The Light and the Dark Sides of “The Force Awakens”

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

A long time ago, in a movie theater far, far away… a Star Wars fan was born.  In 1977, I was (like many) awestruck by the brilliance of “Star Wars“.  Granted, I was 7 at the time, but it’s a true statement regardless.  Since then, I have seen everything Star Wars (except for Star Wars: Rebels and the CGI Animated Series of The Clone Wars).  To say I have been a fan the majority of my life is true but also HIGHLY understated.  I became deeply enchanted with cinema and storytelling through the medium of movies in a large part because of Star Wars.  So all of that being said, and having seen “Star Wars, Episode VII: the Force Awakens” now twice, I feel it’s finally time to say what needs to be said.

Disney has gotten somethings right, but somethings VERY wrong.

Point #1:

Here’s the gist of it: Star Wars: Episodes 1 through 6 (that’s The Phantom Menace through Return of the Jedi) tell a complete saga, and Episode 7: the Force Awakens is something new…and yet, it is not.  As some other fans and bloggers have pointed out, George Lucas really tied the visual references between Jedi & Phantom Menace.  That was purposeful, meaningful, and really very clever – not to mention, it’s a storytelling element used in mythology.  The same could be said about what J.J. Abrams has done with Force Awakens and connecting it to A New Hope … except you can’t and maybe you are already seeing why.

Lucas connects Episode 1 to Episode 6, the beginning to the end.  This is the story of Anakin Skywalker, and with Episodes 1, 2, and 3 added to the existing Trilogy, it made 1 complete saga.  Now, Episode 7 comes along and it begins something anew, and yet it ties into A New Hope.  So…is this new trilogy of Episodes 7,8, and 9 going to be the story of Luke Skywalker?  If so, I can say I think that’s a bad idea.  If that were the case, you should have shown us his life’s journey from Jedi to Force Awakens.  My point is, it isn’t very cohesive, connecting a beginning to the middle, whereas Lucas connected the beginning to the end.

Point #2:

A great tale, especially an epic saga and certainly anything that echoes mythology, must have villain.  Episodes 1 through 6 owns arguably the greatest villain of all time:  Darth Vader.  When the talk first began about Episode 7, I said to a friend of mine “it is all going to hinge on the villain”.  I was right.  So, we are looking at a Darth Vader wannabe in Kylo Ren – but one that is not wearing a mask for any health reasons.  He’s not burned up.  His body isn’t 50% machine.  He has no great backstory to explain why he’s an evil cuss.  He’s been corrupted by the Dark Side….from a crack head (literally, the guy has a crack in his head).

He is an old man (?) that seems to be rotting or something, and he sits on a throne, and commands his henchmen via his holographic communication.  This is no Emperor, aka. Darth Sidious!  THAT villain, was a shadowy puppeteer, a masterful manipulator, and a power-hungry conqueror.  His motives are obvious and his story was brilliantly executed over Episodes 1 through 6.  This new Supreme Commander Snoke is an obvious rip-off of Emperor Palpatine and not even cleverly veiled.

Am I saying that I need to know all about this villain in the 1st movie of a trilogy?  No.  But what I ma saying is that J.J. Abrams and Disney have given us a non-intimidating lackluster stand-in for Vader and then you give us Snoke – an even more lame-duck villain stand-in for the Emperor.  This Episode 7 seems more like an excuse to turn the anger-management-challenged Kylo Ren INTO Vader, because he was seduced into being an evil little cuss at the hands of an obvious rip-off of the Emperor.  I am not impressed.

Point #3:

The Jedi are no more.  Luke tried to recreate the Jedi Order only to have Anakin’s story line repeat itself via Luke’s very own nephew.  Stop!  You heard that correctly: Kylo Ren’s story is the same story as that of his grandfather.  Honestly!  We couldn’t come up with a better story arc than this?

So, there was a prophecy during the last days of the Jedi that a Chosen One would be born that would bring balance to the Force.  In other words, the Force was never intended to be wielded by an army – of either Jedi nor Sith.  Lucas tells us this story is really all about that balance being restored by Anakin.  The all-powerful Force which is balanced by the end of Anakin’s life and the return of Luke as the solitary Jedi that remains. But that doesn’t sound balanced at all, does it?   No more Sith Lords exist (always 2 there are, a master and an apprentice) because Vader kills the Emperor.  And Luke remains?

And what is his 1st act?  Let me recreate the Jedi Order and train others to wield the Force.  That would immediately unbalance the Force!  So there has to be 1 Dark Side Force-user out there if Luke exists, right?  So Luke tries to recreate the Jedi order, and Snoke is obviously in with the Dark Side.  So Snoke seduces one of these new Jedi and turns him to the Dark Side, and then he wipes out all the rest of the Jedi.  What balance is there here?  Now, there’s Kylo Ren, and his master Snoke, and Luke (whom quits the world and goes off to live as a hermit  in search of the 1st Jedi Temple).  This creates yet another unbalanced Force scenario.  It seems that the writers are going around in circles, without a sense of an ending.  What is this, “Lost”?

But there are some very good things to be found in the Force Awakens, too.

Point #1:

What or whom is the Force Awakening in?  Is it the Storm Trooper Finn that defies his training inexplicably and stands toe to toe with this new villain Kylo Ren?  Is it is Rey the desert scavenger left on the wasteland planet of Raaku to grown up alone and yet can fly the Millenium Falcon?  I sense a lot of people go immediately to Rey and see no reason to consider Finn.  Rey is too obvious.  Finn 1) rebels against his indoctrination, 2) and that’s significant enough to make Kylo Ren stop and look at him, 3) remember him later on & immediately identify him as the inside help that breaks out his prisoner, and 4) he inexorably does good because “it’s the right thing to do”.  Who is this guy?  He’s awesome!  Luke Skywalker never even did that stuff.  It’s like he is the moral compass that is poised to right the universe.

Seriously.  Look at Finn.  He wants to be more than he is, because of the way Rey looks at him the first time they meet.  He rescues Po Dameron because it’s the right thing to do.  He says he’s a coward, but everything he does in the movie is far more heroic than what most others are doing.  He wants to rescue his friend so much, he lies about his abilities and puts the entire rebellion effort against the First Order in jeopardy.  When the Force-wielding Rey gets knocked out by Kylo Ren, Finn doesn’t hesitate to pick up that lightsaber and face off against this (supposed) badass.  Oh, and he wounds the badass.  Yes, Ren cuts him down….and yet, he lives.  He took a lightsaber slash across his spine!  And he’s ALIVE.  Think about that.

Point #2:

Rey is effortlessly cool.  She is a pure soul, a real “good guy” and obviously having that built-in moral center that allows her to know right from wrong.  She is easy to root for.  She doesn’t seem complicated.  She is easy to understand.  She is scared of the Force calling out to her.  And what (very) little “training” she receives in the Force (via Mazz) is enough to make her wield that lightsaber well enough to defeat Kylo Ren.  And yet, she isn’t interested in killing him.  She’s in it for her friend.  That’s who needs her at that moment.  Daisy Ridley is a star in the making, and we look forward to seeing her Rey develop into something even more awesome in the upcoming films.

Point #3:

You have an exceptional pilot and hero in Po Dameron.  He’s easy to root for, but what’s more, you buy into this sort of immediate friendship between he and Finn.  It’s a tangible element of the story and its very believable.  And it’s equally believable that there’s a friendship between Finn and Rey.  And Rey and BB-8.  The amazing part of this new story is that there’s a feel-good, wholesome sense of the good guys versus the bad guys.  And THAT is what I admire most in the Star Wars films.  This is modern mythology, and you need that sense to carry out those thematic elements.  This is a vital point to make about the Force Awakens: you can believe in the chemistry and friendships of the good guys.

So, in summary, there’s a lot wrong with the Force Awakens but there’s also a lot that the creators got right.  I will continue to watch these new Star Wars films, but  it needs to come a long a ways before I am sold on ALL of it.

…and that’s all for this edition of The Reel Voice.

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The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug The_Hobbit_-_The_Desolation_of_Smaug_theatrical_poster

I am a HUGE fan of all things fantasy.  Correction: I am HUGE fan of GOOD fantasy.  It could be a book, a TV show, a mini-series, or a big-screen movie.  If you have read some of my previous reviews of fantasy films – such as my one for “Conan the Barbarian” – you will undoubtedly know that I have stomached a plethora of horrid films to arrive at the glory & majesty that is Peter Jackson’s treatment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I have already posted a review of “The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey” and I spoke at length about the deeper meaning of the film in my article “It’s Not Such a Small World After All…”.

So it took me a while to get to the theater to see this latest cinematic entry in the Tolkien storybook, “The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug”.  {Since I hate acronyms, I will abbreviate this title to simply “Smaug” for the remainder of this article.}  What I can say is it that it was well worth the wait!  Okay, time for my secret love of very specific things Tolkien to be voiced here, so bear with me.  There are two things I didn’t want to be screwed up when the stories finally got translated to film: the Balrog of Moria and Smaug the Dragon.  Why?  Because if they looked corny or foolish, they not only lose their potency but they also vastly diminish the film.  In other words, if their treatment sucks, so too will the movie.  Allow me to say, the dragon is worth the price of admission, and he is glorious!

You can look at this movie as having multiple parts and all of them are brilliantly executed.  Part 1 is the journey into Mirkwood Forest and the Elven kingdom therein.  It will be interesting to see these films in chronological order and then watch LOTR afterwards.  I think – though I cannot confirm this – that Peter Jackson is nimbly creating the “stage” for LOTR with these “Hobbit” movies and is layering a little bit more of what SHOULD have been included in the original tale of The Hobbit.  This may seem like tinkering with the source material, but honestly it is more like George Lucas tinkering with Star Wars.  Tolkien did it for ages with all of his material, so why shouldn’t Jackson?  Truth is, I believe it makes for a better story.

What exactly am I talking about?  What precisely is Jackson adding to (story-wise) that is different than the original book?  Well, I don’t recall anything about Dol Guldur being in The Hobbit.  That’s rather significant, especially in this film version of the story.  Again, it is layering the film to pave the way for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It’s a fantastic addition and it makes the story seem even more tightly wound together.  Bravo!  Ultimately, there is nothing better in fantasy than a “meet the bad guy” scene.  I don’t know how Jackson managed to add this and then end the film on a cliffhanger – especially involving Gandalf!  {If you haven’t seen the film, just go and watch it and then come back and re-read this part – then you will understand what I am talking about.  I am trying to avoid spoilers here.}  I know that Tolkien wrote several “inclusions” that were or were not included in later revisions or editions of the book – one of them is the Quest for Erebor which essentially is EXACTLY this subject matter.  I still think it bears mentioning though – since most fans of the work don’t even know the existence of the Quest for Erebor.

Okay.  Enough of the inner-geek-speak.  Review the movie!

In “The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey”, we saw Bilbo Baggins as a slightly different Hobbit.  He wasn’t necessarily content with staying at home.  This film picks up on the heels of where the last left off.  They just got flown to safety by the giant eagles, remember?  So here they are on the run from the nasty albino orc (Azog, if you care), and we see a bit more of the heroic side of Bilbo that is starting to emerge.  Something has fundamentally shifted within Bilbo.  He will never be the same again.  It’s fun to ask the question here: is his change internal (i.e. his own choice) or is it external (i.e. caused by possessing the One Ring)?

Regardless, Martin Freeman brings a new layer of depth to Bilbo in this film.  I think if I have a negative criticism about the LOTR trilogy, it is that Elijah Wood was great as Frodo but he doesn’t seem all that unusual when compared to other Hobbits.  He made bold decisions, but it isn’t until he is already on the quest that we begin to see how he is different than his kin.  With Bilbo, you are told (via Gandalf) why he was chosen.  Martin Freeman does a fantastic job at bringing this to the surface of the character in increments.  In “Journey” it was a slow pace, a building pace, but with “Smaug”, he is revealing Bilbo’s differences with each passing scene.  The changes are becoming far more evident.  It’s a sharp contrast to where he started from.  I loved this aspect of the film.  Even with the faster pace of “Smaug”, Freeman brings the character more to life with every scene he is in.  In short, Freeman presents a much stronger character than Wood’s Frodo.

Lee Pace plays the Elvenking, ruler of Mirkwood, Legolas’ father, and also called Thranduil.  I have to pause to talk about this awesome douchebag.  Seriously, I have always despised him.  Pace plays him so well that I have only one thing to say: he is AWESOME!  His outfit is incredible, his voice is perfect, and just his demeanor comes through.  He is the kind of character you love to hate, namely because he is so blind.  It’s hard to believe that Legolas comes from this guy.  Again though, here is Jackson layering the story to make it more relevant to the LOTR storyline.  He is giving us Legolas’ backstory – which we were denied in “Fellowship of the Ring”.  The scenes in Mirkwood are great – I could have spent another half an hour in the hall of the Elvenking and listened to him prattle on about the rest of the world isn’t his problem.  No wonder Legolas wanted to get out of there!

Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, the elf maiden Captain of the Guard for Mirkwood’s elves.  She looks great and I never really thought much about who would play her (as compared to say Galadriel, which could not have been cast better).  She does a good job, nothing overpowering really.  Yet, the story of her and the dwarf Kili, and the obvious weird love story there…well, it’s odd and slightly distracting from the overall tale.  Did we really need to play up the love angle?  Why can’t they just befriend each other and develop a bond based off of that?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s just me but I find it all a bit weird.

The film presents us with all the highlights from the cartoon film which is great – the barrel ride out of Mirkwood is absolutely stupendous!  It’s better than anything in LOTR, honestly.  It was funny, and exciting, and just plain thrilling to watch.  The theater was filled with gasps and cheers during that scene and it is no wonder either! It isn’t long before we reach Lake-Town and we are introduced to Bard the Bowman.  We get to see the brief history of the Black Arrows and we know its significance.  Yahoo!  This was really well done too.  Just the right amount of detail without it dragging down the pace of the film, and it’s all told in a very “in-the-moment” style.

The fighting got juiced up in the 2nd film of this trilogy as well, which was to be expected I guess.  “Journey” was slow but that was not only intentional but also necessary.  “Smaug” is more like the barrel ride: fast-paced and thrilling.  It’s the proverbial out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation, time after time in this film.  This helps you jump from Mirkwood to the dungeons of the Elvenking to Lake-Town to Erebor itself.  Once the film gets you inside the Lonely Mountain, you should make sure you have emptied your bladder – because you will not be able to leave your seat once that begins!

Enter the biggest scene-stealing diva of all time: Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.  The dragon is so brilliantly depicted that you will not be able to think of another better looking dragon on film EVER.   I have seen a lot of them and a lot of so badly rendered that they are laughable.  But Smaug?  O…M…G!  This is brilliant cinema, the devilish and cunning old dragon slithering across his hoard, his greed so obvious that it deserves its own Academy Award.  He is charming and terrifying all at the same time.  You are thinking the whole time (even if you know how this scene is supposed to play out): “Bilbo put on that damn ring and RUN!”

And what about Gandalf and his quest to draw out this Necromancer at Dol Guldur?  Oh, that…yeah that’s awesome too.  Loved the scenes with Radagast in the mountains at the tombs!  But the biggest sucker punch of “Smaug” is the ending!  The film clocks in at 161 minutes but it feels like less than 2 hours, I swear!  That’s the pace of this film!  And the ending is like someone just yanking the rug right out from under your feet!  It is so swift and brutal that you will be left sputtering in the aisles saying things like “they can’t end the film here!” or “Seriously?  That’s the end?!”

Suffice to say, I highly recommend “Smaug” to all fellow fantasy film lovers – to all GOOD fantasy film lovers, that is.  It’s a briskly paced movie with still a ton of character development with Bilbo and some great new additions to the tale – like Bard and Tauriel. The villains are just epic – Thranduil and Smaug are fantastic!  So, butter up your popcorn, find a nice cushy chair and settle yourself in for thrill ride that makes you want to drain and elven barrel of wine just to go ride it down a waterfall!  ENJOY.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Sneak Peek [HD]

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

Frozen

“Frozen”  Frozen_(2013_film)_poster

Disney has a magic touch.  Either that or they just hire the RIGHT people for the RIGHT jobs.  Any which way you look at it, “Frozen” is a major success.  It’s not your typical Disney Princess storyline, and it has major vocal talent, a killer single from the movie’s soundtrack, and of course brilliant animation.  All of this rolled into one interesting tale, giving this Disney smash success a big thumbs up from me!

Since I’m an artist, I will talk about the artwork in this film.  It’s even better than “Tangled” – at that is saying a lot coming from me!  The process involved here is like a hybrid of traditional hand-drawn animated cells and CGI.  The film is also shot in CinemaScope – not going to geek it all over the place here, so instead, just read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CinemaScope  Suffice to say it’s a favorite technique of mine, it is great way to shoot films that lend themselves to a more epic or cinematic look.  It is the classical definition of “widescreen” formatting.

Frozen” is inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen tale called the Snow Queen.  Apparently, that story was something Walt himself wanted to see animated, but – long story short here – it got shelved.  The proper way of stating it today is to say that “Frozen” was inspired by the Andersen tale.  John Lasseter helped to anchor the film in a relatable way, giving us a story not as dark as the original material and filled with characters that people would understand better.  What Disney has ended up with is the very compelling story of two sisters that are kept apart from one another because of one sister has developed magical powers that enable her to freeze things.

The story might seem to have a loop hole in there, phrased as “how did she get these powers?”  Truth is though, the answer to this question is irrelevant.  The powers are not the story.  The character is.  I have to say that Disney has done a way better job with Elsa than with Merida from “Brave”.  Merida bothered me because it was like she rebelled because she wasn’t living her life as she wanted.  Really?  That’s your big bitch?  Well, excuse me but this girl Elsa – she got problems.  Yes, yes – I am over-simplifying I know.  But it is so accurate.  Elsa is terrified she’ll hurt her baby sister if she TOUCHES her.  She’s afraid of herself and the strange powers she has.  Basically, she’s afraid of what she could do to others.  Okay, now THAT is something that wrecks a life.  Screw Merida, Elsa has it way worse!

The story of Elsa (wonderfully played and sung by Idina Menzel) would not have been enough to make a movie out of though – if not for her younger sister Anna, played by the sloth-loving Kristen Bell.  The story follows them from being toddlers to being all grown up.  There are twists to the story that many viewers will be taken by surprise with.  (By the way, Anna’s mannerisms are so life-like that it is jaw-droppingly good!)  Anna brings the heart to this story and it is cool.  Of course, there is an awesome little snowman named Olaf that almost steals the movie and he brings the funny.  Over all, the story is fresh and innovative and surprising.  I’d have to say, “Frozen” was way better than I thought it might be.

So, if you have missed this one at the theater, try to catch it as soon as you can.  I don’t think you should wait for Netflix on this one.  Disney has the magical touch and two new princesses join the ranks of Belle, Ariel, and the rest of the gang.  Welcome to the Magic Kingdom, Anna and Elsa!

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

Thor: the Dark World

“Thor: The Dark World” Thor_-_The_Dark_World_poster

Marvel Studios continues to bring “the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” to life and they are making each film so layered that it is hard to remember that not so long ago, this would have been laughed at as a story for a movie.  The latest installment of the Marvel universe to come to life is “Thor: the Dark World” and it is a glorious treatment of the Nine Realms once more.  To those that don’t know, Spiderman and the X-Men titles are not yet owned by Marvel Studios – which means you can disregard that crap.

Thor’s 2nd installment in his own franchise brings more of Asgard to life.  It helps to fill in the gaps of story, like why didn’t Thor come back to Earth after the events of “The Avengers” (aka. the alien invasion of NYC).  Here’s the scoop.  When last we saw Asgard, the Bifrost Bridge had been destroyed.  So like how did Thor even get back to Earth to take place in the Avengers?  Well, as it turns out, Heimdall (played once more by the great Idris Elba) has managed to fix the Bifrost.  So why didn’t Thor come swooshing out of the sky and go hook up with his girlfriend back on Earth?  Well, since the events of “Thor” – you know, where the heir to the throne was banished to Earth, the other prince turned traitor & blew up the Bifrost, and King Odin went into a coma-like sleep – Thor has been a little busy running all over the Nine Realms trying to put things back in order.  It seems like Loki inadvertently caused a massive rebellion all over the Nine Realms.  It was up to the son of Odin to bring some order back to the place.

The nice part about Marvel Studios work is that they are truly connecting the dots.  I just connected the 1stThor” movie to “the Avengers” to “Thor: the Dark World” in one paragraph!  Interesting, right?  Oh but it gets better!  In the 1st few minutes of this film, we are getting this recap of events to nicely tie everything together.  They also show Thor isn’t doing this alone.  He is bringing order to the Nine Realms with the help of the Warriors Three!  Oh, sorry – to those that don’t know, the Warriors Three are Volstag the Voluminous, Fandral, and Hogun the Grim, and they are Thor’s best buds.  Oh, and they are accompanied also by the fair Lady Sif.  (As an aside note, Lady Sif is the WIFE of Thor in Norse mythology.)  Throughout the movie, you get to see the friends of Thor being badasses but also doing what friends do – supporting their friend.  To the discerning viewer, you will notice that Fandral is not played by Josh Dallas any longer (that would be Prince Charming from TV’s Once Upon a Time) and is instead played by the Zachary Levi (from TV’s Less Than Perfect and the most awesome series in a LONG time Chuck).

I guess my 2nd question in relation to the story was “what about Jane Foster?”  Where did she go?  What’s been happening with her?  Very next segment of the film was picking up with Jane in London.  Boom.  Like that, all my questions about continuity involving the story were answered.  I applaud Marvel for this – because it is an honest rarity.  Jane is in London tracking anomalies that – you guessed it – might be something like when she discovered when Thor came to Earth.  So, not only did Marvel answer my question directly, they even told you why – another rarity in storytelling.

So, in the 1st 5 minutes of the movie, they give you the back story of the villain of this movie and explain the motivations behind said bad guy.  In the next half an hour, they answer all continuity questions and brought all characters up to speed.  Now that we are all caught up with who’s been doing what and why, and who the bad guy is and why he is coming after everybody – let’s begin with the plot of this film and start laying waste to Earth and Asgard, shall we?

In the first film, Thor’s homeland of Asgard basically looks like Norse Heaven and seems pretty friggin’ impregnable.  (It’s only because Loki is Mr. Sneaky Man that trouble gets in.)  Well, you can kiss that idea good-bye in “Thor the Dark World” because when the bad guy comes after what he needs (which is with Jane Foster…who was brought home for safekeeping by Thor), it is a full-on attack by the creepy Dark Elves.  We’ve got Heimdall attacking a spaceship with a sword!  The throne gets used as a crash landing site.  The prison suffers a jailbreak.  The worst though is the leader bad guy, Malekith, attacking Thor’s mother Frigga (whom happens to be defending Jane Foster).  I liked this because it made the bad guys seem almost unstoppable.  If they can attack Asgard like that, what hope would any place else have?  Imagine if they attacked Earth?  Because – you guessed it – that’s exactly where they are going.

I won’t get into the details of the film; I’d rather you experience it for yourself.  Suffice to say, it was incredibly well designed.  It is constructed in solid, believable steps that take you on the journey.  And when you are talking about Asgard and Thor, being “believable” can be daunting to say the least.  Kudos to both the writers and the director for deftly handling this material and giving us another slam dunk of an installment in the Marvel Studio Universe.  So, Alan Taylor takes the helm for Kenneth Brannagh – and does a marvelous job.  Story by Dan Payne and Robert Rodat – great job guys!

As for the acting, Chris Hemsworth will be Thor for his lifetime.  He’s too perfect for the role.  He LOOKS like Thor should.  His voice seems utterly fitting for his role and Anthony Hopkins as his father Odin is still a stellar call in my opinion!  The good news is that the action doesn’t tell the story here.  The actors do.  Thor cries for the loss of family, Odin  gets bitter, people go mad, death seems everywhere at times – and the acting takes you there emotionally.  I’ll be honest, I thought the Dark Elves were going to be stupid and like another alien kind of thing, but it all worked so well that I didn’t want this movie to end!

The best funny moments come from characters like Fandral and Loki and of course Dr. Erik Selvig.  Loki imitating Captain America was hysterical!  The levity of these scenes helps anchor the film – for while it may not be as grand in scope as “the Avengers” it certainly had that weighty feeling of big evil threatened whole universe.  I think that’s why I really appreciated those moments. Tom Hiddleston is utterly superb once more as the scheming and deceitful Loki.

Truth is, this film is principally about Thor’s relationships – be it with his father, mother, friends, girlfriend, or estranged brother.  I have to hand it to Marvel for striving to bring us quality when so much other shlock could have been done (see here “X-Men: First Class” or “the Wolverine” or worse still “The Amazing Spider-Man”).  The Studio has worked vigorously to not only give us action and thrills, but also the real character-building.  This way, when “Avengers 2” comes out, you aren’t left saying “I wish Thor had more screen time – they didn’t get to do much with his character.”  I like that a LOT.

Thor: the Dark World” is way better than advertised, and the trailer just doesn’t give you enough.  Forget waiting to rent this one, go and see it on the big screen if you still can!  You’ll be happy you did!

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

That Auld Lang Syne

NewYearsEveThe month of January is named such due to ancient Rome who dedicated this month to Janus, the Roman god of doors, gates, and new beginnings.  Janus is also known as “the two-faced god” – not as in a liar, but as in literally having two faces.  Janus’ faces each look in an opposite direction: one looks forward and the other looks backward.  So, New Year‘s celebrations are founded on pagan traditions – as are many other holidays. But did you know that some theories suggest this occurred as early as 153 BC?

January 1st specifically though is known for another Roman celebration.  In 46 BC, Julius Caesar revised the calendar of Rome.  Four years later – after the Roman Senate murdered him – the Roman Senate decided to deify Julius Caesar for his life and his rationalized new calendar.  They would call this the Julian calendar.  Both the Julian and the later-invented Gregorian calendars celebrate New Year’s Day – making it perhaps the only globally-celebrated holiday.  That’s pretty cool, right?

Here’s a catchy bit of information that I did not know though.  Scotland celebrates New Year’s Eve, but they call it Hogmanay.  There is a famous street party in Princes Street in Edinburgh as one example of their celebration.  But GET THIS: that song “Auld Lang Syne” is actually a Scottish poem that dates back to 1788!  Did you ever wonder what exactly it means?  “Auld Lang Syne” is literally translated in Scottish to “Old long since”, or roughly translated as “long long ago” or “days gone by”.  It is used as a “closing” for the old year and so it is also sung at funerals, graduations and as a farewell or ending to other occasions. The international Boy Scout youth movement also uses it as a close to jamborees and other functions.

So when you hear that line of the song “For auld lang syne”, it means “for the sake of old times”.  And you can thank the Scots (and the Irish and the Welsh) for spreading it around the globe, wherever the Celts emigrated to.  And Thanks to “When Harry Met Sally” for asking the question that plagues us all: “what does that mean anyway?”

Happy New Years everyone! ….THE REEL VOICE

Dead Man Down

Dead Man DownDead_Man_Down_Theatrical_Poster

Now, when I saw that this film was a production of WWE Studios, I feared for the worst.  Some things just don’t seem like a good fit, and the pro wrestling circus mixing with major motion pictures seems like one of those combinations.  Just my opinion.  Anyway, much to my delight, “Dead Man Down” is a complete success!  My fears were misplaced and this film has me waiting to see what is next from this studio.

Dead Man Down” stars Colin Ferrell, Noomi Rapace, and Terence Howard.  Right from the start, this film was not what I had thought it would be. I thought this was an action film.  Turns out, it is much more of a drama with some action thrown in at the end.  The story is actually intriguing, and it draws you in easily.  The acting of Noomi Rapace and her character’s story really elevates the film into another realm of quality.  The end result of this combination of some fine acting and great storytelling was a film that will likely be completely overlooked by many.  I urge anybody that hasn’t seen it yet to give “Dead Man Down” and fair shake and just watch the 1st 30 minutes.

At first, I thought Colin Ferrell’s performance was a little stiff.  When I realized that was actually part of the story, it bothered me less, and intrigued me more.  I thought I figured the story of his character right away and I did.  However, the film could have ended there and I would not have thought the film was much of anything.  However, then there was the complexity of his neighbor (played by Rapace) and her story and how it gets entangled with Ferrell’s character.  THIS is what made the film so much more than what it could have been.  It wasn’t a curve ball so much as it was a really well-thought out – and might I say European-styled – plot that was executed very well.

A lot of crime stories ultimately boil down to a pissing contest between the good criminal (or the cop) and the bad criminal.  It’s a classic trap to fall into, and I fault no one.  Heck, I used to really enjoy those films, but that was when I was much younger.  Today though, my tastes have matured and I crave more from a story.  “Dead Man Down” delivered in this way and I could not have been more led astray by the trailer.  To sum it up nicely would be to say that this film had a story and wasn’t just flash/bang/the end.

It wasn’t an Oscar-quality drama, but it had a lot more meat than most action films.  So, if you’re in the mood for something bigger than most shlock-fests that are rolled out of Hollywood these days, “Dead Man Down” might actually deliver the goods for you.  That’s my feeling on it anyway.

…and this it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE

Flypaper (2011)

Flypaper” (2011) Flypaper2011Poster

This crime caper involves a bank heist that goes horribly awry as two different groups of bank robbers try hitting the same bank at the same time.  As a concept, that’s not bad.  The film is a little low-budget in some respects, what with poor lighting and some generally bad photography.  Otherwise though, “Flypaper” is really quite remarkable.

The film stars Ashley Judd and Patrick Dempsey, and it needing to be said, they steal the show.  Dempsey is especially good playing a very neurotic individual without his meds.  His manic speech and overall hyper energy add both comedy and fun to the film.  Judd plays well opposite him, as the bank teller with a thing for neurotic Dempsey.  She’s a little feisty and smart, and the banter between the two leads is entertaining to say the least.

The film gets a little messy in its plot though, slightly confusing but not unbearable.  There are some great supporting characters, like Peanut Butter & Jelly, but also some wasted opportunity to utilize the talent.  Olivia Spencer is in it as Judd’s friend and co-worker.  Other greats in the cast include Jeffrey Tambor and Mekhi Phifer.  Why weren’t these actors better used in the story?  I suppose the time for them onscreen just wasn’t there in the script but still, it seems a waste.

As I said, the plot gets a little twisted.  The premise of 2 robbers doing a job at the same time on the same bank has sort of a hilarious nature built in it.  “Flypaper” though takes a strange turn with a murder mystery thrown into it.  At first, I was intrigued.  What is this?  A who-dunn-it in the middle of a comedic heist movie?  It’s interesting, right?  That feeling is what kept me watching this film.  It was good, and there’s definitely some very entertaining bits, but it also starts to get convoluted.  Who is the killer among them?  That starts to wear thin after a bit. It gets a little confusing, but as I say, it wasn’t too unbearable.

If you are looking for a Netflix fun film without too much fuss, give “Flypaper” a shot.  It’s a little rom-com meets a bank heist comedy meets a murder mystery.  Dempsey and Judd save the film without question so enjoy their performances!

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE

The Hangover Part III

The Hangover Part IIIThe_Hangover_Part_3

So this is to be the end of one of the funniest trilogies ever made?  Pardon me for saying this, but it just wasn’t that funny.  In fact, “Hangover Part 3” comes off pretty serious.  At no point in the movie are the main characters drugged or drunk, or simply unconscious.  What we are left with is the Wolf Pack running into serious crime drama and almost no funny business at all.  John Goodman plays the villain and he is pretty scary.  No laughable warm teddy bear here – no, just straight-up villain.  What about Leslie Chow (everyone’s favorite trunk hostage, Ken Jeong)?  Although he is himself, he is also sans the comedy element that made him so lovable.  In short, there is nothing really that funny to this movie.

To give a very quick recap on the horrible and non-funny moments of the film (and I would say SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT here if the movie actually wasn’t such a letdown) here we go: a giraffe gets beheaded, Allen’s father dies, Allen verbally abuses everyone in a mental-illness manner, everyone bans together to send Allen to an institution (they say clinic, but we know different), traffic accidents, Doug is captured, they all get arrested in Tijuana, Black Doug is executed, Phil’s mini-van is trashed, and they all end up witnesses to 2 murders.  Doesn’t sound that funny, does it?  That’s the problem with this film.  It just wasn’t funny.

Look, this was a great film franchise, and it’s sad that they seemingly shucked this mess together without thinking with their funny bone.  It seems to me that no matter what, every studio is in a race to make more money.  I get it – but must you seriously spend MILLIONS of dollars on something so utterly forgettable.  I’m sure I have said this in another review somewhere; it sounds familiar even to me.  So allow me to save you the money (even on Netflix, it ain’t worth the rent) and the time (because 2 hours on this film is way too long) by saying that this is in fact THE END.  Yep, they called this one right with its yawn of a tagline.  Because I don’t think they have any more material.

Maybe the hype was right?  Maybe it was a tease of a trailer that seemed to make this film better than it actually was?  The reality is that comedies are – by design – humorous and entertaining, and this film was anything but those two things. I barely laughed and I was more disturbed by Chow imitating the dog than entertained by anything else he did.  And poor Doug – he barely has lines in any of the films and he is YET AGAIN kidnapped/missing through the entire film.  Yuck. Yuck.  We have seen this joke before right?

Any way you slice this film, it wasn’t very funny.  Take it from me and find a cure for the Hangover franchise, because this buzz has worn off.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

It’s not Such a Small World After All…

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Believe it or not, the world is a very large place.

I don’t know why, but Hobbits have been invading my brain again.  I have seen recent trailers for “The Hobbit”: the Desolation of Smaug“.  With its impeding release – and thus my growing excitement about it – I couldn’t help but think of how grand in scope this film (and the other two in that same trilogy of films as well as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) truly is.  This in turn lead me to think about (as Campbell so aptly described it) the Hero’s Journey.  Many of us are prone to see the Journey on the surface, but in truth there is another Journey …on the inside of the character.  Allow me to explain.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” (like all the other Peter Jackson / Tolkien-inspired films) is filmed in New Zealand.  That’s the other side of the world to me, quite literally.  I cannot help but think of how long it would take to get there whenever I see it.  A truly marvelous setting for a fantasy film.  Now, I am a HUGE fan of fantasy films and novels.  As a general statement about the genre, those stories often involve a journey.  Not to sound like a dullard here, but isn’t that a necessary component to an adventure?  Anyway, when you consider the story of “The Hobbit“, it is not just a journey or an adventure, but it is also something else: a discovery of the self.

In “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey“, Gandalf chastises poor Bilbo for refusing his offer to join Thorin and his group.  The wizard calmly explains that when he was younger, Bilbo had a taste for adventure in his blood.  He claims it is due to his heritage (that of being a Took).  After some consideration, Bilbo changes his mind and joins Thorin and the Dwarves.  Along his journey, he will be challenged in ways few people ever are…and it will change him forever.

I guess what I was thinking about was that the world for Bilbo was his home in the Shire.  That was it.  When he was young, he craved adventure but along the way of his life, he became rather rooted in his home.  This is very similar to pretty much everyone I know.  We all grow up and we trade that youthful yearning for adventure for the comforts of home.  It’s not hard to grasp, Bilbo’s story.  It is easy to see that he makes a very bold choice, and one that is fairly out of his comfort zone.  Yet, there is something to this choice that has always made me wonder:  did Gandalf truly know what was in Bilbo’s heart?

In the wide, wide world of New Zealand – or Middle Earth, for that matter – there is nothing more daring than to step outside your comfort zone.  Many things can encourage you to do so.  As time marches on, friendships fade as you drift apart from one another, you see your family less & less, you no longer have as much in common with the people you grew up with, and then suddenly you realize how much you have changed from whom you once were.  There’s no shame or wrong in this; it’s life.  In the case of Bilbo though, he experienced really none of this.  He had abandoned his youth because he had CONVINCED himself that he was a Hobbit through and through…and Hobbits are home-bodies.  In truth, Gandalf saw that Bilbo was living a lie.

In my mind, IF Bilbo had truly changed to become the person he was at the beginning of “The Hobbit“, then he would never have gone on that journey.  Gandalf isn’t convincing Bilbo he needs to change in order to be true to himself; Gandalf is instead reminding Bilbo of what he once longed for – and to point out that there was nothing in the Shire to hold him there any longer.  In a way, Gandalf is like a cruel mirror that reflects the Shire in the way Bilbo once saw it.  And in so doing, Gandalf frees Bilbo.

Great and scary things await poor Bilbo along his travels.  How many of us have faced a similar problem?  You step outside of your normal, comfortable life and suddenly you are faced with trials and tribulations at every turn.  There is only one truth that serves us in these circumstances: know thyself.  If you are embracing your true identity, then nothing can deter you.  If you are living life as the “authentic You” then the rest of what you have always wanted will come to you.  (If anybody is interested in a truly awesome read, I highly recommend Melody Fletcher.)  Sorry if this seems a little out there or off-topic, but I think this has relevance here.

Bilbo finds the adventure of a lifetime outside of his front door and it all begins with one step.  The world is indeed a very large place.  We must look at the tale of Bilbo and his adventure though and see the journey he takes within himself.  He fights trolls and giant spiders, finds magical treasures, and ultimately comes face to face with a beast of true legend: a fire-breathing dragon!  But this is all the surface stuff.  And it is the same crap that almost every hero in every story deals with.  (Read Joseph Campbell if you doubt me.)

The real topic that I am driving at here is Bilbo’s journey within himself.  How does he overcome being away from home and all the comforts it brings?  He uses his home as inspiration for helping Thorin and the Dwarves find THEIR home – or rather, reclaim their home.  He finds his courage when facing Gollum in the cave, not through action but a game of riddles.  At first blush, this seems to be done in kind of an arrogant manner.  A Hobbit is this smart?  But on a deeper level, this interaction looks more like if Bilbo fell into Evil (let’s say he gets greedy for the gold “under the Mountain”), this would be like Bilbo confronting himself.  (Yes, we all know that Gollum WAS a Hobbit and this is closer to the surface truth than I would like, but the analogy still holds up I think.)  So, when you look at this scene again – with this analogy fresh in your head , it actually comes off like a warning to Bilbo.

And what of that warning then?  Does Bilbo heed it?   To some extent, yes, but on the other hand, most assuredly no.  Bilbo finds courage after meeting Gollum.  He fights to save Thorin’s life not long after this meeting.  Why the sudden change in him?  He was separated from the group, forgotten.  He knew the dwarves didn’t particularly like him.  So why return and step up to face the albino orc with the prosthetic limb?  I think Bilbo realized that his home was like the cave to Gollum.  He was happy there, but lost all sight of his true self trapped within his Hobbit Hole.  His happiness was a facade.

Truthfully, he wasn’t like other Hobbits.  When he realized this, he knew he could not abandon Thorin.  Bilbo wasn’t going to retreat back his “cave” for fear of becoming something akin to Gollum.  So he fights, bravely too, and wins much respect for his actions.  I always thought perhaps the One Ring fueled his anger in that fight.  Maybe it gave him strength where he had none before?  Maybe it just made him angry and THAT is what fueled him in battle?  I don’t know the answer there, but it is fun to ponder those questions.

So Bilbo has much to offer us as viewers of his tale, for his journey is both literal and on a deeper psychological level.  Hopefully you have enjoyed this non-review.  I promise, I will try to sprinkle some more articles that are more news-worthy as time goes by.  Thanks for taking the time to read this slight rant about a fictitious Hobbit.   Drop a line and let me know what you think.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

Epic

“Epic” Epic_(2013_film)_poster

Animated films these days are getting better and better.  From “Toy Story” to “Epic“, these films are becoming more than just “cartoons for the big screen”.  Allow me to state clearly, I am not a fan of the “Ice Age” franchise.  I cannot abide the lazy-mouth voice-over work by John Leguizamo as the sloth.  And I don’t like the art work.  Just my opinion, but it looks very juvenile.  May that’s the way the artist’s wanted it?  Who knows?  Regardless, not my cup of tea.  Pixar has been making masterpieces though with movies like “Up” and each of the “Toy Story” films.  I haven’t seen “Planes” or “Monsters University” yet, but I am sure I will before long.

“Epic” is from the creatures of “Ice Age”, so I was not optimistic.  However, it was better than expected.  The whole estranged father-daughter relationship was barely developed.  The 3-legged dog was a quirky touch, but cute.  There was an awesome Queen of the Forest that SHOULD have been a Disney princess kind of character – seriously Disney, how did you miss this opportunity?  She was voiced by Beyonce – which was a little odd (and she ain’t in the film long) but she was awesome for the time she was in the film!  There’s an obvious attempt at a romantic storyline (which doesn’t ever get off the ground too well).  There’s the silly comedic relief courtesy of a slug and a snail.  And the villains look fairly gnarly.

That’s the quick brush-over of the film.  Nothing too memorable there.

The filmmakers kind of missed 3 things in looking at “Epic”.  #1) If you want to do a love story, take the time onscreen to develop it and focus in on it.  #2) If you have some mystical fascinating thing happen to the main character in which she magically shrinks to become the size of the “tiny people’, please EXPLAIN WHY.  #3) When presenting villains that are out to rot the entire forest – allowing you an opportunity to speak to deforestation of this planet – please take the time to delve into it.

These are the areas where “Epic” failed.  It could have been so much more of a film had they just focused on one of those 3 things and taking their time with it.  But no, the filmmakers decided to throw all of it into the film blender and hit “HIGH”.  Sadly, the end result is a film that you can see had potential, but failed to complete its noble quest.

It’s times like these that I wish I could have been in the focus group or test audiences to screen the film.  If you want to say the villains are bad because they are out to turn the green, growing world of the forest to ash and rot, then don’t tell us – SHOW US.  Don’t say they are part of the balnce of all life and then portray them as “the bad guys”.  If they are part of the balance in nature, then I think you are  A) shooting WAY over the heads of the younger audiences, or B) you have confused the adults that care about the story.  (I fall into the latter category…I think.)

So, instead of developing a love story and throwing some song & dance numbers a la’ Disney, they only sort of dance around the perimeter of it.  You have the main characters kiss before it is over, making us foolish audience members think this is going somewhere, and then you have them return to their normal lives.  Oh, I did forgot to mention that normal for these two would be 1 is now a giant “stomper” and the other is a wee tiny “leaf man”.

Okay, so they failed on the love story.  They failed at presenting a proper villain in any clear-cut manner.  They delivered only so-so on the comedy, and the rest is fairly cliche’.  So, what are you left with?  Not much unfortunately.  Like I said, it had potential, but it just didn’t complete itself.  Get this though, the film was estimated to have a $100 million budget…and it grossed just over it’s budget.  How sad is that?  For that much money, you should be turning in something pretty …epic.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.