Friday, May 22, 2009

Love It

I love Eminem. Just love his music, for no apparent reason. He's shocking, appalling, controversial, incredibly potty-mouthing, and never-compromising. This is the CD cover for "Relapse," which is for me the best album of 2009 so far.

I'm not gonna "review" it, but three songs really caught my attention: "My Mom," "Medicine Ball," and "Beautiful." All pretty much masterpieces of rap music, especially the absolutely rip-roaring hilarious "Medicine Ball," which goes into places that even Eminem has never gone to. It's amazing what this dude gets away with.

Review: Terminator Salvation (*1/2)

Directed by McG
Cast: Sam Worthington, Christian Bale, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Jadagrace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Helena Bonham Carter, Common, Ivan G'Vera, Michael Ironside, Jane Alexander, Terry Crews, Chris Browning
Voice Cast: Linda Hamilton
2009--130 minutes
Rated PG-13 (sci-fi violence, language)

"Terminator Salvation" is a terrible film. That takes a moderate amount of meditation. Doesn't it belong to the famed series birthed by the visionary director James Cameron, he of "Aliens" and "Titanic?" Yes, the series began in 1984 with the wildly fun "The Terminator," which acted as both a massively entertaining sci-fi film and a terrifying vision of a post-apocalyptic battle between humans and robots. 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" was even better and is considered by many to be a fulcrum achievement in summer entertainments; I don't disagree, as it is one of my personal favorite science fiction films. 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" was considerably less liked and has its share of detractors; I am not in this group, as I thought that the film was that year's best summer blockbuster, a virtually breathless cavalcade of high-stakes action and more than a bit of the intrigue the previous films held.

In comparison, "Terminator Salvation" feels like nothing more than a copy of a copy of the previous films, plagued with an almost kid-friendly PG-13 rating that stunningly compromises what James Cameron and Jonathan Mostow (director of the third film) had set as the standard for what makes a film in this series work. Not only does director McG's dully realized vision not work as a "Terminator" film; it doesn't even satisfy as a meaty sci-fi extravaganza. The earlier films were both taut and fittingly epic, encompassing their stories gracefully and rarely, if ever, missing a beat. The highly anticipated fourth film, however, provides a convoluted story that attempts to equal the astonishing first three films in scope. It comes up drastically short.

The year is 2018. The war prophesied to have ravaged the Earth is currently taking place and a resistance against the machines has been formed by John Connor. As this war goes on, Connor continues to look for his father, Kyle Reese, in order to save him from a terrible death at the hands of the machines; if they kill him, there would be no future anymore. Meanwhile a former prisoner named Marcus Wright has donated himself to science upon his lethal injection years earlier and in return gotten a makeover in the form of a half-robotic/half-human body. Before long, Connor and Wright will team up to save Reese from the robots and, hopefully, make the future a better place for all.

From frame one, "Terminator Salvation" screams of mediocrity. From the plotting, which is much more confused than I just made it sound, to the action sequences, which bore and numb the viewer in the way that Michael Bay's films have been wrongfully accused of doing, the film just doesn't work. The cinematography by Michael Fitzgerald and Shane Hurlbut is among the worst of the year, shrouding everything in a dank sort of darkness that works against the themes presented. This is a film that could have looked incredible under the hand of someone like the great Emmanuel Lubezki, who memorably shot the similarly apocalyptic "Children of Men" a few years ago, but instead this is a film during which I felt like closing my eyes. The screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris purports to be about something deeper than it ends up being, but doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the admittedly intriguing themes present.

Visual effects work is impressive across the board, especially in the otherwise unremarkable action sequences, and never look less than impressive. These effects are in the service, however, of a vanity project that never takes off as well as planned--never. Not one time did I believe in anything that was happening on screen due to the aforementioned screenplay. Still, aesthetically, the effects work. As far as acting goes, the only standout is Sam Worthington, who envelops the character of Marcus Wright with a humanity that wouldn't otherwise make sense with the character at hand; indeed, Marcus is the only character in the film with either a discernible quality or even three dimensions.

In contrast to Worthington, who is the saving grace among the performers, Christian Bale has never been worse, dismayingly playing John Connor as a humorless bore with no humanity whatsoever. Gone is the sarcasm of Edward Furlong's committed performance in the 1991 film, as well as Nick Stahl's three-dimensional vulnerability in the 2003 installment. Bale also looks bored and disinterested. Apparent complications on set and his quarrels with Shane Hurlbut evidently afffected his mood, and it shows. Other performances, such Moon Bloodgood's as the only person to give Marcus considerable affection or Bryce Dallas Howard in the stock Worried Wifey role, are so inconsequential as to not be there. Even worse offenders are rapper-turned-actor Common, former Starship Trooper Michael Ironside, Anton Yelchin in the crucial role of Kyle Reese and a nearly nonexistent Helena Bonham Carter, all turning up for maybe five minutes between them and never leaving a good impression.

Films like "Terminator Salvation" are disappointing for many, many reasons, and it's a shame that an entry into one of the most beloved series of films out there is the worst movie this year's had to offer thus far (even beating out something like "Hannah Montana: The Movie," which at least wasn't completely boring). It's bereft of a brain and a soul, and even when the last action sequence in the movie works, it's only out of a sick pleasure of seeing something that liberally steals the occurrences of the innovative and genuinely exciting finale of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." Even Arnold himself shows up in a shameless ploy to cash in on those previous films (and his appearance is horridly incorporated, to boot). What a mess "Terminator Salvation" was, and how tragic.

Really Quick

"Terminator Salvation" (*1/2) is a very bad film. In-depth thoughts later, once I get my thoughts in such an order as to write it in a review, but the thing was a disaster and the worst film so far this year. The cinematography was ugly and indistinct, the action dull and poorly staged, and Christian Bale's performance something close to awful. What a mess.

Next week brings Pixar's newest, "Up," which is getting raves from Cannes Film Festival. Can't wait.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Essay Review: "Star Trek" (****)

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Eric Bana, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy, Winona Ryder, Ben Cross, Jacob Kogan, Jimmy Bennett, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Spencer Daniels, Rachel Nichols, Tyler Perry, Clifton Collins Jr., Deep Roy.
2009--127 minutes

Rated PG-13 (sci-fi violence, sexual content)

Color me neither a Trekkie nor a Trekker. It isn't that I never liked the late Gene Roddenberry's magnum sci-fi opus. I'm just more of a "Star Wars" guy. Grew up as one and that may never change. "Star Trek," however, has been just as famous as George Lucas' monumental addition to the sci-fi genre, an entity that graced the television screen for 13 years as "Star Trek" (from 1966 to 1979, with a nearly-unwatched animated series running from '73 to '75), "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (from 1987 to 1994, and in my experience the best series in the group), "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" (from 1993 to 1999), "Star Trek: Voyager" (from 1995 to 2001, of which I've never watched one episode), the excellent "Star Trek: Enterprise" (from 2001 to 2005), and the failed "Star Trek: New Voyages" that ran for six episodes in 2004. The saga has also spun six movies out of the original Kirk/Spock years--1979's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," 1982's "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" (a brilliant film and the only one I've seen of the pre-Picard years), 1984's "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock," 1986's "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," 1989's infamously bad "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," and 1991's "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country." Then Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard was introduced. Him I'm more familiar with, as I came to love the 1987 series that starred Stewart (I watched it faithfully when I was younger). There were four movies that spun out of this branch of the saga--1994's "Star Trek: Generations," 1996's "Star Trek: First Contact" (the best of the Picard films), 1998's underrated "Star Trek: Insurrection," and 2002's craptastic "Star Trek: Nemesis." After the latter film bombed with critics and audiences, with a disappointing box-office intake to boot, it was rightfully believed that "Star Trek" was a dead entity.

Forgive the length of that first paragraph for the sheer amount of television and film versions that a decidedly cheesy '60s series spawned, but visionary producer J.J. Abrams's reboot, simply titled "Star Trek" and based off the original series starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, answers the question I've always had: why is this series famous? The characters of the original show are of the two-dimensional type and sometimes quite hard to relate to, the special effects are of the sort that you laugh at now because they are see-through by today standards (though certainly not by the standards of 1966), and the sci-fi tale it tells is as generic as they come, even in those days. Thoughts ran rampant in my head in 2006 when I learned that they would be revamping the saga; thoughts like, "After the failures of the previous two movies and 1998's awe-inspiringly bad 'Lost in Space,' another adaptation of a '60s TV show, why in the world would they try this?"

Well, come three years later, J.J. Abrams, that genius producer of TV shows like "Lost" and "Fringe" and the 2008 monster-movie-from-a-video-camera masterwork "Cloverfield," as well as reboot director of 2006's action-packed "Mission: Impossible III," has trumped our expectations and made the definitive "Star Trek" experience that could equal the influence that "Star Wars" had in 1977. This is an astonishing gem of a motion picture, mixing fun with pathos to great effect. Visual effects run rampant--as they should--and the achievement is nothing less than a landmark in the medium, much like 2005's "King Kong" and 2007's "Transformers" were, except that they are more defined and more seamless than what those films had to offer in the F/X field. "Star Trek" far surpasses the latter film and just about equals the first in terms of entertainment value, with unbearably exciting action sequences that further the story and enhance the characters. If this is to spawn remakes of a few of the older films as rumored, I welcome it with open arms. Abrams has created a new American masterpiece that works as science fiction and as a rousing blast of popcorn-munching, Coca Cola-guzzling summer movie extravagance.

The film opens with a bang as George Kirk captains the Federation starship Enterprise into an ensuing battle with a Romulan mining ship. He doesn't make it out alive, valiantly dying in a suicide mission/rescue attempt that leaves the opposing ship crippled, but not before his wife births a son, whom they name James. Fast forward twenty or so years. James Kirk is an unhappy guy who is recognized as George's son by Christopher Pike, the current Enterprise captain. Reluctantly, James joins the space academy which Pike is the principal of, along with "Bones" McCoy and Uhura. Meanwhile on the planet Vulcan, Spock dismisses an opportunity to be on council and joins the Federation instead. When Kirk and Spock meet on a mission to disconnect a drill that is endangering the planet Vulcan, things are not good between them, due to a natural rivalry between the races. But their rivalry will have to wait, as a villain from both their pasts threatens to end the lives of those closest to them.

You know that feeling you got when you first watched "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones," the feeling that the movie you're seeing will define the way you look at movies in the future? The former did that for me at the age of four, when I regarded it with a sort of awe. The sheer spectacle of Lucas' first film absolutely amazed me, and every time I see it, the film reinforces why I love movies (even the prequels have that effect on me, if at a slightly smaller level). "Indiana Jones" did that for me the following year, when it was released on a special edition video that Dad immediately bought. Both franchises have been incredibly dear to me as both a critic and as a lover of film.

Shock of all shocks, "Star Trek" does the same thing, which is a big surprise after my history with the franchise (or substantial lack thereof). The movie just works, much in the same way that "King Kong" did in 2005 and just as well. The film is pure entertainment for 127 glorious minutes, but there are themes at work here, characters that are surprisingly three-dimensional, and a script that never talks down to the audience and consistently surprises with revelatory plot turns (especially a big shocker around 3/4 of the way into it). Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are the go-to guys to make intelligent action films, as proven by their oeuvre, which has included "The Island," "Mission: Impossible III," and "Transformers." Having written another of this summer's biggest flicks, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," it's evident that Orci and Kurtzman have complete ownage of tentpole event films. They have a huge future ahead of them (as long as they don't pull another "The Legend of Zorro"). Their writing here, however, is far above anything they've done before. Much like siblings Christopher and Jonathan Nolan beat the odds last year with "The Dark Knight," Orci and Kurtzman have done something that they never quite did before: they never lose sight of the bigger picture and never miss a step in their labyrinthine plotting.

The film rides on the casting, and it is perfect. Chris Pine has never had a role to call his own, except for his apparently breathtaking performance as a Neo-Nazi in "Smokin' Aces," a film I did not see (nor do I especially want to). The film that brought him to light was 2006's godawful Lindsay Lohan-starrer "Just My Luck," where he played a dimwitted, unlikable character put through awkwardly staged bouts of bad luck. Here he nothing less than comes into his own, bringing humanity and humor to what would otherwise be a stock action-hero role. Zachary Quinto, on the other hand, in a role destined to remind one of Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan in "Watchmen," endows the character of Spock with the Vulcan lack of emotion, yet his character is the most heartfelt. The reason Quinto works so well as Sylar on TV's "Heroes" is that his facial expressions are an array of pure evil anyway it turns. The same can be said about Spock's ultimate warmth and vulnerability, despite having the appearance of a hardened war veteran.

Coming up with the best performances in the film are a revelatory Karl Urban as "Bones" McCoy and Eric Bana, pure evil after a string of nice-guy roles as villainous Nero. Urban is known as Eomer from the "Lord of the Rings" films and Kirill from "The Bourne Supremacy." This being his first role as a pleasant person, it must be stated that Urban is the incredibly strong here. His voice inflections are almost creepily close to the original's DeForest Kelley, his line readings on target, and I don't know this for certain, but was Kirill/Eomer actually making jokes work? Bana, so awful in the disastrous "Hulk" from a few years back, has made his comeback role as far as summer films go. Nero is the best villain for anything since Joker in "The Dark Knight" (not that that's saying much), and he comes across as having a twisted humanity and a reason--not an excuse--for wanting peace, especially considering his views. The guy is wicked smart and incredibly coldhearted, and unexpectedly enough, Bana makes that aspect work wonders.

Smaller performances also make big impressions, including Simon Pegg, reminding us why he's one of the funniest actors in the business as Scotty, Zoe Saldana, emanating goodness of heart as Uhura, John Cho and Anton Yelchin, as faithful button-pushers Sulu and Chekhov, and Bruce Greenwood in his best performance thus far in his career as former captain Christopher Pike. Even smaller roles include Jacob Kogan and Jimmy Bennett, leaving strong impressions as younger versions of Spock and Kirk, while Winona Ryder and Ben Cross are incredible in their ever-so-brief roles as Spock's human mother and Vulcan father. Finally, former Spock himself Leonard Nimoy appears at the half-way point and lingers in memory beyond the amazing end credits; this is not just a gimmicky cameo but a real, heartfelt performance from a person who is synonymous with the original "Star Trek."

Technical aspects are sterling across the board, but the most noteworthy aspects are the visual effects, the musical score, and the cinematography. The effects work here, as I earlier noted, are nothing less than angelic in nature. For a film so dependent on effects, the filmmakers had to crank out the most impressive visuals they could for basically 98% of the time, and they don't let us down--ever. I would pick a memorable shot, but that's like a parent choosing a favorite child. Simply put, there is no one shot that rises above the rest (although the implosion of a planet is a masterpiece of a shot, both in its visuals and astonishing sound work). The film makes a new meaning for the term "Oscar-worthy visuals." The musical score of the original series and movies has been remastered to great effect by J.J. Abrams regular Michael Giacchino, and it's a hopeful shoo-in for Best Original Score at the 2010 Oscars. The cinematography by Daniel Mindel is amazing, in both the shots that are entirely made up of special effects and the more intimate shots of human interaction.

Movies like "Star Trek" are released once in a blue moon. Sure, there were "The Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" that took the time-worn superhero genre and shook things up to create deep, thoughtful, penetrating stories of dark characters and the skewed ideas of good and evil. "Star Trek" lives to entertain us, and it does that perfectly. But there's something deeper at work that what audiences are probably expecting. The advertisements are right; this isn't your father's "Star Trek." It's something much, much better. What "Star Trek" achieves is a completely altered definition of the term "summer tentpole," and like the "Star Wars" films did for yours truly, it may define another four-year-old's idea of what a movie is and push them to watch even more. It's simply that good, that influential, and that fun. That's right. "Star Trek" has turned from a childhood curiosity to a defining film in my movie-watching experience.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

2009: A Rundown (so far)

I've now seen ten films from 2009. I'll be updating this every end of the month from now on.

In descending order of brilliance:

Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" (****)
Alex Proyas' "Knowing" (****)
Pierre Morel's "Taken" (****)
Gavin Hood's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (***1/2)
Tom Tykwer's "The International" (***1/2)
Letterman/Vernon's "Monsters vs. Aliens" (***1/2)
Justin Lin's "Fast & Furious" (***)
Andy Fickman's "Race to Witch Mountain" (***)
Paul McGuigan's "Push" (**1/2)
Peter Chelsom's "Hannah Montana: The Movie" (**)

So, there you have it. Not as many by this time as last year, but that's because I'm in college now.

Should be seeing "Star Trek" very, very soon. This summer should be a lot of fun.

Happy moviegoing!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (***1/2)

Directed by Gavin Hood
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Danny Huston, Liev Schreiber, Ryan Reynolds, Lynn Collins, Dominic Monaghan, Taylor Kitsch, Kevin Durand, Will i Am, Scott Adkins, Daniel Henney, Julia Blake, Tim Pocock, Troye Sivan, Max Cullen, Patrick Stewart, Michael-James Olsen.
2009--107 minutes
Rated PG-13 (violence, partial nudity)

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is nothing if not the biggest surprise I've had at the movies this year (tied with the unexpectedly masterful "Knowing"). The trailers were largely lacking and made the movie appear campy instead of intriguing. Lo and behold, it's completely the other way around. An enthralling entertainment at best, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" had potential to be a disaster, but instead, director Gavin Hood has crafted the second-best entry in the installment, after 2003's unbeatable "X2," and certainly rights the wrongs made by Brett Ratner in 2006's disastrous "X-Men: The Last Stand." Whereas the latter film was simultaneously turgid in pacing and too short in length (104 minutes), this film, only three minutes longer at 107, makes the most out of it and presents visually dazzling action sequences and surprisingly effective character developing for the title superhero.

As a child, Jimmy Logan killed his father. This accidental murder is a chilling first five minutes, provocative and insightful about Jimmy's future path. His brother, Victor, practically raises him, until they join a possibly criminal pact of vigilantes--among them, Deadpool, Bolt, Blob, Agent Zero, and Wraith--who do anything and everything, including killing innocents, to get what they need. That is, until they cross the line from Jimmy's point of view, forcing him to leave the group.

Fast forward six years. Jimmy lives happily in the Canadian Rockies with wife Kayla, until she is brutally murdered by Victor as a way to get back at Jimmy for leaving the group (don't worry, as I'm not ruining anything). This pushes Jimmy to the edge, and he teams up with former group leader Stryker, who presents him the option of injecting adamantium, a super-hard metal, into his bones and body. Jimmy, now called "Wolverine" and practically indestructible, joins forces with former team member Wraith and villain-turned-ally Gambit to bring down Stryker, Victor, and whoever else gets in his way.

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" impresses in a big way, with cleanly plotted storytelling and a distinct visual style that works in a completely different way than its predecessors. Also helping matters is a great cast, led by a fiercely felt performance by Hugh Jackman as Jimmy Logan. Jackman has never been better thus far in this role, which has understandably been drawn out to feature length after years of being shoved to the side in a supporting part. Aiding Jackman are supporting performances, by Liev Schreiber as Victor and Danny Huston as Stryker, that are meatier than they may appear at the outset. Schreiber comes up with the best performance in the film, oozing menace and sarcasm as Victor. Huston perhaps has less to do (simply act suspiciously throughout the film), but that's necessary, as the audience is never certain of his intentions. Smaller roles leave a deeper impression than normal, most notably an especially on-target Ryan Reynolds as the lightning-fast Deadpool.

The film is not perfect. The choice to include famed "X-Men" character Gambit turns out to be nothing that special, even if Taylor Kitsch plays the character well. Gambit is, sadly, extraneous and not nearly as much of an impact as the others who help out Wolverine through the course of the picture. Also, the CGI work is a bit iffy in spots and somewhat takes away (though not much) from the razzle-dazzle; for a perfect example, take the trailer's money shot of Wolverine hanging out of a jeep and ripping his claws through another jeep. The shot is amazingly bad, but all is forgiven as the scene loses none of its armchair-gripping suspense. The finale, however, is absolutely flawless in its integration of action and effects work.

In the end, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is no more than a great actioner for the Friday night crowd, but it has something deeper at work in its thematics and characterization. Wolverine was never the most likeable hero, but with Hugh Jackman's brilliant performance and David Benioff and Skip Woods's near-cerebral take on the character, he's now at least understood. It's a tragic story that surrounds Jimmy Logan/Wolverine, and director Gavin Hood has embraced that story full-on, despite a few flaws, with pathos, intelligence, and pure, action-laden fun. If Hood stays, these origin stories may be huge fun to watch.