Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Life Itself" review

It's quite fitting that someone would make a movie about Roger Ebert. After all, the beloved critic loved movies so much that "Roger Ebert loved movies" is the epitaph on his website. It's even more fitting that it would be made by Steve James, director of the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, which Ebert adored and championed endlessly. It's just a shame, though, that it would not be produced until after his death, although he did live just long enough to participate in its production.

The film opens in - of course - Chicago, Ebert's beloved home, where we see the city in full memoriam mode for the critic, and meet a number of people we'll be conversing with over the course of the film- friends of Ebert, associates, people familiar with him. These include Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, his longtime close friends and among his most admired filmmakers. The credits roll over a series of photos of Roger from his childhood through his many years as a critic, with the title card being paired, significantly, with a photo he took himself in 2006, just before having surgery for his thyroid cancer that, he knew, would change his face significantly.

Then we finally meet the man himself in person, sometime around late 2012 or early 2013, mere months before his death. He is, as he once admitted himself, not a pretty sight. His lower jaw is completely gone, his bottom row of teeth completely missing, leaving nothing but loose flap of skin that he casually bounces up and down whenever he types. The first thing we see him doing is suffering through a cleansing of a hole in his throat, through which he is fed. His discomfort is painfully obvious. )Then we remember that he went through this once every day, at least.) He is completely incapable of speech, having to use a text-to-speech program on his laptop to communicate, and as the film later flashes back to 2009, or 2007, it is clear that he is deteriorating. And yet, there is still joy on his face. He seems to have a permanent smile, as comedian Doug Walker once put it; not by physical limitation - over the course of the film, we see that he can also muster a neutral or negative expression - but by choice. Whereas before, he often appeared reserved when on camera, remaining something of a stone-face while his voice expressed all of his emotion, now he always seems to be grinning, even in those painful moments of throat-cleansing; whenever anyone asks him, "are you alright?", his answer is always another smile paired with (what else) a great big thumbs-up. Even as he was dying, his spirit was alive.

After the introduction, we flash back to the early years of Ebert's life, mostly glossing over his childhood and skipping to the juicy beginnings of his journalism career, starting as editor of his local college's paper before moving on to the Chicago Sun-Times and having the job of movie critic more or less fall into his lap. We see that he quickly became a major voice for the new, young generation of critics by daring to give Bonnie & Clyde a good review. There's a very hefty section of the film devoted to, of course, Siskel & Ebert, the show that solidified his career, with Gene Siskel's wife Marlene acting as the mouthpiece for Gene's point of view. I found the editing very fascinating in this portion. In a documentary, the editing generally tries to avoid bringing attention to itself, so as to seem more natural and real, but in Life Itself I found myself struck by several ingenious moments of cutting. When we learn that Siskel and Ebert were on Johnny Carson 3 times over, this isn't told through words; instead, we see Carson introduce them, and watch them walk onstage - and then we see Carson introduce them, and watch them walk onstage - and then we see Carson introduce them, and watch them walk onstage. It's a very unique and evocative way to explain it, much more interesting than a flat voiceover, and everyone can understand what the clip means.

One of the few subjects in the film that we don't see enough of is, ironically, the subject we see more than any other aside from Roger: his wife, Chaz. She is a constant presence in his life during the footage from 2013, and the love that they have for one another is clearly deep and unbreakable, but not enough attention is paid to the woman herself. Tantalizing bites of her history are dangled in front of us - she briefly mentions having marched with Martin Luther King, and confesses that she met Roger at an AA meeting (the first time, so she says, that she has ever publicly admitted to being an alcoholic) - but they are forgotten about as soon as they are brought up. Little is even suggested as to what initially attracted her to him (or him to her), or what made them decide to spend their lives together. Their early courtship (for lack of a better term), which is actually a very sweet story, is never brought up. Much attention is paid to Siskel's joy that his friend was getting married ("now he'll have to pay mortgages- he'll never leave the show!"), but Chaz's discussion of the big day is limited to remarking on her family's surprise that she'd marry a white man. This is Roger's film, not hers, of course, but a person's spouse says a lot about them, and Life Itself does not say enough about his.

A scene late in the film, where Roger has finally arrived back home after several months of physical therapy, is impressive in its honesty. Chaz, clearly quite tired, expects that he will walk up the stairs to the front door, but Roger disagrees. He makes an erratic "writing" motion, trying to ask for some paper and a pen, and slams his fist in anger when he's denied it. Chaz raises her voice, he moves about wildly, desperate to express himself, and when he's finally given the paper he writes frantically and angrily. He wants to be moved up the stairs in his wheelchair. Chaz refuses, adamant that he can do it himself, as he'd spent several months in physical therapy preparing for. If only he could talk, it's very easy to see that Roger would be screaming back at her. It's always commendable to see this sort of honesty in a biography, even - hell, especially - in the most fawning and approving of memorials, because it shows a person as all people are: flawed. Other flaws of Ebert's are explored throughout the film, and rather than tarnish his legacy, they enhance it; they show us that, great though he was, he made screw-ups as all of us do, and importantly, that his good qualities ultimately outweighed his bad. It's shown that, in his younger years, he was something of a swinger; when asked why he was so fond of the schlocky films of Russ Meyer, so fond that he would write the only screenplays of his career with Meyer, the answer from his friends is a unanimous, flat "boobs", and his drunken escapades (which ultimately led to a membership in Alcoholics Anonymous, where, as mentioned before, he met Chaz) were apparently a sight to behold. Without this honesty, James would certainly be accused of sugarcoating Ebert's life story. With this honesty, he's enhanced it.

But the deepest honesty, the most beautiful truth, is the final scene, when Roger has passed and we've moved on to the mourning. The nationwide memorial is poignant by itself, but the most wonderful moments are those that seem like something right out of a movie, payoffs of inadvertent foreshadowing that seem to confirm Ebert's claim, in the opening line of his memoir, that he "was born inside the movie of [his] life". An old friend is shown carrying a homemade umbrella covered in decorations of remembrance, and underneath, a pair of plastic Russ Meyer-esque 'boobs'. All the people we've seen interviewed are there at his funeral, shown in quickie close-up shots just like any movie funeral. At the close of his "Celebration of Life" held at the Chicago Theater, the audience stands and gives a salute of thumbs, just like the thumbs he'd used to say that he was okay. He is okay.

It was often said, in Ebert's final years after his surgery, that although he had lost his speech, he had not lost his voice. Now he has lost his life- but his voice still remains. Life Itself is a wonderful tribute to that voice, and the amazing man it belonged to.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"How to Train Your Dragon 2" review

2010's How to Train Your Dragon was a true revelation for DreamWorks Animation, proving - as did 2008's Kung Fu Panda - that the studio still had it in them to create sweeping, beautifully-animated epics like their sophomore effort The Prince of Egypt (1998), and that those epic qualities could be successfully combined with the snarky, postmodern wit that they had become known for in the years since. Now, the sequel has arrived, and although it remains visually stunning, emotionally resonant, and very fun, it stumbles in the storytelling in a way that the original did not.

On the island of Berk, dragons and vikings reign supreme. Once bitter rivals, they have since learned to live and work together, thanks to the efforts of the village chief's son, Hiccup (as detailed in the first movie). Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel, is now five years older and five times handsomer, and has been spending much of his time alone with his dragon Toothless and/or his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), avoiding responsibility. His dad, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), has chosen him to become the next chief of Berk, but he doesn't want all of the duties that come with the job. On one of his many excursions, Hiccup stumbles upon something he never expected: there are other humans in his world that have trained dragons. Groups of dragon trappers, like tough guy Eret (Kit Harrington), and led by the evil Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a tyrant obsessed with controlling dragons and ruling over any humans that may stand in his way, who plans to take over Berk. Standing in the middle of the conflict is a mysterious woman dressed in strange clothes, who seems to have a special bond with all dragons, and who may have a connection to Hiccup's past.

The most beloved and memorable moments of the original How to Train Your Dragon were the stunning flying scenes, where beautiful dragons soared through the skies to incredible, unforgettable musical pieces composed by the brilliant John Powell (whose work was nominated for, but criminally did not win, an Oscar). You'll not be wanting for such flying scenes in the sequel. There are probably four times as many incredibly unique and creative dragons to behold, and the exotic locales they swoop over range from orange Autumn forests to cold, white arctic caves, all rendered in what is quite possibly the most astounding detail ever seen in an animated film. Every dragon's scale, every stitch of clothing, every strand of hair, every pore of skin, and every blade of grass can be seen clear as day. Hiccup turns his head, and you can see the muscles in his neck moving. Toothless's pupils dilate realistically. The vikings are visibly weighed down by the weapons and armor that they carry. The very air in the film's world seems infused with something magical. Slightly less successful is Powell's music; though still beautiful to listen to, much of the score is primarily re-arrangements of pieces from the first film, so it never comes close to the unexpected heights we experienced there.

But, although the flying was the crowd pleaser, the other ingredient of Dragons 1 that made it so special was what happened between the flights: the conversations, the scenes of character development and backstory, where all of DreamWorks' trademark sarcasm was put. There was much of that in the first, and it made the flying scenes all the more special, but the reverse is true for the second, and that's not a good thing. Crafting action scenes is an art, and the most important part of doing it is ensuring that the pace is just right- making sure it doesn't run too long, and making sure that, once it's over, the viewer has time to calm down after all the thrills. Dragons 2 forgets this important point, and worse, it makes that mistake at the very beginning. The first scene, a very exciting demonstration of Berk's new sport of Dragon Racing, is a great opener, with just the right amount of dragon action to get the viewer warmed up, and lasting a respectable five minutes... only to be followed by another action scene. This scene, which you might be familiar with (it was used as the film's teaser trailer), is also very good, very exciting, full of surprises, and with a lovely accompanying musical piece, but when it comes immediately after another one, one which ended satisfyingly, it feels wrong. The viewer's mind expects something calmer, something to cool them down, and we don't want to process another big epic moment. That's not the only time this happens, either. Time and time again, director Dean DeBlois cuts between one sweeping dragon flight straight into another, with precious little time for characters actually emoting. Powell's score feels like it's pulling overtime, forced to throw in so many bombastic, joyous tunes in that it nearly becomes unwelcome. There's no denying that the animation and visuals in these scenes are uniformly spectacular, but after so many of them in a row, they're akin to viewing Picasso paintings while riding a speeding bus: yes, it's beautiful, but couldn't we please slow down so I can take it all in?

How to Train Your Dragon 2's other big flaw is a common one for sequels (animated sequels in particular): there are far too many characters with not enough for them to do. It makes the understandable assumption that viewers will want to see all of the characters from the first film return, and return they do: Gobber (Stoick's close friend and Hiccup's former master blacksmith, voiced by Craig Ferguson), Fishlegs (the nerdy, chubby kid voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Snotlout (a boorish blowhard, voiced by Jonah Hill), Tuffnut, and Ruffnut (twin siblings who constantly bicker and ride a two-headed dragon, voiced by TJ Miller and Kristen Wiig) are all back, and proceed to have no point. Gobber is constantly at Stoick's side, but he doesn't seem to have any real reason to be there. Stoick does all of the action on his own, and Gobber only butts in to make rather unfunny comments which frequently ruining emotional moments. Worse still is the treatment of the young dragon riders. In the first film, they all had unique traits and were very likable, but a lack of screen time or story purpose has whittled them away to nearly nothing, with them having little remaining traits beyond "comic relief times four". A 'love' triangle between Ruffnut, Snotlout, and Fishlegs is mishandled; although it's not meant to be serious (Ruffnut does not return either's affections at all!), it's also completely inconsequential. With Astrid doing all of the heavy lifting in the main story, this silly little subplot is all these three have in the story, yet it only merits a few scattered, throwaway gags and isn't even resolved at the end.

The major new characters are also, unfortunately, underdeveloped. Lead villain Drago doesn't have a lot to him beyond being a berserker warmonger, although his parallels with Hiccup are interesting (he, too, has lost a limb, had a rough childhood of fending off constant attacks, and is a master at dragon training) and he is, at least, plenty intimidating. The same can't be said about Eret, his underling who (spoiler!) defects to the side of Berk. Eret has that classic DreamWorks charm about him, what with his magnificent eyebrows and frequent witty quipping, but his only real function is to give out exposition and help the leads get from Point A to Point B. He decides to stick around at the film's end, though, so perhaps we'll get a deeper understanding of him in the third film. Hopefully we can expect the same for Valka (Cate Blanchett), the aforementioned mysterious dragon-riding woman (and - spoiler!! - Hiccup's mother), who, again, doesn't have much plot purpose beyond exposition and rescues. Although she is the focal point of the most riveting and gorgeous of the flying scenes, and the source of the most emotionally deep and beautiful moments in the film (her reuniting with Stoick after 20 years is wonderful), she slowly fizzles out when the climax appears, suddenly needing rescue several times over after previously seeming to be the most capable character in the entire film, and by the end she's nothing more than an Inspiring Words Dispenser for Hiccup. Since Stoick - spoiler!!! - dies in Dragons 2 (a matter which, besides a decent Viking-burial-at-sea scene, has all weight dropped from it afterwards, without even a "sorry your dad died" from Astrid), Dragons 3 should, again, hopefully give us more of Valka, who is frankly too damn interesting to be relegated to the status of "the Gandalf".

Upon my first viewing of How to Train Your Dragon 2 on Friday, June 13, I found it extremely disappointing, and felt completely crushed for the rest of the weekend. When I saw it again on the 17th, I actually enjoyed it much more, to the point that it changed the tone of this review considerably. Knowing the story problems ahead of time, I was able to focus more on the beautiful scenery, which remains stellar. I guess I was just in a strange sort of mood on my first go-around, but regardless of the viewer's emotional state, Dragons 2 has a number of flaws and missed opportunities that hinder its many positive qualities. The visuals and the music are as spectacular as one could ever dream of, but where the original was nearly perfect, in my viewings of the sequel I found myself mentally rewriting it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

"Godzilla" review

The King of the Monsters, Godzilla, is celebrating his 60th birthday this year, and seeing how he's been absent from the screen for a decade (his last movie was 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars, itself an anniversary celebration), it's about time he's made a return to theaters. His new film is crafted by the American studio Legendary and the British director Gareth Edwards rather than his native Toho, but thankfully, it's turned out a hell of a lot better than the last time foreigners got ahold of Japan's beloved beast.

In 1954, a secret nuclear test in the Pacific goes horribly, unimaginably awry: it inadvertently awakens a 1,000-year-old monster named Godzilla. An organization called MONARCH is hastily formed and spends the better part of 45 years trying to kill

Fast-forward to 1999. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) has been called to investigate a mine in the Philippines, where an unprecedented discovery has been made inside: An impossibly huge skeleton, buried underground, alongside two giant eggs. One of the eggs is intact- but one of them has hatched. As Serizawa exits the mine, he suddenly notices a huge trail leading from the egg and emptying out into the ocean. Meanwhile, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), two researchers at the Janjira nuclear power plant, are on duty the day that a tremendous earthquake suddenly strikes without warning. The earthquake destroys the plant, killing Sandra and sending Janjira into ruin, leading it to be quarantined.

Fifteen years later, Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now an adult, a Navy officer living in San Francisco with his wife Elle and son Sam, but Joe is still living in Japan, searching desperately for an answer to the Janjira incident- which he is convinced was not an earthquake. After his latest attempt to break into the fenced-off plant gets him thrown in jail, Ford travels to Tokyo to bail him out, and to try and convince him to come home- but instead, his father ropes him into another break-in attempt, where they are once again caught and taken to a secret location inside the plant. There, they meet Serizawa, who has been working with MONARCH to study a mysterious chrysalis that has appeared in Janjira's ruins. Practically the moment they arrive, the chrysalis hatches, revealing a monster known as MUTO (Massive Unindentified Terrestrial Organism). The MUTO destroys the facility and flies off in the direction of San Francisco, where it will meet its mate (which has broken out of a facility in Nevada) and reproduce, populating the world with hundreds of gigantic beasts that will surely crush all of civilization. The US Navy plans to destroy San Francisco with a nuclear bomb, killing millions but hopefully killing the beasts along with them, but Serizawa says the plan is doomed. He believes that only one thing can save the Earth: Godzilla.

In light of the much-loathed 1998 film, which had absolutely nothing in common with Godzilla beyond having a large lizard monster that attacks a city, it seems as though the team at Legendary went through some kind of checklist of everything a real Godzilla movie has to have, and followed it to the letter- for better, and for worse. Godzilla has nearly every time-honored tradition for the series: a multinational scale, political tensions, family conflict, all-knowing scientists clashing with the bullheaded military, a humanity that's helpless and defenseless at the feet of the kaiju, and that awesome moment when our heroes realize that the world's only hope rests on the King. Classic Godzilla moments make their return: the MUTOs lay siege to San Fran's Chinatown just so we can get the requisite pagoda-smashing shot, Godzilla's iconic atomic breath returns (the scene where he uses it is probably the best part of the whole movie), and once Godzilla [spoiler!] emerges victorious, he triumphantly dives back into his home in the sea, to lie in wait until he's needed again. Just about the only thing that's missing is Akira Ifukube's iconic theme music, but the new score by Alexandre Desplat is so stirring, intense, and unsettling - and so unlike the bombastic feel of the classic score - that it's hardly missed.

Unfortunately, in holding onto all of the good, Legendary has also inadvertently clung onto the bad. Godzilla keeps with the series' common flaws of having too many characters, hokey dialogue, poorly-done drama, subplots that go nowhere, scenes that drag on, and pretentious fauxlosophical talk.. The subplot with Ford's family, for one, rings entirely hollow. He's only seen together with them for about two minutes before he's called to bail Joe out, and following this, their further appearances are sporadic, add nothing to the plot, and seem to be put in just to make sure we don't forget they exist. Neither Elle nor Sam are ever put in any real danger - even when Godzilla and the MUTOs descend upon San Fran, they're always far away and out of trouble - and it's especially aggravating how the film constantly feels the need to interrupt an awesome monster fight to show us their bland reactions to it. I've heard some other critics lodge similar complaints of blandness against Ford, but personally, I like him well enough- he's a good enough example of your standard "all-American soldier", and he performs enough cool and heroic acts to stay in our good graces. It's true, however, that he's not the most interesting character in the film, and he indeed hogs the spotlight from Ken Watanabe's much cooler Dr. Serizawa. Serizawa is introduced at the film's very beginning, before Ford even makes his first appearance, as someone with a mysterious personal interest in Godzilla (which certainly fits a character with that name: "Ishiro"= Ishiro Honda, Godzilla's creator, and "Serizawa" = Daisuke Serizawa, hero of the original 1954 movie), and he's later established to be the son of a Hiroshima victim, but none of his depths are ever explored. We continue to see his obsession with Godzilla - whenever Big G shows up, he's more interested in catching a glimpse of his than in saving himself, and he's always braying about how only Godzilla can take down the MUTOs - but it's never explained why he's so fixated. Certainly, his boring partner Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins) doesn't seem to find him quite so compelling.

I'm not even getting into all of the other characters that are underused, but frankly, I think I've said enough. Because, like all the other Godzilla movies, compelling character drama is not what you came here to see, is it? No. I know what you want to know. You want to know: does Godzilla look cool?

Well, he does, friends. Oh my god, does he look freaking cool.

The film takes the Jaws route of not showing Big G until the timing is just right. (Sure, we've already seen his face on all of the posters and trailers, not to mention the last 28 movies, but that's another matter.) The buildup is amazing: for the first 45 minutes or so, only his presence is felt, as we witness the destruction he brings, but never do we see him (in contrast with the MUTOs, who we see clearly and often). Then, as Serizawa is brought in to brief Ford on the monster, we finally learn his name and history, and watch his giant spines break through the waters off the coast of Honolulu. Cut to Honolulu on land, where the male MUTO has a helpless airport under his power, smashing planes left and right and creating a huge fireball- but then the flames clear, and an enormous foot, dwarfing the entire airport, lands on the ground. A slow panning shot follows up his body until we finally see his face, and at long last, he lets out that immortal roar. (I have to admit, this part got me so excited that I actually roared right along with him in the theater.)

Now, the big monster fights we want to see unfortunately take a long while to get going (Godzilla's awesome reveal is immediately followed by - ugh - a scene of Elle and Sam watching the fight on TV), but once they do, they're astonishing. The MUTOs are merely decent monsters - scary enough, but rather generic, and it'd have been nice to see some familiar foes like Rodan or Anguirus instead - but their fight with Godzilla leaves all sins forgiven, for it is the stuff of dreams. There's more destruction, punching, explosions, decimation, and devastation in this one final battle scene than there's been in several past Goji movies, combined. Perhaps it goes without saying, since this film has the limitless possibilities of CGI at its disposal while previous films had to make do with guys in big suits, but it's easily the best giant monster fight of all time.

At the end of the day, the new Godzilla is essentially the ultimate Godzilla flick- the paper-thin characters, lopsided human-to-monster ratio, and goofy script all still remain, but when it comes to big, boisterous, battling behemoths, it's unparalleled. If you want to see cities get wrecked by huge monsters fighting each other - and who doesn't? - no movie's ever done it better than this.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"The Lego Movie" review

This movie should not exist.

I mean, I'm glad it exists. The world is a better place because it exists. This is a good movie - a great movie - an awesome movie - but it's simply impossible to believe that it really does exist. I'm reminded of the time when I saw the trailer for Scott Pilgrim, and my dad turned to me and said: "Luke, that movie got made."

Because, yeah, holy crap, this movie got made. A movie with a title that basically sells the premise (spoiler: it's a movie about Lego), and from there, it's easy to be cynical. This is going to be a 90-minute commercial. Walk into a scene, pitch the product, walk out, repeat. What is this, the 80s? Are we back to the Advertainment Age of animation? How can you make a movie with mere Legos? There's no plot there! This is just further proof that Hollywood has run out of ideas. And there's no reason to not think that way.

But don't. Cast aside all preconceptions, because this movie transcends them. "How can you make a movie with mere Legos?" is a ridiculous question. These are Legos we're talking about, remember? You can make everything out of Legos.

And, yeah, that's the most immediately visible part of the movie. Basically everything in its world is made out of Legos: all of the buildings, all of the animals, all of the terrain, and all of the people. And more distinctly, everything moves like it's made of Legos: Fire is made up of those little translucent flame pieces that came in the Harry Potter sets; water "ripples" by pieces appearing and disappearing on top of each other;  the minifigure people are restricted by their construction, having stiff, rigid arms and legs, and immobile claws for hands. Remember how their torsos can extend all the way back and forward in 90 degree angles, like they're doing extreme aerobics? Yeah, that happens in this movie. Despite being made with impressively high-tech visual technology (and I do mean impressive- let me tell you, these things look unmistakably like real Legos, complete with all the scratches and imperfections), everything comes together to have the feel of a home-made "brickfilm"- something a little kid might make on their coffee table, with nothing but Lego pieces, an imagination, and a dinky old camera. As someone who, at the age of five, made an actual short film called "The Lego Movie" on his own coffee table, with nothing but Lego pieces and imagination and a dinky old camera, this movie sucked me in immediately. And after that, the story under the bricks sucked me in even more.

The crux of it is that Emmet (Chris Pratt) is an exceptionally uninteresting Lego construction worker living in a Lego world ruled by Lord/President Business (Will Ferrell), where anything and everything is controlled by rigid instructions, and anyone who goes against the instructions get "put to sleep". The population is controlled by inane entertainment like the dimwitted sitcom Where Are My Pants? (you can guess the plot) or the incredibly catchy song "Everything is Awesome". But everything is not awesome- Business's latest plan is to stop all creativity and dissent in the world using the nefarious "Kragle" device, and according to a prophecy foretold by the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), the only one who can stop it is "The Special"- the most creative, interesting, and important person in the universe, the one who finds the "Piece of Resistance", a mysterious Lego piece with unknown powers. When Emmet ends up accidentally stumbling upon said piece, he finds himself in way over his head, embarking on an adventure with the "Master Builders" of Lego to defeat Business once and for all, chased all the while by the devious Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) and his robot cop army.

Sound familiar to you? Yeah, no kidding. That's the whole idea. Just about everything in The Lego Movie is a skewering of recognizable, retold movie tropes, either in big ways or small ones. Some are pretty obvious: female lead Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) rescues Emmet from the robot cops by reaching out her hand and warning, "come with me if you want to- not die", Vitruvius' prophecy is basically identical to a hundred other "chosen one" plots, and Good Cop/Bad Cop is self-explanatory. But the subversiveness runs much deeper than that, to deliver a profound moral message that is not only surprisingly uncommon (I can't think of any other movie that's said it), but one that speaks to the core of what Lego, as a brand and as a lifestyle, is all about: that working according to pre-set instructions can be useful, but life works best when you think outside the box. This is said many times in many ways in the film, but if there's one line that I should ever want to quote, it'd have to be in the immortal words of the film's version of Batman: once the heroes' plan goes awry, the plastic Caped Crusader remarks, "Looks like we're going to have to wing it! .......(that's a bat pun.)"

Now, hiring voice actors is an art. It's an art that some people don't quite understand- a number of animated movies have just gone for broke and overstuffed on every celebrity that they can find, regardless of whether or not they fit the characters, because casting celebrities is how you get butts in seats, right? No. The voice has to match the character. They've got to be in sync. And on that note, I transition to: holy hell, isn't Will Arnett the absolute perfect choice to play Batman? I mean, yes, there are the other guys - Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks make for lovable leads, Morgan Freeman is the obvious pick for a wise wizard, Alison Brie and Charlie Day are hilarious if one-dimensional as Unikitty and Benny, Will Ferrell is surprisingly multi-layered as Lord Business - but really, Bat-Arnett is the one true standout. He plays a better Batman as a joke than some other actors have played him straight. And he's not the only one, either- be on the lookout for a bunch of other cameos of famous LEGO people, including a certain few other superheroes voiced by a certain duo (I'm not saying who!) that appeared in Phil Lord and Chris Miller's previous movie.

Ah, yes, Lord and Miller. At this point, it seems that their modus operandi is to make fantastic movies out of dumb ideas. A movie about food falling from the sky? Bam, the clever, heartfelt Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. An adaptation of a corny 80s TV show? Bam, the hilarious and smart 21 Jump Street. A movie based on a toy with no plot at all? Bam. We get The friggin' Lego Movie. And it works. I haven't seen a movie this fun in a good while.

The name of this blog is Awesome or Awful. I shouldn't have to tell you which one this movie is. It's Awesome. The story is awesome. The visuals are awesome. The creativity is awesome. The creators are Awesome.

Everything is Awesoooooooome!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

"The Croods" Review

There's something about cavemen, man. Our early ancestors have been interpreted and re-interpreted time and time again, varying from outlandish parodies of modern life (see The Flintstones or B.C.) to fairly realistic takes on the prehistoric world (see Quest for Fire or Clan of the Cave Bear). It seems like the world has a natural fascination with humans' granddaddies, and the latest caveman work to hit the screen is Dreamworks Animation's The Croods.

The Croods are a family of Neanderthals - father Grug, mother Ugga, daughters Sandy and Eep, son Thunk, and grandma Gran - living in an extremely loose interpretation of prehistoric Earth. The Croods spend their days holed up in their cave, only venturing outside to grab food, such as the eggs of the dangerous beasts that live outside. They are uncomfortable but happy, save for Eep, who's innately curious about the outside world. One night, she sneaks away from the cave and meets up with Guy, a Homo Sapiens with an uncanny knack for invention, whom she instantly takes a very adorable liking to. According to Guy, the End of the World is imminent, as proven by the coming of earthquakes- one of which almost immediately destroys the Croods' cave. With nowhere else to turn, the family looks to Guy to lead them to the paradise of "Tomorrow"... much to Grug's resentment.

The Croods is co-directed by Chris Sanders, he of the venerable Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon. His latest film features the same imaginative creature design and gorgeous visuals of his prior work, with many truly amazing sights to see. Have you ever seen a pair of lemurs that have the same tail? A giant green tiger with a bulbous head? Whales that scoot about on land? Human-sized flowers that move about on their own? Well, you have now. The love that went into the production is clear from the opening sequence, which introduces the family using a series of animated cave paintings, which look great and have an adorable style to them.  The next scene, showing the family working together to get "breakfast" (it's nightfall by the time they finally succeed), is just as well-done, wisely giving equal focus to the frenetic and breathtaking visuals and the introduction of the family.

Ah, but with a film as lovely looking as this, there is always a very easy trap for the filmmaker to fall into: spending so much time on the visuals, that they forget to keep the story up to scratch. Sanders and co. seem to recognize this, and take some crucial first steps: with that aforementioned first scene, they set up an important dynamic between the characters, giving each their own roles and establishing their personalities, and are aided by a stellar voice cast- like Emma Stone as Eep and Nicolas Cage as Grug. Though the characters are clearly meant to ape some standard "family sitcom" archetypes (dumb dad, level-headed mom, rebellious teen daughter, snarky grandma (who the dad hates), etc. etc.), they're good archetypes that still have plenty of mileage left in them. Eep goes well beyond her Cloris Leachman is always a good choice for a grandma, and Ryan Reynolds plays as good a love interest as always. At The Croods' onset, it feels like we're going to get a family adventure film for the ages...

...but it never really delivers.

For a film with only 7 characters, it still feels like there are too many. Perhaps a longer work could have juggled them all, but the movie can't balance so many in its 90 minute time frame. There is a quick little moment near the film's end between Grug and Ugga, that serves to highlight this: as Grug is apparently about to leave the group, they grasp each other's hands, and intimately touch foreheads. See, this would be very lovely and poignant... if the two characters' relationship was even the least bit explored. As far as I can remember, Grug and Ugga have two conversations, each about 30 seconds long, and otherwise sparsely interact. Ugga has no scenes to herself, either, and I couldn't tell you a single thing about her personality... hell, until I looked the film up, I didn't even remember her name! Thunk, at least, has a few moments to himself: a scene has him find an animal that he decides to keep, which seems to be setting up a "learning responsibility" subplot for him, but this point is suddenly dropped (literally) and never picked back up. Gran makes a few snarky comments and there is a scene or two where she discusses her life, like a typical grandma character, but she doesn't do or say anything of note. Sandy, the baby, seems to undergo some form of maturation - from a feral, animalistic, violent little toddler into a happy and giggling child - with nobody making any comment on it whatsoever. It seems pretty clear that these characters once had more to do, but their scenes were cut out or reworked. It'd have been wise to completely remove one or more of these characters, so the rest of the cast could get better focus.

Eep and Guy's relationship, as well as Grug's resentment of Guy's leadership role, are the two plots that are actually focused on, and as a result, they are the ones that work. Eep and Guy actually feel like an original kind of couple- unlike the comical awkwardness and nervousness of so many other teen romances, these two are open and intimate from the onset (as cavemen, with no social standards, probably would). Eep is especially adorable in her open admiration of Guy, and never hesitates to get as close to him as she can. Grug's fear of new things and anger over his growing uselessness is presented as humorous (and it often is), but at the same time, his behavior is always understandable and relatable, and by the end, you'll want to cheer for him.

Well, if there's one thing that The Croods has changed about me, it's that I'm finally able to write words like "Eep", "Grug", and "Ugga" in my reviews, which I've always deeply dreamed of. For those who aren't unprofessional film critics, there's still enough fun to be had with Croods' imagination and creativity, so if you haven't got anything better to do, it may be worth a look.

Stars: ***

All Right

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"Lincoln" Review

It's been annoyingly common in recent years for people to romanticize the political figures of the past, primarily as a way to disparage the political figures of the present. These damn Congressmen, with their stubborn behavior, dirty tactics, and strong-arming! They're a total discrace to their brilliant predecessors, who showed nothing but the utmost respect to their opponents, and always played by the rules.

Well, needless to say, that's not how it really worked. Luckily, old Spielberg is here to pull back the curtain.

Despite what the incredibly bland title may suggest, Lincoln is not a film that dramatizes the entire life of Abraham Lincoln, but rather, a period of only a few months. Specifically, the months following his re-election, where he made the most important decision of his career- the decision to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. This is an incredibly hot-button issue among Lincoln's peers, especially in the wake of the ongoing Civil War, and the controversy surrounding Lincoln's issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation, so say Lincoln's critics, was a major overreach on Lincoln's part, and a huge abuse of his powers. In the current political climate, the very idea of an entire anti-slavery amendment seems like a complete waste of time.

But Honest Abe is adamant. He believes that securing the end of slavery is the key to finally ending the war, and he and his cabinet hatch a plan: to weasel their way into earning the 20 necessary votes from House Democrats, by any means necessary.

When it comes to a movie about Abraham Lincoln, there's always one major question on everyone's mind: "How good is the guy playing Lincoln?" Well, Daniel Day-Lewis is our guy this time around, so the question is barely even necessary. The answer is that he is awesome. Lewis is a prime choice for his resemblance to the 16th President alone, but that's hardly the limit of his talent. Lewis gives the president emotional depth and complexity that we've rarely seen in past cultural depictions, and as a result, he feels a hell of a lot more human. His portrayal is noteworthy for its historical accuracy- he has a high-pitched, even nasally voice, and he's prone to witty quips and telling tangential stories. These little quirks are sure to please historians, but they pull the double-duty of making Lincoln very respectable for the audience. His occasional social awkwardness (as he makes inopportune comments or tells pointless anecdotes) not only makes him relatable, it also makes him just that more powerful when he breaks out another incredible,  speech. His amusing anecdotes seem pointless to those he tells them to, but to his audience beyond the fourth wall, each one adds an extra layer of depth to the man. Though Lincoln is absent for some surprisingly long sections of the film, his presence never leaves you.

Considering how wonderful Lewis' performance is, it's surprising and interesting that much of the post-release buzz is actually surrounding another actor: the always-excellent Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, historically, was a Radical Republican that believed in something that even the staunchest of his fellow abolitionists had trouble believing: that black people are equal in every way to whites. Needless to say, his general conduct was loud and confrontational, and he was quite reluctant to compromise. This is the sort of character that Jones is famous for, and while I wouldn't really say that he steals the show - Lewis is too damn good for that to happen - it's still a very respectable performance.

The other supporting roles are all great, but they seem a little tangential. Secretary of State William H. Seward exists mostly to argue with Lincoln over the latter's political decisions, and Robert & Tad Lincoln (the President's sons) have little to do aside from aid to the film's fatherly portrayal of Abe. They're all good, mind you, they just feel underdeveloped, with the sole real exception of Sally Ride as Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary was a notoriously unstable woman, and the scenes where the couple argue are among the most intense in the entire film. There's something about an angry married couple that is even more exciting than war or tight political battles.

Lincoln is not without its flaws. For a movie about slavery, it's annoyingly light on the black perspective- the only African-American characters in the movie are a few Union soldiers and Elizabeth Keckley, all of whom have only small supporting roles. And the ending drags on too long, unwisely depicting Lincoln's assassination; this would be a fitting ending if the film were a full-on biopic, but since it is not, it feels unnecessary and tacked on.

But to focus on minor squabble such as these misses the point. Indeed, you'll notice that it didn't dock my score at all. The purpose of Lincoln is to take a look into a few moments in the life of an extraordinary man, and to marvel at the skill of the actor portraying him. What more could you possibly want?


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"Silver Linings Playbook" Review

Mental illness is a terrible thing. It comes in many forms, with many names, and affects many people- but there are very few who understand it. To the general public, those who are mentally unwell are dangerous and scary, or, barring that, tragic lost causes that have no way of supporting themselves anymore. This is reflected in our movies: if a film character is "crazy", chances are that means they're either a criminal mastermind, a deranged murderer, or a babbling man-child locked up in a padded cell.

Silver Linings Playbook breaks that trend.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) is being let out of a mental institution after an eight month stay. He was in there because of his previously-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which was finally discovered after he caught his wife, Nikki, cheating on him. Needless to say, he didn't take it well, and responded to the situation using his fists.

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is a tragically young widow, whose husband's death led her to dive deep into a depression, and attempt to cope by becoming a sex addict. She's since managed to control her bodily urges, but remains highly depressed and emotionally distant.

The two meet, by chance, at dinner, at the home of a mutual friend. Neither of them are particularly adept at making friends, especially in their current emotional states, but the two eventually manage to hit it off. Pat's goal is to reconcile with Nikki (who has moved and filed a restraining order), and is getting in shape, becoming an avid reader, becoming more emotionally open, and doing other such things in the hopes of being able to impress her. Tiffany offers to deliver a letter to Nikki, under the condition that Pat enter a dance competition with her. Thus, they begin to spend an hour or so of their days together, discussing life and training avidly.

Pat and Tiffany are incredible characters, brought to life impeccably by Cooper and Lawrence. Pat's openness, eagerness, and unending optimism makes him endearing, but all that barely serves to cover up his frightening and depressing neuroses. His obsession with Nikki becomes very disturbing, as he judges seemingly everything he does based on whether or not she would like it. He becomes unhinged at the slightest offenses- a scene in which he rages to his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) over the simple matter of his wedding video is terrifying. Tiffany, by contrast, piques the audience's interest by being very reserved and silent. She behaves like a socially-awkward teenager, stumbling through her conversations and tripping over her words. Her strange and often confusing behavior make for a character that you really want to know more about. And when you do find out her story... it's far from a pretty one.

Unfortunately, though the characters are amazing, the story surrounding them is less so. Underneath all of the complex layers of excellent writing and acting, the film's basic plot is really your basic romantic comedy fare, minus most of the comedy. Boy meets girl, boy and girl don't like each other at first, boy and girl eventually come to like each other, boy and girl get together, boy and girl discover some kind of conflict, boy and girl resolve conflict, boy and girl kiss. You can guess at almost everything that's going to happen before it does, which is common in a lot of low-rent romcoms, but you'd think a film like Sliver Linings Playbook would be above such things.

Silver Linings Playbook is worth a look. Its frank treatment of instability and relationships is commendable, and executed very well. Just don't expect a spectacular story to go along with it.

All Right