Monday, April 29, 2013

Summer Assemble! A Summer Movie Preview

May is almost here, and with it the start of 2013's exciting Summer movie season. This is the time of the year when Hollywood launches its tentpole releases, trying to catch little kids while they're not in school and young adults with free time on their hands. This year, it couldn't come soon enough, after much of the first quarter has seen its theaters full of mediocre, tepid or just plain awful fare. While a few titles have manages to stand out - most notably The Croods, Mama, Warm Bodies, and 42 - much of what we've been subjected to so far hasn't really lived up to even modest expectations. When I put up my Worst of the Year "winners" at the end of December, there's a very good chance that January through April will represent a good part of the ten titles, with execrable films like A Good Day to Die Hard, Jack the Giant Slayer, Bullet to the Head and Movie 43 being early favorites.

But while there won't be another Avengers movie this year to mitigate any potential disasters at the box office, there's a lot to get excited for in 2013. This summer may not be as heavy with comic book adaptations (Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises were major contributors to the bottom line in 2012), but there's a much larger variety of action, drama, science fiction and comedy that even what at first look like obvious misses possess some potential for redeeming value. And so I present to you the best and worst that your summer at the movies has to offer! Enjoy.

When J.J. Abrams' Star Trek was released in 2009, it did what many thought was impossible: it had rejuvenated a struggling franchise through a reboot and succeeded in recasting the iconic characters from the 70's show with young actors like Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana and Zachary Quinto. Four years of goodwill later, and Abrams and crew are at it again with Star Trek Into Darkness, taking one of the weakest aspects of the first film (the bland antagonist) and performing a serious upgrade by adding Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch, whose character is shrouded in so much mystery and darkness (sorry) that even when we know the character's name (John Harrison), we're certain it's a ruse of some sort. With a great cast and a proven sci-fi director at the helm, Star Trek Into Darkness might be not only the most anticipated film this summer, but for the entirety of 2013 as well.
But while the new Star Trek is so awaited, it doesn't start off the summer madness. That honor goes to Iron Man 3. Shane Black's film is less a sequel to the dismal Iron Man 2 and more of a follow-up to last year's Avengers flick, and Robert Downey Jr. and everybody else looks more than happy to open up the season's festivities with remarkable action and comic book geekery...The Great Gatsby was supposed to be released last year, but was pushed to the summer for a variety of reasons. Baz Luhrmann might not appeal to everyone as a director, but his brand of imagery seems perfectly suited to the roaring 20's of Fitzgerald's universe... Following the unexpected success of Fast Five, Fast and Furious 6 races into theaters with more or less the same cast, premise and style. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the last installment was so well received. Still, I'm hoping the actors can gel perfectly just one more time, because this is probably it... After the debacle that was The Hangover Part II, you can be forgiven for never wanting to give Todd Phillips any more of your money. And yet the aptly-named The Hangover Part III looks funnier, more inventive and less formulaic than its predecessor. If this is it, we can all hope that the franchise goes out on a high note... There are a ton of good independent movies coming out in May. Potential favorites include Eli Roth's disaster/horror Aftershock; black-and-white dramedy Frances Ha starring Greta Gerwig; Richard Linklater's romantic sequel Before Midnight; coming-of-age tale Kings of Summer, which could turn into this year's Moonrise Kingdom; What Maisie Knew looks at divorce through the eyes of a child caught between two parents and is based on the novel by Henry James; finally, Julianne Moore leads an all-star cast in the comedy-drama The English Teacher.

But while there's a lot to like this month, there are definitely a few titles that miss the mark, perhaps none more so than Now You See Me. In it, Louis Leterrier directs an all-star cast (that includes Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo and Morgan Freeman) in a story in which magicians wage a war against corporate greed. No, you read that correctly. After the abject failure of the magic-themed The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, I wonder how long this one will last in theaters... After Earth leaves me feeling two ways. On one hand, I generally like Will Smith and all things science fiction. And co-starring with his son Jaden might bring out a level of performance we haven't seen since The Pursuit of Happyness. On the other hand, I REALLY don't like director M. Night Shyamalan... For each new trailer I see of action-oriented animation flick Epic, I grow a little more weary. It's as though the filmmakers didn't know what age range of child they wanted to appeal to most, so they're trying for everyone. Instead, they'll probably get no-one... It would be nice for Craig Robinson to become a star, but I'm not sure flicks like Peeples are the way to go about it. It co-stars David Alan Grier, proving that the notorious D.A.G. is in fact still among the living... Aaron Eckhart once again tries the action route as a targeted former CIA operative in Erased; it's just too bad this same story has been done better dozens of times over... The East is yet another take on the theme of corporate greed as it tells the story of a disaffected group determined to make the morally guilty pay, and the investigative spy sent to infiltrate the group. It stars Brit Marling, Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard... Greetings from Tim Buckley might appeal to music fans, but most people likely won't be paying attention to this biopic of musician Jeff Buckley, and I don't think they'll be wrong to do so.

I spent much of the last two years dreading the release of Man of Steel. Director Zack Snyder showed a flair for visuals and little else when he botched up Watchmen, and his pet project Sucker Punch proved to be a misogynistic, dead-on-arrival disappointment. After years of launching utter crap at his audiences, how could his Man of Steel POSSIBLY be good? Well, don't ask me how, but somehow Snyder seems to have done it. The casting looks perfect, the action appears amazing, and if rumors can be believed, the story is really something to behold. Perhaps this is natural maturation as a director, or perhaps it has something to do with tutelage from Christopher Nolan, but Man of Steel has quickly become one of my more anticipated movies this summer.
Pixar also releases their followup to last year's Brave in the prequel Monsters University. While the production company has usually had more success with original material, they have had mixed results with franchise fare (Toy Story has done well, Cars not quite). But Monsters University was one of their more popular early releases, and while we all know how it will turn out in the end, it still ought to make for very good family viewing... Roland Emmerich releases the second "terrorists attack the White House" story this year in White House Down. With a bigger budget and bankable stars (Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx), not to mention Emmerich's penchant for explosions, this is almost a must-see... The Heat would be considered a bland buddy cop comedy, were it not for stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Tack on Bridesmaids director Paul Feig and we should be in for a raunchy, hilariously good time on June 28'th... How does Joss Whedon follow up his insanely popular and lucrative turn on last Summer's The Avengers? Oh, by directing a black-and-white modern adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing that he filmed at his house with a bunch of his favorite actor friends. He can do that now; he's Joss frickin' Whedon... Sofia Coppola's latest indie outing The Bling Ring stars Harry Potter's Emma Watson as a member of a real-life teenage group of thieves who robbed Hollywood homes from 2008-2009. Watson alone makes this look fun, though Coppola has made her fair share of great films as well... Director Neil Jordan (Interview with a Vampire) returns to the supernatural with Byzantium, a sexy vampire tale starring Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan. You had me at "sexy vampire"... Since horror worked so well for Ethan Hawke last year in Sinister, he returns to the genre with The Purge. In it, a family is under siege on the one day of the year in which crime is legal. It's a brave concept, and one I'm interested to see how it turns out.
Even if it wasn't for the much-publicized problems plaguing the set of World War Z, I'm still not sure I'd be all that excited about its release. The "zombies" look like swarming ants, the special effects don't impress, and there doesn't appear to be a viable story anywhere in the trailers that I've seen. Expect a disjointed mess when it (FINALLY) hits theaters... The Internship - starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson - could be funny, but its tale of struggling salesmen making an unlikely push as interns to work at Google feels like it should have come out a few years ago, when people still cared about The Wedding Crashers... This Is the End has a number of Hollywood comedic actors (James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson) playing themselves and trying to survive the apocalypse. Unfortunately, the low-budget spoof of disaster movies doesn't look all that funny, and frankly it should have come out last summer amid all the 2012 madness... Speaking of Robinson, he plays the devil in Rapture-Palooza, another apocalyptic comedy that doesn't look good enough to have wasted Anna Kendrick's time... It seems like the only good reason to see Brian De Palma's Passion is for the chance to see lesbian encounters between Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. I'm not sure that qualifies as "good enough"... Stuck in Love has an interesting (if unbalanced) cast, but doesn't seem to possess anything akin to focus. A bit more control by first-time director Josh Boone might have been in order... Syrup just looks dumb. In fact, pretend that I never even mentioned it, and you'll be fine.


There are quite a few good movies coming out in July, so what does it say that the one I'm most looking forward to is an animated sequel? Despicable Me 2 takes great characters (and the excellent actors that accompany them), and pits them into a situation that doesn't at all feel the same as their previous adventure. The Minions as well have become iconic in the brief period since 2010, and if the trailers are any indication, their randomly hilarious antics will blend beautifully with the main story. By the way, that revolves around retired super-villain Gru (Steve Carrell) being recruited by a secret organization to battle a new bad guy. The Minions make it a must-see, but to be honest I'd probably have checked it out regardless.
Ten years ago Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp teamed up on a project that not only was widely successful but made swashbuckling popular again. That movie was Pirates of the Caribbean, and it spawned three sequels and encouraged millions of people to visit the popular Disney theme park ride. While they're tempting fate in trying to do the same thing with westerns in The Lone Ranger, I can't help but feel that the chances are good for a new franchise, especially one that will star the eminently-talented Armie Hammer... While Guillermo del Toro might not be popular enough right now to make Pacific Rim a true blockbuster - its stars are giant robots fighting giant monsters - he's artistic enough to make it worth watching in my opinion. Just keep an eye out for an actual story somewhere in all that SFX... After Red was such a surprise hit three years ago, it's interesting to see stars Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren return as elite special agents who just happen to be members of AARP in Red 2. The people behind the scenes have changed, which is a good thing when the weakest part of the first Red was how quickly the excellent premise unraveled in the final act... Hugh Jackman returns to adamantium-clawed stardom with The Wolverine, which seeks to make up for the disappointment that was his last X-Men spinoff. Everything looks good from here, though it's important to note that the character is still owned by 20'th Century Fox - not Marvel - and so failure is still a viable option... The Way, Way Back is a clever-looking coming of age movie with a great, risk-taking cast and an incredibly sweet trailer... A cross between Men in Black and Hellboy, R.I.P.D. likely won't have many viewers but stands out with an insanely clever concept (dead lawmen policing evil souls that escaped judgment), and a scene-chewing Jeff Bridges... Paranormal horror film The Conjuring is from James Wan, who directed the incredibly scary Insidious. So yeah, that's enough reason to go see it.
The Smurfs was largely a success when it was released in 2011 thanks to a distinct lack of competition. That won't be the case this summer, so hopefully sequel Smurfs 2 will be the last time we're subjected to the demonic spawn of Hanna-Barbera on the big screen... Not that DreamWorks' animated Turbo looks that much better, combining the racing mythos of NASCAR with the absurd slowness of tiny snails. DreamWorks has always skewed on the kiddie side, though, so at least their grasp for popularity makes more sense than, say, Pixar's Cars 2... Grown Ups was one of Adam Sandler's all-time hits, and now most of his cast (minus Rob Schneider) returns for sequel Grown Ups 2. There's at least more potential for laughs here than in many of the year's comedies, but not by much... V/H/S was something of a cult hit when it came out last year. I'm still not sure that qualifies for such a quick sequel with V/H/S/2, but as found-footage flicks are cheap to make, there's really no reason for them to stop... Formerly known as Imogene, comedy Girl Most Likely does feature the talented Kristen Wiig in its lead role, but I need to see more before I can make a qualified judgment on whether it's worth my time.


Often August is considered the dumping ground of the summer, possibly because families are busier getting their kids ready for school than they are going to the movies. Certainly, some have lived up to the hallowed tales of what a summer movie should be, but they're often few and far between. Elysium looks to be one that bucks that trend. The second film from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, it's a hard-hitting science fiction title with serious political messages. While District 9 showcased the inequalities and injustices of immigration and refugee status, Elysium promises to do the same with class issues and health care. The cherry on top is star Matt Damon, who is cheerfully back in his action wheelhouse. In all, Elysium ought to be one of the better science fiction tales this year, and even has an outside chance of being remembered a la District 9 when the award nominations are announced in the winter.
Three years after blue-collar superhero flick Kick-Ass was a modest box-office success, we're finally getting a sequel that brings back the titular hero (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the foul-mouthed teen Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). Kick-Ass 2 promises plenty of bloody violence, foul language, and an almost-unrecognizable Jim Carrey in one of his better-looking roles... Another sequel to a movie based on a popular book series, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters doesn't exactly roll off the tongue but still looks like a whole lot of fun. It's got decent special effects, an interesting story and Nathan Fillion, so it might just do no wrong... Little has been seen for it yet, but The World's End is the final part of Edgar Wright's "Blood and Ice Cream" trilogy, which began with Shaun of the Dead in 2004 and Hot Fuzz in 2007. Starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the story of an epic pub crawl gone insane ought to be smart and hilarious, just as their fans expect... There's not a ton to love about 2 Guns, which stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg as undercover agents forced to work together for their continued survival. While the concept isn't exactly fresh, it does have an air of excitement about it, much as Washington had in his last team-up action movies (with Chris Pine in Unstoppable and Ryan Reynolds in Safe House). That alone might be worth a late-August trip to the theater... There are a few indies popping around at the end of the summer that either look mediocre or that we haven't seen anything of yet. Paranoia is the strongest of the lot, as it has a strong cast (Liam Hemsworth, Gary Oldman, Harrison Ford and Amber Heard), and is based on the novel by Joseph Finder.
3D concert movies are becoming obsolete almost as quickly as they became relevant. After the financial success of Justin Bieber's Never Say Never, Hollywood kept pumping out these biographical/musical shows to audiences, but quickly saturated the market with Miley Cyrus, The Jonas Brothers, Katy Perry and even the cast of Glee, and the audiences just aren't showing up anymore. I've been in theaters with teenage girls when the trailer for One Direction: This is Us has been shown. Their response has been almost universally lackluster and dismissive. If teenage girls don't care about music group One Direction's new movie, why should the rest of us?... We're the Millers stars Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudekis and is directed by the man who helmed 2004's Dodgeball. Whether that makes it something you'll want to watch, I don't know... Disney's Cars spin-off Planes was supposed to be a direct-to-DVD release, but someone liked it enough to make it a full theatrical showing. Little kids will like it, but nobody else... Sequel/prequel 300: Rise of an Empire has no Gerard Butler and replaces Zack Snyder behind the camera with the inexperienced Noam Murro. I can't see how this doesn't end badly... The only trailer I've seen for Hong Kong martial arts flick The Grandmaster has nothing more than a rain-obscured street fight. It's not even that GOOD a rain-obscured street fight. I'll wait and see... Meanwhile, Aubrey Plaza's The To-Do List looks to get rid of all the forward momentum she had gained with last year's Safety Not Guaranteed... The Colony is a science fiction story starring Lawrence Fishburne that looks as though it should be airing on the Syfy channel instead of theater screens... Little has been seen from Closed Circuit and Getaway, two thrillers coming out in August. The first stars Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall, and with a strong cast behind them it will likely be the better of the two. Getaway meanwhile has Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez, and is NOT a remake of the 1972 Sam Peckinpah movie of the same name.

That, in no uncertain terms, is how this summer's movies will shake out. There is much more I'm looking forward to this year than in years before, and I really hope that what I think will be the good movies live up to their potential while the supposed "bad" movies surprise me even a little bit. What about you? Anything you're especially hoping to see this summer? What are you most looking forward to seeing in your free time in the next few months?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bad Vs. Evil

Twenty-two years ago, a new kind of movie experience was born. For the horror genre, it was an era of popular characters, and monsters like Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Michael  Myers (Halloween) and the monstrous Aliens (Alien) were ruling the box office. But young director Sam Raimi wanted to make something different. An amateur filmmaker from Royal Oak, Michigan, Raimi wanted to create the scariest movie ever, in the vein of renowned author H.P. Lovecraft, “The gorier the merrier.” After struggles in securing funding and a location, Raimi – alongside his cohorts, producer Rob Tappert and actor Bruce Campbell – descended upon Morristown, Tennessee to create their film, eventually known as The Evil Dead. The cringingly bloody film became a rallying point of sorts, easily becoming the basis for every “cabin in the woods” style horror flick that followed (a trend parodied by last year’s excellent Cabin in the Woods). Though it garnered some very positive word-of-mouth (and even received a shout-out from master of horror Stephen King), its success at the box office at the time can only be described as “sufficient.” But while instant gratification was not forthcoming, The Evil Dead eventually translated into a popular cult film, supporting two sequels (Evil Dead 2 is oftentimes more applauded than the original and Army of Darkness introduced several catchphrases that are still fondly repeated today) and the seemingly limitless popularity for Ashley “Ash” Williams (Campbell), whose character has gone on to adventures in video games and comic books in the years since his “retirement” from feature films.

Sure, this place looks FINE.
Now, Raimi faces a new challenge. In producing a remake of his beloved classic, he’s not only attempting to start a new Evil Dead franchise, but also trying to prove that a remake can be just as beloved as its progenitor. A lot of fans were against this, if for no other reason than the 1981 classic’s level of camp was so popular and the 2013 version appeared far more serious. For the new Evil Dead, Urunguyan director Fede Alvarez was tapped to take the helm, making his feature film debut after almost a decade of short films. But even with the holy trinity of Raimi, Campbell and Tappert producing, and an excellent response from the crowds at this year’s South By Southwest film festival, was this new Evil Dead really worth watching?
This movie would have been shorter if young people ever followed instructions.
The answer to that is a resounding “Yes”, for a good number of reasons. One is Alvarez’ and his crew’s determination to make Evil Dead almost completely with practical effects. In a world where Hollywood uses computer generated imagery to create not just the impossible, but what they’re too lazy to do themselves (look at the average episode of The Walking Dead, for instance), the filmmakers’ use of real fake blood and gore is a refreshing (if occasionally nauseating) change. And when the story is that of a bunch of teens trapped in a cabin with a vengeful spirit, CGI would just make the whole experience corny and sad. Practical effects have grown in quality and variety in the past two decades to the point where they are more realistic than ever, making each skull-crushing, limb-disfiguring, soul-swallowing moment is a thousand times more engrossing than it was in the original. Some scenes are particularly difficult to watch, and while that might affect some people’s enjoyment, horror fans ought to be on the edge of their seat at any given moment. And the things they put poor Lou Taylor Pucci through!

This will not end well.
Speaking of the actors, the cast is definitely stronger than it was back in the day. Especially strong is Jane Levy, who some people are familiar with from ABC’s Suburgatory or last year's Nickelodeon comedy Fun Size. In her first horror role, Levy not only proves her Scream Queen chops, she also is an excellent central focus around which the movie can revolve. Her transition between drug-addled youngster and possessed half-demon is frightening in its volatility. She's definitely a stand-out, with a real chance for a future in Hollywood. The rest of the cast is quite good, full of young if not necessarily unknown actors. Shiloh Fernandez and Pucci help Levy in providing much-needed emotion and intelligence to make the story flow. Though their characters are perhaps a little cliched (which has to be intentional at this point), they don’t let the script hamper their natural talents. Only the tertiary ladies, played by Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore, bring little more to the table than raw emotion, which again is mostly script injustice. Overall this is a talented group of young actors, with Levy definitely deserving to be front and center.

Ah, chainsaws. S-Mart, aisle 6.
But while those are excellent reasons for horror fans to plunk down their money and purchase tickets, there’s one very valid reason NOT to… and that’s a small-budget picture from 1981 called Evil Dead. Raimi’s original was a classic, and try as Alvarez might to pay homage to his mentor's art, there’s absolutely nothing new here to justify seeing the remake over what came before. The movie is chock full of references for fans to enjoy, but the director isn’t brave enough to add his own spin, or perhaps he was dissuaded from doing so by Raimi and company. And while this might be a decent start to a whole new franchise (a sequel is already in the works), there is no standout character to match the charm and cult heroism of an Ash Williams, and so no reason to watch a sequel. Combine that with some unexplained plot holes (No mention of cell phones or calling for help, and apparently the rickety old cabin is so soundproof you can't hear what's happening in the next room), and this is a still-great, but not particularly necessary motion picture.

You aren't quite so lovely anymore...
While making it big as a director of major motion pictures, Sam Raimi has been a bit disappointing of late. Nobody liked Spider-Man 3, and Oz the Great and Powerful was all self-indulgence and special effects. Meanwhile, he drags his early projects out of the ground and give them a heavy layer of shoe polish, just to validate his own career. Not that it was ever needed; Evil Dead was his earliest success, and one for which he is still both well-known and cheered. While his effort here is scary, gory and more than a little successful, I can’t help but feel a little cheated. I can get largely the same experience sitting at home with a DVD, and while the new Evil Dead is well-acted, well-directed and well-produced, it just isn’t well-imagined. Horror fans have seen all this before, and only those most fondly nostalgic will get anything new out of seeing this in the theater.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Gates of Oblivion

You know it's still early in 2013 when I'm having a hard time even recommending that you see one of the more action-oriented science fiction stories outside the Summer movie season. After being floored by the big screen visual wonders of director Joseph Kosinski's feature debut Tron: Legacy, getting to see his followup in the form of a post-apocalyptic tale like Oblivion ought to have been a guaranteed treat. After all, this wasn't just a random story, but one Kosinski had been attempting to make for years in homage to sci-fi movies from the seventies (even co-writing the screenplay with The Departed's William Monahan, Toy Story 3's Michael Arndt and Karl Gajdusek). Combining his love of the genre with his innate mastery of all things visual, the oddly-named Oblivion should have been the kind of mysterious, fun thrill ride that forced you to see it on the big screen. So why am I having such a hard time recommending it?

Yankee fandom will never die, it seems.
It's certainly not the concept that falters. Sixty years after aliens known as Scavs destroyed our Moon and most of the planet, the surviving remnants of humanity are now off-world, transported to the orbital space station known as the "Tet" in preparation of being transported to a new colony on Titan. Left on the planet are technician Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), tasked with maintaining the security drones that protect operations that mine Earth's natural resources for use on our new home. While Victoria can't wait to leave, Jack is the curious type, always searching for new discoveries and dreading the coming time when he will have to leave what he considers his home. But a crashed shuttle pod with a human survivor raises all kinds of questions about their mission, especially when that survivor (Olga Kurylenko) seems to have some mysterious connection to Jack's missing past.

The Scientologists are invading!
The acting and special effects are both as strong as the concept they are wrapped around. Cruise of course no longer needs to stretch his abilities for his movies to be successful (so far), but here he actually displays more than his trademark charm, parsing a bit of genuine emotion for good measure as well. Of course, he's well within his action wheelhouse, and it's difficult to imagine the now-51 year-old slowing down anytime soon, and certainly not if he can keep putting forth good performances like the one he showcases here. His female leads struggle a little, not via lack of talent but more through lack of romantic chemistry with Cruise. Even if you can get past their age differences (both Kurylenko and Riseborough are almost twenty years Cruise's younger), their inability to connect on-screen with their lead actor only hampers their performances and the story. They still put together good efforts, albeit flawed ones. The cast is rounded out by solid and expected showings from Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo and Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau (who is having a very good 2013, himself), populating the mostly-lifeless Earth with enough personality to keep the audience invested.

And wait... it that Zoe Bell?
As for the effects and action, they're everything we've come to expect from Kosinski, whose Tron sequel was visually amazing despite the story's irregularities. Earth is a cratered wasteland, but the director adds depth to the surroundings via famous destroyed landmarks, gorgeous vistas and little slices of natural heaven. Unlike many end-of-the-world movies, he doesn't just coat everything in grey in post-production to add mood. You get the feeling that he's got an emotional attachment to his imagery, and that he really puts his whole heart into what you watching. It's also the biggest and best argument for seeing Oblivion on the big screen, if not necessarily in 3D or IMAX; these exquisite visuals simply may not translate when introduced to your too-small television screen, or underpowered DVD players (sorry, but at this point it's officially past time you upgraded to Blu-ray).

That's a lot of resource-harvesting action.
And you'll need those visuals to get past Oblivion's biggest flaw; the story is just not there. It's not that it's a bad tale, or even all that poorly-told. You'll genuinely be engaged by plot twists, progressive storytelling and a competent if overly-direct vision; Kosinski doesn't quite trust his audience yet, and so he plugs everything important into the center of the shot so that you can by no means miss so obvious or clever a moment. A bit of subtlety couldn't have hurt, but patience is often the game of veteran directors (and even they don't always get it right), and so his youthful inexperience isn't the detraction it perhaps could have been. Instead, Oblivion's biggest issue is that it brings absolutely nothing to the table. It might have started off as homage, but unlike JJ Abrams' Super 8 - which successfully paid respect to early Steven Spielberg without outright copying him - Kosinski cannot help but crib from his superiors, borrowing plot, themes and sequences from classics such as Wall-E, Moon, District 9, the Matrix Trilogy, 2001 and Independence Day, and that's just scraping the surface.

Soooo, you couldn't see this coming?
You won't find a better example of Hollywood hubris than that of a seemingly original tale that brings absolutely nothing new of note to show. How many sequels a year are we getting from the movie industry? How many remakes? At least we know what we're getting into when we buy a ticket to those. Oblivion is gorgeously designed, well-acted, and certainly cannot be called a waste of time should you decide to venture out and see it right now, not even by me. But there's just no REASON for it, sitting through over two hours of material you could cobble together from a home movie collection. It's a fine time suck if you really have nothing better to watch, but with Iron Man 3 just over the horizon and the true pantheon of summer action movies not far behind, soon you'll be able to do much better than this second-rate sci-fi flick, which won't likely be remembered come the year's end.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Baseball is Back

In post-WWII America, much of the nation was enjoying a prime era. The "Greatest Generation" had returned home, triumphant over the evils of fascism and the Holocaust. But while we were celebrating our victory, evils were being perpetrated on our own soil, against our own citizens. Racism was still rampant in America, seeding itself everywhere but focused mainly in the deep south where Jim Crow was king and everything from schools to bathrooms were segregated in a laughable execution of "Separate but Equal." While all those policies were wrong, where it was most notoriously visible was Major League Baseball, at the time the country's most popular sport. Before expansion, before wild card slots, before interleague play and the World Baseball Classic, baseball culture was relatively simple and unparalleled. Still, the players, managers and umpires were all white (or at least light-skinned Latinos), with no consideration ever given to signing a black ballplayer to a Major League contract.

That changed in 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first African American to break baseball's sacred color barrier and forever change the sport. That's where Brian Helgeland's 42 steps up to the plate. Robinson's story hasn't been given the big screen treatment since 1950's The Jackie Robinson Story, which starred Robinson himself. Looking back on perhaps the most important change in the modern sports era, the film looks at the Hall of Famer's ascent from great Negro League player through his first tumultuous season as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, winning Rookie of the year in 1947. That year, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) had to face prejudice on all side, not only from society and rival teams but often from his own teammates as well. But with a rugged determination, no shortage of talent and the backing of the Dodgers' General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), Robinson earns the respect of his peers to become the renowned player he is known as today.

Perhaps most surprising about this production is how it took so long to reach fruition. As I mentioned, there hasn't been a film about Robinson since 1950, a 63-year gap that seems strange when you consider Robinson's role in the Civil Rights era. Still, the final product was well worth the wait, even when you consider the fact that it comes from Helgeland, who proves himself a fine director despite his inexperience (he's a screenwriter whose only previous credits as a film director are A Knight's Tale, Payback, and The Order). He not only rebuilds classic rural America, with its dirt roads and classically-designed ballparks, but he captures the attitude of the era, the natural discrimination that can only be infused through generations of hate and ignorance. Helgeland also successfully navigates Robinson through this gamut of violent and nonviolent bigotry, painting a fairly clear picture of what the superstar had to endure in his historic first season.

Helgeland also does an excellent job with his cast, one of the strongest I've seen this year. Frequent television guest-star Chadwick Boseman gets his biggest role to date, and as Robinson his gravelly voice and barely-civil demeanor is the perfect balance for a character sick of the degradation he must endure to play the game he loves. Hopefully this will be the first step for Boseman, one of many African American actors officially making their presence known in recent years. But as much as I loved the young actor, the number one performance of 42 has to be Harrison Ford as the rule-breaking General Manager Rickey. For the first time in a LONG time, my first reaction to a Ford performance wasn't "Indy!" or "Solo!" In fact, I often had to remind myself that Ford was in fact the actor on screen most of the time, such was his astounding ability to disappear into the role. His performance, as well as Rickey's penchant for speaking in metaphors and hiding his true objectives, makes for one of the year's great characters.

And this movie is full of real-life characters, from Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who would become the first African American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America; Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), the Dodgers manager who declared "I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a %^@&in' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded" when speaking to his players of Robinson; Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), who famously supported Robinson even to his potentially hostile hometown fans; Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the player/manager of the Philadelpia Phillies whose vocal efforts to ridicule Robinson on the field had the opposite effect of uniting much of Brooklyn around their star; and Rachel Isum Robinson (Nicole Beharie), the woman who was the tenderness behind Jackie's gruff exterior. Those great performances and more underscore the film's narrative, enhancing the story with its truly understandable characters.

Is it a perfect movie? No. Emotionally, Helgeland is still a little raw, confusing melodrama with compassion, cliche with character. There are moments throughout 42 which are so staged that they reek of ridiculousness, from the inspiration Robinson brings to a small boy to the blatant (though perhaps true) scenes of discrimination, the director occasionally stuffs his movie with unnecessary bits to try and enhance the drama. More often than not, though, he succeeds when the script calls for minimalism (a scene with Ford recollecting a white boy imitating Robinson's batting stance is exceptionally well-done). The story also has some glaring historical inaccuracies (especially involving the yearlong suspension of Durocher), though those are ultimately the exception and not the rule. The few stretches into humor feel forced, though they occasionally work despite their apparent deviation from the dramatic tale.

While it might not sit on the same pedestal as such baseball movies as Bull Durham, Field of Dreams or Moneyball, 42 surely isn't far behind. It belongs in the same discussions of The Rookie, A League of Their Own, 8 Men Out and Major League, and provides a better moviegoing experience than many of those classics. 42 harkens back to the days when baseball was America's #1 pastime, and gives a good argument for revisiting that ideal again. But even if you're no baseball fan, the movie's human drama and the legacy of Jackie Robinson are well worth your time and attention, especially since you don't want to wait another 63 years to receive this opportunity again.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Red and White House

Early 2013 hasn't shown much love for action movies. There are a couple of reasons for that. First up is the fact that audiences are sick of retro action stars who haven't accepted that they don't have the same level of cachet anymore. We've seen Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham and Arnold Schwarzenegger struggling against middling turnouts in what used to be their collective wheelhouse, all the good will from the violently fun Expendables series having apparently dried up. What action we have actually deigned to watch this year was largely franchise fare, with GI Joe getting fans to the cinema and not a whole lot else. But for some reason, people came out to see Olympus Has Fallen, directed by Antoine Fuqua and featuring Hollywood's most charismatic voice (Morgan Freeman), its sharpest chin (Aaron Eckhart), and its most dashing rogue (Gerard Butler). For the record, those are three major (and sometimes underappreciated) talents in one major motion picture.

Yippi-ki Yay.
Surprisingly, what's most interesting about Olympus Has Fallen's story is that it's not exactly original; in fact, Fuqua's film is the first of two "terrorists attack the White House" stories to be released this year, with Roland Emmerich's White House Down due out this summer. That's right, folks: just as 2012 featured dueling Snow White productions, Hollywood has declared war on Washington D.C. in 2013. On a typical day at the White House, President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) is in a meeting with the Prime Minister of South Korea to discuss the rising tensions with the nation's aggressive neighbor to the north. What follows is most unexpected, as a sudden and violent terrorist attack captures Asher and several members of his staff, securing them in a bunker beneath 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and wiping out the shocked and vulnerable Secret Service in the process. While the Speaker of the House and acting President Allan Trumbull (Freeman) attempts to diplomatically handle the situation, he's got an asset on the ground: disgraced former Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler), a former special ops soldier who came to the aid of his fellow agents during the attack. With time running out and a dastardly terrorist plot taking shape, Banning might be all there is between us and nuclear holocaust.

Shoot first and ask questions later.
For Butler, it's a return to ass-kicking after a few years of playing dice with his acting career. While I won't disparage his talents - the man has the ability to play drama or comedy, action or romance at the drop of a hat - rarely do audiences seem to care about his movies unless he's killing others with impunity. People seem to enjoy seeing him as an honorable man who blows shit up (thanks to my friend Anne for that coinage) and that's certainly how Olympus Has Fallen succeeds, putting Butler and his fellow actors forward and letting them carry the story. Say what you will about the movie as a whole (and I will), but the film does a good job utilizing its cast, from the trio of stars to strong supporting turns by the likes of Angela Bassett, Rick Yune, Melissa Leo and Dylan McDermott, among a slew of others.

Rocking the bow tie.
Unfortunately that's about where the only bright spot of this movie lies. While the production values are decent, and the action scenes competent enough to keep your attention, what can't be ignored is just how STUPID the script and the plot are. While you certainly shouldn't expect that the amount of political savvy here would rival the stories of, say, The West Wing, but the inanity of the story is downright silly. Fighter jets lose to a hulking super carrier because they line up perfectly with the plane's mounted machine guns. The bad guy's plans hinge on the US President making the ABSOLUTE wrong decision, and when he does his secret servicemen barely put up a fight about the ignorance of procedure. And speaking of the men tasked with protecting the leader of the free world: when the enemy is advancing under the cover of smoke and firing machineguns and RPGs, standing out in the open to get gunned down is decidedly not decent military training. It's illogical, cringe-worthy idiocy like this that ruins the flow of Olympus, and a little more time penning a reasonable script wouldn't have prevented our hero from kicking ass. Instead we're issued a needlessly hyper-violent movie where everybody is so stupid that the director assumes his audience is as well, and that they'll enjoy two hours of mindless gunfights and blatant pro-US pandering.

Glad I'm not on the janitorial crew...
Normally I'd say something along the lines of turning off your brain for a good time, but while Olympus Has Fallen manages to be among the better action movies released this year, it's still pretty damned mediocre. Being a step up from the worst of Stallone, Statham and Willis is nothing to be proud of, and Fuqua has taken some serious missteps in the time since his Training Day height. If you really, REALLY need to see an action movie before Iron Man 3 comes out next month, then maybe you can stomach the bloody, masochistic silliness that is this newest blend of repetitive explosions and monosyllabic dialogue. But if you can wait for this on DVD - or even skip it entirely - then I recommend you do so. Strong cast aside, there's just not enough reason to pay full price for a ticket, especially when you can wait just a few weeks for loads of better options.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: The Croods

This year is a wide-open field for animated movies. There's no major Pixar release, there are more animation companies than ever putting out new material, and we just came off of a year in which every major studio put out some excellent material. DreamWorks is off to a great start with The Croods, a caveman comedy featuring an all-star cadre of voices and an some excellent storytelling from How to Train Your Dragon's Chris Sanders.

At the end of the beginning of time, the last neanderthal family, the Croods, live day by day due to the strict rule of their father Grug: "Never not be afraid." They live with the understanding that new is bad and dangerous, spending days at a time in a cave built to protect them from the outside world. But when the planet begins to change around them and forces them to follow the nomad Guy to a place called Tomorrow, the Croods learn that change is not a bad thing, and that they will have to adjust their way of life if they want to become part of the next phase of human existence.

The Croods is co-directed and written by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco and stars Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke and Cloris Leachman.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Twilight Fatigue

Ready to have your mind blown? I actually kinda liked a movie based on a Stephenie Meyer book.

No, really!

Naturally, it wasn't any of the absurd Twilight movies - for which I hold nothing but disinterest in at best and contempt for at worst - but Meyer's sci-fi story The Host that actually shows the upper limit of her imagination. Released in 2008 as the first of a proposed trilogy, the basis for the story - an alien invasion in which not only our world but our minds are invaded by alien consciousnesses - makes for a much more interesting tale than sparkly vampires and idiotic love triangles. I've always been a sucker for post-apocalyptic tales, and while The Host doesn't have the nuclear fallout or crumbling infrastructure of such stories, its human element was what I was looking most forward to when I visited the theater that day.

You won't look human for long...
Saoirse Ronan plays Melanie Stryder, one of the last human beings left on planet Earth. In the future, we have been invaded by an alien race known as "Souls", parasites that invade the minds of people and wipe clean the human identity, replacing it with their own while they live out the lives of our bodies. The only indication that they're no longer us are the bright blue eyes that make them easily recognizable to others. While surviving the initial invasion alongside her little brother, Melanie is soon captured and implanted with a Soul that calls itself "Wanderer". Wanderer is tasked with retrieving memories related to a human resistance that continues to fight back. But fueled by thoughts of her family and loved ones, Melanie manages to maintain her sense of identity and forces Wanderer to escape and try to find the other humans before the Souls can.

Guess which one is ombrophobic!
There's one part I left out of the above plot description, and that's the complex love story that Meyer ineffectively plugged into the story as Melanie's primary goal (over, you know, survival). Before Melanie was captured, she met a young named Jared (Max Irons) and the pair started up a relationship that was rudely interrupted by the whole "alien embryo" thing. When she (as Wanderer) rejoins the humans, not only is she immediately rejected by Jared (who doesn't realize that she is still in her own body) but is approached by another young man, Ian (Jake Abel), who grows attached to Wanderer's personality. Yes, it's another love triangle, although taking the disparate personalities into effect it's more like a love Fermat's Last Theorum. As a narrative tool it's silly and ridiculous and completely ham-handed in its implementation.

First she's being hunted by Nazis, now she's hunting humans.
Thankfully, romance is not Melanie/Wanderer's only motivation. Director and screenwriter Andrew Niccol has worked on his fair share of science fiction (Gattaca, S1m0ne and In Time), and it shows in the rest of The Host's story, which takes a wonderful sci-fi concept and clearly understands the difference between human drama and dramatics. While some things might never get explained (just how did a species of benevolent space caterpillars invade our planet anyway?), Niccol does the smart thing by focusing not on the invasion but of the aliens who struggle to identify with this new species that they have subjugated. The universe the movie opens up has more potential than many sci-fi flicks in recent memory, and is one of the bigger spectacles in a film that doesn't really spend its money on extensive production design. The sets that are in place might be low-tech, but do a good job of creating both modern and tribal worlds for the planet's two factions.

Why didn't the aliens just develop contact lenses?
The acting isn't bad either, though its at times brought down a notch by weak dialogue and mediocre scenes. The trio of Ronan, Irons and Abel are all solid presences, and the talented Ronan is at her best when conversing between her two very different mindsets. They might at times be hilarious, but while others see that as unintentional, I see it as a conscious rise in the levity in an otherwise dour tale. Humor notwithstanding, there are talented actors among the cast, with John Hurt, Frances Fisher and Diane Kruger lending their veteran talents. I firmly believe that without these people, The Host's performances would damn it to infamy on the level of Atlas Shrugged.

Like most women, she's of two minds about EVERYTHING.
As long as you can forgive or otherwise ignore the ill-conceived romance story and the fact that it comes from the same author as Twilight, there's a lot to like about The Host. It's got a decent story, good acting, and doesn't embarrass itself in the visuals department either, thanks to Niccol's eye behind the camera. It's by no means a must-see, but it does represent a decent standby in a year when there really haven't BEEN many must-sees thus far. I feel like I say this a lot right now (and hopefully that will change soon), but as long as your expectations are low, there's no reason not to enjoy this straightforward release. If you still aren't sure it's worth a trip to the movies, it definitely WILL be a fair rental option in just a few months.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Spring Breakout

If there's a movie this spring that casts a divisive view of itself to potential audiences, it's Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. The experimental director has had his share of detractors over the years, but it's fairly easy to see how portraying four young women (two of whom are former Disney actresses, another being his wife) as bikini-clad gun-toting criminals on Spring Break MIGHT offend more than a few people. But as many of you know, that's exactly the kind of artist that Korinne is: a rule-breaking artist whose ideas of what the film medium should be do not necessarily match up with mainstream of the industry. And with his release of Spring Breakers - no matter what your opinion in the subject matter - you have to admit that its box office success speaks volumes as to what people really want to see.

The religious Faith (Selena Gomez) and her trouble-making friends Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are among the only students still at their dreary college during Spring Break. While they would love nothing more than to get out of town and celebrate with the rest of their classmates, they do not have the money necessary to make it happen. After solving that issue by robbing a fast-food restaurant, the four march down to Miami to spend the whole week in happiness and hedonism. It's all fun and games until they are arrested and face spending the rest of their trip behind bars, and thug/rapper Alien (James Franco) bails them out because they seem like "nice people". Soon the girls are torn between their past lives and the criminal world that most people hope they never see firsthand, changing their outlook on the whole "Spring Break" experience.

First, it was like this...
You can't go into any conversation about Spring Breakers without focusing first and foremost on the music. Boasting a soundtrack from Cliff Martinez (whose work I last heard in the wonderful Drive) and electronic musician Skrillex, with a bit of Gucci Mane thrown in, the film thrives in its musical interludes, with the perfectly jarring tunes matching up with the frenetic pace of Korine's directing and the mindsets of his characters. Korine even recruits from his music crew for the cast, as rapper Mane holds a small, antagonistic role. Naturally, he does about as well as you'd expect a musician to do in his acting debut, but it's not as though his is a major role, and so it's nothing to obsess over. Some of the musical bits were somewhat questionable (not one but two tributes to Britney Spears, plus another of her songs in the closing credits), but for the most part the soundtrack was perfectly attuned to what the audience ends up seeing on the screen.

...and then it was like this!
Of course, the need for amazing music was absolutely necessary when you consider that the story was about as slim as a number two pencil. There's not enough here to support the meager hour-and-a-half run time of Spring Breakers, a film that at times appears to be an extended commercial for the now-bankrupt Girls Gone Wild. Ample bosoms and rippling six packs can heal a multitude of sins, but by the halfway mark, you cease to be mesmerized by casual nudity and want something more than what Korine is willing or able to offer. The director does succeed visually; comparing the constant twilight with both the bright colors of Spring Break and the depressingly bleak greys of the criminal underworld is a prime example of great mood-settings in film. But nice visuals (and a few genuinely good scenes) don't make for a whole story, and Spring Breaker's massive gaps in narrative do its stars no favors, most notably in the absolutely insane final act.

He actually shows off some talent here...
Not surprisingly, the story issues mean we don't get the best performances we can out of the young cast. I never thought I would say this, but the film's biggest problem might be that there's not enough Selena Gomez. The former Disney protege turns in a startlingly strong performance, but it's also a relatively small one (at least compared to the rest of the cast). Faith is the most grounded and identifiable of the four women, and pushing her aside to focus on the bland, slightly psychotic trio that she runs with is arguably Korine's biggest failure. Also underwhelming is James Franco, but not for the reasons you might think. While Franco has squandered his potential in a number of his big-screen appearances (most recently Oz the Great and Powerful), he surprises many by actually reaching in and acting this time around, playing his tattooed, gold-toothed gangsta with much more subtlety and depth than anybody could have expected. But what's disappointing is how much of the movie is placed on his shoulders upon his appearance; the film no longer belongs to the four women we've been following all this time, but to the skeevy hustler that arrives about halfway through and steals the show.

Please... no more singing!
When going to see Spring Breakers, I figured that I was in for a coming-of-age story featuring four young actresses set against the exotic and hedonistic tone that is the legend of Spring Break. I was WORRIED that it would turn into an exploitation flick featuring the ladies stifled under the rule of a ghetto James Franco. What actually happened was in that unpredictable gray area in the middle, and you can safely assume that whatever you experience while watching this movie, you won't have seen it coming. In that, Korine has achieved more success than most directors in this era. But it doesn't make Breakers interesting, or even remotely relevant. If your decision were to skip this movie, I coudn't for any reason give you a valid argument against your dismissal. In the end, while it has its strengths, Spring Breakers is simply not interesting enough to bother.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Average JOE

It looked like GI Joe: Retaliation was doing all the right things when it was getting ready for release early last year. After the uneven mess that was 2009's GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, it was obvious that any sequels would have to make some massive changes to even come close to the success of its predecessor. Gone were director Stephen Sommers and most of the cast, including Rachel Nichols, Damon Wayans, Dennis Quaid, Sienna Miller, Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In Sommers' place was the inspired choice of  John M. Chu, whose previous works included the dance-heavy Step Up sequels and the 3D concert title Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. While Channing Tatum was returning for the sequel, it was obvious to everybody that he was going to get offed quickly to help pave the way for newcomers D.J. Cotrona, Adrianne Palicki, Elodie Yung and established stars Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis. While the Joe franchise as a whole has seen better days, Retaliation looked to at least kick it up to minimum respectability when it was to come out last July.

Don't get used to that guy on the left...
But two things happened that caused studio Paramount Pictures to delay until this past weekend. The first was the rise to stardom of Tatum. When the first GI Joe was released, the actor was still feeling his way through movies, and as a result he was responsible for some of the most wooden, dry performances of the past decade. His performance in the 2009 tentpole flick was a prime example, and it was one of the worst parts of the whole experience. But in 2012, Tatum broke out. While I never saw it, The Vow cemented his status as a romantic icon, and his work in three other exciting projects that solidified his hold on Hollywood: the low budget action flick Haywire, the hilarious 21 Jump Street and the Chippendales drama Magic Mike. Suddenly, the knee-jerk choice to kill off former cornerstone Duke seemed like a dumb move, and while it couldn't be wiped completely, time was taken to add some extra Tatum content to the beginning of Retaliation.

I like Cobra Commander's look much more this time around.
The second event was the crash and burn of Battleship, a similar action movie that nobody except studio heads thought to take seriously. Most damning about this failed blockbuster was that it was one of the few modern action flicks in recent years to eschew 3D visuals completely. That not only contributed to its domestic disappointment (lower ticket prices), but hurt it in the international market, where 3D hasn't yet lost its sheen. Retaliation was originally set to be released with no 3D, but facing diminishing returns and facing direct competition from big-budget movies The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises (two of which were also 3D), the studio decided last-minute to utilize the technology to rectify that situation. Unfortunately, that meant waiting another eight months for a movie that was already on thin ice, hoping that perhaps Retaliation would be worth the wait.

Ninjas. Why did there have to be ninjas?
Talking place after the events of The Rise of Cobra, military organization GI Joe has maintained its position atop the worlds' covert military teams. But when the team is framed and then all but wiped out by their own government (under the orders of The President who is actually an enemy COBRA agent), the few survivors band together to try and uncover their plans. Roadblock (Johnson), Lady Jaye (Palicki) and Flint (Cotrona) are alone against the world, having to move between the shadows to avoid drawing attention to themselves. But even the best the Joes have to offer might not be enough when they are considered enemies of the state, and their own government has a weapon that threatens to topple the delicate balance of world power forever, and with endless destructive capability.

One of the coolest characters in both movies.
There is a lot more to like in Retaliation than there ever was in the first film, and you can't talk about what's right without pointing right at the special effects. Last time out, we were subjected to six SFX studios doing their best to out-disappoint one another, but here the effects shine as action sequences and explosions are much, MUCH prettier to take in. The fight scenes are not perfect (like most action directors, Chu keeps to camera WAY too close to the action), but for the most part they are effective enough, especially on the big IMAX screens. The sequence with ninjas rappelling across snow-covered mountaintops is especially exciting, though your mileage where ninjas are involved may vary. There are also some very good characters, from Johnson's charismatic leader Roadblock to the COBRA swordsman Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) to Palicki's covert operations expert Lady Jaye. At it's best, Retaliation does a better job of keeping your eyes glued to the screen than any action movie so far in 2013.

Obligatory "Team Success" strut.
But for every cool moment the movie throws out there, there are two or three smaller bits that will drive you crazy. The Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow (a returning and still silent Ray Park) storyline, which had been the albatross around the neck of the first film, is better but is still almost laughably separate from the rest of the movie. It takes its most ridiculous form in the sadly necessary exposition commentary by hip-hop artist/filmmaker RZA that is so bad it makes his performance in The Man with the Iron Fist look like Shakespeare's greatest hits. Other actors - most notably Yung, Cotrona and even Willis - have painfully little to do, as the story is so bloated with side-stories, unnecessary characters and plot twists that little things like "character development" and "plot progression" often take a backseat to the next action scene. It's sad when  you bring in such a celebrated action star as Bruce Willis just to have him sit on the sidelines and spit out unnecessary one-liners (and didn't the last Die Hard already do that?). And that shot of the rampant destruction of London? Arguably the most intense moment in the trailer? It lasts a grand total of ten seconds, and is never, EVER revisited once it's done.

Consider this Road Blocked.
Make no mistake; GI Joe: Retaliation is a HUGE step above The Rise of Cobra, and does a lot to redeem the film franchise from the damage done by its predecessor. But while it's undeniably more fun than the original, it's still a long way from being a truly self-sustaining movie franchise, most notably because only die-hard JOE fans really care all that much, and those are definitely dwindling in numbers. Still, while the film is way too dumb and implausible to be taken seriously, this is also a huge part of its undeniable charm. Will you like this movie? It entirely depends on how tolerable you are towards dumb action flicks loosely based on childrens' toy lines, because that's exactly what we have here. Expect anything more, and you'll be sorely disappointed.