Monday, June 30, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

The latest Tom Cruise movie is pretty darn good and deserves the high rating of 90% at Rotten Tomatoes (92% from audiences)...

The film is a cross between Groundhog Day and Starship Trooper. Before I saw the movie, I was wary of the fact that the premise of a repeating time loop had been done too many times in cinema. What could be so interesting with yet another take on this idea?

Well, let me tell you, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn the cause of the time loop. I won't give it away here, but I will say that it's quite clever.

Tom Cruise plays an inexperienced 'soldier' who has always ridden a desk and became a Major out of ROTC. He's a bit of a coward. When he's forced to go into battle against an intractable alien species, he dies. Then he relives the day. Then he dies. Then he relives the day to learn from his mistakes. Then he dies.

Eventually, he becomes a damn fine soldier and the only possible weapon to use against the aliens.

Excellent performances from Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, who plays a heroic soldier known to all as "the Angel of Verdun".

9/10. Most highly recommended.

Unfortunately, Edge of Tomorrow is something of a box office flop. After 4 weeks, it's now only showing at 3 theatres (not counting Rainbow). I expect it to be gone next week. People really have no frickin' taste.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is another very enjoyable installment from the Marvel franchise. The story revolves around Hydra's complete infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. which leads to the shutdown of the latter and the attempt of the former to take over the world.

For all of you not initiated to the Marvel universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. is the global organization created to defend the Earth against extraordinary threats. Hydra is the Nazi organization that survived WWII to become S.H.I.E.L.D.'s greatest enemy.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, is the super-soldier that was created during WWII to combat Hydra. However, he was literally put on ice at the end of the war and was thawed out in modern times. Now he's learning how to assimilate into the new world.

During the war, he had a relationship with a British agent named Peggy, played by Hayley Atwell. When Rogers is thawed out, Peggy is now in her 90s and confined to a hospital. He still loves her and visits her often.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

During the war, his best friend and comrade in arms, Bucky Barnes, was lost in action. Unbeknownst to Rogers, Barnes became another super-soldier, this time working for the enemy. Barnes, also known as the Winter Soldier, has been performing missions for over 60 years since the end of the war.

*** END SPOILER ALERT ***

With Hydra on the verge of finally achieving their goal of global domination, they try to kill everyone who is in their way, including Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Captain America. Fury lets everyone think he's dead so that he can concentrate on fighting Hydra.

Hydra's infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. is so thorough that Fury can trust NO ONE. In fact, the man at the very top who oversees S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), is also the head of Hydra!

Scarlett Johansson plays Natasha, aka the Black Widow, a kick-ass Russian agent now part of S.H.I.E.L.D. Along with a newcomer, the Falcon, Captain America has a very able team to foil Hydra's plan.

An interesting note here is that the story thread for The Winter Soldier is linked to the TV series, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays on CTV). In the series, Nick Fury is presumed dead and S.H.I.E.L.D. has been totally compromised. This is the first time in cinematic history, I believe, when a current film is directly linked to a current TV series.

On a personal note, one of the stars in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a Chinese-American actress named Chloe Bennet, aka Chloe Wang (her father is Chinese). Chloe is smoking hot!!! If not for her, I might not bother watching the show.

Anyway, if you're a Marvel fan, and even if you're not, I recommend Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

8/10.

300: Rise of an Empire

Gee, I had to drive all the way to Rainbow Cinema at Yonge & Elgin Mills just to watch this movie without 3D! (It cost me 5 bucks admission, so it's cheap.)

I hate the current trend of putting out films only in 3D at all the major theatre chains. They're trying to gouge me for my precious dollars.

Besides, I don't like wearing those goofy glasses.

300: Rise of an Empire isn't as good as the original 300. The film is a bit too chatty, which throws off the pacing.

Visually, it's quite impressive. The actions scenes are very bloody, though I've seen as good on HBO's Spartacus.

Eva Green (pronounced "Grain") is the shining presence in the film. Her performance is magnificent as Artemisia, commander of the Persian navy. (You may have remembered her inCasino Royale and Kingdom of Heaven.)

I can say I had the great honour to see Eva Green's pubes and beaver lips, but not in these films. You will, however, see her hooters in 300 when Sullivan Stapleton, who plays the Greek commander Themistokles, bangs the hell out of her.

How did a Greek woman like Artemisia come to command Xerxes' navy? In flashbacks, we see the young Artemisia witnessing the slaughter of her family at the hands of Greek soldiers. She is subsequently raped and used as a sex slave for years thereafter. She hates the Greeks so much, she gives her allegiance to the Persians who took her in.

Under Darius, she grew up to become an extraordinary warrior. She gained his trust and was subsequently given control of his navy.

Sullivan Stapleton, whom I've only ever seen in Strike Back, the British series about anti-terrorism in South Africa, plays the leader of the Greek army fighting Xerxes. Since the film is a prequel to 300, King Leonidas is still alive, but we never see Gerard Butler. Lena Headey, who plays Queen Gorgo, takes centre stage here, and I found this rather distracting. She was a constant reminder that I wasn't seeing Leonidas.

Overall, I found the movie entertaining. If you liked 300, you'll probably like 300: Rise of an Empire. But unfortunately I can only give the film...

7/10.

47 Ronin

Well, I finally caught 47 Ronin. Took me long enough. I guess I was dithering because of all the mixed reviews.

Here's my take:  It's an excellent fantasy adventure film, and a creative, fanciful retelling of the 47 Ronin legend.

Despite all the stories about the troubled filmmaking, I found the movie to be reasonably coherent and well-directed. The visuals are absolutely stunning.

Performances are more than passable. I even found Keanu Reeves' acting to be fairly convincing.

Make no mistake. 47 Ronin will not garner any Oscar nominations. But as Hollywood films go, it's well above average and certainly not the disaster that most critics make it out to be.

I also think 47 Ronin is a damn sight better than The Hobbit, either Part 1 or 2. And we know that The Hobbit is pulling in HUGE box office revenue.

The 47 Ronin legend tells of how a group of loyal Samurai takes vengeance over the framing of their Lord Asano for a crime he did not commit. Asano is forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) and his Samurai, now masterless, are banished from these lands.

Keanu Reeves plays Kai, an orphan who was taken in by Lord Asano and raised to be a member of his court. Kai is called Half-breed by the Samurai because of his mixed parentage (his father was an English sailor). He had previously been raised by the Tengu who are masters of death and dark magic, so Kai possesses a great deal of this knowledge, as well.

Kai grew up with Lord Asano's daughter, Mika, and they love each other passionately. That Mika is forced to wed the murderer of her father, and of Kai's benefactor, is Kai's only motivation for joining the Ronin in their quest for justice.

Hiroyuki Sanada plays Oishi, Lord Asano's chief Samurai. He is every bit the protagonist in the film that Kai is. I admire Sanada a great deal because of his performance in The Twilight Samurai, the first of the Yoji Yamada Samurai trilogy. If you like Japanese cinema, and in particular, if you like movies about Samurai, you absolutely MUST watch the Yoji Yamada trilogy!

(Incidentally, Sanada has done well in the West, too, having appeared in The Wolverine, the Lost TV series, the Revenge TV series, Rush Hour 3, and the most interesting sci-fi film Sunshine.)

Oishi needs Kai's help in avenging Asano's murder because he knows the odds are against them and he knows that Kai is an exceptional warrior, even if he is not Samurai. They must go to the Tengu, from whom Kai had escaped, in order to obtain swords, for Samurai are useless without weapons.

Now, the murderer of Lord Asano, Lord Kira, is aided by a powerful witch (played by Rinko Kikuchi who starred in Pacific Rim). She can assume many animal forms. Near the end, Kai goes up against the witch who takes the form of a dragon. Let me tell you, this dragon is a heck of a lot more impressive than Smaug in The Hobbit. Visually beautiful and artistically fascinating.

Eventually, the 47 Ronin avenge Asano's murder, and because they disobeyed the Shogun's order NOT to pursue vengeance, the Ronin are allowed to commit seppuku instead of being executed as criminals. (The Shogun says that they followed the old bushido traditions and are therefore true Samurai.) The final scene is heart-wrenching as we see Kai and Oishi and all the other Samurai ritually kill themselves in front of the Shogun and Mika.

Mika weeps for Kai as she remembers his final words of love and devotion.


In the end, 47 Ronin is about duty and honour, loyalty and justice. It is about bushido and the way of the Samurai. It is quite authentic to historical and cultural details, fanciful embellishments notwithstanding. I unreservedly recommend this movie.

8/10.

Man of Steel

This is the review for the 3D movie. I enjoyed it immensely. It was well worth holding in my bladder for the full 2 hours and 15 minutes of the film (not including closing credits).

The movie is a retelling of the origin of Superman, done with extraordinary flair by Zack Snyder, the man who brought you 300 and Watchmen.

Russell Crowe plays Jor-El, and thankfully it's more than a cameo role. He's an excellent foil against Michael Shannon, who plays General Zod.

Kevin Costner is terrific as Clark Kent's father, and Diane Lane is absolutely wonderful as Clark's mother.

The story is equal measure of action and drama, and I like that. In particular, I like the fact that they don't make General Zod simply an evil villain. Zod was born to be a protector of Krypton. He defends his world and his people at all costs and with unshakable determination. This poses a powerful moral dilemma for Kal-El, who must defend the Earth against Zod's rampage.

I also like the relationship between Clark and his adoptive parents. The film is very much about relationships.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Kal-El and Lois Lane is pretty much Hollywood formula, but Amy Adams is really terrific.

However, don't despair, because Man of Steel is also about action. Lots and lots of action. Lots and lots of fantastic visuals, the kind of stuff that Zack Snyder is famous for.

For me, the inevitable question is:  How does Man of Steel stack up against the *other* two superhero movies that have taken the world by storm, Marvel's The Avengers and The Dark Knight (as well as The Dark Knight Rises)? Well, it does very well, thank you very much. In fact, I like Man of Steel slightly more than Marvel's The Avengers, and that is high praise, indeed!

In my estimation, Man of Steel is about as good as The Dark Knight. And if you know how I feel about The Dark Knight, then this statement is almost blasphemous. Sorry, Christopher Nolan, but Zack Snyder has really nailed this one and is now your equal.

The reviews at Rotten Tomatoes have been disappointing. I don't know why pro reviewers have it out for this movieMan of Steel is easily the Best Movie of the Year, and I can't urge you enough to go see it.

10/10.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness is the BEST Star Trek movie I've ever seen! It beats my previous favourite Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, by a country mile. Coincidentally, the movie was inspired by The Wrath of Khan (it's not actually a retread of the film). Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the character of Khan, but the story is rather different.

WARNING:  this review will be full of spoilers, so you may want to stop reading NOW.

When Federation agent John Harrison (aka Khan Noonian Singh) goes rogue and launches terrorist attacks in London, England, as well as San Francisco, Kirk is dispatched to hunt down and kill Harrison in Osama bin Laden style. However, since Harrison is hiding out on the Klingon home world, Kirk must tread very, very carefully, lest he embroils the Federation in a nasty war.

But when Kirk strays from his mission, it sets off a chain of events that will bring down the leadership of Starfleet and threaten to destroy the Enterprise.

Memorable Moments

I will not forget the moment when Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) dies in Spock's arms. Spock connects to Pike with a Vulcan mind meld during which Pike passes. When Spock realizes that Pike has passed, he is startled. The expression on his face caused my heart to stop.

It is very poignant when Kirk dies in a radiation-filled chamber after he has saved the Enterprise from destruction. Bones calls up to Spock in the bridge and tells him he better come down to engineering. Spock's expression shows that he knows something serious is amiss. He rushes down to where Kirk is and shares a final moment with his friend; their open hands "touch" on the glass door in a sign of affection. Spock sheds a tear (for a Vulcan, this is most unusual).

It's also very touching that Kirk admits to fear of dying, of letting go. Is this something that William Shatner's character would've done??

If you don't think supermen can cry, you have to watch as Khan relates his sad tale of how he came to be where he is and why he had to wreak havoc on Starfleet–a tear rolls down his cheek. This humanizes Khan and blurs the line between villain and victim. Yes, Khan is very dangerous, but he also deserves respect.

Incredible Visuals

The sight of the Enterprise emerging from the bottom of the ocean is like nothing I have ever seen on the cinematic screen. It literally took my breath away (not too hard when you're watching it on a huge AVX screen).

Watching a Dreadnought class starship crash into San Francisco Bay and leveling the city is another breathtaking scene. (FYI, this starship completely dwarfs the Enterprise.)

I ***love*** the new look of the Klingons. This is the way Klingons should always have been!

Why 3D?

I saw the movie in AVX 3D and it was well worth the $18 admission. It makes very good use of 3D (most films don't). I tried for IMAX 3D (for $20), but all the good seats were taken. However, AVX 3D is plenty good and I am certain you will enjoy it just as much as IMAX.

10/10. (For the record, I enjoyed this film *more* than I did Marvel's The Avengers. And that is saying a LOT.)

Skyfall

Wow, the latest Bond film, which celebrates 50 years of Bond, raked in $87.8m this opening weekend!!! This is the biggest box office opening for a Bond movie, by far.

I think Skyfall is the best Bond film ever. There, I said it. It's much better than its predecessor, Quantum of Solace, which I found somewhat disappointing in the wake of the truly excellent Casino Royale. I had previously thought Casino Royale was the best Bond film ever. Let's face it, I love Daniel Craig. As Bond, he's even better than Sean Connery (although it's rather like comparing apples and oranges).

Oscar winner Javier Bardem adds a great deal of panache to the film playing Silva, one of the best Bond villains I've seen. Silva is a former MI6 agent who is out for revenge against 'M' (Judi Dench) for perceived betrayal. (This isn't the first time a former MI6 agent became a Bond villain. The first time was in the Pierce Brosnan Bond flick, Goldeneye, where Sean Bean played 006.)

Skyfall is like no other Bond movie. There is no grand scheme to take over the world. There is no vast high tech lair where the villain plots his scheme. There are no spectacular special effects, no incredible gadgetry, no super-enhanced sports car (more on this in a moment). The film is almost down to earth, relying on good characterization and good storyline.

However, you won't be disappointed. You'll still find plenty of action, spectacular travelogue photography (the night shots of Shanghai's skyline will take your breath away), gorgeous women, a beautiful score by Adele, and a super-enhanced sports car. Wait, didn't I just say...?

In celebration of 50 years of the Bond franchise, the movie pays homage to earlier Bonds by resurrecting the iconic Aston Martin DB5, complete with ejector seat and machine guns. (There's a lot of resurrection in this film, as Bond apparently dies at the beginning but comes back to life later on.)

At 2 hours and 23 minutes, I think Skyfall is the longest Bond film ever. Not surprisingly, the pace is a little bit more sedate. But director Sam Mendes gives us the opportunity to soak in the story and characters.

The ending sets us up for the traditional Bond motif moving forward (eg, we finally meet Moneypenny). I can hardly wait to see the next few Bond movies. I. Love. Bond...

9/10.