December 13, 2014

TRAILER: San Andreas

LA traffic is bad on a good day. Here's what it looks like on a really bad one.
While the Negative Nancy contingent at the USGS continues to sound alarm bells of impending seismic doom for the West Coast, the good folks at Warner Bros. aren’t waiting around for Mother Nature to unleash The Big One. The 2015 Summer blockbuster blitz kicks into high gear on May 29th with the release of SAN ANDREAS, a disaster film that makes the wildly overrated EARTHQUAKE (1974) look quaint by comparison.
Dwayne Johnson stars in SAN ANDREAS.
The cast is an oddball mix that feels like a thinly veiled attempt to hit key demo hotspots. Guys and action fans get genre fave Dwayne Johnson as the heroic lead. The geek contingent can nibble on  pop-culture treats like Colton Haynes (ARROW), Art Parkinson (GAME OF THRONES) and  Will Yun Lee (THE WOLVERINE). Talented thesps Carla Gugino and Paul Giamatti are there to  class up the joint and Kylie Minogue (yes, Kylie Minogue) means you won’t have to bribe your gay besties to tag along. It’s quirky casting, to be sure, but that’s where the fun ends. If the first-full length trailer for SAN ANDREAS is any indication, this film means business.
Earlier this month, I dinged the JURASSIC WORLD trailer for showing off way too much. Though chock-a-block with special effects shots, the dinosaurs have a “been there, done that” quality and the whole presentation felt like overcompensation on a grand scale. It managed to do what no promo ever should: suck all the anticipation out of the room. Much to my surprise, SAN ANDREAS is not a repeat offender.
Los Angeles bears the brunt of The Big One.
Before you dive in, play this quick word association game: what adjectives pop into your noggin when you think about a big-budget summer disaster film starring a guy who still moonlights with the WWE as The Rock? Nothing I came up with was brutally negative but “must-see” was nowhere on my list. What a difference two minutes of very effective marketing can make.
The trailer is dead-serious from the start. A spare, downbeat piano score accompanies an opening montage that intercuts shots of iconic California locations with increasingly ominous on-screen titles. It’s an effective set-up that pays off with a sobering visual coda. Then, all hell breaks loose when a massive seismic wave rolls across the city of Los Angeles. It’s a jaw-dropping display of digital wizardry that demands attention. Extra points for the super-creepy a cappella cover of “California Dreaming” that accompanies the carnage.
Even if the plot sucks, it’s a safe bet that SAN ANDREAS will set a new standard for big screen special effects. The quick cuts of epic-scale destruction that round out the promo are impressive and frighteningly photo-realistic. Plus, it doesn’t feel like we’ve already seen the whole movie. As trailers go, this one pushes all the right buttons. So far, I’m in.

December 6, 2014

How A Black Stormtrooper Woke Up the Dark Side

In the week since the release of the first teaser for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, the 88 second clip has been viewed more than 58 million times. That breaks the record for any trailer posted on YouTube in 2014. If you’ve been living under a rock somewhere on Tatooine and haven’t seen it (or want to watch it again) it’s included at the end of this post.
The original plan was to do this write-up day and date with the promo launch. That didn’t happen. Rather than joining everyone on the instant-reaction bandwagon, I chose to hang back. Why? Because the trailer opens with a shot of a BLACK GUY dressed in Stormtrooper armor. Now, if that doesn’t seem like a big deal, then you’re a typical STAR WARS fan. If, however, the mere sight of a BLACK GUY on screen is the thing you fixate on, you’re probably a racist bastard. I had a gut feeling the hate contingent was going to have something nasty to say so I hit pause and waited for the fallout. Sadly, I didn’t have to wait long.
Apparently, high levels of melanin cause a disturbance in whatever twisted version of The Force surrounds the ignorant and xenophobic. The target of their venom is actor John Boyega, best known for his breakout role in the indie hit ATTACK THE BLOCK. While the rest of us were buzzing about lightsabers, X-Wings and the Millennium Falcon, the idiot underbelly went online to vent and let their prejudice do the talking.
In addition to the usual insults, bigotry and red neck ramblings, some folks played the “I’m not racist, but…” shell game by deploying revisionist STAR WARS history. A Stormtrooper can’t be black, they declared, because all were cloned from Jango Fett. Except they weren’t. Jango was indeed the genetic source for the cannon fodder that populated the first Clone Army but by the time Stormtroopers were on the front lines, that was no longer the case. Never mind that we have no idea what role Boyega is playing because it hasn’t been officially announced. Sure, he might be a Stormtrooper or he could just be in disguise, you know, like Luke and Han in the 1977 original. Of course, it doesn’t matter which facts get mangled here. At the end of the day, these are still race-based attacks lurking behind some pretty flimsy window dressing.
boyega slam
To his credit, Boyega isn’t letting the haters get in the way of his happiness. Why the hell should he? He’s in a STAR WARS film and they’re not. His response to the nastiness was a brief “get used to it” tucked neatly into the footer of an otherwise cheerful and charming Instagram post. He couldn’t have handled the drama any better. What still upsets me is that he had to deal with this BS in the first place. 
I don’t accept that cruelty of this nature is a necessary evil or something that we should pretend isn’t a pox upon the whole of civilized society. Just because the victim happens to be black doesn’t make it a “black thing” that the rest of us can or should ignore. It is absolutely disgraceful and dead wrong that a talented young actor can’t celebrate a major career milestone without being slimed by blowback from bigots. If this is the kind of crap that surfaces in response to a casting decision in a sci-fi film, imagine the horrors people are dealing with in the real world where the stakes are much higher.
Be a good Jedi and do one thing the next time you’re about to ignore the hate speech in a social media post, sit silently while others laugh at a racist joke or pretend someone “doesn’t really mean it” when they use a racial slur: don’t act on that impulse. It’s a trap! Respond. Speak up. Engage. In these situations, your silence is not golden.

Ok, enough of the Dark Side. It’s time to fire up the Falcon! Scroll down to check out the trailer and read my take on the mother of all teasers.

You probably felt cheated if you were expecting a first trailer for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS that was brimming with fan-favorite characters and major plot revelations. Sorry, that’s not what this 88 seconds is all about. It is, in every sense of the word, a teaser. On first pass, it plays like a random assortment of clips, strung together with little rhyme or reason. Watch a few more times and you start to see some method to the madness. Still, there are no familiar faces, no jaw dropping surprises or anything really big that we didn’t already know. With all that seemingly not going for it, here’s the shocker: the thing kinda kicks ass.
When George Lucas was dislodged from the process, the prospect of a really good STAR WARS movie suddenly seemed possible. Bringing JJ Abrams in kicked even the best expectations into overdrive. After all, he managed to re-boot the STAR TREK franchise with a movie that fans and non-fans loved then he topped that with an even better sequel. Putting Abrams in charge of re-birthing the STAR WARS universe was a dream come true. You’ll never have to worry about him casting the next Jake Lloyd, killing off the best new bad guy way too early or being the only one who thinks fans can’t get enough of long, horribly written scenes of chemistry-free romance by that lake on Naboo. Now that the first trailer is out, it’s also safe to assume that Abrams must be confident in his vision. There’s no other way to parse how he is able to do so much by choosing to show so little.
The trailer had to make it clear that there was a new sheriff in town; one who respects the material but isn’t afraid to toss out the  bantha poodoo. That’s what makes the opening shot so brilliant. Seeing Boyega in Stormtrooper armor (on what looks like Tatooine) gives us the old and the new in one bold stroke. It’s also a long overdue shift for the franchise. Other than Billy Dee Williams and Samuel L. Jackson, Lucas didn’t exactly embrace diversity when it came to casting most of the human roles.  Putting a fresh, exciting young actor front and center is smart. That he also happens to be black is a welcome break from the sins of the past. This isn’t your grand daddy’s STAR WARS and that’s a good thing.
The trailer might be stingy with narrative details but, the first minute is given over to a rapid-fire succession of clips that mercy kill all lingering memories of cute Ewoks, jabbering Jar Jar and those horrid squeals of delight from little Anakin. It’s shot after shot of tension, fear, looming conflict and lots of running and flying away from (or toward) something unseen but probably unpleasant. Even the one kinda cute droid is not having a good day. It’s a whole lot of angst that culminates with the one-two rush of X-Wings in flight over open water and the lightsaber to end all lightsabers. This thing looks like a weapon that’s built for killing. It’s down and dirty and makes Darth Maul’s double beam model look like a kiddie toy
Though it’s hard to make a sweeping assessment with so little to go on but, it does look like the George Lucas digital EFX freak show has been shuttered. Amen! This STAR WARS is gritty and organic, at once familiar but also more grown up and worldly. The Force might be waking up but the majority of the promo is all about The Dark Side. That is, until the grand finale. A near perfect crescendo that pairs the STAR WARS theme with a mind blowing shot of the Millennium Falcon soaring through dizzying aerial acrobatics while under attack by TIE Fighters. I haven’t smiled so big and wide in a long time. Yes, I’m a STAR WARS geek and, finally, I can be damn proud of it once again. December 2015 can’t get here fast enough.