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“Pirates” 5 stale despite lively action

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There are certain franchises that deserve the need to hang their cape and maintain their golden years. I hate to admit it, but I feel Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” is one of them. I recalled fond memories of seeing the first one “Curse of the Black Peal” at my local drive-in theater and enjoying the shear spectacle. As expected, two sequels followed to make a trilogy that were in my opinion mixed but still had some fun. Then “On Stranger Tides” arrived and the wear started to show. Too many complex story-lines, too many convoluted rules and not enough momentum to stay afloat. Now we arrive at the fifth outing, “Dead Man Tell No Tales,” and I feel there’s nothing left to explore here.

Johnny Depp returns as Captain Jack Sparrow but there is nothing new Depp brings here. In previous entries, the rum boozed Captain always knew he had an extra trick up his sleeve when it came to escape or battle. Here, we have seen these character’s actions so much that we are aware of the trademarks. Even worse, Depp feels tired in the role as he walks through like he’s sleepwalking his part. The only time he feels interested is when his character is not talking and partaking in action scenes considering the huge amount of stunt work.

Tossed into the mix are two new characters Henry (Brenton Thwaites) and Carina (Kaya Scodelario) who are trying to be the two new leads of the franchise. Henry is set up as the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who we last left cursed to the Flying Dutchman, and is trying to seek a way to break his dad’s curse. It is the basic father and son story but it doesn’t feel developed. On Carina’s angle, she has an interesting concept but it gets easily tiresome. Carina is constantly deemed a witch by her knowledge of the stars which starts as an amusing joke, but gets old by its constant use and one huge plot hole. If everyone deems her a witch, then how come this government is secretly keeping a witch alive for their personal use. If they are using one for their own service, why not use Carina’s methods for their own good instead of trying to execute her.

In the middle of all this, a dead captain named Salazar (Javier Bardem) is out for blood as he tries to hunt Jack Sparrow down for something the booze-hound savvy did to him years ago. To Javier’s credit, he really chews the scenery and acts like he’s having a good time. I’m close to saying he’s the only reason to see this entry for how well-acted and oddly designed him and his ghostly crew are which feel like remnants of a strange Salvador Dali painting.  I like the idea his body moves around like its still floating in water seeing it was the last thing that happened to him when he died. But doesn’t this sound familiar? A supernatural entity that is out for revenge against Sparrow over something he did. Haven’t we been here before?

In fact, the whole movie banks more on the nostalgia of the others and does little to reinvent. Once in a while there is a neat action scene, but it doesn’t last too long to make its impact. Jack finds himself going against a Guillotine blade while being swung around, zombie sharks menace our heroes and old friends return. But there’s much to care about when none of your characters are anchored to a ticking clock or any form of leverage. Certain people could just wonder about without any risk and there still wouldn’t be a sense of care. Even the appearance of old faces like Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) really try to have some fun, but feel this is a tired and repeated premise.

The only reason “Dead Men Tell No Tales” exist is just to see if there’s any life in the franchise along with another reason. I believe after how many fans reacted to the third on “At World’s End,” the people behind this one are trying to make up for those mistakes of a tragic love story and how drawn-out it was. Maybe if this came out 5 years ago, it would have been passable. As it stands, its a swift two hours of swashbuckling that really feels like a fish out of water when your compare it to last week’s Wonder Woman and all the other “better” summer blockbusters that came before it.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2” bigger, better and emotional

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THE FOLLOWING IS SPOILER FREE! YOU’RE WELCOME!

Some say lightening rarely strikes twice when it comes to sequels. But even with a concept like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” you would think there wouldn’t be that big of a fanbase. Considering how much love there was towards the first one, especially making it, another adventure with the ragtag of anti-heroes was inevitable and I couldn’t be happier to say it comes close to being better than the original.

So what quest lies for our heroes? Well, without giving too much away, each member finally comes to terms with the term family and the meaning behind it. If the first film was about how they met and why they relate to each other, this one goes deeper. The characters and even us understand just crucial they are to one another.

Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt) has to deal with the realization of who is father truly is. An entity named Ego (Kurt Russell) finally meets up and we get a sense these two have a bonding father and son relationship. I like how we get an idea of how Peter’s father means to him, but there is a sense of something questionable here. Peter  has lived a long time without a father figure, so how would he take to heart someone whose never been there for him? The basic thought of emotions play until Ego’s true persona that is shocking and unique at the same time. While they both share similar qualities, they are far different from each other in many ways.

Also on the sideline, Yondu (Michael Rooker) is having a hard time coming to terms with where he stands. His crew of scavengers feel he’s not gritty as he once was while the Captain himself wonders if he can change his ways. A crucial highlight is when the blue skinned blighter has to reluctantly team up with the “equally heartless” Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradly Cooper) as the two come to terms with themselves.  Both of them can’t stand each other, but find they are the same person from the inside out and have to know what matters to them the most.

Elsewhere, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) have their own troubles. The green warrior has sibling rivalry issues to handle while the big muscle head himself is still trying to find a way to belong. While Gamora has to come to terms with her broken sisterhood, Drax finds companionship in the strangest way in understanding his poor ways in socialization even when he tires. And of course, I can’t forget Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) who is a new reincarnation of everyone’s favorite walking tree. This time around, he starts life anew and has to understand its harness along with it. Thankfully, this toddler variation doesn’t outstay its welcome and knows when to chime in at the right spots.

A big surprise to the table is the addition of a new character named Mantis (French actress Pom Klementieff). This bug-like creature has the ability to feel and manipulate emotions while also trying to understand how complex human beings really are. There is a level of comedy and drama to this character which make her a nice addition and clear scene sealer. Then again, her scenes with the misunderstood Drax make for the best moments in this sequel.

I’d go into deeper details of the story, but I feel its best for you to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” yourself. James Gunn returns in the writing and director’s chair giving us a world that is unlike ours and yet similar in many ways. From hot topics like creation to lost fatherhood, Gunn really channels how complex the human race can be with these characters. And for someone to take on such a difficult issue and tell it through these anti-heroes we love so dearly, I congratulate him for doing so. There’s much humor, action and plenty of color to behold. Dare I’d say, its literally more colorful than the first film when we see the multitude of planets and how their different races run. All I have left to say is that “Vol. 2” will certainly give a run for its money how much it tops not just the first, but other classics like “Wrath of Khan” and “Empire Strikes Back.” I maybe overdoing it, but I personally feel it deserves to be up there with those sequel classics.

“Star Trek Beyond”fueled with action despite some technical flaws

startrekbeyondposterThis crop of summer blockbusters has been played out almost like a baseball game. One movie after another has stood up to the plate and rarely make a home run. The only exceptions have been Disney and “The Secret Life of Pets.” Others have been either less successful or barley made a big splash. Let me tell you, this has been a very dull summer with the choices we have been given. But with “Star Trek Beyond” up at bat, is it good enough to get itself a home run? No, but I’d say good enough to third base.

Justin Lin takes the director’s chair while Simon Pegg and Doug Jung helm the script. The tones tend to clash from time to time as one can tell when one style is being injected. Pegg places the usual Trek banter of different worlds and character development when needed. Lin, on the other hand, fuzzes his style more prominently during the action scenes. While these two are obvious to point out, it doesn’t deviate from each other delivering a good entry.

The only downfall is that you got to sit through a lot of mediocre stuff in order to see the best parts. Highlights include an opening meant to be humorous where Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) offers peace to a race of tiny creatures to an explanation over old Spock’s departure from the franchise. The opening scene alone is a good example of how hit and miss the comedy is. Sometimes, it can be good when characters like Spock and McCoy banter while certain corny lines border on eye roll-worthy.

Once you get through the slush, “Beyond” kicks into gear when the Enterprise crew is sent out to save a crew wrecked on a desolate planet. However, the affair turns out to be an ambush as the ship gets attacked by an alien race that acts like a hive of bees. The scene where the Enterprise ship itself getting bombarded is surprisingly well-done. While its not effective like the crash scene in “Star Trek: Generations,” it still packs plenty of punch and intensity as the ships latch on and swarm around the doomed vessel.

Idris Elba plays the new alien villain named Krall who plans to fire back at the Federation with a device that eats away living matter. I admit, I felt practically bored at times seeing how good of an actor Elba is. I was fooled at first thinking this baddie had a one track motivation. But the third act gives us an interesting reveal that immediately has us realize why Krall would want to go after the Federation. It becomes something much deeper matching the villainous Khan, but I do wonder what it would have been like if this reveal came earlier in the film. On the plus side, it’s a great twist that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

However, midway the story sort of meanders. The crew is split up a bit as Spock and McCoy try to survive, Kirk and Chekov wander around for answers and Scotty is teamed with a cool alien inhabitant. While these plot threads don’t stray too much and serve purpose, it makes me wonder if these were developed better to hold more interest. I felt like it was used at times to show off how unique the planet looks and it does look good. But then, we have to cut from “Group Kirk” to “Group McCoy” and remember which party is doing what.

On the bright side, Scotty makes a new friend in the form of Jaylah, a bright white alien played by Sofia Boutella. I loved the personality of this character as she adds on something new to the franchise. The make-up alone is a step above those seen at Comic Con conventions and I like the idea that she has been stuck on this planet long enough to know its dangers very well. Somehow, I’m a sucker for characters like that who are stranded on a desolate place but know how to make it their home. Sort of like Swiss Family Robinson but with lasers. There’s just a cool sense to this character that never outstays her welcome.

While “Star Trek Beyond” seeks to be respectful to the original source, there are a couple of things that sort of bugged me. Like I said, the whole movie builds to a grand finale, but in order to get there, you have to sit through some weak comedy and sluggish pacing in spots. The action scenes, for the most part, do get better as we go along. And yet, I wish the whole “handycam” feel was ditched. This is a cliche that has been kept on for too long as during a big fist fight, we get tons of close-ups and shaky frame movements. Its distracting and takes away from the tension. And as stated earlier, the departure of Leonard Nemoy’s Spock could have been handled better. To the movie’s credit, we do get a nice tribute near the end, but I feel it would have been stronger if the explanation for his absence was either cut out or just handled better.

Never the less, I dug the creature designs, the sets and a spaceship base that has cities on the rims to make it look like a unique utopia. I felt it was nice to see the new Star Trek crew back together and create a fun experience. The first third can be easily forgiven by how better the last two thirds get. As the action scenes keep coming, they get better and better trumping one after another. While “Star Trek Beyond” is not the strongest entry of the batch, its a welcome one that is worth recommending to see in theaters.

“Independence Day: Resurgence” bigger yet dumber

Independence-Day-2-posterSequels appear to be all the rage these days. Even ones that exist to films that were released eons ago. So when Roland Emmerich announced he was crafting a sequel to the 1996 sci-fi hit, I was a little skeptical. The first film was fine alone and stands for being an explosive popcorn flick. Not a masterpiece but at least entertaining none the less. Emmerich to me is more like a modern day Jack Arnold. He knows how to deliver on the concept, but unlike Arnold (who is known for Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man), Emmerich is weak on story and character. And much of that is obvious here.

The general story here is that the aliens are back, but literally bigger. They seek to get revenge on Earth after the War of 1996 by parking its massive craft on the tip of the planet. Old characters are back like David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) who seek a way to defeat them. While newbies like Liam Helmsworth and Jessie Usher sadly can’t hold a candle or try to match the goofy spirit of the original. And that’s in part to how much time has passed with Independence Day. The first movie, on its own terms, never had a building franchise. No sequels, no spin offs (aside from the occasional novels but who reads them or even considers them cannon) or anything to show a follow up was needed.

In a nutshell, its practically the first movie but with CGI, more subplots, more destruction and little to care for. There are so many storylines, that even I found it hard to keep track of what was going on most of the time. One minute, we are with Jeff Goldblum examining spaceships in Africa, and then the next minute, we are with Bill Pullman trying to convince Earth that there is an impending invasion. To be fair, its nice to see some characters return and at least try to be essential to the story line. And that’s because we knew what to expect from this kind of movie. Its basically a 1950s invasion movie but with updated stuff and a bigger budget. But even some characters have no point or purpose to be there. Judd Hirsch is a prime example as he trudges on through the apocalypse with little to nothing to do.

Everything that made Independence Day unique is rehashed and yet used unfairly. There’s tons of worldwide destruction in one scene when the mothership parks itself on the top of Earth, and yet it happens like a casual thing. In the original, there was build up and tension to the big explosions akin to a ticking clock. Now, everything is akin to “stuff happens” and that’s it. Certain characters die and even whole countries get torn apart. But we don’t feel an impact because nothing is literally there to drive this emotion.

Thought if I had to be fair, it was nice to see some characters come back and the destruction is good as always. But I feel “Resurgence” was trying to do what “Jurassic World” did. With “Jurassic World,” it took an old concept and did some new things with it. It didn’t rehash anything from the first movie and knew when to be bigger while maintaining proper build up. Here, its a different case. While I don’t think “Resurgence” is the worst of the summer, its not a very good flick. Just because the spaceships are bigger and just because the aliens are the size of Godzilla, doesn’t make it a worthy summer flick.

“Finding Dory”worthy sea-quel

finding-dory-trailer-poster-internationalWhen one brings up “Finding Nemo,” most attention turns to the character Dory. A small blue fish, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, who has trouble remembering mostly anything. Instead of an annoying running gag, Dory was an interesting character. The fact she is struggling to think back and maintain her previous thoughts was well written and knew when to be funny. “Nemo” still holds up enough on its own, but was this sequel worth the 13 year wait?

The plot nearly rehashes a good bulk of material from the first movie, but at least it has the advantage to expand on a few things. The first third is mainly comprised of scenes from the first movie as an attempt to remind viewers of previous events. Instead of an angler-fish for example, our heroes get briefly menaced by a giant squid. This is mostly one problem I have with “Finding Dory” as certain moments almost feel like a rehash of the first film. This is the standard trap most movies like “Ghostbuster II” and some of the “Pink Panther” movies where it rehashes some material instead of giving new stuff.

Thankfully, that is not the case here. The final 2/3rds focus on the new environment our characters go to and certainly a lot more exploring on Dory’s character. Instead of a comedic sidekick, we dive into the backstory of this odd fish and how she was separated from her own parents. The search for her folks moves on as it leads them to an aquarium that acts as a hospital for Marine animals. This opens the door to see new creatures and view the world of what a zoo would be like from the eyes of an animal. It leads the way for some clever gags like a “touch pool” and incredible visuals like a massive tank full of different fish.

finding-dory-trailer-whale-sharkFans of the first movie will be happy to hear Dory is great as ever. Ellen’s innocent yet playful personality leads to some funny moments, but even some heartfelt ones. As we progress on the search for Dory’s parents, the story allows this character to be explored more in different ways. Certain moments from “Finding Nemo” are called back, but feel expanded on (the line “I remember it…because when I look at you, I can feel it. And I look at you, I’m home” has more deeper meaning than before.) We get treated to key flashbacks that act like visual clues to the viewer before the final revelation comes into play. Both act as a prequel that is satisfying and useful to expand into Dory’s origin.

Again, much of the movie teeters on feeling recycled but instead does it in a fresh manner. Instead of the “Tank Gang,” we get a couple of Marine animals waiting to be set back into the ocean or enjoy life. Highlights include a beluga whale (Ty Burrell) who self-doubts himself, a whale shark (Kaitlin Olson) who was a childhood friend and even a couple of sea-lions that are territorial like the pelicans and seagulls from the first movie. Each has their own quirk and personality that helps them stand out and become much useful later on.

gallery_findingdory_7_c7217635Perhaps the soul character who will be talk of the town is Ed O’Neill as Hank, a grouchy octopus that is interested in breaking out to another aquarium for selfish comfort than return to the ocean. The minute this suction cup inhabited, CGI creation first appeared, it had me in stitches. Hank is, without a doubt, one of Pixar’s best characters since Sadness or Bing Bong from “Inside Out.” Not only do I love the “Grinch”-like personality, but just the way it moves sly and quick around the aquarium. It serves as a bigger challenge for the workers as Hank uses tons of camouflage methods in order to blend in. Truly the animators had a lot of fun and creativity behind the ways Hank could hide or change color. The movement alone is almost reminiscent of a fast paced Chuck Jones creation, but knows when to slow down for a bit.

For most of the summer, there hasn’t been a single movie I’ve seen that makes me really say “this is what a summer movie should be.” “Finding Dory” comes close to being this level if it weren’t for a few things. I wish the “rehashed” bits in the first third were better done and there is one small dark turn that feels almost unnecessary. Though this “small dark turn” only lasts for a few before turning into an upbeat moment, it still has decent build up. I do admire the twists and obstacles that get thrown out as we start to wonder just how Dory will be able to achieve that happy ending.

Even more, “Dory” is probably the most unique in the Pixar batch for being a movie less about discovering family and more on learning to live with disability. We met these characters who have personal problems and some with internal flaws that can’t be dealt with easily. As Dory struggles to overcome her memory problems, we want to see her succeed instead of laughing at her pity. Its rare for a movie to help coupe with those who have problems like this to tell them its ok to live with these things. And honestly, I’m good with that.

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However, parents be warned. Some parts of “Finding Dory” might be a tad intense for younger viewers. From a thrilling squid chase to (again) a certain dark moment near the end, this has material that might upset some kids. While its nothing traumatizing or brutal (like say “Good Dinosaur”), it more feels like the same level of intensity as the first movie. If your kids saw “Finding Nemo” and was ok with the peril, they should be fine then. On the bright side, we do get a cute short call “Piper” that might be able to calm some sensitive viewers down. In connecting with the main theme of the movie, we get treated to a tiny bird who is trying to overcome a big obstacle. In a nutshell, the animation was stylish yet fluffed enough to not deter from the Pixar style. And when a heartwarming short and a good movie go hand in hand, you know your ticket price was worth it in the end.

“Looking Glass” is colorful yet underwhelming

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The sequel no one asked for…and it exists?

Is there really a reason for this sequel to exist? The executives at Disney feel so considering the $1 billion Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” grossed back in 2010. Truly these are different times when one judges success by the box office numbers and not public criticism. That was the old Disney way considering if it wasn’t for the polarizing reaction to “The Sword in the Stone,” we wouldn’t have gotten Walt Disney trying to make “his” version of “The Jungle Book.” On the other hand, Lewis Carol did write two books on Alice’s adventures in the strange Wonderland, so I guess a sequel is needed. However, what we got was an entry that strays farther from the source despite its good intentions to better than the first one.

Mia Wasikowska returns as the curious Alice Kingsleigh who returns from her trip to China, as depicted in an opening which appears like a scene taken from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Not much to say about her character as takes on a spunky attitude and sees life as an adventure. However, her family is in debt as the only means to save her mother’s home is to sell off her ship to the snooty suitor from the first movie (Leo Bill reprising his role) in a possible move of revenge on his part.

Before a deal can be struck, Alice returns to the strange world of Wonder-oh, I’m sorry- UNderland where things are brighter and more colorful compared to the dreary and murkiness of the first film. Director James Bobin (The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted) brings a new variation of the topsy turvy world that appears more whimsical and less grim. Almost every scene has a bright blue sky and only the intense moments have darker shades of black and navy blue. While some practical sets are used, most of the effects are CGI and sadly appear more cartoony and less lifelike. Sometimes, I feel actors get lost on a green screen as opposed to making us believe something is right in front of us. Most notable is Alice’s first descend into the mirror as she takes moving chess pieces and a living tiger skin rug as a natural occurrence.

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

Alice tries to help her friend the Mad Hatter, who looks more like a cross between Willy Wonka and a Halloween clown

Not everyone is happy as The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is falling into a deep depression when he feels unsure if his family is alive or dead. While Depp’s performance is not heavily used like the previous movie, there’s something strange about this take her. While the Hatter in Tim’s take was wild and manic, I found myself wondering why Depp would change that here. Instead this Mad Hatter seems confused most of the time and talks in a soft lisp that feels unintentionally comedic. It’s like Jimmy Stewart trying to do an impersonation of a cartoon character.

With her best friend under sorrow, Alice decides to help out by paying a visit to Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) with plans to steal a device that can travel though the past. She believes that she can find a way to save the Hatter’s family so he won’t be under so much guilt. This is an element that was obviously not in the original book as the story of “Looking Glass” was an allegory for chess. Personally, I found the book more unique taking Alice’s journey and putting it on pair with a parlor game. It made for something unique to look into how an innocent girl’s quest to be queen can be seen this way. Unfortunately, that is no the case here. Any material from Carol’s book is tossed out to make way for something far removed from the source as Alice goes from one time period to the next as her venture serves as an excuse to see the origins of characters like the Cheshire Cat or the Queens. Even stranger is the time machine that looks exactly like it was a prop modeled after the craft in George Pal’s 1960s “Time Machine” making it weirder to see sci-fi cross with fantasy nonsense. On the other hand, a set of clock minions can mutate into giant Transformer robots, so why complain?

When “Looking Glass” is not trying to be a prequel, it revives its previous villain, The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) with a plan to steal the time machine Alice took in order to change her sister’s past. Without giving too much, her plan only provides as an excuse for Carter to just walk about, yell obnoxiously and act like a brat as opposed to being a threat like that last film. And when you do find out what her sister, The White Queen, did to make her life so miserable, it makes one to wonder why she didn’t just apologize about it in the first place to avoid such a chaotic mess?

Honestly, I didn’t care much for this sequel and in-between the six years it took to get this into production, I would have been find without it. Characters like the March Hare, the White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledum get side-linded with minimal lines compared to how prominent they  were before. Most of the cast feels like they showed up for a paycheck considering the three lines spoken by the late Alan Rickman as the Caterpiller show how disrespectful they were to the source. Why even have these characters return when they don’t even make an impact? You could have just cut them or replaced them with other characters and the movie wouldn’t change at all. Even some give off hammy and bizarre performances like Anne Hathaway who is reduced to waving her hands like ‘The Wizard of Oz’s” Glinda the Good while talking exposition in an air-headed manner.

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The sequel no one asked for…and it exists?

The only redeeming factor, surprisingly, is Sacha Baron Cohen as the new character Time, who oddly gets played up like a villain when he doesn’t even intend to be mean that way. True, he does monitor those who kick the bucket and lives in a dark castle, but Cohen’s performance saves this character from being a one-note creation. Time comes off as an eccentric creature that is so obsessed with timelines that even he works like a clock literally. There’s a lot of effort and creativity going into this one character which feels like a mix between a Flash Gordon villain and a Rolex watch.And while I’m not fan of Cohen’s work, I admit when he plays a side-character, there is when I feel most comfortable. Its almost like his wild energy is restrained as he knows exactly what to do with the material he gets, even if its minimal.

As for the rest of “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” there’s not much that can be said. Its a harmless sequel that tries too hard to be expansive, but doesn’t have much necessity value. Plotlines go left and right while characters either chase after each other or try to find a working motive. I also have to question there are odd times when it does have a small dose of darkness that barley goes anywhere. About midway, Alice transports into the real world to find herself trapped in a Victorian asylum without proper transition. A character explains how she ended up there as opposed to showing how she was taken. Something tells me there are missing scenes here. But if the movie is not interesting in clearing this up, than so what? Why should I care for the near death of the Mad Hatter when Alice is busy trying to mend things with the Queens, the Hatter’s family and trying to avoid destroying the fabric of time when she already has done so much damage? For a movie that crams so much and does so little to invest me into what’s happening, I tend to wonder why a raven is like a writing desk more often than the plot holes in this movie. Not the worst, but better recommended as a rental.

New “Star Wars” good entry but lacks something

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterIt has been a decade since “Revenge of the Sith” and my thoughts were simple. Six films were all that was needed in the Star Wars canon. There was no way they could make a new set of films or even a new one period. The cast was too old and I didn’t feel there was anything else to explore in the franchise. Sure there were tons of worlds but considering the fan fiction and “Expanded Universe,” I didn’t think there was a possible way to make a new movie at the time. And when Disney bought the rights from creator George Lucas, I still didn’t think it was possible. Well one way or another, they did it. They were able to make a seventh entry in hopes of making a new trilogy from what I hear.

I went in, had my “Dark Crystal” t-shirt on (lost my Star Wars shirt. still fitting seeing 33 years ago that movie came out on the 17th of December), treated some friends of mine and watched the movie. My reaction will be quite different from what many will expect. But let me say off the cuff that this is a Star Wars movie. There are elements and things that I can look at and say this is something I can picture in the Star Wars universe. The planets, alien beings and spaceships are Star Wars elements. But as far as the rest of the movie goes, it makes for a good entry. Not a great entry along the lines of “Empire Strikes Back,” but at least respectfully better than the prequel trilogy.

Star-Wars-7-Character-Guide-Finn-ReyWithout ruining too much, “The Force Awakens” has plenty of interesting elements and story ideas. I dig the idea of a stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) questioning his place in the universe. Along the ranks of the Iron Giant and Peace from “Wizards,” his position as a weapon is seen as an afterthought as he seeks for redemption. I felt the character and the actor were one seeing how much subtly they show in his wish to change. This is not a basic cliche but a full developed character. Not once in the saga have we questioned the aspect of a mindless solider’s ability to have a personality and questioning morality. Here, we do and it does feel philosophical in a sense. Not in a “beating over the head message” but more of a character motive which is very fitting here. To me, this was “THX-1138” but performed better.

Of course, things get into a tangle with a desert scavenger (Daisy Ridley) who is also searching for purpose as well. Again, hard to talk about the character without giving too much but here are the basics. This is a cool heron. When she is captured, she doesn’t sit and wait for someone to rescue her. This is the kind of character that will seek a way to escape no matter what it takes. Of course, this does contradict it a bit seeing she thinks certain parents who abandoned her as a kid will return. On the plus, its nice to see a female hero that can fight, use logic and know how to run a “bucket of bolts.”

star-wars-force-awakens-han-solo-chewbacca“Force Awakens” I’m sure will be the talk of the town with old fans seeing some familiar faces appear. Confirming just by the trailer, yes we get Han Solo and his sidekick Chewbacca. I admit, seeing Harrison Ford still doing stunts at the age of 73 was incredible. It shows he still knows hows to be an action man even long after the originals. Some get cameos, some get a small importance to the story while others appear just to please the fans. Its nice to see familiar faces and the original actors but part of me wishes they did a lot more. Or didn’t use some for a sequel bait. Oh, well get to that later….in non-spoiler fashion.

However, not all of the new adventures works. At least for me. The story-line I felt took one too many familiar beats from the original trilogy. And I understand what its trying to do. Certain elements are trying to please the mass of die hard nostalgia fans. Again, I can’t talk about them without spoiling it. But let’s say unlike Terminator Genysis, they at least take old stuff and try to do new things instead of tossing them at the screen and seeing if it sticks. A good example is the aspect of the villain. Yeah, they try to do this thing with Vader by giving him a mask and family issues. Its no Vader but there is this nice menace that reminds us of the power that was once there.

force-socialAnd speaking of which, the new baddies were get are not that interesting. Instead of the Empire, we get the First Order. Yeah, an obvious take and attack on Nazism even right down to the flags and its general making dictations of conquest as an army of stormtroopers observe. Yeah, you can argue that was something with the original trilogy but here, it feels a tad more obvious even right down to the banner design. Even the new set of villains are sort of forgettable. With more focus on our heroes, the basic gist we get from these new evildoers is they are evil and want to take over the galaxy.

Even Kylo Ren is pitted as the next Vader and to be honest, he does has some intimidation. You can feel this fear and anger flow from him but only when he had the mask on. Though, there are times when he did act like he was having a childish fit when he thrashed his light-saber at computer screens after hearing bad news. And without giving too much away, when his true face is revealed, most of that menace dimmed. It appeared more like a brooding version of the secret love child between Benedict Cumberbatch and Josh Groban. And the ever so hyped Captain Phasma felt very useless to me. Aside from one moment near the end, this metallic baddie never did anything that stood out to me. The only one who stood out was Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux, a tough as nails general whose so determined to conquer even to the point you see his eyes bug out of his head when he’s screaming speeches.

Now, I understand this is a new entry in a trilogy Disney is crafting but when making a new film, it would be nice to at least tie up some loose ends. Again, without spoiling too much, there are open questions left here and there which I feel give too much sequel bait. Call it a nitpick, but seeing we are being introduced to these characters for the first time, I feel it would have been nice to at least give a sense of closure without being too broad. I understand there are character arcs that need to be explored but even in the first Star Wars (“A New Hope”), it ended on a note that felt satisfying as opposed to saying “there will be another” in a blunt manner. A better example are the new Planet of the Apes movies which do open the door for a sequel but not in a demanding way. It tells us the story is concluded and there is room for another as opposed to making obvious set ups. When something like that happens when it leaves too many questions floating around, it obviously says “there will be a sequel to answer those” and it really annoys me. Again, these are new characters and at least we should feel a sense of closure as opposed to a “To Be Continued” feeling by the end. Its a double edge sword but that’s how I felt.

Aside from the flaws, I can safely say this is a Star Wars movie. I can look at a certain scene from the movie and say on the fly, this is what a Star Wars movie looks like and acts like. The action scenes are enjoyable, the new monsters and aliens are unique to look at, the weapons are certainly Star Wars and the new worlds we see are a nice change of pace. I feel like its something “Star Trek: Generations” tried to do by merging the universe of the old with the new, but I feel its done a tad better here. Maybe if the villains where more threatening and the story took some new risks, it could have been this great sequel along the lines of “Empire Strikes Back.” But I feel its enjoyment is on the level of the first movie and “Return of the Jedi.” And thankfully its nowhere near the area of the prequels, but part of me feels there could have been more improvement in spots. On the upside, it was nice to see a new Star Wars movie on the big screen and makes it an easy recommendation. Just don’t go in with too much hype is what I say.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Son of Frankenstein

Horror-wood 2

 

To think the doc made a sequel...and its GOOD!

To think the doc made a sequel…and its GOOD!

Near the end of the 1930s, Universal’s line of horror films were under a decline. Not since had they delivered a solid hit since Bride of Frankenstein or Dracula. It seemed the quality in this genre they overlooked would send them in a turmoil. The story goes is that a double billing of 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein was released and proved to be a huge success with the public. Some say it was a triple feature with King Kong involved while others say it was part of the staging of a movie theater close to bankrupt in Los Angeles. Either way, it was this double feature that lead Universal to craft another sequel and revive new interest in Universal’s line of horror films. And sadly, its nearly forgotten today.

1939 saw Son of Frankenstein’s debut. It has been labeled as the last of Universal’s “A” list films. Everything from the 1940s and 1950s would descend into a line of “B” movies. And frankly, I can’t think of another film after this entry that was given such effort and care. Not just into the sets and drama but even into the characters as well. It should be also noted this was the first Frankenstein film that would pair Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together. That’s two horror icons for the price of one. It was enough to get any horror fan of the time to reserve a ticket. Sure enough, this gamble would pay off well being a big hit at the box office. But how does it hold up to its predecessors?

Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) marvels at his dad's creation while Ygor (Bela Lugosi) thinks other wise....

Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) marvels at his dad’s creation while Ygor (Bela Lugosi) thinks other wise….

Sherlock Holmes favorite Basil Rathbone plays Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, who turns out to be the son of Henry Frankenstein. After Henry kicks the bucket off-screen, Wolf inherits his father’s mansion along with the broken down laboratory and his prized secrets. Once Wolf and his family move in, we already sympathize with him considering the cold treatment the villagers give him. Not forgetting the events of before and shunning the family name Frankenstein as a curse. Of course, Wolf is different. He shares the same innocence as his father but only wishes to use his methods for his own curiosity and good.

Roaming around the wreckage of the lab is a twisted hunchback named Ygor who claims to have been Henry’s assistant. Before I discuss Ygor a bit, I must stress that because these sequels took so long to make that continuity would be the last thing on a viewer’s mind back then. True, there was an assistant in the first film but his name was Fritz and met a gruesome fate. So we can only guess that Ygor is manipulating Wolf or this film is a slight reboot. Despite the fan theories, we don’t care seeing this is one of Bela Lugosi’s most chilling roles to date. That twisted smile and thick Hungarian accent brings the devil’s advocate feel of the character. Even more interesting is his backstory where he claims the villagers tried to hang him resulting in Ygor getting a broken neck. The fact he says “Ygor is dead” with a sicken grin will leave anyone with chills.

But the twisted hunchback is not alone. Well hidden in the ruins is the original Monster (Boris Karloff returning for the final time) but in a deep coma. This time, the Monster is somehow under Ygor’s control as the pale creature is used to get revenge of the town that tried to kill him. As expected, Wolf revives the Monster by means to study after seeing how amazed he is by the superhuman abilities his father gave. Ygor has other plans…

Kough (Lionel Atwell) hopes the horrors of Frankenstein don't come again...even if we know what will happen

Kough (Lionel Atwell) hopes the horrors of Frankenstein don’t come again…even if we know what will happen

But the complexity of the story doesn’t end there. Lionel Atwill plays Inspector Krogh, a man who is aware of the danger the Frankenstein name gave but still sees some sign of hope in Wolf. In his first scene, he recounts a chilling story where he lost his arm from the Monster’s rampage. Its a very skin crawling moment that doesn’t need deep detail. All we need is a vague explanation and the sight of his fake arm slammed to the wall showing its stiff inclusion. Krogh is not a villain but aware of the past along with the horrors it brought.

The rest of the movie holds up surprisingly well from its story to how well shot it is. All the while, we worry about the state of the Monster as he gets juggled between Wolf’s amazement and Ygor’s bidding to kill. Our perception of the creature’s nature is not revealed until the final 20 minutes and this is in part because of how Karloff’s performance is placed in the foreground. To be fair, its a nice break seeing how central the Monster was in the first two films and we do get a couple of great scenes like one where he examines himself in the mirror with much disgust. Gone is the Monster’s ability to talk as Karloff is reduced to grunts and groaning. But it still proves a good performance can be giving even when speechless.

The twisted sets that make me wonder why would a Frankenstein live in a place like this

The twisted sets that make me wonder why would a Frankenstein live in a place like this

Arguably, this is probably the last movie I can think of the time that is giving such effort in the set design. A lot of the sets and twisted shots have a nightmare-like presentation. Almost akin to German Expressionism but done in a Hollywood way with twisted staircases and exaggerated building designs. The look of the movie is highly iconic and overshadows the story sometimes. While easy to follow, the story seems to float around a bit from one motive to the next but still holds together like a noir story.

Even funnier is how a lot of elements were taken from this movie when Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein came on the scene. I remember seeing the parody first and noticed a lot of connections between the horror comedy and the first two Frankenstein movies. In hindsight, it feels like a true spoof in regards to Son of Frankenstein while the other two get a nice mention or highlight. Even right down to the story, I applaud Mel for reminding us the attention of continuity and cliches of a horror film while twisting them around. It reminds us of our appreciation for the genre just as Son of Frankenstein reminds us how good a sequel to its horror icon can be.

Home movies of Boris Karloff as the Monster in a rare color test for the movie.

Home movies of Boris Karloff as the Monster in a rare color test for the movie.

Also, on a minor level, its strange to hear how originally the movie was meant to be shot in color but later discarded after a screen test proved it wouldn’t work. Either for budgetary reasons or artistic, I’m personally glad the movie was kept in its black and white roots. Many moviegoers can argue that the best movies are filmed without color aside from the shades of black and the brightness of white. Some home movies and test footage was discovered showing Karloff goofing around in the make-up as well as a bright green skin color for the Monster. Again, making it black and white was probably for the best.

Frankenstein meets Bambi!

Frankenstein meets Bambi!

Lastly, fans of Disney will be turning heads when I mention Donnie Dunagan has a part as Wolf’s son Peter. Many will remember him best as the voice of Bambi in Disney’s animated classic about nature. Why I bring this up? Well, think of this. Donnie went from being in a Frankenstein movie to voicing as a baby doe in a Disney flick. And even more odd is how after Bambi, he enlisted into the Marines where he later became a drill instructor. So the next time you make fun of child stars, watch out. Or else they might go from a cute innocent doe to the lead of the Marine Crops. Now that is a scary thought in a nutshell!

Rental Corner: The egotistical and skippable “Star Trek V”

Answer: Because this movie is a messy, bumpy ride to endure

There’s more than one reason why “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” doesn’t work. If I was a fan of Star Trek, chances are I would be highly disappointed and find myself yelling many Klingon obscenities at the tv screen. As a typical moviegoer, I really don’t know how to put this. In a way, I heard this one was the worst of the batch and sort of expected what was coming. I didn’t come off feeling angry but what I can say is that I wasn’t amused either. Most bad movies like “Masters of the Universe” and “Howard the Duck” at least had some form of effort and left me with something to enjoy. “Final Frontier” is a strange case where it does start with an interesting idea but then explodes like the first bite of a sloppy joe. The meat sinks from the sandwich buns and seeps onto your plate to the point you find yourself eating it with a spoon in understanding the confusion.

To understand why this is considered the worst in the original film series, let’s examine the faults one step at a time. The previous Star Trek films had a director that at least had an understanding of the franchise. Robert Wise took “The Motion Picture” on the show’s themes of technology’s  vast expansion while Nicholas Meyer examined the human element more in “The Wrath of Khan” making for a successful entry. The late Leonard Nimoy wasn’t a bad director as clearly he can mange making a movie but some of the ideas felt very far fetched from whales communicating with aliens to rebirth. While “Search for Spock” and “Voyage Home” made up for it some great writing and humor, the themes and ideas felt too vague and incoherent but still had some supporting legs for its existence in the story.

Instead, directing duty went to William Shatner who I will admit had an interesting idea but somehow got lost within the production problems and weird choices. There’s no such thing as a bad director until you see the movie but unfortunately this movie is proof Shatner is not good at directing movies. There appears to be some oddly shot scenes to cover up cheap special effects and even the editing is by far the most unforgivable raging from the infamous “Hover Shoes Elevator” scene which could have been easily edited to even obvious wires and ships that fly around like they are from a Looney Tunes. From what I understand, there was a much bigger story in the works that got whittled down thanks to studio interference and criticisms from the cast. Thus a parable about religion got lost in the mix of goofy yet forced humor and again some production troubles ranging from special effects made someone lesser than ILM to even a production story where Shatner nearly died when filming the desert scenes. Credit to ambition but the bigger faults lie within the story.

The Enterprise trio with Sybok who hijacks the ship along with the sanity of this movie

The Enterprise trio with Sybok who hijacks the ship along with the sanity of this movie

Laurence Luckinbill plays a Vulcan named Sybok who turns out to be Spock’s half-brother. He goes around curing people of their pain by removing it and plans to meet up with an entity he believes is God. And that’s just the surface. This doesn’t come into play till the second half and already there are some problems. We never get to learn where Sybok got these powers or even understand his motives that well. He cures McCoy and Spock of their painful memories later on but it doesn’t prove much. Does he have connections with this big God anomaly? We never really understand in the end.

In fact, more time is devoted to Kirk and his pals vacationing at Yosemite and forced comedy aboard the Enterprise that is not functioning fully. What made the previous installments work was the compensation between political views and actual character development. Even if they did channel the campier side of the original show, they did it in a mature manner as if it was a B-movie with brain. “The Final Frontier” uses this campy factor to full power complete with one-liners, surreal moments like Uhura’s infamous fan dance and some very forced comedy. Highlights include Scotty having trouble getting the Enterprise fixed together, a bunch of Klingons trying to chase after Kirk that look like space hillbillies and Kirk trying to help Spock understand the concept of a night with a campfire. This can work but its execution is so forced in it feels desperate for a laugh.

"Are you a God?"

“Are you a God?”

“Voyage Home” worked because we were fascinated by the idea of the future seeing the past and making a unique commentary about how “advanced” we were at the time. The chemistry came from the Enterprise crew interacting with 1986 computer devices and mingling with people that are far off from the 23rd Century. Aside from whales and time travel, that was the glue that held it together. “Final Frontier” has a ridiculous concept but there is nothing to connect to as the story goes from a campfire to a hostage rescue to a mutiny lead by Sybok to the climatic meet-up with the God entity. There’s clearly too much going on here and without a clear connection, we get no support as we feel like we are watching three Star Trek movies crammed into one. Even most of the focus is on Kirk, Spock and McCoy as the supporting cast are used for one-note jokes or just used little at all. The previous movies gave small roles a sense of importance and character. Not shove them aside for a Stooge trio making the film more “Kirk” centered than the others.

However, the character of Sybok does try to be some form of connection in these string of plots but his actions don’t make any sense. He wants to get a starship to meet up with the God entity but stages a ransom to hijack one. He doesn’t want people to die and tries to act innocent, but his villainous actions contradict the character’s good will. Would it kill to send out a distress signal or at least some kind of contact to get a ride? All this trouble just to get to a creature that claims to be God but isn’t feels like a waste of time not just for Kirk and the crew to go through but even our own.

Test footage from the deleted "Rock Monster" who was deemed not good enough. In hindsight, this actually would have been better than a giant blob of light claiming to be God

Test footage from the deleted “Rock Monster” who was deemed not good enough. In hindsight, this actually would have been better than a giant blob of light claiming to be God

Bottom line, “Final Frontier” is easily the most skippable entry. Its one you can live without seeing. I can’t say its 100% terrible as there can be a nice scene once in a while with some character development and there was at least some promise. William Shatner said the idea for this one came from watching televangelists and noticing how they were strangely horrifying yet fascinating to watch. Sybok almost has this feeling with promises of something greater and healing powers. If this character was developed further and maybe given a stronger motive, perhaps there would be a stronger conflict at play. But alas, nothing comes together. I didn’t even talk about the pointless David Warner cameo, the triple-breasted feline bar dancer or even the fact that almost every scene has someone drinking alcohol. Maybe the original script was a better movie at the start with cut material ranging from Kirk going against the Devil to a rock-monster that got replaced with a giant blob of light. Even when the Star Trek movies where being released on 2-disc DVDs, Shatner asked Paramount Pictures to do a recut of the film with added footage and new effects to improve it. As you would expect, Paramount decided to not to support this idea and didn’t attempt it. That’s well enough proof for you. A Star Trek sequel so infamously bad that even its own studio doesn’t want to fix it up.

Rental Corner: Same old “22” retreads

The sequel YOU wanted...keyword being YOU

The sequel YOU wanted…keyword being YOU

Last night, I saw a college performance of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The first act was slow but as the idea of how one small lie can explode into epic proportions slowly gained my interest. There is no wrong way to do comedy but there is one form of it I do highly appreciate. The art of how one situation snowballs into something bigger and bigger and this play is proof of it. True its no masterpiece considering the delivery of the performance but it made me think how far we have come in the field of comedy to creating movies that are nothing more but an endless string of mindless jokes and gags. Here is where “22 Jump Street” comes in.

Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill return as buddy cops from the first film who are sent out to a drug investigation in college. What follows is very much the same thing we got first time around. Someone on campus is giving out drugs in the form of something that looks like a car air freshener and has a dumb name (here “WhyPhy.”) One of the kids is the dealer and it happens to become best friends with one of them. The two of them have to attend classes that mess with their personalities but evolve an understanding that makes them better friends. So as you can imagine the main problem I have is right in the first paragraph. Its literally following in the progression of sequels and doing things again. Now there are films that have gone this route and attempt to give it a fresh feel like Wayne’s World 2, Gremlins 2 or even more recent Anchorman 2. As long as the characters are given a deeper progression, it will keep the entry from being a mediocre entry.

Unfortunately, I felt there was nothing really new to gain from here other than simply have them do the same shtick but on campus. Even the humor is the same as it goes to be far more self aware than the first film to the point you are expecting them to burst out of the screen and ask if you find it entertaining. Now, there are ideas for jokes here but they don’t live up to potential. There’s an opening scene where they try to infiltrate a drug bust but find the cargo is full of animals. The idea for a joke is there but its not developed or perhaps explained well. Maybe they are using the animals for drug testing which would lead to open ideas for jokes but its never explained. Cargo truck of animals are found and hi-jinks ensue. 22 Jump Street even tries to take a stab at college life with midnight beer soaked games and beatnik open mic but it doesn’t have support or even have a payoff to it. They just exist as set pieces and then pack themselves up for the next one.

The only thing I remember that I actually did laugh at was the reveal of one of the characters’ girlfriend’s father. It lead to a rather awkward yet hilarious scene where they try to have dinner but after that, it fizzles to the background and doesn’t have a way to pay it off. It has a good set up and then it just fades or barley gets a mention until the final act. And once again, making your movie self aware to the point you are reminded that what you are watching is a movie doesn’t work. There is a way to do it without constantly bashing it over your viewer’s heads. James Gunn was able to work in tongue-in-cheek style with his movies to the point we feel reminded of classic horror/sci-films we grew up with. Edgar Wright had funny and smart characters while rewarding us with off-beat humor that reflects human flaw but yet relates to the characters we enjoy. Even John Waters is able to mesh satire of the American Dream as a demented soap opera like in Polyester to the point its so absurd we have to laugh at the unrealistic yet overly melodramatic nature.

Instead, we get the “amazing” Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who have been constantly praised for their “supposed wit” and “supposed style.” I never really saw any originality at all. To me, they feel like they are trying to make a modern Mel Brooks but it doesn’t work because there’s nothing original to obtain. When Mel Brooks did Spaceballs, you were so invested in the parody characters that it felt like an original movie. Even Young Frankenstein fooled us thinking it was a true sequel to the Universal Monster classic because of how it was in relation to those films while parodying the cliches and making something of it. The filmography of these two have adaptions and not a single film is an original thought. Ok, you ask? Why must I pick on two filmmakers who haven’t made a film from an “original” idea yet they have worked on “original” ideas in the form of television? You tell me! Why haven’t they sat down and thought about making a fresh parody as opposed to injecting it into a book adaption or taking a cheesy 80s drama? What is the point in making these movies when they are based on properties from other corporate materials? This is what’s wrong with Hollywood and so is this film.

22 Jump Street is nothing but a formulaic repeat to the point you can walk in blindfolded and know what’s going to happen. Even the self-aware tone pushes itself too far with Ice Cube complaining how “there’s no budget left” as the second half as the film feels oddly and cheaply made. Its an annoying exercise in taking a television property and bloating it to the point it has no identity.  Its an auto-pilot mess that had potential but its only fame to claim is by having Jonah Hill being manhandled by an fake octopus and the two cops going on a drug high that looks like Sid and Marty Kroft created as a highlight for humor. Even the end credits pains me as our two leads are sent out on assignments that reflect possible sequels in hopes that never get made. I want to say this has “egotism” written all over it but considering the box success it has and how moviegoers can’t stop “praising” this, I best keep my mouth shut and let you watch your mindless junk food instead.