Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Oblivion


RATING: A+

Tom Cruise does seem to often be a pretty good judge of action/adventure films to star in. He has several good films on his resume; the Mission: Impossible franchise (save for the second one), Minority Report, and Edge of Tomorrow to name a few. We haven't seen much out of him in the sci-fi genre, though. This is where that changes.

Pairing up with director Joseph Kosinski--a guy with insane talent at visuals and special effects (Tron: Legacy is his only other film directed so far)--we are given this particular film, Oblivion. A post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick where absolutely nothing is as it seems, where plot twists lurk around every corner (though some of them are admittedly predictable), and where the visual backgrounds cause jaw-drops. 

The film centers around a desolate Earth, 60 years after it was mostly destroyed in a war with aliens. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his wife Victoria are assigned to cleanup crew and drone maintenance as the Earth's resources are sucked up and they await to join the rest of humanity on Saturn's moon, Titan. That changes when a pre-invasion space module crashes on Earth with people in stasis chambers. A surviving woman named Julia that appears to be from Jack's past causes Jack to question everything he knows. 

As mentioned earlier, the film is loaded with plot twists. Some of them are a bit more predictable than others (the early mention of mandatory "memory wipes" is pretty suspicious from the get-go), but some are near impossible to see coming. Once the film gets going, it refuses to stop until the very last second, which ends things on a *very* satisfying note. 

Oblivion isn't particularly action-packed all the way; it prides itself more on suspense more often, which mostly works. It kept my interest for all two hours, at least. Overall, the film is strong in nearly every facet, from casting (Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko) to the pacing to the action/suspense to the visuals to even (surprisingly) the electronic-fueled soundtrack (M83). The one disadvantage for some may be the occasional plot predictability; despite that, I found it to be one of the best science fiction films released in the last few years. A brilliant flick not to be missed.  

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


RATING: B 

Man, it's hard for a movie to live up to massive hype. When the news of new Star Wars films first came out, there was a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Once the trailers started coming out, everyone went nuts (myself included). The hype for the first installment of the long-awaited sequel trilogy grew much higher. J.J. Abrams and Disney had to know what would happen next. Either they would be revered for all time as the resurrectors of Star Wars, or they would never again be able to step foot outside their houses.

For what it's worth, The Force Awakens is sure to please a lot of long-time fans. It has more of what we all loved about the original trilogy, while still adding its own flavor to the mix. For its basic purposes, it probably achieved its goals. But was it too much to expect a little more? Especially with the awesome theory regarding the identity of Kylo Ren that was around during recent months before the release, which would've shaken things up beyond belief. In a sense, I kind of feel like I got what I *should* expect, but not what I *did* expect. 

I mean, it's definitely good. Just not great. You know? 

So anyways. Episode VII. We are introduced to a Star Wars world 30 years after Return of the Jedi, where all our favorite older characters are indeed that. Older. Way older. Some aged better than others. Luke Skywalker himself has disappeared, while the First Order--a spin-off of the Empire--has risen from the ashes and made a run for control of the galaxy.

And our new leads? Well, we have Rey, a scavenger with a pretty vague past (vague is something that I will probably continue to use a lot in this review), who gets caught up in all of the action. Finn, on the other hand, is a Stormtrooper... who oddly decides, "I don't want to do this anymore." And why? This type of thing *never* happens to Stormtroopers, it seems. They're just the masked minions who can't shoot accurately to save their life. (That has not changed.) Rey is a pretty interesting lead character, but Finn just falls short. He switches sides, and that's that. For a character who does such a thing, his character development is surprisingly lacking. Poe Dameron, on the other hand, suffers only from being underused. Harrison Ford is the one who steals the show, reprising his role as Han Solo incredibly well. 

Kylo Ren, on the other hand, suffers more from poor marketing than anything. Marketed as the powerful, awesome villain with a new unholy terror of a lightsaber, he ends up being sort of a letdown in that sense. What he is instead is certainly interesting (can't say without giving away spoilers), but his unsettling/powerful feel and his attempt to be the next Darth Vader in that sense is quickly thrown away in favor of a different feel. 

Is the story a good one? Sure. There's some big twists and turns along the way (that's J.J. Abrams for you), even if a couple things feel a little derivative almost from previous Star Wars material. There is a bit that's left hanging; by the end of the film, we still know hardly anything about Kylo Ren's vague master Snoke, and what exactly happened to Luke is still sort of left hanging. Oh, and I'm still unsure of how the title "Force Awakens" fits in, cause the Force doesn't really evolve or anything special in this film. It's nothing you haven't seen before, in that respect. 

The movie's pretty entertaining, to be sure, and has some hilarious dialogue, and yet I can't help but feel like something is missing. What, exactly? I'm actually not completely sure. 

In the movie's defense, I may have gone into it with higher expectations than I should have. I was expecting something a little more groundbreaking, and a different kind of shock twist. And while others may also find themselves expecting a little more, overall they should be satisfied. And while I myself am still mostly satisfied, I still wonder about what could've been. 

Nevertheless, we still have two more movies in this sequel trilogy to go. If they manage to pull together the story well enough for said two movies and thus give us a strong overall story for the trilogy, I will likely take back much of my criticism. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi


RATING: B+

The third chapter is often a tricky one for trilogies. Everyone is under a lot of pressure to deliver, especially when the past two installments have been successful with audiences. Sometimes what'll end up happening is that the ending will be a decent one, but it won't be the one the audience wants, and everyone suffers for it. 

Return of the Jedi is definitely a decent chapter, but it has been criticized for different reasons. Some were a little disappointed that it ended all too well. Harrison Ford even requested back before they made the movie that George Lucas kill off the character of Han Solo to make things more interesting. And then of course, there are the Ewoks, but there's plenty of time to get to those guys later. 

We unfortunately spend a good first half hour or so dealing with the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, who isn't particularly an appealing character or villain. Parts of that situation even tend to drag on at times. It's really not until we get to the second half of the film where Luke Skywalker goes to confront his father Darth Vader, and his master Emperor Palpatine that things actually really get good. 

Sure, there's a few exciting sequences leading up to the final battle and confrontations--namely the speeder bike chase on Endor, and the battle on the sail barge back during the Jabba sequences. But it's hard to compare all of that with what goes on during the latter half of the film, with Luke confronting his father and struggling to not give in to the dark side of the Force. 

Another interesting note is that within six years (from 1977 to 1983) special effects got a lot better in some ways. Suddenly we are now able to have way more spaceships on screen in the middle of space at once, which ultimately makes for a pretty awesome battle between the Rebellion and Empire in the middle of space near the end as well. 

The biggest problem with this film, really, is the Ewoks, which no one really asked for and ultimately are more of a dumb annoyance more than anything, and watching them actually be a decent fighting force against the Empire only furthers digs the Stormtroopers' already terrible reputation into their grave. 

Overall, Return of the Jedi is definitely the most flawed of the original trilogy, but it offers a satisfying conclusion at the same time. The problem is some of what is thrown in at the same time (the Ewoks). What props up the film so well is its final act (long as it is, running at 40 or so minutes), which is right on par with anything else from the rest of the trilogy. Despite the Ewoks' best attempts, the original Star Wars Trilogy remains a massive part of the legacy of cinema, and Return of the Jedi has its place in it just as much as the other two films. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back


RATING: A+

Back when Star Wars first came out, it had set a standard for sci-fi in general. It had set a high bar for itself, and there was probably plenty of pressure for them to deliver with the next two movies. They did deliver for this one at least, which ultimately may have been partially due to the fact that the "Directed By" part of the end credits was the only one in the franchise to feature a name *other* than George Lucas. 

The stakes are higher in this film right from the get-go; in fact, within the first 20 minutes, we are given an extended sequence (that, among other things, holds up very well despite being from 1980) where the Empire is actually being victorious in massacring a Rebel base. The film goes from there, as Luke Skywalker continues his Jedi training, as the dark side begins to come in play. Vader is determined to make him switch sides. 

By the time the relentless roller coaster of a film ends (with a little bit of a cliffhanger), we've been subjected through plenty of brilliance; the opening invasion sequence, the asteroid field scene, multiple space chases involving the Millennium Falcon, and the climactic lightsaber battle and the earth-shattering revelation that ensues as we are given one of the greatest plot twists of all time and one that set a standard for years to come. Doesn't matter if you've already seen it or you know what's coming ahead of time (like I unfortunately did), it still gives you the chills every time. 

Empire Strikes Back is a step above its predecessor in other ways as well. The script seems to have improved a bit from the iconic yet occasionally unintentionally goofy script from the previous movie, and the soundtrack (courtesy of John Williams) takes a huge step up as well, thanks in part to the composition of the popular Imperial March. 

Ultimately, I find it hard to deny that Empire Strikes Back is the best film in the Star Wars franchise. Was it because George Lucas wasn't directing (Irvin Kershner instead)? Probably. Whatever the case, it's an all-around more exciting and arguably more impactful film. Empire Strikes Back is a classic, and serves as an excellent blueprint for how sequels should be done. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Star Wars (1977)


RATING: A

The Star Wars series holds a special place in the entertainment industry to this day; hence the fact that we're getting some new sequels and spin-offs. Some people enjoy all of the Star Wars material (including the Clone Wars TV series) just fine, while some are strictly partial to the original trilogy. I don't dislike the prequel trilogy, but none of its films were particularly great.

As for the original trilogy? Well, it's definitely on another level. That perhaps has more to do with just how groundbreaking it was for its time, and its stronger plot, characters and acting. It's kind of hard to pin, but you know something was done right when a line as simple as "These are not the droids you're looking for" is revered and quoted repeatedly in today's society still. 

Normally, I would reiterate a summary of the basic plot of sorts, but mostly everyone's seen Star Wars, and those who haven't have probably had everything spoiled for them anyway. So I'll cut more to the chase for once here. Star Wars is a sci-fi adventure film that holds up quite well to this day. 

Some things admittedly hold up better than others. The lightsaber duel in the film between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader is incredibly weak when compared to pretty much every other lightsaber duel ever (especially when you look at the climactic Phantom Menace duel). Some of the visual effects have become relatively obsolete as well. And quite frankly, the TIE Fighter sequence about three-fourths of the way through the film, though it looks good for its time, does not hold up well to today's standards. 

But on the other hand, we have a lot of things that do hold up well--whether it's the hyperspace effects (yes, they've been improved over time, but it still looks pretty darn good), the shootout scenes, or the climactic chase through the trenches of the Death Star, which serves as the highlight of the film by far, and is only helped by John Williams' score (another thing that will hold up well forever). 

At times, the film kind of strays towards the fine line between sci-fi adventure and a comedy, as the occasionally silly dialogue makes one almost forget what type of movie they're watching briefly now and then. But then again, Star Wars has given us plenty of unforgettable lines, such as "I find your lack of faith disturbing," "The Force is strong with this one," and "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." So it all evens out in the end, pretty much.

Star Wars holds a massive place in the legacy of the film industry, though it's not quite as perfect as many fanboys like to think it is. (The Empire Strikes Back, on the other hand...) That said, it's still a brilliant and fun film that is still a good watch nearly 40 years later. 


P.S.: Han shot first. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Casino Royale


RATING: B+

I'll admit that aside from the newer films, I'm not particularly familiar with James Bond. I know he plays the role of secret agent super spy who kills a lot of people and gets in bed with a lot of women, seemingly sacrificing character development along the way. I guess they decided to change up the formula a little bit more recently when they picked up Daniel Craig as the new Bond. 

Casino Royale actually goes back to Bond's earliest days as a "double-0," even showing an interesting black-and-white montage where Bond gets the two kills required to attain that status. Something different is afoot, though; he actually seems to be thinking on what he's done after that first kill. His second victim tells him, "Not to worry. The second one is, of course..." *bam* "Yes. Considerably," Bond replies after shooting him. 

The rest of the film focuses on one of Bond's first actual missions... which is actually pretty complicated. An early action sequence results in an MI6 target, Le Chiffre, losing a whole lot of money that he owes a client, and he sets up an elaborate poker tournament in order to get his money back. Bond is sent into the tournament to keep Le Chiffre from winning so that he'll be forced to run to MI6 for protection. A somewhat risky plan, considering that if they lose, they will have financed terrorism. 

Quite frankly, the poker tournament is probably the dumbest thing about this movie. I don't particularly care about watching James Bond, of all people, play cards for about 30-40 minutes of a 140-minute movie; sure, there's some interesting stakes at hand, but after a while, I found myself honestly bored and more interested in the upcoming action. Or even the romantic story with Bond's contact Vesper Lynd, who shockingly becomes more than a one night stand for Bond. 

Of course, when the action or more interesting parts of the story come along, they're far better; whether Bond is pursing some ninja-like bomb maker in a pretty awesome parkour chase, or trying to stop a propane truck from blowing up an airplane, or even his almost dismissive treatment of torture. Almost makes you forget that the plot surrounding Le Chiffre and the other villains is actually quite convoluted. 

Meanwhile, late in the film, a new angle is offered; as we are ultimately given some very interesting insight on how James Bond becomes a more cold, bitter killer; or quite simply, as his employer puts it, "growing as an agent." Watching this unfold and some other "post-action" sequences where Bond actually seems a little stirred offers some pretty interesting food for thought that perhaps actually makes the film, in a sense. 

Overall, Casino Royale probably could've done without its borderline ridiculous "poker tournament" plot with about three hundred villains. But on the other hand, Daniel Craig offers quite the interesting performance as James Bond, and what goes on otherwise is enough to make the film well worth the watch. It could've been a bit better, but it's certainly a worthy flick. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Divergent Series: Insurgent


RATING: B-

The Hunger Games has just wrapped itself up, but Divergent and the Maze Runner each have 1 or 2 installments left. The "Big Three" of the young adult fiction distopian trilogies converted into movies. Everyone knows about the Hunger Games. Everyone *should* know about the Maze Runner. And Divergent? Well...if you're a fan of the genre (like I am), then yeah. Sure. 

Divergent quickly established itself as the weakest of the "Big Three," which may not be saying much, but it still seems leagues behind the groundbreaking Hunger Games, and even behind the more different/refreshing Maze Runner. It still has quite an interesting storyline scenario, though, giving us a world where people are separated into Factions based on personality traits. 

In this second movie of the Divergent series, Tris and Four have escaped the city, Erudite and their leader Jeanine's wrath. A war is declared on Divergents, as they are hunted down and also scanned for the purpose of finding a test subject to open some box with a message from the "founders," whom Jeanine believes will give them guidance on how to end the Divergent problem for good. Tris, it just so happens, is of course the perfect subject. Big surprise there. The question is whether she can survive the ordeal without dying--unlike the other Divergents who have been tested.

Insurgent provides a pretty decent follow-up to the first movie; there's a few more visually thrilling action sequences (although not the type you'd expect), and the dialogue seems to have gotten a little bit better. Shailene Woodley is still strong in the lead role. The ending offers a pretty good twist that keeps one interested in the next installment.

It's not without its drawbacks, though. The character of Four seems to have gotten oddly shallow; now being nothing more than the kick-butt dude who's there to save Tris when he is needed. And the film lacks the "constant tension" that carried the first film. In some ways, this film takes out some of the qualities that helped out the first one, and adds some new ones that carries this second film in its own right.

Sure, the films certainly aren't bad; they're quite interesting, though for different reasons. Unfortunately, unlike Divergent's YA film series peers, you just can't help but feel like something's missing. Again, it's well worth watching if you're a fan of the genre and enjoyed Hunger Games and/or Maze Runner, but don't expect this one (or its predecessor) to reach quite the heights of its competitors.