Monday, May 30, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

I can't say that I expected Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to be the runaway success that it was. It was a movie based on a ride at Disneyland, for crying out loud. But the box office success, critical acclaim, and Oscar nominations proved that I really don't know anything about movies. And the fact that its back-to-back sequels — Dead Man's Chest and At World's End — grossed a combined two billion dollars worldwide further hammered that point home.

And though the franchise's story seemingly ended with At World's End, you just can't argue with buckets of cash. So Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer teamed up one more time to make the fourth entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Taking its title and the basic plot outline of Tim Powers's 1987 fantasy novel On Stranger Tides, this fourth movie is a real disappointment. It's quite simply nowhere near as good as it could have been.

As the movie begins, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has arrived in England after hearing that someone claiming to be him is assembling a crew to search for the Fountain of Youth. He's arrested after breaking his former first mate Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) out of jail and is and brought before King George II (Richard Griffiths). The king has also heard that someone named Jack Sparrow is hunting for the Fountain, and wishes to recruit him to find and claim it before the Spanish can.

But Jack's not exactly happy to discover that he won't be leading the expedition to find the Fountain. Instead, King George has chosen Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a one-legged privateer for the British Navy, for the job. Jack makes a daring escape and starts searching for the person claiming to be him.

It turns out that the impostor is Angelica (Penélope Cruz), Jack's former lover and daughter of the infamous pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Still upset over their rather acrimonious breakup, Angelica has Jack kidnapped and thrown onto her father's ship. It turns out Blackbeard himself is searching for the Fountain of Youth as well, fearing a story that that he will have a fatal encounter with a pirate with one leg. The hunt for the Fountain will take Blackbeard's crew, Barbossa's crew, and the Spaniards through dangerous jungles, sunken ships, and teams of man-eating mermaids.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is one of those sequels where it's obvious that the only reason it was made is because somebody wanted to make a quick buck. The plot is all over the place, yet is constructed in such a way that it doesn't necessitate a 137-minute movie. Most of the actors don't seem like they're really trying either, and the whole thing gives off the feeling that they were just going through the motions. It's a watchable movie, but it's a disappointing one too.

Gore Verbinski isn't around to direct the movie as he did the first three, being replaced by Chicago director Rob Marshall. Marshall's direction seems indicative of the entire movie itself: it feels like it's just going through the motions. He's just going from Point A to Point B without injecting any of the adventure or the whimsy the other Pirates movies had. You get the feeling that Marshall came into the production viewing himself as having been hired to a job with as little effort as possible. Only once — the scene where Blackbeard's crew is attacked by the commandos — does Marshall come close to replicating the fantasy world that Verbinski crafted. All he manages to do is build a feeling of disinterest in the viewer.

But he isn't helped by the script, written by series veterans Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott. You'd think that after writing the first three movies, they'd have gotten the hang of things. But oddly enough, the script for On Stranger Tides is seriously lacking compared to the others. There are so many plot holes and unimportant characters that it becomes frustrating. Why include the "Spaniards go after the Fountain" subplot if they're only going to be in three scenes and have no bearing on the movie at all? Why didn't they explain why Angelica was impersonating Jack? Why did that useless romantic subplot between the mermaid and the missionary have to eat up so much screen time?

And honestly, there's not much happening in this movie. The first three were packed with intrigue, action, characters constantly shifting their allegiances. On Stranger Tides does have some action, but outside of that, the movie's actually kinda plodding. I hate to see it, but it actually borders on boring. I didn't think too highly of At World's End, but at least things actually happened in it. But not in On Stranger Tides! If Rossio and Elliott couldn't be bothered to try, why should I be bothered to care?

Even the cast is disappointing, which is a damn shame. Ian McShane tries his hardest in the role of the villainous Blackbeard, but the character is written so poorly that McShane's performance suffers because of it. Try as he may, he sadly cannot top Bill Nighy's Davy Jones. I also wasn't that impressed by Penélope Cruz. She and Johnny Depp have a fine chemistry together, but beyond that, she plain and simply didn't do anything for me here. And for saying's sake, I suspect that the only reason she was cast in the movie at all is because they couldn't get Keira Knightley to come back.

I will say, though, I did like some of the cast. Kevin McNally is likable as Captain Jack's first mate Joshamee Gibbs (getting a meatier role than he had in the first three), and I absolutely loved Geoffrey Rush. Rush doesn't play Barbossa as hammy and over-the-top as he had previously, but he is still a tremendous amount of fun to watch. And Johnny Depp puts forth another fantastic performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, but he seems like he's on autopilot for significant portions of the movie. It says a lot about Depp's ability when he can half-ass it and still be great.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the movie's disappointing 3D effects. There is absolutely no reason for this movie to be in 3D, especially since it's never put to good use. Nothing pops, and the moments where things are pointed at the camera aren't very impressive. It's like the whole 3D thing was forced upon the movie to squeeze a few more bucks out of each ticket sale. You could probably see it in 2D and not feel like you're missing anything. So if you haven't seen it yet, don't feel pressured to see it in 3D.

I'm still convinced that On Stranger Tides was made for the sole reason of making Disney a bunch of money. But they got so busy backing the truck up to the bank that they forgot to make a good movie. I certainly wasn't expecting the movie to top or even equal The Curse of the Black Pearl, but I was expecting more out of it than this. It has its moments, but I can't give On Stranger Tides anything more than two and a half stars. You just know that they'll end up making a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, so here's hoping that they've learned their lesson.

Final Rating: **½

Saturday, May 14, 2011

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

Toys have long been separated into two categories: dolls and action figures. And if there's anyone to thank for the term "action figure," it's Hasbro's G.I. Joe toys. G.I. Joe debuted in 1964 as a series of 12-inch action figures representing different branches of the American military. The toys were successful, but most people will more than likely associate the G.I. Joe name with the "Real American Hero" line that Hasbro launched in 1982. Reimagined as 3¾-inch figures after the success of the Star Wars toys, the "Real American Hero" toys were widely popular, spawning a Marvel comic book and the famous syndicated cartoon.

But while the "Real American Hero" toy line, comics, and cartoon had all come to an end by 1994, they haven't been forgotten. After the success of Michael Bay's live-action Transformers movie, Hasbro and Paramount Pictures teamed up once again to make a live-action G.I. Joe movie. Most critics didn't like it and its box office receipts were modest (needing to rely on the international markets in order to fully recoup its budget), but was it really a good movie after all?

In the near future, weapons manufacturer James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) has created a nanotechnology-based weapon that can disintegrate anything it is fired at. His company sells four warheads to NATO, who enlists some American troops to escort them to their destination. But the convoy quickly finds themselves ambushed by a group boasting advanced weaponry. They are rescued by the G.I. Joe Team, a top-secret military team comprised of the best soldiers from around the world.

The convoy's only survivors, Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), are taken to the Joes' subterranean base in Egypt, where they are debriefed and dismissed by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid). Duke, however, convinces Hawk to let them join the team when he reveals he had dated one of the convoy's attackers. He knew her as Ana Lewis, but she has since taken the name Baroness Anastascia DeCobray (Sienna Miller). It turns out that she was sent to steal the warheads by McCullen himself, who has his own nefarious purposes for them. He and his mysterious associate known only as "The Doctor" (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seek to create a new world order, and it's up to the G.I. Joe Team to stop them.

Okay, I have to confess that G.I. Joe was one of the few '80s toy lines I wasn't into when I was a kid. I never watched the cartoon, I never read the comics, and outside of owning two or three of the figures, I never really cared for the franchise. That lack of nostalgic affection is one of the big reasons why I skipped this movie during its theatrical run two years ago. That and I thought the commercials and trailers for it looked stupid. And after having seen it, I can tell you that yeah, it's pretty dumb, alright. It's one of those movies that you'll completely forget about as soon as the closing credits roll, but it's still entertaining despite its rather glaring flaws.

At the helm is Stephen Sommers, who no stranger to CGI-driven summer blockbusters, having directed Van Helsing and two of Brendan Fraser's Mummy movies. And if there's anything truly positive I can say about his work on The Rise of Cobra, it's that at least he didn't go the standard route of having super-shaky camerawork during the action scenes. You can actually tell what's going on, which is refreshing. But other than that, the direction is okay, but not really great. It's just enough to get by. It's sadly not the most exciting action movie, but it's not a boring one either. It certainly holds one's attention. The chase scene through Paris is actually a lot of fun. But Sommers's direction would have been better had the CGI been more convincing. The CGI looks like it'd be better suited for a Pixar movie than for live action. It can actually get distracting on more than one occasion, which is a damn shame.

And the script isn't all that great, either. Credited to Stuart Beattie, David Elliot, and Paul Lovett from a story by Sommers, Beattie, and Michael B. Gordon, the script doesn't have a whole lot going on in it. The movie's two hours long, and yet I seriously got the feeling that not much is happening. It's just "generic action scene, boring dialogue, generic action scene, boring dialogue, generic action scene, the end." It's pitiful. There's nothing going on, there's no memorable dialogue beyond the attempts to work in some of the cartoon's catchphrases, and there's practically no character development at all. It's like if Beattie, Elliot, and Lovett had their kids play with some G.I. Joe toys for two hours and turned what they did into a script, Throw in some extraneous background noise regarding Duke and the Baroness having been engaged in the past, and you have G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

And then there's the cast, who are watchable yet not very memorable. The fact that their characters are very poorly defined probably didn't help, but none of the actors really stand out. But I can at least discuss some of the performances while I'm here, I guess. I thought Marlon Wayans and Rachel Nichols were amusing enough, while Sienna Miller's portrayal of the Baroness as a catty sexpot provided a few funny moments.

Christopher Eccleston is a fun kind of hammy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts forth a decent performance in a weak role. I should credit him for not attempting to replicate Chris Latta's Cobra Commander voice from the cartoon, but he unfortunately doesn't have much time to establish any sort of lasting presence. Dennis Quaid also falls victim to the same lack of presence, thanks to his disappointing lack of screen time. Brendan Fraser almost had more screen time, and the guy had an uncredited cameo! And as for Channing Tatum... well, nobody's ever accused him of being a talented actor. He comes off as stiff at times, forgettable at others.

But for all its flaws, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra isn't a totally awful way to spend two hours. It'd make for an acceptable diversion during a boring weekend afternoon. And at the very least, it's certainly not as bad as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. When it comes right down to it, I can't say I hated the movie. It's not a particularly good movie, but it's not bad enough for me to give it a wholly negative review. So on my usual scale of five, I'm going to give it two and a half stars. It's a shame it wasn't as good as the animated G.I. Joe movie, though. Maybe The Rise of Cobra should have had that same kick-ass opening sequence. That could have totally redeemed it.

Final Rating: **½

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

I'm not sure if I can properly explain just how disappointed I was with Alien vs. Predator. When it was released in 2004, I was excited. Paul W.S. Anderson might have screwed up Resident Evil, but he couldn't possibly screw up a crossover between the Alien and Predator franchises, could he?

Turns out that's exactly what he did. Alien vs. Predator was a big stupid mess wrapped in a PG-13 bow. But I guess it was successful enough to warrant a sequel, because 20th Century Fox released Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem in 2007. While the movie is a marked improvement over its predecessor, it's still a mind-numbingly bad movie.

The movie begins mere seconds after the conclusion of the first Alien vs. Predator, as a Predator spaceship retrieves the body of the Predator who was killed defeating the Alien queen. A chestburster emerges from the dead Predator's body as the ship leaves Earth's atmosphere, quickly maturing into an adult Alien/Predator hybrid. It starts creating all kinds of violent, bloody havoc, eventually causing the ship to crash in the woods outside the small town of Gunnison, Colorado.

A lone Predator (Ian White) is sent to respond to the ship's distress signal and handle the situation. And there's going to be one hell of a mess for the Predator to clean up, as the "PredAlien" (Tom Woodruff Jr.) and a number of facehuggers have started breeding. A small army of Aliens have soon amassed, and a full-scale war between they and the Predator puts all of Gunnison's citizens in danger.

Let's cut to the chase: Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem isn't a very good movie at all. It has its moments, but its inadequacy is overwhelming. The real problem with the movie is that nobody involved seems interested in making a movie that doesn't suck. They just want to make the thing, period. Thus, it never rises above mediocrity. And that's terrible.

Sitting in the director's chair are Greg and Colin Strause, the sibling duo who brought us last year's alien invasion flick Skyline. The "Brothers Strause," as they're credited here, made names for themselves in Hollywood as founders of the visual effects company Hydraulx, and cut their teeth as directors on music videos and commercials before moving to movies. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem is their first feature film, and I thought they could have done a lot better. Their biggest problem is that the movie is almost unbearably dark. No, not dark in tone, but dark in that you honestly can't see anything. Their cinematographer apparently convinced them that not having any lights on during the big action sequences would be a good idea. And the weird thing is that the movie's cinematographer, Daniel Pearl, has thirty years of experience. You'd think he'd know that was a bad idea.

Seriously, though, what good is making an action/horror movie if you can't see anything going on? I saw it theatrically and at first blamed it on a shoddy projector. But then I watched the movie on Blu-ray with the brightness on my TV turned all the way up, and I still had a hard time telling what the hell was happening. The real kicker is that all of the boring scenes with the human characters are crystal clear and filmed brightly, but the scenes that would bring in an audience — monsters kicking the crap out of each other — are murky and practically unwatchable. It's like watching a Godzilla movie with only the scenes with humans and the audio of the monster fights.

It doesn't help that the Brothers Strause are working with a tremendously awful script by Shane Salerno. And when I saw awful, I mean awful. This thing is so crappy that I can't believe a major Hollywood studio actually signed off on it. Do you want to know why I think it sucks so much? It's because Salerno tries so damn hard to make us care about the human characters despite how blandly he's written them. I honestly didn't give a crap about any of the characters' problems or if they lived or died.

The most boring part is the subplot about the dorky pizza delivery boy who constantly gets his ass handed to him by some jock douchebag because he's caught the eye of the jock douche's girlfriend. This subplot is not only clichéd but badly written to boot. You can see this exact same story told even the tiniest bit better on a million teen-oriented soap operas. It doesn't have any sort of place in a movie where extraterrestrial monsters devastate a small town in the middle of nowhere.

The acting isn't much better either. When I sat down to write this review, I honestly couldn't remember anyone standing out as contributing either a bad or a good performance. How bad do you have to be to make absolutely no impression at all? I'm actually watching the movie right now, as I write this, and I'm forgetting about people while they're actually onscreen. If you can't make any impression, even a negative one, then you suck at what you're doing.

Until I started writing this review, I'd forgotten just how bad Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem is. I'd actually convinced myself that it wasn't too bad. But it's an awful, awful, awful mess of a movie. You'd think that they'd have learned from the first Alien vs. Predator movie and made something better. But nope, they went the opposite direction and made something worse instead. It actually made me resent the other Alien and Predator movies. This could have been something really cool, but what we've got is a 101-minute sack of crap that in no way lives up to what it could have been. So I'm going to give it two stars and hope that if anyone ever decides to try to make another Alien vs. Predator movie, they won't screw it up so badly.

Final Rating: **

Friday, May 6, 2011

Thor (2011)

With the vast amount of powers that comic book superheroes have been able to tap into, they've practically become godlike entities whose stories exist within comic books and their adaptations. But while many are godlike, there's at least one superhero who is a literal god: the mighty Thor.

Based on the god of thunder from Norse mythology, Thor was created in 1962 by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, and Jack Kirby. He's been an enduring character ever since, though he's never quite had the same mainstream notoriety of other heroes in the Marvel Comics pantheon. But he's finally been called up to the big leagues, starring in his own live-action movie. Sure, it's part of the build towards Marvel's Avengers movie next year, but let's take a look at how Thor's movie holds up on its own merits.

Beyond our universe exists a realm known as Asgard, a kingdom populated by the Norse gods and ruled proudly by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But Odin's health is ailing, forcing him to temporarily step down as the king of Asgard. His son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is next in line to the throne, but his coronation is interrupted by Asgard's longtime enemies, the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. Despite Odin's demand that he do otherwise, Thor picks a fight with Jotunheim's king (Colm Feare) and severely damages the fragile truce between Asgard and Jotunheim. As punishment for his arrogance and recklessness, Odin exiles Thor to Earth along with "Mjolnir," Thor's mystical hammer and source of his godly powers.

Thor lands in the New Mexico desert, where he is found by astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings), and her mentor, Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård). Mjolnir, on the other hand, is discovered and confiscated by agents of the government agency SHIELD. Thor storms their facility and tries to reclaim his hammer, only to find he cannot lift it due to an enchantment placed upon it by Odin to prevent the unworthy from wielding it.

Thor resigns himself to exile, forging a relationship with Jane as he begins accustoming himself to the town he's landed in. But little does he know that his adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has set into motion a plan to make Asgard his. With Thor out of the way and Odin in a regenerative coma, Loki usurps the throne and forges a pact with the Frost Giants. And to make absolutely sure Thor doesn't return to Asgard, Loki dispatches an invulnerable metallic golem called "the Destroyer" to eliminate his brother before Thor's Asgardian compatriots can bring him home.

I wasn't sure how to initially approach Thor, since even as a comic book fan I didn't have much in the way of familiarity with the character or the fantastical world he occupies. I also went in with a bit of trepidation, due to a slight fear it would follow in Iron Man 2's footsteps and be mostly buildup for the Avengers movie. But Thor surprised me by not only working excellently as a standalone movie but being a wonderfully entertaining fantasy and action movie. It is flawed, but not so much that it detracts from the entertaining ride that is Thor.

Sitting at the helm is Kenneth Branagh, whose work as a director consists mostly of film adaptations of William Shakespeare's works. That doesn't exactly sound like the kind of filmmaker who'd be directing a big-budget superhero movie based on the Norse gods, but he did an amazing job with Thor. The movie looks absolutely fantastic, with gorgeous cinematography and visual effects, awe-inspiring set design, and great costumes. The movie is absolutely stunning, a real visual treat. Combining it all with Patrick Doyle's beautiful music, and Branagh makes Thor one hell of a ride.

I also thought the 3D added a lot to the movie. Most movies that are filmed in 2D and converted to 3D in post-production don't always look right, as evidenced by the ugly 3D conversions done for The Green Hornet and the Clash of the Titans remake. But Thor's 3D conversion not only looks really good, but it adds quite a bit of atmosphere to the movie. Asgard looks more majestic, Jotenheim is more desolate and intimidating. I didn't like the fact that the 3D jacked up my ticket price to almost 10 bucks, but outside of that, Thor was a fun 3D experience.

Where the flaws start to creep in, however, is within the script. Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne from a story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich, the script feels rushed. Branagh must have cut out a bunch in the editing room, because even at two hours, the movie doesn't afford us a lot of time to get to know some of the characters. There's not enough time on Earth to really connect with most of the human characters, and there's not enough time to let us connect with any Asgardians beyond Thor, Loki, and maybe Odin. And I can't speak for anybody else, but I would have enjoyed seeing more of Sif and the Warriors Three, because their moments were some of the most entertaining parts of the movie. I wouldn't have minded seeing more of Thor's "fish out of water" experiences in the town too. Maybe when Thor is released on DVD in a few months, there'll be a deleted scenes feature or an extended cut of the movie that'll help fix that.

But the script succeeds in giving us a hero worth watching. Thor's road to redemption and his relationship with his dysfunctional family are written extremely well, creating a movie that is at times quite captivating. The dynamic between Thor, Odin, and Loki is probably what drew Branagh to the movie, as it feels almost Shakespearian. There's the ailing king with two sons competing for the throne. One of them is cocky and stubborn, while the other is consumed with jealousy for his brother. Put it in medieval times, and it'd be pretty damn close to Shakespeare. It's actually some well-written stuff, which is helped by how good the acting is.

And oh man, is the acting good. Everyone in the movie puts forth their absolute best efforts. I absolutely loved everybody in the movie. Playing the title role is Chris Hemsworth, a relatively unknown Australian actor whose biggest prior claim to fame was playing Captain Kirk's father in the first ten minutes of J.J. Abrams's reboot of Star Trek. Casting Hemsworth proved to be a very wise decision, because he's perfect in the role. He's got not only the looks but the talent to pull off Thor. Hemsworth makes Thor's personal evolution believable every step of the way. As Thor's brash immaturity gives way to wisdom and humility, Hemsworth never once lets his performance become bland as he gives one of the most entertaining cinematic performances I've seen in recent memory.

Tom Hiddleston appears as our resident villain, playing Loki in a way you wouldn't expect from a typical villain in a movie like this. Hiddleston approaches Loki almost as if he were a child trying to cope with his problems. Loki feels like he's second-best, stuck in the shadow of a brother who he feels is taking all of their father's attention. It's a very passionate performance, one that practically makes the whole movie better.

And the rest of the cast isn't bad either. Natalie Portman is especially good, despite the role not being as strong as it could have been. She and Hemsworth have a convincing romantic chemistry, though their relationship is anemically written. They have a few cute scenes together, but it's another thing that could have benefited from the movie being half an hour longer. But Portman's performance is amusing, giving Jane a giddiness that makes her fun to watch.

I also thought Anthony Hopkins did a fantastic job with his meager part. Not much is asked of him beyond playing a stern father and king, but Hopkins is so good at it that you don't even think of any of the flaws in how the character is written. The same can be said for Kat Dennings, who's cute, quirky, and downright charming in her tiny role. Stellan Skarsgård also puts forth a fun performance as a purveyor of both some of the movie's exposition and some comic relief. Among the Asgardians, Idris Elba's cold stoicism makes his character look very cool, while Jaimie Alexander plays her part with a tomboyish charm. And as the Warriors Three, Joshua Dallas, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano are quite entertaining. Stevenson is particularly funny and likable, stealing more than one of the scenes he's in.

Thor might not be a perfect movie, but as a piece of pure entertainment, it's a success. I enjoyed the movie a lot, which I'm sure was the reaction they were going for. It is an exciting, entertaining, enjoyable ride that is satisfying even if it felt like it should have been longer. At this point, I'm actually willing to skip The Avengers if it means I can go see Thor 2. I want to get in line for Thor 2 right now. As for this particular entry into the "Marvel Cinematic Universe," I'm going to give it three and a half stars and a big thumbs-up. If you're into superhero movies with a touch of fantasy, it might be right up your alley too.

Final Rating: ***½

Thursday, May 5, 2011

G.I. Joe: The Movie (1987)

The FCC had strict regulations governing television's commercial content prior to the '80s. But when said regulations were eliminated, it not only saw the rise of the infomercial, but toy companies started cranking out a ton of cartoons made to advertise their products. These animated toy commercials started trickling onto TV sets in 1983, but really hit full force when those regulations were eliminated the following year. It got so out of control that even cartoons that weren't based on toys had toy lines that were almost more popular than the shows.

Some of these toy-inspired cartoons actually had a tremendous impact on pop culture, though. One of the more famous ones has to be G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, based on the Hasbro toys of the same name. The "G.I. Joe" brand has been around since 1964, initially a series of 12-inch soldier dolls that gave rise to the term "action figure." But the 12-inch figures have long been overshadowed by the "Real American Hero" line, Hasbro's 1982 relaunch of G.I. Joe that shrank them down to 3¾-inch figures as a means of rivaling the Star Wars toys.

The relaunch was immediately followed by a long-running comic book published by Marvel, and eventually made the transition into animation with two five-part miniseries that aired in 1983 and 1984. The cartoon was picked up as a series in 1985, running for 95 episodes. It was a smashing success, and elements of it continue to be part of the pop culture lexicon.

The show proved to be successful enough that it was spun off into a movie, the third animated Hasbro property to be produced by Sunbow Productions and Toei Animation during the mid-'80s. But after the box office failures of the My Little Pony and Transformers movies in 1986, G.I. Joe: The Movie was delayed a year and released direct to video and edited to air as episodes of the show. And really, if it weren't for the popularity of the show and the toys, I don't know if it would have been released at all.

As the movie begins, the terrorist organization known as Cobra is in a state of disarray. Cobra Commander (Chris Latta) and Serpentor (Dick Gautier) are at one another's throats, each blaming the other for Cobra's continued failures. Their argument is put on hold, however, when a mysterious woman breaks into their headquarters. She reveals herself as Pythona (Jennifer Darling), an emissary for a secret civilization known as Cobra-La. At her urging, Serpentor leads a charge to steal G.I. Joe's latest weapon, an energy device known as the Broadcast Energy Transmitter.

Serpentor leads a team of Cobra troops into the Himalayas, where G.I. Joe is testing the device. The Joes prove victorious and capture Serpentor in the process, while Cobra Commando and the remaining Cobra troops flee to a hidden valley where they arrive in Cobra-La, which they find to be populated by snake-like mutants that have existed since before the Ice Age. Cobra-La's ruler, the maniacal Golobulus (Burgess Meredith), has Cobra Commander imprisoned and sets into motion a plan to acquire the Broadcast Energy Transmitter and conquer the world. G.I. Joe catches wind of this, and with the help of a new crop of rookie Joes and a special squad led by Sgt. Slaughter (Bob Remus, the pro wrestler known as "Sgt. Slaughter"), they set out to prevent Golobulus's plan from coming to fruition.

I have to admit that G.I. Joe is one of the few cartoon/toy line packages I actually wasn't into during the '80s. I had a couple of the action figures and thought the cartoon had a cool theme song, but outside of that, G.I. Joe wasn't my scene. The first time I'd actually seen this movie was today. I wish I'd seen it earlier, though, because G.I. Joe: The Movie is a hell of a lot of fun.

Part of that is due to how good the animation is. The movie was animated by Toei Animation, who also handled the animated Transformers movie. I legitimately didn't like the animation in the Transformers movie, but G.I. Joe saw a big step up in quality. I honestly thought that their animation here was fantastic. It's really well done, really gorgeous stuff. It sucked me in and made every frame worth seeing. The first three minutes alone — an outrageous action sequence set to a remix of the show's theme song — is one of the most awesome things I've ever seen. It made me feel like I was six years old again, sitting in front of my TV on a Saturday morning watching cartoon battles between good and evil. It's an awesome moment, and the movie never goes downhill from there.

The script, meanwhile, is only okay. Credited to Ron Friedman, the script is light on story and substantial character development. All it does is give us setups for action sequences and brief character conflict to push forward what little plot there is. The whole thing is inconsequential, and as fun as the movie is, that's no big deal. I'm totally okay with the script being so light.

There are a few things about the script I wanted to talk about, though. One is a scene near the beginning where practically every member of Cobra pretty much calls out Cobra Commander for being an ineffectual ninny, a scene that I thought was great. Cobra Commander really was a useless leader, to the point that "Cobra, retreat!" was practically his catchphrase. Nearly every villain from '80s cartoons was like that, so it was fun to see one get told about it.

I also have to point out my dislike of the new Joe recruits. Yeah, they were probably included to sell more toys, like how the animated transformers movie introduced a ton of new characters for the next phase of Hasbro's toy line. But G.I. Joe: The Movie doesn't try cramming a ton of them down your throat. The only problem is that only one of them really has anything to do, and they're all a bunch of turds. And that one guy who speaks in nothing but sports metaphors is one of the lamest, most annoying characters I've ever seen in any movie whether it's live action or animated. It made me happy to find out that it was nearly twenty-five years until he ever appeared in any other G.I. Joe property.

And every other review I've read of G.I. Joe: The Movie mentions this, so I might as well do it too. The movie was actually going to feature the character Duke getting killed by Serpentor. But the choice was made to cancel that after Optimus Prime's death was met with tremendous backlash. And apparently the only way they could change it is by throwing in a few lines recorded in post-production about how he'd fallen into a coma and eventually pulled through. If they were actually going to leave the scene in and have it be his last appearance in the movie, why not just let him die?

And last but not least is the voice acting, which I thought was wonderful. I liked everyone who lent their voices to the movie, but I'm only going to point out the highlights. Burgess Meredith makes Golobulus a great villain, giving him a threatening sound despite the character looking kinda goofy. I also thought Don Johnson and Bob "Sgt. Slaughter" Remus made fine contributions, despite Johnson's character being written as a total douchebag and Remus having little to do.

Of the cast members who reprise their roles from the televised cartoon, Chris Latta and Michael Bell are really fun as Cobra Commander and Duke. Latta gives Cobra Commander the same voice he gave Starscream on the Transformers cartoon, a voice that I thought was silly yet oddly entertaining. And Bell provides Duke with an authoritative voice that you'd expect from a proud soldier like Duke. Hearing him boldly proclaim "Yo Joe!" at the top of his lungs is enough to make even someone who isn't regularly a G.I. Joe fan like myself excited.

But to sum up this whole review, I liked G.I. Joe: The Movie more than I expected to when I went in. It makes me wish I'd been into G.I. Joe when I was little, because I'd have loved it back then. Maybe when I can go back and fix that after they invent time travel. Until then, all I can do is wish I'd jumped onboard sooner. G.I. Joe: The Movie is 93 minutes of pure awesome entertainment. On the scale, I'm putting it at three and a half stars with a proud recommendation. Yo Joe!

Final Rating: ***½

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Scream 4 (2011)

When Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson made Scream in 1996, they ended up sparking a post-modern slasher movie revival. Studios were knocking out Scream wannabes right and left, practically all of them having an ironic (almost to the point of being farcical) take on horror as a whole. But this trend, along with the Scream franchise, came to an end at the turn of the twenty-first century.

It was replaced by a new trend, that of remakes and reboots. Beginning with the success of Gore Verbinski's Americanization of the Japanese movie Ringu in 2002 and Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004, Hollywood has practically become obsessed with remaking and rebooting classic (and sometimes forgotten) horror movies and franchises. And as the Scream franchise was always wont to dissect the horror genre, Craven and Williamson have dusted the series off and brought us their own ironic take on it with Scream 4.

Fifteen years have passed since the original Woodsboro massacre, an event that the local teenagers mark by playing pranks on one another and hanging the famous "Ghostface" costume all over town. One of the massacre's survivors, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), has returned home to Woodsboro on the last stop of the press tour to promote her new self-help book. She quickly reconnects with Dewey and Gale Riley (David Arquette and Courteney Cox), along with her younger cousin Jill (Emma Roberts).

But Sidney is soon horrified to discover that not only has she come back to Woosboro, but Ghostface has too. Ghostface begins picking off Jill's friends one by one, his murders based on a modern twist on the original massacre. Sidney, Dewey, Gale, and Jill must discover Ghostface's identity and stop his or her killing spree.

It's been eleven years since Scream 3 seemingly concluded the franchise, but Scream 4 is proof enough that any series — no matter how dormant it's thought to be — can have a big comeback. And believe it or not, but Scream 4 isn't a bad movie at all. It's got its flaws, bit it's still a fun throwback to '90s horror and a very cool revival of a franchise I thought was dead.

Returning to helm the latest chapter in the saga is the one and only Wes Craven. I know that I said before that I thought the original Scream was his last truly good movie. Time will be the judge, but as it stands right now, Scream 4 may be the one to break him out of that slump. His direction here is really good. Though one could make the argument that Craven's direction — and the whole movie, really — are just more of the same as far as stylistic choices go, Craven's work is still more fun than fail. There's some nice cinematography and some very well-made set pieces, but the truth is that Scream 4 is really more driven by the writing and characters.

It always surprises me to see a slasher movie with good writing. They're so visually driven that the scripts are usually secondary. But Kevin Williamson's script for Scream 4 is really smart. It not only takes shots at the remake/reboot trend, but at how media and telecommunications have evolved since the original Scream was released in 1996. Instead of calling landlines as he did during the '90s, the killer instead communicates with his victims via text messages and Facebook. And instead of an external voice changer, the killer uses a smartphone app to give them the Ghostface voice. Some of Williamson's attempts to bring the franchise into the twenty-first century feel forced (the kid who's always walking around with the webcam headset, for example), but he makes it work for the most part.

The one part of Williamson's script I honestly didn't like, though, was the revelation of the killer. I thought it was silly to the point of being dumb, and the motive felt really similar to that of one of Scream 2's killers. I will admit, however, that I thought it worked in the context of satirizing remakes and reboots. But still, I can't help but think it was just a wee bit lame.

But what isn't lame is the acting. For the most part, I thought the cast did a great job. It's just unfortunate that they don't seem to have a lot to do, like their parts are barely there at all. Nearly everyone makes a go at it, though. Franchise stalwart Neve Campbell once again returns to the role of the ill-fated Sidney Prescott, and once again plays the character with gusto. Campbell plays Sidney as a woman who feels like she's conquered the demons of her past and wants to help others find their way to peace. Campbell's performance imbues Sidney with a lot of strength and sympathy, a Final Girl of the most respectable type. She's consistently been one of the Scream saga's best elements, and the series would be poorer without her.

The same can be said for Roger L. Jackson, who once again plays the role of Ghostface's voice. Campbell may be the franchise's emotional crux, but Jackson is just as important. Some of his dialogue is kinda hokey, but he delivers those lines with such anger and ferocity that he still manages to be scary.

Courteney Cox and David Arquette also return, their own recent marital troubles strangly mirrored by their characters (which I'm sure was unintentional). Cox and Arquette are great, both of them adding a lot of heart to the movie. Cox is especially fun, her "I'm gonna figure this out if it kills me" attitude being one of the movie's most entertaining elements.

The rest of the cast has some standouts, particularly Rory Culkin and Marley Shelton. But perhaps the best member of the supporting cast is Hayden Panettiere. Scream 4 is her first really big role after the cancellation of Heroes, and she makes the absolute most of it. Panettiere is cool, sexy, and downright fun. Every second she's on the screen, she practically steals the movie. And in the event Craven and Williamson make Scream 5, I hope they can find a way to include her.

But the acting isn't all good, sadly. The movie's one bad performance comes from Emma Roberts. And when I say she's bad, I mean she's TERRIBLE. She absolutely sucks. Roberts is so bad that she actually makes me resent the movie's existence. You know how bad you have to be to accomplish that? Really bad. And I know the movie's been out for a while, but is it too late for Craven to hire a new actress to replace her? Can we use some CGI to eliminate her from the DVD release in a few months? Honestly, there is literally nothing positive I can say about Roberts's performance, which is really sad because she brings the whole movie down.

But don't let Roberts's awful performance dissuade you from seeing Scream 4. It more than likely will not appeal to anyone who doesn't already like the franchise or slasher movies in general, but it's a cool revival of an old story. It's like finding out that band you liked during the '90s got back together for a reunion tour. The movie doesn't match the quality of the original, but I'll gladly call it the best of the sequels. So I'm giving Scream 4 three and a half stars on the scale. And seriously, I want to see Scream 5. Promise me more Hayden Panettiere and I'll get in line to see it right now.

Final Rating: ***½

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Scream 3 (2000)

If there's one true thing about horror movies, it's that success spawns sequels. That's the reason why Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger have appeared in thirty movies combined (counting the remakes). Practically nothing will stop Hollywood from making a sequel to a hit movie, even if it goes straight to video several years after the appropriate window of opportunity.

But most of the time, Hollywood likes to knock out horror sequels quickly. Take, for instance, Scream 2, which was rushed out to theaters one year to the month after the first one. The rush was obvious, as the movie was a wholly mediocre effort. That's probably why Dimension Films waited a few years before making the third (and until a few weeks ago, the final) chapter in the story. Three years passed between Scream 2 and Scream 3, giving its creators plenty of time to hammer out the details. But even then, Scream 3 is still barely adequate.

Welcome to Hollywood, where Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro is about to enter production. It's soon marred, though, by the appearance of a new Ghostface. The masked murderer is not only targeting the cast and crew of Stab 3, but is leaving clues hinting towards a connection with the dearly departed mother of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell).

Sidney has been living off the grid since we last saw her, using a fake name and working out of her home in the middle of nowhere as an operator for a crisis hotline. But when she hears that the killer's potential ties to her mother, Sidney is forced out of seclusion to confront Ghostface and learn the truth behind some of her family's darkest secrets.

The problem I had with Scream 3 is the same I had with Scream 3: it's just more of the same. It tries harder than the earlier sequel, and the Hollywood aspect makes for some fun parts, but it still doesn't feel like anything I haven't seen before. It's especially bad when you realize just how dumb Scream 3 is. The movie doesn't have a fraction of the intelligence of even the second Scream. There's no brains, precious few scares, and one of the worst "been there, done that" feelings I've gotten from any sequel.

Wes Craven returns yet again to direct what was at the time meant to be the conclusion of the Scream saga. While his work is technically sound, he just doesn't manage to accomplish the same level of fright that he did previously. It's kinda hard for a horror movie to be successful when the viewer can see every scare coming. There isn't any originality to his direction, no spark of creativity. If you've seen the first two movies, then you'll know how Craven approaches Scream 3. He doesn't do all that much differently from what he'd done before, so while it works, it's stale.

But the real problem with Scream 3 is the script by Ehren Kruger. Nope, there's no Kevin Williamson to be found here this time. He was too busy working on multiple projects — including his short-lived TV show Wasteland and his lone directorial effort, Teaching Mrs. Tingle — at the time, and couldn't return for Scream 3, allowing Kruger to step in and fill the void. It's a shame too, because I'd rather have Williamson's mediocre script from Scream 2 than Kruger's crappy one from this movie.

Where it goes wrong is that it's stupid to an unbelievable degree. Why do the police bring in a tabloid television journalist to help them do detective work? Why is Dewey, the actual cop, working as an advisor on Stab 3? I'd expect that from Gale, but not Dewey. And the attempt to squeeze in the cameo from Jamie Kennedy's character from the first two movies is not only preposterous but implausible as well.

Kruger's script doesn't have a fraction of the smarts that Williamson brought to the other Scream movies. The idea of Ghostface attacking the cast of a sequel to a movie based on the events of the first movie is a novel one, but Kruger doesn't do much with it. The characters run around a mockup of Sidney's house on a studio backlot, there's a few snide jokes about the Hollywood filmmaking machine, and that's pretty much it. I will confess to thinking the subplot that sees Gale being shadowed by the actress playing her in Stab 3, both trying to one-up each other in their investigation, is clever. But clever ideas aren't worth much if they aren't executed worth a damn. And the truth is that Kruger simply doesn't quite pull them off.

Even the cast is inconsistent. Take Neve Campbell, for instance. Campbell's been one of the strongest parts of the Scream saga, but her performance here isn't really all that impressive. It's almost like she's doing a parody of herself from the first two movies. All she does is whine about how two massacres have ruined her life, then run from a third killer. I really hate giving her a negative critique, because she's good in the other three movies in the series. But here? She's not good. And in watching the movie, I got the feeling that Campbell's role is a lesser one. Her part comes across as secondary, like she's just another supporting character instead of the lead one she was previously. Maybe that affected Campbell's performance, I don't know. I think Campbell's performance could have been improved had Kruger written Sidney similar to how Ripley was treated in Alien 3: a survivor tired of fighting yet still doing so because that's all she knows anymore. That could have made for a captivating movie, but alas, no such luck.

And that whole "doing a parody of themselves" thing can be said for David Arquette and Courteney Cox too. Arquette gets to play the dopey small-town cop who wants to be a hero and get the girl, and Cox gets to play a stone cold bitch who wants to play detective. It's like they boiled the characters down to their barest (less than bare, even) descriptions and figured, "Why try?" Arquette and Cox are still watchable, but I felt like they weren't as good as they'd been previously. Not only are their parts written badly, but the actors just feel kinda there.

The rest of the cast is sadly forgettable. There are some funny cameos from Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes (who appear as Jay and Silent Bob), Carrie Fisher, and Roger Corman, but outside of that, the supporting cast isn't worth much. The only person who stands out is Parker Posey, who plays the actress playing Gale in Stab 3. And the only reason she stands out is because she's so friggin' annoying. Every single second Posey was on the screen made me want to stop the movie and go do something else instead. And I know she's supposed to be some kind of indie movie darling with something of her own cult following, but I've never seen what the big deal about her was. Sorry, folks, but Posey's never done it for me.

And that pretty much sums up my feelings for Scream 3: it just doesn't do it for me. Of the four movies in the franchise, this one is most definitely the absolute worst of them. If it was really supposed to be the conclusion of the franchise, it's a really crappy way to bring things to a close. The characters are bland, the acting is disappointing, and the direction is just okay at best. And perhaps worst of all, there are no worthwhile scares. You'd think a horror movie would have at least a couple of good scares, but no, not Scream 3. It's just a bad movie. There was so much more they could have done to make this a good movie, but nope, this is what we've got. And that's disappointing.

Final Rating: **