Adventure

MAN OF STEEL (2013)

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Director: Zack Snyder
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time 143 min.

With the planet’s core on the verge of destruction, General Zod attempts a military coup to eliminate the foolish Council and preserve Krypton.  But Jor-El realizes that the planet is beyond saving.  He and his wife, Lara, have had a child—the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries.  Jor-El steals the genetic codex from the Genesis Chamber where other children of Krypton are created (each with a specific predetermined role in society).  As the coup rages outside, Jor-El and Lara send their son, Kal, and the codex in a small space craft destined for Earth.  General Zod is too late to stop the launch, but he kills Jor-El and vows to track down and eliminate Kal-El, who he views as a blasphemy against Krytpon’s ideals.

While Zod and his soldiers search the universe for Kal-El, Clark Kent grows up on a small farm in Kansas, struggling to hide his unique abilities, but unable to resist helping when he sees someone in danger.  He succeeds anonymity for over three decades, until a journalist named Lois Lane stumbles upon him in the arctic wilderness while investigating a frozen spaceship.  Clark is about to discover his past—and the world to discover its hero.

This film was an artsy, angsty reimagining of Superman. I loved getting all of the history of Krypton and the psychology of General Zod (and of Superman, of course).  But after the fall of Krypton, the plot was very slow moving for quite a while, and unfortunately the dialogue was not very well written.  (Let’s just say this film has nothing on The Avengers , Iron Man, or Captain America.)  That said, I enjoyed watching it; it was an interesting twist on the Superman story.  And I thought Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon were both quite good.  Still, if I had to pick a Superman movie to watch again, I’d definitely stick with 1978.

 

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013)

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Director: Ben Stiller
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 114 min

Walter can’t think of anything interesting to say on his eHarmony profile that might catch the attention of his creative coworker Cheryl; his life is just too ordinary.  But in his imagination, Walter has incredible adventures—adventures like the ones photographed by the legendary Sean O’Connell for Life magazine.  For over a decade, Walter has worked at Life collecting and developing Sean’s negatives.  But when new management puts an end to the printed Life magazine, Sean sends Walter one last roll of film.  In a telegram to the management, Sean announces that negative 25 is the best photograph he has ever taken and should be used as the cover for Life’s final issue.  The only problem: Walter can’t find negative 25.  It seems to have been left out of the roll.  And Sean O’Connell has no phone and no permanent address.  The only clues to Sean’s whereabouts are the other negatives on the roll.  Inspired by his affection for Cheryl and a desire to live the kind of life he’s been dreaming about, Walter boards a plane to Greenland in search of Sean O’Connell and adventure.

I loved this movie!  I wouldn’t indiscriminately recommend it to everyone (it may be too artsy for some), but I thought it was hilarious and beautiful.  It felt to me like a cross between Office Space (1999) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).  There was a lot of humor (witty, slapstick, and quirky), but the plot focused on Walter’s personal journey of self-discovery.  The filming style deliberately called the viewer’s attention to the camera techniques—which seemed appropriate for a film about photography.  If you enjoy kind of artsy films, but also like the type of humor in films like Office Space, definitely give this one a try!

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

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I rarely blog sequels, but since I defended Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit installment, I feel obligated to comment on the second part of The Hobbit.  Or whatever it is you want to call that ridiculous thing I watched yesterday…

The Good:
The dragon animation was awesome.  Also, Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice is simultaneously sexy and soul-crushingly terrifying.

The Bad:
Pretty much everything else.

Naively, I defended part one of The Hobbit trilogy.  “It’s not an adaptation of The Hobbit,” I thought.  “It’s a prequel to LOTR, bringing in material from the Appendices and The Fellowship and the Sillmarillion!”  And for part one this was true.

But wiser people said “What will they do in Part 2 and 3?  Where will they get the content?”

Naively, I thought, “Maybe their adventures in Mirkwood will lead us to a new understanding of the elves with bits of the elf history that was alluded to in the LOTR films but much more detailed in Tolkien’s writings.  Maybe we’ll see Aragorn kidnap Gollum, or form the Rangers, or just generally do all of the awesome stuff he does before the start of the Fellowship.  Or maybe we’ll get to see the start of Aragorn and Arwen’s relationship and finally come to understand why on Middle Earth he would prefer her over Eowyn!”

But no.

Instead we get 2 hrs of stuff that was not even alluded to in the books with maybe 30 minutes of content that was loosely based on events from the book.  Very loosely.

And here’s the kicker it wasn’t even a good film.  Maybe I can accept that it was a terrible adaptation (although really, I can’t, because the LOTR films were such good adaptations and should have been much, much more difficult to get right). But it was also completely useless as a stand-alone film.  There was absolutely no story arc.  The company traveled several miles, fighting orcs pretty much non-stop; they got to the mountain and fought the dragon for a bit; and then the movie ended.  There was a lot of action, but nothing was achieved and no characters were developed–except for some minor characters who were barely mentioned in the books or completely made up for the film.  

And it kills me because I know that Peter Jackson can do story arc.  I think the adaptation of The Two Towers was brilliant.  He took a book which has no real climax, consisting as it does of two largely unrelated adventures told in separate halves of the book (no offense to Tolkien–his story arc is really more in the entire three book work as a whole).  But by entwining the stories together, Jackson created a powerful story arc.  He even helped assuage the utter, agonizing, boringness of two hobbits hiking across Middle Earth for hundreds of pages (at least a little).  Another great example of his good story arc sense in the LOTR films is his choice to end The Fellowship with Boromir’s death and Frodo and Sam striking off on their own while the rest of the company follows the trail of the kidnapped Merry and Pippin.  Tolkien splits this content between the end of the Fellowship and beginning of the Two Towers–he doesn’t care about the story arc in the individual books and instead lets them run together.  Peter Jackson saw the superior breaking point, completing the collapse of the Fellowship in film one and setting us up for the new quests in film two.

And as for character development, look what Jackson did with Aragorn in the LOTR films.  In the books, most of Aragorn’s development as a character has occurred prior to the start of the plot.  He comes into the Fellowship holding the sword of Elendil proudly and takes command of the quest.  He goes into every battle confident of victory, and he always wins.  He is the triumphant battlelord/king of Medieval lore.  But Jackson makes some bold changes in his adaptation.  He takes away Aragorn’s sword, makes him self-conscious, full of guilt, and reluctant to command.  Jackson gives charge of the quest to Gandalf, even giving the wizard a bunch of Aragorn’s lines (notably, it is Gandalf, not Gimli who wishes to travel through Mordor and Aragorn who cautions against it and predicts Gandalf’s death).  But gradually, Aragorn gains confidence.  The battle of Helm’s Deep is not just a pit stop on the road to victory, but the turning of the tide when King Aragorn comes into his own.  These are pretty big changes, but they are purposeful.  They create a story that is a little bit different from Tolkien’s, but powerful and more accessible and inspiring to a modern film audience.

So I ask you, Peter Jackson, where was all of this brainpower when you were doing The Hobbit?  Here was a chance to create an awesome prequel trilogy for your Academy Award dominating masterworks and instead we experience Star Wars prequel-esque let-down.

At least the CGI dragon was cool. . .

STARDUST (2007)

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Director: Matthew Vaughn
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 127 min.

When Tristan Thorn promises a pretty girl that he will bring her a falling star, he returns to the magical land of his birth to begin his quest.  But he soon discovers that the star is actually a living girl and bringing her back to his home will be much more difficult than he imagined—especially since a witch and a ruthless prince also seek the star to gain immortality.

It is always necessary to make changes in a film adaptation.  The plot structures that work well in a book do not work the same way in a film.  Sometimes, film adaptations can be quite different from the book on which they were based, but still awesome in their own right—for example, The Princess Bride.  Unfortunately, the Stardust movie was no Princess Bride. 

Cuts were obviously necessary for a book as rich in detail as Stardust to become a two hour film.  But as often happens in film adaptions, they cut more than necessary and added things that–instead of telling the same story more efficiently ,as do truly good adaptations like Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility–fundamentally changed the thematic framework of the film.  For example, the 20-30 minutes of action added at the end made it so that neither the witch queen nor Septimus were ironically defeated by their own pride—as was so brilliant in the book—and instead were defeated by violence, heroism, etc., etc.  I figured they would probably change this, since in general, filmmakers don’t usually like to put the major action sequence in the middle, but it really did change the film and the nature of Tristan/Tristran’s heroism.

In addition, the nature of the magic in the film was a little bit different from the book.  There less of the give and take—a kind deed is rewarded with a piece of knowledge, the chains can only be broken when the poetic conditions are met, servitude requires payment, a curse requires a sacrifice, etc.  The witch still sacrificed youth and beauty each time she used her magic, but her magic consisted of pointing at things and shooting green light out of her finger instead of the real work of magic that we saw in the book.  And so my favorite things about Stardust the book—the ironic endings, the quiet and noble heroism of the Fellowship of the Castle, and the adherence to the conventions of traditional faerie lore—were absent from the film.

Overall, an entertaining film, fun to watch, but lacking the depth and brilliance of the book.

STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS (2013)

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Director: J. J. Abrams
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 132 min.

On a planet in the Nibiru system, Captain Jim Kirk and his crew have broken protocol in order to rescue a civilization from a deadly volcano.   When their plan goes wrong and in order to save Spock’s life, Kirk must violate Starfleet’s Prime Directive—never to interfere with the development of an alien civilization—by allowing the primitive natives to catch a glimpse of the Enterprise.  Naturally, he lies about it in his official reports.  Unfortunately, Spock submits a report as well, and Vulcans never lie.  Admiral Marcus responds to Kirk’s blatant disregard of protocol by demoting him to First Officer and transferring Spock to another ship.  But before these changes can take place, tragedy strikes.  A rogue Starfleet Officer, John Harrison, blows up a Starfleet library, and when the Starfleet Command gathers to address the crisis, Harrison attacks again.  Among the dead is Kirk’s mentor and friend, Christopher Pike.  When Mr. Scott traces Harrison’s teleport back to the Klingon home world, all that is on Kirk’s mind is regaining control of the Enterprise and avenging Pike’s death.  But John Harrison may not be who he seems. . . .

J. J. Abrams has once again created an absolutely wonderful Star Trek film.  I am still amazed at how true this cast is to the original characters they are portraying.  Of course Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful addition.  Star Trek fans probably won’t be surprised by any of the “twists,” but that doesn’t matter.  Abrams isn’t relying on any cheap tricks or dramatic revelations.  Everything—from the dialogue to the character development to the action sequences—is well written and engaging.  If you like Sci-Fi and/or action movies, go see Into Darkness!  (I also recommend 3D on this one; it’s great!)  

 

OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

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Director: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 130 minutes

Trying to escape a prairie town after a bad show, con-artist/magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs gets his hot air balloon sucked into a tornado.  He lands in an alternate dimension called (coincidentally) Oz, and he quickly learns that the inhabitants believe him to be the wizard foretold in an ancient prophesy. Seeing an opportunity to make some money, Oz decides to play along. But when he finds out that in order to inherit the wizard’s fortune, he must first kill the wicked witch, he’s not sure he can go through with it. Even worse, he soon discovers that the “wicked witch” might not be who she seems. With the help of his new friends Finley the Flying Monkey and the little China Girl, Oz must figure out who the real wicked witch is and save the Land of Oz from her tyranny.

This movie was decidedly mediocre. It had a few good lines and some interesting ideas but was crippled by poor writing: unnatural dialogue, poor pacing, and underdeveloped characters. Watching it on a plane, I found it entertaining enough to pass the time. But I would not recommend seeking it out or paying for it. There are better uses for your time and money.

“SHERLOCK” (2010- )

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In a modern-day reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mystery stories, consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his retired Army doctor flat-mate, John Watson, work with (or in some cases, behind the backs of) the police to unravel London’s most enigmatic mysteries.  Although Sherlock’s inflated ego, abrasive personality, and very annoying and influential older brother, Mycroft, often make John’s life difficult, he finds that the thrill of investigating dangerous cases and seeing Sherlock’s impressive powers of observation in action provide him with a sense of purpose he has not felt since the war.  

“Sherlock” is Steven Moffat at his best.  Using his own gift for piecing together complicated puzzles, Moffat draws from his detailed knowledge of Doyle’s works to craft new mysteries that allude to original Sherlock Holmes stories yet fit comfortably in the modern setting, twisting the classic tales in interesting and exciting ways.  Sherlock Holmes fans will not be disappointed by Moffat’s careful treatment of the characters and story lines but will love catching the allusions to classic Holmes cases.  If you are not familiar with Doyle’s works, don’t worry!  There is plenty to enjoy in this fast-paced, action-packed mystery series no matter how much you know about Sherlock Holmes.  

Six episodes of the mini-series have been released so far with a third (and possibly final) three-episode season to be aired Fall 2013.