CASTING, DIRECTING & ACTING
Thursday, November 13, 2014
The gritty vampire re-boot drives audiences batty in the surprisingly entertaining Dracula Untold.
ARTH VADER (AV): For a character that bears no introduction, the re-imagined origin of the infamous Vlad the Impaler–more commonly known as Count Dracula–menaces his enemies and delights us, somehow, in this latest vamp en fuego film. All the story elements are in place to make for what could have been an epic origin tale. Keeping line with Dracula's mythos, the film takes place in Transylvania and spins the tale of a desperate Vlad eager to save his people from invading Turks while holed up in Castle Dracula.
CASTING, DIRECTING & ACTING
AV: Director Gary Shore pulls no punches in this latest vampire epic with a story of ‘super-Drac’. Luke Evans plays Transylvania’s original pain in the neck as an insanely handsome and brooding Vlad. To me, Ponty, there are only a couple of roles that even matter in this film. Other than Vlad, is the role of The Master Vampire played by Charles “Lord Tyrell” Dance. He is over-the-top ominous, creepy, frightening and oddly compelling as ‘Vampire Zero’. The only other role that has any (AHEM) tooth, is the role of the twisted Turk overlord, Mehmed, played by Dominic “Howard Stark” Cooper. While hardly in a league to stop the Prince of the Undead, Cooper’s portrayal is cardboard clone but that seems somehow strangely fitting. Thought’s P–Man?
TP: The performance of Luke Evans carries this film Vader. He brings Vlad the Impaler to life in a way that diverges from what I expected. As the antagonist, Dominic Cooper had very little to do and the script did not allow much breathing room to expand his character. In fact, at just 90 minutes, there wasn’t too much that could be done except to focus on the progression of Dracula. The film moved along steadily and never really gave me time to ponder all the plot holes while it fed me candy.
TAKING A CLOSER LOOK
AV: As the first installment of the Dracula trilogy and the vanguard (film) of Universal Studio’s new ‘monster cinematic universe’ (MCU), you can read more on that here , Dracula Untold shows promise in the visual effects department but lacks in quality storytelling. As part of this new universe of monsters, Dracula delivers a good-looking, empty-headed film devoid of character connectivity but still, strangely enough, holds promise for future installments. Many of the characters in this film are mis-cast or phone-in their often dopey, poorly-delivered or dodgy performances. Hopefully this less-than-spectacular opening salvo for this new MCU will help universal build on its new ‘universe’ the right way; with quality screenplays, a focus on meaningful writing and proper casting.
AV: This one’s in the bag already, oh Pontificatorious one. Universal is all-in with a three-Dracula film trilogy and that is just the start. With a whole phalanx of movies streaming at us filled with werewolves, mummies, Frankenstein’s Monster(s?) and the like, we will soon see theaters filled with more monsters than we can shake a pitchfork at. Lets hope for Universal’s sake, those theaters won’t be empty.
ARTH VADER rates Dracula Untold: From its dopey name to the downright non-sensical story, Dracula Untold is bleeding opportunities (see what I did there?) trying to tell a good story with a lot of holes. If this new ‘universe’ is to move forward in the right direction, Universal has to do better. With sparks of promise in the performances of the two primary Vamps and strong visual effects, this Dracula reboot (now that its been told and stuff) has potential but still has a long, long way to go. Still, as entertaining as it is ridiculous, I grab my garlic and my holy cross and jam wooden stakes into the hearts of 6 busted blocks in the hopes that Dracula Untold will rise again, better than ever.
Dracula Untold: 6.5 Busted Blocks
Thursday, November 6, 2014
The unexpectedly intelligent Maze Runner leaves audiences with more questions than answers.
ARTH VADER (AV): Holding surprisingly true to the book of the same name by James Dasher, the young-adult post apocalyptic tale is the opening salvo of a trilogy. My kids all read the book series so I was odd-man out at the theater but given their–often audible–reactions, it appears the film tracked fairly well with its audience. Was that your experience, Pontificator?
CASTING, DIRECTING and ACTING
AV: With an entire squadron of fresh-faced up and comers, Maze Runner was rife with genuine, new pasty-faced, wide-eyed young Hollywood hopefuls. Director Wes “God I love Star Trek” Ball shared a cinematographic vision that is oddly gripping and carries the viewer through a very swiss-cheese storyline. Despite the many issues this film has–and believe me, there are many–the entertainment value is high. The story-pacing does well to move the shoddy screenplay forward. The acting is nothing to write home about, but their is magic here, and the cast feels engaged.
TP: Bring out your young up and coming actors, we have a teen movie to film! This is a great film to get some actors started as evidenced by there being no really big names in the film. Dylan O’Brien leads with help from Aml Ameen and Ki Hong Lee. All deliver good performances and the film flows well enough from the directing. My only issue was with the story, but I’ll get into that a little later.
AV: I was expecting heavy-handed visual effects in Maze Runner, and by jove, P-Man, we got ‘em! The spider-like guardians (keepers) of the maze, imagined as some odd hybrid of monster and machine, was a well-handled visual effect. Watching the maze, shift and transform was an awesome spectacle. While not a particularly stunning visual effects film, the notable effects that were shown were quite well-handled.
TAKING A DEEPER LOOK
AV: This movie doesn’t require a lot of brain power to absorb. What’s nice is the feeling that there is a bigger plan in place. Why are these kids here? Why are there no girls (until the very first shows up near the end)? Why go through all the trouble to look these young boys and men away and have them fight for their lives and slog it out for their salvation against the elements, weird wild animals, and each other? Leaving me with more questions than answers is fine. My issues with this film are the inconsistent acting quality, even from individual actors and the goofy premise to the story. However, the film’s end offers a nice twist (again, didn’t read the book so the end was a surprise). The end of film does leave audiences in a kind of WTH moment and also leaves an interesting door open for a sequel (or sequels). P-Tiff?
AV: Its always odd to me when films come out with the intention of being the first of a trilogy, rather than being a solid film all its own. Maze Runner has been out for nigh on 5 weeks as of this blog post and has raked in just shy of $95 million. With a (reported) production budget of $34 million, that makes this a marginally profitable film with promise for a sequel. The real question to ask is, ‘would you see another installment of this film?” Yes, Ponty, yes I would.
TP: There are two more books in the trilogy, so I expect that as long as box office bottom line is viable (and its “just” according to the numbers), we will see those books on the silver screen. Hopefully the story improves.
ARTH VADER Rates The Maze Runner: If you find yourself in need of overly trite teenage melodrama filled with man-boy actors trying to make sense of a non-sensical world–and let’s face it, who isn’t–then Maze Runner is for you. I can’t lie, I did enjoy this movie. Even with a cumbersome plot and lofty screenplay you can still have a good time. Engaging, if not brainless, Maze Runner earns six (6) busted, if not puzzling blocks.
Maze Runner: 6 / 10 Busted Blocks
Friday, September 26, 2014
Stunning visual effects and a fat marketing budget can’t save Frank Miller’s Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for.
ARTH VADER (AV): Following in the footsteps of the critically acclaimed Sin City, Frank Miller’s next installment in his ‘night in hell’ story arc was both highly anticipated and some would say, long overdue. Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for is a crowning achievement of storytelling and technology and is the debut of Frank Miller the Director and Executive Producer (EP). Miller’s script also features new content developed exclusively for the big screen which many fans, including yours truly, were ecstatic to see. The Sin City series of books and graphic novels are considered some of very best in print, and rightly so. P-Man?
THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): The story of Basin City continues in this next installment of criminals and anti-heroes colliding in meaningless violence accented by over-the-top effects. I haven’t read any of Frank Miller’s “Sin City” books, but if the film is any indication of what I missed…then I’ll be alright.
CASTING, DIRECTING AND ACTING
AV: You know Ponty, you would think with names like Robert “From dual tip Dawn” Rodriguez, Bruce “Die Hard” Willis and Jessica “Invisible Woman” Alba (along with a list of others to long to review here) a movie with this kind of big production budget and hype would be able to at least stand in the shadow of the first Sin City. Sadly, this was NOT the case. While this film is load with star power in front of and behind the lens, the co-directorial debit of Frank “Dark Knight” Miller was at best, a flop. Miller’s touches diluted Rodruigez’ normally stellar visuals and violent screenplay. New content to story that didn’t really need it and story pacing that would do any child with ADD proud, this film was a hot mess of mumbling dialogue, listless plot, meandering characters and pointless action scenes.
TP: I’m surprised I don’t have more to say about the all-star cast of this film other than they probably did the best they could, given the script they were handed. Mickey Rourke returned as Marvin, and of course the violence the character ensues is expected. Other than that, the only other role that piqued my interest was that of Joseph Gordon-Leavitt. I blame the script. It has to be the script. The direction followed the same formula as the first film (which I liked) so it can only be the script.
AV: Once again we are treated in our beloved Sci-fi/fantasy genre Ponty with a movie that looks mind-bendingly delicious, but is wrapped in huge listless turd of a screenplay. Sin City 2 expands on the breathtaking black and white visuals from the 2005 original. Landscape and characters and lighting are all a thrill to behold. Though I must say, I did catch quite a few off kilter effects shots, green screen flub ups and poor choices of camera shots. All in all, this film was a visual spectacular, too bad that is the only context I can use that word in when describing this film.
TP: Sin City 2 unleashes its own brand of special effects and although it might be an acquired taste for some Vader, I liked it. The “comic-to-life” feel and look of the film worked the first time around, and was just as interesting this time, although due to other factors (script), just didn’t pack the same punch. There was nothing groundbreaking, just a continuance of what was delivered the first time around.
TAKING A DEEPER LOOK
AV: C’mon Hollywood,what are we doing here? You spent well over $100 million making, distributing and advertising this film (and trust me old friend, THAT is a very conservative estimate). And what did we get? A worse movie, terrible box office performance (it’s made just $11 million in 3 weeks) and we get nothing. A forgettable waste of two hours. Can’t we expect… no, demand better films for that kind of price tag? If Franky spent more time developing the script and screenplay and less time trying to be Co-director, writer, storyboard artist, chief gaffer, make-up artist, lumber and electrician, we might have a film that matters. Just because you draw comics using film making terminology (an’s eye-view, dutch tilt, extreme close-up, etc.) doesn’t mean you can direct films. There is a reason people go to film school and dedicate their lives to telling stories through film. Maybe you should have just left that to them.
TP: Is it possible for a film to have too many gritty one-liners and take-a-ways from the classic mysterious feel of the 1920’s novels? Yup. Every character felt one dimensional and didn’t interest me in the least, with the exception of the gratuitous violence I expected from Marvin, and the luck of Johnny (Gordon-Leavitt). It was disturbing that the only other character I even remotely had an interest in had nothing more to offer from his story than to be killed for beating his own father at a card game (talk about anti-climactic). It really doesn’t matter how many great actors you pump into the grinder, without substantial material for them to use, the end result will likely be less than anticipated. Enter “Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for.”
AV: One might think I am done with this franchise but actually I believe a third film could be great. Look, the premise is mind-bending and the story–fundamentally–is good. Style points… 10 out of 10. The rise and fall and rise again of Frank Miller’s career would likely play out well onscreen for this franchise. A third Sin City might make for a really stellar film? What do you say Frank? Can you focus on what you’re good at let the professionals do their job without trying to it for them? Might work out for you. Just saying.
TP: I think Frank Miller should call it a day on the Sin City story and take the first win, and this loss… and call it even.
ARTH VADER Rates Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for: While far from the worst film ever, this movie was a hot heaping mess of woulda, coulda shoulda. I’ve ranted enough but in all fairness, minus a fantastic moderate role and story arc played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, we get no acting worth a damn and a story that… well you know. I can’t in good conscious recommend more than two (2) Busted Blocks for this film as there is so much else worth seeing. Swing and a miss, gang.
THE PONTIFICATOR rates Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for: Although the talent in this film runs deep, the script was much too shallow to properly utilize it. When the highlights of the film are the moments of gratuitous violence, something is really wrong. It’s no wonder this film could only kill four (4) busted blocks and leave the other six lost in the script.
Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for 3 / 10 Busted Blocks
Monday, September 22, 2014
Mediocrity abounds in the latest fantasy sci-fi ‘super kid’ flick, The Giver.
ARTH VADER (AV): Based on the wildly popular 1993 children’s book of the same name by Lois Lowry, "The Giver" presents us with a distorted utopian society that quickly repulses us and becomes increasingly dystopian. This society has eliminated pain and suffering by converting to "sameness," a societal brainwashing program that eliminates pain suffering, greed, music, dancing, art and even color from eyesight. The novel (and film) chronicle the life of a young man named Jonas, whose ‘come of age’ allotment to his society is to become a ‘Receiver of memory.’ This is the chosen citizen who stores all the past memories of the time before Sameness, in case they are ever needed to aid in decisions that others lack the experience to make. Jonas learns the truth about his dystopian society and struggles with suppressing his new-found knowledge and ultimately must chose between a life he’s always known and the true nature of humanity. Thoughts, pontificator?
THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): The story sticks well enough to the events in the book. Written by Lois Lowry and having taken nearly twenty years to come to the big screen, it is reminiscent of other dystopian societies we have seen before…but more on that later.
CASTING, DIRECTING & ACTING
AV: While we were treated to Jeff "Obadiah Stane" Bridges as the veteran Receiver of memories, Katie “Rachel Dawes” Holmes plays Jonas’ Mom while Alexander “True Blood” Skarsgard is cast as Jonas’ Dad. the film features a cornucopia of budding young stars, too many to account for here. While the acting overall is decent, it is a bit stuffy, almost formulaic. Director Phillip "Salt" Noyce brings some particularly difficult and inspirational visuals together onscreen quite handsomely. Some of the most stunning cinema-graphic moments in this film include the (visual) transition of Jonas’ budding realization of the true nature of the world around him as color is slowly introduced into his world. An awesome story-telling tool I have not seen before.
TP: The two big names attached to this film are Jeff Bridges, who is the Giver, and Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder. Both play their roles superbly but I expected nothing less given their experience and talent. The rest of the cast did well, but with a society largely devoid of emotional expression, I think it takes some of the pressure off in terms of performance delivery. The film moved at a pretty good pace and never stalled which surprised me since a stale society can quickly become boring.
ON SPECIAL EFFECTS
AV: As you well know old friend, my favorite kind of special effects are the kind the eye doesn’t know are effects. Seamless, clean, polished. That epitomizes the special effects of The Giver for me. From the hi-tech drone scenes to the transitional effects from B&W to full color to the expansive landscapes. This was some of the best SFX work I’ve seen this summer.
TP: The special effects were not ground breaking, but they also were not shoddy Dark One. Most of the effects came in the form of the set and props (I was especially interested in the design of the bikes). The little bit of CGI that was used was used very effectively to advance the story and the use of old historical footage was also an excellent “effect” to push the point of the film.
TAKING A DEEPER LOOK
AV: How many story lines about the ‘kid who’s going to save us all’ do we have to endure? I don’ t have an issue with formula, not when it works it works. Take a proven storytelling technique, wrap a new skin on that bad boy (so to speak) and I'm good to go. But pick the flick and I will show you the kid who is going to save us all from destruction, an alien invasion or catastrophe. Luke Skywalker. Harry Potter. Percy Jackson. Catniss Everdeen. Ender (from Ender’s game). Tris from Divergent. The list is endless. So, apparently, are the prospects for future films and stories with this trope.
Look,we’re both Dads here, P–Man. In all fairness, I can’t even get my kids to clean their room… and now I’m supposed to buy that they’ve got the secret powers/knowledge/lineage to stop our impending doom? C’mon Hollywood, check the cliff notes. Sure, sure. Young people are capable of incredible feats of accomplishment. But, let’s not call that out as the norm. The story of Jonas here, is no different. A super clean-cut white kid–who has only ever followed the rules his entire life–now knows more than people who have been around for six or seven decades? Nope, not buying it. I guess that’s the fiction in ‘Science Fiction.’
TP: There were so many elements of this film that I have seen “elsewhere” I almost felt that it was nothing more than a hodgepodge of earlier films. The ceremony to decide your place in society was seen in “Divergent.” The “releasing” of people to Elsewhere was similar to the ceremony of Carousel in “Logan’s Run” in that nobody realizes what is really happening is death. They further expand on the similarity by having Jonas “run” with Gabriel, who is slated to be put to death. Even the injections of the daily drug were also seen in “Equilibrium”…perhaps it was even the same drugs as both had the effect of suppressing emotions. It takes just a little bit away from the story when I’m thinking to myself that I’ve seen that in (insert movie here) throughout the film. The script could have been a bit tighter as well. Earlier in the film it is stressed that society has adopted “sameness” to suppress envy, greed, jealousy…and Jonas, upon seeing the past, remarks that he saw people of different skin hues (suggesting that for sameness there are no more people of color in society) but later they actually show people of color in that society, debunking “sameness” and Jonas’ reaction to seeing them in the past. I think this was a case of political correctness trumping science fiction.
AV: This film is going to rear it’s unoriginal premise again I am sure. Companion books to The Giver from Lois Lowry include Gathering Blue (2000), The Messenger (2004) and Son (2012). The book’s reviews have been mixed at best. This quote from Wikipedia sums it up best; “Some critics find the work lacks originality or real literary merit, while others argue that books appealing to a young-adult audience are critical for building a developing reader's appetite for reading.” I can’t comment on the book themselves but my kids have all read The Giver so it is a property they are familiar with. For Hollywood these days, that’s about all they need to finance a movie.
TP: The Giver is the first of a four part book series. Whether or not more films get made to continue the telling of this expanded story remains to be seen and is probably largely dependent on the box office performance of this film.
ARTH VADER rates The Giver: Look folks, this is far from the worst flick of the summer or even in the genre. There are truly entertaining moments that are engaging and even emotional. I just think that for the tens of millions of dollars each of these film cost, we can expect a little bit more than formula. Every year we get astounding examples of fresh new perspectives on sci-fi and fantasy. I wish the Giver tried harder and had a higher calibre personality. Still, if you can shut off the monotony of the ‘kid saves the world’ formula, you’d be a better person than me, and might even give this film better than four (4) busted blocks.
THE PONTIFICATOR rates The Giver: Although I felt this story has already been told in other films, it was still an interesting film to watch. I enjoyed the performances of Bridges and Streep although I felt the ending fell a bit flat. Considering all the elements of this film that have been played out before, it was still able to “give” six (6) busted blocks of entertainment.
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brings out the kid in you…by making you want to throw a tantrum!
ARTH VADER (AV): How many, Ponitificator? How many times must we live through the re-telling of a non-sensical origin story? Every time a Batman, Superman, Fantastic Four or Spider-Man franchise gets a re-boot, we (the audience) has to suffer through the bumbling retelling of a hero’s origin. Aren’t we past this? Every kid in America knows the Turtles were the bi-product of a chemically-induced mutation. Why am I sitting in reboot after reboot of this stories? They’re not necessary. Sure this one told it with a new kind of flair but in the end, we’re watching something we already know. And the argument over new kids, new audience is bunk. Yeah, thats right i said it! Hey I don’t need the ‘from-the-beginning’ back story on every movie, TV show and web series I watch and forcing me to sit through this one was a bad way to start, What were your thoughts, P-Man? Did you just love seeing yet another retold origin?
CASTING, DIRECTING & ACTING
AV: I’m not pulling any punches here, Ponty (no not even Karate kicks). Every facet of this movie was a train wreck. Casting? Megan Fox had no business being in this film. Her flat, tired delivery was dull at best. Whoopi Goldberg, what are you doing? Stop it! You’re better than this! Will Arnett? Dude, you voiced Batman in the Lego Movie. My how the aspiring have fallen. Bill Fitchner? This was a new low for you, buddy. Director Jonathan “Battle LA” Liebesman; there were moments of brilliance, drowned out by the rest of this film’s mediocrity. Lastly, I found the acting as plastic as the over-priced action figures I’m not going to buy. Pontificator, did you have anything nice to say about the direction of this flick?
TP: Megan Fox takes the lead here (did I just say that?) as April O’Neil and while her performance is passable, there is nothing noteworthy in her delivery. Backed up by William Fitchner (the only other name I recognize), there isn’t much for him to do besides be a bad guy playing at being a good guy (but we knew from the start that he was going to be bad). The Turtles themselves are brought to life with motion-capture and CGI with the only name I recognize there being Johnny Knoxville (as the voice of Leonardo) meaning…anyone could have been cast as the Turtles (no acting skills required…see Megan Fox). The pace of the film reminded me of the old cartoon with things seeming to happen, just to happen, but on the upside, I didn’t fall asleep (was that nice enough Vader?).
AV: When you spend $125 million on the production of a movie, I expect a better end product than this. Sure, sure the visual effects were good. But name a good movie, just one, where the effects were so good you forgot how bad the screenplay was? Can’t think of one? That’s because it doesn’t exist. Look, I’m the first one to state how much I love this stuff but for Christmas sake, Hollywood, for $125 million you’re telling me you can’t spend a few bucks on writers that could try and make sense of it all? C’mon, Hollywood, what are we doing here? Saying a movie looks good is like saying a person looks good. The next comment is usually, “yeah, and…?” Looks good but so do a lot of things that aren’t good for me.
TAKING A DEEPER LOOK
AV: When co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird first created the Teenage Mutant Turtles in western Massachusetts in the mid 1980’s, they were poking fun at comic book hero archetypes that were big at the time. The New Mutants (a junior team of X-Men who were teens), Wolverine and Daredevil constantly seemed to be at war with Ninjas–even the X-Man Psylock was trained as a ninja. Who the heck knows what the turtle reference was, but the point is the book was dark, gritty, gruesome and just slightly disturbing. It was a hit and for all these reasons. they were true anti-heroes and somewhere between all the kid’s TV shows and action figures and pizza endorsements they have lost their way. What we have instead is blatant money grab properties that are pun per at us every few years to remind us–and our kids–just how gullible we are and how easily we can be suckered into the bad purchase.
AV: (Sigh) Looks likely we’ll see at least two more of these films. Hey maybe we can get all the main pizza chains to sponsor the next installment. Don’t think so? If you go to Pizza Hut.com, you can click on the homepage,and see “Donatello’s favorites” or “Raphael’s choice”. No, TMNT, No!
TP: Well, they can always make more Turtles films, and with them ending the film hinting that Shredder may have introduced the mutagen into his system as he lay there giving his best road kill impression, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the Turtles again. As it is with most films, the box office results will speak truth to power.
ARTH VADER rates Teenage Mutant Turtles: This movie, with its hideous, grotesque FX renderings of the turtle teens, is a film no one asked for.Yes, it has done more than $280 million in worldwide box-office that almost puts it in the black as product but this movie is such an obvious money grab, with gratuitous dialogue and an uninspired screenplay, I couldn’t enjoy this film even for a moment. While I’m aware it is not for me, I would be hard-pressed to know of anyone that got anything meaningful out of this thing. I give this travesty two (2) measly, radioactive Busted Blocks and hope to God this film crawls back down onto the sewer it crawled out of.