Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 24, 2015 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford
Directed by: J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek Into Darkness”)
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan (“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”), J.J. Abrams (“Super 8”), Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”)

After more than a decade-and-a-half of heartache whipped into a frenzy of pain and anger by the rise of the internet and some cold, sub-standard prequels hatched exclusively from the brain of series creator George Lucas, “Star Wars” fans felt they had, ahem, a new hope when Disney bought the franchise in and immediately announced an Episode 7 of the saga—now known as “The Force Awakens”—would finally continue the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. Adding admitted fan J.J. Abrams as the director and “The Empire Strikes Back” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to the creative team, along with the pledge to return to some practical special effects and film stock instead of existing almost exclusively in the digital world as the prequels did, ramped anticipation for the film into the Dagobah system. After what seems like years of carefully navigating the news releases and leaks to avoid spoilers, the movie is finally here, and it most definitely calls to mind the classic “Star Wars” movies—for better or worse.

The spoiler-free synopsis goes like this: 30 years after the death of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished. The First Order has risen in the Empire’s place, and is on the hunt for the last Jedi, led by Vader-worshipper Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (motion capture legend Andy Serkis). A hotshot pilot for the Resistance, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), has the missing chunk of a map that leads to Skywalker’s location, and to keep it from falling into the First Order’s hands as he comes under attack from Ren, he entrusts the data to beach-ball droid BB-8 on the desert planet Jakku. BB-8 rolls his way across the sand dunes and encounters Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young scavenger waiting for her family to return after abandoning her years ago. Meanwhile, a Stormtrooper groomed from birth to be a warrior (John Boyega) grows a conscience and helps free Dameron from Ren’s clutches. The two escape on a stolen TIE Fighter, where Dameron gives his new friend the name Finn and tells him they need to retrieve BB-8. After crash landing on Jakku, Finn finds Rey and the droid, and the trio must run flee the planet to look for help as the First Order closes in. Luckily there happens to be an old, junky spaceship lying around…

In an effort to please the fans who felt burned by the relative crumminess of the prequel trilogy, Disney has rendered “The Force Awakens” as the mega-franchise version of Thanksgiving dinner at someone else’s house. It’s cinematic comfort food with almost no exotic ingredients to make it different than the similar meals you’ve enjoyed before. Sure, some things were rearranged and there was a small sampling of a new type of gravy—look, what I mean is this “The Force Awakens” essentially serves up a greatest hits remix of original trilogy plot points. Desert planet? Check. Droid with secret plans? Yup. Planet-sized planet-destroying weapon with one point of weakness? Oh yes. A showdown between family members on the opposite sides of good and evil on a bridge over a bottomless chasm? Yeah, even that, and much more. But it still makes for a fine sci-fi fantasy, and Ridley, Boyega, Driver, and Isaac are all fantastic additions to a cast that includes old timers Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and the rare engaged Harrison Ford. I suppose the franchise needed this palate cleanser, but let’s hope the next adventure is a little more adventurous.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

November 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson
Directed by: Francis Lawrence (“Water for Elephants”)
Written by: Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours”) and Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”)

Unless you’re an unbiased fan of the wildly popular adult-book series “The Hunger Games” written by Suzanne Collins, the sequel to the record-breaking 2012 original film won’t hold much emotional weight. Without a deeper investment in these characters, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” much like the latest “Thor” sequel, was only made for its most hardcore followers.

Exploring much loftier ideas than the first film, “Catching Fire” does give Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) a good enough reason to reprise a role she was born to play.  Lawrence, whose beauty never overshadows Katniss Everdeen’s heroic nature, once again stands apart from the movie script’s unoriginal ideas. The dystopian themes featured in this series might seem new to somebody who has never picked up a science fiction book written in at least the last century, but, unfortunately, “Catching Fire” doesn’t seem all that interested in breaking any new ground.

On what is called a “Victor’s Tour” (think of a TV reality-show tour for “American Idol” contestants), Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are traveling from district to district being touted as the winners of the 74th annual Hunger Games. Unhappy with the way those games unfolded (the duo is pronounced co-champions only after they threatened to kill themselves with poison berries), President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sees their win as a threat to the way his government functions.  If someone like Katniss can break the rules, what’s to stop others from revolting against the system?

Putting an end to Katniss’ revolutionary way of thinking couldn’t come at a better time with the 75th annual Hunger Games (The Quarter Quell) about to begin. Established as an All-Star type of reality show, past winners of the Games, including Katniss and Peeta, are forced back into a new arena where they must once again fight to survive against other competitors. This time the to-the-death battle is headed by a new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who shares in President Snow’s thoughts that Katniss is a menace to the status quo.

Much like the first movie, “Catching Fire” takes quite a while to get to the action most mainstream moviegoers not familiar with the books might be most interested in. For a second movie in a franchise like this, there still seems to be a lot of set-up left to do before the last two films are shot back to back in the next couple of years. Unfortunately, much of that set-up is filled with lazy dialogue and plenty of underwritten secondary character that don’t matter much in the big picture. It’s surprising since the screenplay is penned by Oscar winners Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours”) and Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”).

At this point, all that really matters is Katniss. A strong female character like her is rare in movies these days, and Lawrence does an impressive job at portraying her as someone we can all root for. In an age where the Disney princess culture reigns supreme among audiences, it’s nice to see that there’s a fictional character out there that girls (at least tweens) can stand behind. Sure, Katniss might get someone’s attention by shooting an arrow through their chest, but is that kind of PG-13 rated violence really any worse than Cinderella or Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or the Little Mermaid finding happiness only after they hook up with their Prince Charming? Just as long as Katniss stays a lot manlier than Peeta (and that damn Gale Hawthorne doesn’t get much screen time), a lot can be said about how “Catching Fire” and the rest of this series can pave the way for more of these roles to find a permanent place in Hollywood.

Oblivion

April 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski (“TRON: Legacy”)
Written by: Joseph Kosinski (debut), Karl Gajdusek (“Trespass”), Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”)

Just like in his last film, the CGI-rich albeit hollow-to-the-core sequel “TRON: Legacy,” filmmaker Joseph Kosinski captures an exciting setting in his second movie “Oblivion.” In this Tom Cruise-vehicle, Kosinski’s idea of a futuristic, post-war Earth is vast and dreary. High-tech drones blaze through the sky with purpose. The planet is lifeless, but Kosinski’s vision isn’t. It’s not until characters actually speak and a plot is brought to the forefront when “Oblivion” becomes just another dull sci-fi genre flash in the pan.

Cruise, who is no stranger to substantial science fiction like “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds,” tries his best to keep the drama high as the director maintains the fascinating world around him. He stars as Jack Harper, a security expert whose mission is to monitor drones on Earth. Along with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), the duo is only two weeks away from clocking out and joining their fellow humans who have been transported to another planet after a nuclear war ravaged the world uninhabitable. Hanging out in the shadows of Earth are aliens called “scavs” who are hellbent on attacking machines built to harvest the Earth’s remaining ocean water.

If that read like a jumbled up narrative, that’s because it is. In fact, we haven’t even started to explain why Jack is seeing a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) in his dreams or why an annoyingly southern-accented Melissa Leo is giving him the runaround via video transmission or why the heck Morgan Freeman shows up wearing shades and smoking a cigar. Besides not wanting to ruin some of the surprises “Oblivion” has in store, we also don’t want to dilute the synopsis as much as screenwriters here do with the script. “Oblivion” is a sprawling mess filled with big, muddy ideas. It’s a perfect example of a sci-fi movie that over-thinks its mythology and ends up forcing the viewer right out of the story.

It’s also not very mindful of other recent sci-fi movies that share some of its major twists. Sure, there are plenty of movies out there that cover the same themes and a few of the scenarios seen in “Oblivion,” but it boggles the mind to understand how a couple of them didn’t set off the copycat alarms. And no, we’re not talking about Cruise reliving his fighter-pilot days in “Top Gun.” Here he’s impressive behind the controls of a high-speed spacecraft. Too bad the year is 2077 and not 1986.

Off his Oscar win for the gorgeously shot “Life of Pi,” the work of cinematographer Claudio Miranda is easily the film’s forte. From a shootout inside an abandoned library to the eye-melting landscapes and skyscapes, the images in “Oblivion” coincide with its $120-million price tag. Producers should’ve skimped on a few CGI drones, however, and transferred some of those funds to someone who could’ve tightened up the screenplay with a vise.

Toy Story 3

June 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles
Directed by: Lee Unkrich (“Finding Nemo”)
Written by: Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), John Lasseter (“Toy Story 2”), Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”), Lee Unkrich (debut)

It’s difficult enough for some live-action films to express human emotion through human characters without sometimes crossing the line into melodramatic territory. Who knew 15 years ago it would be Pixar Animation Studios that would create a trilogy of films that would clearly defined the term “unconditional love” and convey it through a computer-generated boy and his plush, pull-string toy?

While the original classic “Toy Story” from 1995 was an exciting, nonstop adventure featuring a cast of uniquely-imagined characters, it was “Toy Story 2” that truly illustrated the intrinsic connection children and toys share with one another. In “Toy Story 3,” the significance of these relationships has come full circle in a sentimental and clever, but also dark and profound narrative undoubtedly worthy of being a part of Pixar’s growing distinction as the best animation house ever built.

With screenwriting duties going to Academy Award winner Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), it’s evident Pixar – while a majority of its fan base are kids and families – isn’t simply playing for empty laughs. There is some seriousness in “Toy Story 3” from the very beginning.

It would have been easy enough to pick up from the same happy-go-lucky tone the last movie ended on, but instead Arndt and director Lee Unkrich take a realistic approach to the time passed. Andy (John Morris) is no longer the little boy who would play in his room for hours with the assortment of toys we’ve all grown to love. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and most of the original toys are still present (others have met their fate by way of yard sales and spring cleaning), but at the age of 17, Andy hasn’t played with them in years.

Now, the toys long for the attention they used to receive when Andy was an imaginative grade-schooler. They also worry about what will become of them once Andy leaves for college. What will life in the attic be like once they’re placed in storage? Will any of them be given away or worse, tossed into the garbage?

When Andy’s toys are accidentally placed onto the curb for trash pick-up and subsequently donated to a local day care center, Buzz and the gang try to make the best of it although Woody is insistent about finding their way back home. But when a group of second-hand toys led by the a strawberry-scented teddy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) welcome them with open, fluffy arms and explain that “no owners means no heartbreak” the daycare’s newest residents are sold on the idea.

Playtime, however, doesn’t turn out to be what was expected. Lotso and his crew, including Ken (Michael Keaton), an octopus toy named Stretch (Whoopie Goldberg), and a lazy-eyed baby doll, run the daycare like a prison. While Woody is able to escape, he ends up in a whole new situation when he is found outside the day care center and taken home by Molly (Beatrice Miller), a shy little girl with her own collection of huggable toys, including Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), a thespian hedgehog.

Created with any number of prison-break movies in mind, Pixar takes “Toy Story 3” and gives it enough visual flash and flat-out hilarious moments that rival anything the animation studio has ever done. The film’s success, however, doesn’t end at the flawless character rendering and production value. There is an innovative spirit to it that is rare for any animated film to generate. From moments of pure delight and chilling anxiety to one of the most heartbreaking goodbyes in recent memory, “Toy Story 3” wraps up the franchise in masterful fashion and once again proves Pixar is on a level all its own.