Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10 Movies of 2013

It's time once again for my annual Top 10 Movies of The Year. The year of 2013 didn't find me watching as many films as I'm either used to or prefer, partly due to my obscene work schedule and partly due to Blockbuster finally going under, which severely cut into my options. I didn't even get to see most of the movies released in the fall/winter season. I think I was at the theater like, once in December. And to be honest, while I had predicted that this would be a banner year, I was left kind of cold with the results. I was hard pressed to fill up the list, honestly. It wasn't as bad as 2011, but still, it was kind of a disappointing year at the cinema.

But I've still got a list to make, so here we are! These are my Top 10 Movies of 2013:

10. The Place Beyond The Pines
This is a solid, solid drama. I'm no fan of Ryan Gosling, and I think he's as bland in this as he is in everything else, but he's only part of a big story that meanders so much that you begin to think it's  screwing with you until the end where it all comes together. It's beautifully executed despite giving off the impression that it's not for quite some time. Not sure if it's something I would say I had a great time at, and it's a bit too long, but I can't deny that it's a good flick.

9. The Last Stand
Akin to a Phoenix rising from the ashes, "The Last Stand" summoned back The One True Action God himself to grace us with His presence. Is it art? Hell no. Is it intelligent cinema? Hell no. Is it a fun movie? You bet your ass it is. I suppose I should end with some stupid pun about Schwarzenegger "being back," but I'm above that. I'll just be content in the knowledge that when he said all those years ago that he was done with acting, he lied.

8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Like last year, Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth is, and I'm being arguably over-generous here, not without its problems. It's still too damn long for no good reason, but in this case the story is much faster paced and the action is frankly stunning when its going full-blast, which makes up for a lot of the other smaller irritations, like the bizarre changes to the story they added. But it was still fun, and the fanboy in me requires it to be on this list. But it's also the fanboy in me that can't in good conscience place it any higher than this.

7. Equestria Girls
Speaking of fandom: "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic." Yeah. I said it. Ponies. And while some of you out there are possibly confused, let me assure you that MLP is the illest, and that "Equestria Girls" was pretty darn awesome. Not for the uninitiated by any means, but for fellow herd members, there's no way you couldn't have a good time. Unless you're one of those weirdos who instantly hated it based on the premise. No it's not high art, after all it's a kid's movie, but it's a really good one based on what is handily one of the best shows around. It's extremely fun and very funny, and encapsulates a lot of the reasons why I love the show. I was so happy during this. So happy.

6. The World's End
If it's Edgar Wright, it's probably going on the Top 10 list. That's just the way it is. A fitting end to the Coronetto Trilogy, "The World's End" was full of the same clever writing, extremely flawed but extremely loveable characters, unbelievably good cast, and surprising and surprisingly heartfelt story that is present in all his movies. And it makes you really thirsty for a beer.

5. The Wolverine
The best Marvel movie since "X-Men: First Class." This is a sleek, stripped down to its bare essences, uncluttered tale of redemption that could have been a samurai movie staring Toshiro Mifune. "The Wolverine" is honestly the first Marvel film that felt like...I don't know...an actual movie, and my fondness of it only increases the more I think back on it. The X-Men franchise finally grew up a bit.

4. Pain & Gain
I can't believe I'm putting a Michael Bay movie on here, but I can't deny what is awesome, and "Pain & Gain" was awesome. It's not for everyone, as it's completely immature, misogynistic, foul, and jacked-up on an IV drip of a Red Bull/espresso cocktail, in other words "A Michael Bay Movie." But in this case the script is so insane and so outlandish that it would come across as an over-the-top satire of American society if it weren't also a completely true story. It's like a talented filmmaker made a brilliant parody of a Michael Bay movie, only the guy making it was actually Michael Bay. My mind is blown in several ways.

And now we come to the best three movies of the year. Which three stood out above the rest? Well, you've probably never heard of one, another was one of my most anticipated of the year, and the other...well...the other was one of the most stunning things I've ever seen. So what say you?! Onward! Excelsior!

3. Sushi Girl
In a year which did not grace us with a Quentin Tarantino movie, "Sushi Girl" was a blessing from whatever saints chose to bestow it upon us. It's like "Reservoir Dogs," only instead of that scene where Mr. Blonde tortures the cop lasting like three minutes, it takes up the entire last two acts, without cutting away from the bit with the ear. It's an intense movie, and there is some really tough to watch moments as the characters get pretty creative with the ways they put the hurt on their victim. And I'm not a fan of torture movies at all, but man oh man is it worth it just to watch Mark Hamill tear it the hell up.

2. Star Trek Into Darkness
J.J. Abrams needs some kind of medal for what he's done for "Star Trek." Both films of the rebooted series were stunning, with "Star Trek Into Darkness" one-upping the first one with the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain, a decision which is never a bad one. Action packed to the brim, gorgeous to look at, and possessing the same phenomenal cast as before (with the exception of Alice Eve who is terrible), this was everything I was hoping for in a sequel to one of my favorite sci-fi action flicks of the last few decades.

The fact that I nearly pass out with glee every time during Cumberbatch's big reveal moment also helps.


1. Pacific Rim
Mother of Mothra. This movie. Just. This movie. I can't even. It's too much.

It's too much to describe in words. It needs to be witnessed. Until you've seen a mecha hundreds of feet tall smack a giant monster in the face WITH AN OIL TANKER THAT IT'S HOLDING LIKE A SWORD, I don't even know how productive a discussion can be, because you'll simply be physically unable to comprehend the awesomeness.

I had more fun at "Pacific Rim" than any other movie I saw this year. "Star Trek" was close but this was on another plane of existence entirely. In a time when everyone is complaining that there's no originality in Hollywood anymore, Guillermo del Toro stepped in to prove us wrong. There were some killjoy detractors who called it "stupid" and "without a plot," but I would like to first ask them what exactly their exceptions were in regards to story, because if you ask me they gave us exactly the amount of story one needed and not an iota more, which seems very efficient. Then I'd like to remind them that what some might call "brainless fun" still needs to be done with intelligence, style and solid craftsmanship, which "Pacific Rim" was overflowing with. Otherwise you get "Transformers."

If this doesn't become a franchise, I quit life. It was the best movie I saw in 2013, and it's way too good to not be followed up on.

There you have my Top 10 of the year! Hopefully I'll be able to get out to the theater more often this coming year. I'm looking to make some changes in the way I do this blog, which will hopefully help me with that. In any case, I look forward to what is to come, and I'll see you next time!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Elysium (2013)

I was a fan of Neill Blomkamp's debut, "District 9." While it was as subtle in its social commentary as a flare gun fired off in an elevator, it did its job quite well and was a fun action film despite the overly shaky camera. After seeing his sophomore feature, "Elysium," I get the feeling that "a fun action film that is too jittery with the camera and too telegraphed with the social justice angle" is going to be a common phrase heaped upon Blomkamp's filmography. To be fair, there are a lot worse things that you could say about a movie, so don't feel like that's writing the guy off. He's looking to have quite the career ahead of him as a director.

The film takes place in the future, where the Earth is a barely habitable, overcrowded wasteland, and the rich live in a space station called Elysium, which looks a lot like The Citadel from "Mass Effect." It's a paradise that has everything you could possibly want, including perfect health and essentially immortality as they possess this crazy technology that instantly cures anything wrong with you. Anything. Seriously, at one point a dude gets his face blown off with a grenade, but since his brain is stilling functioning they just strap him in there, it reconstructs his head, and he's fine. It even keeps his beard. Basically it's that thing from "The Fifth Element" that reconstructs Milla Jovovich. Anyway, the rich are quite happy up in Elysium, and like to kill anyone who tries to smuggle themselves onto there.

Dah dah dah dah dah...dut dut...dut dut...

Meanwhile everyone else on Earth lives in squalor, including Max (Matt Damon), a reformed criminal who's just trying to save up enough money to one day make it up to Elysium, a dream that is a pathetic long-shot at best. When an accident on the job leaves him with five days to live, he kick-starts his dream by rejoining the criminal world to make it up to Elysium and their life-saving medbays. During his quest he finds himself in the middle of a struggle that could mean the end of Elysium's isolationist policy, and the salvation of countless millions on Earth.

Man, Nerf used to be awesome back in the day.

The film is a thinly veiled but well deserved middle finger to the overly wealthy, and it's not subtle with it at all (like, AT ALL), but the characters are well written enough and believable enough to pull the story off. While Jodie Foster's performance as Delacourt, the main villain for most of the movie, may come across as slightly over-the-top in her wickedness, it can't be said that her actions as the head of security on a place like Elysium didn't make sense, as did the actions of pretty much everyone else in the film. Even the setup probably wouldn't be that far off from reality, if the technology was there. Compare that with crap like "The Purge," which took place in a land where nothing made sense. With a story like this which is actually fairly plausible, the whole lack of subtlety aspect seems less and less important when you consider that at least for once it's well done social commentary.

While Matt Damon and the rest of the cast are all fine, the guy who steals the show was Sharlto Copley as Kruger, a mercenary working for Delacourt. I really like Copley as an actor, and here he's this off-the-wall psychopath who goes through everything that's around him like a sweaty wrecking ball, sneering in his barely decipherable Afrikaans accent. He's a delight to watch. He almost seems like he belongs in another movie, actually. He's way too much of a Bond Number Two henchman for this. But he is difficult to understand.

"Oy inno gwanna kill 'im dee boyke."
"...I'm sorry boss, you're gonna boink what?"

Like "District 9," the story builds up the majority of the first half of the film before being a straight up action flick by the mid-point. Some may call that a slow straight, but decent characterization is nothing to roll your eyes at. And when it does fire up all of its cylinders, "Elysium" is a hard-hitting, violent romp that has enough "OH DAMN" moments to satisfy the action fan. Like I said earlier, the camera does tend to drift to the shaky side of things, but it's dialed back a bit from how distracting it was in "District 9."

Overall this one was pretty satisfying. It's not going to reinvent the wheel or even be remembered with any great reverence, if remembered by many at all given a couple years, but it's a decent entry into the annals of the Sci-Fi/Action genre. And while it may be doomed to be lumped in with the many, many films that are just like it in terms of plot and quality, that doesn't make it bad. It just makes it "A Sci-Fi/Action Movie." And you've seen those before. If you want to see another one, hey, try "Elysium." It's decent.

Check out the trailer for "Elysium!"

THE BOTTOM LINE - A competent and satisfying film for those who are in the mood for some distopian sci-fi. Sharlto Copley is the main attraction, and makes it worth watching even if the rest wasn't anything too mind-blowing. It's a little awkward in how overt it is with the social commentary, but that doesn't mean it's not completely correct in what it's saying. That goes a long way.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Wolverine (2013)

While the original "X-Men" trilogy was not that great and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" was pretty bad, Marvel did get it right with "X-Men: First Class," which I consider the best film they've produced. So in that regard any "X-Men" movie, while capable of greatness, isn't something that's guaranteed to be amazing. Granted I'm not a big fan of Marvel films in general, so my opinion is somewhat suspect, but that's just me. In any case, I wasn't holding my breath when it came to "The Wolverine." It's not that I thought it looked bad, in fact I thought the trailer was pretty promising, but I didn't really feel like paying movie theater prices to see it.

To my pleasant surprise, however, "The Wolverine" ended up being a film that I greatly enjoyed. In fact I had such a good time with it that I'd put it up there with "X-Men: First Class," although the later is the ultimately more satisfying film. It's a very different "X-Men" movie than we're used to, stripped down to the bare essences and free of the clutter of outlandish super-powers and revolving door of half-baked, poorly-defined characters dragging the plot through the mud as we slog through the cameos. That was always one of my biggest issues with those movies: It always seemed like there were about two dozen main characters, barely any of whom had enough screen time to be more than a walking name tag saying "Hi, My Name is Rogue."

Instead of having a massive cast who all seemed haphazardly crammed in strictly for fan-service reasons, "The Wolverine" keeps the story simple and about one (1) guy's journey. After the events of "X-Men: The Last Stand," Logan (Hugh Jackman) is living out in the wilderness, having nightmares every night about having killed his love interest Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and essentially being a miserable bastard who has had quite enough of living. When Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a powerful businessman whom Logan had saved from the A-bomb dropped on Nagasaki, offers him a way out of his misery by taking away his immortality, Logan finds himself tempted by the idea and goes to Japan.

Of course things go kind of sour pretty quickly, Yashida dies, a power grab ensues, his funeral turns into a slaughterhouse, and Logan finds himself on the run, protecting Yashida's daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from the Yakuza and a dangerous mutant named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) as they make their way across Japan, trying to solve the mystery of what exactly is going on here. All this is going on while Logan's healing ability is strangely not working very well, causing him to actually be hurt by such trivial things as being shot and stabbed. Eventually he makes his way to one of Yashida's fortresses out in the middle of nowhere to save Mariko and put an end to the shenanigans afoot. Oh, and there may or may not be a fight with a giant samurai made from ademantium.


It's a very simple story that, not surprising given the plot, is not dissimilar to a samurai flick that you may have seen Toshiro Mifune in. Yashida even calls Logan a "Ronin" at one point, and there's plenty of imagery that makes it clear that's exactly what they were going for here. It almost reminded me of a live-action anime given the style and setting, which is very cool and off kilter enough to make "The Wolverine" really stand out among the rest of the Marvel franchise.

In fact this film rarely even feels like a Marvel movie, simply on the basis of it being too good. Yeah, you heard me fanboys, I said it. In terms of it being an uncluttered story with solid character arcs, well laid out motivations, believable and non-irritating characters and consistent and satisfying themes, this is better than any of the rest of the Marvel films with the exception of "X-Men: First Class." But in some ways I like "The Wolverine" better.

One of the main reasons it feels different is because for most of the movie, Logan is hurting pretty bad. His healing powers aren't working, so he's vulnerable. His brash actions that typically involve him eschewing any kind of caution now have dire consequences, to the point where he could actually die. The problem with a lot of the X-Men is that they are utterly defined by their powers, and while that is still somewhat true with Logan, in this film he has to become more than just a man who can't die, because that's not who he is anymore. I think it's the first time any X-Men movie has dealt with characterization to that extent, and it's a refreshing change.

As refreshing as the gentle breeze on top of a train going 300 mph. Aaaah. Soothing.

On a number of occasions it also had me doing one of my favorite things, which is sitting back in awe as I say to myself, "Well, I've never seen that before." Two scenes in particular stand out, one being an absolutely stunning action sequence on top of a bullet train which puts the end of the first "Mission: Impossible" to shame, and the other one being a sequence where Logan performs open-heart surgery on himself. I was invested for the entire film, but those parts were especially fantastic and blew me away.

And of course Hugh Jackman IS Wolverine at this point, having completely become the character and the eternal badass that he is. The fact that he's great in it is a given, but it was nice to see them make his hair look a little less ridiculous while still giving the hint of his classic but absurd haircut. It was also cool seeing Will Yun Lee again, and I also always enjoy seeing Hiroyuki Sanada show up in anything, and he gets to play both a jerk and swing a sword here, both being things he is exceedingly good at, so that was cool. And newcomers Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima were a delight, and I hope to see more of them in the future because they're both quite good. The only issue I had was Svetlana Khodchenkova, and that's not because she was bad, but because she's got this mole of preposterous size on her face that is intensely distracting.

"Hey, you've got something on your face. Right there, to the right. You need to take care of that. Seriously, it's like someone glued a Coco-Puff to the side of your mouth. It's freaking me out."

It's not surprising given that the director, James Mangold, is very very good, but "The Wolverine" exceeded pretty much every expectation that I had. I'm not sure if it'll make my Top 10 of 2013, but if it doesn't it'll probably make an honorable mention at the very least. If they keep cranking them out like this, the X-Men films might start showing the other Marvel films up. Not in terms of box-office, I'm sure, but since when do box-office numbers count for quality? Just have Joss Whedon write a bunch of jerks snarking at each other for two hours before actually doing something productive and acting like superheroes. That sounds way better than something with actual characterization and mature themes.

Check out this awesome trailer for "The Wolverine."

THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Wolverine" is way better than a sequel to "X-Men: The Last Stand" has any right to be. It's stylish, it's action-packed, Hugh Jackman is fantastic, and the storyline has the most introspective and deep characterization we've ever gotten in a Marvel film, mostly due to the fact that it's about just Logan as opposed to a cast of dozens, so it gets a chance to actually flesh him out as a character. One of the best Marvel films ever, second only to maybe "X-Men: First Class."

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Haunting In Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia (2013)

Let's take a moment to pause here and consider the following: The name of this movie is "The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia." Let that sink in. Go back over it again if you need to, because it might take a second read to register on the basis of the human brain not normally being capable of processing something that catastrophically stupid on the first go-around. If it's helpful I'll inform you that at no point does the film travel to Connecticut, so if you were giving it the benefit of the doubt, you can just go ahead and stop.

Has it sunk it yet how abyssally low one's expectations should be for this film based on the title alone? I mean, there's dumb and then there's something of this caliber. And while the old adage suggests that we shouldn't, I will posit that judging a book by its cover, or in this case a movie and its title, can occasionally be very informative. If they called it something that mind-bendingly dense, what kind of effort could have really been put forward here? You can call making assumptions in poor taste, but I'm telling you that any film that is so transparent in its effort to tie itself in with a movie that has nothing to do with it, so much so that even the name doesn't make any damn sense, does not care one bit about anything that it's doing. And that's assuming that people actually remember the first movie anyway, which they don't.

Quick recap: It sucked.

"Ghosts of Georgia" is about a family who moves into an old creepy house in the middle of nowhere in Georgia. The mother, Lisa (Abigail Spencer), is a medium who hates the fact that she's a medium, and keeps her visions under control with the help of medication. This keeps her in a state of being perpetually kind of tweaked-out, since we often see her while she's coming down off of the meds, a process which leaves her feeling terrible and also provides the movie most of its opportunities to cram in a jump scare as the ghosts and orchestra stings start showing up.

This runs in her family, as Lisa's mother had it (and apparently killed herself over it), as does her sister Joyce (Katee Sackhoff). And now her young daughter, Heidi (Emily Alyn Lind), is also beginning to show psychic powers, which make themselves readily apparent when she starts talking to "Mr. Gordy," a creepy looking ghost who was the former resident of the house they now live in. And since the house also functioned as a way-station for the Underground Railroad way back in the day, complete with some nefarious goings-on, there's plenty of ghosts to go around and scare the bajesus out of the ladies.

"Excuse me. Can I borrow a cup of face?"

I'm actually kind of on board with the idea of the plot. I like the idea of a psychic being tormented by their visions and making themselves a pill junky just to make it all stop, and her watching her daughter begin the process herself does make for interesting drama. However, in a disturbingly popular trend in ghost movies, "Ghosts of Georgia" falls victim to two things that make it not necessarily bad per se, since I admit that I've seen far worse in the realms of horror, but still dull and ultimately pointless.

The first problem is that nearly every scare in this film is a jump scare accompanied by an orchestra sting. There are occasions where that tactic can work, but it's best when it's used exceedingly rarely, and it's the exceedingly rare horror film that adheres to that, which this one is not. To the film's credit they do have a couple scares that are left subtle and quiet, which are some of the scarier moments in the film, but at no point does "Ghosts of Georgia" come across any more scary than any other random, tame horror flick made to scare high school girls since they would jump at a Pop Tart coming out of a toaster.

The second problem that is baffling to me as to why it's so common is the fact that the ghosts really don't pose much of a threat to the characters. Or at least in this film, the extent of their powers is left really vague and inconsistent. For instance, despite there being a lot of ghosts around the house, there's only one bad one. And while most of what he does is just kind of stand there and look menacing, when he does (finally) do something that directly harms a person, the effect is short-lived and almost immediately reversed. So when he's got a blade to Lisa's neck later, why should I be afraid? Is it in her head? Can he actually hurt her? It didn't seem to be particularly lethal when he was performing otherworldly taxidermy on Katee Sackhoff, which would seem to me to be quite fatal. So what's the deal? He doesn't seem very dangerous when it all boils down to it, an observation made more troublesome when you take into account this film's bodycount, which is exactly zero.

Oh come on, Katee. Stop screwing around and walk it off. You're fine.

That's right. "Ghosts of Georgia" boasts a death tally of nothing. Nobody dies in this film. This is a horror movie where everyone who wasn't already a ghost sees the end credits. I'm not quite sure how that qualifies as horror, but then again they are slightly shackled to the fact that is is "Based on a True Story," an absurd claim that I'm sure only extends to the fact that it's true that at one time a family moved down to Georgia, and slavery used to be a thing. Past that I doubt that a lady did battle with an evil spirit before calling on other ghosts to attack it in a spooky tornado.

I have reservations as to the voracity of these claims.

I also can't get behind any movie where it's the good ghosts doing most of the scaring. Perhaps I'm begin naive, which makes sense because I am not in fact a ghost, but if I were and I was trying to get a psychic to help me, maybe looming over them in the middle of the night and appearing out of nowhere to make them crap themselves in fear wouldn't be the best way to convey my message. Maybe if they smiled once instead of always have their "I'm going to skin you" face on, their cause would be advanced. Of course then the film would lose about 80% of its scares, and we can't have that now can we? So sure, go ahead. Make the good ghosts out to be villains even though they're not doing anything bad. I don't even care.

I suppose in the end it was still better than its predecessor. Not by a whole lot though, and I'm sure within another two days I'll be struggling to remember anything about it since I was forgetting it while I was watching. On the other hand...it didn't have Pauly Shore. I suppose that's a point in its favor?

Oh look. A horror movie trailer. I do wonder if it will be obnoxious and give away most of the scares.

THE BOTTOM LINE - A bland horror film that doesn't do much to invest you in anything that's going on since it's predictable and not very scary with the exception of one or two decent scenes. Watching "The Conjuring" would be a far more effective use of one's time if one wanted to see a horror movie.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Bond Theme Song Showdown

I thought this might be a fun little diversion while I wait for more December films to come out. Let's take a look back at the theme songs for all the various Bond films. The franchise is unique in that the music, and especially the opening themes and sequences are almost like characters unto themselves, and it's one of the most iconic aspects of the series.

Of course, this is all subject to my personal tastes and what I personally expect out of a Bond film, but it's a fun list to make in any case. Feel free to disagree, but here's how I rank the opening songs from best to the absolute worst.

1. Goldfinger - The ultimate song for the ultimate Bond movie. No other comes close. From those opening horn blasts - five iconic notes that immediately tell you what you're in for - it's just the most sleazy, swinging, swaggering monster of a song that the franchise ever produced. Shirley Bassey destroys it, too, belting out the lyrics like she's a conduit for a nuclear power plant. A masterpiece.

2. James Bond Theme (Dr. No) - Technically speaking, "Dr. No" did not have a title song, but instead introduced the famous James Bond Theme to the world, swinging in all its bombastic glory. Yeah the opening collapses into some weird crap with a drum circle and then Three Blind Mice which is akin to audio whiplash, but it's still historically significant.

3. Tomorrow Never Dies - I freaking LOVE this song. I wish I could place it higher, but historical significance and utter perfection prevent me from doing so. And I don't care if it's just ever so slightly out of her range - Sheryl Crow nails it. The fact that her voice is straining gives it this breathless, very sexy quality that puts it over the top.

4. A View To A Kill - SO 80'S. SO GLORIOUSLY 80'S. This is one of the only Bond themes that really doesn't sound that much like a typical one, but still works on the basis of it just being a damn good song. And it's easily got the most instantly catchy chorus on the list. Leave it to Duran Duran to pull that off, I suppose.

5. The World Is Not Enough - This one kind of oozes and slinks around, much like the oil slicks in the intro. It's sexy. Evoking the horn segments and strings that were so iconic in the earlier films, it's like an updated version of the feel of those songs, bringing the sound of Bond into the 21st century.

 6. GoldenEye - Another ostentatious, smooth drink of swagger that bites hard on the back-end. You can really hear Bono's writing, and like him or hate him the dude can write a tune. Tina Turner sasses it up quite nicely.

7. Thunderball - This one is a delight. It's kind of silly, and I don't know what striking like Thunderball even means, but Tom Jones sells that mess, son. I don't even care what he's talking about when he's belting out a tune like that. Whatever he's saying, I believe him.

8. Skyfall - I'm not a fan of Adele. In fact I cannot stand her. In fact she almost ruins this song with her howling, poorly pronounced and enunciated warbling. Anyone would have been better. Anyone. That being said, this is still a fantastic song and one of the best opening sequences they've ever done. Even with Adele singing it. That's impressive.

9. The Living Daylights - Much like Duran Duran did with "A View To A Kill," A-Ha made a song that is both 80's-tastic and works quite well outside of a Bond opening, perhaps even more so. But it's not quite as catchy as "A View To A Kill," even though it still possesses the same feel. Good tune.

10. Another Way To Die (Quantum of Solace) - It's strange how the worst Bond movie has a song that I place in the Top 10. But then again, it is Jack White, who is your musical Lord and Savior. Possesses the most sass and swagger of any of the songs here. That guitar riff. THAT RIFF.

11. The Man With The Golden Gun - Not that great of a song, really, but it's got all the pieces to make it a solid Bond theme by technicality. I'm just not a big fan of the vocals, particularly in the verses. It's too sing-songy, kind of like Lulu can't really latch on to a melody. But it's not bad.

12. Nobody Does It Better (The Spy Who Loved Me) - I have a confession to make: I actually really like this song. Normally I don't like ballads in my Bond openings, or even many ballads like this, but man this song is just damn solid. It's like the best song Paul McCartney never wrote, and Carley Simon gives an amazing performance.

13. Diamonds Are Forever - Shirley Bassey once again does a great job, but it's a little too slow and gentle for me to place it higher. And like many of the weaker Bond songs it's got a bridge that kind of kills the pace. But it's still pretty good and is representative of what one would usually expect.

14. On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Great little instrumental. It's got an almost military vibe to it, and it's not difficult to imagine a dude doing some hardcore espionage with it grooving in the background. It radiates coolness and style, but it's an instrumental, which is still weird to have in an intro. It makes for a better soundtrack for the action sequences.

15. Let And Let Die - With Paul McCartney, I usually either really love his stuff, or I'm not a fan at all. This falls somewhere in the middle. It's got a decent beat for most of it, and that's cool and all, but it's too eclectic and goes all over the place with the tempo and feel. I get irritated every time I hear that stupid reggae bridge. It kills the momentum.

16. You Know My Name (Casino Royale) - This is merely an alright song. Decent chorus, but the verses are so odd with the rhythm of the lyrics that I really don't know what in the world Chris Cornell was attempting with the melody. Odd timing is to be expected from the dude from Soundgarden, but even in 4/4 time I can't catch the feel. Ah well. Cool intro, though.

17. For Your Eyes Only - Man, this song starts really rough. The only thing that saves it at all is the admittedly catchy chorus. The rest is pretty lame. With few exceptions I'm not a fan of ballads in my Bond intros.

18. From Russia With Love - There is actually a version with lyrics, but the opening is the instrumental. It's okay. The version with lyrics is actually kind of worse. Whatever.

19. Die Another Day - What the crap is up with the dance remix up in da club stuff? I like Madonna as an artist but really this was just weird. Glitchy and way too pop-heavy, and what the hell is up with "Sigmund Freud, analyze this?" At least it has a beat I guess.

20. You Only Live Twice - Oh yeah. A string section playing serenely and Nancy Sinatra singing like she's on Valium. That gets my blood pumping. This is a song they would play during a romantic comedy when the characters are taking a ride on a boat shaped like a swan, not when Bond is blowing up a secret base inside a volcano. Please.

21. Moonraker - Shirley Bassey without any of the brass or attitude. She performs it well, but again, it's a ballad that puts me to sleep before getting me excited about what I'm about to watch. Then again, it is "Moonraker," so that would be an impossibility as it was.

22. License To Kill - Ugh. I do not care for this one. It's way too Whitney Housten sounding for my tastes. Too many synths going on without any kind of a driving beat. It's too late 80's radio - the kind of music you hear while you're shopping for groceries because they don't want to offend anyone, so they play the most bland muzak possible, which is oddly far more offensive. Blargh. (Great movie, though)

23. All Time High (Octopussy) - Again, ballads and James Bond shouldn't go together. This is especially true for a ballad as bland and boring as this one.

24. Never Say Never Again - If you were to ask me to come up with a more annoying chorus, the only thing I could think of to one-up this song would be to stick a dozen cats in a dryer, turn it on and then record the noises that came out of it. Terrible performance of a terrible song that has no business being anywhere close to a Bond movie. The absolute bottom of the barrel.

And with that we reached the end. I hope you had fun going down the list. I know I had fun putting it together! Till next time, keep it swinging, sassy, and sleazy.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Much as "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was my most anticipated film of 2012, so was "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" my most anticipated film of 2013. While the first film was plagued by some substantial pacing issues and overindulgence of stuff that really should have been saved for the inevitable directors cut, I found it to be a fun ride that managed to open the floodgates to memories from my childhood. The second entry was set to absolutely blow the roof off the theater, promising some of the more memorable sequences from the book and introducing the greatest dragon in fantasy literature. Needless to say I was stoked beyond words.

Perhaps too much so, in all honesty. After a year of waiting impatiently, the film is now finally out, and I can't help but feel conflicted over my thoughts on it. Much like the first film, I can't say with a straight face that "The Desolation of Smaug" is a great movie. It suffers from the same problem that the first one had, which is that it's too damn long for no good reason, being padded out by the stuff from the appendices that was not in the original book, which slows the pace down like a drag-chute on occasion.

On the other hand, it's "The Hobbit," so I was still entertained. And to be fair, this is a much faster-paced, rousing, action-packed film that manages to be quite thrilling on more than a number of occasions, and the things that they do right is done very, very, very well. There are moments that are straight up sublime in how accurately they convey the wonderment and adventure from the book. The nerd in me had a very good time, particularly in the first half which follows Bilbo and the dwarfs through Mirkwood, providing the best action in the movie. What can I say? I'm a mark for this crap.

I was singing "The Greatest Adventure" in my head SO HARD at this.

It was when the group reaches Laketown and then Erebor itself that I found myself getting slightly off-put by some things which were not as present in the first film, those being the liberties taken with the story and characters. Some of them are worse than others. Now are any of them enough to make me say that the movie is bad? No, but as a die-hard fan since I was a child, I feel within my rights to objectively and calmly say that I don't think these changes were for the better, they are ultimately pointless, and they reek of studio interference, which I would like to believe that Peter Jackson would be above by this point.

"The Desolation of Smaug" follows Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and company through the forests of Mirkwood and the spiders, escaping the Wood Elves and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), down the river to Laketown, reaching The Lonely Mountain and confronting Smaug himself before ending with a cliffhanger that will no doubt be horrendously frustrating for anybody who hasn't read the book. Throughout the affair they are being chased by Azog and his orcs, who show up every once in a while to inject action scenes where there were none previously. That works I suppose, and does tend to heighten the sense of urgency, but it still smacks slightly of superfluous.

He's kind of the Gilgamesh to the Necromancer's Exdeath.

New additions to the cast include Bard (Luke Evans), a man of Laketown who doesn't seem nearly as badass as he should considering what he manages to accomplish later, and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a wood elf who actually does manage to be a total badass when she's not stuck in a non-canonical and shockingly out-of-place love triangle between her, Legolas and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). While I'm not a huge fan of Evangeline I do think she does a great job here, and is one of the more hardcore characters, which makes it a shame that they thought that they needed to subject her to a cliched and meaningless romantic angle. Luke Evans on the other was just acceptable. He was kind of bland, he didn't really sell me on the character of Bard, and he looks way too much like Orlando Bloom. At first I legitimately thought they put a different wig on Bloom and cast him twice. In fact, the exact same thing happened to me and "The Three Musketeers," which also stared him and Evans. They really need to stop casting them together. It's distracting.

But we're all here to see a dragon, right? And true to my hopes and expectations, once he rises from his massive pile of gold, Smaug did not disappoint. He is sufficiently awesome and scary looking, and Benedict Cumberbatch provides a deep, mountainous rumble of a voice that conveys his power and savagery. I still prefer Richard Boone's portrayal in the animated version, but Cumberbatch is arguably the highlight of the film, as he is in roughly everything that he's in. And while the pacing is different than the source material, much like Gollum and Bilbo's scene in the first film, the famous conversation between Smaug and Bilbo is just as awesome as I was hoping it was going to be. Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch play so well off of each other that its difficult to imagine anyone else doing it.

The issue I had with Smaug wasn't his portrayal, although he is oddly unobservant on a number of occasions, but the situation that they put him in. Not content with keeping the encounter with the dragon a game of wits and hiding between him and Bilbo, the film unexpectedly pauses the scene about two sentences before it would have normally ended, and decides to inject Thorin and the dwarfs into the situation. This leads to an extended action sequence that finds the dwarfs running around Erebor trying to defeat Smaug in a Boss Battle straight out of a video game. The problem is that literally nothing is accomplished by it. After it's done, Smaug simply picks up the conversation he was having with Bilbo half an hour previously, finishes the thought he had been having, and then flies away. And absolutely nothing had changed. It was as if our regularly scheduled program had been interrupted to bring us an unrelated action scene seconds before it was over.

"Hey. HEY. I'm way too good looking to not get an extended action sequence where I stand on a dragon's head."

I wouldn't have as big a problem with it had the scene accomplished something. But by its very nature it HAS to be pointless because the dwarfs don't defeat Smaug. The dragon flies away to attack Laketown, and there's nothing the movie can do about that. Nothing the dwarfs do there can amount to anything. So why even have them there? Was the movie not long enough? Maybe they wanted to end on a bang, but I tell you what, maybe instead of closing the film with a half hour long fight which is completely meaningless, you could have used that half hour to instead stick an action sequence that actually was in the book in there, and ended the film with Smaug attacking the city. And hey presto, the film would have actually had something close to an ending, too. I can see why they did what they did, but I really don't see the point.

I also feel it necessary to point out that despite the heroics of Thorin and company during the fight with Smaug, in the end, their plan was completely stupid. I'm no Tolkien scholar, and I don't know everything about dragons in that universe, but I am a fairly big nerd. And being a big nerd I must point out that if one desires to kill a dragon - an ancient fire-breathing red dragon - perhaps a strategy involving massive heat is not the way to go. I'm just saying that if your plan to kill a red dragon involves using its own fire to heat something else up which you will then use to attack it, therefore by extension ensuring that at absolute most, the fire will be no hotter than what its own body naturally produces, you have no idea how dragons work and have no business fighting them. And what do you know? We go through half an hour setting up this elaborate scheme, and in the end it does nothing except to mildly irritate Smaug before he walks it off and leaves, which makes less sense now because after all that B.S. they just put him through he'd probably stick around and eat all of them out of pure annoyance.

And maybe I'm being nitpicky...but why in the name of Gandalf's beard does Bilbo take off the ring while talking to Smaug? THAT. MAKES. NO. SENSE.

All that aside, there's still enough to call this a fun time. It's definitely got some fantastic action in it, which really saves it from many of its problems, but I am getting a little irritated at the persistent unnecessary padding this trilogy seems hard-set on subjecting us to. I'm sure we're going to get more of that come next December, as well. But "The Hobbit" is still "The Hobbit," and I can't help but be entertained. I just can't believe that my vision for the extended cut is actually shorter. Who would have thought?


THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Desolation of Smaug" is better than "An Unexpected Journey" due to rampant action, a much faster pace, and Smaug The Most Terrible of Calamities. However, it's still too long and there are some weird additions that annoy and some pointless action that is shockingly distracting, at least to me. It's mostly nerdy nit-picking, to be fair, but it's enough to make me feel ever so slightly let down. But it'll probably get better with rewatching, and it's still Tolkien. I'd still rather watch "The Hobbit" cartoon any day, though.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Bond Franchise Showdown

As I complete my journey through the Bond series, I felt it would be fun to go down the list and rank the films in what I feel is the best to the worst. Again, this is just my personal opinion, and I'm sure there will be many who disagree with me. But even if your favorite Bond movie (or Bond) is ranked low, rest assured that with the exception of a few down at the bottom, I think most of these films are still watchable, even if they aren't that great. After all, it's James Bond. You just serve up a martini and have some fun. I shouldn't even have to tell you "shaken." So without further delay, let us go down the sizable list.

(For those interested, I shall provide the links to my reviews in chronological order at the bottom)

1. Goldfinger (1964)- The ultimate Bond film. No single movie did a better job at encapsulating everything that the series did best. Exciting action, fun gadgets, beautiful women, colorful villains, smarmy one-liners, the best opening theme song ever, and the original 007 himself, Sean Connery. This film is, for lack of a better word, perfect. One of the best action movies of all time.

2. Skyfall (2012) - Hard. Core. "Skyfall" is just about as good as "Goldfinger" in terms of doing nearly everything right. It's a big mash-up of everything that was awesome about the last 50 years of Bond. The only issue is the last act, which goes a bit Jason Bourne. Other than that, holy crap.

3. GoldenEye (1995) - Pierce Brosnan's debut brought back the unbridled fun that the series was known for, and Sean Bean provided the best villain of the franchise. It's nearly perfect, but the weak soundtrack is the main thing not placing it higher.

4. Casino Royale (2006) - This reboot gave Bond a clean slate after years of wackiness to contend with, and was the first time James Bond felt like an actual character instead of a superhero. Extremely satisfying movie. From a film-making perspective I consider it the best one they've done.

5. License To Kill (1989) - The most brutal James Bond ever got. This is a dark tale of vengeance and it doesn't shy away from that. However, Dalton remains charming as 007, keeping the smarm and wit despite the intensity. Along with a lot of solid, well shot action, this is a fantastic movie. It's revenge done right.

6. The Living Daylights (1987) - Dalton's first of two outings is great movie by itself, but one of the reasons for its greatness was its timing. The return to some form of respectability after Roger Moore was finally put out to pasture is nearly a religious experience. I also found it to have one of the more intriguing plots of the franchise. Also, Timothy Dalton is the man.

7. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) - This was one of the most efficient and slick Bond flicks. The action is non-stop, and Brosan is having such a blast that the fun is infectious. It's too bad the villain was pretty lame, but everything else makes for a rock-solid action movie.

8. You Only Live Twice (1967) - This movie is pretty goofy, but it's also fun. The set pieces are ridiculous, and there's some large scale conflict going on that makes for an exciting time. Donald Pleasence is an awesome Blofeld, and Sean Connery is always the mack-daddy. Maybe not a great movie, technically, but I enjoyed it a good amount.

9. From Russia With Love (1963) - Slower than we're used to but still entertaining. It's the closest to a "spy movie" we got from the Bond franchise, and it's actually a really good one. The great Robert Shaw plays one of the best forgotten Bond villains. Some pacing issues throw it off slightly, however.

10. Never Say Never Again (1983) - It's silly, but Connery's second and final return was a good one. A remake of "Thunderball," this improved on it in every conceivable way, and is fast paced and action packed. Even while looking pretty damn old, Connery still rocks it.

11. Octopussy (1983) - One of the only Roger Moore entries worth a damn. The silliness is present but dialed back a bit, and that's with Bond dressing like a circus clown and a monkey at various points. Just think of how far beyond the pale they'd taken the series before that. Some really good action keeps this one tolerable.

12. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) - It's a decent flick, but it's too long, the story is weirdly misogynistic even for Bond, it drags ever so slightly by the end, and Lazenby is just okay. The ending is worth noting because of its ridiculously dark nature. Other than that it's a well made film, but nothing overly special.

13. Die Another Day (2002) - Not nearly as bad as its reputation says it is. However it's still just decent at best. Brosnan as always is great, but Halle Berry gives an epically bad performance that nearly drags down everything around her like a melting ice hotel. Just try to block her out anytime she opens her mouth and it's a fun ride.

14. Diamonds Are Forever (1971) - The goofiest Connery movie wasn't that bad, but it wasn't as good as his other stuff. It's mostly watchable solely because of him, but Charles Grey was fun as well. Some weird henchmen though.

15. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) - Alright film with shockingly good action sequences at the end, but it's still Roger Moore and the villain is not threatening at all. It also botches what could have been a really interesting story with the Bond girl. On the plus side the wackiness is slightly restrained by comparison.

16. The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) - Absurd movie with a lot of really stupid stuff in it, including J.W. Pepper and one of the worst Bond girls ever. The only thing salvageable about it is Christopher Lee knocking it out of the park. It's honestly worth a watch for that alone, but it's not that good.

17. Dr. No (1962) - As a spy caper it's just alright. As a Bond movie it's really dull. The formula isn't there yet, and it shows. The villain is beyond lame, the action isn't that exciting, and the editing comes across as shockingly amateur on occasion. Unless you're curious, you're not missing much.

18. For Your Eyes Only (1981) - The biggest problem with this one is simply how unmemorable it is. It's not a bad movie I guess but you'll be forgetting it while you're watching. Much of the problem comes from not knowing who the villain actually is until we're most of the way through the movie. And it's also starring Roger Moore, and nuts to that.
19. A View To A Kill (1985) - Even Christopher Walken couldn't save this one. Nearly as silly as the Roger Moore series got. It's just a dumb, dumb movie that goes on for way too long.

20. The World Is Not Enough (1999) - Denise Richards plays Dr. Christmas Jones, Nuclear Physicist. Any further explanation for it being low on this list is unnecessary.

21. Thunderball (1965) - I've never been able to make it through this film in one sitting. It puts me to sleep. So incredibly boring. I have nightmares about being stuck scuba diving in slow motion for days afterwards.

22. Live And Let Die (1973) - Another obnoxiously boring film, but this time made worse by the fact that it's Roger Moore being about as intimidating as Captain Crunch. Also, I think they wandered into the blaxplotation movie being filmed across the lot and just rolled with it.

23. Moonraker (1979) - The dumbest thing to happen in space since Reb Brown stopped a mutiny. I hate this movie so damn much. Flames. Flames on the sides of my face.

24. Quantum of Solace (2008) - Not only a terrible Bond movie in regards to its stubborn refusal to even think about having a good time, but also a piece of garbage from a trade-craft perspective. One of the most poorly shot action films I've ever had the nightmarish displeasure of sitting through. Akin to torture.

My Bond Retrospective in chronological order:

(Note: "Skyfall" entry was written first, and not all opinions therein are as they are now after rewatching the entire series.)

Thanks for taking this journey with me! I'll see you again on the next mission.