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Theatrical Review: Skyfall

While it seems that the last three Batman films and Inception had been overwhelmingly influenced by the James Bond series that Christopher Nolan grew up with, it seems that now perhaps the opposite has happened: Bond writers are being influenced by the Nolan movies they grew up with. This is a good thing. As they say in the film “Almost Famous,” “If Bowie’s doing Lou (Reed), and Lou’s doing Bowie… Lou is still doing Lou.”

And if Bond is doing Nolan’s Batman, Bond is still doing Bond, baby! Only, once again, the rebooted Bond offers a darker, more stylistic approach to “Bond-ness,” while also retaining–perhaps more than ever–the spirit of the original films.


“Skyfall” is probably the best spy film since “The Good Shepherd” (which a lot of people hated, in my opinion, only because it was actually really really good) only it is a complete opposite of that film: The Good Shepherd was a complex film a lot of people did not understand, but Skyfall is very simple. It works with the basic premise of any hero film: there is a villain within, and the hero must find him and catch him. Only, the villain within was created by the system of justice that the MI6 put in place. If you go rogue, the MI6 abandons you–as it abandoned our aforementioned villain. Bond sees the villain’s old ways as a spy in himself, and after having taken literally a bullet for the greater good without the least bit of hesitation of command from his boss M, Bond perhaps wonders if he is just as expendable.

“Skyfall” finds Daniel Craig and Madame Judi Dench reprising their key roles as Bond and M respectively. But “Skyfall” also offers top-tier supporting cast members in Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient), Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), and Naomie Harris (28 Days Later), as well as Ben Whishaw (I’m Not There) as a brand new Q. This gallery of characters, as well as others, create a decent sense of mystery about who the ultimate villain behind the inside jobs may be for the first hour. However close to the vest this is or is not played, it mostly just serves as a plot for Bond to get from exotic action scene A to exotic action scene B, and so on and so forth, but each one is spectacularly filmed and completely suspends one’s disbelief. And “Skyfall” does all of this, with a wink and a nod to both older Bond films and Bond films that are not really Bond films (enter Lucas/Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies, the Bourne movies, and especially Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy.)

For example, when we find out that Daniel Craig’s Bond is an orphan of two parents whose tragic deaths (we’re not sure what happened to them) force him to abandon an old mansion for the foster home (an old memory that haunts him to this day) and the end of the third Bond comes full circle to where his life began: that very mansion–complete with Alfred-type guardian, only Scottish–we know that Nolan’s Bond-ish Batman reboots have affected the Bond reboots themselves.

Skyfall even comes with its own laughing psychopathic villain. Again, a good thing. Javier Bardem’s Joker-like personality and seemingly chaotic but overall calculated and complex machinations (like wanting to get captured on purpose, a la “The Dark Knight”) put him near the top of the longest rolodex of quality villains in a cinema franchise.

But dare I say it, Skyfall is probably better than all of the Batmans. Why? Because this is James Bond, fools! And at the end of the day, Bond’s character is more complex because his lack of emotion actually is his mask… so when we see 007’s various reactions to all sorts of various emotional stimuli from his past and present render the same visage from Daniel Craig, we know that this guy is tough. But we wonder if he is even human. What would make him crack? Is there anyone he truly cares about? Or did he dispense with all that caring nonsense after exacting vengeance for the death of his love Vesper Lind in the last film?

Believe it or not there is an answer to that question, and that’s the brilliant thing about Skyfall. Wearing none of its themes on its sleeve, the Bond film that takes us to the evanescent heart of the character somehow is the most bombastic and stylistic of the most recent three, and also the most rewarding. While Nolan’s Batman films took the Bond-style film, Q (think Lucius Fox) and everything with it to new heights, it takes a Bond film itself to take Bond films where they need to go. Thus, as far as the spy-action-stop-terrorists genre goes, Skyfall is as good as it gets. It takes a formula that has been improved upon outside the franchise, and brings it back within, taking it again to the next level. Skyfall’s plot and intentions can often be predicted, but not it’s soul. And that is the beautiful and unexpected treat of 007’s latest adventure.

Yes, I do believe this is the best “Bond film” not directed by Christopher Nolan, and probably also the best “Bond film” including those directed by Christopher Nolan which (stay with me!) are not actually Bond franchise films.  I cannot wait for the next Bond film, whether it is a 007 film or not (does that make sense?) It is going to have to beat “Skyfall,” the best of the ever-expanding lot.

[P.S. The film also looks great, with fantastic cinematography quite atypical of this genre. But if it has one weakness, it hits you if you’ve seen Taken 2, because it seems that the two films may have chosen the same Istanbul, Turkey locations for action and you’re seeing the same movie you just saw a few months ago–or maybe they just look the same to me, I’ve never been to Istanbul! Anyway, lucky for us, after the first ten minutes, the location is no longer important to the Bond film.]

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It’s Not about Joss: Concerning The Avengers, Science Fiction, and New York Times Critics

Note: I outright stole this from Tee’s blog. Tee is awesome. Read his blog.

The original is posted here.

Since 3 a.m. last night, I have been singing the praises of The Avengers, the über-anticipated epic directed by one of the deities of fanbois everywhere Joss Wheedon. Now while this may make me sound like I’m looking down my nose at fanbois and geeks, I disagree — I’m just practicing full transparency, just as I practice in my life a blatant display of geekiness. It’s part of my job. It’s part of my life. I have no shame being a geek. It’s who I am.

This morning (as in the midnight showing) Pip and I saw what I would argue is Joss Whedon’s second-best film (still not as shiny as his best) but his greatest triumph as a screenwriter and filmmaker. Whedon took four of Marvel’s heaviest hitters, threw in three more for good measure, shook well, and created a script and a movie that was balanced, entertaining, and good fun. And when I say fun, I mean “original Iron Man” fun. Already on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, the reviews are coming in and the movie will, as summer blockbusters do, raise the bar for other movies of its ilk…

I will go on to say, though, if Battleship breaks The Avengers records, I am seriously going to wrap up this blog and hide. For a decade.

There was, though, one venue that did not care for The Avengers: The New York Times. Perhaps the one voice against the film would have gone unnoticed had Samuel L. Jackson not channeled co-star Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and gone on a Twitter rant.

The backlash, some of which I admit to piling on to, comes across as fanboi rage. It would be just one more incident of fanboi rage that makes geeks look like idiots playing World of Warcraft in the basement of their home, but what makes this fanboi rage different is Samuel L.M.F. Jackson (and you know what the MF stands for…) leading the charge. But why? It’s just a sole negative review, right, amongst a tsunami of positive ones, right?

I can’t speak for Nick Fury but I can speak for myself, and when I did on my Facebook page, comments continued to prod at my (apparent) opinion of theNew York Times review, the summer blockbuster, and how this movie really won’t in the long run further anything in the genre other than Joss Whedon.

Instead of ranting on Facebook, I decided to bring my rant here. Why? Because I feel the need to explain myself…again.

My own stand against the New York Times review is not because (gasp!) they didn’t like The Avengers, because there will be Marvel fans who will refuse to go mainstream and simply protest for protest’s sake. I take more umbrage in theTimes’ apparent disdain for the genre on the whole. Admittedly, the review could have been a lot worse, but it does come across a bit condescending. For example…

“The light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre.”

This was the point of the review that made me blink, but not as bad as…

“The price of entertainment is obedience.”

Hold on — was the New York Times review telling me I was being manipulated to enjoy this film? “Obey — as this is a summer blockbuster…” or some such?

At this point, I was reminded of another review from the Times

“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to The Hobbit first. Game of Thrones is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”

I have grown tired — very tired — of how Science Fiction and Fantasy is regarded as the red-headed stepchild of storytelling genres, and regardless of accomplishments like Game of Thrones or The Avengers, the NYT has fed into that with ongoing commentary, which I found to be a shallow look at what is a complex, well-written series. The snide remarks about The Avengers, a movie that was a real gamble no matter how you look at it…

And yes, before I get the pile-on about the formulaic summer blockbuster with all the pretty people in the leads, The Avengers was a gamble because Marvel started up the hype four years ago. This movie could have been a steaming turd ala Green Lantern because —Whedonites, prepare your own retaliations now — Joss Whedon isn’t perfect. Dollhouse, for me, was proof of that.

Whedon was given a challenge and he surpassed it. Four years of hype, of buildup, of expectation, all fell into place with this film; but leave it to the New York Times — just as they did with Game of Thrones — to pretend that the argument is invalid, and it’s just more of that Science Fiction and Fantasy crap, designed to appeal to the gamer crowds exclusively.

Perhaps I’m snapping in light of things like people who claim “Oh I don’t read that science fiction stuff, that’s just not my thing…” while they say only a moment later “Oh yeah, I’m reading The Hunger Games on my Kindle right now…” A great comeback to “That sci-fi stuff is too weird for me…” is “Really? What was the last title you tried reading?” To date, only one person has ever come back to me with an answer to that — it was Lani Tupu and the book wasStranger in a Strange Land.

Good on ya, Lani.

My ire is not against the Times’ review. It’s the Times’ attitude about Science Fiction and Fantasy being beneath them. There’s a lot more to this genre than death rays, swords, and magic. When done right, it is about people and the extraordinary challenges they face; and if we are really given a terrific story with amazing characters, it is how we can learn from their struggles and face our own. The NYT critics apparently do not see it in that same light, and as they fail to understand it simply think it’s tiresome.

And to my friends on Facebook who drove me here, no, I’m not angry on you disagreeing with me. That’s not my style. I was growing punchy in my own failure to make clear what I was reacting to. Disagree with me all you want, so long as we’re having the same debate. Right?

Maybe it’s sleep depravation and not fanboi rage that is currently driving me. I’ll take a nap. Let you know how I feel tomorrow…

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Theatrical Review: The Raid: Redemption

Rama is a new Indonesian SWAT team cop who has a young wife who’s about to give birth to their first child. As we’re first being introduced to him, He’s getting himself prepared for what will be the most intense day of his life.  He tells his wife that he’ll be back at the end of the day and right as he walks out, he cryptically tells his father, “I’ll bring him back.”

Rama joins a group of 20 fellow SWAT members as they’re about to embark on the mission of their lives.  A ruthless crimelord, Tama, owns a derelict apartment building in the Jakarta slums.  This building has become a safe house for the most dangerous killers and criminals in the area, and they’re all ready to do the bidding of Tama in exchange for his protection.  Now, this 20 member SWAT team is about to attempt to take this 30-story building, floor-by-floor, in an attempt to take out the most notorious criminal in their area and of course… hijinks ensue.

That’s the premise to The Raid: Redemption the new movie from director Gareth Evans who’s previously directed the acclaimed action film Merantau which also re-teams him from his star of that film, Iko Uwais, who plays Rama.  I’ve not seen Merantau yet, though it is in my Netflix Instant Play queue.  If The Raid: Redemption is any indication, then Merantau will get fast-tracked to the top of the list very soon.  This is a lot of fun for any action movie fan.

Now by it’s promotion, The Raid: Redemption sounds almost like it’s little more than a video game brought to life, and as far as I’m concerned, if it’s well-made and stylish with it’s action, then there’s really nothing wrong with that.  Well, fortunately, The Raid: Redemption is extremely well made and features some of the best shot and just balls-out crazy action scenes that you’re likely to see all year.

It’s story and characters are somewhat simplistic, but not in any sort of insulting way.  This movie’s main concern is to get you into it’s action as soon as it can, and it certainly does that.  This sort of reminds me of what you might get if director John Woo and Jackie Chan had ever teamed together for a serious film, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty high praise.

Uwais’ martial arts skills are simply amazing and fortunately he’s got a great partner with Gareth Evans in how it’s presented.  Evans shoots these scenes in what appears to be a hand-held style, but amazingly, he keeps his shots pretty wide and you can always follow the action.  There’s no quick cuts and extreme close-ups that seems like it’s par for the course in American action films (though to be fair, there are certainly American directors who can do that pretty well their own selves).  It’s all right there in the open, just waiting for you to gasp at the amazing stuff that gets pulled off.

Now if you’re going to see this, then no doubt, you’re going for it’s intense action and really that is the star of the show.  As I said above, the story and characters are simplistic, but yet I still found myself caring about what was going to happen to Rama and of course the results of his cryptic message to his father at the beginning.  Well, that certainly does get resolved and kudos to Iko Uwais for a great physical performance that I think helps you get more into his character.  The Raid: Redemption won’t win any major acting awards, but still it’s cast is quite committed to it’s story.  Others who really stand out are Joe Taslim as Jaka, the SWAT team commander, Yayan Ruhian as Mad Dog, one of Tama’s main enforcers (and again another physical marvel to watch in action) and Ray Sahetapy as Rama, who chews scenery with the best of them.

The Raid: Redemption is just a whole lot of fun for any action movie fan.  You will see some truly amazing work here, I have absolutely no doubt of that at all.  It’s extremely well-made and there’s not a wasted moment on screen.  Don’t miss this one…

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Theatrical Review: Paranormal Activity 3

Paramount Pictures certainly knows when they have a good thing.  Two years ago, the first Paranormal Activity took audiences by storm and the studio was quick to follow it up with last year’s terrific Paranormal Activity 2, which also did quite well.  So of course it was clear, a third was going to be made and I suspect a fourth will be coming as well.

The one bad part about this is that Paranormal Activity 3 is (just like the second one) strictly for those that have followed this series. If you’re planning to see this without seeing the other two movies, then you’ll probably be lost.

In it’s promotion, this has been pretty clearly set up to be a prequel to both films.  It certainly is that.  I’m only going to describe what this is about in the broadest of ways, which is to say that this is about the origins of why the sisters Katie and Kristi have all of this weirdness that affects them.

After a quick introduction seeing the adult Katie and Kristi discovering a bunch of of video tapes taken of them in their childhood, the rest of the action of the film moves to 1988.  Katie and Kristi are small children living with their mom and her boyfriend, who just happens to be a videographer.  Dennis, the boyfriend is making a sex tape of himself and the girl’s mother, Julie, when a supposed earthquake hits.  After this has happened, Dennis reviews the tape and thinks that he sees a figure amidst the dust.  He’s naturally curious and now wants to investigate this further.  He does this by first setting up two video cameras in the house and eventually adds a third, and of course, hi-jinks ensue.

Like the previous films in the series, this uses “found footage” with this footage being entirely on videotape.  While all of the films use handheld footage, the discoveries are mostly confined to the footage used with stationary cameras.  With the first film, it was with one camera.  With the second, we had six cameras.  Paranormal Activity 3 uses three cameras and one of them is very inventive.  Dennis decides that the stationary footage from his first two cameras (both positioned in bedrooms) isn’t enough and so he adds a third.  He has the novel idea of using the base of an oscillating fan, mounting a camera on top of that and positioning it between the kitchen and the living room.  This is an absolutely terrific idea and many of the films best moments comes from the slow reveal of something happening in one room, then panning to the other.  The thing that all three of the movies do extremely well with this technique is that they make you examine the entire screen and always make you think you’re seeing something out of the corner of your eye.

I really enjoyed Paranormal Activity 3 though there are a few inconsistencies with things said in the first two movies.  Now by the end of this movie, some of these inconsistencies can be explained away, but that comes more from the viewer than it does the film.  This is a slight nitpick, but while this is set in 1988, there’s a couple of things that are said that would be more in line with what someone would say today.  It’s not a big deal, just a little observation.

Paranormal Activity 3 is very well made.  It’s paced the same as the others with escalating build-ups to a big finale that just doesn’t let up.  The visual effects are subtle and seamless.  All of the performances are terrific, in particular that of young Jessica Tyler Brown who plays the young Kristi.  Lauren Bittner (Julie), Christopher Nicholas Smith (Dennis) and Chloe Csengery (the young Katie) all do fine work as well and certainly keep this moving.  Keeping continuity with the other films, Katie Featherston, Sprague Grayden and Brian Boland all reprise their roles during the introduction as the adult Katie and Kristi and Kristi’s husband, Daniel.

One thing that I’ve seen a few complain about is that none of the footage of the trailer actually shows up in the movie.  I applaud this for this type of film.  Everything that’s shown in the trailer still plays to what you can expect in the film regarding it’s overall flavor, but everything else is a big surprise.  When you see so many trailers that actually ruin things for some movies, this sort of marketing (for this type of film) is certainly welcome.

Paranormal Activity 3 is quite a bit of fun, and just falls a little short of the other two movies due to a few story inconsistencies.  Even though those can be explained away, it would’ve been better had they actually done so in the film itself rather than me coming up with my own solution.  Now I don’t necessarily think coming to my own reasons for this is necessarily a bad thing, but because of the matter of fact nature this uses with it’s found footage, it would certainly be more in line if those explanations were right there on-screen.  Regardless of that, Paranormal Activity 3 still succeeds at being quite the effective horror film and it’s ending is absolutely terrific.  Highly recommend, but only if you’ve seen the first two movies.

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Theatrical Review: The Thing

It’s winter of 1982 and our location is Antarctica.  A Norwegian scientific research team has made an amazing discovery below the ice; a spaceship and it’s inhabitant, completely frozen in ice.  Top scientist Sandor Halvorsen is called in for the discovery and convinces a highly promising paleontologist, Kate Lloyd, to come with him.  Once back at Antarctica, they are truly amazed at the discovery in front of them, until it comes back to life…

The Thing is a direct prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing from 1982, which in itself was a remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World made in 1951.  John Carpenter was fortunate for the time when he made his version; he didn’t have to deal with eye-rolling fans ready to slam him on the internet for re-making a classic film and of course then proclaiming proudly that “Hollywood has run out of ideas.”  That of course isn’t true for director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. who’s making his feature debut with this version of The Thing. Fortunately van Heijningen has some able assistance here thanks to production company Strike Entertainment (the producers behind Zack Snyder’s re-make of Dawn of the Dead) and a script from Eric Heisserer who has previously written another fun prequel story this year with Final Destination 5. Even with that sort of backing, this version isn’t as entirely successful as Carpenter’s version, but I think that’s more because of an over-familiarity with Carpenter’s movie and of course the extremely high pedestal it’s been placed on (and deserved to, it is a terrific film).

Basically, you generally know in advance what you’re in for here.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you play around with it a bit and they do here, but not quite to the extent that I would’ve liked to have seen them do.  There are a few nice twists to what the Thing itself does and we even get to get up close with it’s spacecraft.  Though the visual effects aren’t the practical on-set style that Rob Bottin did in 1982, they still look consistent with what Bottin did.  To me, that was admirable as they could’ve been glossed up quite a bit but this actually does try to stay consistent with the 1982 film.

Where this really falls short is with it’s characters.  Now I’m certainly willing to grant them the fact that not everyone is going to be as exciting the cast that Carpenter assembled.  I’ll also grant them the fact that this is a Norwegian expedition and so they just may not be given to the same histrionics that you got from the American team in Carpenter’s film.  Actually, I’d be OK with this if the approach taken with them might’ve been more of a salute to what was in the Hawks film, using a snappier pace and more rapid-fire dialogue, which certainly would’ve stood out.  I’ve read how Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance as Kate has been compared to what Sigourney Weaver did as Ripley in the first Alien film.  To me, the only similarity is that both are women character’s who’ve had to step up to a difficult situation and that’s it.  Weaver’s Ripley, Even in the original film, is a much more lived-in character and that doesn’t quite feel the same with Winstead’s Kate.  Now I don’t necessarily hold this against Winstead, it’s more in the script and maybe just not quite knowing how to make this group as distinctive as they could be.

There are some nice character moments though but they come from the Norwegians.  Ulrich Thomsen plays Sandor Halvorsen and you pretty much know he’s going to be uptight from the start and pretty much cements that when He tells Kate at one point that her job there isn’t to think but to do what he tells her to do.  Another moment involves figuring out who is who once the shapeshifting alien has revealed itself.  They actually come up with a novel way to do that here that doesn’t duplicate what Carpenter did and yet it still has the same sort of tension.  But as this process is going on, there’s moments where the Norwegians are wanting to turn on the Americans with them and actually make that sort of nationalism as part of the point.  Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not overwhelming, but both of these moments at least try to start a little bit of fire with these characters and I at least give it some points for that.

What really saves the whole thing in the end is the ending.  At first, you do get a feeling that they’re going to change some things up here and not be as exact a prequel as it could be, and that was starting to bother me a bit.  But, once the end credits started to roll, it was firmly cemented that this was indeed an exact prequel to Carpenter’s film.  This, to me, also helps the fact that the characters just aren’t as exciting as what they were in Carpenter’s film- I mean every Antarctica outpost can’t be filled with the same character types, right?  Basically it just makes it more palatable in the end and makes this version a fairly worthy companion to John Carpenter’s film.  I would certainly like to see this again at some point down the road, but in such a way where I’m watching this first and then watching Carpenter’s film afterwards.  I do think director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. is doing a lot here to maintain visual consistency with Carpenter’s original and I think a later viewing with both back-to-back could be a lot more fulfilling for this prequel.

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Theatrical Review: Real Steel

It’s a few years in the future and down-on-his-luck former boxer Charlie Kenton tries to eke out a living and regain some former glory.  The sport of boxing no longer uses human players and has now gone high-tech with massive robots that really have no limits at the kind of destruction they can cause.  Charlie travels from small venues (at the opening he’s at a local carnival/rodeo) and participates in underground events where he’s behind the controls of his own robots made up of scrap metal.  Charlie’s hit rock-bottom and now finds his life further complicated having to deal with his estranged son, Max, who soon finds himself just as entranced with the sport as his father.

That’s the basic premise to Real Steel the latest movie from director Shawn Levy who’s best known for the Night At The Museum movies and the more recent Date NightReal Steel loosely uses aspects of Richard Matheson’s short story Steel which has been adapted as a terrific Twilight Zone episode starring the late, great Lee Marvin.  One of my fellow reviewers at The Trades said he was going to boycott this movie because it wasn’t being called “Rock “Em Sock ‘Em Robots” after the old Hasbro toy.  When you first see the trailer to Real Steel, I’ll certainly grant you that that’s the first thing to come to mind, but it’s not the only time that this premise has been used before and in fact there’s been more real versions with such TV shows as Robot Wars. But that’s beside the point- is Real Steel a good movie?

For the most part, it is though I do have a couple of little quibbles with it, but we’ll get to that shortly.  I give Shawn Levy high marks for making this sort of light family drama compared to his other movies.  Real Steel follows a lot of familiar notes for an underdog sports film and personally I think it has a lot more in common with a film like Ron Shelton’s Tin Cup more than it does with say some obvious boxing movies.

It’s a longer movie than I’d originally expect it would be, but it doesn’t feel like a long movie.  Levy’s paced this in a balanced way dividing it up between fairly equal parts of light human drama and robotic action.  And speaking of it’s robotic action, I think it’s visual effects are superb.  They won’t necessarily “wow” compared to some other big-budget films, but they are seamless and really well composed and quite fun.

Where this falls short for me is in it’s initial characterization of Charlie Kenton.  Right off the bat, when we’re first introduced to Charlie he’s fallen out of his bed from his truck with beer bottles around him after he’s been through what I perceived to be a bender of sorts, which is one of those little character things that I’m just getting a little tired of.  From there, Charlie’s just not really that much of a likable character at least on paper, and there’s nothing there to really get behind him other than the fact that he’s being played by Hugh Jackman.  Now by it’s end, he certainly does progress to a point that we are behind him and rooting for him, but it happens more by rote than it does through any sort of real human depth.  I mentioned Tin Cup above and there’s certainly similarities to Kevin Costner’s character in that film, but the difference here is that there’s still something very much likable and identifiable by the character that Costner plays.  It’s almost like this movie is afraid to do that with Jackman here at the start and wants to keep Charlie this very edgy and abrasive guy until his son enters the picture.

Dakota Goyo plays Charlie’s son, Max, and his introduction leads to another quibble, which is this sort of by-the-humbers battling that he has with his father with any initial conversation being nothing more than yelling at each other more than anything else.  Sure, it’s a little more understandable on Max’s part, I certainly get that.  For an underdog sports film that plays so much by a standard playbook, it just would’ve been nice had this tried a couple of less conventional methods of illustrating it’s characters from the start and made them more appealing to want to get behind them.  As I said, there is a progression and when that starts to happen that’s when this picks up more.

The brightest spot in the cast is Evangeline Lilly who plays Bailey Tallet, an old girlfriend of Charlie’s who runs the gym where Charlie first trained at.  Lilly’s really engaging as this other character that’s more or less at the end of her rope and I thank goodness that she’s here to provide a counter balance to what you first get with Charlie and Max. For the most part, there’s really nothing that original about her character, but Lilly’s presence really makes her inviting.

Even with these character quibbles, I still thought that Real Steel was an overall enjoyable movie.  I like it’s back half more than it’s first half though your own mileage might vary with that.  With a little more thought to it’s main characters at the start this might’ve delivered a real knockout punch by it’s end.  It’s diversionary fun, but it could’ve been a lot more.

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Theatrical Review: The Devil’s Double

The Devil’s Double is loosely based on the true story of Latif Yahia.  Latif Yahia was an Iraqi army lieutenant hand-picked to be the “fiday” (body double) for one of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday.  If Latif refuses, his family would be condemned to death.  Ultimately, Latif agrees and basically gives up his own life to exactingly learning how to be Uday.  Uday tells Latif that what belongs to him (Uday) is now his (Latif’s), though Latif is appalled at Uday’s decadent lifestyle.  Latif has no idea of who he can trust within Uday’s circle.

The Devil’s Double has been described as a “Mid-East Scarface” and while that description isn’t far off the mark, there’s certainly a lot more to it than just being what some would see as another gangster film.  Thanks to extremely skillful direction from veteran director Lee Tamahori and absolutely brilliant performances from Dominic Cooper, this hits on another couple of levels.  Not only do you have what can be seen as this Mid-Eastern gangster lifestyle, but Latif does everything he can to still keep his own sense of morality strong.  At the same time, this gets more complex with Uday who essentially falls in love with Latif, not in any sort of homosexual way, but more because he’s built Latif into an extension of himself.

Director Lee Tamahouri first got great notice with his first feature, Once Were Warriors which tells the story of a family descended from Maori warriors struggling to keep itself together while dealing with an abusive father and societal problems.  It’s a terrific film, and Tamahori deserved every bit of praise that he got for it.  Since then, he got involved with bigger Hollywood films with varying degrees of success.  Some of those movies include Mullholland Falls, The Edge, and the James Bond film, Die Another Day. I wasn’t that great a fan of his last movie, the Nicholas Cage thriller Next from 2007, but for the most part, I’ve enjoyed his work.

I first saw the trailer for The Devil’s Double earlier in the year when I saw 13 Assassins and was just mesmerized by it.  I’ve been eagerly anticipating this one and so when it came here to St. Louis, I couldn’t wait to see the movie.  I’m happy to say that The Devil’s Double didn’t disappoint me in the slightest and I’d certainly put it right up there with 13 Assassins as one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far.

From what I understand, Latif’s duty as Uday’s double lasted for about a 4-year period, so the events of this film are presented in a pretty condensed way.  I’d tend to think that the overall intent is pretty accurate to how things played out, but considering the things that Latif had to do, we may not know for sure just how complicit he was in some of the atrocities that Uday was responsible for.  I’d certainly expect that liberties were taken (and one is very obvious by the fact that this is all presented in English) and regardless, it certainly felt to me like I got an accurate portrayal of the big picture.

Tamahori doesn’t politicize this either.  While it’s set during the Gulf War, that scene is set primarily using news footage and it’s not the central focus of the film.  That focus is more on dictatorship in general and it’s effects.  I didn’t feel like I was being sold propaganda about America’s involvement in Mid-Eastern affairs at all, but more getting a picture from an Iraqi’s point of view of being on the inside.

Technically speaking, Tamahori’s film is absolutely beautiful.  Dominic Cooper plays both roles of Latif and Uday and the effects used for when both are on-screen at the same time are pretty seamless.

Dominic Cooper is just tremendous in this film.  Prior to this, he was seen in movies like Mamma Mia and An Education neither of which I’ve seen.  Currently though most of the audience will be familiar with Cooper thanks to the part that he played in Captain America: The First Avenger which was the part of Howard Stark, the father of Tony Stark who of course is Iron Man.  Even though it’s a smaller part, I thought Cooper was terrific in Captain America and so I was a little stunned to hear that it was the same guy in the lead for The Devil’s Double. As I said above, Cooper plays both roles of Latif and Uday and one could also see him doing extra duty of playing a performance within a performance when he has to play Latif playing Uday.  It’s not just a simple matter of him turning off one character and going right into the other- you can still see parts of Latif while he is standing in for Uday.  Uday is almost cartoonish in contrast to Latif, but even though I say that, I don’t mean it in any sort of derogatory way.  Uday’s the son of a despot and gets anything he wants any time he wants, and so I’d expect him to be quite a bit over-the-top.  Latif is stoic and does his best to keep his composure as he bears witness to the shocking experiences he goes through.  While at first this may not seem to get the most emotional depth out of the character, it does build, and by the film’s end the real emotion is there when Latif makes his break.  If may not be the same thing that we’d necessarily feel in our own culture, but it certainly felt authentic to what was presented here.  This is an Oscar-worthy performance and I can only hope that Cooper gets recognized for it when the time comes.

The Devil’s Double is a pretty powerful movie that works on a couple of levels.  It can be seen as a gangster film, most certainly, but works even more as a complex character study of two characters, both with completely different views on life.  It is an extremely violent movie and it’s certainly graphic about it, though again, I believe it’s just scratching the surface of the total horrors Latif actually faced.  Still, what’s seen here is probably enough to put off squeamish viewers, so that should certainly be kept in mind if you’re considering seeing this.  Regardless of that, for myself, The Devil’s Double is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Highly, highly recommended.

Text Reviews Theatrical Review

Theatrical Review: Conan The Barbarian

I think that director Marcus Nispel has waited his whole life to make this movie.

He’s best known for earlier helming the Michael Bay-produced remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday The 13th. He got his “warm-up” of sorts with Pathfinder in 2007.  I’ve seen the remake of Chainsaw and thought it was technically well-done at least.  I haven’t seen the Friday The 13th remake as of yet, but have seen Pathfinder and had fun with that.  The sheer look of that movie gave me a lot of hope for what Nispel would do with Conan The Barbarian.

And I wasn’t disappointed at all.  Now keep in mind, this is pulpy, B-movie fare and it wallows in it.  I certainly applaud that, as I’m a big fan of pulpy B-moives.  As this starts, we’re told of the Acheron, a group that ruled the land in pure tyranny thanks to the power that they gained through a mystical bone mask.  The Acheron were overthrown by barbarian tribes who late broke apart the mask and hid the parts so that it could never be used again.  Khalar Zym, a tyrant in the making, seeks to put the mask back together again to both rule the land and bring his long dead wife back to life.  Zym has located the last piece of the mask in Cimmeria, with Corin, the leader of the Cimmerians standing in his way. Needless to say, Zym gets his final piece of the mask, but in order to get it’s power active, he needs one last component, the pure blood of someone descended from the Acheron.  Now, the only thing that stands in Zym’s way, is the young Conan, the son of Corin, who seeks his revenge.

Now, I openly admit, I’m not the most knowledgeable person around when it comes to Conan lore.  I’ve only read some of the Marvel comics of the past and have seen the two prior movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I don’t know how true this is to the works of Robert E. Howard, but it certainly puts me in the frame of mind of the early comics by writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith. What really carries the day for me is Nispel’s strong visual sense, some really intense set pieces and a strong cast that is just eating up this chance to have some strong pulp fun.

Nispel’s film looks incredible with lots of bright action scenes, terrific production design and some really well-done special effects.  One sequence in particular involving the four principle actors and a battle with some creatures made up entirely of the earth is absolutely spectacular and for me was virtually worth the price of admission.  There’s way more to this than just the one scene, though it is a standout.  Where this falters just a bit for me is in some of it’s pacing, it’s disjointed in a few areas.  For the most part though, this is a rollicking good time that very much embraces it’s R-rating.  It is extremely bloody and violent, not watered down in the slightest, and just further adds to sheer zeal in making this.

Jason Momoa, from HBO’s Game of Thrones plays Conan.  Now I’ve not seen Game of Thrones so this is my first real extended exposure to Momoa.  Visually, he reminds me of Barry Windsor-Smith’s version of Conan from the comics (whereas Scwarzenegger reminds me more of John Buscema’s version).  He certainly has the sheer physicality for the part and attacks this with some real zest.  but what really brings his performance to life is this little twinkle in in his eyes that he gets right before going into action.  There’s something there that actually brings real charisma to this and makes him fun to watch in every scene he’s in.

Stephen Lang plays Khalar Zym and Rose McGowan plays his daughter Marique, our villains of the piece.  From my perspective, they were just having a ball with their parts.  Lang has terrific delivery and his physical presence is nearly as impressive as Momoa’s.  Rose McGowan is just built for parts like this with her quirky intensity.  I have to admit, from the trailers, I just didn’t recognize her at first, and I think her unique look in this film just further adds to her performance.

Rachel Nichols fills out our leads, playing Tamara, the Acheron descendant.  Compared to the other three, her performance is the most sedate, but it doesn’t hurt the piece either and she does have some nice chemistry with Momoa.  Ron Perlman plays Conan’s father Corin, and though he’s only in the early parts of the film, his presence gives this whole thing credibility.  I also have to give note to Leo Howard who plays the young Conan, really standing out in these early scenes.

I chose to see this in 3D.  The first time I saw the trailer for the movie, I saw it in 3D and was very much impressed by it.  I thought the 3D was very well done, really standing out in the film’s action sequences, though not to the same extent as what I saw in Final Destination 5. Some scenes display a real immersive depth, one in particular involving Nichols walking out from a cave with her reflection being cast in a small pool of water just really struck me well.  Going into this, I thought it had been shot in 3D, but after seeing the film, I then discovered that this was tacked on.  Normally, I’m not a real fan of this, but obviously i enjoyed what I saw, so I certainly applaud the effort that went into this to really make it’s 3D stand out.  I don’t think it’s necessary to see this in 3D, but it did work for me.

I had a really fun time with Conan the Barbarian. I think Marcus Nispel has a real affinity for this stuff and he’s certainly not afraid to embrace it’s B-movie aspects.  Jason Momoa is a talent to watch and I certainly look forward to seeing what he gets to do next, but further, I hope he and Nispel get together to make another Conan film.

Text Reviews Theatrical Review

Theatrical Review: Cowboys & Aliens

Our setting is the Old West and as the movie begins, outlaw Jake Lonegran abruptly awakens out in the wild.  He’s been beaten and has no clue as to who he is and how he’s ended up where he’s ended up.  He notices a mysterious wrist attachment, and while he’s trying to take the attachment off, he’s encountered by a trio who’s making their way to the town of Absolution.  When Jake doesn’t give them answers that they’re looking for, the trio decides to “teach” this stranger a lesson.  Jake reacts instinctively and quickly teaches the trio a lesson of his own and soon he’s taken some of their clothing, their money and some guns and makes his own way to Absolution, still having no clue as to who he is and how he’s ended up in this situation.

Once he’s made his way to Absolution, Jake finds out a little about the town and a few of the people, and then comes across Percy Dolarhyde, the reckless son of Woodrow Dolarhyde, a former Colonel who controls the town thanks to his cattle business.  Percy ends up getting himself into quite a bit of trouble as he’s trying to teach Jake a lesson and lands himself in jail.  Soon though, the town’s sheriff takes notice of Jake and recognizes his picture from a wanted poster.  Jake has also caught the eye of a mysterious woman named Ella, who seems to know everything about Jake’s situation but isn’t really giving anything up yet.

Soon, word gets to Woodrow Dolarhyde about what has happened to his son.  Dolarhyde and his men make their way to Absolution in the middle of the evening to try and get Percy free just as Percy and Jake are both being taken away to the Federal Marshal.  Just as this happens, strange flying craft appear over the town, quickly establishing that they’re there for destructive purposes and in the process, abduct many of the townspeople.  Now, Jake and Woodrow Dolarhyde find that they have to join forces to find out the secrets behind these mysterious visitors.

That’s the premise to Cowboys & Aliens the latest comic/graphic novel to make it’s way to the big screen as well as the latest from director and actor Jon Favreau, who’s best known recently for his work at the helm of both of Marvel Entertainment’s Iron Man films.  Now, I’ve never read the graphic novel (written by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg), so I’ve no clue as to how close this is to it.  I’ve heard though that the main inspiration for the adaptation has been more from the cover image of the book more than anything else, so take from that what you will.

Favreau’s got some very impressive talent both behind and in front of the camera, with the driving script having such notables as Lost creator Damon Lindelof and the duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who are currently the driving forces behind the TV shows Hawaii Five-O and Fringe as well as having had their hands in many big movies, including the Transformers franchise and the latest re-working of Star Trek. With writers with that pedigree, you certainly do expect big things from Cowboys & Aliens.

For the most part, Cowboys & Aliens delivers a fun, popcorn experience.  Favreau’s movie certainly has a terrific look (I think it’s his best-looking movie to date) and has some pretty impressive visual effects.  Where this falters is with it’s script.  Now when I say that, please keep in mind, I still had a great time with this movie, so I’m not really being damning with my criticism.  I think they’re trying to pack a little too much into this though and not necessarily paying everything off as satisfactory as they could.  Plus there’s a few holes (in particular behind the character of Ella) that you could drive a truck through.  It’s still a pretty rousing good time with some pretty terrific set pieces, but it’s script could’ve probably used a few less hands involved.

Of course, when you’ve got a cast that’s as large and diverse as this, I guess the temptation is there to try and give everyone their due, and for the most part, everyone does get their due but to varying degrees of satisfaction.

The cast is headed by Daniel Craig as Jake Lonegran and Harrsion Ford as Woodrow Dolarhyde.  Craig, of course, is best known these days for being the latest actor to play James Bond, and here he’s just as intense as he is as Bond, being quite convincing with his action sequences.  I tend to see Craig in the same vein as the late, great Steve McQueen with a coolness and confidence that all guys wish they could have, and he certainly continues that perception with Cowboys & Aliens. I haven’t been quite as impressed with some of the more recent work from Harrison Ford, and as this gets started, I was almost wishing for that part to have been played by someone like Gene Hackman instead.  But, Ford does get some nice service from the script and has the most satisfying arc that any of the characters of this movie can hope to have.  His character actually does go through a transformation here, and it’s very much evident on-screen.

They’re backed up with a very impressive array of talent including Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, David O’Hara and Walton Goggins.  All of these guys play some specific Western archetypes and they’re all certainly very serviceable in their parts.  I thought that Sam Rockwell and Paul Dano were both quite good. Rockwell plays Doc, the man who runs the local saloon and who’s getting tired of being pushed around by the Dolarhydes.  For myself, Sam Rockwell, whether he’s playing a lead or he’s in support, is always money in the bank.  He’s strictly support here, but he certainly brings enough to the table to stand out amongst this impressive cast.  Paul Dano plays Percy Dolarhyde and he’s certainly quite effective in creating this spoiled son character that you really want to see get hurt at just about every opportunity.

Olivia Wilde plays the mysterious Ella and she’s the one character that I have the most problem with, though it’s not any fault of Wilde’s.  Ella is key for this group’s discovery of why the aliens are here.  Her character really does nothing more than advance the plot to the writer’s convenience.  Ella leaves more questions than answers and while I don’t think that every film necessarily has to dot all of their “i’s” and cross all of their “t’s,” as far as her character was concerned, this needed more completion.

Still, even with it’s script problems, I thought Cowboys & Aliens was a fun genre mash-up.  I certainly had a good time with it despite it’s script shortcomings.  Jon Favreau has certainly done all he could to at least make this look fantastic and he keeps things moving at a pretty brisk pace.  Harrison Ford is the biggest standout for me with it’s extremely impressive cast, getting the best character payoff by the film’s end.  I wouldn’t necessarily say to run right out and see this right away, but it’s certainly a fun diversion, just as long as you’re not too demanding in getting every question answered.

Text Reviews Theatrical Review

Theatrical Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Flat out, right from the start, I think Marvel hit one out of the park with this one…

While comic book super-hero movies are all the rage now (and I certainly remember a time when they weren’t) to the point where there seems to be a certain amount of fatigue setting in from some viewers, Marvel is doing something distinctly different in trying to create fully satisfying standalone movies that also all tie together. In my estimation, they’ve really succeeded.  They’ve given their hardcore fans something that they know, but they’ve also given a fresh viewer something that they can really get into.  With Captain America: The First Avenger we’ve gotten one of the most pure conversions yet and my hat is off to director Joe Johnston, producer Kevin Feige and the entire production team of Marvel Entertainment.

We start off in the present day, as a a mysterious aircraft has been located buried under an arctic mass by an as yet unidentified team (though those in the know already have an idea who this team is).  As the team makes their way into the aircraft, they discover a familiar red, white and blue object and from there we flashback to the 1940s.

In short order, we’re introduced to Johann Schmidt, also known as the Red Skull, the leader of HYDRA, a group that supports the Nazis with their work into the supernatural and the paranormal.  Schmidt is in pursuit of a mysterious object in Norway (giving us our first little tie into Thor) that he believes will lead him to some sort of ultimate power.

The we meet young Steve Rogers.  Rogers is a 90-lb. weakling who has a good heart and wants to do his part for his country.  He’s repeatedly tried to enlist into the armed forces and repeatedly gets classified as 4F, making him unable to serve.  As Rogers is getting ready to see his best friend off to war, James “Bucky” Barnes, he’s discovered by Dr. Abraham Erskine.  Erskine sees great potential In Rogers for his Super Soldier project and is immediately drafted into service, much to the chagrin of the head of the project, Colonel Philips and one of his top agents, Peggy Carter.

Needless to say, the project is a success and from there… well, I’ll leave that to you to discover.

Captain America: The First Avenger is the fifth in the series of Marvel comic adaptations to be directly handled by Marvel itself, following on the heels of the first two Iron Man movies, The Incredible Hulk and Thor leading up to next year’s big Avengers movie.  It’s also, in my opinion, the best film yet in the series.

Joe Johnston is the director of this film and he’s certainly no stranger to working in the realm of the fantastic, having spent many years before as a lead concept artist with Lucasfilm and having previously directed such films as Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III and last year’s The Wolfman. When I first heard that Johnston had been selected to direct this, I was thrilled by the prospect, primarily due to his work in bringing the late Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer to cinematic life.  Johnston doesn’t disappoint at all here.  He gives us a very satisfying full story about the good Captain as well as tying it into the other Marvel films, and it’s just loaded with nice “Easter Eggs” that fans will appreciate, that in no way will detract from anyone else’s enjoyment.

The look of the movie is absolutely first rate.  Everything from production design, to shot framing to visual effects is absolutely stunning.  For a movie that’s slightly over two hours long, it’s tightly edited and wonderfully punctuated with a terrific score from composer Alan Silvestri.  In fact, I hope this gets an Oscar nomination for visual effects primarily for the wonderful job the movie does in transforming actor Chris Evans into a 90-pound weakling.  Near as I can tell, this looks seamless and the only way you know it’s a visual effect is because you have a recognizable guy like Chris Evans in the role.  I’d hazard to guess that if this same technology was used with a total unknown, with the exception of the height differential, most would think that an unknown actually made a physical transformation himself for the role.

Chris Evans plays the part of Steve Rogers/Captain America and he’s just fantastic.  He’s certainly no stranger to comic book movies having played The Human Torch in The Fantastic Four movies, and Jensen and Lucas Lee in last year’s The Losers and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World respectively.  I first got familiar with Evans when I saw him in Not Another Teen Movie back in 2001 and it’s been fun to watch him come along since then.  His Captain America is sincere and quietly confident to the point of what I’d expect that some might see as corny, but I love that, and think it’s just the thing that this character needs.  He wouldn’t have been my first choice to have played this part, which is no reflection on his skills, I just wouldn’t have thought of him to do it.  I’m sold though, Chris Evans is perfect here and you just want to see him do more.

He’s got a lot of great back-up, starting with actress Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter.  Carter’s first skeptical of what this weak guy can do, but as she gets to know Rogers further, she really opens up to the guy.  That chemistry that Atwell has with Evans is genuine and certainly convincing in the context of the film.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Colonel Phillips and really this is the type of part that Jones can do in his sleep, but it’s still terrific to see him do it.  Jones brings a big sense of humor to the film that’s never condescending.  Sebastion Stan plays “Bucky” Barnes, Rogers’ best friend, and though his scenes seem relatively brief, he’s right on target.  Stanley Tucci plays Dr. Abraham Erskine and brings just the right touch of both compassion and authority.

Hugo Weaving plays Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull and ever since first seeing him in The Matrix I’ve been thoroughly impressed by his skills and confidence in every part he’s played.  In V For Vendetta he confidently and convincingly played a part without ever revealing his true face.  While he does show his face in his opening scenes here, at one point his true look as The Red Skull is shown and from that point on, he plays that part in the full make-up and to me, from that point on, he’s Jack Kirby’s classic character brought to true cinematic life.  Weaving’s just terrific here and the promise is certainly there that he will return to the part.

I chose not to see this one in 3D and though I’m glad I did see it in 3D, I’ve since seen Christy Lemire’s and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review of the film (in 3D) on Ebert Presents At The Movies to which both gave it a “thumbs up” review.  I’ve of course heard others de-cry the 3D yet again, so really I guess it just where you stand on 3D yourself as to whether you choose that route to see the film.  There were certainly sequences that I saw in the film that I could imagine looked great in 3D, but would those sequences justify the full price?  I really can’t say.

But regardless of how you see it… do see it.  Captain America: The First Avenger is terrific fun and just a rousing good time at the movies.  Chris Evans carries the film with a commanding presence and charm and the film itself just looks awesome under Joe Johnston’s masterful direction.  As has been the case with all of the Marvel movies, stay through the end credits and you’ll be treated to a preview of next summer’s Avengers film.  Don’t miss this one…