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.

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.

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

Conan the Barbarian

Conan the BarbarianConan_the_barbarian

In the early ‘80s, fantasy and sword-and-sorcery genre was the rage. If you were looking for tough guys in loin cloths fighting with really big swords and scantily clad women as the female leads, then this was the “age” for you. Sadly, a lot of that genre was filled with ugly, pathetic attempts to make epic films without an inspired vision. What I mean is, those films were nicknamed “hack-and-slash” because that was the only real substance to them. They featured brutal violence and cheesy costumes, not to mention some horrific acting. In almost all cases, these films were never treated as serious and they almost always were filmed overseas and often in Italy. I admit, I have seen (I think) every single one of these films.

In 1982, there was the film that kicked it all off: “Conan the Barbarian”. It would be the film to launch Arnold Schwarzenegger into stardom (although not his 1st film). Produced by Dino DeLaurentis and directed by John Milius, the film chronicles the tale of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Arnold is MASSIVE in this film, maybe not as huge as he was in “Pumping Iron” but gargantuan by any measure still. However, I dare say that this film was not designed around the concept of Arnold showing off his huge muscles while wearing furry boots and a loin cloth. Yes, this film had substance.

Conan the Barbarian” may not be the best acted movie that Arnold ever did (I would recommend “Terminator” and “End of Days” for that), but it had a story. The story follows Conan from his tragic past through slavery and his profession as a Gladiator to finally his quest for vengeance. Along the way, he makes friends, gets crucified, finds religion, and falls in love. Now, does that sound pretty epic to you? The best part about this film is that it has a great tale woven into the action sequences. You almost have to be in a very peaceful state of mind to sit back and really “get” the deeper moments of this film, but they are there I assure you. I will always remember Conan’s famous “prayer” that begins with the line “Crom, I have never prayed to you before; I have no tongue for it.”

Beyond the story, there was the supporting cast. James Earl Jones is one of the greatest and most-overlooked villains in cinema history as Thulsa Doom. His performance is hypnotic and his costumes were inspired to say the least! His lines are just plain classic! “Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark; Now they learn why they fear the night.” I guess I am just a sucker for villains that know how to speak and are utterly creepy. The legendary Mako stars as a wizard and narrator of the film. King Osric is played by none other than Max Von Sydow. Needless to say, the supporting cast helped this movie succeed where others of its kind would fail utterly in the coming years.

A key to all great fantasy genre films though is always the music. (Special Effects are great but they show their age as time goes by and that can detract from the overall quality of the film.) The late and truly great Basil Poledouris scored this film and it is MAGNIFICENT! I just got this on CD from my awesome wife for Christmas and I think I have listened to it at least 30 times since then!

Conan the Barbarian” paved the way for such drivel as the forgettable “Deathstalker” series and “The Barbarians”. However, it also opened the door for things like the wondrous “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the “Harry Potter” franchise. You cannot imagine the absolute crap that was labeled “fantasy” in movies that came out in the ‘80s, which those of us who are fantasy fans will remember all too well. I think I cried when “Fellowship of the Ring” finally came out. It was a LONG wait I had to endure before the fantasy genre was finally taken seriously.

Conan the Barbarian” gave me my 1st taste of the genre and I loved it. I still do after all these years, and I find that there is still depth within this “hack-and-slash” flick! It isn’t for the faint-hearted with gratuitous violence and gore, and I don’t think anyone under the age of 14 should watch it due to nudity and some thematic elements. Otherwise, if you are a fan of fantasy and haven’t seen this movie, I recommend that you give it a shot.

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

 

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: WolverineX-Men_Origins_Wolverine

Billed as the 1st hit of the Summer Season, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is not as enticing as I was lead to believe.  I had high hopes of such too.  When I 1st saw the trailer for this film, I figured it was at least going to be as good as the 1stX-Menmovie.  However, the film didn’t quite reach that goal.  I suppose it was a combination of factors, but almost everyone that I have spoken too about this movie thought about it exactly as I did.  The general consensus: it was okay, but that’s it.

I like Hugh Jackman as the title character.  However, I know he’s not as short as he’s supposed to be.  I know he is actually rather tall for the part, but it’s the acting that counts.  I really liked him in the first 2 movies of the X-Men trilogy.  He isn’t even bad in this one.  The real failure of this movie is the pacing.  It moves so fast through more than a century of this character’s history that it is almost like saying “yeah that’s really important”.  Funny, but I thought that was one of the coolest parts to Wolverine.  He’s a beast in the comics, made more so by the thought that nobody really knows how old he really is – including himself!  The film instead sweeps all of this information by you so fast that if you look into your popcorn you may just miss an entire era!

Live Shreiber plays Wolverine’s brother Sabretooth in the film.  Nobody ever explains anything about the character.  He’s sort of evil right from the start, even as a boy.  No one bothers to explain what exactly is his power is other than running, climbing, and extending his own claws for effect sake.  There are a lovely couple of moments to the film wherein Sabretooth and Wolvie get into it, but not to the level I was hoping for.  I liked him, but I wanted to see him really terrorizing the crap out of everyone and anyone that he came across.  Sabretooth is also not quite what I envisioned him to be.  A little black trench coat?  Really?  I was hoping for more of the look he had in the 1st X-Men film.

The rest of the characters are utterly forgettable.  Ryan Reynolds brief moment as Wade was pretty cool, but for the few moments of screen time that he gets, he really could have been anybody.  I have no idea why half of these characters are included in this film.  It seems like people just wanted to see Gambit in action so they came up with some lame excuse to throw him in.  Emma Frost makes an appearance, but it was once more weak and far too brief.  Less is more in films such as these, meaning that you can give us the essence of the character in a much more cohesive fashion if you simply narrow your focus.  The whole idea of this film was to do a story about Wolverine, right?  And yet, the writers felt the need to plug in as many cannon comic book heroes as they could to the tale.

Regardless, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” fails to scratch the potential it offered.

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

 

X-Men First Class

X-Men: First Class”  X-MenFirstClassMoviePoster

Okay, so this isn’t cannon.  Big deal, I say!  So what if it isn’t Beast, Cyclops, Marvel Girl, and Angel?  It has Professor X, Magneto, Moira McTaggart, and the Hellfire Club.  But really what this movie has is some fine actors carrying off what could have been absolute garbage and making it a success.  That’s how I see it anyway.  James McAvoy as Charles Xavier was the 1st step to making the film work.  Too many times, a studio rushes to put out another film to further the franchise without really seeing how it could impact the rest of the franchise.  In this case, FOX didn’t do that.  They said, “Okay so we can’t do the original canon storyline, but we can do something that captures the essence”.  I think they succeeded in making a pretty solid film.

A couple of points I really liked about the film: James Fassbender as Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.  Magneto is one of those characters that you can’t help but empathize with.  He looked the part COMPLETELY, especially when hunting Nazis in Argentina.  I don’t know why, but I always saw Eric Lensherr (Magneto’s real name) as completely right in advancing and advocating Mutants as the next higher form of evolution.  In other words, Eric believes that mutants are the superior race.  I mean, why WOULDN’T you think that if you had super powers?  And some of these powers are incredible!  Take for example Magneto himself.  He can do some pretty magnificent things with his mastery over magnetic fields.  Now, I don’t see a victim of the Nazis SS scientists suddenly becoming just like them – that part I don’t buy.  Regardless, Fassbender does a great job with the character and I would be interested to see if FOX decides on another “prequel” film like this to show Magneto more.

I liked Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique because of the simple argument that Eric poses to her about how she shouldn’t have to change to “blend in”.  She brought that simple argument to the core of her character and you could see how it works both within the cannon character idea and this film.  Lawrence does a fine job in making you consider her plight in all of this.  That deserves praise.

I also liked Beast, but more as Hank McCoy.  Once the full transformation happened, the actor looked stiff and sounded liked he struggled under the prosthetic makeup.  January Jones makes Emma Frost look good on screen, but she is utterly flat and unappealing.  It’s sad that so many X-Men fans clamor for this character to get the royal treatment she deserves, but so far nobody has done her justice.

I really liked Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, leader of the Hellfire Club.  In the opening sequence, he was mesmerizing!  I take my hat off to one of the most prolific actors of my generation.  This was a stellar job!  He wasn’t quite menacing, but he was brilliant.  There’s just something perfect about Shaw as a villain and Bacon captured that on film to a “T”.

What I didn’t like were the no-name other “original” members of the X-Men.  Havok is thrown in because they didn’t want to screw up Scott Summers (aka. Cyclops) introduction in other films in the franchise.  (FYI: Havok is actually Scott Summers younger brother in cannon.)  But I didn’t really care about the discrepancy – it was the acting that was completely lame.  The same holds true for the adapting mutant and the stripper with gossamer wings known as Angel.  The Hellfire Club cronies were done better by far – they barely spoke!  Less said the better when you can’t act or you don’t have the screen time necessary to develop a character.  In other words, the “X-Men” in this movie are cardboard cut-outs that don’t need to be in this film.  If you can’t devote the time on-screen to put in the work required to believe in the characters, then don’t put them in.  Less is more in this case.

Anyway, I thought “X-Men: First Class” worked on a lot of levels.  You will have no problem following the main characters, and you can ignore the other lesser characters completely.  If you want to rank in among the rest of the FOX X-Men franchise, put it above “X-Men: the Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, but below “X-Men 2: X-Men United”.

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

Watchmen

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Suffice to say, but every comic book-reading teen from the Eighties has read this ground-breaking Graphic Novel.  Calling that masterpiece a “graphic novel” isn’t enough – even saying that sounds lame.  “Watchmen” changed the landscape of comics forever.  It was all thanks to Alan Moore, the author.  This was not Superman or Spider Man.  These were new heroes, and not quite what you’d expect heroes to be or even look like.  Oh, the immediate comparison of Night Owl to Batman is apparent, but what else seems the same?  Not much.

So, this book (let’s just call it that) comes out in 1986 and it spelled the end of an era.  Comics at that point were pretty bright and colorful and the climate was changing much more so than the comic book companies were aware of.  “Watchmen” broke the image of comics for all time.  Frank Miller would continue this trend in his brilliant work “The Dark Knight Returns”.  Suddenly comics that had not accepted the darker storylines and imagery stirred up by the eighties themselves found themselves with disillusioned readers and low sales.

The teens of the eighties demanded more of their comics.  The artwork was much improved from the seventies and a lot of talent was springing up all over the world.  However, the storylines were suffering.  We, that teenage crowd of the day, wanted darker heroes – and mostly it was because we were seeing the world without blinders.  The reason for that change: Alan Moore’s work called “Watchmen”.  Folks, there was an underground movement years ago involving a smiley face button with a drop of blood on it.  Nobody that had one explained it: we just assumed if you knew, you KNEW.  Moore had crippled the sugar-coated view of the world, and believe it or not, a lot of teens listened and read intently.  We understood.

Yes, I was one of “those” kids.  I still have my bloodstained smiley face button from back in “the day”.

So, of course I had to re-read the whole story prior to going to see the movie.  Folks, you don’t need to read this story prior to seeing the movie.  It’s ALL in there.  For those of you who were fans back in the eighties of this “comic book”, the wait was worth it.  This is a dark film.  There isn’t a happy ending.  The true hero of the story kills criminals without mercy – at least that’s my opinion.  There’s sex, rape, murder, brutal scenes of grotesque violence, naked blue men, and some very disturbing imagery.  Realistically, this film should be a NC-17 rating.

There are 3 actors whom you may recognize in this film, but for the most part they are unknown.  At least, they were to me.  They are perfect for their roles!  So, the casting is top notch, which really helps a film like this one.  The actor who plays Rorschach is brilliant – of course, the role is just written that way.  None the less, the portrayal is flawless!  Even Moloch and Hollis were well cast parts, fulfilling all readers’ dreams and wishes.

The imagery was ripped straight from the panels of the comic, which makes the film FEEL like you are reading that masterpiece.  It contains everything from Dr. Manhattan’s glass “house” on Mars to Dreiberg’s basement lair for “Archie”.  It is both a relief and not a surprise that the creators of this film didn’t mess around.  Instead, they just got it right!

If you are a fan of the book, then don’t delay: go and see this movie right away!  It is worth every penny to see this one.  It is not an “adaptation”; it’s just the book in movie form!  I know that’s kind of hard to imagine, but it’s true.  Go see it and you tell me if I am wrong.  There are a couple of minor things that were changed in the film, but nothing that changed the tone of the movie.  As I say, these are minor changes.

If you have not read the book, you just need to prepare yourself for a long movie.  At nearly 3 hours in length, “Watchmen” is a sumptuous visual feast.  It is a story that spans at least 3 decades, so there is a lot of ground to cover.  There are flashback sequences in the movie to explain both character storylines and give the story a full telling.  If you don’t like that kind of thing, then you won’t like this movie.

If you prefer a more heroic tale, where the good guys win out over a clearly defined villain, then don’t go see this movie – you won’t enjoy it.  If you thought Chris Nolan’s “the Dark Knight” was a pretty terrific movie, then you might enjoy this film.  Keep in mind this: criminals don’t get arrested in this film, they die.  If you liked “the Punisher” with Thomas Jane (we won’t even bring up its “remake”), then you’ll appreciate “Watchmen”.

The bottom line: this film has a power to it than cannot be matched by other super hero movies.  I found it rather fitting for today’s audience to be exposed to this movie.  There are a lot of kids out there who have grown up with “darker” comic book heroes (like Dead Pool and Spawn), and I hope they do somehow convince mom or dad to take them to this.  Parents, you have to know what you child may be able to handle.  Take that into account prior to making that decision.  Will this movie change the way people will view super heroes?  Maybe.  Who knows what the film’s effects will be?

In those prophetic words I will end my review: who watches the Watchmen?

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

Valkyrie

Valkyrie”  Valkyrie_poster

Sometimes you wish the best for certain directors because they seem to possess a real gift.  Bryan Singer is one of those for me.  Since “the Usual Suspects”, I have been rooting for Singer.  When I heard he was doing “X-Men”, I was thrilled.  I also wasn’t disappointed.  He proved himself quite adept at handling the super-hero genre.  Heck, he managed to direct a sequel that was as big – if not bigger – than the original in “X-Men 2”.  He may have been misguided when he ditched on the 3rd X-Men movie to make “Superman Returns”; the film was such a dud that even DC Comics admits to thoughts of remaking that film already.  So, when I heard that Singer was getting a crack at “Valkyrie” – a film based upon the real events surrounding the assassination plot against Hitler by his own officers – I thought it would be a slam dunk of a success.  When I heard the talent discussed as being in the film, I was even more excited.

I should have expected the inevitable outcome though.  I mean, after all, we know that Hitler was not assassinated.

The talents of the actors in this film are impressive.  Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy (whom I absolutely love!), Kenneth Branagh, and the enduring Terence Stamp are all just phenomenal!  These men are just plain brilliant actors.  No matter what they do, they always leave an impression.  Their resumes are HUGE and exceedingly wondrous.  Even Tom Cruise can be fairly brilliant, depending on the movie: I look no farther than “Born on the 4th of July”, “A Few Good Men”, and “The Last Samurai” for proof of that.  I saw “Valkyrie” as a chance for Singer to get back up to where he belongs.  I wanted him to have another killer of a hit.

I love WWII films.  I eat them up.  (Ask anybody that knows me how many times I have watched “Band of Brothers” for proof.)  I may be one of but a few folks out there that can actually watch “the Longest Day” again and again.  It’s very exciting subject matter to me for many varied reasons.  If there is a film centered on WWII out there that I have NOT seen then it is a RARE film.  Needless to say, I thought the combination of Singer as a director, the storyline, and the amazing cast was a perfect combination.

Sadly, the film doesn’t live up to my expectations.  It wasn’t a bad movie.  It just wasn’t a great movie.  It lacked something.  Maybe it was the story?  The plot fails, Hitler lives.  Rats.  Then again, we already knew that – since that’s what really happened.  Was I simply looking for too much from this film?  Maybe so.  You have to admit though, it sure sounded good.

When it is all said and done, I will continue to root for Bryan Singer in hopes that someday he will achieve another critical success like “The Usual Suspects”.  “Valkyrie” may not have been it, but it wasn’t a bad movie.  I suppose I was just expecting more.  A note to all directors out there though: if you have Kenneth Branagh in you movie, don’t limit his screen time to 15 minutes.  That is infuriating.

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

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