Monday, December 31, 2012

Movie Review: "Les Miserables"

It has taken a long time, but Broadway sensation, Les Miserables, finally makes it to the silver screen with this cinematic adaptation, courtesy of director Tom Hooper. This musical set during the French Revolution, follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), from prison to finding religion while trying to evade French officer, Javert, who is after Valjean for skipping his parole board.

The strength of the film is in the performances of Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Anne Hathaway as prostitute, Fantine, who is shown kindness by Valjean on her deathbed, as she names him her daughter's guardian. There is an emotional authenticity to their performances, largely because the actors are freed and are able to act in the moment thanks to director Tom Hooper choosing to film all of the music live when they shot, rather than per-recording the tracks in the studio.

While Les Mis does hit all of the emotional beats, sending shivers down your spine during the beautiful songs, the plot feels fairly disjointed and is resoundingly flat when they're not singing one of the showstoppers. For instance, only when the characters Marius and Cosette are singing a duet do I feel emotion, but between memorable songs, the plot takes over and is full of gaping plot holes. Am I supposed to believe these two who have only met once when they are singing about how they can no longer go on without the other? Not to mention, the film's editing is often chaotic, causing confusion as to the spatial relationship in scenes with multiple characters, and the shot design never fully takes advantage of the grandeur of the tale, save for that beautiful opening shot.

To put it mildly, Les Miserables is an emotionally potent disappointment, that only has moments that never connect into a cohesive whole worthy of the beauty of the songs.

I give Les Miserables a D+

The Year in Comics - 2012

2012, what a year in comics.  DC Comics continued their New 52 initiative to varying degrees of success, and Marvel brought nearly all of their long-running series to a close and relaunched almost their entire line with Marvel Now.

It's been a great year to be a fan of comics, because for the first time in a few years, it actually feels as if both of the major publishers are trying to really take their characters into drastically new directions.  While some have not been particularly fond of some of the changes that come with such creative thinking, for the most part I feel that the comic book industry has nailed majority of the landings.  From the deaths of Charles Xavier and Peter Parker, to the merging of the X-Men and the Avengers in Uncanny Avengers, all the way to the Court of the Owls, to the Joker's creeptastic return in the pages of DC Comics, there have been plenty of major moments from this year that their repercussions will continue to be felt for years to come.

Marvel wrapped up a long-running story, that sort of started all the way back with House of M, by tackling their best event in years, Avengers vs. X-Men.  The story saw the return of the Phoenix Force to Earth, the fall of Scott Summers from hero to renegade, the death of Charles Xavier at the hands of Cyclops, and created a new status quo for Marvel in general, with Marvel Now.

In the aftermath of the events in Avengers vs. X-Men, Marvel renumbered almost all of their books at number one, from The Avengers to Fantastic Four, but unlike DC Comics' New 52 from last year, Marvel Now managed to welcome new readers without having to reboot and rewrite years of continuity.  It's a marvel in and of itself that Marvel managed to successfully pull off Marvel Now, without rebooting their universe like DC did, but each number one issue brought the reader up to date without jumping straight into complicated jargon, and let the longtime fans know that everything that had come before is still there, it just is a new beginning for the Marvel universe with the X-Men and the Avengers finally teaming up, with Captain America wanting to lead the charge in creating a bridge between mutants and humans.

Then, there's the death of Peter Parker, not Ultimate Peter Parker this time, but the real Peter Parker from The Amazing Spider-Man that started back with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the '60s.  Personally, I felt that The Amazing Spider-Man was in dire need of a kick in the pants for a long time.  Writer Dan Slott had sort of just been spinning his wheels for about the past two years, with no story really bringing anything new to the table for Peter Parker, and honestly, I feel that Slott managed to deliver his best story yet with the finale of The Amazing Spider-Man.  Yes, The Amazing Spider-Man has ended with issue 700 and the death of Peter Parker, released just last week, but I mean, does anyone seriously think that Peter Parker will stay dead forever, and that The Amazing Spider-Man wont someday return with a new number one in perhaps just one years time?

To be completely honest, I'm excited for the kick-off of The Superior Spider-Man next year, seeing how the newly reformed Doc Ock will be a better Spider-Man than Peter Parker ever was.  Yes, I said Doc Ock as Spider-Man.  Doc Ock transplanted his consciousness into the body of Peter Parker, with all of Peter's memories, and put Peter Parker's consciousness into his dying body, that of Doctor Octopus.  Ock's body finally gives out, right after Peter manages to show Doc Ock why Spider-Man is needed. Sure, you have to roll with all of the complicated sci-fi aspects of this story, but it was so well executed, and it is the first, truly original thing that's happened in the Spider-Man comics in nearly a decade.  So for now, I'm good with this being the new status quo.  But enough about Marvel, what about DC?

Well, DC really just continued their New 52 initiative that started in 2011.  Personally, I found it refreshing that DC did not try to do a big event this year, so soon after rebooting all of the characters, I mean, many of the DCU characters are still trying to find their footing post-New 52, and honestly, that's the biggest problem that the New 52 has brought to light.  Now that each book has kind of shown all of their cards and the newness has worn off, the characters that were having problems before the New 52 are still having problems, such as Superman, and the characters that weren't having problems before are still going strong, such as Batman and Green Lantern.  While certain characters have picked up more steam since the New 52, such as Aquaman, writer Geoff Johns is just continuing the awesomeness that he started before the New 52 with bringing Aquaman back to life in the event, Brightest Day.  Even still, many DC characters had amazing years.

The mythology surrounding Aquaman was brilliantly fleshed out and made even more cooler this past year, with big revelations such as Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman, having killed archnemesis, Black Manta's father, and the realization that Atlantis was possibly sunk by Atlanteans themselves.  Then, Batman saw the epic finale of the Court of the Owls storyline with the crossover across all of the Batman books, titled Night of the Owls, which brought about huge changes for Dick Grayson's Nightwing, learning that he was next in line to become an assassin for the Court of the Owls until Bruce took him in.  Then, there was the return of the Joker in the ongoing Death of the Family storyline, which has to be the creepiest Joker story ever written, thus far.  The entire Bat-family of books has just had a banner year, and I cannot wait to see what they bring next year.  But enough chit-chat, the real purpose here is for me to highlight what I thought were the best comics of 2012.

While I do not read Indie comics, when it comes to superhero books from DC and Marvel, I try to read almost every major issue that comes around.  But to be perfectly honest, all this list is, is my personal favorite comic books from the past year, highlighting my favorite artists and writers, all at the same time.  So, without further ado, I give out my 2012 Comic Books Awards:

Best Writing - Brian Michael Bendis, All New X-Men

There were many well-written comics this past year, but leave it to Brian Michael Bendis to not only make the X-Men accessible again, but also honor the rich history of each character and the events of Schism and Avengers vs. X-Men at the same time.  His writing is funny, in particular his Bobby Drake, but it's the plot and the what if's of its concept that have made his run so memorable:  What if the X-Men from the 1960s traveled to modern day to see what they've become?  More intriguingly is the showdown between idealist Cyclops, and renegade Cyclops who murdered Charles Xavier.  Bendis delivers all of these moments with the right amount of epicness and clarity, which is why he is the Best Writer of 2012.

2.) Scott Snyder, Batman
3.) Stuart Moore, Web of Spider-Man
4.) Kyle Higgins, Nightwing
5.) Geoff Johns, Aquaman

Best Art - Eddy Barrows, Nightwing

There was no artwork from this past year that really knocked my socks off, but Eddy Barrows' consistent work in Nightwing really won me over.  What I love is Barrows sense of realism in his characters, and his embellishment in the environments.  In particular, his Gotham City is probably the most atmospheric of all of the Gothams currently being drawn in the Bat-books.  Not to mention, his attention to the details of human anatomy and how the body moves, bring the acrobatic sense to Dick Grayson that separates him from the rest of the Bat-family, while he also draws fight scenes that flow from panel to panel.  There is such clarity to how he draws the body movements, your mind automatically fills in the blanks between fight panels.

2.) John Romita, Jr., Avengers vs. X-Men 
3.) Stuart Immonen, All New X-Men
4.) Ivan Reis, Aquaman
5.) Mike Allred, FF

Best Cover - Justice League #12

Probably the most talked about cover in comics this past year, with the smooch between Superman and Wonder Woman plastered all over the internet and even in tabloids.  This issue kind of felt like a gimmick to try and sell more books by promising a hook-up between two of the more recognizable superheroes intertwined on the cover, but so far writer Geoff Johns has managed to not just make this kiss be a gimmick, and has made it the new relationship status quo for both Superman and Wonder Woman.  Watch out Steve Trevor and Lois Lane.

2.) The Amazing Spider-Man #700
3.) Green Lantern #0
4.) Batman #15
5.) Nightwing  #8

Best Back-Up Story - "Shazam!" Justice League

Ever since DC kicked off the New 52, almost all of their major books feature back-up stories every month -- a back-up story being a small four-to-eight page story that is in the book after the main 32-page story has ended.  The brilliance of a good back-up story is when it is either utilized to flesh out the story events from that issue, or in the case of the, "Shazam!" arc in Justice League, it works to re-introduces a classic character, making his origin more epic, funny, heartwarming, and enjoyable than ever before.  I really dig the character of Billy Batson, the way Geoff Johns has written him, and I can't wait to see him either get his own book or team up with the rest of the JLA, which has been teased at all year long.

2.)  "Tomorrow," Batman
3.) "The Fall of the House of Wayne," Batman

Best Story Arc - "Someone is Killing the Brooklyn Avengers," Web of Spider-Man

Every now and then an old comic is resurrected from the dead for a special story.  With 2012 being Spidey's 50th Anniversary, Marvel decided to bring back old Marvel writers to write special issues in the style of old, cancelled Spidey books, one of these being the two-parter for Web of Spider-Man written by Stuart Moore.  What was so brilliant about this story arc, was that it wasn't just a cheap cash grab, but it was the best Spider-Man story I'd read in years.  It was funny, got to the core of who Peter Parker and Spider-Man are as characters, while introducing a whole new slew of characters in the form of the Brooklyn Avengers, the most inept and pointless superheroes you'll ever meet, with powers like being able to shoot paint out of their hands.  Before Spidey ever made it as a member of the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, we see in flashbacks how he joined the Brooklyn Avengers thinking they were legit, and they were just a bunch of somewhat superpowered kids who were playing dress-up and he always had to save their butts while also taking down the bad guys.  This arc was just good, clean fun, and the finale where the Brooklyn Avengers induct Howard the Duck into their ranks, was priceless.

2.) "The Court of the Owls," Batman
3.) "Death of the Family," Batman
4.) "The Others," Aquaman
5.) "Avengers vs. X-Men," Avengers vs. X-Men

Best Event - "Night of the Owls" - Bat-Family Event

This was a fairly light year for event comics, with DC not even doing a DC-wide event like they'd done in previous years.  Majority of the events this past year were just events targeted around a particular grouping of books, such as an event that transpired across all four Superman books, etc.  The event, "Night of the Owls," that spanned across seven or eight different Batman-related titles was by far the most epic of all events.  Gotham is overrun by assassins called Talons, out to kill some of Gotham's most notorious citizens, including Bruce Wayne!  From Nightwing to Batgirl, ever story involving the Court of the Owls was top-notch, tying in perfectly with the arc each individual character was experiencing in their own book at that time, while also tying into the larger story of Bruce's own struggles with the Talons.  Just one of the best orchestrated events I've read in the longest of time.

2.) "Death of the Family" - Bat-Family Event
3.) "Avengers vs. X-Men" - Marvel Universe Event

Best Individual Issue - Web of Spider-Man #129.1

As I said above, the storyline involving Spidey and the Brooklyn Avengers was just so entertaining and so funny, I can't say that I enjoyed a comic more this year, aside from the second part of this story that was nearly a close tie.  This issue just had it all.  A perfect characterization of Spider-Man.  Brilliant art.  Wonderful humor.  And tons of originality, which is something that seems to be lacking in the main Spider-Man books as of the past few years.  I for one would love to see more stories starring Spider-Man and the Brooklyn Avengers.  Who knows, maybe they'll even get their own comic series, and if they do, please let Stuart Moore come back and write it.

2.) Green Lantern #0
3.) Web of Spider-Man #129.2
4.) Nightwing #8
5.) The Amazing Spider-Man # 700

Best Series - Batman

Come on.  If you've been reading Batman, you'll realize why it deserves this honor.  No other series this past year was more consistent, more epic, and flat-out more awesome than Scott Snyder's run on Batman.  From the jaw-dropping conclusion of, "The Court of the Owls," storyline that left Batman's faith in Gotham shaken, to the creeptastic return of the Joker, claiming to know all of the Bat-Family's secret identities, there is no other book on store shelves that amazes this much, month after month.  Scott Snyder is slowly proving himself a Batman legend with his writing and creativity.  Not only does it feel like Batman is in the best shape it's been in years,  but it's the first comic I've read in a long time that I feel as if I'm getting in on the ground floor of classic stories that will be remembered for decades to come.

2.) Nightwing
3.) All New X-Men
4.) Green Lantern
5.) Aquaman

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Movie Review: "Silver Linings Playbook"

Silver Linings Playbook is a joy from start to finish.  It's the kind of film that you feel as if you have actually experienced something, while at the same time you're wildly entertained.

Blurring the lines between drama and comedy, the film tells the story of Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former History teacher who walked in on his wife with another man.  Pat snapped and beat the man to a pulp, being sent to a mental hospital for 8 months, diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.  Once out, Pat moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), while he tries to get his life back on track and prove to his wife that he's changed.  To say that this film is a comedy, may seem hard for someone to fathom, but believe me, writer/director, David O. Russell makes it work.

Silver Linings Playbook shows these serious situations, but makes them funny by amping up the neuroses of all involved.  In a way, it's as if Russell is saying, everyone is a little bit crazy, as is evidenced by Pat's psychiatrist's obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles, or his dad's obsessive, superstitious beliefs that if Pat doesn't watch the Eagles' games with him, then the Eagles will lose.

The performances by all involved are superb.  Bradley Cooper delivers a career best turn as Pat, being both likable and vulnerable at the same time, and what more can be said for Jennifer Lawrence, who portrays a mentally unstable widower, named Tiffany, who befriends Pat.  Lawrence is having one great year.  From her career best work as Katniss in The Hunger Games, to her work in Silver Linings Playbook, she proves that she is full of spunk, but is not afraid to show emotion or fall apart, and that is why she very well may win the Best Actress Oscar come January.

There is just something special about Silver Linings Playbook.  It's funny and oddly heartwarming.  After a career high with The Fighter, two years back, David O. Russell bests himself again with this film.  This is quite possibly the best directing he has ever done, with his kinetic shot design utilizing a lot of camera movements to show the characters and emotions that he wants us to focus on at that time, by dollying the camera in or whipping it around other actors to get to the core of each scene.

Silver Linings Playbook is an offbeat film, and some might not find its straightforward nature all that funny, because with both Pat and Tiffany, what you see is what you get, and they both say whatever is on their mind.  While they often say socially unacceptable things at the wrong times, that is where the comedy often comes from, and it's why you realize that these two are meant to be together, learning, that no matter how crazy you think you are, there's always someone out there for you who is just as crazy and will love you for who you are.

I give Silver Linings Playbook an A+

(Note:  If you live in the Birmingham, AL, area, the film is now playing at the Carmike 10 - Vestavia Hills' location)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Movie Review: "Django Unchained"

I have never been a Quentin Tarantino fan, so to say that I enjoyed Django Unchained is a huge testament to the film itself.  While Django is not without its flaws, it's an enjoyable film that actually has a little more emotional weight than your typical Tarantino flick.

In the film, Jamie Foxx portrays Django, a Southern slave in 1858, who is freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, played with charismatic relish by Christoph Waltz.  The two become an unlikely dynamic duo, as they kill bad men for rewards.  Meanwhile, Schultz helps Django find his wife who was sold to a vile plantation owner, Calvin J. Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, with more boyish enthusiasm than I've seen from him in years.

The performances are top notch and the script does a good job of making these characters likable, for the most part.  The two best characters are Candie and Schultz, primarily because they are the most charismatic, but Schultz also turns out to be the most sympathetic and human, in terms of emotional response, than most other characters.  The big thing with the script is it never makes Django likable.  While I'm rooting for his character because of all the injustices that have separated him and his wife, I don't like Django as a person, especially by the end of the film where he seems to be more interested in exacting revenge, than in love, even after he's already saved his wife.  Another misstep in writer/director Tarantino's script, is that he kills off the two most charismatic characters thirty minutes before the end, making the final act feel like a chore to get through.  Not to mention, is there really this much need for blood and guts spewing everywhere?  The amount of gore was over-the-top, even for the genre that Tarantino is mimicking here.

Even through all this, Django Unchained does have its moments, in particular the hilarious scene with an early version of the KKK.  As well, from a technical standpoint, this is one of the more masterful films of the year.  The cinematography is immaculate, with all of the Spaghetti Western zooms Tarantino employs executed to perfection, never losing focus.  As well, this is quite possibly the best edited film of 2012.  Is all of this enough to warrant a second viewing?  No, but I don't regret seeing the film.  I love Christoph Waltz and his character Dr. King Schultz, and I rather enjoyed Leonardo DiCaprio getting to have a little bit of fun as Candie.

I give Django Unchained a C+

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Movie Review: "Jack Reacher"

Jack Reacher is a pulp action movie in the vein of 1970's Steve McQueen.  There are car chases, mysteries, and a slightly more gritty view of everyday life.  In Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise portrays the titular character, and while I have never read the books, so I cannot say I agree or disagree with some critical statements that Cruise is far from 6' 5" and blonde, as a moviegoer I felt that this was Cruise's best action performance in years.

I actually buy Cruise as Reacher, an uber-smart drifter who can give Sherlock Holmes a run for his money, with the physicality of a bar brawler.  Reacher lives a life of freedom, no home, debt, or ties to society, he just travels from place-to-place, often using a fake identity wherever he goes to right the wrongs of justice.  A former military police officer, Reacher may be the true supercop, he's almost superhuman, but there and again, that is what makes Jack Reacher pulp.  If you have never enjoyed characters like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, then you will not enjoy Jack Reacher, but if you do love the aforementioned characters, or at least similar characters, then you'll love this movie.

Based on the ninth novel in Lee Childs' Jack Reacher series, One Shot, Jack Reacher comes to Pittsburgh to clear the name of a former military sniper who was set up for killing five people in cold blood, but Reacher, being the supercop that he is, manages to uncover a conspiracy behind the killings. The mystery behind the sniper and the conspiracy that unravels from that, are the best parts of Jack Reacher.  The movie is suspenseful, almost Hitchcockian at times, in particular the sniping sequence, where we see the crosshairs, we know what will happen, and we're on the edge of our seat just waiting for him to fire.

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie proves he has great cinematic chops.  In particular, I was in awe of the first ten minutes, where there is no dialogue of any importance, but all visuals moving the story forward.  We learn everything we need to know about the case of the sniper in these shots, gathering all of the evidence and discovering who Reacher is all via the shot design and the exquisite editing.  Though, even for the brilliant piece of pulp entertainment that Jack Reacher is, with the exception of the Jack Reacher character, the majority of the other character's in Jack Reacher are stock lawyers, DAs, gangsters, and corrupt detectives, in particular the villain portrayed creepily by filmmaker, Werner Herzog.  The connection between Herzog's character and the shootings is never fully defined, leaving me confused when Jack Reacher and Herzog's men showdown in the final thirty minutes as to why I should care.  And as for Rosamund Pike's character, Helen, why does she start the film dressed conservatively and suddenly at the midpoint of the movie, she's wearing such low cut clothing it's distracting?  There was no discernible psychological change in her character as to why she'd change the way she dresses everyday?  Perhaps this was a mistake in the costuming department, or maybe McQuarrie just succumbed to the urges of his inner twelve-year-old?  I guess we'll never know.

Still, even though Jack Reacher falls into some of the common trappings that these kind of pulp stories can, I really love the character of Jack Reacher, and enjoyed Tom Cruise in the part.  Featuring one of the most pulse-pounding car chases in recent movie history, and some occasional humor that comes from Reacher's analytical mind often pointing out human flaws, Jack Reacher is a fun movie that any fan of these kinds of stories will enjoy, and I for one would love to see a sequel.

I give Jack Reacher a B-

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

New: Archive Reviews!

It seems every year I wind up seeing more movies than I actually review.  Previously, I only ever reviewed films if I saw them within the first few weeks of their theatrical releases, but I very often see movies later on at dollar theaters or on DVD or Blu Ray, so I've decided to do something about that.  I am sometimes asked whether or not I've seen this movie or that, or if I have a review of a certain movie, and very often I have seen the movie, but I don't have a review for it, so I'm starting what I call Archive Reviews!

With these Archive Reviews, I review a movie after I see it, no matter when it was released, to share my thoughts on the film and hopefully let people know if they think the movie will be for them or not, after all, that is the true purpose of a film review I believe.  Of course, it would be a daunting task to review every movie I've ever seen in my lifetime, so I've decided to start this initiative with any movie I've seen that was released this year, 2012.  I have spent a lot of time the past few weeks writing up reviews to every single movie I have seen in 2012, and there are now 38 Movie Reviews in the back catalog on the Unicellular Review for you to enjoy, the links to which are in alphabetical order below:


Beasts of the Southern Wild




Cloud Atlas

Dark Shadows



John Carter


Life of Pi




Men in Black 3

Mirror, Mirror

Moonrise Kingdom


Red Tails

Seven Psychopaths


Snow White and the Huntsman

Take This Waltz

The Amazing Spider-Man

The Avengers

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Bourne Legacy

The Dark Knight Rises

The Expendables 2

The Grey

The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey

The Hunger Games

The Master

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Secret World of Arrietty

The Woman in Black

This Means War

Stay tuned as I will be posting links to more Archive Reviews on a regular basis, as I see more films once they hit DVD or Blu Ray.  My hope is to have a new post highlighting all of my new Archive Reviews at least once a month, and if you're interested in finding a Movie Review in the sidebar, all Movie Reviews from now on will be posted on the day that they hit theaters.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Movie Review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

I have an interesting history with J.R.R. Tolkien's classic, The Hobbit, finally getting the big screen treatment with the first part of a planned trilogy to bring the tome to life, An Unexpected Journey, now in theaters.

When I was in 8th grade, I played Bofur in a stage version of the book, in a joint production between Clay-Chalkville Middle School and Clay-Chalkville High School.  Bofur was one of the thirteen dwarves that came knocking on hobbit, Bilbo Baggins' door, recruiting him as their "burglar" to  sneak into their mountain fortress that is now under rule of a vile dragon, named Smaug.  I've always been very fond of Bofur as a character, and am delighted to see how director Peter Jackson and actor James Nesbitt have expanded his role into the primary form of comic relief in The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey.  To cut to the chase, as a big fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and having a sentimental fondness for The Hobbit, I find The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey all the more stirring.

Pretty much the same crew from The Lord of the Rings trilogy returns behind the camera for The Hobbit trilogy, with the first installment not only proving to be as technically impressive as the groundbreaking effects work in The Lord of the Rings, but also surpassing it in many ways.  The visual effects from WETA are better than ever, with their pioneering motion capture technology having taken many significant steps since The Return of the King in 2003, with characters like the despicable, yet lovable, schizophrenic creature, Gollum, now having a wider range of emotion than he was ever able to relay in the previous installments.  Of course, what makes The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey such a joy, is that it feels like coming home after a long time abroad.

From the first moments of the film, we see old places and old faces.  From the first sights of the Shire, to Ian Holm as old Bilbo once more, narrating this story.  There's Elijah Wood as Frodo in a brief cameo, and then we get reintroduced to Ian McKellen's Gandalf, while welcoming Martin Freeman into the role of a Bilbo, 60 years younger, who still manages to make us feel as if we've known his Bilbo as long as we have Ian Holm's.  Even the music, by composer Howard Shore, harks back to The Lord of the Rings, with the Shire theme played as beautifully as ever before.  This film just knows how to stir your memories, and already has you drawn into the story before you even really meet any new characters.  With that said, while The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey does feel like The Lord of the Rings, it becomes it's own thing very quickly.

The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey feels of the same world, but like how a film about the Gulf War will be different from a film about World War II, one is set at a more innocent time, and The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey takes that concept and runs with it.  It's funnier than The Lord of the Rings, with more emphasis on humor and a wider range of traditional fantasy.  Trolls did not talk in the other films, nor did Goblins, but they did in the book, and so they do in this film, often to hilarious results.  Jackson and his cast and crew play up all of the British humor that Tolkien included in the book, and do not shy away from it, just to make it feel like The Lord of the Rings (which coincidentally was written twenty years after The Hobbit).  Not to mention, the relentless sense of adventure from Tolkien's book is here as well.  The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey is an adventure film, it's not a majestic epic like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it's like a storybook bedtime story.  Many of the visuals have this golden sheen to them, of sunlight streaming through trees and climbing over mountain tops, creating an inviting aura around the scenes that was not of the prior trilogy.  As well, the fellowship of dwarves, led by the heroic, yet stubborn Thorin Oakenshield, are a camaraderie as lovable as the Fellowship of the Ring, and composer Howard Shore does not sit on his laurels, having composed a score that takes many of the cues from The Lord of the Rings and incorporates them with a new theme based on the dwarf song, "Song of the Lonely Mountain."  It's sweeping and majestic, and brilliantly sung by musician Neil Flynn in the credits.  This film truly is a feat that is equal to what has already come before it.

If you're already a fan of Middle Earth, you will love The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey.  You kind of get the feeling that Peter Jackson is no longer trying to pick up new fans with these films, but rather he's just trying to serve the already fans.  The truth is, the way Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he wrote it like a children's adventure storybook, and the film does have that feel in terms of the tone and the  visuals that Jackson creates, but Jackson also takes the rare opportunity to expand Middle Earth.  Using details from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson and fellow screenwriters, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo del Toro, flesh out areas in The Hobbit that add further depth of character to these often slight characters from the original book, allowing for a far richer, and far more emotional experience.  It's actually kind of like Peter Jackson -- who released an extended version of all three Lord of the Rings' films after they came out -- decided to release the extended version in theaters this time about.  Will it seem too long to someone who is just a passing cinemagoer?  Probably, but to fans, it's a treasure trove of joy.

The film lays the seeds for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with us seeing, not only how Bilbo found the one ring, but also promising to answer, in the next installment, what happened to ultimate villain, Sauron, between his demise at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, to his rise throughout the rest of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The way Peter Jackson has approached the first installment of The Hobbit, promises to not only answer a few questions left lingering from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but also manages to be a rip-roaring adventure film that can stand on its own for fans of Middle Earth, marking this film as an entertaining and emotional classic of cinema.

I give The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey an A+!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Movie Review: "Life of Pi"

Within the first ten minutes, the titular protagonist of Life of Pi, Pi Patel, tells a writer that this story will make one believe in God.  The story that Pi tells, is that of a shipwreck, which claims a teenaged Pi's family.  Amidst the chaos, he found himself the sole human survivor, now floating across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  Part survival story, part rumination about one person's faith and their attempts at understanding why God designed nature to do the things in which it does, Life of Pi is an emotion-filled journey that places the viewer within these events and has them pondering the same questions that the film's lead, newcomer Suraj Sharma, does.

In a great many ways, Life of Pi requires an open mind from its viewers.  It is not a film about one particular religion, as Pi is a combination Hindu, Catholic, and Muslim.  He has always been fascinated by God, whether it be Christ, the many Hindu Gods, or Allah, Pi believes they're all the same.  The film does not ask the viewer to believe this same idea as Pi, his beliefs simply serve as the impetus to understanding the gentle, soul-filled character that is Pi Patel, and understand how a 16-year-old boy could survive not just the elements and starvation, but also a man-eating tiger.

The set up of the film is filled with life and energy, detailing the source of Pi's name, his fascination with religion, and his loss of innocence, before the ship wrecks and the real story begins -- Pi's journey to understand God.  To his immense credit, young actor, Suraj Sharma, manages to hold the film together thanks to his revelatory performance.  Sharma is the heart-and-soul of Life of Pi.  He has a wide range of emotions that make him believable as a teen pondering such large questions, keeping the viewer engaged rather than allowing their attention span to wane.  Which is good, seeing as how Life of Pi gets narratively murky around the midpoint, with some of the confrontations between Pi and nature running together by that point.  Thankfully, the thematic ideas are what I feel that Ang Lee and company want the audience to take away from the film, and the emotions and ideas are so strong, it is very easy to overlook its narrative shortcomings.

Visually, Life of Pi is a marvel.  The animals in the life boat are entirely computer generated, and there are many moments where it is hard to find the glossy edges that CGI leaves behind.  As well, director Ang Lee uses visual effects and the camera's depth of field to create a more immersive, dream-like feel. Almost every shot seems to have been digitally altered to make it seem more unreal, to make the water more reflective, to make the sky more beautiful, or to make dream and reality often collide.  In particular, the way that the camera was always focused on Pi, with most of the other actors out of focus, it really draws one into Pi's state.  However, I cannot figure out why Lee changed the aspect ratio in a few scenes.  There is no evidence in the film itself to suggest why, leaving me confused.  It's only for two scenes, and both are scenes meant to be emotional beats, and yet the film goes from widescreen to fullscreen to letterbox format.  It jars the viewer and takes one out of the filmgoing experience.

All in all, Life of Pi is not perfect, but it was a film I do not regret seeing.  Thanks to a strong performance from Sharma, marvelous effects work, luscious visuals, and a thematic consistency that never falters in affecting the viewer, Life of Pi is a flawed, yet must see film that will be nominated come Oscar night.

I give Life of Pi a B

Thursday, November 29, 2012

For Your Consideration: Jack Black

For years I've been trying to think of something new and different to do each Oscar season to try and do an alternative form of Academy Awards' coverage on the Review.  I consider myself an amateur Oscar predictor, and very often I try to simply make logical predictions that typically pan out, so I've decided to take a look at the films and performances that have less of a chance for Oscar recognition and highlight them.  I don't think anyone in the film industry reads this, but what I hope with the "For Your Consideration" posts is that I can both vent about Academy pretentiousness at ignoring blockbusters and also highlight lesser known films and performances, hoping to give them some added exposure to filmgoers looking for something great to enjoy.  I kind of already did a post similar to this a few weeks ago about why I felt The Avengers should be nominated for Best Picture, but this post is not about The Avengers, but rather about actor Jack Black.

What inspired this inaugural post is I recently saw the film Bernie on netflix.  Bernie is an independent film made by director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Before Sunset) that came out this past Summer in limited release.  The film only played for a few weeks in my neck of the woods, and I never really got around to seeing it, because I was so busy with my film internship at the time it came out.  It's always hard to see these indies when they come out in the midst of Summer blockbuster season anyways, because few theaters carry them at that time of year.

Bernie tells the unbelievable true story of an effeminate Texas mortician named Bernie Tiede, portrayed by Jack Black.  What's so brilliant about the film is that it's shot like a documentary, yet it's entirely scripted, lending the film both a realistic authenticity, but stylistic flourishes not found in typical docs.  Bernie was the nicest guy on Earth, everyone loved him.  He produced the local community theater, led worship at the church, and was friend to all, including the meanest old lady in town, Marjorie, played by Shirley MacLaine.  However, soon Bernie learned all about Marjorie and she began to wear on his nerves, and in a momentary lapse he shoots her in the back.  I should say, this film is a comedy, albeit a black comedy in the vein of the Coen Brothers' films, but a comedy all the same.  Even in the scene when Bernie shoots Marjorie, I found myself laughing out loud thanks to the performance of Jack Black and his reaction upon realizing what he's done.  For this reason, and many others, I truly feel that Jack Black's performance is worthy of Best Actor Oscar consideration.

The closest Jack Black has ever come to getting nominated for Oscar was the one time he came onstage with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, singing a song about how hard it is to be a comedian at the Oscars and never get nominated.  It's as if the Academy knows they have a bias to comedies and comedians in general.  The thing is, Jack Black is not a bad actor when he's reined in and doesn't go too terribly over-the-top, like he did in King Kong, School of Rock, or The Holiday, or as he does here in Bernie.

As Bernie Tiede, Jack Black is very dialed down.  Sure, he has a funny effeminate accent, but when you hear the real Bernie speak in interviews from real-life, you realize how spot on Jack Black was.  The thing is, Jack Black uses all of his considerable talents in this one film.  He proves that he is a good singer, and not just adept at doing his heavy metal thing with Tenacious D.  Jack Black surprisingly sings hymns and Broadway showtunes real well, showing vocal range, but he also shows range in his acting chops.  He plays everything seriously and just lets the absurdity of the situations be what makes it all funny rather than him hamming it up, like he normally does.  This is a very contained performance that shows genuine maturation in Black as an actor, not as a comedian, and makes me intrigued to see what else he can do.

For this being such a controlled performance from a popular performer who tends to go off the rails, I feel it deserves at least to be nominated for Best Actor.  Sure, I feel Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln is more worthy of winning, but Jack Black as Bernie Tiede should be considered alongside Day-Lewis' portrayal.  Both are brilliantly controlled and genuine.  As well, I think that Richard Linklater should be considered for Best Director for being able to coax such a good performance from not just Black, but all of the actors in the film, but alas that is even less likely and isn't as deserved as Jack Black getting the nom.  Of course, will Jack Black happen?  More than likely, no.  While the distributors will likely push Black, he'll be overshadowed by the likes of Academy friendly names as Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington.  So I guess this will be the closest we ever will get to seeing Jack Black at the podium:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Movie Review: "Lincoln"

Upon seeing director Steven Spielberg's latest, Lincoln, I would not at all be surprised to see both Spielberg and Abraham Lincoln-portayer Daniel Day-Lewis win their third Oscars, and deservedly so.   Lincoln is a master class in acting, writing, and directing, as the cast and crew tell the story of the last few months of Abraham Lincoln's life and his battle to get slavery abolished by passing the 13th amendment.

All of the actors, from Sally Field as the tortured Mary Todd Lincoln to Tommy Lee Jones as the abolitionist Thadeus Stevens,  relish in three-dimensional roles scripted with historical authenticity by screenwriter Tony Kushner, but it's Day-Lewis that steals the show.  He disappears in the role, due in a large part to the brilliant make-up work which requires a genuine second glance to distinguish him from the real Abraham Lincoln in certain shots, in particular profiles.  Where Day-Lewis excels though, is how he controls the performance.  He rarely chews scenery, his high, reedy voice just seems perfectly natural to the Lincoln that he is presenting, with the real depth not always coming in his words, but in his soulful eyes.  As a matter of fact, I would say that control is the best way to describe everyone's work in this film.

No performance outshines the other in a scene, there is never too much attention drawn to the cinematography, as everything all gels together nicely to feel organic to the story.  What's most surprising, Spielberg and composer John Williams show genuine restraint in the sparseness of the music, such as letting it be entirely ambient noise when the 13th amendment is passed.  However, this isn't the entire film, with Spielberg and company knowing when to give a little visual or aural flourish to make their point.  While Spielberg often sits back in dialogue scenes to let the actors do their work, he always knows the right moment to push the camera in or pull it out to immerse you in their words, and the scene where the House is voting on the amendment, is as finely crafted a visual sequence he has ever done in his career.   

Lincoln is a cinematic marvel, it shows the humanity of a man that we often put up on a pedestal, and even when we see him in all of his flaws, we are still drawn to him because he was just such a great man.  It's such a loving portrait, that when you see Lincoln surrounded by his cabinet and his family, pronounced dead, you are overwhelmed by emotion to see a man that you have grown to love, never to open his soulful eyes again.  However, as Spielberg illustrates in the final scene, with the slow dissolve from a burning candle to Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln will continue to burn on to inspire countless generations to come.  If you want to try and make comparisons to the modern day political climate with this film, you're entirely in your right, but to me, this film is an inspiration, a firm reminder about the good of humanity and the leadership of a great man that should never be forgotten.

I give Lincoln an A+!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Movie Review: "Flight"

Flight is a change of pace for director, Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away).  After a decade of doing mo-cap animated films, Zemeckis returns to live action with a film that is decidedly darker than any other film he's ever made.

Flight tells the story of Whip Whitaker, portrayed by Denzel Washington.  Whip is a drug addict, an alcoholic, and a commercial airline pilot.  On the morning that his airplane experiences technical difficulties and starts falling out of the sky, Whip was drunk and high.  While he made an emergency landing in a Georgia field, his condition leads to a criminal investigation as to why the aircraft really fell.

The crash sequence is as harrowing as any I've ever seen, and is a marvel of Zemeckis's directing and ability to get immaculate effects work out of the effects crew, however the rest of the film is about Whip and his addictions.  Whip cannot stop drinking, lying, or being a man so unfitting of the word hero.  He refuses to go to AA meetings, he cannot resist a drink when it's sitting there right in front of him, and the film goes to many places that are surprising and uncomfortable for the viewer.  We witness Whip, fall down drunk, high as a kite, and lying with a silver tongue, ignoring his son and ex-wife for most of the film, and losing the few good relationships he still has left. Washington delivers a performance of intense depth, he plays the role with charm, but the kind of charm one has when they're trying to get everything to go their way.  Though where his performance really stands out, is in the way that Washington's Whip refuses to admit that he has a problem, and he gives a good case for award's attention at the end when he finally lays down his alcohol addiction for the whole world to see.

Smartly, Flight never tries to answer the spiritual questions it raises, some might find a spiritual movie underneath all of this, about why things happen, and that's one of the best things that Zemeckis and writer John Gatins did, they don't try to push anything on the viewer, but let them make up their own mind.  To me, the movie is about discovering one's faith, while it's also a movie about a man on a downward spiral, crashing both figuratively and literally in this film.  The whole piece works thematically, and the acting performances are strong, in particular Don Cheadle, as the most believable lawyer I've seen on film in a while.  While Flight loses some of its credibility when Whip's lawyer pays for him to get high on cocaine when he's spending his whole time the rest of the film trying to get Whip's toxicology report to go away, as a whole, Flight is a hard-hitting drama that is unlike anything else that Zemeckis has ever done.  For a filmmaker who one thinks they've already seen all the tricks he has left in his bag, this is a refreshing experience to see him growing and delivering adult fare unlike anything else he's ever done before, but be warned, this is neither a feel good movie, nor a film for the faint hearted, as there is nudity, drugs, alcohol, and many different ways to use the f-word.

I give Flight an A-!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Who Should Direct "Star Wars: Episode VII"

Easily the most anticipated film in the industry right now is Star Wars:  Episode VII.  Following the bombshell two weeks ago that Lucasfilm was selling to Disney, many fans have been speculating about the new film that Disney announced the same day as the acquisition.  Episode VII will be produced by Lucasfilm, with the money and final say-so coming from Disney, and George Lucas merely onboard as a creative consultant.  Just this past weekend, they announced that screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) had been hired to write the script for Episode VII, following a treatment that Arndt had written for what is now being called the Sequel Trilogy.

What's most intriguing about Arndt's involvement, is the fact that he has been working on this with Lucas and Lucasfilm for months and word had not slipped, which is a feat in-and-of itself in this ravenous internet age that a secret this big hadn't been splashed across countless webpages three months ago.  However the greatest thing about Arndt's involvement, is that it shows that Disney and Lucasfilm are taking these film's seriously.  They've hired a great screenwriter who knows how to infuse comedy, humanity, and excitement in every story he writes.  He knows when to get serious, but also understands that seriousness isn't needed all the time, the right guy to script a Star Wars adventure -- perhaps in a similar vein to the original three, and not the uber-serious prequels.  While Arndt isn't necessarily Lawrence Kasdan, he's a great screenwriter, young, with maybe a few fresh ideas to bring to the table to keep this new trilogy from feeling outdated by modern science fiction films.  Now, all we need is a director.

I personally feel we wont hear any casting news until a director is attached and a draft is done, till then, countless reports stating Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, are returning, should be taken with a grain of salt.  I could be wrong, but the next big step for Disney and Lucasfilm is to sign whoever will take George Lucas's place at the helm of the franchise.  My personal wish, Steven Spielberg, has already gone on record as saying he wouldn't do it, as have a few other directors.  Quite frankly, I don't blame any director for not wanting to jump into a franchise that is already six films in, and will be met with fan scrutiny, no matter how good it is.  Therefore, most big names, like Spielberg or James Cameron, are just wishful thinking, as well, given the recent video interview between Lucasfilm CEO, Kathleen Kennedy, and Lucas himself, they said that what they were looking for in a director was someone who is a fan of the films and already has a love for the material.  Given the people already involved, and the little I've gathered so far, I've decided to just name off a few Hollywood directors that I think would be good fits for the Star Wars universe.

The big thing I've taken into account here is that Kathleen Kennedy is now the head of Lucasfilm, and not George, and with Kennedy having worked with multiple directors throughout her decades of being a producer in Hollywood, she will more than likely have some names she's already thinking about.  To be honest, she could go with some new blood, but I almost think she might go with someone she can already trust.  Given all this, I don't think it will be Joss Whedon or J.J. Abrams or Guillermo Del Toro, or any other filmmaker that fanboys are obsessed with.  Whedon is too loyal to abandon Marvel, Abrams already has Star Trek, and Del Toro, he'd probably just sign on and abandon it halfway through pre-production like he has done with countless projects, including The Hobbit.  So who will direct?  Honestly, I don't know.  I don't have some inside track or nothing, all I can do is make some educated guesses based upon what I want to see.  However, I'm not going to go with the wishlist idea, I know there's no chance anymore of Spielberg, Whedon, or Abrams, so what's the point of even pondering the notion?  Personally, I feel they'll go with seasoned hands, people who already have some experience with event films, but they're also people who don't have too much of an artist's complex to think that they have to come in and change everything, while still having enough imagination to work with what's already come before in fresh ways.  Here are the guys I'd be most jazzed about to see kick-off the new Star Wars trilogy, in no particular order:

Gary Ross
The Hunger Games' director  is the top name for me.  Gary Ross has only three films under his belt, but each film he's made is fantastic and vastly different from the last.  With The Hunger Games, Ross showed a unique talent to stay true to the source material while innovating where he felt it was needed.  He has an artist's eye, which is evident from the fabulous art direction of all his films, from Pleasantville to The Hunger Games, but most importantly, he has a history with Kathleen Kennedy, who produced his film, Seabiscuit.  Ross is an exquisite Hollywood craftsman who understands both the art and science of filmmaking, unparalleled in creating lush visuals while telling emotional, character centric stories.  The biggest drawback to Ross is that he is notorious for taking long periods of time to make his films, often rewriting scripts once he's brought onboard to feel closer to the material.  As well, Ross opted out of doing The Hunger Games' sequel, Catching Fire, because he felt he wasn't up to the task of mounting such a large scale film so soon after completing one.  Even still, Ross might see that this is as a once in a lifetime chance, and will jump on it, that's only if he doesn't continue on with Peter Pan prequel, Peter and the Starcatchers, instead.

Shawn Levy
A director I've admired ever since I saw his remake of The Pink Panther with Steve Martin, by no means a groundbreaking film, but it was funny and faithful to the Peter Sellers' originals.  Since, Levy has gone on to more genre-oriented fare, while still staying within the family genre that he started in with his work in television and on the remake of Cheaper by the Dozen.  After two Night at the Museum films and Real Steel (which I was a huge fan of, by the way), I feel that Levy has appropriately positioned himself as a director with a good sense of humor, a craftsman's eye at handling special effects, large stars, and big budgets, while retaining a naive-like heart to all of his films.  While I don't think Shawn Levy will re-invent the wheel by any means, I think he'd be highly respectful of the material and would deliver a solidly made film on time and on budget that would look good, but most importantly, would make you feel something.  His biggest drawback is that he's a studio man, not necessarily an artist, as well, he doesn't really have a prior history with either Lucas or Kennedy, though Real Steel was produced by Dreamworks and was released via Disney's Touchstone Pictures, so maybe.

Chris Columbus
Here is why Chris Columbus would be perfect for Star Wars:  the first two Harry Potter films.  Not only did Columbus prove his talent with special effects on those films, but he also proved his ability to build worlds.  He was the guy who came in and took what JK Rowling had written on the page and translated it to film, setting the template for the eight film series that was enormously successful.  While the last two films Columbus has made are lackluster to say the least, he was at one time one of the more bankable directors in Hollywood.  From the first two Home Alone movies, to Mrs. Doubtfire, to the aforementioned Harry Potter films, Columbus is just enough of an artist that his films feel like him, yet they're all accessible and viable in a commercial marketplace, the perfect guy to steer the ship of the Star Wars franchise.  Not to mention, Columbus is one of the finer screenwriters of the past few decades, having written the scripts for The Goonies, Gremlins, and Young Sherlock Holmes back in the '80s, before he was a director.  He's an ace storyteller that understands story structure and character in ways that only a screenwriter can.  My only fear is that Columbus has lost his touch, having not made a truly good or successful film since Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but perhaps Star Wars:  Episode VII could be his return to form.

Joe Johnston
This may be one of the more logical choices proposed.  Johnston has a long standing history with the Star Wars franchise, having been one of the founding members of Industrial Light & Magic, working on the special effects and art direction on the first three Star Wars films.  As well, Johnston has a close relationship to George Lucas, with Lucas actually paying Johnston's tuition to go to film school in the '80s to become a director.  Since, Johnston has become one of the more solid craftsmen you could have helming your effects laden film.  From films like Honey I Shrunk the Kids to Jumanji, all the way to October Sky and Captain America:  The First Avenger, Johnston is a filmmaker who not only knows how to make fun, escapist entertainment (just look at his pulp adventure, The Rocketeer), but make it with heart and spectacle, something that Star Wars needs.  Not to mention, he's already overtly familiar with the Star Wars universe, having designed many of the design elements of the first three films, in particular, the look of Bobba Fett.  Like Shawn Levy above, Johnston isn't known for reinventing the wheel, but that isn't what I really want someone to do with this new Star Wars film.  He's a guy that already knows the style, is a great director who can also create new design elements that will fit perfectly into the already established Star Wars universe, and he has shown in the past that he is not shy about taking on a franchise that was already established by an A-list director with Jurassic Park III.  There is really no reason in my mind why Kathleen Kennedy and Disney should not be looking at Johnston as a serious contender.

Ron Howard
Another George Lucas protege, Ron Howard is the most successful filmmaker I've mentioned on this list, and that would probably be what will put the kibosh on the whole deal.  Ron Howard's a modern day mogul now, like Spielberg or Lucas, he can pick whatever he wants, and do it however he so desires, but dare we not forget that Ron Howard started out as a young filmmaker under the wings of people like Roger Corman and George Lucas.  Ron Howard developed a mentor-student like relationship with Lucas on the set of American Graffiti, which led into Lucas's involvement with Howard, on Ron Howard's '80s fantasy flick, Willow.  Ron Howard, to this day, considers Lucas a mentor, and his resume shows that he is not opposed to doing genre flicks, the biggest thing is whether or not Howard feels he has grown out of fantasy and sci-fi films.  Sure, he got his start with films like Splash!, Willow, and Cocoon, but since, the closest things he's done to those have been The DaVinci Code movies.  Howard seems to be more interested in doing human dramas nowadays than he is in dealing with magic or blasting off to other galaxies, but given Howard's relationship with Lucas, and his own prior filmography, I would not count Howard out.  Howard is an exceptional director of fantasy and science fiction whenever he so desires, and I feel he could deliver a Star Wars film that would be impressive.  He's a seasoned veteran, he knows how to tell stories in visual ways, as well as deal with actors to get good performances, but most importantly, he has clout.  Ron Howard is one of the largest figures in modern moviemaking, and I feel Howard's involvement would not only allay some fanboys' fears, into letting them know that Disney is really looking to make a quality Star Wars film, but Howard also wouldn't be afraid to tell folks like Harrison Ford if he thinks they're overacting or not, something that Ford has drastically needed in nearly all of his roles over the past decade.  Plus, imagine Clint Howard in a Star Wars film.  Maybe he could be an alien in heavy makeup or a bounty hunter.  Oh, the possibilities.

So, there you have it, there is no telling who they're courting to direct the film, but these are just who I'd most like to see give it a try.  Website, IGN, recently spoke with producer, and husband of Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, about the new Star Wars film, and he said that the list had been narrowed down to a couple directors, so hopefully we'll know soon, but for now, speculation is fun.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Movie Review: "Skyfall"

It's James Bond's 50th anniversary, and the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall, proves that there's still some bullets left in his Walter PPK.

The plot of Skyfall is simplistic, a hard drive containing the identities of every secret agent embedded in terrorist organizations around the world is stolen, but it's how director Sam Mendes turns the film more so into a chess match than a whodunit, that marks this entry.  The flamboyant villain, Silva, is an agressive mastermind, manipulating the actions of MI6 through cyberterrorism, forcing M, MI6, and Bond to play defense the entire film, trying to keep out of checkmate, and in the end Bond and M retreat to Bond's boyhood home, Skyfall, to try to get Silva to drop his defenses.

The thing about Skyfall, is that it is different than any other Bond film before it.  It's a somber experience, almost melancholy.  It's not cranked up to 11, it's not a simple bad guy wanting to take over the world story, in so many ways it's a character piece.  The biggest action sequence is the Istanbul opening where 007 chases a bad guy across cars, motorcycles, and trains, and the rest of the film gets gradually smaller and smaller in scale, until all that is left are Bond, M, and Silva.  It's the way their pasts come back to haunt them that is the spine of Skyfall.

Bond still clings to the death of his parents, M is questioning her past decisions to sacrifice agents when the ends justified the means, and Silva is bitter over M having sacrificed him on a mission long ago, like she does with Bond in the opening.  Unlike any other Bond film, it's about the relationships that these characters have with one another that shapes the narrative and the action.  Bond's trust in M is tested, leading him down a certain path of action, but then it's reinforced, and then he stops at nothing to protect her from Silva.  That is the true brilliance of Skyfall, it doesn't shy away from showing the humanity of these characters, or how their actions have repercussions, but rather it shows how they use those repercussions to carry on and finish the mission.

Daniel Craig proves he is once more a more than capable 007, utilizing a dry sense of humor to deliver lines that Roger Moore would have hammed up.  Like he did in Casino Royale, Craig finds a way to make Bond relatable and human to the audience.  In the film, James Bond is portrayed as slightly older, having lost his edge, and not necessarily hip with the times where espionage is mostly done by computers and not field work.  As a matter of fact, Bond is injured throughout most of the film, not at his physical peak, due to gunshot wounds sustained in the opening.  Therefore, he's not really a superhero, but rather a human being who is constantly outmatched throughout the entire film, but as he proves by the end, it's not age or old school methods that define the job, but his commitment to see it through.

As well, Judi Dench delivers her best turn since Goldeneye, Bond girl Naomie Harris really adds some much needed levity at times to keep things from getting too dark, and Ben Whishaw fills Desmond Llewelyn's shoes as Q.  The true standout performance though is Javier Bardem as Silva.  He's not just creepy or flamboyant, though he is a man whose sexuality is in question, but it's the way that he fully commits to the role that makes every line and action that he performs creepy and flamboyant. His performance has been likened to Heath Ledger's Joker, but I really think Silva is his own messed up breed that Bardem plays so brilliantly, perhaps besting his performance as Anton Chigurgh in No Country For Old Men.  Not to mention, the fact that the script really builds up his character, where everyone talks about him in fear, with him manipulating in the shadows for the first half of the film, so that when we finally meet him, we're terrified of him.

All in all, Skyfall is a marvel.  Featuring superb action scenes, a traditional Bond theme song supplied by Adele, one of the better scripts ever written for a Bond film, where every character has an arc and a purpose in the story, and some of the most stunning cinematography ever shot for an action flick, Skyfall is a home run.  Not only that though, it's a great, personal film that is smart, tense, exciting, and surprisingly emotional.  It uses the 50 year history of these characters to stir the emotions in the viewer, and in so many ways, if this isn't your first Bond film, you will be even more rewarded for it.  But quite simply, the Bond family has outdone themselves here.  Skyfall is a true blue James Bond adventure that surpasses nearly every other film in the storied franchise.

I give Skyfall an A+!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Movie Review: "Wreck-It Ralph"

Disney's latest animated film, Wreck-It Ralph, is a charming film that is laugh-out loud hilarious, and yet tender-hearted at the same time.  Ralph is a video game bad guy for a video game called Fix It Felix, Jr., a game similar to the original Donkey Kong with Mario and DK.  All Ralph wants to do is be seen as a good guy and be liked, so he sets off on a journey traveling through other arcade games to win a gold medal, proving he's a hero.  Ralph finds an unlikely sidekick in a glitchy little girl named Vanellope in a Mario Kart-like kart racer who just wants to be a race car driver, and the two team together to try and achieve their individual goals. 

It's been said about this film already, but it feels like a Pixar movie rather than a movie from Disney's in-house studios.  Not only is the film just wildly original and different than most other animated films in the market, but folks at Disney also created all of these arcade games that seem as if they should be real.  Adding to the Pixar comparisons, the filmmakers also crafted some extremely lovable characters, from Ralph to Vanellope to the big bad guy, named King Candy, while infusing the film with deeper themes than most prior Disney animated films deal with.  Wreck-It Ralph is all about learning to be comfortable with who you are and not letting a label define you, which is an important lesson for kids, and it's told in such a hilarious way with so many inside jokes about video games that anyone who even has a passing knowledge of video games will find funny, with cameo appearances from the likes of Pac Man and Sonic the Hedgehog. 

In all honesty, so much of this film's success must be attributed to Pixar co-founder, John Lasseter, as the new head of Disney Animation, but give credit also to Futurama creator, Rich Moore, who directed Wreck-It Ralph.  With Moore's vast imagination, and folks like Lasseter willing to try something different and let talents like Rich Moore simply do what they love, it produces films like these, which is the best film to come from Disney's in-house animation studio in over a decade.  The animation is beautiful, the story is both funny and touching, and the voice-over work is superb, with immense kudos to Sarah Silverman for playing the spunkiest little girl on Earth as Vanellope, I mean, who knew she could sound like an 8-year-old kid?

On a final note, the animated short that plays before the film, Paperman, is so good it is almost worth the price of admission itself for its sweet love story and for the amazing combination of hand-drawn animation and computer technology that brought it to life.  I truly feel that this short shows the true future of animation, combing old school techniques with modern innovations to make a better, higher quality product that still has that personal touch that only hand-drawn animation can give, while creating a depth of the image that you can really only get through using computers.

I give Wreck-It Ralph an A+

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Disney Acquires Lucasfilm!

The biggest film industry bombshell in a longtime was exploded today as news of Disney acquiring Lucasfilm (the company behind Star Wars and Indiana Jones) for a whopping $4 billion, broke.  Filmmaker George Lucas has sold the rights to some of the most beloved stories of the past few decades, opening the door for Disney to make new Star Wars films, TV shows, video games, etc.  Along with the announcement came the word that George Lucas has written treatments for a new trilogy of Star Wars films and he is now handing it off to Lucasfilm's Co-Chairman, Kathleen Kennedy, and Walt Disney Studios, to hire writers and directors to bring this new trilogy to life, with Star Wars:  Episode VII slated to hit theaters in 2015.

First thoughts:  surprise, confusion, a smidge anger (Why can't they  just leave it alone?), sadness, and perhaps even a small ray of excitement deep inside.  I know I am talking about this as if it's life-and-death, but when my top 5 favorite films of all-time include four Lucasfilm productions, I can't help it.  How did we get to this?

A few months back it was revealed that George Lucas was preparing to retire from Lucasfilm and he had appointed Spielberg-film producer, Kathleen Kennedy, as his replacement to take over the running of the company once he was gone.  For me, that was a smart move, with Mrs. Kennedy proving she knows how to handle big movies, big stars, and big directors, and oversee their work to ensure the best quality possible.  Of course, I had no idea that this was coming.

Lucasfilm has been an independent company since its inception in the 1970s, and I think what took me as such a surprise by this announcement, was I had simply assumed that by Lucas picking Kennedy as his replacement, that it was his own way of ensuring the future of his company, but it was only the beginning of this whole thing.  I am assuming that Lucasfilm will still be in charge of their day-to-day operations, but Disney will have the final say as to what their money will be spent for and what it wont, thus Lucasfilm loses its independence.  It's just sad to see a filmmaker I greatly admire, a man who spent all of his filmmaking career trying to gain independence from the Hollywood studios, selling his company to the biggest studio out there.  It's safe to say, Disney has a monopoly on the entertainment industry now.

With Disney's recent acquisitions of Pixar and Marvel, as well as their partnership with Dreamworks, and now owning Lucasfilm, they have a firm hold on the entertainment industry from comics, to films, to TV, and beyond.  Great if you're a Disney shareholder, perhaps not so great if you're a fan of the films of Lucasfilm.  The problem with Disney being a major studio and not an independent like Lucasfilm, is that it now creates that money mentality where it's no longer about the stories, but about making something that can inspire theme park attractions and sell toys.  I mean, how many lackluster sequels has Disney made to Pirates of the Caribbean just to make a quick buck?  That's the last thing I want is for Star Wars to turn into a bland adventure film franchise with little heart, originality, and fun.  Which brings me to the point of the new Star Wars film, Episode VII.

You can pretty much bet your bottom dollar that this film will happen, and with Disney setting a release for 2015, they're subliminally saying that they want this to cement their relationship with Lucasfilm to filmgoers.  Personally, I am not opposed to the idea of making new Star Wars films, my biggest fear is that they're rushing this to do as I said above, to cement the relationship.

Say they want the film out by Summer 2015, then that's less than two and a half years away, and what do they have right now?  A treatment for the film, that's it.  From a filmmaking point-of-view, that's not a lot to go on with so little time to mount the now most hyped film of all-time.  Here's the thing, that's only two and a half years to write a script, get a director, get the cast, shoot the film, do the effects, and release it.  Working on such tight time constraints, you inhibit the creative opportunities for whatever filmmakers come on board to realize Episode VII.  A lot of really great, clever writers and directors would love to probably work on a Star Wars film (I mean Spike Jonze nearly directed Attack of the Clones), but majority of visionary filmmakers need more time than that to produce something that is truly mindblowing (as well, most truly original filmmakers probably don't like the idea of being bound to the conventions that one has to conform to when making a Star Wars movie, but that's a different post all together).  So who would you probably get to make the film?  Someone who needs the paycheck, or the exposure doing a Star Wars film would grant, or who simply does whatever the studio tells them.  That is not conducive to good filmmaking.

Quite simply, if Disney is to win over the Star Wars fans, they need to make all of the right moves here.  Personally, I feel Disney needs to let the fans know that they are serious about taking care of the franchise, and to ensure this, they need to get topnotch talent behind the camera, people who are on the same imaginative level as George Lucas.  Well, that makes the list very small.  Some might say James Cameron or Peter Jackson, both inspired choices who have proven with other films that they could deliver, but they wont do it, because they are so driven by their own storytelling efforts on Pandora and Middle Earth.   To me, if Disney wants to make Episode VII work, they should realize the dreams of fanboys all over the world, and the dream of the filmmaker, as well, and allow Steven Spielberg to finally helm a Star Wars film.  Think about it, Spielberg is George Lucas's best friend, Kathleen Kennedy is his producing partner, and Spielberg was to have directed Return of the Jedi until Lucas ran into his little trouble with the Director's Guild of America (which is another story for another time).  Spielberg has the imagination, the caliber, and talent to succeed Lucas at the helm of the franchise.  Now, that's just my personal dream, but someone akin to Spielberg's level needs to be hired if they're to win us fans over.  It also wouldn't hurt if Disney and Kennedy could woo screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan back to write the film, Kasdan having co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  Of course, what could really allay fanboy fears, is the cast.

Disney will not just need to get Anthony Daniels back as C-3P0, but with the assumption that Episode VII will continue the tradition of each Star Wars film, following the Skywalker family, and the film following the original trilogy in chronology, it's safe to assume that in some way, shape or form, we could potentially expect to see Luke, Han, or Leia.  While Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher are old, and perhaps not necessarily in the best shape to return to action, seeing a ghost Luke Skywalker mentoring his kid or grandkid, akin to Obi-Wan in the original trilogy, isn't too far-fetched for me.  Personally, I think Hamill and Fisher would probably say yes in a heartbeat, but Ford would take the most convincing.  He's been very public about how he felt that Han should have bit the dust at the end of Empire and not have returned for Jedi, freeing him from the persona of Han Solo to pursue other parts.  I honestly don't know if Ford would do it, which is why getting top tier talent like Spielberg and Kasdan would help to possibly get Ford to sign on the dotted line, with Ford still harboring a great relationship with Spielberg.  Of course, all I've talked about so far is how disastrous this acquisition could be, and there are a few rays of light at the end of the tunnel.

If Disney does hire the right talent, it could finally wash the bad taste of the much debated prequels out of the mouths of Star Wars fans.  Obviously, though, there will always be detractors, but there really are an unlimited number of stories to be told in the Star Wars universe.  Who's to say they even have to make a film about the Skywalker family?  They could make a Bobba Fett film, or an Old Republic film, or explore some territory that no storyteller has ever even thought about before.  As well, many Star Wars fans have been dissatisfied with all of the changes George Lucas has made to the old films on DVD and Blu Ray releases, perhaps Disney will see the great chance to make money and will release the original versions of all Star Wars films with none of the changes that were made.  On a similar note, most blame George Lucas for how the prequels turned out, and with him only on as a story by credit from now on, like he was on Empire and Jedi, this could yield some of the best films since those two.  Then, there is Disney themselves.

Right now, Disney has positioned themselves really well by hiring Alan Horn a few months back to run the studio.  Horn has proven himself over the past decade at being very great working with visionary talents and bringing franchises to the screen, thanks to his work on the Harry Potter films and with director Christopher Nolan, the right type of guy to shepherd a new Star Wars to the screen with top notch talent attached.  As well, the way Disney has dealt with Marvel and Pixar since acquiring them a few years back, really fills me with hope for how they'll deal with Lucasfilm.  For the most part, they've left the creative talents at those institutions in charge of the creative decisions and it's yielded great results, ranging from the films, Up to The Avengers.  As well, now Disney has picked up Lucasfilm's effects branch, Industrial Light & Magic, and their sound branch, Skywalker Sound, two of the leading innovators in film technology, now adding their power behind the films of Disney to only create better product for Disney films in general.

Even with this large amount of information, there are many question marks remaining.  Who is going to make the new Star Wars film?  What will its story be?  Will John Williams stick around to do the music for this new trilogy?  Will the Star Wars comics continue to be published by Dark Horse, or go to Marvel?  And my biggest question of all:  What about Indiana Jones?  The press release mentioned nothing about the future of Dr. Jones, and it makes me wonder how much power Disney will now have over the Indy brand.  These questions, and many more, will be answered slowly over time, but the real take away today is that Disney is now in charge of Lucasfilm.  While there will always be that fear of a Star Wars reboot in my mind, now that it is no longer independently owned and is owned by a Hollywood studio seeking money, but I am choosing from now on to be a lobbier for this new direction for Lucasfilm.  It's tough to do, but I love Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and to me, more Star Wars is never a bad thing.  All I want is good Star Wars, and if Disney delivers that, I'm going to be a happy fan.

(Check out this video with George Lucas detailing the acquisition in his own words:)