Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

It's finally here! Actually, it's been here for a couple of weeks now... but I wanted to try to review all of the other films in the Star Wars franchise before I got to the latest installment. Then, once I realized that wasn't going to happen, I just decided to review The Force Awakens before it was no longer relevant. Of course, that doesn't seem like it'll happen any time soon either, but I had to get my thoughts down while they were still somewhat fresh in my mind. As I'll get to in my other Star Wars reviews (eventually), I am a lifelong fan of this galaxy far, far away, to the point that I can't remember a time in my life where I haven't seen these films. Having shaped my childhood memories more than any other movie property, it should come at no surprise that my most anticipated film of this year was Episode VII. Really, I've been looking forward to this movie ever since the continuation of this saga became a reality when the purchase of Lucasfilm was announced three years ago. Like many others, I immediately began speculating wildly about where we would find these characters 30 years after Return of the Jedi, and it seemed a little surreal to be finally walking into the theater on opening night to actually see the finished product. As it's been a couple of weeks now, I'm not going to actively avoid anything that could be considered a SPOILER, so proceed at your own risk.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

If The Martian was a problem of too much positive buzz, perhaps Mockingjay Part 2 benefited from a bit of the opposite. This is one of the few series that I've been able to review each installment of during its theatrical run, and if you go back to see my reviews of those previous three movies you'll notice that I've enjoyed every film in this franchise. Sure, some have aged better than others, and the stretched quality of Mockingjay Part 1 was a bit of a hindrance to my enjoyment of it, but I was still pretty pumped to see Part 2 in theaters despite the somewhat negative feedback I'd heard. Full disclosure, though, I have read all three of Suzanne Collins' books, so I went into this viewing knowing pretty much every plot point ahead of time. Given the lukewarm reaction to the third part of that book series, I wasn't too surprised with the response to this climactic installment in movie form. But what did I think of how this story ended? Read on to find out! (BTW: There may be a few SPOILERS, but I'll warn you ahead of time.)

The Martian

After seeing Matt Damon in last year's incredibly underrated sci-fi epic, Interstellar, I kind of thought The Martian was going to be a weak retread. Of course, being based on a very popular novel released it from any similarity to Christopher Nolan's film, and after seeing this movie I can say that (despite a few casting similarities) they have very little to do with one another. I was able to pretty much put that preconception aside when going in to The Martian, though what I couldn't put aside was the explosion of hype that suddenly surrounded this film upon its release, with many calling it the best film of the year and even renowned news sources calling it a front-runner for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards. When these claims start to come out, it immediately gives the viewer an expectation that may be hard to live up to.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Ever since I saw this movie last week, I've been bursting to talk about it! While I haven't come to the end of my Rocky retrospective quite yet (I'll get to Rocky V and Rocky Balboa soon), I just had to talk about the movie I've been wanting ever since the first trailer was released. Despite my enthusiasm going into this, I had to remind myself that Creed wasn't on my top 10 most anticipated films of the year when I wrote that list eleven months ago. In fact, it didn't even get a mention, which I still have a hard time fathoming... Anyway, I went in with fairly moderate expectations, pretty much just hoping for a decent follow-up to the Rocky series. What I got was so much more.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Rocky IV

FlashBack Friday is back again! There isn't much time to finish this Rocky series, (especially with a certain space movie coming out in about a month) so some of these reviews might not be released on Friday... just FYI. Still, I couldn't let myself not review this movie as it has all of the things that typify what people think about the Rocky series. For me, this was always my favorite one as a kid. Not only did it have the most intense fight scenes, but the villain was easily the most memorable of any opponent Rocky has faced. Though I may have seen Rocky III more times, Rocky IV was by far the best of the series to me as a kid. But how does that love hold up after all these years? SPOILER ALERT from here on out!

Monday, November 16, 2015


Bond is back! If you haven't read my reviews of the previous Daniel Craig 007 movies, go check out the archives and see what I thought of them in detail. If you don't have time for that, I'll give you a brief history of my Bond fandom here. First off, Daniel Craig is my Bond. Ever since Casino Royale, I've been completely on board with this new iteration of the famous spy. Though I wasn't a huge fan of what happened in Quantum of Solace, I couldn't have been more in love with the last entry to the series, Skyfall. It took Bond to a whole other level with the action, the character development, the cinematography, and the evolution of the franchise embracing both old and new generations of Bond. As you can see in my top 10 most anticipated films of 2015, this was one of the films I was really looking forward to this year. With the name drop of Spectre, which I knew was the infamous terrorist organization that became Bond's biggest nemesis from the Sean Connery era, I had a feeling we were in for something really special.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Peanuts Movie

Good grief, this is such a cute film! That's the most obvious take-away after seeing The Peanuts Movie, which I've personally been looking forward to ever since I saw this incredibly adorable teaser trailer over a year ago. The respectful style of animation that mimics the original art from Charles Schultz is such a wonderful melding of traditional artwork with modern CGI that I had a feeling this might be a great introduction to the Peanuts world for kids who may not have been exposed to it previously. Still, it's always a bit of a gamble when going into a revitalized property that was so nostalgic and beloved to so many. For every The Lego Movie there's an equal and opposite The Smurfs or Garfield that keeps us from getting completely on board with something like The Peanuts Movie. Thankfully for us, this is one of the good ones.

Friday, October 23, 2015


Full disclosure - I am a former Goosebumps fanboy. As a kid, I used to drool over the latest Goosebumps book cover until I finally had an opportunity to get one from the book fair at my elementary school. I went so far as to write a fan letter to R.L. Stine, who sent back a very sweet form letter to all of his fans, with what I always hoped was his real signature at the bottom (though it was probably a stamp or something). It even inspired me to write my first novel back in fifth grade, brilliantly titled "The House That Threw Up"... though it was probably equally inspired by the Goosebumps parody series (that lasted all of two installments), Gooflumps. Yeah, that's really what it was called. Even those ridiculous books have a bit of nostalgia for me, but they were nothing compared to my love for the Goosebumps series. With all that in mind, I went into this film hoping for nothing but a fun time with a few childhood memories brought to life. And thankfully it more-or-less succeeded.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Rocky III

FlashBack Friday is upon us again! Sorry for the inconsistency, but I should still be able fit these all in before the release of Creed on Thanksgiving weekend. If the last review was a surprise due to my lack of exposure to the material, the opposite may be true with Rocky III. I watched this movie constantly as a kid, and could probably quote most of the lines from memory. Having said that, it has been around a decade since I'd last seen it, so the possibility of it not living up to my nostalgic memories was a bit of a concern going in. Luckily, there was also a lot of emotional depth that I didn't remember as well, so things actually evened out rather nicely. From here on, my prediction for this review is... SPOILERS! And also talking about what's good and bad... you know, normal review stuff.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Rocky II

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday where I'm covering all of the Rocky films leading up to the upcoming release of Creed! Last time was a glowing review of the original Rocky film, but I did mention that despite its iconic status I wasn't as familiar with it as a kid. Well, if I was unfamiliar with the first Rocky film before revisiting it a few years ago, it's been so long since seeing Rocky II that this might as well have been my first time. I had so few memories associated with this one that I really wasn't sure what to expect, but I knew from its reputation that it didn't quite live up to the first movie. With that, let's get into the plot of the film (and though it might go without saying, SPOILER ALERT from here on out!).

Friday, September 18, 2015


Welcome back to FlashBack Friday! It's been a little while since I've done one of these, and while I was hesitant to commit to the Rocky series with another installment of the Star Wars franchise so near in the future, I figured there was room to do both! For the next six weeks, I'll be covering another Rocky movie until the release of the upcoming Creed on November 25th. My childhood was riddled with movie franchises, from Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park (both of which I've covered on previous FlashBack Fridays), but Rocky was just as influential to me as either of those. Surprisingly enough, most of my childhood memories are from the third and fourth installments in the series. Though I definitely remember seeing the first Rocky on multiple occasions, I think it was just a little too talky for me at the time to really get into. This suited me perfectly, however, as I came into this movie as an older person with a built-in love for the character and a taste in movies that has matured exponentially over the years. While it wasn't the most exciting of the series, my older self was able to more fully appreciate this low budget character drama in a completely different way. As usual in these FlashBack Friday reviews, a SPOILER ALERT is in full effect from here on out!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Having never heard of the property, I wasn't expecting much when I first clicked the trailer for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. All I had heard about the project was the casting, which at least had me intrigued. Henry Cavill was great in Man of Steel, and Armie Hammer has been terrific in films like The Social Network. The trailer seemed to promise a fun and exciting throwback to early spy films. Combine that with the director of the underrated Sherlock Holmes, and I had a feeling this was going to be a pretty good time at the theatres. It was only after I was already looking forward to seeing the movie that I found out from my parents that it was based on a popular TV series that they loved as kids. I still don't know a whole lot about that original show, but from what they've told me about it, director Guy Ritchie seems to be honoring the spirit and tone of that 1960's series.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

This movie snuck up on us! (That's kind of weird to say, considering it's been four years since its last installment.) Initially scheduled for a December 2015 release, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation did an almost unprecedented move up five months ahead of its original release date. After the surprising treat that Ghost Protocol was in 2011, I knew it was only a matter of time until a fifth installment in the M:I franchise was released. Of course, I thought it would get here a lot sooner than now, and I assumed it would star Jeremy Renner. However, after a couple of sci-fi hits (to use the term loosely, given the meager box office returns of Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow), it seemed more and more like Cruise was staying with this franchise for the long haul. Indeed, this movie puts Cruise front and center, which would be mind-boggling for anybody who hasn't kept up with him since his couch-jumping antics in 2005. We suddenly love Tom Cruise again! For me, who wasn't crazy big on the megastar in past performances (see my review of Oblivion for more on that), I am grateful to see his evolution as a movie star. After seeing the first trailer for Rogue Nation, I instantly regretted not putting it on my list of most anticipated films for this year. But how well does the movie follow its marketing promise?

Thursday, July 23, 2015


I always seem to start these reviews with a brief history of my expectations for the film in question. I'm not going to break from tradition here, and yes, this was another movie on my most anticipated list for 2015. Admittedly, I was more excited for Ant-Man when it was an Edgar Wright project (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), particularly given the lack of recognition I had for the main character. However, given Marvel's golden reputation lately, I had a feeling this would still end up being a really fun movie. The casting sure didn't let me down, with names like Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd in the starring roles, even if the director that was eventually signed didn't excite me all that much. Regardless of the production woes this film seemed to have, I still hoped that Ant-Man could pull off something unique and entertaining that would be a much-needed change of pace after the massive throw-down that was Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Terminator: Genisys

It's been a few years since we've had a Terminator movie, and a heck of a lot of years since we've had a good Terminator movie. I contemplated doing a FlashBack Friday series in anticipation of Terminator: Genisys (given that it was on my list of most anticipated films for this year), but with a busy 4th of July week and a slew of theatrical releases I wanted to cover during that time, I knew I wasn't going to be able to pull it off. After seeing this movie, however, I kind of wish I had. It's very self-referential and plays on story beats from the previous films (at least the first two) in a way that will surely work best for those familiar with those movies. With pretty poor word-of-mouth, and some incredibly questionable marketing choices, I went into my showing of Terminator: Genisys with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Friday, July 10, 2015


With Jurassic World and Furious 7 already tearing up the box office, it's crazy to think that Universal Studios still has its Despicable Me cash cow to bank on this summer with this weekend's release of Minions. For years now, the high water mark of animated sidekicks has been the little yellow... whatever they are... and they were always a diverting highlight of both Despicable Me films. Given the clever premise that was laid out in the trailers, I went into this screening with a certain amount of optimism. Sure, this wasn't going to reach the highs of Pixar's latest and greatest, Inside Out, but I was hoping it would at least reach the bar set by the previous films in this series.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Inside Out

It's a great time to go to the movies! This is yet another film I've had my eye on for a while (as evidenced by its inclusion on my list of most anticipated films of the year), but like Tomorrowland it had a great deal of secrecy about it. Not much was known about Inside Out except the fact that it was exploring the mind of a little girl. It sounded kind of like Pixar taking on Inception, which I was definitely intrigued by. Then as the trailers came out, I started to see where they were going with the story, and it was clear to me then that this was going to be a return to form for Pixar in a way we haven't seen since 2009's Up. Or at least, that's what I was hoping for going into the theater. Perhaps I had too high of expectations, but given its brilliant premise, I felt fairly confident that Inside Out was going to deliver.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jurassic World

Wow! What a surprise this movie was! Even after seeing all of the Jurassic Park series for my FlashBack Friday reviews, I couldn't be more excited for a return to Isla Nublar. There's a reason this was so high on my list of most anticipated films for 2015. It's been a long time since Jurassic Park III was in theaters; so long that I'm now twice the age I was at the time of its release back in 2001. Coming off of two sub-par sequels, this franchise was primed for a nostalgia-heavy reboot with updated visual effects. While that sounds like an adequate placeholder in order to cash-in on the popularity of the property, I am so grateful that Jurassic World offers so much more to an audience hungry for another thrilling adventure like the first film gave us over twenty years ago. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Jurassic Park III

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday as I continue my review series of the Jurassic Park films! After an extremely disappointing entry last week, I was not entirely hopeful for this third entry in the saga. Spielberg had left the project, and the general consensus regarding Jurassic Park III was not a positive one. Having been 4 years since the previous film in the series was released in theaters, I couldn't have been more ready to go back to the island of dinosaurs in 2001, and remember being extremely excited about seeing not only Sam Neill as Dr. Grant again, but finally seeing the Pteranodon depicted as a major foe for the first time in the series. Even at the time, however, I knew that there was something a little off about this movie in comparison to its Spielberg-directed counterparts. Still, this is probably the Jurassic Park movie I watched the most as a teenager, and I went into this review really hoping for it to surpass my middling memory of its quality. As always with my FlashBack Friday reviews, beware of SPOILERS from this point on!

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Welcome once again to FlashBack Friday! Today I'm reviewing The Lost World, the next film in the popular dinosaur series. After the amazing experience of the first movie, the world couldn't wait to see those fantastic creatures on the big screen again, including the director. Steven Spielberg was always interested in returning to this world, and was finally able to convince Michael Crichton to complete a sequel to his best-selling novel, Jurassic Park. Of course, if you've read that book you know there are few similarities between the screen and the page... but more on that later. Back in 1997 I was ten years old, and was granted permission by my parents to see this movie when it came out in theaters. I couldn't wait for the day my family took us to see it. I even wrote about my excitement to see The Lost World in my journal, and remember being pretty satisfied with what I saw at the time. Since then, however, it's kind of fallen out of favor with the general public, and I think I only saw this movie once or twice since my theatrical experience. As a result of my relative unfamiliarity with this film, I was probably more interested in returning to this one than any other in the series. Beware of SPOILERS beyond this point...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


If you've been following my posts since the end of last year, you'll probably be pretty surprised by my star rating for Tomorrowland, considering that it was featured on my ten most anticipated films of the year. In that brief entry, I surmised that based on the talent involved and the amount of information on the story we were given (or lack thereof), it could either be a massive success or a major disappointment. Honestly, we went into our showing with pretty moderate expectations, but hoping that the lackluster critical reception would prove unwarranted once we'd had a chance to see it for ourselves. I had a lot of faith in director Brad Bird, who was responsible for some of the best animated films ever made (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and The Iron Giant) as well as 2011's surprise hit, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol. He was even courted for the job of directing this year's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which he turned down due to the already daunting workload of Tomorrowland. After seeing this film, however, I'm actually relieved he decided to let J.J. Abrams take over my most beloved franchise.

Tomorrowland begins with a flash-back, told intermittently by Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) tells of the connection each of our protagonists have with the titular futuristic city. As a child, Frank was an aspiring inventor when the World's Fair came to New York in 1964, and with the help of his new friend, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), he is able to prove that his jet-pack does indeed work. Then from Casey's perspective, we hear how her father is being laid off as the NASA launch site in Cape Canaveral where he works is being decommissioned. She sneaks onto the site every evening and disables the machines that are supposed to be dismantling the launch pad. However, she eventually gets caught in the act and is arrested for a day until her disappointed father posts her bail. Along with her personal effects, Casey is surprised to see a mysterious pin that magically transports her to Tomorrowland, a utopian city where peace and creativity abound. The promise of a home in this fantastic place is enough to capture Casey's undying interest in returning there at any cost. But after a few near-death encounters with humanoid robots (yes, you read that right), Casey is eventually united with a middle-aged and gruff hermit, Frank. At first he is anything but cooperative with her plan to return to Tomorrowland, until Casey's presence seems to cause his calculations of earth's certain doom to flicker, implying that with her help, our planet may have hope of survival after all...

That description might make this movie sound kind of interesting, and I would have to agree. This plot summary was more or less what I was expecting based on what I saw in the trailer, and I thought it was an intriguing set-up to a much larger story. Unfortunately, this set-up takes over an hour to accomplish, with bizarre and unnecessary diversions and elaborations that do nothing but extend the running length of this film. There are very few surprises in the first half of this movie (or really, throughout the entire movie), and the few moments of excitement we do get are numbed by the whiplash-inducing manner in which they're introduced. While it may be an easy target, given the amount of flack he's taken since his controversial series finale of TV's Lost, I'm going to blame most of the flaws I'm about to discuss on the screenplay by Damon Lindelof. While I kind of enjoyed Prometheus for what it was and tolerated parts of Cowboys & Aliens, I really haven't enjoyed much of Lindelof's work since he finished Lost. Of course, I did really enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness, though what I liked about it can probably be attributed more to J.J. Abrams than him.

Never is the writing more cringe-worthy than during the dialogue scenes, of which there are WAY too many! I don't know about you, but I've never heard an eight year-old boy speak to his sixteen year-old sister like a couple of grizzled adults sharing their distaste for the current woes of society. On a side note, why the heck is an eight year-old boy sharing a room with his sixteen year-old sister...? That house looks pretty big... but I digress. The point is, all of the characters seem to speak with the same voice, which is not only unrealistic, but incredibly monotonous for a movie audience. We want to see different types of people play off of each other, debate, quip, etc. Even Clooney plays a one-note sidekick that I never really warmed up to. As an audience, we want to see fun interactions with likeable people, not the cardboard cut-outs we're getting here. We never get to enjoy the characters or the story or even the location, however, as all Lindelof seems to care about is that his theme is driven home over, and over, and over, and over...

That brings me to what was perhaps the most annoying thing about Tomorrowland.  This isn't a story about getting to a magical place where some fantastic adventure is going to happen. On the contrary, we spend about twenty minutes (maybe thirty, if you include flash-back scenes) in the location after which this movie was named. Despite being a PG movie, it's actually pretty violent and almost entirely devoid of fun, adventure, and humor; opting instead for nauseatingly repetitive preaching about how humans are bringing the apocalypse upon themselves. I went into this movie hoping for a fun escape with perhaps a few clever injections of social commentary that would demonstrate the theme they're attempting to get across. Instead, they prefer to just shove their political message down your throat, which always takes me right out of the movie, even if I do agree with the message. Why did they have to make everything so thuddingly obvious? Are they hoping to convert a bunch of kids to their point of view by making sure no part of their agenda goes unnoticed? Regardless of their intention, the result was a clunky, uninteresting message-movie that even felt like propaganda at times.

Anyway, I could go on forever about how much I hate it when screenwriters hijack a Hollywood film to push their political agenda (see my review of Snitch for more ranting about that), but instead let's focus on the actual movie we're given. Overall, there are a lot of aspects that actually work here. For example, I quite enjoyed the score by Michael Giacchino (Super 8, The Incredibles, Star Trek, etc.), and only wish it could have been paired with a more worthy film. It has that same childlike wonder that he brought to Super 8, and parts of it feel like it could be playing at Disneyland and no one would be any the wiser. The visuals are also quite well done, with the imagination of a futuristic city on full display whenever we're there. It's got an interesting blend of old-school depictions of advanced technology with a modern gloss that ends up working pretty well.

It's difficult to judge the actors' performances, given the crappy dialogue they were given to work with, but I feel like they all pretty much came to play. Britt Robertson showed her ability to carry a film, despite how underwritten her character actually was. It can be hard to separate her from past performances (like this scene from Dan in Real Life, for example), but I found myself liking her character for the most part. I've already complained a little bit about Clooney's unlikability (at least when his character is first introduced), but perhaps the weirdest part of this film is his unrequited love with an android named Athena, played by 12 year-old Raffey Cassidy. She does a fine job in the film, and despite her youth, she may deliver the best performance in the film... but it's definitely weird to see a 53 year-old Clooney cradling a little girl and more-or-less declaring his love for her. Obviously it's not meant to be taken as creepy as it can come across, but they probably should have never taken the script there in the first place.

In conclusion, Tomorrowland is one of the most disappointing films for me in recent memory, primarily because of the level of talent involved. I trusted pretty much everyone in this cast and crew, yet they gave us something completely unsatisfying and even boring at times. Brad Bird is better than that, and given the amount of money Disney invested in this movie, I thought for sure they'd know better than to try to give us something this unentertaining. There were moments when I actually considered just getting up and leaving the theater rather than continue to sit through it, which hardly ever happens. The first real misfire of the 2015 movie year (that I've seen so far, anyway), Tomorrowland gets a regretful two stars.

TOMORROWLAND is rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language

** What did you think of Tomorrowland? Were you pleasantly surprised or did you waste your money? Let me know in the comments, and don't forget to like my Facebook page! **

Friday, May 22, 2015

Jurassic Park

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday! There haven't been a ton of theatrical releases I've wanted to cover lately (despite being the beginning of summer movie season), so I thought I'd revisit an old favorite in anticipation for this summer's Jurassic World. To give a little background about my history with this series, I saw each of them as soon as I possibly could and enjoyed all of them to some degree. For Jurassic Park, that meant I had to wait until it came out on VHS so that my parents could cover my six year-old eyes whenever there was something a little too scary or violent happening on screen. I remember getting Jurassic Park merchandise and counting down the days until I could see the movie for myself. Needless to say, I absolutely LOVED this film even at my young age, and re-watched that tape until I had almost every line of dialogue memorized. I'll get into my thoughts on the sequels over the next couple of weeks, but surprisingly over the last six or seven years I probably only saw this movie once. I didn't own the DVD or Blu Ray at that time, so it wasn't really convenient to view it even if I wanted to (which I'm sure I did at some point). Thankfully, a couple of years back Universal Studios had the brilliant idea to re-release Jurassic Park in 3D, which I just couldn't resist, despite my general dislike for the gimmicky format. Throughout this review I'll share some of my thoughts from that viewing as well, but I was still pretty excited about watching this again at home (having finally bought the Blu Ray set). Everyone knows this movie by now, so beware of SPOILERS from this point forward if you somehow haven't seen Jurassic Park.

Dr. Alan Grant is a world-renowned paleontologist, working in Montana and digging up dinosaur bones with his partner, paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler. After a tragic accident mars the outlook of several key investors, billionaire John Hammond recruits the two scientists to sign off on a new amusement park he's been secretly developing on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. Grant and Sattler are hesitant until Hammond offers to fully fund their dig for the next three years. They are joined on the island with mathematician and chaos theorist, Ian Malcolm, as well as a sniveling lawyer named Donald Gennaro. After an awe-inspiring encounter with a resurrected Brachiosaurus, Hammond takes the group back to the visitor's center to explain how this miracle has been accomplished. Using fossilized mosquitoes extracted from Amber, the genetic engineers reconstructed the prehistoric animals' DNA strands (with an assist from present day amphibians to complete the code) while making them all female to ensure population control. Though undoubtedly revolutionary, their methods have raised some red flags to the group of visiting scientists, who see this flippant use of genetic technology as a crime against nature. This reluctance is later validated when a disgruntled IT worker disables the security systems in certain areas of the park in an effort to extract frozen embryos and sell them to a competing company. A Tyrannosaurus Rex is therefore able to escape from his paddock and kills Gennaro while pushing the others off a cliff. While Malcolm is later rescued by Dr. Sattler, Dr. Grant along with Hammond's two grandchildren must navigate their way back to the visitor's center across the unsecured landscape. After taking a calculated risk that involves shutting off all power to the park, the Velociraptors have also escaped from them holding pen and are terrorizing the survivors in the visitor's center. Thankfully, the T-Rex appears at the last moment to save the day, killing the murderous bipeds before they can make a meal out of our protagonists. The movie ends as the scientists agree not to endorse the park as they fly off into the sunset.

That's pretty much the entire plot of the film, so if you haven't seen it then I apologize... it must suck to have never seen this awesome movie. So many memories rushed back from the instant the Universal logo came on the screen with jungle animal noises in the background to set the mood. I'm sure I said this in my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Spielberg has an uncanny knack for immersing an audience into a story instantly and almost effortlessly. During the initial raptor attack that sets our story in motion, we don't get to see the terrifying creature responsible for the carnage, but for a fleeting glimpse of its menacing eye through a slit in its cage. What really frightens the viewer isn't what it looks like, but rather the sounds it makes. The sound design of this movie was incredible, and definitely worthy of the Oscars it was awarded back in 1994. Using a combination of a variety of animals (dolphins, geese, walruses, etc.) they've created one of the most spine-tingling noises in all of movie history. This won't be the last time I bring up the sound design, but this creepy opening does a terrific job of setting the tone for the rest of the film.

Then we're introduced to our main characters. As a kid I was a big fan of Alan Grant, and I totally understand why. The guy is kind of a gruff, Indiana Jones-ish dinosaur expert (though not nearly the action hero Indy is) who always seems to know what to do in any given situation. We find out a few things about his character up front - he doesn't like kids, he's in a serious relationship with his partner, Ellie Sattler, and he has a slightly fearful respect for the long extinct creature they have just unearthed (the Velociraptor itself). What I love about this cast is that none of them were household names at the time of Jurassic Park's release. That allowed them all to completely disappear in their roles, and the naturalistic manner in which they deliver lines (particularly the fantastic Jeff Goldblum) makes it hard to believe that they aren't improvising them on the spot. I've seen some criticism for the characters being a little flat in this movie, which I can't necessarily deny. We do get some character motivations for each of them, and moments where each person is important. However, apart from Dr. Grant and John Hammond, none of the characters are really that well explored. If the movie weren't as entertaining as it is, this might be a bigger problem for me. As it is, though, I don't really notice the lack of character development until long after the experience of seeing dinosaurs brought back to life is over.

As we journey to the park, the music composed by Steven Spielberg's almost constant collaborator, John Williams, really takes center stage as we see some beautiful landscapes of Isla Nublar (or Hawaii, which I believe is where this was shot). His sweeping theme begins as the island first comes into view and really hits its stride when the Brachiosaurus fills up the screen. It's an instantly memorable piece of music that is probably one of Williams's best, in my opinion. Not only is the thematic music great, but Williams also does some of his scariest music since Jaws whenever the raptors are involved in a scene. Still, seeing this scene on a big screen back in 2013 (I did not mean for that to rhyme as much as it did) was awe-inspiring to the point that I may have actually shed a tear. Sam Neill and Laura Dern sell this scene so well that I actually believe that these scientists are seeing the personification of their life's work before their eyes, and it's beautifully done. It's easily the most inspiring scene of the film and one of the most memorable moments in movie history.

Then the movie pumps on the breaks as we get a classroom-style exposition scene where "Mr. DNA" delivers the best pronunciation of the word "dinosaur" I've ever heard. While this is an informative scene, it may be a little distracting in retrospect. Regardless, it's over pretty quick and the movie transitions into the most intellectually stimulating conversation of the film. Ian Malcolm, though perhaps not the most reliable source for ethical boundaries, calls out the geneticists at InGen for their questionable experiments, even equating it to the "rape of the natural world." It's a pretty fascinating debate, exploring the nature of mankind's reach exceeding his grasp and the moral dilemma that comes with scientific advancement. In fact, this scene is so electric for me that it's a little disappointing that we never get this level of sophistication again. There are so many exciting, edge-of-your-seat moments in this film that I wouldn't have minded a few more intellectual debates between the differing viewpoints of our scientists.

Having said that, nothing compares with the AWESOME scene we're about to get when Dennis Nedry shuts off the electric fence containing the park's most formidable attraction, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Every moment of this scene is utterly iconic, from the rumbling footsteps causing ripples in the water cups on the dashboard, to the gradual reveal of the T-Rex swallowing a goat whole after its dismembered leg crashes to the glass roof of the tour vehicle below. It was incredibly ballsy of Spielberg to play this entire scene without music, but I can't imagine it any other way. The tension is palpable as the T-Rex bites through its wire cage and slowly bears down on the helpless humans before it. It even has a scene that my parents wouldn't let me watch as a child, where the T-Rex bites into a toilet-sitting Gennaro and thrashes the lawyer back and forth like a rag doll. But going back to my deconstruction of the sound-effects, I remember my seat rumbling from the sheer force of the T-Rex's roar, which was unlike anything I'd ever heard. They accomplished this iconic sound by combining a baby elephant, a tiger, and a crocodile, which produced perhaps the most unsettling monster roar in movie history. I really can't give enough praise to these sound designers for their fantastic work.

One thing that has become a bit of a problem for me, however, is the logic and continuity of each scene. There are times when car doors become open and closed between shots, only to have Timmy attract the T-Rex's attention by closing it again in the next shot. The geography of the scene is also confusing, as there appears to be a massive cliff where no such drop existed when the T-Rex emerged minutes before. These types of continuity errors are probably only going to bother you if you've seen this movie a hundred times like I have, but I do wish Spielberg had tightened it up just a little bit. Later on, a T-Rex is going to magically appear in the visitor's center without any explanation as to how it got in there. Still, the sight of the creature roaring in the lobby with the sign "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" floating to the floor is so cool that I wouldn't want to risk losing it by changing the scene. This movie is certainly good enough to forgive a few flaws here and there. Just try not to look for them and you probably won't even notice.

A lot happens in the film's ending, but it happens so fast that it wouldn't be worth walking through it one scene at a time. There are several lines that I love to quote as often as possible, such as "clever girl..." and "hold onto your butts!" Some other highlights include the excruciatingly tense kitchen scene where the raptors are weaving through the isles, closing in on the two terrified kids. The fact that the raptors figured out how to open doors was so simple yet incredibly scary, and its struggle to break into the computer lab with Dr. Grant pushing on the other side is pretty gripping... except when you realize that Timmy is just standing there watching his sister work the 90's era computer instead of, I don't know, making himself useful to the life or death situation they're in! Ellie can't get the gun because she's pushing (rather ineffectively, I might add) on the door with Dr. Grant, and Timmy could easily pick it up and hand it to them. It's a little infuriating, but the subsequent scene where the raptor shows off its leaping ability by nearly biting off Lex's leg is so cool I can forgive that plot hiccup.

The movie ends a little abruptly for my taste, but I definitely didn't need a protracted 15 minute diversion to finish the story off like the next film is going to give us. Ultimately, despite the little flaws I can find here and there, Jurassic Park is one of Spielberg's best films and has so many iconic moments that I can't imagine anybody not liking it. It may not be as intellectual as I would have liked, but if you want more of that then I suggest picking up Michael Crichton's novel, which is excellent though quite different from the film adaptation. This movie is as much a part of my childhood as any Indiana Jones film, and I'm sure I can attribute much of my childhood love of dinosaurs to this movie's incredible depiction of them. I have a feeling this level of quality won't be matched in any of the subsequent films (though I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Jurassic World), but I am sparing no expense on this film with my rating. Four stars!

JURASSIC PARK is rated PG-13 for intense science fiction terror

** What did you think of Jurassic Park? Have you revisited it lately? Let me know in the comments and don't forget to like my Facebook page! **

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

It's finally here! I've been waiting for this movie ever since the first trailer debuted about seven months ago... okay, actually I've been waiting for this movie ever since 2012's The Avengers ended. After three years of build-up and solo films to heighten our expectations, it's hard to imagine any film living up to so much hype. If you've read my top ten most anticipated films of the year, you'll see only one film higher on the list than Avengers: Age of Ultron, so suffice it to say that my own expectations were incredibly high. I even sat for a good 10+ hours with some great friends of ours watching all of the Phase 2 movies leading up to it, which was both helpful and potentially detrimental to my initial viewing experience. I'll get into more of that later, but first let me get into a spoiler-free summary of the plot.

After the events of the Chitauri invasion of New York (not to mention the stand-alone movies in-between), the Avengers are well-known and feared by all who are associated with Hydra. Baron von Strucker, one of the last Hydra leaders, is hiding out in the fictitious European nation of Sokovia while attempting to create "miracles" out of two local volunteers - Pietro (aka "Quicksilver", who has super-speed) and Wanda Maximoff (aka "Scarlet Witch", who can project energy and cause mental interference). The Baron has been using the cosmic staff wielded by Loki during the Chirauri invasion to create these super-powered beings, and the Avengers are there to reclaim the relic. However, the operation isn't without its hiccups, and Tony Stark is subjected to a horrific vision, courtesy of the Scarlet Witch, in which he is to blame for the deaths of all mankind. With this fear firmly in place and using the newly discovered properties of the staff, Stark wishes to fulfill his ultimate goal of creating an artificial intelligence to serve as a global protector... a project known as "Ultron".

This film kicks off with one of the best action scenes in the MCU, involving every one of the Avengers in battle before a line of dialogue is spoken. It's a stark difference from the slow build of the first Avengers film, where half of the movie's run time was devoted to assembling the team that would eventually thwart the alien invasion. Here, the film wastes no time in getting us re-acclimated with our heroes as each one gets a stand-out moment during their assault on Hydra's last remaining fortress. Just like in the first film, there is no shortage of jokes in Age of Ultron, but with an added dose of darkness to the proceedings it feels slightly less skewed for humor than last time.

Tension runs high throughout this movie, and my first watching was spent in fear for every Avenger's life. That fear is never greater than when Ultron first makes his appearance in a great scene that was heavily featured in the trailers. He starts out as a broken-down, slightly confused, and delicately homicidal pragmatist, spouting off poetic philosophies on the numerous failings of the super-team he seeks to destroy. James Spader is hypnotic as the voice of Ultron, and the motion capture performance also adds a bit of flavor that would surely be lost without his unique touch. A funhouse mirror-image of his maker, Tony Stark, Ultron seeks the same aims as the playboy billionaire... just from a different approach. His humor seems adopted from Downey's playbook as well, with sarcastic remarks about revealing his entire plan to the team rather than putting the plan in action. He's an oddly sympathetic character as well, possessing a strange loneliness that became somewhat poignant to me following the film's climax.

If there's one thing this film had in excess, it was characters. With an already bursting supply of talent from the first Avengers movie, there were moments that felt a bit bloated with returning cast members from previous Marvel movies. Don't get me wrong, I loved seeing some familiar faces again, but they didn't really serve a purpose in this story. To get all of my complaints about the film out of the way now, I also have to say that the score by Brian Tyler was completely unmemorable and would have been utterly bland were it not for Danny Elfman swooping in to save the day. Thanks to his last minute rewrites, we got back the iconic Avengers theme from the first movie that I've really grown to love, and which were the best parts of the score for Age of Ultron as well. Then again, I tend to think of Brian Tyler as a hack in general, and really didn't like his generic scores for Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World (the funeral scene notwithstanding).

There is so much going on in this film that I felt I had to see it twice last weekend to absorb as much as I could, but there's still probably more to pick up from it. As such, I won't be able to talk about all the things I really liked (Robert Downey, Jr.'s awesome performance, the introduction of Scarlett Witch, Vision being so freaking cool!), but suffice it to say that everyone who's even remotely interested in these Marvel movies NEEDS to see Avengers: Age of Ultron! It's one of the most fun experiences I've had in a movie theater in years, and it's easily one of the top 3 best movies of the MCU. I don't understand the Rotten Tomatoes score being so low (75%? Seriously?), but I give this movie a very solid four stars. I don't know how Marvel is going to top themselves after this, but I can't wait to find out!

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments

Friday, April 17, 2015

Iron Man 2

It's FlashBack Friday again guys! I know everyone is going crazy for the new Star Wars and Batman v. Superman trailers (admittedly, I had a hard time sitting down to watch this movie, I was so excited), but I hope you can spare a few moments to read my thoughts on Marvel's safe bet move after The Incredible Hulk disappointed at the box office... Iron Man 2! This one I not only saw in theaters, but my wife and I made an event of it, wearing Iron Man shirts and watching it in IMAX during its opening weekend. It was a tremendously fun experience, and at the time I thought it was even better than the first Iron Man. Well, time has offered me some perspective, and while I think there are some things this film does incredibly well, I have to say that I was much cooler on this sequel five years removed than I was after the much-hyped theatrical release.

It's been six months since Tony Stark proclaimed to the world, "I am Iron Man," and his subsequent work has apparently brought about a relative world peace. However, the senate isn't too thrilled with one man having so much power, and they move to bring the Iron Man suit under the control of the U.S. government. Tony doesn't have much time or energy to devote to their claims, as he has a much bigger problem to deal with - his imminent death. The mineral powering his suit is also poisoning his blood, raising his toxicity level every day. With his mortality very much on his mind, Stark makes a reckless decision to race in a Grand Prix event in Monaco, where an angry Russian ghost from the Stark family's past has come to seek justice on Tony in front of the entire world.

Let me just say, this first section of the movie is done to near perfection. Ivan Vanko's introduction mirror's Tony's from the first movie, constructing an arc reactor in a bare-bones facility and using it to make something extraordinary. The character of Whiplash doesn't have much to him, but Mickey Rourke's intimidating screen presence alone makes this villain appear more formidable than what the screenplay earns on its own. I'm not sure I ever really thought that Tony was in any real danger with his palladium core problem, but once Whiplash shows up on the race track I found myself seriously concerned for Stark's safety. That scene is probably one of the coolest in any comic book movie, and it's a shame that nothing else in this film can really stand up to it. Vanko whipping race cars in half and calmly striding away as the vehicles collide in fiery explosions is really exhilarating, and it's capped off by one of the coolest Iron Man suit-up scenes we're ever going to get! It's a pretty quick fight, but it's the pinnacle of what this movie has to offer.

But the villain of Iron Man 2 isn't just Whiplash, it's also Stark's main business rival, Justin Hammer. I absolutely love Sam Rockwell in pretty much everything (see my review of Moon) and he puts in a performance almost as good as Robert Downey, Jr. in this movie. His awkward attempts to top Tony Stark and his hilarious train of thought ad-libs crack me up every time, and I kind of wish he came back in Iron Man 3. Then again, the last thing that movie needed was another person telling jokes... but I digress.

Surprisingly, Tony's storyline is perhaps the most boring in this entire movie. Starting with his drunken shenanigans at his birthday party and lasting until he confronted Justin Hammer at the Stark Expo, I was hopelessly falling in and out of consciousness. I eventually lost this battle and actually slept through the entire scene of Stark discovering his new element and creating another arc reactor that wouldn't poison his blood. It was kind of a lame way to resolve his mortality sub-plot, particularly given the amount of screen time it was given up to that point. I cared more about his interplay with Pepper than I ever did about his blood toxicity level, and the scenes with Nick Fury and Agent Coulson are so forced I honestly think my selective watching (aka, sleeping through those parts) actually improved the film.

There are still a lot of other things to like here, such as the tragically under-used action scenes. The fight between Iron Man, War Machine and the Hammer drones inside that dome was probably the coolest battle we'd seen in an Iron Man film up to that point, but it only lasts about a minute before Tony's magic laser cuts the rest of them in half. I would have liked to have seen more gritty take-downs like War Machine cutting a drone apart with his wrist guns as oil sprays onto his scowling face like a blood splatter. Instead, they want to abbreviate the second-coolest action scene in the movie by bringing in a supposedly upgraded Whiplash to take on the two friends. This could have been such a cool fight, but instead the technologically advanced Iron Man tries to engage Whiplash in a boxing match, and after a few minutes he and Rhodey casually shoot their palm-repulsors at each other to dismantle Vanko's whips. It was just a lame way to end what should have been an epic throwdown.

All in all, it was a pretty good follow up to the 2008 blockbuster, but Iron Man 2 has a lot of untapped potential. It's obvious that Marvel was concerned by The Incredible Hulk's lackluster profits and wanted to reinvigorate everyone's enthusiasm for the team-up this entire franchise has been building towards. Though this wasn't the best in the series, it was a marked improvement over Hulk, and gave them enough financial returns to move forward with the other two stand-alone films before Avengers: namely Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. I still enjoy this film, even with all of its weaknesses, and I give it a pretty solid three stars.

Well, that's it for my FlashBack Friday series leading up to Avengers: Age of Ultron! If you want to see the other films I've reviewed beyond this point, click here! I have to warn you, though, some of these reviews are pretty rough. By going through those reviews from Thor all the way to Guardians of the Galaxy, you'll see how my review format has evolved... and by that I mean lengthened. Hopefully you'll find something there to enjoy. Anyway, thanks for reading, and let me know what you thought of Iron Man 2 in the comments below!

IRON MAN 2 is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Incredible Hulk

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday!... Except, it's on a Wednesday! While this is coming a couple of days early to leave room for other reviews to come, it's also oddly fitting for The Incredible Hulk. One of the few films by Marvel that didn't spawn a sequel, the 2008 follow-up to the wildly successful Iron Man is kind of a pariah on the otherwise sterling resume of the MCU. Just like with Iron Man, I didn't see this film in theatres, and had a slightly sour taste in my mouth from the last theatrical appearance of the green rage monster in 2003's Hulk. I was a little apprehensive coming into my first viewing of this film, but I was pleased to see that it was a complete 180 from the cerebral, artistic snooze-fest that was the previous Hulk film. I've seen this film several times since then, and my opinion of it has evolved as the identity of the MCU has solidified over the course of its Avengers journey.

One of the best things about this film is it's economical telling of the Hulk's origin, compressing it into the 3 minute opening credits sequence without any dialogue at all. After such a short period between Hulk films, it helps to have a bit of a buffer to re-acclimate audiences with the new direction this film is going to take. It's a very kinetic opening, with impressive visual effects and fast-paced music to keep our attention hooked. In fact, it may be the best part of the entire movie, which is both a bit of a criticism of what's to come as well as praise for what this opening does right.

We're immediately introduced to the new Bruce Banner after that, who is living in Brazil and learning martial arts as a preventative measure against his inner hulk. Through breathing exercises and meditation, he's been able to go 158 days without incident, which helps keep him off the grid for the time being. He's found a relatively peaceful life working in a bottling factory while researching different ways of eliminating his hulkism. If you've ever seen the 1970's TV show of the same name, there are going to be a TON of call-backs and homages to that series that you will probably enjoy. I noticed a few times when they literally played entire pieces of music from that series at certain points, and the set up is exactly what you would see on that show: Bruce (or David in the show) has moved to a new place and is trying to find a cure, but becomes entangled with a local problem that eventually leads to the Hulk resurfacing. It's not a bad way to start things off, and Edward Norton does a pretty good job of portraying the loner with a destructive secret he's trying to hide.

But after a workplace injury where some of Bruce's blood drips into one of the bottles (leading to Stan Lee's death by gamma poisoning), General Ross is able to trace Bruce's hideout and takes an elite team of black-ops agents to bring in the scientist. What happens next is actually a really exciting chase scene, recalling some of the best foot-chases from the Borne series. He eventually seeks refuge in the factory, but is pursued not only by Ross, but also by a group of bullying coworkers who want to... I don't know, beat him up for some reason...? This plan doesn't go well for them, however, as Bruce eventually hulks out and tears the place apart.

This leads to one of my biggest complaints about this film... Hulk looks really REALLY bad after seeing how great he can look in The Avengers. It may sound nit-picky, but his muscle-definition is way too extreme, his proportions are too cartoonish, and his hair is really annoying to me for some reason. It doesn't look anything like Edward Norton, and even when they make a point of showing Bruce Banner getting a haircut it has no effect on what the Hulk looks like. Plus, they keep trying to make his eyes green for some reason, which separates the character even further from reality (not that a giant green monster will ever look "real", but The Avengers pulled it off). Overall, the CGI of this movie is a pretty big step down from Iron Man, but most of that is just the effects of age. Had visual effects technology not taken such a big leap since 2008, it probably wouldn't be so glaringly apparent.

Other than that, I kind of liked the character journey for Banner as he reunites with his former love, Betty Ross (played by Liv Tyler). Their chemistry is a little flat for me, but there are still scenes that work. I buy the moments of Bruce not being able to get aroused without hulking out, and I bought into Betty's character the most during the cave scene where she has nothing to play against besides a CGI creature three times her size. Liv Tyler is a very attractive woman, and when she shows more emotion I think she's great in this movie. Unfortunately, most of her scenes are played without much feeling, and I fault the direction more than her performance. She's been great in other things, whereas the director has gone on to direct such classics as 2010's Clash of the Titans, and Now You See Me.

Having said that, the love story isn't what makes this movie enjoyable. The Hulk finally gets to have some battles here, and his fights with the military and especially with Abomination are pretty adrenalizing. This may be the first time that we see Hulk as a force of nature that cannot be controlled, and it's the only time we really see a "real fight" for Hulk as he takes on the incredibly ugly Abomination. Everyone loves the police car boxing glove scene, and I do too, but I have to say that this entire climax was much more exciting the first few times I watched it. It's sort of bitter-sweet that Marvel did so well with the character in The Avengers, because now I can't really enjoy these action scenes without the technical deficiencies calling themselves out. Still, it's pretty entertaining to watch, and Hulk finally getting the upper hand on Abomination by choking him out with a chain is pretty impressive to this day.

Overall, this set up a lot of characters that are never going to pay off (General Ross, Betty Ross, Dr. Samuel Sterns, Dr. Leonard Sampson, etc.), and it's ultimately the one that doesn't matter in the Marvel cannon. Even though fans were a bit more appreciative of it overall, The Incredible Hulk disappointed at the box-office, and were it not for one of the later Marvel films, I would call this the weakest of the MCU. That's more indicative of the quality of these Marvel movies than it is an indictment on Hulk, but I have a hard time getting excited about this movie since it appears to matter so little in the grand scheme of things. Suffice it to say that Marvel eventually figured out Hulk, and white it's great for the universe as a whole, it's to the ultimate detriment of this film. Still, I'm going to give The Incredible Hulk a slightly generous three stars.

There's still one more Phase 1 Marvel film that I haven't reviewed yet, and it will be coming out on Friday. Based on the epic showdown that we're promised in the trailers for Avengers: Age of Ultron, I figured it would be fitting to review the Hulk and Iron Man films in preparation, and I think a lot of people may be surprised by my review of Iron Man 2 this weekend. Anyway, thanks for reading and let me know what you thought of this movie (or any of my reviews) in the comments below!

THE INCREDIBLE HULK is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images, and brief suggestive content