Immortal Restraint

The WolverineThe Wolverine (2013)

Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank

Cinematography by: Ross Emery

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto,
Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada

Rating: B+

A few reviews ago, I praised Iron Man 3 for allowing itself to be a standalone film in an ever expanding cinematic universe, and hoped that such an outlook would be adopted by other films of that genre. It turns out I didn’t have to wait long, because The Wolverine takes a page out of its own origins (no, not that one), and delivers a pretty great adaptation of one of its most iconic stories.

While still tied to the universe established by X-Men (2000), and containing passing references to the events of The Last Stand (2003), Logan’s journey remains primarily confined to his time in Japan, where he must deal with his own immortality among a cast of yakuza, ninjas, and samurais. Logan has self exiled himself because the burdens of his ability and of his past are too much for him to live with. He’s outright vowed to never be the Wolverine again. This film not only gives him a chance to fulfill that vow, but takes it one step further, and delivers a character study only hinted at in previous installments. This is Wolverine at his most vulnerable, as well as at his most dangerous.

Credit there goes almost entirely to Hugh Jackman, who even after six stints with the character, still finds ways to inject him with life, making us once again care about an immortal mutant clad with adamantium claws, perhaps even more than before. Jackman plays Wolverine reserved, and eventually rageful, but he never loses focus of the haunted character in between all of the action. Helping him along the way is a predominantly Japanese cast, best among them Rila Fukushima’s Yukio and Tao Okamoto’s Mariko. The appearance of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) also helps greatly not just with continuity, but in understanding Logan’s mindset, and psychological angst. If there’s a weak link in the cast and/or story, it’s hands down Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper and the eventual third act appearance of a robotic samurai who seems more infused by studio than silver.

James Mangold, the underrated director of such films as Cop Land (1997), Walk the Line (2005), and 3:10 to Yuma (2007), was an apt choice to explore the more bleak nature of the character, with an exceptional handle on the material. He manages create a film that very much feels like a miniseries–fitting given the inspiration–with an abundance of quiet character moments and surprising and suspenseful action scenes. This film is as brutal as it is breathtakingly beautiful, bringing to mind a particular scene involving Wolverine, a picturesque Japanese town covered with snow, and ninjas with arrows and lots of rope. There’s also a sequence on a bullet train that, in lesser hands, had all the makings of being an over the top mess, but Mangold manages to keep the action as engaging and genuine as the conversation Wolverine and Mariko are having onboard it. That fine balance is extremely important, or an audience finds itself anxiously waiting for the next scene they’ll like, and not the film as a whole. The scenes with Mariko and Logan are just as necessary to the story as the action pieces are, and Mangold brings a level of confidence to the proceedings that is easy to spot if you’ve seen any of his other works.

I keep coming back to this idea of restraint within film. It truly is a lost art form, to be able to tell a story without resorting to unnecessary add-ons. In fairness, The Wolverine has its share of side stories and plot points that aren’t in line with the rest of the film, but for the most part, they’re not distracting, and the final film stays true to not only the script’s standalone nature, but ultimately to the roots of the character. There’s a post-credits’ scene that is the only moment of sheer indulgence on the part of the filmmakers in expanding upon the character/universe, but it’s insanely welcome because it wasn’t insufferably shoehorned into the narrative that preceded it. May other directors, studios, and films take notice: it is possible to branch out and create something that is almost entirely self-contained and still be valued on the same scale as something expansive, albeit less expensive. Quiet, intimate storytelling is severely lacking in this particular genre, if not in this particular atmosphere of films, and I’m happy to say that The Wolverine, parts of its third act aside, hits all the right notes in capturing that essence.

Eternity can be a curse; a man can run out of things to care for, lose his purpose.

Self-Contained Fulfillment

Pacific RimPacific Rim (2013)

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Written by: Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro

Cinematography by: Guillermo Navarro

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko
Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman

Rating: B

Amusement parks—your Six Flags, your Canada’s Wonderland—I’d like to think we all love them, or at least aspects of them, for the sense of wonder, thrill, and overall happiness they can provide. For that brief moment in time, be it waiting in line, being on a ride, or just strolling through the park itself, you are confined to a place that is not of your world anymore. It’s an escape from the daily grind. It’s just you and fun, together again.

Pacific Rim returns you to the depths of fun you always knew you could have, but perhaps stopped having after the age of about twelve.

I could spend some time summarizing the plot of the film, but I wouldn’t need much of it: welcome to a world ravaged by Kaiju and the Jaegers we designed to fight them. If you’re not on board with the mere concept of gigantic monsters fighting huge mechanical robots (respectively), it would be wise to skip this altogether, because you will not be getting a subtle character study. Our heroes are two mentally interconnected pilots, played by Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarcy) and Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) with their own set of thinly developed personal baggage, led by their stern, yet legendary leader Idris Elba (The Wire), while working alongside the comedic stylings of Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and the always eccentric Ron Perlman (Hellboy). Given the talent amassed for this film, it’s ultimately a shame that no one truly rises to the occasion. And how could they? None of the actors are nearly as engaging (or their characters as insanely detailed) as the Kaiju or Jaegers that surround them, Ultimately, it’s that aspect of the film that doesn’t seem to work in the bigger picture; and make no mistake: this is a huge picture.

I’m inclined at this moment to plug Travis Beacham’s prequel graphic novel to the film, Tales From Year Zero, as the more nuanced and better balanced work, at least in establishing the world and the characters. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Guillermo del Toro, who first caught my attention with Blade II (2002), has been an almost consistent filmmaker in regards to shaping his vision, be it with Hellboy (2004) or Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), or even with his lesser known films such as Mimic (1997) or The Devil’s Backbone (2001). With Pacific Rim, he enters entirely new terrain: the $200 million dollar summer blockbuster, and more or less, he delivers a product that he should be immensely proud of; it’s a labor of love to a genre that Hollywood has never seemed to have gotten right. It’s pure self-contained fulfillment, and del Toro, known for perfecting/revitalizing any genre he touches, knows this very well. Alongside writer Travis Beacham, he’s created a world that is a joy to witness and inhabit. There’s no doubt a plethora of backstory that was left on the cutting room floor (a reported hour is said to have been trimmed from the final cut), and dare I say, the film could’ve greatly used that time to fine tune the more human elements, because it already more than brilliantly captures and realizes the monster/machine dynamic. This film is a cinematic amusement park, full of groundbreaking and showstopping use of CGI, and entire stretches of screentime devoted to your mouth being agape in sheer awe of the spectacle before you. While you’re in it, you don’t want to be anywhere else, and when you’ve left it, it remains a fun, but distant memory, that you won’t relive until you revisit it again.

It’s the end of the world. Where would you rather die? Here, or in a Jaeger?


World War ZWorld War Z (2013)

Directed by: Marc Forster

Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan,
Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof

Cinematography by: Ben Seresin

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale

Rating: B

Full disclosure, part one: I’ve read and greatly admire Max Brooks’ novel, but as with any so-called adaptation, I fully expect the two mediums to stand alone. Would it have been great to see the book done justice? Of course, but I don’t believe it’s possible in two hours, that too in a summer tentpole film such as this one. That book deserves a massive undertaking akin to the intricacy and care of something like Band of Brothers. So while the film is essentially the book in name only, that should not and does not detract from the experience.

Full disclosure, part two: I was never fully on board with the idea of a zombie apocolypse. In films, it fell into the genre of horror, and I actively avoided such cinema; while in television, I’d say it wasn’t really being attempted until recently with the acclaim of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Even with my uncertainty towards the genre however, I’ve seen and enjoyed my fair share of them, from Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), to 28 Days Later (2002), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Planet Terror (2007), and Zombieland (2009). I’m inclined to think that what draws me to these particular films is their approach to the material. Yes, they’re all stories about the undead, but what separates them is that they rise above the mere gratification of gore and violence that’s to be expected of them. Some are character/social studies, while others are novel comedies, but all of them require an understanding of vision, an appreciation for all that came before, and the innate realization, however terrifying, that this could actually happen.

From its opening credits sequence, brilliantly rendered over Muse’s “Isolated System,” and containing sequences of world events/news stories laying the groundwork for what’s to come, the film gives off a vibe of eerie realism shrouded in simplicity. That continues for much of the film, as we follow Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), an ex-United Nations employee who finds himself going from a traffic jam in Philadelphia with his family to following a terrible pandemic around the world hoping to get back to them safely at all costs. World War Z takes that internal conflict to a global level, going from Philadelphia to Newark, to South Korea, Jerusalem, and finally Wales, all the while succeeding in not only thrilling, but engaging an audience with its ability to create a fascinating spectacle, yet never losing complete sight of its personal stakes.

A lot of that has to do with the brilliance of casting a literal swarm of unknowns. As entire cities plunge into darkness, we’re left with the only person we can identify with: Brad Pitt. I’m sure that elicits a laugh from some of you, but as I sit here, I can’t think of another actor out of Pitt’s contemporaries who can still play the everyman so effectively and effortlessly. I mentioned in an earlier review that Tom Cruise did it in Oblivion, but unlike Cruise, Pitt doesn’t have entire franchises to carry on his shoulders (though this is looking to be a contender). This is the Brad Pitt of Babel (2006), a family man who isn’t exactly up to the task he’s been given, with the only difference being that this time around, his reluctance is backed up by his former skills at the U.N., which themselves aren’t made clear, but this is where Gerry’s mantra of “Movement is life” is applied heavily in the film.

The sheer scope and scale of this film is where director Marc Forster shines. This is a man who is, unfairly in my opinion, maligned because of Quantum of Solace (2008), when in reality, the man’s got a track record of creating some really good films, from Monster’s Ball (2001), Finding Neverland (2004), Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and The Kite Runner (2007). He understands what it takes to both create and invest in a world, while still propelling the story forward. The film is frantic, frightening, and at times, deeply unnerving. While somewhat limited with its PG-13 rating, what it lacks in immense gore, Forster makes up in with an excellent dispay of tension. He stages the action in a way that is engaging, but highly panic-inducing, all because it feels real. The horror lies not in the visceral, but in the mere vision of it going viral.

Witnessing a Philadephia street erupt into chaos after an explosion is downright nervewracking because it’s unexpected. Our introduction to these creatures (smartly never referred to as zombies until much later in the film) is somewhat humanizing even when inhuman acts are being committed all around us, because any one of these people could be us. Watching them literally kamikaze themselves in front of military fire in South Korea, or come crashing down like a tidal wave in Jerusalem (the film’s standout action set piece), is both astounding and afraidly unsettling; so much so, that when the action in the third act returns the narrative to a more personal touch, the audience mistakenly might think it’s a welcome change of pace, when in fact it still never lets up on one’e pulse. This a film very much in the vain of Contagion (2011) and 28 Days Later in thought, but I’ll admit, it’s execution at times seemed to struggle with the summer blockbuster tag it’s been fitted with. There are some big ideas on display here, but they’re not always given the time to really develop, and that extends to certain characters (I’m looking at you, Matthew Fox). Despite that, it remains a smart and thrilling picture, delivering everything one would expect of such fare.

Most people don’t believe something can happen until it already has.

Unevenly Forged

Man of SteelMan of Steel (2013)

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: David Goyer

Cinematography by: Amir Mokri

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane

Rating: D

The first film I reviewed for this site was The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), coincidentally another reboot of a popular comic book franchise. My issues with that film had a lot to do with the fact that a lot of the character work was overshadowed by the need to tell a much larger story–one that quite frankly never materialized in the finished film itself. I found that to be the case yet again, disappointingly enough, with Superman’s reemergence on the big screen. All cards on the table, because you can’t seem to have a discussion online about this film without them: I have an immense fondness for Donner’s Superman universe, which includes The Movie (1978), The Richard Donner Cut of II (1980), and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006). By no means however does that mean it is the definitive version of the Man of Steel on film. As with any potential reboot, I like to judge it based on its own merits.

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel fails to sustain all the ideas it presents (especially for being an origin story), for no matter how wonderful the intent and execution may be, the film is ultimately not consistent.

Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) is sent to Earth by his Kryptonian parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) as the planet, already on the brink of destruction, erupts in a chaos of rebellion led by General Zod (Michael Shannon). On Earth, Clark is raised by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Keaton) Kent on their farm in Smallville, where he learns of his alien origin, and discovers his superhuman abilities, eventually wandering from place to place to search for answers. Along the way, he encounters Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and despite his best attempts to remain a hidden good Samaritan, Superman is eventually found out by Zod (and thereby the people of Earth), and made to fight for not just his, but for the survival of humanity.

I realize that seems like a lot to take in, and the filmmakers must have realized this early on in the scripting process, because they end up shortening anything and everything that makes a person connect to what should ultimately be the theme of this film: discovery. As with Spider-Man, this film should be less the story of Superman, and more about the emergence of Clark Kent finally realizing his potential to become the Man of Steel. He spends the entire first hour of the film performing acts of heroism, all the while flashing back to his life in Smallville struggling with his abilities (yet performing acts of heroism nonetheles), all in an attempt to figure out what his purpose is. We know that’s who Superman ultimately becomes, but short of those criminally brief glimpses into his past, how they’ve affected his present, and what they mean to his journey in the future, we’re never made to truly connect with Clark before he dons the iconic cape and suit. I know it’s called Man of Steel, but that position is rendered pointless if it’s not backed by the strong foundation of Clark Kent.

A huge and well deserved shout out to the underrated actors who portray young Clark: Cooper Timberline (at age 9) and Dylan Sprayberry (at age 13). They have the monumental task of giving us our only glimpse into the mind of what it’s like to be a child living with what must feel like an enormous burden–having and discovering the abilities of x-ray vision, heat vision, flight, and superhuman strength–when all you want to do is help the very people who will shun you for it. It must be an utterly terrifying realization, and Clark has trouble coming to terms with how he should behave, as evidenced in a poignant scene when he’s told by Jonathan to keep his powers a secret. “What was I supposed to do? Let them die?” he asks, only to get a deeply profound and highly troubled “Maybe.” The film greatly needs more moments like these, and not regulated to quick flashbacks either. It becomes painfully clear where Henry Cavill later shines in the role, and that’s when he’s playing Clark Kent. His entire dynamic changes, be it when he’s talking with Diane Keaton prior to the arrival of Zod, or when he’s sharing a crucial glance with Kevin Costner. In fact, it’s safe to say that the heart of this film lies solely with Keaton and Costner’s interactions with Clark, and is thereby sorely missing because someone thought it wise not to spend too much time on the Kent farm.

Superman’s Kryptonian parents don’t fare too well either. There’s not much to say for Lara for obvious reasons, but even less can be said about Russell Crowe’s Jor-El. He doesn’t have much to do other than spout uplifting exposition while being a hologram. On that level, I suppose neither did Marlon Brando, but I felt a genuine sense of weight there; that this was a man who gave up his son for the good of the people of Earth (and that’s not the only, nor is it the most blatant Christ parallel this film makes). In fact, the entire, more than twenty minute sequence on Krypton could have been shortened. It’s glamorous to look at, but ultimately unnecessary, at least in getting across the point that the planet is in ruins and Zod is partially responsible. That brings me to Zod himself. At literally the one hour mark, the film stops and shifts gears to a place I clearly wasn’t ready for it to go with his arrival. I think it’s fair to say it was ironically uneventful. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Shannon does his best with the material he’s given (though for a more chilling portrayal, I’d recommend The Iceman), but it doesn’t work for me, probably because we don’t see him again until that point. After his declaration of “I will find him!” before being banished to the Phantom Zone in the opening, we never see him again until he arrives on Earth courtesy of a rather well pieced (and globally savvy) ultimatum message. I was finally watching Henry Cavill master the role, and it’s all wiped away in favor of what comes next, which is practically a checklist for any film attempting to be a worthy summer blockbuster these days. From that point forward, no one is given anything to do, other then to surrender themselves to their CGI counterparts and surroundings, and let all hell literally break loose around them to the sound of John Williams’ effective score.

It’s rather telling I think, that I found Zod’s right hand woman, Faora (Antje Traue) far more menacing in her role, and a much better villain for Superman to go up against. She seemed to be the more relentless one, right from her first frame, and she gets her pick of some great lines and moments. Rounding off the prominent women in the cast is Amy Adams, who again, is given a lot more to do than previous Lois’, and does a decent job of giving some semblance of depth to the relationship between Lois and Superman. However, because it’s Lois and Superman, and not Lois and Clark (yet), any sense of chemistry is left to her being saved and reassuring Superman that things will be okay. For the sake of this story, there’s no immediate connection for Clark to The Daily Planet, short of getting to know Lois, who unlike previous incarnations of the character, is well ahead of the game, already following Superman’s trail, which I suppose was a welcome change, though it clearly takes away a prominent arc in their relationship. The Daily Planet crew themselves don’t register for a second; all characters wasted until a sequel no doubt, which is a shame, because much of the film’s final act–the part where we sympathize with the human characters–rests on a group of characters we’ve spent maybe two minor scenes with.

Much has been made about the film’s ending, but I honestly don’t think that’s the fault of the film, nor do I think it’s necessarily out of character for this Superman. It’s a perfectly good third act. The problem? There’s no proper first or second act; they’ve both been compromised, perhaps to rapidly get to what amounts to an hour’s worth of collateral damage of both the scene and the senses. This is Superman’s first big bout, so damage is to be expected, especially with a foe as heavily armed and evenly matched as Zod, and yet, there’s no weight to it. It’s magnificent eye candy at its absolute best, but it’s empty spectacle at its worst, and I found myself growing tired of it. Superman’s actions aren’t what bothered me, it’s the thought (or lack thereof) behind them that did. When all is said and done, Superman literally stands amid complete devastation while kissing Lois. It’s an image out of Snyder’s own Watchmen (2008), but in this case, it’s not a nightmare scenario; it’s this film’s reality, one that I don’t think it fully earns. It’s also worth noting that I found the film’s final two scenes immensely jarring, not because they perhaps could’ve fit into the narrative earlier, but because they actually do not belong in this film; like at all. In what can only be described as a bizarre flashforward, we first witness a Superman who probably belongs in the sequel, confidently charming, with a huge grin, cracking wise with the Army about his role in the world, which is immediately followed by Clark Kent’s introduction at The Daily Planet; again a scene that would probably work better in the sequel, and does nothing but establish “Clark Kent,” something this film treated as an afterthought to begin with.

I hate to keep coming back to The Amazing Spider-Man, but unlike that film, which to be honest has grown on me with every subsequent viewing because of its character work, I find that Man of Steel has a much more uphill battle ahead of it. Where as it would seem Marc Webb is interested in building a intertwining narrative among his series, however at the initial minor expense of the characters, he understands that it’s ultimately about those characters, and uses them to effectively tell the story. I can’t imagine what Snyder, or even screenwriter David Goyer hoped to accomplish here, given that they offer even less character work at the outset; that too, in a series that has yet to introduce the likes of Lex Luthor, a working relationship in the offices of The Daily Planet, and possibly set up a Justice League film in the process. Snyder is a capable filmmaker, and this film only further adds, if not greatly lifts his ability to new heights. As someone who greatly enjoys 300, and openly defends Watchmen (even if it slightly misses the point)–both films which contain an immense and impressive visual pallete that can sometimes hinder the actual narrative–Man of Steel manages to remain similar to his particular body of work. I haven’t yet bothered to mention Christopher Nolan’s name in this review, partly because I believe that short of a story and production credit, he was primarily hands off, not to mention it’s unfair to put the expectations of Nolan on Snyder, but I really wasn’t expecting a Superman film in the vein of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. This is an entirely different monster, and requires in my opinion, an entirely different approach. While it is possible to say that my views could change on how I view this first installment as a sum of the whole, if this is the standard of filmmaking I can expect out of its sequels–all style and no substance, all flashbang with limited flashbacks, all carnage with none of the characters–then I’m awfully concerned for the future of Superman.

You have abandoned the principles that held us together. […] I will honor the man you once were; not this monster you have become.

A Bold Return

Star Trek Into DarknessStar Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex
Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof

Cinematography by: Dan Mindel

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, John Cho,  Zoe Saldana,  Benedict Cumberbatch

Rating: B

I am not a Trekkie; far from it. I am however pop culturally knowledgeable about certain things Star Trek. So where as I haven’t entirely seen The Original Series (1966), The Next Generation (1987), or the multitude of other TV universes, I have seen The Motion Picture (1979) and The Wrath of Khan (1982), and I at least know enough to pinpoint previous cast members, the actors that portrayed them, and their significance towards the franchise as a whole. Does being a Trekkie necessarily enhance one’s appreciation (or disdain) for J.J. Abrams’ reboot? I really can’t say. I will say, that not being an avid fan of the franchise has only added to my enjoyment of his vision for it. Having said that, while its 2009 predecessor surprised me, its sequel did not, at least not in the same way, even though ironically, it managed to seem awfully familiar.

Star Trek Into Darkness works best when its completely doing its own thing. In fact, I’d say it damn near excels when it has a firm grasp on the story it wants to tell rather than relying too heavily on its past.

Part of the first film’s appeal was the instant chemistry between the cast, who were given the enormous task of trying to not just play iconic characters, but to take them back to their unexplored roots. They continue to push the material to even greater heights, and much of the film’s success rest squarely on their shoulders, as our investment in the story is only as strong as their interactions with one another. Since we last saw the Enterprise crew, Kirk (Chris Pine) is eagerly/arrogantly awaiting to take command of a classic five-year mission until he breaks the Prime Directive by saving Spock (Zachary Quinto), and is demoted. The usual suspects of Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), McCoy (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Sulu (John Cho) are all back, but they’re joined this time around by John Harrison/Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), a terrorist hell bent on destroying any semblance of peace the Federation intends to keep.

If you’ve seen the first film, you already know that the cast aboard the Enterprise gels extremely well. They’ve only further cemented themselves in their roles this time around, and it is Cumberbatch that remains the real revelation. I first noticed him in Sherlock, and small roles here and there in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and War Horse. This is his shining moment. This is the performance in which the world finally stops and takes notice if they haven’t already. The fact that his role in this film is already an iconic one within the franchise, and thereby reinvented here, is far from a cause of concern. True to this reboot’s form, Cumberbatch is Khan. He’s cunning, he’s ruthless, and he’s absolutely devoted to his cause and his crew. No, he’s not the Khan of the The Original Series, or even its extension via The Wrath of Khan, but he doesn’t have to be. This version of Khan is precisely what I meant when I said the film excels when following its own agenda. He’s a full realized character in this universe–one part terrorist, and one part freedom fighter–carrying the burden of peace through war, and portraying that anguish on screen effortlessly.

Fans and non-fans of the franchise need to understand that these films will always be tethered to everything that came before, whether it wants to be or not. It made that decision early on in the first film when it decided to include all that came before even when introducing an alternate timeline. What this film is not beholden to however, is where it decides to take that alternate timeline. Would I have liked a more traditional, original series version Khan Noonien Singh (especially as a fellow Singh myself)? Maybe, but what we get here is not a knock on Ricardo Montalbán’s take, much like Pine’s or Quinto’s aren’t disrespectful towards Shatner and Nimoy (respectively). They’re true this particular vision, and that’s all that ultimately matters; that regardless of when this version takes place, these characters will forever remain consistent. If you’re familiar with the source material, they indubitably enhance those past performances, and if you’re not, they bring something entirely new altogether. Having said that, when the film does eventually borrow (and I’m using that term with the slightest hint of spite) from existing canon, I immediately found myself pulling away.

Star Trek, as a franchise envisioned by its creator Gene Rodenberry, was perhaps always meant to evoke a sense of déjà vu; a sense of having taken the real world into account when presenting its own story. Star Trek Into Darkness continues to preserve that tradition, perfectly encapsulating a fitting allegory to such things as the war on terror, terrorism in general, due process, and/or the ramped up nature of our continuing military-industrialized complex in an effort to create peace. Yet, even with such prevalent themes running parallel, the film remains fun, exciting, and fresh. Much of that energy is due in large part to director J.J. Abrams, a self-proclaimed non-Trekkie, who may not always get the underlying lore of what made the original series work so well, but knows and trusts that his writers (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof) do, and presents their vision flawlessly; so flawlessly in fact, that I can’t wait to see what he does with a franchise that actually thrives on being a literal space opera, without getting too bogged down with philosophy or allegories (I’m talking of course about Star Wars). Abrams has managed to retain as much as he possibly can of the old, while building the franchise anew, creating a mainstream sci-fi action film–full of awe-inspiring special effects with an equal level of heart (and lens flare) behind them–that is sure to please everyone, and return Star Trek to its once prominent place in the world of science fiction.

You think your world is safe? It is an illusion, a comforting lie told to protect you. Enjoy these final moments of peace, for I have returned to have my vengeance.

Forever in Waiting

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas (2012)

Directed by: Andy & Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer

Written by: Andy & Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer

Cinematography by: Frank Griebe, John Toll

Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess,
Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Bae Doona

Rating: A

I’d love to provide a rundown of the basic plot, main characters, and actions that make up Cloud Atlas, but I don’t want to, or rather, I don’t think I have to, but more importantly, I don’t think I can do it any kind of justice. Look no further than its official synopsis: An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution. I get it; that can sound extremely overwhelming, dare I say even pretentious, but if you’re honestly not even the slightest bit intrigued to see all that unfold (especially if this is all you saw and/or knew of the film), then I’d suggest you stop reading right now.

It was almost a year ago that I saw that extended six minute trailer about six interconnecting stories spanning six different timelines. That was enough of a glimpse to make me eagerly await the day that I could watch those six minutes turn into a nearly three hour film. In anticipation, I read the David Mitchell book it’s based upon, and absolutely devoured the score until it became ingrained into my every thought. Unfortunately, I did not get to witness the film during its initial run in the theater, and it would appear neither did many of you. Yet, six months later, not only have I finally seen Cloud Atlas, but I’ve reseen it, and reseen it, and every viewing gives me a newer, if not better appreciation for its intricacy, its beauty, and its sheer scope—each story at once standing apart, but continuously being woven together—relentless in its approach, yet never compromising on its vision.

A lot of that has to do with the actors and their commitment to that vision, from the always reliable Tom Hanks, to the absolute revelation that is Doona Bae; from the endearing Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw, to a highly effective Hugo Weaving, not to mention a charismatic Jim Broadbent; even Halle Berry delivers a subdued performance. To handle any one of these roles must have been a daunting task, but to juggle six of them, all various degrees of separation from one another is commendable to say the least. Sure, some of them are minor, or serve as nothing more than glorified cameos, but each one works and elicits a reaction and works towards the narrative as a whole. Most of that narrative’s success lies solely with its directors: Lana and Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer. The Wachowski’s are no doubt household names due to The Matrix (1999), but Tykwer has his own somewhat underrated track record which includes Run Lola Run (1998) and The International (2009). A special and much needed honor needs to go to the film’s editors Alexander Berner and Chris Wehlisch. Together, they manage to tell six different stories as one, focusing on love, courage, and destiny, in the past, present, and future, creating a symphony of emotions. To their credit, it never feels rushed or unnecessary. In fact, I could watch each individual story play itself out in its entirety without cutting back and forth among the others. The fact that the film warrants multiple viewings doesn’t work against it; in fact, you’d be remiss not to watch it again and again. The film actively requires nothing more than your full, undivided attention, and I think that scares some people.

Absolutely nothing about this production screams easy. Hell, nothing about this production even reaches the level of cookie cutter we’ve come to accustom such big budget fare to. Perhaps that is why, I suppose, the average moviegoer refused to give this a film even a first look, let alone a second or a third. I’m not saying the film succeeds in everything it sets out to accomplish, but very rarely am I in sheer awe at a film’s sense of ambition. Surely something must be said when a film manages to not only exceed one’s expectations, but outright create them. We hear this all the time about cinema; that it’s an experience, that when powerful enough, can stay with you, and transcend the screen, and really make an impression on our lives and how our imagination sees and understands things. We hear it all the time, but how many times can we honestly say we actually experience it? How many of us can truly say that every film viewing experience we’ve had is akin to having seen something like Star Wars for the first time, or even The Matrix, where everything just clicks a certain way on both the screen and in our minds perfectly?

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and a lot of you will be making the difficult choice of whether or not to spend your hard earned money on Fast and Furious 6 or The Hangover Part III, and you’re all free to make whatever decision you like, but just think about this: movies like that are literally a dime a dozen, and if one fails, another one immediately takes its place, and no one’s the wiser. You could however make a third choice. You could seek out Cloud Atlas, a film that no one will probably attempt to ever make again, a true one of a kind in every sense of the word. I’m not even saying you have to like it, but you owe it to yourself to find out, and to not dismiss it because it seems to mash multiple genres and ideas together.

Don’t let them say I killed myself for love; had my infatuations, but we both know in our hearts who is the sole love of my short, bright life.

Grounded in Reality

Iron Man 3Iron Man 3 (2013)

Directed by: Shane Black

Written by: Drew Pearce, Shane Black

Cinematography by: John Toll

Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Ben Kingsley

Rating: B+

Marvel kicks off Phase Two of its cinematic universe much in the way it did Phase One back in 2008 with the first Iron Man: with a simple, yet highly effective film that’s immensely grounded in reality. I know we hear that a lot. Every film of this genre is said to be grounded in some sense of reality, but there aren’t many that make you forget you’re watching what in essence is a “superhero movie.” Now that may sound degrading to the genre, but I assure you it’s not. In fact, I’d say it’s a testament to that genre if I no longer wish to call it just a “superhero movie.” The genre is allowing itself to be taken a little more seriously, with an exceptional balance of humor and heart, which can only be a good thing for audiences looking to get more than your generically scripted, pointlessly loud, special effects driven fare.

It also helps that Iron Man 3 is incredibly standalone once all is said and done.

The Iron Man of The Avengers is almost nowhere to be found here, no longer having a super solider, the God of Thunder, or a Hulk to play off of, but they’re not necessarily needed here either, and the film greatly benefits from this sometimes literal stripped down approach. Since we last saw him, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has been keeping extremely busy building numerous variations of his armor because he’s experiencing post traumatic stress after the events that took place in New York. Taking a break from saving the world, that responsibility falls on Colonel James Rhodes’ (Don Cheadle) Iron Patriot, while Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) heads Stark Industries, with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) now being promoted to Chief of Security. When old faces from the past Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) resurface, Stark is forced to confront them, as well as a maniacal Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) behind the scenes, along with an army of regenerative, flame resistant, Extremis laced super soldiers.

There’s a reason Iron Man 3 falls closer in line with the original rather than its predecessor, and that’s because it’s not bogged down by anything. There’s no detour with S.H.I.E.L.D. or Nick Fury, and the few times the events of The Avengers are brought up, it’s to further explore Stark’s own worsening condition. There’s no question that Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man. What’s remarkable is that now four films in, he can still find a way to create a character that’s not only still interesting, but refreshingly so. Stark has always been charismatic, and brilliantly arrogant, but for the majority of this film, he’s not the cocksure man in the iron mask we’ve come to expect. He’s vulnerable in a way we haven’t seen before, precisely because the story is very contained, very personal, and very much in the here and now–that sense of grounded in reality I had mentioned earlier–even when Stark is nowhere near his element. He’s a man on the run, with limited resources, and only his mind and vengeful drive to work with. The rest of the cast gets a lot more to do this time around, from a highly involved Paltrow, a finally engaged Cheadle, and even Favreau manages to infuse Hogan with a great backstory, all of them further building upon their relationships with Tony.

On the flip side, Rebecca Hall feels vastly underused, having shown great promise in just the opening flashback alone. Conversely, Guy Pearce’s Killian feels like Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer from Iron Man 2 finally done right (and far more competent at that), with just the right amount of brawn to back up the brain, giving the character a sense of gradual growth as we watch him go from scientist to supervillain. That leaves the versatile, and I do mean that in every sense of the word, Sir Ben Kingsley, who takes the Mandarin in a direction that I assume many will not expect. It fits the narrative of the story extremely well, and further enhanced my appreciation for the grounded in reality approach this film, by creating a terrorist much in the vain of OBL. The man plays his part not only effectively, but efficiently, never letting on anymore than we have or need to know.

Of course none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the masterful execution by writer/director Shane Black. From the ongoing narration, to the eventual team up of Rhodes and Stark, I was all smiles at how reminiscent it was of his feature debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as well as his other scripted features like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. From taking place around Christmas, to the witty and sharp bits of humor throughout, not to mention the extremely clever placement of the action set pieces (especially with all of the different suits), Black not only picks up the mantle from Favreau effortlessly, but infuses the franchise with his unique brand. Iron Man 3‘s model really accentuates its individual character, and despite Marvel taking great pride in its ability to successfully connect every possible thread among its films during Phase One, one can hope that the rest of Phase Two follows suit before converging again in The Avengers 2.

You know, it’s moments like these when I realize how much of a superhero I am.

Familiar Horizons

OblivionOblivion (2013)

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski

Written by: Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt

Cinematography by: Claudio Miranda

Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman,
Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough

Rating: B+

Familiar’s not always a bad thing; at least not on the big screen. We’ve allowed for countless remakes, reimaginings, and reiterations, of every possible genre–be it drama, horror, or romantic comedy. Science fiction however, is trickier in that regard. By its very nature, it’s almost required–by both the audience, and those creating it–to expand upon the unconventional, showing us things we’ve perhaps never seen before. It’s expected to challenge us while still charming us, and failure to do so leaves a bitter taste in our mouths, so we begin to make comparisons to all that came before, and throw upon it allegations of trying to be something it couldn’t be; trying to be something it’s not, but more importantly [to us], trying to be something we won’t allow it be.

Oblivion is not the most original sci-fi film you’ll ever see, and I’m totally okay with that.

It’s the year 2077. We are told that Earth was destroyed 60 years ago when aliens known as Scavs took out our moon, invaded, and decimated the land, making it uninhabitable. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), along with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), are in charge of protecting Earth’s remaining resources, and sending them to a space station called Tet, controlled by Sally (Melissa Leo), which in turn sends those resources to Titan, a survivor’s colony on Saturn’s largest moon. When an unexpected spacecraft crashes while Jack is on patrol, he meets its lone survivor Julia (Olga Kurylenko), sending him on a journey of self-discovery.

Tom Cruise has yet to disappoint me in a role. There’s a reason Cruise’s lasting power at the box office has remained, and it’s primarily because no matter how far his star rises, he is ultimately believable as an everyman, even on an uninhabited planet where he is literally the only man. We happily follow him to the ends of the Earth because we feel the same sense of attachment to this planet that he does; that despite the ruins, it is still our home, and perhaps can be once again. Andrea Riseborough is exceptional in her role, and I only wish I’d noticed her sooner. She breathes immense life into Victoria, and makes for a perfect partner to Harper; the right balance of heartfelt and heartbreaking confusion. Likewise, Olga’s portrayal of Julia, while full of unwritten depth, fell short for me primarily because it was not nearly as well explored as Victoria’s, in relation to Jack. Melissa Leo’s Sally is absolutely grating in the best possible way, and Morgan Freeman is effective without being excessive.

Take your pick: Total Recall (1990), The Matrix (1999)Wall-E (2008), and even Moon (2009) come to mind, among many others, when attempting to make connections to Oblivion, either as mere visual cues or even to vague plot points; but as my preface to this review states: it’s not necessarily a hindrance towards my enjoyment of the final product. If anything, I see it less as a sense of lacking originality, and more of a director’s deep love of the material, but more importantly, the genre itself; almost a tribute to all that has come before it, and an attempt to carve one’s name upon it as well.

This is director Joseph Kosinski’s second feature, after TRON: Legacy (2011), and to say the man has improved leaps and bounds in almost every aspect of his production/direction efforts is perhaps an understatement. I adored Legacy, probably for all the wrong reasons (Daft Punk score represent), but even its many detractors couldn’t argue with the visual aesthetics and ability to create a unique world for the moviegoer. Oblivion only places its bets a little higher, and in the process, Kosinski manages to create a world that has a lot more heart to go along with its well designed architecture than his previous venture. Everything feels a lot more tangible given Kosinski’s deft handling of not just the material, but the actors and attributes involved in bringing it to life in such vivid detail.

I was surprised most by the film’s simplicity in both presenting and piecing together this seemingly complex world and everything in it. For the film’s first hour or so, all we witness is Jack doing his job, doing it well, and coming back to base. He detours every now and then, so we can catch a glimpse of how ravaged the Earth has become, but all the while, there is an unmistakable sense of humanity forever searching to find beauty again; and never has a dystopian future looked truly so magnificent. If you get a chance to catch it in IMAX, you’ll no doubt be in awe at the lush clouds while in flight, breathtaking sunrises and sunsets as far as the eye can see, unexplored snow covered mountains, deep canyons, and even the base itself, complete with a suspended swimming pool. This world is carefully crafted, right down to the types of vehicles and weapons, and we’re left to immerse ourselves in it at every turn–sometimes I’d argue, at the expense of the narrative. Add to it an absolutely enchanting score by M83, and it’s a world I never wanted to leave, and wouldn’t mind exploring further without such constraints.

Is it possible to miss a place you’ve never been? To mourn a time you never lived?

Definitive Portraits

LincolnLincoln (2012)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Tony Khusner

Cinematography by: Janusz Kamiński

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy
Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn

Rating: A-

Political poetry. As an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, Spielberg crafts an extensive and intimate portrayal of not just the President, but everything and everyone that surrounds him. There’s something mythical about watching the Grand Old Party truly live up to its name and potential. The writing is sharp, smart, and never afraid to show it’s teeth; both, when it’s taking a bite out of government, and when it’s smiling upon the process. It’s about as close to a political junkie’s love letter as you can get in 1865.

You cannot help but relish in every word spoken by any actor on this film; and while there is no end to the magnificent performances on display, the first star absolutely must go to Daniel Day-Lewis, who carries this film in its most dense, and perhaps more importantly, in its more quiet moments. There are moments where Lincoln, the man, but also the film itself, just exists, and allows for the audience to just absorb themselves into the proceedings. Day-Lewis nails his performance, from the voice to the mannerisms; so much so, that I wouldn’t even call it a performance. It’s a downright embodiment. A definitive portrayal. Then there’s Tommy Lee Jones, who brings a passion and fire to this film that I haven’t seen in quite some time. Sally Field is never a disappointment, and her portrayal of Mary Todd is effectively restrained, and subtle, even when the character’s feelings are anything but. There’s honestly not a bad actor in the bunch, and that applies to just about anyone who shows up on the screen, from Joseph Gordon Levitt, to David Strathairn, to Hal Holbrook, and even James Spader.

It almost seems like a no-brainer to have Steven Spielberg tackle the 16th President’s journey in figuring out how to both end the Civil War and pass the 13th Amendment, given his amazing ability to present history on screen, starting with Empire of the Sun (1987),and continuing with Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Munich (2005). He adds yet another to his repertoire with Lincoln. Political poetry. I could think of nothing else as I watched Spielberg introduce the audience to a time period in which gridlock in Washington did not mean the absolute failure of politics, but more importantly, it did not mean the demise of our nation.

The Master

The Master (2012)

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cinematography by: Mihai Mălaimare, Jr.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour
Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern

Rating: A-

This is a film that will be tough to pinpoint for many. For some, it’ll seem to cover a vast amount. For others, it’ll sometimes never cover anything at all. For some, it’ll be deeply profound experience. For others, it’ll never truly say anything that reflects so much as a simple thought. For me, the film explores the sheer power of faith; both, in bringing people together, but also, in becoming a driving force that can no longer be contained by not only its members, but its very founders.

I’ve seen this film twice, and I no doubt will continue to gain something from each repeat viewing. What I do know is that it’s absolutely mesmerizing when it wants to be; almost enigmatic, which is perhaps fair given its two leads: Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a self-made man who who creates a philosophy known simply as “the Cause;” and Freddie Quells (Joaquin Pheonix), a deeply damaged (and drunk) former Navy seaman who stumbles into Dodd’s presence and by nature, his Cause. The two men are clearly deserving of their own picture, but put them together, and you never want to leave their sight. These are career defining performances from two actors who have made their careers creating such performances. A nice surprise in the film comes from Amy Adams, portraying Dodd’s wife, who, on the surface, appears to be nothing more than a familial face for the Cause, but reveals herself to be every bit as commanding on the screen as Hoffman, being both supportive and worried about the Cause.

Paul Thomas Anderson has built quite the portfolio of films, and The Master, oddly enough, fits in nicely with the likes of Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and There Will Be Blood (2007). He’s a man that deeply understands the sheer power of cinema, and evokes performances that will be talked about for generations; but it’s not just the technical aesthetics he masters, it’s also the thematic. This is a film that is every bit as sporadic, intimate, and mysterious as its characters, but each piece is absolutely necessary in putting together a puzzle that may forever remain broken and never solved; of the human mind, of our faith (or lack thereof), and the continuing struggle to make sense of either.

From the battlefields, lost at sea, we return home to discover we’re at civil war with ourselves; that as the tides changed while we were away, our minds changed while we remained, no longer the masters of our own destiny, beholden to any country.

Dance Dance Revolution

Les Miserables

Les Misérables (2012)

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Written by: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil,
Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer

Cinematography by: Danny Cohen

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne
Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne

Rating: B

I don’t do musicals. I appreciate them for what they are, but as a genre in film, they’ve always been a fleeting, rather than a permanent presences in my viewings of them. That all changed with Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. I’ve never read the entire Victor Hugo novel, nor have I seen any of the previous musical adaptations (be it on stage or film), but this film moved me to pieces and then some, with its music, its acting, and its ability to showcase the setting in such an epic fashion. This is a film that belongs to the actors, and they deliver in spades, be it Hugh Jackman, who practically carries this film on his shoulders; or Anne Hathaway, who, despite being on screen briefly, delivers a performance that haunts you long after you’ve finished watching. Tom Hooper’s decision to have the singers sing live is a masterstroke, that especially pays off with Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” (the film’s worth watching for that sequence alone). He has definitely grown as a director from the more calculated King’s Speech. He displays an understanding and love of the material, using single takes and extreme close ups to literally put the audience face to face with these characters.

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Directed by: David O. Russell

Written by: David O. Russell

Cinematography by: Masanobu Takayanagi

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence,
Robert DeNiro, Jacklyn Weaver, Chris Tucker

Rating: B

A dramatic romantic comedy. A dram-rom-com. I can think of no way else to describe this film. It’s a blend of the two genres, and for the most part, it seems to carry each forward to the best of its ability, helped greatly by the ensemble cast at hand. It’s pretty familiar territory, you know, the typical bipolar boy meets crazy girl meets dysfunctional family meets football meets dance contest. David O. Russell knows how to craft a dark and dramatic, yet effective screwball comedy, and he succeeds with Silver Linings in the same way he did with his first three outings as director: Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, and Three Kings, balancing the thematic elements with the characters and actions. As mentioned, the cast is uniformly excellent all around. Bradley Cooper has a lot to shoulder and he puts in a performance that I think finally elevates him to the type of leading actor (rather than leading man) he knows he can become. His performance of course, is nothing without Jennifer Lawrence, who, after Winter’s Bone, has only grown as a performer, and I would very much love to see her in more fare like this over say The Hunger Games. The two are perfectly mismatched, the sanity to each other’s insanity, and it’s a rare treat to enjoy watching two characters not only discover, but genuinely fall in love on screen from the very first time they meet. The supporting cast, rounded out by Robert DeNiro (who finally gets to engage an audience/film in a way that I haven’t seen in quite some time), Chris Tucker (emerging from film obscurity and doing a fine job), and Jacki Weaver (playing a quiet, yet highly observant mother of the two neurotic men in her life), are excellent. As mentioned, the genres themselves may not be pushing any boundaries, but the film’s sheer ability to take those genres and present them in a refreshing way is a delight to behold in every frame.

Human emotions. Human drama. Humanity discovered amid humanity lost. I dreamed a dream, and never forgot, our dance in the street, the final seconds on the clock.