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Great SFX, followed by cliché after cliché, 4 June 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Jupiter Ascending – directed by Andy and Lana Wachovski

Good science fiction opera has space ships, strange worlds, and a myriad cast of unusual characters; so does "Jupiter Ascending." In addition to a strong cast (Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean) experienced directors in the genre, and outstanding special effects by Industrial Light and Magic; Jupiter Ascending would appear to have all the elements necessary for a successful run as brilliant science fiction story. The production design by Hugh Bateup (Matrix and Superman) is imaginative and engaging. Photography by Oscar winner John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall) is the best I've seen in a science fiction movie for at least three years. I did not find the score by Michael Giacchino exceptional although he did win an Oscar for "Up." Overall, a talented remarkable crew. Then what happened? Why did this film fail (though commercially, it recouped its budget, success in Hollywood is measured by percentages that exceed twenty percent of gross)?

I believe, if you're going to introduce audiences to a new world (as did John Carter) you must think on a scale that replicates the larger-than-life format. George Lucas did. However, one shudders to think if his first film had been a flop. No more Star Wars. No more science fiction. Finances would have dried up. When Star Wars became such a colossal success, it opened the door for a flood of fantasy/science fiction that followed and a genre reborn to a public bored with outer space. Only two sci-fi formats – Star Trek and Star Wars – have captured the public's imagination. While this is a review of Jupiter Ascending (which I enjoyed as a science fiction writer), I find this conundrum puzzling. Why haven't other big budget sci-fi movies achieved the same success?

I believe in this instance, the depth of the characters seemed too shallow and very cardboard cutout characters of previous villains, heroes and interested parties. We've seen maniacal galactic emperors (Flash, The Chronicles of Riddick) who get their comeuppance. We've also seen confused princesses who come into their own and end up kicking ass in some throne room. We've seen hard-nosed sidekicks (Han Solo, etc) who come to the lady's defense. One of the film's main premises is that (spoiler) the Earth is a farm from which wealthy galactic citizens derive a serum that prolongs their life (a similar theme in the Matrix where people were farmed as "batteries"). The other main premise is that everything in the universe boils down to one word – profit (greed is good?). How drool. My mother could have come up with better premise than that! Lastly, does every woman in the universe seem as weak as Mila Kunis does? "I will do anything if you release my family…" Don't we all know that if you drop that gun, or give in, the villain gets his way and kills everyone anyway, that you lose your bargaining chip? Are we the audience that stupid that we haven't seen this scenario about a million plus times?

I believe that when you write science fiction (as I do), you need to come at the material with fresh eyes, be inventive, try not to use clichés or be repetitious, and most of all try to be unpredictable. While my villainous characters in "Similitude" (shameless plug) are consumed with wealth and profit, they find delight in exploring other worlds other than just to exploit their resources. Villains can't be imitations of Wall Street barons. You may decry Lucas' space opera as being simple, but you never knew where it was going or who was going to succeed. Success is measured by failures that ultimately result in triumph – not just good over evil, but good ideas over bad ones. Profit as a motive for success cheapens research and study, for pursuit of knowledge is its own reward. I'd give everything I ever knew for five minutes inside Einstein's brain. But I would give spit to know what any billionaire knows – how to make money. That would be the most boring of all. Can they write a symphony, solve a complex equation, or study a subject that reveals an unknown quantity? A script, a story must be inventive. I grow tired of the same canned trash dressed in a fancy gown.

George Lucas knew the value of a good story. He continued to surprise us to the end and did so to the strains of John Williams (perhaps one of the key elements to this mystery). Of the three successful fantasy franchises – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Star Trek – you also have three very memorable scores by Howard Shore (Oscar), John Williams (Oscar) and Jerry Goldsmith (Oscar). The acting and special effects were standard. The scores were above the ordinary. So, did the score of those movies place them above the rest? Or, was there something else that doomed this production?

Jupiter Ascending – like Cloud Atlas before it – is the brainchild of the Wachowski brothers (one sexually changed) who also gave us The Matrix. Like Cloud Atlas, the co-directors bit off more than they could chew. Instead of a great science fiction movie, we get little bits and pieces here and there of greatness with long tracks of minutes filled with nothing worth remembering when we – the audience – walk out the door. No tune stuck in my head. No moment of distinction from which I could point and say, "Did you see that scene?" As with "John Carter" you have a finely crafted story, told by Hollywood experts fill with banal spaces between tiny bits of brilliance. Any composer would tell you… that's a sure fire way to put your audience asleep.

35 out of 73 people found the following review useful:
Exploitation of another Disney ride, 22 May 2015

Tomorrowland – directed by Brad Bird

Disney's capitalization of its theme parks goes from the Haunted Mansion to Pirates of the Caribbean and now Tomorrowland. Unfortunately, the previews – which exploited the few "wow" special effects shots – have set the audience up for a major let down. We've been led to believe this film is about going to such a grand visionary utopia. It isn't. This movie tends to wallow in the pulpit of doomsday far too long and pontificated by too many characters. When it is an adventure movie, it tends to be exciting, such as during the opening scene or in Clooney's house of inventive traps. But the film is not an adventure story, it's Hollywood preaching a message we all know too well. The film soon devolves into a chase movie with the bad guy robots after the all-too-perfect young girl on the run - yawn. Too bad. I would have loved to stay in Tomorrowland – Syd Mead's creation of the future. I've been an admirer of his for over forty years. Between Tomorrowland and Elysium – his other visionary creation – filmmakers have abused Mead's futuristic settings rather than infuse their settings into a cohesive plot. We can't have our cake and eat it, too. There must be doom and gloom for mankind. No fun there.

Enter George Clooney (Frank Walker) – the narrator who opens the movie. This is where Bird made his first mistake. Clooney is a brilliant actor and I like him very much. But he is horribly miscast in this film. His father figure is very weak – part recluse, part mad scientist – a boring cliché. I'd sooner see a paid politician standing on a stage preaching the evils in the world than wasting Clooney on speeches such as the inane simplified ones that open and close the film. He violates the fourth wall, addressing the camera as "I'm about to tell you this really cool story that happened to me." Already that method of storytelling cheapens the plot. We know his fate. Further, Clooney's emotions run the gambit scale from A to A sharp – no Oscar nomination here.

Next, we have the completely miscast weak villain of Huge Laurie (Nix) – again, a great actor but about as threatening as a bathtub full of tepid water. Nix first appears as a guide leading a pack of dignitaries into Tomorrowland. No more threatening than some city manager with too much efficiency on the brain. When we see Mr. No again, he first brags about not aging and throws this in Clooney's face as if this was the ultimate insult – I suppose from one vain actor to another. His "British" take on his evil character is to be stern – very forgettable.

The other person in this triad of miscasting is the protagonist teenager Casey Newton played by Britt Robertson. One thing we know from the start – she knows how to scream. That much is certain. Her reaction to most things is to scream. She's either extremely excitable or this is her direction from Bird. Either way, as the film's lead, I found her performance unbelievable from the start. I had no sympathy for her and didn't feel any yearning for her to fulfill her quest to visit Tomorrowland.

The only people with any meat in their parts are Thomas Robinson as young Frank and Raffey Cassidy as Athena. Their friendship is apparent from the start as these two actors fit their parts perfectly. They make us believe in them and why they're attracted to each other – Athena for her beauty and Frank for his ingenuity. When Athena makes it possible for Frank to enter Tomorrowland, we get the first glimpse of a world where everything is possible. They're able to convey the feeling of innocence and discovery, something lacking in the other characters.

Tomorrowland's message wants to be one of hope. At every turn, Disney wants to squash that feeling of buoyancy flat by injecting a world of despondency. Rather than an inventive film, the movie boils down to a few long speeches by George Clooney and Hugh Laurie about disappointment and failure. By the time Bird injects his message of hope it arrives too late to bring this film up out of its doldrums. No matter how uplifting the music in the final shot, I just wanted the movie to end. And what a shame. I loved Bird's work on The Incredibles and Up. He brought great enthusiasm and inventiveness to Pixar. Like Elysium, I kept hoping the film would take the high ground and bring about the world of Tomorrow. It never happens. I would call Tomorrowland a vision that can never be, because, as Hugh Laurie puts it – "the world is full of greedy people, arguing politicians, and natural disasters, a world from which mankind will never awaken. We drive toward the end as if longing for it." That's how I felt about the film, too.

Recommended for its fabulous Sid Mead vision of the future but little else.

Inside Man (2006)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Spike shines with stellar cast, 16 May 2015

To me, this is one of the most underrated films of the 21st Century's first decade. Full of plot twists, a great score, incredible edits, and a level of acting rarely seen in most films - "Inside Man" is a story full of misdirection and ironic endings.

With some reviewers - and IMDb is no exception - you will have detractors who would rather find weaknesses in a film rather than extol in its delights. I can't find any fault with this film and I've seen it over a dozen times, each time it entertained me. I was and have been an admirer of Spike Lee for many years. But until he made this film, I found his historical epics very formal and straightforward in their presentation. This movie is full of surprises, sure to please most movie fans who've grown tired of special effects laden films or car chases. This film is pure cinema and I bow to Mr. Lee's genius along with a great writer, Russell Gewirtz. Highly recommended.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Fatally flawed, 27 September 2014

Under Capricorn – Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The great experiment – hire the best actors and give them long takes to act on sets, just as they would on stage. Their performances should sell tickets. Hitch couldn't understand that this was neither the time nor the place to make that gamble. To understand why this film seems so stilted compared to other Hitchcock films both before and after, you must understand the two acting styles between theater and film. William Wyler and other directors (including Hitch) were the first to recognize that because of film's intimacy with close up lenses, the use of large gestures, voluminous voices, and heavy emphasis on certain phrases tend to over dramatize when the image is expanded to a hundred foot screen.

Stage acting must sustain a performance when the actor is on stage – all the time the actor is on stage. A film actor isn't on stage or even in front of an audience (though sometimes the crew will behave that way to encourage an actor). Film is an intimate medium and is more a directors and editors medium. A shot can be shortened or cut to a differing length no matter how well an actor has performed at its conclusion. Consecutive shots make up the film process, not continuous performances.

The long takes in "Under Capricorn" serve to undermine the filmmaking process and Hitch would learn this lesson the hard way as this film failed with audiences. The movie is more a staged melodrama and less the kind of suspenseful film that cemented Hitchcock's reputations. After World War II, acting styles had changed radically. New York began to churn out actors from the Actor's Studio versus the Stanislavsky method that actors like Bette Davis employed. Instead of shooting what he needed for the plot, Hitchcock decided to let the actors perform. He never made a film this way again. Film is not theater for so many reasons and forcing it to be one makes for poor cinema. How many filmmakers learn that lesson the hard way?

The first day of shooting "Wuthering Heights," William Wyler almost fired Lawrence Olivier. "I don't care where you've acted or what you've done on stage, this is film and you must give me realism or we'll be here all day." Olivier learned to pull back under Wyler's direction. Hitch may have been the master of suspense, but he was no good when it came to evoking spontaneous performances. Once he went back to his formula way of making pictures, he became successful as evidenced in his next film, "Strangers on a train." "Under Capricorn" was an experiment that failed. Every auteur genius is allowed one or two in their career. Kubrick, Spielberg, Wyler – they all had them. Hitch had them, too.

Grew on me, 2 August 2014

I confess I did not see the film in the theater. I saw the previews and another special effects extravaganza seemed too much at the time. However, having purchased the film on Blu-ray and watching it at home, I've grown to like the film and even wish they'd shot a sequel. Unfortunately, Disney 's box office did not exceed its high expectations they had for the franchise, so they scrapped all plans. Too bad. I'm actually dying to know what happens next. "John Carter on Mars" will go down with the "Golden Compass" as movies that could have been possible in the realm of fantasy. The corporate world will only tolerate a blockbuster. Anything else is considered a failure.

I would have given the film a ten if not for some of the weak acting roles. If the acting on screen is poor, I generally place that blame on the director's doorstep. However, Stanton wrote the screenplay and directed - a daunting task. With so many special effect shots and cast members that are CGI (the four armed creatures), making a film on this epic scale is not an easy job. Just to complete it in a timely fashion and with this level of quality (sets, costumes, music) pushed the rating from a seven to a nine.

Anna Karenina (2012/I)
3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
When is a Russian play..., 27 August 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When is a Russian play more like an English drawing room drama? When it's "Anna Karenina!" Presented with more English accents than "Downton Abbey," this version of the famous Russian novel by Tolstoy - called by William Faulkner as "the greatest novel ever written" – hardly does a novel with such an illustrious title justice. This version's style (as a play instead of a natural setting) and its acting (East End drama with actors spouting perfect Oxfordian English) leave one wondering what Tolstoy had in mind – not this soapy opera as this film presents. Assuredly, if one bothers to do such things as read a novel, then you begin to realize that Tolstoy had a great deal in mind when he wrote this prior to the only novel he considered he ever wrote, "War and Peace." The Soviet version, shot in 1967, is far better in its presentation and dramatization than this British version could ever attempt to be. However, you will have your contemporaries who accept anything current and decry films from the past as too stilted (acting is so much better today than it was then). Not always. "Anna Karenina" is proof of that.

Actor's tour de force, 8 June 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There are not any real spoilers here but in discussing characters I could reveal some plot points and the last thing I want to do is give away any portion of the film's powerful message or ending.

Sidney Lumet gathered the cream of the film-acting crop (and Broadway for that matter) to make a film version of the play. The entire movie is basically twelve sweating men arguing in one room for an hour and a half. However, the dynamics of the script and the performances of the actors in this claustrophobic presentation are the key elements that make this film a classic. Not a shot in this film is wasted. Every moment is filled with tension brought about by actors who knew how to utilize every aspect of their bodies to portray emotion from their position to their expression. Each character is so unique, you'd think it was a complete slice of Americana minus African American representation. "12 Angry Men" is a must see movie not simply because it is an acting tour de force, but because as a film it works and as a piece of cinema history, it is a classic that must be seen, this version being the best.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Star what?, 8 June 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Spoilers contained within:

If you intend to read the hype of those people who give this film an 8 or higher, then you shouldn't bother to read the review of someone who went to the premiere of this film, with all of the cardboard cut outs and Klieg lights in front of the theater. The film was originally presented in 3D and as we sat with our Polarized lenses on, the first problem presented itself - the cardboard cut-out syndrome. You had the feeling you were watching the film as it must have looked to the photographer as he looked down through the multi-plane animation stand with foreground and background mostly static and the middle plane made up of the character (also flat-looking) moving around. Second, the plot was far too close to the "Star Wars" films which had just finished dominating American cinemas in their three-film run between 1977-1983. You had Orin, who more than resembled Luke, with a sword that worked like a laser; you had Dagg (Han) a rogue space pilot with a vessel like the Millennium Falcon; a cute robot Silica (C3P0) and the evil Zygon who mirrored the emperor/Vader character. Did we mention the force? Those would be the legendary Ka-Khan whose mystical guidance are used by Luke, uh Orin. Confused? You will be. This is a cardboard movie, limited animation, corny predictable plot, and horrible score (far from John Williams). If you liked this movie, you don't know science fiction. If you loved this movie, you don't know cinema. Not recommended.

15 out of 19 people found the following review useful:
Katherine Hepburn at her worst, 15 November 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If you're looking for a title that shows off Katy Hepburn's talents, this should be at the bottom of the list. For MGM in the 1950's, it was easier and cheaper to rework an old script rather than write new material. Such was the case with this reworking of "Ninotchka" originally a vehicle for Greta Garbo. In this instance, Dore Schary, in trying to save money and put up a "big star" convinced Hepburn to take the part. To say her Russian accent is a cross between New England slang and bad British is to be kind. Hope was so dismayed over Ben Hecht's script, that he and producer Harry Saltzman conspired with outside writers to give Hope "ad libs" to punch up his part. This so infuriated Hecht that he went to Schary and demanded his name be taken off the project (which Schary did not allow). Slated to make its network premier this month on Turner Movie Classics I would encourage fans of Hepburn patience in watching this debacle between British director Ralph Thomas and two "prima-donna" stars who departed this film never speaking to one another again. An absolute turkey and not recommended except for the most die hard Hope fans who like his ab lib humor.

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Kurt Russell is unforgettable, 31 May 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In 1981, New York's Times Square was filled with pawn shops, strip joints, peep shows, drug addicts, and prostitutes. It seems worlds away from the Disney stages and suburban mall feel that has taken its place. For nearly fifteen years between 1965 and 1980, Americans watched the hearts of their largest cities degenerate into havens for the miserable, misbegotten, and mislead. Great theaters fell into disrepair or were torn down. Unique specialty shops disappeared. The major department stores that at one time drew people from hundreds of miles away were sold off for real estate speculators. Small wonder we didn't expect that trend to continue.

Writers/Directors John Carpenter and Nick Castle wrote a pessimistic future for New York. That one day, instead of trying to fix the mess, society would throw up its hands and walk away. We'd burn our bridges behind us, wall off the place and make it a large penal colony. Carpenter and Castle couldn't see that one factor prevented that scenario from ever taking place – Wall Street had too much invested in its infrastructure to write off leaving their investment behind, which was then and is even more today, considerable. Therefore, the premise is not only dated but goofy. Still, the movie delivers on different levels that can be satisfying even without implausibility of its premise.

"Escape from New York" actually takes place in the 1990's and unlike the more plausible but equally pessimistic "Blade Runner" the entire island of Manhattan becomes a huge prison. Through some mishap of fate, the president's jet, Air Force One, goes down and the president escapes via a special survivor's pod that ends up inside the futuristic colony (picture New York City even more run down than it was in 1981). Enter the comic book superhero and sexy cross-over anti-hero Snake Plissken, played to sneering perfection by a youthful, slim and muscular Kurt Russell. Once a Disney goody-two-shoes, Russell cast that image aside the moment he strode onto the set with his eye patch slightly askew and a cigarette dangling from under his long blond locks. Sent in after the president with a built-in self-destruct timer, Snake must deliver the president or suffer a terminal end to his assignment. A great supporting cast helps this low-budget sci-fi thriller such as Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, and Adrienne Barbeau (at her voluptuous peak).

Carpenter never really directed a large budget film until "Halloween" which made millions in its first release. After that, he directed several hits, including "Starman" and "The Thing" both which had respectable box office. As strangely out of date as the film is in regards to predicting the future, it works as a storytelling device in creating a film that has suspense, action, drama, and some wonderful characters worth watching. "Escape from New York" eventually achieved cult status in the sci-fi "con" world, and if you can forget the opening premise, is entertaining fare for those who love dark comic book anti-heroes like Snake Plissken, more or less a precursor to "Batman." Russell so impressed audiences at the time that he could never completely shake the persona he had created. For those of us who became fans of Russell from that point on imagined the tattoo of a snake on his front that ended… well, you know where it ended. I always thought Goldie Hawn was the luckiest Hollywood bride during the decade that followed that film, partnered with a man's man, whatever that is. Years later, Russell reprised the same role for the even more fantastic but slightly more humorous "Escape from LA" also directed by John Carpenter.

If you've never seen "Escape from New York," watch the supporting cast for some surprising levels of excellence. If you haven't seen "Escape from New York" in a while, I suggest it's time for a second, third, or fourth look.

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