Tag: Reviews (page 1 of 36)

500 Words On Two Movies

I missed yesterday’s review for several reasons. So let me break down the double-feature I did today in about 500 words. Including those last 20. Consider this a flash review.

Robocop (2014)

My initial reaction? “Meh.” It wasn’t terrible, by any stretch, but I wasn’t blown away by it. I liked some of the things they did with the concept, to be sure. There were moments that really brought home the horror of what happened to Murphy and what was done to him after. A great deal of time is spent on Murphy’s recovery, family, and impact on the future society.

However, a lot of the film feels overly long and drawn out. As fun as it is to see Samuel L. Jackson channelling Bill O’Rielly, a few of his bits are a little long in the tooth. The same goes for several scenes of the Murphy family. On it’s own, the movie feels a touch padded and slow.

In comparison to the original 1987 film, this new version feels a great deal like it’s missing the point. RoboCop‘s ultra-violence, quick cuts to vapid press coverage, and corporate interplay all contributed to its undercurrent of social satire. I understand that remakes involve changes, and not all of the changes were bad, but some left me with major unanswered questions. Why was Lewis gender-changed to male? Why was this story laid out so deliberately and linearly, when flashbacks of Murphy’s emergent memories could have been a far more effective storytelling tool? Why was the only blood we really saw in the film coming from a kill at the end that means the victim will not be brought to justice? It’s another case where a revision of an established character could have turned out a lot better than it did, but at least it wasn’t as shameless as any of the previous RoboCop sequels, nor was it quite as dour or plodding as Man of Steel.

The LEGO Movie

I just got a haircut today, and the young lady doing me that service told me she had herself seen The LEGO Movie recently. She had expected the theatre to be full of kids – not all of the adults she found! From the sound of things, she really enjoyed seeing it.

I told you that story because I really have nothing to say about The LEGO Movie that has not already been said in a thousand other places. The universal sentiment is that this film is pretty terrific, and I have no reason or desire to disagree! This is especially good for families. It’s fun, inventive, creative, and you’ll notice things on your second viewing you didn’t see the first time.

After seeing it again, I don’t think the message is quite as strong as in Wreck-It Ralph.

Then again, Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t have the goddamn Batman.

Honestly, the two films pretty much stand shoulder to shoulder. I’d recommend either very strongly to either parents with kids, or folks just wanting a great time at the movies.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Original Text:
[spoiler]

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

Joseph Campbell is famous for basically saying that all storytellers are essentially telling the same story. Be it a myth based on the perceptions of the ancient Norse of their weather patterns or the all-caps melodrama and bright, splashy colors of a comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, our stories are a way of exploring ourselves and the world around us. Sometimes, the old stories are reimagined and transitioned into new forms that appeal to the altered sensibilities of modern audiences. Sometimes this works; other times, it doesn’t. Not every middle schooler is going to have a nascent interest in the mythology of ancient Greece, so author Rick Riordan took it upon himself to set those stories in the foundations of those tumultuous schoolyards, giving us Percy Jackson & the Olympians. The first volume of this chronicle, The Lightning Thief, got the major motion picture from Hollywood treatment.

And by ‘treatment’, I mean the potential for storytelling that’s worth a damn got tied to a chair and worked over with a baseball bat.

Our titular character is a struggling middle-school student with apparent dyslexia and ADHD. His mother is married to a complete and utter douchebag while his birth father scampered off while Percy was still a newborn. His best friend, Grover, walks with crutches and has a penchant for cracking wise that works really hard to put Chris Tucker to shame. A visit to the local museum and a lecture by his wheelchair-bound Latin teacher begins to reveal some truths to Percy: his dyslexia is due to his brain being hard-wired to read ancient Greek, mythological creatures want him dead, his best friend is a satyr and his teacher’s a centaur. Oh, and he’s the son of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. He must undertake a quest to return the lightning bolt of Zeus lest the king of the gods starts a massive war over its theft. Why Zeus would leave his trademark weapon which also happens to be the Olympian equivelant of a tactical nuclear strike laying around unattended is one of the many, many unanswered questions brought up in the course of this plot. Odin had a damn treasure vault for stuff like this, and Zeus couldn’t even slap a “No Touchie” magical whammy on the thing? But let’s move on. I don’t want to spend my entire rage quotient in the second major paragraph.

Having never read this series of books, I can’t comment on how well the narrative of the novel transitioned into the screenplay. What I can comment on is a visible shift in style and pacing by director Chris Columbus. This is a man best known for his light-hearted, kid-oriented films such as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Lightning Thief feels a bit like an act of teenage rebellion against those more childish forays into filmmaking. While once we might have spent more time with Percy at home or school learning about what makes him tick and how he deals with the challenges of his young life, we’re thrust into the action almost immediately and given very little time for exposition.

This is both a good thing and a bad one. Exposition, after all, is difficult to get right and more often than not becomes an anchor welded around the ankle of the story, dragging the audience into the cloying darkness of boredom. However, without even passing attempts at exposition the story is left adrift, batted without foundation between one event and the next with nary a thing to connect them. Percy’s got a quest for a series of magical MacGuffins and an incidental need to rescue his mother to keep things going, but these elements have their own problems, seperate from those plauging the rest of the film.

It would be one thing if the MacGuffins were tied one to the other by clues that needed to be investigated on the scene where each is found. Instead our heroes have a magical map that just tells them where to go. Cuts down on stuff like intellectual curiosity and character building, sure, but who needs that stuff when you have mythological creatures to battle with swords? As for Percy’s mom, her character is also given something of the short end of the stick, and while most people would be genuinely concerned with a parent’s sudden death or disappearance, Percy reacts to the incident with a bit of dull surprise, quickly lost when he spots the girl. Because, you know, hormones are a much better motivator for moving a story along than concern for a loved one.

Without decent motivation or characterization for our hero, all we have left is action and spectacle. Again, the film falls short of delivering these elements without making things either bleedingly obvious or unnecessesarily dense. Instead of discovering the ways and means of his water-based demi-god powers, Percy has to be ham-handedly told how they work. Our heroes get out of their first two major scrapes thanks to everybody in the world having seen Clash of the Titans at some point, without explaining this point in-universe. The intrepid band spends five days in a pleasure palace before Percy’s dad calls him up on the Olympin telepathiphone to inform him of the fact that they’re farting around in a pleasure palace. And this says nothing about the aforementioned girl, supposedly the daughter of the goddess of wisdom and battle strategy, not employing the most practical and straightforward means of ending confrontations possible. Sure, it’s in keeping with traditions to train with swords and bows and whatnot, but just think how many of these encounters Annabeth could have resolved more quickly, directly and painlessly with the implementation and distribution of fucking guns.

Let’s see, what else is wrong with this flick? Grover’s irritating from start to finish, the only character who has interesting motivations and character beats in the slightest gets maybe five minutes of screen time, there’s no real tension and any attempt the story makes at trying to be more than a pandering and predictable distraction for middle schoolers just trying to make out in the back of the theater is slapped down in favor of more of that blunt telling over showing bullshit I’ve harped about for the last three minutes. Given my personal interest in stories like this reworked into other settings and genres to prove their viability and longevity, I wanted to like The Lightning Thief, but the more I watched the angrier I got. No amount of Sean Bean or Kevin McKidd can save this flick. Harry Potter does a much better job of giving us relatable adolescent characters in a fantasy setting, and cribbing notes from Clash of the Titans made me yearn for the early 80s schlock of that original film and wonder about how bad the new version is. I guess I’ll find out next week. For now, skip Percy Jackson. Give the books a try if you’re part of the target demographic, but if you’ve already read Harry Potter and aren’t frothing at the mouth for more of the same, I doubt you’re missing much. Find Madeline l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or T.H. White’s The Once and Future King instead. They’re classics, they’re poignant, and you don’t have the token black character weighing the whole thing down with his attempts at being both the ethnic wisecracking sidekick and the Magical Negro. But at least you can make a fun drinking game out of every moment the so-called heroes of The Lightning Thief just get a solution handed to them and don’t have to think for themselves, much like the audience.

Wait. Scratch that. I don’t want to be responsible for any of you dying from alcohol poisoning.[/spoiler]

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Ringu

Original Text:
[spoiler]

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

This is Darth Vader. Right-hand man of the evil Emperor Palpatine, Lord of the Sith, and lately the poster child for the outcry of “They changed it, now it sucks.” While in that case we’re talking about a man somewhat bloated by his own ego ham-handedly forcing things into what were perfectly servicable scenes, the argument in general comes from the fans of an exercise in entertainment adapted into another medium or by another creative mind. The trepidation with which an established fanbase can approach a new adaptation is the reason why the various iterations of the movie called The Ring have meet with disparate degrees of success. Since the original novel Ring was Japanese, it was the Japanese version of the movie I watched.

Four teenage school kids, returning from a resort cabin they shared, all have stories of a weird videotape they watched, and the phone call that followed telling them all they would die in one week. It was a great story and good for a laugh… until all four of them dropped dead. One of them is the neice of a reporter, and when she finds and watches the tape herself, she too gets a phone call. Unwilling to leave her small son alone in the world, she enlists her ex-husband for help, trying to find the way to break the videotape’s curse and discover its origins with the days she has left.

There are a few things of note in Ring once it begins. While the budget for the film sounds laughable by the standards of many modern Hollywood productions – only 1.2 million US dollars in 1998 – there’s nothing that feels cheap or chincy about it. I know there will be nay-sayers who say it lacks action or high energy moments or blood spatter or something like that. But this movie is proof positive that you don’t need those things for an effective horror story. What we have here is storytelling that is two things: very taut, and very intimate.

The tension in the story comes from amorphous things in production and direction. It’s cut in such a way and paced deliberately to highten the sliding scale of oddness in given situations during this week of hellacious mental torment, from slightly unnerving to full-on batshit. The musical score is subtle, for the most part, and sounds are geared to creep into your perceptions rather than overwhelm them. It’s like being serenaded during dinner with the soft sounds of a string quartet as opposed said quartet being interrupted by a roving mariachi band.

As for intimacy, here’s where some fans of the novel might have gotten their dead little girls in a bind. The gender of our protagonist was swapped and she was not only given a small child to protect but a tenuous relationship with her ex-husband. However, this not only serves as a source for drama but also subtle feelings of protectiveness, understanding and even attraction that comes across as extremely mutual and heartfelt. Excellent writing and acting convey this relationship with only a few words being spoken outside of the crisis at hand. It’s clear where the spark was between these two romantically, just as much as it is clear why the relationship didn’t work out. Coupled with the VHS Sword of Damocles, it’s very difficult not to feel empathy not just for our heroine, but for just about everybody involved.

That is what a lot of horror-based entertainment seems to miss more often than not: empathy. If we care about the characters, we care about what happens to them and we don’t want to see them killed. It’s why Silence of the Lambs is still a breathtaking piece of work, and Ring is just as good. When we don’t care about the characters, and they’re more or less lined up for a monster or monsters to turn them into five-foot piles of chunky salsa, things get very boring very fast. Despite it’s “lack of action” or “absense of gore”, Ring is a film that will have you on the edge of your seat. It shows us not just a great story with tension, intimacy and truly shiver-inducing horror, but the way to tell that story with the barest of tools in the author’s arsenal.

They didn’t even need CGI for the iconic TV shot. All you need is a tattered nightgown, some makeup and a very talented contortionist. … Actually, that sounds like a recipie for a rather entertaining evening, horror movie or not.[/spoiler]

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Robin Hood

A little something different this week… thanks to Jonny at Non-Social Media.

Original Text:
[spoiler]

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

You wouldn’t think, at first glance, that the actors Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Russell Crowe have all that much in common other than their profession. We are, after all, talking about actors from different genres and even eras of film. However, they have now all portrayed versions of perhaps the most famous rogue of British folklore: Robin Hood. Flynn’s Robin was a man of high adventure, Costner’s was barely British and Elwes was in a spoof. As for Russell Crowe, his Robin was the central character in Ridley Scott’s 2010 more ‘historical’ adaptation of the story, and by ‘historical’ I mean that very special kind of history that conflates years of people and events into something that fits a theatrical running time and the attention spans of your typical movie-going audience.

While in the past Robin has always been at least peripherally attached to noble title and lands in Nottinghamshire, this time around our hero is plain Robin Longstride, an archer in Richard the Lionheart’s army of the Third Crusade. Robin himself isn’t much of a holy warrior, though, and when he makes his distaste for the slaughter of innocents over the name given to inscrutable omnipotent beings known to his sovereign, he’s put in the stocks. Richard gets himself killed and Robin takes it upon himself to escape, but not before stumbling across a few plot-relevant items that give him a way back to England. Events unfold around him that will set him on the path of becoming an outlaw whose fame will live on hundreds if not thousands of years after he’s dead.

Historical fiction is a road both Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe have walked down before. Crowe has been a lifelong fan of the legendary archer, but was never quite satisfied with the way Hollywood portrayed him. Scott, on the other hand, found a spec script in 2007 that tried to take the legend in a new direction. However, he eventually became dissatisfied with the evolution of the story, and what had begun as a revisionist film of the legend called Nottingham became a film simply entitled Robin Hood, styling itself as a Crusades-era Batman Begins.

For the most part, this actually works. We have a brilliantly talented cast, with nuanced and interesting characters delivering well-paced and balanced dialog in period settings that feel, for the most part, authentic. I get the feeling that this sort of thing has become something of a comfort zone for Ridley Scott, and all of the main selling points of Kingdom of Heaven are present here. From gorgeous shots of the English countryside to the inclusion of historical figures like Eleanor of Aquitaine, this film has a lot going for it.

Of course, true history buffs are likely to be somewhat put off by Scott’s interpretation of historical events. Things take place years before they actually happened, perpetuated by different people. Some figures meet ends differently than they did in life and liberties are taken with important documents and items. And like Kingdom of Heaven, at least in the theatrical release, some elements of the plot feel cobbled together with rubber cement and a staple gun. There’s at least a couple bits missing that would have smoothed out rough patches in the story, and some elements feel like holdovers from the original Nottingham notion. That’s not likely to be the case, however, as the writers of that original treatment were shouldered out of the production entirely. Now you’ll need to poke around online to see what they originally had in mind.

As much as it seems harsh that the original creative spark for the movie was removed from the hands of those writers, the end result could certainly have turned out worse. Prequels, by and large, have earned a stigma for being unnecessary works of fiction that fill in too many of the blanks audiences would probably prefer to populate themselves. While I can’t help but agree with the spirit of this sentiment, if a work is aiming to present the origins of a character in an intelligent, relatable and at least somewhat unique (but not superfluous) manner, I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Like the aforementioned Batman Begins or X-Men: First Class, Robin Hood gives us a look at a character we think we knew in a way that we can understand, relate to and cheer for. Prequels may not always be necessary stories, but if the job is done well enough, the story will still feel worth telling.

While the mileage of this film with the individual film-goer is likely to vary, I do feel that Robin Hood does its job with more than adequate aplomb. Some of the moments in the third act feel a bit over-the-top, most notably King John’s declaration at the end, and I am curious as to how a Director’s Cut of this movie would compare to its original release. However, in its theatrical version, the story is relatively free of overt contrivance, the characters are solid and the acting is poignant without being melodramatic. Some may feel there are too many echoes of Braveheart or Gladiator or other movies here, but Robin Hood manages to find its own place and I feel it’s worth seeing since its merits do outweigh its flaws.

There are some universal things present here, outside of the legend of Robin Hood: Don’t get into a swordfight with Russell Crowe, don’t make Kevin Durand (here playing Little John) angry, and most of all, do not mess with Cate Blanchett anywhere near a forest. You piss off Galadriel or perpetuate wickeness in her wood, you are entering a world of pain.[/spoiler]

First Impressions: Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine

Courtesy Relic Entertainment

The miniatures wargame Warhammer 40,000 and I have something of a history. There have been periods in my life where I’ve had enough disposable income and free time to seriously consider the hobby. While the atmosphere and lore of the universe created by Games Workshop still holds appeal, more often than not I’ve found myself needing to feed myself and invest in other pursuits rather than properly outfit and paint an army of Eldar, Dark Angels or Black Templars. The Dawn of War RTS games circumvented the need to buy units by allowing gamers like myself to create armies within the context of those games, but the distant viewpoint necessary to corral several units of elite troops meant that things might feel less than authentic. You haven’t been able to properly experience first-hand the awesome size of a superhuman Space Marine, the visceral nature of close combat or the grim darkness of the far future… until now.

Courtesy Relic Entertainment
“Thank you, Captain Titus! But your Inquisitor is in another manifactorum!”

Space Marine puts you in the power armour of Captain Titus of the Ultramarines. Since this is only a demo we don’t get too much in the way of story, but it’s enough to whet the appetite. Savage orks have overrun a forge world, where the weaponry and machinery of the Imperium is created, and they are threatening to seize some sort of powerful device. With the Imperial Guard’s backs against the wall and Inquisitor Drogan missing, it’s up to Titus and his compatriots to fight their way through the tide of greenskins. Unlike some other games set in the 40k universe, the voice acting is relatively subdued when it comes to the humans and appropriately boisterous for the orks. But enough talk of story, we’re here to get our bolter & chainsword on.

Courtesy Relic Entertainment
Just another day at the office.

The very first thing I noticed, which has been said elsewhere, is that the characters and objects in this game feel like they have weight. Space Marines are massive, and not the kind to go bounding from cover to cover like they’re floating an inch above the ground. In fact, the Imperial Guard has a tendency to use the Space Marines as cover when the shooting starts. The ponderous pace of Titus as he tromps towards his foes, the barking sound of the bolter or bolt pistol and the way the rounds from each explode inside their targets leaves the game feeling authentic, as true to the mood and descriptions in the massive 40k tomes as possible.

Outside of the exciting prospect for fanboys of a ‘proper’ 40k game, there’s other aspects this shooter/spectacle fighter has going for it. You can carry more than a few weapons on your person, and there’s a good deal of variety. The Stalker-pattern bolter allows you to do a little sniping, and the Vengeance launcher provides the means for tactical set-up of a coming battle. And don’t think you can just duck out of the way and your health will magically come back to you. The force field that protects your armour will regenerate but your health does not. To get that back, you must channel the fury of the Emperor (which you can only do occasionally) or execute a foe. And these executions are brutal. Being reduced to a mere sliver of health only to manhandle an ork and pull off a wince-inducing kill in order to keep fighting is deeply satisfying in a way I should probably discuss with a professional.

Courtesy Relic Entertainment
So, sometime in the next dozen millenia we’re going to get our damn jet packs.

The demo provides two relatively short missions, one to give you the feel for a scenario start-to-finish and one to tease you with some jump pack action. Assault marines are some of the fastest and nastiest units in 40k and strapping a jump pack on has the same authenticity of the other aspects of the game. Hopping into the sky only to slam down onto an enemy placement intent on sniping your buddies with rockets (sorry, in ork speak that’s ‘rokkitz’) is just as satisfying as hefting one into the air, body-slamming it and stomping on its face. It’s very difficult not to enjoy the experience.

On the PC, the controls are smooth and fully customizable. The game has a great look and feel to it, with excellent sound design and a full orchestral score. While this title will mostly appeal to fans of the universe and spectacle fighter veterans of God of War and Bayonetta, from what I’ve seen Relic is doing just enough differently from both it’s own previous titles and current industry standards in both shooting games and action games to make Space Marine memorable and worth the time to play. The full game will be released in September.

The Emperor Protects.

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