For the past eight years, Blue Sky Studios co-founder Chris Wedge has been working on bringing the studio's latest film, "Epic", to the big screen. He got back in the director's chair for this story of a teenager who finds herself in the middle of a battle of good vs. evil among minature creatures deep in the forest. In this LCJ Podcast Interview with Chris Wedge, he tells me that his goal with "Epic" was to make a big action movie that felt more like a feature film than a cartoon. He also talks about Blue Sky's upcoming "Peanuts" and his thoughts on casting voice actors. And you'll learn one amazing thing that this Oscar-winning filmmaker and I have in common.
How do you craft a truly exciting and emotional action movie? After seeing "Star Trek Into Darkness" I have the answer to my own question: You simply following the example of director J.J. Abrams. His 2009, "Star Trek", a resurrection of the classic TV series, was a wild ride and a whole lot of fun. This sequel is a near-masterpiece.
Abrams wastes no time getting us hooked. The movie begins with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) running from weird-looking inhabitants of a distant planet while Spock (Zachary Quinto) is attempting to stop a volcano from erupting and destroying their world. There's more pure energy in this opening scene than most recent sci-fi films provide in two-hours.
Decisions are made by both Kirk and Spock that lead to Kirk losing command of the USS Enterprise and Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) taking back control of the ship. But before that can happen Starfleet is attacked by one of their own members, a man named John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, best known as TV's "Sherlock"). And Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew are sent to hunt down Harrison and kill him. Obviously, there's a lot more that takes place in the set-up, but I'm not going to face the wrath of fans by revealing anything else. What I will say, and it's one of the many strengths of "Into Darkness", is the script is complicated enough to keep you thinking and guessing throughout and yet you have no problem following what's going on. Much like a well written TV series. Imagine that!
It's unfortunate that "Star Trek Into Darkness" is being overshadowed this movie season because it's sandwiched between "Iron Man 3" and "Man of Steel". In reality this is the definition of a true Summer blockbuster. It's just over two hours of non-stop action, drama, suspense and laughs. There's nothing more you could possibly want out of a popcorn movie.
The ensemble cast is excellent. Zoe Saldana returns with all the others from the original as Uthura, along with Karl Urban's Bones, "Harold & Kumar"'s Jon Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin's Checkov and British actor Simon Pegg, whose Scotty, once again provides some of the movie's lighter moments. Alice Eve ("Men in Black 3") and Peter Weller (the original RoboCop) have good supporting roles. And Abrams treats all of these iconic characters with both the respect that diehard "Star Trek" fans demand, but also gives the actors the freedom to make these characters their own. The romantic relationship between Spock and Uthura is a perfect example. At one point during "Into Darkness" I was thinking to myself: "I would watch stories involving these people every single week". I can clearly see how the Trekkie phenomenon began.
It seems odd that Abrams is now going to switch "Stars" and direct the next installments of "Star Wars" instead of sticking with this franchise that he's become such a master at steering. With "Into Darkness" he not only crafts great action sequences but is able to draw pure emotion out of every character and situation. There's a dramatic scene following the big opening sequence that catches you a bit off-guard and Abrams continues to weave serious themes throughout the film, which is also enhanced by effective quiet moments and a perfect score.
High grades go to the visuals and effects as well. On the negative side, occassionally things get a little wordy (including Spock's analogies and Bones' metaphors) and the final few minutes are basically thrown away, but considering everything that comes before I can forgive Abrams for that.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" is rated PG-13 for the sci-fi action/violence and some adult language. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. Fans of the TV show - Gotta see it. Fans of the first film - Gotta see it. And even if you've never been exposed to anything "Star Trek" before - I still say - Gotta see it. It's intense science fiction with both humor and heart.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Star Trek Into Darkness" gets an A-. It's my favorite film of 2013 so far.
Director Baz Luhrmann's films always seem to generate wildly mixed reactions, from his 1996 version of "Romeo + Juliet" to Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman's romantic drama "Australia". And who can forget the Oscar winning "Moulin Rouge!" Luhrmann's latest, his take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, The Great Gatsby, was supposed to be released last Christmastime as a primary Oscar contender. How would awards season been different if "Gatsby" had been in the mix against "Argo", "Lincoln", "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Les Miserables"?
We'll never know. Instead, after a five-month delay due to weather issues in Australia, a 3D post-conversion and the addition of musical coordinator/producer Jay-Z, "The Great Gatsby" is finally in theaters. When I know a film based on a book is coming out I like to avoid reading the book so as not to interfere with my enjoyment of the movie. I was advised to read the first two chapters of The Great Gatsby, to get a feel for the setting and the tone of the story. But just from those 30 pages, it's clear to me that Luhrmann wanted to stay somewhat true to Fitzgerald's work.
If you're not familiar with "Gatsby" - maybe haven't read the book since high school - it's set at the height of the Roaring Twenties, on Long Island. In both the book and the movie the story is told by Nick Carraway. In the film, however, Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire) is telling his tale to a Doctor from inside the mental ward of a hospital and is actually writing the novel. This devise by Luhrmann will upset fans of the book and didn't seem necessary.
There are only a handful of characters you need to know about: Nick is Daisy's cousin. He's come to New York to work on Wall Street. Daisy Buchanan (played by Carey Mulligan), is a rich socialite who is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton), who's both wealthy and arrogant. He has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, who's married to George, who owns a drug store.
Oh, I'm leaving someone out: Yes old sport, it's Jay Gatsby. For awhile he's simply Nick's mysterious neighbor, who he hears rumors about but who no one ever sees, even during the wild parties he throws at his enormous mansion. But then we're introduced to Gatsby. Leonardo DiCaprio embodies the character as a man who has everything in life except the one thing he wants the most. Nick, the ultimate outsider, gets caught-up in a high-tempo, unraveling saga with Gatsby, the Buchanans, the Wilsons and a few others that plays-out like very much like a soap opera: filled with love, hate, betrayal, power and revenge.
There's no question that Luhrmann's direction, the visual effects and overall look of "The Great Gatsby" make this version of Fitzgerald's novel quite unique. Many who see "Gatsby" will embrace it - others will tear it apart, starting with the use of contemporary music that is far from what people were listening and dancing to in the 1920's (the music worked for me). Even though I stopped reading the book after Chapter 2, I know that Luhrmann does make some subtle, yet important changes to the story as well. That's not going to go over well with the purists.
The film starts very fast - going at such a wild pace that I almost couldn't keep up, and apparently neither could the editors. Several times (mostly in one scene where Gatsby's driving Nick in his spectacular yellow car) DiCaprio's mouth doesn't match up with what he's saying. That's just sloppy.
However, it's tough not to like this movie. The characters are well defined and the themes are timeless. And once Luhrmann allows the strength of Fitgerald's story - which is the characters and the themes - to take center stage, "Gatsby" takes-off, leading to a powerful second half and a memorable conclusion.
DiCaprio is excellent in a multi-layered performance as a man who's both "larger than life" and emotionally fragile. Edgerton has some strong moments and Mulligan is also good, especially in her scenes with DiCaprio. Maguire's Carraway is the perfect representation of how most of us would act if put in this situation. The supporting cast includes Isla Fisher as Myrtle and "Zero Dark Thirty"'s Jason Clarke as George. It's a fantastic ensemble.
"The Great Gatsby" is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, adult content, and language. It's appropriate for teens and up and is a must-see for students currently studying the novel, because it will generate a lot of classroom discussion. True fans of the book will likely hate it, but I've got to give Luhrmann credit for attempting to turn this complex and beloved American classic into a mainstream movie. It's not "Great", but it is quite good.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Great Gatsby" gets a B.
Last year "Marvel's The Avengers" kicked off the Summer Movie Season and ended-up becoming 2012's highest-grossing film, earning over $1.5 billion worldwide. This year "Iron Man 3" has the honor of launching the summer. And while it's not as much fun or exciting as that mega blockbuster, "Iron Man 3" is the most emotional and action-packed entry in the series.
This third Tony Stark saga has an interesting framework - Stark is actually telling the story to an unseen (until the end) person - and therefore to us. And things begin before Stark became Iron Man, in what is actually a prequel of the first film. It's New Year's Eve 1999, and Stark meets a botanist named Maya (played by Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich (Guy Pearce), a wacky scientist looking to get Stark and Maya to join him in his experimental work on regeneration. Tony snubs him and admits, in his narration, that he made an enemy that night.
Fast-forward to present day (and Christmastime for some odd reason) and Stark is doing what he loves best - building new Iron Man suits. He's now up to 42 of them! But he's not been the same since the chaotic battles in New York City that took place in "The Avengers". Girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) can tell that too. Tony can't sleep and is suffering from anxiety attacks. And there's a new evil force in the world who needs to be dealt with.
The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) has been terrorizing the world, with the United States (and the President) as his main target. So Iron Man and War Machine (now called Iron Patriot and once again played by Don Cheadle) are called into action, but saving the day this time will be tougher than ever.
It's also clearly becoming tough for the filmmakers at Marvel to keep this franchise fresh. "Iron Man 3" starts out pretty rough. The first half hour is rather corny and awkward, from the brief backstory to the misadventures of Tony's former bodyguard turned Stark Enterprises Head of Security, Happy Hogan (reprised by Jon Favreau). And one of the stronger elements of the first two "Iron Man" films - the light comedy - is a weakness this time. There's only a few funny lines, but Stan Lee's cameo, and one by Joan Rivers did get a chuckle out of me.
Favreau, who directed the first two "Iron Man" films, decided to turn the reigns over to Shane Black, best known for working with Downey, Jr. on 2005's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang". Black delivers a film that looks amazing, with fast-paced, well-staged, well-shot and perfectly edited action scenes.
"Iron Man 3" is probably the most serious of the franchise. The Mandarin - an Osama bin Ladin look-a-like - makes for an effective villain. Many of his scenes are pretty intense. And there are a couple of effective, dramatic moments in the script. A subplot involving Tony's relationship with a young boy thankfully isn't too preachy. And there's a nice plot-development twist about halfway through that works - as long as no one tells you about it before you see the film.
As for the cast: Downey, Jr. can do no wrong in this role. He IS Iron Man. Paltrow shows that not only is she "the most beautiful woman in the world" (according to People magazine), but that she can handle an action scene or two. And Pearce and Kingsley are solid in their bad guy roles.
"Iron Man 3" is rated PG-13 for all the action/violence. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. It's not my favorite "Iron Man", but it certainly doesn't disappoint. And it does leave you laughing. Be sure, as I always remind you, to stay until the end of the credits for what is the funniest scene of the film.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Iron Man 3" gets a B-. The next scheduled time we'll see Tony Stark is in "The Avengers 2" in 2015. The next Avenger movie will be "Thor: The Dark World" this November.
While I wasn't a huge fan of director Terrence Malick's 2011 Best Picture Oscar nominee, "The Tree of Life", the trailer made for Malick's latest film, "To the Wonder", is fantastic. In fact, it's one of the best trailers I've seen in a long time and it gave me hope that "To the Wonder" would be a more grounded and relatable film than the somewhat disjointed "Life".
I'll begin with the obvious: there's no mistaking that "To the Wonder" is a Malick creation. It has his distinct look, feel and tone. The movie is visually beautiful and the hand-held camera style works. There are wonderful shots of wheat fields, characters walking on the beach and even buffalo (thankfully no dinosaurs this time). And sometimes these images even have something to do with the story!
And that's the biggest problem with "To the Wonder". This tale of an American in France on business named Neil (Ben Affleck) who falls for a French woman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko - recently seen in "Oblivion") and brings her and her daughter back to live with him in a small, suffering town in Oklahoma lacks any of the dramatic tension that Malick provided with his family in "Tree of Life". One minute Neil and Marina are madly in love and the next they want to kill each other. And we never learn why. During one of their separations (there are many) Rachel McAdams pops-in for about 15 minutes as Neil's new love interest and then she completely disappears. Then we get more scenes of Neil and Marina's ups and downs.
At the same time there is a parallel story involving the town's parish priest, played by Javier Bardem. For me these are the strongest sections of the film. We get to see and hear his sadness, loneliness and frustration with trying to stay strong in God, while dealing with the day-to-day struggle to keep a true spiritual presence in his life. Unlike the other actors, Bardem is allowed to give a complete performance. As for Affleck, Kurylenko and McAdams - it's hard to qualify walking, dancing, holding each other, throwing things and not looking at each other while in the same shot - mostly in silence - as performances.
Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate Malick's directing and editing style. And the lack of dialogue is made-up by a beautiful score. In fact, while most people will complain that the characters in "To the Wonder" don't talk enough - either to each other or though narration - I wish there was even less. In particular Bardem's priest hits us over the head with his (Malick's?) thoughts on love, life and God in one long speech at the end of the film. It's as if Malick wasn't confident that we could get it on our own.
"To the Wonder" is one of those films where you watch things unfold, but none of what's happening on screen affects you either positively or negatively. No doubt Malick fans will love it, but many others will be left to wonder...what did I just watch? I kind of felt the same way about "The Tree of Life", but that film, at its core (not the Earth's core), had a stronger script and more effective performances. If you go to movies to be entertained, this is tough to recommend. If you like to be challenged by a film and don't mind walking out of the theater without all the answers, give it a try.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "To the Wonder" gets a C.
This was the final movie that my friend and famed critic Roger Ebert reviewed before passing away. His review, a wonderful read, not only shows the appreciation Roger had for Malick's work, including "To the Wonder" (which he gave three and a half stars), but his overall thoughts on storytelling through film. While not everyone agreed with his opinions, Roger always had something fascinating to say in his reviews and essays, that made us think about the cinema and life in ways we never had before. It's no "Wonder" why he'll always be considered the best there ever was.