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"Making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil."

~Ephesians 5:16

Monday, January 25, 2016

TERMINATOR: GENISYS Review



I don't think I've ever met someone who wasn't a fan of the Terminator series. There have been many films having humans war with robots, but few as refined as this franchise. Interestingly, Terminator is much like Alien. The first two installments are universally acclaimed (with the second one in particular being hailed as two of the greatest action movies of all time.) Alien 3 and Terminator 3 aren't as renowned. I would consider them both underrated, but those are reviews for another day. Resurrection is known as the worst Alien, and Salvation is known as the worst Terminator. (Is T4 really that bad? I don't think so, but again a review for another day.) Years passed and many thought we wouldn't be seeing another film. Enter GENISYS. Marketed as a sort of reboot, it appeared this film was looking to emulate the first two. In some ways it succeeds in that. But, it goes about this in perhaps the moist bizarre way possible. Genisys has one of the most convoluted storylines I've ever seen. It is however also one of the most fast-paced and fun movies I've ever seen, so at least there's that.
 When John Connor (Jason Clarke), leader of the human resistance against Skynet, sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to protect his mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), from a Terminator assassin, an unexpected turn of events creates an altered timeline. Instead of a scared waitress, Sarah is a skilled fighter and has a Terminator guardian (Arnold Schwarzenegger) by her side. Faced with unlikely allies and dangerous new enemies, Reese sets out on an unexpected new mission: reset the future.

What I find most peculiar is the audience this film is attempting to cater to. It tries to be a reboot, thus bringing in new fans while also attempting to continue the ongoing storyline. Let's try to put this bluntly: the story basically erases all the previous movies from existence. It then decides to transform John Connor into a Terminator for the film's antagonist. Sound insane? That's because it is. The writing just doesn't do a good job explaining any of it. There's a brief scene with Sara Connor telling Kyle Reece about this timeline mishap. It's meant to inform the viewer, but instead of the viewer going "Oh wow!" it's "Wait what?" It doesn't get any less confusing as the story goes along. Interestingly, the film's first act even attempts to retell the events of the first two installments. New fans will be almost completely lost, and longtime watchers will be alienated by the poorly written time travel aspect.


What the film does succeed in is action. This was one of the most fast paced films of 2015. Much like Judgement Day, the film never lets go of its fast pace. The fight scenes are all excellent and contain a large amount of tension. One of the best scenes for example is when T tells Sarah Connor "I'll be back" before skydiving into the helicopter. The final fight with John Connor is great because the viewer knows T is severely outclassed, so it's fun seeing how the heroes will get out of it since it's impossible to think of a logical reason. As for the cast, they aren't bad...but are they good? Kyle Reece wasn't a terrible focus throughout. Generic for sure, but not horribly so. Sarah Connor has always been more on the crazy side, and Emilia Clark does a solid job recapturing that from the older films. (Though, can someone please tell me why "bite me" is even a saying?) The romance between the two was pretty bad and poorly developed. The obvious highlight is Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom after all these years can still play an excellent T-800. (I will also give the story credit for at least trying to present a reason why a robot would age.)

It's always impressive when a film can keep at least one immensely surprising plot twist free from its marketing and trailers. (I just found out that they had released a TV spot and poster spoiling the twist, terrible move Paramount!) Based on everything we had seen, it appeared the new T-1000 would be the antagonist. While lacking the engaging cool factor of the original one from T2, this guy was pretty solid. But, he was only a villain for about 20 minutes. The story takes a 180 and introduces John Connor as the antagonist. It was a bizarre move, but definitely an interesting twist. Though, perhaps a little too much. Connor's role in the franchise has always been the resistance fighter, the person who leads humanity. To transform him into a Terminator, even if Skynet forcibly does it, destroys a fundamental part of the franchise. I can applaud them for taking a risk. Whether or not that risk was worth it is another story.

Later in the story Reece and Sarah travel to 2017. At this point the story takes a jab at how much we're invested in the internet. If computers become so advanced and we're willing to accept basically anything when it comes to being "plugged in," can we unknowingly let them take over? It's fascinating how the story manages to squeeze in this allegory amidst the chaos. The soundtrack is very strong, as expected from a Terminator film. The tension is given even greater depth in each of the fight scenes thanks to the themes.

Overall, Terminator: Genisys is definitely one of the more interesting films I've seen in awhile. It contains one of the most poorly written time travel plots out there in relation to previous events. The action is some of the best however, so at the very least one wouldn't be bored while watching. (Which is the biggest crime a film can commit.) While very poorly explained, Director Alan Taylor knows how to deliver a story that doesn't lose its momentum. Plus, Arnold delievers another stellar performance as T-800.

3.5/5

Saturday, January 9, 2016

INSIDE OUT Review


There's never been a movie quite like INSIDE OUT. Pixar has a solid reputation of outdoing themselves. They're responsible for some of the finest movies in animation. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Toy Story 3 are just a few examples from the company's portfolio. There have been some misses (Brave) but every studio has a couple of hiccups along the way. Inside Out joins the greats. There may have been movies before targeting the human mind, but none as engaging, funny, and emotional as this one. Most of Pixar's films find a ground which is for kids and adults alike. As someone 20 years of age, I can say I have never been more engaged by a film from Pixar just with reflecting on how well-done the overall concept is executed.
  
Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is a happy, hockey-loving 11-year-old Midwestern girl, but her world turns upside-down when she and her parents move to San Francisco. Riley's emotions -- led by Joy (Amy Poehler) -- try to guide her through this difficult, life-changing event. However, the stress of the move brings Sadness (Phyllis Smith) to the forefront. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently swept into the far reaches of Riley's mind, the only emotions left in Headquarters are Anger, Fear and Disgust.
The story poses a question at the beginning, "Do you ever look at someone and wonder what's going on inside their head?" Putting it bluntly, the film is basically about emotions in a kid. That sounds like a complicated subject on paper. The story however establishes it well, and swiftly. We're treated to truly excellent animation from the start (some of the best from Pixar yet) and from that intro with Riley as a baby the narration carries it onto the title screen. Riley is definitely a good character, representing the archetype kid at this stage. What's interesting to think about is that the story takes place in the real world. Yes, her mind is filled with fantastical things, but it's meant to exemplify her thoughts and emotions.



We have Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness. First, I want to say I'm glad they went with the term "joy" over "happy." To have have inner joy is more substantial than being happy. Since we're on the subject, Joy is definitely one of the greatest characters Pixar has envisioned. While the writing for her is fantastic, a huge amount of credit goes to Amy Poehler for a stellar voice portrayal. These emotions imagined as characters are really interesting to watch. With different life events, it can be hard containing joy. Moving for a young kid for example, going to a new school, and things related can affect how they feel greatly. Watching the emotions go back and fourth in Riley's head was interesting because it's an analogy for how people do things in real life. Riley is generally a happy person, so Joy reigns supreme. So when gloomy events happen, Sadness for example starts affecting the thought process. The story expertly portrays sadness as reluctant, but it can be such a strong emotion we sometimes let it take away joy, as in the case with Riley in the classroom scene. She tries to be joyful, but recalling certain events from her move makes Sadness come out.

Running away is a tough subject for parents, and it was interesting how the story tackled that here. Sometimes a person just doesn't "feel anything." We let our joy get buried beneath because we're so consumed with emptiness and "how wrong things look." We let our emotions anger, fear, and disgust run wild, and do something we normally wouldn't, and shouldn't. But at the last moment as Riley gets on the bus to complete the running away process, her emotions start to re-think. And what's fascinating about these few scenes is that it's not Joy who saves the day: it's Sadness. The story makes a bold move in portraying sadness here. Sadness is generally not an emotion we like, but it can be necessary. Without sadness, we can't allow others to comfort us, case in point with Riley's flashback memory to her hockey game. Without her showing sadness her parents wouldn't have known to comfort her then. How Sadness plays out with the other emotions is a really neat thing the film tells us to think about.

The film besides going through the different emotions is also a story about memories. One of the funniest things is toward the middle act as two characters in Riley's mind go through "cleaning out memories." For example, they contemplate whether leaving in the names of the presidents is a good idea. They decide something along the lines of, "George Washington and Abraham Lincoln should just be left in." This is beyond hilarious because just think for a moment: do you know the numbered presidents besides George Washington and Abraham Lincoln? Almost everyone learns about the presidents but most of us only retain those two core president numbers, and we forget the others because having the complete knowledge isn't important to us. It's the same thing with them erasing a few years of piano practice back when Riley was younger. She no longer has a passion for that, so why would she keep in-depth memories of it? They would disappear as the years go on. (I took piano when I was younger, and because that's something I never pursued afterward memories of it has faded.) And then this idea of a pit where memories go and are forgotten: we don't think about them anymore. The film brings in an imaginary friend, who ends up having one of the most emotional scenes in the film as we see him being forgotten.
Joy reminds me of another character whom is always smiling...

Overall, Inside Out is one of the smartest films I've ever seen. It amazingly portrays the human mind of a kid, as she goes through different emotions of a life-changing event. Not only that, but we're treated to brief scenes of other human minds, such as her parents'. The family interactions are great, and there really aren't any notable negatives to mention. (The mom holding on to the memory of an old boyfriend is unnecessary though.) Riley isn't some fantastical character; she's just a normal kid. And that's why this film is so engaging. It never dips out if its realistic atmosphere. Joy is always fun to watch, and the way the emotions interact with each other was fascinating. There's a lot that can be done in sequels if the company decided to continue. For now, what we have is a fantastic one-shot and well deserves the award for best animated feature of 2015.

5/5

Friday, January 1, 2016

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS Review


There are films every now and then that are simply more than "just going to the theater" for. One just goes to the theater to watch Alvin and the Chipmunks for example. Some films however are an event. These are the movies everyone is talking about. When you're sitting down at a pizzeria you'll hear across from the table in front of you about them in conversations. Examples include The Avengers, Godzilla, and The Dark Knight. If the box office numbers are any indication, then the subject film for today is an even bigger event than the aforementioned. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS has been a primary topic in many fan circles for a few years now. When Disney announced they had acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, hype became real as the countdown to Episode VII began. In perspective, there hasn't been a major Star Wars production since 2005's Revenge of the Sith. (There was also the Clone Wars animated film in 2008, but that was just a launch pad for the the cartoon.) The stories have continued in comics & video games, but to the general public the saga ended in 1983's Return of the Jedi with the death of Darth Vader and the fall of the Empire. The Force Awakens is the first thing to officially continue the story. It's an interesting venture as it brings back old faces and introduces new ones. It tries to find ground between being a tribute to the old films while having a new story. J.J. Abrams delivers a film keeping the original spirit of the series. It's a flawed experience, but sill enjoyable.

 Thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, the galaxy faces a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order. When a defector named Finn crash-lands on a desert planet, he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough scavenger whose droid contains a top-secret map. Together, the young duo joins forces with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to make sure the Resistance receives the intelligence concerning the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last of the Jedi Knights.
It's obvious from the start that the film is basically aiming to be the new A New Hope. The opening sequence is reminiscent of Darth Vader's invasion of Leia's ship in that very first film. While it's definitely interesting to see the idea of A New Hope being revisited, this can be the story's undoing sometimes. Sometimes it feels like more of a retread of the film rather than a tribute. When Kylo Ren first walks off his ship for example it's hard not to think of him as a second rate Vader. As the story goes on Ren manages to escape being thought of like that and becomes probably the best character of the whole thing. We'll go into more detail soon, but let's spend some time on the other characters.


Rey is a likable main character throughout. What's confusing is who exactly she is. The story hints that she could be Luke's daughter, but this isn't made evident. That's why the very last scene isn't as effective as it could have been since there isn't a definitive connection made between the two. Rey in the final act utilizing the force effectively came very sudden. Luke had two films to master it, so it came naturally there. But by the end of this film Rey is more than a match for Ren, who supposedly had been in training for sometime. Despite these things, Rey is still one of the highlights in the cast. Finn is the other main character, and provides most of the comic relief. While I did enjoy this story arc of a Stormtrooper betraying the Sith (or in this case The First Order) Finn is just over the top sometimes. For example in the later part of the movie when Han Solo motions to him to look behind, how did he not know what Solo meant? It might have been funny in the moment, but in retrospect it just didn't make sense. The final scene with him is also very unclear, especially with Rey's line.

A rather major negative is the character of Captain Phasma. There's nothing wrong with her specifically, it's what the film does with her. For awhile marketing hyped her up as an important, powerful character. Rightfully so, because we've never seen a female imperial commander before in Star Wars. Combine that with the awesome armor and we have what could be a highlight, much like Boba Fett of the original movies. That isn't the case here. In her brief scenes she does nothing of importance. Her final scene involves her being thrown in the trash. Literally. What we have is the definition of a wasted character. I don't think anyone would have minded if they had cut down on Finn in favor of more Phasma. Hopefully in the next Episode she's given more to do. (Though it's hard to be respected by the audience after being thrown in the garbage!)

What I find most amazing about the return of Han Solo and Chewbacca is how similar they are from the original trilogy. One can watch Episode's IV, V, VI, and then VII back-to-back and he/she wouldn't see any kind of change. Keep in mind that Harrison Ford's last film was way back in Return of the Jedi, so it's uncanny how he's able to bring back that character so effectively after all these years. Seeing the duo and C-3PO later in the story was like seeing old friends. Princess General Leia was very good, though has a minimal role. This is expected since the story isn't about the Resistance at first. The plot at its core is about finding Luke Skywalker. The reason given to why he's left is pretty poor, so hopefully that gets expanded on in the sequel. Because of his leaving things have gone to heck, so hopefully he feels some kind of guilt for making such a terrible decision.


Alright, now for Kylo Ren. This guy has the menacing look and persona. He was a blast to watch whenever he was on screen, much like how Darth Vader was in the original films. (One of the reasons why the prequels were boring in comparison is because they didn't have that ongoing engaging character.) As stated earlier, the character manages to escape being a second rate Vader. His conflicted arc is very interesting. The scene where he's talking to Vader's destroyed helmet and his line "I will finish what you started" was a powerful moment, arguably one of the most powerful of the entire film. I think one of the most interesting aspects of the story is that part of Ren's arc is a reverse version of the ongoing father son conflict of Vader and Luke in Episodes V and VI. It's really intriguing how the story went with this in the climax. Adam Driver did a solid job delivering the human aspect when the mask was off. Though, the people I was watching the film with made an interesting observation: he looks nothing like his father or mother. It seemed to me the story was aiming for a resemblance to the young Anakin Skywalker, but in doing so destroys the realism of him being the son of Solo and Leia.

Snoke is the same thing as Emperor Palpatine, just 10x more generic. There's literally nothing interesting about him at all, so hopefully this is rectified in the sequel. The climax on the bridge was excellent, and contains a very unexpected ending in retrospect. Hopefully the final film in the storyline doesn't go ahead and copy Return of the Jedi's ending and have Kylo turn good. The thing is that it's mentioned by one of the characters here that "there's still good in him," which is a reference to Luke telling his father that same line in Return. The thing is that here with the climax there actually is seemingly no more good left in him, which again is an interesting reverse version of the family conflict in the original trilogy. So to have him redeemed by the end would be almost a carbon copy of Vader's arc in that film. The soundtrack is fantastic, containing many of the old themes while featuring new ones which fit right into Star Wars. (Which is fitting, since John Williams came back to do the score here!)

Overall, The Force Awakens is a worthy continuation in the beloved sci-fi series. Right from the iconic "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far way..." to the classic title screen music you can feel yourself filled with great anticipation. It's a quality adventure with fun characters for the most part. You feel invested in the conflict with this classic good vs. evil story. While perhaps taking too much from A New Hope (even copying the famous destruction of the Death Star idea) it's great to see the old characters brought back. Kylo Ren is an excellent antagonist whom I look forward to seeing more of in the sequel. Unlike A New Hope, this film leaves many plot lines open which as a whole might make the film feel incomplete, but as part of the larger story it's fine. It's definitely good to have Star Wars back in the spotlight.

4/5