Thursday, July 12, 2012

The curtain is opened for "Oz: The Great and Powerful" Teaser

The teaser trailer for "OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL" premieres at Comic-Con

I love Sam Raimi, and I'll see anything he does, but this trailer slightly worries me. Sure, it's colorful and pretty, but it's completely shallow; if it weren't for Raimi, I would already have written this film off (that hand at the end is terrifyingly bad). I truly hope the "aren't you the great man we've been waiting for" doesn't suggest some Chosen One B.S.

 The B&W opening is great, though, and I hope this is just a poor trailer attempting to evoke Alice in Wonderland, which is understandable, since that film was a massive hit and is highly regarded for some reason by the general public. You & I may hate it, but one thing I've learned from living in Petaluma is that the average person's film preference is drastically contrary to our perception of quality.

It has a pretty decent cast, and I can't wait to see more of Michelle Williams and Rachael Weisz.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dark Knight Rises soundtrack online FOR FREE!!!

Empire magazine has LEGALLY posted most of Hans Zimmer's Dark Knight Rises soundtrack. It's unfortunate that James Newton Howard didn't return; their collaboration was a stroke of genius, but Howard said that the working relationship between Zimmer and Nolan was so strong after Inception that he felt like a third wheel. I've always had mixed feelings about Zimmer, some of his scores are often bland and unmemorable; it's always apparent what scores he phoned in. Luckily, he delivered something truly powerful and deeply emotional here, bringing the trilogy to an epic finale (musically). One area the Batman films have always excelled in is the musical scores, even the Schumacher films have a brilliant, sweeping score by Elliot Goldenthal (undoubtedly the best decision Schumacher made in his time with the franchise).

The Dark Knight Rises soundtrack will be released next Tuesday. If you're a hipster, it's available on vinyl, too.

By the way, how cool is the cover?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

This needed to be better.
There’s very little to get excited over in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the needless reboot directed by Marc Webb. Well, maybe the cast. It’s got a fantastic cast, including Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Dennis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, and of course, C. Thomas Howell. No Spider-Man film is complete without the Howell. 
The score by James Horner is interesting. Nowhere near as iconic as Danny Elfman’s theme, but strong nonetheless, and something that is a fun listen on its own. Horner does some interesting, unpredictable things with his score, but I only wish he had pushed himself further. I recently re-watched the Spider-Man films, and listening to the music still sends chills down my back. It is sweeping, epic, and truly elevates the emotion as any great score should. Watching the teaser trailer for Spider-Man 2 gave me goosebumps in a way that “Amazing Spider-Man” failed to do.
It’s no secret that Sony had to churn out another Spider-Man film in order to maintain the property, but what’s baffling is that they made the decision to completely start over as opposed to simply making Spider-Man 4 with a new cast & director. There’s absolutely nothing in this film that you haven’t already seen. Granted, you can say that about a lot of superhero films, but this piggybacks so aggressively on the goodwill of the first batch of Spidey films. Sure, some ingredients are different, but the outcome is indistinguishable. I know I should view this film as a standalone product, but it makes it very difficult to do that. There are some moments in the film that are genuinely good (all of which are in the first half), and some aspects that are superior to the original, like the acting at times, which renders “Amazing Spider-Man” the worst kind of bad film. One that is so infuriating, pointless, and worst of all, forgettable. 

An example is how the film depicts the death of Uncle Ben. I won’t spoil it specifically, but for a scene that should be the dramatic centerpiece of this story, it lands with a thud. It’s a scene that should lead Parker to become the hero he does, yet here, it could have been removed completely and barely anything would have been affected. It’s ultimately inconsequential to the proceedings.  Many emotional beats strangely play out this way, too. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the quick moment of Connors looking at a reflection of his arm in the glass. A moment that could have been chilling, somber, and foreshadowing has no time to breathe, cheapening the moment and denying its dramatic potential. However, the relationship between Peter and Gwen is effective, the actors bring a poignant tenderness to the characters, and it is probably the one few moments I felt invested. Peter reveals to her that he is, in fact, Spider-Man early on, a nice alteration to the sub-plot. Despite the fact that this is a C-rate retread, the actors make it palatable. 
Rhys Ifans fares the worst out of the bunch, which is no fault of the actor. He tries his best with what he’s given, but is betrayed by the writers and director. The whole design of the Lizard is atrocious, and his actions are bewildering. I couldn’t figure out if he was a good guy with a horrible problem or a bad guy whose intentions are amplified once he’s exposed to the reptile serum. And to be honest, I don’t think the film knew, either. The film never builds any tension to the transformation of this beast. Connors just one night becomes the Lizard. So much of this film is “borrowed” from other, superior superhero films that it begs the question, why didn’t they just “borrow” the balance from the first Spider-Man. It’s pretty much the same character. Scientist has created a new formula/weapon. Scientist is faced with the threat of termination. Scientist is forced to prove worth by injecting himself with said formula. Results are menacing. But just so we won’t realize, the film throws in a little Magneto from the first “X-Men” film, in which the Connors plans to turn all of New York into Lizards by unleashing the formula from a device located on top of the Oscorp building. Why didn't he just unleash a gas that would cause everyone's arm to fall off? Anyway, Lizard escapes an attack at one point by spraying a team of officers with the gas, and we witness them in the first stages of transformation, but never again. They disappear completely from the plot, a serious missed opportunity for a horrifying scene. I would have loved to watch Spider-Man battle a group of lizard-men. Hell, they made ACTION FIGURES of the lizard squad, after all. There are moments when Connors is arguing with his other side, yet is no where near as brilliant as the scene-chewery of Willem Dafoe. 

I want to discuss briefly the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It has been said for months that this version would be more faithful to the wise-cracking Spidey from the comic source. However, despite a couple quips here and there, he’s really no more of a humorist than Tobey Maguire. And at least Raimi’s films were tonally consistent. And genuinely funny. Raimi’s touch heightened the thrill, whether it’s Peter initially attempting to shoot his web off a building, or the hospital scene from Spider-Man 2, or yes, even the dancing scenes in Spider-Man 3, something I will never stop defending. But that’s an argument for another article. Regrettably, like the character of Connors, Webb’s film can’t decide whether it’s a more grim and realistic approach (Batman Begins) or a lighthearted affair (Raimi). In fact, Garfield is significantly more dour and angsty than Maguire ever was, which only is appropriate in the scenes between Parker and Uncle Ben, played by Martin Sheen. 
Watching “Amazing Spider-Man,” I was sort of reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien. There are scenes of action, but then a couple moments later, a character will explain to another IN DETAIL exactly what just happened, as if you weren’t present. Tolkien can get away with that because he’s an supremely elegant writer. Webb, unfortunately, is a sloppy action director and has no grace whatsoever. Honestly, the scenes between the actors are more compelling than the clumsily dull, careless action sequences, which have no sense of danger or a sweeping, grandiose scope.  Thankfully, the POV shots that we saw in the trailer are only used twice briefly. The 3-D is just pretty good; there’s one shot in particular where he’s jumping off a building, looking down that was effective. More shots like that would have helped. A lot. 

Where’s the prestige? Where’s the zeal? I’m baffled at the ineptness of this film. So many obvious choices were blatantly disregarded. Having Peter discover his powers in some abandoned factory while skateboarding is not as exciting as Peter wandering the city, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, scaling the city walls. The effects may be dated in Raimi’s films somewhat, but there’s an undeniable power and a passionate enthusiasm to every frame. It’s impossible not to smile at the sincere devotion everyone involved obviously had and felt towards the character. I realize I've made a lot of comparissons between the films, but that's only because it fails to try something different. If they would have gone "The Incredible Hulk" route, we wouldn't be having this conversation. That film served as a loose reboot/sequel and for the most part, it worked. "Amazing Spider-Man" is like watching a mediocre cover band sing your favorite Beatles songs. Of course you're going to compare the two, and in the future, you'll just listen to the original songs. Same applies here. 
Marc Webb was simply a director for hire, and the film is a simple paint-by-numbers that won’t be remembered years down the road. Hell, even writing this review a day later, I’m struggling to remember certain stretches of the film. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

"TED" Talk: consistently funny, often brilliant

I thought I knew exactly what type of comedy I was about to watch with “Ted,” the debut film from Seth MacFarlane. I had seen all the trailers, from the red-band to the apple exclusives, and nothing indicated that it was going to be anything more than a one-joke film, something to occasionally chuckle at and immediately forget upon exiting the theater. Let’s be honest: “Family Guy” hasn’t been funny for a very long time, and “The Cleveland Show” is a mess. “American Dad” fares better, probably due to Chris McKenna. 
Almost immediately, “Ted” proves that it’s a cut above the rest. My hesitation about it dissipated within seconds, and I ended up loving the entire film. “Ted” is going to surprise a lot of people, and I fully expect it to be a box office success, hanging around in the top ten for quite a while. When people proclaim that a comedy about a talking teddy bear, starring Mark Wahlberg, is superior to the majority of big-budget blockbusters being released this summer, don’t be shocked. Don’t be fooled by the marketing; there’s a lot more going on than a bunch of offensive jokes. At the very core of the film is a big heart, which seems like it should be a given, yet is a key ingredient missing in most films these days. The film opens with a fairy-tale-esque prologue, narrated by the venerable Patrick Stewart (of course). John Bennett is a depressingly lonely boy with no friends; even the Jewish kid getting beaten up wants nothing to do with him. For Christmas, John receives a Teddy Bear, whom he wishes would come to life, which is magically granted. There is much media attention given to this Christmas miracle, but as the years pass, everyone inevitably stops caring. Now 35, John is a slacker, living with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), and Ted. But at the beginning of their 4th year together, John and Lori’s relationship is on the rocks as a result of John’s refusal to abandon his adolescent tendencies and let go of Ted, a strong enabler of these habits. 

With a plot that bare, one would imagine that the narrative would run out of steam towards the end, as many comedies tend to do (“I Love You, Man” comes to mind). MacFarlane, along with writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, keeps the plot moving as a wicked pace, barely ever pausing to take a breath. The jokes confidently take shots at pretty much every type of human being and attacks even the most touchy topics with an unstoppable irreverance or pause for anyone. Comedy breaks for no one, including Indians, Asians, Homosexuals, Jews, White people, rape, the mentally disabled, the physically handicapped, 9/11, etc., yet they are never vindictive; everything is delivered with good humor. It’s a fine line, and there are only a couple moments when the film teeters precariously on it, but MacFarlane & co. are able to prevent these jokes from being malicious.  Some jokes don’t always work, some are too forced (there are about one or two too many fart jokes), but it bounces back almost immediately with one that works brilliantly. 
All this wouldn’t have been as successful without the presence of Wahlberg and Kunis, presenting a relationship that is somehow believable, thanks in part to the strong chemistry they share. Wahlberg is an actor who is very hit or miss. I’ve come to the conclusion that only a couple directors know how to utilize his acting ability, and now I can add MacFarlane to that short list. It’s no secret that he’s great in comedy, demonstrated in “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Happening” but here he truly shines, hitting every joke perfectly, playing a very sincere character with childlike innocence better than most actors we’ve seen in the past playing this archetype. 
Mila Kunis is an actress that improves in every role, and “Ted” is no exception. There are some touching moments with her character and subtle nuances that elevate the scenes, bringing an unexpected amount of gravitas to the proceedings. She could have easily been presented as the prudish, crass girlfriend, becoming the film’s antagonist, however, the screenplay sides with her character, creating genuine pathos for this woman’s conflict, resulting in the audience rooting for Wahlberg to grow up not only because we like Ted but also because we empathize with Kunis’ Lori. 

In addition to being a great comedy, it features some genuinely exciting action beats, including a car chase, a battle high above ground, and a great one-on-one between Wahlberg and Ted. The double-edged effect is that these action scenes are the result of a sub-plot that feels a tad undercooked. Giovanni Ribisi, continuing his career of playing the most bizarre characters imaginable, is a stalker obsessed with Ted who wants the toy for his own son. There’s funny stuff going on here, and its never boring, but by the end, I couldn’t help but feeling that it didn’t get as much attention as it probably should have.  
There are some great supporting actors, including Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh, Ralph Garman, and Joel McHale (channeling Will Arnett), and also a handful of cameos, one in particular manages to triumphantly pay off multiple times. The effects on Ted are seamless, making him feel authentic and a true lead character; the attention to detail on the wear and tear of his body are a joy to behold.  It’s also a valid commentary on a generation that refuses to grow up; about knowing when to hold on and when to let go and how this stifles relationships with those around us. “Ted” is brutally honest, touching, consistently funny and oftentimes brilliant. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Boarding Prometheus, Part III

As Prometheus prepares to land in theaters this Friday, let’s take a look at some non-”Alien” franchise science-fiction films that you might be interested in viewing. 

Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Directed by Byron Haskin, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is one of the stronger sci-fi/space exploration films, making a strong attempt to deal realistically with the possibilities of trying to survive on a foreign planet. Given the knowledge we had about Mars at the time of its release, it’s fairly impressive in its execution. Although it’s technically based on the novel, it takes a lot of liberties with the source material (the astronaut is named Christopher “Kit” Draper). Upon crash landing on the planet, Draper realizes his resources are limited and time is of the essence. Not only is there the need for water, food and shelter, but also the need for oxygen; Mars has some oxygen in the air, but not nearly enough to survive (according to the film). 
“Robinson Crusoe on Mars” features only four speaking roles (the screen time barely reaches a length of fifteen minutes) and sections of film are completely void of dialog, although no where near as unbearably intense as 2001. Byron Haskin has previously directed “The War of the Worlds,” and his sharp eye for science fiction is definitely present in “Crusoe.” Partnering up with a chimp, named “Friday” (a nod to the novel), Draper trudges through the Mars landscape, coming across some ominous Martians, whose intentions are initially ambiguous. I won’t spoil what happens next, as knowing less about the film is rewarding upon the initial viewing. 
The Criterion release is overflowing with amazing features, including commentaries, interviews and documentaries, and the Blu-ray looks phenomenal. It’s available on Netflix instant, but it’s worth the $20 purchase on Amazon.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Boarding Prometheus, Part II

As Prometheus prepares to land in theaters this Friday, let’s take a look at some non-”Alien” franchise science-fiction films that you might be interested in viewing. 

Event Horizon
This is basically a poor man’s “The Shining,” but set in space, yet strangely, it somehow works, despite all its flaws. It’s the year 2047. The spaceship “Event Horizon” has emerged under the atmosphere of Neptune after disappearing 7 years prior, all in the name of experiments for LIGHT SPEED! A rescue is hastily dispatched to the returned vessel after a transmission was picked up from the ship, vaguely resembling a human’s cry for help. Once the crew boards the Event Horizon, it becomes evident that there is some sort of supernatural disturbance that threatens their very survival!! BLOOD ORGIES ENSUE!
Saying that this is Paul W.S. Anderson’s best film really isn’t saying much, but there it is. Surprisingly, the film manages to hold up better than I had expected. There are some nice homages to other sci-fi films and it wears its influences on its sleeve. The concept is pretty strong, and under a better director, this could have been one of the most frightening films ever made, no doubt. The first half is filled with intensely unsettling moments, but it all goes to hell (literally) in the second half, where it collapses into a generic action flick. Anderson relies too heavily on lackluster jump scares and a loud soundtrack to compensate for his shortcomings as a filmmaker, compromising the strong atmosphere and gripping tension that he had earned in the beginning. It’s only through luck that “Event Horizon” ends up being as entertaining as it is, warts and all. 
The characters are interesting, albeit rather undercooked. The cast, which includes Sam Neil, Lawrence Fishburne, Sean Pertwee, Jason Isaacs (who gets the best death), Joely Richardson, Kathleen Quinlan, and Richard T. Jones. All of them do a serviceable job with what they were given, elevating the film's quality, proving that a strong cast goes a long way. 
The film has a decent amount of gore, some chilling images, and a god damn blood orgy. That’s right, a Blood Orgy. If that doesn’t sell you on this film, I don’t really want to know you. 
FUN FACT: The first cut of the film had a longer "Visions from Hell" sequence, more blood, and a different, though similar, ending. The test audience didn't like it, so it was re-cut with an alternate ending involving what director Paul W.S. Anderson called "The Burning Man Sequence." The second test audience didn't like that version, and the film was edited again. The final cut is a less-intense hybrid of both test screenings, with significantly less gore. 

Boarding Prometheus

As Prometheus prepares to land in theaters this Friday, let’s take a look at some non-”Alien” franchise science-fiction films that you might be interested in viewing. 

Planet of the Vampires
Mario Bava directed this B-movie classic about astronauts who land on a mysterious planet and encounter many bizarre discoveries -- like corpses that have risen from the grave! Despite the fact that this was made on a shoe-string budget, Bava makes the best of it by creating a genuine sense of mystery and disorientation. If you can get past the atrocious dubbing and some bad performances, you’ll find that this is a fairly eerie film from the 1960’s. Those familiar with Bava’s other films, like “The Evil Eye,” “Black Sabbath,” and, my favorite, “Island of Terror” will know what to expect. Many critics have joked that “Planet of the Vampires” plays out essentially like a Star Trek episode, which actually is an accurate description when you break the film down beat-by-beat; it’s not too far off.  I’ve never heard anyone from the first “Alien” mention this film, but I’m convinced they drew some inspiration from Bava’s space thriller. If you go into the film expecting actual vampires, you’ll be quite disappointed, since it’s more of a virus that is infecting the crew, rendering them more like zombies than blood-suckers.
“Planet of the Vampires” is available on Netflix instant and Amazon Prime. 
FUN FACT: This film had more than 15 titles before it was decided to be “Planet of the Vampires.”