Theatrical Review: Riddick

After being betrayed by the Necromongers, Richard Riddick has been left for dead on a desolate, sun-scorched world surrounded by various alien predators. Riddick looks at this as an opportunity to rebuild himself and soon manages to conquer his surroundings. After exploring the world further, he discovers an outpost that’s exclusively for use for bounty hunters and once he’s found that, he knows that his days for staying on this world are now numbered, being one of the most sought after criminals across space. Riddick devises a plan to get himself off world, and with the arrival of two different sets of mercenaries, his plan is about to take shape. But a literal storm is coming and with it a menace that no one will be able to stop.

That’s the broad premise to Riddick the latest film from writer/director and Riddick creator David Twohy and star Vin Diesel who plays the titular role. I’m a huge fan of their first movie, Pitch Black and while I thought there were some interesting aspects to it’s sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, for the most part, I thought it was an unsatisfying experience. Riddick takes a very “back to basics” approach with it’s main character and the series itself, and at least to me, this is a very entertaining pulpy science fiction film.

The story is very episodic in nature, broken down into three acts with their own points, yet still with a nice flow. The first act is a pure tale of survival in a hostile environment and in some ways reminds of the classic science fiction movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The second act introduces the two sets of mercenaries and has a terrific Western feel to it (as well as little parts of it that reminded me of the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet). The final act puts everything together and certainly harkens back to Pitch Black in a lot of ways, but also, at least to me adding some growth to the Riddick character. Even though this is a “back to basics” approach, it’s still a true sequel to the prior two movies as events from both are very much referred to, especially with one character from the first film. Basically, while I think that if you haven’t seen the first two movies, you still might enjoy this, you’ll enjoy it even more if you’ve seen both Pitch Black and Chronicles.

Two points that I really liked that I’ve seen others criticize are with the pacing of the film and it’s visual effects. Riddick does have a leisurely drawn-out pace that I think works for it’s episodic nature and is particularly effective in the first third of the movie. I think the look of the movie and it’s visual effects are absolutely fantastic. This has a much more theatrical look to it’s visuals rather than one that looks totally real and the same is true with it’s creature design. For me, there are some scenes here that put me right in the mind of classic science fiction paperback book covers and for the overall pulpy feel of the film, I don’t think it hurts it in the slightest.

As mentioned above, Vin Diesel returns to the part of Richard Riddick and it’s pretty obvious to me by his work on screen just how special this character is to him. In particular watching Diesel during the first third of this is especially fun as he gets introspective about what led him to this situation and as he develops his own relationship with a dog-like creature native to this world. For the most part, the mercenaries are all run-of-the-mill characters, but the actors playing them look like they’re having quite a bit of fun and there are a few standouts. Jordi Molla and Dave Bautista play Santana and Diaz respectively from the first group of mercenaries Santana is the leader of the group and Molla plays it with the right amount of smarm. Bautista’s Diaz, is the heavy duty enforcer who actually gets a lot of the good lines and has more clarity about their situation than the other members of his group do. Matt Nable and Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff play Johns and Dahl from the other group of mercenaries. I’m a fan of Sackhoff’s and just really enjoyed seeing her here, but between the two Nable is the real standout. His character actually has a personal reason for pursuing Riddick and yet the way it’s written and the way Nable plays it, it’s not just one note and the character, at least to me has more to exist for than just revenge.

I had a terrific time with Riddick. It certainly made up for the disappointment that I had in the prior film and it’s “back-to-basics” approach was quite appealing and certainly leaves the character in a better place than where he was at the end of the prior movie. I love the film’s look, it’s relaxed pace and it’s melding of sci-fi and western genres. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Richard Riddick, but only as long as David Twohy and Vin Diesel are there to guide the character.


Theatrical Review: Getaway

Former race-car driver Brent Magna has returned home to find that it’s been ransacked and his wife is now missing. Soon, Magna receives instructions from a mystery man to steal a car and be ready to perform all sorts of tasks for him or else his wife will be killed. The car that Magna has been told to steal is a highly customized Shelby Super Snake Mustang that’s been structurally reinforced and fitted with cameras and microphones so that the mystery man can see and hear everything that Magna does. In the midst of the chaos that Magna is causing (on the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria), He’s tracked down by a young woman known here as The Kid who pulls a gun on Magna and claims the car as her own, Magna is forced to bring the girl along with him and soon finds out that both are part of the plans of the mystery man. Now they must endure a race against time in order to save themselves and Magna’s wife.

That’s the premise to Getaway an action thriller from Dark Castle Entertainment, a production company that has specialized in lower-budget genre films that have included movies like Whiteout, Thir13en Ghosts, Ghost Ship, RocknRolla and a couple of favorites of mine like Ninja Assassin and Splice. Getaway is directed by Courtney Solomon who prior to this has directed An American Haunting (which I’ve not seen) and Dungeons & Dragons (which I saw when it came out and at least remember being entertained by it at the time). Getaway certainly feels like it’s the sort of project that I’d expect to see from Dark Castle and it certainly seems to me like it’s designed to appeal to the same audience that likes the Fast & Furious movies. I thought the trailer to the movie looked fun, but unfortunately the movie is more a noisy endurance run more than anything else. This thing is a mess.

This 90-minute car chase is so convoluted that it feels like you’re watching an overly scripted video game that has to have certain things happen in the right moment for it to progress and of course all of these things do happen. It’s cliche-ridden abound with the biggest offender being the character of The Kid who’s not only extremely unlikeable but also serves as the deus ex machina of the movie; the computer hacker who can perform magic with the touch of a few buttons- maybe one of the biggest character cliches that you see in movies today. There’s absolutely no humor to be found in the movie whatsoever and the chases themselves are shot in such a staccato manner that they’re just not exciting at all to watch. Now this chase part does get a little bit better by the film’s end with a pretty cool nearly two-minute long single shot from the hood of the Mustang as it’s in pursuit of the villain of the film, but by then it’s too little too late, because really you just don’t care.

As I said at the top, when I saw the trailer, I thought it looked fun and another part of the appeal to me was that this starred Ethan Hawke (playing Brent Magna). Hawke’s certainly done a lot of very good work in the past and has played in several recent genre films (including The Purge from earlier this year. When it comes to his genre roles, I tend to think that Hawke has chosen to do them because there is just a little bit of a twist to the parts, but unfortunately, that’s not the case with Getaway Brent Magna is a by-the-numbers lead that you’ve seen time and again in film, though to Hawke’s credit, he plays it well and with conviction. He doesn’t elevate the material here, but at least he doesn’t embarrass himself either, though I doubt this movie will be one that he puts on the top of his resume. Selena Gomez plays The Kid (no name is given to her throughout the film) and five minutes into her scenes in the film, I’d pretty much had enough. She looks like she’s about 13 years old here and doesn’t for a moment seem like she’d have the wherewithal to sell the idea that she’s an expert hacker who could break into complex computer systems let alone have a license to drive and own a car. She’s just annoying as can be though I can’t lay the blame entirely at her as the script just doesn’t do her any favors. When she first encounters Magna, she’s told right up front what’s going on and yet repeatedly through the film she questions why Magna is doing what’s he’s doing and calls him an ‘asshole” for doing it. That really doesn’t do much to endear her to the audience. I have to give further kudos to Ethan Hawke just for being a pro and putting up with this.

Further, we do actually have a name actor in the part of the mystery man (known in the credit listings as The Voice) but before you get to him, you go through two substitutes (played by Bruce Payne and Paul Freeman) before we get the big reveal and then it just doesn’t matter in the slightest, because really nothing else further is told about this character other than he was a big fan of Magna’s while Magna was on the racing circuit. I won’t reveal who this actor is just in case any who are reading this are still planning to see the movie, but still the final revelation is underwhelming to say the least.

Coming into this, I really wanted to like Getaway, I really did. I think it’s totally possible to make a 90-minute car chase movie and make it with some wit and charm, but that’s just not the case here. Ethan Hawke is certainly solid in his part and there’s one good car chase bit in the film (the above-mentioned single shot scene), but a convoluted and clunky script and an overly annoying performance from Selena Gomez squashes that. Steer far away from Getaway.


Theatrical Review: You’re Next

Paul and Aubrey Davison are getting ready to celebrate the wedding anniversary and have retreated to their secluded country house. Their three sons and one daughter are also on the way there with their significant others. First to arrive is their son Crispian with his girlfriend Erin, and almost right on cue as the parents believe that someone else is in the house. After the house has been given the “all clear,” the rest of the family arrives little knowing the night of terror that awaits them from out in the woods.

That’s a loose version of the premise to You’re Next, from director Adam Wingard who’s part of a new breed of horror filmmakers that includes from the cast of You’re Next, Joe Swanberg and Ti West. Both West and Wingard have been part of the film The A, B, C’s of Death (which I still have yet to see, but will soon) and all three were part of the found footage horror anthology, V/H/S which I enjoyed a great deal. Like horror directors Rob Zombie and James Wan (who earlier this year gave us The Lords of Salem and The Conjuring respectively), these guys ear their influences on their sleeves and it’s certainly evident in You’re Next which is a nice little throwback to 80s horror and revenge films, but still feels fresh and fun (fun if you’re horror movie fan that is).

You’re Next brought to mind for me 80s slasher movies along with a little touch of Italian Giallo movies and with it’s heroine, Erin (played by Step Up 3D’s Sharni Vinson) it brought to mind for me movies like the exceptional 80s horror film, The Stepfather and the Linda Blair revenge movie, Savage Streets. This starts with a bit of a slow build, letting us get to know the Davison family and their guests a little bit before all hell breaks loose as they’re attacked from forces outside the house. Once that happens, it’s a real roller-coaster ride right up to the film’s bloody climax.

Wingard has a real nice eye for setting up his scenes and his animal mask-wearing antagonists are a nice little visual in and of themselves. Some of Wingard’s compositions bring to mind Kubrick’s work on The Shining which is also very much an influence on the whole movie. It’s all pretty nicely punctuated with a terrific score from Mads Heltberg, Jasper Justice Lee and Kyle McKinnon, that fluctuates between some violent stings to 80s type of electronic music (used particularly well during the back end of the movie).

As the terror escalates, the situations and murders get far more over-the-top and almost to the point of parody, but they felt right to me anyway. There are certainly explanations abound for why this is happening to the Davisons and why Erin is as resourceful as she is, and again, some of this will seem pretty outlandish, but it all does make sense in the end, in particular Erin’s backstory.

I really enjoyed Sharni Vinson in Step Up 3D and this is about as broad a departure from that part as it gets, but Vinson is certainly up to the task and certainly excels as the empowered heroine of the film. The rest of the cast is certainly serviceable to what’s being done here with the one standout being Joe Swanberg, the smart-ass Davison sibling who just doesn’t know when to die. I also thought it was very cool to see iconic horror actress Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) here as Aubrey the matriarch of the Davison family.

I had a pretty darn good time with You’re Next. It’s not quite in the same league as The Conjuring (which for me anyway is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year so far), but it’s still a good time at the theatre and an even better one if you’re a fan of 70s and 80s horror movies. Some of this will certainly seem pretty outlandish at times, but in the end, it does come together and makes for a nice little horror ride.


Theatrical Review: Kick-Ass 2

Since the events of the first Kick-Ass movie, Kick-Ass himself, Dave Lizewski has laid low and tried to resume a normal life. The same can also be said of Mindy Macready, also known as Hit-Girl. Mindy has sworn to her guardian, Detective Marcus Williams, that she’d lie low and try to be a normal kid. But in the wake of their first adventure, Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl have inspired more normal citizens to don costumes and fight crime in their own way and now both Dave and Mindy are feeling the need to get back into their former lives. In the background, Chris D’Amico, formerly known as the Red Mist, now seeks revenge against Kick-Ass for killing his father and begins to build a plot that will affect Dave and everyone he knows.

That’s the premise to Kick-Ass 2 the sequel the original Kick-Ass movie from director Matthew Vaughan based around the comics created by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. I’ve not read the sequel comic series, so I can’t necessarily say exactly how faithful this is, but if this movie is any indication, well it’s making me want to order the collection for the sequel sooner than later. Matthew Vaughan is only connected here as the producer of the film and now it’s in the more than capable hands of writer/director Jeff Wadlow, who for my money anyway, has made a sequel that’s superior to the original film. Wow- Kick-Ass 2 was just a lot of fun!

Kick-Ass 2 is certainly just as profane and violent as the original film, but it also feels to me like there’s quite a bit more heart here and genuine emotion in all of it’s main characters, Dave, Mindy and even Chris D’Amico and that’s what makes it rise just a little bit more for me. It absolutely looks fantastic and big kudos go Wadlow’s way for keeping the same comic book aesthetic that Matthew Vaughan had in the first film. One of my favorite points in the movie involves Kick-Ass joining up with a team of crime-fighters organized by the hero known as Colonel Stars and Stripes. For me, this scene brought to mind the movie Mystery Men with it’s misfit heroes and tremendous heart and while I was already enjoying this up to that point, that just sort of notched things up a little further.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse all return from the original film as Dave, Mindy and Chris respectively. In the first film, Moretz literally stole the show and she does a terrific job here as well, but it’s a little more tempered than it was the first time. Taylor-Johnson is certainly very likable and still rock-solid in his part and even taking it further to really build himself up physically for this. The real surprise here for me in the main cast though is Christopher Mintz-Plasse. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with him in the first movie, but here he’s ratcheted things up considerably and has made for a villain that you can totally get, even if it’s in the broadest of ways. Where he really excels is in a scene where he has to go to jail to talk with a former associate of his father’s. This scene leaves an indelible mark on Chris D’Amico and Mintz-Plasse just thoroughly convinces you of that.

There’s lots of good support here as well, both Clark Duke and Augustus Prew return as Dave’s friends Marty and Todd and they’re certainly fun to watch. Donald Faison and Lindy Booth are two of Dave’s associates in Justice Forever, Dr. Gravity and Night Bitch and both really add to the fun. John Leguizamo plays Javier who sort of acts as Alfred to Chris D’Amico’s twisted Bruce Wayne and again, he’s fun to watch and really adds more to Chris D’Amico’s character. But the real stand-out for me in the support area is Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes. Yeah, Carrey’s certainly been on the record as denouncing the movie for it’s extreme violence, and yet it all sorta goes away when you see him on-screen here. He absolutely looks like he’s having a ball with the part and as a character certainly does much to further inspire Dave Lizewski.

What can I say? I had an incredibly good time with Kick-Ass 2, going so far to say that I enjoyed it even more than the original (and I had a good time with that as well). It’s a terrific looking film that just rejoices in keeping the same aesthetic that you see in John Romita Jr.’s art from the comics and yet for all of it’s violence and profanity, there’s genuine heart and emotion here as well making you care for the characters even more. One little word of note, stay through the end credits as there is a final scene that basically says things aren’t as final as they seem. If you enjoyed the first film, you’ll have a ball with Kick-Ass 2. Highly, highly recommended.


Theatrical Review: Jobs

Honestly, if someone would’ve told me that I’d willingly be going to see a movie starring Ashton Kutcher, I probably would’ve just laughed in their face as I’m not exactly what you’d call a fan. But, I’ve always been an Apple Computer guy and more specifically a Macintosh user. I’ve sworn by Macs since the SE days and still use them today. So when I hear that Ashton Kutcher is playing Steve Jobs in a docudrama about Jobs’ life, well I have to take notice and I also have to admit, Kutcher certainly looks the part.

Jobs is the story of the rise of college drop-out Steve Jobs to becoming one of the most creative and honored entrepreneurs of our time. This follows Jobs’ career from building Apple Computer out of his parents’ garage all the way to the introduction of the iPod in 2001. Jobs comes to us from director Joshua Michael Stern who prior to this directed the movie Swing Vote starring Kevin Costner (which I have not seen). The fodder is certainly here for an entertaining movie and it’s been seen before in a fine effort from the TNT cable network, an adaptation of the book, Pirates of Silicon Valley that contrasted the rise of both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (starring Noah Wyle and Anthony Michael Hall respectively). Unfortunately, this theatrical effort doesn’t exactly do much to make it more than a glorified TV movie, feeling more like an outline that hits the high points, but finds little to glue it all together much less make you feel the drive that Jobs had.

This feels like it’s missing entire chunks of Jobs’ life like explaining further about the deep friendship between Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who many see as the heart of Apple. Further, this tells us of Jobs’ rejection of his pregnant girlfriend and his daughter, but then later picks up with Jobs taking his daughter into his life with only a simple scene of Jobs looking at one of his daughter’s letters being the transition point. These are, at least to me, two very key points in Jobs life that brought about a personal change that allowed him to come back to Apple in 1996, and yet there’s little here to help illustrate that.

The way this is all put together feels extremely rushed and by the numbers, and as far as I know, that just might’ve been Stern’s intent, but it fails on making this magnetic storytelling. Jobs really needed to look at something like David Fincher’s The Social Network and develop something that would’ve told this story in a more effective way, maybe not with the same sort of edge that The Social Network has, but with something that better illustrates the passion behind the creation. As an avid Mac user myself, I think going for a route in that direction at least would’ve been more of a draw for me as I know just how passionate Mac users can be about what they create with their machines.

As I said at the start, I’m not really any sort of fan of Ashton Kutcher’s, but I do have to give him credit for taking this part and at least looking like he’s done his homework. Now with that said, I still think he falls a little short here looking more like he’s doing an impression than inhabiting a part. When I see one of his co-stars, Josh Gad (who plays Steve Wozniak) soldiering a motherboard, I get the impression that Gad knew what he was doing, but I don’t get the same vibe off of Kutcher’s performance. Further support is provided by Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Modine and J.K. Simmons (playing Mike Markula, John Sculley and Arthur Rock respectively) as the corporate body of Apple that wrests control away from Jobs. It’s serviceable work but that’s about it.

As a Mac user, I really wanted to like Jobs a lot more and there are certainly parts here that I did enjoy (the scenes where Steve Wozniak leaves Apple and where Jobs loses control of Apple come immediately to mind). But it still feels like there’s way too much missing that could’ve made this a more full experience. Sure, it’s certainly understandable that you can’t get in every little point to fit into a two-hour time frame, but still Jobs needed another pass at the script to get something that felt like a little more than a script outline.


Theatrical Review: Elysium

By the end of the 21st century, overpopulation and pollution have made conditions around the planet deplorable. The ruling bodies and rich upper class have retreated from Earth and now inhabit the orbiting space station known as Elysium. Elysium’s technology is so advanced that every home has a miraculous medical device in it that can literally cure anything. The space station wards off attempts at invasion by the lower class to get to that technology.

Max De Costa, was an orphan from the streets who grew up doing what he had to do to survive. As a young boy, he made a promise to his best friend, a girl named Frey, that one day he’d get them both to Elysium. Now, Max is doing his best to live a straight life; he works in a factory that builds service robots, but one day, Max gets trapped in a chamber that seals the robots with radiation and he’s exposed to a lethal dosage. Max has five days to live and now will do anything in an attempt to keep himself alive, including running a mission that will upset the balance of power with Elysium.

Elysium is writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his fantastic debut from a couple of years ago with the Oscar-nominated District 9. Blomkamp thrilled audiences with his socially-relevant tale of aliens who were segregated in South Africa’s Johannesburg, and audiences took note of his technical skill as well as the dramatic chops of actor Sharlto Copley. Blomkamp’s attempting to do the same thing with Elysium but with mixed results, though for the most part, I find the film to still be highly watchable.

With Elysium, Blomkamp handles his social issues and his characters in a much more simplistic way than he did in District 9, and this will no doubt be the dividing line for whether most will like the movie or not. The characters are all pretty much one-note, in particular the characters that are from Elysium, there’s a lot of science fiction cliches at work and there’s a lot of things that happen more due to story convenience than feeling natural. This feels more like juvenile science fiction than anything else (and I’m not using “juvenile” in a derogatory way here) and as such, it’s probably not going to strike most the same way that District 9 did.

Now to Blomkamp’s credit, the film has a fantastic look (very cool to see visual futurist Syd Mead credited for the concept illustrations), some really high-charged action scenes and visual effects, and it moves at a pretty brisk pace. This, at least to me, still made the film fun to watch even with it’s story and character simplicity.

Blomkamp’s cast includes Matt Damon as Max, Jodie Foster as Delacourt (the Secretary of Defense for Elysium), Sharlto Copley as Kruger (a deep cover Earth operative for Delacourt), Alice Braga as Max’s lifelong friend, Frey, William Fichtner as John Carlyle (the head of the company that Max works for) and Diego Luna and Wagner Moura as Julio and Spider respectively, two people who Max worked with when he was working outside the law. It’s a good cast, but they’re saddled with mostly one-note characters. Damon does his best to remain affable in a tough situation as well as doing a great job with the action scenes. Jodie Foster, at least to me, gives off some sort of sense that there’s something beneath her surface that absolutely believes that her ways of defending Elysium are the best ways. Sharlto Copley is a far cry from what he was in District 9 playing a very lethal character who’s just, well, insane with what he’s doing. Fichtner (a perennial favorite actor of mine) fares worse here with a character that’s even more one-note than what he played in the Lone Ranger, and yet I can’t blame him for that as I’m sure everyone here is just enforcing Blomkamp’s vision.

Even though I’m coming down on aspects of Elysium, I still had an enjoyable time watching it, but still it just could’ve been so much better thad Blomkamp invested a little more time into filling this out a bit more. Like I said above, if you look at this as pure juvenile science fiction, then it fares a lot better, but if you’re looking for something that’s going to be a good companion piece to District 9, I expect that you’ll find Elysium to be lacking.


Theatrical Review: The Wolverine

Following the events of the third X-Men movie, Wolverine (also known as Logan) has left the group being haunted by his having to kill Jean Grey. The mutant is being tracked by another mutant, Yukio. Yukio is in the employ of Yashida, a soldier who Wolverine saved during the bombing of Nagasaki. Yashida is now on his death bed and asks Wolverine to protect his granddaughter Mariko, as he suspects that she is about to be in danger, because she is set to inherit Yashida’s huge tech company. At the same time, Yashida tells Wolverine that he can end Wolverine’s personal torment and take away his healing power, so that he may now live out his life a normal man.

This is the premise of The Wolverine, the latest in the series of X-Men movies and also the latest movie from director James Mangold, who’s previously directed movies like Cop Land (a big favorite of mine), 3:10 to Yuma and Identity. While I like Mangold, he wouldn’t have necessarily been my own first choice to direct a movie like this and in fact he wasn’t. The Wolverine was originally set to be directed by visionary director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) who ended up bowing out because this was going to take him away from his family for too long. So Mangold gets the gig and at least by my own reckoning, turns in a pretty enjoyable film.

The Wolverine is loosely based on one of the earliest Marvel Comics mini-series centered around Wolverine written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller. That generally serves as the springboard for the film and other facets are added, in particular the villains of the piece, Viper and the Silver Samurai. This plays with the comic aspects a little on the fast and loose side, but it all still seemed fitting to me. The big thing though is that this movie is far more of a character study than anything else and Mangold paces it accordingly. The Wolverine isn’t a big blockbuster that goes for explosions and destruction at every turn and personally, I found that to be quite refreshing. I’ve seen some already complain that this is nowhere near being what they expect out of a movie associated with the X-Men franchise, and I get that, but just don’t agree with it. It does feel different than the other films in the series, but not to the extent that say Iron Man 3 feels from it’s predecessors. Iron Man 3 tried to change the entire flavor of the series, whereas with The Wolverine it’s more of a side story that’s definitely still in the same universe.

Now with all of that said, that also leads to what I think is a problem with the film for those that aren’t exactly that familiar with the character (or at least as familiar as die hard fans are). Basically, I tend to think that you just can’t come into this blind, you would’ve need to have seen all of the other films (with maybe the exception of X-Men: First Class in order to appreciate the set up. More than likely, if you are seeing this, then you have seen the other films, but for those that haven’t, you’re probably going to be asking quite a few questions.

I think the film has a terrific look to it and the action scenes are especially nicely done, in particular a fight on the top of a bullet train that’s terrifically executed. Some have found the third act of the film to be clunky with it’s twist that’s thrown in with the Silver Samurai character and the idea that Viper isn’t exactly the most developed of villainous characters. This didn’t really bother me at all as the focus wasn’t really on these characters for the movie other than being a means to an end for the character of Wolverine. I think doing more there would’ve actually made for a clunkier film and just detracted from the film’s main drive, which is exploring the character of Wolverine, which in turn leads to the strongest factor in the entire movie and that’s actor Hugh Jackman.

This marks Jackman’s sixth outing as the character (which I believe has to be the record now for actors consistently playing the same character in a comic book based film) and we know he’s already committed to the next movie in the X-Men series and if Jackman had his way, he’d play Wolverine in an Avengers film as well. That’s commitment to the character and for me anyway, it still looks like Jackman is having a great time with it. This is the role that put this actor on the map and it’s nice to see that he’s just not ready to toss it aside at all. There’s real poignancy to the character and in the midst of that, Jackman has found a way to still make him very likable and very much someone we want to keep following. I can’t wait to see what he does in the X-Men: Days of Future Past movie.

Jackman’s got some really solid support here, in particular with actresses Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima who play Mariko and Yukio respectively. Okamoto’s Mariko contains a strength and drive similar to that of the Jean Grey character and it’s easy to see how Wolverine is attracted to her. Fukushima’s Yukio is a developing mutant who has qualities that seem quite similar to those of Anna Paquin, who played Rogue in the X-Men films. They’re both engaging actresses and I tend to think that their chemistry with Jackman is pretty strong. Speaking of Jean Grey, Famke Janssen returns to that part here in a series of dreams/hallucinations that Wolverine experiences and it’s nice to see her back in the part. Haruhiko Yamanouchi plays Yashida and it’s a solid character part that serves the present day proceedings. The most advancement we see with that character is more in the World War II flashback scenes when Yashida is played as a younger character by actor Ken Yamamura. Svetlana Khodchenkova plays Viper and this is easily the one character that I’ve seen the most hate for out there. They find her out of place and over the top and the most lacking in character and motivation. I really liked her look and thought it was cool that she was more of a throwback to a classic sort of villain.

All in all, I thought The Wolverine was quite a bit of fun. This X-Men side-story is a cool little character study that’s made even more appealing due to Hugh Jackman’s considerable acting strengths. It’s still satisfying to me as an action film and it’s a little bit of a change of pace for a summer action movie as it doesn’t go for the same sort of widespread destruction that’s more prevalent right now. I’m a fan of the previous films in the series (to varying degrees) and The Wolverine still seems like it fits and continues the series nicely. And speaking of continuing the series, stick around for awhile during the end credits for an additional scene that nicely sets things up for X-Men: Days of Future Past. This is a nice teaser for things to come and I can’t wait to see it.


Theatrical Review: R.I.P.D.

Nick Walker is a Boston police detective with much on his mind. On a recent drug bust, he and his partner, Bobby Hayes, unexpectedly recovered some mysterious gold pieces that weren’t part of the bust. Both of the detectives took the gold without reporting it, and now this deed weighs heavily on Nick. The next day, Nick tells his partner that he’s going to report the gold, but won’t say a thing about Bobby keeping his- and then both are sent out on a major operation. As this operation is going down, Bobby shoots Nick dead. At that moment, Nick believes he is about to get his final judgement, but he’s yanked away and brought before a woman known as The Proctor. Nick has just discovered that he’s dead and The Proctor is the Boston bureau chief of the R.I.P.D., the Rest In Peace Department. The job of the R.I.P.D. is to protect and serve the living from creatures who refuse to move peacefully into the afterlife, known here as Deados.

Nick is made an offer to serve a 100-year term with the R.I.P.D. and he quickly accepts and just as he accepts, he learns he’s to be partnered with an R.I.P.D veteran, old West Sheriff Roy Pulsifer, who’s not exactly thrilled to have a partner. Something’s brewing in the Deado community and now it’s up to Walker and Pulsifer to put a stop to it.

R.I.P.D. is the latest comic book to movie adaptation and it comes to us from director Robert Schwentke, who’s best known for directing another comic-to-film adaptation, Red (which I haven’t seen) and the Jodie Foster thriller from a few years back, Flightplan (which I have seen and the less said the better). I’m a comic book fan, but I’ve not read R.I.P.D., so I can’t really say how faithful this is to it’s source.

If you’ve seen the trailers for R.I.P.D., then more than likely you’ve gotten a vibe off of them that’s a lot like the Men In Black movies. Not knowing the source material, I can’t say if that’s exactly the same there as well, but it’s certainly evident with the film. The whole film is virtually staged and set up just like the first Men In Black movie, but doesn’t exactly have the same style (or it’s own style) with it’s execution, making for a final piece that’s just sort of there and nothing else. Schwentke does a good job of making his main players look really cool (all scenes that you’ve seen in the trailer), but offers up little else. One neat little piece here is that when back in the world of the living, the R.I.P.D. officers have completely different appearances- for Nick Walker, it’s an old Chinese man (played by veteran actor James Hong) and for Roy Pulsifer, it’s a supermodel (played by supermodel Marissa Miller), that little juxtaposition of character types is pretty clever and when it’s used on-screen, it offers up some pretty nice moments, but not enough to really make R.I.P.D. stand out. Even with that, the rest of the movie still feels like warmed-over Men In Black.

I mentioned that Schwentke makes his main players look cool, I just wish it was the same with the visual effects as well. The Deados, when exposed, take on monstrous appearances that definitely feel like CGI models and don’t exactly feel natural to the rest of the movie. This could certainly be intentional, and while I’m not opposed to visual effects that look more theatrical than natural, there’s still something here that just feels a little off.

Ryan Reynolds plays Nick (marking his fourth comic book movie) and Jeff Bridges plays Roy. Reynolds is OK here, but there’s nothing real distinctive about the part. Bridges hams it up as the Old West lawman and not necessarily in a good way. Some of his lines just come off as unintelligible gibberish making me wish he would’ve shown a little restraint with his character. Mary-Louise Parker plays The Proctor, and for me anyway, she’s the really bright spot in the cast, having a distinctive style about her and some pretty snappy line delivery. You wouldn’t know it by seeing the trailers, but Kevin Bacon is in the film as Nick’s former partner, Bobby Hayes and our villain of the piece. Bacon’s serviceable in the part, but again, like so much else in the movie, it’s a by-the-numbers villain.

R.I.P.D. has a few good ideas, but it’s over-shadowed by being too much like Men In Black, and doesn’t do much to really stand apart from that. It’s not a horrible movie by any means, but in comparison to a lot of the other big summer fare, it just comes off as average more than anything else. I do think it’s watchable, but I’d also advise to maybe wait until it hits cable or Netflix streaming to take the plunge.


Theatrical Review: The Conjuring

Ed and Lorraine Warren are investigators of the paranormal. Ed is a non-ordained demonologist and Lorraine is clairvoyant/empath. As the movie starts, they are detailing one of their cases in a college lecture hall and right from the start we’re buying everything that they’re telling us. In 1971, Ed and Lorraine encounter the Perron family little realizing the terror that they’re about to experience.

That’s the broad basic premise of The Conjuring the latest movie from director James Wan who’s best known for the very first Saw film. Wan’s next project is reportedly the next film in the Fast & Furious series but before he gets there, we get to experience The Conjuring a terrific little throwback horror film that really does stand above a lot of recent fare.

Before going into this, I was not aware that the events of this film were based on true events. Now there’s a terrific little crawl at the start of the film that tells us this and it’s great to set up what’s about to happen, but in my case, I figured the statement of being based around true events was the normal sort of hype that you get with this type of movie and maybe with just a little smattering of something that truly happened. Now after the fact, I still don’t know how much of this is true, but having done a little bit of post-research, it sounds like Wan got everything right about the Warrens and the Perrons (and it certainly helps that Lorraine Warren is actually credited as a consultant for the movie- though that can certainly be open to interpretation).

Wan takes his time in setting this one up and paces this similarly to such films as The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror (in fact, there’s a nice little suggestion by the film’s end that the Warrens are being called in to consult about that). It treats it’s subject matter most earnestly and doesn’t indulge in a plethora of skepticism. If anything, the Warrens themselves are the first to point out that many things they get called in to investigate can be easily explained as non-paranormal events, but yet they’ve still witnessed events that are classified as paranormal and thanks to the strong performances (more in a moment) we buy into this.

On the other side, we also buy into the Perron family right from the start. Carolyn and Roger Perron are a hard working family just trying to make ends meet for their family of five daughters. They’ve purchased their house through a state auction and after horrific events start to occur, they just can’t up and leave their home due to financial constraints more than anything else. Even before Carolyn goes to call in the Warrens, they’re willing to chalk up some of the weirdness they’ve encountered as things that can be easily explained, but eventually it becomes too much, and we as the audience certainly feel that.

The Conjuring doesn’t have an overuse of blood and gore and earns it’s R rating more for it’s intense situations. As I said above, Wan is pacing this like classic horror films from the 70s and the way this is executed, it certainly shows that there’s still a lot of gold to mine from that stye of filmmaking (Rob Zombie knows this as well and certainly demonstrated it well in The Lords of Salem from earlier this year, a movie that I didn’t have the time to review properly when it came out, but at least I wanted to shout it out here as it’s something I could certainly stand to watch as a double-bill with The Conjuring). Now there are certainly good visual effect moments here, but they’re used sparingly and Wan relies mostly on just good ol’ suspense-building and characters that you really do care about, though I have to also call out a terrific original score from Joseph Bishara that really does punctuate everything in the right way.

But Wan’s best tools in making this vision an effective one is his absolutely terrific cast. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine and besides being a couple of my own personal favorite acting talents these days, they really do bring credibility to their parts and have a terrific chemistry together. As I said above, I really didn’t know this was based on true events at the start, and I was sort of looking at this thing as being the potential start of a new horror franchise with Wilson and Farmiga being the continuing players. Their chemistry is so good that I’d love to see them reprise these roles. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston play Carolyn and Roger Perron and again, like Wilson and Farmiga, they’ve got terrific chemistry together, though it’s certainly a more earthy flavor. Both of these sets of relationships feel very real and they’re aren’t over-dramatized in the slightest.

Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy and Kyla Deaver are the five young actresses who play the Perron’s daughters and again, their relationship feels very authentic. Joey King really stood out to me amongst the daughters as Christine Perron with one particular scene where she experiences the horror from her bed.

The Conjuring is horror filmmaking at it’s best. James Wan certainly demonstrated with the first Saw movie that he could make a great horror film of a certain flavor. I thought he did a nice job with the movie Insidious (also with Patrick Wilson) as well, but The Conjuring is a real standout. Wan’s maturity as a filmmaker is certainly evident here and now I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does with the next chapter in the Fast & Furious series as he steps out of the horror/terror genre and into the action genre. Wan’s got a clear-cut vision with this throwback horror film and it’s excellently realized thanks to strong performances from a terrific cast. I really would like to see Wan, Wilson and Farmiga re-visit the Warrens with another movie and certainly the door is open for such a thing to happen. If you’re looking for a little break from summertime big-budget spectacles, well, it doesn’t get much better than The Conjuring. Highly, highly recommended…


Theatrical Review: Pacific Rim

It’s the near future and the world has seen the rise of giant beasts called the Kaiju that terrorize the planet and the populace. Military forces succeed in taking down the initial beast, but taking days to do so at and suffering devastating losses to life and property. The nations of the world have put aside their difference to fight their mutual enemy and have created their own mechanical monsters that they call the Jeagar, the German term for hunter. The Jeagar are immediately successful in taking down the Kaiju, but now the Kaiju threat is escalating. New and more potent beasts walk the earth displaying powers and abilities that they haven’t displayed before and now, the final shreds of what’s left of the Jeagar stand ready to be the last line of defense for the planet.

That’s the premise to Pacific Rim the latest movie from director Guillermo del Toro who’s best know for his work on the Hellboy movies and films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. This epic love letter to Japanese giant monster movies and anime is without a doubt, del Toro’s biggest film yet and it’s also, at least for me, the BEST movie that I’ve seen this summer.

Last week, I saw The Lone Ranger a film that really could have been a contender had it been in the hands of people that were willing to tell a genuinely heroic story that didn’t feel the need to laugh in the face of it’s source material. Pacific Rim is the exact opposite of The Lone Ranger in every respect; delivering action at great clip while also telling the story of true heroes who believe in their cause and doesn’t for a moment make a joke of it’s inspirational source material, being anime and giant monster movies. If you’re a fan of these things, you’re in for a big treat with Pacific Rim.

The movies characters may seem a little simplistic in comparison to how complicated that they can get in some anime series, but the basics are all here and above anything else, there’s true heart in their portrayals. There’s certainly humor to be had as well, primarily with two scientists who are Kaiju experts, but again, the humor here is true to various anime sources, and it doesn’t laugh at the material but with it.

del Toro has always been know as a great visual stylist with his movies, and I tend to think he’s hit a new peak with Pacific Rim. This is an extremely bright and colorful film even with some of it’s epic night battle sequences. The production design is absolutely first rate; everything here just looks too cool and the visual effects are without a doubt the best that I’ve seen thus far for the year. When the trailers for Pacific Rim first came out, I’d heard some complaints that the battle scenes were just going to be these fast disjointed clips that didn’t give you any scale, but that’s not the case at all with the final product. There’s real scope here and the battles exemplify that at every turn. As first rate as the effects are, again they don’t betray their source and there’s still this feel of watching guys in suits do these battles, but with all sorts of polish that make them truly epic. I chose to see this in 3D and while it’s not essential to see this in 3D, I think it really does enhance the experience. Pacific Rim wasn’t shot in 3D, but del Toro planned carefully for it’s conversion and it’s certainly evident.

The cast is absolutely top drawer. Charlie Hunnam and Idris Elba lead this cast as Raleigh Becket and Stacker Pentecost respectively. Becket’s one of the great Jeagar pilots and Pentecost is the head of the Jeagar program and also one of the great Jeagar pilots of the past. Both Hunnam and Elba are terrific here and it’s really fun to see Hunnam in this sort of heroic role considering that he’s best known for playing Jax on FX’s excellent series, Sons of Anarchy. Rinko Kikuchi plays Mako Mori, who becomes Hunnam’s partner in piloting a Jeagar. Mako’s backstory is the most touching of any in the movie, and Kikuchi does very well bringing it to the screen.

Charlie Day, of FX’s excellent comedy series, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Burn Gorman provide the comic relief as Doctor’s Geiszler and Gottlieb respectively and their performances are just pure fun. Yes, they are the broadest of characters in the movie, but again they are very true to the inspirations for the film. Hunnam’s Sons of Anarchy co-star Ron Perlman (who’s also a perennial favorite actor of del Toro’s, he was Hellboy after all) plays Hanibal Chau, a black market dealer in Kaiju organs and pieces, is also here for comic relief and right in line with Day and Gorman’s performances. The only regret here with Perlman is that it would’ve been kind of cool if there had been a scene with him and Hunnam together just to see them in something different than Sons but all of Perlman’s scenes are with Day. Closing out the main cast, we have Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky as the father/son Jeagar pilot team of Herc and Chuck Hansen. While these guys are support, it’s nice to see a father/son team in a big movie today that doesn’t have the tired and strained father/son issues that you see in most movies. In addition, Chuck Hansen first is against Raleigh Becket even joint their team thanks to Becket’s past, and a rivalry is played with here that in another movie would probably have Hansen being seen as another “bad guy” in the film, but it’s not the case at all here. This is really an excellent cast and they’ve certainly given themselves over entirely to del Toro’s vision.

I’m 50 years old and have certainly been out here reviewing movies for awhile. I’ve seen others say how some movies have made them feel like a kid again and have taken it with a grain of salt, but still certainly appreciating their enthusiasm for the film. Well now I have to eat those words, and basically say the same thing; Pacific Rim made me feel like a kid again and gave us a world full of a huge sense of wonder populated with heroic characters and some of the coolest visuals that you’ll see in a movie all year. When I’ve talked to a few others in advance of this, I’ve seen some eye-rolling thinking that they’re just going to be getting a different flavor of Michael Bey’s Transformer films. I’ve only seen the first of those and that was quite enough, their visual effects were fine, but their human characters were insulting. That’s not the case at all with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. This is amazing and inspiring spectacle that I just want to watch again and again and so far, for me anyway, this is the best movie of the year. Do not miss this…