Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2016 - Episode VII

The Summer Movie Season of 2016 has thus far been a mild disappointment, with several high-profile, big budgeted films flopping like a clown fish on the dock. But it’s a long hot summer, and with a packed month of July right around the corner, the Summer may still yet be saved. Here are the notable releases for the month of July.

It all gets friendly with…

THE BFG – Steven Spielberg's newest is based on the 1982 children’s novel by Roald Dahl, in which a (ahem) Big Friendly Giant befriends a young girl. Mark Rylance plays the giant via motion-capture.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN – The Internet Movie Database lists 200 movies with Tarzan in the title between 1918 and 2014. The 201st film has Alexander Skarsgard playing the king of the apes, and he is joined by Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, and Christoph Waltz. It is directed by David Yates (HARRY POTTER).

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR – The third film in this nonsensical franchise in which everyone loses their shit once a year. Stars Frank Grillo (THE WINTER SOLDIER).

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS – Illumination Entertainment offers an animated look at what your pets do when you’re not at home. Stars the voices of Louis CK, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Dana Carvey, and Albert Brooks.

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC – Originally a limited release earlier this year, this drama finally moves into a wide release in which Viggo Mortensen (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) plays a father raising his kids off-the-grid.  

CELL – This adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name in which the world gets turned into zombies after a mysterious cell-signal has already been banished to on-demand services. Stars John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson.

FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS – In this drama, Russell Crowe is a writer dealing with being a widower and a father. Co-stars Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger, Bruce Greenwood, Jane Fonda, Octavia Spencer, and Quvenzhane Wallis (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD). It is directed by Gabriele Muccino (THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS).

GHOSTBUSTERS – Paul Feig (THE HEAT) re-unites with Melissa McCarthy in this remake of the 1984 all-time favorite beloved classic. Co-stars Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Lesllie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth (THOR).

THE INFILTRATOR – Based on the true story of a U.S. Customs agent who infiltrated the world’s largest drug cartels. Bryan Cranston stars as the agent, and he is joined by Diane Kruger, Benjamin Bratt, John Leguizamo, and Amy Ryan. Directed by Brad Furman (THE LINCOLN LAWYER).

CAFÉ SOCIETY – Woody Allen is back with his annual entry, in which a young man moves to Hollywood and falls in love with his uncle’s secretary. Stars Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, and Corey Stoll.

ICE AGE: COLLISION COURSE – The fifth movie in the ICE AGE franchise has our furry friends dodging a series of cosmic events threatening the Earth, which is triggered by Scrat in his pursuit of that elusive acorn.

STAR TREK BEYOND – The 13th film in the STAR TREK franchise and the third since the 2009 re-start has the crew of the Enterprise halfway into their five-year mission when they are attacked by an unstoppable alien force. Reprising their roles are Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and the late Anton Yelchin. Idris Elba plays the main villain, and it is directed by Justin Lin (FAST AND THE FURIOUS).

JASON BOURNE – The fifth film in the JASON BOURNE franchise (are we noticing a trend here?) has Jason Bourne re-appearing after his disappearance several years after THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM. Matt Damon reprises his role, and he is joined by Julia Stiles, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, and Alicia Vikander (EX MACHINA).


Next month, Reel Speak previews the month of August.

Friday, June 24, 2016


Roland Emmerich’s 1996 box office smash/alien-invasion film INDEPENDENCE DAY sent audiences soaring by way of unabashed patriotism, spectacular spectacle, and simple storytelling which utilized classic and proven archetypes which were understandable and relatable. The film altered the modern blockbuster to this day, and its long awaited follow-up, sub-titled RESURGENCE, seems to have no interest in repeating its past.

Twenty years after the events of the first film, the nations of the Earth have recovered and united to create the Earth Space Defense, led by David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), which uses the technology from the defeated aliens to build spaceships and big-ass spaceguns to defend the plant. But the aliens return, this time with a 3,000-mile wide ship which is built to extract the Earth’s core. Stepping up to defend the Earth again are former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), his daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe), and two ace space-fighter pilots; Jake (Liam Hemsworth), and Dylan (Jessie Usher)…who is the son of Capt. Steven Hiller (the hero of the first film, played by Will Smith).

RESURGENCE starts off very promising. The early moments are a fascinating look at a changed planet Earth with its new technology, along with establishing some interesting character traits with the old and new cast. Most of the characters have some residual effects from the events of the first film and are still dealing with them, and the stage is set for a galactic showdown once the big bad aliens show up again.

The film then begins introducing a hodgepodge of sci-fi elements, including a new alien species (represented by a weird talking orb), an alien prison, and the psychic connection some humans still have with the aliens. A lot of different elements are being thrown around, which leaves the overstuffed cast in the dust. Characters suddenly come second (or last), as most of their early threads are quickly discarded. RESURGENCE is a plot-heavy film where characters have no real impact on anything, and with that being the M.O., the film feels very lifeless with no real moral center. Emmerich in fact seems to hate every one of his characters. Some returning cast members are killed off for no reason at all, while the surviving ones do little but stand around with their mouths open.

The script takes a ton of liberties to keep the story going, including ret-conning a few things from the original film (a massive ship landed 20 years ago which no one ever detected, and a character thought dead was simply in a coma. Just two of many stupid-shit moments), and with so much plot and moving things around, RESURGENCE has a surprisingly bland feel to it. The film is a grind to sit through, and even when the action does begin it’s boring…which is an absolute sin for an alien-invasion war movie. The CGI is stunning in some places, completely awful in others (including a terrible looking final shot using the shittiest green-screen effect of all time), and the film has a completely fake look to it which borders on a parody. David Arnold’s magnificent score from the first film is replaced by a generic video game-like score, which adds to the blandness of the experience.

The goddamn 3D is total shit.

Acting is a mixed bag considering the cast. It’s a minor pleasure to see Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, and Judd Hirsch step back into their old roles…and they do it with ease…but they all suffer from a script which doesn’t let them do much. Hirsch suffers the most as he serves no purpose in the movie whatsoever other than a few chuckles. The younger cast is flat-out terrible; Liam Hemsworth and Jessie Usher have all the charisma of a soiled diaper, and Maika Monroe seems lost. French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg feels way out of place, and William Fichtner is wasted. Brent Spiner is the only one who walks away unscathed. There are also a few surprise cameos which are a minor treat to see.

The finale consists of a large aerial-battle and a showdown with a queen-alien hundreds of feet tall (you read that right), and then settles into the most aggravating part of all…the realization that most of the time RESURGENCE spent with the goddamn talking orb was a complete waste as it played no part in the resolution at all, and is instead kicked down the field for an apparent sequel. It’s the lid on a smelly garbage can, and many unanswered questions within the film itself will have the stench leaking out anyway; not to mention that the entire film contradicts what the aliens were after in the first place in 1996. Roland Emmerich seems to have forgotten what made INDEPENDENCE DAY work so well, for its sequel is devoid of any of the old traits; fun, adventure, joy, laughs, or the slightest understanding of how to tell a story. It’s bad enough to make us wish the aliens had won in 1996.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it                                                           

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Reel Opinion: The Top 5 Pixar Films

Pixar Animation Studios released its 17th feature film last weekend in FINDING DORY. The film has been a box office smash, breaking records on its opening weekend, and has also been reviewed well by critics (review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that the film has a 94% approval rating, and read Reel Speak’s review HERE). With no new film from the famed studio coming until June of 2017, now seemed like a good time to take stock of their impressive list of films and rank the best.

Since 1995, Pixar and their Disney partners have been producing quality films which have been critical darlings, box office monsters, Oscar winners, and a constant renewing presence in pop-culture. Their best works can hold up to any dramatic live-action film out of Hollywood, and they have that talent to strike the perfect balance between light entertainment for kids and adult sensibilities; if Pixar were a toy on the shelf at a toy store, the recommended ages would be 3 years to 100.

With such success, whittling down their 17 films to just five is not an easy task. This list of Top 5 Pixar films is based on this Blogger’s objective eye, personal impact, and longevity in pop-culture. Why only five? Simply because it presents a greater challenge; it’s easy to make a Top 10 list because there’s no guilt to be felt in leaving a film or two off.

So let’s wind the frog…

5. CARS (2006) – It’s very rare, if ever, that CARS would land on many people’s lists of Pixar’s best, but this Blogger has always had a great time with this film. Set in a fantasy world of anthropomorphic cars and other vehicles, CARS had a plot which was familiar and had been seen before, but it worked because it was an old story in a new setting…a setting which had never really been seen before in a feature film. It proves the old filmmaking axiom that the higher the concept, the simpler the story must be. When judging the story objectively (meaning, pretend you never saw this familiar story before), CARS works…and the design in the vehicles and the environments is some of the most creative work ever done by Pixar.

4. WALL-E (2008) – Pixar has strived on classic storytelling, with many of its films resembling the type of yarns to be spun around a campfire. They have a folk-hero feeling to their characters, and with WALL-E, the story of a lonely robot…Pixar may have found their most unique and lovable folk-hero. WALL-E works as a love story, a science-fiction tale, and a morality lesson…and the fact that the main character doesn’t really speak and yet becomes so endearing is a testament to Pixar’s design work and strength of their scripts. WALL-E isn’t just a movie, but a genuine film; the type that Kubrick would have loved.

3. INSIDE OUT (2015) – Earlier this year, Reel Speak posted a blog on the Top 15 Movies of the Millennium (read it HERE), and INSIDE OUT was the youngest entry on the list. Set inside the mind of a young girl where her personified emotions lead her through life, INSIDE OUT is not only the most creative and imaginative effort from Pixar, but 100 years from now it will be the one to be used as a teaching tool to teach kids about their emotions. INSIDE OUT is emotionally rewarding and incredibly thought-provoking, with more than one moment to have us reaching for the tissues.

2. TOY STORY (1995) – Now in its 21st year, the very first feature from Pixar still stands as one of its finest. The animation may seem dated today, but in 1995 it was eye-popping and stunning, and today the strength of the script, characters, and story carry just as much weight as they did 21 years ago. Focusing on a room full of child’s toys, led by a pullstring cowboy doll named Woody, and a high-tech astronaut/action figure named Buzz Lightyear, TOY STORY was an easy blast for kids, but for adults it touched upon something deeper; forgotten memories of favorite toys, playrooms, and sandboxes…and all the unlimited adventures their imaginations could conjure up. Literally every character in TOY STORY is a household name, with Woody and Buzz as two of the most popular fictional characters of all time.

1. THE INCREDIBLES (2004) – They say that there are only seven basic plots in which all stories and movies come from, but there is another theory that says there is only one story to be told: Who Am I. With THE INCREDIBLES, which tells the story of a family of superheroes, all five members of the family (a ma, a pa, older sister, younger brother and baby brother), have identities of their own to fulfill. It’s a remarkable piece of writing which keeps all members of the family in mind at all times, and there’s never a time when any of them take a back seat or lose any development. Story-wise, THE INCREDIBLES was Pixar’s first time in dipping their toes into another popular genre (superhero movies), and they executed it better than some of the big-budget live-action superhero films; what it means to be a hero and a regular person is explored perfectly, and done in a way which never feels old and tired. But most of all, with the film’s main characters an actual family, THE INCREDIBLES is the first, and best Pixar film which an entire family can take in…with each taking away something special. Pixar’s best is an incredible feat.



2.       TOY STORY

3.       INSIDE OUT

4.       WALL-E

5.       CARS

Monday, June 20, 2016

Anton Yelchin 1989 - 2016

Actor Anton Yelchin has passed away at 27.

Born in Russia, Anton Yelchin’s parents were figure skaters who were celebrities as stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet. The family would move to the United States when he was only six months old, and through his childhood would study skating and music, and would eventually study film at the University of Southern California.

He began acting at the age of nine when he appeared in the independent film A MAN IS MOSTLY WATER (2000), and a year later would star alongside Sir Anthony Hopkins in HEARTS IN ATLANTIS (2001); an adaptation of the Stephen King novel which would earn the young actor an award at the 2002 Young Artist Awards. He would appear in several TV shows such as ER, JUDGING AMY, THE PRACTICE, WITHOUT A TRACE, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, NYPD BLUE, LAW &ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT, and CRIMINAL MINDS.

Back on the big screen, his growing star would shine brightly in ALPHA DOG (2006), CHARLIE BARTLETT (2007), and MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (2008). He would play the role of young Kyle Reese in TERMINATOR: SALVATION (2009).

He earned a new following within geek culture when he dazzled as a young Pavel Chekov in the rebooted STAR TREK film franchise, which began in 2009 with JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK. He would reprise the role in the 2013 sequel, INTO DARKNESS, and will appear one last time as Chekov in the upcoming July 2016 TREK sequel, sub-titled BEYOND.

His other notable film credits include THE BEAVER (2011), THE SMURFS (2011), ODD THOMAS (2013), ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013), and GREEN ROOM (2015).


Like most, this Blogger took notice of Anton Yelchin in 2007 in CHARLIE BARTLETT, where he played a teen dishing out therapeutic advice and prescription drugs. In that role, he went toe-to-toe with a newly emerging, yet seasoned Robert Downey Jr., and it was clear in that film that Yelchin had the chops to run with the big dogs. He would be equally impressive in TERMINATOR: SALVATION; which was not a great movie but Yelchin was a bright spot. In 2009, when he re-invigorated the role of Chekov in STAR TREK, it was an incredible performance which was done with just the right amount of innocence, sincerity, and comedic timing. He would show tremendous range by tackling full-on drama as a brooding teenager in Jodie Foster’s THE BEAVER, and the outstanding vampire flick ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. This Blogger held Yelchin up very high on the ladder of actors who were fun and interesting to watch, and who instantly made every movie better. He was a master at blending in; going from a Russian wiz-kid to an American punk-ass teenager in a blink. His passing is a robbery and a tragedy, as we are deprived of all the great performances he never got around to. His voyage has ended, but his star is one that we will always remember.

Friday, June 17, 2016


In 2003, Disney and Pixar Animation Studios told us the story of a father searching for his lost son. The dedicated dad had help from his friend Dory, who had short-term memory loss. The setting for this adventure was the ocean, the characters were fish, and the adventure was called FINDING NEMO. Here in 2016, the characters are back, and this time…it’s Dory who takes center-ocean.

Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a fish who forgets things seconds after they happen, begins having flashbacks to the day she was separated from her parents. She sets out on a journey across the ocean with her friends Marlin (Albert Brooks), and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) to find them.

Every character has a beginning, and FINDING DORY pulls no punches in its opening sequence to firmly establish the origins of Dory. It’s an emotional gut-punch which is sure to bring tears, but the pure brilliance behind the prologue is that for as much as it brings all the feels, it stops just short of being complete. It’s a brilliant move, as the rest of Dory’s backstory is filled in through her flashbacks as they are triggered by her encounters.

With her flashbacks guiding her through the ocean, things take a turn (and an eventual major whopper of a twist), which lands her in a Marine Institute/aquarium, where all species of fish are on display and eventually returned to their natural habitat. There, Dory meets several other characters, including a cranky octopus (Ed O’Neill) and a sea lion (Idris Elba). Each encounter brings Dory a step closer to her goal while teaching her a thing or two…and the film isn’t just about Dory finding her family, but her own search for herself.

Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton is working with several layers of storytelling here.  In standard glorious Pixar fashion, FINDING DORY is certainly about family, adventure, and the search for one’s own true self, but with Dory’s “handicap” of short-term memory loss...the film takes on a whole new level. One can feel the frustration with characters as their patience is tested when having to repeat things over and over to Dory, and real-world parents of handicapped children are sure to take a lesson or two from the film. It’s bold and daring, and it’s done in a tasteful and charming manner.

As usual, Pixar’s outstanding computer-generated animation is eye-popping. Stanton keeps the pacing brisk and humor timed well, and the slower emotional moments have a lot of weight. The fairly large cast of characters seems like a lot, but each one gets their due time and none feel like dead weight. Stanton gets marvelous performances out of his talented cast, including Ellen Degeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Idris Elba, Dominic West…and a few other surprises. Thomas Newman adds a beautiful score.

The goddamn 3D is pointless.

As expected, FINDING DORY goes for an emotional turn towards the end, but then adds on an unexpected and unnecessary chase scene involving cops and a cargo truck. It’s a little anti-climactic and a minor gripe in what is a wholly satisfying cinematic experience. FINDING DORY is fun and emotional with some excellent lessons to take home, and is another treasure in Pixar’s ocean.



FINDING NEMO is preceded by the short-film PIPER, which has some of the best photo-realistic CG animation ever put to film.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


“You remind me of the babe…”

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH.

In the early 1980’s, there were no two bigger names in entertainment than Jim Henson and George Lucas. Henson was known as the creator of TV’s beloved SESAME STREET and for advancing the art of puppetry, and Lucas had altered the film industry with STAR WARS and then thrilled the world with INDIANA JONES. The meeting of these two creative minds would eventually result in LABYRINTH.

In 1983, Jim Henson was coming off his successful film THE DARK CRYSTAL, and was eager to begin a new film with a lighter tone than what CRYSTAL had. Together with Brian Froud, the two conceived a story in which a spoiled girl, burdened with babysitting, wishes her baby brother away…only to have the wish come true and the baby is kidnapped by goblins. Around this time, Henson approached George Lucas with the idea of collaborating on the film, and Lucas, who had been a great admirer of Henson’s sense of optimism, happily accepted.

Over the next two years the script would go through 25 treatments and drafts, with contributions from Henson, Lucas, and Terry Jones. When casting began, candidates for the role of the young girl included Sarah Jessica Parker, Marisa Tomei, Laura Dern, and Mia Sara. The role would eventually go to a 14 year-old Jennifer Connelly. The role of the leader of the goblins, known as the Goblin King, would go to superstar musician David Bowie, who was chosen over Sting, Prince, Mick Jagger, and Michael Jackson.

Filming began in early April of 1985 using a crew mostly assembled from various other Jim Henson projects, including Frank Oz, who had brought Yoda to life in STAR WARS, and Kevin Clash; best known for voicing Elmo on SESAME STREET. It took five months to film and was a complicated production due to the mass amount of puppets and animatronic creatures. Connelly and Bowie, who were the only human characters in the film, initially found it difficult to act against the puppets, but eventually found their way through repetition and rehearsing…while Bowie would later credit the realism of the puppets which made them actual characters on-set. All visual effects would be done on-camera, with the exception of a computer-generated owl which appears in the beginning of the movie, marking the first use of a CGI animal on film. Editing was performed by Henson and Lucas, while Trevor Jones contributed the score. Bowie would record five songs for the film.

Upon release, LABYRINTH would be met with mixed to positive reviews, and would open at No. 8 at the box office; well behind competition such as THE KARATE KID II, BACK TO SCHOOL, TOP GUN, and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. Henson would take the criticism hard, and his son would later recall it as one of the most difficult periods of his father’s career. However, LABYRINTH would gain a cult following, and actors Bowie and Connelly would be often recognized for their roles.


LABYRINTH would not win any awards or break any box office records, but today it is looked back at fondly thanks to its remarkable craftsmanship in its sets, environments, and puppet-wizardry. It also has a strong cling to classic storytelling, a Lucas trademark, which is familiar in a good way. There are good, sensible morals at work in LABYRINTH, such as being careful what you wish for and being patient with our younger siblings who don’t know any better. The film would get Connelly’s career going, and would add another level to Bowie’s growing legend. Today, LABYRINTH is an expression of old-school filmmaking craftsmanship, pure imagination, classic storytelling, and one of Jim Henson’s most iconic creations.

“For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is great...”

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Reel Review: WARCRAFT

A movie set in the fantasy genre can be a lot like a gift-wrapped box. On the outside, there is the shiny wrapping paper, which in this case is the fantasy world, populated by men, Orcs, wizards, magic, and winged beasts. Under the paper is the box; the real substance of the gift, or the actual storytelling. WARCRAFT is deeply set in the fantasy world with all of the shiny creatures and battles, but under that, is what really matters.

The thuggish Orcs, led by Gul’dan (voiced by Daniel Wu), and his chieftain Durotan (voiced by Toby Kebbell), invade the world of the men, known as Azeroth, through a portal which draws its power from the lives of their captives. Opposing them are the King of Stormwind (Dominic Cooper), and his military commander, Sir Lothar (Travis Fimmel), along with a young magic-wielding mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and the mysterious Guardian (Ben Foster).

Based on the long-running series of video games, WARCRAFT sets itself up as a standard good vs. evil fantasy flick, with the sword-and-magic humans battling against the axe-and-hammer green-skinned eight-foot tall Orcs. Things get unnecessarily complicated when the well-intentioned Durotan decides to lead a revolt against his leader, which leads to scene after scene of Orcs punching each other. The humans have problems of their own involving the Guardian being up to something and the many kingdoms divided (the Elves and Dwarves want no parts of the pending war). It’s not the worst idea in the world, and was obviously done to beef up the script and the action, but seems to overcomplicate things.

But where WARCRAFT has the most chinks in the armor is in the telling of the story. The film is shockingly boring. There is no sense of urgency, energy, or momentum as the plot slogs around from location to location with no zip and certainly no sense of whimsy or fun; requirements for a fantasy flick peppered with swords and magic. Dialogue is dull with no wit or cleverness, there is very little humor to be found, and the overall experience is simply joyless. Worse, with so many characters coming and going on both sides, the film does not make any of them the main character, which means the story has no moral center…or anyone to root for or care about.

Director Duncan Jones films some startling visuals here and there, and the CGI is stunning in some places but cartoonish in others. Long-time fans of the WARCRAFT game will be thrilled at the many, many, many, references to some kingdom or some character which are never seen, but general audiences will never catch a single one. The many battle scenes are coherent and easy to follow, but lack any sense of real danger or enjoyment. Costumes, weapons, and the designs of the kingdoms and the many creatures are excellent.

The goddamn 3D is worthless.

Acting is as bland as the rest of the film. Dominic Cooper is horribly miscast as the King; displaying no feeling of a wizened ruler or a fierce warrior. Ben Foster barely moves a single facial muscle, and the lovely Paula Patton, who appears as a half-human, half-orc, seems to struggle through her heavy makeup. The only real standout is Travis Fimmel, who feels right at home with his warrior-beard and big-ass sword.

WARCRAFT opens with a breathtaking prologue, which ultimately becomes meaningless as it has no bearing on the end of the film (the third act by the way, has characters doing stupid things only because the plot required them to), and the story doesn’t end as much as stop dead and leave many threads dangling for an obvious sequel. It’s a frustrating wrap to a frustrating film, which looks amazing as shiny wrapping paper but has nothing in the box. It is dull and boring, uninspired and devoid of any sense of adventure or fun. WARCRAFT? More like SNORECRAFT.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Reel Opinion: Video Games & the Movies - A Match Made in Hell.

This weekend, a film which should be more anticipated than it really is arrives in theatres in the form of Duncan Jones’ WARCRAFT; which tells a story in a fantastical world full of sword-wielding knights battling axe-swinging orcs, along with wizards, winged beasts, and portholes to other dimensions. The fantasy genre has been popular in film for years; from Disney classics such as SNOW WHITE (1937), to EXCALIBUR (1981) and CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)…and hit a peak in the early 2000’s with Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS and Warner Bros.’ HARRY POTTER franchise. There’s always room for a good swordplay flick in theatres and with audiences, but WARCRAFT doesn’t seem to be generating a lot of hype, and hasn’t been since the project was first announced in 2006. In most fan communities, the film is looked at with a sense of dread. Why is that? Probably because this fantasy is based on a video game, and video games adapted to film do not have a great history.

A great story can be found anywhere, and since the early days of filmmaking, the industry has not been shy in taking inspiration from different places. Thousands of films have been based on novels, and a thousand more seem to be coming based on comic books and graphic novels. Outside of those sources, many films have been based on journalistic stories and accounts, such as the Oscar-winning ARGO (2012), and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976). Disney made a fortune the size of a small country by basing their PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise off their amusement park rides, and the TRANSFORMERS and GI JOE films were based on toys. Films based on other works can soar or sink, but the one genre that seems to fail time and again are the video game adaptations. Enter WARCRAFT.

WARCRAFT is based on the popular series of games of the same name, which has also branched out into novels. The franchise hit a peak from 2004-2010 with its massive multiplayer online game World of Warcraft. The game’s popularity has since waned a bit, but was big enough to the point where even the casual and non-gamer could recognize the name. When WARCRAFT the movie was announced, there was a collective groan from cinema fans, because video games and films have had a marriage from hell. Beginning in the 1980’s, films based on video games have been met with lackluster reviews and ire from fans, with many of the films making the lists of worst movies of all time. Although some films such as MORTAL KOMBAT, TOMB RAIDER, SILENT HILL, and RESIDENT EVIL have some favoritism among fans, they still struggled to make an impression with critics and general audiences…who are the true make-or-break audience. Like it or not, WARCRAFT has its origins in this long history of crappy video game movies, and there’s a justifiable feeling of here-we-go-again. Again.

Why can’t movies based on video games get it right? There are a lot reasons. Hardliner fans blame filmmakers who take too many liberties, while critics and non-gamers just say that the material is too silly to be taken seriously in the first place. Others have speculated that the genres are too different; film is passive (we sit back and take it in), while video games are an active form of entertainment (we make the action happen), and no filmmaker or studio has been able to find the balance between the two on the screen.

Where does that leave Duncan Jones and his film? He and his studio bosses have their work cut out for them, beginning with convincing the world that the material can be taken seriously. Otherwise WARCRAFT will just be another name in a long list of casualties. If WARCRAFT is not the film which turns the tide, there will always be more attempts to do so, and the situation is similar to the comic books-to-film adaptations in the 1990’s, which were horrible movies and were never taken seriously. The comic book ship was eventually righted, so maybe the video game can one day find its champion too.  


WARCRAFT arrives in theatres on June 10th. It stars Travis Fimmel, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebell, Robert Kazinsky, Paula Patton, Daniel Wu, and Clancy Brown. It is directed by Duncan Jones (MOON, SOURCE CODE).

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Reel Opinion: ROGUE ONE - Let's Not Panic

“I’m here to put you back on schedule!”
Darth Vader, in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).
A long time ago…when this Blogger was working in the hectic yet fun universe of TV news, there was a makeshift sign taped above the control room wall which simply said, “Let’s not panic”. It was a wise posting by a wise man in an effort to keep the crews calm when things seemed to be more hectic and less fun during a live broadcast.
Such a creed should have been expressed across the internet last week, when stories (and a boat-load of rumors) started circulating that all was not well in the newly rejuvenated STAR WARS franchise. The stories and eventual panic in nerd-culture had to do with the first STAR WARS spin-off film, entitled ROGUE ONE. The film, which is being directed by Gareth Edwards, and is set to be released this coming December, had its initial screening in front of Disney executives…and as a result of that screening, was ordered into reshoots. The reports say that up to eight weeks of reshooting has been ordered, with the goal being to “lighten the mood” and to improve the tone; which has been said to be too far removed from what a STAR WARS movie should feel like.
Reshoots happen all the time in Hollywood, or even in independent filmmaking circles. They serve many purposes, including improving continuity, developing characters further, or too simply beef-up a scene or two. While filming more scenes is not uncommon, the reported eight weeks seems like a lot…and would theoretically put the unfinished film dangerously close to its December release date with not much time to polish.
Disney has a lot riding on ROGUE ONE. It is the first STAR WARS spinoff film (it doesn’t get an episode number, and in the timeline takes place right before the events of EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE), and it is the first STAR WARS movie to come after the mammoth success of THE FORCE AWAKENS. And since it has the high-profile name of STAR WARS attached to it, long-time fans across the internet had reason to panic…and often compared the situation to Darth Vader in RETURN OF THE JEDI, when the famed evil character arrived at an uncompleted Death Star to whip the construction crews into shape.
But let’s not panic, because there are reasons why this is a good thing. The principle players here are director Gareth Edwards and Disney, and if it’s a matter of choosing sides…then this Blogger is firmly in the Disney camp. Edwards is a competent director, but his only resume highlight is the 2014 GODZILLA, which was not met with a lot of enthusiasm from fans or critics (this Blogger found it to be an intolerable snore). In the other corner, we have Disney…whose past four films include THE FORCE AWAKENS, THE JUNGLE BOOK, ZOOTOPIA, and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR; all great films which have been met with high reviews from fans and critics. The comparison of resumes is not even fair. Disney’s knack for giving people what they want to see (whether they know it or not) has been intact for over 75 years, and if they say they want a STAR WARS film that feels like a STAR WARS film, then that can’t be a bad thing (ask series creator George Lucas how STAR WARS can be received when it doesn’t feel very STAR WARS-y).  Disney and Edwards have their work cut out for them in the coming months, and in the meantime, fans and internet nuts should take some advice from that wise man who sought to keep his crew in a state of calm.
STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE is directed by Gareth Edwards from a screenplay by Chris Weitz (ABOUT A BOY). It stars Felicity Jones, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Diego Luna, and Jonathan Aris. It is slated for release on December 16, 2016.

Friday, June 3, 2016


Much like its comic book and TV-cartoon source material, there isn’t anything in this first sequel to TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (TMNT) that should be taken seriously. After all, it’s material which involves six-foot tall mutated turtles with the minds of teenagers doing kung-fu fighting against other mutated creatures resembling rhinos and boars and big blob things with faces. Once the business of getting past the ridiculousness of the characters and their universe is done and accepted, then the matter of looking at the movie can be handled.

One year after the events of the first film, the evil Shredder (Brian Tee) escapes from prison with the help of the brilliant but misguided Dr. Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), and aligns himself with the more-evil inter-dimensional mutant Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett). Standing in their way are the four mutant ninja turtles; Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo (voiced by Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Jeremy Howard, and Noel Fisher), their mutant rat-teacher Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), and their human-looking friends…reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox), and former cop turned vigilante Casey Jones (Stephen Arnell).

OUT OF THE SHADOWS draws heavily upon everything that came before it in the TMNT long history, most especially the long-running TV cartoon show. The film is packed with kung-fu fighting across and under the streets of New York City, wacky inventions, far-out sci-fi, and teenage angst and humor. Long-time fan favorites Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams), and Rocksteady (wrestler Sheamus), appear as mutated thuggish animals and add to the nutball universe. It’s a packed house, and plenty for TMNT fans to consume.

What makes all the nuttiness work is the excellent job done in making true characters out of the Turtles, which is one of the great improvements from the first film. The personalities are fleshed out nicely, and the four brothers are given their own things to do and grapple with outside of battling freaky creatures and other ninjas. This time around they have to deal with being unrecognized heroes, and also dealing with the fear and hate that comes around when people have to deal with something different. The work done with the Turtles is managed so well that the film almost feels like it comes to a halt when attention is given to the human characters, who are treated fairly paper-thin, and although they assist in the eventual final battle, aren’t all that interesting to watch.

Director Dave Green keeps the pacing brisk and humor timely, and the action sequences are a thrill. The CGI work on the Turtles is outstanding, and the daytime renderings during a river chase-sequence are stunning to look at. The film does have a slight identity problem. It seems geared towards kids, but there enough light swear-words and sexed-up outfits to make one wonder exactly who the film is aimed for. Not to mention that some characters and environments may be way too scary for the little ones. The 3D is fantastic and worth the extra coin.

Acting is a mixed bag. The off-camera voice-talents are handled very well, but similar to the characters, it’s the CGI acting that seems to fare better than the humans who actually appear on-camera. Megan Fox is fine, but seems to be used sparingly and often looks like she doesn’t want to be there. Stephen Amell is just kind-of there, and Tyler Perry seems right at home acting like an idiot.

The finale is composed of a balls-out CGI sequence involving Krang bringing down a huge planet-devastating weapon down from another dimension, and even for hardlining TMNT fans, is a little much to swallow…especially since the build-up to get there was so much better to take in. OUT OF THE SHADOWS is still a TMNT film very much made for the fans. The filmmakers seem to know that audiences are fans of this material before they sit down to watch, and therefore make no apologies for what’s on the screen. Outsiders won’t understand a minute of it and dismiss it as silly crap (it is, and it knows it), but anyone familiar with Turtle Power will enjoy the ride. Non-fans need not bother, and that imbalance keeps it just a notch below a must-see.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it  

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2016 - Episode VI

The Summer Movie Season kicks it into a higher gear this month; for as the temperature rises, as does the fun and excitement of light-hearted cinema. Here are the notable films for the month of June.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 2: OUT OF THE SHADOWS – The sequel to the 2014 comic-book adaptation of kung-fu fighting turtles, this time with even more mutated creatures. Stars Megan Fox, Stephen Arnell (TV’s ARROW), Will Arnett, Tyler Perry, Laura Linney, and William Fichtner. Directed by Dave Green (EARTH TO ECHO).

ME BEFORE YOU – Adapted from the 2012 young-romance novel of the same name. Stars Emilia Clarke (TV’S GAME OF THRONES), and Sam Claflin.

NOW YOU SEE ME 2 – The sequel to the 2013 heist-film which made things up as it went along. The over-qualified cast includes Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Daniel Radcliffe, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Jon M. Chu; the man behind the last G.I. JOE turd of a movie.  

WARCRAFT – The long awaited film adaptation of the culture-smashing video game finally arrives in which humans and orcs clash in battles of swords, axes, and giant mystical creatures. Stars Dominic Cooper (TV’S AGENT CARTER), and Ben Foster (3:10 to YUMA). Directed by Duncan Jones (MOON).

THE CONJURING 2 – Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprise their roles as based-on-real-life ghost hunters, who this time travel to battle a pesky poltergeist in England. Directed by James Wan (SAW).

FINDING DORY – Pixar Animation Studios is back with a follow-up to their 2003 smash, FINDING NEMO. Taking place six months after the events of the first film, Dory, the forgetful fish, sets out to find her family. Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks reprise their roles. Directed by Pixar pillar  Andrew Stanton…whose past directing credits include WALL-E, FINDING NEMO, and A BUG’S LIFE.

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE – Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson stars as a former overweight geek who grows up to be a CIA agent, and returns home to take his old friend (played by Kevin Hart) on a mission to save the world.

CLOWN – Eli Roth, creator of the horror films HOSTEL and HOSTEL II, produces this horror-flick involving very scary clowns.

TICKLED – In what may be the most bizarre, yet documentary-event of the year…a journalist sets out to film a documentary on an international tickling competition, but winds up facing serious death threats.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE – The sequel to the 1996 smash-hit, pop-culture altering alien-invasion film arrives just before the 4th of July here in 2016. Roland Emmerich returns to direct, as does former cast-members Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, and Vivica A. Fox. Newcomers include Liam Hemsworth (brother of Chris), and Jessie Usher.

FREE STATE OF JONES – A Civil War film telling the story of a man who led an armed rebellion against the Confederacy. Matthew McConaughey stars as that man. Directed by Gary Ross (SEABISCUIT, PLEASANTVILLE).

SWISS ARMY MAN – In this bizarre yet heartfelt story of friendship, Paul Dano plays a man stranded on a remote island, who comes across a washed-up farting corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe.


Next month, Reel Speak previews the month of July.