Monday, July 17, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes


Here we are, just six years after the remarkable first film in these new reboots that has featured the most incredible special effects in movie history.  Yes, War for the Planet of the Apes has arrived and what a feast for the eyes and ears!  Say what you will about the Avatar films and how they’d set the path for motion capture CGI, but these films have grown and secured such a foothold within the special effects spectacles we see just about every summer. 

I’ve always been a fan—not a huge fan, but a fan—of the Planet of the Apes series of films.  The first one, released in 1968, is still an amazing film despite the laughable costumes and masks that the actors wear to depict the apes within that production.  But the story is so captivating and engrossing that you quickly forget about the cheesy makeup effects of that time.  I can accept it because I would just imagine that the apes had evolved over the centuries to stand more upright and to become taller, so it’s not too far gone of a conclusion.  Where it’s ridiculous—and I can’t remember which sequel it was—but there’s a film in the series where the apes end up back in time and are captured and believed to be normal apes.   

Back in 2011, ten years after the flop that Burton’s film had been, I really had thought the Apes films had run their course and couldn’t possibly be able to provide any more to the whole story.  But I was wrong.  It had been the right time, especially with the special effects technology, to start from the beginning and render realistic-looking chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans to show exactly how this all started.  Rise played that out brilliantly and Dawn continued the story faultlessly.

So here we are with War for the Planet of the Apes and I was chomping at the bit to go out to see this flick.  I say this with a bit of chagrin, but I think I’d been looking forward to seeing this movie more so than Spider-Man: Homecoming.  Suffice it to say, I think War may be the…

…well, let’s break down the plot summary and go at this step-by-step…

After the apes suffer unimaginable losses at the hands of a new enemy, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), Caesar (Andy Serkis) wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind.

If you’ve seen the previous entry to this franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, then you know this story was coming.  At the end of the previous film, it was said through exposition that the military was on its way to fight the supposed threat of the apes.  In a way, the transition to this film is seamless and we can go right into this plot without much thought of what had happened beforehand.  It’ll help to refresh yourself with a viewing of the preceding two entries, however, just so you don’t have to think much about some of the aspects of this film.  Overall, we knew this was coming, we knew this was going to be a culmination of Caesar’s story—in one way or another—and we knew this would be an afflicting plight for both the humans and the apes.

Although most of the audiences’ presumptions of what will happen are correct, there are still a few surprises to be seen as well as a few connections to the original 1968 film.  Along the way, the audience will see great acting through the wonder of motion capture technology (and it is quite incredible this time around—more on that later), a few heartbreaking moments, and some delightfully humorous moments (mainly with the new character of “Bad Ape,” a quickly-established crowd favorite, played by Steve Zahn).

When thinking of the special effects used in this particular film, one can’t help but think back on the previous two and know that War surpassed them both.  Don’t get me wrong, Rise had some groundbreaking effects, especially with Andy Serkis’s Mo-Cap performances as Caesar, and it improved quite a bit in the sequel, but there were some scenes where the CGI was a bit spotty and obvious.  In Rise, the young Caesar wasn’t as realistic as the adult version and can take you out of the movie when seeing it today.  Dawn was better, but one scene in particular wasn’t done well and that was when the special effects team rendered the bear and elk during the hunting scene at the beginning of the film.  Here, in War for the Planet of the Apes, I didn’t notice any unrealistic execution of characters.

As for he humans in this story, Woody Harrelson played the villain as well as he could.  Though it was your typical cookie-cutter bad guy, the point was made that he had a personal vendetta against the apes and had no empathy for them whatsoever.  You learn early on that he’s the Colonel Kurtz (Apocalypse Now reference) of the story who is going rogue with his platoon.  Not only is he an enemy of the apes, but of the remaining humans as well.  Harrelson’s Colonel is heartless and unlikable in this story, making his character a perfect adversary to Caesar.

To add to the conversation of the motion capture creature-rendering technology used this time around, I really think the Academy Awards need to add a category for Mo-Cap performances, because Andy Serkis is the best out there.  Either have that new grouping or include him in the competition for best actor—his performances of Gollum in Lord of the Rings, the title character in King Kong, and Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are some of the most incredible accomplishments one will ever see.  Along those lines, and seeing how well the effects crew was able to realistically render the apes, I’d seen an interesting tweet from PETA the other day, where they’d mention how this new Apes movie was proof positive that filmmakers won’t ever have to use live animals again.  I really wouldn’t go that far—it’s a bit cheaper to hire a dog trainer to have a dog obey some simple commands than to have a CGI-rendered dog that’ll cost quite a bit of money to showcase—but I see what they’re getting at with that statement and that’s high praise to the individuals who were able to bring Caesar and his apes to life.

My final “bit” on War for the Planet of the Apes?

A stellar completion to the Caesar arc of these new Apes films, but I still hope we see more.  Perhaps the filmmakers can spin off or just keep going with this world to see how the apes came to be in the original ’68 film.  How did they evolve to upright-walking apes?  When did they decide to wear clothing?  How did the Statue of Liberty get buried on the coastline?  Even more, will 20th Century Fox allow the original film to be remade/rebooted/reimagined?  I wouldn’t mind and I would even welcome it just so it fits in this string of films.  But War is a great conclusion to a fabulous trilogy of films documenting Caesar’s rise to power, his leadership, and his legacy.  Andy Serkis is awesome, as are all the motion capture actors in this, and the box office success speaks volumes on that fact.  If you haven’t already, go see War for the Planet of the Apes now.

Thanks for reading!

Cinema Bits is on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Okay, so it’s been awhile, huh?  Where I was once an unyielding scribe of film criticism, I soon turned to the world of sports—namely, baseball—and set aside the writing of reviews.  Now, I’m still a constant movie-goer—always putting in a disc in the player or seeing the occasional blockbuster in the theaters—but I had to turn my attention elsewhere and put Cinema Bits in hiatus for a time (it’s a long story and I won’t get into it).  I’ve done it before, taking a yearlong break until Star Wars: The Force Awakens pulled me back to my film scrutiny and making me see the error of my ways. 
So, here I am, once again being brought back, compelled to write about a film I’d watched with the exuberance and giddiness as my 9-year-old self had experienced way back when I witnessed Star Wars back in 1978 (I didn’t get to see the movie until it was brought back to theaters the year after its release).  Yes…even though I’m going to be hitting 49 years old this coming November, I still felt like a little boy as I patiently waited for Spider-Man: Homecoming to begin.
You’d think I would have already felt this way back in 2002 when Tobey Maguire donned the webbed red-and-blues in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man—and I had felt that way as the movie’s final money-shot elicited a huge smile on my face that took quite a while to fade away even as I saw the movie again and again during repeat viewings—but it wasn’t until the sequel to that film was released when I had the state of euphoria that had equaled my Star Wars movie wonderment. 
I’ll state it here and now that the bar was set before going into the theater to see this film—Spider-Man 2 was the film to which I’d compare all the rest.  As it stands—and I know I’ll get some arguments against this (goodness knows I’ve already debated about this with many comic book film enthusiasts)—I don’t think anything has stood up to Sam Raimi’s second Spider-Man outing.  The main dispute that comes up is The Dark Knight, and yes, I do believe Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film is great, but doesn’t have the heroic comic book feel that Spider-Man 2 exhibits.  Every time I watch the sequel, especially the scenes where Spidey is fighting Doctor Octopus on the train, I feel like the scenes are jumping out of a comic book, keeping me glued to the screen as I’d been glued to the comic books as a kid.  That was how I’d wanted to feel again when venturing out to see Spider-Man: Homecoming.
For obvious reasons, I’m not going to even address the Andrew Garfield films because that’ll raise a level of negativity that I really don’t think I can escape.
For the casual viewer of these recent Marvel Studios films, such as the Iron Man or Captain America films, you may not realize how important this film is to all of them.  In short, Sony Pictures owned the filming rights to the Spider-Man character for nearly two decades.  Marvel Comics decided to create their own studios—later, having Disney purchase the whole company—and decided to make this whole cinematic universe to cross-over all their characters in multiple movies.  Basically, Marvel Studios have most of their characters’ rights back, save for Spider-Man belonging to Sony, with The X-Men and Fantastic Four belonging to 20th Century Fox.  However, Sony decided to cooperate and share Spidey (it helped that those aforementioned Andrew Garfield films bombed—I know, I said I wouldn’t get into that), so now there’s a deal in place to share the character and split the wealth that comes with it.
Now, if only 20th Century Fox would smarten up and follow suit…I’m sure they will soon.
Well, for now, let’s get into Spider-Man: Homecoming
Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, young Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns home to live with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and resumes life as a high schooler.  Under the watchfull eye of mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Parker starts to embrace his newfound identity as Spider-Man.  As Peter tries to go back to his normal daily routine, he’s distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just a friendly neighborhood superhero.  However, he must soon put his powers to the test when the evil Vulture (Michael Keaton) emerges to threaten everything that he holds dear.
If you’ve been up-to-date with the Marvel series of movies, then you’ve seen last year’s Captain America: Civil War which showcased the first time Spider-Man has been brought into this cinematic world…and, boy, was it an entrance!  However, coming into this, I’ve got to admit, my expectations were a little low.  I mean, come on, let’s face it…this is the second reboot of the character on film, with the last crappy reboot still fresh in our minds (I know…I’m still refraining…but it’s difficult), so it’s hard to think that any Spider-Man film can have any more tricks up its sleeve to give us something fresh and exciting.
Before getting into the movie, let’s talk about the cast…
First up…Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the youngest Spider-Man brought to life on screen at the suitable young age of 21.  In comparison, Nicholas Hammond was 27 when he played the Wall Crawler in the 1977 television series, Tobey Maguire was nearly 27 as well when he took the role in the 2002 film, and Andrew (ugh!) Garfield was close to 29.  It definitely helps here as Holland looks and sounds like he belongs in high school, not having a five o’clock shadow certainly supports the illusion that we’re seeing a young kid deal with the heavy burden of being a person endowed with super powers.  But his acting in this flick comes across as how any of us would feel if we suddenly could flip and jump around, crawling up walls and having the power to kick anybody’s ass…I think we’d feel the same excitement.  Well…at least I would.
The baddie here, Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, aka The Vulture, gives us a memorable performance as well.  At times, we see the comedian come out of him, but most of the time Keaton plays this villain as a commanding head of a criminal organization.  At the same time, we can side with him as he starts this story off as the boss of a legitimate clean-up crew who gets gipped from making a pretty good payday for cleaning up the mess left behind after the Battle of New York that took place during The Avengers.  So, Keaton—as Adrian Toomes—plays his role as anybody seeking fairness.  Seeing him as the bad guy here in Spider-Man: Homecoming, I can’t help but to conjure up memories of Tim Burton’s Batman; it’s very interesting to see Keaton going from the heroic role to the villain.  Though, I think we all know he has the capability to do so, as he’s played the bad guy here and there over the years—Pacific Heights, Desperate Measures, and Robocop are just a few that I can recall—so the choice to make him The Vulture was good.
As you may have seen in the trailers, Robert Downey, Jr. is here as Tony Stark/Iron Man, playing the mentor to young Peter Parker.  We get just enough of Downey as to not make this an Iron Man movie that features Spider-Man, which calms the thoughts of many people who’d thought that this was going to feature more than a cameo of the billionaire-playboy-philanthropist.  Pretty much what you see in the trailers are all the scenes Robert Downey, Jr. is on the screen and that’s a good thing.  But he’s the same witty and amusing tech genius that really doesn’t want Peter to get too involved in the superhero business, obviously protecting him and not wanting him to get hurt.
Marisa Tomei as Aunt May is definitely a new take on the character, but it makes sense when you compare the ages of her character and Peter Parker.  In reality, it’d be completely normal for a fifty-something year-old woman to have a 15-year-old nephew.  I know all us Spider-Man comic book fans would love to have the frail, old, grey-haired woman as Aunt May, complete with hair tied up in a bun, but that would not be relatable…especially between the two characters.  I like what they did here, casting Tomei in the role (which was already established in Captain America: Civil War), and I look forward to seeing how her character evolves from this film.
The rest of the cast does well, with great chemistry between them all.  There are some Easter Eggs and surprises to take in—I may need to take in another viewing to see them all myself.  I won’t go over them because it’ll just bog down this review, not to mention spoil some surprises along the way.
So…as I’d mentioned earlier, the bar was set with Spider-Man 2 as what I consider the best superhero movie—let alone, Spider-Man movie—ever.  Does Spider-Man: Homecoming beat it? 
The quick answer is…no.
But that’s not to say that this is a bad movie, no, on the contrary.  Spider-Man: Homecoming is the perfect introduction for the character to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Holland’s Peter Parker definitely goes through an arc in the film, going from an anxious kid who’d gotten a taste of superheroing with an awesome technological outfit, to an adult-minded young man who understands what he has to do with his newfound powers. 
If anything, this is what endears the character to all who’ve already seen him on the screen to everybody who’s coming into the character brand new.  To see Spider-Man as a newbie, starting off as a bike-thief and car-jacker deterrent, but making mistakes here and there, and going up against a real threat to prove himself even after Stark takes away the tech suit…this all adds up to how valiant and courageous this character has been throughout the years.  At one point during the film, I was kind of thinking about how we weren’t seeing any real web-swinging, but during a pivotal scene in Washington DC where Spider-Man has to scale the Washington Monument, it’s made clear that Peter hasn’t really climbed that high as we see him get a bit of acrophobia at the top of the monolith.
No, Spider-Man 2 still has stood the test of time with The Avengers coming close as toppling that film as the best superhero flick, but Spider-Man: Homecoming is just a different type of movie that is great in and of itself.  I look forward to where this is going and how the character will grow within the Avengers films, in its sequel, and how he’ll crossover into other Marvel productions.  Seeing the numbers over this past weekend, I’m willing to bet that’s how everyone else felt as well.  I hope Sony realizes they have a good thing here and doesn’t blow it.
So…my final “bit” on Spider-Man: Homecoming?
If anything, this movie has a lot of heart, almost going to the point where they try to make the character as great as he’d been in past films, only to dial it back to show you how grounded he should be.  It’s truly an origin story without having us go through the rigmarole of seeing the spider bite and the uncle’s death, but to see how Peter Parker deals with having these great powers as he lives a normal high school life.  Tom Holland does a wonderful job as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man, giving us some humorous moments as well as heroic ones.  It’s the perfect—official—introduction of the wallcrawler into the Marvel lineup of films.  I’m definitely looking forward to the ones that are coming up.
Just a heads-up and you probably would know this already, but there is a mid-credits scene that’s fairly important to the film and where it’ll go from here.  Also, there’s an after-credits scene where the joke is on us…not going to go any further than that, but it’s funny…at the movie-goer’s expense.
Thanks for reading!
Cinema Bits is on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Suicide Squad

You know, I’ve never read—nor have I ever collected—the comic books from which this film is adapted.  Criticisms of the movie may have to be given to the writers of the comic book rather than the writers of this production.  However, to me, it’s up in the air and whomever the blame may lie upon, you can decide for yourselves.  What I do know is that this film takes place within the constructs of the DC cinematic universe, not only of all the latest DC films but also the ones that will be coming into fruition soon. 


With that said, I’d opted not to see this film when it was released in theaters this past summer.  It had been on my personal watch list, albeit not that high up where I’d really felt the need to see it.  I was hot-and-cold on the news of the production—I’d been excited to see Jared Leto’s own interpretation of The Joker, but the description of the story and what it entailed seemed a little lackluster.  Sure, the trailer showed us that Ben Affleck’s Batman would be making some sort of cameo, but I figured it’d be a very small part of the whole story (and I was right…spoiler alert), but that wasn’t enough to convince me.  Therefore, shortly after this film’s release, I’d made a conscious decision to wait for its distribution onto home media, forgetting about it until I’d seen its availability on Netflix a week ago.


Even as it appeared in my mailbox the other day, I had to push myself to pop it in the machine to finally see this film and decide on whether I’d liked it or not. 


So…did I?  Well…let me break down the synopsis of Suicide Squad first.


A secret government agency, run by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), recruits some of the most dangerous incarcerated super-villains—Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Slipknot (Adam Beach)—led by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and with minor help from Katana (Karen Fukuhara), to form a defensive task force.  Their first mission: save the world from the apocalypse caused by The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne).  All the while, The Joker (Jared Leto) thwarts the group every step of the way.


One thing that I’d wondered before seeing this, and while witnessing the first of a few trailers that had been released, was how these villains were going to be put in check and not run off when they were assembled for this group.  Seeing this movie the other night finally answered that speculation and just provoked disappointment from me rather than satisfying my inquisitorial thoughts.  Seems that the writers, producers, comic book authors—whomever—couldn’t think of a better way to solve this without ripping off the John Carpenter classic, Escape From New York.  Yes, the answer was to inject tiny explosive capsules into the necks of each villain—with an identical mechanical hypodermic to boot—and threaten them with the assurance that they’d be killed if they tried to cut and run.  I literally shook my head as this part of the film played out.


Let me go over this group of villains who are apparently needed to form this anti-hero heroic group.


Deadshot seems to be the main character of the group and his talent is that he’s a really good shot with firearms, able to hit the same exact target with micro-precision—we’re talking about hitting the same exact bullet hole over and over again.  He doesn’t have any super abilities, like strength or senses, just the capability to shoot a gun perfectly and accurately.  Deadshot does appear to have some sort of military background, definitely has some sort of combat experience, so he gets a pass on being needed for this team.


The requirement to have Harley Quinn as part of this group puzzled me throughout the whole movie.  She has no superpowers, she’s insane, she’s tied to the recently escaped Joker who’s still on the loose, so I don’t know why she’d be needed—let alone allowed—to be in this team.  Margot Robbie is definitely included here as eye candy for prepubescent boys who’ll undoubtedly be gaga over seeing her in this film, but it’s senseless to include her in this squad.


Diablo has some cool pyrotechnic powers, but reserves them until later, citing his vow to be peaceful and not to lose control due to him killing his wife and child a while back.  It was really getting on my nerves throughout the film when trouble would arise and he just stayed back, not helping the situation.


And speaking of keeping to the background without helping, Killer Croc does NOTHING except follow the group around until—lo and behold—the soldiers need to swim through the flooded sewers to get to the battle zone and he jumps in to show off his super swimming skills.  Sure, he fights here and there, but so do the no-name soldiers you see in these quick-cut scenes.


Captain Boomerang seems wasted as well, not really doing anything throughout this story.  Sure, he throws a few boomerangs, even has a boomerang drone (think of the physics and logistics of how that would work) that he uses to spy on the battle ahead, but besides a few one-liners that fall flat (in fact, ALL the one-liners you hear in this flick are not funny at all), Cap is wasted in this ensemble.


In charge of this group of desperados is Rick Flag, the military leader who keeps the villains in check with the threat of detonating the charges in their necks (which he demonstrates on one of the rogues who has the shortest screen time in superhero movie history).


Of all the characters mentioned, there is not one ounce of chemistry seen between any of them, making anything they say to one another seemed forced and unbelievable.  Some characters go from hating each other to suddenly having a comradery.  Case in point, at the beginning of the film, Deadshot tells Flag a few times that he’s going to kill him when he gets a chance, showing hatred and a determination in his words.  Yet, shortly after, the men are nearly sharing a bromance.  I really didn’t feel anything for these villains, yet I felt the soldiers and the government they’d worked for weren’t any better.  When there are no characters you care for or any heroes you can get behind, the movie usually falls flat…and that’s what happened here with Suicide Squad…at times.


Before seeing this movie, I’d hoped my intuition would’ve been wrong and that it was going to be better than I’d thought, but the film is just a rushed and thinly plotted story that didn’t make sense at times.  For example, Amanda Waller’s reasoning to put this group together was to thwart an attack of an evil entity of Superman’s ilk.   Meta-Humans like Enchantress made sense and so did Diablo, maybe even Killer Croc, but all the other rogues were just humans that wouldn’t stand a chance against something with Superman’s strength.  And wasn’t it a weird coincidence that Waller was pushing for this RIGHT BEFORE the shit hit the fan?  The biggest puzzlement of all—for me at least—was why Batman is nowhere to be seen when the shit goes down in this movie.  After seeing the involvement of Batman during some of the backstories, you’d think he’d be available to help solve this problem that has put the city’s population in danger.  But, no…I guess Batman’s on vacation.


Finally, I had such high hopes for Jared Leto’s Joker and looked forward to his inclusion most of all.  He definitely had some big shoes to fill as Heath Ledger raised the bar so high on that character that I really couldn’t see anybody ever playing the part again.  But The Joker is Batman’s biggest villain and he’d have to be included sooner or later, but Leto’s performance left me a bit flat.  Sure, there were some cool moments—making Alex Ross’s artwork come to life being one of them—but I can’t really accept this tattooed punk-rock star with silver fronts as the new Joker.  I’m sure Leto tried to veer away from Ledger’s performance, but I couldn’t help hear the same vibes and accents in the few scenes we see in this film.  Hopefully he’ll work out the kinks by the time we see him again, perhaps in the standalone Batman movie.


So…may final “bit” on Suicide Squad???


I’m sure on paper this seemed like a good idea—good, not great.  The acting throughout the production was nice and made it feel like it was a comic book come-to-life, especially from Smith, Robbie, and occasionally Courtney.  The stylized way it was produced and directed gave us that feeling as well, but I think all the effort was put into how this film was going to look rather than getting a good story together.  The plot was very thin and wasn’t a very good foundation to place this on top as it seemed like the studio was banking on a huge blockbuster.  Suicide Squad had its moments, but they were few and far between.  If you want to see Will Smith put on a cool costume and shoot guns or if you want to see Margot Robbie walk around in a skimpy outfit as she carried a baseball bat around or if you want to see a few cool special effects—both in CGI and practical—then you might like this movie.  It definitely kept my interest, for I’d wanted to see how it was all going to end, but it left me cold and I’m a little torn on whether I would recommend this movie or not.  I’ll leave you with this: if you want a mindless movie to sit back and eat some popcorn, maybe to keep on as background noise, this is the movie for you; if you want a really engaging film with an intriguing plot, I’d skip it. 


Here’s my bonus “bit” to Warner Bros. and DC Comics…


Warner Bros. and DC: if you’re listening (or reading), you better do something about the quality of these films in your so-called Cinematic Universe.  If Justice League doesn’t fair better, you’re going to have a mess on your hands…and from what I’ve seen of that released footage, it’s not looking too good.  Suicide Squad reminds me of the announcement from Sony a while back, saying they were going to release a Sinister Six film—a film about Spider-Man’s villains grouping together for a standalone movie.  They were smart enough not to do it, why weren’t you?  It just seems you’re trying to keep up with—or even trying to overtake—what Marvel Studios has already accomplished.  Forget them…take your time and do this right.  The more crap you put out, the fewer people you’ll get in the theater seats when you release the following movies of this DC filmic world.


For the rest of you, thanks for reading!


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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Blair Witch

Towards the end of summer in 1999, a phenomenon hit theaters that featured a very crafty experiment, which became a horror and science fiction staple-subgenre of many movies to come.  The film I’m speaking of is The Blair Witch Project and it brought forth the popularity of the found footage category, becoming a press-stud of horror movies that continues to this day.  Sure, there are quite a few films that predate it which used the same type of classification, like Cannibal Holocaust or The Last Broadcast (which was released a year prior).  But 1999, by all intentions, should be considered the manifestation of the found footage subgenre.
Now, timing had a lot to do with the fame and reputation the film had gained.  In 1999, not everybody had a computer or easy access to the internet, not to mention that it wasn’t as expansive as it is today.  The directors of the film—Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez—used that to their advantage, knowing that they could use it to blow up the film and get the word out by creating a little fake backstory, getting the word out there that this was a true story and the last remaining days and hours of these victims were captured on film that had been recovered as featured in this movie.  Most people believed they were watching a documented film, seeing a snuff flick, witnessing the demise of these three kids…and it was brilliant.  The film—made for around $60,000—reaped nearly $250,000,000 in the box office!  Recalling the release of this film, so many people told me about how frightening it was and how these kids in the film were real people that had gone missing…I admit, I’d believed the story and thought it fascinating, so I was very excited to see it.  However, days before going to see the film, I’d heard it was fake…but it wasn’t a deterrent in the least.
All things considered, I’d hazard a guess to say that this technique wouldn’t work today.  Too many people have technology right at their fingertips…if it was tried today, The Blair Witch Project wouldn’t work...but that’s just a changing of the times…and, of course, my opinion.
One thing that had always bothered me is that the filmmakers never tried to make a direct sequel to the 1999 film to follow up on the made-up story.  Sure, a sequel was released called Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, but that story just dismissed the 1999 film as fiction, using the movie-within-the-movie method; it wasn’t a good film, seemed pretty confusing at times, and is very forgettable.  Now, however, 18 years later, it was finally decided to make a direct sequel to that first film…but before I get into it, let me break down the synopsis of…Blair Witch.
After discovering a video showing what he believes to be his vanished sister Heather, James (James Allen McCune ) and a group of friends—Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Ashley (Corbin Reid), and Peter (Brandon Scott)—head to the forest near the town of Burkittsville.  On the way there, they stop to see the guy who had found the video to get directions to the whereabouts of where he had discovered it.  But the local named Lane (Wes Robinson), gives the condition that he and his girlfriend, Talia (Valorie Curry), must go with them or he won’t give the location.  James agrees and the group soon finds out about the ominous legend of the Blair Witch.
Written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard (both of VHS and You’re Next fame), they brought forth a more frightening film than we’d seen in the original.  Yet, the only reason this film can be considered a sequel is because of the reason the group of kids decide to go into the woods—to find his sister Heather, one of the three kids from the original movie.  That’s it…that’s the only tie to the first film.
Now, I’d read that one difference this film has from the original is that it’s totally scripted, meaning the words written on page are what we’re getting from the actors in this flick, and it shows.  The original had quite a bit of realism and that’s because the directors basically told the three kids to go into the woods and improvise their discussions, debates, and dialogues (sorry for the alliteration) with each other.  They were left to their devices at hand while the directors set up situations ahead of time for which the actors would react.  Here, in Blair Witch, you can tell the dialogue was written ahead of time and it really feels like you’re watching a made up movie in comparison.  For example, the surplus of battery power is emphasized quite a bit.  Even my wife—who doesn’t enjoy horror movies and usually reads a book off to the side when I’m watching one—caught that bit of dialogue in this film and called it out right away.
To show off how ahead the world has gotten in technology, the devices used in this new film are way more advanced.  Instead of just a camcorder and camera with film, each friend has a small camera fitted to the side of their heads much like Blue Toothes, they have multiple memory cards to continuously switch them out, and they also have a drone that can hover around to help them get a sense of their direction within the woods.
What’s different about this film compared to its predecessor?  There are some nice special effects that maybe take up a few frames of film here and there with some ideas that have a creep factor of ten.  Will you get to see a witch this time?  I think so…you get to see something, but it’s so quick and shaky that you really don’t know what you’re seeing.  I think it may have been explored in the first film, but in Blair Witch time is messed with and it definitely conveys a sense of hopelessness for the characters.  It even goes as far as dividing some of them, giving some a sense of minutes passing, with others having weeks passing—I thought that was well done.
What’s the same?  Just about everything else.  I mean, you have a group of kids going into the woods and documenting everything with video, they get lost and go in circles, they’re being terrorized by some unseen force, and they end up exactly the same way as the kids in the original film…in the same place and in the same manner.  I would’ve liked some resolution or maybe see the kids get the upper hand on the witch or at least a bit of fight…not the exact same outcome.  I felt it was a bit of a cheat.
If there’s anything that was left with me after viewing this was one plot thread that really never amounted to anything and that was when one of the girls, Ashley, had gotten a big gash on the bottom of her foot when they had to remove their shoes and socks to cross a creek.  After it was bandaged up and the girl regained the ability to keep moving, later we see that she’s wracked with pain every few steps and we hear the sound of some strange crack or something when she uses that foot.  Late in the film, we see the boyfriend unwrapping the foot to check it out and sees it’s clearly infected.  But a quick shot of this shows the wound twitching like there’s some sort of animation going on.  The implication is that the witch had something to do with it, that the girl is becoming infected with some sort of paranormal disease, even seeming like she’s turning into a zombie or something.  However, it all goes nowhere and her demise has nothing to do with the foot’s ailment…in fact, she seems to regain a bit of energy later in the film as she’s able to run and climb a tree.  Nonetheless, this whole plot point went nowhere and left me confused.
Anyway…my final “bit” on Blair Witch?
As a standalone movie, the story is frightening and well done.  The actors and actresses (just a small ensemble of six characters) perform their parts well, giving us a sense of believability even though their dialogue is obviously formulated ahead of time, but the bottom line is that they’re all likable and you’ll end up caring what happens to all of them.   For all intents and purposes, this is a remake of the original film, made a bit better and obviously with a slightly bigger budget.  The new viewers—who’ve never seen the original or who’d thought it was boring—will enjoy this flick; the fans of the original will see it for what it is—a complete reboot of the franchise that’s giving us the same situation and the same (spoiler alert) outcome.  But…it’s still entertaining, will give you some good scares, and it’ll definitely make you think twice about camping out in the woods…again.  I recommend it.
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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

It’s been a year and true to Disney’s word, we’d gotten our first taste of a movie-a-year after The Force Awakens.  Their claim to release a Star Wars movie each and every year into the foreseeable future has really started this year with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and I really can’t wait to get into what I had witnessed this past weekend. 

Now, I had been excited before and while watching The Force Awakens last year, wanting so badly to see what has transpired in the time since we’d seen our favorite characters in the original Star Wars trilogy.  Although there were many characters introduced into this continuing cinematic universe, we were still able to catch up with our favorites interspersed throughout that story and that’s what made that movie special.  Also, the special effects were so much better and not overbearing as how they had been in the prequels of Episodes I, II, and III.  I really hadn’t thought that any of these one-offs I’d heard about would do any better or would interest me, but I knew I’d see them nevertheless.

When word had gotten around about the story of how the group of Rebels was able to steal the Death Star plans and deliver them to Princess Leia, basically the one or two sentences from the opening crawl of Star Wars: A New Hope, I thought it was genius!  Yes!  That’s what they should do!  Tell the stories of what is mentioned in these opening crawls!  Right away, I knew they had a hit on their hands.  If done right, and without George Lucas’s need to overbear the audience’s senses with hordes and hordes of special effects, this film could be a great intro to the original 1977 film!

Were they able to accomplish that?  Well…let’s get into it with a plot breakdown…

A defected Imperial scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is brought back to The Empire after being in hiding to help engineer a weaponized space station called the Death Star—an intergalactic armament powerful enough to destroy a planet.  Imperial death troopers led by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), force Galen to come back after his wife, Lyra (Valene Kane) is killed by them.  With Galen’s daughter, Jyn (Beau Gadsdon), hiding, then left to be raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), he ends up with The Empire and is forced to work on their dreaded weapon.  Years later, with the help of an adult Jyn (Felicity Jones), a rogue team from the Rebel Alliance—Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) with his reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), the blind combatant Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his comrade Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), along with others—fight to find and steal the plans for the Death Star, setting up the epic saga to follow.

Right from the start, I’ve heard and read mixed reviews about this story, although most of them have been positive, and I’ll say that this review will be on the upper end of the positive spectrum.  What director Gareth Edwards did here was brilliant and meticulously done, giving us something on the level of the original trilogy.  Yet, Rogue One was not designed to gel seamlessly with the other movies much like The Force Awakens had done, but something Edwards can boast as creating something very standalone-ish. 

What was different than your typical Star Wars movie?  Well, just like The Force Awakens you’ll notice that there is no 20th Century Fox fanfare that plays and shows before we see the text, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” but that’s just because of the ownership switching from that studio to Disney Studios.  Actually, that wasn’t very noticeable.  What was very obvious here was that after that text shows up, we don’t hear the John Williams score we’re so used to hearing in the beginning of every episodic film we’ve seen so far.  No, in Rogue One, we go from that simple blue text into the movie—no trumpet-blasting heroic music, not even an opening crawl to explain what has happened since Episode III.  Since John Williams was not involved with this film, it’s understandable and I can commend Edwards and the actual composer of this film, Michael Giacchino, for going against the predictable way of just reusing the themes from Williams (although there are a few cues here and there) and composing his own motifs throughout.  The music is very fitting and exciting at times; I can almost say that I’m glad they decided to go with a different composer on this film.

With The Force Awakens, the one complaint I’d heard many people make was that the story was just a retread of A New Hope and I can see the points that some people had made.  I can also side with J.J. Abrams on how they’d played it safe to get the franchise back on track, having faith that they’ll give us something great when they continue the saga with Episode VIII.  Here, however, the story is very original (although already given to us in a few lines of text in A New Hope’s opening crawl) and energetic, giving us a story we can follow along and see where it’s going.  If you’re a big Star Wars fan, you may be able to guess how it’ll all end, but it’s epically told and brings you to the edge of your seat, wondering how it’ll all come together.

As you may have heard, you’re going to see a lot of very familiar faces—some blended into the story perfectly, one or two forced in just for the nostalgia—and that’s what makes this a Star Wars movie and one that sets a feeling of familiarity once it starts.  Although the Episode I through III trilogy had familiar characters that were known in the Star Wars canon, it was set a bit too far back in time, leaving you guessing if the characters you were seeing were actually the ones you were familiar with.  In Rogue One, you know who you were seeing, whether you knew the names or not, because this story literally takes place right before A New Hope and characters you see here will be the exact same ones you’ll see in the 1977 film.  Some of them—or one in particular—was brought in painstakingly and it works so well (not going to spoil it).

Let’s be honest, the acting in this film will not gain any attention from the Academy, but it’s all believable enough that you’ll really feel like you’re going through the turmoil they’re all facing.  You’ll feel their adventure as they travel throughout these different worlds and be pleased or saddened by what ensues in their journey.  Identifying with their characters felt straightforward because each one has their own persona and identities, both in their ways and their looks.  The main group of our heroes is very diverse and it helps us recognize them when they’re on screen.

Here, in this film and out of all the Star Wars films, you’ll see the most realistic action out of all the films in the cinematic franchise.  Unlike the other films, where there are some storm troopers that get shot up quickly and the heroes move on, the battles here take time but are action-filled.  You really get a sense that the heroes are having a hard time with their quest and you may even feel some doubt that they’re going to succeed.  For the first time, you really get a true sense of the Death Star’s power, up close and personal, seeing it from the victims’ perspective.  Instead of seeing the space station sending a large laser blast to blow up a planet, you actually see what everyone on the planet is seeing or even an overhead close-up of the destruction.  All in all, this film may be a little more violent with a lot of lives lost and devastation seen all around.

I can’t help but go over this as a big Star Wars fan, but I can see how this would play out to the casual viewer if they watch Rogue One as a standalone movie.  It definitely can work that way as well as a way to introduce anyone who hasn’t seen the original trilogy (though, I can’t believe no one has ever seen them). 

Now, I’d mentioned a bit about what we see with the Death Star’s capability for destruction, but that’s not where the awesome visuals stop.  All throughout this film, you’re going to see giant spectacles, great use of motion capture technology (Tudyk’s K-2SO was magnificent) , X-wing and tie-fighter battles like never before…there is so much digital eye candy in this film, you’ll have to see it a second time just to take it all in.  We’re also introduced to a few new worlds, as well as some familiar ones, and it’s just a great sight to see.  Where George Lucas failed—forcing in the obvious CGI-laden worlds that ended up looking so distracting—Disney, with the help of Gareth Edwards, prevailed. 

One semi-spoiler—but if you’ve seen the trailers, you’re aware of this already—is that the inclusion of Darth Vader was amazing and really made up for his weak appearance in Revenge of the Sith.  Oh, he’s evil here…bad ass and scary, making you fear for the fate of anyone who goes up against him. 

I can go on and on about this film, but let me just give you my final “bit” on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

As a preface to my whole opinion—it is a must for you to watch this film before viewing A New Hope.  After watching this film, I believe the episodes should be renumbered—this movie being Episode IV, A New Hope as V, Empire Strikes Back as VI, Return of the Jedi as VII and The Force Awakens as Episode VIII…that’s how well Rogue One fits into the whole series.  All the characters are likable and create such great chemistry together; it’s hard to believe, especially seeing as how they don’t have much time in the story to connect.  Overall, I was amazed and enthralled, and I can’t wait to see this again.  I highly recommend that you all see this, Star Wars fan or not.

Thanks for reading!

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