Friday, May 31, 2013

Fast & Furious 6

The Fast and the Furious franchise has definitely seen its ups and downs. As far as I’m concerned the original is a decent action/drama that features a healthy dose of cheese, but the following two sequels (2 Fast 2 Furious and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) were pretty bottom of the barrel, the second film in particular being quite painful to watch. The fourth film (Fast and Furious) was just okay, but started to show signs of finally getting the formula right. Fast Five was where the stars aligned and the writers smartly switched the focus from racing cars to an Ocean’s 11 style heist. It became one of my favorite movies from the summer of 2011. And now we have the inevitable and highly anticipated continuation - Fast & Furious 6 (for some reason the advertising is calling this Fast & Furious 6, but in the film it’s simply titled Furious 6… go figure).
Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) enlists the help of his former quarry Dom (Vin Diesel), Brian (Paul Walker) and their crew to aid in taking down a dangerous crime lord, Shaw (Luke Evans), who plans to steal military hardware and sell it on the black market. They accept in exchange for full pardons once they learn that one of Shaw’s accomplices is Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who they thought was dead.

As much as I enjoyed the fifth film, I have to say that this follow-up was a little disappointing. It basically follows the same path that its predecessor tread, only this time the writing isn’t nearly as good and the story is needlessly stretched out to bursting point. Long story short, it’s the same movie only amped up to the Nth degree.
Writers Chris Morgan and Gary Scott Thompson didn’t seem to be trying very hard when they copy/pasted the Fast Five script here. Al the beats are the same, none of the characters really change or evolve and the project has a lazy feeling about it. One of their more ridiculous changes is that the Letty character has amnesia and doesn’t remember any of her old crew. It was a bad decision on their part and it’s so freaking hokey when you’re watching this development play out on screen. They also wrote yet another horribly clichéd and boring villain in Shaw. He’s not threatening nor is he frightening. He’s just sort of there. Cole Hauser’s baddie in 2 Fast 2 Furious was more intense, and that’s saying something. Although I was happy to see that they finally decided to correct their timeline jumping (parts 4, 5 and 6 take place before part 3, and now the series has caught up with the events of that film at last).

Justin Lin returns for his fourth and final directing gig in this series, and while his track record was pretty hit or miss with me I have to say that I’m sad to see him go. He brings a great energy to each film regardless of its quality, and he basically turned this franchise into the money making juggernaut that it is today. What’s truly disappointing is that you can tell as you watch Furious 6 that he’s tired of these films and is ready to move on. There’s nothing truly awe inspiring or overly exciting in his stylistic choices here as there were in Fast Five. The movie just kind of slogs along, going through the motions with a random action scene thrown in to keep the audience from falling asleep, and insures that there will be yet another film to follow.
The acting is about as good as you’d expect. Vin Diesel pretty much IS his character of Dom Toretto (as he is with Riddick as well) and he manages to make his gruff, yet sensitive, criminal a joy to watch. You can say all you want about how cool the cars are or how wild the action is – Diesel is the main draw here and he never disappoints. Pairing him with Dwayne Johnson was probably the smartest move the casting department has ever made for any film in the series. These two are great together and have a fun chemistry. I hope the filmmakers continue to include his character of Hobbs in future installments. Paul Walker does his best Keanu Reeves impersonation, Tyrese Gibson is still slightly annoying and always “hungry”, Michelle Rodriguez might as well just legally change her name to “Tough Chick”, Jordana Bewster is fine as the sassy damsel in distress and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges makes for a better comic relief sidekick than Tyrese. I really enjoyed Sung Kang and Gal Gadot together. They have a fun relationship and they both are decent actors. As much as I like Gina Carano (she is FINE!) I sadly report that her acting chops have not improved since Haywire. It’s sad because if she stepped up her game a notch or two she could be a great leading female action star. Her fight scenes are ultra rad. Luke Evans tries his best to inject some life into his DOA antagonist, but sometime the writing works against you and treading water is the only option. Such is the case here.
I know I’m making the movie sound pretty bad. It’s not. It’s entertaining and fun, if not a little stupid and farfetched like all the films in this series (was that airstrip 30 fucking miles long?!). I was just expecting more and I didn’t get it. There are some cool callbacks (the villain from Fast & Furious popping up in one scene made me smile), the action is rad and the women are smoking’ hot. And the setup for the next film… HOLY SHIT! But when the film ended I realized that I had paid to see the same movie twice, and that I probably should have just stayed home and watched my BluRay of Fast Five instead. It’s one of the better films in the franchise (I’d rank it as my third favorite), but I hope that some new writers are brought in to change things up for part 7. With an awesome villain already lined up they had better make the film as bad ass as they possibly can or I fear the series will go out with a whimper.

3 out of 5

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Texas Chainsaw 3D

I didn’t see this in 3D. Just sayin’.

Aside from the original film in the long running Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, I do not understand the reasoning behind why this franchise is still appealing. Absolutely none of the wide range of sequels/reboots (you can read my review of the 2003 remake here) have been remotely watchable as far as I’m concerned, and each one is worse than the one that came before it. So here we are in 2013 with the release of Texas Chainsaw 3D. Does it break the trend of ass suckage?
Young twentysomething Heather (Alexandra Daddario) learns that she was adopted after she inherits a house that belonged to her birth family in Texas. Along with a group of friends she decides to check the place out only to discover that it’s still inhabited by her one remaining relative - the murderous Leatherface (Dan Yeager).

I will fully admit, seeing that this was a direct sequel to the original 1974 film really piqued my interest. Retconning the entire franchise was a fine idea and the opening scenes, while obviously using different actors to recreate the classic roles, were pulled of quite well.
Unfortunately that’s where I stop complimenting this film and move straight to how ridiculously dumb and stupid it is. The time gap between the original and this sequel is 39 years, therefore the orphaned Sawyer baby that is adopted at the top of the flick should be pushing 40 when the story moves ahead to the present day. When the movie starts she is in her mid-twenties, so for a while I was assuming the movie took place between 1997-1999. That is until you start seeing all the modern day cars and one character whip out his iPhone to film his exploration of the Sawyer home. I mean, really? Is it that hard to keep some kind of continuity between films? Basically the filmmakers are saying that the original took place around 1988. Eat a bag of dicks, Texas Chainsaw 3D.

The acting is absolutely horrible. Alexandra Daddario (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) is basically just there to be eye candy. She looks hot and sexy for the whole movie, even when she’s all banged up and bruised, and does nothing but stare creepily into the distance with her freakishly bright blue peepers. Sure she can scream and all that, but I just didn’t buy her in the part, and I definitely didn’t believe her character’s stupefying twist in the finale. All of her castmates aren’t really characters at all, just bags of blood waiting to be slashed open to spill their contents in gruesome ways. No one is developed in the slightest, therefore I didn’t give a shit when they were predictably killed.
The only actor I liked was Dan Yeager as Leatherface, aka Jedidiah Sawyer. He has no lines and mostly moans and hollers, but he has what made the character so effective in the original film - presence. Just like Gunnar Hansen, he makes his character unpredictably crazy and frightening. Even though nothing that happens in this dreck was scary in the slightest, his Leatherface is like a force of nature. I’m not down with the whole anti-hero angle the filmmakers decided to go with toward the end, but whatevs.

Director John Luessenhop (Takers) is a hack, plain and simple. He might have a good eye for cool looking shots and knows his way around the horror genre, but he cannot direct actors to save his life and has no idea on how to properly build suspense. I’m sure his editors had to work overtime to make even the dialogue scenes come across as non-awkward. Sure the movie looks nice and moody, but that’s thanks to his cinematographer and lighting department. Long story short, this guy has no business making movies.
Why does a horror movie like this even need three screenwriters? Adam Marcus (the writer/director of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday), Debra Sullivan and Kirsten Elms all took a stab at the script (from a story idea by Marcus, Sullivan and Steven Susco) and not one came up with anything fresh or even remotely original. Everything is generic and cliché as par the course with most horror movies nowadays. I’m sure they thought their big twist in the finale would be mindblowing to the audience, but it ends up being the final nail in the coffin for this piss poor excuse for a movie. And what was up with that scene where Leatherface chases Heather through a county fair and no one seems to care that there’s a dude swinging a chainsaw around trying to kill a screaming girl? Just plain dumb.

Sure some of the gore is rad (loved that guy getting shredded in the factory), the appearance of Gunnar Hansen, Marilyn Burns and Bill Moseley (alumni of other films in the series) is welcome and the idea of the townsfolk taking a stand against the Sawyer clan is a nice addition to the story, but there is nothing going on that I could say makes this even remotely watchable. This is a Cleveland Steamer that took a road trip to Shreveport and festered in the hot sun.

0.5 out of 5

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mama

Guillermo del Toro is fixated on horror stories involving children. 75% of all the films he’s directed, written or produced feature a kid as the main character or involves a child in some gruesome way. Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Mimic, The Orphanage and Pan’s Labyrinth. You name it. So it should be no surprise that his newest production, Mama, involves children and a poltergeist that protects them from harm.

Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) take in the orphaned children of his deceased brother when they are found years after their disappearance. They somehow managed to survive in the wilderness alone… or did they?
Basically Mama is a generic ghost story, albeit a very well made one. It borrows a lot of imagery from Japanese horror films such as Ju-On, but manages to eek out an identity of its own as the story progresses. What Mama really has going for it is the fact that:
- It doesn’t hide the fact that there is a supernatural entity involved
- The child actors are extremely convincing and sell the horror
- The ghost itself isn’t evil in nature, just overly protective of its surrogate children
It’s a nice angle on this overly clichéd plot device, and while it is extremely engaging and genuinely effective the final reel basically ruins the entire film.

Jessica Chastain needs to stop playing bitchy characters because she’s being typecast very early on in her career.  I’m not saying she’s bad, she’s actually quite good here, but her character is a little unlikable for the first two acts due to her selfish ways and apathy toward the children that she perceives as an unwelcome burden. I did completely believe her character’s turnaround later on, so that says something about her performance.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Game of Thrones fame is actually really good as the male lead, an artist who feels obligated to care for his nieces after their father’s death. I bought his empathy and his determination to keep the children after another family member tries to gain custody. However, some of the writing for his character gets a little wonky toward the end. For example, he is attacked by Mama and sustains major injuries that put him in the hospital. But once he discovers a clue about Mama’s history he rushes out to uncover the truth. Dude, she almost killed you. Leave it alone. But the movie must keep moving forward so he goes for it. Whatever.

The children, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, are pretty fantastic. Like I said earlier, they sell the idea of a ghostly mother figure and that fact that they know that she will attack when provoked, scared or worst of all jealous. They both are very naturalistic even though Nélisse barely speaks (“Mama!”) and were two examples of perfect casting.
Director Andy Muschietti, who also wrote the screenplay with Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti, has a great eye and a very even visual style that isn’t overdone and in your face like a lot of modern horror fare. He creates a lot of clever shots (that hallway scene with Lilly playing tug-of-war in her bedroom… with who?!) and genuine scares (some are of the BOO variety) and a nice spooky vibe. He keeps the tension level high throughout and that is more than most horror movies nowadays can brag about. I see him going places in the genre if he decides to stick to it.

The movie has some definite problems as I mentioned earlier. There are logic problems, one character is randomly possessed for no reason and there is a useless doctor that goes off on a side quest to get information on the Mama character and basically is just there to be another person added to the body count. But it’s the stupefying ridiculousness of the overly pretentious ending that stops this flick dead in its tracks. I’m talking mind bafflingly dumb arty crap. I don’t know what the writers had in mind when they came up with this stuff, but it’s frustrating when you have such a great build-up to something epic and the payoff is so damned ludicrous and jaw droppingly stupid. You’ll just have to see it to believe it because just describing it will make my brain leak out of my ears. The idea and legend created as the backstory for Mama is interesting and tragic. It’s just too bad that it isn’t brought to a satisfying conclusion.
In the end I cannot fully recommend this movie. There is a lot to like but, like me, you will probably be completely disappointed with what goes down in the finale. If you’re feeling adventurous then by all means, give it a shot. I won’t judge. Just be forewarned… you might want to throw something at your TV when it ends. I hope you chose the warranty option when you bought it.

2 out of 5

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness

The hype for Star Trek: Into Darkness, the sequel to the reboot from 2009, was at the absolute breaking point during the spring of 2013. I was just excited that we were getting another adventure with these characters and I was ready. J.J. Abrams was back in the director’s chair again, the entire cast was back plus some new faces, the trailers were rocking hard and those tickets were preordered post haste (I actually assembled a nice group of people to see it with me at a high end theater that serves food as you watch your flick). If it was possible for a film to totally surpass any expectations that I had for it, it was definitely this one. This is the best Star Trek movie next to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Ironic? Indeed. I will explain…

WARNING! THERE WILL BE MASSIVE SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON!!!

After the assassination of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) at the hands of the renegade Starfleet officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), Kirk (Chris Pine) and crew are ordered by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to hunt him down and kill him. But things are not as they seem after a little investigation and Marcus’ motivations appear to be more sinister once Harrison reveals his true intentions, and his real name… Khan.
Yes, Star Trek: Into Darkness is an alternate universe retelling of the classic episode “Space Seed” and Star Trek II combined. I figured that was the case when I saw the first few minutes of the movie back in December before an IMAX screening of The Hobbit. Harrison offered a dying child’s parents a cure for a price, and right there I knew that he was going to turn her into an Augment, or a superhuman for those not versed in the Star Trek: Enterprise episodes on the subject. I wasn’t exactly thrilled once I figured that out since as far as I’m concerned you don’t go messing with the best movie in the pre-reboot series or attempt a new take on a villain such as Khan. Thankfully upon watching this new film I stand corrected. Khan is such a badass in this film that I forgave the writers’ trespasses and just went along for one of the most thrilling and emotionally charged rides I’ve seen in years.

Themes of terrorism and the post 9/11 paranoia are this flick’s bread and butter thanks to writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. They thankfully stuck to their guns and continued to write this alternate universe with the repercussions of what went down in the previous film. Spock Prime gave Scotty the formula for transwarp beaming, and we see that the tech has been stolen and is in use by some of the baddies. Due to the destruction of Vulcan the Federation is looking into more aggressive weapons technologies to prevent something like that from ever happening again. It’s smartly written, and adding Khan into the mix is just the icing on the cake. We also see Kirk and Spock finally beginning to form the bond that we are all familiar with. Sure these guys still write in some fairly big plot holes, but I was able to overlook them more easily than I did with its predecessor. I’ll get into those later.
The cast is all back and they are just as fantastic as ever. We see Kirk beginning to become the more seasoned captain over the course of the film, and Chris Pine pulls it off. His big scene at the end proves that he’s got the goods, and he is great in his action scenes. Zachary Quinto is absolutely amazing as Spock and completely embodies this alternate timeline version of the character. The fact that Kirk made him lose control of his emotions in the previous film is still affecting him, and when he loses it once again it is one of the greatest moments in the entire flick, and dare I say the entire franchise. The other cast members give it their all as well. The writing for Zoe Saldana’s Uhura isn’t nearly as good this time around since she’s made out to be a bitchy girlfriend and not much more, but she still makes it work. John Cho gets a great throwback moment when he takes command of the Enterprise for a few minutes and he makes the most of it. Karl Urban has the surly country doctor down pat even though his accent comes and goes randomly, but at least his jokes this time around are much better. Anton Yelchin basically runs around in a frenzy for the whole film, but he still has what makes Chekov tick in the bag. I was extremely happy to see Simon Pegg get even more screentime as he takes part in a side mission for Kirk after resigning from Starfleet. He excels in both his comedic and dramatic scenes, especially toward the end.

Newcomer Benedict Cumberbatch is fucking amazeballs as Khan. This isn’t the Khan we all remember, he actually is a little sympathetic and is more of a master manipulator than a conqueror. Sure he wants to bring his band of superhumans out of cryosleep so they can one day rule the galaxy, but he seems to enjoy playing people against each other more than anything else. He is a truly threatening presence and Cumberbatch seems quite adept at action scenes as well. Seeing him run up and down the halls of a starship beating people senseless left and right is not something I associate with this guy after seeing him in Sherlock. The fact that he’s performing all these terrible acts of terrorism for his family of outcasts, who are being held hostage by Admiral Marcus, gives him a new angle that is more interesting than the “I want revenge” motive from Star Trek II. He’s also unpredictable. At one point he teams up with Kirk for a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” moment. This is one of the best villains from any of the films.
Peter Weller is great too as the secondary villain Admiral Marcus. He wants to militarize Starfleet, which goes against everything that institution stands for. He gives Kirk permission to carpet bomb the Klingon homeworld just to take out Khan, he has built a massive warship with the help of Khan as well that he plans to use to take out the Klingons before they can start a war. He doesn’t care who he has to use in order to get the results he wants, including his own daughter, Carol. Alice Eve plays this part honestly, but she doesn’t have much to do but be eye candy, flirt with Kirk and be a damsel in distress.

J.J. Abrams pulls everything together into one of the most consistently entertaining movies of the year. This quite literally blew me away. It screams by at a breakneck pace, even during the character and dramatic moments, always continuing to push the story forward. Great performances, bitchin' action and awesome character development prove that he can keep this franchise going strong for (hopefully) years to come.
Unfortunately there are some problems, like the plot holes I mentioned earlier. If this transwarp beaming technology can transport someone from Earth all the way to another solar system why isn’t everyone using it? I mean, why even have starships at all if that’s the case? In the case of Khan’s blood, yeah it’s great that it is regenerative and can revive dead tissue, but why would McCoy have a dead Tribble lying around to test it on, especially while the Enterprise is being blown apart by another ship? And why make all the fuss about needing Khan’s blood later in the film when you have a cargo bay filled to the brim with his compatriots who all have the save regenerative properties? I make them sound like major issues, but they really aren’t. Every film has plot holes, even the great ones. Did these affect my enjoyment of the film? Not really, at least not nearly as much as it did in the original reboot.

And now I’m going to talk about something that is a major, major spoiler, so if you didn’t heed my warning before I am asking you to reconsider reading the rest of this review if you haven’t seen the film yet.
Okay, here we go. I was at first bugged that the writers stole scenes right out of Star Trek II only to flip flop the people involved to make it their own, namely the scene where Kirk dies. When he decides to sacrifice himself to save the crew I inwardly groaned and said to myself “Really?! They’re going to go there?!”, but I did a complete 180° as it went on. Sure some of the dialogue is the same, but by reversing Kirk and Spock’s places it gave the classic scene a whole new meaning. It’s such a well written and heartfelt moment that seeing Spock lose his composure in such a way nearly brought me to tears myself. When Spock screams “KHAAAAAAN!!” it was not a forced moment; Spock had completely lost himself in his emotions and was now in a full on rage after finally admitting openly that he considers Kirk his friend. I felt like standing up and cheering when he took off after Khan and chased him through San Francisco on foot so he could kill him out of a basic need for revenge. It’s one of my all-time favorite Star Trek moments now, right alongside Spock’s death. How fitting.

With a non-stop barrage of kickin’ action (the space jump between ships, the Vengeance’s assault on the Enterprise, the San Francisco chase scene), wonderful performances, great character moments and at its heart a commentary on post 9/11 America, Star Trek: Into Darkness goes for broke and ends up being the movie that all others released during the summer of 2013 are going to be compared to. It’s fun, dark, emotionally exhausting and supremely entertaining all at the same time. I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to see it again. That’s the greatest compliment I could ever give a movie. Bring on the next one!

4 out of 5