Thursday, May 28, 2009

Angels & Demons ***

Angels & Demons
*** out of ****

Who would have thought that a Harvard symbologist would have such a cool life? Robert Langdon returns (with a better haircut) as the next Indiana Jones-wannabe, played to perfection by the brilliant Tom Hanks. Angels & Demons is the sequel to the 2006 smash hit The Da Vinci Code, even though the book was a prequel. (Practically no knowledge of the first movie is needed to understand this movie, although you still may not understand it if you have seen the first one.) Ron Howard is a quality director who has made a summer popcorn movie. The result: a very intelligent dumb movie.
After the Pope's death, four cardinals are kidnapped and will be publicly executed at 8, 9, 10, and 11:00 at various places in the Vatican. At midnight, Vatican City will be destroyed by an antimatter bomb. It appears an ancient scientific cult called the Illuminati is behind the attack, seeking revenge for a centuries-old murder of four of its members. Naturally, the Vatican police call Robert Langdon to help them, you know, because Dr. Jones wasn't available. They also enlist the help of a physicist who helped create the antimatter, the beautiful Dr. Vetra, because there are practically no other women in the movie. Ewan McGregor is dashing as the Camerlengo (the Pope's replacement while they are choosing a new one). Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas has a breakthrough performance as the trigger-happy assassin, as scary as he is deadly. The plot has them all zig-zagging around the Vatican several times, making the film feel slightly restrained despite the epic way Howard shoots the scenery. Hans Zimmer's score is overactive but beautiful and haunting. The plot is kind of predictable, but the end has multiple twists and shocks that will make you re-think the whole movie once it's done.
I would say this film is more exciting than The Da Vinci Code, but not as good a film. It's obviously fictitious, but slightly more relevant, as a main theme of the film is the coexistence of science and religion in this world, made most memorable by a monologue McGregor makes to all the cardinals. The film is all about history, but is a breathless action film that tries to make history look much more exciting. Langdon is always searching for something in history in order to solve a very immediate crisis, a strange formula for a film.
Despite all its obvious flaws, the film is made with grandeur and pizzazz, it's very watchable, and there's just no beating Hanks' acting. But be aware: it is rated PG-13 but really pushes the boundaries. There is lots of blood and violence that would be extreme for children or queasy viewers.
I would recommend this film to everyone who liked The Da Vinci Code, fans of the Dan Brown novels, and people who like intelligent thrillers.

You can watch the trailer here:

Monday, May 25, 2009

Lost: Season 5

Lost: Season 5

Note: This will NOT be a spoiler-free post.

By now, everyone who watches the TV show Lost has seen the season 5 finale, so I am free to talk about it without anyone telling me I spoiled the show for them. If you haven't seen the finale, please see the opening disclaimer.
In short, season 5 was not their best season. (I give season 1 that honor, the only season to win the Emmy for Best Drama Series.) Turning into territory that will begin to wrap up the show, you'd think that they would answer a lot of questions and bring the whole mystery into perspective. Wrong. This season actually introduced more questions than it answered, making watching it week-to-week very frustrating. The episode where the Oceanic Six got on the plane was particularly frustrating to me because NOTHING was explained, it just all conveniently came together, and explanations just came later. Precious screen time was devoted to answering these questions that we did not care about, ("What lies in the shadow of the statue?" we care?) when we would rather see more story and more of our characters.
Last season left off with revealing how the Oceanic Six got off the island, with the boat blowing up with Jin (supposedly) still on board. It also reveals that Locke is the one in the coffin in the future, meaning somehow he will die. Jack is convinced that they must all return to the island. This season starts off only moments later, with Jack teaming up with Ben to find everyone, leading Kate to leave Aaron behind and everyone getting on the plane one way or another. Back on the island, Locke, Sawyer, Juliet, Daniel, Miles, Charlotte, and the rest of the survivors are experiencing flashes that transport them through time at random- forwards and backwards. Sawyer even witnesses Claire giving birth to Aaron. After- surprise!- Jin being found alive, Charlotte's death, and Rousseau's team landing on the island, they are reunited and Locke uses the wheel to leave. After that, they find out they are in the 1970's and they join the Dharma Initiative. Sawyer- who is being referred to more and more as James- takes on the alias LaFleur and leads the security force. Daniel leaves the island in the sub. Flash forward three years, and Locke ends up in the read world (he traveled through both time and space) and finds everyone who left, excluding Sun but including Walt, and unsuccessfully tries to convince them all to come back. Ben finds him and kills him after he gets vital information- the whereabouts of Eloise Hawking, Daniel's mother- and makes it look like suicide. The Oceanic Six return to the island with Locke in a coffin, but Jack, Kate, Sayid, and Hurley vanish and travel back to the 70's to rejoin Sawyer's group. Sun, Ben, and the now-resurrected Locke stay in the present with the new plane crash survivors. Daniel returns to the island and attempts to stop 'the incident,' a legendary Dharma happening that will kill lots of people. He intends to use an H-bomb to do this. He is killed by his younger mother, and Jack takes his place, believing it will change the course of time and reverse everything that's happened. Complications ensue, and Juliet sets off the bomb at ground zero, apparently killing herself instantly. In the present, Locke finds the myserious Jacob, who we see for the first time, and forces Ben to kill him. But, the people outside- in a reveal that copies and mocks the reveal at the end of the fourth season- show everyone Locke's body that was found in the plane, in the coffin. So, either the Locke that's walking around is a phony, or he got a new body. That's where the confusing season ends.
Let's start with the characters, which the producers of the show love to mistreat. Charlotte is killed fairly early on. Not one tear shed. Why? Because no one cared about her. She's one of the very few main characters that never got her own flashback episode. (Libby was another such unfortunate soul.) We never knew anything about her, and the fact that she hadn't been on the show that long made her death just a plot point rather than an emotional moment. Second, where the hell was Claire? Last season, she wandered off into the jungle to follow her dead father and left her baby on a rock. Sounds like something she would do. And she was in maybe one scene this season, just in a flashback. The producers have said they'll bring her back next season and explain what's been going on. Bullshit! They played the same game with Michael, who disappeared for season 3 and reappeared hastily in season 4 only to die a few episodes later. In that instance, his story was not worth the wait of a year, and I don't think Claire's story will be worth that wait either- they needed to explain it immediately, and they didn't. She's an important character and her absense is strongly felt. (Don't even get me started on Walt- the producers practically cut him out of the show after season 1, and he was one of the most interesting characters. Now the actor is too old to go back and film scenes from what happened to him while he was gone.) I like the new side of Sawyer- he did a lot of maturing this season and is a much better leader than Jack ever was- but I hate the Sawyer/Juliet romance. They are complete opposites, and barely interacted before this season. Totally contrived. Also, the one thing most audience members were waiting for never happened: the Sun/Jin reunion. Alas, after the finale, they are no closer to being reunited than they were at the beginning of the season. Even something that was given to the audience turned out to be a disappointment: we finally see Jacob but learn nothing about him, except that like Richard, he doesn't age and has seen the castaways at different points in their lives prior to the island. So, he's the leader and he sought them all out. Why? And why did they cast a young man with blonde hair to play him? He looks like he belongs on a biker gang, not the leader of this magical island. And then he's promptly killed off. How anti-climactic.
The finale was so muddled (and had so little action) that it really doesn't leave much for the final season. I'm a big fan of the show, but honestly, after that, do I really care what happens next? It seems obvious that Daniel was right- whatever happened, happened- and with the dropping of the H-bomb, they just caused the incident instead of preventing it. How did none of the characters see that coming? Most of the audience must have guessed it.
Still, with all its faults and audience-losing techniques, Lost is still great television. Witness: any scene with Hurley is bound to be the best scene in the episode. My personal favorite: when he is caught writing the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back with improvements. ("Face it, the Ewoks suck, dude.") Its continued use of the cliffhanger ending makes the show addicting, and when it does have an action sequence, it's worth the wait. This season focused more on sci-fi and mythology than it did on characters or action, but the show's strengths still shine through its murky weaknesses.
Season 6- the final season- starts in January. Be sure to tune in, or you'll be lost in the crowd.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Terminator: Salvation ***

Terminator: Salvation
*** out of ****

"I'll be back."
This immortal line is sadly, very true for the Terminator franchise, which, like the evil machines themselves, just won't die. Salvation is the fourth movie in the series, although this one is very different from the original trilogy. For starters, it's the only one without Arnold Schwarzenegger, or any other cast member from the earlier films.
The movie opens in 2003, where a death row inmate signs his body over to science right before being executed. Fast forward to the year 2018, years after Judgment Day, when the machines launched nuclear bombs on humans. Now people are scattered and hiding in the shadows, while the machines grow stronger and the human Resistance is the only hope for mankind. Christian Bale plays John Connor, a high-ranking member of the Resistance that is either looked at as a prophet or as a joke. After a mission that ended badly and left Connor as the only survivor, they discover a radio signal that can turn the machines off, the perfect weapon the humans have been looking for. They devise a plan to use it to cripple the enemy.
Meanwhile, the death row inmate comes out of nowhere, not looking a day older and not knowing what year it is or what has happened in the time since he died. Newcomer Sam Worthington is this inmate, Marcus Wright, the new badass and true hero of the movie. Wright's body was taken by Skynet and he is now a hybrid Terminator, with a human brain and heart, but with a metal skeleton and a computer chip. He has no idea of this and thinks he is simply a human, and tries to help with the Resistance. Wright meets up with a teenage boy, who turns out to be Kyle Reese, and a young, mute girl they call Star. Anton Yelchin (man, what a summer he's had!) plays Reese with determination and a steady head, clearly meant to grow up to be a great warrior. Star is awesome, always knowing when a machine is nearby, and always handy with exactly the right tool needed for a particular job. After a Terminator attack, Reese and Star are taken prisoner, and Marcus meets up with a gorgeous woman from the Resistance, Blair, who leads him to Connor. But when Connor sees what Marcus actually is, he has him chained up even though he just wants to help. Connor decides to enlist Marcus to find Reese, because as anyone familiar with the franchise knows, Reese is actually his father and his survival is vital to the future and the human race.
The extension of the franchise beyond its expiration date was a bad idea to start with, and it made the story less than exceptional. The film has a poor opening, but it eventually gets going and starts loading on the action sequences with several gasp-inducing moments. Its main flaw is supposed to be its greatest asset- Bale plays Connor in much the same way he plays Batman, with a gravelly voice and a reluctant heroism. The film gives us no reason to care about our main character, and he seems to have no layers other than what he yells at his superiors. Worthington is the real gem here (he actually has more screen time than Bale, and much more to do) and he is a worthy replacement for the classic Ahh-nold. His character accepts what has happened to him and quickly takes up the action hero robe, allowing his good looks to be blown to bits in the process.
Like a typical summer film, the story leaves something to be desired, but the special effects are fantastic and the action sequences are breathless. It's a very watchable film, as long as it doesn't try to connect itself with the earlier films, like with a title sequence that mimics the first film's, and the resurrection of the legendary line, "I'll be back." The film isn't bad, but maybe they should rethink that statement of coming back before the franchise ends up terminating itself.
I would recommend this film to everyone who liked the original movies, and who like action films.

You can watch the trailer here:

Sunday, May 17, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine **

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
** out of ****

Creating lots of sequels, prequels, and spin-offs are the new trend in Hollywood. Often they serve no other purpose than just to extend a big, money-making franchise. Wolverine is exactly that: just an excuse to make more money by using a popular character from a popular franchise.
Hugh Jackman plays the title character (his fourth time doing so) in much the same way as he played him in the original trilogy: as a tough guy who likes one-liners and to stare ferociously. Cue the slow-motion shot of Jackman as a complete badass walking away from a giant fireball. The movie opens with him as a child; we learn his name was James Logan. Less than two minutes in, he discovers his mutant powers- his healing power and his claws made of bone, he accidentally kills his father and goes on the run. (Apparently he didn't know it was his father. Why?) His friend, who turns out to be his brother, Victor, goes with him. So, less than five minutes in, we have problems with story logic. Victor has the power to grow his fingernails out really long, and then kill people with them. Wow, that' More like gross.
They fight in all the American wars together until they're discovered as mutants and a man named Stryker (a one-note villain played by Danny Huston) recruits them on a mutant team to hunt down adamantium and kidnap mutants for experimentation. Logan doesn't like the work, so he quits, leaving his brother feeling betrayed. He finds a girlfriend, pretty Kayla, and lives in a log cabin with her. Their perfect life is quickly disrupted when Victor finds them and kills her, sending Logan on a revenge quest. To aid him, Stryker makes medical history by infusing liquid adamantium onto his entire skeleton, which makes him indestructible and also gives him metal claws.
The film doesn't have much going for it, so it adds in the usual array of diverse mutants from the comics. Victor eventually becomes Sabretooth from the first movie. Ryan Reynolds plays Wade, who is supernaturally good with samurai swords. There's also Agent Zero, who is supernaturally good with guns. (Sense a pattern?) Kevin Durand plays an indestructible Blob, plays a Nightcrawler-like teleporter except with a cowboy hat, and Dominic Monaghan has a small role as a mutant who can control electricity. A young Cyclops appears briefly in a high school and is captured by Victor. Taylor Kitsch gives an impressive performance as Gambit, the best new character, who can turn a deck of playing cards into deadly weapons. But, the film makes it very clear that none of these guys matter except for Logan and Victor, the two most uninteresting characters in the movie.
Some questions are answered, and a lame ending ties it back to the other films, but the thing is: this movie is completely unnecessary. In X2, Wolverine learns pretty much the whole story from an older Stryker (played as a much more complex villain by Brian Cox) and Wolverine himself decides he doesn't need to know any details because he's satisfied with the life he's chosen with the X-Men. This movie didn't offer us anything new about the character or about the universe, except to die-hard fans. Visionary director Gavin Hood tries hard, but the film just can't be saved.
I have to remind myself that this is just a summer film intended mainly for kids and young teenagers. The story itself doesn't matter; the action does. And yes, it does deliver with several good action sequences, making the film just barely watchable. Sadly, at the end, you just know they're going to make more of these lame prequels just because there is more money in it. (X-Men Origins: Magneto is supposedly in the works.) If they wanted to make a successful origin movie, it simply needed more of the X-Men.
I would recommend this film to fans of the X-Men movies and comic books, and people who like simple action films.

You can watch the trailer here:

Friday, May 15, 2009

Star Trek ***1/2

Star Trek
***1/2 out of ****

Let me start out with a disclaimer that I know is instant death to me if anyone reads this who is a true Trekkie: I am a Star Wars fan.
When I heard there was going to be a new Star Trek film, I didn't care and didn't want to see it. Even when I heard it would be directed by J.J. Abrams, the mastermind behind Mission: Impossible III, the best in the series, and the guy who jump-started Lost, my favorite show, I still remained skeptical and didn't feel like wasting my time.
I have never seen any of the previous Star Trek films, or any episode of any of the series. I have, however, seen all of the Star Wars films- multiple times- and thought that any other sci-fi epic taking place in space was merely a wannabe of George Lucas' films. I forgot that Star Trek came first. And that liking Star Wars and Star Trek doesn't have to be mutually exclusive.
Abrams has rebooted the franchise in the same spirit that made Batman Begins and Casino Royale such big hits and so unique to their respective franchises. It's not necessarily a prequel to the original series, as it promises new adventures for the future of the franchise- and there will be another franchise, believe me. Work on a sequel has already begun.
The movie opens with an attack on a Federation ship by a giant Romulan mining cruiser, killing its captain. One George Kirk steps up and saves the lives of most everyone on board by making them evacuate. Among those evacuated was his wife, who was in labor delivering their son, the legendary James T. Kirk. We see brief scenes from both Kirk's and Spock's childhoods and then fast-forward to Kirk being convinced to join the Starfleet Academy, instead of being a genius bum on the road in Iowa. Fast-forward another three years, and Kirk and Spock are bitter rivals at the Academy. Kirk cheated on the simulation that Spock programmed, and Spock- he of no emotions but a galaxy's worth of logic- believes there is no way the little punk kid could ever be a captain.
But a Romulan attack on Spock's home world of Vulcan puts Kirk's court martial on hold, and soon everyone is beaming up to ships- all of the important characters onto the brand-spankin-new U.S.S. Enterprise- and warping off into deep space. Kirk realizes this attack is the same as the one that killed his father and warns the captain. When they arrive at Vulcan, they find the same giant Romulan ship attempting to destroy the planet, in a method far more ingenious than the Death Star's methods of destroying planets (point and shoot). Giving away anything after that would be spoiling.
The casting for this film deserves a special Oscar, as it is simply genius, down to the last extra. It's more than just re-casting these legendary roles with younger actors. They've reinvented the entire characters and made them much more real. Newcomer Chris Pine (who IS this guy?) plays Kirk as a smartass with a thing for the ladies that doesn't evoke the slightest essense of William Shatner. Zachary Quinto plays the ultra-logical Spock like he was born for the part, letting the difficult dialogue tumble out of his mouth effortlessly. Zoe Saldana plays the sexy-smart Uhura, who surprisingly, has a thing for Spock and detests Kirk. Karl Urban is Dr. McCoy, Kirk's friend at the Academy, who has a fear of space travel despite working in space. John Cho and Anton Yelchin play Sulu and Chekov, respectively, the two pilots who take lots of crap from Spock and the captain. Simon Pegg plays Scott, later Scotty, as the Scottish (haha) engineer genius who, frankly, should have had more screen time as he is by far the funniest part of the movie. And Eric Bana plays Nero, the Romulan villain bent on revenge against Spock for a mistake he has yet to make. Bana is the perfect villain for a movie like this- creepy, cool, and genuinely evil.
The cast is also sprinkled with unknowns and big stars, all who serve their purpose and make the screen sparkle. Look for Winona Ryder as Spock's mother, Tyler Perry as an admiral at the Starfleet Academy, and of course, Leonard Nimoy as an older Spock, playing the part that made him a legend with grace and dignity.
Star Trek was always imaginative; it was always successful in telling good stories; and it was sometimes successful in wowing the audience with its visuals. But it has always been something that has been incredibly dorky, something to be mocked, and something that often should have been better. This new movie has given the old stuff a boost of hip and cool, with a lot of amazing special effects and a healthy dose of humor all the way through. With its almost non-stop action, you will quickly forget this was something you used to laugh at. I hate to say it, but this reboot is better than all three Star Wars prequels combined.
The film isn't perfect, of course. It skips over three years of our charcters at the Academy, that we wish we had seen at least a little bit of. It has a time-traveling subplot that actually could have been more complex. And Yelchin, with his thick Russian accent, seems to be overacting a bit, but who cares? The flaws are there, but its strengths far outweigh its problems. My main concern is making sure the sequels and TV shows that follow are just as good as this movie.
I would recommend this film to Star Trek fans on any level, from hard-core Trekkie to mildy interested; and fans of sci-fi and action films.

You can watch the trailer here:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Soloist ***

The Soloist
*** out of ****

It is fitting that a movie about music is really all about sounds. The streets of L.A. come alive with cars honking, people muttering to themselves, and the lone musician playing his sad song on a two-stringed violin.
Robert Downey, Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a writer for the Los Angeles Times whose head is constantly filled with the sound of his own voice writing and re-writing stories to put in the paper. After a nasty bike accident that messes up his face, he meets a homeless black man playing the violin in front of a statue of Beethoven. This man is Nathaniel Ayers (by the end of the movie, you WILL learn how to spell his name), played beautifully and with complete realism by Jamie Foxx, the man who also brought Ray Charles to life. Nathaniel is the classic definition of a crazy bum, as he's dressed like he's onboard an alien spaceship, has a greasy slab of hair combed too tightly, and talks non-stop nonsense reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. The thing that sets him apart from the other bums is his incredible musical ability. He has a need to play constantly to keep his mind at ease and has an obsession with the works of Beethoven. Through flashbacks we learn he went to Julliard and dropped out after he developed schizophrenia- supposedly- and was tortured by the voices in his head. Music was the only thing he could concentrate on. He ran away from home and lived on the street, where the never-ending noise of the city kept the demons at bay.
Steve thinks he can help Nathaniel and writes a story about him. From there, their friendship takes off, with the expected laughs and pitfalls along the way, ending happily as it should. It is at time cliche and at times very unique, one of the latter being when Nathaniel declares that Steve is his God.
The film is rarely silent: it is always filled with orchestral music, overlapping background noise and dialogue, or just the buzz of the air. This aspect roots the film in reality and gives the director (Joe Wright, Atonement) lots of opportunities to fill the audio with whatever he wants. This is also the film's weak spot, as it often goes for the overly weird and symbolic, including a Fantasia-like sequence with just colors representing the music notes. At the end, the movie seemed to be more about music and what we hear on a day-to-day basis than it is about the two men and their story.
Regardless of the film's focus, it is still very watchable, with many funny and touching moments, vignettes from the supporting players as a diverse group of homeless people, and incredible performances from Downey and Foxx. In fact, there isn't a single member of the cast who doesn't do an amazing job with whatever screen time they have. The two leads would have surely been nominated for Oscars had the film opened in November as originally planned. Sadly, it was delayed due to financial reasons (it's not just homeless people feeling the recession; it's affecting big movie studios too) and by the time Oscar season rolls around, this film will be a distant memory.
Maybe that's the way it should be, because the film itself plays out like a complex memory; it's erratic, skips back and forth, and focuses only on the important parts.
I would recommend this film to people who like simple dramas, lovers of classical music, and fans of the stars.

You can watch the trailer here: