Welcome to The Mundane Adventures of a Fangirl

I consider myself a Fangirl. What does that mean, you ask? A "fanboy" in the most common understanding is a hardcore fan of 'genre' based entertainment in particular. In my case - science-fiction and comic book based movies and television. Because I'm a chick - it's fangirl, not fanboy. There you have it! I am a big movie fan, however, not necessarily a 'film' fan. And now - I have the forum to present my opinions to the public! These will mainly be movie reviews -that will always be my opinion - repeat OPINION. Just what I think, and in no way do I present my opinion as fact. I hope you enjoy and maybe it will help you decide what to see at the movie theater this weekend!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Retro Movie Review: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1976 – PG – 121 minutes)

Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope, was released in May of 1977.  I was six months old, and my parents took me to the theater to see the movie because they wanted to see it.  I’m told I behaved very well.  The first toys I remember playing with are Star Wars action figures.  My two younger brothers and I would recreate the movies as well as we could with the figures we had.  We never had a Princess Leia figure – so Spiderman would stand in, because he was the slimmest of the Marvel figures we had.  We attempted to recreate the Rancor battle scene using our toys and some stop-motion work with my dad’s early video camera.  Star Wars to me has always meant family and fun. 
After graduating from USC in 1967, George Lucas released THX1138 which was based on his own student film, then the nostalgia piece American Graffiti.  He then wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie, but couldn’t get the rights.  He then decided to write his own space opera, and in 1973 he began writing “The Star Wars”.

Because Lucas’s first writing included multiple characters and stories, he realized he had to narrow it down to get it to a filmable movie.  He continued to write, and In January 1975 completed a second draft, which he gave to the conceptual artist he hired – Ralph McQuarrie, who created paintings of certain scenes in the story.   The third draft was finished in August of 1975, and was finally picked up by 20th Century Fox who approved a budget of $8.25 million.  Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic came into their own as the visual and practical effects company that put together the look of the film – using many models to create the iconic look of the ships and the space battles. Exotic locations were used to enhance the story, which took place in a far away galaxy.

Essentially the plot to the movie is very simple – The galaxy is ruled by the Empire, but there is a rebellion.  The rebels get their hands on the plans to the Empire’s new weapon – As they attempt to get those plans back to their base, the plans end up with an old Jedi and his new young apprentice.   Those two quickly make friends with a couple of space pirates.  Together, they rescue a leader of the rebellion – return the plans to her, she gets the plans back to the Rebel Alliance, and they use the plans to attack the Empire’s new weapon.  That’s really about it for the plot, but it’s the beauty of the story in the glorious details that win over the fans. 

The movie begins with a crawl of words that explain the state of the galaxy; and we learn we are in the middle of the rebellion against the Galactic Empire as we are dropped right into the action. The Rebellion’s ship is being chased by a much larger Imperial Star Destroyer.  The Star Destroyer captures the blockade runner, and the Imperials prepare to board.  We are introduced to humanoid protocol droid C3PO and the trash-can on wheels astromech droid R2D2.  R2 meets with the senator, receives some information – then gets himself and C3PO to an escape pod, leaving just as the ship is captured.

At this point, you have the greatest entrance of any character to any movie of all time as Darth Vader enters the ship.  Remember how you felt the first time you saw that?  He’s huge, dressed all in black, and very quickly establishes his power as he demands the ‘plans’ that the rebels stole.  His Stormtroopers catch Senator Leia Organa of Alderaan, suspected of being a leader in the rebellion and transporting the plans.  She manages to hide them in R2D2 prior to being captured.  

The droids take an escape pod and head down to the nearest planet as Vader takes Leia back to the Death Star for some interrogation by a floating torture droid.  At this point, we learn how excited the Empire is about this new Death Star, and that the Emperor has just disbanded the Senate, and given power to the regional governors to maintain Imperial control.  That one line by Grand Moff Tarkin has all the political knowledge we get in this trilogy.  The prequel trilogy was like 63% politics. The droid doesn’t really work (it’s a floating ball with needles, what were they expecting?) so they decide to destroy her home planet. 

The droids meander around the desert, C3PO complaining as R2D2 looks for ObiWan Kenobi – a former Clone Wars Jedi General who can assist in getting the plans back to Alderaan.  Along the way, the droids stumble into Luke Skywalker, a boy who dreams of joining the rebellion and participating in massive space battles, but is currently stuck drinking blue milk with his aunt and uncle on their moisture farm (how do they harvest it? Where do they sell it?  How do they store it? These questions are never answered). Luke sees part of the message that R2 is carrying for Kenobi, and thinks it might be Ben Kenobi – a hermit who lives in the desert nearby.  After a fight with his uncle about his future, Luke watches the double sun set on Tatooine to the dramatic swells of John Williams’s amazing score – creating an iconic image.  R2 sneaks out, and Luke and C3PO have to head out after him in the morning.

They catch up to him in the Jundland Wasteland, and after an encounter with Tusken Raiders (or Sandpeople), They are rescued by Ben and head back to his place, where Ben attempts to reconcile with the fact that his past has just come looking for him.  He gives Luke a lightsaber – a “more elegant weapon from a more civilized time” and tells him it belonged to his father, who was a great Jedi Knight.  Here you get a brief explanation of the Jedi and the time that has passed – for more details on that, watch the Clone Wars animated series (Netflix that now!).  Ben attempts to talk Luke into coming with him to Alderaan, but Luke is bound by guilty duty to his uncle’s farm.  On the way to get Ben a ride, they quickly learn that Imperial Stormtroopers are tracking the droids, and have killed his Aunt and Uncle.

Luke, having nothing left, heads with Ben and the droids to Mos Eisley (a “Wretched hive of scum and villainy”, perhaps the greatest description of anywhere, ever) to hire a pilot to get them to Alderaan. They spend time in a cantina - with the most random group of aliens and creatures ever assembled. 

They hire pirate, scoundrel, and all-around Indiana Jones-type Han Solo and his co-pilot, the 200 year old Wookie, Chewbacca.  Han gets some brief backstory (Jabba the Hutt has a bounty on his head!) before they all meet up at Han’s ship.  They barely escape some Stormtroopers, and on the flight, C3P0 and Chewbacca play Dejarik while Luke gets some preliminary training from Ben.  Ben then feels Alderaan get destroyed. 

They are pulled into the Death Star – a small-moon sized space station.  Han and Luke dress as StormTroopers, and head out to rescue the princess while Kenobi shuts off the tractor beam.  He then battles Darth Vader, and loses…or did he?  They make it back to Yavin IV – give the plans to General Dodonna, and prep for battle, since the Death Star has tracked them.  Han takes off with his money, Luke gets a ship – and the battle begins.  The Empire gets cocky about their space station, Vader takes off into a small fighter to battle the ships one on one, and Han comes back to provide cover to Luke as he takes the shot that blows up the Death Star. 

The rebels have a huge celebration, and everything is great – everybody gets Medals, except for Chewbacca! 

Until, of course, you have the events of Empire Strikes Back:  Vader gets obsessed with hunting down Luke as The Empire continues to chase the rebels. The movie opens with my favorite sequence of any movie, ever, as the Empire uses large AT-AT walkers to hunt down the rebels on their hidden base on the ice planet of Hoth.  

Luke goes to Dagobah to train with Yoda about how to be a Jedi – Han and Leia fly to Could City, where Han’s old friend Lando accidentally betrays them to Vader who puts Han in carbonite freeze.  Luke jumps the gun on the end of his Jedi training, heads to Cloud City – and loses badly in a fight with Vader – finding out that Vader is his father, and that his father didn’t actually get killed by Vader as Kenobi told him.   The movie ends with Han in Boba Fett’s clutches and Luke and company getting ready to try to rescue him. 

The trilogy ends with Return of the Jedi – the Empire secretly builds another, bigger Death Star and is prepping to wipe out the rebellion, once and for all – because surely it will work this time.  Luke and company rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt – Luke goes to visit a dying Yoda and snaps at the ghost of Kenobi for not telling him about his dad and learns Leia is his twin sister.  Everyone gets back together and they launch a huge plan to shut down the defense shield for the Death Star on the forest moon of Endor while the fighters attack it in space.  Vader and the Emperor attempt to get Luke to join them, but instead, he stays good, convincing Vader to eliminate the Emperor – which eventually leads to Vader’s death.  The rebellion is successful – everyone parties with ewoks as Luke burns Vader’s remains so that his ghost can hang out with Yoda and Kenobi’s ghost.

And now – 38 years later, we will get to learn what happened next.  If you read the EU books, you know there was an accepted storyline that dealt with Han and Leia’s children, Luke’s relationship with Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn, then the invasion of the Yuuzhan Vong, and the battle between Darth Caedus and the Sword of the Jedi.  When Disney bought Star Wars and announced new movies, all of that history was wiped away, and now we will have new stories.  That’s exciting, but also a little sad for those of us who loved those stories and characters. 

Original trilogy – 15 out of 10.  Okay, that score makes no sense, but it’s the best group of movies made, and the basis for an incredible universe of stories.  If you haven’t watched them in a while – rewatch them, then go see the new one.  They completely hold up, thanks to the amazing mostly practical effects, and great storytelling.  
Bonus - Honest trailer for the original --> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsb9ZTmbSKQ 
Bonus 2 - Honest trailer for the prequels....well, parts of them were okay.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Movie Review: The Night Before (R – 1h41min)

This particular group of friends has worked together a lot – and that does make for stronger comedy.  The Night Before feels most similar to This is the End – which if you missed, featured most of this group of friends playing themselves on their way to James Franco’s house party as the world ends - literally. That one too was mostly drug-fueled low-brow comic bits with occasional touching friendship moments.   

Ethan, Isaac, and Chris have been best friends since high school – 14 years ago, Ethan’s parents were killed in a car crash, just before Christmas.  Isaac and Chris resolved that he would never spend Christmas Eve alone, and so for the last 14 years, they have spent Christmas Eve together, doing the same random things.  Well, Chris is now a big-time pro football player, and Isaac is about to have a baby, so they have agreed that this will be the last Christmas Eve that they have this tradition. 

Isaac’s wife is so grateful that he has been so prepared and supportive during the pregnancy that she gives him a little box filled with drugs before he heads out with the guys so that he can have a good time.  Isaac is thrilled with the box, but has been secretly panicking and worrying that he’s not ready for the baby.
Chris has been playing football for a long time, but has suddenly become successful.  We learn that he’s just recently started doing steroids because ‘everyone else is’, but to him it’s worth it, because the top-tier players on his team now know who he is.  He’s feeling a little guilty, and has been avoiding his mother, even though he’s in town for the holiday.
Ethan is still stuck in a rut after losing his parents, he had a great girlfriend who wanted things to take the next step, but Ethan panicked about the commitment, and sabotaged the relationship.  He’s just now beginning to realize that he loves her.

Those are the character traits for the three leads that they must deal with throughout the course of the night.  As they start the night, they being their normal traditions, however, their buried issues start coming up as they run into Ethan’s ex and her friend, Isaac gets way too high, and Chris gets sidetracked by trying to find weed for his quarterback on the way to a secret Christmas party.  It again is mostly drug-fueled low-brow comic bits with occasional touching friendship moments.  

Honestly the movie is exactly what you think it is.  Directed by Jonathan Levine, who previously did 50/50 and Warm Bodies, it’s certainly well-done, and parts are really funny.  Much of the comedy is improvised, which pays off well when you have actors that know and like each other in real life.  However, as with most of the movies by this crew, the female characters are barely two dimensional, which is a shame, because they have some really great comediennes in the movie.  Also – the drug use is almost constant and without any repercussion.  But, in the end, the three work through their issues, and each of them grows a little bit.  They reevaluate and strengthen their friendship throughout the course of the night, and there are some touching moments. 

  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt is another young actor who undoubtedly has an Oscar in his future. He’s very good as the stationary Ethan.  JGL is able to take a character that could be fairly unlikeable (he’s really stuck in the past and a little stalker-y to his ex) and turn him into a sympathetic character who we really want to see turn his life around by the end of the movie.  Honestly, without JGL’s likability, this character could have been really annoying! 

  • Seth Rogen plays Seth Rogen – he has some truly funny moments, especially the scene you’ve seen in all the commercials where he ends up at Midnight Mass with his wife and her family after doing much of the drugs she put in the box for him. 

  • Anthony Mackie goes all out as football star Chris Roberts, whose social media game is “on point”.  He gets some really funny moments as he desperately tries to get the quarterback to like him.

  • One of the biggest losses the movie has is that it cast Jillian Bell as Betsy, Isaac’s wife, and gives her almost nothing to do – she absolutely stole 22 Jump Street – and it’s a shame that they don’t give her anything insane in this movie.  She’s wonderful as Isaac’s supporting wife, but I found myself wishing she was able to get into some hijinks of her own.

  • Lizzy Caplan is certainly capable as Diana – Ethan’s ex.  I do have a major issue, but again – it’s with the writing, not her.  More on that later!

  • Mindy Kaling is also criminally underused.  Whether or not you watch the Mindy Project (and you probably should – it’s hilarious), you can agree she’s an amazing comedian – it’s a shame to have her just as the ‘ex’s best friend’.  It gives her nothing to do aside from fighting with Isaac for James Franco’s affections – seriously.  Franco gets to play himself with the volume turned way up - I hope it's turned up and that's not really how he is!

  • Ilana Glazer is one of the female comics who actually gets some funny scenes – she’s one half of the team behind Broad City – and she brings some raunchy Grinch-iness to this movie as she seduces Chris and steals the weed he procured for his beloved quarterback.

  • Michael Shannon plays the guys’ weed dealer – Mr. Green and he steals this movie.  He’s creepy (he’s always creepy) and hilarious!  He helps each guy realize what their issues are and what they need to do to overcome them.  The weed dealer is the conscious of the movie? Sheesh.

It's genuinely funny - and really well put together.  If you enjoy these guys in anything else - you will love this movie.  It’s a hard R because of the language, the excessive drug use and some pointless nudity.  My biggest issue, and really it’s probably not a surprise considering the performers and writers ( I say this with all their movies) is the lack of strength in the female characters.  At this point, I should accept it and stop complaining about it - but I can't help it - especially when they cast such talented ladies!  The one thing that upset me in particular is that Diana (and her friend) encounter the guys at the karaoke bar early on, and they learn they are all going to the same secret party.  Overcome with guilt at ending their relationship and spurred on by Miley Cyrus (never take advice from Miley Cyrus) Ethan suddenly proposes to Diana on stage at the party.  

Diana says yes, because she’s surrounded by people, but as soon as they get a moment alone, she lets him know that it’s not fair to propose to her like that when they’ve been separated for months.  She tells him that she’s not ready to marry him, because after all, when she wanted to move to a stronger commitment, he backed out of the relationship.  The next morning – he shows up at her parent’s house to tell her he’s still in love with her.  Now, this is great for a movie – but in real life – that is so incredibly inappropriate and uncomfortable and really stalker-y.  But, hey – rom-com rules apply here, and instead of being exceptionally creeped out that this maniac proposed to her then followed her to her parents’ house, she’s charmed and invites him in to meet her parents (which he had refused to do when they were dating).   The movie justifies it by having Diana state that she did miss him and went to the karaoke bar and the party because she knew that Ethan would be there.  I guess that makes it okay?  It just really made me uncomfortable – but I’m going to assume that’s just me, and again – while it would be weird in real life – it works just fine as a happy ending to the movie.

6 out of 10- Gained points for the happy ending – lost points for the reason listed above – gained points for Michael Shannon’s performance, also simultaneously gained and lost for Tracey Morgan.

Bonus Video 1 – The guys on Lip Sync Battle – hilarious!

Bonus Video 2 – If you want an excellent JGL rom-com – check out (500) Days of Summer

Bonus Video 3 – cast interviews

Monday, December 14, 2015

Movie Review: Hunger Games: MockingJay pt. 2 (PG13 – 137 minutes)

Well, finally.  We’ve reached the end of the Hunger Games saga.  What started as three books written by Suzanne Collins (first one published in 2008) has finished as four films.  I felt about the movies the same way I felt about the books – I liked the first one, and they went progressively downhill from there.  Yes, they were YA (young adult) novels, just like the Divergent, Twilight, and Mortal Instruments books.  As an aside, have you started writing your YA novels yet? You probably should, chances are you’ll get them made into movies.  The trailer for the next one was already in front of this most recent Hunger Games movie – the 5th Wave.

To sum up the Hunger Games story to this point (sticking just with the movies), in the first movie, Katniss Everdeen is a headstrong young woman living in a post-apocalyptic North America consisting of 12 districts ruled by a wealthy capitol who spends her time illegally hunting with her buddy/romantic interest Gale to provide food for her younger sister Primrose and slightly out-of-it mother who hasn’t been the same since she lost their father.

Every year, the capitol hosts the Hunger Games, where one boy and one girl from each of the 12 districts fight to the death in a deadly, carefully-crafted arena as the fight is broadcast to everyone in PanEm.  Basically it’s to remind the districts who is in charge.  Well, Katniss’s little sister gets picked as tribute for district 12, and Katniss can’t allow that, so she volunteers as tribute.  She and Peeta Mellark, the male tribute from 12, suddenly get whisked away to be pampered and prepped to participate.  They get a little training, and a little hoopla – and come up with the plan to play to the audience with a fake love story to help them survive.  In the process, Katniss decides all this is nonsense, and makes an enemy of the President of PanEm, President Snow.  She breaks the rules to ensure that either both she and Peeta survive, or both she and Peeta die – well, since it is being broadcast, and all of PanEm has fallen for their faked love story – they are allowed to live, but Snow is not happy with her.

In Catching Fire – Katniss’s act of rebellion has started to cause folks in the other districts to rise up against Capitol Peacekeepers here and there – what with her stoic hand signals and catchy whistling she picked up from Rue.  People suddenly start to realize they don’t want to give their kids up to death games and start pushing back on the capitol.  Annoyed, Snow enacts the ‘Quarter Quell’, meaning that from all previous Hunger Games champions, one male and one female from each district is chosen to go back to the arena to fight.  Since Katniss is the only female champion in 12, she knows what’s up – Snow is trying really hard to get her dead to quash the rising rebellion.  Well, she heads back in, and sure enough – she lives through most of it again – being airlifted out at the end, as Peeta is captured by the capitol.  Who knows what dastardly things Snow will do to him (and who cares?)?!

In MockingJay part 1 (because we need to squeeze as much money out of the fans as we can, so of course the last movie is split in two) we find that Katniss is being cared for in the mysterious district 13, which was not wiped out complete as the capitol said.  There, under the watchful eye of Rebellion President Coin, she is groomed as the MockingJay – the figurehead of the rebellion.  They shoot a bunch of propaganda films with Katniss to send out to PanEm to fire up the already angry citizens.  Meanwhile, Snow brainwashes Peeta, and uses him to make his own propaganda films, badmouthing Katniss.  The rebels mount a rescue, and Peeta gets brought back to 13, where he promptly attempts to choke Katniss to death.

That brings you up to speed for Mocking Jay part 2 – now, admittedly, that does skip several important details, like who the other champions are, who the gamemakers are, who’s leading this rebellion, and who’s working for Snow.  If you haven’ t read the books but liked the movies – I recommend the books, they have more details, and are quick reads.  Spoiler-alert from this point forward.

This one begins with Katniss being treated for a sore neck after Peeta’s attempted choking.  She checks in with Peeta, and he’s fighting through his brainwashing, but not really there yet.  She recovers enough to attend Finnick and Annie’s wedding - which was similar to the Bill/Fleur wedding in the last Harry Potter – in the books it’s a big deal because you’ve spent a lot of time with these characters, but a lot of that was glossed over in the movies, so the wedding loses a little meaning.  She tells Johanna that she’s going to kill Snow – enough with all this messing around.  She sneaks off to the front line (because while she’s been making propaganda films, others were out there fighting).  Once she arrives, she’s assigned to a unit – but since Coin caught wind of her attempt to sneak out, her unit is Gale and her camera people again, so they can continue to use her as media.  Her mission has been changed from single-stealth-assassin mission to last-unit-broadcast mission.

She and Gale conspire to leave the group so she can kill Snow, but then they encounter some Pods – it seems Snow has had the Hunger Games gamemakers install various things around the capitol that have very unique and deadly tricks here and there to prevent people from getting through.  They lose a few folks in a tar-based wire-stabby pod, and Coin sends them Peeta, because that will look good on film?  Or just cause friction between Katniss and Gale? Or just make everything more difficult?  In any case, he’s still not operating at top level, and flips out from time to time. Eventually, she and Gale make it through to just outside the President’s compound because he’s invited all of the capitol residents to come there for safety – there are some explosions, so the Peacekeepers tell everyone to pass their kids forward, to get the kids in the compound first.  Medical personnel are running in to help them – including Katniss’s sister Prim.  Now, this is a bit sudden – but it happens like that in the book too – Prim’s been working toward being a doctor, so she’s dropped on the front line of the battle when medical folks are needed.  Suddenly, a capitol plane flies overhead, bombing the compound, and taking out the kids, and everyone in that area who was helping. 

Katniss wakes up again, learning Prim is dead and once the capitol saw Snow bomb their kids – they helped overthrow him.  Coin has Palpatine-d herself into the Presidency (“Things are a bit dicey right now, so I’ll go ahead and take charge until we have the time for a full vote” – sure lady, sure.).  Katniss wanders around to find that Snow is being held captive in his greenhouse – he tells her Coin was the one who bombed the kids/Prim, which causes Katniss to get angry on a new level.  She cuts Gale out of her life, realizing that was one of his plans that Coin decided to use.  Not really his fault – but hey, she’s pretty angry.  She gets summoned by Coin to a meeting with all the surviving Hunger Games Champions – apparently Peeta is almost back to normal.  Coin – get this – wants to reinstate the Hunger Games to keep the Capitol people in line, she asks the champions to vote.  Katniss – get this – agrees with her, but mainly because she’s hatching a plot in her head – she demands to be the one to execute Snow, which Coin grants.

As Katniss is walking very slowly down the ‘avenue of champions’, Coin gives a big time speech about being united and working together, and that Snow is going to be punished.  Katniss walks up, and gets her arrow ready, then suddenly shoots Coin instead of Snow – the people rush forward and tear Snow limb from limb, and once again – Katniss gets taken away.  The people get to vote on their new leader, and Plutarch Heavensbee  sends her a letter, letting her know he’s not surprised, but proud of her.

The story ends with PanEm rebuilding as Katniss heads back to District 12 to retire.  Peeta ends up there too, and the two of them end up with two kids as the movie ends.  In the book, there is a line where she says that she eventually learns to love Peeta - how's that for settling?

This movie, like the previous two, was directed by Austrian director Francis Lawrence who had also done Constantine, I Am Legend, and Water for Elephants.  It explains why the weird sewer ‘mutts’ in this movie look like the demons in Constantine, which also look a little like the creatures in I Am Legend.  

In any case, he does a fine job – the few action scenes are very good, and certainly keep you on the edge of your seat.  The problem is that there are just not enough of them.  The majority of the movie is very slow and talky.  Not his fault – it stays very true to the book.  There’s not much to say about the cast, they’re the same they’ve been for all the movies:
  • By this time, Jennifer Lawrence’s could probably play Katniss in her sleep, and for some scenes it seems like she is.  Not an issue, that’s what is expected from Katniss in this movie.  She’s tired, frustrated, desperate, and desolated in this particular story.  There is no happiness for Katniss – even in the epilogue, she seems resigned rather than happy.

  • Josh Hutcherson does a good job playing Peeta – good enough that every time he kept insisting that he was a danger to the group and they should leave him behind, I agreed.  He’s been my least favorite character from the start – certainly not Hutcherson’s fault, in fact, I would say he does a great job with what he’s given.

  • Liam Hemsworth plays Gale, and as much as they tried to sell it as a love triangle, it never really was.  Katniss is never as into Gale as he is into her.  Gale is committed to the revolution and shifts to being a soldier first, and he’s never really developed as much as he could be. 

  • Woody Harrelson plays the only former district 12 champion, Haymitch. He was reluctant to train Peeta and Katniss at the beginning, but now has grown to be a great friend to them.  Harrelson is also responsible for a favorite part of mine in the movie, when he says goodbye to Elizabeth Banks’s Effie, the kiss he gives her was improvised by Woody.  It was a genuine and sweet moment that I’m grateful they left in!

  • Just a quick follow up on Elizabeth Banks – Effie has gotten back some of her awesome outfits in this movie – and I have to say that she’s been one of the most interesting characters in the series.  She could have been written off as a ditzy capitol stooge, but Banks gives her layers of kindness to show she really cares about her charges and what happens to them.

  • Donald Sutherland is always a fantastic villain and he nails the oozing evil that is Snow.  I especially enjoyed the glee he has as he gets to tell Katniss that it was Coin who betrayed her.

  • The late Philip Seymour Hoffman had already shot some scenes as Plutarch Heavensbee, so those were no issues – having him send a letter to Katniss instead of visiting her in person at the end was a fitting send-off.  There were a few times where he was noticeably CGIed into a scene, but they weren’t too bad.

  • Julianne Moore brings a very cold decisiveness to President Coin.  She’s all grays and lifelessness.  She wants her rebellion to succeed at any cost, and will not hesitate to use anyone to get there.
  • Willow Shields plays Prim, and her death in the movie is just as quick and sudden as it was in the book.  I always felt that was unfair– she was the reason her sister volunteered – the whole point of these books -  I always felt she should have a hero’s death, and honestly, it basically happens off-screen.

  • Sam Claflin plays Finnick, he’s basically there to help Katniss out, and keep her motivated on her path. 

  • Mahershala Ali plays Boggs, who starts to believe in Katniss – even when she wants to go against the orders he was given by Coin.

  • Jena Malone plays Johanna, and while there’s not much of her in this movie, she’s pretty badass for the moments she has.

  • Jeffrey Wright very briefly shows up as Beetee again.  Not much else to say there, he really has nothing to do in this one.  At least in the last one he got to make Katniss some fancy arrows.
  • There was some pre-movie marketing stating that Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma and Lady Brianne of Tarth from GOT) was in this movie, and let me tell you – what a huge waste of an amazing lady.  She gets one scene, the one they show in the commercials. 

I gave the first movie an 8, the second an 8 (should have maybe been a 7) and the third a 6.  Like I said, they get progressively less interesting, as Katniss becomes more and more of a pawn in other people’s games.  In this one she starts to reclaim part of her own destiny, but never really comes into it.

7 out of 10 – certainly entertaining in parts – but I still like the first one the best.  I’ll bump this one up a bit.  Gained points for the tar-wire trap, scary.  Lost points for Peeta being so annoying.  Gained points for Katniss shooting Coin in cold-blood at the end; Lost points for that being the only thing Katniss is able to do to on her own.
Bonus Video 1 –How the Hunger Games Should Have Ended

Bonus Video 2 Cast Interviews…

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Movie Review: Creed (PG13 – 133 minutes)

Sylvester Stallone wrote the movie Rocky in 1975 after watching a Muhammed Ali fight.  He sold the script, and smartly negotiated his way into playing the lead, despite not yet being well-known.  In 1976 the movie Rocky was released, and introduced the world to Rocky Balboa, underdog boxer from Philadelphia.  Rocky was an enforcer for a local loan shark, and widely considered a ‘bum’.  He has some local fights and suddenly finds himself with an opportunity for national exposure when champion Apollo Creed decides to give a local contender a chance to face him.  Creed believes that he will easily defeat Rocky.  Rocky meanwhile, finds a new trainer in Mickey Goldmill, a new girlfriend in a pet store clerk named Adrian, and a new friend in her brother Paulie.  When the fight finally happens, Rocky’s determination to keep fighting surprises the cocky Creed, and the fight goes the full 15 rounds.  The fight finishes with both on their feet, and as Rocky calls out for Adrian, Creed is announced as the winner.   

It’s definitely one of the best sports movies of all time, and won three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director (for John G. Avildsen), and Best Film Editing.  It also spawned six sequels (six!).  My personal favorite of those is 1985’s Rocky IV, notable for several reasons:  the introduction of Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago, and the in-ring death of Apollo Creed when he refuses to allow Rocky to stop his fight with Drago. 

Honestly, I haven’t seen the last few Rocky movies, I just didn’t have the interest.   The critical reception was more lukewarm as the sequels wore on.  In 2013 as Director Ryan Coogler was working on Fruitvale Station with Michael B. Jordan, he kicked around the idea for another movie in the Rocky franchise, dealing with Apollo Creed’s son needing training from Rocky.  Stallone; at first skeptical, eventually agreed to join the project, after Coogler explained the story to him.

The story centers around Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, a troubled kid in a youth facility when he is found by MaryAnne Creed.  She knows he is the result of an extramarital affair that her husband had.  She takes Adonis in, and helps him get his life together.  However, fighting seems to be in his blood, and he self-teaches himself to be a boxer, taking many fights in Mexico while trying to get taken seriously and get a trainer in Los Angeles.  Frustrated that no one at Delphi Boxing Academy in Los Angeles, where his father trained, will take him on, he quits his job and goes to Philadelphia to look up Rocky Balboa against MaryAnne’s wishes.

Rocky is hesitant to get back into boxing.  He’s old, tired and broken – having lost everyone he loves.  Eventually, he agrees to start training Donnie, using the same non-traditional techniques that Micky used with him.  While training, Donnie strikes up a romance with the lovely Bianca, who is a local singer-songwriter, who just happens to live in the apartment below him.  Donnie gets the opportunity for a fight with a local pro-fighter, and does very well – catching the interest of world champion Ricky Conlan’s camp.  Conlan is about to head to prison, or, you know, ‘early retirement’.  Conlan’s camp offers Donnie a fight, but by now word has gotten out that he’s Creed’s son, despite he and Rocky trying to keep that under wraps so Donnie could make his own name.  They demand he use the name ‘Creed’ in the fight. 

There are a few ups and downs and some personal drama between Donnie and Rocky, and between Donnie and Bianca – which is all very predictable.  In fact, even the final fight between Donnie and Conlan is predictable, but what absolutely elevates the movie from what could have been cheesy predictability is excellent execution. 

Coogler and Jordan work exceptionally well together, that was proven in Fruitvale Station.  What surprised me was how well Coogler handled everything else in the movie.  The training sequences are interesting and fun – which is tough, because they could have become either typical or boring.  In fact, the running-down-the -street sequence, where Creed is surrounded by bikers and the strains of the original Rocky theme are heard, could have been off-putting and cheesy, but instead – becomes very emotional and triumphant.  

Philadelphia again is almost another character in the movie, and Coogler does a great job making the city part of the story.  Another set piece that I loved was the fact that the final fight takes place at St. Goodison Park in Liverpool – it’s the football stadium where Everton plays – Stallone is a huge Everton fan.  They shot some crowd scenes during halftime at a Everton/West Brom game in January. It provides for a full stadium of really rowdy fans!

  • I was expecting Michael B. Jordan to be excellent; he’s been excellent for a while and definitely has an Oscar in his future.  It might not be for this movie, but he should be nominated.  He completely pulls in the audience as a man who is desperate to build his own legacy and prove that he is not a mistake.  Yes – this should completely wipe out the memory of Fantastic Four, which was not his fault - he was the only watchable part of that movie.

  • I was not expecting Stallone to be as excellent as he was.  Now 69, the same age that Burgess Meredith was when he played Mickey in Rocky (does that blow your mind?), he absolutely needs to be nominated for best supporting actor.  His portrayal of Rocky at this point is so touching and accurate.  He’s a man who is broken and alone, and has basically given up.  Minor spoiler (minor because it’s in the trailers): there is a moment when he gets sick, and faces his diagnosis with stubbornness and sadness, knowing that the treatment did not help his wife, and unwilling to go through that for himself.  His relationship with the son of his friend is what pulls him back from the brink, and Stallone’s performance is elegantly subtle.  Not really two words I ever thought I would use to describe Stallone.

  • Tessa Thompson, previously excellent in Dear White People, was also excellent in this.  She easily could have fell into the ‘girlfriend’ role, and while there is some of that here, she takes the opportunity to give a layered performance that elevates Bianca to more important than just the ‘girlfriend’.  She also gets to take Donnie for his first Philly sandwich.

  • Phylicia Rashad plays MaryAnne, and while she was not MaryAnne in the original Rocky movies, she does an amazing job in this of a woman who is bound and determined to love Adonis despite himself.  She tries desperately to keep him away from Boxing, since it did cost her her husband, but once he makes the decision, she does send him the iconic red/white/blue trunks that Apollo wore.

  • Tony Bellew is a British professional boxer who plays “Pretty” Ricky Conlan.  Not being all that familiar with him, I’m not sure he was ‘acting’ or just being himself – either way, it was pretty convincing!

  • Graham McTavish plays Tommy Holiday, Conlan’s handler, who really does all the talking/thinking for Conlan when setting up the fight.  He’s the one who demands that Donnie Johnson change his name to Adonis Creed, so that the name will carry some weight in the fight.

There are a lot of real-life boxers and ring folks in the movie, and that really does help lend some credibility to the fight sequences.  The movie is surprisingly fun, uplifting, charming, and well-crafted.  Go see it – yes, the fight at the end is brutal, and yes, it goes all 12 rounds.  And yes, you can probably guess how it ends, but none of that matters, because the experience is so entertaining!  I’m a little sad there was no Carl Weathers in the movie, but in all fairness, he did die three sequels ago.  I suppose he could have appeared in a dream sequence or flashback.  We’ll just have to hope that Stallone will put him in the next Expendables.  In terms of what he thought about this movie, he’s been overwhelmingly positive in his reviews, and posted “Apollo Creed is dead, long live CREED!”
9 out of 10 – I really loved it, which caught me by surprise.  Gained points for working in the iconic Rocky training song.  Lost points for the suspicious placement of the ‘eye-closed’ prosthetic on Creed at the end of the fight…I’m not sure that was quite right.  Gained points for the steps scene at the end – fantastic. 

Bonus Video 1. Carl Weathers on Arrested Development, so hilarious.

Bonus Video 2. Chronicle, a little found-footage style movie about what would happen if teenagers got super-powers…yes, it’s exactly as terrifying as you think, but Michael B. Jordan is great.

Bonus Video 3. Cast Interviews!