2 Stars Movies

Toys shoot to kill in G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Jon M. Chu’s 2013 toy-based sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation is inappropriately cruel for a movie based on children’s toys/cartoons/comics, in which nobody ever really got hurt. The gun fetishism is unsurprising, but it is surprising that its heroes and villains both shoot to kill. There’s a spectacular amount of onscreen death: first half the cast, then an entire city.

It’s also a mess structurally — particularly all the ninja business, which seems crudely spliced in from a different movie. But it does have its pleasures:

  • The pure action poetry of the mountainside monastery fight sequence.
  • Jonathan Pryce clearly enjoying himself. You know he positively leapt at the chance to play an evil master of disguise impersonating the US President. But today, the assumed reverence for the Commander in Chief now seems like it’s from another century.
  • Lee Byung-hun’s torso. My goodness.
  • Campy Cobra Commander strutting in slow motion never stops being funny.
  • A handful of actually amusing one-liners, so props to whomever punched up the script — wish you could have fixed more.
2 Stars TV

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome fracks it up

“You get an E for effort and an F for fracking it up.”

That just about sums it up. I was a big fan of the mid-2000s Battlestar Galactica reboot and its sister series Caprica, but had somehow overlooked this pilot for a second prequel spinoff. Belatedly seeing it now, the plot seems too slight and insubstantial to possibly set the stage for an ongoing series.

Not only were BSG and Caprica thematically complex (grappling with war, terror, fanaticism, politics, ethics, artificial intelligence, etc.), it was also blessed with a knockout cast (especially the volcanic Edward James Olmos), but everyone in Blood & Chrome is as flat and affectless as the greenscreen virtual sets and digital lens flare.

Worse, Blood & Chrome is near-devoid of the big ideas that drove Caprica, which was probably too smart for its own good. The pop culture hill I will die on: Caprica was a smarter show than the similarly-themed Westworld will ever be. Discuss.

2 Stars Movies

Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy make an odd couple in The Counselor

Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott were bound to be an odd couple in any case. All the richly composed and poetic dialogue in the world doesn’t disguise the fact The Counselor is basically a grimy, scuzzy, sleazy, feel-bad potboiler.

There is an element of pulp to several of McCarthy’s novels, but here it’s brought to the forefront. As highly regarded as he is as a literary novelist, his subject matter is still mostly comprised of cowboys, bandits, whores, thieves, madmen, and murderers.

This is Ridley Scott in full erotic thriller mode (see Black Rain and Someone to Watch Over Me). He has somewhat tamped down the extremely grainy stylization he used to employ (especially in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down), opting instead for a sun-blazed Miami Vice-like palette. Perhaps McCarthy should pitch his next screenplay to Michael Mann?

Most impressive is the huge all-star cast. Even the smallest roles are populated by familiar faces (watch for Rosie Perez, Dean Norris, and John Leguizamo). I have never been one of those people who dislike Cameron Diaz (her most famous detractor being perhaps Sophia Coppola who lampooned her in Lost in Translation), but here she is perhaps the weakest link.

2 Stars Movies

Riddick makes the most haphazard of movie franchises

When even the humblest movies are planned to allow for multiple sequels if at all financially feasible, the Riddick trilogy (and counting?) must be one of the most haphazard of movie franchises.

I doubt many would have expected any kind of sequel at all to 2000’s Pitch Black, and yet The Chronicles of Riddick appeared four years later to reinvent its surviving character as the hero of a grand sword & sandal epic in outer space. It’s not unlike the later John Carter of Mars, but less wasteful in terms of money spent, and with 100% more hovering Judi Dench.

Even more improbable still, with David Twohy’s Riddick, Vin Diesel is now officially the headliner of a trilogy. Having achieved the holy number of installments, now three movies can be packaged together in budget multi-dvd box sets in time for Black Friday shopping. Or should that be that Pitch Black Friday? Oh, please yourself.

Riddick has more in common with Pitch Black than Chronicles, but one thing they all share is surprisingly good art direction and set design. Chronicles, especially, went far above and beyond the call of duty. I’d argue that it draws more from Dune‘s visual imagination than the typically plundered art direction of Alien or Star Wars. Even Riddick has more believable alien landscapes than the volcano top conclusion to After Earth, which looked like it had been shot on the tiniest soundstage M. Night Shyamalan could book.

Katie Sackoff and Dave Bautista in Riddick
Katie Sackoff and Dave Bautista in Riddick

Riddick‘s plot is admirably simple (man trapped alone on a hostile planet, struggles to simply survive, then gain a foothold to escape), and the first 30 minutes or so are crackerjack. But then additional characters show up and so there has to be… shudder… dialog.

Sadly, everything falls apart at this point — and I mean everything, from the visuals to the script. What started out as an intriguing shipwreck story turned into something conventional and cheap. The bulk of what follows is set inside a single room, and not in a good way (like a good submarine movie, for instance), but in a bad way (like, they ran out of money and ideas).

Riddick is also unfortunately sexist. Battlestar Galactica fan favorite Katee Sackoff gets the coveted only-girl-in-the-movie role, and she dutifully works what her momma gave her. She’s sadly stuck with a retrograde character who exists mostly to concede to Riddick’s brutish flirtations. It’s unclear if her character is actually gay or simply allows her male colleagues to assume she is, but either way, it’s stomach turning when she acquiesces to Riddick’s crude propositions. Her utility exhausted, she simply vanishes from the film.

3 Stars Movies

James Mangold’s The Wolverine is the right kind of “serious”

I was very pleasantly surprised by James Mangold’s The Wolverine. Everybody involved did the right thing by simply pretending that the appallingly awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine was never made.

Marvel Comics continues their (mostly) winning streak, showing everyone how superhero movies should be done. Hopefully soon we will be rid of grimly ultraviolet takes on children’s characters like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and The Man of Steel. The Wolverine is just the right kind of “serious”, in the sense that it focuses on character and not on vengeful violence. I’m tired of gruesome sights like Superman summarily executing General Zod by snapping his neck.

The Wolverine should be commended for having four major female characters, when a typical superhero movie maxes out at one (such as Lois Lane in Man of Steel and Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man). But The Wolverine squanders this achievement by casting women than look like supermodels, and a script that fails The Bechdel Test. All any of the women talk about are Logan and their daddy issues.

High Jackman in The Wolverine

Mangold is a true chameleon, having tackled everything from indie drama (Heavy) to Oscar-bait biopic (Walk the Line). He’s handled action before (Knight and Day, 3:10 to Yuma), but here in his first real summer blockbuster popcorn movie, he exhibits a remarkable stylishness and even a little visual poetry. One scene stages a self-surgery straight out of a Cronenberg film. And when Wolverine races through the streets of a Japanese village to rescue his beloved imprisoned in a tower, swarms of ninjas shoot tethered arrows into his back, in an apparent homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. The sight is startlingly moving, like something out of a violent fairy tale.

It also helps that until the climactic action sequence, not a single character parades around in a spandex costume. By the point that the villains Viper and Silver Samurai show up in full four-color splendor for a big comic book-esque fight sequence, I thought, what the hell, this movie has totally earned it.

1 Star Movies

The dreadful Jack the Giant Slayer is soullessly engineered escapism

Director Bryan Singer‘s Jack the Giant Slayer is almost unbearably dreadful. It continues a recent trend in the fantasy genre: fairy tails used as raw material for soullessly engineered all-ages escapism. See also: Snow White and The Huntsman and Tim Burton’s appalling Alice in Wonderland.

It’s hard to understand how Singer could demonstrate the ability to turn pulpy material into smart movies (a la The Usual Suspects and X-Men), and yet also be so tone deaf to turn out the misconceived Superman Returns, and now this.

Replete with enough gruesome yet bloodless violence to earn a PG-13 rating (thrill to the sight of crushed heads, arrows through tongues, etc., all without the annoying little consequences that go with murder). All of this is absurd, as otherwise the movie is too dumb and simplistic to appeal to anyone over 12.

Worst of all, Jack the Giant Slayer is a pitiful waste of its vastly overqualified cast, including Ian McShane, Ewan McGregor, Stanly Tucci, Bill Nighy, and Eddie Marsan. Unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, whatever charisma these veterans are able to project through the CGI noise only reveals the two leads (Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson) as hopelessly outclassed, generic, bland, and boring.

3 Stars Movies

J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness comes with too much baggage

Long term Star Trek fans may bemoan the fact that the latest films have ejected much of what was previously considered essential ingredients. Gone are the spacey metaphors for what a moral utopian society might look like, not to mention the years of established chronology and backstory.

But to old timer Trekkers I say: too bad. Trek ran itself into the ground years ago as the Voyager and Enterprise series disappeared up their own backsides. It was long past time for Star Trek to undergo shock therapy to adjust to a new era.

But given the mostly clean slate set up by J.J. Abrams’ first film in 2009, I wish Star Trek Into Darkness had struck out for new territories instead of largely retreading the original series episode “Space Seed” and the movie The Wrath of Khan. The return of the titular villain in Khan held a great deal of weight for Trek fans in 1982. A character from the often campy and casual ’60s television series was treated with a degree of seriousness, as Kirk et al were forced to deal with the consequences of actions taken and forgotten years prior.

When we encounter a “new” Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) for the first time in Star Trek Into Darkness, what does it mean to non-fans? Little beyond a possibly faintly familiar name. If the point of rebooting Star Trek was to give it some meaning for modern audiences not versed in Trek lore, even this supposedly fresh Khan comes with too much historical baggage that is poorly explained here. Even as a long time Star Trek fan, I was a little at a loss to understand who exactly he was based on the evidence supplied by exposition.

Star Trek Into Darkness
The Star Trek Into Darkness cast is earthbound.

Any degree of consistency between franchise entries is rare. Star Trek Into Darkness shares a great deal with its predecessor, for good or for ill. The good being that it is handsomely, nay, expertly made. The ill being that its plot barely holds together. Admiral Marcus’ (Peter Weller) diabolical scheme makes little to no sense. As I understood what was shown on screen, he had two separate goals: to speed along a possibly inevitable war with the Klingons, and also to kill a cryogenically frozen army of genetically enhanced supersoldiers left over from World War III. He attempts both schemes at the same time, in the least efficient way possible. I blame Hollywood’s current can-do-no-wrong golden boy Damon Lindelof, who is also rumored to have been responsible for the incomprehensible plot issues with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

Speaking of incomprehensible issues, the title “Star Trek Into Darkness” is just plain nonsense. But I still found it a rollicking good time, as I did with the the original 2009 film, and wish there was less of a long gap between them. Now that J.J. Abrams is preoccupied with a very different “Star —-” franchise, that gap may be even longer, or we may see Trek taken over by another auteur.

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