TV review: ‘The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses’ a lavish BBC production of Shakespeare’s historical plays

cumberbatch3-large_transpvlberwd9egfpztclimqf98oamgzyx8vqbq2hlobtfcHBO’s “Game of Thrones” has won acclaim for its portrayal of a gritty, violent fantasy universe filled with warring families and political betrayal, where even main characters are not immune from a sudden, grisly death. However, England’s real-life history is actually just as shocking and violent, and the infamous Wars of the Roses more than match the level of betrayal and scandal found in “Game of Thrones.”

Shakespeare dramatized this bloody period in his plays “Henry VI” and “Richard III,” which were adapted by the BBC and released earlier this year as “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench, and a number of other prestigious actors. It’s shot as a film using actual sets such as castles and battlefields, rather than as a traditional stage play. It’s a lavish, well-acted dramatization that’s perfect for any fan of history, Shakespeare, or medieval period dramas like “Game of Thrones.”

Confession time: I haven’t always been a big Shakespeare fan. I had to read a couple of his plays in high school and didn’t enjoy them at the time. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate his works a lot more, and I’ve found watching Shakespeare instead of simply reading it takes it to a different level. Hearing the dialogue and seeing the actors’ expressions made the plays more understandable for me. A friend of mine recently loaned me “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses,” and it’s one of the best Shakespeare dramatizations I’ve seen. Even if you aren’t a hardcore Shakespeare fan, it’s still worth a watch.

The Wars of the Roses were actually a somewhat confusing period in England’s history, with a lot of political maneuvering and plotting. To simplify the plot, at the time of the plays there’s some debate about who should be the rightful king of England. Henry VI (be warned, there’s a lot of Henrys here) leads the house of Lancaster, and Richard (there’s a lot of Richards too) leads the house of York. Nobles express their loyalty to either side by wearing either a white rose (York) or red rose (Lancaster). This conflict leads to a devastating civil war, and there is conflict even amongst the allies in the two houses. Since people often switch sides, you’re never quite sure who to trust.

Benedict Cumberbatch leads the cast as Richard III, the son of Richard of York who initially allies with his brothers but later schemes against them to take the crown. He’s not really a good guy (as least according to this historical interpretation), but he’s fascinating to watch. Another favorite character was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, played by Hugh Bonneville (best known as Lord Grantham from “Downton Abbey”), one of the few characters who is actually trying to do the right thing. Seeing the plays made me want to read more about these historical figures, to see what actually happened versus what may have been embellished or altered for the plays. Supposedly there’s some debate about just how evil Richard III really was, and some scholars argue he has fallen victim to revisionist history.

I feel that Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar,” and his comedies, like “Much Ado About Nothing,” sometimes get more attention than his historical plays. The names don’t automatically sound super interesting to modern audiences: “Richard II,” “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” “Henry VI,” “Richard III” (I told you there were a lot of Henrys and Richards). However, the themes in these plays are still quite relevant. We still have politicians plotting and scheming and trying to gain more power, and we don’t always know which side is worthy of our trust (if either).

I learned “The Wars of the Roses” is actually the second part of the BBC’s “The Hollow Crown” series (though it can still stand on its own). I’m looking forward to checking out the previous plays, which star Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons.

‘Luke Cage’ the latest entry in Marvel and Netflix’s winning partnership

luke-cage-poster-featured-08102016No longer just a place to stream past TV shows and movies, Netflix has been producing some really great original content, proving it can compete with the major networks and cable stations. While shows like “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “Stranger Things” have been receiving good feedback from fans and critics, my personal favorite Netflix Originals have come from their partnership with Marvel. With the latest Marvel/Netflix show, “Luke Cage,” premiering later this month, I thought this might be a good time to take a look at some of the past and upcoming Marvel/Netflix shows.

Daredevil (2015)

My husband isn’t a big fan of TV shows in general, so I’m always excited when I can persuade him to watch something with me.😉 We started watching “Daredevil” together last spring and were both blown away by how good this show is. It follows a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) who moonlights as a masked vigilante named Daredevil. Since the show isn’t bound by the restrictions of network TV, the show runners aren’t afraid to push the plot to some pretty dark and gritty places. A couple times I actually had to glance away from the screen because the violence was so intense. As good as Cox is as Daredevil, some of the spotlight is stolen by Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin, one of the best portrayals of a villain that I’ve ever seen in a Marvel property. Kingpin is a bad, violent man, but he is not a two-dimensional villain. His tender, poetic romance with an art enthusiast provides a sharp contrast to his life as a crime lord. This show was a fantastic start to the Marvel/Netflix partnership.

Jessica Jones (2015)

Although the first season of “Daredevil” is probably the best Marvel/Netflix production so far, I thought “Jessica Jones” was also very good. Krysten Ritter stars as Jessica Jones, a private investigator with an alcohol problem and a damaged past that still haunts her. David Tennant (who played the tenth Doctor on “Doctor Who”) plays Kilgrave, perhaps the creepiest villain I’ve ever seen. He uses mind control to manipulate people into doing whatever he wants, and it’s usually something terrible. It was a way darker performance than I was used to seeing from Tennant, and I have to admit my cardboard stand-up poster of the tenth Doctor in my basement now freaks me out a little if I go downstairs alone at night. I also appreciated how the story brought awareness to the reality of domestic abuse. While an abuser can appear charming (like Kilgrave does at times), it’s really all part of the manipulation. Also, emotional and verbal abuse — and the insistence on control — are just as terrible as physical abuse.

Daredevil – Season 2 (2016)

The first season of “Daredevil” was simply amazing and set an impossibly high standard, so it’s perhaps inevitable the second season couldn’t quite match it. It has more obvious weaknesses, though the parts that are good are still really good. This season finds Daredevil grappling with two different maybe-allies, maybe-enemies: the Punisher and Elektra. While Jon Bernthal was riveting as the violent vigilante who lives by his own code, I didn’t think the character Elektra worked quite as well here. Her character ended up being a little distracting, and her story arc just wasn’t as strong as the Punisher’s. Maybe they should have saved her for a different season. However, I’m excited to hear the Punisher is getting his own Netflix series. I like that the show runners just let Punisher revel in his moral gray area; we’re never quite sure if he’s a hero who has gone too far or a bad man who just happens to be fighting against people who are even worse. Regardless, he’s a fascinating character.

Luke Cage (Sept. 30, 2016)

The newest Marvel show premiering on Netflix is “Luke Cage.” We got to know the character a little bit through “Jessica Jones,” and I’m excited he’s now getting his own show. In terms of his powers, Luke Cage is pretty much indestructible, but like many of these heroes, he’s haunted by some of the ghosts from his past. A man of few words, he’s not really looking to be a public hero like one of the Avengers; he’s just a guy trying to protect his neighborhood. I think this character will also give show runners an opportunity to explore some timely issues, in the same way that “Jessica Jones” covered domestic abuse. I’d love to see Jessica Jones show up in a few episodes, since she and Luke Cage had such an interesting dynamic, but it will be nice to have this hero shine on his own.

Iron Fist and The Defenders (coming in 2017)

After the introduction of another hero — martial arts expert Iron Fist — Marvel and Netflix will launch their own version of the Avengers with “The Defenders,” which brings together Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron First. While I wish the show runners had held off a bit and given us second seasons for ALL the characters before launching a team-up, I’m really curious to see how these characters interact together, since they all have such different personalities and philosophies on vigilantism (I’m thinking Jessica Jones and Daredevil especially are going to clash).

So, what do you think? Which Marvel/Netflix show is your favorite, or which one are you most looking forward to?

Something’s rotten… Movies that were trashed on Rotten Tomatoes that I (secretly) love

movieI’ve found that if a movie is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (75 percent or higher), it’s generally pretty good. And conversely, if a movie is really rotten (like, below 30 percent), it’s generally pretty bad. However, there are some movies that I dearly love and even own that were absolutely trashed on Rotten Tomatoes. I actually blogged about some of these movies back in 2013, but I found there are plenty more where that came from. Not sure what that says about my taste in movies.😉 Here are some of my favorite “certified rotten” movies, and I’d also love to hear what movies you enjoyed that critics hated.

Austenland (2013) – 30 percent

After feeling burned out in her career, relationships, and life, rabid Jane Austen fan Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) books a vacation to Austenland, a decidedly quirky British retreat that allows guests to pretend to be an Austen-era heroine (of course, there are handsome Mr. Darcy-esque gentlemen to entertain them). While the fantasy is fun for a while, Jane catches herself actually starting to fall in love with one of the employees. As expected, dramatic plot twists ensue. This is a very funny though somewhat wacky film, and it’s probably not for everyone. However, as an avid Austen fan myself, I enjoyed how this film lovingly pokes fun at obsessed Austen fans while also ending on a sweet note, showing that happily ever afters don’t have to be just fantasy.

The Mummy (1999) – 56 percent

While this film just barely missed out on a fresh rating, I feel the Rotten Tomatoes summary actually captures it pretty well: “It’s difficult to make a persuasive argument for ‘The Mummy’ as any kind of meaningful cinematic achievement, but it’s undeniably fun to watch.” Starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, this is a fun (and funny) sort-of remake of a classic 1930s horror film. Though they absolutely should have known better, a band of adventurers decide to investigate an Egyptian burial site and accidentally awaken an ancient, undead priest (oops). This movie may not have been groundbreaking, but it’s an entertaining, swashbuckling adventure.

Cuban Fury (2014) – 51 percent

Again, this one isn’t going to be classified as a “cinematic achievement,” but I found it to be an entertaining comedy that at least tries to veer off the beaten path of standard Hollywood romcoms. Simon Pegg’s frequent partner in crime Nick Frost plays a man whose days as a salsa dancing competitor are far behind him, and he’s grown apathetic towards life. Then, a possible romance inspires him to start dancing again and face his rival (played by Chris O’Dowd of “The IT Crowd” fame). Although Rotten Tomatoes says this film is “far too short on laughs,” I personally thought it was very funny and charming. I do love Pegg and Frost together, but this time it was nice to see just Frost, who can definitely carry a film on his own.

Horrible Bosses 2 (2014) – 34 percent

Apparently it’s just me, but I thought the lower-rated “Horrible Bosses 2” was actually even funnier than its predecessor. Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, and Jason Bateman return as dimwitted would-be entrepreneurs who decide to get back at the man who crossed them by kidnapping his son (played by Chris Pine). Of course, things do not go as planned, and the friends just create more trouble. The sometimes-underrated Chris Pine shows in this film that he has a knack for comedy, and I was glad to see Jamie Foxx reprise his role as a wacky criminal consultant named…well, just watch the movie.😉 Although Rotten Tomatoes claims this sequel “fails to justify its own existence,” I actually laughed really hard throughout the movie, and I’ve seem it twice. So at least I enjoyed it!

The Three Musketeers (1993) – 31 percent

A lot of what I said about “The Mummy” applies here too. This movie may not make the “best films of all time” list, but it is a fun, swashbuckling action/adventure. Tim Curry has a blast chewing the scenery as the evil Cardinal Richelieu trying to disband the famous French Musketeers, while Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt, Charlie Sheen, and Chris O’Donnell play the Musketeers trying to stop him. I always love a good period piece — and a good old-fashioned swordfight!

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) – 17 percent

At less than 20 percent, this movie wins the dubious honor of “most rotten” entry on this list.😉 Critics weren’t kind to it, calling it a “great premise ruined by poor execution.” Although it has been a few years since I watched this (so maybe my opinion would be a little different now), I have seen it several times and it is a part of my DVD collection. The movie is steampunk adventure set in the early 1900s that rounds up famous literary characters like Dorian Gray, Captain Nemo, and Tom Sawyer to help save the world. It’s based on a comic book series by Alan Moore, which I haven’t read, so perhaps for those who have read the comics, this film is ultimately disappointing. However, I found the film to be intriguing and entertaining, even though it was a box office flop.

Armageddon (1998) – 39 percent

I actually covered this movie in my previous post but I couldn’t resist mentioning it again since it’s probably my favorite “rotten” rated movie. We can all just agree the premise is impossibly far-fetched: a bunch of oil drillers are turned into astronauts and sent into space to destroy an asteroid before it can destroy the Earth. But hey, it’s Hollywood, and I think this movie is the perfect popcorn flick. There are quite a few famous faces in this one — Liv Tyler, Owen Wilson, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi (who elevates comic craziness to an art form) — and, of course, the one and only Bruce Willis. I can’t help myself; I love this movie.

Wizards, westerns, and the return of an iconic Star Wars weapon (hint: it’s the Death Star!): Fall/winter 2016 movie preview

AN1-148562r_0If you found the summer blockbuster season to be a little lackluster this year, never fear! Hollywood’s line-up of fall/winter movies is almost here, and it’s packed full of must-see movies and some potential breakout hits. Although it was tough to narrow down the list, here are the seven movies I’m most looking forward to later this year.

The Magnificent Seven (Sept. 23)

And speaking of the number seven… While I wish Hollywood would stop trying to remake so many classic films, “The Magnificent Seven” is on my radar for two reasons: one, the classic film is actually already a remake (it was inspired by the Japanese film “Seven Samurai”), and two, it stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. So if the reviews are good, I’m planning to give this one a shot. Washington and Pratt are part of a team of ragtag heroes protecting a Western outpost (Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen starred in the 1960 version). I think it’s interesting to retell Western stories through a modern lens, so hopefully the film makers can bring something new to the story.

Doctor Strange (Nov. 4)

I’ve been joking with my friends that this is the movie I’ve been waiting forever for: Benedict Cumberbatch starring in a Marvel Cinematic Universe film.😉 While I don’t know a lot about the original comic book character, I’m excited this movie is going to start working some mystical elements into the MCU. The previews have been amazing so far, and I love the “Inception”-style cinematography. While some have said this looks a little too much like a Marvel retelling of “Inception,” Marvel rarely gives away the best material in the trailers and I think they’re only giving us a taste of what this film will offer. I’m hoping this movie will be mysterious, magical, and game-changing. Plus, Sherlock in a Marvel movie!

Arrival (Nov. 11)

Although I haven’t heard a lot of buzz about this one yet, I’m always excited to see new science fiction projects. This one appears to offer a new spin on the “first contact” concept — Amy Adams plays a linguist who is recruited by the government to attempt to communicate with recently landed aliens from space. The trailer looks dark and mysterious, and it could be a sci-fi breakout hit like 2013’s “Gravity.”

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Nov. 18)

This year, viewers will return to the magical wizarding world of Harry Potter — well, sort of. Although this movie is set in the same universe as J.K. Rowling’s famous Harry Potter series, the story takes place in 1920s America, rather than the modern-day United Kingdom. Eddie Redmayne plays a British magizoologist named Newt Scamander who accidentally unleashes several magical creatures in New York City. However, knowing J.K. Rowling’s other works, I’m also certain there’s more to the plot than just magical creatures on the loose; larger, darker forces are probably at work behind the scenes. While I’m really excited for this one, I’m curious to see how audiences will respond to a Harry Potter universe story without Harry Potter. Hopefully this spin-off series will feel just as magical and inventive as the original.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dec. 16)

I’m sure no one is surprised to see this one end up on my list.😉 Star Wars is my all-time favorite franchise, and I’m excited to see them branching off into spin-off stories that don’t necessarily involve the Skywalkers (though I do love some Skywalker family drama!). We don’t know a lot about the plot of this movie beyond that it involves a team of Rebels trying to steal the plans for the Death Star, but I’m happy about that. Just like with “The Force Awakens,” I want to go in and be surprised. I’m really excited to see that battle on the beach involving AT-ATs, and I’m even more excited to see my all-time favorite Star Wars character — Darth Vader! — make an appearance.

Passengers (Dec. 21)

It’s a busy fall/winter for Chris Pratt, who also stars in this upcoming sci-fi thriller. Even better, it also stars Jennifer Lawrence. They play two passengers in stasis on a luxury interstellar spaceship bound for a colony 120 years away. Except, for some reason they are woken up too early and end up uncovering some dangerous information about the ship. Although I love sci-fi franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, it’s exciting to see original sci-fi films like this and “Arrival.” Hopefully both of these films will offer great visuals AND thought-provoking stories.

Assassin’s Creed (Dec. 21)

Historically, video game based movies have been a rather mixed bag (actually, most of them seem to be “not great”). I’ll be waiting to hear what the reviews are for this one, but Michael Fassbender is one of my favorite actors and hopefully they’ll give him some interesting material to work with here. The premise is good: Fassbender plays a historical assassin from 15th century Spain…and this assassin’s modern-day relative. I’m hoping this will be an intriguing, time-jumping story; maybe Fassbender can help break the video game flop trend.

So, what films are you most looking forward to this fall and winter?

Movie review: ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ a beautifully animated, charming film for all ages

kubo-and-monkeyMid to late August is sometimes seen as a dumping ground for movies Hollywood doesn’t have a lot of confidence in. Either the quality is mediocre or the studio fears it will become a flop. These movies just can’t compete with the big-ticket summer blockbusters. However, every once in a while you’ll find a hidden, late-summer gem, and one of those movies is “Kubo and the Two Strings,” out in theaters this past weekend. Although “Kubo” debuted at the box office in fourth place with just $12.6 million, this imaginative, beautifully-animated film is worth seeking out.

Currently sitting at 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a product of animation studio Laika Entertainment, which also created “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” The studio is known for its stop motion computer animated visuals. Kubo follows a young boy with a magical Japanese instrument called a “shamisen” who lives with his mother in a cave on the outskirts of a small village. Every day Kubo travels to the village to earn money by telling stories, using his magical instrument to bring origami creations to life. His mother has warned Kubo not to venture outside after dark, because his evil aunts and grandfather, the Moon King, will come for him.

Although Kubo doesn’t mean to be intentionally disobedient, one night he stays out in the village just a little too late, and something terrible happens. He is then sent on a quest to find his father’s armor, which will protect him from evil. He meets some new friends along the way — a talking monkey and a warrior who has been transformed into a half-beetle, half-Samurai — and learns he has the strength to be a hero just like his parents, even though they are no longer with him.

I’ll admit the premise sounds a bit strange, as does the film’s title, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” But the story is actually very intriguing and heartfelt, and after watching the film, the title seems perfect (I don’t want to explain any more, though, because I don’t want to spoil the film’s ending, or reveal what the “two strings” are and why they’re important). The film blends elements of mysticism and Japanese culture with the timeless themes of family and love.

And of course, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. Kubo’s quest takes him to a snowy wasteland, the strange, underwater “Garden of Eyes,” a magical cave, and more, and all are beautifully animated with lots of attention to detail. Some of my favorite parts are when Kubo is using music and storytelling to bring his origami to life in bright bursts of color.

While the film is family-friendly, it isn’t just for kids, and adults will find plenty to keep them engaged. It’s a refreshingly simple and self-contained story (no pop culture in-jokes or frenetic animation with too many things going on at once). Also, be warned—the film’s ending is rather bittersweet, and you might see a few misty eyes in the theater.

In short, “Kubo” probably won’t make a big splash at the box office this summer, but if you have a chance to see it, it’s well worth a watch. It’s an enchanting little film about the power of love, family, and yes, origami.

Blockbusters, bad buzz, and box office bombs: Summer 2016 in review

captain_america__civil_war___international_banner_by_ratohnhaketon645-d9yyuugWell, that was…interesting. I was trying to come up with a sentence to summarize my thoughts on the 2016 summer blockbuster season, and that’s what I ended up with. As a whole, this summer seemed to have a larger number of misfires than normal, and quite a few major releases that either failed to perform at the box office or live up to audience expectations.

Of course, “Captain America: Civil War” did get things off to a strong start, with an impressive $179 million opening weekend and a 90 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. It’s currently tied for my favorite movie of the summer. However, from there things got rockier, and quite a few sequels, reboots, and remakes under-performed. “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Now You See Me 2,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” seemed to come and go without a lot of fanfare. The video game adaptation “Warcraft” also failed to do much at the U.S. box office, though it picked up some steam overseas.

So, what happened? Although it could have something do with audiences simply getting tired of “more of the same,” that isn’t all of it, since two sequels, “Captain America: Civil War” and “Finding Dory,” performed very well. Perhaps the other films simply didn’t bring enough new material to their franchises or fully play up the nostalgia factor, like “Jurassic World” did last summer. Maybe the window of opportunity for films like the “Independence Day” sequel had already passed.

We also saw that bad buzz — or even simply minimal buzz — can hurt a film. I’ve always wondered what kind of power Rotten Tomatoes scores have on the average movie viewer (all the under-performers listed above did have negative Rotten Tomatoes scores). Maybe audience members don’t necessarily pay attention to those scores, but if a film isn’t getting a lot of good buzz, people might just elect to stay home. Online streaming services like Netflix are giving consumers access to more and more content, including older movies and TV shows and fresh, original content. If there’s nothing amazing in the theater, they can just stay home and easily find something to watch online. Besides, the cost of a month’s subscription to Netflix and a bowl of popcorn at home is far less expensive than the cost of taking a family to the theater every weekend, with tickets + concessions.

I think poor buzz contributed to the under-performance of “Ghostbusters” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” which is a shame because I quite liked both of these films. Granted, “Apocalypse” might have been a little too hard to follow for viewers who weren’t super-fans of the film series (the film has lots of references to what’s happened before). But the film has some fun scenes and great performances, once again, from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as prequel-era Professor X and Magneto. “Ghostbusters” actually drew a lot of anger from some fans, and I believe it’s unlikely we’ll get a sequel. While of course it’s okay to be concerned about a reboot or to ultimately dislike it, the online chatter about this film turned rather nasty and sadly veered in a racist and sexist direction.😦

Speaking of negative online chatter, Warner Bros.’ hotly-anticipated super villain round-up “Suicide Squad” created quite a stir when it drew really, really bad reviews. Some fans even called for Rotten Tomatoes to be shut down and complained that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were too good and should never have been made because they set an unrealistic standard for DC Comics movies (yes, I really saw someone arguing that). “Suicide Squad” isn’t a terrible film, but it is fair to say it wasn’t as good as it could have been. Although it boasted a $133 million opening weekend, I think its drop-off will be steep. At this point, Warner Bros. really needs the Wonder Woman movie to be a critical AND commercial hit, or their films post “Justice League” may be dead in the water.

Finally, a film that was close to my heart was “Star Trek: Beyond.” This movie really felt like a love letter to the Original Series and showed off the great chemistry among this reboot cast. Unfortunately, it under-performed at the box office too, and now I’m afraid Paramount won’t go ahead with that fourth movie they announced. This was a great movie, and I really hope we get to see more from this cast.

In conclusion, overall I was a little disappointed in this summer blockbuster season, and right now “Star Trek: Beyond” and “Captain America: Civil War” are the only movies with guaranteed slots on my “best of the year” list (in fact, they’re the only movies to make that list so far this year). However, the fall and winter season should chase some of these summer blahs away. “Doctor Strange,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and “Rogue One” all look fantastic.

So, what did you think of the movies this summer? What films did you like or dislike?

Movie review: ‘Suicide Squad’ has entertaining moments, but doesn’t live up to its full potential

squadAlthough “Captain America: Civil War” and “Star Trek: Beyond” were always the films I was most looking forward to this summer, “Suicide Squad” was my dark horse pick for biggest surprise hit. It had a “Guardians of the Galaxy” vibe: it looked risky, funny, and creative — and in this case, also really, really dark. It may be in the superhero genre, but these characters definitely aren’t “heroes.” “Suicide Squad” promised a round-up of notorious DC Comics villains who are recruited, against their will, to team up and try to save the world without killing each other first (and you thought the Avengers had problems).

The trailers for this film were fantastic, so it came as a great surprise when the reviews started rolling in and they were…terrible. With a painful Rotten Tomatoes score of only 26 percent, critics called the film disappointing, muddled, and choppy. Certainly not the result fans were hoping for. However, I had been really looking forward to this movie, so I went to see it over the weekend anyway. Bottom line? “Suicide Squad” is probably taking more flak than it deserves, and it is by no means a terrible movie. I liked the characters, and I found the film to be entertaining. However, it’s also fair to say that “Suicide Squad” falls far short of its potential. Ultimately, I walked out of the theater feeling a little disappointed, because the film actually had all the ingredients it needed to be great. These ingredients just didn’t gel like they could have — and should have.

A quick summary of the plot: U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) fears for the future of humanity after the rise of powerful beings like Superman who can’t be contained by ordinary force. So, she puts together a team of violent, barely controlled metahumans and bad guys to combat these new threats as they arrive. Because the members of this “suicide squad” can’t be counted on to participate based on a mere sense of altruism, Waller implants them with tiny bombs that will explode if they refuse to cooperate. Although they don’t exactly convert to the light side by the end of the film, they do find a dysfunctional sense of family and acceptance they probably never experienced before.

My favorite part of the film was learning about the characters that make up the Suicide Squad, and I appreciated the film’s effort to humanize these characters while also acknowledging their very serious flaws. Margot Robbie and Will Smith do a lot of the heavy lifting as the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn and eagle-eye hitman Deadshot, respectively. Deadshot is actually the least “bad” member of this team of villains; his love for his young daughter pulls him towards the light. As Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie is gleefully unhinged; her character is fascinating, heartbreaking, and completely crazy. Her relationship with the Joker is about as unhealthy and damaging as a relationship can be, but he’s twisted her mind too much for her to see that anymore. I think my favorite character, though, was actually El Diablo, played by Jay Hernandez. He’s a former gang member who can conjure fire but refuses to use his power because of the damage it can cause. He’s plagued by guilt and grief for his mistakes in the past, and it’s a surprisingly heartfelt performance.

I’ve heard mixed reactions to Jared Leto’s much-hyped take on the Joker, but I actually really liked it. Heath Ledger from the Dark Knight trilogy is definitely a tough act to follow, but I thought Leto brought something new to the role. His take on the character is the Joker we needed for this film (I can’t really see Ledger’s version romancing Harley Quinn).

The cast and characters are great, and the concept for the film is great — so, what caused this film to stumble? I’ve heard rumors the script was rushed so the project could start on time, and that theory makes a lot of sense as you actually watch the film. It suffers from some of the same problems as “Batman v. Superman” earlier this year; the whole film does seem a bit choppy and muddled, as if it needed more time to truly coalesce (and some better editing). I liked the film’s method of introducing the characters — Amanda Waller whips out a binder and gives you a quick rundown on each team member. However, several characters just seemed awkwardly tacked on (I’m looking at you Katana and Slipknot). I understand that they needed at least one “expendable crewman” to demonstrate that yes, Waller really is sadistic enough to kill a team member who gets out of line. But I feel that ultimately, some of those introductions could have been handled more smoothly. I would have liked to see just a couple more scenes of the Suicide Squad members interacting together before Waller sends them out to face the “big bad”; maybe a training montage or even a mini trial mission would have helped. The film’s villain also feels underdeveloped, and her “evil plan” is oddly reminiscent of “Ghostbusters.”

In short, “Suicide Squad” is an entertaining film that falls short of greatness, which really is a shame because it could have been so much more. In the end, it almost feels a little too safe, which is strange for a film about a team of ragtag villains whose members include Harley Quinn, a man who can set himself on fire, and a mutant who looks like a crocodile. It’s possible the film was held back a little by its PG-13 rating, but I think they still could have done more within these constraints to make this darker, edgier, and funnier. Hopefully the next outing will deploy these fascinating characters a little more successfully.

Movie review: Jason Bourne returns for spy movie sequel

shareSuper spies Jason Bourne and James Bond may share the same initials, but that’s pretty much where the similarities stop. James Bond is the type of spy we all secretly daydream about being: he drives a fancy car, travels to exotic locations, has a bunch of cool gadgets, and always manages to arrive in style. He gets in just enough danger to keep things exciting, but we never doubt he’ll save the day.

Although the Jason Bourne movies are entertaining to watch, I definitely wouldn’t want to be him. The Bourne movies are grittier and far less stylized — and, in theory, a little closer to what life is probably like for spies in the real world. There are no fancy hotels or martinis “shaken, not stirred” for Bourne. His domains are grimy alleyways, dingy apartments off the grid, and whatever vehicle he can find. He operates in the moral gray area, and learns the government agency he is working for may be almost as corrupt as the “bad guys” he’s supposed to be fighting.

It’s been almost a decade since we last saw Jason Bourne in theaters (if you don’t count the 2012 spin-off “The Bourne Legacy,” starring Jeremy Renner). Director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon brought the character back this summer, in a sequel titled simply “Jason Bourne.” Was the sequel worth the wait?

Since it’s been a few years since the last Bourne movie, here’s a quick refresher course. In 2002’s “The Bourne Identity,” Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is found drifting in the Mediterranean Sea with gunshot wounds in his back, the number for a Swiss safety deposit box, and a severe case of amnesia. As he struggles to put the pieces of his past back together, he learns he’s a CIA assassin who was part of a top secret program known as “Operation Treadstone.” He exposes CIA corruption but then is forced to go underground at the end of “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007).

At the start of the new film, Bourne is still operating off the grid, using his skills to earn what money he can in illegal fighting rings. After an old contact reaches out to him, claiming she has some new information about his past, Bourne becomes a CIA target once again. The CIA director is determined to do whatever is necessary to silence him, but Bourne may find some unexpected allies within the organization.

When the first Bourne movie came out in 2002, it tapped into our very real post 9-11 fears about national security and the ethical debate about how far our government should go to keep people safe. Jason Bourne struggles with his role as an assassin; is he a hero for stopping international threats, or he is simply a cold-blooded killer who may one day take things a step too far? Those themes made the original Bourne movies a taut, thrilling trilogy that was well received by critics (all three are 80+ percent on Rotten Tomatoes).

The new movie has the same tone and style, with the gritty action that drew fans to this series. However, the Rotten Tomatoes summary perhaps says it best: “‘Jason Bourne’ delivers fans of the franchise more of what they’ve come to expect — which is this sequel’s biggest selling point as well as its greatest flaw.” The new movie is exciting and action-packed, but, in the end, doesn’t really bring anything new to the franchise.

The best parts of the movie are the intense action sequences, and the performance from Matt Damon as conflicted spy Jason Bourne. While I love the Bond movies (my all-time favorite spy franchise), I like the different perspective the Bourne movies bring to the genre. The series really delves into the moral gray areas of espionage. Bourne feels guilty for his past actions and is unable to justify all that has been done in the name of national security. In this outing, I liked the contrast between his character and CIA director Robert Dewey, played with cold pragmatism by Tommy Lee Jones.

Overall, though, the film felt a bit too familiar; it fits in comfortably with the franchise but doesn’t really cover new ground. I appreciated how they worked in some of our current fears about privacy and social media, but I wished that theme had been fleshed out more. Although the film is entertaining and well executed, it came with just a little too much déjà vu.

Movie review: ‘Star Trek: Beyond’ goes back to the basics

beyond1-socialIt’s now three years into the USS Enterprise’s five-year mission, and the crew is beginning to feel a little…strained. They have encountered numerous wonders in their journey through the stars, experienced thrilling adventures, and witnessed the awe-inspiring beauty of deep space. However, they’ve also learned that space can be as cold and lonely as it is fascinating, and when you are venturing this far from home into the uncharted vastness of the universe, it is all too easy to get lost — both literally and figuratively.

The beginning of “Star Trek: Beyond” finds Captain James T. Kirk feeling both lost and lonely. He is now a year older than his father lived to be, and he is questioning his own purpose in Starfleet. His father joined Starfleet because he believed in the mission; Kirk just joined on a dare. He wonders what he is really accomplishing, and if his work really means anything. It takes a dangerous mission that strands the Enterprise crew on a hostile world — and the resurrection of some ghosts from Starfleet’s past — to remind Captain Kirk why it’s important to keep boldly going where no one has gone before.

After the somewhat controversial “Into Darkness,” “Star Trek: Beyond” will be, for many fans, a welcome return to form. It doesn’t really venture into new territory for the franchise, but that’s actually okay. It feels like a jumbo episode from the Original Series, with a great mix of humor and action, plus a chance for the characters we know and love to shine. It’s a worthy addition to the franchise. (Note: This review is mostly spoiler free, and the brief spoiler I did include has been clearly marked, in case those who’ve seen the movie want to discuss that plot point in the comments.) 

I’m actually a fan of both J.J. Abrams Trek reboot films, even though I know some fans did not like “Into Darkness,” which re-imagines the famous Khan storyline. However, I am glad that with “Beyond,” the film makers chose to pursue an original story and introduce some new characters, rather than trying to recreate another storyline from the Original Series. Justin Lin takes over the helm this go-around, and while I admit I was initially a little skeptical about the director from “The Fast and the Furious” franchise taking on Star Trek, he proves to be more than capable of handling the job. It did take me a bit to adjust to his tone, which is a little different from Abrams’ style, but I was impressed by the way he handled the characters and the story. He takes the viewers on a fun ride.

It’s always great to see the Enterprise on the big screen, and although there’s now almost a running joke about how many times the Enterprise gets destroyed in these films, Justin Lin does destroy the ship in spectacular fashion. The film’s primary villain, a mysterious alien named Krall (Idris Elba), commands a fleet of ships the Enterprise crew members nickname “the bees” since they fly in a terrifying, overwhelming swarm. These “bees” dismantle the Enterprise in space and send it crashing towards a planet where more dangers await.

The story is fairly simple and straight-forward, which allows plenty of time for nice character moments. I think sometimes Chris Pine is underappreciated as an actor, and I’ve really enjoyed how he has grown his character throughout this series. Captain Kirk starts out the Trek reboot films as a reckless, womanizing delinquent who’s running from his destiny; in “Into Darkness,” he’s come a long way, but we still get the sense he doesn’t fully appreciate the solemn responsibility of command. Now, in “Beyond,” he’s still brash and tends to leap before he looks, but we can see he has matured as a captain. He has lived up to the sense of promise Christopher Pike saw in him years ago.

These Trek reboot films really have been perfectly cast, and each character gets a special moment in this film. I loved how the film maroons Spock and McCoy (Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban) together on the alien planet, apart from the rest of the crew. We haven’t gotten a chance to see as much of their love-hate relationship in the newer Trek films, so it’s nice to see them get an opportunity to both bicker and deepen their friendship. We also get to see some good moments with Scotty (played by Simon Pegg, who also helped write the film). I enjoyed the introduction of a new female character, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who can more than hold her own in a fight.

The film’s main weakness is actually shared by many summer blockbusters: not *quite* enough development for the villain. Idris Elba is a fine actor, and I liked how he played the character Krall. I also appreciated the twist at the end involving his character. ***Spoiler alert!*** Krall is actually an officer from the beginning of Starfleet who has mutated and unnaturally prolonged his life. He wasn’t able to adapt to Starfleet’s new mandate to pursue peace with its former enemies, and he’s been waiting a long time to seek revenge. It’s an interesting concept for a villain and seems very relevant considering the violence our world has been experiencing of late. It’s not always easy to forgive what’s happened in the past and choose peace instead of revenge, but it’s always the better path. I think the film could have done just a little more to flesh out that theme, and the character. ***End spoiler!***

Overall, “Star Trek: Beyond” is a fun action film that leaves plenty of time for character development, and I believe most Star Trek fans will be very pleased. I’m excited to hear Paramount is already planning a fourth film, although it is a somewhat bittersweet announcement. “Beyond” does address the passing of Leonard Nimoy, and it also marks the final outing for Anton Yelchin, who plays the young Chekov and passed away earlier this summer due to a tragic accident. I understand his role will not be recast in the next movie, and I think that’s a nice gesture. It would be great if the film would reference Chekov being promoted to first officer on another starship; I like the thought of his character still out there, exploring the stars.

“Star Trek: Beyond” gets a big thumb’s up from me, and I hope the franchise continues to go boldly into the future.

 

Summer Star Trek Blog-a-Thon: ‘First Contact’

1457364666-Star_Trek_Generation_Star_Trek_First_Contact_tickets_3To wrap up my summer Star Trek blog-a-thon, before “Star Trek: Beyond” hits theaters this weekend, I decided to watch my first Next Generation movie, titled — appropriately enough — “First Contact.” I’ve watched a few Next Generation episodes before but hadn’t ever delved into the movies featuring that cast. Although the Original Series crew will always be my favorite, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) is one of my favorite Enterprise captains.

“First Contact” appears to be generally regarded as the best Next Generation film, bringing back popular Next Gen baddies “the Borg” and mixing in elements of time travel. In the film, Captain Picard and his crew arrive to defend Earth from a Borg attack, only to find that the technology-loving Borg plan to travel back in time and “assimilate” all humans, turning them in Borg as well. They seek to prevent a key event in Earth history known as “first contact” — the day humans meet their first alien race, the Vulcans. Naturally, Picard and his crew aren’t about to let that happen. They fight to make sure first contact still occurs while also saving the Enterprise from a Borg infestation.

Although this film was released in 1996, now 20 years ago, I was impressed by how well its special effects have held up over time. The Enterprise looks great, and I liked the contrasting style of the Borg ship, which is basically just a giant cube floating through space. I also liked the make-up/costumes of the Borg characters; they are made up of both organic material and technology, with complicated electronic modifications on their bodies. Their quest to “assimilate” lifeforms involves them stripping individuality and personal choice from their subjects, turning them into drones that function as part of a hive mind.

Star Trek has always been about exploring interesting themes through the platform of science fiction, and “First Contact” is no exception. One of those themes is the concept of revenge and how we should never let the desire for it consume us. Captain Picard’s judgement in this movie is sometimes clouded by his desire to get revenge on the Borg, especially after they attempted to assimilate him in a previous storyline. He refuses to blow up the Enterprise in order to destroy the Borg, because he feels that blowing up the ship would compromise his victory. He wants to stay and fight until the bitter end. He doesn’t see the light until he hears a comparison of himself to Captain Ahab from “Moby-Dick,” and then he realizes stopping the threat of the Borg is more important than proving he is a superior strategist.

I also liked how the film touched on the fact that sometimes the people who do great things aren’t always great themselves. In the future, Zefram Cochrane, the man who creates the warp drive and flies the ship that makes first contact, is lauded as a heroic visionary. However, when some of the Enterprise crew members actually meet him, they find he is actually a cowardly drunk. It made me wonder if some of the visionaries we look up to from history were maybe not as great as we like to remember them. Without digging too deeply, you can probably find quite a bit of dirt on famous historical figures. Still, this also goes to show that we shouldn’t look past someone just because they don’t seem heroic. Sometimes all they need is a little push (or, in Cochrane’s case, a really BIG push) to do something great.

I enjoyed my first Next Generation film, and it made me want to watch more episodes of the TV series. I didn’t enjoy this movie *quite* as much as my favorite Original Series films, “The Wrath of Khan” and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot, but like I said before, I have a definite bias towards the Original Series crew.😉

Well, I guess that wraps up my summer Star Trek blog-a-thon — thanks to everyone who followed along! I’m very excited to see “Star Trek: Beyond” this weekend, especially since the reviews seem very positive so far.