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Star Wars (Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don’t)

3 Jan

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Like millions and millions out there, I am a huge Star Wars fan. I watched and re-watched the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V and VI) more times than I could pretend to count. And when the prequels were finally made (Episodes I, II, III) by George Lucas, I was as excited as the rest of the world. But then Lucas did something unforgivable: He created a new trilogy….of mediocrity. They were not bad movies by any means, they had fun universes, some great actors (Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor), a fantastic John Williams score, and added to the mythology that we had been waiting to gain pieces to since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. But it was mediocre, plain and simple. The quality of actors for Anakin Skywalker were distractingly bad, the overuse of CGI for characters that had previously been done with love using Muppets was jarring, and the dialogue was frequently laughable. The most interesting protagonist (Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn) and antagonist (Darth Maul) of the movies were killed off so quickly, that we were left with mostly the dregs. And don’t even get me started with Jar Jar Binks….But still, you couldn’t NOT watch, you still got a thrill by watching the mythology unfold. You still appreciated the vastness of the universe and the storytelling. It was still a fun ride, and thankfully the best chapter was left for last (Revenge of the Sith aka Episode III), so it did end on a positive note.

Then, years went by, and fans were given a huge gift…George Lucas sold Lucasfilm for 4 billion dollars, and a movie a year was going to be made. And thankfully it would be created by other writers and directors, and specifically made by fans, for fans.

Time has passed, the the first 2/3 of the new trilogy has been made (Episodes VII and VIII), and it’s astounding, but these movies are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t with us fans. It’s too massive a franchise NOT to piss off millions of people, so The Force Awakens and now the recent The Last Jedi have proved the old adage that “you CAN’T please all of the people, all of the time”.

The Force Awakens was a nostalgic pleasure to watch. It flooded our hearts with memories of our childhoods watching the original iconic trilogy. Han Solo with his rascally personality was back with Chewbacca and the Millenium Falcon, the music, the visuals, the universe we love, all back, hooray! What was the problem? Well many people complained loudly that it was completely unoriginal. It was simply a rehash of everything we knew. Story-lines mimicked the originals, there was even basically a new Death Star with yet another conveniently designed fatal flaw that if you bomb it will blow up the whole place. “JJ Abrams how could you make us wait so long and then do nothing NEW with it???”

Well I didn’t feel that way, I loved the nostalgia, I loved seeing Han Solo again, I loved being engulfed by that universe again, and I had no complaints. But I DID leave the theater telling Adi and my friends that it’s okay for Abrams to have made this as a sort of “apology” for the mediocre prequels, and finally make one “for the fans” after all these years; BUT that it was a one-time baton pass from the old to the new, and all future ones would HAVE to be original storytelling.

And that’s exactly what happened. And that’s unfortunately what proved my point that fans cannot all be satisfied. Because along came The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, an extremely creative director in tow (did you ever see Looper? If not, check it out, one of the most clever movies of the past 10 years). Critics loved The Last Jedi, arguably the best reviewed movie in the franchise’s history. But…audiences were divided. “How could you destroy our childhood and make Luke so angry?!” some would yell. “An entire mission that fails, what was the point of that?!” others would cry out. “Rey has iconic parents, that can’t be the real answer to that mystery!” others would complain. Even Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker went on social media saying how upset HE was that Luke was not the same positive character he had always been (until Disney likely pressured him to shut up, and he suddenly did a total 180 and apologized in public). A petition was actually started to remove this from the Star Wars official canon, and remake it; over 80,000 people have signed it and counting (see it for yourself here). Wow, fans can be truly whiny!

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But I think that’s a GOOD thing! There aren’t enough things left in this world that instill passion into people, but this franchise still makes people leave their homes to see their first movie in 2 years. It still makes people happy OR mad enough to make them angrily post on social media and argue with their friends about how great or terrible it was. Try making that happens with 99.9% of the other movies out there…it won’t happen. Let’s continue to create movies and television that makes people want to continue talking about it long after they’ve left the theater or turned off their TVs. Personally, I think BOTH movies were awesome. I saw each one in theaters TWICE, and these are the only movies I can say that about in the past 10 years! Both did far more to thrill me and make me care than the disappointing prequels. I think The Force Awakens did what it needed to do and gave us all the gift of nostalgia that we had been longing for after many years, and The Last Jedi appropriately moved on from there. I appreciate that it did not take the safe route. I love that missions failed. I loved the continued awesome music and visuals, and new creatures that were NOT reliant on CGI. I loved that I did not know what was going to happen next, and I am excited to see how this trilogy finishes….and in a fascinating twist of events, it will revert back to the original director JJ Abrams, so time will tell if he will continue from the tone that Rian Johnson just left it with, or if he will revert to the safer version of the first one that he kicked off…

I will leave you with one additional point. Disney recently bought 20th Century Fox for over 52 billion dollars. I would love for them to reward us by putting their iconic fanfare back in front of each Star Wars movie, because most of us fans can agree that this is how the opening should always sound.

This is easy. The movies were each far far better than Episodes I, II and III (the prequels), though still unable to take the crown away from the original iconic trilogy.

Quality Rating (Star Wars: The Force Awakens): A (Hard to give something an A+ that so closely tried to imitate the original, even if imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery.

Boaz Rating (Star Wars: The Force Awakens): A+ (I couldn’t have been more excited from the start to finish if I tried. Harrison Ford was back on the screen playing Han Solo, there was new story, the dialogue was not cringe-worthy, I was in heaven.

Quality Rating (Star Wars: The Last Jedi): A (There are still a few weak lines of dialogue, a incongruous shot of Adam Driver with his shirt off, that ever so slightly weaken the quality of this highly original movie.

Boaz Rating (Star Wars: The Force Awakens): A+ (The continuation of the awesome story but in a far more original and unexpected way? I was sold, and riveted, and that held true upon a second viewing.)

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Best. Trilogy. Ever?

23 Jul

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Synopsis: “After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind.” (Rated PG-13; 2 hours, 20 minutes)
The Planet of the Apes trilogy that just concluded was one of the absolute BEST trilogies I’ve EVER seen…and in case it’s not evident, I’ve seen quite a few movies.
Beginning, middle and end, it was just so damn powerful. Yes, for anyone who assumes a big budget movie about simians has to be stupid, don’t judge it by its poster, nor the cheesy fun Charlton Heston films, nor the really mediocre remake by Tim Burton (who I generally love).
No, this trilogy by Matt Reeves is fantastic. The heartbreaking first one Rise of the Planet of the Apes with a tragically wonderful performance by John lithgow (whom I get to meet in a few months thanks to Adi!!!), the great second one Dawn of the Planet of the Apes which shows a hell of an internal conflict among the apes, and now the final chapter War for the Planet of the Apes, which has Woody Harrelson doing a hell of a Martin Sheen circa Apocalypse Now impression.
Throughout the trilogy, the perennially Oscar-snubbed Andy Serkis is PERFECTION as the Caesar. The visuals are flawless, the drama is taut, and other than Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, I honestly can’t think of another trilogy that goes so wonderfully together. (Sorry, I love all of Back to the Future but the third is a huge loss in quality, the drop-off between the first two Godfather movies and the third is astounding, and many others including Harry Potter and James Bond have more than three great movies but they aren’t actually 3-story arcs, they simply have good and weaker chapters.)
Most people I know get annoyed when sequels are made to good movies, and I get that; they don’t want to see something great degrade in quality, so leave well enough alone. And I get that mentality, I do, I just happen to be a movie-LOVER and not a movie-SNOB (as evidenced by this blog), so I’m ALWAYS excited by the prospect of sequels (if I like the original), continuing stories and characters that I have loved and am excited to see continue. Sure, more often than not it disappoints (Zoolander 2, Independence Day: Resurgence, and countless other examples) but sometimes it exceeds expectations (each subsequent Captain America movie, Terminator 2) and sometimes it’s just bonkers and insanely different from the first one (Gremlins 2 was basically a Looney Tunes cartoon!), but I’m Boaz, and I proudly enjoy seeing what they do with it, and in most examples I enjoy the experience of seeing it play out. A disappointing sequel does not detract from my opinion of a great original. But this Apes trilogy was a different animal. It’s not just an excuse for a sequel, it was designed to have a start, middle and end. Not one part of any of it felt like an excuse to find more material to work with. And man oh man did it fire on all cylinders.
Anyway, see them. In order. Preferably on a big screen with good sound.
Oh, and the way this latest one started with a recap was so simple in design that it amazed me it’s never been done before. Sometimes it’s the little things that go unnoticed…

It was much better than any previous Planet of the Apes incarnation, and just as good as the previous two in the trilogy, which is a high bar.

Quality Rating: A+ (What did you expect from a post about putting it up there with Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings as the best trilogy I’ve ever seen?)

Boaz Rating: A+ (I was gripped from the first to the last minute, it had me laughing the few rare times of humor, and crying at the somber moments.)

Pain & Gain

11 Apr

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Synopsis: “A trio of bodybuilders in Florida get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme that goes terribly wrong.” (Rated R; 2 hours, 9 minutes)

Extremely entertaining, funny, and “based on a true story”. Why the quotation marks? I’ll get to that later… It’s somewhat shocking that the movie is by Michael Bay, the same director who loves to make bloated mega-movies like Transformers and Pearl Harbor. To be fair I generally love his movies, but that’s because I have the ability to enjoy big, loud, brainless garbage. Give me Armageddon any day and I’ll leave the movie theater super happy. And let’s not forget this is the same director who recently went viral after doing this at a major CES convention.

At the end of the day, he managed to make a movie that was small (by his standards), and caused some controversy by turning the bad guys into the likable protagonists, and making the real life victim into a character you dislike and root against. Read more about that right here. But I’m not here to pass judgment on the choice of the writers and filmmakers on portraying the story authentically, because purely as a movie THIS. WAS. FUN.

Mark Wahlberg continues to be shockingly hilarious in his recent roles (my favorite is still The Other Guys), he plays stupid SO well in this movie, and he’s INCREDIBLY built (far more than usual) for the role; his biceps were almost as big as The Rock’s… speaking of which The Rock is pretty darn funny himself as a super-sensitive thug. Don’t get me wrong, this may have cracked Adi and myself up, but it’s a comedy for the Tarantino crowd; it’s dark and violent, but nonetheless a surprisingly well-made Michael Bay movie I can easily recommend, even if it did insult the real people it was based on…

The movie was better than Bay’s The Island, an over-the-top sci-fi flop that I managed to enjoy in spite of its badness, and it still wasn’t as much fun as his classic action extravaganza The Rock – I miss Sean Connery!!!

Quality Rating: B+ (I almost gave it an A- but I suppose there should be SOME social responsibility to not only changing the true story, but doing it in a way that offends the still-living victims, right?)

Boaz Rating: A (Still, it was so much fun to watch play out!)

Oblivion (“My Comic Book Origin Story”)

8 May

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Synopsis: “A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself.” (Rated PG-13; 2 hours, 5 minutes)

Why on God’s green-earth isn’t this smart science-fiction movie getting more love? This time I not only refer to the critics, but also the people I personally know who have seen and disliked it. I went to see Oblivion with the knowledge that a group of 3 of my friends (Ephraim, Mike and Jared) had gone to see it, and reported being really bored by it. Ephraim, who admits he gets impatient watching movies, said he was intrigued by the first half but then it lost him. They predicted that I’d like it, seemingly because I enjoy most movies, but were ready to mock me for doing so. Well, I’m sorry guys, but not only did I think it was good, I REALLY really liked it.

The movie was like a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey, I Am Legend and WALL-E. First of all, let me address the slow-pacing of the movie. This made me feel like I was watching the classic Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Most people to see that movie know it wasn’t exactly an exciting, fast-paced movie, but the brilliant build-up of tension as man realized more and more that he needed to battle machine…wow. And no, I’m not suggesting this movie had the extremely slow pacing of Kubrick, but each scene was certainly deliberate, thoughtful and highly suspenseful. Considering the movie was set on a desolate planet Earth, you should be able to visualize that there were long portions with very little dialogue, and it became more about man versus beast…or machine. Personally I find this technique amazing when it works, such as with Cast Away, or even the aforementioned WALL-E or I Am Legend. A film-maker who is able to create a world where you are watching a one-man play for long chunks of the time, and keep you glued to your seats…I absolutely love and admire that.

Without spoiling anything, the basic premise in Oblivion involves Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough as a two people who have their memories wiped, and are assigned to monitor Earth to help protect it from creatures who have been sabotaging it. All of this takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, where the two of them have a home-base that looks like a scaled-back version of The Jetsons apartment in the sky, while the rest of the world remains bare and desolate.

The visuals were simply awesome. This applied to both the fantastic set design, and also the absurdly great visual effects. My goodness half of this movie involves rocket ships and robots flying around, and it looked amazing. I was swept away in a world where menacing, flying drone robots existed, and Tom Cruise was like Maverick from Top Gun if he’d gotten amnesia and was flying around aimlessly trying to find his purpose in life. In fact, I didn’t know anything about the movie other than the previews, and it made perfect sense to find out that it was based on a graphic novel.

I grew up with an expensive hobby, and comic books be thy name. As with many addictions, it started quite innocently…It was the summer of 1994, I had just turned 15, and my best friend Seth asked me to join him for a comic book signing. Although it sounded like a boring day of nothing but waiting in line, we passed time on lazy Shabbos afternoons often enough that I didn’t mind doing it for the sake of spending time with my buddy. My immediate impressions were of amusement at the people surrounding us in the line. There was one memorable middle-aged man with a twitchy mustache who kept raving about a comic book named Shi, Seth and I joked about this for years to come. Hours passed by, and we finally got inside Golden Apple, the popular comic book store on Melrose Avenue. About 5 steps into the store an Asian man got my attention:

Asian man – Hey! You plan on signing anything?

Boaz – Oh, I’m just here to hang with my friend. Why, where do we finally do that?

Golden Apple Employee – Dude, that’s Jim Lee!

Boaz – Umm, who?

Asian man/Jim Lee – Bursts out laughing

Seth – Nice Boaz, way to embarrass me. He’s the head of Image Comics and the one everyone’s waiting to meet!

Boaz – Oh, sorry, I don’t collect comics, but I’ve been waiting in line long enough that I guess I’ll buy one and get your autograph, sure.

Entire Crowd – Laughs hysterically

When I saw there were about 3 issues released of his comic Wetworks, I bought all three, he signed them, and the next thing I knew I was shopping at Golden Apple once a week, getting about 20 comics at a time. This hobby lasted years, gathered me hundreds to thousands of comic books (I never counted) and all of my babysitting money. As with movies, some were fantastic, others were lousy, some were interesting but slow, and others were dumb fun action. (My favorites were anything written by Garth Ennis, the comic book equivalent of Quentin Tarantino.) The universes that some of these artists managed to create would bring fantasy worlds to life that were near-impossible to bring to the big screen. They were too grand and vast, technology simply couldn’t handle such a feat…yet. Cut ahead to the continued perfection of special effects and CGI, and more and more we got to see movies like Avatar and John Carter which actually transported us to different worlds. I’m happy to report that Oblivion joins the club, as it so effectively transported me to a dark, new world.

The graphic novel had been written by Joseph Kosinski, and I’m thrilled that he was also chosen to direct it, as he was given the chance to realize his original vision. Kosinski had only directed commercials before being given the chance to direct the long-awaited Tron: Legacy. While that movie was a bit of a let-down, it LOOKED fantastic, and most of its flaws were in the writing. Here he was given his second movie, it was based on his own material, and it just worked as a smart, twisty story.

As interesting as I found it from the start, the movie really became incredible about halfway through, after a huge reveal. I was incredibly relieved to have seen it with my friend Yoni, because unlike our other three friends who hated it, Yoni and I both loved the film and had a great experience watching it. Bear in mind that he is the same friend who watched Tyler Perry’s Temptation with me, and helped me make fun of that one from start to finish. For the two hours that Oblivion was playing, I don’t think we said a word, other than our mutual disappointment that our friends hated it.

I tell you, when a certain twist in the movie occurred, in spite of usually figuring things out I was totally caught off-guard, and was blown away from that point onward. I’m not saying every piece to the puzzle was shocking. There were elements to the story that I saw a mile away that were meant to be giant reveals, but that didn’t take away from the overall cool factor. And the love story that ensued was quite touching, giving this sci-fi movie more brains, heart and ominous tension than most ever achieve. Between the incredible visuals and the spectacular sound, this warranted being seen on a giant screen, in a great theater. Thankfully we caught it in the amazing (and overpriced) Arclight theater. I doubt it’ll actually happen, since I’m limited with my time, but I would even consider seeing it again. Trust me, that’s high praise for someone who tries to see 150 different movies each year.

The movie was better than I Am Legend, the enjoyably flawed Will Smith movie, where he scours the Earth on his own, trying to stay alive. Thought it wasn’t as perfect as Cast Away, which was truly a one-man feat performed by Tom Hanks.

Quality Rating: A-

Boaz Rating: A+ (The first half was fascinating, but from the second half onward I was absolutely mesmerized)

Jurassic Park (3D) (“My Research & Adulation About The Masterpiece”)

30 Apr

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Synopsis: “During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.” (Rated PG-13; 2 hours, 7 minutes)

Steven Spielberg is a God. Is that too sacrilegious a statement for an observant Jew to make? Fine, I’ll clarify it and say he’s just a god among men. How else to describe the fantasy that he has helped bring to life SO many times over the years with movie spectacle after movie spectacle.

It’s not just his budgets that create wondrous blockbusters, because numerous directors get hundreds of millions of dollars to play with, and their movies may be cool and fun, but they sure aren’t magical (I’m talking to you, Michael Bay). And he certainly doesn’t exclusively choose Oscar-bait material, because many of his movies would have been second-rate in other peoples’ hands. Imagine Jaws directed by anyone else. What are the chances  that the LACK of seeing the shark would be what scares the bejesus out of us. (I was one of countless kids who for years still had lingering twinges of fear when I’d dip my toes into a swimming pool!) How about Saving Private Ryan; do you think anyone else would have given you the terrifying sense of “being there” that you had during its initial 20 minute D-Day scene? In my opinion that scene escalates the film so much, that I consider it to be the greatest war movie ever made. I could honestly go on and on about my all-time favorite director, but let’s focus my attention on the brilliant blockbuster at hand, Jurassic Park. Oh what an awesome movie it was. And I’m happy to report that it stands the test of time. Seeing it on the big screen once again was exhilarating;  it was as scary, thrilling and (yes) funny as ever.

I need to mention the fact that Adi went with me to see the movie in 3D. For anyone who is unaware, I am incredibly critical of the 3D experience in movies, and my feelings generally range from hatred to mild apathy. Whether it’s about the distractions of the glasses constantly slipping off my nose, or how they feel pressed against my own glasses underneath, or the dulled tones and colors that result from the 3D effect…I despise the format. But for the sake of this particular blog post, I will write about the movie and not mention the 3D aspect again; one of these days I will revisit the topic and address/attack it as its own article.

Unlike most of my posts, the vast majority of people reading this blog will have seen the movie in the past, so I don’t need to convince anyone that it’s worth checking out. What I would like to do is remind people about some of the more brilliant aspects of the movie, and possibly offer some new information I’ve compiled from my research.

The Music

As soon as you saw the poster above, didn’t you start playing the music inside your head (or out loud for that matter)? If not, I welcome you to get in the mood and listen to it right here (at the start of the YouTube clip as well as the 2:25 minute mark). John Williams composed the score for all of Spielbergs’ movies, and has thus created some of the most memorable melodies in film history. He managed to somehow make 2 notes absolutely terrifying with his Jaws theme. He gave a platform to world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, who was forever immortalized in the beautifully haunting Schindler’s List theme. As Spielberg created another piece of cinematic history, so often John Williams followed. The melody for Jurassic Park was an instant-classic, and you would hear people singing it as soon as they’d leave the theater. To say it set the mood for the wonders on the screen would be a glaring example of understatement.

The Special Effects

It’s been 20 years since the movie came out. There have been so many advances in technology, computers and special effects, and nobody would even try to contest that statement. Then why on earth do these effects hold up as better and more “real” than the majority of big budget movies today? The amount of thought, care and dedication that went into the visual arts of this movie are astonishing. As fantastic as some of the CGI (computer-generated imagery) movies have gotten, so many film-makers have abused it to the point where it’s not uncommon to hear “CGI-heavy” as a descriptor for a movie – and it’s rarely meant as a compliment. (I’m looking at you Transformers!) Although Jurassic Park had plenty of CGI (and essentially revolutionized it), some of their key moments and characters were mechanical, touchable, animatronic dinosaurs – amazingly REAL ones I might add. When Sam Neill hugged the sick Triceretops? He wasn’t hugging a blue screen, the creature was created for the movie, and it was as if dinosaurs were alive and real…you can’t replace that realism! What about the giant Tyrannosaurus Rex that moved around snapping and snarling and darting rapidly? It was usually a robot. Holy cow-eating dinosaur! In fact it was SUCH a feat of brilliance creating the T. Rex that I invite you to watch these videos that were recently released here; they show the thought and genius that went into it, led by the world-famous special effects pioneer Stan Winston. There are 3 segments at 4 minutes apiece, and you may not understand all of the technical terms they’re using, but you will be amazed by their inventiveness! Are you curious to read a fun National Geographic piece about how the T. Rex from the movie compares to what we actually know about the monstrous creature? I am happy to provide you with a fun piece of reading material here!

Spielberg had originally hired Phil Tippett to use his go-motion animation technology to move the dinosaurs around. Tippett had previously created numerous famous go-motion effects, including the Imperial Walkers during The Empire Strikes Back. Spielberg wasn’t happy with the end-result’s lack of realism in Jurassic Park, and when they saw initial CGI footage of the T. Rex running around and hunting the stampede of other dinosaurs, he famously said to Tippett, “You’re out of a job”, to which the go-motion wizard responded, “Don’t you mean extinct?”. That witty exchange of course made it into the movie itself! As for the shots when the dinosaurs WERE computer generated? I have no explanation as to why they still seem more real than most modern day effects. They just do.

The Script

It sure doesn’t hurt when the author is also one of the screenwriters, and that’s what happened here. Michael Crichton was hired to adapt his own screenplay, and David Koepp came in later and made some very clever changes to its final product. For example, there had been a lot of exposition in the book (and Crichton’s screenplay) about the backstory of HOW it was scientifically possible to bring dinosaurs back to life. Koepp solved this by creating the cute cartoon that was shown to the characters that explains it all. This and other changes took the meat of the clever story, and made it flow so darn well in a 2 plus hour movie. He also took Richard Attenborough’s owner-of-the-island character and made him a sweet, misguided, well-meaning old man instead of a ruthless billionaire. Trust me, when you watch the movie again you’ll realize just how many lines are now classic, and the comic timing is hilarious, especially when Jeff Goldblum speaks. Although I must admit I was rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of the script where Goldblum’s character Dr. Ian Malcolm asks Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) if she’s heard of chaos theory, and then later the butterfly effect. In both cases neither she nor anyone else is even familiar with the concepts. Seriously?! What the hell sort of schools did these other scientists go to? I was a lazy student in high school but even I had heard of both, c’mon! In spite of that slight lapse in judgment, the script was fun, memorable and well written by the author himself and Koepp. Other notable movies that Koepp has written include Mission: Impossible,  Spider-Man, and last year’s underrated popcorn flick Premium Rush.

The Actors

I would have never thought Sam Neill could be such a great hero, but he really pulled it off. It’s funny, because I don’t associate him with roles like this, as he’s usually a bit stodgy or serious, but here he fit the hat of an Indiana Jones-type perfectly. And it’s ironic, because Harrison Ford was actually Spielberg’s first choice. As the director once reported, “My first choice was Harrison. I went to the art department and I had them do a photo-realistic painting of the T-Rex chasing Harrison… and I put Harrison’s face on the character of the archaeologist, and sent the script, the book, and the picture to Harrison. The next day I got a call and he said, ‘This is not for me, pal.'” So as often seems to occur with famous roles, it could have gone to someone else and now we can’t really imagine it any other way. (William Hurt was also considered for the role before Sam Neill turned up.) Laura Dern was an interesting choice to make since she was mostly doing indie flicks at the time. According to a recent Entertainment Weekly article, she got the script while working on Wild At Heart, and only accepted the role when Nicolas Cage told her that it was his dream to work on a dinosaur movie and she’d be CRAZY to turn it down. And don’t get me started on Jeff Goldblum, his unique delivery is an acting class in itself.

Did You Know?

Pieces of information I wasn’t aware of until yesterday include:

-At the start of their automated tour of Jurassic Park, Richard Attenborough’s character tells everyone, “”The voice you’re now hearing is Richard Kiley. We’ve spared no expense.” I assumed Richard Kiley must have been a well-known actor from the days of yore, but there’s more to it. In the book, Chrichton wrote that Kiley was the narrator of the tour, so fittingly Spielberg was able to get him to actually do it for the movie.

-When they showed dinosaurs entire bodies moving around, or more distant shots, it was usually CGI. Most close-ups of them were animatronic though, including the majority of the climactic velociraptor-kitchen scene, which most people falsely believe was CGI. In fact during that scene Joseph Mazzello at one point ran into one of them and got injured. The seamless blend of computers with fleshy animatronics works so darn well, and that scene was terrifying!

-During filming a massive hurricane hit Kauai, causing the entire crew to flee. The pilot who took them off the island was Fred Sorenson. Who’s that? He was the same pilot who flew Indiana Jones away during the opening scene of Spielberg’s own Raiders Of The Lost Ark!

The Director

This brings us full circle back to the genius himself, Steven Spielberg. Seeing the movie on the big screen after all these years, I was able to see countless details and moments that demonstrate his mastery of the film-making craft. I will give some examples of this from just one famous scene in the movie, the T. Rex encounter: The cup of water rippling each time the T. Rex took a step…iconic. The rear-view mirror vibrating out-of-focus during that same thunderous sequence…brilliant. The close-up of the side-mirror showing the T. Rex chasing their vehicle, and almost caught up, with a funny focus on the words, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”!

There were truly endless moments of masterful film-making throughout the film, and as Adi said to me, it did two things that most movies never achieve: It scared her, and it made her care. The animatronics and CGI were able to make these dinosaurs more real than it had seemed imaginable, and the script was able to provide a hell of a fun story; but it’s only thanks to Steven Spielberg that each moment was actually suspenseful, touching and highly effective. The movie fires on all cylinders, and I can’t wait to see what he does in the next chapter of his illustrious career.

The movie was better than its sequels, including the Spielberg directed The Lost World. That one was certainly entertaining, but never as brilliantly innovative as the original. It wasn’t as good as…geez, do I really have to pick a better movie than a classic? Sure, okay, technically it wasn’t as fantastic as his own Schindler’s List. Are you happy now? I need to go wash my hands after that dirty, dirty comparison…

Quality Rating: A+(After everything I’ve written here, was there ever any doubt?)

Boaz Rating: A+

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (“My Theories On Why I Didn’t Like It”)

24 Apr

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Synopsis: The G.I. Joes are not only fighting their mortal enemy Cobra; they are forced to contend with threats from within the government that jeopardize their very existence. (Rated PG-13; 1 hour, 50 minutes)

What happened here? I love movies like this! Did I suddenly transform into a fussy old critic overnight, or did this movie actually screw up a really easy-to-please genre? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if the first one was a good movie. I’m not claiming that. At no point in my life would I have told someone to see it as a quality film, with a drop of substance. But when has that stopped me from having a grand old time watching an action spectacle? Read my review for The Last Stand, and especially Olympus Has Fallen, action movies can be extremely entertaining in spite of having little to no substance. There just needs to be some good fight scenes, and everything else is icing on top of the guaranteed fun I’ll have watching it play out. That certainly was true for the mediocre first G.I. Joe flick. Something strange happened here, and I’m trying to figure out what it was. There were definitely entertaining (and visually cool) scenes peppered into the movie, but somehow I just wasn’t particularly interested in it as a whole.  That’s a curious phenomenon for someone who enjoyed watching every lousy blockbuster from Green Lantern to The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift, I’m not exactly tough to please when there are explosions or superheroes involved.

It’s hard to put my finger on why this is, but let’s look at some possible explanations:

-The direction was terrible. This is one of the more likely reasons, as the movie just didn’t flow well from one scene to the next. The action somehow came across as loud but unexciting, and the quiet scenes in-between….well, you don’t really expect the quiet scenes in G.I. Joe to be interesting, do you? The director in question is Jon M. Chu, and after looking him up I can’t say he really let me down based on his dossier. His last movie? Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Umm, okay, talk about setting the bar low; his last movie was literally a glorified promo for the boy-singer and his famous butch-lesbian haircut. Before that the only movies I’d even heard of from Chu were Step Up 2 and 3. His entire career seems to be about making dance movies…please don’t quit your day-job Mr. Chu. How he managed to land the gig directing what I assume was meant to be a tent-pole blockbuster, is simply beyond me.

-The writing was dull. Unlike my example of the director, this actually does surprise and sadden me. The writers were Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, a team who haven’t written many screenplays, but did come up with the hilariously witty (and gruesome) Zombieland, which was only brilliant BECAUSE of its writing. How they can go from that movie (and its upcoming sequel) to this one, is an example of major disappointment. With a dumb movie like this you don’t expect Shakespeare, but you can at least hope to have fun overall. I think they may have spent too much time trying to include as many characters from the G.I. Joe universe as possible, and less time creating an entertaining, cohesive story. Which leads me to…

-Too many characters. At a certain point more really is less, and creating a movie with an endless supply of characters and cameos just to sell more action figures is lame. When doing my usual research into which poster to use for this blog post, I found so many different ones absolutely full of characters that never even crossed over with one another. They literally couldn’t fit everyone onto a group poster. I’m not saying there haven’t been good ensemble movies; I certainly have liked most of the X-Men films, but they manage to just…be better. In those movies you’re excited to see a new mutant and watch his or her cool powers on display, but here there’s nothing  particularly distinctive about one person from another, so there isn’t a cool factor being served. Thus in this movie, less would have been more. PLEASE NOTE: If you grew up collecting these action figures, then I accept that seeing each character appear on screen may be somewhat cool; but that makes for less of a cohesive story, and more of a nostalgia-trip that gets really old, really quickly.)

-Most of the main characters were uninteresting. Sure, there’s Channing Tatum having a cute repartee with Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. ‘The Rock’), but the main focus of the movie is The Rock along with two cardboard cutout characters who would normally be supporting cannon fodder. You know, the characters whose only line of dialogue is, “Let’s get ’em!” right before getting shot in an action movie. Seriously, you get all of these supporting actors who you want to see more of (Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis, Joseph Mazzello) but noooo, it’s some random boring actor playing Flint, and pretty eye candy with little personality playing Lady Jaye. Why couldn’t THEY just die like the token black guy in a horror movie? It almost made it interesting when the story cut to the cartoonishly AWFUL performance by RZA playing Blind Master, that couldn’t help but make you giggle in its awful corniness.

-My memory is awful. Let’s be honest, nostalgia can get you pretty far. There have been plenty of lame movies that you can cut a lot of slack with, merely by the fun it is watching your childhood memories on the big screen. Transformers to some degree achieved this, but even the awfully cheesy Masters Of The Universe with Dolph Lungren playing He-Man in 1987 was a combination of so-bad-it’s-good fun, along with the inherent childhood He-Man nostalgia. Somehow in spite of growing up watching G.I. Joe cartoons, and playing with some of their toys, I couldn’t remember anything other than a few familiar names. (Clearly one never forgets classic names like “Cobra Commander” and “Snake Eyes”, but truthfully I couldn’t even recall that Snake Eyes was a good guy! During the movie I had Adi on my left who knew nothing whatsoever about G.I. Joe, and Shlomo on my right reminding me who the heck everyone was. I imagine it was more fun for Shlomo since his memories were intact, but even he seemed to get pretty bored by it all. (Though to be fair, Shlomo gets bored pretty easily with most movies; if this was his blog it would likely be called, “It Stinks”.)

As I mentioned, there were a few visually cool scenes. The first was a simple little scene down a well that actually had a moment with some decent camerawork and the tone was eerie, and the best part was a fight scene in the midst of rappelling down a mountain. I have to admit, that one part was so outlandishly cool and inventive that it ALMOST saved the movie for me.  But then it would be followed up by the ridiculous RZA scenes, the wooden main characters (other than The Rock), and the weak overall direction/writing/action, which all left me disappointed by what half-decently capable hands would have created an entertaining 2 hours for this easy-going movie critic.

The movie was better than Dungeons & Dragons, the terrible 2000 movie based on many nerd’s childhood nostalgia. It was worse than G.I. Joe: The Rise Of The Cobra, the predecessor to this one. That one certainly wasn’t good, but with the director of The Mummy movies at the helm, along with a far more entertaining cast, it was always amusing fun, which is all I’m really looking for when I see a movie based on action figures.

Quality Rating: C

Boaz Rating: C+ (Trust me, for a big budget action movie this is a shockingly low Boaz Rating)

Olympus Has Fallen (“My Romantic Weekend In Laguna Beach”)

6 Apr

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Synopsis: “Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President from his kidnappers.” (Rated R; 1 hour, 40 minutes)

Just see this movie. It won’t be winning any awards, but see this movie. The dialogue is ridiculous, and the characters are silly caricatures, but see this movie. Wait, you don’t like action movies? Okay, fine, DON”T see this movie in that case. But if you do enjoy an absolutely brainless “yippee-ki-yay” action movie, where all that matters is that the good guy gets as many bad guys as possible to kill, and has the craziest obstacles to overcome, then this is your movie. And yes, that means this was my type of movie, and I hope yours too! Apparently Adi and I had our own adventures to deal with just getting to the theater, so before I get into the review I’ll give you my own ridiculous context…

Here we were having an absolutely lovely and beautiful weekend in Laguna Beach, an extravagant engagement present from dear friends Melissa & Anthony. Friday night was spent eating the fabulous dinner Adi had packed up, as well as walking around the quiet streets of Laguna; this included a proverbial romantic walk on the beach. Saturday (aka our Jewish Sabbath day) was spent walking around town, looking at tide-pools and lying on beach-chairs on the sand. The weather was perfect, the setting was lovely, it was paradise for us! Well, for Adi that is…for this crazy movie-fan, what took this weekend from being fun to being sublime was when Adi suggested, “if we can find a movie that starts at the right time, we can see something Saturday night after dinner”. For those of you who don’t know me, that may sound like a normal statement for someone to offer for a Saturday night out. But for those who DO know me, the statement was no different than telling a child, “Timmy, if you behave I’ll let you have ice cream and candy and this bucket of sugar tonight”. Little Timmy is about to be the best kid you’ve ever seen, just as I was about to make sure a movie happened…it was a foregone conclusion.

“Look movies up tonight” Adi suggested, but no, I needed to find a newspaper NOW and look up showtimes. Thankfully, the hotel’s office had complimentary LA Times for the guests, so that was easy enough. And after Adi realized that there was a sushi place she wanted to eat at in Fashion Island, I found that there was a movie theater at the mall showing Admission at 10:20pm. Okay, same location…we had a plan: we’d leave Laguna at 845pm sharp, and it would be tight but should work out!

8pm – Not so fast, the Sabbath ended and the first thing I (obviously) needed to do was check my fantasy basketball lineup. Come on people, I may have been on an engagement weekend in Laguna Beach but Sunday (the next day) was the last day of the fantasy basketball season, and I was neck and neck with Yoni in the finals. Clearly coming in first place should still be the priority, right?! So what was the problem? The internet. The frustrating, infuriating internet. The hotel’s Wi-Fi didn’t work. Not even after they called technical support and sent their in-staff engineer to the room. I pretty much went through every stage of the following chart other than “acceptance”.

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830pm – They then tried to give me free access to the pay-computer in the lobby, but even that didn’t work. Amazingly it was for an unrelated technical reason. C’mon, the clock was ticking…

835pm – They sheepishly apologized and offered me use of their work-computers. You know, the ones behind the desk where only employees stand and apologize to other guests for their internet being down. “Thank you, I’ll take it, I just need to update my fantasy roster” I explained to the manager (who amazingly sympathized and told me that he loves playing fantasy sports himself, thus validating my Laguna Beach priorities). Eureka, there was working internet! Loading Yahoo’s fantasy sports page…”FORBIDDEN – YOU ARE TRYING TO ACCESS A SITE THAT IS NOT ALLOWED” What??? “Oh”, the manager realized, “They block a lot of websites here so the employees don’t waste time on the job, I’m so sorry! Let me think if I have any other ideas for you…”

Access Denied

840pm – The manager then called in a favor from the Holiday Inn across the street, telling them about the internet being down and said, “I have a guest at our hotel who is very important and has some business to deal with online, can you please give him access to your WiFi tonight?” Access granted!

845pm – I set up my computer at the Holiday Inn across the street, where I was greeted with reverence: “Mr. Hepner, we’re very sorry about the inconvenience. Please sit anywhere you’d like. Can we get you anything? Coffee? Lemonade? Popcorn?” Oh my goodness, there was literally a popcorn machine in the corner of the lobby, staring at me with all of its bitter irony, mocking me for potentially ruining my chances to see a movie at 1020pm; and choosing fantasy basketball over its seductive past-time. My phone buzzed…it was Adi. “Where are you? We have to leave. If we’re late I hope you realize we’re skipping the movie, NOT dinner.” I replied, “Okay, I get it, I’ll make it work, I finally have internet access, let me do this quickly!” I made my basketball updates, and ran back to the hotel. (Pictured below is the actual lobby where I did my “very important business”, taken during daylight hours.)

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905pm – We were finally off speeding toward our dinner. Yikes, we were running late. Adi reminded me, “If we don’t make the movie, then we don’t; it’s as simple as that.” Yes Adi, and if a drug addict doesn’t get his hit that night, it’s not a big deal, right?

925pm – Dinner. We ran in, and had a lovely time. They were even sweet when they saw Adi’s engagement ring and brought out a congratulatory piece of cake that neither of us could eat (Adi because she’s gluten free, and I because of my kosher diet). Below is a cute photo they took, printed out and gave us before we left!

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1018pm – “Check please, we have to run!” I said. Adi rolled her eyes but played the part of an amazing  fiancée and dashed out with me toward the movie theater on the other end of the mall.

1030pm – I ran…panting…out of breath…

Boaz: “Are the previews still playing for Admission or has it started?”

Manager: “There are another 90 seconds to go before it starts.”

Boaz: “Fantastic! 2 tickets please!”

On the seating chart, I saw we were the only people in the theater. I chose our seats.

Manager: “39 dollars please.”

I laughed, assuming he had misheard what I said.

Boaz: “No, I only need two tickets to Admission.”

Manager: “It’s 19.50 per ticket.”

Boaz: “EXCUSE ME? How is that even possible?!”

Manager: “It’s a Saturday night, and we are a premium theater experience.”

Boaz: “Saturday night? You’re empty. Literally nobody is here, I can’t see a single person anywhere, and there are zero tickets sold. How does that justify charging more?”

Manager: “Sorry, we are also a premium theater. We have comfortable seats and cup holders and will even bring you alcohol if you order it.”

Boaz: “You have comfortable seats and cup holders? How is that something to brag about? That’s like saying this new car is the luxury model because it has automatic windows. That may have been a luxury 15 years ago but now that’s just normal. And I don’t want any alcohol.”

Manager: “Sorry sir, I know it’s expensive, that’s just how it is. So do you want to buy the tickets?”

Boaz: “No. I wanted to see a movie badly, but on principle this is just kind of gross. It isn’t your fault of course, I assume you don’t set the prices, but seriously this is worse than rip-off LA prices. What happens now if we don’t come? There are no tickets sold for the movie, so can you at least turn it off and save electricity and go home early?”

Manager (laughing): “I wish, that would make so much sense. No, they have a contract with the theaters that the movies will play a certain number of times each day. So legally they have to play it from start to finish even if nobody comes to watch it.”

Boaz: “That’s hilarious, what a waste of electricity and your time.”

Manager: “Yep, I totally agree, this whole thing is silly, and the prices are insane. Do you want me to see if I can find another theater still showing movies nearby? They should all be normal prices.”

At that moment, my spectacular fiancée interjected that she was looking up things on her phone during this silly exchange, and found Olympus Has Fallen a few blocks away at 1030pm. We could try! The manager wished us luck, and we ran out the door back to the car.

1040pm – We arrived at the theater, bought tickets (only $12.50 each, “normal” prices again!) and ran inside with enough time to catch 4 previews before our movie began! Does my entire story make me look nuts? Yes. Should I have sucked it up and just paid the insane ticket price for the first movie after all that? Probably. Was it all worth it at the end? Absolutely.

Did I mention to go see this movie if you enjoy any sort of action? You really should. This is what the latest, awful Die Hard sequel SHOULD have been. An entertaining movie that puts the “F” not only in curse words, but in “FUN”. It had the violent action of Commando mixed with the one-man-against-everyone-in-the-building premise of Die Hard, with a strong dash of the patriotic silliness of Air Force One and Independence Day. The hero was Gerard Butler, doing a great job impersonating Steven Seagal in his prime, mercilessly (and heroically) killing everyone who got in his way. Even Jack Bauer wouldn’t stand a chance. The only thing I would have changed was him NOT playing yet another American, because he still has one of the weakest accents out there if you ask me. But otherwise he was awesome, and it would have been hard to justify a Scotsman playing a high ranking secret service agent I suppose. But no more-so than most of the other plot-lines.

I would love to dedicate an entire paragraph just to listing the silly flaws in the logic of the story, but most of them would act as spoilers so I will just say to see it yourself. Though I will point out that the “noble” decisions that the president made throughout the movie were awful, awful decisions; but in movie-land it made him a great and inspiring leader. So I’ll just leave it alone and swallow that logic along with the rest of the movie…this is after all a flick where the entire secret service literally ran out of the White House INTO machine gun fire one after the other after the other…everyone except for Gerard Butler of course, who realized that NOT walking into a machine gun slaughter was actually the better tactic, that’s why he’s the hero!

Do I sound like I’m making fun of the movie? I really don’t mean to, because I’m not being sarcastic when I write that it’s a damn entertaining piece of film-making, and I want to believe that every part of it was intended to be. Gerard Butler was meant to be the only character with the sense and know-how to beat the endless stream of (Korean) bad guys. Morgan Freeman (who becomes the acting president) was meant to be a natural and amazing decision-maker; he should be since he was the President in Deep Impact. Angela Bassett was meant to be…actually, I don’t know what her purpose was in the movie. She was kind of wasted in a role as one of the people in the War Room looking concerned throughout the movie. Besides her there was Robert Forster and Sean O’Bryan playing some of the douche-bag politicians and generals who had the audacity to question Gerard Butler; you just knew that every decision they made would be wrong, and when Gerard Butler called them idiots you had to cheer. (Hooray for insulting your superiors!)

No, this wasn’t an intelligent movie. Most of the characters were as clichéd and silly and predictable as they come. But the action was simply awesome, the thrills were actually thrilling, and you were excited to watch it play out. There are times where not being believable in a movie can really ruin the experience, but this wasn’t one of them. When are those times? I would give that the same answer as how Justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography in 1964, “I know it when I see it”. And I certainly knew this wasn’t it.

Antoine Fuqua has made some gritty action films (Training Day) but here he provided the audience with a good old-fashioned experience that reminded me of the fun I had watching a prep school kid kill countless bad guys in Toy Soldiers. This is what going to the movies is for: having a hell of a great time.

As for Adi? She had a great time watching it as well, and we each had a wonderful weekend in Laguna Beach. Clearly, it was a restful, peaceful and romantic experience; with just the sun, the beach, the lack of internet, my fantasy basketball and the rush to the movie theater adding to the experience. And no, it’s not lost on me how lucky I am to have someone put up with all of what you read!

The movie was better than A Good Day To Die Hard, which I reviewed here. In fact it’s basically the sequel that should have been made in the first place. It still doesn’t match up to the perfection that was the original Die Hard, which is a model for so many great action movies that modeled themselves after it.

Quality Rating: B+ (Unless I can actually hear Antoine Fuqua claim that he meant to have every absurd part of the movie turn out that way, in which case it gets a solid A)

Boaz Rating: A+ (As if you couldn’t predict that)