop (2014)

Options for decent movies are few and far between in late-February.  The next big crop comes up mid- to late-March, but we’re in the doldrums of movies that came out in December with the Christmas rush, and other Oscar hopefuls that get a late release in hopes of generating some buzz.  The “good” sci-fi movies also get saved for the summer blockbuster season, so it’s rare to find a “good” one released in early February.  In many ways, this year’s reboot of the RoboCop franchise may not even be that movie, as it’s had a mixed response, critically.

That all said, I should also point out that  despite the zeitgeist of the time, I didn’t grow up a fan of RoboCop.  It wasn’t exactly a “kid friendly” film, though I’m sure there were many in my elementary school that had seen it.  I didn’t get to see it until college, well after I’d been exposed to far, far better special effects.  Ketchup-style fake blood and stop-motion robots just didn’t do it for me, though I could at least appreciate that, for 1987, it was probably pretty cool.

The franchise consisted of 3 movies, a TV show, a cartoon, and countless toys.  I suspect many fans of the character would have preferred that only the first movie existed, as just about everything after it was generally bad.  That first movie, though, was prescient for its time, discussing such themes as militarization of law enforcement, drone warfare overseas, and corporations taking over the government and suppressing The People.

Perhaps 2014 is a really good time for a re-boot.

This new version of RoboCop includes similar characters, but is a pretty different movie, to my mind.  This version of Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman, who is largely unknown besides starring in cult-favorite The Killing) is a devoted family man in the near future, and incorruptible cop in Detroit that makes an enemy out of the leader of a local crime ring, who swiftly takes Murphy out with a car bomb.  Severely injured, his only hope is to have most of his body replaced by machine parts, “free of charge” by OmniCorp, which is run by Raymond Sellars (played by Michael Keaton).

Sellars is only doing this, though, because he wants his androids on the streets of the US.  To replace police officers.  His robots are already overseas fighting our wars for us, so “saving the lives of cops” (i.e. bit fat checks from local and state governments…) is his next venture.  What he needs, however, is a “human face” on his cold cyborg army, so “upgrading” Murphy is his way of making it happen.

This movie, as compared with the original, focuses far more on the human element.  The point at which we cease to be human and start to be machine.  Murphy struggles with having control over his own body, as OmniCorp can shut him down remotely at any time.  They can control how much personal decision-making can be applied in any given situation (i.e. whether to be more like a human cop, or more like an efficient, cold, robot).

On this front, I think the movie largely succeeds.  It is more of a “thinking man’s RoboCop,” which sets it apart from the previous outing.  It takes the original source material and updates it for our modern age, complete with a Glen Beck-style news anchor (played by Samuel L. Jackson) asking whether US Senators are “pro-crime” for not subscribing to Sellars’ world-view.

In the end, the acting was fine.  The writing was fine.  The effects were pretty good, but not spectacular.  There were a few pretty obvious moments when we switched from “dude in costume” to “that’s a CGI dude…really obviously…”  The original movie had quite a few bloody action scenes, and while this one certainly had its share, they were mostly shootouts, which can get a little boring without some hand-to-hand combat and explosions to back them up.

I thought it was good, but not great.  A solid rental, but I’m glad we saw it in the regular theater rather than spending extra for IMAX.  Some good ideas, but could have been more.

Review: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire

Everyone here could beat me up.  Even the old woman
Everyone here could beat me up. Even the old woman

Thanks to a set wonderful grandparents, Brooke and I took the opportunity to offload the kids for an afternoon so we could go see a movie.  We’ve both read the three books in the Hunger Games trilogy (Brooke’s read the first one more than once…), but we didn’t see the first movie in theaters.  Of the three books, the second one, Catching Fire, was my favorite because, while it still included “The Games” like the first did, and the associated action set pieces, it also brought the larger conflict of the world into the story with more political dealings.  All three books really put their focus on the character of Katniss Everdeen at the expense of showing the reader the rest of what’s going on everywhere else in the world (i.e. they’ll refer to events but won’t show them to you; it’s all second-hand).  The second book, and especially the third, start to open that up quite a bit more, yielding a bit more interesting storytelling, in my opinion.

We both thought the first movie did a good job of balancing the content from the source material with the special effects needed to make your money back in theaters nowadays.  Thankfully the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, continues in that vein.  I haven’t read the book for a few years, but we both agreed that, while there were definitely a few things left out, most of the key story beats were present, and even the ending was nearly identical to the book.

The story this time out centers on Jennifer Lawrence‘s character, Katniss, and how she has dealt with being one of two Victors of the 74th Hunger Games, held each year between the 12 Districts of Panem (in a future-ish version of the United States where the government collapsed, leaving a reorganization of, well, everything…).  Because of the way the previous movie/story ended, the President of Panem, Snow (brilliantly played by Donald Sutherland), seeks revenge upon Everdeen for stirring up conflict between the Districts: conflict that could lead to revolution and his own downfall.  He and his cronies devise a special 75th Hunger Games that pits the previous winners from each District against each other yet again, thereby setting up a reason for us to return to the Games for a second movie/story.

The movie’s about 2.5 hrs long, so it does feel like it drags a little bit during the first half.  Having read the third book, however, I didn’t mind it because what some folks would see as “filler” is really “foundation” for the third story (and the next two movies…which, as is the trend nowadays, are both drawn from the final book, split in half…).  In that vein, there have been a few reviews out there that appear to criticize the movie for being a bit slower than the first one.  Again, I feel, this stems from those that haven’t read the books and haven’t seen events in their full context.  When we saw the movie, the woman in front of us saw the ending and was genuinely surprised that, apparently, “there’s going to be another one.”

To us, having read the books, we thought it was pretty good.  The action was fun, the effects were still as good or better than other major motion pictures pull off, the acting is as good as one would expect (especially from an Academy Award winner…), and it’s still cool to watch a pretty good read play out on the big screen without dramatic changes.  It’s pretty important that you see the first movie before this one (well duh…), but if you’ve got the time to read the books, I think you’d get more out of it.

Review: Pacific Rim

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You know how there are some movies you grew up with that, although you love them, you recognize that they had quite a few faults?  Movies where you saw it when you were 10, thought it was awesome, and even though you’re older now and realize it probably wasn’t even that good of a movie, you still tell yourself you love it (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I’m looking at you…)?

Pacific Rim is probably that movie.

Look, there are some pretty cheesy lines in this.  The plot is very predictable.  The CGI is sometimes ridiculously obvious.  Most of the acting is fine, but some is just passable.  There are multiple nonsensical plot holes.

And yet, for some reason, I had more fun watching this movie than many of the others I’ve seen this year.

The brief synopsis involves an inter-dimensional rift opening near the bottom of the Pacific Ocean where giant monsters code-named “Kaijus” (Japanese for “strange creature,” paying homage to the Godzilla franchise) emerge on an increasingly regular basis, wreaking destruction and havoc on coastal cities.  Jet fighters and soldiers prove not to be enough, so the Jaeger program is initiated in order to produce giant robot fighters that are controlled by two human pilots (a single human can’t control one without severe brain damage).  Though the Jaegers do well at stopping the onslaught for years, the Kaijus begin to evolve and improve and ultimately put them on the defensive, until there are only a few remaining.  The bulk of the story picks up at the end, with what is to be the “defeat them once and for all” moment of the war.

If you’ve seen any sci-fi movie, you can see where this is going.  Mentor brings hero back into the fold to save the world once last time and meets cute heroine, learning a thing or two from her in the process about himself and his station in life.  Other characters are lost tragically until the very end, when it’s time to save the world, requiring ultimate sacrifice.

But knowing all that, I still enjoyed it.  There are times when you want to go to a movie, turn off your mind for a few minutes, and watch giant robots beat the crap out of giant monsters.  This is why the Godzilla movies did (do?) so well at the box office: story matters to an extent, but in the end, the people come for the monsters.  And oh, the monsters.  The Kaijus are coming through the rift, but each one looks/acts a bit different.  Some fly, some have strong tails, some spit blue acid goo at you, some are just big bruisers.  Their variety is endless (and unexplained…this is one of those “nonsensical plot holes” where the writers fail to explain why these giant aliens come to Earth and now look like crabs, or hammerhead sharks…hmmmm…), and it presents interesting challenges for the Jaegers in how to deal with them.  Sometimes it involves beating them with an ocean liner.  And believe you me, that’s cool.

Guillermo del Toro is a popular director among many, though I can’t say I’m his biggest fan (the Hellboy movies just didn’t do that much for me…).  However, I do appreciate his ability to craft a world that’s intricately detailed.  Rather than just seeing “giant robots” walking around, through the eyes of the human pilots, you actually see the gears turning and the hydraulics pumping.  You can see the evolution of Jaegers, where the older ones look primitive, compared with the newer, sleeker, faster ones.  You get a sense that these things are big, rather than just two dudes in monster suits walking around buildings made of cardboard.  Even though the Kaijus are obviously CGI characters, you see them in a context with the Jaegers and the surrounding cities that makes you believe what you’re seeing, rather than being constantly “pulled out” of the experience.  Seeing it in IMAX 3D probably helped with the blending of real people and CG animation.

So yes, in the end, I enjoyed it quite a bit.  Is it going to win a “Best Picture” Oscar?  No.

Was it a ton of fun?

Heck yes.

Review: Man of Steel

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I have something of a tenuous relationship with the Superman franchise. That is to say, I like the Richard Donner original and I even liked 2006’s “Superman Returns,” but these aren’t movies I pull out on a regular basis like I do “The Dark Knight” or “Spider-man.”

One thing I always found attractive about the character was the good old-fashioned feel of classic Americana.  “Truth, Justice, and The American Way,” and all that.  The character of Superman was an outsider, but one that identified with his adoptive planet and sought to defend its people with a strong sense of American-centric values and morals.

That’s not what this movie is about.

Man of Steel” is a unique interpretation of the franchise, arguably one that it needed.  “Batman Begins” was a necessary reboot of the its franchise, grounding the character of Batman in a somewhat more realistic world while avoiding the campiness that had plagued the more recent films.  Superman hasn’t really had that problem, but at the same time, “good old-fashioned Americana” doesn’t sell quite the same way it used to.

And thus, we get a reboot of Superman.  This time, we get an extended look at what was happening on Krypton at the time of its destruction, when Kal-El was shipped off by his parents to find refuge on Earth.  Through a series of flashbacks, we see key moments of Kal-El’s upbringing as Clark Kent.  Unlike the previous movies (though this has been explored in other media, especially “Smallville“), it was nice to see the influence of Clark’s fathers on him throughout the film.  Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) both hoped for the future of their son, yet each represented different (yet converging) paths.

Henry Cavill’s Superman was also different than earlier films.  Brandon Routh essentially copied Christopher Reeve’s version, but Cavill differentiates himself with a bit more emotion and more of a longing for a place in this world.  Again, I see the influence of later Superman properties in Cavill’s interpretation, while Routh and Reeve both veered toward the “Americana” vision pre-1980s.  Personally, I think Cavill did a pretty great job for his first time in the suit.  And dude, that guy is ripped.

Really, the first half of the movie was pretty good.  And in some ways, the second half was “good,” too.  But the second half is a different movie from the first half.  See, in the first half, there was a back story for Superman, how he was born, raised, and eventually put on the suit.  The second half involves the utter obliteration of Metropolis as Superman battles General Zod (Michael Shannon), who wants to recreate Krypton on Earth.  Seriously, while I was watching that portion of the movie, I kept thinking it was reminiscent of a “Godzilla” flick, with building after building just being knocked over.  The effects were great and the action was fun, but there wasn’t much story once we got to that point.  Heck, they got Laurence Fishburne to play Perry White and the man was barely in the movie.

It didn’t help that I didn’t care for Shannon’s portrayal of Zod, either.  I don’t think I disliked the character, per se.  I simply wasn’t in to Shannon’s acting.  He just didn’t give me the feeling that he was a cold hardened military badass from another planet.  It took me a few minutes, but after the movie was over, I decided Stephen Lang should have played that role, as he was the military-bred bad guy from “Avatar.”  I believed that Lang had a mission to complete and that nothing would stop him from doing it.  I didn’t get the same feeling out of Shannon.  Maybe that was just me…I dunno…

There is also a controversial ending to this movie, centering on the final confrontation between Superman and Zod.  Personally, I didn’t mind it, but it definitely put the final nail in the coffin of the “Christopher Reeve-era” Superman portrayal.

Generally, I felt this movie was “middling.”  There were definitely some cool parts, some chuckle moments, some great back story that hadn’t been outlined previously (at least in the movies).  At the same time, I was still left wanting.  Some glimmer of the Superman character that made him popular in the first place.

Just a little more “Truth, Justice and The American Way” would have been great.

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

"Tough little ship..."
“Tough little ship…”

I was a pretty big fan of the J.J. Abrams re-boot of the Star Trek franchise in 2009.  Aside from the excellent production values, great new cast, and a new take on an aging (some would say “stale”) franchise, the thing I appreciated most was the attention to previous movies/shows while also completely spinning established canon on its head.  It created an “alternate timeline,” allowing the writers to change things up without really pissing off longtime fans (for the most part…I mean…they destroyed Vulcan, after all…)

But, in the end, the first movie was still an origin story.  Most of the plot was taken up with getting Kirk into Starfleet, getting him onto the Enterprise, and bringing him in contact with all the folks that would ultimately make up his legendary crew.  While Eric Bana is a good actor, frankly, he wasn’t given much to do as the villain.  This isn’t a new problem among superhero-type movies, where the first movie in the franchise can only have so much time devoted to a proper villain or conflict.

Which leaves the second movie to fill in the gap.  The characters have been introduced and developed.  The audience knows generally what to expect.  Now, they just want a good movie.

And boy, does Star Trek Into Darkness deliver.

I’ll refrain from spoilers, as this is one movie where I see some value in keeping the secret(s).  In short, Kirk & Company seek revenge for an attack on a secret Section 31 installation (nice callback to somewhat deep “Star Trek” lore there, guys…) and Starfleet Command by John Harrison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  And honestly, that’s all I want to say about the story.  Really, I’d like to write more on it, and perhaps I will in a few months, but for now, you’re best served by not reading anything more about it.  Heck, I already knew a few of the details before I saw it, but even I didn’t see some of this movie coming.

In the end, they did a wonderful job of incorporating elements of the “alternate timeline” established in the first one with the “core timeline” of the…well…the rest of “Star Trek.”  They even did a good job of transferring lines from the previous movies (one specific movie, in particular…) to the characters in this one.  Is some of it cheesy?  Perhaps.  Personally, I got a kick out of it.  Hearing an important line delivered by a different character than who originally delivered it is fascinating, and keeps you guessing.

Despite knowing the few details that I did, I was actually “on my toes,” to some degree, regarding the villain.  Cumberbatch was obviously a bad guy from the beginning, but there were times we saw him working with Kirk toward a common goal.  But damn, once he turns bad, he turns bad in a real way.  It’s like the writers chose to let the audience feel for the plight of the villain for awhile, then, once you start to feel like you understand him, he shifts radically in another direction.  It’s one of those moments where you have a villain in front of you, but then the real one steps out from the shadows.

The writers also did a good job of “spreading the love” between characters this time.  The last movie featured Kirk, Spock and Uhura, primarily, with bit parts for the others.  This time, the only character lacking was Checkov, though he still had his moments.  I got a bit tired of the “folksy metaphors” Bones kept spouting and felt he could have expanded his role a bit more, but by the end, I was fine with his portrayal.  Overall, the cast did really well, and notably, Zachary Quinto was able to inject a remarkable amount of “feeling” into a “non-feeling” Vulcan.  They’re doing a great job re-creating those characters and wish they could have a TV series to really do it right (never gonna happen…).

It goes without saying that the effects were spectacular and the action set pieces were wonderful.  I’m glad they showed more of the Enterprise this time around, as I really, really like that ship design.  I was also impressed by the 3D in this movie.  While you don’t need it to enjoy the movie, of course, I’d still recommend it if you have the option.

All in all, it was a fun ride and a movie I’d like to see again (and again).  I haven’t quite decided whether I like the 2009 “original” or the 2013 sequel more yet, however.  Perhaps I’ll need a second viewing before I really decide.  But right now, I’m leaning toward the new one.

Review: Iron Man 3

Iron Man

Iron Man isn’t a comic character I followed growing up: I was more of a Spider-man guy. That said, I greatly enjoyed watching Robert Downey, Jr. fall into Tony Stark, arguably the perfect role for Downey’s playboy-esque manner and bravado.  The first movie centered on Stark’s survival at the hands of Afghan terrorists, then converting his military-reliant weapons and technology business into a peace-driven venture, helping to wipe away the decades of damage wrought by himself and his father before him.  The second outing for the character, Iron Man 2, focused on Stark’s new-found celebrity, as he coped with the fact that the world knows that he’s Iron Man.  To be honest, I didn’t care for the second one all that much, but upon a second viewing awhile back, it grew on me a bit.

Enter Iron Man 3, the first post-Avengers movie featuring, well, an Avenger.  The first Iron Man movie helped pave the way for Marvel to bring The Avengers to the big screen (and it was awesome…), and now, with the third movie in the franchise, it’s all about Tony Stark coming to grips with the aftermath of the events in last year’s hit.

That is to say, a lot of this movie deals with Stark enduring something akin to PTSD.  Like…a lot of this movie.

I don’t mean the movie’s bad, but there’s a lot of comedy to it, a lot of character interactions, a lot of Tony Stark and how he deals with the world around him.  But I didn’t think there was all that much Iron Man in it.  Sure, he was walking around in the suit (or dragging it behind him…), but even when he was in the suit, he was literally just walking around, chit-chatting, making jokes…not actually being Iron Man. Heck, he nearly didn’t fly until the end of the movie.  Most of the action scenes dealt with Tony: not with Iron Man.

The performances by the actors were all superb, as always.  The effects were great.  I saw it in IMAX 3D, and while I can recommend the “IMAX” part of that, I didn’t think the “3D” was all that necessary.  If you want to see it in any normal digital theater, you probably won’t miss much.  Still, I can’t say the 3D detracted from my experience at all.

The story wasn’t even bad, necessarily.  It kinda returned to the “foreign terrorist” feel from the first movie, along with another baddie from Stark’s past (played by Guy Pierce, who I thought did a decent job…though Ben Kingsley should have had more to do, in my opinion).  But there were so many threads going, between the PTSD line, the Pierce line, the Kingsley line, the relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), the Iron Patriot stuff, and others that focusing on fewer threads may have helped solidify the story a bit better.

Seriously, why Iron Patriot?  It was barely featured, yet it seems like a big deal was made of it in all the marketing.  Why?

So, in the end, I’m glad I saw it, but the first movie still reigns supreme.  Perhaps I’ll like this one better on a second run-through, but for now, I’m just considering this one “so-so.”

Good thing Star Trek: Into Darkness comes out next week. :-)

Review: House of Cards

House of Cards (2013

Netflix is playing a very interesting game lately, not only continuing to swipe content typically reserved for cable television, but also dipping their toes into exclusive first-run content the likes of which only the HBOs and Showtimes of the world get access to.  House of Cards is the second of these series (and actually a re-make of an early-90s BBC production), following Lilyhammer (which I haven’t seen), and will be joined soon by their third offering, another season of Arrested Development (and believe you me, Brooke and I are excited about that one…).

House of Cards, specifically, is the product of Netflix’s enormous data mining initiative.  Everything you watch, they pay attention to.  They know how often you pause during a show, how often you repeat a given segment (and which segment), and how everything you like relates to one another.  Case in point, courtesy of Salon: “Netflix subscriber viewing preferences clinched [the] decision to license a remake of the popular and critically well regarded 1990 BBC miniseries. Netflix’s data indicated that the same subscribers who loved the original BBC production also gobbled down movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. Therefore, concluded Netflix executives, a remake of the BBC drama with Spacey and Fincher attached was a no-brainer, to the point that the company committed $100 million for two 13-episode seasons.”

Greenlighting the series for two seasons from the beginning allows production to plot an outline for those seasons from the very beginning (with, of course, the ability to opt for more depending on performance).  Creatively speaking, this is very attractive, as most networks won’t guarantee you more than a season (or a few episodes) from the outset.  This kind of freedom was helpful in attracting David Fincher to the series, who served as Executive Producer and directed the first two episodes.  If you don’t know who Fincher is, you should recognize his work as director of The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Se7en and Fight Club (not exactly a “nobody”).

House of Cards focuses on Congressman and Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who is passed up for the Secretary of State nomination by the newly-elected President in the first episode.  The series focuses on Underwood’s sophisticated plotting as he and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), seek revenge against those that wronged him.  In many ways, he’s playing a long chess match, where he’s always looking many moves ahead until “checkmate” is within his grasp.  The relationship between Frank and Claire is a complicated one, where each has their own interests that serve each other’s purpose at any given time, further complicated by favors and lobbying that pull them apart (and back together).  All the while, you sense they care deeply about each other, perhaps not necessarily as “husband and wife,” but more as teammates determined to achieve the same goal(s).

The acting is unbelievable, especially between Spacey and Wright.  By the end of that season, you know that Frank and Clair, both individually and together, are capable of doing just about anything to get what they want.  You’ll recognize a host of actors in the series, and they’re all superb.  I had no idea who Corey Stoll was before this show, but geez, he convinced me he’s a drug-addicted congressman, or at least knows one in real life.  Kate Mara is an actress I wasn’t particularly familiar with, but certainly did a great job in her own right.  Spacey and Wright, however, are the two that steal the show.  They both deserve Emmy nominations, though apparently, Netflix doesn’t count as “broadcast television” and may be ineligible.

The hype leading up to the release of the series was coincident with various articles discussing how to even talk about it, as there are no general “rules” for spoiling “last night’s episode” at the water cooler for those that haven’t seen it.  Conceivably, anyone that had 13 hrs to blow on the first night of release could have seen all of it before going in to work.  By most accounts, House of Cards is performing well, however. Though Netflix won’t release specific numbers, it’s apparently the most-watched “thing” on Netflix in 40 countries.

I’ll definitely be back for season 2.  And so should you.