Category: Action Sci-Fi & Fantasy


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Have you ever encountered a sequel in a franchise where it’s clear that overall the product is significantly better but because fundamental structural issues haven’t been addressed, it’s hard to appreciate the improvements? It’s a common phenomenon in video games with yearly sequels where significant mechanical tweaks are made but the formula starts to feel stale and basic problems are never really solved. It’s never something I’ve encountered with a film franchise before The Hunger Games though. Long time readers will know that I consider the book to be a considerable improvement over its predecessor, but maybe because the first Hunger Games film was already an improvement over the source material, it’s hard to appreciate the strides this entry made.

Suzanne Collins is a good storyteller but her prose is woefully deficient and it makes reading the books a slog. And one of the wonderful benefits of the film version was that I wasn’t forced to wade through her amateurish mastery of the English language (not to mention Gary Ross’s compelling direction and conception of what Panem would look like). And since the book of Catching Fire improved her storytelling ten fold (by truly fleshing out the world that Katniss and company inhabited), I assumed that the movie would be even better. But, perhaps it was not having the poor prose to distract me, this time I was forced to acknowledge even deeper problems in the Hunger Games universe.

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Before this review takes on an overly negative turn, let there be no misunderstanding that I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire and it joins Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 as one of this year’s blockbusters with actual brains. As far as modern dystopian science fiction for teenagers go, I’m hard-pressed to name a franchise with wider reach than The Hunger Games that also deserves said fandom. The action set-pieces during the film’s third act eclipse those even in the first, and the number of stars that director Francis Lawrence gathered for this entry is almost mind-boggling. But, and I’ll elaborate on this more shortly, one glaring problem with the film kept me from totally immersing myself this time around.

For those who haven’t seen the first one (or read the book), stop now because I’m about to spoil the ending for you. After finding a way to keep herself and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive during the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) quickly discovers that surviving the Hunger Games was the easy part. Forced on a circus publicity tour around the 12 districts of PanEm, Katniss learns that she has become the symbol of an uprising against the totalitarian Capital. But if she wants to keep her and her family alive, she’s going to have to prove to President Snow (Don’t Look Now‘s Donald Sutherland) that her fake love with Peeta which got her through the Hunger Games is real and it’s real enough to subdue the uprising.

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But, the film would be really boring if it was just Jennifer Lawrence pretending to love the emotionally reserved (and supremely dull) Josh Hutcherson, and in order to ensure that Katniss can’t become the face of the revolution, President Snow and the new Gamemaker for the 75th Annual Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Synecdoche, New York‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a wrinkle to this year’s game. Known as the Quarter Quell, every 25 years the Hunger Games rules are changed dramatically and this year, the tributes are chosen from a pool of past winners and both Katniss and Peeta inevitably have their names drawn.

In my review of the book, I talked about how Catching Fire‘s lengthy prelude (the action doesn’t really begin until the film’s final act) added context to the Hunger Games universe. Not only did we learn more about the different districts and why revolution has been so effectively suppressed (but also why Katniss is the spark needed to make it… catch fire), but by spending time getting to know the other tributes, it allowed their to be more characters with depth beyond Katniss and Peeta. Of course, the introduction of great supporting characters like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), and Beete (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Jeffrey Wright) is that it subjects Katniss to the film’s biggest problem: boring protagonist syndrome.

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Katniss is one of the great female heroines of the modern age alongside Harry Potter‘s Hermione and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander. She’s a total bad-ass and her life isn’t primarily devoted to her romantic interests (unlike a certain resident of Forks, Washington) though she’s allowed to have a romance. But, Katniss is also something of a blank slate and a cipher for readers to project themselves onto and while she’s usually defined by her bad-ass feat of heroics, if she’s not killing something with a bow, you realize there isn’t any depth to this girl (at least until Mockingjay).

And the first film solved this problem by having Katniss constantly doing something cool. There’s more exposition and universe-building in Catching Fire and, thus, more time to see Katniss interacting with others, and except when she’s playing across the wooden and entirely one-dimensional Peeta, everyone in the film is more compelling than her. Woody Harrelson (Rampart) is particularly magnificent as the drunken Haymitch as he continues to be (despite all conventional wisdom) one of the most compelling actors of the last fifteen years (when he’s given the right roles).

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New-comer to the franchise Jena Malone also steals every second she’s on screen as the deliciously bitchy Johanna who quickly reveals her own hidden depths, but anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko or Saved! knows how talented she is. And Sam Claflin is charming with enough of an edge of “is he good or bad” to make him interesting despite the ultimate conclusion. And of course, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Donald Sutherland all turn in great roles for a series they are probably too talented to be a part of.

That’s not to discount Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. After Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone, she’s secured her title as her generation’s most promising actress, but Katniss was a particularly thin role to begin with and it feels like she has even little do this time around. Katniss is particularly “ethos”-less in this entry compared to her comrades and that makes it even harder to care for her. Her saving grace as a character this time around is that she’s usually not too far from Peeta and he can make anyone look like a character from a Kenneth Lonergan film (which is so weird cause he’s not that boring in the books).

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By focusing so much on the flatness of Katniss’s character in this entry (and a general sense that the early exposition and world-building didn’t work nearly as well on screen as it did in the book), I should reiterate that I really enjoyed Catching Fire. And, in many meaningful ways, it is a significant improvement over the first film. But, I also couldn’t stop thinking about those things the entire time the film was running. If you’re on the edge about whether or not you should see the film after this review, don’t be. You should. It’s one of the best “event” films of the year. I just wish Katniss was a more well-rounded heroine for our modern age.

Final Score: B+

 

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TitanAE1

As a child, it’s possible that I was exposed more to Don Bluth films than I was to traditional Disney animation. I know for certain that I enjoyed movies like All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail more than most of the Disney output of the 90s (The Lion King and Aladdin two massive exceptions). Even as a kid, I think I recognized the darker and more subversive undertones in Bluth films (though certainly his powerful storytelling and richly drawn characters had more to do with it then) compared to their Disney counterparts. An American Tail was a heartbreaking and terrifying tale of childhood abandonment mixed in the Russian Jewish immigrant experience in the United States in the 1910s. No company would try that today. 2000’s Titan A.E. was the last Bluth film to make it to theatres. It was a massive flop at the box office, and along with Treasure Planet, it sort of killed traditional hand-drawn Western animation. Thankfully, a cult audience has formed around this film in the last decade.

Although, in many ways, Titan A.E. isn’t as great as Bluth’s output of the late 80s and early 90s. I would go so far as to simply say it isn’t a great film, though it was a very good one. Part of the problem is that this was one of the rare Bluth films where Bluth wasn’t the sole director. It was also directed by Gary Goldman, who (with the exception of All Dogs Go to Heaven) was mostly involved in a lot of the less than stellar Bluth films of the 90s. The movie was in production for a long, long time and many writers were involved with the project, and a lack of a cohesive vision for the film is painfully apparent. The movie does have a lot going for it. The Titan A.E.-universe is very appealing, and thanks to Joss Whedon’s work on the script, the characters are great. It is also arguably one of the darkest and most violent children’s films I’ve ever seen. I just wish the story held together better and that there was a more unified vision for the film.

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Titan A.E. is the definition of a cult children’s film so I won’t be surprised if most of my reader’s haven’t seen it. In the 31st century, Cale (Good Will Hunting‘s Matt Damon) was orphaned as a child when an alien species made of pure energy, the Dredge, destroyed the planet Earth and his father escaped on the ship Titan with an undisclosed mission that could be the hope to save humanity. 15 years later, Cale is a brash young man with no human identity doing repair work on a remote mining station with only his alien mentor for company or friendship. That all changes when Captain Corso (Torchwood: Miracle Day‘s Bill Pullman) arrives informing Cale that he, not his father, is now humanity’s last hope. A ring given to Cale by his father right before the destruction of Earth is a map to the location of the Titan ship, and Cale must answer the call to find his destiny and save the human race.

And, thus, Cale is whisked away (not without a dramatic and violent escape from the mining station) by Corso to his ship where Cale meets Corso’s eccentric and border-line insane crew. The obligatory (and sort of terribly developed in terms of their romance) love interest is the human colonist Akima (Irreconcilable Differences‘ Drew Barrymore). You also have Preed (Nathan Lane), the lascivious dog alien with a less than subtle attraction to Akima (or any female it would appear). Grune (Romeo + Juliet‘s John Leguizamo) is the ship’s turtle/E.T. looking scientist with a strange, almost sexual reaction to the gadgetry and scientific mysteries of the film. And lastly, you have Stith (Reality Bites‘s Janeane Garofalo), the beleaguered ship’s weapon specialist, who mostly likes to complain about the fact that she has too many degrees to be doing the work on the ship she does.

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As you can tell, Titan A.E. has a refreshingly quirky cast that generally doesn’t fit into the “quirky” archetypes of your average kid’s movie. And with the notable exception of Drew Barrymore (because when has she ever given a good performance), the voice-acting is great across the board. Obviously, Matt Damon’s Cale isn’t as demanding a part as Good Will Hunting or The Departed but it’s a kid’s movie for fuck’s sake. The two best voice-over performances are Bill Pullman’s Corso as a wonderful gruff mentor figure who shows some remarkable range in his performance (that I can’t get too far into without spoiling a late game plot twist) and John Leguizamo’s Grune just for the sheer oddity of his takes on an almost literal mad scientist. Most of the laughs from the film (cause it’s mostly dramatic) come from Grune.

And, as I said, the universe of Titan A.E. is consistently welcoming. As I watched the film, I pretty much constantly wanted to know more about the world our heroes were exploring. Part of that can be attributed to the film’s wonderful art-style. There’s a section on a planet of bat-like aliens that is just stunningly gorgeous. But, and this is the film’s biggest problem, the story seems to run purely on getting from one crazy scrape to the next. And, the individual set-pieces are awesome and endlessly inventive, but the plotting of the film borders on patchwork at best and totally illogical at its worst. For example, at one point, the Dredge are holding Cale captive and he breaks out of their prison in the most insultingly simple way imaginable. Also, at one point, Cale and Corso survive being exposed to Outer Space in just their regular clothes by holding their breath. That…. is not how that works. They would have frozen to death. Of course, I know I’m putting too much thought into a sci-fi film where there is an alien species made of pure energy.

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I’m going to draw this review to a close. I wound up sleeping like 15 hours last night which means I probably haven’t eaten in like 19 hours. And I am huuuuungry. I also want to watch Twin Peaks even though this season seems to have more twists per episode than most shows have over the course of an entire season. Season 2 of Twin Peaks is crazy y’all. I may not have fallen in love with Titan A.E. as much as I did The Land Before Time or Bluth’s other best works, but it was an enjoyable ride for the 90 minutes it lasted. The only other substantive complaint one could make about this film is that it is in no way, shape, or form suitable for children. It is violent. And, not in some surface way. It is just super violent. A character gets his neck snapped, one character is shot and explodes into green goo, blood is seemingly omni-present. It’s just violent. But, if you’re older and have fond memories of Bluth, this is a fun way to pass an evening.

Final Score: B+

 

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Adapting Superman to any medium, even his birthplace of comic books, is no easy feat. Superhero stories are fueled by epic conflict, but when you are nearly a god (though not to a Dr. Manhattan-level of omniscience/omnipotence), it’s hard to design scenarios where the odds aren’t seemingly stacked overwhelmingly in Kal-El’s favor. And, in the process, most film adaptations of the Superman mythos ignore the godlike aspect of the last son of Krypton. Director Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch) understands how crucial Superman’s world-shattering strength is to his character, and in the process makes the first Superman film that really grasps how powerful this man is. However, the film also constantly left me hungry for the vulnerable human element that I loved so much in Superman Returns.

Because, to Man of Steel‘s credit, there hasn’t been a Superman film yet that truly delivers the sort of world-rending sci-fi action on display in practically every action sequence of Man of Steel. Alongside The Avengers and Avatar, this movie may very well have some of the best fight scenes in recent memory. Man of Steel seemingly draws as much inspiration for its action choreography from Japanese anime as it does traditional Western comic book influences, and the high-flying Dragonball Z-esque theatrics were a delight. And, in true Zack Snyder fashion, the action of the film almost never lets up from beginning to end, which is ultimately a shame because I wanted more of an emotional connection with the characters on screen which it rarely delivered.

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After rampant destruction of its natural resources leads to the imminent destruction of Krypton, Jor-El (Les Miserables‘ Russell Crowe) is forced to send his only son, Kal-El (Henry Cavill), to Earth as the last chance for the Kryptonian race. And, so baby Kal-El lands on Earth where he’s discovered in a Kansas corn field by Jonathan Kent (The Untouchables‘ Kevin Costner) and the radiation from Earth’s yellow sun endows him with superhuman strength including super-hearing, x-ray vision, heat vision, and flight. His powers even gain him the attention of intrepid report, Lois Lane (The Fighter‘s Amy Adams). But when the genocidal Kryptonian General Zod (Revolutionary Road‘s Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth looking to make a new Krypton on Earth’s ashes, Kal-El, known now as Clark Kent, must answer the call to being a hero and become the Superman that Earth needs.

Though that plot seems simple enough (in many ways, Man of Steel is a conventional origin story in the very modern vogue style), the movie is fast-paced and entertaining enough to never feel like it’s dragging over its two hour running time. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the film rarely gives you time to breathe, and it’s all action, all the time focus ultimately becomes a tunnel vision obstructing us from getting a clearer view of why Clark would want to remain loyal to a humanity that was not always so kind and loving to him. Zack Snyder has a reputation as being all style and no substance, and sadly, it’s on full display in Man of Steel.

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Henry Cavill (and it’s difficult to sell just how important this is) looks like Superman should look like. He has that all American charm, good looks, and appeal, and I can’t imagine anyone having any complaints about his casting. His performance was nothing special, but it didn’t require him to do anything special either. Michael Shannon gave one of the better supporting performances for this blog in recent memory in Revolutionary Road and while clearly General Zod isn’t that kind of character, he made him appropriately larger than life. My only complaint in the casting of the film was Amy Adams who was as miscast as Lois Lane as Kate Bosworth was in Superman Returns.

I’m going to keep this review short because this is the first movie review I’ve written in like nearly two weeks now. I’ve been at Bonnaroo and writing articles preparing for Bonnaroo and writing articles for when I came back from Bonnaroo and working at the bar. This is my first day off in forever where I don’t have to go anywhere and I can just stay at home and enjoy myself. And that’s what I plan on doing. Probably going to play either The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite. If you’re in the mood for a bombastic, science fiction action spectacular, Man of Steel delivers and then some with some of the craziest action scenes I’ve ever seen. If you’re wanting any depth with your superhero tale, you’ll be disappointed.

Final Score: B

 

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I’m going to posit a fairly unpopular opinion right now, but it’s one that I’ve held for a long time now (and my most current viewing of the film didn’t dispossess me of this belief), the original 1979 Alien is one of the more over-rated science fiction films of all time. It is generally held up as one of the greatest sci-fi horror movies ever made, and if that’s true, sci-fi horror must be a sadly dull genre of cinema. Even now, 34 years later, it’s clear that Alien was a crowning technical achievement. And much like Black Rain and Black Hawk Down, it should be obvious to everyone that Ridley Scott is a masterful director with a keen visual eye. Sadly, the pacing in Alien is downright tedious at times and the film never frightened me once. Through in the fact that, outside of Ripley and the character played by Yaphet Kotto, I didn’t care about any of the characters in the film, Alien is a sadly stale if exceptionally technically well made sci-fi horror.

Alien is considered to be one of the premier films of the “less is more” philosophy of horror film-making. And I am a huge supporter of that genre. The original Paranormal Activity crafted a genuine modern horror classic on that principle, and Roman Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion is also from the same vein. But those films succeed where Alien often fails with an understanding of how to fill the scenes in between the horror. Paranormal Activity had the great banter between Micah and Katie and Repulsion had its omnipresent social commentary on the dangers of sexual repression. Alien has its plot and practically nothing else besides its admittedly suffocating atmosphere. If Alien had found a way to breathe life to the characters portrayed by its star-studded cast, it might have been a great film. As it is, Alien simply is not.

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In the future, the commercial towing ship Nostromo holds 7 passengers (plus a cat) as it returns to Earth after a successful mining operation. However, before the ship can reach Earth, the crew is prematurely awakened from its cryogenic stasis when they intercept an emergency distress beacon on a remote planet. An away team consisting of the ship’s two commanding officers, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Kane (John Hurt), as well as the navigator, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), heads down to the planet’s surface to investigate the distress beacon where they find a crashed, derelict space craft with nothing left alive on board. Or so they think. Kane finds an egg in one of the ship’s chambers and a mysterious alien life form attaches itself to his face, even breaking through his helmet, creating a parasitic attachment to Kane’s head. When the chief science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), breaks quarantine rules and let’s the away team back on the ship, the whole crew’s lives is put in danger.

It is quickly apparent once the away team returns that the alien attached to Kane’s face is very dangerous. Warrant officer Ripley (The Village‘s Sigourney Weaver) is angry enough that they let the alien on the ship in the first place, and the engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) aren’t too pleased about it either. No one knows what the alien is or why it’s attached itself to Kane’s face, but there’s a ray of hope when the alien seemingly disappears. Kane seems to be alright until an infamous dinner sequence where an evolved version of the alien bursts forth from his chest. And from that point forward, it’s a race against time to either kill the alien or be killed as it evolves and starts to take more and more of the ship’s crew down with it.

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I’ll give Alien credit for the things it does astoundingly well. As I’ve said, this movie is 34 years old now. Other than a hilariously 1970s/1980s idea of what computers will look like in the future (apparently they all still run on DOS), the special effects and general feel of Alien has aged remarkably well. There were only a couple occasions where I thought the effects looked laughably aged (an explosion at the very end of the film being the most prominent one), and like the original Star Wars films, Alien is a film you could show to today’s kids and they wouldn’t laugh at its look. And, beyond the effects, Ridley Scott makes the atmosphere and look of the ship absolutely suffocating and dripping with dread (even if nothing especially scary ever happens). The lighting and camerawork of the movie are superb, and I just wish it’d had a better script supporting it.

The film is also chock full of some of the best character actors of the 1970s and is the film that shot Sigourney Weaver to stardom. And the performances are great. While the characterizations of the people aboard the ship are paper-thin, the actors have a strong chemistry, and the animosity between Ash and Ripley is so strong that one almost wonders if they disliked each other in real life. They legitimately gave the impression that they simply couldn’t stand to be around one another. Sigourney Weaver helped to encapsulate one of the ultimate female bad-asses in movie history, and her turn as Ripley is one of the great parts of the film, although I loved the consistently scheming and disapponted Parker played by Yaphet Kotto. Parker and Ripley were the only two characters in the film that seemed to have any bite to them.

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I’ll draw this review to a close. I hope you can tell that I don’t dislike Alien. It is an inarguably well-crafted film, and it helped bring Ridley Scott’s talents to mainstream prominence. Unfortunately, it’s script is simply alright, and it doesn’t do justice to Scott’s artistic vision and talent. Black Rain is one of the least remembered/discussed of Ridley Scott’s films, but I honestly think it’s better than Alien. It is smart and stylish from beginning to end, and though it’s not some shining example of cinematic art, it always remains fun. Alien wants to be cinematic art, but it isn’t good enough to pull it off. I think everyone should watch Alien. Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, it’s required sci-fi horror viewing 101; I just don’t think it’s the timeless classic that everyone else does.

Final Score: B

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I am a sucker for imaginative storytelling and engrossing world building. From a classical storytelling perspective, the Russell T. Davies years of Doctor Who or the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation aren’t bastions of great characters or “important” insights into the human condition, but as someone who loves fantastical new worlds, they scratch that need. Ever since I was little and I was introduced to The Hobbit, I’ve had a constant desire to see new things and explore worlds I’ve never encountered before. 1984’s The Last Starfighter has a wonderful premise and a compelling mythology, but the film suffers in its execution with a story that ultimately feels woefully deficient and underdeveloped.

Perhaps it’s the screenwriter in me (long time readers should know that I’ve written two unpublished screenplays and I’m hard at work on a third one right now), but I found myself nitpicking every step of the way little areas where I felt The Last Starfighter missed a storytelling opportunity or had major characters seem embarrassingly thinly drawn. In fact, if I had to sum up my reaction to this film in one quick sentence, it’s that The Last Starfighter rests on the laurels of an ahead of it’s time basic plot but then fails to properly capitalize with compelling villains, good acting, or proper pacing. Though these thoughts didn’t keep me from enjoying the film, I kept getting pulled out of the experience after one cheesy interlude after another.

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Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is your average teenage boy living his last summer before the beginning of college. Alex lives in a trailer park with his mother and little brother as well as his girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), and he dreams of nothing more than going to a nice college and getting out of the Starlite Starbrite trailer park once and for all. And the only thing that Alex seems to enjoy in life any more besides the company of his girlfriend is the Starfighter arcade box up at the general store near the trailer park. One night Alex finally beats the Starfighter game and finds his life changed forever.

It turns out that the Starfighter video game was a secret test left on Earth by the alien Centauri (Robert Preston) to find new recruits for the Starfighter defense program defending the galactic frontier. Centauri shows up on Earth and whisks Alex away to an alien-filled space station to convince Alex to help defend the galaxy, but when it becomes clear that Alex’s life is in danger, Alex wants to go home. But, it isn’t long before he’s back on Earth and realizes that everyone he loves and holds dear will be in danger if he doesn’t fight. And Alex is forced to take up the call and become the titular last starfighter.

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None of the performances in the film are anything to write home about and pretty much all of the aliens are invariably over the top. Lance Guest is appropriately sensitive and lost as the hero and Catherine Mary Stewart also gels as his girlfriend, but it’s also clear that both were cast more for their good looks than for any acting talent. Robert Preston hams it up in every single second he’s on screen as the Merlin-esque Centauri to the point of distraction, and I’m not entirely sure what was up with the weird little laugh Alex’s alien navigator Grig had to do every time he thought something was funny.

Surprisingly, the special effects of the film both look like a product of the mid 1980s, but they also don’t distract from the overall experience of the film by coming off as too cheesy (except for maybe the absurd encephalitis that the primary alien species seems to suffer from). In fact, the 1980s video game look of some of the space ships and the space battles actually adds some perhaps unintentional charm to the film as it captures the arcade aesthetic that propelled Alex into space in the first place.

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If you are a fan of cheesy science fiction (particularly of the 1980s variety), by all means check The Last Starfighter out if you’ve never gotten around to it. It will be a pleasant diversion, and it will harken back to a day of more innocent film-making. It’s not perfect, and I wish I could have had a crack at writing the script for this film’s story, but it’s fun. If you don’t enjoy this particular brand of science fiction, you likely won’t see the point of this movie and may even think it’s quite stupid. That’s fair, but I enjoyed the hour and forty minutes I spent with this film.

Final Score: B

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(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. Long time readers may remember that I used to be a bartender a year and a half ago before I went on my sojourn to New York City to be a music critic. For whatever reason, I didn’t decide to do that again when I came back from NYC, but I’m back at it again. And if I do alright enough on tips this summer, I will probably make it a habit of going to be the big summer blockbusters that I’m interested in while they’re still in theaters. If I don’t get good tips, that won’t happen, but hopefully that’s not the case)

In superhero movies fandom, there is no more nerve-wracking moment than when new blood is infused into your favorite superhero franchise. This anxiety can be traced back to Joel Schumacher’s stewardship of the Batman franchise who utterly obliterated all of the good work Tim Burton had done to transition comic book films to the big screen or when Brett Ratner unleashed the horrific X-Men 3: The Last Stand after Bryan Singer’s excellent first two entries in the series. But, sometimes, new blood can bring a series back to life, and after the emotionally stunted and dull Iron Man 2, Shane Black brought his wit and smarts to the series to make Iron Man 3 everything you could want from a summer blockbuster.

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Shane Black is famous as being one of the most highly-paid screenwriters in Hollywood history, particularly when he set the record for highest payday for a spec script ever for The Long Kiss Goodnight. However, to most Americans, he most famous for penning the first Lethal Weapon movie (the best one) as well as The Last Boy Scout and for writing and directing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (his best film). And in so many different ways that it begins to border on insanity, Iron Man 3 is a Shane Black film through and through. Witty dialogue, a crackling sense of humor, a “buddy cop” dynamic, Christmas, and a love of bad guys carrying sub-machine guns, Iron Man 3 has all of the Shane Black staples and I loved the film for it.

After the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He can’t sleep, he has panic attacks, and he spends all of his spare time tinkering in his lab to the point that he’s made at least 42 versions of his Iron Man suit. And the stress and anxiety is tearing his relationship with Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow) apart. To make matters worse, a psychotic terrorist of unknown origins known only as the Mandarin (Hugo‘s Ben Kingsley) is causing destruction around the world. As Tony’s emotional state is disintegrating around him, a disgruntled biotech scientist (Guy Pearce) teams up with the Mandarin and brings the destruction literally to Tony’s doorstep.

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Iron Man 3 is nearly a point-by-point response to everything I hated in Iron Man 2. Whereas the latter was emotionally uncommitted, Iron Man 3 explores the frailer and more vulnerable side of Tony’s life and the price of his arrogance and general bastardry earlier in life. Whereas the latter’s action felt stale and unoriginal, Iron Man 3‘s set pieces are overflowing with excitement, originality, and a genuine sense of “stakes” towards the outcome. And where the first sequel felt dull and lifeless from beginning to end, Iron Man 3 is unequivocally hilarious from beginning to end, and it was rare when a scene in the film didn’t have my sister and I rolling in our seats with laughter from some great Tony Stark quip (or from a certain precocious kid but no spoilers from me).

Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his best performances since Zodiac as Tony Stark in this entry in the series. Perhaps because Shane Black helped coax Downey Jr. back into respectability with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but Shane Black helps Robert Downey Jr. tone down the mugging and incessant smirking that made Tony seem too one note in Iron Man 2, and we see this as a man who has confronted gods, aliens, and powers beyond his ken and the full front of his tiny place in the universe is bearing down on him, and through Downey’s performance, we see the full weight of this pressure. He still brings the laugh, but he also taps into something much deeper as well.

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Some have complained that while virtually everything else was great about Iron Man 3 (the action set pieces, the characterization, the dialogue, the performances), the actual story itself was kind of dumb. That may be true, but only in so far as Iron Man 3‘s ambitions are far different than say Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. With the exception of a general lambast of greed and hubris, Iron Man 3 has no political overtones (unlike the libertarian bent of Iron Man 2). In the best Shane Black tradition, it is simply an exercise in smart popcorn cinematic storytelling, and there wasn’t a minute of this film where I didn’t enjoy the action unfolding on screen.

If we can have a post-Nolan superhero world where people like Joss Whedon and (now) Shane Black can tap into some of the most treasured figures in American mythology (for what are superheroes except the ultimate American mythology) without finding themselves mired in overt political subtext and remember that superheroes can just be “fun” if they want to, then count me in. Because unless you’re Alan Moore, odds are that making your superheroes too serious will ruin what made us love them in the first place. Iron Man 3 may not have something grand to say, but you’ll have a hell of a time watching it unfold regardless.

Final Score: A-

 

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The 2013 summer blockbuster season is finally upon us. It likely began with the release of Iron Man 3 earlier in the month (which had one of the highest grossing opening weekends of all time), and now for the next few months, we should see a steady stream of high-budget, action extravaganzas plowing their way into movie theaters near you. And if the initial reviews surrounding Iron Man 3 (which I should be seeing sometime soon with my sister) and the newest Star Trek film are any indication, we should be in for a hell of a summer. Star Trek Into Darkness may come just shy of the high bar set by the 2009 Star Trek reboot, but it comes damn close.

I left the theater yesterday when the final credits rolled on the latest entry in J.J. Abrams’s re-imagining of the Star Trek franchise with a panoply of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, J.J. Abrams upped the “spectacle” portion of the Star Trek equation to new heights. As a science fiction action film, Into Darkness is a heart-pounding success, and the script also further cements the truly wonderful group dynamics at the core of these new films with some genuine emotional resonance. On the other hand, there’s one aspect of the plot that I can’t spoil but it left me finding the film’s climax to be riddled with one massive cop-out.

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An indeterminate amount of time after Kirk (Smokin’ Aces‘ Chris Pine) and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise saved Earth from the evil Romulan Nero at the end of the last film, the Enterprise is still helmed by Kirk as they perform science missions in Federation space. After Captain Kirk violates the Prime Directive (to not interfere in the affairs of an underdeveloped alien species) in an attempt to save Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) life, he is grounded by Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and demoted to First Officer. However, it’s not long before the terrorist machinations of superhuman genius John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) threaten all of the Federation and call Kirk back into service.

Much like when Cloverfield was originally released and just discussing even the most basic elements of the plot could be considered a spoiler, I have the same fears about Star Trek Into Darkness. With the exception of one gratuitous “Chekhov’s Gun” (the playwright, not the ensign of the Enterprise) meets a “deus ex machina” at the film’s end, Star Trek Into Darkness is a tightly plotted and well-executed series of reveals, twists, revelations, and betrayals, and I imagine much of the fun (particularly for those who aren’t immersed in Trek lore) of the film will come from watching the many plot threads slowly start to converge.

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One of the great surprises of the film was just how much Chris Pine stepped up his acting game for this entry. Not to imply that he did a bad job in the 2009 film but perhaps because Into Darkness affords Pine’s Kirk the opportunity to do more than be an arrogant hothead, but the emotional journey and heroic path that Kirk charts in this film is its most rewarding pleasure. And Pine rises to the challenge of capturing the slow destruction of Kirk’s cocksure confidence with ease, and through his chemistry with Zachary Quinto, you really get an eve better feel for one of science fiction’s most legendary heroes than almost ever before. I can’t say much about Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison other than to say he proves an excellent and efficient foil to the Enterprise crew.

I’m awake at 5:30 AM and I have to be at work at 8 AM for the new job that I start today. I actually went to bed at around 10:30 PM last night but I woke up at about 4:40 this morning. Thankfully, I’m only going to be at work for a couple of hours for training and then back much later in the evening for training again. The moral of this rambling is that I’m tired and I’ll draw this review to a close. Had Star Trek Into Darkness not done one thing at the end of the movie, I think it would have been even better than the 2009 film. It’s that good. But that one decision seemed so weak and cheap, that it lessens the whole experience just a little bit. But not nearly enough that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Star Trek Into Darkness to every science fiction fan I know. Live long and prosper.

Final Score: B+

 

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2008’s Iron Man breathed new life into the cinematic Marvel universe after catastrophe after catastrophe including Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine threatened to derail all of the good will Marvel superheroes had earned from movie goers in the late 90s and early 2000s. With a fresh script, Jon Favreau’s “one of us” direction, and Robert Downey Jr.’s career-resuscitating performance, Iron Man was a hit with critics and audiences alike, and is still one of the standard bearers of great superhero storytelling alongside The Dark Knight and The Avengers. I’ve avoided watching the sequel, Iron Man 2, for nearly three years now because all of the critics said it couldn’t hold a candle to the original film. And, sadly, they are right. Not only does Iron Man 2 completely lack the character-driven sparks of its forebear, it lacks most of the smart, fun spectacle that made the first such a massive hit to begin with.

Even when films are full of mindless explosions and endless action-sequences (ala any Michael Bay film), one can at least appreciate the spectacle of big-budget bombast. The Transformer films may be intellectual hogwash, but they are rarely boring (except for the over-long second film). So, it’s astounding that Iron Man 2 is both often mind-numbingly boring and totally devoid of compelling character development or witty dialogue. That it manages to not be as stupefyingly bad as Thor is only because of the natural and omnipresent charm of Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle as well as an absolutely scene-stealing turn from Moon‘s Sam Rockwell. Summer superhero blockbusters are supposed to be fun. More than any other trait that is what needs to matter (except for, maybe, Watchmen), and at the end of the day, Iron Man 2 was as far from fun as humanly possible.

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After defeating his father’s old partner at the end of the first film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has helped create an unheralded period of peace on Earth thanks to his powerful Iron Man suit. Although Tony lives the life of a rock star, it’s not all fun and games because the palladium used in the arc reactor keeping Tony alive (and that also powers his suit) is also slowly poisoning Tony’s bloodstream. To make matters worse, the United States government (in a situation that I can only say has to be a reference to Atlas Shrugged hero Hank Rearden) is calling on Tony to hand over the Iron Man tech to the military which Tony does not want to do. This also puts Tony at odds with his best friend, Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a military pilot who may be forced to act against his own best friend at his country’s orders.

The situation is compounded even further by the presence of an ambitious and greedy rival weapons manufacturer, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who will stop at nothing to develop his own version of Tony’s weaponry in order to secure lucrative development contracts with the government. And Tony’s life keeps getting worse when a revenge seeking Russian nuclear physicist, Ivan Vanko (Diner‘s Mickey Rourke), makes a suit of his own and terrorizes a Monaco speedrace under the moniker, Whiplash (they never actually say it in the film, but that’s who he is in the comics). As tensions grow high between Tony, Vanko, Hammer, Rhodes, and the U.S. government, Tony must choose where his loyalties lie, and he must find a cure to his Palladium poisoning before time runs out and before his increasingly reckless decision making runs his company into the ground.

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There really isn’t much to say about Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in this film. It’s par for the course from what we now expect from his portrayal of Tony Stark. No new ground was broken. And, hell, just like the rest of the film, there were times where even Downey’s performance felt phoned in. Perhaps he was just playing to how thin the script is. Don Cheadle proved an adequate replacement for Terrence Howard (who left the franchise after money disputes) although Rhodie himself didn’t have much to do in the film. The only real acting suprise/delight of the movie was Sam Rockwell’s deliciously pompous turn as the sneering and scheming Justin Hammer. It wasn’t a meaty part, but Rockwell ran with what he was given, and for the vast majority of the film, it seemed like he was the only one having any fun with his part.

And, in addition to the general predictable nature of the performances and characterizations (at least in The Dark Knight Rises, Christian Bale tapped into new layers of the Bruce Wayne character), the superhero spectacle of the film was virtually non-existent. During the film’s two-hour run time, which was mostly padding, there were exactly two moments where I felt the action was fun, witty, or new. The first is a fight where (SPOILERS I guess) Rhodes commandeers one of Tony’s power suits and becomes War Machine for the first time and Tony and Rhodes duke it out. It was fun and funny, and the fight furthered the story’s examination of the breakdown of their friendship. The other moment may not have had as much symbolic story impact, but a sequence where Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow infiltrates Hammer’s facility is pure, ass-kicking fun, and we don’t see enough bad-ass women in the movies these days (or ever).

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All in all, Iron Man 2 has to be one of my biggest superhero disappointments since the emo shenanigans of SpiderMan 3 (seriously, how freaking bad is that movie). Iron Man was one of the movies that helped make it okay to be a nerd at the box office again, and The Avengers would have never happened had it not been such a massive success. Thankfully, the reviews for Iron Man 3 have been much more positive than they were for this entry, and its release a couple of weeks ago was the only reason I even caved and watched Iron Man 2 in the first place. If you’re a fan of the Tony Stark character, I suppose it’s necessary to see for it’s place within the Marvel film canon, but if you’re a more casual superhero movie lover, go ahead and avoid this clunker. You aren’t missing anything.

Final Score: C

 

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Since last Sunday, I have watched 17 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The impetus for this sudden interest in Star Trek is likely tied to the fact that Star Trek: Into Darkness premiered this week, and I’ve been anticipating this film ever since J.J. Abrams first reboot of the Trek universe premiered in 2009. I had ordered Star Trek 2009 from Netflix to prep for the sequel, but the copy Netflix sent me was broken, and I had to get a new one. So, in the interim, I watched an unholy amount of Next Generation which I’ve enjoyed despite some of the silliness of Season 1. And, having watched so much original Star Trek: TNG lately, it creates an interesting perspective for this viewing of the reboot.

In the Star Trek television series, the emphasis is always on peaceful exploration and the collection of knowledge. The crews of the various versions of the Enterprise (or the USS Voyager or the people on the base in Deep Space Nine) may encounter hostile forces, but at least in season 1 of TNG, problems are solved through diplomacy and a lens of moral idealism. The whole point of Q seems to be a higher race that tests humanity’s willingness to support its own values even when its difficult. The 2009 Star Trek succeeds (highly) on its own merits and artistic vision, but its emphasis on action and combat seems at odds with the more cerebral nature of the TV series that spawned it.

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Serving as a reboot to the continuity of the original series (although with a conceit that I won’t spoil for any who haven’t seen the film), Star Trek becomes an origin story for how Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Smokin’ Aces‘ Chris Pine) captains the Starship Enterprise. After his father (The Avengers‘ Chris Hemsworth) dies saving his people (including Kirk’s pregnant mother) from a Romulan attack, Kirk grows up a troubled kid with no respect for authority until he’s recruited into Starfleet by Captain Pike of the USS Enterprise who knew his father. Determined to prove himself, Kirk joins the Federation not knowing what fate has in store for him.

After cheating on a Starfleet exam programmed by Commander Spock (Heroes‘ Zachary Quinto), Kirk’s punishment is delayed by an attack on the planet Vulcan. After being sneaked aboard the Enterprise by his best friend, Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Kirk manages to help save the Enterprise from an attack from the same Romulans who killed his father 25 years earlier. With Vulcan destroyed, Captain Pike captured, and the Romulans’ sights set on Earth, it’s up to the crew of the Enterprise to save the day and for Kirk and Spock to learn to put aside their differences for the greater good.

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I was  skeptical of his casting when the film was first announced, but Chris Pine was a worthy replacement for William Shatner to play Captain Kirk, and by all reasonable metrics, he’s a much better actor than the hammy Shatner. He perfectly captures the cockiness and drive that make Kirk one of science fiction’s most beloved heroes. Zachary Quinto (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Leonard Nimoy) was very well cast as Spock, and the film gives Quinto a chance to examine the conflict between Spock’s logical Vulcan side and his emotional human half. The pair craft an appropriately epic sci-fi “bromance.”

J.J. Abram’s direction is appropriately epic. Although Star Trek was overshadowed in 2009 by the even more massively-budgeted Avatar, it’s clear that when given a big budget, J.J. Abrams knows what to do with it. As much as I’ve enjoyed watching TNG this week, the effects are laughable at best and really awful at worst, and it’s cool seeing the Trek universe with modern effects. People mock Abrams’ love of lens flare, but from start to finish, Trek is a well-choreographed action blockbuster from beginning to end that finds a beating heart in between the away missions and explosive space battles.

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Even if you’ve never seen any of the television series or original movies (which I hadn’t before my initial viewing of this film upon its release), Star Trek is a rousing sci-fi adventure in an era where that doesn’t happen often enough on the big screen. Because Abrams takes the time to develop these characters and their backstories and their chemistry as a group, you can care about these heroes even without understanding the character archetypes they’re drawn from. And with a supporting crew including John Cho, Simon Pegg, and Zoe Saldana, you’re given plenty of characters to latch onto (though Cho and Pegg don’t have much screen time).

I’m very excited to watch Star Trek: Into Darkness. My family is probably going to go see it at some point in the next week or so. So, expect a review of it in the coming days. If you’re a fan of science fiction, there is no excuse for not watching J.J. Abrams’ reboot of one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time (and it makes so excited to see where he takes the Star Wars films). And, although the film’s themes seem to diverge wildly from its own source material, if you are able to divest yourself from what you think Star Trek needs to be, it seems impossible to not enjoy this voyage where we go boldly where no man has gone before.

Final Score: A-

 

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What does it mean to be more than just another summer blockbuster? How do you separate yourself from the crowded marquee of countless other generic big-budget spectacles that invade our cinemas each year? If you’re Christopher Nolan, you turn The Dark Knight Rises into a political allegory that reshapes the possibility of myth-making in the ultimate American mythos, the superhero. If you’re Joss Whedon, you use The Avengers to set a new bar for witty dialogue and compelling group dynamics as well as incorporating arguably the greatest fight scene in all of superhero-dom. I did not think I would ever place Planet of the Apes reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the same league as those two top-tier blockbusters. I was dumb for doubting it because this particular origin story has more heart, brains, and meaning than the rest of the franchise combined, and it holds its own with the very best of the summer blockbusters.

Set in the near future (man is going to Mars so it can’t be the present), Rise of the Planet of the Apes defies franchise expectations by focusing not on men who are tormented by their ape overlords, but on the apes who are punished and tortured until they finally rebel against their human oppressors. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is a very special chimpanzee. When his mother, a test subject for an experimental Alzheimer’s cure, is put down trying to protect her newly born son, geneticist Will Rodman (127 Hours‘ James Franco) takes Caesar home where he quickly learns that Caesar’s intelligence is far superior to that of a normal chimp. I don’t want to ruin the chain of events that lead to ape rebellion, but after raising Caesar as his own family for many years, humanity’s own dark side prods Caesar and the mistreatment of his fellow apes to finally fight back.

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Whereas most of the films in the franchise portrayed the apes as evil conquerors, Rise of the Planet Apes paints Caesar as a burgeoning freedom fighter whose constant exposure to injustice leads him down the path to revolution. I have more to say about Andy Serkis in a second, but it is exceptionally impressive that in this film, they were able to make me care more about Caesar and his comrades-in-arms than any of the flesh-and-blood people that populated the screen. Unable to talk for most of the film (don’t worry franchise purists. They’re voice boxes return), Rise of the Planet of the Apes still managed to turn Caesar into a sympathetic figure of the injustice and cruelty man inflicts on animals just through strong writing and superb animation. And also, the motion-capture work that Andy Serkis did, but, yet again, more on that in a second.

Twice now, I have cared more about an Andy Serkis creation in a movie than the actual actors he was playing across from. A lot of that is the writing, but if there wasn’t a talented actor bringing these intricately animated figures to life, they just wouldn’t click with audiences. Gollum isn’t actually one of the two characters I was referring to, but would his arc through the Lord of the Rings franchise had seemed so tragic and sympathetic if Andy Serkis hadn’t been behind his movements? I think not. But between Caesar and the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Andy Serkis managed to elicit such strong emotional reactions from me just by playing apes. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Caesar is the strongest of his performances thus far, and I hope (if the writing is good) that he gets to return to this role at some point in the future.

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It wouldn’t be much of a summer blockbuster if it didn’t have the requisite action sequences and in that regard, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is fairly restrained, although part of me wants to say that it does so in a good way. A good three-quarters of the film is nothing but introducing us to the character of Caesar, the world he finds himself in, and then the path of abuse and punishment that leads to him rising up against his oppressors. I applaud the film’s decision to devote so much time to developing not just Caesar (though he gets the brunt of the development) but also Will, and Will’s Alzheimer-suffering father (John Lithgow). However, the film’s final sequence, where the apes finally rise up, seemed rushed, although that complaint is mitigated by the obvious sequel hooks that it’s ending left in place.

I’m going to keep this short because I want to work on my screenplay tonight (I’m 50 pages into my third screenplay since October. I’ve finished two others) although there’s a good chance that I’m just going to end up playing Tropico 4 or watch The Master which I have at home from Netflix. My roommates appear to be having some type of party down stairs so maybe I’ll join in. Although, they’re being a little raucous so it might be too much party for me and I’ll just stay in my attic. If you like smart, well-crafted science fiction and want a compelling lead, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is as good as any American summer blockbuster to come out in years. If you’ve put off watching it because of the travesty of the Tim Burton remake, get over that fear right now, and check this film out.

Final Score: A-