Monthly Archives: May 2015

“Fury Road” excels expectations

What a lovely film!

What a lovely film!

For not one second did I look at my watch. My eyes were glued to the screen as I saw the adrenaline rush and visual splendor. Critics praised it and it rightfully deserves it. Of all the blockbusters, I wish “Mad Max: Fury Road” came out sooner in an era of cinema when we were desperate for a movie that was rich in atmosphere and grand in scope. No need to worry now. George Miller returns in the director’s chair and delivers the goods giving a satisfying entry. Miller was there from the first film and seeing him return is a delight. He knows how to please audiences of new while delighting fans of old with small cameos from Max’s old car to the outfit he wears. Every frame and every scene doesn’t boring or unsettling.

The plot, however, is so simple that one could debate if its paper thin. A one-armed rebel named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is on the run to a promised place of green in a rusted gas tanker. Along for the ride is Max (Tom Hardy) who barley says a single paragraph as he joins on. The chemistry is almost akin to a male and female version of Han Solo fighting at each other while working off one another. However, they already know one can’t survive alone in the desolate wasteland and reluctantly trust each other. I like how Furiosa is able to put her own life on the line as much as Max when it comes to saving characters of great importance. Not to mention, her mechanic skills become an interesting character trait later on when she has to teach the survivors aboard how to run the place.

The survivors in question are the wives of bad guy Immortan Joe, who can be described as the Darth Vader of the movie. With a plastic muscular chest covering his frail body and buck-teeth oxygen mask, he stops at nothing to see his property in his hand. The menace Hugh Keays-Byrne gives is memorable as each action he creates shows how much dominance  he posses on the world. Joe’s design is so iconic it matches the personality of the character with such a powerful presence covering a weak body.

“Fury Road” is a visual wonder taking the vast dune desert and turning it into a Salvador Dali painting. One minute, we trek into a sandstorm that looks right out of a level of Hell and then nightfall seems peaceful but still has that menace. It complements the world of Mad Max as no one can be trusted and those who do are under reluctance or seeking promise to a fortune of nothing. Not since last year’s “Guardians” has there been a movie that combines visual wonder in a summer blockbuster wizz-bang fest of enjoyment.

The biggest surprise for me was not the practical effects and on-set stunt work. But rather Nicholas Hoult as Nux, a boy warrior that seeks to please his master the Immortan Joe but ends up following a different journey. This character is given a story arch almost similar to Golumn from “Lord of the Rings” but end up sympathizing more for his innocence. One minute, he follows his faith from the religion he is brought up on and the next minute questions it. Under all the pale make-up and chapped lips, Hoult gives such a wonderful performance of insanity and tragedy to this character that it makes me wonder where all this was when he performed in “Jack the Giant Slayer.” No doubt, my favorite character this year is Nux.

As said before, CGI effects are used as minimal possible while all the car chases and stunts are done in camera (well, almost after reading an article from Fxguide). Its refreshing to see so many live cars crashing and hunting down one another that each vehicle almost feels like a character itself. It shows how alive the world is as these mechanical monsters ravage the dune sands while trying to go against every obstacle of the land. For all the crazy designs and over the top ideas like a guitarist flamethrower, I never questioned the oddity.

The only flaw of “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the character Max himself. He is present a lot and moves the story along but it feels like more could have been done. With the few lines given, Tom Hardy still makes an impact with his portrayal compared to Mel Gibson’s years ago. But I wish there was more lines and time spent diving into this character’s psych.

Regardless, “Fury Road” is one movie you have to see on the big screen. With much action and visual appeal, this is one movie that will keep you on the edge and give you the money worth. Now, there are points of violence and some intense spots but it never gets too graphic or too unsettling to ruin the fun. People who rent movies like this claim they have seen it. They are dead wrong. A movie is meant to be seen in a theater to appreciate its grand appeal. If you even plan to skip this one and deem it a rental, you have no idea what your missing out on this summer.

Rental Corner: “Smoochy ” curious misfire

*Insert clever Barney joke here

*Insert clever Barney joke here

Never has there been a comedy I’ve seen in a while that comes close to what its satirizing and yet feels misguided. Well, “Death to Smoochy” knows what its trying to parody but at the same time missing a lot of opportunities. Now granted, the film wasn’t a big hit at the box office but somehow was able to get new life on home video and television. I can see why considering its main target is the Barney craze we went through in the 1990s. We all remember when that big and happy purple dinosaur entered our living rooms teaching us things we knew in pre-school. I have the unfortunate task of saying I was one of those kids who grew up on the show. However, I also favored more PBS programs like Sesame Street and even Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood at the time for being diverse and not shying away from big topics. Its ironic because “Smoochy” tries to be this dark farce of children’s show hosts but yet somehow feels watered down. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when it tries to be really hard but it doesn’t really raise the bar or sometimes plays itself very safe.

Edward Norton is a goody named Sheldon Mopes who is so “squeaky clean” he would qualify for a Nobel Peace Prize. He has a character named Smoochy the Rhino that is obviously a loose Barney as he tries to keep a clinic open for drug addicts. He gets picked to replace a former entertainer and is let upon a world of evil executives, back stabbing agents and even hostile charities. On the upside, his show Smoochy’s Magic Jungle is a huge hit as Mopes tries to keep the good nature while battling against typical corporate. Meanwhile, a washed up children’s show host named Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) seeks revenge against the rhino that took his timeslot seeing the show gets canned and its creator/executive producer is seen for the fraud he is.

Again, there is so much ridding on this movie with a lot of great ideas and concepts but nothings is really exploited that much. I remember reading in Jim Henson’s biography how the merchandise for Sesame Street helped fund the show and how during a deal with Disney that Michael Eisner failed to get control as Jim refused to let what funded the show be misused. Elements like that do appear with an Ice Show that serves as the climax but nothing really pays off or feels fully parodied. For example, the Mopes character somehow makes it so most of the snacks are healthy but also free. Not to nitpick too much, but you have to hire some vendors who are willing to pull off such a miracle to provide no cost munchies. On top of that, you should be using the revenue of food for added funding towards your charity work and not just ticket sales. Little things get in the way very easily for to question just how much reality can you bend for your viewers when you know how things work in real life.

Ok, so maybe the Barney aspect is a hoot? Well, the style of the show they lampoon tries to not only do the purple dinosaur justice but also other shows too like Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Captain Kangaroo. I found this weird seeing how much I was expecting a mean spirited jab at the infamous PBS show but surprised to see other elements the mix. The Mopes character, in fact, reminded me of Paul Rubens a lot and how he wanted his Saturday Morning show to be more than just a show. Like Reuben, Mopes tries to be a big role model and live up to being a saint for kids. This is a good thing as we get a lot of psyche on the character’s good-will attitude and we sympathize how it can be hard to live up to being a good man while a respectable idol for kids. This backfires because of how too much a goody he is and that could make him either unbearable for some or just be forgettable. We all know the world isn’t a perfect place and trying to be a good guy is tough. They try a little of that near the end when he has to make an ethical decision but it doesn’t pay off as much. I can’t say its a bad character but I wish more was done.

Speaking of which, if you have noticed by now, not much is talked about Robin Williams’ character and that’s because there isn’t much of him despite top billing. Randolph is built up to be this big character but it feels like Mopes is more of the centerpiece. Its a shame because there’s so much that could be done to Robin’s character but he’s left with trying to work with very little. I guess they are going for this Sideshow Bob route but it doesn’t come together. He tries these schemes to set up Mopes by tricking him into giving out phallic shaped cookies and even go as far to get him to perform in front of a Nazi rally. These plans almost feel short of Willie Coyote (Super Genius) levels and don’t really pay off. To be fair, it leads to some decent laughs but nothing really memorable. In fact, we get so little moments with the Randolph character that we don’t side with him as much. You could cut out almost all of Robin’s scenes and the plot wouldn’t be drastically altered. I feel bad for saying this seeing Robin is a comic genius. And when a good actor is giving little to work with, we too feel the strain.

Even for a dark comedy, Smoochy feels really inconstant. I guess you could argue the dark elements are mostly in the dirty things on a kid’s show (behind and in front of the camera). From time to time, they go that route and it plays fine. But once in a while, it tosses a really uncomfortable joke that almost feels like its trying way too hard. For example, there’s a number Mopes sings on the show about step-dads and how they having a hard time trying to adjust. I don’t want to feel like a prude but the whole joke itself just flat out offended me as it hammers in teaching broken marriages to kids. Even Mrs. Doubtfire was better at things like this. If that wasn’t enough, it will really dig into the dark bin too deep with things like a guy getting an ax to the head from an Irish mafia. You heard me right! To be fair, the axing is off-screen but the scene is shot in such an intense manner that it nearly made me turn the film off. I know the idea of dark comedy is to shock viewers with a laugh but things like that are almost straight out of a nightmare.

Outside from that, is there anything good to talk about? Well, the performances are good. The actors do a good job trying their hard to make a weak script work. Its shame because there’s a lot of great talent behind it with even Danny DeVito in the director’s chair. But most of the time, his choice of angles and shots can get a little odd. The side characters can be likable including a group of Irish mobsters who surprisingly have so much great chemistry with the Mopes character that I wish they had their own movie. But is that enough to give a solid recommendation? Sadly, no.

“Death to Smoochy” had so many open opportunities for jokes that it either hammers them in, missuses them or skims over certain ideas like the popularity of a TV show or network censors which could have made way for a lot of good jokes. Even right down to the cinematography, “Smoochy” is lost in trying to be a gritty dark comedy or a silly parody when the color scheme is too vibrant and bright for this kind of film. I would have loved to see a more darker look like maybe something along the lines of Blade Runner trying to be PBS. Or perhaps have someone else do a better take that is able to balance the dark and cartoon nature like Frank Oz or Bobcat Goldthawit? Heck, even Bobcat did better with “Shakes the Clown” leaving viewers in a whole world were clowns were the highest form of acting and entertainment while knowing when to balance drama with silly fun.

While I didn’t find myself hatting it like most critics do, I wasn’t too crazy for it either. Its really half and half for me. Some parts of it work while other factors just didn’t add up. I know this movie has a cult following and will probably get bigger in the years. But if your looking for a really mean comedy that takes your beloved childhood icon and smashes it while making your laugh, this rhino is not worth mounting on your wall for.

“Ultron” worthy sequel

The Avengers are back! Truly a good kick to the summer

The Avengers are back! Truly a good kick to the summer

When “The Avengers” came out, there was a tidal wave of excitement in 2012. Not only was it a crossover with our favorite characters but opened a new door for superhero movies in general. It proved you can have a good story with straight up fun action. Well, I didn’t think it could be topped but it was…by “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Call it personal taste, but what “Guardians” did was perfect the “raised bar” further with such a premise that sounded strange on idea but turned to be something more like “Futurama” where the focus is on the characters and how they relate. It felt like there wasn’t a way Marvel Studios could top itself again and sadly “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is proof.

Now, don’t mistake this as a negative review. “Ultron” is a good sequel and a great follow-up to one of the best superhero blockbusters. But part of me feels there’s only so many times you can surprise your viewers, let alone amaze them. I’m not saying Marvel is bad seeing they are keeping a good track record but at this point, one must be cautious before the next big “tent pole”. The hype for “Ultron” and marketing has been making it out to be this next big “Godfather II” sequel in my opinion and going in viewers must know that what they will get is not a masterpiece. But rather something that really kicks off the summer movie binge.

The Avengers return with everyone at the helm when a new threat comes into view and this time its man made. Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) crafts a new defense program called Ultron that is basically a living and breathing computer program set to save the world. And it just so happens that Loki’s staff provides some extra ingredient in bringing his creation to life. At first it starts off as an abstract form but later takes the body of a robot with the voice of James Spader who believes the only way to save the world is to destroy all of humanity. With the threat of extinction at hand, the gang tries to remain one step ahead of the technologically advanced villain while also try and work as a better team.

What made the first Avengers work in the first place was the concept itself. A group of superheros getting together, trying to work off each other and fight together. This was something really new at the time and I feel “Ultron” tries to place it in a fresh direction while it has some familiarity. The biggest risk is that secret service S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t there to help them out so now everyone has to work together despite having some problems with one another. Iron Man keeps butting heads with Captain America (Chris Evans) over the right way to handle government creations (seeing Cap was made to protect through a serum) while Thor is stuck between his way of handling things and the “human way.” Even Bruce Banner tries to keep his Hulk under control while dealing with a romance between him and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) that ends in a bittersweet moment that’s very heartbreaking.

James Spader is the menacing Ultron who plans to protect the human race by destroying it....odd

James Spader is the menacing Ultron who plans to protect the human race by destroying it….odd

Ultron himself is an interesting character pushing the boundaries for what is good for the human race even if it means killing it. Sure this is something that has been done before yet the characteristic and motivation is what keeps it fresh. Ultron plans to fabricate a being close to his own thought and when it does form, there’s more than just a unique good vs. evil ploy but even the question of how much technology can evolve to the point a living being can be human yet android. James Spader dons a personality that gives the metal menace a fun yet diabolical personality as he tends to channel the sarcastic quirk of Tony Stark as almost a clone of the playboy scientist.

With everything that works in the movie, are there things that go against it? For starters, its a sequel and at this point, viewers expect a retread or something fresh. Director Josh Whedon returns going in a direction that is a bit edgier than the first film but at the same time carries on elements that made the first film work. They don’t feel like a complete clone of the first but more take things in a different aspect. The group fights but this time its over the ethical “saving the world” choice. There are big action scenes as one city gets torn up after another but feel more slick and up the ante. A notable highlight is a fight between Iron Man and Bruce as the Hulk with an African city in risk being demolished. There are moments which make me wonder if the first is trumped seeing a few things are fixed like the character of Hawkeye getting more screen time and development. But there’s some bits of territory that almost feel familiar like the big climax where a city is in danger as the Avengers try to save every civilian they can. There are some additions that add on the risk factor while keeping it entertaining but there’s only so many times you rehash certain beats like stalling the villain or Iron Man trying to stop some form of ticking bomb.

The heart of “Age of Ultron” is really the story which feels like a superhero version of the Frankenstein mythos. Creator makes a near human replica out of old artifacts (in this case an old computer program and Loki’s staff), creator rejects creation, creation sees the world and seeks after another like him and revenge against creator and so forth. Even the second half feels a little “Bride of Frankenstein” in spots while again giving a modern yet fresh take. This is the glue that held the whole movie together in the midst of its explosions and reheated yet well-done cliches for me. It shows you can take old elements and give them new life to something entertaining while also smart when it needs to be. As a sequel and follow-up to the first film, “Ultron” works fine enough to give a high recommendation but as the next “bar raising” movie is something to be debated.

Rental Corner: “Superman II” Vs. “Superman II…The Richard Donner Cut”

The Adventure Continued...and so did a long battle for a sequel!

The Adventure Continued…and so did a long battle for a sequel!

Director Richard Donner gave us a superhero movie unlike any other. Or that would be the case if he was given free reign with “Superman II.” I will always argue to this day that what Donner could have done might have given us a sequel that no only matched the power of the original but quite possibly be better. However, Alexander and Ilya Salkind never let him finish his movie for the following reasons. During the production of the first movie, Donner ran into some problems with financing and film schedule while supposedly criticizing the producers in interviews around the time of the first movie’s release. On top of that, Marlon Brandon was promised a percentage of the box-office profits making for one expensive cameo if he was ever to be in the follow-up that was meant to be released in 1979.

As a result, the Salkinds got a new director, made heavy rewrites to what was already planned out and sought to make a sequel that was the combination of two worlds. This didn’t sit well with the cast and crew with some even refusing to return for the sequel under protest of Donner’s sacking. Most notable was Gene Hackman despite having all his scenes shot and yet cut down in the final version. It also didn’t help that the new director Richard Lester had to reshoot 51% of the film in order to gain credit for working on the movie. Well, “Superman II” came out in the summer of 1981 and was a box office hit but gained a noted amount of controversy over the dramatic production stories. It wouldn’t be till 2006, Richard Donner would complete his original cut (sort of) after learning all the original negatives for the first and second movie that HE FILMED was a London film vault. Thus, “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” was released to much praise and mixed reception among fans while showing a possible “what could have been” while fans having a hard time trying to place it in its own continuity. So the question begs, what is the better version?

Reeve and Kidder return as their famed roles and explore more romance than in the first film

Reeve and Kidder return as their famed roles and explore more romance than in the first film

Instead of going gun-ho and doing a compare and contrast, I felt it would be unfair to those who have not seen both versions. Seeing both movies share the same story despite difference in tone, I feel its only just to talk about the story first before going into what works and what doesn’t in a “spoiler-free” manner. Christopher Reeve returns as Superman along with his alter-ego Clark Kent but things get out of hand when his heartthrob Lois Lane figures out that Clark is Superman. As a result, he decides to spend a day off focusing on his romance with the Daily Planet reporter while even consider the temptation of being human giving up his superhero duties.

That all changes when surviving Kryptonian General Zod (Terence Stamp) escapes from a prison known as the Phantom Zone along with two of his accomplices and it doesn’t help they just so happen to be freed near Earth. As they start to take over the American nation (and the world…maybe), Superman now has a choice between being a savior to the world or being human forever despite a planet in the toil and torment of a cruel and militant supervillian.

Terence Stamp as his famous role as the ruthless General Zod along with his accomplices played by Sarah Douglas and Jack O'Halloran

Terence Stamp as his famous role as the ruthless General Zod along with his accomplices played by Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran

After seeing “Superman II” a few times (along with its 2006 re-cut), already its slowly becoming one of my favorite sequels and for good reason. It asks would what it be like if our favorite superhero decided to take the day off. Would the world be in peril if he left his hometown alone? Would he be stuck between eternal paradise? And what are the consequences of a superhero gone mortal? To my surprise, every single one of those questions get answered while also digging into Superman’s psyche. Lois Lane maybe a huge responsibility to him but so is the world and it gets tough in the final act (without giving too much away) when both realize how hard it would be to manage a life together would turn out. This is main heart of both cuts and carries through no matter what changers or alterations they have between the two.

The performances are great and possibly better than the first. Christopher Reeve knows Superman has a big task between choosing a life with Lois or be a hero to the world. Instead of being muscle bound, he goes into the weakness of Superman as we seen him attempt a normal life and it shows what happens when such a grand hero goes weak in a modern world. Now reality is in and no longer at superhuman strength. Reeve really brings out the tragedy in the character when he has to make two sacrifices in one blow; the choice of being human while giving up a normal life continuing his normal responsibility. As always, Reeve and Margot Kidder are great together as Clark and Lois Lane but even the sequel develops more of the romance between them when Lois finds out that Clark is the famed caped wonder she dreams of. Now, all is changed and it looks right out of a fairy tale come true.

When watching the theatrical cut, any scene Gene Hackman is in where its not an obvious body double is Richard Donner's footage...just saying

When watching the theatrical cut, any scene Gene Hackman is in where its not an obvious body double is Richard Donner’s footage…just saying

Gene Hackman also returns as the favorite fast-talking criminal mastermind Lex Luthor as he plans to make a pact with the evil Kryptonians in order to not only destroy Superman but even gain some more land property (“Australia,” he claims proudly with a cigar in his mouth.) Like the first movie, he soaks up and chews every bit of scenery with such delight as he coaxes into Zod about his knowledge for Superman while trying to keep himself alive at every step.

The villainous Kryptonians are also a huge highlight for “Superman II” and prove to be a huge challenge knowing the power they posses matches Superman to a degree. They can fly, shoot heat beams from their eyes and even as much strength as the hero himself. This is a huge problem knowing their powers match when they tear up Metropolis in a memorable and intense climax as a bus full of patrons are tossed around and many neon signs get blown to smithereens in the brawl. Those who accuse of “Man of Steel” for having Superman not save ALL of the people might want to take good note of this movie as even Reeve’s Superman knows he can’t save everyone in Metropolis as debris falls to the streets below yet he tries.

Its overall a really satisfying sequel but here is where the two cuts differ from each other. The theatrical cut goes for a more light tone than the first film while keeping a good bulk of the Donner footage intact. The goofier scenes clash with the intense moments as you almost wish there was a darker sequel along the lines of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Notable highlights include a man on roller skates being flown back by Zod’s super breath, Non (the hulking and strong of the three) getting a “Groot” style personality that is cartoonish and over the top, a bizarre cat and mouse fight at the Fortress of Solitude between Superman and the Kryptonians and that’s just to name a few. When the Richard Lester material was interwoven, there were moments when it did work like a small speech at the end from Lois about how Superman belongs to the world more than her but then you had moments that felt like generic action taken from a 1960s episode of Batman. Its clear the Salkinds wanted a safer vehicle to market and that’s really what it is.

In 2006, The Richard Donner Cut was released to the public to much acclaim...and much controversy from the fans in terms of continuity.

In 2006, The Richard Donner Cut was released to the public to much acclaim…and much controversy from the fans in terms of continuity.

The Richard Donner cut, on the other hand, uses a lot of the footage that Donner originally shot but only used the theatrical cut in places when “gaps” were needed. Again, only 75% of Donner’s film was shot and thus some material was needed to fill in open holes with the narrative. Thankfully, most of the goofy moments are cut but some elements still remain like in the Metropolis fight. But thanks to a little sound re-mixing and tight editing, the brawl is more slick and intense with certain gags removed with different shots or trimmed completely. One scene where Lois tricks Clark into revealing his true identity was never filmed but luckily there existed a screen test of Reeve and Kidder acting the scene out. Some film purists might be distracted by how Reeve wasn’t as muscular at the time and how much Margot Kidder’s hair differs, but I wasn’t distracted too much by it. The staging alone as well as the editing was enough to forgive it. It was also a nice addition to see two actors show a spark of chemistry even before they were hired for their roles!

But the biggest highlight that should go unnoticed is all of Marlon Brando’s footage as Jor-El that was filmed for the sequel is not only restored but really changes the narrative of the story. In the theatrical cut, Jor-El was replaced with Susannah York playing the hollogram of Superman’s mother. While its nice to see the same actress from the first movie reprise such a small role, the focus of the first film was on Superman and his father. This looses a lot of momentum in the theatrical cut as Jor-El’s cryptic prophecy “the son becomes the father and the father becomes the son” never fully pays off. Without spoiling too much, this line now feels complete here and Brando’s performance couldn’t be stronger. To think over 25 years and we would never see such incredible footage surface. This gives the alternate ending to “Little Shop of Horrors” a good run for its money.

One of the many "lost scenes" restored in the Richard Donner Cut where Superman consults his father (Marlon Brando) about the aspect of being human. A huge highlight that changes the entire tone of the storyline. Also, its cute to see Margot Kidder in a Superman shirt

One of the many “lost scenes” restored in the Richard Donner Cut where Superman consults his father (Marlon Brando) about the aspect of being human. A huge highlight that changes the entire tone of the storyline. Also, its cute to see Margot Kidder in a Superman shirt

“Superman II” is hands down a grand entry. The story alone makes it good enough to recommend as character arcs that were left open in the last film are explored and a greater threat is at play that not only challenges Superman physically but even mentally. Would it be worth it to have a normal life among the people or can he be both Clark and Superman to the end? Arguably, I’d say this is better than the first movie for being darker and more action-packed than the first film.

But it goes back to the original question, which is the better cut and here is my main problem. The theatrical version has a clash between light and dark as one can tell when the camp factor lies and where the serious material the Donner footage lies. But going in not knowing the troubled back story behind the sequel, they probably wouldn’t spot these “inconsistencies in tone” on first watch. But the more I watch, I keep asking myself why can’t it cut back on the camp and cheapness considering the amount of effort the first film had. The Richard Donner Cut is an improvement but it acts as more of a “what if.” As much as I enjoy the new additions and kept appreciating all the changes, its not really an official cut because Donner never completed what was intended as a whole. However, I will be honest and say had Donner complete his original vision, I’m sure we would have had one hell of a sequel and I do admire it for those reasons. But are not completely bad and have their own strengths and weaknesses while still manage to be entertaining. I can’t think of moment when I saw something that was really awful or made me turn off. I’d say watch both and judge for yourself.