Review: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

GI Joe Retaliation

My biggest problem with 2009s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was that it says just too generic. G.I. joe was always about colourful characters and ridiculous world domination plots and while it certainly had the latter it definitely lacked the former.

Retaliation fixes that first problem, mostly by casting Dwayne Johnson but also by adding Ry Stevenson and Jonathan Pryce. That’s not to say its perfect though, as it also adds Adrianne Palicki and D.J. Cotrona, the former of whom seems to phone in everything except her admittedly smoking hot body and the latter of which does pretty much precisely nothing except occasionally admire the formers admittedly smoking hot body.

Jonathan Pryce in particular has a ball playing Zartan playing the president, but it’s Johnson who anchors the film and he does a great job doing it. He’s perfectly suited to a movie that’s all about the action and explosions, not because he’s bad but because he buys in more than any of the other Joes that aren’t killed in the first reel. That would be a spoiler except that its in the trailer.

Channing Tatum is also nice to see and he has good chemistry with Johnson, and when Bruce Willis shows up he’s his usual Bruce Willisy self. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not exactly extraordinary either.

The plot is pretty basic and picks up a few years after the last film ended. Zartan is still the president. Joes still fight the bad guys. Cobra still wants to take over the world. Many explosions ensue. Zartan has the Joes and attacked and the few that survive fight the good fight.

That’s pretty much literally it. This movie isn’t rocket science it’s a toy commercial, remember? Cobra takes over the White House after the Joes are eliminated and the proceed to try to take over the world. They come pretty close too, and even blow up London –also not a spoiler as it’s in the trailer, but what’s not in the trailer is that they’ve actually clearly targeted Birmingham on the map– which elicits … well, nothing really. It happens and then no one ever mentions it again.

Also, Snake Eyes is half way around the world for most of this and leads his own subplot for the first and second act. Yes, the nameless, faceless, silent guy is the main character in his own separate thing for most of the movie. Of course if this movie were trying to sell character development that’d be a problem but since it’s trying to sell ninjas fighting on mountains and men with guns blowing things up it’s not really a problem at all.

The film’s main problem then is that it’s not really tense. There’s no real feeling of peril in the film. Even with 99% of the Joes dying in the first act it never feels like any of them are ever in any real danger. It’s not boring either, the action is well executed, it just falls somewhere in between. There aren’t any real surprises except possibly what new cars and guns they are going to show up to the next scene in.

So that’s it really. G.I. Joe: Retaliation is not a bad film and if you like movies with explosions you could do a lot worse this weekend. For those of you who had the toys growing up you can rest easy that yes this at least looks and feels like a G.I. Joe movie which is a welcome change from the previous one. There are plot holes you could drive a tank through but when it comes right down to it? I had fun watching this movie and that’s all that really matters with a movie like this.

**Rating: 7/10 ** [rating=7]

Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is more just The Pretty OK Burt Wonderstone

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

I’d like to preface this by saying that I went into this movie with incredibly low expectations. I think that might be why I had an OK time watching it. But that’s the problem really, is that it’s never more than just an OK time.

The structural problem here is that when it comes to the plot there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, and when it comes to the magic it’s nowhere near as inventive as I imagine it could have been.

What do I mean? Well have you seen that movie where the main character as a kid was bullied and then found a way (in this case magic) to overcome his awkwardness and then grows up into a total douchebag, then loses everything and has to learn how to be a nice guy again to regain everything and be better off than before? Also, the only girl who has ever rejected him and endures YEARS of his being a total ass and then starts to forgive him at the first sign of him not being such a dick? Also also, he has a falling out with his best friend and partner over his inability to change but eventually reconciles once he’s learned to be a good person again while they’ve spent time apart?

I could go on, but I don’t have to, literally every character arc in this movie is something you’ve seen before and none of it is particularly well executed, which is a shame when you consider the list of amazing actors they’ve assembled.

Steve Carell is as good as he’s ever been at selling his deadpan reactions to the ridiculous but his character is all over the map, both a scheming evil genius asshole and an idiot AND just a normal nice guy, and the film can’t seem to decide which it wants him to start out as or grow into.

Steve BUscemi is the best friend and the film just wastes him. He’s basically Donny from The Big Lebowski again, the character everyone just abuses without thinking.

Olivia Wilde is the girl, and she’s great. By far the most engaging and relatable but her story arc is also by far the most predictable and in the end she’s really just around to let us know that Steve Carell’s character arc is over. Which she does by sleeping with him. I would have warned you thats a spoiler but you’ve seen this movie before so it isn’t.

Alan Arkin also shines, as per usual, as the aging magician who originally inspired the main character and then also coincidentally shows up to help reignite his passion. Again, he’s great, but it’s just so damn predictable.

Jim Carry is the bad guy, a Criss Angel type douchebag with hints of David Blaine’s endurance tests and self harm thrown in. I suppose it’s something that I really did hate his character, that’s the point of an antagonist after all, but I also can’t remember laughing at much of what he did. One gag in the middle and his big final trick and that’s really it.

And then there’s the magic itself which you’d think they’d use to great comic effect but they just…. don’t. They try a few times but it always seems so forced and obvious that it falls flat and the one time they really go behind the scenes of a trick it’s the intricacies of the big comeback trick and it’s during the credits and while it was genuinely funny it also completely undercuts the ending.

I feel like this is a movie that might have been hampered by it’s rating. If it had been R rated they might have been able to actually explain the dichotomy of smart and stupid that Burt Wonderstone is with something like alcoholism and had it make sense, they might also have been able to go behind the scenes and show some of the nitty gritty of the business, but none of that happens.

Instead we’re left with a kinda funny movie instead of the hilarious romp that it could have been.

Rating: 3/10
[rating=3]

Review: 21 And Over

The problem with comedy is that it depends on so many subtle factors. Each of the vital elements – script, cast, direction, editing – must be both strong in itself and also interconnected with each other. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing that lifts the spirits and throws smiles around freely. When it doesn’t, when each element fails individually and disrupts the whole, you’re left with a bitty, unstructured mess that leaves an extremely sour aftertaste. Unfortunately, 21 And Over is one of the sourest comedies I’ve seen.

The premise is one you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever seen any film starring a group of college kids that include an achiever, a sweary idiot and a introvert with a big day approaching. Miller, Casey and Jeff Chang (who is always referred to in full) are three high school best friends who have found College has pulled them apart in more ways than just geography. On the day of Jeff Chang’s 21st birthday – an important date in America that finally releases alcohol from the shackles of secrecy and fake IDs – Miller and Casey arrive at their old friend’s residence to treat him to birthday hijinx. However, Jeff Chang has a lifechanging interview for Medical School set up by Harsh Asian Father, and refuses to go out so as to be fresh and ready by 7am. Of course, his resolve disappears and extreme drunkenness soon leads to a race against the clock to get Jeff Chang home in time, incorporating spanking, punching and nudity along the way. Basically, it’s The Hangover – The Early Years.

Which would be fine, if the constituent parts amounted to anything. There are no new stories, it’s true, but the way in which stories are told has the ability to excite through creative choices. This narrative electricity is wholly absent in 21 And Over.

One of the main issues is that the three main protagonists don’t have any kind of connection on screen. Compared to something like Superbad, their relationship never feels genuine, or that it stretches past the words on the page. Maybe it’s the casting, maybe it’s the heavy-handed direction and script; something seems to be holding the actors back, even though they’ve each proven very capable in their other films. Having the heart of the movie so unbelievable makes their journey together barely interesting.

The narrative structure and scripting is equally frustrating. Full of convenient jumps and side-steps, the main characters often behave in a way that does not endear them to the audience but instead leaves us scratching our heads at the way it unfolds. Lines are predictable and practical rather than cheeky and inspired, while characterisation is a standard journey from A to B. Set-ups and scenarios are garish and unattractive, the movie happy to propagate the myth that US Colleges are mostly full of flashing girls and dickhead jocks. It’s very hard to connect with a story that constantly dissuades personal connection.

It’s technically a mess, too. Apart from the previously mentioned ineffective direction, at some points the editing and ADR is so bad that the flow of scenes completely breaks down. Full of dubbed lines over non-moving mouths and jarring drops in pace, it’s odd to imagine how it was not corrected before release.

It’s not a total disaster, though. One or two of the lines break a smile, and chief Douchebag, Randy, has a couple of male followers who are genuinely hilarious in their literal narrative of his every action. More of this kind of curveball humour would have added much to the blandness.

By the end, you find yourself frustrated at the lack of imagination in the turn of events. The conclusion, a seemingly perfect opportunity for Harsh Asian Father to redeem himself in the face of his suicidal son’s newfound honesty, simply ends with straightforward violence and parental rejection. However, this squandered opportunity just matches what has been happening for the previous ninety minutes, and so the viewer is just left with rolling eyes at the missed potential.

If you feel the need to watch this kind of against-the-clock College comedy, there are much better titles to choose from. In fact, just watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off again, even if you’ve seen it before. I guarantee you’ll have a much better time, and anyway, you’ve seen everything 21 And Over has to offer many times before in much better ways. Avoid.

 

Awesome Classics: Top Gun

Top Gun

Yeah, that’s right. Top Gun is a classic.

The problem with talking stunt something that everyone has seen is that everyone has seen it and everyone already has an opinion, and Top Gun is certainly a polarizing film among my circle of friends. In case you hadn’t already guessed though: I love it.

In case you haven’t seen it Top Gun follows Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a US Navy fighter pilot as he competes to be the best of the best at what he does at Top Gun, the navy’s elite fighter wining school. He shows up cocky, gets beaten, endures some loss, falls in love, and in the end is the hero. When you lay it out on paper it’s a fairly straightforward formula action movie. It’s that way on screen as well.

That is to say that the movie is pretty shallow, especially by today’s standards, but it does make a cursory effort to be more than the shallow testosterone fest it seems to be. Two thirds of the way into the film when a beloved supporting character dies it shows the main character reeling and vulnerable from survivors guilt and regret. If it breaks from the mold at all it’s that in the age of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone churning out movies like Predator, First Blood, and Commando it dared to actually show it’s hero mourning instead of just shedding a single tear before throwing his head back and screaming at the heavens, invoking super human power to overcome the ridiculous odds he’s about to face.

Yes, I’m saying that the hero of Top Gun is in fact human whereas most 80s heroes were not.

Tom Cruise was 24 in 1986, he’s hardly at best form here, but he’s better than the movie needs him to be, especially when it comes to the switching back and forth between the ultra cocky public persona that Maverick cultivates and the unsure private persona you see when it’s just him and Goose, his best friend.

But then there is the rest of the movie. A movie with awesome exciting dog fighting, with dude-bro alpha male rivalry, with 24 year old Tom Cruise falling in love with 29 year old and taller than him Kelly McGillis, with a zillion catch phrases and and awesome high five/low five when the main characters score a point in volleyball. And yes, the volleyball features men oiled up and playing in the sand.

There’s a lot of people in this world that will tell you Top Gun is shallow. That it’s thinly veiled homoeroticism. That it’s stupid. They aren’t wrong (well, they are wrong about the homoeroticism, the intended audience for that was the girl friends of all the dude-bros that went to see it), but none of that matters. At the end of the day it’s well executed and fun.

Recently I had the chance to see it in 3D IMAX in the lead up to its Blu-Ray re-release and it holds up pretty well. There’s something to be said for the shared movie experience, when everyone in the theatre is there and completely into the movie. Only a few times have I truly experienced this, but it’s amazing. The 3D, well, I could write a whole other article on 3D but it was OK, but blown up to IMAX proportions the film was amazing.

And all this is fueled by Kenny Loggins 80s pop rock anthems.

So is the whole thing cheesy? Yes. Shallow? Absolutely. Fun? Beyond a shadow of a doubt. If you’re one of the few people who hasn’t seen Top Gun, or more likely someone who hasn’t seen it in years, now is the time. Grab the Blu-Ray (or go to a screening if they are still happening near you), have a few beers, crank the sound and take highway to the danger zone.

Yeah, I went there.

Review: Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer

It’s been less than two hours since I walked out of Jack the Giant Slayer and I can barely remember what happened. That’s not exactly a good thing, is it?

Here’s the basic set up: Nicholas Hoult plays Jack who goes to the market and sells his horse for some beans that grow a giant bean stalk into the sky via which giants attack. Pretty straightforward, really.

The problem is that despite all it’s intentions, the movies just kinda boring. There’s some pretty cool set pieces but even though it kills off some characters –including ones I understood going in were major characters– it just never felt like there was any real peril, and the movie spends so much time going back and forth between the giants being farting, nose picking bumbling fools and menacing, angry, “let’s bite the head off this human” monsters that a tone isn’t ever really effectively set.

Similarly, Jack is chastised by his uncle for being a lazy and easily distracted fool but as soon as the bean stalk grows he immediately proves himself neither lazy, easily distracted or foolish. No development there, just a switch that gets flipped to serve the plot.

The plot itself is pretty thin and it’s not really compelling at all. In fact, it’s almost like they came up with a bunch of ideas for things they wanted to see happen first and then wrote just enough of a story to string those things together and nothing else. It’s frustrating even, since there are just a few changes they could have made which yes, would have made the story a bit more cliche but which would have given Jack a better personal, relatable arc. I get the feeling they might have been avoiding the heroes journey on purpose but the end result is uninteresting.

If you’ve seen the trailer you might go in thinking that it’s going to be an effects extravaganza but it’s not. There are effects everywhere to be sure, but the giants don’t look good enough for me to have suspended disbelief enough for me not to notice that all the CGI is good but nowhere near being great.

In fact at the start of the film the back story is provided by Jacks father reading the legend of the giants which is played out on screen in what’s meant to be stylized animation but instead just looks like terrible video game cut scenes. You can see that they were going for something similar to the backstory sequence in Hellboy II but they missed the mark utterly.

It’s annoying too that the despite a pretty stellar cast I couldn’t really bring myself to care about many of the characters. Nicholas Hoult is fine as Jack and Eleanor Tomlinson is fine as the princess (yes of course there’s a princess) but Stanley Tucci is basically just being Slimeball Stanley Tucci here. It’s not terrible to watch but it would have been nice to see some experimentation. Bill Nighy is the same as the leader of the Giants. It’s a voice role to be sure, but it’s just Bill Nighy’s angry voice and nothing more. (side note: despite voicing over the trailer, Sir Ian McKellan isn’t in this at all that I could see/hear. Weird.)

The standout for me is Ewan McGregor who basically dials up the swagger to 11 and runs with it. He steals most every scene he’s in, and every time he’s not on screen I found myself wondering when he’d be back.

In my mind I like Bryan Singer. He’s made some amazing movies, two of which I count among my all time favourites, but everything he has done since X-Men 2 has fallen pretty flat. He doesn’t nail down a tone, his pacing is all over the map, and character development is at a minimum.

That’s not to say that there aren’t bright spots. Again, there are a couple of good set pieces, there are a few funny moments and there are some nice character moments, but all in all the film is just mediocre fluff. Not outright bad, just boring.

My question is this: how many more of these “let’s take an old story and go all M. Night Shyamalan ‘what a twist!’ on it’s ass” movies are we going to have to go through? Can we be done now? Please?

Meantime, if you want to see Nicholas Hoult act well then go see if Warm Bodies is still playing.

Rating: 5/10
[rating=5]

Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard

I’ve written quite a bit about this movie so for those of you who just want to TL;DR version that covers the important bits here it is:

  • A Good Day to Die Hard is fucking terrible
  • John McClane is even less relatable than he was in Life Free or Die Hard
  • Jai Courtney is alright, but if you’re a fan you’ll wish he had a different big break into movies
  • Die Hard is still the best Die Hard movie, and always will be (followed by “With a Vengeance”, “Die Harder”, “Live Free” and now “A Good Day”, and in that order)
  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead needed to be in this movie more

So here we go.

In 1988 John McClane was a different kind of action hero. He was an everyman, nor an adonis or a martyr or highly trained ninja/soldier/pastry chef, he was just a guy who was thrust into the position of being a hero by shitty circumstances. He got the shit kicked out of him, no one believed him when he initially called for help, and when he finally prevailed he was so beat up it’s amazing he could still walk.

All of this worked because not only was John McClane more relatable than every other action hero (and indeed went on to be the template for so many other action heroes through the 1990s and on to the present) but because Die Hard was also a well constructed film. It’s an action movie yes, but it takes a good half hour before any of the real action starts allowing for a lot of character development and plot set up that’s often missing from the bigger more bombastic action films.

Fast forward to 2012 and the sad fact is that they’ve now basically unmade the character and fit him every so neatly into the mould he originally broke.

John McClane is no longer an everyman, he’s an action god, casually sending a flatbed mercedes cargo truck into an e-brake spin to avoid an oncoming RPG or driving a commandeered SUV through a guard rail on an overpass, landing it on a moving semi truck with a car trailer and literally driving over traffic to get to the road below, all the while spewing off bad one liners which have clearly been added in ADR.

I can’t tell if Jai Courtney is terrible or if it’s just the material he’s given to work with. He plays the son angry at his absentee father bit alright, but it’s kind of unbelievable. Especially when you consider that the reasons John McClane Sr. was absentee were a) his mother kept moving him away and b) John MCClane has literally saved three major cities and the entire country at this point, so it’s not like he was gone because he was a deadbeat dad, but that’s the angle they play it from rather than the “you were there for all those strangers but not for me” angle.

And since we know he was there for those strangers, and his exploits are known to people in that universe, it makes no sense that the bad guys don’t seem to know who he is and don’t kill him immediately when they find out. But of course they couldn’t even if they wanted to because the bad guys are actually incompetent in this movie. Previous bad guys just underestimated John McClane, these guys are actually idiots.

The main henchman even goes off on a cliched and pointless monologue at one point, after having John and John Jr. tied up, and they tie John Sr’s hands in front of him so he can lunge at a bad guy when the moment strikes, and John Jr’s behind his back so he can reach the super secret spy knife/gun –which they previously gratuitiously showed him putting in his shoe– so he can cut his bonds and strike said moment.

Oh, and that bad guy? He’s meant to be malevolent but it’s so poorly executed that quite literally the only thing about him that I remember, let alone dislike, is that he chewed a carrot with his mouth open during his excruitatingly terrible monologue. That made me dislike him, but not for the right reasons.

This is the problem with structure of the movie: there are no surprises. Literally everything that happens is so obviously telegraphed that you always know what’s about to happen.

Live Free or Die Hard was not a great movie but at least it tried to be something. I mean, it tried and failed, but at least it tried. A Good Day to Die Hard feels like a movie that was made with a checklist. Big car chase? Check. One liners? Check. Kill a helicopter? Check.

It’s just a shame the checklist didn’t include “make this all fit together in any decent way.” Or maybe it did and they didn’t get to check that item off.

Rating 2/10
[rating=2]

Review: Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies

It’s worth pointing out right now that I’ve liked all of Jonathan Levines movies (that I’ve seen). In particular he directed a movie in 2011 called 50/50 starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen that went on to be one of my favourites of that year.

What I loved about that film was the relationship between the two main characters while Gordon-Levitts character dealt with cancer. How they interacted with and acted around each other felt very real and honest. Similarly in his previous film —The Wackness, a coming of age story set in 90s New York– the main character goes though everything you’d expect in a film like that but he manages to keep the whole thing feeling very grounded and real.

It’s fitting then how everything I loved about those two movies holds true in Warm Bodies, a film about a relationship between a girl and a zombie. Each of these films deals with relationships in awkward or extreme circumstances, after all.

Nicholas Hoult is “R”, a zombie literally shambling through life (or more specifically death) wishing that there was something more to do or be. Teresa Palmer is Julie, the daughter of the colonel who runs the city of survivors.

R and his best friend M, played by Rob Corddry, live at the airport. They shuffle around basically reenactign what little of human life they remember. Unlike most zombie stories they have basic motor skills and even the ability to somewhat communicate. R collects things when he’s out and about in the city and M signals to a barkeep that’s not there when he gets up from the stool he’s sitting on only to realize he doesn’t have to do that anymore. Both seem to realize that they’ve lost something in death and R wishes he still had the wherewithal to find it.

It’s one of their more wordy conversations that send them to the city where they cross paths with Julie and her group of volunteers out scrounging for supplies. In the melee the zombies kill everyone except Julie who R immediately falls in love with and saves and takes to the airplane he’s made his home in in order to keep her safe.

Throughout the second act we see Julie go from being scared to trying to figure out exactly what’s going on here and eventually developing a strong bond with R and slowly but surely restarting his heart and setting him on the path back to humanity before heading back to the city for the films third act where everything of course comes to a head.

Both Hoult and Corddry are great. It takes some skill to convey feeling in screen, it takes even more to convey wanting to feel but not understanding how to do it or communicate it. Hoult shines in every scene he’s in with Julie in this regard, whether R the zombie struggling to make her feel comfortable or struggling just to tell her that he doesn’t want to hurt her.

Corddry supplies most of the laugh out loud moments in the film but not in the way you’d normally expect from him. Normally known for being bombastic and over the top he plays his part reservedly, by necessity, and he carries it off well. Comedians often turn out to be great dramatic actors and Corddry is certainly on his way to greater things that just being the funny sidekick. Palmer as well is in good form, in fact maybe the best I’ve seen her so far. Dave Franco has a supporting role as Julie’s boyfriend and while he’s not perfect you can see why he’s starting to gain traction like his brother James.

John Malkovich is Julie’s father the colonel. While he doesn’t get much screen time or development really he does well with what he’s given and he’s always nice to see on screen.

There’s a lot to like here. From the innocence of the relationship to the unconventional way the film deals with zombies. It’s not as funny as you’d expect but there are plenty of laughs to be had merely because of the circumstance.

Again, as strange as it is to say it, the film works because of the honest way the characters deal with the situations they are in. Sure, this story’s star crossed lovers are separated by life and death but it still manages to feel real for lack of a better word. There’s plenty of opportunities where it could have gone slapstick and over the top but it never does.

It’s Romeo and Juliet but Romeo is a zombie and you should definitely check it out.

Rating: 8/10
[rating=8]

Review: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

I must admit that when I first started hearing about Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters I had some moderately high hopes. You see there’s a type of movie that I rather enjoy: the popcorn flick. You know the type; it’s a bit ridiculous, lots of one liners, actors having fun. We’re not talking about high art here we’re talking about fun. Fun at the movies. If you have been following us for any length of time you know that Simon last had this experience with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

We’re talking about the type of movie where you sit down, turn your brain off and enjoy the ride. I was disappointed by a couple of films that promised to be this last year. So how are we doing with the first big effort this year? Actually, pretty freaking good!

Director Tommy Wirkola’s resume isn’t that long but he’s best known for the horror comedy Dead Snow released a few years back about a group of kids being terrorized by nazi zombies. Thinking about that movie now it feels like a dry run leading up to this. Where that movie faltered mixing up the horror and comedy, this movie has a pretty good mix of action and comedy plus a healthy dose of blood and guts and gore to round things out.

The story is fairly basic. Hansel and Gretel survive the childhood ordeal slightly differently than you remember it from the fairy tale and end up orphan witch hunters who come to a town with a bunch of kids gone missing. Much anachronistic badassery ensues.

There’s not anything here you haven’t seen before though and at just over 90 minutes long there isn’t really time for anything you haven’t seen before either. This movie is short and to the point; what little back story we need is given in a brief prologue and then the beautifully animated credits and then we jump right into the story.

I think this is actually one of the films major strengths. Previous fairy tale re-imaginings I’ve seen that try to make sure you know they’re serious films end up boring. This movie doesn’t want you to be anything other than entertained so plot is kept to a minimum and action to a maximum.

And yet despite it’s predictability, it works. When things are revealed you’re not going to be surprised but I didn’t care I was busy enjoying a well staged fight, some well executed gore, or a zingy one liner.

Speaking of action and gore, there’s a nice blend of practical and digital effects at play too. Some things are obviously CG but there’s one big practical effect that I loved. I don’t want to spoil it (even though it isn’t really a secret it’s not in any of the marketing) but if you’ve listened to the podcast when this has come up you can probably guess what it is when you see it.

The film is rife with anachronism as well. The film seems set in the early 1800s but the weapons in Hansel and Gretel’s arsenal appear to be from anywhere from the 1860s to the 1920s and everyone speaks in a thoroughly modern mode of speech.

I’m sure a lot of these elements are going to wear thin pretty quick for a lot of you but they didn’t for me. Chalk it up to the films short running time or the fact that I actually like watching bad movies. Or both.

The films stars do pretty well with what their given. Jeremy Renner might be phoning it in but Jeremy Renner phoning it in is still pretty good. Gemma Arterton plays the whole thing as an over the top ass kicker and that’s actually pretty awesome. Famke Janssen isn’t amazing but her character is such a one dimensional bad guy that it doesn’t really matter. Bottom line here though is that it seems like everyone involved is in on the joke and as such it feels like everyone involved is having a blast making the movie.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is a good movie. Quite the opposite, it’s a bad movie.

Lets be honest it’s a movie based on a joke of a title and it does get repetitive. That said, I still had fun watching it. It’s a bad movie, but it’s so bad I enjoyed it.

Rating: 6/10
[rating=6]

Awesome Classics: Wing Commander (1990)

Wing Commander Title

I’m sitting in front of a blank screen. The computer is on, it just doesn’t display much beyond the letter C, a colon, and a blinking cursor. I type my way into a directory, load up a .exe file and wait while it performs memory checks before I get to fly off into space to shoot up the aggressors from the Empire of Kilrah.

It’s 1991, I’m 10, and I’m playing Wing Commander for what must be the one hundredth time. I don’t just mean I’ve loaded the game up that many times, I mean I’ve played through it that many times. Believe you me this is no easy feat; Wing Commander is not a short game.

It is a cool game though. Set in the 2650s Wing Commander puts you in the cockpit of a space fighter fighting an ongoing war between humanity and the Empire of Kilrah, a race of large bipedal cat people. You get to fly several different fighters over the course of the game, in several types of missions.

It plays out in full 3D space and was one of the first I remember doing so. Every fighter has it’s own cockpit details and strategies for flying combat. Each of the enemy ships (both fighters and capital classes) had their own distinct set of strengths and weaknesses as well. There’s no difficulty scale either so everyone who plays it gets as close to the same experience as can be given the fluid nature of the story (more on that in the moment). The graphics are sprites, not rasterized, however the game still looks amazing to my eye. The amount of detail they were able to cram in in an age where system resources were so limited is kind of amazing. The sound is all midi tracks, but they do sound great.

Wing Commander Rapier Cockpit

The cockpit (pictured above is the cockpit from the Rapier, the last fighter you fly in the game) is where the action happens. You go out on sorties to carry out various goals but you always get the chance to fight the fur balls. How well you fight them and accomplish mission goals dictates how the war goes in the system you are currently in and after a few missions your carrier, the Tiger’s Claw, jumps to the next system.

Here’s the brilliant bit though: if you win the current system you go one way, if you lose you go another. I have played this game dog knows how many times and I doubt I took the same route through the systems twice until I got really good at it (and even then not so much).

The game has two distinct endings (one where you win the war, one where you lose) and you can take any number of paths to get to either.

This is kind of awesome as it encourages you to accept your failures. Because you can fight your way back to the winning path at almost any point (or start to lose at almost any point) there’s no need to save your game and obsessively play each mission until you win it, just go with the flow and see how you do. You can almost count on not winning every system in fact, because there is one mission which is nearly impossible. I can only remember beating it once, but my ship was so beat up by the end that I couldn’t dock with the Tiger’s Claw, I had to eject and get picked up.

Even if you lose it’s nice to just enjoy the story; and there is a story. Between missions you go to the officers lounge and speak to two pilots sitting in the bar and the bartender. They give you some battle strategy, news on how the war is going, but all in pre scripted conversations between them and your character.

Unless of course they were killed in a previous mission. Now, other pilots don’t die unless they are on your wing, but the knowledge they have is sometimes incredibly useful. You get a new wingman in every system (and you’re usually reassigned to a new squadron/fighter) but if you’re out fragging hairballs and your wingman is killed you have to complete any remaining missions without them and you never get the benefit of their insight at the bar.

Wing Commander Medals

In addition to being transferred from squadron to squadron at the end of the mission set in each system, if you perform well enough you can also get promoted or awarded medals for valour.

The above screenshot was taken near the end of my most recent play through the game, major is the highest rank and I’ve been awarded multiple bronze, silver and gold stars.

I know there is a metric for how they are awarded but I don’t really care. They are kind of nice to receive, but they don’t affect the story. That screenshot could be in the last system to win the game or to lose. You can go the whole game without ever being promoted or awarded a medal and the story still plays out to the win or the loss.

There’s obviously a lot of nostalgia in this title for me, I’ve played it in some form since I was 10 years old. Don’t let my dad hear this, but 1990 was a long time ago and things have come a long way but I still fire up Wing Commander every now and again because I still love playing it. If that doesn’t mean it’s a great game I don’t know what does.

Wing Commander is still available, packaged with it’s 1992 sequel Wing Commander II: Wrath of the Kilrathi for Mac and Windows for about 6$ USD as of this writing so don’t take my word for it, fire it up and see for yourself what I’m talking about. You won’t regret it.

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty might seem like it’s come and gone already, but since it finally came out in wide release this past weekend, I finally had a chance to see it. It seems like the best place to start is the beginning, so let us start there.

A few years ago, Kathryn Bigelow was developing a movie about the search for Osama bin Laden. To that point, he had eluded all efforts to find him, and the film was meant to end at the [Battle of Tora Bora](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Tora_Bora “Battle of Tora Bora on Wikipedia”) where they had thought he was hiding, but ultimately they failed to find him.

The film was meant to end on an ambiguous note, sort of a “what do we do now?” type feel, but one day, the world found out that US Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden. Interestingly, the film wasn’t reworked that much, wasn’t turned into propaganda “America, FUCK YEAH!” movie.

And the result is pretty spectacular.

Zero Dark Thirty is a spy film but not what you’d normally expect from a spy film because the main character, Maya, isn’t jumping from rooftop to rooftop or saving the world from a mad man or ferreting out a mole; she’s diligently and tirelessly searching for a single man, using all the resources available to her.

As if we needed reminding of the situation, the film starts with a black screen with radio communications playing from 11th September 2001, something I found particularly effective. I’m not American, but I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when it all went down, as I expect all of you do as well.

The film then plays out the entire ten-year search in its gritty, gruelling and bureaucratic detail, spearheaded by Maya.

To say it’s an effective movie would be the understatement of the year. Simultaneously showing what they had to do, including torture, groundwork, and long sleepless nights, shows the toll on us all through Maya and Jessica Chastain weathers it like a champ. She’s already won a Golden Globe for the role, and she deserves her Oscar nod more than anyone else I’ve seen so far for the upcoming ceremony. But, make no mistake; the Oscar is hers to lose.

Everything in this film is utterly compelling. When we finally get to the final act of the raid on bin Laden’s compound by Navy Seals, the idea that realistic military tactics and execution thereof isn’t filmable in a meaningful way is shown to be false. In fact, any time anyone says this to you from now on, tell them to watch Zero Dark Thirty.

This film deserves to win all the awards it’s nominated for. It probably won’t win them all, but it should, and in addition to everything above, because it tells us what happened but doesn’t tell us how we should feel about it. The torture and humiliation is on screen, but there’s no heavy-handed speech about how it’s terrible but necessary or how it is destroying the country’s soul or any of that. Just, here it is, feel how you feel.

That, in and of itself with such talked about yet delicate subject matter, is a pretty major achievement.

Review: Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad

Ryan Gosling. Sean Penn. Josh Brolin. Emma Stone. Robert Patrick. Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Pena. Directed by Reuben Fleischer in a post World War II cops vs. Gangsters story. This is a movie I wanted to see from the moment I heard about it.

Set in Los Angeles and facing off against famed mob boss Mickey Cohen, the players form an elite and off the books squad of cops who at the behest of the Chief of Police (played by Nick Nolte) take the battle against organized crime right to the head honcho. They hit him hard and where it hurts.

Does this sound familiar? Yeah, it sounds a lot like The Untouchables. Too bad it’s nowhere near as good as The Untouchables.

Now hold up a moment, that’s not to say that this is a truly terrible movie, just that’s it’s also not a very good one. The problems are twofold, first there’s the issue of balance.

See, half the time it seems to be a serious cop drama complete with “are we doing the right thing?” moments and the rest of the time it seems like it’s trying to be Dick Tracy 2, complete with characters who are either stereotypes or caricatures (more on that in a moment).

Seriously. Sean Penn plays Cohen so over the top that he’s kind of hard to take seriously and Troy Garity is his main henchman who has a scar over his face that damaged his eye, and is credited as “One Eyed Assassin”. Meanwhile, Josh Brolin is the tough as nails, uncompromising lead detective and Ryan Gosling is the morally grey detective who needs to decide if he’s really in the game or not. The problem here is that the movie never commits to one tone. Is it light and fun or is it dark and serious? The answer is neither because it seems to try so hard to meet in the middle.

If any of this is starting to sound familiar again it’s because of the second problem: there’s pretty much literally nothing here you haven’t seen before. There’s two deaths on the squad and normally I’d consider that spoilery, but if you can’t tell which ones it’s going to be after each of their first scenes (and what the immediate follow-up is going to be) then you’re probably watching a different movie than I was.

The film has other problems as well. A one liner here and there is good, several one liners during every sequence is silly. The rest of the dialogue is pretty bad too, even the lines that sounded cool in the trailer fall flat in the movie itself and they’re trying so hard to be cool that no one gets any real development. Everyone ends up just being a pastiche of others you’ve seen before. The Hard Ass, the cowboy, the tech guy, the minorities struggling for acceptance, and the old man police chief.

Worse yet, none of the actors really have any chemistry together. Sure, Josh Brolin and Mireille Enos has some, but the home story is a sub plot and Josh Brolin talking to almost anyone else feels forced. Even Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone don’t really seem to connect despite having done so in other films.

There’s a lot to like here in the small details. The movie looks amazing, from the sets to the costumes to the hair and makeup, everything looks pretty spectacular actually. The story itself isn’t bad, and we all know Reuben Fleischer loves his slow motion shots. In the end though, the looks are just window dressing, the story is told with little nuance and terrible dialogue and the slow motion (and sped up) stuff just makes the pacing of the big final action sequence fall to pieces.

The scenes that do play well are the action scenes (not sped up or slowed down) but they almost feel like a different movie.

Gangster Squad was one of my most anticipated films of the year. Maybe because of that context I am being hard on it, but I don’t think I am. It seems to be a movie that was made to make a great trailer. Lots of one liners to choose from, beautiful people in beautiful clothes on beautiful sets, and lots of action (and it really does have a great couple of trailers). The problem is that they didn’t seem to be able to figure out what kind of movie they wanted to make or how they wanted to play it and the result is that the finished product is just a hot mess.

Skyfall – Our Two Reviews

Skyfall

We both saw Skyfall this weekend and felt compelled to write individual reviews. We each have a lot more to say about this film so look for the next episode of the podcast for more in depth (and spoilery) discussion. For now, here are both of our reviews in their entirety.

Premium Bond: Simon’s Review

You’ve got to feel a little sorry for Timothy Dalton.

1987’s The Living Daylights and 1989’s Licence To Kill saw him take over as iconic agent James Bond, rescuing the series from the latter campy efforts headed by Roger Moore. Dalton’s Bond was clearly a shift back towards the original spy of Fleming’s books, with serious realism creeping in and Dalton’s scowl replacing Moore’s insinuative eyebrow. They made money, for sure, but the latter was especially lambasted for being too serious in tone, too distant from the series’ preference for lightweight gadget fodder. The lengthy legal battle between MGM and Eon effectively killed his planned third outing, and the Bond reigns finally fell into the eager hands of Pierce Brosnan. I remember very clearly watching Dalton’s Bonds and really enjoying how the series’ new tone matched my own growing maturity. For that reason, he’s my favourite Bond. At least, he was – until Skyfall.

The first thing to note is that the story in Skyfall is actually compelling, interesting and twisty instead of being a mere backdrop for invisible cars and Playboy-level nuclear physicists. In a nutshell, a breathless pre-credits train-top chase leads Bond in pursuit of a lunatic villain – a character Javier Bardam savours so much in his portrayal – while using near-death as a catalyst for self-examination. All the main characters have skeletons in their cupboards, some more psychopathic than others. The aging cast is this time used front and centre as a reminder to us all that our bodies don’t always follow the vigor of the mind, and that sadness only turns into bitterness if stretched over decades. The chase unfolds in Istanbul, Macau and good old Blighty, the latter not filmed this beautifully in a long time.

Daniel Craig’s Bond resonated from the off in Casino Royale, finding an audience for his mix of seriousness and broken humanity. Craig lets us in on the journey from one point to the next, until we finally see that the assumed Bond “character” is as much a weapon as his fists or guns. It’s a clever, intelligent portrayal that’s subtle enough to not drift into melancholy. Craig’s casting was initially a hard sell, but it has proven to be a fine decision.

Skyfall sees Bond at his most resourceful and competent. The unfortunate side of both Casino Royale and the far weaker Quantum of Solace was that, as partial reboots, they really wanted to show you how Bond became this remorseless killer, a murderer for money. It took time for the character to settle into its rhythms, not helped by Quantum’s uninteresting story, but Skyfall doesn’t inherit any of these drawbacks. Here, Craig shows us Bond as a true agent, fielding ingenuity against bullets, never giving up even when the odds are stacked against him.

The other cast members are also steller. Judi Dench owns M more than ever, the extremely watchable Ralph Fiennes has great presence and even Ben Whishaw, as a new Q straight out of college, holds his own. The only downside is that the whole “Bond girl” aspect has been extremely downplayed. There’s a nice development involving Naomie Harris, but poor Bérénice Marlohe barely gets any time to shine. Flouting the girls around as Bond’s sexual conquests was certainly old-fashioned, but it did add a certain element to the Bond formula.

What a formula, though, and it’s crystal clear that director Sam Mendes absolutely understands it. From the thrilling car chase through Istanbul, a couple of stunning long takes (for both talking and fighting), through to a precisely staged finale in Scotland, every shot glows with style and confidence. There’s undeniable evidence that his experience with actors has brought out some career bests, especially the way Bardam exquisitely times the speech pattern of his bitter antagonist. Mendes also gives us time to wind down between set pieces. So many films get this wrong and hurtle along without any idea of calm before the storm. The script, too, has just the right mix of flavourful language with enough fan references to keep Bond purists happy for the next year.

It all builds to an amazing cresendo and positions itself as a solid base for the Bond films to come, even staging a final daring mini-reboot in many ways. It all seems so assured, so confident and rewarding; it’s hard to feel anything other than tingling anticipatory excitement when the closing credits gleefully announce JAMES BOND WILL RETURN. Just like it used to be, as it should be.

In Skyfall, we have the best Bond in years and a thrilling continuation of Craig’s interpretation. Actually, it’s not just one of the best Bond movies, it’s one of the best action dramas for a long time, with a main character that shows us how the reality of life should never have to keep us down for long. Timothy Dalton, my second favorite Bond, will be duly satisfied.

Bonding Experience: Matt’s Review

I am going to get this out of the way right now: Skyfall is a great film. Not just a great bond film, but a great film. It’s full of thrilling chases, great fights, and above all a solid story and superb cast to tell it.

Skyfall starts out like any great Bond film should, with a thrilling chase through a beautiful city using a multitude of vehicles. This, as with latter chases and action sequences are shot beautifully. The pacing is spot on, the camera works is amazing (thank the good sweet lord for the lack of Bourne style shakey cam) and the tension feels real. This is edge of your seat stuff! This leads into the classic Bond opening, and Adele’s “Skyfall” is a gorgeous song.

This opening sets up the basic plot of a list that shouldn’t exist falling into the wrong hands. You’ve seen this in the trailers, James Bond is back and he’s slightly worse for wear. It’s not often that Bond has been portrayed with a weakness but this weakness and vulnerability allows the character to grow in ways that The World Is Not Enough failed to really explore.

Many were unsure of Daniel Craig as Bond when he was first cast. Blond haired and blue eyed he didn’t fit the physical profile, and in both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace his Bond was a harder man. None of the gaget tomfoolery or the casual feel that none of the previous actors except Timothy Dalton had brought to the part. He had his quips, but most of them were played with a cold and cynical attitude. This certainly wasn’t your father’s James Bond. While I loved those movies, yes even Quantum of Solace, I sometimes felt that the films and Craig had gone too far in this direction. I’m happy to report that Skyfall has found the balance between old school casual Bond and new school gritty, real, cynical Bond, and that that is a wonderful thing.

Judi Dench is back as M and she is delightful as the tough as nails head of MI6. If she wasn’t before, She’s certainly my favourite Bond girl now. Her portrayal is skilled and nuanced and the character is more in the forefront as the bad guy, played brillianty by Javier Bardem, is out not just to get Bond but M as well. You’ve seen tidbits of Javier Bardem’s first scene in the trailer and while I don’t want to spoil anything suffice to say that the only thing that I might like better than him as Silva fighting Bond would be Anton Chigurth fighting Bond.

Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw join the cast as a government official and Q respectively. Both are extremely capable actors and more than hold their own. Fiennes is basically always good, and I’m continually impressed with Ben Whishaw’s ability to throw himself into a part.

Where the film might be lacking is Bond girls. You might think the concept outdated or even sexist but it’s still an important part of the now 50 year old formula. That’s not to say that there aren’t Bond girls, just that neither Naomi Harris nor Bérénice Marlohe get as much develpment as they could, Marlohe especially. Harris does have a subplot unto her own, and her young fresh-into-the-but-unsure-if-she’s=ready-for=the-field agent plays well againts Craig’s unsure-if-he’s-still-good-enough-for-the-field Bond.

For those of you who felt that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace left too much of the Bond formula out, suffice to say or points are back. As with Craig’s Bond finding the balance between old school and new, the film itself works all of these elements with the same even handedness. Q is back yes, but there’s no car that turns into a submarine or scene where Q delivers a gadget that would only really be useful in a specfic situation he couldn’t possibly predict (which Bond inevitably ends up in).

And that;s what makes the film great. Balance. A balance of ideas from the old school of Bond with the new school of Bond storytelling rooted in a world that’s more grounded in reality. Sam Mendes has done a brilliant job bringing this world to the screen and making sure that Craig, Dench and Bardem all play their characters with complexity and layers, never straying too far into anger, sadness or mania as they each deal with their pasts. He also proves himself one of the best action directors currently working today, a slightly strange thought when you consider this is the guy who usually brings us more thoughtful character pieces like American Beauty, Jarhead and Away We Go. The script is brilliant, providing just enough fan service to put a smile on your face but not so much that it falls into the trap of camp so many other Bond films have.

Skyfall is really the third part of a loose trilogy. It starts witht he cocky new agent in Casino Royale who ends up letting his guard down and getting betrayed, continues with him reeling and recovering from this betrayal and heartbreak in Quantum of Solace, and finally coming into his own by the end of Skyfall. I won’t spoil the end, but what I will say is that Skyfall brings Bond full circle and provides a solid foundation upon which the franchise can move forward will a fully formed Bond in a fully formed world. As the credits roll the statement “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN” is on screen as it always used to be, and I couldn’t be more excited for when he does.