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Ten Word or Less Review : Holy crap this didn’t suck…much!

The age of the revisionist fairy tale is in full swing and Hollywood is determined to leave no old fabled left unmolested.  Most of these endeavors, Alice in Wonderland, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Jack the Giant Slayer, are turned into CGI baby food for the family movie crowd to digest without effort or concern.  Grotesque amounts of money are dumped into paper thin stories and the simple morals of these elderly fables are drawn out so far that they crush under the weight.  The minds behind Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters have blessedly avoided such pedantic and misguided ambitions.  Their twisted fairy tale is barely 90 minutes long and it gleefully strives for it’s well deserved R-rating.  Horror, gore and blood are what H&G invests in and while calling it ‘good’ is out of the question, it is unabashedly fun.

H&G doesn’t have much of a story to dwell on.  There’s a tragic back story of a sort you’ve seen before.  <cough, cough, Sleepy Hollow, cough, cough>  The title siblings, Hansel, played with a begrudgingly shitty attitude by Jeremy Renner, and Gretel, played with less resentment by Gemma Arterton, roam the unspecified Eastern European landscape attempting to rid the world of witches.  Really, Renner seems mad to be here.  After two Oscar nominations and sitting at the Mission: Impossible, Avengers and Bourne tables he seems genuinely pissed to be slumming it in these waters.   The adventure at hand takes them to a town where children are being abducted by a witch (Famke Janssen) hoping to sacrifice them and make her flammable, stick riding kind impervious to fire.  On paper none of this sounds the least bit remarkable, practically a retread of Terry Gilliam’s sour tasting Brothers Grimm, but in execution H&G is executed with a kind of B-movie glee bigger productions seem too terrified to embrace.  Maybe being released to theaters by the skin of your teeth is a blessing in disguise.

I have no idea what year H&G is supposed to take place, (17th century?) but Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola quickly lets it be known that he intends to fart in the face of anything resembling historical accuracy.  Rapid fire cross bows, shotguns, machine guns, explosives, record players, it’s all fair game.  They should have just let go completely and had someone wield an ipod made out of sticks and squirrel entrails.  But more than the anachronistic weaponry, H&G revels in unabashed gore.  Wirkola’s style is more akin to Sam Raimi before the $200 millions budgets rotted his brain.  When go to movie asshole Peter Stormare (Brothers Grimm again!) gets his head squashed via a giant troll’s foot, you have to respect the splatterific effort on display.  Considering the frequency with which people get popped, squished and dismembered in H&G, one might be tempted to think that watermelon hating comedian Gallagher directed the movie.  Wirkola also doesn’t over cut or use any damned shakeycam when shooting action.  A schlocky action movie that doesn’t adhere to the ADD aesthetic so many others feel is mandatory should always generate at least a small amount of respect.  And though there’s some liberal use of middling quality CGI, Wirkola knows not to put such humdrum effects front and center.  The guy likes his physical effects and camera tricks, cheesy though many of them may be.  The psychotically violent and all ‘guy in a suit’ Edward the Troll looks like a refuge from 80’s fantasies like Legend or Neverending Story.  Delightful.

Hansel & Gretel doesn’t deserve any kind of shiny award for being trashy.  As fun as it is it is still junk food cinema and you won’t respect yourself much when its through.  But when compared to what passes for trash these days it at least deserves a hearty pat on the back.  Or as the makers of this flick might prefer, a club through the brain complete with brain matter on the walls.  Kudos guys.  Good luck with a sequel and good luck getting Renner to not be so pissed about it.



Ten Word or Less Review BIG MONSTERS!  BIG ROBOTS!  little people.

The ads and trailers to Pacific Rim left everyone with the vivid impression that director Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) was crafting a monster movie for the ages.  300 foot tall robots, AKA Jaegers.  300 foot tall monsters, AKA Kaiju.  Thousands of people and big cities in the way of the two engaging in fisticuffs.  Cue up the mayhem.  But what the trailers skipped over was any pesky human element.  I saw a few fleeting images of some actors in goofy suits and Idris Elba declaring that the Apocalypse had been cancelled.  Sorry, no refunds.  But would Del Toro, a great writer of character and story, really abandon his fundamental strengths for nothing more than pure, unadulterated robot on monster carnage?  The answer is a profound yes.  So if you’re okay with that, prepare to be blissed out while watching Pacific Rim.

Pacific Rim is about absolutely nothing other than 300 ft gargantuan adversaries beating the crap out of each other.  And don’t get me wrong, that’s not an insult.  When these behemoths do battle the movie achieves a level of epic no other contemporary special effects effort can match.  Iron Man can suck it.  And unlike another mucho hyped director of oversized robot destruction, name begins with B, ends in Y and has an A in the middle, Del Toro loves to photograph his action in clean, easy to follow action.  His army of special effects wizards have created stunning CGI imagery, so why chop the film up like it’s being processed through a blender and make it impossible to appreciate?  His ability to reflect the scale of his robot and monster creations is a sight to behold and is easily the glue that holds an otherwise rickety movie together.  And that rickety side can be hard to ignore.

To describe the plot would only take a couple of succinct sentences but Del Toro and story creator Travis Beacham’s screenplay labors under unnecessary pressure of trying to explain its overtly simple and silly scenario.  Aliens open rift under the ocean.  They send big monsters to destroy our cities.  We create big robots to stop them.  They fight.  The ending of The Avengers and Independence Day hangs heavy in the air.  Roll credits.  Rim expends far too much narrative effort to make sure the audience not only understands the scenario, but piles on even more effort for inner workings that aren’t nearly as interesting as the filmmakers think they are.  All this explanation feels unnecessary and drawn out.  We’re here to experience a 2500 ton robot smash a giant monster in the head with an oil tanker and when that happens, it’s awesome.  To fuss so much over ‘drifting’, the mind melding process which allows two people to operate a giant robot, starts to get old fast.  At 2 hours plus Pacific Rim could use some tightening.

Del Toro’s ability to create emotionally compelling characters has also been purposefully left off the table.  This is a guy who created an awesome character out of smoke, so to see him slip into this level of perfunctory character creation is a let down.  Within the confines of Rim he’s pouring his massive budget into his robot/monster battles and his visual efforts into the spectacle as a whole.  What we’re left with on the human scale is a group of passable performers wrangled up from the likes of the FX network.  Star Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) is serviceable as the typical hero character who comes with standard issue back story.  The guy could be any lead in any action movie and he’d be the same.  Idris Elba (The Wire) carries the movie on his back with a firm determination and presence that makes you wonder why he’s not the star.  Charlie Day (Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Burn Gorman (Torchwood) are a pair of kooky, misbegotten scientist characters meant to channel an offbeat sense of humor but they’re a bit of a misfire.  If anything they distract more than any one other part.   Japanese actress Rinko Kinkuchi (Babel) rounds out the leads by handling herself just well enough to not be totally overshadowed by all the giant workings surrounding her.  Del Toro muse Ron Perlman (Hellboy) only gets to steal a few scenes as a sleazy peddler of black market monster parts.

I guess Pacific Rim is about the best an audience can expect during this particular summer movie season.  It’s huge and mindless and goofy but just fun and unique enough to enjoy.  Despite it’s shortcomings it never irks or plods or insults the viewer too directly.  I think its creators know quite well what they were making and one hopes that should a second adventure materialize, the robot gloves will come off.  They’ll be free to take their enormous instruments of destruction and go truly bonkers, sparing us the whys and the hows.  We don’t really want that.  We’re here for the monsters and robots.  The rest doesn’t have to be window dressing, but alas it is.

pacific rim


Ten Word or Less Review – Naked alien woman conquers the world!

Of all the old school tools the contemporary, incorporated Hollywood machine has rooted out of the sci-fi/fantasy filmmaking process, next to matte paintings and model work I think I may miss cocaine the most.  As Rick James was fond of saying “Cocaine is a Hell of a drug.”  As directors and storytellers dreamed up unparalleled ideas of gargantuan stupidity, in this case Texas Chainsaw director Tobe Hooper and Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, all the blow they snorted through their rolled up Benjamins made them impervious to any suggestion that what they were making may be less than the greatest movie ever made.  Such thinking is the only way to explain movies like Zardoz, The Keep and the film we’re here to talk about now, Lifeforce.

Lifeforce easily belongs among those classic ranks of the great, mind boggling sci-fi fiascoes.  It begins with a group of astronauts flying towards Haley’s Comet hoping to study the once in a lifetime cosmic event.  As they approach, their instruments detect the presence of another ship orbiting the comet.  A gargantuan space vessel that looks like a funky weed growing in your back yard that Round Up couldn’t dispatch, they enter the ship through a portal which can only be described as an enormous space anus.  Within the space anus they find a dead race of humanoid bat creatures as well as a perfectly preserved hot, naked chick.  There are also two naked dudes too.  With me so far?  Thinking this is certainly worth ogling, I mean ‘researching’, the astronauts take the naked people back to their space shuttle.  Cut to a month later.  The shuttle approaches Earth and when intercepted, it’s found with its crew dead and the shuttle’s insides burned up, except for the three hot naked people.  Still in their tubes and sound asleep, the recovery crew begin to ogle, I mean ‘examine’ the hot, frozen space chick, and promptly decide to take her back to Earth for ‘researching.’  Anyone still here?

Once planet side, the naked, alien space babe wakes up and promptly sucks the life out of an unlucky schlep who’s too curious for his own good.  When she does this it’s like watching a death scene from a Highlander movie.  Lights flash.  Lightning strikes.  Spooky blue smoke starts flying around.  A smoldering corpse with bug eyes is all that’s left.  You figure after this happens once someone would just shoot naked alien space babe and be done with it but once a hypnotic blue light emanates from her naughty, below the belt bits all bets are off.  The smoldering corpse gets up and tries to suck the life out of the next dummy.  One of the astronauts turns up in an escape pod and recounts a story just about the dimmest viewer could have figured out by now.  The naked space babe stays naked for a while longer but then she starts to jump into other peoples bodies and becomes decidedly less naked and things become a little less exciting but still wildly senseless.  The kind of senseless only drug fueled minds can make heads or tales out of.

What else happens in this thing?  Patrick Stewart appears as a doctor and his head melts.  After buzzing around the country trying to figure shit out our protagonists head back to London to find the whole city in flames with life sucking zombies running wild.  The astronaut has an Argento inspired wet dream with the naked alien space babe.  The movie copies the end of the first Star Trek movie except the two people being warped up in the great blue light are naked.  I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot.  Lifeforce really leaves you in a stupor.  It’s $25 million bucks of dope fueled wackness.

Hollywood only wants to make $200 million sci-fi bonanzas, most of which play like cinematic Valium.  If just once they gave someone that much money and an equally proportional amount of nose candy to go along with it, I’m sure a movie of unparalleled awesomeness could come into being.  A movie with rampant nudity, exploding dinosaurs, time travel via toaster and an all Funkadelic soundtrack.  It would star Keanu Reaves as Jesus Christ Jr., Gary Busey as the Nazi Pope, Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken III and Dolph Lundgren as himself.  And he would appear in the movie riding a flying shark that has the voice of Leonard Nimoy.  Of course none of this, or anything like it, will come to pass.  The powers that be will simply smear white face paint on Johnny Depp and call it fun.  And that will never be as fun as movies like Lifeforce.   Thanks Mitch.  After seeing this every movie forever will somehow seem inferior.

Lifeforce (1)


The Last Stand – Arnold’s return to action movies proves to be far less rickety and stagnant than the efforts he was putting out 10 years ago when he left acting behind for politics.  Did anyone see Collateral Damage?  The plot of Stand is slim and almost too silly for words, a drug dealer escaping to the border in a really fast car, and the first half of the movie is too protracted but once the fireworks start going off Last Stand proves itself to be adequately bananas.  The movie becomes an unhinged battle of bullets and blood which feels invigorating when compared to the sanitized carnage on display in bigger budget flicks.  Sadly, Arnold’s nutty little action flick went seen by no one.  He said he’d be back, he was, where were you?


Mud – Gritty, Arkansas set coming-of-age/crime drama featuring a stellar performances from Matthew McConaughey and newcomer Tye Sheridan.  Ellis (Sheridan) and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover an abandoned boat on a small island that they hope to claim for themselves.  Instead they find Mud (McConaughey), a mysterious, grimy looking character who immediately draws them into his confidence with his tale of ruined romance and murder.  There’s a lot to appreciate in Mud, it flirts with being great in places, but director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) seems afraid of applying momentum to his story when he could start to use it.  Things also gets thematically thick fingered and obvious in places.  Why did people yelp at the snake scene?  Despite the hiccups it’s a worthy effort and further proof that it’s okay to take McConaughey serious again.


Much Ado About Nothing – Right around the time he was tapped to helm one of the biggest movies ever, The Avenger, director Joss Whedon decided to get his friends together and make an adaptation of this well worn Shakespeare comedy in his house.  Assembling a cast made up of refuges from his various TV shows, Whedon puts together a commendable effort that fans of the Whedonverse will love to play spot the actor while watching.  The effort is loose and fun and the black and white photography helps mask the no budget nature of the production.  Kenneth Branagh’s version from the early 90’s is still tops.  Amy Acker stands out as the fierce and feisty Beatrice.  Alexis Denisof’s turn as Benedict is the one bit of casting which feels off the mark.  An all around good time though I felt a little stiffed for paying the late night price.  When you see it pop up on Netflix, enjoy.

Ten Word or Less Review : Best trilogy ever, that doesn’t involve lasers.

I know you won’t believe me but Man of Steel and Before Midnight have very similar endings.  The movie with the guy in the red cape culminates with Supes and Zod knocking the shit out of each other for about half an hour until every building in their path has been flattened.  This movie with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy culminates with the two of them knocking down the walls of their relationship until the house that is their marriage has been nearly destroyed.  The movie with the married couple in a hotel room proves to be far more effective in its portrayal of destruction than the movie with all the buildings falling down.

For those of you who haven’t kept up, Before Midnight marks our third visit into the relationship of American writer Jesse and French activist Celine.  The two met for one amazing night in Vienna 18 years ago.  The first movie, Before Sunrise, quietly achieved one of the great cliffhanger endings of movie history.  After their evening together ends Jesse leaves to go back to America with a promise to return to the same train station in 6 months.  The answer to their romantic question mark didn’t materialize until 9 years later in Before Sunset.  That movie caught us up with two people who had tried with all their might to live and move on and forget each other but despite only one night together and 9 years apart, they immediately fell back into the same repour that pulled them together so long ago.  This second story resonated with emotionally lost opportunities and the first pangs of genuine adult regret.  And just like the first time we were left with a teasing cliffhanger and once again we’ve had to wait 9 years to find out what happened.  Some thought Nina Simone would simply linger in the background forever.

Well, marriage and a set of twins happened.  Before Midnight brings us back to Celine and Jesse during the final days of an extended Greek vacation.  The movie starts with Jesse is saying goodbye to his son Hank who is going back to America after a summer with Dad.  Jesse is riddled with parental remorse at not being a larger part of Hank’s life.  After one too many crusader setbacks Celine is considering a major career overhaul and is afraid Jesse is trying to relocate the family to America through passive aggressive suggestion so that he can be close to Hank.  Though no fireworks start shooting off in the beginning the groundwork for conflict is being laid.  The rest of the afternoon plays out with a friendly dinner among fine friends and conversation and then Before Midnight returns us to the easy give and take that made us like these people 18 years ago.  “How long as it been since we just bullshited?”  It’s a throw away line from Hawke that says so much about the state of their relationship as the two slowly stroll off to a hotel for the evening.

When the two of them settle in for a romantic night away from kids, the situation quickly spirals into an argument of epic proportions in which the nature of their relationship isn’t so much dissected as ravenously torn apart and the audience is left dazed in the wake of their conflict.  Has Jesse become indifferent to Celine?  Is he taking advantage of her?  Does he really want to move to America and wreck the marriage the two have built?  Do they love each other anymore?  Has the monotony and routine of married existence eroded their relationship down to the nub?  It’s the kind of knockdown, drag out battle between people that leaves the audience aghast and devastated.  So much so because we’ve spent years contemplating these characters and building them in our minds that to see them turn things into an ugly, bare knuckle brawl is almost hurtful.  It’s a fearless, dangerous and honest place to take a story which to date has felt otherwise emotionally pleasing.

Midnight and it’s precursors stand as an example of unique creative chemistry between its stars and director, Richard Linklater.  Linklater has helmed all three movies with the screenplay for the last two being written by himself and stars Delpy and Hawke.  This kind of creative union has yielded commendable results.  Who better to write for these characters than the actors playing them?  Each film stands as a small statement to the age of not only the characters but the audience watching them.  The three movies are also a fine example of the visually less is more aesthetic.  There probably aren’t more than 50 camera setups between all three movies but each time Linklater gets more emotional traction from his performers than the last.  In a cinematic world obsessed with billion dollar trilogies and series of films which never end Linklater’s no budget trilogy can claim to be one of the more unique cinematic accomplishments of the last two decades.

Before Midnight doesn’t leave us dangling on a cliffhanger this time so much as imply a tectonic shift has occurred between the couple.  Where these characters go from here will once again be a matter of audience debate and speculation.   To not revisit them again in nine years would seem like someone vital not showing up for a family reunion.  Celine and Jesse will be 50 then.  Entrenched in middle age.  Their kids will have grown up.  I think there’s a chance they are no longer married.  Maybe health will have started to become an issue for one of them.  Will the story be set during a funeral?  A wedding?  Something as simple as dinner.  Who’s to know?  In no instance during this series of films were the outcomes predictable or foretold and I find that thought endlessly refreshing.  See you in 9 years guys.  You better show up.


Ten Word or Less Review – It certainly does suck.

I was only 3 when The Black Hole came out and I can only guess at why I didn’t grow up watching it at least in 10 or 15 times when I was a kid.  It was Disney, it was science fiction, I should have had the movie memorized by the time I was 9.  Well thank God that didn’t happen.  I’ve managed to scrub away more than a few lousy movies from my childhood memory and The Black Hole would certainly be something to make a point to forget about as quickly as possible once adolescence faded from view.  Maybe I did watch it as a kid and even then could tell what a lump of movie it was.

It was 1979 and every major studio had Star Wars fever on the brain.  They still do.  The age of the Star Wars knock off was about to go full tilt boogie and a struggling Disney studio stepped up with this massive $20 million production.  The Black Hole promised deep space adventure with floating robots, laser guns, monolithic spaceships, more robots with more laser guns, and then another robot equipped with two deadly veg-o-matics for arms as well as laser guns.  That’s a big promise.  What wound up on the screen was a turgid science fiction effort executed with all the pizzazz and excitement of an Amish funeral.  It’s a dull and laborsome movie which tries to marry the heady science fiction cinema of the era with the whiz bang factor audiences were looking for in the wake of experiencing lightsabers and Death Stars.  It winds up doing both types of film horribly wrong.

At the time of its release Black Hole’s languid pacing was probably less of the crippling issue that it is now.  The first Star Trek movie came out the same year and while equally slow paced it was much more successful.  Hole sports extremely ambitious special effects utilizing advanced motion capture model techniques, scores of matte paintings and impressive miniature work.  On the big screens of yesteryear it probably all felt epic and novel enough to not warrant too much fuss.  But no amount of visual pompousness could disguise the rickety screenplay which feels like a half-baked first draft someone rushed through the typewriter to make a deadline.  Characters and their motivations are at best poorly thought out and at worst totally senseless.  And director Gary Nelson, called up from the minor leagues of TV work to helm the most expensive movie Disney had made to date, shows no skill for visual showmanship.  Disney may have made it a point to liberally rip off Star Wars in certain places but they siphoned off none of the excitement.

Disney used its struggling coffers to assemble a mostly decent and capable cast of solid actors but subsequently had them do little but walk around large sets next to floating R2-D2s.  Robert Forester, Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine shuffle through trying not to be upstaged by all the floating robots but they have no help from anything on the page.  Forester plays commanding and dull.  Perkins and Borgnine are great actors but they can’t wad through this flaccid spectacle with any rhythm.  Their characters make stupid decisions in order for the plot to move forward and one can’t help but feel happy for Perkins when he pointlessly meets his demise via the evil robot’s veg-o-matic appendage.  Lucky bastard got to go home before everyone else.  The forgotten Joseph Bottoms just plain sucks.  Some producer makes him yelp a Han Solo inspired ‘yee ha!’ as he saves his chums from robot doom.  Yvette Mimieux has nothing to do but communicate, via ESP, with floating robot VINCENT, the extremely blatant R2-D2 ripoff.  Don’t get me started on how ESP between a robot and a human is supposed to work.

Maximilian Schell gets to preen and speechify as best he can in mad scientist mode but as the movie slowly gives way to special effects and laser fights his character becomes dumb and then dumber.  The movie is so dramatically misguided that it doesn’t even give one of our diligent space heroes a chance to smack him around.  He’s crushed by his stadium sized flatscreen TV and then as his ship falls into the black hole he winds up in his own personal Hell.  His final fate is the one part of the movie which feels a little creepy and of the time.  I’m sure a few kids felt sufficiently freaked out as they watched his nefarious scientist become entombed in his own evil robot, forced to overlook his personal Hell within the black hole.  It’s as if Ken Russell or John Boreman showed up to direct things for one day and then bolted when they realized the rest of the film was a dud.

There’s not a lot of nostalgia out there for The Black Hole, but apparently there’s just enough that Disney wants to remake it and enough to make me feel odd about never having seeing it.  This is actually one case where a remake is fine by me.  You couldn’t do much worse but I’m sure someone will try.  With Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) on tap to make it I have a feeling that should it materialize the audience will once again find itself drawn into a big, dumb movie that emulates its title by sucking everything around it into lifeless void and squashing it out of existence.  Isn’t that something to look forward to?


1956_JUBALJubal (1956) – Great western featuring Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger.  Steiger in particular lassos the movie and makes it his own as a manipulative cattlehand out to undermine Ford’s straitlaced and righteous hero.  His line about bringing the loose, unscrupulous wife of Borgnine his wood had me in stitches.   Though it’s very much it’s own movie time looks to have put it aside because of it’s similarities with undisputed western classic Shane, which came out three years before.  Criterion has seen fit to unbury it and show it off in a fine transfer.  Classic western fans should seek out.




bigwedBig Wednesday (1978) – John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) follows in the footsteps of buddy George Lucas and tries to make his own American Graffiti styled young adult drama.  Set against the big waves of southern California three friends (Gary Busey, William Katt and Jan-Michael Vincent) deal with the generational changes of the 60’s and 70’s.  Some go to Vietnam, some dodge, others fall into a bottle.  The love for the time and place is palpable, the cinematography is spot on and the surfing footage is great.  Sadly, Milius’ screenplay lacks the strong character the story really needs and as an overall work of drama it’s kind of tepid.  Still, if you can’t get enough surfing in your life, or you want to appreciate Point Break on a whole new level, check it out.  Watch it and learn that Gary Busey never played another role again.


basketball_diariesBasketball Diaries (1995) – One of the films that helped put future superstar DiCaprio on the acting map.  Diaries is an adaptation of Jim Carroll’s seminal work of the same name.  It documents his ball playing days in high school and two bit hooliganism he gets into with his Brooklyn buddies.  As high school winds down he falls into hard drugs, squalor and petty crime.  His poetry saves him.  It’s not bad at all but it’s wears the cloak of 90’s indie cinema heavy and much of the drug abuse drama stylings have since been surpassed by superior films.  If your a DiCaprio devotee and want to see his first steps into great performances, this is a good starting point.  Also showed the world that Mark Wahlberg might be more than a hokey, white raper wearing his pants around his knees.



ozgreatOz: The Great and Powerful (2013) – Mediocre and dull is more like it.  A thin script, a miscast lead actor and a cavalcade of special effects make up this piece of ‘family’ entertainment.  Director Sam Raimi is in neutered and neutral mode all the way.  He peppers a few of his signature cinematic quirks about the place but in the end it’s still depressing to see a master of schlock and mayhem peddle this kind of tepid family movie nonsense.  Someone force him make a $7 million dollar horror movie.  Please.

Ten Word or Less Review: Supermeh

The last son of Krypton’s lumpy movie resume adds another uneven chapter to its long running tradition of troubled and cumbersome films.  One would figure that there is enough of a cinematic road map for Superman to follow so as to avoid any further missteps but that’s not the case.  Between all the comic book success stories (Batman) and failures (Ghost Rider) of the last decade and a half, and his own recent misbegotten film to boot (2006’s Superman Returns), a top notch Superman film should be a no-brainer by now.  But no.  Once again Superman has proven to be a character just out of reach of Hollywood storytellers.  Man of Steel careens wildly from meditative character study to excessive slugfest and by the time it’s finished it has squashed the audience in between.

At this point in the history of comic book flicks sitting through yet another origin story of a guy who wears spandex makes me queasy.  And covering Superman’s origin story?  Again?  For an encore is Warner Brothers gonna walk me through Bruce Wayne becoming Batman?  I think there are a few people in the slums of Calcutta who don’t know how that happens.  But divisive director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) builds and shapes the first hour of Man of Steel for all its worth and then some.  An extended intro with Superman’s real dad Kal-El (Russel Crowe) flying around Krypton on his trusty winged, lizard creature while the nefarious General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a military coup kicks things off with a showstopper.  It immediately sets itself apart from Supermans of the past with its fearless fantasy movie costumes and larger than life scope.  The producers look to be out to out Marvel Marvel in this respect.  Then in a real shock to the system, after Krypton goes kaboom, there’s a smooth transition to a more subdued and contemplative tone which leads us into the lost years of Clark Kent.

It’s this origins part of the movie works far better than anyone could have anticipated.  Watching Clark flashback to the formation of his abilities gives the film a variety of dramatic beats and interesting moments.  It’s has touching interactions between young Clark and his adoptive Earth parents, the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).  A scene with an elementary school age Clark gets really freaky as the young kid suddenly discovers he can’t control a new found ability to see through people.  Later he rescues a bus full of kids much to Pa Kent’s worry.  Costner’s father figure thinks the revelation of his adopted son’s abilities will turn the world on its head.  Costner and Lane give some skill to roles traditionally under used and quickly swept away.  I’m still holding a grudge against Superman Returns for wasting Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent.  But making Diane Lane look like an old farm wife is cruel in it’s own way.  Regardless, most of this youth oriented material works like a charm until Costner’s melodramatic and poorly thought out demise.  Aside from that misstep, Man of Steel looks to building up towards something genuinely special.  Superman’s first flight is exhilarating and after building so much promise you’re ready for Man of Steel to truly take off and fly.  But then just like that first flight Man of Steel, like Superman himself, crashes hard.

The second half of the film is where Steel’s story goes awry.  Director Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer revert back to comic book movie 101 so fast it makes your head pop.  Shannon’s General Zod escapes his Phantom Zone prison and comes to Earth looking for Jor El and the secret to rebuilding Krypton, on top of Earth no less.  I think the Decepticons had this same idea a few years ago.  After some very boring comings and goings that stop the movie dead, army guys are always instant boredom in films like this, Steel morphs into a super budget version of WWF Smackdown.  Superman endlessly trades punches with Zod and his costume clad cronies who look like the roided up, super-soldiers from the first G.I. Joe movie.

Snyder has made a reputation of sorts for himself over recent years.  A mongoloid with a paint brush seems like an apt description.  By marrying his voluptuous and ornate visual skills with an attitude that at its best is too aggressive (Watchmen) and worst, barbaric and dumb (Sucker Punch), he’s good at dividing audiences or alienating them outright.  Man of Steel’s previews implied that he had upped his game and abandoned the more fetishistic and overblown type of movie he usually clubs an audience to death with.  But the surprisingly graceful and mature nature of the movie slowly ebbs away and we’re left with a tiresome final hour of witless bombast an mindless destruction.  It’s like that scene from Superman III where Superman fights himself.  Except here the new Snyder is choked out of existence while the old one takes over and decidedly ruins things.

Snyder and his team of technicians seem to think the act of watching Superman punch people is all the audience wants to see.  A response to Superman Returns endless parade of Superman lifting things?  This obsession with super fighting culminates with Zod and Superman launching into fisticuffs in the middle of Metropolis.  The destruction of one building after another ensues as they toss and slug each other to kingdom come.  Which in itself comes on top of watching scores of buildings, cars and people be mercilessly flattened by Zod’s massive gravity machine.  Superman may be trying to save Metropolis from these villains but I’m pretty sure he inadvertently kills hundreds, if not thousands, of people in this clash of the titans.  Of course none of that is addressed.  By the time the mayhem has subsided Man of Steel has pancaked itself like a semi truck driving into a brick wall doing 90.  There’s nothing left but steaming wreckage and dazed audience wondering what the Hell happened.

Despite the half good/crap half construction of Man of Steel it doesn’t want for capable players.  Holding this mash up of two movies together is new Superman Henry Cavill.  The British actor gets the unenviable task of trying to hold up this massive narrative on his very broad shoulders.  Though the screenplay plays him shy and quiet at first, he eventually opens up and seems like the right man for the job.  He has more presence and gravitas than last Superguy Brandon Routh.  Despite the clear indicators that he’s on track to be a more than capable Superman he’s stuck in a poor situation that no actor could save.  New Lois Lane Amy Adams also feels like a good fit undermined by slipshod writing.  Adams is as skilled an actress as any but her Lois is an ill fit for the story.  You could practically edit her out of the movie and never miss her.  Michael Shannon is the best heavy working in Hollywood today but his Zod is one dimensional menace in an unflattering haircut.  He’s tries his absolute damnedest to eat the film right out of the camera but there’s precious little for him to play other than searingly mad and pissed off.   Russell Crowe is stuck with the most portentous dialogue of anybody and he makes it work despite the leaden, overly ponderous words he’s stuck with.  It’s a testament to his abilities and it makes one wonder what would have happened had Crowe nabbed the role of Kal-El when he was a more youthful gent.

Man of Steel is sadly another ambitious but misbegotten Superman film.  It fearlessly cast aside some of the more long standing, and annoying, traditions of the Superman myth.  Lois Lane (Amy Adams) quickly determines that Supes is in fact Clark Kent.  We’re spared the dumb tradition of her not knowing the two are the same.  Annoyingly earnest Jimmy Olsen is also nowhere to be seen.  Composer Hans Zimmer supplies a rousing film score which works as a better than adequate replacement for John Williams iconic music cues.   But for every unconventional decision made a senseless one lies in its wake.  Why build a backstory in about Superman being the first natural Kryptonian birth with the freedom to choose who he will be in life when we all know he’s going to be Superman?  Even his dead Dad knows what he’s going to be.  And he’s dead.  He has a costume ready made for him the day he starts to fly around!  How is that a choice?  In what world would Clark actually consider staying a bum who works shitty jobs?  It’s daft writing in the extreme.  There are pieces here to craft a worthwhile Superman movie series and despite the misgivings about this mess I hope another, better experience rises from the wreckage of this first effort.  Superman deserves a genuinely grand cinematic experience.  Maybe next time he’ll get to do something more than slug someone in the face while building come crashing down around his ankles.


mondo superman

Ten Word or Less Review – Shifting down.

I got to this shindig late.  I didn’t see a F&F movie until the semi-glorious delirium that was the fifth entry in the series.  It was like showing up to a party that was at its zenith.  Everyone and everything is peaking as you walk in the door.  Maybe you missed something  by getting there late, but no matter what it was it isn’t going to match what’s going on now.  So if the fifth movie was the peak, this new entry is the first stage of the come down.  That isn’t to say that the party still isn’t rocking.  The music is loud and people are still having a good time, but that guy who was break dancing in the kitchen an hour ago is passed out on the couch.  The music is starting to drone on the ears.  There’s a bimbo with a lampshade on her head, two people pass out while kissing and the first signs of burnout are creeping into the scene.

To cut to the chase, bloat and backstory are what’s keeping this vehicle stuck in 2nd, okay 3rd, gear.  This franchise has become so overpopulated with characters and soap opera plot that things are starting to take on a faint scent of Days of Our Lives.  Dead characters coming back to life who now have amnesia?  I thought this series of movies was about car chases.  There are plenty of those.  The usual gratuitous mayhem this series specializes in.  The first half of the movie is loaded with chases which feel fun and functional but never truly inspired.  Even after just one movie this viewer was struck by how common place all the mayhem feels.  The best stuff though is jammed into the last half hour.  I’ll give the creative brain trust credit for wowing us in the end.  The hilarity is palpable as characters all the basically become gravity defying superheroes.  Vin Diesel should just start wearing a red cape with a big D on his chest at this point.  How invincibly macho is he?  He gets shot and doesn’t bleed.  That’s pretty fucking macho.

What separates these two workable sections of cartoon movie carnage, and kind of screws up the movie altogether, is a deadly dull second act where characters travel the world while blathering about the deadly dull plot.  Everyone is running around chasing a bad guy who wants a billion dollar widget or trying to figure out why Michelle Rodriguez isn’t dead.  Answer?  Narrative desperation.  The movie expends tons of effort jetting characters from England to Spain and back to England and back to Spain and even sends one character all the way to America for 10 minutes for no compelling reason at all.  Why weren’t these people jet lagged?  There’s enough gas in this thing for a 90 minute movie, tops.  Fast 6 runs a very bloated 130 minutes.

Fast and Furious fans will surely be happy with this entry in their inexhaustible and inexplicable franchise.  Those who haven’t made the effort to get into this ludicrous series of movies aren’t going to find much reason to start now.  While it’s already clear that this series will continue to burn nitro into the future, part 7 next summer!, I’m guessing that the wheels are about to come flying off.  Long time series director Justin Lin is jumping ship.  The next movie is rushing to meet a street date.  And worst of all, part 6 flaunts the coming presence of Jason Statham as the next baddie for the series.  If the presence of Jason Statham is supposed to genuinely excite the audience then a wrong turn has already been made.



Ten Word or Less Review: To boldly go where we have been before.

Why does a spaceship need to be under water to observe a primitive alien civilization?  The Enterprise is equipped with lots of gizmos, radars, widgets, doodads and even a thingamajig which should easily enable it to monitor things from space, where the ship belongs.  Because you know, it’s a spaceship, not a submarine.  The aliens live near water but not under it.  And since you are space explorers observing a primitive culture and one of your founding directives is to not interfere with developing cultures, wouldn’t the mere act of landing you ginormous, freaking spaceship in the water and sinking it run a very high risk of being observed by the very natives who aren’t supposed to see you?  Remember that guy who landed his 747 in the Hudson River?  People noticed that happening.  Lots of them.  The ultimate answer to this question is that the writers were sitting around and someone said, “You know JJ, wouldn’t it be cool to see the Enterprise rise out of the ocean?”  And of course Mr. Abrams said “Damn right that would be cool!”  This is the thought process that drives the new Star Trek films.  Yes, it is cool to watch the Enterprise rise out of the ocean like a giant whale that’s decided it can suddenly fly.  It’s a positively striking image to behold.  But it’s also thoughtless and incredibly stupid.  These two forces, exciting vs. dumb, are constantly wrestling with themselves in this new incarnation of Trek and when the game is finished exciting looks to have won the space battle, but it is a closely fought battle to be sure.  Hulls are breaches and IQs are tested to their limit, but exciting does win despite the best efforts of dumb.

Star Trek Into Darkness picks up with our plucky young crew as they have exciting and senseless adventures across the galaxy.  The adventure discussed above culminates in Kirk (Chris Pine) breaking the Prime Directive, AKA the don’t futz with primitive alien life or they might think you’re God rule, so he can save Spock (Zachary Quinto) from fiery death by volcano.  Kirk is subsequently demoted for doing this and it creates a bit of a lovers quarrel between the two chums.  But before Kirk can be humiliated by merely being second in command of the Enterprise, the mysterious plot of the terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) throws Starfleet into chaos.  I fondly remember a time when every bad guy in every movie wasn’t labeled a terrorist, they were just bad guys.  As Alan Rickman once said, “Who said we were terrorists?”  I digress.  He blows up a secret Starfleet facility and then blasts away half of Starfleet’s commanders when they meet to talk about him blowing up their secret facility.  Goodbye Bruce Greenwood, you will be missed.  With vengeance on his mind Kirk rashly sets out to track down Mr. Harrison and bring him to justice for his crimes.  The pursuit of Harrison takes Kirk and the gang to the Klingon home world.  Harrison is captured but then, despite the heaps of marketing effort to do proclaim otherwise, things take some fairly expectant turns for the worse as Harrison reveals his true identity and why he’s there and what he’s up to.

JJ Abrams has received heaps of praise, as well as no small amount of hatred, for how he has handled this beloved, old space cruiser of a franchise.  His first Trek adventure from ’09 gave the series a much-needed kick in the pants.  He knocked off the rust, freed it from the dogma that was strangling it and make this endless series of adventures fun again.  It was perfectly cast with actors who stepped into their iconic space boots with ease and finesse.  Pine, Quinto and Karl Urban immediately established the famous banter of Kirk, Spock and Bones but never once did it feel like imitation or retread.  This strength of actor and character was one of the primary reasons Abrams adventure worked, the movie itself is pretty rickety, and it’s no small part of what makes Into Darkness a more than watchable adventure in spite of itself.  Because it’s pretty rickety too.  The trio once again play off each other with charming ease and make what is an otherwise a senseless adventure film work far better than it has any right to.

Pine’s Kirk is still brazen and arrogant and it’s the job of this film to temper that arrogance with a big heaping dose of humility.  In two films I have to give the new creators credit for turning Kirk on his head some.  In the first movie he was an outright asshole and he was constantly getting his butt tossed around the screen like an action figure in the hands of an angry kid.  In this film, the physical drubbing is lessened, but his sense of powerlessness is amplified.  One of the best scenes in the movie finds Kirk wailing with all his might on Harrison who stands there like a brick house, unmoved in the slightest.  He’s a great mansion of strength being attacked by Kirk’s tiny insect.  Quinto’s Spock also still feels like a fresh invigoration of an old character.  His comic timing is perfect and his give and take with the rest of the cast is stellar.  Karl Urban quietly steals scenes and puts them in his pocket while nobody is watching.  I can’t hope enough that at some point the future creative brain trust builds a story around McCoy, or at least makes him a bit more integral to things.  Urban more than deserves a kick up from being the third banana.  The rest of the casts fill out their limited parts as best they can.  Simon Pegg’s Scotty gets a big step up from his limited involvement last time.  Everyone else seems to have been sidelined as a result.  Better lucky next time Chekov.

The big, mysterious addition to the cast is Sherlock Holmes himself Benedict Cumberbatch, and once again the JJ Abrams mystery box has been built up to a fairly pointless reveal.  He’s Khan.  Yeah, I said it.  And now he’s a cucumber instead of a tamale.  The legendary Trek villain so memorably embodied by Latin man-god Ricardo Montalban is now played by an actor so British he could read a McDonalds menu and make it sound like a passage from Hamlet.  “To supersize or not to supersize!”  Cumberbatch is all baritone articulation and tall, physical menace and Into Darkness is a minor letdown regarding this legendary Kirk hater.  Cumberbatch isn’t a poor fit, he’s simply given a limited amount of action to accomplish and some bad writing to accomplish it.  He spends too much time behind that same pane of glass that everyone from Lecter to Loki sits behind when captured by the overconfident heroes.  It’s a decent attempt at a memorable heavy and he has some moments to soak in but overall the story lets him down.  As we watch Khan be filed away a lingering whiff of missed opportunity hangs faintly in the air.   The movie further undercuts him by adding a cliché ridden second villain unceremoniously played by the long-lost Peter Weller (RoboCop).  Weller’s character is so transparent that you have no choice but to wait for him to reveal his dastardly plan and when he does, you can’t do much but shrug it off.  This Swiss cheese story is the biggest setback among a bunch of little ones.   Other new cast member Alice Eve, as Kirk’s future baby mama Carol Marcus, also inexplicably British now, doesn’t fit in either.  Once again it’s not really the fault of the attractive Ms. Eve.  Her character simply seems shoehorned in for the purpose of giving fans some ‘will they or won’t they’ speculation for the inevitable Trek III.

Despite all these problems and inconsistencies hanging over Into Darkness director Abrams pushes things forward with such giddy determination and zippy energy that all the shortcomings just fly right by in a blur.  He pulled off the same feat with the first film so why be surprised.  He’s the real star of this new Trek universe and as a master of momentum he knows how to cover up plot holes, jump past sketchy story and generally make the audience go with him, Vulcan logic be damned.  Having that spot on cast firing phasers is of no small help.  His decision to monkey with the most revered Trek baddie of all can be painted as either bold or lazy on your part.  It’s your choice.  Either way the result comes nowhere near the iconic achievement that is the original “Wrath of Khan“, but it works well as a piece of respectful homage, reinvention and lightning fast, sci-fi entertainment.  Considering it’s written by a handful of dips (Orci, Kurtzman & Lindeloff) who seem incapable of coherently plotting an Encyclopedia Brown story we should consider it a miracle Kirk and Spock aren’t revealed as cousins by stories end.  Why Abrams keeps marrying himself to these subpar hacks is far more mysterious than anything in the movie.  I’ll admit that they have an ear for snappy dialogue, write well for the characters and can punctuate a joke, but they cannot build a coherent or genuinely interesting story for anything.  If someone with just a little skill at cohesiveness took charge, these films might really start to fire on their own terms.

Into Darkness leaves the audience in an interesting place, the crew heading off into deep space for their long sought after 5 year mission.  After two movies they are now supposedly boldly going where no man has gone before.  One hopes that whoever takes over for Abrams from here on out will drop bad guy routines to embrace the spirit of exploration and adventure that has defined Trek through so many incarnations.  They don’t need to run into anymore villains from their past, or the future for that matter.  We don’t need to have fisticuffs with Klingons, run ins with Romulans or battles with the Borg.  Please, let’s forget Spock’s long-lost half-brother.  Abrams has made Trek fun again and we can all thank him for that, but now it has to face the most daunting task in its nearly 50 year history, it needs to try something new.  Boldly go where you haven’t been before Trek.  It’s time.  And who knows, it might even be fun.