Thursday, July 17, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

It has taken me a long time to catch up on Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, especially since I thought about seeing this film when it first came out in theaters. I feel like I'm a fan of this Tom Clancy-inspired series, partially because my parents used to watch Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger all the time when I was growing up. Surprisingly, I haven't watched a single movie with Jack Ryan in it from start to finish, so all of the positive feelings I have of the series were absorbed completely through osmosis. Anyone who's read my FlashBack Friday series of reviews where I revisited the Indiana Jones franchise (don't worry, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is coming) knows how big of a fan I am of Harrison Ford. Perhaps I had fond feelings toward those previous films because of his involvement as well, but it wasn't enough to get me out to theaters for this film. I finally saw this film on RedBox with modest expectations given the generally positive buzz I've heard since its release.

Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) was a student at the London School of Economics when everyone on campus swarmed around the TV to watch the devastating news of the 9/11 attacks on New York City. Following this world-changing event, Ryan enlists in the US Military, becoming a marine and sustaining a serious injury to his spine when his helicopter is shot down. After a lengthy recovery and courtship with his nurse Cathy (Keira Knightley), Ryan is approached by CIA official Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) about becoming an analyst with his division to monitor Wall Street transactions for any signs of terrorism. Ten years pass and Ryan is engaged to Cathy, though he still can't reveal his true occupation until they are married. When trillions of dollars within a Russian organization disappears, however, Ryan feels the need to investigate the situation in person to ensure national security. Cathy is initially suspicious of this sudden business trip, and things really start to heat up when Ryan's personal bodyguard attempts to murder him in his hotel room.

This movie's been out for a while, but I'm going to go ahead and stop my plot summary at that point to avoid spoiling it for people (like me) that haven't gotten around to seeing this one yet. When I first heard about this project I was actually a little skeptical. Chris Pine is a great actor and I've really enjoyed his work in the Star Trek series, but there comes a point where I feel like they should give some of these parts to actors who aren't already recognized for another iconic role. True, it worked for Harrison Ford, but he's the exception. Surprisingly, I actually thought Pine did a pretty good job with this role. It's different than a lot of people might be expecting, as he's not a Jason Bourne or James Bond type of agent who's used to field work and can take care of themselves in a fight. He's an analyst, more accustomed to running financial reports than engaging in covert operations. True, he does have experience with hand-to-hand combat after his time as a Marine, but we don't feel quite as confident that he's going to make it out of dangerous situations as we do with other "super spies". It adds an extra layer of tension that I wasn't expecting and makes him a little more relatable as well.

The story, as timely and interesting as it is, ends up being a little convoluted as the plot unfolds. That's actually another reason I didn't want to write an entire plot summary. There are lots of intricacies involved in these kinds of stories, and while I'm glad the screenwriters didn't oversimplify it, I wish they had found a way to streamline some of these scenarios to make it less complicated. Part of that may be attributed to the directing. Kenneth Branagh made a name for himself by adapting the plays of William Shakespeare to the screen, though he's probably most well-known now for his directing the first Thor film in 2011. This is his first foray into the action/thriller genre, and it kind of shows in his reliance on familiar tropes of other spy movies. There's nothing ground-breaking or particularly novel about this Tom Clancy adaptation, as the Bourne and Bond franchises have already beaten Jack Ryan to the punch.

Some of the acting from Kevin Costner could have been better, and I wasn't entirely convinced by Keira Knightley's American accent. But other than that, I was fairly impressed with the performances in this film. Pine does a credible job as the title character, but the standout was easily Branagh himself, portraying a villainous and calculating Russian tycoon. He's slimy, but there's also an inherent charm about him that makes him even more dangerous. Branagh acts in almost all of the films he directs, and he's always good in them. This particular part could have ruined the entire film if it wasn't done right, but he absolutely nails it.

Overall, this movie wasn't one of the best of the year, but it was far better than it should have been given its January release date. While it's a little too complicated at times and some of the acting is a little shotty, I think most people will enjoy watching this movie at home without having to pay theater ticket prices. This is a solid origin story for the character of Jack Ryan, and I hope they feel confident enough to give us future films with this cast. I give Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit three stars.

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language

**What did you think of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (if you can still remember that far back)? Do you think it warrants a sequel or do you want them to leave this character in the past? Leave me a comment and let me know!**

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

As most people can probably agree, 2011's reboot of the seemingly buried sci-fi franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was a surprisingly great movie. I included it on my top ten list of the year and have seen it several times since it came out on DVD/Blu Ray. So when I heard there was going to be a sequel to that film, I couldn't have been more excited. Though I didn't review them, I went back and watched the original Planet of the Apes from the 1960's and even the 2001 reboot of the same name by Tim Burton. Needless to say one of those films is much better than the other (hopefully you know which one I mean), and Rise was an impressive reimagining of that original movie while also serving as a faithful origin story of sorts. Then when the trailers came out and early buzz began to spread about how good this movie was, I started to wonder whether this might somehow surpass the previous film in quality. I subsequently went into the press screening with fairly high expectations.

It's been years since the simian flu claimed its first victim. Since then the virus has spread across the entire world, taking millions of lives and sending the human race into chaos and devastating conflict. During that time Caesar and his fellow apes have built a home in the forests of Northern California, establishing a colony of sorts and even teaching his new family how to read, write, and occasionally speak. Their relatively peaceful lifestyle is disrupted, however, when a small group of humans bump into the tribe. They are swiftly banished by an angered Caesar for their panic-driven gunshot to the shoulder of one of his friends, but not before the ape leader impresses some of the travelers with his advanced intelligence. The group of humans head back to their own village of survivors to inform their leader of what they witnessed. In desperate need of the power provided by a deserted dam on the land claimed by Caesar's tribe, the humans must decide whether to attack the intelligent primates or try to find another source of power and risk being attacked themselves.

First off, I should probably mention that this is not going to be a fun popcorn movie that you can turn off your brain and enjoy. This is a challenging, intense, and emotional experience that you kind of need to gear yourself up for a little bit. It's a far more dramatic and thematic story than I think a lot of people might be prepared for, though the trailers do a pretty good job of establishing the tone of this film. Many critics are equating this chapter of the story to other successful yet dark sequels like The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. While it may not be as fun as either of those two movies are at times, it is just as deep and complex (and slightly more unnerving). It's a very adult-centered film, and will definitely be disquieting for a lot of younger viewers with its content. Easily one of the darker blockbuster films in recent memory, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I might even say that it would be a disservice to the themes this movie chooses to tackle if it wasn't done in a serious and dare I say "gritty" way. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is full of intricacies that I'm sure will reward multiple viewings, from the interplay between the humans and the apes, to the respective relationships within their separate civilizations. There are parts of this film that feel Shakespearean (which is fitting given the lead character's name), and the familial conflict as well as the fight for control among Caesar's clan rings true on a historical level. It also does something that could be construed as risky by focusing so much attention on the apes in the beginning, but director Matt Reeves understands that it's essential for the audience to care about all of its characters for us to be fully involved in their plight. In fact, we care so much about the apes that we're all transported into Caesar's shoes as he's pulled between two different and often conflicting worlds. The film does a tremendous job of fleshing out those themes of loyalty, betrayal, and the sacrifices that must be made to accomplish order. There's a real power struggle in this film that's expertly portrayed and constructed, both within the families of each side of the battle as well as between the leaders themselves.

While the ambitions of this film are truly commendable, it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying if the emotions weren't developed as fully as they are. The script is designed to engender our sympathies for both parties on a fairly equal level, giving every moment of action an additional dose of tension that most summer films can't hope to achieve. We as an audience don't want any of the characters to come into harms way, so when they inevitably do it becomes truly suspenseful and even frightening. My wife made the comment that this feels like a war movie, and the reason it works so well is because we really do care about the characters involved in this war.

What's crazy about our empathy for the apes isn't that they're a different species, but that they're entirely computer-generated (with the immeasurable help of motion capture artists like Andy Serkis). Rise of the Planet of the Apes had fairly good CGI creatures for the time, though there are some scenes where they don't quite hold up. In Dawn I forget that I'm looking at a visual effect half the time I'm watching these apes, so perfectly are the emotions of the actors portrayed and realized in their simian form. Serkis in particular delivers a brilliant performance with the movements, facial expressions, and even the voice of Caesar. His acting choices are perfect, and the emotion he brings to the film is impossible to describe. You seriously have to see this for yourself to understand how incredibly realized these characters are.

Another aspect that brings emotions into this film is the score, which is something I routinely comment on in these reviews. The soundtrack for this movie is composed by one of my favorites in Michael Giacchino who is most well-known for his musical scores for films like Up and Star Trek, as well as TV's Lost. He not only brings in the tender emotions like we've come to expect, but with nods to the original Planet of the Apes and even 2001: A Space Odyssey he layers the film with unease and sometimes dread at all the right moments. Though parts of the score remind me inescapably of his composition for Super 8, this is a really good score that works very well with the amazing visuals presented on screen.

There's a lot of artistry to this film, and subtle visual queues and parallels that I only realized after reflecting on the movie afterwards. It's obvious that a great deal of care and effort went into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I really want to see this one again to really appreciate all the layers in this story. The only question that remains for me is when the sequel will be released. The movie ends with a clear direction for a follow-up, and if it's half as good as this film then I know it's going to be great. I certainly couldn't have predicted how much I would love this movie, and I would go so far as to say that it blew all the previous Apes films out of the water (yes, even Rise of the Planet of the Apes).

This film will certainly be talked about come awards season, though it's yet to be seen whether just for the obvious technical categories or if Serkis and possibly the film itself will also receive some well-deserved recognition. For my money, this is easily one of the best (if not the best) films of the year. If you're not too intimidated by serious, dramatic sci-fi with some spectacular visual effects and gripping action scenes, then I whole-heartedly recommend this movie. I give Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a solid four stars.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language

**Are you excited to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? If you have seen it, what did you think? Let me know in the comments section below!**

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Well, we're back in Transformers land with Michael Bay, and I have to say that this may have been my least anticipated major release of the year. None of the trailers excited me and I had no idea what they could even put on screen to justify this film's existence. However, it may have been a blessing-in-disguise to be asked by the studio representatives to write a promotional piece about the film, as it forced me to approach Transformers: Age of Extinction with as much optimism as possible. In doing so, I realized that this film only had to do one thing to make me like it - give me a fun ride with some awesome Dinobot scenes. Still, I was very trepidatious going into the screening, and I almost gritted my teeth as the robotic sound effects announced the beginning of the movie.

Millions of years ago, enormous alien spaceships descended upon the Cretaceous-age creatures inhabiting the earth, using a terrible weapon to scorch the entire planet. This created an almost metallic shell on everything and apparently led to the ice age. Flash-forward to present-day Earth where Autobots and Decepticons alike are being hunted by the government as intergalactic fugitives for their destruction of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. However, a fierce robotic creature named Lockdown comes in at the last second of their attacks on Autobots to interrogate them on Optimus Prime's whereabouts, killing them himself once he's finished. With the world-wide banishment of Cybertronians in force, struggling inventor and single father Cade Yeager finds a curious diesel truck in an abandoned movie theatre and brings it home in an attempt to strip it for parts... What he discovers, however, is that the old, dusty vehicle may actually be more than meets the eye...

To the surprise of myself and probably anybody who knows me, I actually was somewhat happy with the first Transformers movie. Sure, it had a lot of stupid humor and the plot was mostly incoherent, but the special effects were so original and the character arc of Sam Witwicky so straight-forward that I actually found it kind of entertaining. However, if you've read my reviews of the two sequels to that movie, you'll know that they really botched up what was kind of a fun premise. With the taint of those films still fairly fresh in my mind, I actually found the intro to Age of Extinction kind of interesting.

There is no opening narration from Optimus Prime as the spaceships eliminate the dinosaurs, and I found this surprisingly intriguing. Given the subtitle of this film, I could see some interesting jumping-off points for a story introducing the Dinobots (which, let's face it, is the reason most people returned to the series). But even as the story goes into a small-town with Mark Wahlberg's character, I found myself getting slightly involved in his economic hardship and parental struggles. Wahlberg is a really good actor, and his character is pretty sympathetic here. The problem is that the movie doesn't really want to tell a story of a dad and his daughter coming to understand and respect each other. Perhaps it's all Michael Bay can do to give us as much character development as he does in this film, because the remainder of the movie is much more what you would expect coming into a Transformers story.

It's almost like Bay was restraining himself from falling back into his stereotypical mode of dumb jokes and senseless, mind-numbing action, and he could only make it about thirty minutes before he broke. The good (and I use that term very lightly) part of this opening is forgotten and more or less undermined by the ensuing two hours of contrived excuses for on-screen explosions. The human characters are essentially forgotten and every scene of this film is elongated to an intolerable level. None of the action is terrible, per se, it's just stretched out to the point that I had to fight off the urge to look at the more entertaining empty seat in the row in front of me.

For all the minor improvements of this movie, Bay still reverts back to his cliched character designs and motivations that made the previous two films so deplorable. He doesn't seem capable of creating a compelling character, so he has to resort to broad strokes and crude stereotypes so we can at least fill in the gaps ourselves. It's ridiculous to me that the film even tries to make some pathetic attempt at a slavery allegory when the Autobots are hardly progressive in their senseless portrayal of ethnic diversity. Case in point: there's a character who's Japanese for some reason, and therefore must be wearing samurai armor and constantly speak in haiku. Don't even get me started on the ebonics-speaking Brain proclaiming to be "free at last!" when he's released from the clutches of an evil lab.

I'll get into my biggest complaints, and one of them is a major deal-breaker: where are the freaking Dinobots?! They've sold us in the advertising with the promise of getting Grimlock, the robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex, breathing fire and helping Optimus fight in a battle, even going with the extinction theme (if one can say that) in the title and introductory scene. Well, get ready to be disappointed, because the heavily-promoted prehistoric Cybertronians are only featured in the final twenty minutes of the film and are given the weakest backstory imaginable. In a film that is over two and a half hours of slow-motion explosions and ridiculous, tangential scenes of "comedy", it's really not asking a lot for the selling-point of the film to get a proper explanation and/or screen time. The title of this film ends up being far more arbitrary than the marketing would have you believe.

The other major complaint of this movie is its excessive running length. Not much in this film is good, but it becomes absolutely unbearable when each and every scene completely overstays its welcome. There's a subplot about a technological corporation using Megatron's head to create the supposedly human-subservient "Galvatron", which doesn't really go anywhere in this movie other than giving the Autobots someone to fight for twenty or so minutes. There's also another half-hour or so where the movie unabashedly panders to the Chinese demographic in order to get their government to support the movie (and therefore take advantage of billions of potential movie-goers). It's almost sickening to see such a blatant money-making move dictate what happens at the climax of a movie, though none of this is that surprising for a Michael Bay film. Suffice it to say, that rarely has a suspicious relocation been so poorly explained or justified (a character just says, "let's take this to my facility in Hong Kong"... well, that's convenient...).

None of the performances are even that great, and some are downright awful. I'm usually a fairly big fan of Stanley Tucci's supporting roles (The Hunger Games, Easy A, etc.), but there are times when he can sink to the depths of the movie he's in rather than lifting up a low quality production (Jack the Giant Slayer). Consider this to be in the latter category. He's so over-the-top and annoying in this film that it makes it hard to remember that he's actually an Academy Award nominated actor. John Goodman even does a voice in this film, and while he's not necessarily bad in this movie, his lines are universally terrible. Other than that, the rest of the cast is forgettable... literally, you won't remember a thing that they say or do. They're all just insignificant devices to push the "plot" forward. It still amazes me that Michael Bay can get this many legitimate actors into his movies considering what he gives them to work with.

Anyway, I think there's no point in stretching this out any longer than necessary like the movie does. Despite my half-hearted optimism going in, this is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination. Transformers: Age of Extinction is hardly the worst in the franchise, but it's not really a step up either. Add the unforgivable running length and the misleading marketing of the Dinobots, and I strongly recommend you don't spend your money to see this in a theatre. Whatever you do, don't go see this in 3D. The CGI isn't quite up to the par with the previous films, but it looks so much worse in 3D as basically all films do. People who liked the other films in the series might end up liking this too, but I urge you not to encourage them to keep making films of this quality (which they're most likely going to do). Save your money or go see X-Men: Days of Future Past again. This is one of the worst films I've seen this year and I give it a generous two stars.

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo

**What did you think of Transformers: Age of Extinction? Is it the best in the series, or another blatant cash-grab?**