Saturday, June 28, 2014

Movie Review: "Transformers: Age of Extinction"

Another Summer, another Transformers movie.  There seems to be a new one of these every other Summer, but there and again, there are few filmmakers alive who know how to make Summer movies quite like Michael Bay can.  I mean, look, Transformers: Age of Extinction wont win any Oscars for its story, acting, or direction, but you don't watch these movies for that.  You watch these Transformers movies to see childhood dreams realized on the bigscreen, and if that doesn't sound interesting to you, then you wont like this movie.  However, I did.

Age of Extinction is not necessarily a reboot of the franchise, but more of a new start.  It is a sequel to the previous three films, but it does not feature any of the same cast of characters, save for the Autobot heroes of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee.  One of the smart things this film does in terms of story, is it uses the repercussions of everything that happened in the previous three films to dictate where the story goes.  After Chicago was nearly destroyed in the last film, the government has started hunting down all of the Transformers, good and bad, to get them off of our planet before their war destroys us.

This story is much darker than previous entries in the franchise, with less humor (which is a welcome change after the too jokey Revenge of the Fallen), but this film is always an entertaining thrill ride from start to finish.  Sure, the human characters are merely there for exposition and to create an emotional anchor for the audience, but Mark Wahlberg's movie star charisma keeps the human portions of the film rolling even if he isn't all that sellable as a struggling inventor.  The true reason you see these Transformers movies is to see big action on a large scale, and this film does not disappoint.

There are explosions, tons of robots fighting robots, and loads of car chases, to sate the appetite of anyone looking for a big, loud Summer movie.  This is what Michael Bay does best, and sure, it probably wont ever win him an Academy Award or critical recognition, but it can't take away the fact that he is one of the most talented action movie directors to ever live.

With every Michael Bay film, you can look at the screen and see every dollar that was spent on the movie.  While some movies, when you hear they were made for $200 million, you are left wondering where that money went, however that is not the case with Michael Bay movies.  With Michael Bay, you see that dollar sign reflected in the carnage onscreen and then some.  Say what you will about him as a director, but at the very least, he knows what he does well, and he sticks to it to continue entertaining audiences.  But getting back to the film at hand, the main question most people have about this film is whether or not it's better than the other Transformers movies?  Not really.

If you liked the previous three movies, then you will love Age of Extinction.  Okay, so the story often makes very little sense, but if you've already learned to go with the nonsensical in these films, it wont feel any different.  The best thing I can say, is that this is a good Summer blockbuster that I had fun with.  While I still think the best Transformers movie is the first one from 2007, I also feel that there is still untapped potential in this franchise.  I think these films try to often do too much in one movie, and in so doing, character and emotion are often lost.  However, at this point, any Transformers film on a smaller, more character-oriented scale, would probably be rejected by audiences, so you take what you can get, and what you get is still fun.

I give Transformers: Age of Extinction a B+!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rian Johnson to Direct "Star Wars: Episode VIII"

Well, Disney and Lucasfilm are literally wasting no time with Star Wars.  After the one-two punch of Godzilla's Gareth Edwards and Chronicle's Josh Trank being named as the directors of the first two spin-off films in the franchise, we've now got word that Looper director, Rian Johnson, will be directing the next Star Wars episode after Episode VII, Episode VIII.  My first thought is disappointment that J.J. Abrams wont be back in the director's chair beyond Episode VII, but second and most importantly, it shows that Disney and Lucasfilm are serious here about wanting a new Star Wars film every year starting in December 2015.

Currently, this very well may be the best time ever to be a Star Wars fan, I mean, just a little over two years ago we were being told that there would never, ever be new Star Wars movies, and here we are now, only a year and a half away from the start of a new trilogy and a plethora of promised spin-off films.   Given that we are steadily growing closer and closer to Episode VII, and given Disney's desire to have a new Star Wars movie in theaters every year, in order for all of these movies to get in production and be ready for their presumed release dates of 2016, 2017, and 2018, they need to start filming soon, which is why it has been such a busy month for Star Wars announcements.  In truth, these spin-offs and Episode VII - IX, have been in development ever since Disney bought Lucasfilm.

It is safe to assume that at the very least, these first two spin-offs being done by Edwards and Trank, already have at least a draft or two of their scripts already written, and that Episode VIII has a rough treatment of some sorts.  We've known for a long time that The Empire Strikes Back screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan, and X-Men: Days of Future Past screenwriter, Simon Kinberg, had formed a Star Wars brain trust with J.J. Abrams and had not only hashed out the finer points of the new trilogy based upon George Lucas's notes that were sold to Disney, but they were also writing the first two spin-off films.  This has all been known since their involvement was first announced almost two years ago now.  The main question is if this is all going to be Star Wars overload.

At this current juncture, I am not entirely sure how I feel about the idea of these spin-off films.  While it's cool to think about a film purely about Boba Fett, Yoda, or Han Solo, so many of those characters work because they aren't the sole focus of the story.  In many ways, I still feel that the idea of the spin-off films is a little too much, and I've felt that since they were first announced.  I would much rather Disney and Lucasfilm pour all of their energy into making these new episodes in the larger story be the best films they can be, rather than trying to justify their $2 billion purchase of Lucasfilm with as many box office hits as possible.  Will audiences turn up for a Boba Fett film?  Will they turn up for a Yoda film?  I don't know, but one thing I can say is that it is clear that Lucasfilm and Disney are intent on injecting new blood into the Star Wars series.

Think about it, all four directors of the next four Star Wars films were all kids when the very first Star Wars came out in theaters.  Ever since the beginning of this acquisition, it has been very clear that the new management at Lucasfilm were intent on recapturing the feel of the original trilogy from the Seventies and Eighties, and I think this is a sign of that intention.  J.J. Abrams was the first one to step in, and his major geek cred doing similar types of movies really allayed a lot of fans' fears, letting them know that Episode VII was arguably in the best hands possible.

Now, in just the past month, we've gotten word of Gareth Edwards, Josh Trank, and now, Rian Johnson, all jumping to hyperspace to make their own Star Wars films.  While you could definitely argue that none of these three directors have the credibility of J.J. Abrams, they all have an apparent love and understanding of the sci-fi genre and the Star Wars franchise, and that is always a good place to start when looking for the creative talent to bring new chapters to life.  I mean, Edwards proved he is a blockbuster maestro in the Spielberg mold after Godzilla (which is probably what got him the gig), and Trank really blew people away with his found footage superhero flick, Chronicle.  Then, there is Johnson, the newest guy to join their ranks, and the only one of the three to actually be directing a major Star Wars episode.

When I first went online and saw the news that Rian Johnson was going to direct Episode VIII, I was a little upset by it, not because I think Johnson is a bad filmmaker, but because Abrams isn't going to be directing the sequel.  Perhaps the rumored two year turn around between the two episodes is why Abrams is not doing Episode VIII, but it kind of feels a little like the security blanket has been whipped away.  If there is anyone in the current state of moviemaking who can be considered a true successor to Spielberg and Lucas, it's J.J. Abrams, and his involvement in Episode VII has really been like a safety net for me, and without him for Episode VIII, I'm unsure.  Then there's always the concern that Johnson has never done a film of this scale, hype, or innocence before, and whether or not he can pull it off.  Don't get me wrong, Looper was a pretty good movie, and The Brothers Bloom is a fun little comedy crime caper, but all of Johnson's films thus far have been fairly adult in subject matter and whether or not people want to admit, Star Wars is an all ages brand.  Will Johnson be able to deliver some of the warmer moments that the franchise is known for?  I guess time will tell, but I am pulling for him, because I want the best Star Wars films possible.

Ultimately, until all of these new Star Wars films are released, we don't know how good any of them will or wont be.  While so many fans are happy that George Lucas is no longer actively involved in the franchise, I've got to say that when he was there all the time as producer, it gave everything an assuredness that it would all still feel like Star Wars.  There is no assuredness at this point because almost everyone working on these films has never done Star Wars before.  Perhaps that's what this series needs in order to stay fresh going into the future, but I just hope that in their desires to turn Star Wars into the new Marvel Universe, that the fun of Star Wars isn't lost in cliched stories and subpar films.  While many fans will argue what I'm about to say, in my opinion, there has never been a bad Star Wars film, and I don't want there to ever be one.  These are films that have always been made with great care and an eye towards story and character first, so let's see that continue.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Movie Review: "How to Train Your Dragon 2"

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the kind of sequel that most sequels try to be.  It's a film that recaptures the magic of the first film, while telling an entirely different story.  Like the main character of Hiccup, this film is a little bit more mature than the first outing, with five years having passed for the viking dragon riders of Berk, and yet there is still a levity to the proceedings in all of the darker moments that maintain the innocent, child-like charm of the story.

The simple truth here is if you liked the first film, then you will enjoy this one.  While I feel that the first film is a more complete narrative experience, there is sheer joy in seeing your favorite characters, human and dragon alike, back together again for a new adventure that is full of emotionally charged moments that get to you.  If only the villain, Drago, had been a little more than just an external conflict for our heroes to face, this film might have bested its predecessor.  The truth is, the film often bogs down a bit when Drago is onscreen because in a film that is as emotional as this one, a character there merely for plot contrivance doesn't always work.  Of course, aside from an uninteresting villain, this is about as perfect a sequel as you can make.

All of the cast and crew of the first film are back and it really feels like you're watching a reunion of sorts unfold.  I can only imagine that this must be how people felt when they saw The Empire Strikes Back for the first time.  While How to Train Your Dragon 2 is not The Empire Strikes Back, the comparison is one that I feel sums up all of my favorite aspects of this film.  From the musical score by returning composer John Powell, revisiting the catchy musical themes of the first film while adding new ones, to the spot on vocal performance by Jay Baruchel as Hiccup, this movie works because of its lovable characters and the same emotional heart beating underneath it as the first film.  From the first time you see Hiccup and his dragon pal, Toothless, flying together as one to a new song by Sigur Ros frontman, Jonsi, you are transported back into this world and you only wish you could stay a little bit longer.

I give How to Train Your Dragon 2 an A-!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Movie Review: "Edge of Tomorrow"

Tom Cruise dies over and over again in the new sci-fi/action film, Edge of Tomorrow, having to relive the same day each time he dies.  In the film, Earth has been invaded by aliens who can relive days, with Tom Cruise's character accidentally tapping into this power and trying to use it to end the war.  It's a little complicated to wrap your head around at first, but the movie quickly catches you up to speed and before long you're playing by the filmmakers' rules.

I'll go ahead and get to the point, this movie is fun.  If you're looking for explosions, laughs, and some generally likable characters, you can't find another new movie out in theaters this weekend that will sate your appetite the same way this film does.  With all of that said, the film doesn't give you more than a little taste of what could have been.

I haven't read the manga this film is based off of, but from the very first frame of the film, there felt like there was something missing here.  Sure, the story is coherent and engaging enough to warrant seeing, but I kept feeling like there was something special in this premise that still remains buried underneath the surface.  I feel that the film often barrels forward with the narrative at the cost of the characters.

Majority of the film is told from Tom Cruise's perspective, but every now and then we are told he's lived a scenario multiple times without actually seeing him living and learning from that particular scenario.  It's not necessarily a plot hole, it just feels rushed and not as fulfilling as it would be if we saw these moments happen.  It's this rapid fire narrative that makes it hard to invest fully in the relationship between Tom Cruise and his kick butt love interest, played by Emily Blunt.  The moments where Cruise falls for her aren't often represented onscreen and are just inferred as having happened, so we don't quite feel it.

Ultimately, Edge of Tomorrow comes close at times to being something special, but always falls just short.  In many ways, I think had the film taken more time developing the relationships while also basking a little bit more in the wonder of the futuristic technology, and taken more time to build up the suspense before action scenes, the film would have been stronger.  I really don't say this all that often, but I honestly believe that had the movie been maybe thirty minutes longer, and done a few of the aforementioned things, it could have been a science fiction classic, but as it is, Edge of Tomorrow is merely a fun Summer movie.  Even so, Edge of Tomorrow has enough explosions and enjoyable moments to keep you entertained.  Bottom line, if you're wanting to just sit back and go on a roller coaster ride for two hours, this is the right film for you this weekend.

I give Edge of Tomorrow a C+!