Mission: Impossible III

Mission Impossible 3Now that JJ Abrams is knee-deep in the production of Star Wars Episode VII, I thought it would be a nice time to step back and look at some of the films he has directed in order to get a better sense of what he might bring to the table with his take on George Lucas’ beloved franchise.  After cutting his teeth in a several episodes of Felicity and Alias, he brought his signature style of kinetic hyper-realism to the pilot episode of Lost, which is still one of the most harrowing two hours of television I can recall seeing.  With the third installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise on the verge of being lost forever in development hell, producer and star Tom Cruise called Abrams in to save the day and get the film back on track.  And what a track it turned out to be.

Abrams essentially approaches the movie from the standpoint of a 13-year-old boy who wants to see big-screen heroes pull off big-time action.  With rarely a dull moment in its two-hour runtime, the movie focuses on a now-retired Ethan Hunt (Cruise) who is eager to leave the life of a super-spy behind and focus on new pursuits.  Chief among his new responsibilities is his soon-to-be wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) who hasn’t the first clue that her hunky, ripped-to-shreds fiancee is not, in fact, a lowly transportation data analyst.  How the women in these movies are so utterly clueless is beyond me, and in many ways the rest of the film could basically pass for a True Lies sequel.  Or reboot.  Either one works.

Believe it or not, Hunt soon manages to find himself knee-deep in the throes of his former life after his former trainee Lindsey (Keri Russel, taking a cue from Samuel Jackson in Deep Blue Sea by unexpectedly recusing herself from most of the movie) is abducted by a really bad guy named Owen Davian who wants to do really bad things.  To the whole world.  For some reason.  But few people can pull off a barely unhinged psychopath better than Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his turn as the villain almost steals the show from Cruise and company.

Group Photo Time!What ensues is a breathless globetrotting adventure involving all the typical Mission: Impossible tropes we have all come to know and love: car chases, double-crosses, clever masks, insane stunts, nail-biting infiltrations, and wisecracking computer nerd sidekicks.  Abrams runs the gamut here, from the ol’ “loop the security camera footage” trick to having Tom Cruise himself jump off skyscrapers for kicks, all while keeping the action flowing at a brisk pace that walks a fine line between engaging and overpowering.  And that’s the memo that John Woo somehow missed when he made Mission: Impossible II.  People don’t show up to these movies for long, slow buildups and mano-a-mano slow-motion standoffs.  They just want a hero to accomplish amazing things in the face of (wait for it…) impossible odds.  Abrams knows this, and keeps the action building from one setpiece to the next while also crafting believable, if somewhat thin, relationships between all parties involved.  The final showdown between Hunt and Davian is a bit anticlimactic, but the movie as a whole is a thoroughly engaging action romp with just enough lens flares so as to not leave the audience blinded.


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Rating: 2.6/5 (12 votes cast)

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim I remember when I first saw Independence Day.  It was the weekend of July 4, 1996, and my friends and I were packed into the Stuart Theater in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.  the place was crowded, the floor was sticky, and the excitement was palpable.  This was in the days before the internet went mainstream, and movie trailers could only be seen on TV.  Nevertheless, in the weeks leading up to ID4’s release my school was buzzing with all kinds of talk about what would surely be one of the coolest movies we had ever see.  Spaceships. Aliens. Explosions. Jeff Goldblum.  Will Smith.  Brent Spiner!  Could this movie be any cooler? And there we sat, riveted to our seats as the massive alien spaceships began settling over earth cities causing pandemonium in the streets below.  We cheered when Smith punched an alien, took out a cigar, and said with cocky John Wayne-confidence, “Welcome to earth.”  We gaped as enormous fireballs engulfed buildings, streets, and entire metropolises.  We jumped when an alien popped out of its biosuit inside the Area 51 laboratory.  And when the movie was over, we clapped, cheered, and rose to our feet in exuberant jubilation.  Independence Day not only lived up to the hype, but blew my mind into the stratosphere.  No, it didn’t have the most compelling storyline or complex characters.  The dialog was cheesy.  The aliens weren’t all that scary, and the comic relief was a bit too corny.  But none of that mattered, because the movie was just so much fun.  It gave me and my friends exactly what we were hoping for:  good guys, bad guys, aliens, and tons of explosions. And it was awesome.

So why bring all this up in a review of Pacific Rim? Because the two are so similar in tone and substance they might well have been cut from the very same cloth.  This story, about robots called Jagers fighting monsters called Kaiju, is one that has been rehashed innumerable times on the big screen.  The characters are about as one-dimensional as can be, and any description of them requires no more than three words each (including the article): The reluctant hero. The grizzled leader. The plucky scientist. The plucky jock. The wise father. Any standard action movie character checklist would be full of marks, but these cliches are part of what makes Pacific Rim such a fine achievement.  Director Guillermo del Toro, whose previous films include Hellboy 1 and 2, Mimic, and the freakishly outstanding Pan’s Labyrinth, foregoes deep, layered plots and complex subtexts for a straight-out, full-on action flick that caters to the little kid in all of us. Just like Independence Day and countless others before it, Pacific Rim knows exactly what it is and delivers on that promise in spades. Audience members are treated to some of the most gargantuan battles to ever grace a movie screen, with clearly delineated bad guys to jeer and good guys to cheer.  It’s summer popcorn fare at its finest, and a joy to behold on as massive of a screen as possible.

Aliens, 2. Robots, 1. Let's do this.

Aliens, 2. Robots, 1. Let’s do this.

Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket, the reluctant hero with a past that haunts him and a future that looms as bleak as his haircut. A former superstar Jager pilot, he’s recruited for one last-ditch attempt at stopping the Kaiju invasion (something about a rift in spacetime that opens a portal between dimensions…but it’s really not that important) by the no-nonsense tough-as-nails director of the Jager program named…wait for it…Stacker Pentecost played by Idris Elba, who will soon no doubt be showing up in an Old Spice commercial near you.  (If there’s a hierarchy of manly names out there, Stacker Pentecost would rank one notch above John St. John and right below Bigg McLarge Huge.)  Together they and their team of international, interracial, and intergenerational Jager pilots must take down the Kaiju or else risk the end of humanity as we know it.  Toss in a dash of Ron Perlman as the shady but hilarious Hannibal Chau, mix in two parts awesome CGI and one healthy dose of ear-busting digital sonic punishment and you’ve got a recipe for one of the coolest movies I have seen on a big screen in a very long time.

What makes Pacific Rim so enjoyable isn’t necessarily what it contains, but what it lacks.  There are no scatalogical one-liners, no apocryphal political maneuverings, and no complicated explanations trying to shoehorn real-life physics into a sci-fi story.  The female gender is, sadly, woefully underrepresented, but Becket’s co-pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is a tough, capable woman who easily holds her own in a fight and remains 100% clothed the entire movie–just as a PG-13 action flick marketed towards kids should be.  In fact, there’s no romantic subplot at all which may or may not be a boon to the wives and girlfriends who will undoubtedly be dragged to Pacific Rim.  Though I daresay they might enjoy the movie for what it is just as much as their male counterparts. The special effects on display here are as good as it gets, and the camera wisely lets many of the Jager/Kaiju bouts play out like violent watery ballets instead of a mishmash of quick cuts and closeups that render all the action well-nigh incomprehensible.

Del Toro has crafted a fantastic love letter to Godzilla movies of yesteryear, while exchanging their men in rubber monster suits for blisteringly realized CGI and intricate miniature work.  Pacific Rim is a movie that reminded me what it felt like to be a kid, wide-eyed and full of wonder, marveling at what I was seeing unfold before me.  And sometimes that’s all I want from a movie.


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House of Cards

House of CaA few weeks ago one of my Twitter followers asked me if House of Cards was a good show.  I took a little while to figure out how to respond, because to answer that question requires a bit more than a simple “Yes” or “No.”  The brainchild of David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and a heap of computer-powered data mining, Netflix’s reimagining of the classic British television drama is an interesting concoction.   It’s good in the sense that the production is slick, the acting is top-notch, and the plotlines are appropriately deep and intricate for this type of political thriller.  But House of Cards is much more than that, and even though I finished watching the series I’m still not sure exactly what to make of it.  It’s interesting, compelling, and often entertaining but unfortunately a host of other adjectives would be appropriate as well: creepy, sleazy, disgusting, and at times downright repugnant.

The show stars Kevin Spacey as a puppet master of sorts, the House Majority Whip pulling the strings of various beltway heavy-hitters while secretly pursuing an agenda of his own.  His Frank Underwood character, a Democrat from South Carolina’s 5th district, is as slimy and smarmy as they come: one episode delivering a moving eulogy for a young girl in front of a faithful congregation, using just the right mix of smiles and scriptures to work himself into the hearts and minds of the assembled masses, all the while becoming increasingly entangled in any number of conspiracies to ruin the lives and careers of anyone who stands in his way back in Washington.  Few things are beneath him, from drugs to extortion to murder, though he remains well-nigh untouchable as the wizard behind the political curtain while finding ways to manipulate his fellow Washington cockroaches into doing his bidding.  It’s an entirely cynical take on DC politics, gutting the optimistic heart The West Wing and replacing it with a dark mechanical lump of coal, and after every single episode my wife and I quickly fired up Parks and Recreation as a lighthearted palette-cleanser.

That’s not to say House of Cards is not a well-made show.  In many ways it genuinely is a good, if not great, made-for-internet-television production.  Easily holding its own against its weighty counterparts on networks like HBO and Showtime, House of Cards plumbs the sordid depths of Washington politics like few other productions (celluloid, digital, or otherwise) have done so.  At the start of the series, Underwood is at the apex of his political game, wielding his political power and acumen like a scalpel in the hands of a master surgeon.  He of course has his sights set much higher up the political ladder, but to reach them requires winning a dangerous game of chess that even he might not be ready for.  One of his key pawns in this high-stakes match is Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a hotshot reporter-turned-blogger whom Underwood uses to plant stories and sway public opinion through media manipulation.  But as one would expect in a show of this pedigree, Underwood and Barnes’ political relationship quickly becomes personal, though capriciously self-serving, and we quickly get the sense that Netflix is aiming to one-up HBO in their quest to shovel as much gratuitous sex as possible into the living rooms of their subscriber base.

House of CardsAlso at play in this grand political scheme is Underwood’s wife Clair (Robin Wright), with whom he shares an unsettlingly open relationship.  She runs the Clean Water Initiative, a nonprofit whose goals aren’t entirely in line with her husband’s, and serves as the closest thing House of Cards has to a moral center.  Poor Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) is the empty-headed fool who bandied about by Underwood like a nerf gun with the sole purpose of helping the Democrat from Dixie reach his lofty ambitions.  We get a front row seat to Russo’s doomed career both as a congressman and then gubernatorial candidate–a political self-immolation aided by Underwood who provides not only the match but the gasoline.  But alas, Russo’s political corpse is another rung to be stepped on if the ladder is to be climbed, and so up Underwood goes.  This is tragedy on a grand scale, and in that sense House of Cards succeeds admirably.  Of course there is a host of other players in Underwood’s clever game, from union bosses to vice presidents to the owner of a local barbecue joint, and it is often compelling to watch all the various threads come together–or unravel, as is often the case.

So why the bum rap?  Evaluating House of Cards is tricky because it’s hard for me to separate the content from the delivery. Despite the Oscar-worthy performances, intricate and well-developed plotlines, and compelling characters, I find it hard to recommend the show because it is so overpoweringly bleak.  It’s an interesting show, but not an enjoyable show.  Engaging but not satisfying.  Worth watching, though not what I would consider good.


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Academy Awards 2013 Liveblog

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Why JJ Abrams Will Save Star Wars

JJAbramsThe last few months have been interesting for Star Wars fans.  First we got news that George Lucas was retiring, and his longtime collaborator Kathleen Kennedy was stepping up to help Lucasfilm.  Then shockwaves were sent throughout the internet when it was announced that Lucasfilm would be sold to Disney. Millions of nerds around the world cried out in terror, while some welcomed the new mouse-eared overlords with open arms.  Even the writers here at Walking Taco chimed in.  It was a done deal though, and for better or for worse there was nothing anybody could do except clutch their action figures, re-watch their movie collections, and wait with bated breath to see what the future would hold.  And lo, it was not long until we found out exactly what the Disney deal would entail: new Star Wars movies, the first of which is now scheduled to come out in 2015. With the bloated Pirates of the Caribbean franchise showing its age, and non-starters like Prince of Persia failing to ignite the box office, this is certainly a win for Disney–a studio that has shown time and time again it has no qualms when it comes to milking franchises for all they’re worth.

That still left a few lingering questions, such as who would write the script for the new movie? What characters would return? Most importantly, who would direct? With rumors circulating the internet like virtual wildfire, and fanboys clogging message boards and twitter streams with their own ideas and critiques, one thing soon became clear: no director could be chosen that would satisfy everyone.  And lo, it soon came to pass that our new benevolent overlords at Disney soon made their bold pronouncement that JJ Abrams would be helming Star Wars Episode VII.

Of course this decision was met with a predictable mix of anger, outrage, along with scattered pockets of cautious optimism and even praise, from fans and non-fans around the world. The online chatter reached such a fever pitch that The Onion did one of their characteristically sardonic send-ups of it a few days later, which pretty much hit the hydrospanner right on the head.  And now that the space dust has settled somewhat, and people have actually come to grips with the fact that George Lucas’ beloved Star Wars universe will be in the hands of the guy who is directly responsible for Keri Russel’s career, I think this could very well be the best thing that has happened to Star Wars in a long time.


Empire Strikes Back, widely regarded as the best Star Wars movie, wasn’t directed by George Lucas. Neither was Return of the Jedi.

Before we take a look at what Abrams will bring to the table, let’s step back in time to 1977. Star Wars (originally devoid of a subtitle) had just blown the lid clear off any and all box office predictions, and George Lucas was planning the next iterations of what would soon become the beloved classic trilogy.  But between his duties at his fledgling visual effects house Industrial Light and Magic and working with his longtime buddy Steven Spielberg on an archaeology film, he was simply unable to commit the time and energy required to direct a sequel to his original movie.  So he handed the reins to his former film school professor Irvin Kershner, best known for directing little-known character dramas.  (Even 35 years ago George Lucas knew the value in letting other talented filmmakers be the caretakers of his beloved vision.) Lucas didn’t even write the screenplay, instead passing those duties off to Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett.  He was of course intimately involved in the production of what is often cited as the greatest Star Wars film, but he had the wisdom to step back and let other talented individuals into the fold as well.  A few years later he repeated the same process, hiring a Welshman named Richard Marquand to helm the third and final entry in the evolving franchise-slash-merchandising juggernaut with Kasdan reprising his role as the screenwriter. Again Lucas was personally involved in virtually every aspect of the production, even replacing Wookies with Ewoks to be more kid-friendly. After all, who wants to play with Han Solo action figures if Han Solo gets killed off halfway through the movie? And while Jedi does not reach the lofty introspection and high drama of its immediate predecessor, it serves as a fitting and action-packed bookend to the series that began a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

And here we are, decades later, with the George Lucas’ space opera not only enduring but thriving despite his more limited role in the production of the second two films.  Clearly Star Wars did not suffer due to the inclusion of outside talent, and many would argue that the involvement of other creative minds only served to strengthen the movies as a whole.  I would argue that it is precisely because there was limited input from other individuals that the prequel trilogy fails on so many levels. Instead of bringing on board a team who would push and challenge each other, Lucas surrounded himself with yes-men who simply did his bidding and did not question whether the characters and storylines were actually any good.

Myriad characters? Check. Magical forces? Check. Star Wars references? Yah you betcha.

Lots of characters? Check. Magical forces? Check. Star Wars references? Yah you betcha.

All this is somewhat irrelevant though, as George Lucas simply had no interest in directing future Star Wars movies. The question instead revolves around the choice of JJ Abrams as the person on whose desk the buck will ultimately stop, at least for Episode VII.  But is Abrams really the right pick?  Yes.  In fact, he might very well be the ideal choice for director.  His oeuvre includes a swath of both drama and action, with a healthy dose of intelligence and depth mixed in as well. Abrams’ seminal work of the last decade is arguably the television show Lost which, despite a somewhat frustrating conclusion, was rife with compelling characters and myriad plot lines–something that fits right in with the ever-expanding Star Wars universe.  Lost was peppered with references to Star Wars, with a subplot in one episode revolving around the idea of one character writing the script for Empire Strikes Back and sending it through time to George Lucas.

One of the clearest examples of why Abrams is a fantastic choice for the Big Chair is his recent reboot of another science fiction stalwart, Star Trek. The franchise was a powerhouse in the 1990’s, but had lost a great deal of steam in recent years thanks to lackluster movies and a poorly-executed TV series whose incredible ambition far outstripped its reach.  Star Trek had been swept into the cultural dustbin by shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, whose powerful storylines and compelling characters outclassed anything stamped with the Star Trek moniker since Next Generation left the airwaves. And yet Abrams found a way to not only retool the series with the 2009 movie Star Trek, but thrust it to the forefront of the sci-fi zeitgeist once again. Though Star Trek was far and away an action piece first, supported by solid if somewhat shallow characters, it showed that there was plenty left to discover in the Final Frontier and it would be a fun ride along the way.

This lines up perfectly with the Star Wars franchise sits today.  While still a cultural and merchandising force to be reckoned with, the quality of Episodes I-III certainly leaves something to be desired.  Nostalgia-fueled fans are still content to flood the internet with memes and videos that hearken back to the classic trilogy, but the heart and soul of Luke Skywalker and his freewheeling compatriots has been hollowed out and replaced with a synthetic CGI-drenched toy-selling contraption that bears little resemblance to its parentage.  Given his track record, it’s likely that the involvement of Abrams will likely end up with a movie that lands somewhere between the the old and new trilogies.  An Abrams-directed Episode VII will be fertile ground for all the action and visual-effects wizardry that we have come to expect out of Star Wars, which will no doubt give birth to another onslaught of toys, video games, spinoffs, and the usual flotsam and jetsam for which the series has become synonymous. But Abrams also knows a thing or two about character development and dialog–two elements that were painfully lacking in Lucas’ trilogy–and so does screenwriter Michael Arndt, who will be penning the next movie.

Joss Wheedon, hero to sci-fi geeks around the world.

Joss Wheedon, hero to sci-fi geeks around the world.

But why not Sam Mendez, who went from directing the critically acclaimed American Beauty to helming one of the best James Bond movies ever?  Certainly he would seem like a great fit for Star Wars fans longing for a return to the introspective depths of Episode V.  Or Christopher Nolan, who changed the very concept of what a comic book movie could be when he directed Batman Begins by mixing heros, villains, action, suspense, tragedy, and cool gadgets into a cinematic powerhouse whose effects reverberate throughout the industry to this day. What about Joss Whedon, at whose altar nerds around the world worship thanks to his untouchable geek cred with productions like Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a little indie film called The Avengers. Maybe you’ve heard of it? These, along with any number of other directors, would have been solid choices to take on Star Wars Episode VI.  But JJ Abrams’ track record demonstrates his unique ability to handle heady science fiction concepts but also make them (gasp!) enjoyable, while simultaneously balancing a complex cast of characters.

In 2011 JJ Abrams released a film called Super 8, which was in many respects an homage to E.T. and The Goonies.  In it a scrappy band of kids happen to witness a mysterious train crash and end up saving the world, and while the film had its share of action, suspense, aliens, and explosions, the core of the story was about a boy and his relationship with his buddies and his father.  This quaint tale, I humbly submit, is the prototype to which we ought to look for clues as to how Abrams will handle the biggest movie franchise in history.  Super 8 proved that Abrams, who was no stranger to blockbuster titles (his name appearing above the marquee for Mission: Impossible 3 and Star Trek), fully understands the importance of keeping a larger-than-life tale grounded in solid characters–people to whom we can relate on a basic level.  Luke Skywalker, the kid who whined about picking up power converters and complained about being blinded by his helmet’s blast shield, the boy who grew to become a man in the cockpit of his X-Wing fighter while facing some of his deepest fears, is a twentysomething version of Joe Lamb–the unlikely boy hero of Super 8.  It’s these basic elements–good vs. evil, the quest of a hero, the bond between friends, which form the foundation on which Star Wars was based, the fingerprints of which are all over Super 8 as well as other Abrams movies.  Before lunch boxes, action figures, video games, and questionable lollipops, Lucas inspired fans around the world by telling a simple tale with characters to whom anyone could relate.  Of all the directors who could pick up where he left off, JJ Abrams is ideally suited to continue that original legacy.

What Star Wars needs right now isn’t another Empire Strikes Back, but another Star Wars. We need a film that reminds us why we all love Luke Skywalker, the dashing Han Solo, the beautiful Princess Leia, the mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the fearsome Darth Vader, in their galaxy far, far away, so much in the first place. Bringing Abrams on board, with George Lucas sticking around to offer creative input, virtually guarantees that Episode VII will be all the things the Prequels were not, without getting too heavy and brooding (save that for Episode VIII) or blatantly kid-friendly (that’s what spinoffs are for). Will there be lens flares? Probably. Will there be more jump cuts and dolly shots than a Michael Bay film? Perhaps. But will also, in all likelihood, get a movie with enough action to appeal to casual moviegoers, while balancing all the characters we know and love from the classic trilogy, and throwing in a dash of mysticism and philosophy for good measure.  Not too dark, not too heavy, but also not too kid-friendly or overloaded with mindless action and explosions.  In Abrams’ hands, the Star Wars franchise is better off than it has been in a long time.

A long time.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

HobbitPosterMy affinity for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit goes back a long way. In elementary school I purchased a copy of White Fang from one of those Scholastic book order flyers that got sent home once a month, and thought it was the best book I had ever read. It was a gripping tale of adventure set amid a fantastic backdrop of otherworldly (to my midwestern self) locations with a main character for whom I could root wholeheartedly.  White Fang, as far as I knew at the time, was the epitome of literature.  That was, until my friend Joe showed me one of his favorite books-a 300-page tale with a funny-looking green cover about a three-foot-tall munchkin. I was skeptical about The Hobbit at first, but soon found that it had everything I adored about White Fang, but so much more. I became lost in the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his traveling troupe of 13 tawdry dwarves. I wondered at the wisdom of the wizard Gandalf, and marveled at the beauty of Imladris. I began daydreaming of journeying through the black overgrowth of Mirkwood, exploring the halls of the Elven kingdom, and sneaking around inside Erebor, the lonely mountain which was home to the malevolent dragon Smaug.

I quickly devoured Tolkien’s other tales in the Lord of the Rings series, and though I never made it all the way through his other works like The Silmarillion, I remain an enthusiastic fan of his tales of Middle-Earth to this day. When Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, I saw it twice on opening night clutching my copy of the book tight while trying to ward off an ill stomach after eating movie theater popcorn and Coke for dinner.  Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the fantasy realms Tolkien dreamed up while fighting in the trenches of World War I had me hooked, and to this day I don’t think I have seen another movie that has so thoroughly captivated me while engrossing me into an entirely different world.

It was, then, with a bit of nervousness that I went into the theater last weekend to see the first in The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey. The trailers were amazing, but early reviews suggested some problems with run time and creative licenses taken by Peter Jackson and his film crew. Would The Hobbit live up to my expectations? Would it crumple under the weight of all the extra material from Tolkien’s other books that were appended to the storyline? Would it be anywhere near as good as its forebears released over a decade ago?

Soon I realized my fears were unfounded. Bilbo Baggins and his adventure were in fine hands, and after ten minutes of cautious trepidation I settled down and let myself become immersed once again in the beauty and majesty of Middle-Earth.

Thorin Woodenbow...I mean, Oakenshield

Thorin Woodenbow…I mean, Oakenshield

The Hobbit is not a perfect movie. It might not even be a great movie. But it is a thoroughly captivating fantasy tale, the likes of which you have probably not seen onscreen since Return of the King. The pacing is a bit off, with the first half burdened by a great deal of exposition and backstory, often told through flashback, that seems somewhat extraneous but is critically important for understanding the larger context in which Bilbo’s tale of mischief and burglary is set.  For a Lord of the Rings geek, these deviations do not serve as a distraction and in fact enhance an already familiar tale with nice flourishes that others might find extraneous.  I can understand why casual theater patrons might be somewhat put off by the many inclusions in this film that seem to have little bearing on the story at hand, but I say bring ’em on. Tolkien crafted a beautifully complicated world, and if showing a bit more of it means an extra ten minutes in a theater seat then I’m all for it.  Rest assured all the core elements from the book are present and accounted for, if altered slightly for the cinematic presentation.  The troll campfire, the visit to the Last Homely House, the passage through the mountains, the riddle scene…they’re all here and all very well done. While some might take issue with the changes Jackson made to some of these, particularly when Bilbo and Gollum (who looks even better and more expressive than he did in the previous trilogy) match wits to determine Bilbo’s fate, I mostly just sat there with a stupid grin on my face enjoying the fact that I was getting to watch all of this on the big screen.  Picking nits about changes from the source material here is kind of irrelevant for me, when the resulting film is so engrossing.

Even Frodo shows up, though his character wasn't born yet. Don't worry, it all makes sense when you see the movie.

Even Frodo shows up, though his character wasn’t born yet. Don’t worry, it all makes sense when you see the movie.

However, there are a few structural issues that did bother me and detract from the film as a whole.  There are essentially two main characters in the film, even though the book focuses almost entirely on Bilbo.  The titular hobbit is the one with whom we spend the most time, as is to be expected. But Thorin, the leader of the company of dwarves, receive almost equal billing.  He is essentially this film’s Aragorn, and a somewhat obscure enemy named Azog is brought out from the depths of Tolkien’s extended materials in order to give Thorin a mortal enemy with whom to do battle. His inclusion is somewhat of a dumbing down of the main storyline, and his pursuit of the band of treasure-seekers is rather unnecessary given the many perils the company encounters along their journey already.  I can understand this from a storytelling perspective, as the Thorin/Azog battle helps propel Jackson’s version of Tolkien’s story and leads to a climax absolutely dripping with gratuitous cinematic clichés that probably appeal to the casual moviegoing types or significant others dragged to the theater against their will, but it’s something that this film could have done without.

I have read more than a few complaints about the length of The Hobbit, and I must admit that this type of criticism puzzles me. I tend to doubt that few moviegoers who are even remotely familiar with Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings movies would go in to The Hobbit expecting a 90-minute cartoon. This is heady stuff, and Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s world is one that I enjoy letting wash over me and consume my senses. I enjoyed the almost three-hour run time, and it was filled with such fantastic scenery and interesting characters that I almost wish it were longer (and will no doubt be when it is released on Blu-Ray).  As far as I’m concerned, the longer run time simply meant more movie to enjoy.

The Hobbit is not the epitome of literature, and the movie is not the apex of film. But it is a good book, and this is a genuinely good adaptation. For anyone even remotely interested in fantasy movies, this is certainly one to see.  For those on the fence, it’s worth a shot and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.


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5 Reasons the Disney Acquisition is Good for Star Wars

I remember the moment I got the news with a crystal clarity usually reserved for momentous events like the birth of a child or the arrival of a long-lost loved one.  I remember, like it was yesterday (because it was), when I read the first tweet informing me of the news I never expected: Disney had bought Star Wars.  Disney, the biggest of media companies, was now the owner of one of the most fiercely independent film studios.  Disney, whose decades of cheerful cartoons had brought joy to millions of children and adults around the world, was now custodian of such iconic figures as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Yoda, and Darth Vader.  My initial reaction was shock and disappointment, and I immediate posted the following reaction on Facebook:

Oh no…Episode 7? C’mon George Lucas, just let it rest already.

I read a lot of other opinions and news stories, and watched the video in which Bob Iger and George Lucas talk about the decision.  And now that I’ve had time to digest this news and really give it the consideration it deserves (because, let’s face it, 24 hours is an eternity in internet time), I think this is actually a good thing.  In fact, it might be the best thing that has happened to Star Wars and all of Lucasfilm since Return of the Jedi.  Here are five reasons why:

1. Disney knows how to make good movies.

Disney’s track record is kind of like the stock market in that it goes up and down, often unpredictably.  The studio has put out some stinkers like Mars Needs Moms and Old Dogs, but on the whole Disney can deliver the goods when it needs to.  They’re not afraid to spend big money on good talent, and let’s not forget that this is the studio that somehow they turned a 50-year-old theme park ride into one of the most successful franchises of the past decade. The icing on the cake?  The movies were actually pretty good.  Disney is also not afraid to take chances on giant projects that don’t turn out so well.   John Carter and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time didn’t turn out to be the gravy trains they were made to be, the quality of the movies wasn’t half bad.  The main problem with these big-budget letdowns was partially due to their lack of recognition in the mainstream zeitgeist:  nobody cares about Barsoomians or ancient Persians when heading to the summer megaplex, but it’s a safe bet that ten out of ten filmgoers could pick Yoda out of a lineup with no problems at all. Give Disney some established characters and storylines, and stand back with your blast shield down lest the shockwave knock you over. They will do everything humanly possible to capture lightning in a bottle, which also means they will make certain Michael Bay will never, never be involved.  While the Star Wars prequels and the most recent Indiana Jones movie were commercial blockbusters, they were critical goose eggs.  Put these characters in the hands of the Disney corporation, and it’s a safe bet they will hire screenwriters and directors who can inject a new lifeblood into these franchises who will make sure the movies are golden eggs for the studio while also being quality films.

2. Lucasfilm was Disney already.

A giant company has massive film franchises that are beloved around the world.  It leverages the characters and stories in these franchises to sell merchandise of every conceivable kind, from action figures to lunch boxes to bedsheets to candy to clothing to video games, comic books, and spinoff novels.  This company also keeps milking cash from its franchises directly in the form of spinoffs, sequels, prequels, and 3-D re-releases ad infinitum.  Is this company Disney or is it Lucasfilm?  It’s both.  And anyone who thinks Disney could do any further damage to the beloved Star Wars franchise by whoring it out to product vendors of every conceivable kind has obviously not been paying attention.

(it was Lucasfilm who allowed this Star Wars Kinect game to happen, not Disney. There is literally no possible way things could get any worse.)

3. Iron Man/The Avengers

This kind of piggybacks on Reason #1, but I think it deserves its own entry.  Let’s rewind things a bit to the 1990’s, when comic book movies were kind of a joke.  While Tim Burton injected a much-needed shot in the arm to this corny celluloid stepchild with his dark and gritty Batman, his counterparts were busy churning out schlock like Tank Girl, Timecop, and The Phantom, not to mention a string of subsequently stupider Batman films culminating in one of the worse offenders in modern cinema: Batman and Robin. It wasn’t until Bryan Singer brought the X-Men to the silver screen, followed soon after by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) that comic book films really launched into the stratosphere.  These were deep, thought-provoking movies with multi-dimensional characters and solid acting–a far cry from the cornball movies of yore like Howard the Duck (a Lucasfilm production, no less).  Comic books, in the hands of talented directors and writers, became a gold mine of characters and storylines that shows no signs of running dry.  Marvel leveraged its own deep roster and financial clout to form its own movie studio, which was bought by Disney in 2009.  Sure enough, fans cried foul, grabbed their pitchforks and torches, and took to the internet in fits of collective rage decrying the inevitable befouling of their beloved franchises at the hands of Mickey Mouse.

So what happened?

Iron Man.  Iron Man 2.  Thor.  Captain America: The First Avenger.  And of course, towering over all modern comic book movies, The Avengers.

Some might dispute the faithfulness of these movies with respect to the source material. Others might quibble about costumes or supporting characters.  But few would argue that these are not quality films.  Disney knows how to turn franchises into commercial and critical hits, and there is no reason to suspect anything else from future Star Wars or Indiana Jones films.  They spent too much money to mess these up, and while audiences might have forgiven the awful dialog and painful characters of the Prequels because they sprouted from the same mind that brought them Star Wars in the first place, this same leniency will not be extended to Disney. Any new films are going to have to work hard to earn their place in the fans’ hearts, and if Disney’s track record since acquiring Marvel is any indication, Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones are in good hands.

4. We might get the original trilogy back.

For fanboys like me who have been crying foul over George Lucas’ treatment of his original trilogy by releasing endless special editions with gratuitous CGI effects might finally get their wish granted.  Disney knows how to get every last dime out of a sense of public nostalgia, but few could argue that they do a great job paying tribute to their original works.  Take Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for example.  By all accounts this film is hopelessly outdated with what would now be seen as shoddy animation, poor quality sound, and unflattering character stereotypes.  But when Disney released it as the Diamond Edition Blu-Ray, they left the original untouched in all its lo-fi glory. The colors have been restored, not edited, and the release strives to be as close to the original version as possible as opposed to George Lucas’ endless tinkering with the classic trilogy in order to suit his ever-changing “original vision.”  But after years of repeatedly denying fans the opportunity to see the classic Star Wars trilogy without all the CGI muck, Disney might finally leverage its considerable power and financial werewithal to give the original trilogy the Blu Ray release it deserves.

It might be wishful thinking, but it’s the best shot we have had in years.

5. It’s better than the alternatives.

Think what would happen in five years if George Lucas were left in charge of Star Wars.  At best, we would likely get sequels with the same terrible dialog and wooden acting (but gosh darn it if those CGI effects aren’t pretty) as Episodes I-III.  But at worst, they might never happen at all.

George Lucas is in his 70’s, and to be honest the man deserves a break.  Say what you want about the licensing, the prequels, and the endless spinoffs, you gotta respect the man for bringing all this to us in the first place.  And like my buddy Dave pointed out, it was George Lucas who single-handedly changed the face of modern filmmaking while also bringing us Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar, and THX not to mention countless innovations in how films are produced and edited.  The man deserves our respect, our thanks, and more than anything, a break.  I applaud him for letting Kathleen Kennedy take charge of Lucasfilm back in June of this year, and selling the company to Disney is the next logical step.  I honestly don’t believe George’s heart is in it anymore, which is why he wants to get back to basics and work on smaller, more personal projects.  More power to him, and I hope he does well.  If Lucasfilm was left in charge of Star Wars the franchise would likely sink into mediocrity, and while it would still make boatloads of money it would probably not innovate.  The Disney buyout is a breath of fresh air for our beloved galaxy far, far away, and probably the best thing that has happened to it in years.

As we look forward to Episodes 7-9 (hopefully based on the outstanding Timothy Zahn novels), a possible TV show, and no doubt a tidal wave of products and merchandise along with them, I feel a disturbance in the force I have not felt in a long time: hope.

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Looper Science fiction movies like this don’t come along very often.  Though Looper has all the hallmarks of the genre, such as time travel, futuristic weapons, and head-scratching plot twists, it offers something rather unique among its peers of late: a unique and compelling story with enough grounding in a familiar reality to keep even casual moviegoers interested.  This smartly directed actioner-slash-head-scratcher does not dwell on the ins and outs of its central conceit too long, and instead focuses on keeping the pace solid and the action tight.  Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a Looper, whose job it is to dispose of the scum of the earth…from the future.  30 years from now, when targets are captured by criminal organizations they aren’t just offed and dumped in a river like in The Godfather.  Instead they are sent back in time where Loopers blow ’em away and burn the bodies.  No fuss, no muss.  What could possibly go wrong?

All is well and dandy for a while, and Joe goes on living his shallow life of partying, doping, and hooking up with women at the local strip joint until he finds himself staring down the barrel of his blunderbuss at a particularly troublesome target: himself.  This, in Looper parlance, is known as “closing the loop.”  It’s the point at which a looper paradoxically ends his own life, thus resigning himself to three decades to live, until he is captured by the criminal organization in the future which sends him back in time to the present, at which point he shoots himself in the chest.

Confused?  Try this trick: just don’t think about it.  This sentiment, trite as it may be, is actually recommended to us by Joe as he converses with his future self in a diner.  Older Joe (Bruce Willis) urges his younger self to not dwell on the whole past/present/future thing too long, and soon afterwards the two of them are firing weapons, breaking windows, and dodging bullets like one would expect in any action movie.

Instead of dwelling on the nuts and bolts of temporal displacement and other quantum conundra, it’s best to just enjoy Looper for what it is: a smart, well-paced above-average popcorn flick with a healthy dollop of cerebral icing on the cake.  Think of it as this summer’s version of Inception, but a bit more dark and a lot more violent.

Following Joe’s failure to close his loop, he finds himself on the run from his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels, chewing through scenery worse than Willem Dafoe in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. But gosh, it sure is good to see him in a grumpy-old-man role like this.) who simply will not tolerate this sort of failure from anyone in his organization.  Joe escapes to a remote farmhouse where he encounters someone who may, or may not, hold the answers to some of the questions that have plagued his future self for years.  The resulting shootouts and climax are taut and emotional, with a particularly poignant performance from child actor Pierce Gagnon that is certain to have some parents in the audience squirming in their seats.  Topping things off is Gordon-Levitt’s pitch-perfect imitation of Bruce Willis, which is so nuanced it ought to earn him an Academy Award for Impersonating a Co-star.

Looper doesn’t have the weight-of-the-world heaviness of Terminator 2, the flat-out action of Aliens, or the suspense of Predator.  But its tight narrative and thought-provoking questions almost earn it a presence among its cinematic counterparts.


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