Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Some More (and very late) Movie Reviews

Summer is a really busy time for me and unfortunately my schedule has had me fall behind on things such as blog posts, especially movie reviews. So here are the last four films I saw in theaters... some have already left theaters.

Warning: Some Spoilers

The Rover (aka Don't Ever Steal Guy Pearce's Car!)

This past week I saw The Rover, without virtually no knowledge of what the film was about save for seeing a commercial and reading a few of those review snippets from Rotten Tomatoes. Just going by the general feel of the movie, I figured it was something I might like, not to mention some positive buzz for the performances of Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.

The Rover is the kind of movie you watch at 2 in the morning. It's like a cross between Mad Max and The Road (another film Pearce was in). It is set in the Australian Outback in a vague post-apocalyptic setting (text at the start of the movie read "10 Years After the Collapse") adding to the Mad Max feel. The resemblance to The Road is that the film chronicles an uncertain journey between Pearce and Pattinson, with the former leading and sometimes protecting the latter.

One of the biggest triumphs of The Rover is it's atmosphere, this unsettling sense of danger and desperation. This feeling is further amplified by the jarring and disturbing musical score, though at times I'm not sure it's music so much as the instrumental equivalent of nails screeching against a chalkboard. 

I think both Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson gave good performances. Pearce channeled his inner Clint Eastwood, often letting his menacing glare deliver his lines for him. We never get a lot of back story for his character, but he pulls off a world-weary man, not necessarily a good one, with little to lose in a world with even less to offer. Pattinson gave what may be the performance of his young career (though I did not see his Cronenberg film). If ever there was a point where he shed away the heart-throb Twilight image, this role does it. Pattinson plays a simpleton with a blurred sense of morality, a by-product of the violent world he lives in. It makes me think he has a great acting future in front of him.

To me, The Rover was an artistic take on the post-apocalyptic b-movie. The plot is simple, the character motivations even simpler. However, what sets this film apart from the various Mad Max rip-offs is the attention to detail; the underlying angsth-filled themes, the atmosphere, the all around feel of a world teetering on the brink.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (aka Monkey Vengeance 2: Hail to the Chimp)

Before I say anything else, I think the title for this movie should have been used for the James Franco predecessor, as "dawn" indicates the beginning and what we saw in this movie is clearly the "rise" of the Planet of the Apes.

This film joins the ranks of 'sequels better than the original.' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (or DPA as I don't want to keep typing that long title out) had much more action and in some ways a more cohesive plot. Strangely, though, while the apes were given more time to develop characters, the humans were given a lot less. Most of the humans had basic plot devices in place of proper origins to save time. As a result, we have a father (Jason Clarke) trying to move on from the death of his wife with a nice new woman (Keri Russel) but his son doesn't like her, but warms up to her amidst the drama of the film.

The one human that seems lost in the shuffle is arguable the best actor in the movie, Gary Oldman. He's not a bad guy, but he has no qualms about doing pretty evil things. He apparently lost his family from the Simian Flu (as we saw from the trailer) but what does that mean? Does he blame the apes and want revenge? Is he trying to hold together the human race because it's all he can do to keep his family's memory alive? Does he lead to give his life purpose as otherwise he would have nothing to lose? It's never revealed, but in the end (SPOILER) the guy who sought survival at all costs was more than willing to sacrifice himself to take out the apes. Oldman's character deserved more development.

What I liked most about DPA is that it examines the ideas of what it means to be human. Some humans try to rise above while others can't help but succumb to their violent nature. Meanwhile, the apes that had thought themselves superior to humans and incapable of their errors discover they too are very human. The special effects were pretty great as well. The CGI combined with the brilliant Andy Serkis made Caesar come to life, right down the slightest expression.

Overall, I enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I am curious to see where the franchise goes from here as with the success of both films, there will surely be a third. I wonder if the story will still follow Caesar or if the franchise will jump ahead to an Earth truly run by apes. Also, some may have forgotten, there was a quiet little subplot in the first movie about a mission to Mars that gets lost. That is surely setting up a similar plot to the classic original Planet of the Apes.


I was initially going to skip this movie until I found out it was written and directed by Luc Besson, the filmmaker that did Taken and Leon, The Professional (a personal favorite). Lucy had the earmarks of your classic Besson thriller with lots of gunfights and a gritty underworld, but it also had a massive science fiction theme going on, something I like to call "exploring the unexplorable."

What I mean by "exploring the unexplorable" is when a science fiction film delves into hardcore weird shit, the kind of thing that we may never be able to understand let alone accomplish. Movies I lump into this theme are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Altered States and to a certain extent Inception and Donnie Darko. Lucy has a really interesting concept and when combined with Besson's penchant for violent stories it makes for a very unique experience.

However, I wonder if that same experience of weird sci-fi and gun violence meshes very well. Inception gave a reasoning for gunfights in the subconscious that for the most part worked, even adding a level of intrigue. (Corporations can place mental defenses into one's mind in case of dream theft? Neat.) In Lucy, the gunplay seems to serve two purposes. The first is to display how amazing Lucy's powers become with each increase in her brain capacity. The second is to give a point of urgency to the plot. (Imagine if in 2001 that Dave is followed into the trippy monolith by a vengeful mafia boss.) It feels off somehow but sort of works at the same time.

The problem is that at some point the gun-fighting is meaningless. It is clear that nothing can stop Lucy once she reaches a certain level (though I must admit that it's pretty satisfying to see ruthless mobsters get taken down by one woman). Near the end there is a huge shoot-out by the Triads and the Parisian police... but it really only serves as a stalling device so that Lucy can try to achieve 100% brain capacity.

Scarlett Johansen gives a good performance, starting the film as a regular, if naive, young woman and practically becoming a robot. Morgan Freeman... I'm not going to say he gives a great performance as it is the same performance that he (almost) always gives... and we always love. (Like a Twinkie... like a Twinkie) Actually, he kind of seems like he was playing a version of himself from hosting Into the Wormhole!

 As Jonny Prophet points out, humans actually do use more than 10% of our brain capacity... something I actually knew. Honestly, I am willing to let the absurd science fiction go (again, exploring the unexplorable) in exchange for an entertaining movie. And while I am pretty sure that human brains do not have the untapped potential to control electronic devices or grant super-hearing, I was entertained thoroughly throughout the movie.

My bigger complaint is actually some unanswered plot points. For instance, the drug given to Lucy is meant to be distributed world-wide as a narcotic... but why would a cartel want to give people a drug that increases brain capacity? It didn't seem to give any significant satisfying high to Lucy. Then there is the plot point of Lucy's motivations. Once having her brain awakened, her goal seemed like revenge, but then shifts to stopping the drug distribution, but then she starts taking all of the drugs herself to further unlock her potential! I guess maybe she was willing to sacrifice herself to make sure everyone else isn't given the curse of more brain function? I don't know.

I do know I really like Lucy. It's not perfect, but it is original, innovative and entertaining.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Being a fan of the comic, this is the movie I was most looking forward to this summer. While it wasn't without it's flaws, it didn't disappoint either. But perhaps my being a fan going in, I gave this movie more leeway. Then again, most of my complaints are fanboy nit-picking that average theater-goers wouldn't have a problem with. That said, I guess I will begin with my problems with Guardians of the Galaxy.

First, the Nova Corps were just weird. They were like... cops, literally space cops with uniforms and space ships. They didn't fly or fire gravimetric energy blasts or anything like it. I do, however, hold out some hope of getting the proper comic interpretation of Nova. I noticed that all of the cops, including John C. Reilly's Rhomann Dey (AKA the guy who passed his power onto Richard Ryder) all had the rank of Denarian or less. I don't recall seeing any Centurions, like the rank Richard Ryder had in the comics. Maybe the Centurions are the only ones who have super powers in the movies. I hope so at least. With Marvel having to do without Spider-man in it's cinematic universe, Nova (whether it's Ryder or Sam Alexander) would make a great replacement. After all, upon Nova's debut in the 70's, he was touted as the next "Spider-man."

I also notice that there were a lot of alien races absent in GotG, such as the Skrulls and the Shi'Ar. Maybe they need to be formally introduced or maybe Fox owns the rights to both from their licenses to X-Men and Fantastic Four. Either way, if neither show up in the Marvel Films universe, you are missing some major characters like Super-Skrull and Gladiator.

This was pointed out by another reviewer, but I realize that it's true. The Infinity Gems are becoming the Infinity MacGuffins. GotG are now the fourth Marvel movie to center on bad guys wanting or possessing a powerful magic trinket that ends up being confiscated by the good guys and placed in a vault somewhere. You had the Tesseract in the first Captain America and the Avengers plus the Aether in Thor 2. The problem is, if this pattern persists, we still have 3 more gems, that is potentially 3 more movies with the same predictable plot elements. Now I hope Ultron has no use for a magic stone, but I am pretty certain the planned Dr. Strange movie will feature one of them, possibly as the Eye of Agamotto.

Lastly, and I warn this spoils the ending for those who have still not seen the movie, Ronan the Accuser is killed. This is kind of a big character in the Marvel universe. While Ronan has sometimes been a villain and others a hero, he represents a major aspect of the Marvel space universe and the Kree in general. I would have preferred him to have lived to show up later on, in perhaps movie versions of major storylines such as Annihilation, Conquest, War of Kings or even The Annihilators (though Marvel would need Silver Surfer and Gladiator to do that right). However, with how he betrayed Thanos, it would have been difficult for Ronan NOT to have been killed at some point. His final battle did feel a little underwhelming to me too. I think they built Ronan up too much so that the only way to defeat him is through some existential method. I mean, he beat Drax's ass like nothing. Drax is not a featherweight.

As for the good... the movie was very fun to watch. I was highly entertained. The humor of the film, far more comedic than any other Marvel film including the Iron Man trilogy, really matched the tone of the Guardians of the Galaxy comic, especially the Abnett and Lanning run. The special effects were great. I am glad the action scenes weren't just a bunch of blurry jump cuts and for the most part the characters were shown accurately to the comics in terms of personality and skills.

Chris Pratt was great as Star Lord, as I knew he would be given his performance in Zero Dark Thirty and as Andy Dwyer on Parks & Recreation. Zoe Saldana made an awesome Gamora, like I once again knew she would. Dave Bautista made for an interesting Drax the Destroyer, the movie version diverting pretty far from the original character. The film Drax seemed aloof and a little naive, really just driven by his quest for revenge and his violent nature. I'm wondering if his origin will align more with the comics in future films (and we may get another Guardians member in his daughter Moondragon).

Of course, Rocket Racoon and Groot really stole the show. I initially had my reservations about Bradley Cooper providing the voice of Rocket, but he really hit it out of the park. He gave Rocket the tough New Yorker accent he needed and brought a bunch of the humor to the movie. Some of the most hilarious and memorable segments involved Rocket. With Groot, I knew Vin Diesel was perfect. He was the Iron Giant after all. The movie excellently captured Rocket and Groot's weird and funny friendship.

Lee Pace and Karen Gillan made for memorable villains. Pace's Ronin did come across as a scary bad ass and Gillen's Nebula was creepy and just plain cool looking. Karen Gillen is well on her way to being the new Geek Queen, joining the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Milla Jovovich. It was nice to see more of Thanos. Josh Brolin was a brilliant choice to provide his voice. Hopefully we will see more of the Mad Titan sooner rather than later.

I have to add that I was overjoyed to see Cosmo make a cameo. I hope in the sequel we see him interact with the Guardians with his telepathy and make Rocket's life miserable. The inclusion of Blue Merl... I mean Yondu... was interesting. They obviously altered Yondu quite a bit for the film, but it worked... even if Michael Rooker basically just played him like Smurf colored Merl Dixon from The Walking Dead.

In all, Guardians of the Galaxy wasn't perfect. It doesn't dethrone Avengers or the first Iron Man in terms of quality, but it was a lot of fun. Clearly the writers felt some freedom by using more obscure characters and it showed. I definitely look forward to Guardians of the Galaxy 2.

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