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Alien: Covenant (2017)

Was Prometheus really as bad a movie as fans made it out to be? While the 2012 Alien prequel could be rather obtuse, and the characters made some of the stupidest decisions as reportedly intelligent scientists, it had an intriguing central mystery, moody sense of atmosphere, great sets, some viciously memorable sequences like Noomi Rapace’s self-directed surgical operation, and a delightfully supercilious Michael Fassbender bot. By the film’s end there were still plenty of outstanding questions unanswered, and so five years later director Ridley Scott has returned with Alien: Covenant to further confound and entertain. The crew of a colony ship takes a detour to land on a habitable world and trace the mysterious transmission belonging to the android David (Fassbender). As expected, all is not what it seems and the crew is almost immediately put into jeopardy. For fans who wanted more answers from Prometheus, there is a surprising amount of carryover to serve as a resolution for the prior film. There are a few big reveals, particularly about the xenomorph evolution, but the overall Alien storyline is moved just mere inches forward, slightly closer to the events of the 1979 original. The biggest problem with Covenant is that it’s too pedestrian for far too often. It sticks pretty close to the formula we’ll all familiar with, so we know it’s only a matter of time before the xenomorphs hit the fan. There is a dearth of memorable scenes here. The characters in Covenant aren’t that much smarter and make their fair share of stupid decisions (hey, let’s ignore the existence of wheat on an alien world or the possibility of killer microbes being in this breathable air). There’s just more of them to be killed off. The movie doesn’t really bother getting to know a far majority of them, consigned to the fact that they’re only here to be later ripped apart and exploded in gore. Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) does a fine job as a Ripley replacement. Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) has some effective dramatic moments too. But the best reason to watch Covenant, an altogether middling Alien sequel/prequel, is for twice the Fassbender robot action (there’s a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss, which will likely break Tumblr). Alien: Covenant is a missed opportunity of a movie hampered by a disappointingly predictable script, tedious characters, and a lack of strong set pieces. It’s acceptable entertainment but not much more. The moral: don’t be a dick to robots.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Rogue One (2016)

rogueone_onesheetaIn the opening text crawl for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it says, “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” Disney, in its infinite wisdom to cash in on every potential resource of its lucrative cash cow, has decided to devote a whole movie to that one sentence in that initial crawl. I can’t wait for each sentence to get its movie. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (in case you’d forget) is the first film outside of any of the trilogies and much is at stake. Not just for the rebels but for Disney shareholders. If a wild success, expect future tales coming from every undiscovered corner of the Star Wars universe. And if Rogue One is any indication, that’s exactly the kind of artistic freedom needed to blossom.

Not actually in the finished film.

Not actually in the finished film.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has plenty to rebel against. Her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work on a fiendish death machine for the Empire. Jyn’s father is responsible for designing the Death Star. Jyn is broken out of imperial prison by Cassian (Diego Luna) for the Rebellion. They want her to track down her father, find out whatever she can about this new fangled Death Star, and if possible, retrieve the plans on how it might be stopped. Her mission will take her to the ends of the galaxy to reunite with her father and to provide hope to the Rebellion.

Finally after many films we finally get a war movie in a franchise called Star Wars, and it’s pretty much what I wanted: a Star Wars Dirty Dozen mission. It’s thrilling to go back to the height of the resistance against the Evil Empire and see things from a ground perspective with a skeleton crew working behind the scenes. We may know the future events of those Death Star plans but we don’t know what will befall all of these new characters. Who will make it out alive? The open-and-shut nature of this side story in the Star Wars universe brings a bit more satisfaction by telling a complete story. This film will not have to wait for two eventual sequels years down the road in order for an audience to form a comprehensive opinion. I welcome more side stories like Rogue One that expand upon the fringes of the established universe and timelines, that establish colorful new characters and tell their own stories and come to their own endings, and hopefully don’t feature any more Death Stars (more on this below). It seems like it was ages ago that major studio tentpoles just attempted to tell a single, focused story rather than set up an extended universe of other titles to nudge along their respective paths. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) is less slavishly loyal to the mythos of the series than J.J. Abrams. His movie doesn’t feel like flattering imitation but its own artistic entry. The cinematography is often beautiful and the natural landscapes and sets provide so much tangible authenticity to this world. Edwards has a terrific big-screen feel for his shot compositions and achieving different moods with lighting. He knows how to make the big moments feel bigger without sacrificing the requisite popcorn thrills we desire.

star-wars-rogue-one-teaserRogue One has to walk a fine line between fan service and its own needs. While it’s fun to see Darth Vader on screen again voiced by the irreplaceable James Earl Jones, it’s also a bit extraneous other than some admittedly cool fan service. We don’t need to see Vader clear out a hallway of Rebel soldiers but then again why not? It’s the same when it comes to the inclusion of cameos from the original trilogy. Some are minor and some are major, achieved through the uncanny valley of CGI reconstruction. Gene Kelly may have danced with a vacuum cleaner and Sir Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando both appeared as big floating heads after their deaths, but this feels like the next step beyond the grave. There’s a somewhat ghastly feel for watching a dead actor reanimated, so your sense of overall wonder may vary. The cameos are better integrated than the Ghosbusters ones.

There’s a great cinematic pleasure in putting together a team of rogues and rebels. The characters on board this mission have interesting aspects to them. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior and aspiring Jedi. He feels like he stepped out of a great samurai movie. He uses his connection with the Force to make up for his lack of visual awareness, and Chirrut demonstrates these abilities in several memorably fun instances. There’s a world of back-story with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a dotty wheezing warrior who is more machine than man at this point. Whitaker gives an unusual performance that reminded me of a kindlier version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The reprogrammed robot K-250 (vocal and motion-capture performance by Alan Tudyk) is a reliable source of catty comic relief and I looked forward to what he was going to say next. The first 40-minutes is mostly the formation of this group, and it’s after that where the movie starts to get hazy. We know how it’s all got to end but the ensuing action in Act Two feels a bit lost. This may have to due with the reportedly extensive reshoots that were done last summer to spice up the movie (much of the earliest teaser footage isn’t in the finished film). I’d be fascinated to discover what the original story was from Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and just what rewrites Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) performed so late into its life. For much of the second act, the characters feel a bit too subdued for the life-or-death stakes involved, and that translates over to the audience. We travel to different locations throughout the first two acts but I can’t tell you much about them other than some intriguing mountainous architecture. The plot is a bit too undercooked and still obtuse for far too long, requiring our team to bounce around locations to acquire this person or that piece of information. Rarely do the characters get chances to open up.

getIt all comes together in the final act for a 30-minute assault that makes everything matter. It’s a thrilling conclusion and the movie finds a way to keep escalating the stakes, bringing in powerful reinforcements that force our Rogue One crew to alter their plans and placement, while still clearly communicating the needs of each group and the geography as a whole of the multiple points on the battlefield. It’s what you want a climactic battle to be and feel like where each player matters. It’s also a welcome addition to the Star Wars cannon, as we’ve never seen a beach assault before. It feels like a new level that was unlocked in some video game, and that’s no detriment. The ending battle has different checkpoints and mini-goals, which allows for the audience to be involved from the get-go and for the film to jump around locations while still maintaining an effective level of suspense. Many of these characters make something of a last stand, and you feel the extent of their sacrifice. I read in another review that the reason Jyn and her rogues win is because they accept that they are replaceable, and Orson Krennic fails because he made the mistake of believing himself irreplaceable. I think that’s a nice summation about the nobility of sacrifice. I won’t get into specific spoilers but I was very pleased with the ending of the film even though it’s not exactly the happiest. It feels like a fitting ending for the darker, grittier Star Wars tale and it provides earned emotional resonance for the setup of A New Hope, which this movie literally rolls right into.

With as many fun and potentially interesting characters aboard for this suicide mission, it’s somewhat surprising that they are also the film’s weak point. Beyond simple plot machinations like Character A gets Character B here, I can’t tell you much more about these rogue yet noble folks other than their superficial differences. Take for instance the Empire turncoat, pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) What personality does he have? What defines him? What is his arc? What about Cassian? He’s supposed to secretly assassinate Jyn’s father if given the chance, but do we see any struggle over this choice? Does it shape him? Does his outlook define his choice? Can you describe his personality at all whatsoever? What about the villain, Krennic? Can you tell me anything about him beyond his arrogance? What about Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who carries a big gun and is close friends with our blind wannabe Jedi. Can you tell me anything about this guy beyond that? Even our fearless leader, Jyn Eros, feels lacking in significant development. She wants to find her father, get vengeance, but then changes her mind about sacrificing for the greater cause of hope. Many of the character relationships jump ahead without the needed moments to explain the growth and change. The original trilogy was defined by engaging characters. When you have a ragtag crew of six of seven rogues, you better make sure each brings something important to the movie from a narrative perspective, and not just from a pieces-on-the-board positioning for action. Look at Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for tips. If this was going to be a powerful and emotionally involving war movie, the characters needed to be felt deeper. All too often they get lost amidst the Star Wars debris and then they become debris themselves. Ironically enough, Rogue One has the reverse problems of The Force Awakens, a movie that benefited from engaging characters but sapped from an overly familiar and cautious story. It’s telling when my favorite character, by far, is a sassy comic relief robot.

maxresdefaultLet’s talk about the Death Star in the room, namely the fact that over the course of eight Star Wars movies there have been Death Stars, or the construction thereof, in five of them (63% rate of Death Star sighting). We need a break. You can cal it a Star Killer Base whatever in Force Awakens but it’s still a Death Star in everything but name. I can’t even put a number to the amount of money it cost the Empire/First Order to build these things, plus the review process to try and correct design flaws that never seem to get corrected. At this point it feels like this model just isn’t cost-efficient for its killing needs. What about a more mobile set of multiple mini-Death Stars? I hope that the filmmakers for the new trilogy (Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow) refrain from putting another similar planet-killing space station-type weapon into their movies as we’ve had enough. However, the use of the Death Star in Rogue One was perfectly acceptable because it already fit into the timeline of the first film. I also greatly appreciated the clever retcon as to why the Death Star had its fatal flaw. It took a bothersome plot cheat from 1977 and found a gratifying and credible excuse. Now when Luke blows up that sucker it’ll have even more resonance.

Rogue One is a Star Wars adventure that feels like its own thing, and that’s the biggest part of its success. By being a standalone story relatively unencumbered by the canonical needs of hypothetical sequels, the movie opens up smaller stories worth exploring and characters deserving a spotlight. This is an exciting and entertaining war movie, and the kind of film I want to see more of in this multi-cultural universe. It’s not a faultless production as the lackluster character development definitely hampers some audience investment. I wish more could have been done with them before they started being permanently taken off the board. While Rogue One is looking to the past of Star Wars it still makes its own independence known. I hope this is the start of a continuation into exploring more of that galaxy far far away without the required additions of every Skywalker and Solo in existence. It’s a far bigger universe and it needs its close-up.

Nate’s Grade: B

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

fantastic-beasts-where-find-them-movie-posterThe Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.

eddie-redmayne-in-fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them1Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.

This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.

18fantasticbeasts1-master768Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.

I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.

The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.

rs_1024x683-161111052810-1024-fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-111116The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.

Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.

Nate’s Grade: B-

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

cf7kkqeuuaeqame“We all know the third movie is the worst,” says young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) in a curious moment that is too meta for its own good. It’s meant to be an in-joke, and possible a jab at 2006’s heavily derided X-Men: The Last Stand, but it ends up summarizing more than one X-Men movie. Easily the weakest of the prequel series, X-Men: Apocalypse is a muddled super hero movie that marginalizes its interesting characters, lacks a thematic linchpin, pushes a new batch of boring and often superfluous new mutants, and feels like everyone is running through the paces of what they think an X-Men movie should be. It’s not Last Stand, the near franchise-killer that Days of Future Past had to wipe out of existence, but this movie is a dull and clear example of the lousy mediocrity of compounded missed chances suffered at the expense of loyalty to formula.

In 1983, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for gifted youngsters, a.k.a. mutants, and has a new class of students including Jean Grey, Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Kurt Smit-McPhee). Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is trying to live a simple life and exclude himself from a larger fight between humans and mutants. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is crossing the globe and discovering new mutants to rescue. Everything changes when an ancient mutant is awakened in Egypt. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is thousands of years old and is rumored to be the first mutant. He collects four mutant helpers he deems his Horsemen, and in 1983 it happens to be a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Magneto. Apocalypse promises a world built for only the strongest mutants and will wipe the planet with those found lesser.

X-Men-Apocalypse-Storm-Comic-OriginLet’s start with the empty void that is the titular super villain; Apocalypse is a complete waste and a complete bore. Oscar Isaac is a terrific and soulful actor who can be so malleable to roles as diverse as misanthropic Llewyn Davis to dreamy X-wing pilot Poe Damaron. He is buried under pounds of purple makeup that limit his expression, coupled with a heavy costume that also limits his movement. Apocalypse should have probably been a motion capture performance. Andy Serkis has proven that mo-cap performances can exhibit tremendous emotive qualities and the technology can support it. Mo-cap would have been better than staring at Ivan Ooze lumbering around. Then there’s his haphazard characterization. Apocalypse is both too all-powerful and shackled with powers that are too vaguely ill defined. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that needs an entourage for support despite the whole snazzy “Four Horsemen” backing band name. Apocalypse should be the solo act; he doesn’t need a backup band. You could have written Storm and Psylocke out entirely and had no impact on the plot whatsoever. My pal Eric Muller even jokes that Psylocke literally walks off the movie. Allow me to indulge my X-Men fandom a moment and just say how Apocalypse is my favorite X-Men villain and Psylocke was one of my favorite X-Men way back when I was reading the comics consistently in the 90s. I loved the psychic blade of Psylocke, though in this movie it’s pretty much just a laser arm sword, which is a underwhelming. Seeing both of these characters completely wasted is particularly disappointing to 90s me.

But back to Apocalypse, he seems too powerful to need to seek out a select group of super lieutenants and part of this is also because of how poorly the movie explains the specifics or limitations of his powers. He absorbs the powers of his host mutants but what are those powers exactly? The movie never specifies beyond the weird shifting-humans-into-walls thing that looks a bit too silly to be truly terrifying. Every time he displays a new fancy power we just have to accept it, but if he keeps unleashing powers we never know about then why does he even need assistance? We already see Apocalypse turning the world into dust clouds, so why does he need Magneto to, I believe, rip the metal core out of the Earth? It’s not like he has a meaningful relationship with Magneto, the only Horseman who truly matters. Apocalypse should be the mutant equivalent of a god, and credit to my pal Ben Bailey on this assertion, and the world of mutants should be forced to make a choice to follow this god who genuinely wants a new world consisting only of his “children.” Instead he’s just a bloviating and boring demagogue that makes a terrible lead villain. For a guy who might be the “first mutant” and inspire the Bible, it sure seems like squandered potential.

hqyqxvfnbce8jfpwptqnThe trio of the core characters of the prequels (Professor X, Magneto, Mystique) is largely sidelined and you can certainly tell that the actors are eyeing the exit door, no more than Lawrence. These are the characters we’ve gotten to know and the ones we’ve built up an emotional attachment to, so why not just push them to the outer edges of your story and shove some new even younger X kids in place to dominate the narrative? Lawrence and Fassbender especially are given the least to do. When Mystique has to become a de facto X-Men leader and teacher, you can feel like everyone is just going through the motions. They just look bored or at least unable to hide their ambivalence with the muddled screenplay. The new X kids are also fairly bland with little charisma. I think there’s an actual scene where Nightcrawler is walking around a mall in plain sight. The X kids are here to take over for the Magneto/Xavier/Mystique unit and provide a bridge to the original X-Men series. It is here where I must now gripe because First Class was set in 1961 and Apocalypse is set in 1983 and nobody looks like they’ve aged. Maybe that’s a mutant ability plot device but then Rose Byrne’s human character hasn’t aged much either. Her character is also completely pointless in this movie. She might not be as badly shoehorned into the action as Lois Lane was in Batman vs. Superman, but then again there still isn’t anything as terrible as anything in BvS.

The X-Men franchise from the beginning has been a super hero saga with subtext and social commentary. It might not be completely subtle but it was effective and brings greater relevance and emotional power to the struggles of our mutant heroes. The first prequel was about a core philosophical divide between Xavier and Magneto; the second movie was about the individual versus society and was personally exemplified by the moral crisis of Mystique’s hunt for vengeance that would lead to the downfall of humanity. This third movie has none of that. Magneto is suffering from a personal tragedy caused by prejudice and fear but the basic theme is the same from First Class just not nearly as well articulated. Here it’s more just blunt “kill ‘em all” vengeance, and he’s made to be a practically mute cipher until called upon at the very end for some tidy plot work. I haven’t even talked about the tacky return to a concentration camp. The characters are either fighting the bad guy or fighting with the bad guy. That’s it. There isn’t any major personal or philosophical conflict that is highlighted by the subtext of the plot. It’s all just more grist for world-ending CGI nonsense.

Apocalypse at best is a series of moments, and the overall quality level rarely rises beyond competently acceptable, not exactly a ringing endorsement. The movie’s action sequences are rather dull and visually repetitive, making poor use of geography and development. The entire third act is a blandly extended action sequence in the dusty ruins of Cairo. Things just sort of happen and then more things just sort of happen. The opening action sequence in Days of Future Past is better than 99% of the scenes in this movie. The clear highlight that everyone will rightly cite is Quicksilver (Evan Peters) showcasing the amazing potential of his super speedy powers, but even this is a repeat of a highlight from a previous movie. It’s like the producers decided to take the moment everybody loved and do it bigger and better. It was a real fun surprise in the first time, and now it’s become the newest part of the X-Men formula. Still, it’s a fantastic sequence with great visual panache and a lively sense of humor. When the world slows down and Quicksilver steps into the frame, it’s almost like a hero moment for the audience to cheer. He saves a school of mutants, and a dog, from a colossal explosion, but it too is just another moment that could have been cut from the movie entirely. It’s a fantastic moment, the obvious highpoint, and yet it’s still superfluous. The other highpoint is an extended cameo at Alkali Lake, and again it is superfluous and calls into question greater franchise continuity.

xmen0001Speaking of continuity, there are some major events in Days of Future Past but especially Apocalypse that make me question how the events in the 2000s X-Men still stand. According to the events of the prequels, Mystique “outed” herself to the world and proved the existence of mutants to the wider public when she tried killing Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) and infiltrated the Nixon White House. Cut to 1983 and Apocalypse broadcasts a message to every human and mutant on the planet. He launches the world’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons into space. That seems like a big deal, the kind of deal that would dramatically alter the events in the 2000s to the point that a mutant registration act would seem hilariously quaint and far too late. The character relationships in the first X-Men movie must also be reassessed with the events of Alkali Lake. It’s hard for me to reconcile the earlier films matching up with these prequels at this point.

The studio execs and producers behind the X-Men series have already gone on record speculating that their next movie will take place in the 1990s and have Mr. Sinister as its chief villain. I think they’re getting a little too ahead of themselves with the larger franchise vision much like what happened to Sony after their 2012 Amazing Spider-Man reboot. They started plotting two sequels, a spin-off, and lost sight of simply making a good movie with characters you care about and memorable action sequences. They lost track and had to reboot their Spider-Man franchise yet again, this time with an assist from the Marvel bigwigs. I don’t need an X-Men-a-decade adventure. I just want good movies. Out of six movies, half of them are great and the rest are acceptable to terrible. Apocalypse won’t kill its franchise but I think the negative and indifferent response from the public, as well as less-than-robust box-office returns, will give the studio caution. Don’t just throw out an X-Men movie in order to lay the tracks for the next two X-Men movies. Make a compelling and entertaining X-Men film that stands on its own. If you can’t do that, then there won’t be too many more X adventures, period.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

the-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-poster1With all respects to Ice Cube’s would-be family series, the subtitle of the third Hobbit film could have been “Are We Done Yet?” Originally planned as two films, the prequel series based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel was expanded to three, and it’s clear what motivated this decision. Each Hobbit film has made at least $900 million dollars, but goodness has it padded an already bloated series beyond repair. The best part of the second film, which looking back is the best in the new trilogy, Smaug the dragon, is gone in the first ten minutes. What follows is a pointless and tedious series of events, mostly CGI armies crashing into other CGI armies. It’s hard to find much to care about after six plus hours especially when it amounts to squabbles over treasure. It’s also bothersome that the antagonist for a solid hour is Thorin who adopts… gold madness suddenly, and then loses it just as suddenly and as contrived. You can feel the weight of all this filler trying to stretch what amounts to a protracted resolution into a full-blown movie. The battles are relentlessly soulless and have lost any weight to reality. There’s one standout action sequence involving a crumbling tower acting as a makeshift bridge. Beyond that, get ready for overlong battles involving lots of fake soldiers and monsters. With no larger goal in motion, you’re just waiting for the bad guys to die so we can go home. While Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest film in the series, it’s still about 120 minutes longer than it needs to be. The business of the Hobbit has affected the artistry of The Hobbit, and only Tolkien apologists would lap up the extra time in Middle Earth.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Annabelle (2014)

MV5BMjM2MTYyMzk1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg2MjMyMjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_The Conjuring was one of the breakout hits of 2013, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood fast-tracked a spin-off to take advantage of Conjurin’ fever. Enter John R. Leonetti, the accomplished cinematographer on The Conjuring and director of bad sequels like Butterfly Effect 2 and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Now in the spotlight, little Annabelle is proving to be a star of her own as far as box-office grosses are concerned. It’s too bad her new movie is about as lifeless as she is.

In the late 1960s, Mia (Annabelle Wallis) is pregnant with her first child when murderous cultists terrorize her home. They are dispatched but not before one young woman slices her own throat holding one of Mia’s expensive porcelain dolls, the Annabelle one. Her husband (Ward Horton, who looks like a living Ken doll) is afraid to leave her alone and reaches out to the church to help his wife. Strange things are going on in their home, mostly concerning the infamous Annabelle doll.

ANNABELLEThe impact of Annabelle will depend directly upon your good will concerning The Conjuring and what your law of diminishing returns is with a creepy doll. To be abundantly clear, the Annabelle doll is one creepy looking thing. But how much can an audience take of a creepy looking doll that doesn’t have any articulation or expression? The character, and it feels like a stretch to label the doll as such, worked effectively as a prologue to The Conjuring due to the relative brief appearance. The doll was creepy enough for ten minutes and then the audience moved on. Now in a starring vehicle all to herself, Annabelle risks overexposure and the realization of just how limited this little demonic figure might be. A killer doll that comes to life is a genuinely unsettling proposition, one richly explored in a classic Twilight Zone episode that’s still spooky to this day. However, Annabelle doesn’t really do anything, and I suppose that’s the point. The doll is a conduit for the larger, invisible demonic force at play. We already know that it’s not the doll or a ghost but a demon posing as such. Ultimately, the doll isn’t anything more than a device to go back to again and again, a horror staple in place of true unnerving tension and dread. Hey, it’s hard to carefully manufacture and ratchet suspense, so why not just keep going back to a creepy looking doll instead?

With a lackluster antagonist, it’s no surprise then that Annabelle has to rely on all the hoary tropes of horror just to fill out its running time. The plot by writer Gary Dauberman plays out like the filmmakers watched Rosemary’s Baby, a documentary special on Sharon Tate, and said, “That’s it, we got out movie.” The Manson family-like cult is a plot element cast aside too quickly. They bring the demon to the doll, but the followers of this demonic presence never terrorize the couple again. It seems like one of many missed opportunities. Instead we get a slow series of events of the doll/demon messing around with Mia. There’s the kindly older priest that’s called into service, who does nothing. There’s a helpful neighbor mourning the loss of her own child who ends up an insulting plot device (more on this later with spoilers). And oh are there characters behaving stupidly, chief among them our heroine. She’s rather slow to realize the danger she is in and often leaves her baby alone to investigate said supernatural shenanigans. You know, the baby that is the object of desire for this demonic force. Rather than be proactive and have any sense of agency, Mia is that older type of horror heroine who runs around screaming and cowering in corners. It gets tired. There’s one scene where she’s trying to escape via an elevator that keeps opening on the same haunted floor. She literally hits the elevator button four times each time expecting something different, and the camera angle remains the same, leading to titters from my audience.

annabelle-1While The Conjuring certainly wasn’t a brave new direction in the realm of cinematic horror, it was skillfully executed and masterfully setup its scares. Annabelle does have a few decent boo moments, many of which were showcased in the trailer, but it cannot overcome the burden of all its clichés and wooden characters. Audiences are used to characters making poor decisions in horror films, but you still should have some level of believability or internal logic to their decision-making that doesn’t make your brain hurt. Sadly, Annabelle cannot rise above the limitations of its titular “monster” and so it has to rely upon an assemblage of familiar horror tropes to make due.

This paragraph is going into spoilers concerning the ending so I’d advise any reader wishing to remain pure to skip to the next paragraph. The great actress Alfre Woodard plays that grieving neighbor lady, the one who is joyously buying Mia baby clothes for her little one. During a climactic confrontation, Mia demands to know what the demon entity wants. It communicates via crayon scrawls on the ceiling: “Her soul.” One of the film’s creepier moments. Then the baby disappears and she wants to know what it will take to save her child. Mia looks to a window and written on it is, “Your soul,” just as it gently pushes itself open. Again, a creepy moment. I was starting to get the impression the film was picking up momentum. She’s about to sacrifice herself when she’s pulled back inside. This is where the film goes from bad to insultingly bad. I kept repeating under my breath, “Don’t do it, don’t do it,” and wouldn’t you know, they did it. Woodard realizes her purpose: she must sacrifice herself so this nice white couple will be safe. She dives out the window and evil is vanquished… sort of. It’s a stupid character arc made all the more unpleasant by the racial casting choices. I’d rather Woodard just save herself.

This small prequel has proven to be a smash at the box-office, so where does Annabelle go from here? Another prequel seems unlikely considering the events of this movie cover the birth of the demonic doll and lead directly to the prologue of The Conjuring, where this spunky little doll met her match with the married paranormal investigators played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. The real Annabelle is encased in a glass prison. The only direction seems to be forward, with Annabelle breaking free of her prison and having a night on the town. Maybe she can locate Chucky and that Twilight Zone doll. I just hope future adventures with Annabelle, and its box-office grosses almost assure there will be, veer away from the overload of uninspired genre clichés. There’s not enough effort on display to warrant this solo side project for a creepy doll that mostly just remains creepy. Annabelle the film could have used less of Annabelle the doll. Then again an unblinking and silent doll was still the most interesting character on screen.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn_of_apes_teaser_posterAnyone else think the titles of these Apes prequels should be retroactively switched? Coming off the heels of the surprisingly excellent flick Rise of the Planet of the Apes, those damn dirty apes are back with another summer blockbuster that’s just as mature, engrossing, emotionally resonant, and visually remarkable. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after the events of the previous entry, with mankind devastated by the “Simian Flu,” the same bug that has kick-started the evolution of the primates. Caesar (Andy Serkis in motion capture) is leading a fairly conservative life; he has a home, a family, a wife, and a community he’s trying to build. Then a group of humans wander into their territory needing access to the remains of a dam for a power supply. The apes do not trust the humans, but Caesar accepts their terms, looking to avoid war. However, fear, resentment, and hate fester on both sides, and it’s not long before it’s apes vs. humans and you witness one of the greatest things your eyeballs will ever see – an ape firing two machine guns while riding a horse. Plot-wise, this film is more a bridge to a larger conflict between the two factions. The human characters (including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman) are given short shrift. And that’s fine because the movie belongs to the apes; they are the stars rightfully. Half of this movie is in subtitles for ape sign language. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) dwells in the moments other blockbusters don’t have time for. He lingers in the shadows, with silences, and we slowly integrate into the world of the apes and their own power dynamics. The all-out action of the third act doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the thoughtful movie that has played out until that point. The visual effects are again top-notch and the motion capture tech captures a stunning range of human emotions that you can witness play out across the CGI creations. Toby Kebbell (Wrath of the Titans) portrays Koba, the more hawkish member of the ape tribe, and he is just as good as Serkis, which is saying a lot. I’d still call Rise a better overall film, but Dawn is a more than worthy follow-up that reminds audiences what great storytelling can achieve with the right people behind the scenes.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

1942Usually when I’m watching a bad movie I have to stop and think where did things go so wrong, where did the wheels fall off, what choice lead to the disaster I am watching play out onscreen. In the case of Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, a Wizard of Oz prequel that pretty much hovers over the cusp of bad for its entire 130 minutes, I have to stop and think, “How could this movie ever have gone right?” I don’t think it could have, at least not with this script, this cast, and the edict from the Mouse House to keep things safe and homogenized, smothered in CGI gumbo and scrubbed clean of any real sense of venerable movie magic.

In 1905 Kansas, the magician Oz (James Franco) is used to bilking country folk out of their meager earnings. He’s a con man and runs afoul with a strong man in his own traveling circus. He makes a hasty escape in a hot air balloon and, thanks to a coincidental tornado, is whisked away to the Land of Oz. The people have long been told that a wizard would come and rescue them from the tyranny of the wicked witch. Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), sisters controlling the Emerald City, task Oz with killing the other witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams). If he succeeds, Oz will become king and riches will be his. Along his journey he collects a band of cuddly sidekicks (flying monkey, China doll, munchkin) and learns that he may indeed be the hero that Oz needs to save the day.

95873_galOz the Great and Powerful is really just 2010’s Alice in Wonderland slapped together with a fresh coat of paint and some extra dwarves. I say this because, like Alice, this movie suffers from a plot that feebly sticks to the most generic of all fantasy storylines – the Great prophecy speaks about a Great savior who will save us from the Great evil. Naturally, the so-called chosen one has internal doubts about the burden they face, initially ducking out before finding that inner strength they had all long to prove they were indeed the one prophesized. It even got to the point where I was noticing some of the same plot beats between the two movies, like how last in the second act we spend time with a woman dressed all in white who we’ve been told is the villain but who is really the good guy. Then there’s the now-routine rounding up of magical creatures to combat the evil hordes in a big battle. Considering Alice was billion-dollar hit for Disney, it’s no surprise they would try and apply its formula to another magical universe hoping for the same results. Well I thought Alice was weak but Oz is even weaker. However, at least nobody absurdly starts breakdancing by the end. Small victories, people.

Beyond the formula that dictates the plot, the characters are poorly developed and broach some off-putting gender stereotypes. The character of Oz is portrayed as a scoundrel who eventually learns to be selfless, but I never really bought the major turning points for his character arc. Do all major characters need to be flawed men in need of redemption in magical worlds? I understand what they were doing with his character but I don’t think it ever worked, and certainly Franco’s performance is at fault as well (more on that later). The ladies of Oz, however, just about constitute every female stereotype we can expect in traditional movies. One of them is conniving but given no reason for why this is. One of them is pure and motherly. And then one of them gets lovesick so easily, falling head over heels for a boy in a matter of hours that she’s willing to throw her life away in spite. And all of these witches, who can actually perform magic unlike the charlatan Oz, sure seem like they don’t need a man to run the kingdom for them and tell them what to do. It’s sad that a conflict that involves feudal power grabs should devolve into a misconstrued love triangle. Then there’s the role of the little China Girl (voiced by Joey King) who adds absolutely nothing to the story except as another female in need of assistance and doting, except when she inexplicably behaves like a surly teenager in a tone-breaking head-turning moment. Oz keeps resting the very breakable doll on his shoulder, like a parrot. I suppose it’s better than tucking her in his pants.

The movie is also tonally all over the place. It wants to be scary but not too scary. Personally, I always found the talking trees to be spookier than the flying monkeys but that’s my own cross to bear. It wants to be funny but often stoops to lame slapstick and Zach Braff (Garden State) as a goofy flying monkey sidekick. It wants to be exciting but it never takes a step beyond initial menace. Its big climactic battle is more like a children’s version of something you’d see in the Lord of the Rings. The movie fails to satisfyingly congeal and so every set piece feels like it could be from a different movie.

95875_galSome notable casting misfires also serve to doom the project. I like Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as an actor, I do, but he is grossly miscast here. He does not have the innate charm to pull off a huckster like Oz. Franco usually has an off kilter vibe to him, one that’s even present in this film, that gives him a certain mysterious draw, but he does not work as an overblown man of theatricality. Combined with lackluster character, it makes for one very bland performance that everyone keeps marveling over. It’s like all the supporting characters, in their fawning praise, are meant to subconsciously convince you that Franco is actually succeeding. Kunis (Friends with Benefits) is also a victim of bad casting. She can do the innocent ingénue stuff but when she (spoiler alert) turns mean and green it just does not work. When she goes bad she looks like Shrek’s daughter and she sounds like a pissy version of her character from Family Guy, which is ineffectual to begin with. Kunis cannot believably portray maniacal evil; sultry evil, a corrupting influence like in Black Swan, most definitely, but not this. There are lines where she screeches at the top of her lungs and it just made me snicker (“CUUUUUURSE YOOOOOOU!”).

I had faith that a director as imaginative as Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Drag Me to Hell) would be a stolid shepherd for a fantasy-rich project such as Oz. I never got any sense of Raimi in this movie. It felt like he too was smothered completely by the overabundance of special effects. It’s a common complaint that modern movies are buried under an avalanche of soulless computer effects, but usually I find this bromide to be overstated. Having seen Oz, I can think of no more accurate description than “soulless computer effects overload.” At no point in the movie does any special effect come close to feeling real. At no point do you feel immersed in this world, awed by its unique landscapes and inhabitants (it feels often more like the land of Dr. Seuss than Oz). I chose to see the film in good ole standard 2D, though the 3D eye-popping elements are always quite noticeable. At no point do you feel any sense of magic, the most damming charge of all considering the legacy of Oz. The original Wizard of Oz holds a special place in many a heart. We recall feeling that sense of wonder and magic when we watched it as a child, the idea that movies could be limitless and transporting. While watching Raimi’s trip to Oz, I only felt an overwhelming sense of apathy that grew disquieting.

Then there’s the matter of the questionable messages that the movie posits. It celebrates the power of belief, which is admirable, but it’s belief in a lie. Oz is a fake, yet the movie wants to say that faith in false idols is something worth celebrating. Oz and his cohorts put together a deception to fool the denizens of the world into a false sense of security. Everyone believes in the Wizard of Oz so he has power but it’s all a sham. We’re supposed to feel good that these people have been fooled. Didn’t The Dark Knight Rises basically showcase what ultimately happens when a society’s safety is based around a lie and false idols? I understand that as a prequel one of its duties is to set up things for when Dorothy comes knocking, but do I have to be force-fed disingenuous moral messages?

Oz the Great and Powerful is a wannabe franchise-starter that feels like it never really gets started. There’s a generic hero’s journey, some underwritten characters, mixed messages, and poor casting choices, namely Franco and Kunis. The sense of movie magic is absent and replaced with special attention to marketing opportunities and merchandizing (get your own China Girl, kids). It feels more like the movie is following a pre-planned checklist of stops, cribbing from Alice in Wonderland playbook, and trying to exploit any nostalgia we have for this world and its characters. Except we love Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the cowardly Lion, and Toto. I don’t think anyone really had any strong affection for Glinda or the Wizard. Just because we’re in the same land with familiar elements doesn’t mean our interest has been satiated. The Wizard of Oz backstory has already been done and quite well by the Broadway show Wicked, based upon the novels by Gregory Maguire. That show succeeded because it focused on the characters and their relationships (extra points for a complicated and positive female friendship dynamic). We cared. That’s the biggest fault in Raimi’s Oz, that amidst all the swirling special effects and fanciful imagination, you watch it without ever truly engaging with it. You may start to wonder if your childlike sense of wonder is dead. It’s not; it’s just that you’re old enough to see a bad movie for what it is.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

1898I would argue that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic has left the biggest impact on the world of popular culture over the past decade. It’s hard to remember a time when the multi-billion dollar trilogy, and winner of just about every Oscar dreamt up, was seen as a risky proposition. Would there be an audience for this kind of movie, let alone three of them? Well, ten years later, and mountains of money still being counted, this question has been put to rest. And so the discussion naturally veered to that other J.R.R. Tolkien book, the first one, The Hobbit. The production of it was held up for years with legal battles over who owned the rights and then with MGM’s bankruptcy. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie at this point. They knew the fortunes that would come. Jackson returned to direct The Hobbit, which was designed to be two movies but then late into filming was transformed into a trilogy. Now we have three Hobbit films because, quite simply, three movies equal more money. Everyone’s doing the whole elongated film franchise now, from Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games. Why give up the cash cow so easily? The first chapter, An Unexpected Journey, arrives this year, and you’ll probably relive whatever feelings were felt for Lord of the Rings. I know I did.

Sixty years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a fastidious hobbit keeping to himself. Then one day the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) visits and brings with him a dozen dwarf guests. The dwarves, lead by Thorin Oakensheild (Richard Armitage), are looking to reclaim their ancestral home, the Misty Mountain. The greedy dragon Smaug overtook the mountain many years ago (did you know dragons apparently lust for treasure like pirates?). The group needs a burglar, and hobbits are small and make minimal sound, making Bilbo an ideal candidate. Naturally Bilbo refuses the notion of a dangerous adventure, but then he changes his mind (what? It’s not going to be 8 more hours of Bilbo doing housework). Bilbo and the dwarves encounter elves, orcs, trolls, wizards, and all sorts of creatures as they make their way across Middle Earth to the Misty Mountain.

94784_galI was more excited for the Hobbit films when they were initially going to be directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). I thought that master of creepy crawlies would come up with something decidedly different, but alas it was not meant to be. Jackson hopped back in the director’s chair and provides a nice sense of continuity between the film franchises. The man knows this world like the back of his hand. He still has his great sense of visual grandeur, and often the movie is gorgeous to behold. The locations give the realm of Middle Earth such a better tangible feel than had he gone the George Lucas route and spent all his time with green screens. Even the more heavily-effects-laden sequences, like the underground orc lair, are rich, dense, terrific film locations you want to get lost in, absorbing every detail. From a technical standpoint, the film is never less than beautiful. Jackson also maintains a superior handling of action, knowing how to extend a set piece and build tension. The villains in The Hobbit might not be as meaty or memorable as they are in Lord of the Rings (a testy, one-handed albino orc feels like a lackluster heavy) but they provide enough credible danger. If you loved the Lord of the Rings films, and their fans are legion, then you’ll likely enjoy the first part of the prequel trilogy. If I had to rate the first chapter of The Hobbit, I’d say it’s closer to 2002’s Two Towers in overall quality, the film I liked the least in the Rings trilogy.

Now that we know there’s a healthy audience for these movies, I worry that Jackson has lost his sense of objectivity. There is no reason this movie needed to be as long as it is. There’s certainly no reason that a 300-page book, primarily aimed at children, needs to be padded out into three movies, each promising to be close to three hours in length (9 hours out of 300 pages = 1.8 pages per minute). Instead of the Jackson who nipped and tucked Tolkien’s gargantuan tomes, removing Tom Bombadill, now we have a Jackson who adds lengthy appearances of characters only briefly mentioned before in the book (kooky naturist wizard Radagast). There are also cameos from the Lord of the Rings cast to provide some further connective tissue. Now we have Bilbo and his gang visiting just about every single gnarly creature in Middle Earth, or so it seems. Now we have a quest that doesn’t even begin until close to an hour into the film. And that quest seems a lot less urgent; rather than, you know, saving the world, our characters are out to… reclaim a mountain for the dwarves. The drop in urgency makes the tale and its detours feel like dawdling. The concluding hour is fairly well paced, especially once Gollum shows his ugly mug, but the movie feels like it has precious little forward momentum. I don’t have high hopes for the future films. Fans of Tolkien’s works will likely just be thrilled to see every facet of their favorite story brought to startling life, so they won’t care about lag. At the conclusion of this movie, as our characters are dropped off by giant eagles, they look in the distance and see the Misty Mountain, their hope renewed. However I was yelling, “Get those eagles back! Why do you have to walk the whole way there?” Looks like even more long movies of walking lie ahead (cue Clerks II Rings vs. Star Wars clip).

94790_galThis is also a far different film than the Lord of the Rings epics when it comes to tone. It’s far more childish and filled with comedy, also aimed at children. I don’t mean the term “childish” to see like a negative broadside, though that’s the connotation. The world of Middle Earth isn’t ensnared in the perils of Sauron just yet, so even though we got trolls and dragons and the like, the temperament is chippier. There are a lot more comic escapades here and it’s easier to accept when, you know, the world isn’t being threatened with an eternally evil malevolence. There’s a lot of bumbling and physical comedy at play, especially when the dwarves take over poor Bilbo’s home. Later on, there’s an orc king who has what is unmistakably a pair of testicles hanging below his chin. I mean you cannot possibly look at the image and interpret it as anything differently. You probably would never see something like that, for better or worse, in the Lord of the Rings films.

The biggest news for me with The Hobbit was Jackson filming at 48 frames per second (fps). It’s twice the rate of how we’ve perceived movies since the 1920s. It is a brave leap forward in technology. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to have the opportunity to view The Hobbit in this exciting new format. Having come through the 48 fps experience, I’ll say that it has its pros and cons. On the negative side, it certainly breaks with the standard filmic look we’re so accustomed to, that dream-like state that’s removed from reality. Often the picture looks like it was recorded on video, giving the movie a stagy BBC feel to it. For some, this change will seem cheap or less grand. The biggest piece to get used to is that at 48 frames, everyone’s movements seem overly exaggerated. Everyone moves like they’ve had eight cups of coffee. It’s these hyper movements that make me think of that horrible TV feature on some HD TVs that plays down judder by amplifying movement, so everything looks like a video game cut scene. Your eyes may feel a bit more strained, as mine did after the three hours, trying to capture all the jostling movement. The 48 fps also has a tendency to blur quick motion, making it harder to pay attention to the particulars of action sequences.

Now, with that being said, I personally feel that the benefits far outweigh the detractions. The level of detail and clarity is outstanding. I felt immersed in this world. And with the 48 fps, it’s also the greatest theatrical 3D experience I’ve ever had. You feel like you’re literally inside the movie. When things fly at the screen you may just duck your head on instinct. The movie worked best when it could explore the different physical realms of Middle Earth. The underground orc world was magnificent to explore. There were several moments that made me gasp, taking my breath away at the level of detail. It takes a while to get used to and for your eyes to adjust, but I think the awkwardness dissipates and you’re left to gawk in awe with the effects and presentation. I doubt we’ll be seeing too many other films presented in this manner. Firstly, I think half the public is going to hate it. 48 fps really only works for films that necessitate a big canvas. You need a world that you want to be a part of, something to dazzle the senses, which means it will probably be best utilized with sci-fi and fantasy films. Hitchcock at 48 fps would certainly not be worth the extra frames.

95741_galFreeman (BBC’s brilliant Sherlock, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is a perfectly enjoyable lead. Bilbo is much more of that classic British nattering type, more comedic in nature than the sad burden of Frodo, and Freeman is naturally a skilled comedic actor. He doesn’t overdo any sort of hobbity nebbishness either, and when it comes to the dramatic parts he can sell those just as well. McKellen (X-Men) is as wonderful as ever as the wise yet playful wizard. The real breakout star of the movie is Armitage (BBC’s Robin Hood) as Thorin Oakensheild. The man has such gravitas to him, a commanding screen presence, and it helps when he has a completely badass slow-mo strut that burns into your memory how awesome the actor and character are (fun observation: at 48 fps, slow motion looks almost like “normal” movie speed). I anticipate Armitage to give the squealing fans of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) a new heartthrob to declare their loyalty.

Jackson’s return to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is pretty much more of the same, though with a less urgent plot, a broader scope of comedy, and some extra technical wizardry. Watching it will pretty much rekindle whatever feelings you had for the duration of the Lord of the Rings pictures. If you know this stuff verbatim, you’ll happily take every second of detail. If you’re like me and enjoyed the films but didn’t tattoo them in your memory, then you’ll likely have a pleasant if occasionally tedious experience with The Hobbit. I’m fairly certain that Jackson could have judiciously sliced a solid 20-30 minutes out of this unexpected journey; maybe they have fewer journeys with every magical being this side of Middle Earth. Still, the film is grand and sprawling and spectacular to witness. If you were interested in the 48 fps presentation, I’d recommend it but know what you’re going in for. It will be a very different experience and one that you’ll need some adjustment time to properly attune to. Unless you’re a techie, I’d advise watching the movie in a standard 24 frame presentation and then seeking out the high frame rate for a second helping, already knowing what to expect from the plot. I plan on seeing the next two Hobbit films in the 48 fps presentation. Hopefully by that time, come December 2013, my eyes will have recovered.

Nate’s Grade: B

Prometheus (2012)

Ridley Scott has always wanted to go back to the Alien franchise that began with his 1979 sci-fi staple. There have been a lot of coy discussions over whether his big-budget sci-fi spectacle Prometheus is indeed an Alien prequel or not. Scott keeps hinting it has the DNA of the franchise but exists on its own. This movie has some Big Questions on its mind, like where did we come from, but the biggest question out there is whether it really is an Alien prequel or not. Well rest assured, that question will be sufficiently answered. Now if you have more than that, you will be left empty-handed with this gorgeous but ultimately confounding sci-fi thriller.

In 2089, a team of archeologists, lead by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), discover an ancient star map from 30,000 years in mankind’s past. This is not the only ancient illustration displaying the same constellation. Sure enough, in every ancient civilization across the globe, the same star pattern. Shaw believes it is an invitation and th key to finding the “engineers” who may be responsible for life on Earth. Four years later, the wealthy Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) has funded a trip to that exact point in space, which harbors a moon that seems extraordinarily like Earth and capable of sustaining life. The ship is run by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). who keeps asserting her company’s authority on this mission. Along for the ride is a cocksure pilot (Idris Elba), an android named David (Michael Fassbender), and Shaw’s own lover, a scientist in his own right, Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green). When the gang gets to that moon, they uncover large buried structure with some nasty surprises inside. Suffice to say, they should have stayed home.

You can always count on Scott to deliver a visually extravagant picture, and Prometheus is packed with stunning, arresting visuals that fill up the big screen with lovely detail. The scale of some of these sets is massive, and your eyes just want to soak up every detail. The alien world is vast and eerie and you just want the characters to spend the rest of their lives exploring it (Scott shot in Iceland but it looks remarkably like a whole different world). The interior sets on the space ship are also sleek and cool. There’s a terrific sense of immersion in the movie. Scott has always done a great job at building worlds that feel completely lived-in, and Prometheus is another example of his talents. The special effects are astonishing but best when not dealing with the biological life forms. The giant spaceship is incredible; its inhabitants? Not so much. Apparently our DNA grandfathers looked like giant Michelin men (thankfully we take more after our mother’s side). Prometheus demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

Prometheus harkens back to the original Alien in its suspenseful “haunted house in space” setup. The movie has some terrifically taut moments and a great overwhelming sense of dread. The scientists let curiosity get the better of them, so they poke their heads in dark corners, touch unknown alien material, and get up close and personal with things better left unmolested. If slasher movies elicit a “Don’t go in there” audience response, then Prometheus certainly elicits a “Why are you touching that?” reaction. And yet, deep down, we want them to keep pushing further because like the best suspense films, we can’t stand the tension but we really want it to keep going. Probably the most memorable scene of them all involves Shaw performing her own hurried abdominal surgery to remove an alien from inside her. It’s creepy and caused me to wince repeatedly, but man is it fun and gruesome and a nice payoff to an earlier setup. The rest of the movie is pretty standard with its thrills, including the canon fodder supporting characters getting picked off unceremoniously, and the large-scale devastation climax. The movie delivers the goods when it comes to entertainment and suspense, though mostly in the first half. It’s almost like the movie is awed by the visuals as well, and then halfway in remembers, “Oh yeah, we got to do more than just poke at things,” and then it’s a rush to the end with a cascade of conflicts that don’t seem properly developed.

The film lays out a very essential question about the origins of mankind and plays around with theological concepts but it only plays in the shallow end of the philosophical pool. The screenplay by Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) and Damon Lindelof (co-creator of TV’s Lost) deals with the conflicting origin stories via religion and observable science but never goes into specifics. “Religion” is always symbolized as a cross necklace that Shaw wears and her falling back point upon what she “chooses to believe.” The discovery that our alien forefathers have a similar appearance would be a huge revelation, except the movie spoils it with a clumsy prologue that shows us right off the bat what the “engineers” look like. Prometheus actually posits an Intelligent Design argument for human existence, albeit one the Raelians have been promoting for years, the idea that intelligent life outside our galaxy seeded Earth. Yet the one scientists on the crew, the one who objects to 300 years of evolutionary evidence, remains mum on the matter. I suppose the filmmakers didn’t want their monsters-in-space movie to be bogged down with that much pithy philosophy, but I would have appreciated some meatier conversations other than, “Should we touch this?” It’s not nearly as thought provoking or as compelling as it thinks it is.

As I sit here and I write this, the plot becomes a wispy memory of strong set pieces and eerie mood, but I cannot connect the story. It makes little sense and by the end of its 124 minutes we’re left with hardly any more answers than we started with (some spoilers to follow). Our genetic “engineers,” as they call them, remain pretty nebulous. I suppose one could argue that it would be impossible to fully understand an alien race’s habits and purposes without resorting to pandering, but that strikes me as a cop out (I’m reminded of Spielberg’s similar approach in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where the characters that wanted to know were punished for their intellectual curiosity by alien forces). Why did these super aliens create life on Earth and leave maps to a planet that was little more than a weapons depot? Why would these superior beings create life hundreds of thousands of years ago and then leave clues 35,000 years ago that would lead to the destruction of their little experiment? The motivation seems rather hazy. It’s not like the aliens created life on all these planets and waited to be contacted so that they knew their little biological Easy Bake oven was done and then they could reclaim a new planet. It’s not some imperialist empire or colonization scheme; it appears to just be wanton destruction. That seems like a waste of effort. Did these aliens keep checking back, see our ancestors hunting and gathering and go, “Oh my Space Deity, I can’t believe we created life on this planet? We were so wasted. Well, just wait until they conquer space travel and then we’ll kill them with a weird biological weapon.” If your desire is to destroy life, why even have a waiting period? If these “engineers” wanted to destroy Earth why not do it when there was far less clean up? Is there some kind of parent-child relationship I’m just not getting here?

Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) makes the biggest impression as the fastidious android, David. He’s by far the most interesting character and he’s not even human. It doesn’t take long to figure out that David has his own agenda, and Fassbender plays the character with this eerie passive-aggressive arrogance. You get the sensation that he looks down on his human clientele, but you don’t know what lengths he will go. “How far will you go to get your answers?” he asks before doing something very not nice. He makes statements like, “Who doesn’t want to kill their parents?” and there’s an icy placidity to him; he’s just off enough to be menacing and unsettling without going overboard. Fassbender is excellent.

The rest of the cast cannot be at fault for failing to measure up to Fassbender (is that a Shame joke I stumbled upon?). Rapace (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) is given top billing and does an admirable job of being a kickass heroine, which we already knew she was fully capable of in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. She even has a Ripley-esque haircut, which I doubt is a coincidence. Theron (Snow White & the Huntsman) gets to once again practice her ice queen routine, but I wish she had more to do than occasionally glower and bark orders. Her character’s secret background should be obvious to anyone well versed in the film economy of characters. Elba (TV’s superior Luther) tries to stick it out with some twangy Texas accent but can’t make his way through. His natural British accent pokes through routinely. Then there’s Guy Pearce (Lockout) as the wealthy benefactor who bankrolled the whole project. Apparently he was hired to film viral videos as himself, because in the movie he’s like a 100-year-old man in some pretty poor makeup (he resembles old Biff in Back to the Future: Part 2). Why hire an actor of Pearce’s caliber if you’re just going to hide him under a veil of old-age makeup? The actors do what they can but the film doesn’t give them much to work with. They’re stock roles and absent development. You don’t notice for a long while because you’re so caught up in the exploration and the gorgeous visuals, but when the end comes you realize that you hardly knew these people.

After all the pre-release coyness about whether this belonged in the Alien universe, Prometheus seems to be a victim of its own sky-high hype. The movie is moody and dark and intriguing and visually magnificent, but the plot does not hang together at all. The central mystery of the origins of mankind is given a face to start with, but that’s about it. The confusing story tries to mask its plot holes but eventually they just overtake the movie. It’s an entertaining movie in the moment but Prometheus pretty much evaporates as soon as you leave the theater and start thinking, “Hey wait a minute, that didn’t make any sense.” Why are mankind’s “engineers” a regretful bunch of jerks? Scott’s visuals are impressive, the film has a killer mood that’s hard to shake, but the plot is pretty shaky and reliant on supposedly smart people making pretty dumb decisions (why yes, I’ll try and touch the alien snake monster thing). That’s fine for basic thrills but it doesn’t elevate the movie into something headier, meatier, and more satisfying, like the original Alien. Prometheus was never going to meet the unattainably high expectations of fans stoked by tremendous trailers and the promise of Scott’s triumphant return to sci-fi, but much like the characters in the film, I was glad to go on this journey but wished I had more to take home with me.

Nate’s Grade: B

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