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To Be Takei examines the life of George Takei, the legendary actor who played Sulu in the original Star Trek TV show and movies. I say legendary because he is. He’s legendary both to Trek fans of course but also to other Asian-American actors who look to him as an influence and source of inspiration. You have to remember that when the TV show Star Trek was first produced, there weren’t a lot of Asian actors getting work.
This documentary covers George in his current day activities as well as acting as a chronicle of his acting career. His professional history is pretty interesting as the film goes all the way back to 1955 when he appeared in one of the early Godzilla films. He speaks of his time as an Asian actor in Hollywood and his different experiences along the way working on everything from Twilight Zone to the show Heroes. There are plenty of Star Trek stories too.
The issue of George’s sexual orientation is discussed as well. George is of course gay and talks about what it was like to be a closeted gay actor in Hollywood but having to keep up the appearance of being a ladies man. His husband George (who also works as his manager) is interviewed too and discusses his perspective as well since they had to hide their relationship for a really long time.
George’s humanitarian efforts are explored as well as his work developing a play that showcases Takei’s experience as a Japanese prisoner here in the US during the first world war. He spent some time in an internment camp as a child with the play centering around his experience. George worked to get restoration payments for Japanese prisoners that were treated poorly as well so he’s spent some time doing government work too!
There are plenty of celebrity appearances speaking fondly of George including: Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, John Cho, and Nichelle Nichols. Shatner is a bit of jerk in here (surprise, surprise) saying that he hardly knows George and really just worked with him occasionally which begs the question as to whether he was razzing George or just being an ass…
If you liked Star Trek and are a fan of Takei’s (OH MY, who isn’t?) – check out To Be Takei!
reviewed by Sean McKnight
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, I, Frankenstein basically sets up the Frankenstein monster as an action hero, and yes, it’s as bad as the premise sounds…
The film picks up where the book ends, with Victor Frankenstein pursing the monster into the arctic and consequently freezing to death under the extreme conditions. The monster buries his creator and is left to his own devices. Others in the supernatural world (demons and gargoyle-angels more specifically) discover the monster and begin pursuing him, each for their own reasons. At some point, the hunt for the monster falls apart and we move forward about 200 years to more modern times. Eventually the monster picks a side, gets some nifty weapons and becomes the hunter of those that still pursue him.
The demons are led by Prince Naberius (played by the excellent Bill Nighy) who is determined to unleash his demon army on the world using technology developed by Victor Frankenstein. So there’s a lot going on here but it’s basically an action film with lots of effects and monsters but not a lot of depth. The writing is formulaic and predictable and the dialog is super cliche’ at times. There’s no real character development here, not that a film like this is going to deliver that anyway but it would’ve been helpful to add some depth to the film.
There a plenty of big-budget effects (the film had a 65M budget) but they don’t make up for the bad writing or directing or the gimmicky mechanisms used in the film. One oversight with regard to the effects is that the monster, otherwise known as Adam (played by Aaron Eckhart) doesn’t look very much like a monster. Actually, he looks like an action hero actor with some extra scars. Even when he’s shirtless, he just looks like a dude with some scars. This creature is supposed to be comprised of different body parts from different sources charged by electricity, this incarnation has none of that. Other than the theory of how he was created, there’s nothing here that backs him up as being a monstrous threat.
The actors are ok (Nighy is always good) but noone really jumps out for me as being particularly compelling to watch. Even Aaron Eckhart is ok at best in this film when I’ve seen him turn in much stronger performances. In this film he’s just kind of angry-monster-guy the whole way through not really offering much else to his character’s personality even though he shows a lot of intelligence, so brainless monster doesn’t really apply here. The cast includes Miranda Otto, Yvonne Strahovski, Jai Courtney, Mahesh Jadu, Caitlin Stasey and Steve Mouzakis.
If you remember the film Van Helsing, this film has a similar vibe although it’s not quite as cheesy but it’s not too far from that either… Ugh, the film tanked in the theaters and it’s pretty evident as to why.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
The Gambler is one of those films based around a character study. Unfortunately the character is an asshole and this doesn’t really change at any point in the film. Even at the end of the movie, the moment of his character’s arc, he’s doing something that would still be considered kind of an asshole thing to do…
Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a college professor and compulsive gambler. He lectures by day although it’s more like creative belittlement and blatant favoritism towards his students. When he’s not lecturing he’s gambling. Although, that doesn’t seem accurate either as his gambling seems to be more about just throwing away his winnings and then acting like the world is a terrible, desolate place because of it. On top of his losing his winnings, he’s also borrowing money from people he shouldn’t be borrowing money from which comes to a bit of a head when he owes each quite a sum after borrowing from one to settle debt from another. Oh, and he’s really gloomy about it, and so is the film.
The thing with a character study like this is that unless there’s some sort of epiphany (which the film sort of has but the moment doesn’t come off very effectively), the film becomes just a drawn out exercise circling around whatever drama surrounds the main character. Sad to say, that’s the case here. There’s just no redeeming qualities to the main character. He’s an asshole to everyone: the person who’s supposedly his love interest, his mother (who bails him out financially only to have the money gambled away), his students, the loan sharks, everyone. Even at the end during the moment of epiphany, he’s still an asshole, doing asshole things. I ended up not liking his character at all and had absolutely no respect or sympathy for him since all of his problems are based on his own stupid decisions which he takes no responsibility for choosing to blame fate and humanity instead.
Wahlberg’s performance is ok. There a few times he’s engaging to watch but he’s mostly one-note here – stuck in asshole mode which makes the film very one-note as well and just kind of depressing. Jessica Lange plays Bennett’s mother and she’s a jerk too although at least she’s a jerk that shows love and support of her son. Neither actor really expands far beyond the initial base of the character although I think this is more due to the writing and directing. John Goodman, Brie Larson, Omar Leyva, George Kennedy, and Michael Kenneth Williams round out the cast and are all competent.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt, there’s a slick visual style to the film and some interesting character traits (Wahlberg’s character uses an umbrella to hold off the sun, because that just how dark and tortured that he is). The visuals are interesting a times and well designed but don’t make up for the lack of dimension and the monotone feel of the film.
I wouldn’t recommend paying money to see this one (not even for a rental). You might want to check it out once it hits cable or Netflix but just don’t expect to walk away from it with any kind of upbeat sensibility, it’s pretty much a downer from start to finish.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
This Is Where I Leave You centers around the Altman family who are dealing with the death of the family’s father. Judd Altman is having a particularly difficult time as he discovers just before his father’s death that his wife is cheating on him with his boss. After learning of the father’s passing, the family gathers at the parent’s home to participate in a Jewish tradition known as a Shiva, which is basically a week of mourning as loved ones gather to show support. Ironically, the family’s not really Jewish…
Once the family gathers, the drama that follows this kind of situation comes along to expose all those raw nerves that sometimes is just part of being around your family. Each family member has their own issues of course, with Judd (played by Jason Bateman) leading the way in terms of bad luck. Luckily, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for the family as they work together through the mourning process and resolve some differences along the way.
This is your traditional family drama with some comedic moments along the way. No big surprises but some nice unexpected points here and there. The dialog is well crafted and suits the characters, cleverly written as well. While the premise isn’t original, the delivery has it’s own sense of style and convention. There’s even some metaphor thrown in there as well with the youngest member of the family seeming to be the only one who has his shit together (once you see the film, you’ll understand that I just made a really slick pun there).
The actors are all top notch. Jason Bateman plays the broken lead in a convincing way while Tina Fey shows range as the concerned, obsessive sister. Jane Fonda is as fun and fearless as ever and it was cool to see Timothy Olyphant play a role unsual for him as well as Fey’s handicapped ex. The entire lineup is strong all around and is rounded out by Adam Driver, Dax Shepard, Connie Britton, Corey Stoll, Rose Byrne and Kathryn Hahn.
I would recommend this one if you like family dramas with some comedy sprinkled in there too.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
Wow, this journey of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films started in 2001; now, 13 years later we have the final installment in what has become a masterpiece series of films, each as equally epic as the other. Tolkien is my favorite author with The Lord of the Rings being my favorite book and The Hobbit as a close second. The movies have turned out to be my favorite films of all time. To be at the end is a bittersweet experience, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be any more and I have to admit that I’m strongly hoping that there isn’t a reboot in my lifetime, it would be like someone redoing Stairway to Heaven because they didn’t think the Led Zeppelin version was good enough…
Onto my last Hobbit film review.
The story picks up right where the second film left off as Smaug is descending on Laketown and doesn’t really slow down much from there ’til the end. Everything is settled in this installment, no more cliff hangers. There’s plenty of action obviously with the powers of Middle Earth converging on Erebor to settle debts and take control of the wealth beneath the mountain. Building up to the epic battle at the end, we get to see a confrontation between Sauron, Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and The Nine. Amazing getting to see Galadriel and Saruman in action! The writing is excellent by the way including plenty of moments you’ve always wanted to see happen as well as in depth experiences with a number of the characters such as getting to explore the madness of Thorin once he seizes control of the dwarve’s treasure and brief glimpses of the love story between Kili and Tauriel. The writing is every bit as strong as it’s been in each film and feels like all one big cohesive story that gets resolved perfectly.
The actors all turn in engaging performances, everyone was truly living in the skin of those characters and brought strength, passion and realism consistently. Richard Armitage is especially intense as Thorin grows more and more insane. Martin Freeman as Bilbo couldn’t have been more perfect casting. He mirrors the ticks of Ian Holm’s original performance while still leaving his own stamp on the character playing different dynamics as Bilbo discovers the depths of his courage and loyalty. Speaking of perfect casting, I don’t know of anyone that could have played Gandalf anywhere close to how well Sir Ian McKellen played that role. I could go on about all the actors but I’d just be saying the same thing over and over, that they’re all amazing. The lineup includes Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch, Billy Connolly, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner and many, many more…
Visually, it’s every bit as beautifully done as the rest of the films once again demonstrating why Weta is the best in the business. I’ve seen the film twice now, once in the HFR (high frame rate) format. The detail is breath taking, especially getting to see Smaug in 3D right in my face. The sequences with the orc, elf and dwarf armies are vast and spectacular, seeming like their numbers go on forever. The design of the landscapes, the costumes, the creatures are all what you hoped you’d see in the world that Tolkien so expertly crafted.
As for the director, well, Peter Jackson is easily in my top 5 favorite directors of all time. He and his team have put a very special collection of films together that is hard to match in terms of quality. Few series can say they live in that same level of legend but I would include the Star Wars and Harry Potter films. Jackson’s love for the stories has been evident the whole way through the process. The painstaking attention that he took to the story and all the related components to creating the films are above and beyond; if you don’t believe me watch any of the DVD/Blu-ray extras and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Regardless he has delivered a body of films that will put him in the “timeless” category (at least until holograms become the next thing).
I can’t say enough about how much these films have moved me and what they mean to me, it’s beyond what I can express in words. Suffice it to say thank you to the people responsible for bringing the world of Tolkien to the big screen, it’s truly been an honor to behold and a magnificent experience.
reviewed by Sean McKnight
In celebration of the release of the final Hobbit/Tolkien film (at least from Peter Jackson), I decided to do something different and review the Appendices from the Blu-ray version of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll really enjoy the bonus materials included here. As a filmmaker, it was really entertaining and educational getting to understand how they constructed certain scenes. The gold chamber with Smaug was especially enlightening in terms of how they filled the room with gold coins. There isn’t as much CG as you’d think and since they effects are done so well on top of the live action pieces, it’s hard to tell where reality ends and digital begins. It makes you appreciate just how good Weta is at effects.
The appendices are loaded with material (about 9 hours or so) including a deconstruction of each of the major scenes and how they were orchestrated. It’s amazing to see how elaborate some of the sets are – for instance, they basically built what would be a canyon rapids ride in an amusement park for the barrel riding scene down the river. And as for the fish dumping? Yep, real fish. In fact, they dumped 400 pounds of dead fish on the one actor who happened to have a phobia about fish during the Laketown entrance.
There’s plenty of interviews with Peter Jackson and the cast. Some of the more in-depth interviews are with the side players which is nice since it doesn’t make the material feel star-centric. The inside stories are fun to listen to and include insight from the crew too. Everybody on a shoot is important, I don’t care what your job is, you’re important, and that’s a nice sentiment to be realized as you hear these interviews. Included in the lineup is Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Luke Evans and Orlando Bloom.
I couldn’t think of a better way to prepare for the premiere one last time. It’s bittersweet to know this is the last one but at the same time, I can’t wait to see it. This has been my favorite series of films ever, thank you so very much for your work Peter Jackson, cast and crew, you’ve created something beautiful, epic and timeless. I can’t wait to sit down with a friend and enjoy the final chapter…
reviewed by Sean McKnight
Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are back but this time the games are over and Katniss is living underground with the members of the rebellion while Peeta is residing in the capital. The rebels are trying to hold their own against the forces of President Snow while his military obliterates whoever stands in their way…
This is where the story turns away from the formulas of the first two films that included the games and becomes more about the political undertones going on throughout both worlds of the rich and poor with Katniss caught right in the middle. The world of the rebellion is expanded upon in this film with the introduction of President Coin as their firebrand leader portrayed by Julianne Moore. Mockingjay Part 1 feels different from its predecessors and brings a sense of newness to the series as it explores both sides of the conflict and the people of Panem intertwined.
The film is well-directed with plenty of emotional moments as well as action along with some great effects too. Francis Lawrence directs with a great sense of moving the story along and getting passionate performances. From what I’ve heard, the films have been staying true to the books which is something that makes me want to read them as I haven’t had the pleasure yet…
Jennifer Lawrence is the lead once again playing Katniss as strong and as conflicted as ever. Josh Hutcherson is back as Peeta and does an excellent job with a degree of desperation and fear that feels genuine. Moore as President Coin is powerful while Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all put in command performances.
If you’re a fan of the books and the first two films, you won’t be disappointed here…
reviewed by Sean McKnight
I Am Santa Claus is a documentary that delves into the life and culture of what it means to live life (at least part of the time) as Santa Claus…
The doc examines the Santa lifestyle though the eyes of several different men who embody the persona. We jump from one city and state to another including locales such as Fort Worth, TX and Santa Claus, IN. The various angles are fun and interesting to explore; here you’ll find everything from your typical mall Santa living in his daughter’s basement to the gay Santa from TX that takes part in hottest bear gay men contests. Interestingly, there’s more than 1 Santa in the alternative sex community (kinky!). Mick Foley of wrestling fame is interviewed as well as he pursues a dream of filling St. Nick’s shoes. By the way, there are a number of Santas that legally had their name changed to Santa Claus on their driver’s licenses, that’s dedication.
Digging into the sub-culture is where the passion behind the Santa lifestyle is really brought to the surface. Many of them are very dedicated and somewhat intense about how they feel about being the man in red and what it means. Santa Dana Caplan even holds a BA in Santaclausology (gotta wonder where he studied that) and mentors upcoming Santas.
The interviews are fun, heartbreaking, touching, and compelling. Although, there are times it’s hard to keep track of them since they all look like the big guy. It’s kind of like watching an interview with someone who has the same body but has a bunch of different voices and personalities. The Santas from NY especially stick out with their thick Brooklyn accents.
Morgan Spurlock is one of the executive producers behind the project and Tommy Avallone directs. The lineup from the film (besides Santa of course) includes Sid Haig, Tommy Dreamer, Artie Lange, Jerry Lawler, Roddy Piper and Dee Snider.
All around, this is a fun doc that sheds light into a world that goes a lot deeper than you think it does. Not necessarily something to watch with your kids, but still something that’s enjoyable to watch as we go through the holiday season. It’s on Netflix!
reviewed by Sean McKnight