ReelReviews #113: The Orville, Ep. 1: “Old Wounds”

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2017: The Orville (pilot episode)

 

“The wait is over”.   Those words, spoken by Eric Bana’s Nero character in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, seem to resonate far more eight years later.  At long last, Star Trek is returning to television after a twelve year hiatus.  But the kicker now is that another television show has already beaten them to the punch to win over Star Trek fans before the “official” Star Trek has released a single episode.  That unofficial rival is Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which made its debut on Fox after Sunday night football.

 

I actually hesitated before blogging a full review, trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t seen the episode yet, and feeling that a review that appears on 9/11 might be a pretty bad time to talk about a comedy show. Still, a slew of negative reviews about Orville from ‘professional critics’ (e.g. people paid to write stuff like this) have convinced me that “the wait is over” and the time to discuss the show is now.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the pilot episode of Orville.  Is it a bit crass at times? Yes. Do some of the jokes fall completely flat? Yes. Do I wish Seth MacFarlane had cast someone besides himself to play the lead? Yes.  Still, the bottom line is the show has tremendous potential and it successfully accomplished its goal of engaging me as a viewer and making me eager to tune in next week to see what they are planning for the future.

 

There weren’t any “laugh at loud” moments in the pilot, but I hardly expect a single television episode to create the definitive humorous event of our era during its first attempt.  There were plenty of scenes that make me chuckle and put a smile on my face, and – perhaps more important – the show piqued my interest and presented a fun and engaging sci-fi adventure, even though it was saddled with the problem bogging down most pilots – having to spend half of its one hour running time introducing us to the characters and the world they inhabit before the story can get rolling.

 

Overall, you could say that “Old Wounds”, the show’s first episode, was fun but uneven, and gives us a nice glimpse of what is to come even though the series hasn’t found its footing yet.  The same can be said of the two pilots of the best known Star Trek series:  “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1966) from the original Star Trek, and “Encounter at Farpoint” from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). If “fun but uneven and yet to show full potential” is damning for Orville, then the show is in good company, seeing how it seeks to emulate Star Trek.

 

Talking to other Star Trek fans online, the vast majority of those who viewed the episode were glad they did so, and reported that they also thoroughly enjoyed it. I spotted only two “meh” responses from fellow Star Trek fans, and the reason both of them gave for not liking the episode was – and here is an exact quote: “it seemed they were making fun of Star Trek, so I stopped watching it”.  Gee, you think? To me, this is along the lines of tuning into Young Frankenstein and saying “Hmmm. It appeared to me they were poking fun at old 30s Universal horror movies. That irritated me. Turned it off.”

 

There was little doubt before I tuned into this show that Orville would attempt to emulate TNG era Star Trek in attempt to be a homage/parody of it. Indeed, they not only got the “look” of TNG down, but also many of the characters (Bortus, for example is a very “Worf” like character), but also the music and action beats and so on. Even some typical “Star Trek” style scenes played out, like the famous “beauty pass” where a shuttlecraft drives around the starship giving the audience an idea of its size and scope – a scene first made famous in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

 

Still, critics of Orville have repeatedly argued that people rooting for Orville on the internet are only doing so because they are blinded by nostalgia and looking for a duplicate of the old Star Trek they are “used to”. While Orville does capture a lot of that spirit (again, much of it as intentional parody, for example, there was a fun send-up of the “holodeck training programs” in TNG), it is more than just a trip down memory lane. “Old Wounds” had a nice original sci-fi story in its own right, and it certainly doesn’t try to capture late 80s/early 90s television effects or anything really cheesy like that.  It is a 2017 television show taking bits and pieces of what audiences liked best about 90s era Star Trek, and putting a clever new spin on them.

 

Orville will also be episodic TV with each episode being its own “stand alone” story.  That’s certainly good news for me, as it’s the format that TOS and TNG used, and it would work best for this show, as an episode that “picked up” right where this one left off and continued the storyline about the age acceleration device in the pilot would probably get old quickly.  It is clear the writers intend to carry on several character threads into future episodes – the main being the unique circumstance of a divorced husband and wife being forced to work together as the Captain and First Officer of the vessel.  Whether that will give the show additional gravitas and make it evolve over several years, or whether it will quickly become an irritating unfunny “comedy routine” in future episodes will depend entirely on the skill of the writers and actors as the show continues.  As it stands, this setup did have a really good payoff in the final scene of the pilot, and one that I will not reveal to readers since the episode is brand new.

 

Orville is off to a decent start. Had Orville disappointed me and turned out to be another “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (Seth MacFarlane’s obnoxious, vulgar, and painfully unfunny “western” spoof that had only one good scene — and perhaps a catchy and mildly amusing theme song), I would be the first to express my disappointment, and pray the show gives me something better the next time around. I will simply say at this point that the critics mercilessly bashing Orville from day one are simply wrong.  Orville is worth a watch and hopefully the show will grow and last a while. The real test will come when we find out what the “official” Star Trek has to show us.  I have been saying for months that Orville looks like it will be much exciting and fun for Trek fans than Star Trek Discovery will be. Nothing I saw in Orville’s first episode has swayed me from that stance.

 

 

*** out of ****

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ReelReviews #112: Woo-oo! Ducktales (2017 reboot)

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MARCH 16, 2017 SCREENING: DuckTales (2017 pilot)

 

Woo-oo!  Having grown up on the original 80s Ducktales cartoon (which makes me feel freakin’ old, seeing as it was 30 years ago), I’m one of the many adults who couldn’t resist tuning into the August sneak-peek of the NEW Ducktales, thanks to the 24 hour marathon of “Woo-oo!”, (its appropriately named pilot episode) on the Disney XD channel.

 

Although the regular episodes of the series won’t start until September 23rd, the pilot premiered a month earlier and it’s only now that I’m blogging this much belated review. So what can be said about Ducktales that hasn’t been said already? Well, I’ll throw my 2 cents into Scrooge’s vault.

 

Most of the reviews I’ve seen online have nothing but glowing praise for the new Ducktales. I really liked it too, but I have to hesitate before lavishing unqualified accolades for the new incarnation of Ducktales. Compared to its iconic 1987 predecessor, Ducktales 2017 has yet to earn its place as a part of television history, nor has it stood the test of time like its previous version.  Ducktales 2017 had numerous examples of both positives and negatives, so on the whole I have to say it was a mixed bag.

 

For me, the weakest element of the new series is the completely new (aside from Donald Duck himself) voice cast.  It actually pains me to say that, since I fell in love with the new cast singing the “Ducktales” theme on YouTube and I thought it was really inspired casting to have people like David Tennant as the new Scrooge McDuck. Simply put, the new cast sounds almost nothing like the original cast, and often, they don’t even attempt to do so. It’s not just a matter of “getting used to” the new voices – in many cases, they seem wholly inappropriate for the characters, even if you welcome the idea of a new take on those characters.  Scoorge’s nephews, for example, now sound like middle-aged comedians, which is not surprising, since that’s who’s voicing them. And while I didn’t expect Tennant to try and slavishly mimic Alan Young’s Scrooge, I expected him to at least get the “crusty old miser with a heart of gold” essence of the character down.  The most I can say is that Scrooge still sounds Scottish, but that’s not surprising since David Tennant IS Scottish. Tennant’s enthusiasm for the role is clearly present, but I’m just not hearing Scrooge McDuck. Even Kate Micucci, who on paper seemed like she’d be the “most like” the original character, bears virtually no resemblance to the 1987 Webby. Strangely, the only voiceover actor who mildly invokes the style of his 1987 counterpart is Beck Bennett as Launchpad McQuack.

 

Another thing that irked me was I sincerely hoped the 2017 series would be a revival of the 1987 series – that is, even if it didn’t directly pick-up where the ’87 series left off, it would start off with Scrooge and his nephews relationship clearly established and presume that the adventures in the 80s show were canon and had already “happened”, so we’re seeing new adventures. Alas, this is a “reboot” in the true sense of the word, and that means the writers will be ignoring everything that happened in the classic 1987 series and starting over scratch. This was demonstrated from day one, as “Woo-oo!”, gives us another origin story where Donald’s nephews meet their great uncle scrooge for the “first time”, and the episode revolves around Scrooge learning to accept them. I strongly felt we didn’t need to see that.

 

Now, aside from the negatives, the rest of the pilot was superb television, IMO.  The simpler and sleeker animation style had me a little worried the new Ducktales might be aimed more for the kindergarten crowd than the original show. Nope. The new Ducktales pretty much remains an all encompassing family show like its predecessor, and shows the same mix of action, adventure, comedy, drama, fantasy, and sci-fi that made the original show so engaging. I think its rare to find that combo in kid’s shows these days.

 

 

I am reluctant to admit it, but some of the changes seem to give the show more gravitas than the original. For example, in the 1987 Ducktales, Scrooge’s archenemy Flintgold Glomheart might be mistaken for Scrooge’s brother – they look identical aside from Glomheart sporting a kilt and gray beard. Here, there is no question Glomheart looks and sounds completely different from Scrooge and they are totally different characters aside from both being Scottish billionaire Ducks.  Webby Vanderquack, pretty much a damsel-in-distress role in the original show, is much more proactive and has a lot more to do in the reboot.  Huey, Dewey, and Louis have distinctive personalities in the reboot, compared to pretty much being clones and interchangeable in the 1987 series. The revamping of these iconic characters make me look forward to what Ducktales will do with other classic characters like Magica de Spell, Duckworth, and Professor Ludwig Von Drake.

 

Aside from completely changing the voices, Ducktales 2017 has an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude and transplants much of the classic Ducktales universe over to the new show. The souped up version of theme song might be even better than the original, the humor is still sharp and will make adults as well as kids laugh, and Ducktales still has a tour-de-force, upbeat spirit of adventure and fun.

 

Finally, Ducktales 2017 ends its pilot episode with a surprise twist, and one that has yet to be explored in any previous incarnation of Ducktales, and will no doubt play an important role in the new show.

 

Overall, I’m upset that Ducktales 2017 has shown up to “override” the stories and beloved characters from its predecessor television show, but I’m excited what the future will hold for this new series once it establishes itself in its own right. Perhaps the only major problem is it seems the new Ducktales, while being wholly a “kids show” on paper, is generating far more excitement for 30 something adults these days.  Time will tell if the next generation of kids grow up loving Ducktales, too.

 

 

 

*** out of ****

ReelThoughts: What if Man of Steel was made in 1978?

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My first editorial on ReelReviews!

WHAT IF ‘MAN OF STEEL’ WAS MADE BACK IN 1978?

A constant refrain we hear from Synderverse fans is that their crappy movies only got awful reviews because people “unfairly” compared them to the earlier big screen adaptations. That is why Wonder Wonder was “fairly” rated and got a positive review, they say. If Man of Steel had been released first and made in 1978, audiences and critics would have seen IT as the “definitive” version of Superman and loved it.

So let’s examine this scenario.

Go back to 1978 and imagine Superman: The Movie was never made. POOF! It’s gone from existence. No Salkind producing team, no Richard Donner as director, no sweeping iconic John Williams theme, and Christopher Reeve remains an unknown young stage actor from Julliard.

Without that movie to “taint” audience’s views of Superman, the creative team behind Man of Steel arrives in a time machine and Warner Bros. gives them the go-ahead to film THEIR “vision” for Superman using 1978 filming techniques and actors. Zack Snyder uses a 1978 film crew to capture David Goyer’s script exactly as it originally written. 1978  actors are hired to fit Snyder’s vision for DC comics: Obscure TV actor Grant Goodeve (who is the same age as Christopher Reeve and looks very much like him and Henry Cavill, but plays dour, serious roles) is cast in the title role. Ann Margaret (then a redhead actress in her late 30s) is cast as Lois Lane. Yaphet Kotto is Perry White. As in real life, Warner Bros. insist on hiring big name stars, so screen legend Orson Welles is hired to play Goyer’s version of Jor-El, Dustin Hoffman is hired to play Goyer’s version of General Zod, and Bruce Dern gets to be David Goyer’s Pa Kent and is killed on screen by a tornado.

The film eats up a HUGE budget as the screenplay calls for massive destruction porn and is done in the tone of a dreary, ugly, humorless, late 1970s action filled disaster flick (in “sci-fi” drag) about an “alien invasion”. Grant Goodeve has almost no dialogue and doesn’t have much to do on set but stand around and look glum, and spend weeks on end shooting fight scenes with Dustin Hoffman, as use wire work to plow into each other while “flying”. Meanwhile, their stunt doubles throw each other into “buildings”. Pyrotechnics are used to knock down the “Metropolis” set endlessly and blow up half the “city”. Snyder directs Hoffman to talk like he has marbles in his mouth while screaming lines like “I WILL FIND HIM!!!” Ann Margaret gets to say lines like “If we’re done measuring dicks, can you have your people show me what you found?” Since the digital technique doesn’t exist yet, much of the cinematography achieves the desired “shakey-cam” effect that Snyder wants by having overcaffinated camera men riding around set on lawnmowers with handheld cameras. Bruce Dern’s stunt double is injured during the tornado scene, and filming is delayed for several weeks.

Since the PG-13 rating doesn’t yet exist in 1978, the film gets rated R for extreme violence and use of language, with the graphic depiction of Superman breaking a character’s neck shocking 1970s audiences. (Films from that era competing for the same adult audiences include The Deer Hunter, The Fury, and I Spit On Your Grave) This becomes the 1970s audiences first look at a big budget theatrical superhero movie, trying to appeal to audiences who grew up on George Reeves playing Superman as a lovable all-American boy scout.

And there you have it, a world where the original “Superman” movie as we know it was never made, and the world got Hack Snyder’s vision for the character instead.

How well do you think the movie would have been received?

ReelReviews #107: 1960s Best Picture winner: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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MARCH 6, 2017 SCREENING: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

 

Ah, the motion picture epic.  Lawrence of Arabia has it in spades and is one of the finest examples of “larger than life” movies from that era:  it’s running time is nearly four hours, and includes an overture, an intermission (I watched the movie over two nights and turned it off at the half way mark the first night, unaware that the movie would have done it by itself in ten minutes and announced the Intermission), lush gorgeous color film, huge action sequences,  and a cast of now critically acclaimed A-list actors (most notably was Peter O’Toole, who was an “up and coming” actor at the time). Lawrence of Arabia had everything going for it.

 

Why it is then, that I didn’t care for this movie?

 

Simply put, I found this movie unengaging. For me, it was a classic example of “lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing” To be fair, certain scenes were memorable for me, and I liked some of the dialogue exchanges (for example, in response to T.E. Lawrence noting that Arabs are associated with the dessert, Prince Feisal quips: “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”) The problem for me, however, is that these enjoyable portions of the movie didn’t add up to anything particularly interesting.  The film has a lot of plot twists and interesting characters, but in order to pay attention to what’s happening, you have to be drawn by the story (and to be fair, the story of a impeccable British officer being assimilated into Arab culture and basically becoming one of them IS by nature a very cinematic premise for a movie), and I felt Lawrence of Arabia wasn’t able to accomplish that. It dragged on and on and on, and I just found myself waiting for the movie to finally end.

 

One issue I had with Lawrence of Arabia is that in spite of its timeless look and beautiful big budget filmmaking, it’s very much a product of its time. Apparently much of the controversy about T.E. Lawrence is that the real life figure was possibly gay and attracted to Arab men, but the film has nothing to do with that rumor and its difficult to find the movie version of him interesting in spite of Peter O’Toole’s excellent performance. The Arab characters in the movie are almost exclusively played by non-Arabs, and sometimes very obviously British actors, using eyeliner and mascara to look the part in spite of having blue eyes and other unlikely Arabian features (Hispanic actor Anthony Quinn even apparently wore a false nose for this movie) . For what it’s worth, most of their acting was excellent, but I felt more realistic actors could have been cast in those roles.

 

Lawrence of Arabia is not a “bad” film, it’s just not a film that appealed to me in spite of everything it had going for it. To me, it was a wasted four hours of my life that I’ll never get back, and made me wish I had chosen to watch The Sound of Music (another 1960s Best Picture winner I have never seen) instead.  Apparently, such filmmaking giants as George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg have all cited this movie as some type of masterpiece that inspired them to become filmmakers. All I can is that truly shows that movie reviews are subjective, as I can’t think of a single thing I felt the movie contributed to cinema, no matter how polished and expertly made it was.

 

In one word: Bland.

 

**   out of ****

 

ReelReviews #15: Grindhouse (2007)

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APRIL 7-11, 2013 SCREENING: “GRINDHOUSE” MOVIES (2007-Present)
I watched a series of five films over two weeks ago, and then spent another week mulling over how the heck I would review five different films that are meant to be seen as a package deal. I’ve put it off until I reached a solution: write one review that its own five segment mini-reviews, just the movies its analyzing. You see, the basic concept from directors Robert Rodriquez and Quintin Tarantino was that they would each do a cheesy, low-budget, trashy movie that resembled the type of schlock you’d get in the ’60s and ’70s, and package the movies together as a “double feature” to watch back-to-back in a theater, complete with fake trailers and commercials between movies, and intentionally grainy, scratchy film to replicate stuff that was thrown together. After the double feature came out, it inspired three movie silly “grindhouse” type movie spinoffs. Did they succeed in this strange little parody/homage? Well, yes and no.

 

PLANET TERROR (2007)
Planet Terror is basically a “zombie movie”. I use the term in quotes because its made to look like a movie from an era where they probably wouldn’t call it a zombie movie (as the George H. Romero variety hadn’t become the definitive image of a zombie yet) and what’s more, the movie is actually about some kind of extremely grotesque mutated humans, rather than undead corpses eating human flesh. They do eat people, though, and it’s a heck a lot of more fun than people find in a lot of “modern” zombie movies like World War Z. The poster image of the girl with a machine gun for a leg is certainly exploited for all its worth in this movie, and even though they use modern CGI, the concept and execution definitely mimics the feel of a old low-budget garbage movie. There’s lot of extreme over-the-top violence as well, and this film certainly brought a smile to my face because it made me think back to the stupidest set of 70s horror movies I watched, like Laserblast (1978), along with some terrible blaxplotation movies of the same era. Where I think the film fell short were two elements where it simply ignored its own premise: 1) The movie was too long for a “Grindhouse” movie, and certainly as one half of a double feature that you’re supposed to watch back-to-back in one sitting. It should have been between 75-85 mins., tops. Second, although intentionally made it to look like it was shot in the 70s, the movie takes place in “modern times” and uses modern technology and so forth. I found that distracting. They went through so much trouble to give us scratchy looking 16mm film, why the cell phones that reminded us that this movie was not made in the era it pretends to be?
**1/2 out of ****

 

DEATH PROOF (2007)
Death Proof is the second half of the original “Grindhouse” experience, and considered the much weaker film of the two. Some people have even gone as far as to say its Tarantino’s weakest movie. But in many ways, I actually enjoyed it more than the first film. Like Planet Terror, the grainy film and ridiculous opening credits immediately make it look like you’re watching some piece of crap made around 1972 or so, but instead of just being an over-the-top splatter film, this one has something completely lacking in the first: atmosphere Apparently the “in-joke” is that it’s supposed to look like two different movies spliced together (which they actually did for really bad MST3k fodder like “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”), but the fact its obviously Kurt Russell in both halves of the movie – playing the same role – ruins this effect. As for me, I loved the first half the movie (where had a very good, creepy “70s stalker movie” vibe like I was watching The Last House on the Left or something), and I was indifferent/bored by the second half, which had a “70s stunt race car movie” feel. To convey that its “Two different movies” the second half was almost grain-free, and that didn’t work for me at all because you could tell it was shot on modern film equipment. Again, the same flaws from the first film were present, and even more apparent: the running time was too long, and it was obvious taking place in 2007. Nevertheless, I consider this film to be its own little modern cult classic, and the lap-dance scene in the movie’s first half is unforgettable
*** out of ****

 
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011)
Machete is by far the better known and more popular of the Grindhouse spinoffs, but for me there was only one true heir to the original project, and that’s Hobo with a Shotgun. It was based off one of the “fake trailers” from the original 2007 double-feature, and expanded into its own feature length movie. Ironically, its got a completely different director (the little known Jason Eisener) and a different actor from the 2007 fake trailer (in this case, the far better known Rutgar Hauer), but I felt it was the most faithful to the whole grindhouse experience: It looks incredibly low-budget, trashy, over-the-top, gory, and tongue-in-cheek hilarious In many ways, this was actually more faithful to the concept, and really nailed the feel of a movie from another era. For example, the music soundtrack sounds exactly like some MIDI synthesizer score from the early 80s, making it seem like you’re watching a lost John Carpenter movie. I’d say the only jarring part of the this is because the earlier Grindhouse movies looked like they were attempting to copy films from the late 60s/early 70s, whereas Hobo definitely looks and feels like a mid 80s movie. Despite having no sci-fi elements and having a storyline more along the lines of Death Wish, Hobo With a Shotgun is pretty much the spiritual successor of 1987’s Robocop. If you liked Robocop, you’ll love with (complete with the excessive violence and biting satire). In fact, forget about watching the remake of Robocop and watch this instead, as its far more true to what the original Robocop was aiming for. This may be the best of the “Grindhouse” movies. Be prepared to be grossed out, offended, annoyed, and mesmerized by it all.
*** out of ****

 
MACHETE (2010)
I think Machete is probably the most financially successful of the five Grindhouse movies, but it was one of the least creative, in my opinion. I still liked it, but I had a blast with the first three movies and I felt that was missing here. Despite this being directed by Robert Rodriquez, it is not a Grindhouse movie. It based on one of the fake trailers from one of his Grindhouse movies, and the opening credits even continue the same style, but it quickly becomes a very modern Hollywood movie. The only difference between this and a typical action comedy is that the script here is still obviously a satire of the whole genre. The actors play it straight, but Lindsay Lohan is here for one reason and its not to display her acting talent (ironically, she finally gets naked in the movie but you can’t see anything). Robert de Niro even shows up here, playing a buffoonish right-wing politician. There has been much talk about the movie having a liberal agenda, and I would agree that political conservatives will probably not like the film’s storyline or message, but the film is just too silly and frivolous for me to take offense as any kind of preachy liberal sneer It has some genuinely funny laughs, and its quick paced and quick witted, but nowhere near on the level of the three real Grindhouse movies. The “fake” trailer for Machete is better than the real one, because the real one is just another typical Robert Rodriquez movie like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, or Spy Kids. The best scene may be Lindsay Lohan’s slutty character disguising herself as a nun. Oddly enough, it disgusted me, intrigued me, and had me cracking up at the same time.
** out of ****

 

MACHETE KILLS (2013)
The latest, last, and least of the films spawned by the whole Grindhouse concept. Naturally, it’s a sequel to Machete, but the best part of this movie was yet another “Fake trailer” for what eventually could become the real third movie: “Machete Kills Again… In Space” It cracked me up and every scene in the “trailer” was better than the real scenes in this movie, and made me wish that the still unconfirmed third film was the sequel instead of this movie. The actual film has plenty of action and a brisk pace, but goes nowhere and just isn’t very funny or interesting. Instead of de Niro like the first movie, this time we have Mel Gibson showing up in a “major role”, and it actually made me feel kind of sorry for him because his career has been reduced to doing this pathetic movie. Machete Kills is the opposite of the original intent of Grindhouse: rather than be made to intentionally parody the look of low-budget, crappy films, It’s a big budget, slick film that unintentionally looks very crappy. The best part of the movie may be former child actress Alexa Vega now appearing as a smoking hot, bikini-clad voluptuous adult character, but I got so bored with the movie I think I missed that part. I give it points for trying, but its just throwing a lot of crap at me, and thankfully, nothing is sticking.
* 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #5: Jonah Hex (2010)

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MARCH 13, 2014 SCREENING: JONAH HEX (2010)
Having just reviewed a movie based on Marvel comics, its time to give DC their due and take a look at one of the more obscure DC adaptations: 2010’s Jonah Hex. This film was a box office flop when it was released (grossing only $10 million on a $47 million budget), so I think its safe to say that they’re won’t be a sequel. Instead, DC is pressing ahead with ideas like “Superman vs. Batman”. If there’s one problem with the recent trends in comic book movies, its the constant recycling of the same villains and plots in endless Batman and Superman movies. Worse, some “fans” applaud Hollywood for taking the lazy route, and since they make money they keep doing it. Jonah Hex was an example of doing something different, but since it failed, its unlikely DC will take that risk again. Jonah Hex, after all, got terrible reviews. But here’s the most unfortunate thing: Jonah Hex is actually a pretty good movie.

Maybe its lowered expectations, but since I knew critics hated this film, I was a bit wary of screening it, and hoped I wouldn’t be sick of the movie and tune out after 15 minutes. I’ve had similar experiences on many occasions. (Critics hated 2010’s The Nutcracker 3D, but I was willing to give it a chance and thought they were too harsh – as I watched the opening credits, I thought “Hey, this is actually a very nice presentation that sets up the mood nicely!” Unfortunately for me, by the time the “mouse king” showed up 20 mins. later, the movie had worn out its welcome and was a train wreak from that point on). With Jonah Hex, I was pleasantly surprised. There’s a great intro showing how the main character came to have his horrible facial scar, then some very artsy animated opening credits letting you know you’re watching a comic book movie (with strong narration from Josh Brolin as the title character), and then a solid 25-30 minutes that sets up the movie and has a raw, gritty, outlaw feel to the whole thing. Perhaps Jonah Hex would have done better if it had simply been marketed as an old fashioned anti-hero western, instead of a hip “comic book movie” for teens.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the movie is not without flaws. I wasn’t pleased with Megan Fox as the female lead in a 70s Clint Eastwood type film, but she does an adequate job. The film also has an additional plot device that looks cool but didn’t really suit its world or have much relevance to the plot. Jonah is able to communicate with the souls of the dead by touching their corpses, and there’s an additional twist that he only has some much time to speak to them before their bodies begin to turn to ash (only to return to their “normal” dead state when he stops touching them). This supernatural element added a bit of eeriness to the movie, but it has nothing to do with the Jonah Hex comics so I can see why fans of the comic book hated it. Ia also felt the movie simply fell apart at the end, and the last 20 minutes of the film de-evolved into some silly over-the-top CGI fight that was reminiscent of Will Smith in “Wild West West”. The recent trend in Hollywood has been “steampunk” (having stuff in a late 19th century setting presented in a futuristic sci-fi angle). That’s fine, as long as there’s a reasonable technological explaination and it looks believably retro. Giving us slick CGI, frantic editing, and heavy metal and rock themes for the movie’s music soundtrack doesn’t work at all. (and I actually liked the non-modern music used in Jonah Hex, but I hated a “western” with heavy metal songs).

There was a lot of controversy with Thomas Jane being turned down in favor of Josh Brolin as the title character. I could see Thomas Jane in this role (he was solid as The Punisher), but Brolin was awesome as Hex and easily one of the best parts of the movie. The still photos aren’t very impressive, but his presence on screen easily made him a great western anti-hero, and he carries the film in every scene. Considering that his father (James Brolin) and his stepmother (Barbra Streisand) never impressed me as actors, I find that Josh Brolin has consistently proven to be a great character actor and is probably one of the most underrated people in Hollywood today. It’s a shame he won’t get a second chance to play this character again.

Jonah Hex has a brisk 80 min. running time, so its one of the shortest modern super hero movies, and its also one of the most interesting, since its not really a superhero movie at all, but an outlaw bounty hunter telling the audience his life story. (Technically, its not even a “western” either, since most of the action takes place back east in the former Confederate States of America – Virginia, Georgia, etc.) Bottom line, the film has its problems, and the ending was terrible, but it really drew me into its world and I liked it. It’s definitely worth taking a look at.

 
** ½ out of ****

ReelReviews #4: Iron Man 3 (2013)

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 MARCH 12, 2014 SCREENING: IRON MAN 3 (2013)

SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM YET, PLEASE READ NO FURTHER.
For the last several weeks, I’m been doing “RetroReviews” of classic and obscure fantasy films that I screened last summer. Not only has it started to get old, but I’ve run out of fantasy films that I screened. It’s time for something different. Today is a return to contemporary reviews, and the best way to kick it off was by finally taking a look at last year’s big budget action film Iron Man 3. So what can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said in hundreds of other reviews. Let’s find out.

A lot of my friends saw this film in theaters last May, and the consensus opinion was they thought the plot twist and the ending ruined the movie. Nobody would even tell me what the twist was! I managed to accidentally stumble on it myself last month, before I had even watched the movie to judge it on my own. Simply put, the major “bad guy” in this film, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) turns out not to be the Mandarin at all. He’s actually a drunken British character actor that was hired to play the Mandarin in order to fool Iron Man and general public into targeting the wrong enemy. This relevant isn’t a shocker at the end of the film, but is actually revealed a little more than halfway through the movie. Did I like this twist? No, I thought it was stupid.

Now, that being said, I didn’t think the silly twist “ruined” the movie, as others have claimed. It was a bit annoying, but the rest of the movie was funny and entertaining. As others have observed, I also thought the “fake” Mandarin was a worthy villain before the twist, and I wish Ben Kingley had just been the real Mandarin instead of the movie trying to give us a “clever” twist. I also had no problems with the real end of the film, which consisted of Iron Man deciding to be with the girl he loves and giving up his Iron Man persona in a flashy climax where he blows up all his armored suits in a fireworks-like spectacle. The only problem here was Marvel’s PR department: we already know Robert Downey Jr. will be returning as Iron Man in Avengers 2 next year, so the ending is pointless. (Had I not known that, it would have been a much more satisfactory ending)

There are good points and bad points throughout the story. Compared to Iron Man 2, the third installment seemed a lot more exciting to me. I hardly remember the second one and just had a collective feeling of “it was okay” when the film finished. The events in Iron Man 3 are much more memorable, but there’s also more cringe-worthy stuff and much of the movie consists of Tony Stark constantly trying on new Iron Man models and comedic situations that arise from this – it seems he doesn’t really go into full superhero mode and heroically spring into action until the last 1/3rd of the movie. A new twist in this film is that Stark creates an Iron Man suit that launches itself to his destination and automatically attaches itself to him piece by piece. The special effects here are very impressive but the whole idea seemed over-the-top to me, and its used way too much for comedic effect when he’s missing some pieces or they attach themselves to the wrong person, etc. etc. The rest of the humor worked well for the movie, and there’s some very witty exchanges throughout the film. There’s also a lot of name dropping about the events of other Marvel movies and the fact this film is set after The Avengers. Those were fine, and serviced this story. However, there’s no surprise cameos from other Marvel characters. I think that’s actually a letdown at this point.

Iron Man hasn’t worn out its welcome, and I always enjoy seeing Robert Downey Jr. in the title role. I’m also looking forward to Avengers 2 – I hope they find something new to do with the character, and I hope its better than Avengers 1 (I must be the minority, because the first one got rave responses from the public, but I just thought it was an average overblown popcorn movie with an awesome premise). All that being said, the conclusion I have to draw is that the first Iron Man movie was the only one that was truly great and pleasantly surprised me. I have no dog in the DC movies vs. Marvel movies fight, but a quick observation is that Marvel movies have been making a lot more money lately, but they’re also starting to get a bit too predictable. I hopeful that Guardians of the Galaxy breaks out of the old pattern. In meantime, here’s to you Tony Stark, we know you’ll be suiting up against next year. But if you ever return for Iron Man 4, let’s hope its worth it.

** ½ out of ****