Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The New Year

Last year was not good for posts. This year should be different.

I've engaged myself in the 100 Movies challenge - I plan to watch 100 movies in 2014 that I have never seen before. They won't all be new, because I'm not made of money, but I'm looking at this much the way I looked at my reading habits two years ago. The year I decided to only read books I've never read before, I read a bunch of stuff I never would have and it revitalized the way I look for things to read. I re-watch a lot of the same movies, which isn't a bad thing, but it limits my exposure to new stuff and keeps me from watching all the things on my Netflix queue that "I'm totally going to watch someday." That day is now!

Before we embark on this journey together, I should mention a few things I saw that I haven't told you about.

The Hobbit
I was going to wait to review The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug until I saw it again, because I went to a late show and MAY have slept through a bit of the beginning. But I don't actually think I'll have a chance to see it again, so: my overwhelming opinion of this movie is that while it's still too long, it's an improvement on An Unexpected Journey in every way. You may recall I got a bit whiny when I reviewed the first Hobbit movie, because it was too long and paced poorly and tonally weird and a whole bunch of other stuff, but mostly because I expected better of Peter Jackson. Desolation is slightly shorter, composed better, moves more efficiently, and has better side characters than Journey. Every addition to the source material makes it better (including Tauriel, the lady elf and new queen of my life).
It also feels very much like the filmmakers have a better grasp on how they're combining their different material - the Necromancer storyline fits better with the dwarves' journey this time around (which, granted, is partially due to the fact that The Hobbit as a book gets steadily darker - but it still works better than moving between troll snot and high council meetings).
I STILL don't think it needs to be three movies, but I'm glad they're at least getting better as they go.
American Hustle
You guys. YOU GUYS. This movie was so good. I'm having trouble formulating a coherent review because I just want to tell you to go see it, but I'll try my best.

I love movies that respect their audience, and this one definitely does. The writing is so smart, which is particularly evident in the way it uses humor - none of the jokes are slammed in your face, and if you're not paying attention you might miss them, and they never detract from the seriousness of the subject matter. But this movie is FUNNY. It's also a great con film, and as everyone knows, the best part of a con movie is the reveal...which American Hustle TOTALLY nails.

It's also incredibly well-acted - the story, which deals with a pair of con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) who get in trouble with an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and agree to help him trap a politician (Jeremy Renner) in exchange for amnesty, is a completely serious, heavy story. And the actors never detract from that. But they are the reason the film goes from gut wrenching to wildly funny in the span of a few moments, without lessening the effect of either. Bale and Adams particularly have crazy chemistry with each other that makes them compelling to watch.

You know who else was compelling to watch? Jennifer Friggin' Lawrence. I am continually astounded that Lawrence is as good as she is considering how (comparatively) little experience she has - at this point, she has made four huge movies, and delivered critically acclaimed performances in three of them (she's excellent in Hunger Games, but that's not winning awards any time soon). The way she plays Rosalyn, Bale's disaffected housewife who is dumber than a sack of rocks, is so pitch-perfect that she completely steals every scene she's in.
Lest I wax fondly about this movie for 1200 more words, I leave you with this, Jennifer Lawrence singing Live and Let Die in full mobster housewife regalia.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


My sister and I are best friends, but we didn't used to be. We didn't really get to BE friends until I moved away to college - I don't know if we were too close or not close enough in age (we're three school years apart, about two and a half years apart in age), but we bickered and fought and pushed each other away for most of our childhoods. Now, we go out together. We talk on the phone. We are friends, confidants, an essential part of each others' lives. I tell you thing because it's a key part of why Frozen was so deeply, deeply affecting to me.

Disney has been on a role lately, portraying familial relationships that are just as, if not more important to the characters in its movies than romantic relationships. In last year's Brave, there WAS no romantic relationship - it was all about Merida and her mother. Likewise, the central relationship in Frozen is not that between Anna and one of her two suitors, but between her and her older sister Elsa. And let me tell you, Frozen GETS it. Frozen takes you into the relationship between these two girls and shows you how hard it is to be so close to someone, how hard it is to grow into different people, and how necessary it is to hang onto that bond. Yes, I had some problems with a few of the musical numbers (a couple felt shoehorned in, like they were more obligatory than necessary, and I just didn't care for one on a musical level), and yes, I wish the story had spent more time on Elsa and her struggles. But this is a movie about sisters, and it gets the sister relationship so profoundly right that I have a hard time complaining about the other stuff.

There is one other thing the story does that I won't spoil, but suffice to say, it is a complete departure from what you'd expect and what Disney has been criticized for doing in the past that I just have to applaud them for doing it. You'll know it immediately, and when you do, we can talk about the implications it has for the future of Disney princesses. It is a development that excites me.

One unexpected thing the film did in a really fantastic way: that snowman. If you're like me, you watched the trailers for Frozen with no small amount of dread, because of that AWFUL snowman. I was so afraid that he'd be this intrusive, forcefully comedic character that the movie wanted for marketing purposes. But! Olaf the snowman is quite well utilized. His humor is well deployed, so that it enhances rather than detracts from the emotional moments. He walks a fine line between endearing and annoying without ever falling on the bad side. I ended up laughing sincerely with him much more than I anticipated.

This is all to say nothing of the sheer beauty of the film - Frozen is incredibly lovely. The ice and snow glitters, and the other colors are vibrant against the white landscapes. The voice acting is likewise fantastic, with Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel voicing the sisters to great effect (if you haven't seen the "Let It Go" sequence, which Disney recently put up on YouTube, I highly recommend it - it doesn't spoil the plot, and gives you an enticing taste of Menzel's power in the role of Elsa). i

Frozen has been getting a lot of controversy, regarding the overwhelming whiteness of the cast and the trimming of female characters from the source story The Snow Queen. Both are legitimate criticisms, but don't let them prevent you from seeing such an incredible story about the love between sisters and the power of family. At the end of the day, Frozen is about two sisters who save themselves, regardless of the other people (including men) that enter their lives. And that is an achievement worth celebrating.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Catching Fire

Before we get into Catching Fire, I want to say a few words about Paul Walker.

I unironically love the Fast & the Furious movies. I think they are tremendously entertaining films that know exactly what they're offering, and they do what they do very, very well. The chemistry between the actors has always been strong, and while they aren't the best examples of solid plots or coherent writing around, they are fun, exciting, and have a shitload of replayability. Paul Walker was a big part of that - while he wasn't the best actor around, he was solid and reliable, and always came across as charming and likable. Going back to that chemistry, he was great fun to watch with Vin Diesel and Jordana Brewster, and he made a good anchor for the films.

I didn't know much about him outside of that franchise, but reading about him postmortem has been enlightening. Apparently he was involved in marine conservation projects, and he drove actual race cars, and he has a young daughter. The fact that these things were never widely splashed on the tabloids, and the fact that I never had his personal life shoved in my face, tells me that he was a private, classy guy for Hollywood.

The death of anyone at age 40 is tragic. I mourn Walker, and Roger Rodas, the driver of the car. I'm sad we won't get to see Walker on screen again, and my heart goes out to his friends and family.

Now. The Girl on Fire.

I've been trying to start this review for a few days now, and I don't know why it's been so difficult - I liked the movie quite a bit. It's a very similar story to the first one (which was why Catching Fire was my least favorite of the HG trilogy), but the good parts are better and the bad parts have been mostly expunged. The shaky cam filming is gone (thank GOD), because this is not a story that needs to emphasize the tension. It's more brutal, more emotional, the new characters are better and the old ones get more to do.

One of the strengths of the novel that really gets emphasized here is that we spend more time with the other Tributes. In my review of The Hunger Games, I believe I mentioned the strength of the acting - that's a trend that continues, with Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair and Jena Malone as Joanna Mason as particular standouts. I was skeptical about Claflin, but he gets Finnick's smarm and sleazy smile while ALSO getting the good heart and strong emotional current under all the act. He makes Finnick's grief as real as his charm. Malone as Joanna is everything I ever wanted: tough, sarcastic, shoving her middle finger in the face of the Capitol and rolling her eyes through the whole thing. Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Woody Harrelson are all back with bigger, better rolls and impress just as much as last time.

Visually, you can tell that the studio got a bigger budget after the success of The Hunger Games. Everything looks better, including the rehashed fire effect on Katniss and Peeta's clothes at the opening ceremonies. The arena is more detailed, the violence is harsher, the costuming is better. If I had one nitpick about the cinematography, it would be that I wish we got to see more of the Capitol with an increased budget - there is a scene set in the President's mansion that hints at the extreme opulence, and I wish they'd really pushed the lavishness there.

The movie's biggest problem is that it's clearly there as set-up for the Mockingjay two-parter. It has the unenviable task of being the middle link in the story, where the backdrop has already been established but we're not to the payoff yet. Some trilogies handle this better than others (The Two Towers springs immediately to mind) and The Hunger Games struggles with this, especially because the movie doesn't linger too much on the rising rebellion in the districts. We have to hear about most of that secondhand, which makes the ending feel more inevitable and less like the big reveal they're clearly going for. But they squeeze in more than the novel did (there's a bit when Katniss and Peeta are on a train and see graffiti of her mockingjay pin fly by), and at the end of the day, I'm still looking forward to the story's conclusion.

Even if it is, completely unnecessarily, going to be two movies.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Ender's Game

It's hard to talk about Ender's Game because I honestly don't know where to start.

I wrote a little about it on my librarian blog (you can read it here if you like), mostly addressing how I felt about Orson Scott Card, the book, and going to see the movie. I always intended to see the film, no matter how I felt about OSC; when I bought my ticket, I donated to the Human Rights Campaign as well. But I've been excited about this movie since the first trailer was released; it was a really well done trailer, managing to touch on the treatment of the kids in battle school, the characterization of Ender, and the mystery of Mazer Rackham without actually saying much of anything. It looked good. The casting was good. I had no reason to be anything other than optimistic.

To say the movie didn't deliver is an understatement.

Ender commands a really cool looking, but ultimately superficial, space battle

You can't be a book lover and a movie lover without running into the adaptation problem from time to time - books get adapted into movies all the time, and for the most part I enjoy them as a different mode of telling the same story. I try not to get hung up on small inaccuracies or changes made, because things inevitably have to change when moving from one medium to another. This was not the problem with Ender's Game. The problem with Ender's Game is that every change made, every omission, every alteration, fundamentally changed the tone and meaning of the story, so that by the time it's all wrapping up, you're left with a completely different message than the book offers.

From the very first scenes, which whip past you so fast it's almost impossible to digest them, I knew we were in trouble - all the key scenes were there, but presented in a manner that felt like the writers said "Okay, these moments are important, we have to include them," but without any understanding of why they were important. As a result, emotionally weighty moments from the book fall flat or feel goofy, because there's no context or buildup or anything to give them their importance. The scenes are presented almost in a vacuum, because the director has never taken the time to show you why they matter.

The "showing versus telling" is a problem here. Gavin Hood, the director, has pretty much decided that information has to be spoon-fed to the audience via voice-over or info dump by Ford, even when the telling contradicts what little he takes the time to show us. Every important development in Battle School is compressed into two battles, in ways that mean the audience has to be told why they are important - exposition which doesn't make the visual make sense, by the way. Like other big visuals (which do look stunning, I have to say), Battle School loses a lot of coherency for the sake of making a big special effects splash. You get the feeling that some things were changed simply for the sake of including those special effects.

I will say I enjoyed the acting, for the most part - Harrison Ford was perfect at getting Graff's gruffness, but also showing the real affection he develops for Ender. Ben Kingsley is great at Mazer Rackham, although his accent coasted just this side of incomprehensible. The place where the acting breaks down is with the kids, but I'm not quite willing to place all the blame on them - I've seen and loved Hailee Steinfield, Abigail Breslin and Asa Butterfield in other films. They are weak in Ender because the writing and the direction are weak, because the emotions and tone are wrong. Ford and Kingsley are great actors with years of experience under their belts, and actors of that caliber can elevate weak material (which they are absolutely doing here). Steinfeld and Butterfield simply don't have the experience; they needed more help from the script and the director, which they clearly weren't getting.

I can't really tell you how much I wanted to like this movie. I absolutely do not think the story is unfilmable - but you have to start with filmmakers that understand the material they're working with. There was a message in Hood's film, but it wasn't the message of the Ender's Game novel...and his Ender is not the Ender I grew up with.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pacific Rim

I have half-finished reviews for Now You See Me and Man of Steel sitting in my drafts, and I couldn't tell you why I'm not all that compelled to finish them - I think part of it is that I was disappointed with NYSM and I don't feel like I have much to add to the Man of Steel discussion, which was VERY good but everyone else has pretty much captured why.

I am compelled - strongly, in fact - to tell you to go see Pacific Rim.

Charlie Hunnam and RInko Kikuchi as Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori

Pacific Rim is polarizing, and I think I've finally pinned down why: a lot of the buzz leading up to it had to do with the fact that, in a time in film history when most of the films being made are sequels, prequels, adaptations and franchise pieces, Pacific Rim was a "wholly original" piece.  Guillermo del Toro had lovingly hand-crafted the perfect genre film, and people (at least the people writing about film and media) were amped about it - a summer blockbuster with shades of Godzilla and Transformers, created from an Oscar nominated director.

But the fact is that it's a.) not completely original (like I said, shades of Godzilla and Transformers...and Evangelion, and Half-Life, and Cloverfield, and kung-fu movies, and much of JJ Abrams' body of work, and a whole host of other things); b.) it wasn't the magnum opus that people expected and thought they deserved.  The dialogue is weak, the story (while TOTALLY AWESOME) is a little goofy, there's unnecessary exposition which could have been dedicated to more character development, the big endgame is a little rushed.

I'm here to state, plainly and emphatically and on the record: WHO GIVES A SHIT.

No, seriously.  I'm not going to pull out the "It's a giant shiny action movie, who needs plot?" line, because I don't need to.  What Pacific Rim lacks in writing strength it more than makes up for in three main things:

1. World Building
Do you remember when James Cameron made Avatar, and everyone was going apeshit over the world he'd constructed?  The world building of Pacific Rim spits on that.  From the individuality of the kaiju and the jaegers, most of which we only see for a few minutes but manage to have distinct personalities, to the trickle-down effect that the monsters have on the black market (Ron Perlman plays a wonderfully shady black market trader in kaiju bits), Pacific Rim is dense with background detail that colors the story without overwhelming it.  I read a review that complained about all the jargon used in the film (I believe it was referred to as "geek speak"), which I noticed but didn't have a problem with, because its couched so firmly in context that I, at least, never had trouble understanding it.  I'll be buying the making of book, Pacific Rim: Man, Machines, and Monsters as soon as possible, because you KNOW that del Toro has pages and pages and pages of information that we never get to see - but the movie aches with it.  This is why, even when you can feel the homages that del Toro is drawing on, ultimately the movie itself feels pretty fresh.

2. Cinematography
Simply put, this is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen.  Every battle sequence is impeccably shot with clarity, even when the battles take place at night.  A scene in downtown Hong Kong is lit with neon signs and helicopter beams, the drift visualizations are ethereal and striking, and as I said above, the kaiju and jaegers drip distinct personality in their visual designs and the way that they move.  The way they move is important, too - no matter how flimsy some of the science is (and I don't really care, honestly) the monsters and the jaegers move realistically.  There's weight to them, things don't always happen quickly, and it feels real to the physics of things twice the size of the Statue of Liberty.  This goes hand-in-hand with the world building, and each detail of this world is precise and visually clear.  If Pacific Rim doesn't win all the technical and effects Oscars, frankly, they're doing it wrong.

3. The Actors
Remember when I said the writing was weak?  Here's where I tell you why it doesn't matter.  Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi form the emotional center of this movie, and they are all so compelling that I forgive them for any cliched dialogue they had to utter.  Elba in particular commands with the force of personality I've come to expect from him - he's an actor that elevates the material he's given, so even when I was wishing there was more to his Cancelling the Apocalypse speech, I was shaken in my seat by the lines he delivered.  Hunnam's Raleigh Becket is down-trodden, damaged, and immensely capable, and you can feel the way he waffles between hopelessness about the situation and stoic determination.  The idea behind Kikuchi's Mako Mori is occasionally stronger than the execution; it feels like the writers don't always quite know what to do with her, which is a shame because I loved her - she shows serious mettle, rising to an impossible demand and doing the best she has with less than desirable circumstances.  I deeply appreciated the lack of romance between Mori and Becket; their strong camaraderie feels more real to the characters and the actors.

So I urge you to see Pacific Rim.  Don't see it because it's the last hope for original movies - it's not.  Don't see it because it's the last hope for genre movies - it isn't.  See it because it's awesome.  See it because it's the most fun I've had at the movies in a really, really long time.  See it because it deserves a big screen.

And hold on to your hat when you do.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


I'm still feeling pretty whiny about Star Trek, so I'm going to chat for a bit about a movie I DID like, even though I saw it a few weeks ago (on my birthday, actually!).

I had moderate expectations for Oblivion - I think Tom Cruise is a talented and capable actor, even if he is pretty crazypants in real life, and generally I enjoy movies he's in (Minority Report is one of my favorites, in fact).  And the general attitude about Oblivion seemed to be "That was better than I expected!", so it seemed like a safe bet.

Guys, this movie is great.  The story is solid (it's an adaptation of a graphic novel written by Joseph Kosinski, who also directed Tron: Legacy. ~The more you know~) and had a few twists I wasn't expecting, and the filmmakers do some really interesting and risky things that COULD have tanked it - but they didn't.

The biggest risk it takes, in my opinion, is in pacing - Oblivion is never in a hurry to impress you.  It has a lot of the window dressing of a big summer blockbuster, but the first hour or so is pretty much Tom Cruise wandering around a vacant Planet Earth reminiscing about a life he's never lived (pre-alien war, we're told.  Cruise and his partner Vicka, played by Andrea Riseborough, fix the drones that take care of giant water processing machines.  They have just two weeks left before they get to abandon ship and join what's left of humanity on colony Titan).  It moves incredibly leisurely, treading just this side away from boring.  It's captivating, though, because Cruise and the writers hit on just the right combination of nostalgia and weirdness to keep it interesting.

Ultimately, that pace is used to establish the world the movie is in, right before the rug gets yanked out from under you.  When the story starts shifting gears, though, the first chunk makes more sense.  Plot twists get dropped like breadcrumbs, the action spirals up slowly, and when the big reveals start happening it's almost breathtaking the way the filmmakers have played you.

Nothing comes out of nowhere - that whole opening sequence is seeded with clues that don't become clues until you know what the context is.  Going in, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what the twist would be and what Morgan Freeman's role in all of this was; turns out what I thought I knew was correct, but only partially, and not in the way that really matters.

Oblivion also has an emotional resonance that surprised me, because I'm not used to genre or summer films being this willing to sacrifice explosions for the sake of emotional connection.  For all its scale (and there's a lot of scale - sweeping, barren landscapes, shiny futuristic planes and living platforms, lots of white and metals and a pretty cool suspension pool), the story feels small and intimate - it's the story of Morgan Freeman and his rebels, or course, but it's really the story of Cruise's Jack.  The big reveal and climax at the end feel earned, because you've spent so much perceived time with Jack, which means that Oblivion retains the emotional core that so much genre film misses (I was reminded of Avatar, actually, in that both are big, shiny science fiction tales, but Oblivion is actually resonant and, you know, good.)

Oblivion looks very much like a giant sci-fi summer blockbuster - with Cruise in the main actor seat and big, impressive visuals, superficially the film looks much bigger than what it ends up being: one man's struggle with identity and purpose.  

Monday, May 20, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness, this time with SPOILERS

Let's get into it.

I will admit that I have never seen Wrath of Khan.  I've never been a Star Trek fan, so I never bothered, and thus may be missing something in Abrams' remake.  However, one of the things I loved so much about his first reboot was that it was so accessible - you didn't have to be a Trek fan to know what was going on, and you didn't have to be familiar with the characters to fall in love with them.  So I'm not willing to cut Abrams any slack on this front.

That said, here are my specific complaints about Star Trek: Into Darkness.

- As I said in my first review, I thought Abrams was telling us with his first Trek that he was off the leash, not to be constrained by the previously established Trek canon (however you may feel about that decision).  But what do we get as a follow up? A film that tries to shoe horn as much reference and remake that it possibly can into a story that would have been better served without it.  John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) was more interesting before the "reveal" that we're actually just doing Khan again.  The story of Kirk's disgrace with the Academy, and him getting called to task for his shitty captaining by his mentor Admiral Pike, was way more fascinating than the revenge drama we got.  All of this was washed away in the first twenty minutes of the movie.

- Let's talk about those first twenty minutes.  I was SO excited to see Pike's dressing down of Kirk, because it's a big character moment for him - yes, he's been insanely lucky so far, but the way he runs his ship and his attitude are dangerous and will probably kill someone someday.  To have another character, one that Kirk respects so much, actually call him out for that could have been a great story to follow - except that we forget about that the instant Pike dies.  The Federation takes the Enterprise away from Kirk...and then gives it back to him almost instantly.  His abilities as a captain are never in question for the rest of the film.  Even his bad decisions are mostly the product of him taking pretty solid advice from his crew.  It doesn't end up meaning anything.

- Which brings me to character motive, or lack thereof. As a Federation terrorist, Harrison was on the way to having some kind of motive - perhaps he was wronged by the Federation.  It doesn't matter, it didn't have to be complicated.  But by turning around and making him Khan, he has a tenuous motive for revenge against one specific member of the Federation (Admiral Marcus, who, um, what?  How can I give a shit about a conflict with someone I've never met before, and who's characterization wasn't explored enough to matter) and NOTHING to justify that last scene where he crashed the ship into San Francisco. Khan is only ever angry at one person: Marcus, Kirk, Spock.  But somehow, we're supposed to buy that he's this huge danger to the universe?

I feel like this is where it would have been helpful to have seen Wrath of Khan, because the scene with Old Spock gives some intimations of how dangerous Khan is - but the point is, we never see that in this version. He's some kind of superhuman, and I totally get why he hates Marcus, but the explosive destruction aimed at the Federation is never earned.

- Seriously, the Klingons were in the movie for two minutes and were more interesting than everything else.  Can the next movie be about them?

- The dialogue was brutal. Seriously, I love Karl Urban, he's a great actor, and we've seen that he's great at being Bones - so why why WHY would you reduce him to a series of stereotypical metaphors and one-liners?  All of the characters were distilled down to their TOS stereotypes (except, interestingly, Spock, who continually talks about being unable to feel and then being REALLY BAD at not feeling).

Speaking of, can we talk about how unfair Uhura's part in this whole thing was?  I alluded to it in my other review, but seriously: she's supposed to be capable and professional.  I do not believe at all that she would choose to fight about her relationship with Spock on the shuttle on the way to an extremely dangerous mission.  It was poorly placed, distracting, and damaging to all characters involved.

- For all that the stakes keep being raised, and the probability of death looms ever closer, I never felt like there was any tension.  With the sole exception of Khan and Kirk's flight through space (which would have been even more effective if it had been edited a little tighter), I never once was afraid for these characters.  Hell, Kirk died and I didn't take it seriously, because I knew what story we were in (which is another reason the Khan bait-and-switch doesn't work - yes, it's Spock that dies in the original, but that doesn't stick, either).  There is a way to create tension when your audience knows the ending of the story, this movie just never knows how.

- And at the end...nothing is different.  Khan is back in a cryo tube (which, how? How do you fight an super being back into a freezing tube?) Kirk has the Enterprise back. All the relationships are where they were in the beginning, because nothing was ever a serious threat to them.  The whole film felt like a wasted opportunity.

I'll probably go see more Trek films, if Abrams keeps making them.  But I won't feel the same kind of unreserved excitement I had before STID.  Which makes me really, really sad.