Thursday, August 22, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

[Reviewed on June 4th, 2013]

I saw this last weekend and it was pretty good.  I tried to keep this review as spoiler free as possible.  Hope that you all get a chance to see it so that, similar to Black Swan, it would be interesting to hear your take on the spoiler areas.  In any case, my short movie review:

Main Takeaway
It's like Star Trek awkwardly asking Star Wars out to Back To The Future 2's Enchantment Under the Sea dance but getting rejected because Star Wars is going out with Brokeback Mountain and thinks Star Trek has bad breath.  Recommended, definitely in IMAX if you have the chance

  • Lots of starship porn (you know, lots of hero shots of the Enterprise, not actual porn)
  • Lots of lens flare (but disappointingly not as much as the 2009 version)
  • Nice throwbacks/homages to the original series movies
  • Nice male bonding between Kirk and Spock (like I said, no actual porn!)
  • Space battles!  Pew pew pew!
  • Scotty has some of the best scenes
  • Benedict Cumberbatch is a badass villain; better than Nero, Sherlock definitely has this steely stare that would send shivers down V'Ger's core
  • A good number of contrived moments that almost breaks your suspension of disbelief.  Sure all of the movies have them (I mean seriously ... whales?) but there are some in the movie that were a bit too convenient
  • Where Star Trek (2009) had a bright and hopeful vibe, Into Darkness definitely is heavy (there's that word again.  Is there something wrong with Earth's gravitational pull?)

There is an episode in Lost where one of the characters (Desmond) realizes that he can travel through time.  However, while he has the power to alter things, there are some things that, no matter what you do, cannot escape their unalterable fate.  You get the feeling when watching the 2009 Star Trek and this movie:  the events from the first movie (alternative timeline) carry over to this movie, where echos from events in past movies (the canon timeline) reverberate in Into Darkness.  Things might have changed but it doesn't alter their fate (Kirk captaining the Enterprise to what happens at the end of Into Darkness).  Similar to the alternate 1985 in Back to the Future II, where everything was all weirdly dark and scary looking (Biff's casino, Lea Thompson in old age makeup), this Star Trek alternate universe is everything that you know about Star Trek but a strangely corrupted and almost menacing version.  Unlike the first movie, which was a Spock-centric, "I miss Winona as my mom" story, this is more of a Kirk-driven, "Revenge is a dish best served cold" storyline and to be honest, I like it since you really buy into each character's motive that often lead to some kind of breathlessly crazy action sequence ...  even with the glaringly contrived moments (Dislike #1).

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch
Written By:  Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Directed By:  J.J. Abrams
Genre:  Action/Science Fiction
Rated PG-13

Mini Movie Reviews - April 2013 Edition

[Published as email on April 14th 2013]

I've been watching movies but haven't had time to write formal reviews.  For the record, the movies I've seen lately are:
  • Jurassic Park 3D - I saw this the first time when I was teaching in Japan and saw it at a small rinky dink closet of a movie theater.  I wasn't too overwhelmed at the time and even after countless viewings on VHS and DVD, I thought of the movie as unremarkable.  But now, seeing it in 3D, it's actually a pretty good film and the 3D effects are exploited for full impact.  As a side note, another older movie, Top Gun, also came out in 3D but do I really want to see a bunch of guys with their shirts off playing volleyball in 3D?  Verdict:  Matinee but make sure to see it in 3D.
  • Olympus Has Fallen - solid action movie.  It's pretty much Die Hard in the White House.  You know the scene in Die Hard when the Hans character is threatening the Takagi character with a gun pointed at his head and when he blows his brains out, you see the splatter effect on the door?  I remember seeing that when Die Hard first came out and thought "holy shit ... that's brutal".  Well, Olympus Has Fallen must have at least 10 splatter effect scenes and while effective in showing the viciousness of the enemy, it doesn't really carry the same "holy shit" feeling that Die Hard did.  Verdict:  Matinee.
The following I saw on Blu-ray:
  • Zero Dark Thirty - this was a good film but shifts into high gear when they raid Bin Laden's compound.  Verdict:  see it for the last 40 minutes
  • Argo - it's like the Players meets Zero Dark Thirty.  Verdict:  I liked it.  I would definitely see it, especially for the last 40 minutes
  • Skyfall - in this Daniel Craig era of Bond, this was better than Quantum of Solace but not as good as Casino Royale.  Verdict:  I liked it, but the last 40 minutes was a bit tiresome
  • Life Of Pi - my expectations for this movie was really low but turned out to be pretty awesome.  Verdict:  I really like it, especially the last 40 minutes
  • The Hobbit - I saw this in HFR (high framerate) + IMAX 3D when it came out December of last year.  It had the same LOTR vibe to it but not the same momentum that Fellowship had.  I know the Peter Jackson decided to break the book into three films instead of two and while I applaud his effort, the extra filler makes it feel bloated (kind of like the last handful of scenes in Return of the King).  Verdict:  I still liked it but it takes Bilbo 40 minutes to get out of the Shire.
  • Les Miserables - I never read the book or watched the play.  I liked it but I guess I was expecting a Disney-esque type of musical, where characters suddenly burst into song at the most in-opportunistic times.  Verdict: there was more than 40 minutes worth of singing.

The Hunger Games

[Reviewed April 11th, 2012]

My team's morale has been in the pits lately since all of us having been working long hours on getting our work out the door.  To boost morale (and to get out of the office), we decided to watch "The Hunger Games" at the Pacific Science Center, which houses a real IMAX movie theater, unlike those converted-to-pseudo-IMAX screens that you'll find at your local multiplex.  Reviews for the movie have been pretty good and having enjoyed reading all three of the books, this was a movie that I was looking forward to seeing.  So, how was the movie?  Here's my short movie review.

Main Takeaway
A capable book-to-movie translation that delivers on most of the key scenes but doesn't deliver on making it an engaging experience.  Verdict:  matinee, if you're interested; otherwise Rental; not worth seeing it in IMAX.

  • Very faithful to the book … almost to a fault
  • Beautiful location shooting in western North Carolina
  • Some scenes that you've imagined when reading the book looked better on film (train ride to the Capitol, training sequence)
  • I like popcorn

  • Tons of needless, fidgety shaky-cam scenes.  Makes a Michael Bay film look downright sedate.  Watching it in IMAX didn't help since we sat close to an awesomely large screen.
  • Key action scenes were edited in a hyper-Michael Bay style of whiplash quick-editing, which masks the violence but makes you wish barf bags were provided
  • Some scenes that you've imagined when reading the book looked much worse on film (Cornucopia, Capitol citizens)
  • The actors did a good job in the film but their performances were really wooden.  Not Phantom Menace bad but not as lively as you would have expected.  Not sure if this is the fault of the actors, director or the film producers but I didn't feel a lot of chemistry between each of the characters.  I will say, however, that there was one brief moment of brilliance when the MC (Stanley Tucci) is interviewing Peeta and the interplay between them works well.
  • For a book that kept me wanting to read what would happen in the next chapter, I didn't get the same sense of suspense and anticipation with the movie.
  • I ate all of the popcorn

Whether it's Harry Potter or the Twilight series or even the Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan films, part of the fun of watching these types of movies is seeing how well (or not so well) the producers were able to translate the book to a feature film.  The introduction to Diagon Alley and when Harry gets his wand where two early scenes from the series that made me realize that I was in for a treat when I watched the first Harry Potter film.  For Hunger Games, I didn't get the same vibe.  I think the producers, actors and directors all had the best intentions of making the book into a badass movie but it came off more as a made-for-television movie.  This might have been intentional since I heard that the director wanted to keep the movie on or under budget and didn't want to make it into an over-the-top movie with violence/gore, explosions and such.  The book has Katniss processing a lot of stuff in her mind but the movie has the more difficult challenge of making those inner thoughts into outer actions or words for other to hear and react.  Unfortunately, we don't get that and it's unfortunate since the producers had a great opportunity to really make the movie stand apart from the source material.  Instead, we're left with blank stares and listless actions that makes it difficult to really empathize with the characters.  Maybe they'll do a better job with Catching Fire.

There's been a number of discussions online (both movie reviews or reviews of the books) about how Hungry Games is very similar to the Japanese novel/movie Battle Royale.  I've never read the book or watched the movie but it would be interesting to see it if it they are very similar.  Personally, I thought Hunger Games was similar to the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, The Running Man.

Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Written By:  Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins (based on her novel)
Directed By:  Gary Ross
Genre:  Adventure/Science Fiction
Rated PG-13

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

[Reviewed on December 18th 2011]

I saw this over the weekend, just after seeing Brian's Twitter feed that he saw Mission Impossible over the weekend as well and mentioned that Tom Cruise does a lot of running in the movie.  Agreed, the man knows how to run gracefully onscreen.  But the big question is:  did you like it so much that you felt compelled to climb up on Oprah's sofa and start jumping up and down while proclaiming your love for the movie?  In any case, here is my short movie review.

Main Takeaway
Big summer movie in December.  Verdict:  Recommended, definitely in IMAX if you have the chance.

  • Lots of gadgets
  • 2nd act (that takes place in Dubai) worked really well
  • Tom Cruise doing his thing, talking in short, controlled bursts of verbage when he isn't doing some crazy ass stunt
  • Brad Bird (director of the Incredibles and Ratatouille) makes a fun, action packed movie.  Disciple of JJ Abrams, without the lens flare
  • There were a good number of quiet moments mixed in with big, bombastic actions scenes
  • Sawyer from Lost is in it
  • The Dark Knight Rises trailer played before the movie
  • Long running time
  • Could easily have been mistaken for a James Bond movie
  • While it didn't make me want to go out and buy a BMW, all of the BMW and Canon branding was somewhat in your face.  Not as blatant as The Island or Transformers 2 but still there.
Out of all of the Mission Impossible movies, this is the best but that's not really saying much.  The first one (directed by Brian DePalma) tripped over its own plot twists but had some memorable action scenes.  The second one (directed by John Woo) didn't really have any great action scenes and didn't have much of a plot. I felt for John Woo (Hollywood version) who was trying his best to imitate John Woo (Hong Kong version) and failing miserably.  The third one (directed by JJ Abrams) was good since it focused more on the team players instead of just on Tom Cruise.  Oh ... and there were several good action scenes.  The fourth one works on the strengths of the third one and raises it up a notch.  Not all the way up to eleven but more like 9.  All of the action scenes involving the Burj Khalifa (the worlds tallest building in the world) in IMAX were vertigo-inducing cool.  If anything, it serves as a reminder as to why people pay an extra $3 to watch a movie in IMAX.  

Did You Notice
A number of iPhones were used by IMF personnel and would self destruct after a mission is assigned.  Does that reflect the quality of the product?  Of course, Brad Bird used to work for PIXAR who has close ties with Apple so you wonder if there was a little bit of product placement nepotism involved.  Having said that, there is one scene, right after Kremlin scene, where Ethan steals someone's phone to call IMF.  Right after using it, he throws it into the gutter.  Note that it wasn't an iPhone :-).

Starring:  Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton
Written By:  Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec
Directed By:  Brad Bird
Genre:  Action/Thriller
Rated:  PG-13

Black Swan

[Reviewed on December 23rd, 2010]

Main Takeaway:  
Queen Amidala goes from little girl to grown woman in a span of 100 minutes in an interesting spin of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hype, ballerina style.  Verdict:  Rental

  • Short, it was a little over 90 minutes so the pacing was quick and efficient
  • From a layman's standpoint, I thought the dancing was beautiful
  • This is really Natalie Portman's film; she nails the role of Nina
  • Mila Kunis' Lily provides a great foil for Nina
  • Some of the finer points of ballet, from the stretching, countless hours of practice sessions, to the minor nuances such as ripping out the soles of their shoes and burning the tips of the strings so that they don't fray, were great ways of showing the amount of physical, mental and emotional preparation needed to excel at ballet
  • Technical aspects (both the dancing and the camera tricks) were impressive.  How did they film those scenes with the mirrored walls and not get the camera in the shot?
  • I thought was the Mom character was going to be creepy/domineering and it was but luckily, it didn't venture into Mommy Dearest territory.
  • Very subtle take on puberty, with the wings coming in and growing out the little girl bubble that Nina lived in
  • Very subtle riff on the Wolfman/Doctor Jekyl and Mr. Hyde story

  • The whole "was it a dream" thing felt too "Fight Club" for me.  
  • The girl on girl action was meh.
  • This is probably the Winona fanboy in me saying this but Winona Ryder's character was hardly there.  Sure, she has a disturbing scene in the hospital towards the end but her performance didn't convince me that she was this spectacular ballerina.  Too bad there weren't scenes of her trying to do some complex moves but falter because of age, or lack of skill or some kind of detriment that forced her out which forces Thomas to force her into retirement.
  • From a non-ballet perspective, I'm not sure why Nina felt that she had to be the Black Swan in this particular production.  If she felt that she wasn't up to it, couldn't she have waited until the next production of something else?
  • So, Nina slams the door on Mom's fingers and then Mom refuses to wake Nina up for the big, opening day of Black Swan.  You see Mom pouting on the couch while Nina complains to her about not waking her up.  And yet, towards the finale of the Black Swan production, there is a shot of Mom out in the audience.  I guess it's possible that despite being abused by Nina and not wanting to do anything with her anymore, Mom still cares for Nina and goes and buys a ticket (or got one from Nina already) and went to see the show.  But still, seeing her in the audience was a bit jarring for me.

Overall, I was entertained but I wasn't blown away by it ... certainly not Best Picture nominee blown away, I was far more entertained with Inception, Toy Story 3, The King's Speech, and The Social Network, especially Inception.  I think part of the frustration of the movie comes from Nina's slow progression from White Swan to Black Swan/Girl to Womanhood.  It doesn't really kick in until Nina and Lily start getting chummy towards the last act.  The scene where Nina blows off her mom and goes out drinking with Lily is, to me, the only point in the movie where you're rooting for her.  In all of the previous scenes, I really wanted to relate to Nina, especially the scenes with her mother but didn't make a strong connection until towards the end.  Perhaps that was intentional but I felt the character development was too slow, especially for a movie that is about 100 minutes long.

Starring:  Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Written By:  Mark Heyman, Adnres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin
Directed By:  Darren Aronofsky
Genre:  Drama/Thriller
Rated R