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The Worst Batman Movie Since Batman & Robin; The Worst Superman Movie Since Superman Returns
Just how bad is "Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice?" "Batman & Robin" was a better Batman movie. "Superman Returns" was a better Superman movie. "Daredevil" was a better super hero movie starring Ben Affleck. "Waterworld" was a better movie featuring Kevin Costner.
Those movies were all misguided messes, but at least I found them entertaining the first time I watched them, which is more than I can say for the joyless two and a half hour drag that is BvS.
Can Ben Affleck pull off Batman? That's been one of the big questions on everyone's mind since he was cast. He can and he does. While I wouldn't call him the best actor to ever dawn the cowl, he's suitably intense and brooding. If the movie was cut down to just Affleck's scenes, it still wouldn't be good, but it would at least be watchable. As for another questionable casting choice that pays off, Jeremy Irons' performance as Batman's faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth is pitch-perfect. Despite normally being associated with villainous roles, Irons' Alfred is the film's biggest bright spot. But this is far from the only terrible movie Jeremy Irons has been the only bright spot in.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor. Great actors like Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey have chewed their way through the scenery in the role before, but Jesse Eisenberg takes it to a whole new level of over the top. From adopting a Southern accent to quote "A Streetcar Named Desire," to sharing a Jolly Rancher with a hapless Senator, to a mumbling Paul Revere impersonation, Eisenberg seems to be channeling the Joker rather than Superman's cerebral foe. There's such a thing as a villain that audiences are supposed to love to hate, but Lex Luthor had me wanting to walk up to the movie screen and punch it for all the wrong reasons. And the explanation for how the character goes from flowing locks to his iconic chrome dome had me scratching my own scalp.
The other performances are about what you'd expect. Henry Cavill fares just as well as Superman as he did in Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel." Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, and Jason Momoa get too little screen time to make much of an impression as the other members of the Justice League.
But the movie's flaws go much deeper than the casting. BvS seems like it's trying too hard to be the antithesis to Disney's breezy Marvel Cinematic Universe. While those movies make comic book adaptations fun and enjoyable for mainstream audiences, BvS sucks all the fun out of the room. That's not to say that the film shouldn't be dark and gritty. But even Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," the graphic novel BvS takes most of its plot cues from, had its own warped sense of humor, and Heath Ledger's Joker and Tom Hardy's Bane had audiences laughing at, and still quoting, their darkly humorous quips throughout Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.
The plot finds Superman suspected of war crimes after once again flying heedlessly to the rescue of damsel in distress Lois Lane. Meanwhile, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent is appalled that the vigilante Batman in Gotham City has taken to branding the criminals he takes down, marking them for prison justice. Even for an alien that has only been on Earth for two years, it seems crazy that he would think he can curb Batman's brutal methods twenty years after the Bat Signal's been installed.
The two characters spend two hours dramatically circling each other before finally throwing down in an anticlimactic fist fight. (Batman seriously punches Superman in the chin several times before realizing the Man of Steel won't flinch.) And even with the slow crawl to the battle, it seems like key scenes had to be edited for time. With all the plot holes, it's hard to understand why Bats and Supes are finally fighting, or why we should care who wins. Or why so much time that could have been spent developing the plot was wasted on dream sequences.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)
Perfect for Kids and Kids At Heart
In the trailer for "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," the hyper-intelligent dog learns that his adoptive human son and a classmate have hijacked his time machine. "You used the WABAC?" Mr. Peabody says. "Yeah. She was into it," Sherman says. Whoever edited this is a genius, creating a new joke by removing a few lines of dialog from the final version of the actual scene (Sherman's friend was innocently "into" meeting George Washington) that had kids giggling and adults laughing for completely different reasons. In the actual movie, sly double entendres like this aren't common, but there's still one type of humor aimed at kids and another aimed at the kids at heart in the audience.
"Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is a full-length extension of the "Peabody's Improbable History" shorts co-created by Jay Ward to pad out Rocky & Bullwinkle episodes. The last couple decades saw a slew of movies based on Jay Ward's creations. They were all occasionally funny but ultimately failures. So what makes "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" such an unmitigated success? First of all, it's completely CGI,allowing it to stay true to its cartoon roots while simultaneously giving it a more modern feel. It also broadens the humor of the original and adds emotional undertones to the story.
Mr. Peabody is an almost flawless character, a genius scientist, inventor, adventurer, and exceptional host. (If you ever nab Mr. Peabody for one of your cocktail parties, be sure to have him mix up his specialty drink, the "Einstein on the Beach".) His skills seem limitless. But when Peabody discovers Sherman as an abandoned baby and legally adopts him, he finds out it's his parenting skills that still need work. Peabody creates the time-traveling WABAC machine as a teaching aid for Sherman.
On his first day of public school, Sherman is naturally eager to show off his first-hand knowledge of history, making him very popular with some of his classmates, while earning him the ire of queen bee Penny Peterson. Soon a fight breaks out, bringing a dog's rights to legally raise a human child into question. (There are obvious socio- political metaphors that can be read into this, but I'd advise you to not go digging too deeply into a kid's movie, so you don't miss something wonderful going on at the surface.)
To smooth things over, Peabody invites the Petersons over for dinner. One thing leads to another, and faster than you can say "Don't show her the WABAC", Penny's ditched Sherman somewhere in history, and it's up to Peabody and Sherman to travel through time and space to fetch her.
Penny, a new character invented for the movie, adds a great new dynamic to the classic duo's time travels. She starts out comically self- centered, but soon she and Sherman develop their first crush on each other. Sherman's humility and compassion rub off on Penny, even as Penny's boldness and adventurousness rub off on Sherman. It makes for a satisfying character arc for Penny, a coming-of-age story for Sherman, and an opportunity for Peabody to come to terms with his boy reaching that age when he's more interested in spending time with girls than with his old maner, dog.
The main relationship of the movie, though, is between the title characters. The story is littered with some surprisingly poignant father-son moments, and I found myself tearing up several times. But director Rob Minkoff strikes a perfect balance. Whenever the movie seems to be getting too maudlin, there's another great joke just around the corner.
As expected with any Bullwinkle-related project, the movie's packed with plenty of groan-worthy puns. For example, Peabody takes Sherman to meet Marie Antoinette, only to quip, "You can't have your cake and edict, too." In a nod to how much humor has changed since the late 50's, Sherman invariably responds, "I don't get it." For kids in the audience, Sherman is quick to point out that "King Tut" rhymes with "butt" and that you can't say "booby trap" without saying "booby." For adults in the audience, there's Peabody's puns, as well as some more clever wordplay. Also, recent pop culture informs both the film's humor and its kinetic action sequences. There's an homage to Zack Snyder's "300" that I suspect is better than anything in "300: Rise of an Empire", which was playing in the theater next door.
Ty Burrell does an appropriately brilliant job voicing Mr. Peabody, speaking with well enunciated syllables for as posh and intellectual of a cadence he can manage without slipping into a British accent, while adding a warmth that radiates through every line. Max Charles' and Ariel Winter's naturally youthful voices keep them believable as Sherman and Penny. Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann are both great as Penny's parents. Perhaps the film's only misstep is criminally under-using them. Patrick Warburton is hilarious as usual, with the movie's version of Agamemnon playing to his strengths as a likable meat-head.
"Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is an amazing family movie. Don't have a family? A couple of the friends I went to see the movie with had their kids in tow, but I probably would have enjoyed it just as much if they weren't there. Not familiar with the source material? My memories of "Peabody's Improbable History" were vague at best. This reboot makes a great new introduction to the characters. It tugs at the heartstrings and tickles the funny bone. I just hope there are still plenty of adventures to come for this dog and his boy, and their new gal pal. Or, as Mr. Peabody would say, I hope they prove quite "paw-pular."
BioShock Infinite (2013)
Well Worth the Wait
BioShock Infinite is a BioShock game through-and-through. While the totally new setting, characters, and storyline allow new players to jump in, fans of the BioShock series will immediately feel right at home. The game starts at a lighthouse. Right away, players can look around for currency (Silver Eagles replacing Ryan Dollars) and food, as well as clues to the situation the player character, private eye Booker DeWitt, has found himself in and the situation he's about to be launched into. Launched by rocket instead of bathysphere, and in the opposite direction from Rapture.
Once again, Irrational Games has excellently crafted a unique world. While Rapture was a piece of Art Deco, Columbia is a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. In the same way that Bioshock held a magnifying glass to Ayn Rand's Objectivism, Infinite looks at jingoism and religious extremism, but this shouldn't alienate anyone. It's made clear early on the United States has disowned Columbia for its extremism, and the religion practiced by Columbia's citizens is satirical but decently removed from anything practiced in the real world.
The game allows players to explore and try out a couple new Vigors (the new version of Plasmids) and weapons in a friendly carnival setting before things turn dark and enemies start to attack. Combat is similar to previous games but tweaked. The new mêlée weapon, the Sky-Hook, is an improvement over the wrench or the drill, allowing the player to execute an enemy low on health by breaking their neck or decapitating them, and can also be used to navigate Sky-Lines, adding a vertical element to the game's environment, allowing the player to quickly escape from danger, and opening up some new combat possibilities. The new vigors are a blast to use, some resembling traditional plasmids with new twists. For example, the Possession vigor replaces both the Hypnotize plasmid and the hacking mini-games from earlier games. Different vigors consume different units of salt (the new EVE), meaning more powerful vigors like Possession allow fewer uses than more practical vigors like Shock Jockey (the new stand-in for the old stand-by Electro-Bolt) before Booker must go in search of more salts. Also, there are no longer hypos that can be carried around and used at will to increase health or salts. Items must be found and consumed or purchased as needed, and players need to be careful about what they eat or drink, since trade-offs between health and salts are common.
There is no equivalent to the Big Daddies and Little Sisters of the original BioShock. Instead of Big Daddies, Infinite offers a wider variety of enemy types. Instead of ADAM, Silver Eagles are the only currency in Columbia, meaning the player must budget to be able to afford health, ammo, and salts, as well as upgrades to the different weapon types and to the vigors. Wearable gear replaces tonics and is able to be swapped from an options menu rather than at selected Gene Banks. Instead of a choice between harvesting or rescuing Little Sisters, the game presents a few more nuanced decisions, and the Xbox360 version makes good use of the left and right triggers during these sequences, so you don't need to worry about accidentally hitting the wrong button to make your choice, like I once did in BioShock 2.
Since Columbia is still a thriving community when you arrive, it doesn't have the same feeling of every little area yielding its secrets the way Rapture did. But the world is still interesting enough to make exploring worthwhile, even though creepy moments are fewer and farther in between than previously. Characters learned about through Audio Logs may not be as memorable as those in previous games, but the characters actually encountered are all excellent. Oliver Vaquer and Jennifer Hale do a great job as the comic relief characters, bizarre enough to be hilarious and somehow creepy at the same time. Troy Baker gives a real hard-boiled feel to Booker, a man of few words who is only chatty compared to the two previous games' silent protagonists. Kimberly Brooks' resistance leader, Daisy Fitzroy, contrasts the ultra-nationalists of the game and does a good job of showing extremists on the other side of the social spectrum aren't necessarily a lesser evil.
But the most fascinating character is Booker's companion, Elizabeth (Courtnee Draper). Her expressions are incredible, and while she'll appeal to the same protective instinct those who chose to rescue the Little Sisters experienced, she never needs to be escorted. She stays in cover during combat, tosses helpful power-ups occasionally during fights, currency during quieter moments, and is able to bring items from other dimensions to add another tactical element to battles. Those who couldn't get into previous games because of their claustrophobic nature will find the battles in Infinite hard to resists, facing large hordes of foes in open arenas. Losing a fight still has the same slap-on-the- wrist consequences, sapping away some hard earned cash and not restoring full health and salts, but re-spawning you in a safe spot never too far from the action, though enemies now receive health boosts themselves.
Music is another great element. Not only does Garry Schyman deliver another great score that creates a similar feel to the previous two games, but the selection of licensed music is as good as ever. Thanks to the inter-dimensional component of the game, the soundtrack consists not only of period music, but ragtime and blues covers of some of the greatest hits of the 80's.
While the ending of the game isn't as universally reviled as that of Mass Effect 3, it's not spoiling anything to say I preferred the original BioShock's ending. Also, there is only one outcome. Decisions made earlier in the game have immediate consequences in the storyline rather than resulting in alternate endings. That said, the journey is well-worth the destination.
Tomb Raider (2013)
"Dark and gritty reboot" is a hot buzz term right now. When it works, you end up with something like Daniel Craig as James Bond or Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. When it doesn't, you get lackluster remakes of better classics. The new "Tomb Raider" is the video game equivalent of one of the former. This applies to more than just character and story. In the same way you think James Bond will never quip again at the start of "Casino Royale" or it takes Bruce Wayne an hour to dawn the batsuit in "Batman Begins", this reboot is almost unrecognizable as a Tomb Raider game at first, but eventually turns out to be exactly what the franchise needed to feel contemporary and relevant.
Reintroduced as human rather than iconic, clad in a practical pair of cargo pants instead of short shorts, Lara is a meek research assistant for a conceited reality TV archaeologist. Part of a crew including her mentor Captain Roth and her best friend Samantha, Lara barely gets up the nerve to offer her opinion on how to find a mythical island. Her advice leaves her team shipwrecked on the island they were searching for.
Tomb Raider games have usually consisted mainly of elaborate jumping puzzles and platforming sequences. While Lara's still able to jump and climb better than most to traverse the island, with platforming becoming more prevalent in the later stages of the game, gameplay places more emphasis on exploration and combat. While many will find parallels with the Uncharted games, which owe much of their inspiration to the Tomb Raider series, I found a lot in common with the Batman Arkham games. While not truly open world, with transitions between areas being accessed and blocked off through cut scenes, the island consists of several large hub areas, connected by fast travel camps that allow Lara to teleport from one campfire to another. While the plot itself is pretty linear, there are several side missions available in each area, including collecting relics (which Lara can examine L.A. Noire style) and GPS caches, hunting game for XP, and exploring various tombs. Some areas are blocked off while Lara collects and upgrades gear.
Lara's methods are far more lethal than Batman's. While the game has been advertised as turning Lara into a survivor, keeping her sheltered from the elements and hunting to keep from starving only play a role in the earliest missions. Soon, it turns from Lara surviving the elements to a more combat based type of survival. An army formed from other shipwreck victims controls the island. Lara starts with a torch and a bow and arrow, but can eventually collect and upgrade other weapons. Her arsenal's small but effective: one pistol, one shotgun, and one machine gun. While I never found much motivation to switch from the default weapon in previous games in the series, each of these has its advantages at different ranges, though the bow remains Lara's most reliable weapon, allowing Lara to pick off enemies with headshots, silently and from a distance. Lara also has access to a climbing axe, allowing her to pull off close-range stealth kills and melee attacks.
The most engaging part of this reboot is Lara Croft's character arc, taking Lara from trembling in terror and crying at each kill to the point she is hyper-confident and enemies are terrified of her. Reading about the transition from shipwreck victim to tomb raider is one thing. Experiencing it is another. This is partially thanks to a great voice acting/motion capture performance from Camilla Luddington (if you don't like her voice for Lara at first, wait until you hear her analysis of a tomb or an artifact), and partially to the gameplay itself. As more XP and salvage (in-game currency) is collected and Lara's skills and equipment are upgraded, the player feels more confident navigating the environment and battling heavily-armed foes. While failure can result in some pretty brutal death scenes for Lara, she can gain the ability to pull off some satisfyingly brutal finishes herself. Supporting characters are also well done, with back stories and motivations explored through both cut scenes and documents scattered throughout the island, rather than caricatures or plot devices as in previous games.
The highlights of the game, for me, were the optional side quests in which Lara gets to actually do some tomb raiding. The player makes their way to the center of a tomb, solves a puzzle, collects the treasure, and gets out. These are the moments that feel the most like classic Tomb Raider games.
With heavier emphasis placed on combat than platforming, the multiplayer component seems more appropriate now. Players chose an avatar for each faction, Lara's friends and the island's crueler inhabitants, and alternate sides between rounds of shooting. Refreshingly, players can do almost anything they can in single player in multiplayer, include climbing and jumping across the maps, detonating explosives, avoiding traps, and making stealth kills with the climbing axe. While not as good as many other multiplayer modes out there, it's a decent chunk of extra content.
With excellent graphics and some great set pieces that feel lifted right out of a modern action movie, complete with explosions and flying debris, this reboot is a totally new Tomb Raider with a great new direction for the series. I can't recommend it enough. Long time Lara Croft fans will find new things to love about the character, and newcomers have a perfect jumping-on point here.
A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
This Ain't Shakespeare, Pal
Bruce Willis cracks wise. Cars crash. Bullets fly. Things explode spectacularly. If this is what you're expecting from "A Good Day to Die Hard", you won't be disappointed.
It should go without saying that the Die Hard movies aren't exactly Shakespeare. While the first in the series revolutionized the action genre, the title has become a brand name that fans trust, and audiences have a fair idea what to expect with each new entry. Most Bruce Willis movies are carried by the star's charisma and likability, and unlucky NYPD detective John McClane is his quintessential role. While the first two movies were based on separate novels, the third was a finished script tweaked to include the McClane character, and the fourth was a dramatization of an article on cyberterrorism, Skip Woods' script may be the first written intentionally around the hero of the franchise. Not only does it have some nice nods to the previous films, but it hits all the major bullet points of the formula. As always, McClane finds himself in the most dangerous situations when he's off duty ("I'm supposed to be on vacation!" he growls several times when he's held at gunpoint). He gets out of desperate situations by improvising dangerous feats that would make James Bond think twice. Only to begin chastising himself, out loud for the audience's benefit, after he's already taken the plunge and realized what a stupid idea it was.
Unfortunately, the movie lacks a strong villain for McClane to play cat and mouse with. Previous movies had Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons, and Timothy Olyphant chewing the scenery in that capacity. This time, evil is mainly personified by the forgettable Radivoje Bukvic, but, like William Sadler in "Die Hard 2: Die Harder", he's not as important as the series of plot twists and turns slowly revealing a greater evil at play. Only brief moments of exposition break up the set pieces here, starting with a lengthy car chase, one of the best I've seen in a long time, during which everything you'd want to have happen in a chase scene does. The action moves from the Moscow highway to Chernobyl, packed with exciting pyrotechnics and stunts that look like they'd be fun in real life if it weren't for the fact that they'd maim anyone who hadn't already thwarted major terrorist plots four times before.
This time, McClane learns his estranged son, John "Jack" McClane Jr., is about to stand trial in Moscow. Wanting to reconcile before Jack's thrown in prison, John Sr. makes it to the courtroom right as his son escapes, along with another prisoner awaiting trial (Sebastian Koch).
Mary Elizabeth Winstead returns as John's daughter Lucy. While she doesn't get to see any of the action this time around, she's still great in the role and it's nice to see some continuity with the previous movie from six years ago. Jai Courtney, for his part, does a good job playing McClane's son, sharing his dad's short temper and penchant for yelling at himself when he makes a mistake. But the real stand out is Yuliya Snigir as Irina, the beautiful daughter of Jack's fellow escapee. Big eyed, pouty lipped, and leather clad, Yuliya Snigir is seriously gorgeous and commands more screen presence than any of the other newcomers to the series.
My only real complaint is that the movie ends too quickly. After the story's best plot twist, when the movie seems to be picking up real momentum, the movie reaches its finale at around the length the other Die Hard movies were just gearing up for their third act. The "Yippee- Ki-Yay" catchphrase is thrown in there, and it feels a little too obligatory.
To recap, Bruce Willis does what Bruce Willis does best, the stunts and explosions are thrilling and come non-stop, the script includes some truly surprising twists, and Yuliya Snigir's mouthful of a name is about to become a household one. While "A Good Day to Die Hard" is far from the best in the series, it sure beats most of the alternatives playing in theaters this February.
Gangster Squad (2013)
An Awesome, Bloody Action Flick With All the Trappings of a Classic Film Noir
Okay, I'm a bit biased. I'm partial to movies featuring trench coats, fedoras, tough-talking cops, smooth-talking dames, and blazing Tommy guns. "Gangster Squad" is the type of movie I go to the movies hoping to see every year, my typical fantasies transferred directly to the big screen.
Recent attempts at the genre, like Frank Miller's misguided "The Spirit" and Brian De Palma's overwrought "The Black Dahlia", have been hit-and- miss. But "Gangster Squad" hits the mark, having more in common with De Palma's 1987 classic "The Untouchables." The premise alone bears an uncanny resemblance. Set in 1940's L.A. instead of 1920's Chicago, the movie follows an incorruptible cop hand-picking a team of honest cops to take down a notorious gangster, this time Mickey Cohen instead of Al Capone. But while "The Untouchables" required a great cast to carry Kevin Costner as its lead, Josh Brolin's acting chops are more similar to Sean Connery's. Brolin plays Sergeant John O'Mara, a grizzled hero whose unwillingness to stay out of Mickey Cohen's way makes waves for his superiors, but Chief Bill Parker (a surprisingly dignified performance by Nick Nolte) recruits him to head a task force with the mission of undermining Cohen's rule.
O'Mara contrasts sharply with younger, go-with-the-flow Sgt. Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who is content to spend his nights gambling, drinking, and picking up dames at Cohen's favorite nightclub, but soon finds himself joining the team. O'Mara recruits switchblade-wielding beat cop Anthony Mackie, old-timey wild-westerner Robert Patrick (complete with six-shooter and Yosemite Sam mustache), and tech whiz Giovanni Ribisi to round out the team, with Robert Patrick's Hispanic partner Michael Pena joining the party without being formally invited.
While "The Untouchables" boasted method actor Robert DeNiro as Al Capone, it was hard to forget he was Robert DeNiro. By comparison, Sean Penn disappears completely into the role of infamous boxer-turned- mobster Mickey Cohen. He's truly terrifying from the moment, barely past the studio logos, we see what he does to those who oppose or fail him.
Emma Stone, needless to say, is pretty as a pin-up as the dame, Cohen's main squeeze with red hair and redder lips. But she's not the movie's only eye candy. There's plenty of gorgeous cinematography of Los Angeles landmarks and glossy recreations of 40's nightclubs and casinos. And, as much as I want to dislike Ryan Gosling, he's great as the youthful detective whose love affair with Stone's character forms a large part of the narrative. But it's ultimately Brolin's straight- laced detective and family man who carries the movie, from the moment he punches his way into a mob-controlled hotel to save a blonde bombshell from being initiated into a brothel in his introductory scene.
While "Gangster Squad" has all the trademarks of the film noir genre, that's just the outward veneer of an all-out action flick, more in the vein of "The Untouchables" or "Dick Tracy" than "The Maltese Falcon", with fist fights, shootouts, and a car chase (with beautiful vintage 40's vehicle, naturally) that are as bloody and brutal as anything else in movies right now. While the movie may include a few clichés too many, or Ruben Fleischer (who directed Emma Stone in "Zombieland") may rely a few times too many on modern film tricks like slow motion and dizzying camera angles, "Gangster Squad" is the best entry in the genre in decades.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Disappointment
About a decade ago, Peter Jackson concluded his film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and swept the awards with "The Return of the King". Since then, Jackson has only had a couple of directing gigs, including his lackluster remake of the classic "King Kong." And only one piece of the LOTR saga remains for him to tap into. Tolkien's novel "The Hobbit" isn't just a prequel chronologically. Tolkien actually wrote and published it almost twenty years before what would be considered the first book of the LOTR trilogy. While the books in the trilogy were epic fantasies that dug deep into the lore, the prequel was a light-hearted romp, a first footstep into a Middle Earth still taking shape in Tolkien's imagination. It was also a short romp, only a fraction of the length of any of the sequels. So, while fans clamored for the Extended Cuts of Jackson's original trilogy a decade ago, eating up the scenes that couldn't make it into the three-hour theatrical cuts, there's not much excuse to turn "The Hobbit" into a trilogy of its own.
The movie starts by bridging the gap between "The Hobbit" and LOTR by reintroducing Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo says he will now tell the story of his greatest adventure, and then spends several minutes relating the entire history of the dwarfs to the audience before finally picking up where Tolkien chose to start, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." (Since the book was in third-person, and the movie adds a first-person narrator, the line now seems a little pretentious.) And then, instead of diving into the story, Elijah Wood wastes a few minutes of screen time with a completely unnecessary cameo as Frodo. Only then do we finally get to meet the young Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman, and reunite with Gandalf, played again by Ian McKellan.
Martin Freeman has a talent for being the everyday man who is always agitated by everyone around him, from Arthur Dent in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" to Watson in "Sherlock." And playing homebody Bilbo gives him a great opportunity to roll his eyes and look perplexed by the 12-dwarf army he finds himself surrounded by. We meet each dwarf as they barge, one at a time, through Bilbo's front door, and then insist on singing an uninspired musical number for about two minutes as they wash Bilbo's dishes. When it's not dwarfs, it's the McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, or Christopher Lee characters from Jacksons' earlier trilogy pushing Freeman's Hobbit to the background. Instead of showing the same reverence to the source material that made Jackson's earlier trilogy so successful, here he ignores Tolkien's main plot and instead pads the movie with a subplot involving Radagast the Brown, a character taken from elsewhere in Tolkien's writings who has no place in "The Hobbit", and a Necromancer, and another one involving an albino orc pursuing the dwarf leader, in order to give the new trilogy a central antagonist. Where the novel was all about Bilbo's surprising resourcefulness, more emphasis is placed on sword and axe clashes between the dwarfs and the orcs.
Also, most of the light-heartedness of the novel has been leached out in favor of making the movie feel more like an extension of the original trilogy. While the movie is brighter and more colorful then the previous films, this just has the surprising effect of making the movie feel like one of those sequels the original director palmed off to someone else after he lost interest in the franchise, even though Jackson is still at the helm. There are some weak attempts at humor, but rather than Tolkien's wit, the biggest laughs come from unintentional comedy from the terrible acting and writing (disappointing, since one of the co-writers this time is Guillermo del Toro, who's better than this) behind lines like "After sickness, bad things happen" or "If there's a key, there's a door."
Like the previous trilogy, most of the visuals are a cross between New Zealand landscapes and CGI special effects. Peter Jackson makes the same mistake he did with "King Kong", assuming the computer-heavy effects are as impressive now as they were the first time we saw them in LOTR. Even the rain is disappointingly animated, noticeably leaving all of the actor's faces completely dry. A scene involving the dwarfs running in single-file and decapitating goblins feels dull and hollow. There is one scene worth raving about, a riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum in a dark pit. Not only does Andy Serkis, through voice work and motion capture, remind us that he should have won an Academy Award for the role he's still great at, but the scene finally gives Martin Freeman a moment to shine. Considering they decided to tell the story through Bilbo's perspective, it's surprising that this is the one scene that really gives the title character a central role.
At the risk of sounding like one of those snobs who always complains that the book is better, in the time it will take to watch what is sure to be a 9-hour trilogy, you could probably read Tolkien's entire book, and be much more entertained doing so.
The Best Bond Film Since "Goldfinger"
The year 2012 marks the 50th Anniversary of "Dr. No", the movie that kicked off the James Bond film franchise. It was a relatively low-key spy thriller compared to what was to come. 40 years later, most fans would agree, the gadgets, stunts, and special effects of "Die Another Day" had become so over the top that it seemed like the series was starting to parody itself.
"Casino Royale" ditched the clichés and started from scratch, introducing Daniel Craig as a young James Bond just licensed to kill. The movie took a fresh, character-based approach to the series. This approach is continued in Daniel Craig's third and best take on the character, "Skyfall." Just as Sean Connery and Roger Moore (arguably) hit their strides with their third Bond movies ("Goldfinger" and "The Spy Who Loved Me", respectively), Daniel Craig now seems to be settling comfortably into the role.
While Daniel Craig still gives Bond the rough-around-the-edges qualities that distinguish his take on the role, he picks the right moments to channel the actors that have played the role before him. He's still able to show angst in the movie's dramatic moments, he also has that wry half-smile while taking out enemies and that satisfied smirk while seducing beautiful women that Sean Connery had, and he's finally comfortable enough to toss out a few one-liners worthy of Roger Moore. Though his delivery is so wonderfully dry that you almost don't realize they're puns.
The movie starts with an opening sequences worthy of the tradition, an action-packed chase scene involving guns, Range Rovers, motorcycles, and speeding trains through Turkey. This climaxes in Bond's supposed death when his backup sniper accidentally hits him, knocking him off the tracks into the water below. After the main titles (one of the most bizarre credit sequences in Bond history, but also one of the most effective) it turns out Bond is taking advantage of being presumed dead to try and get out of the spy game. Until he learns someone is targeting the organization he worked for.
Javier Bardem's villain, a flamboyant bleach blonde, is probably the most memorable since the classic days of Auric Goldfinger and Dr. No. He's introduced with one of the best evil monologues ever, and every scene he's in after that is totally chilling. Berenice Lem Marlohe and Naomie Harris are this movie's Bond girls, and while Marlohe's Severine is one of the most stunning Bond girls in ages and Harris' Eve is one of Bond's savviest sidekicks, their roles are both inconsequential compared to the true female lead. That would be Judi Dench as M. While the relationship between Bond and his superior has been explored more in Daniel Craig's Bond movies than ever before, here it's pushed front and center, forming the movie's emotional core, driving most of the plot, and making M a major player rather than just a character to provide exposition, showcasing Dench's talents as an actress.
Sam Mendes manages to keep a personal, dramatic atmosphere through the entire movie, but still work in jaw-dropping action sequences. Unlike "Quantum of Solace", they're thankfully filmed in a steadier, more traditional manner. The movie's also very well paced: despite being one of the longest entries in the series, the action moves briskly and the story never drags. And Mendes and the rest of the "Skyfall" crew manage to avoid the clichés while still including Bond's trademarks. There's a new Q, in the form of the young Ben Whishaw. In a fresh new take on the character, when Bond seems disappointed by how practical the gadgets are, the young tech whiz responds, "Expecting exploding pens? We don't really go in for that sort of thing anymore." The gadgets bring to mind the earliest Bond movies, where it came as a surprise when Bond was able to use his equipment, unlike later movies, in which the situations that called for the gadgets were so specific you could make a checklist of them in Q's scene and then check them off as Bond used them. There are one or two other familiar characters that pop up as well, in ways that manage to feel both classic and fresh. And Ralph Fiennes brings charisma and gravitas to his role as M's new handler.
"Skyfall" is definitely a Bond movie for modern times. It's the first time a character (Judi Dench, no less) drops an "F-bomb" and the first time a bad guy actually makes a pass at 007.
Like the 40th Anniversary, "Skyfall" is filled with references to what's come before. Unlike "Die Another Day", where the plot line seemed like a flimsy excuse to hang inside jokes on, in "Skyfall" the references are much more sly and subtle, and the story's actually sharp enough to support them, so long-time fans can smile while there's still plenty for newcomers to enjoy, even as the throwbacks go over their heads.
There are a few missteps. After all, what Bond movie's been perfect since the Connery days? After some awesome action scenes, the climax seems to be taking a page from a totally different play book, and some of the characters' motivations and actions don't hold up to scrutiny. But overall, the mix of drama, action, and humor make "Skyfall" one of the best Bond movies of the entire series. It skillfully ushers in what's sure to be another new beginning for the series, and, back in fine form, I'm excited that "James Bond will return."
Dead or Alive 5 (2012)
Kasumi, Kokoro, Leifang, Helena, and the Rest of the Girls Are Back . . . And They're Not Here to Play Volleyball
You can't blame a fighting game franchise for playing to its fans. Where the Mortal Kombat series delivers blood and gore, the Dead or Alive series serves T & A. While winning a match in Mortal Kombat rewards you with a chance to perform a fatality, the DOA games reward you by allowing you to control the camera, panning and zooming wherever you want on your character's victory pose. In fact, you're similarly rewarded for losing a fight in the single player mode of DOA 5, operating the camera as your character lies in agony, heavily panting, with no time limit to prevent you from continuing the fight in your own time.
To be fair, for those not interested in the cheesecake, DOA 5 offers an almost equal serving of beefcake. For almost every doe-eyed dame with a killer body, there's a male fighter with muscle mass that would make most movie stars jealous. Case in point, the two new additions to the game's roster. Mila, a spunky redhead with a heart of gold, is introduced alongside Rig, a blue-collar lughead with a secret past. They join almost every returning favorite from previous games, from Kasumi and Hayabusa to Kokoro (my personal fav) and Brad Wong. And with plenty of alternate costumes for each character, a less revealing outfit is always an option. The difference between fan service and pandering is in the eye of the beholder, but beneath the surface layer of eye candy, the DOA series has always been about great gameplay mechanics. And while the fun volleyball mechanics may be a flimsy excuse for enjoying the Xtreme series of spin-off games, DOA 5's combat makes it the best return to form for a fighting games series since last year's Mortal Kombat reboot.
For the uninitiated, DOA 5's fighting mechanics are based on a counter- heavy system. While it's no problem for a button masher to punch-kick combo through fights, nothing's more rewarding than catching another fighter's strike and tossing your opponent to the ground, or grabbing your rival at exactly the right opportunity to launch them into one of the series' trademark Danger Zones. New additions to the gameplay include the Critical Burst, which turns your enemy into a total punching bag when activated at the right moment, the Power Blow, which allows you to charge into your rival and target a highlighted Danger Zone in the background, triggering some of the game's cooler animations. There's also a Cliffhanger, which allows you to strike an opponent caught on a ledge and unleash a free fall combo as you travel through a stage's multiple tiers.
Upon starting, I was immediately taken with how beautiful DOA 5 looks, and I'm not just talking about the leading ladies. Fighters gleam with sweat and dirt accumulates on them as they are thrown to the ground during a fight, an alternative to using the "battle damage" of other fighting games to portray fight progression. Even the backgrounds are filled with details and effects, such as the flames leaping from totaled cars in a street scene. The characters themselves have all had massive makeovers, giving them more detailed and realistic appearances. Something similar was attempted in Soul Calbur 4, where the faces became softer and less cartoonish, but while that game ended up with generic looking characters, the DOA 5 characters all retain their distinct appearances and personalities. Bayman's new scar tells volumes about his character, while Christie's gentler face makes her a more disarming killer. Animations for the character's fighting moves are smoother now, too, and each portray a dramatically different fighting style, from Helena's graceful chops and kicks to Bayman's lumbering grapples.
The new fighting arenas do not disappoint. Among the best are "The Show", which puts you in front of a massive three-ring circus crowd while you and your nemesis avoid being trampled by tigers or turned into the human cannonball, "Hotzone", which looks like it's straight out of a Call of Duty game, complete with missiles that lock in on fallen fighters, and "The Ends of the Earth", an arena in Antarctica where ice crystals replace mud and penguins provide an audience.
I liked the game's story mode, though your feeling about the plot may correspond with your feelings about the much-maligned DOA movie. It's cheesy, but it makes sense for a fighting game. The obligatory tournament is there, with the game's less intense characters being completely focused on championing it, but there's a more sinister plot in the background, focusing on Helena's attempt to reform DOATEC and the shady deeds still being done by former members of the organization. Although the lead-ins to fights are a bit forced (a duel between mortal enemies and a sparring session between friends both have equal chance of ending with a helicopter being downed by a fighter being thrown into it), there's enough character moments and plot twists that I couldn't stop playing through the last several hours, even as the fights became repetitive. I also thought the voice actors for the English dub did a great job, for the most part, with the VA's behind Helena and Christie standing out (less than authentic accents aside).
Other modes include the standard variations on the arcade ladder, training, and several options for online fights. But the real star of the game is the offline versus mode, because nothing beats beating the tar out of a friend sitting next to you on the couch, without static getting in the way of your trash talking.
A Darker, Edgier Reboot That Works
I'll start this review with a confession: I'm not generally a big anime buff. Sure, I appreciate the good stuff when I see it. But there's rarely one I go out of my way to catch.
The Lupin III franchise has totally won me over, which is why I'm surprised that, while the character has enjoyed a popularity in Japan over nearly fifty years that rivals that of James Bond elsewhere, it's barely received a cult following in the States, where series like Pokemon and Dragon Ball have become a part of mainstream culture. The five main characters of the series have been resurrected countless times for comics, series, movies, and specials, the two most well known internationally being the second, or red jacket, series, which has a certain zany Saturday morning cartoon charm, and Hayao Miyazaki's "The Castle of Cagliostro", an action-packed but largely G-rated romp.
There's nothing Saturday morning or G-rated about the character's newest revival, but it's the best thing to happen to the franchise in decades. Similar to what's happened with Batman and Bond, the new Lupin is a darker, edgier revival that takes the character back to his origins and takes a character based,adult approach to the material. The focal character of the series isn't Lupin, but is now Fujiko Mine, a popular character (maybe even my favorite) who had been shrunken to a supporting role in movies and specials. Sayo Yamamoto is the first female director to touch the Lupin series, and it seems all Lupin needed was a woman's touch.
The opening animation alone, almost filled with enough nudity to make series creator Monkey Punch blush, makes it clear this one isn't for the kids. Dubbed "New Wuthering Heights", the opening first struck me as a little too artsy and pretentious for a franchise that's usually opened with a swinging jazz melody, but the more episodes I've watched, the more appropriate the more heady opening seems. While,much like the original manga, the new anime doesn't shy away from nudity, there are plenty of anime where more fully clothed women provide more exploitative "fan service" than here. The nudity is more to service the character than the fans, and there were moments when watching Fujiko get undressed actually made me uncomfortable because I realized she was using her body as a weapon.
In the original comics, Fujiko Mine never really had a consistent personality, or even look, but was more a name Monkey Punch kept attaching to the women that crossed Lupin's path. While the character became slightly more developed over years of anime, she's never been portrayed so complexly as here. But Fujiko still isn't so much the heroine as a new lens to observe familiar characters through.
The first episode introduces what should be the series' central relationship, portraying the first meeting of Lupin and Fujiko as rivals chasing the same loot. The new Lupin combines the best features of the old, from the manga through the various anime series, wearing the green jacket from his first series and "Cagliostro", and remaining a goofball with a flair for the dramatic. He's still cartoonish, but there's a more realistic, drawn edge to him. Rather than just drool over Fujiko, Lupin realizes she's a dangerous enemy and is quick to point out the key difference between them. While Lupin's outrageous plots avoid harming innocents (something Lupin retains from the anime, as the manga Lupin was more sadistic), Fujiko is willing to kill or take advantage of anyone to prove her worth.
The second and third episodes surprisingly ditch Lupin altogether. Instead, they use Fujiko as a means to introduce the series' other classic characters. In the second episode, she meets Daisuke Jigen, and in the third, Goemon Ishikawa. Like Lupin, they're the best possible conglomeration of character traits developed over the years, resembling the characters from the original comics more than the goofier anime versions, but still the same beloved characters. Jigen is as cool as ever, with an episode exploring his relationship with women and why he's so attached to his favorite firearm. Goemon's episode is a surprise stand-out, as I would have never thought the character was capable of carrying an episode. While even the best Lupin series have had some of their lousiest episode focused on Goemon, this new version manages to keep all of the traits that have worked about the character for years, and ditch the ones that never quite did.
One of the more interesting character reboots is of Inspector Zenigata, Lupin's oldest rival. Portrayed as a bumbling cop in many of the previous anime, this newer, more hard-boiled Zenigata has a tryst with Fujiko in his office (portrayed in the Monkey Punch-approved method of throbbing zodiac symbols) and doesn't seem overly concerned with taking Lupin alive. It becomes clear his family and Lupin's family have a history. Zenigata's now willing to do whatever it takes to end the Lupin bloodline, including spilling it. (He's also been given an extremely effeminate subordinate named Oscar, who's more than a little jealous of Fujiko).
Lupin's antics are as zany as ever, and his cat-and-mouse chase with Zenigata, while deadlier, is still hilarious. While Lupin obviously gets much less screen time than in previous series, this is definitely my favorite portrayal of his character so far. The series is helped by an art style unlike anything I've seen in other anime or western animation, with a hand-drawn look that's a retro throwback to the manga with a more modern intensity. The animation is smooth, with even some of the wackier character movements seeming fluid and natural. And, while I miss the Yuji Ohno score that's been the essence of Lupin for years, the new composers provide an appropriate substitute that shifts between jazzy and dramatic.
The bottom line is that, anime buff or not, "Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine" is worth a look.