Friday, January 31, 2014

Mobile Suit Gundam Movie I - It's Another Semi-Theme, Bear With Me.

Like the title suggests, yeah. This is part of a semi-theme this year. As I'd mentioned last year in my pre-gaming for Pacific Rim, I'm a fan of Japan's Gundam franchise. It's been through a lot of ups and downs, but it's still overall a fairly enjoyable ride for me.

Also, this year marks the 35th anniversary of the original series debut in Japan. After which, it's still trucking (...hey, it's not that weird - look how long Star Trek and Doctor Who have been going.)

So I figured, for the 35th anniversary, it would be fun to do something for it on here. Naturally, a full coverage wasn't gonna work. We'd be looking at several 50 episode shows to watch and review, and while I like writing this blog, that's kind of pushing the reasonable limit. Then I got to thinking, to this point, they have safely passed twelve on the movies. Now, Gundam and films admittedly have had kind of a tumultuous relationship with fans. While they can have some strong points - in fact, one of the high points of the franchise is one of the movies that will be getting covered later - there is a pretty consistent tendency towards issues with trying to tell a larger story in the span of a feature. But we'll be addressing that point on a case by case basis.
So, with a mix of compilation films and some straight-to-feature stories, I'll be covering one installment for each month this year (and yes, I realize this one's cutting it close.)

So yeah, this isn't going to be as target intensive as the Halloween writeups or last month's MST3k blitz, but it's gonna be a recurring theme all the same, so you know.

Now then, let's start out at the obvious jumping off point.

But first - a history lesson!
We're gonna go back in time here. The year is 1979. I'm not even at zygote phase yet, and I imagine that goes for several of you readers too. Enter Japanese director, and depending who you ask in his later years, eccentric madman Yoshiyuki Tomino. At this point, after working in supporting roles on several series, he was now fresh off his first two full time jobs as head director on projects (Zambot 3 and Daitarn 3, respectively.) The two titles, in particular the former, established his reputation for wanting to tweak some of what you could do with Japanese giant robot entertainment. In 1979, in one of these attempts, he struck gold. The original Mobile Suit Gundam, a militaristic reskin of the giant robot formula partially inspired by Heinlein's Starship Troopers, makes its debut. For the time of its release, the show is a considerable change in what's out there. And, like many such shows of its time, it does badly. The show is cancelled with nine episodes left to go.

Then along comes merchandise...or, more accurately, along comes merchandise that actually manages to sell compared to the first batch. Bandai takes over, bringing plastic model kits to the show's offerings, and they sell like hotcakes. Alongside this, the show also gains a second life in reruns.

Like Star Trek before it, the title is reborn out of the ashes as a new hit.

Planning to capitalize on this, Sunrise animation studios set to work on a new project to cash in on the renewed interests - recutting the series into a trilogy of compilation movies, with new sequences to remove some of the more toyetic designs pushed by sponsors and replace some of the dodgier sequences of animation in the original series. The latter of which got bad enough at points as to result in Tomino calling for an episode to be removed from the run when it was released to the US in the early 2000s.

Anyway, jump to circa 1981. The first movie comes out in theaters, to great success.

Which brings us to now...

The Mobile Suit Gundam movies are kind of an odd bird as compilation movies go. Most often, compilation movies exist with the fans as their main target. Which sounds like it should be a no brainer, but after you watch enough debates over whether these movies are substitutes for just watching the show, it does bear repeating. With this in mind, many compilation movies tend to have a track record to play more like a highlights reel than an actual film. In this regard, the Gundam trilogy is one of the compilations that actually comes the closest to really being able to stand alone as movies in their own right.
That said, I'd still advocate giving the series a shot if you can, but these are at least less likely to be confusing as Hell if you've never seen the show before.

The story is, in some regards, classic space opera with some tweaks - it's a far future known as the Universal Century. Humanity has moved out into giant orbiting space colonies. Things go fairly smoothly for the first century or so...but where's the story in that? In the mid 0070s, a movement for colonial independence starts on one of the colony clusters, declaring themselves the Principality of Zeon. In a few years, war has broken out, with Zeon leveling the playing field with the development of mobile suits - piloted giant robots (yeah, it's a bit silly. It was the 70s!) By the time the story begins proper, it is nearing the end of UC 0079, and a neutral colony is being used as a testing ground for the Earth Federation (the acting government) developing their own mobile suits. A Zeonic recon team gets wind of this project, and one short-tempered pilot launches an attack. Enter our hero, introverted civilian Amuro Ray (voiced by Tohru Furuya) who, by a mix of chance and skewing the trope of piloting the robot your parents designed, becomes the pilot of the Federation's new prototype - the titular Gundam. He fends off the attack, but not before the colony takes heavy damages. What follows is the journey that he and a crew of soldiers and fellow refugees, fleeing aboard the Federation carrier White Base undergo trying to survive being thrown into a vicious war that has already seen half the human race wiped out.

 Because the point bears visual aids...
Some VERY 70's visuals

There's a lot of other plot points I could discuss, but that about hits the main overview.

Which actually kind of hits well on a point that is both a strength and a weakness for this movie. Like I said before, a lot of compilations, when they aren't going full reboot, operate less as a movie and more as a refresher for someone who's already seen the show - maybe offering some new touches as a treat for the fans. In this regard, Mobile Suit Gundam I is a movie that actually feels like a movie for the most part - it genuinely feels like it's trying to give you as complete a story as possible within the movie format. As a result of this, it also means this trilogy tends to run longer than most compilations, each of the three parts is a solid two hours and roughly twenty minutes each. The plus here is obvious, it's a good effort at being as comprehensive as possible (albeit you do still lose some elements of the characters as sacrifices for time...again, I'd still say if these movies do it for ya, give the show a try.)
The weakness here is, well...each movie has a LOT in it. This doesn't make them complicated per se, but it does leave the movies feeling rather bloated in terms of content. Content that, unfortunately, doesn't always gel particularly well. Individual story arcs still hold up quite well, and while this movie doesn't have as much new material as the later installments, it does still manage the plot on a chapter-by-chapter basis well. The problem is in putting it all together. This is one of those moments where the movie really makes it clear it was based on a serialized television show - the entire pace of this movie feels episodic, with each arc just closing itself down and opening right into the next. Rather than feeling like the traditional compilation where it feels like the whole show is being kept on scene skip, this more feels like watching several episodes stitched together with their openings and endings removed. Despite their best efforts, you can still place where episodes cut off for the most part. In the second half, they do make a bit more of an effort to smooth the transitions, but even those only help just so far. As a result, the movie has something of a jerky start-stop-start flow.

This is a shame because, otherwise, this actually works fairly well as a standalone movie: The cast, while losing some of their full profiles, all still get decent enough introductions and characterization, the world building still does well enough that a newcomer won't be too thrown off, and for its time, the movie's technicals are quite nicely done. In particular, this time around I was actually surprised to realize that this movie did a better job of editing around the more low-budget animation than I had initially remembered. A few problematic bits still leak through, and trust me, you WILL be able to spot them, but for the most part, the movie does a decent job of working around them. On the rewatch, I also have to admit, there are some particular sequences within this movie that are quite well directed. Probably one of the strongest moments, and this is one that really stuck out for me this time, is how the first movie chooses to leave itself off. After the crew of the White Base survive a particularly vicious attack by one of Zeon's aces - who becomes more prominent in the second movie - they are all gathered on the bridge for a news broadcast. The broadcast is a speech by Zeon's de facto leader, Gihren Zabi (Banjou Ginga, in a role that, while minor, he plays to the hilt,) for what is supposed to be eulogy for his brother, he whips it into a propaganda speech, making his brother into a martyr for the cause. The sequence on its own is a well laid out and acted sequence, but the standout in direction is the very end of the scene. After the speech, the crowds have broken down into fervor that the crew of the White Base react to in varying degrees of silence or disgust. The movie ends with them taking off once more, as we still hear the crowds in the broadcast chanting "Sieg Zeon!" over and over (yeah...Tomino was part of the anti-nationalist school of thought that came out of post-World War II Japan.) It's a simple sequence, but the message behind it is really the best way to cap off this installment - yes, they've won a few battles, but the war is far from over, and the crew still have a long road ahead of them before they can even hope to settle. The dialogue in the last moments is almost an afterthought, as that scene really sells the ominous ending of the movie perfectly.

Sorry to disappoint you guys, but you're not exactly gonna be breaking new ground by invoking Godwin's Law on this one.

As far as the acting - well, that's a bit of an odd point here. The version I had to work with, rather than the original 1981 audio track, was a version Sunrise put together back in 2000, with most of the core cast reprising their roles. As such, by this point, they're all quite comfortable in their parts, and by now many are established veterans in the field of voice acting. To their credit, it's also impressive in another regard that, almost twenty years later, the cast can all still reprise their parts as well as they do. In particular Furuya and Shuuichi Ikeda as lead roles Amuro Ray and his rival, Char Aznable.
For those who aren't too sure they want to try their luck with subtitles, an English dub of the films DOES exist, but I warn you now - it is a VERY dated dub now. As a first indication, let me just say if you wish to own a copy of the dub, your only chance is to hunt down the old VHS release. As a result, it's akin to dubs like the old Streamline dub of Akira - awkward sounding voices and some utterly headscratching rewrites of dialogue. In this case, you can look forward to some rather awkward accents (to this day, no one I've talked to has been able to figure out what they were going for with Sayla) and some lines that, despite this show's attempts to play the genre a bit more seriously, insert some extra, for lack of a better term, silliness (besides the seeming inability to pronounce 'Gundam', they add in lines like discussing Zeon's 'roboton invaders.')
Admittedly, it's still interesting to give a look as a sort of time capsule into what older dubs was like, but just warning you - if you go this road, here there be cheese. Well aged cheese at that.

Ma'am, we'd be happy to meet your demands, but we can't understand what the Hell you're saying in this version.

In all, the first Mobile Suit Gundam movie is a bit of a mixed blessing. It definitely feels like more attention was put into it as a movie than, say, the earlier Space Battleship Yamato movie, or even some of the later compilations in Gundam's own library. Unfortunately, it's still trying to take roughly twenty hours of footage and boil it down to a ballparked seven. For what it has to work with, it's still a pretty serviceable retelling, but it can be rough goings at points thanks to the fact the narrative doesn't really flow consistently. The movie tries to amend that, but the ghost of it is still there.
Otherwise, it's still a surprisingly well-aged movie for what it has to work with.
I'd still advocate giving the series a chance if you wind up liking the movies, just understand now: this is still gonna take a while to get going.

Also, because it's an elephant in the room that's gonna need to get addressed: yes, chances are if you've seen enough anime, there's parts of this that are going to look familiar/cliche. That's the rub of being one of the influential titles - yes, you get to see where everyone got the things from, but it also means that, when you see them employed for the first time, you take for granted how unique they were at the time they were first employed. It's not enough to completely destroy the experience, but I figure it's something best nipped in the bud now before we go into the next two movies.

"Yeah, my dad made it. This was how everyone got one back in the day..."

With that, getting the first in under the wire.

Will be back on regular schedule next week, and will have Mobile Suit Gundam II: Soldiers of Sorrow for you guys sometime next month.

Till then!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Frozen - It's Kind of Sort of a Little of a Disney Movie (...It's a Good Thing)

Well, as anyone up in the Northeast knows, two weekends back saw snow. Quite a bit.

I was meeting up with my girlfriend and we figured, hey, why not see a movie?

At that point, we were looking at two options: The Wolf of Wall Street or Frozen. Now, I will admit, cheeky fuckery DID give the latter an edge already. But to be honest, the reason we went with that came down to, at least for me, two big points:
1) she has already see The Wolf of Wall Street, so this way it was a new film for the both of us (for the record, she was fine with seeing it again. Just got asked to clarify that.)
2) I'm still gonna see The Wolf of Wall Street regardless. But that's also a film I can go into solo and not have anyone bat an eye. Anyone who knows me knows if someone looking like me walks solo into a movie like Frozen, the theater's staff are gonna be like "Keep tabs on that guy. Something's wrong here."

...I guess that's my roundabout way of saying that, yes, there will likely be a review for The Wolf of Wall Street here soon, and that, as the title suggests, today I'm reviewing Frozen.

This was a movie that I went into kind of unsure what to make of it. I mean, the promos seemed kind of vague, outside of the fact I felt like Olaf the snowman was gonna get old REALLY fast. Still, the film had been generating enough fairly positive buzz I figured it could be worth giving a shot. To my surprise, this surpassed what I was expecting. In fact, this film really feels like Disney is starting to try and shake off a lot of the more dated conventions that have become such common practice that they're practically punchlines. In fact, the center story at this is really surprising to see coming from Disney in some regards for how much it breaks from their traditions. Of course, it does have some of those more tried cliches that DO kind of hurt it. Not so much because they're cliches, but because they REALLY clash with everything else in the film.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story on this one is part of the traditional Disney style - it's a variation on one of the classic children's stories: Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen (to Disney's credit, at least this time it's a story that's unlikely to inspire a flood of "The Original Story Was MUCH Darker" articles that others have tended to inspire. Yes, I like those bits of trivia as much as the next person, but after hearing them enough times it gets tiresome.) I stress variation here, because they actually put the story through a considerable rewrite, for the better arguably. Most notably, the titular character, who they had initially written as an antagonist, was given an overhaul that makes for one of the more interesting themes of this story.

From the start, we're introduced to our two protagonists, sister Anna and Elsa (voiced as kids by Livvy Stubenrauch and Eva Bella, and for the majority of the movie by Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel) Elsa, we learn, was born with the ability to control ice and snow, which sounds like a REALLY cool ability at first, until you start having problems controlling it. Long story short, there's an accident that nearly kills Anna. This drives their well-intentioned (Editor's note: incredibly stupid and filled with fail), if not particularly smart parents to do two questionable things: for Anna, they consult with the local trolls (yes, trolls) who decide it's for the best if Anna has any memory of her sister's powers taken away. For Elsa, seeing as there is no period equivalent of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, they opt for isolation while trying to encourage her to suppress her powers. Again, not exactly the smartest way to go - especially since they don't even live to see the end of the prologue. One song-fueled time skip later, both sisters have lived in utter seclusion (but family friendly seclusion, so the closest they come to any sort of madness is the fact Anna has a relationship with common sense that's about as close as her current relationship with her parents.) Elsa is finally of age to ascend the throne, so the kingdom is opened up and all manner of other countries are coming for the coronation. For a girl who has a hard time controlling her powers when she's nervous, you can just tell THIS will end well. On top of this, Anna's ongoing war with common sense rears its head when she meets and is wooed by Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), every bit the classic Disney prince archetype. She locks horns with Elsa who, understandably, questions what her sister's been huffing to want to marry a man she's just met. Things get tense and Elsa's powers are revealed to the world.
It's okay. No biggie. This happens. Well...except for the part where she accidentally invokes George R.R. Martin-grade winter.
Determined to correct the mistake, Anna heads off to find her sister and try and set everything right. Casting a lot in with her is ice merchant and the film's designated comic straight man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff,) and Olaf (Josh Gad) a talking snowman who, thanks to marketing, you're going to know whether you want to or not.

Dressing For Inclement Weather - The Right Way and The Wrong Way.

Well, that was probably a bit more a primer than was necessary, but the groundwork is about all laid out there.

Like I said before, I will admit - this movie largely surprised me. I mean, yeah, at its core it still has several of the Disney elements to it, but at the same time, this also broke away from the format in several key ways. This is thanks in no small part to the script by Jennifer Lee, who, as trivia goes, is the first woman to direct a feature length Disney animated film (as well as the first to write one solo.) While there are a few minor slipping points - which we'll be coming to soon - this has a strong concept at its heart. Though the film does loosely toy with a romantic storyline in a very fleeting sense, the core of this story is focused on the relationship between Anna and Elsa as sisters. With this as the lynchpin, the movie carries itself with a surprising degree of maturity. This is further added to by the performances from Bell and Menzel, who, though only acting through voices, still convey quite a degree of emotion, both speaking and singing.

With a look here that seems to say "Let's mess with the Internet on this one..."

On this note, I do have to give this movie some extra brownie points for the fact it did take one very good page from Disney's earlier playbook: fact that the voice cast isn't there just to be big names for the movie's draw. Going back to some of their earlier styles, much of this movie's cast are actually Broadway alumni, which also grants the bonus of them being able to both act and sing their parts. This may seem like a minor thing, but personally, I've got some strong feelings about how underappreciated voice acting tends to be these days. So when a film like this actually does take it seriously, I automatically give them some extra bonus for that.

I realize we're in an age where, culturally, darker, edgier reboots are what sell. Still, this Frosty the Snowman updates feels like we may be scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas.

As far as the above-mentioned music goes, the film isn't bad. I'm not sure it's necessarily one of the all time greatest of the great as Disney scores go (especially thanks to something that, again, will be coming up shortly) but it does still have its share of good tracks in it. In particular, the Oscar buzz for 'Let It Go' is merited, as it is easily the most memorable song the movie has going for it. Which also makes it a little surprising realizing it's the only full song Menzel has. For her Broadway chops, it almost feels like underutilizing her. Then again, one could argue it's better to have one REALLY good track to your credit than a few okay ones, so I'll take the trade.

The biggest drawbacks of the movie, as partially mentioned above, are the areas where the movie still retains a couple of the more problematic tropes that have created the Disney stereotype. The first of these-and the more prominent- is the character Olaf. Now, there seems to be a lot of split sentiments with regards to Olaf among viewers and critics. While there is a lot of acknowledgement that he could be a very trying and somewhat shoehorned character, there are also many who have argued him to be one of the show-stealing elements of the movie. Personally, I can't say I agree with that sentiment. At the same time, however, I can't say I fully hate the character so much as I feel like he feels like a rather awkward fit within the movie. The one thing that really does give Olaf much of an edge, at least to me, is the performance by Josh Gad. Thanks to his contribution, the role doesn't feel as awkward as it could, and a few of the jokes sell in large part thanks to his delivery. Though I have to admit, it WAS very odd when he first appeared in the movie, since when Olaf spoke, I just heard Elder Arnold Cunningham from The Book of Mormon. Suffice it to say, that in a Disney movie feels no less than ten different brands of wrong and two different varieties of "How do I edit this together?" So it's not enough of a problem to hurt the movie, but I don't find myself in agreement with a lot of the assessment of him being a high point to the film. The other big drawback, and this is one it seems a lot of people are in agreement on, is with regards to one of the song numbers. Anyone who's seen the movie already knows which I'm talking about. Now, on their own, I didn't think the trolls were bad characters. In fact, they provide couple of decent chuckles, and they're used just enough to not be overloaded. Except for their song. It's a poor piece not just cause it's not a particularly catchy tune to begin with, but also because you can practically hear the clank as it sets to work railroading the movie's romantic subplot forward. Which is especially a shame since, the song aside, the romantic subplot is actually handled with a very light touch. Said light touch is a pretty welcome change from Disney's usual style, and for this story, it feels more natural to have it being a side element that ends with more of a "maybe" than making it a front and center definite piece like this song number tries to force. The movie does manage to dial back after this, but for those few minutes, it got kind of painful to go through.

"...and there's a whole song in it about telling God 'Fuck you!' and it won a whole bunch of Tony Awards! Pretty cool, huh?"

Overall, I can't say this movie disrupted my previously established top ten of 2013. It's certainly not a bad movie on its own, mind you. In fact, for Disney, this is showing a lot of promise for where they can go from here. It's more just the fact that, compared to some of the other offerings, it doesn't really shoot above and beyond other competition from last year is all. On its own though, it's still quite entertaining as Disney fair goes, and has me interested in seeing if this is a sign of something new on the horizon for the company.

And now, I am going to discuss one last point on this movie, but this one gets into a spoiler area. For those who haven't seen it, now's the time to turn around and walk the other way after the closing paragraph just below. For those who have...stick around after the closer and Simon Pegg's warning face.

Well, that marks the first official writeup for this year. I've got at least one more lined up before the end of the month. So keep an eye out!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The 2013 PostMortem Special The Final - 2013's Deleted Scenes

This is the second year of this feature. These are the miscellaneous thoughts that, for some reason or other, didn't become full articles. Often either a mix of life intervening, or the full thing just not feeling like a satisfactory article.

This one isn't quite as extensive as last year's, in part because several ideas I would otherwise call deleted I'm actually tagging for future writeups. They haven't happened yet, but I don't want to give up on them.

In the meantime, these are the ones that, to use the Frank Herbert reference, not only tried and failed but tried and died.

...actually, on that note, let's take this moment to look back everyone we lost over the past year.

-Marcia Wallace
-Eileen Brennan
-Paul Walker
-Karen Black
-Peter O'Toole
-Roger Ebert
-James Avery
(...No. Seriously. Look up the dub cast on the movie. He voiced this guy.)

Okay, We're just gonna stop this one here. This started as a good idea and then something went horribly wrong. I'd assure you all that the person responsible for this has been fired, but since it's me...that presents a problem.

Back to the deleted scenes:

-So, as I'd partially mentioned twice now, over last summer, Variety magazine published some rather dubious advance publicity about Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim. In particular, they were raising speculation of the movie becoming the flop of the summer. Now, thoughts on the movie aside, I just want to go on record as asking:
So, after a summer that gave us The Lone Ranger, Turbo, and R.I.P.D., two of which make up two shiny new nails in the casket for Ryan Reynolds's career, is it really that hard for you guys to just admit you fumbled the call? It's alright, it happens. No shame in it, we all make mistakes. But MAN, looking at some of the competition this year in terms of being the big failure of the summer, again, regardless of how you may feel about PR as a movie itself, you guys REALLY backed the wrong horse.
It's not gonna destroy careers at least, but man,remind me never to go the track with you guys.

-Last year had started on a partial collaboration with Elessar (again, at Moar Powah!) that has been in varying degrees of limbo. It's coming this year. You have been warned, it IS coming. What it is...I won't go into the details on that just yet. All I will say is it's to coincide with a certain anniversary this year.

-Waitwaitwaitwaitwait...DC/Warner Bros are already pressing on with a Justice League movie despite the fact Man of Steel was met with only mixed reviews and financially doing decently for the budget and advertising that got dumped into it?

I suppose I should start by commending the determination and guts this kind of a move calls for.
Now that I've commended it...guys, guys, guys-think about what you're doing for a minute here. I realize you guys are champing at the bit to try and compete against Marvel's The Avengers money train, and the sooner the better. BUT have you seriously considered what you're trying to do here? For starters, Avengers was a BIG chance at the time, and even that took a solid five movies to even have a jumping off point. Even with that in mind, that movie on paper had just as much probability of being an absolute clusterfuck. Now you're proposing to streamline the process to recreate this lightning in a jar, using a sequel to bring in not just another hero, but the other two components of DC's so named 'Big Three?'
I'm gonna be honest - even before hearing who you cast as Batman. This is just a really, really, REALLY reckless idea. Sadly though, not one that surprises me anymore. I mean, I like some of your comics, and, for the most part, I have a lot of respect for your animation division. At the same time, however, I will be one of the first to admit you have NOT had a history of good judgment where film goes, Batman aside. So this kind of reckless scramble to see if you can replicate the box office success that Marvel invested a lot of time and money to cultivate, doesn't surprise me NEARLY as much as it should.

And I promised myself I wasn't gonna say anything, but screw it - you say you want bitter and grizzled and you think Ben Affleck? Really? There's a LOT of great actors out there who could give Batman that necessary level of distrust and world-weariness. How the Hell did you come to this pick?

I could keep going with this, but honestly part of the reason this got deleted was because...well...what can I say about this subject that the web hasn't already said a million times over?
Which makes it even sadder that DC has heard all of this, has endured a LOT of zings about it, but is still determined to just power through.
Hey, it's your money, guys!

Incidentally - I am going to note I am taking down the names of the people who are swearing this casting choice WILL be good. Not 'might be good', or saying at least give him a chance. That's giving the benefit of the doubt. That's actually a very fair answer. I will admit to being VERY skeptical, but I'm willing to hear out the people who are saying 'give it a chance.' Those of you who are much more certain, however. If this backfires, I WILL be calling you on it.
Yes, I realize that's a little hypocritical. This is another reason this one never got finished. Humor me, I'm only human.

-Speaking of oft-debated topics in the nerding world - yeah, I still haven't gotten around to reviewing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. You'll notice I also have yet to get around to reviewing An Unexpected Journey either. At this point, I'm thinking it's probably going to be best to just wait until There and Back Again comes out and power through all three. I will, however, say now that so far I have felt very mixed on this trilogy. It's really not bad- In fact, they're still quite enjoyable popcorn movies. The problem is, like the Star Wars prequels, the films feel like they're trying their hardest to recapture the zeitgeist that made the original trilogy into the box office smash and pop culture staple that they've become. Most notably with regards to- let's call it what it is: appendices porn. It wasn't that problematic in the first movie - in fact, some of the new touches in the first film were actually some interesting fleshing out (though I still feel like, barring them playing it to a separate end game in TaBA, Azog is really pretty unnecessary as a villain and could have been traded out for Bolg with little to nothing lost.)
With the second film, the extra mythos, plus Jackson's own creative touches, are now risking overpowering and consuming the original story. Despite being the title character, Bilbo's role seems to be showing less agency.
It's the kind of thing which is particularly strange since one gets the sense that:
1) much of these changes came about in the aftermath of Guillermo del Toro's decision to bow out of the project
2) Had these films been made first like this, I honestly don't think Jackson would have been called back to do The Lord of the Rings. Again, the movies are watchable, but they are also loaded up with assorted mythos that, were it not for the prior cachet granted by the first trilogy, would be written off by the moviegoing public at large.
I mean, if someone had tried to do similar with something like Batman or The Avengers (which, comparatively speaking, have a LOT of mythology to mine from) would people be willing to indulge in all the extra backstory elements?

Again, I'm not gonna bury it just yet, but I do feel like Jackson's been biting off more than he can chew here. It's still been a fun ride, but unless he really pulls it up for the last one, these films aren't gonna have anywhere near the staying power of the first trilogy.

-Well, Star Wars Episode VII is finally greenlit now. Further, Disney is really hoping they can make this stone bleed gold and has given the reigns to J.J. Abrams.

...I'm just gonna let this clip sum up my thoughts on this:

OK, on a less cheeky note - honestly, I'm kind of surprised to say I feel nothing here. Even with the prequels, I was still able to at least maintain a sort of plausible deniability at the excitement of new Star Wars. This is just another big budget action film that really doesn't have that same magic behind it anymore. We'll always have the original trilogy, and that's still good times, but from there (and maybe some parts of the Clone Wars TV series), the affair may be over for me.

-Speaking of the most loved/hated man on the internet (OK, more the latter than the former these days) I had an idea for an article I had been trying repeatedly to make into a full piece following my decidedly mixed review of Star Trek: Into Darkness. Truth be told, a part of it may still live on in another piece, but the crux of the article that tried and died was the fact that Into Darkness is a perfect example of the risk that comes with trusting a hardcore fan (or fans, in that case) to work on a franchise. Now, liking what you write for isn't a bad thing per se. It can help maintain a degree of enthusiasm that not being connected may not bring. Unfortunately, it also means the fan could simply just want to revisit what they liked, and in doing so, either create an insular work, or miss what made things so good the first time around. In this particular case, it was inspired by the fact that, like I said in my initial writeup, Kurtzman and Orci took a promising original idea and attempted to turn it into a reheat of Nicholas Meyer's The Wrath of Khan. The problem was, Meyer had WoK take place at a different time in the overall Trek history than Into Darkness does - it happened at a time when it was more unthinkable that the Enterprise could be hurt, and even take a loss. Doing it to the new Enterprise crew on their second movie out meant what was supposed to be a shocking and harsh turn of events instead feels like a bait and switch - especially thanks to their refusing to commit to one of the big things that made Wrath of Khan stand out in the first place.

I may still do more with the idea of just what Meyer did with the franchise differently and why it worked, but as it is now, the idea of trying to make a larger piece on just fanboys having the wheel in general just never quite germinated.

-I actually have two, for lack of a better term 'deleted' reviews that may come up in the weeks to come. I say these are deleted in that they are part of last summer's Summer Reading project, a partial casualty of still working out the timing on a lot of that.

This summer's should run more smoothly and subsequently prevent these kinds of slips from happening.

Aaaaaand that's it. The box is empty guys.

Some of the ones that escaped may again surface here. In the meantime, we have a regular review coming back up this weekend. So keep an eye out!

It's back to work!

Friday, January 17, 2014

2013 Post-Mortem Special 2: The Punishment Movie - Movie 43: The Kentucky Fried Abortion

Well, I asked you guys to vote.
And, with the exception of two people, no one did. Given those two each voted differently, that left things at an impasse.
Summarily, where democracy fails, totalitarianism must step up to the plate and make the decision we'll all look back on later as a mistake.

So, in thinking over what to pick for this year's punishment movie, I have to admit - I had a LOT of options to choose from. I mean, when 2013 was good, it was quite good, but when it was bad...

Prior to this voluntary seeking out of disappointment, I think I'd have given my pick for worst movie I saw last year to Oz the Great and Powerful. I mean, I did see a number of rather wanting titles last year, but in most cases I was still able to find some redeemable elements in them. The more I look back at Oz, the more I realize I got almost nothing from it. It felt like an incomplete film which largely consisted of James Franco acting like a jerk and learning nothing from it.

But, as the title suggests, that's not what we're here to discuss. Movie 43 was a film I can't believe I'd forgotten when I put together my list of potential candidates for this year's punishment movie. In part because everything about this movie smacked of a train wreck. Not even like a little train wreck, either. I'm talking a massive, horrifying sprawl of a train wreck where the train jumps the tracks on just the right stretch that, as it skids, it annihilates an orphanage, a hospital, and shelters for various walks of life before it finally encounters enough resistance to come to a complete stop. The kind of wreck that, by virtue of its very existence, drives the devout to question their faith in a higher power. What I'm trying to say here - this movie sounded like a MASSIVE mess. In fact, the first time I saw an ad for it, I actually didn't think it was a real movie. It sounded more like the trailer itself was the whole thing as a joke on the various 'all star anthology' comedies we've been getting off and on over the years, largely around the holidays. So when it finally came out (in theaters no less!) I found myself for a time marveling that this was actually in existence. My only viable theory was the trailer itself was the joke project that some studio exec watched and asked "So where's the rest of it?"

Of course, that may just be the last shreds of my faith in humanity talking.

Suffice it to say, between this and having some people try and talk me out of subjecting myself to this film, I had a pretty safe bet for this year's punishment movie.

So, last night I sat down with the movie, perfectly content to find myself with a film I could eviscerate. Something that I would figuratively paint the walls in its blood to the strains of a Mastodon album. Really, in case it's not clear, yes, I do take a certain sick thrill in being able to completely dismember a crappy movie sometimes. Part of WHY I'm continuing this tradition.

But, a curious thing happened. I can't really call it miraculous for reasons I'll get into. The movie was bad, don't get me wrong. But I didn't feel the same urge to destroy I got with last year's choice of Smiley. I mean, as some people can attest to, that movie REALLY irked me. I don't know if it was the squandered potential, the laughably terrible view of the internet, or just the convoluted-as-Hell two-twist ending they tried to drop on me, but I walked away from that movie wanting to physically hurt the filmmakers. That hasn't happened to me since my first time seeing Birdemic...and I usually enjoy terrible films like that. Instead, I found myself walking away from this movie with a strange sense of indifference. It wasn't the, and I'm going to quote here, and again, people can attest to this, 'horribly skull-fucking awful' title I was expecting. Mostly, it was just boring.

For those who don't remember this movie - and that's likely to be a lot of people, that's understandable. It fell off the radar pretty quick when it came out, and only recently made a splash again thanks to its netting several nominations at this year's Golden Raspberry Awards two days ago. Like I said, I'd even forgotten about it until browsing through the list of films that came out last year. Then that feeling of utter disbelief came rushing back and I just had to give it the go. One part because, again, people tried to talk me out of it. The other part because, to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I'd have been able to believe this movie existed fully if I hadn't watched it myself to confirm. I mean, there's some films which you can believe got made without any question. The existence of this simply defied all logic for me until finally seeing the thing in full.
Said disbelief was than replaced by a vague sense of disappointment that it wasn't something almost Lovecraftian in its defiance of human comprehension.

But, I've spent long enough flying around this airport. Time to suck it up, bring it in for a landing and go meet the locals, shall we?

For starters, as the previews suggest, Movie 43 is designed to be a callback to the anthology comedy films of years past. This includes titles like The Kentucky Fried Movie, The Groove Tube, Amazon Women on the Moon, and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. In this case, the talent pool the film harvests from is.. Look, for a movie that was made on a budget of six million dollars, the talent pool is pretty staggering. To start, the movie had thirteen directors, including, but not limited to: Peter Farrelly, Brett Ratner, Elizabeth Banks, and an uncredited Bob Odenkirk (based on everything I've heard about Odenkirk, I suspect it was his sense of perfectionism that drove him to take his name off of this one, but I digress.) These thirteen directors were working off of a script/series of scripts put together by twenty writers, again including an uncredited Odenkirk. All of this was then acted out by a list of actors who, again, given the budget of this movie, are pretty staggering. To rattle just a few off the top of my head: Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Richard Gere, Halle Berry, Dennis Quaid, Seth MacFarlane (these two only in certain cuts, will get into that soon), Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Terrence Howard, Gerard Butler, Chris Pratt, Anna Faris...I can keep going. Point is, there is a LOT of creative talent being dumped into a space of 100 minutes and a budget of six million dollars. The cast in particular is something of a mystery, one made even more unusual/convoluted by the allegations that many of the cast members were effectively badgered or guilted into appearing in the movie. I've yet to find a smoking gun on that one yet, but based on all of the circumstances around the film, it certainly makes sense.

Fun Fact #3423: Never, never, never ask Gerard Butler about The Bounty Hunter.

As I said above, there are two particular cuts of the movie. This is a point worth bringing up, especially since it alters the unifying point of all of these sketches - in one version, the sketches are being pitched by a mad man to a movie executive, the other pitches the idea as a sort of digital age snipe hunt for the titular movie - a film so controversial as to be banned everywhere. In fact, the stories two of this version's three characters pitch about the mythical Movie 43 sound more interesting than what we did get. In this version, the shorts are various banned videos discovered while trying to find 43, and along the way, giving the impression this thing may in fact be real, and very, very dangerous.

Granted, in either version, the majority of the film is still comprised of the sketches. Those...your mileage will vary.

The way I see it, there are three particular problems this movie has going for it. The first of these is with regards to the talent pool. People have pointed out in this movie's defense, that if one is a fan of other sketch comedy films, this shouldn't be that different. Let's compare some of those for a moment, shall we?

Now, I'm going to run some numbers here of some of the various movies mentioned above, and again, I want you all to remember: Movie 43 sports thirteen directors and twenty writers while I rattle these numbers off.

The Kentucky Fried Movie:
Directors - 1
Writers - 3

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life:
Directors - 2
Writers - 6

The Groove Tube:
Directors - 1
Writers - 3

Monty Python's And Now For Something Completely Different:
Directors - 1
Writers - 6

Amazon Women on the Moon:
Directors - 5
Writers - 2

History of the World Part 1:
Directors - 1
Writers - 1

By now, in theory, you're beginning to see what I'm getting at. This movie's creative pool is heavily bloated. Like, Mr. Creosote at the end of his meal bloated (to make another sketch shout-out.) Each category of Movie 43 is more than double the most of these offerings in terms of people they're working with.

What does this mean here? For one thing, there's no real sense of cohesion. Even the overarching Pitch/Thread stories don't really help hold this together. There are a few people who work multiple sketches, but largely, they're different teams, which makes the film feel like it's just sort of drifting. Interestingly, this is not really an issue I've had with other sketch comedy movies to this point. Even when they have different casts, there's either enough of a unifying idea or similar sense of humor to really keep everything tied together. Here, it almost feels like everyone just got left to their own devices and figured "Screw it, the editors will sort it all out afterward." Well, in theory. Each editor gets credited for an individual skit, but no one seems to have been credited for putting this all together. Further adding to that feeling of lack of cohesion, one sketch doesn't even get underway until the credits are partly underway. Now, this would be okay if this were only maybe a minute or two long - but the sketch in question is a solid six or seven minutes in length. That's a sizable chunk of time to be wedging mid-credits.

This is probably the best time to segue into the second problem this movie has - timing. Now, anyone who's ever looked up the basic principles for making good comedy, there is one constant everyone tells you matters: timing. It's that sense of knowing just how far to take a joke to get the most out of it without killing the humor. It is the core aspect that all good comedy lives and dies by. Unfortunately for this movie, its comic sense of timing is, for the most part, pretty bad. One of the problems I kept encountering in this was the fact that the actual humorous material in these sketches wasn't really enough to match up to the actual length of the sketches. The first sketch is probably one of the most overt examples of this - a woman (Winslet) finds herself on a blind date with a charming man (Jackman) who happens to have a set of balls on his neck.
That's it. That's the whole joke.

There. I just saved you seven minutes.
You're welcome.

Yet this sketch runs for a solid seven minutes and seventeen seconds. It's the third longest in the movie not counting the Pitch/Thread, which is going to be longest by function. The joke quickly wears out its welcome in trying to find new ways for Winslet to be uncomfortable with this pair of testicles that no one else seems to see or mind. This is the kind of thing that could work as a quick cutaway gag. Something you set up for maybe two minutes - Hell, you play up to just the reveal and that's all the punchline you really need here. The rest just feels like that nervous comic who keeps repeating the punchline to a joke when it falls flat, hoping maybe the crowd just didn't hear it the first time. Even some of the shorter sketches feel like they could stand to be tightened up - a sketch for a fictional music player called the iBabe (which looks like a naked woman) suffers from the same problem as the first sketch - it really only has one joke it keeps repeating to itself over and over in the hopes we'll still find it funny. To its credit, it's one of the shorter installments, but even then, it feels like it overstays its welcome. Where the first problem suggests the movie has too many people for too little a span of time, their output, strangely enough, feels like they don't have enough material to fill the aloted time, so they resort to repetition, with only one sketch really providing much in the way of escalation to justify it.

At this point, I do have to admit, while a lot of this fell flat, there were two sketches I found actually decent, even if I still feel like one could stand to either tighten up or double down on the dark content it's going for. One being a sketch involving the parents of a homeschooled child (Schrieber and Watts) who have vowed that, despite homeschooling, they will give their son the complete high school experience. This involves the awkward and painful social moments, the disdain from teachers, and the open bullying and antagonism. It's an idea that, for this film, is actually a fairly clever pitch, and for their part, Watts and Schreiber do a pretty good job playing the part with a suitably straight face - particularly Schreiber. It's a fairly dark piece of humor, and while I do think it could have been improved, I do also have to admit, even as it is now, it certainly shows more promise than a lot of the sketches. The other standout for me was one where they actually got a decent sense of timing: a faux-PSA that only really runs for about ninety seconds. It's enough time to set up the joke and deliver its punchline - which, while not a gut-buster, is still amusing in a kind of absurd way.

You know what's really sad? Schrieber here is still a more entertaining and likable father than he was in the remake of The Omen.

Besides the time, the third and arguably biggest problem with a lot of these sketches is, and I will concede this is a highly subjective point, that the humor just doesn't really land. At least, not to me. I know some people did find this movie funny, and to them, let me just say good on you. For my part though, I just found the jokes reminded me of variations on a theme - gags I have seen performed elsewhere, and better, before this. In spite of myself, I found myself being reminded at many points of other jokes from other places throughout this movie. Not to the point where I would call this a rip-off by any means at least. But many still gave that lingering sense of "I remember laughing at this in..."

The result is a rather unfortunate combination from a comedy perspective - you go in with a joke that others have technically heard before, and not only that, it's your ace card. It makes it rather surprising that this film was the brainchild of 20 different comedic minds, and only one of them wanted their name taken off of it.

Now, I said before that I do acknowledge that some people did find this funny, so here's where I'll grant some benefit of the doubt. In a state of curiosity/masochism, I did check out the IMDb forums for this movie to see if maybe I was missing something. If maybe, like Nekromantik back in October, this was just a side effect of my being overly jaded. The results...well...
Maybe it's because my brain takes the implication that if you didn't laugh at something you're being a snob as a challenge, but I'm still just gonna try and get this out there. Again, in addressing the question of being jaded, I've looked at the things that have made me laugh and still do. I certainly have nothing against shock humor or dark comedy. In fact, I tend to take my humor like my coffee - black and capable of causing harm if aimed incorrectly. To this day, one of my fondest movie theater memories was seeing the film The Aristocrats, which got arguably one of the biggest reactions I've seen out of an audience to date. Likewise, of the running comedy series right now, two of my favorites have made a backbone of their humor out of the fact that their main characters are, without exception, HORRIBLE, the Seinfeld cast look like saints by comparison. So yeah, this isn't snobbishness. I'm all for some good tasteless humor if it's actually funny. Unfortunately, for me, Movie 43 wasn't that. With a few exceptions, it was mostly just lazy and uninspired. Which, again, for the amount of talent they had to draw from, is nothing short of surprising.

and considering there's people that have made better replica superhero outfits for considerably LESS than that...

So there you have it. I came expecting something that would be akin to the first fateful flight of the Event Horizon, and what I got was a largely uninteresting hundred minutes of film. I could spend this time wondering if maybe things would have been different had I picked another failure from last year - maybe one of them will come into the crosshairs later. But for now, I'm not seeing any other reason to pay this any more mind than I already have. In fact, I already feel like I've spent more time on this film than I would really want to admit to. To the backers of this movie, I commend your ability to get this many people together on a budget of only six million, but I just wish that, for all of that, you could have delivered a comedy with a bit more bite to it.

Ah well...there's always next time, eh?

Okay, in theory.

I promise, the post-mortem is almost over. All that's left now is the 'deleted scenes' and then we can get this year up and running (Because let's face it, there isn't anything worth seeing in January).

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2013 Post-Mortem Special 1b: The Obligatory Top 10

Previously at The Third Row:
... what? It's right there! What possible reason would I need to recap something that's RIGHT THERE?
...Okay that came off a little hostile...

Yes, I took a week between. I wanted to give a bit more of a flex window to try and play catch-up. The results weren't perfect, but I do feel at least a bit more comfortable with this second list than I did going into this.

So let's bring this part of the 2013 autopsy to a close so I can then get to the part I'll REALLY regret.

-Fruitvale Station

I'm gonna be honest. I've already written and rewritten my thoughts on this movie several times over. It's one that's been particularly hard for me to wrap my thoughts around, and it's in no small part thanks to the proverbial elephant in the room that came with the timing of this film's release. I tried to balance it on several levels, making it part of the larger writeup, and as a separate paragraph at the end. But it's just not possible. A good friend and fellow reviewer, Elessar (over at Moar Powah!) actually put it best last night when I was discussing this with him - it's not the kind of elephant you can meet halfway. You either ignore it entirely, or you throw yourself at it head-on. While I have many reservations with taking it head-on, most notably my concern that doing so causes it to overshadow the movie's other strengths - which are very commendable ones - I also don't feel like I can just leave the point unaddressed.

So, please bear with me on this.

Anyway, this is one of those movies that came out at both the best and the worst possible time for it. An account of the life and final day of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, who is continuing to prove the potential he showed in Chronicle was only the tip of the iceberg), a man who was killed on New Year's Eve 2008 by Bay Area police in an act of excessive force and what some argue was racial profiling, is on its own an interesting idea for a film regardless. The fact this then saw its wide release over the summer in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict both made the film's message ring that much clearer while simultaneously hurting its performance with audiences.A film calling back to an event that further reminds us that things like what happened to Trayvon Martin are sadly NOT uncommon in our society is a very harsh thing to have to face, and I can't blame people for not wanting to be reminded of that - especially that shortly after the incident. Which is unfortunate since, as I said, even outside of the social relevance of it, it's a very well-made movie in its own right. Writer/director Ryan Coogler approaches the final day of Oscar's life with a surprisingly even hand. Through Jordan, he shows us a man who isn't perfect - we see very frankly that he's made mistakes in his life, but also that he's trying to make up for them. The movie does a good job at showing us the tragedy while also not trying to make Oscar seem like an idealization. For all his strengths and his faults, Coogler and Jordan help us see him as a human being, whose only real crime that night was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This buildup is what really makes the moment when the fateful encounter comes hit that much harder. We know it's coming from the start, of course - the movie starts with the cell phone footage of the actual incident before beginning its own re-enactment, but once that's established, it takes its time letting us get to know Oscar and the people in his life before that night. In another surprise, Coogler doesn't try to overly villify the police, letting their actions speak for themselves. The movie certainly doesn't approve of what they're doing for good reason, but given how many films fail to emotionally stacking the deck, I was surprised to see this movie actually acknowledge the realization by the police that they screwed up, even if it was too little, too late. Again, it's an even touch that really helps give this movie's account of the incident real weight. The one other standout in this in terms of helping maintain that human element goes to Octavia Spencer as Oscar's mother, Wanda. In the first half of the film, she primarily serves as sort of a personification of Oscar's conscience - most notably in a flashback of her visiting him in prison. It's in the last act, after Oscar has been shot, that she steps up to maintain the human heart of the story, grieving for her son while also trying to keep his death from turning into something far worse.
...and despite my best efforts, I still try to balance the two. Sorry, guys. This is one of those movies where I genuinely feel that, even outside of the timing of its release, it has a lot to speak for on its own, and didn't want to sell it short.

In any case, I still find it a bit of a shame that factors beyond the film's control on its release and the tendency of the industry to stack the deck at the end of the year mean this film would later get lost in the shuffle once the the initial impact eased off. If you haven't seen it, and you feel you can handle it, it's a genuinely good movie.

-Blue is the Warmest Color

This was a film I went into not fully knowing what to expect on several levels. I had seen the promising reviews, and had had some previous experience with the filmmaker care of seeing Games of Love and Chance back in college. Otherwise, I hadn't really heard that much on this movie when I decided to check it out. The resulting film surprised me on several levels. Using the Dogme 95 style of filmmaking (much as I hate to be that guy, I'm just gonna leave this as give it a quick Google/Wiki, these writeups are long enough without me explaining that as well,) director Abdellatif Kechiche has put together an emotional and ultimately frank look at the overall lifespan of a relationship (the alternate name for the film being 'The Life of Adèle - Chapters 1 and 2.') I do stress the lifespan aspect - and I should warn anyone who hasn't seen it/looked up the information on it now, the movie is just a few minutes shy of three hours long - as the movie follows protagonist Adèle (Adèle Exarchopolous in a very impressive turn) from her first casual relationship to her first real relationship, with artist Emma (Léa Seydoux.) It's the performances for Exarchopolous and Seydoux that really help sell this movie above everything else. Kechiche's direction is certainly a strong element of it - albeit one that left the movie with some considerable controversy in its wake - but at the movie's core, it's the strength of the two leads that would make or break its story. Luckily, the two both have the talent and the chemistry to maintain that center. So you know now, though this movie is a romance, this isn't to say it's in the same vein of happy that the genre is often saddled with. There are some parts of this film that are genuinely intense and somewhat painful to watch just for the emotional territory they go into. In this regard, Kechiche's use of the Dogme style is an asset, as it means nothing feels overly stylized or softened up - we're left with the raw emotions of the two leads, which hurt like Hell at points. About the only real drawback I can see to this film is with regards to its length. Now, I'm not complaining about the length just as a baseline here, but the movie does feel like it overstays its welcome in several scenes (in one of those rare statements one doesn't expect to see on the internet, the scenes of lesbian sex do run on a good while. Not quite as bad as the ten-minute orgy in Caligula, but it WAS enough that the sense of intimacy in the scenes was starting to wear off.) Strangely, it's not a case where anything necessarily needs to be cut per se. The story itself is pretty complete, but rather it feels like some of the sequences could afford to be tightened up some. The fact it made the cut here clearly shows it didn't prove enough of a weakness to completely undermine the movie, but it was still a minor setback. If you can handle that, however, it's still a surprisingly well-made look at relationships, and one that does manage to pull at the heartstrings at points.
...and this is coming from a jaded and bitter old bastard like me, so THAT is saying something.

-Pacific Rim

I love these sudden shifts in theme and tone, don't you?

This is one of those where I will admit, my reasons for choosing it are two-fold. The first, and most obvious, was the sheer enjoyment factor. Like I'd said in the previous write-up on it, this movie came out in the middle of a summer that was really stumbling on the blockbuster front. Even after, the blockbusters have been kind of ups and downs, but keeping that in mind, this still holds up as one I walked away from all-around satisfied with. Yes, I will admit there are some bits I would have liked to see expanded on (something which director Guillermo Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham both acknowledged was a conscious choice to give the world more of a larger, lived-in feeling) but those are the rare kinds that leave me wanting more rather than feeling like what's there was squandered. Yeah, it's not exactly a piece of high art, but then it was never trying to be. It's a giant love letter to giant monsters and giant robots. In that regard, it was one of the few blockbusters of the summer that actually accomplished exactly what it promised it was going to.
The other reason, and the one I didn't really get into in the write-up (and this is the part where I stop just reheating what I already told you) is the fact this movie managed to become something of the underdog of the summer movie season. It had a lot of elements going against it - it was competing against many established brands, it had a rather lackluster ad campaign (in part thanks to Warner Bros not really having anything to gain or lose from the movie's success, leading them to drag their feet and instead dump their efforts into their own tentpole Man of Steel,) and the pending Legendary-Warner Bros split had led to some speculation of a media campaign to see the movie fail in order to devalue Legendary's brand. Suffice it to say, there was a small storm brewing around this movie's success. Further, its first weeks did look pretty disappointing - despite some generally favorable reviews, the movie was financially outgunned by the critically reviled sequel Grown-Ups 2. Then, as time went on, the movie began to gain something of a vocal and determined following. What was first looking to be another 'creep in, creep out' swing and a miss movie instead was slowly building to become a sleeper hit. Then the overseas numbers came in - and then things got really surprising. The movie went on to be a hit in other countries, including breaking box office records in China (soundly outgunning the China-directed alternate cuts of Iron Man 3 and World War Z without having to alter any of its content.) These numbers would go on to give the movie a spot on the top 10 grossing movies of 2013 for a time - making it the only live action original property to do so at the time (which made the fact it was only at #10 depressing in a whole other regard, but I digress.)
So I'll admit it - alongside the fact I just found it a very fun blockbuster in its own right, I was rather impressed to see it manage to make good despite the odds stacked against it. In a culture where it seems as if original property films are being treated as riskier concepts more and more, it is encouraging to every so often see one manage to succeed and remind us they can still do so (speaking of on that note, congrats to Gravity for being the only original property film to make the final cut by the end of the year. While many of the other films were good, the fact only one wasn't based on existing property means after I finish this article, I'm probably gonna go talk film with a bottle of booze...)

-Much Ado About Nothing

Okay, slightly awkward. I go from grumbling about the lack of attention to original property films to praising an adaptation.

Welp, no sense turning back now!

This was a mix of two things I tend to have mixed results on compared to some other parts of the world, by my own admission: while I do like some of the work of Joss Whedon, I never quite got the massive he has garnered in some circles. Don't get me wrong, he's certainly a good writer and director, but I never quite found that spark in him that others seem to find. On the other hand, there is also the transplanting of the works of William Shakespeare. Again, there are sometimes where I actually like these attempts (of what I've seen, I'd still give the gold standard here to Kurosawa's feudal Japanese reskin of Macbeth, Throne of Blood,) but in a lot of other cases, I just look and go "...really?"
This was one of those times where both elements actually worked very well for me. Transplanting the bard's classic comedic tale of mix-ups and matchmaking gone awry to modern day Santa Monica, Whedon has put together a stylistic retake on the story that's genuinely pretty fascinating both in how it's played as well as how it reinterprets some of the concepts. Even more impressive is the realization this movie was made over a twelve day period as a side project while filming Marvel's The Avengers. In many ways, Shakespeare's comedies are actually a very good fit to Whedon's strengths as a director: he has put together a top notch cast-including several veterans of his other productions-and his ability to handle the quickfire, humorous dialogue means the humor of this play is given a very capable group to deliver the lines through. I've always found the updates where they just transplant the Bard's dialogue to another setting to be a bit of a tricky prospect - simply because if you're not careful, the result can feel an awkward fit. In this case, everyone takes to the lines like a proverbial duck to water, making nothing really feel out of place. This also makes the movie's style - shot in black in white with a relaxed, almost jazzy use of ambiance music, also fit naturally. It's a film that feels like it could have backfired on several levels, but instead excels at them.
and I'll admit it - this has me wanting to dust off some of the classics to give them another look.
...OK, I was going to do so anyway, but really, I have enough of a backlog without you guys stacking revisits onto the pile.)


It seems like 2013 was the year of pleasant surprises for me. I went into this movie not fully sure what to expect beyond: a) Spike Jonze's direction, b) another solid performance in Joaquin Phoenix's strong career comeback, and c) a story that could either be a surprising hit or at least have the movie work despite it. What I got exceeded my expectations all-around, but in particular on points 2 and 3. To start with the easier to address now, I continue to find it interesting that, prior to his quasi-retirement, I wasn't that taken with Phoenix as an actor. I didn't dislike him, and what I saw him in showed skill, but I was never really sold on him. Then he came back from his 'retirement' with The Master and I was actually really impressed with him. When I heard the advanced talk on this movie, I was intrigued to see if this meant last year's movie was a fluke, or if he really planned to come back guns blazing. Luckily, it was the latter. Whereas last year Phoenix handled a human trainwreck with the gloves off, this movie's role as Theodore, an introverted man recovering from a messy breakup who eventually strikes up a relationship with his surprisingly personable computer's operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, in an impressive role for what's all voiced over). It is a change of gears, but one he handles admirably. Even in some of the more humorous or odd parts of this movie, Phoenix makes Theodore someone who, while withdrawn, we still care about. Especially necessary given how many scenes in the movie he's really just left to act off of an off-screen voice.
Which brings me to point 3, and how this movie really surprised me. Like I said, this is the kind of story that could potentially backfire on itself in another set of hands. On paper, it almost feels like it had the potential to be a rather heavy-handed critique of the relationship between people and their computers. Jonze has no interest in telling that kind of a story here, thankfully. Instead, we get a surprisingly thoughtful science fiction story, where the technology is used to explore many of the aspects of a human relationship. When Theodore tells people about his relationship with his OS, the responses actually vary, with some encouraging, others curious, and still others condemning it. The film never fully forgets the man-machine divide, but is perfectly content to blur it on many occasions, which really helps sell the relationship. For a couple where we really only see one of the players, this movie's main romance is still arguably one of the best I've seen in a movie in a long time. Said romance also helps serve to advance, and be advanced by, the movie's secondary plot - exploring the growth and development of the various artificial intelligence units that the movie has introduced. The end result is a movie that manages to be, in various strides: funny, sweet, thought-provoking, and even a little heartbreaking. I'm actually really glad I was able to get to this one before I got to publishing the second half of this list. It may have held things up a bit, but it was well worth the wait.

There you have it.

Next comes the part I was dreading, but I promised myself was coming.

That's right. In the next few days comes the punishment movie of 2013.

Remember, it hurts me more than it hurts any of you.
In theory, anyway.

Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 Post-Mortem Special 1a: The Obligatory Top 10 (1-5)

With 2013 now laid to rest, we come to the time when everyone out there with an interest in film looks back at what they considered to be the best offerings of the previous year.

In this regard, I am a sucker for peer pressure and I will own up to that.

Of course, given I will admit doing ten of these could run very long (just look at my Halloween entries) I'm splitting this into a two-part piece, as the title indicates.

So this marks my first five picks of the year.

Standard provisos apply:
-This is based on what I have seen up to this point. There will inevitably be gaps in that list.
--Incidentally, I'd like to thank/flip the bird to the short memory spans at the Academy that have lead to so many films being held back and stacked at the end of the year in order to have a fair shot at being considered. Yes, I know you guys have a lot of titles to go through in a year, but your tendency to stick to the freshest stuff means we get inundated with a LOT of great titles within the space of a few weeks (and between travel and rising ticket costs, that adds up. I'm only human, dammit!) Plus, that also tends to shaft some of us who aren't within the NYC or LA areas for certain releases (still waiting for wider release on Inside Llewelyn Davis, and for the studios to finally release The Zero Theorem.)
-These aren't particularly ranked beyond being part of the top 10. If I list something over something else, chances are I'm not ranking it higher. It's just the way the list came together.

There. Now that I've washed my hands and covered my backside, let's get this started.

-12 Years a Slave

[Previous writeup to be found here.]

Okay, so I lied a little. THIS honestly holds my pick for best movie I have seen this year. That said - damn. This is also probably one of the single most unpleasant movies I think I've seen in well...ever. Like, this is up there with the first half of I Spit On Your Grave in terms of discomfort (THERE are two movies I never expected to tie together. [Editor's note: Nah, I can see it]) That said, it's supposed to be, so points to Steve McQueen for pulling it off. Based on the actual account of Solomon Northup, he has put together one of, and maybe the most frank and unflinching looks at  American slavery in film to date. Alongside McQueen's willingness to look in the places where many others wouldn't, he's got a phenomenal cast to tell this story. People aren't exaggerating when they say this year's Best Actor Oscar is Chiwetel Eijiofor's to lose. His performance in this is one of those standouts where he arguably conveys as much or more in a single expression as he does in his words. Alongside him, we have Michael Fassbender continuing his work with McQueen and delivering one of the single most horrifying performances in a film this year as one of Solomon's masters - a brutal man who relies on force in all manner of dealings with his slaves. Where Eijiofor's strength lies in the unspoken conveyance, Fassbender's turn is a guns-blazing portrait of a short-tempered, controlling, obsessed man is incredibly disturbing to watch. This is one of those movies that is definitely not going to be for everyone. It's incredibly hard to watch, as it was intended to be. In fact, I feel like having seen it once, I'm good for having seen it for a while yet. It's one of McQueen's biggest strengths, in a way - you may not constantly feel the need to go back to his films on a regular basis, but then you don't really need to. They will stay with you even after just one viewing, and this one is no exception. If you think you can handle it, by all means, watch this movie. It won't be easy, but it will be worth it.


[Previous writeup to be found here.]

This year has done some very good things for my opinion of Park Chan-Wook. Going from having only seen Oldboy prior to this, seeing his segment of Three Extremes this October and this, his first English language movie, I'm becoming rather impressed by him. This is definitely not a film everyone's going to like, but in some ways, I think that was part of the appeal for me. Chan-Wook is a director with a very distinct style, and his first US film is no exception. It's a bit of a puzzle going in - you can tell from the get-go that not everything is as it appears, and in some ways, piecing things together is a part of the draw here. And true to Chan-Wook's style, what we think will happen is nowhere near how disturbed the actual outcome will be. Further adding to this mystery, we have a great cast involved as well. Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode both play fun inversions as to who is the 'good' authority figure (they're both somewhat bad, but in different capacities) and it adds to another way the movie plays with your expectations. But the performance that really helps hold this movie together is Mia Wasikowska as protagonist India (hey, it's Chan-Wook's film. You learn to ride with his logic.) She is herself something of a cypher, and Wasikowska makes her an interesting one as the movie's events unfold. As we begin to see more of what she is like, the result is equal parts compelling and disturbing - much like the rest of this movie. A memorable, somewhat nightmarish little puzzle in its own way that has me looking forward to what Chan-Wook has planned for the future.


[Previous writeup to be found here.]

Yes, yes, we've all heard the debates. We've seen the arguments. We've taken sides, and read Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Twitter feed. This film isn't a perfect depiction of science. It's unfortunate it isn't, but what's arguably even more unfortunate is the fact that, despite those glaring holes, it's still closer to the mark than a LOT of science fiction is about space by a considerable margin. Which really more of a sad sentiment about the overall state of things than any indictment on just this movie. That said, I still maintain it is somewhat heartening to see people debating these scientific holes, even though I do feel it's become rather overblown as a result. Technicals aside, this is still a very fascinating and enjoyable movie, and one of those rare films that I can honestly say I'm still uncertain about watching outside of theaters. Half of what made this movie for me was the fact it's a film that really makes the most of the movie theater it's in. While its narrative has a lot going for it otherwise - Sandra Bullock's actually turning in a surprisingly good performance on this one, especially given she's left to her own devices without anyone to play off for much of it- a big part of the draw of this is, corny as it sounds to say, the experience. The strength of this movie is the incredibly immersive experience director Alfonso Cuaron - more than welcome back with this as his first film since the visceral and bleak Children of Men - gives us. For as many faults as its technicals may have, it's still one of those rare movies we've had in a long time that really does justice to just how vast and empty space is, as well as how deadly it can be. This is part of why I can't help but feel it may be a theater only ride for me - an experience this immersive really needs a big screen, optimal sound, and as few distractions as possible to really get the most out of it. I hate to sound like a cliche, but this is the kind of movie that the theater experience was made for.

-The World's End

[By now, you should have figured out the pattern...]

For as many big sequels and reboots as we saw come out this year, this was the one I found myself looking forward to the most. Six years after the release of Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost finally bring the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy to a close with The World's End. After the smash successes of Shaun of the Dead and the aforementioned Hot Fuzz, this movie's buzz was riding pretty high. The resulting film, while perhaps disappointing to some, still delivers quite admirably in its own right. I'll concede to some of the criticisms, this isn't anywhere near as gut-bustingly funny as either of the first two movies, but something is certainly gained in the tradeoff. By comparison, this is a considerably darker movie than the first two - and I don't just mean in the sense of direct subject matter (cause I'll be the first to admit, SotD and HF both had some black humor and heavy moments in them) but I mean in terms of some of the thematic elements the movie addresses. While there's a lot of humor to be found in the idea of a group of friends reuniting for a pub crawl years later, the movie also provides a surprisingly frank look at getting older and reconciling who you were with who you are now - in particular in the case of Pegg's Gary King - arguably the best role he's had in ages - a character who plays like a dark middle finger to the 'man child' character that's become a comedy staple in the past decade. The science fiction plot in the movie is certainly a fun take on the idea of the alien invasion - in particular The Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a proof label attached - but in this case arguably more than its two predecessors, it's the more down-to-Earth human plot that outstreaks the genre tweaking this time around.
Now, I'll grant one concession on the criticisms. I have to agree that the epilogue DOES run longer than it really needs to. But otherwise, the movie is still a fitting send-off to the trilogy. It's not as openly psychotic as the first two movies, but considering what is gained in trade, it was worth the exchange.

-Dear Mr. Watterson

I'll admit it - part of the reason this made the cut for me was bias. Like a lot of people, the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes was a big part of my childhood. So when I learned earlier this year that someone was working on a documentary about the comic and its appeal, I was already on board with the idea even before it had been confirmed as happening (it was still a pending Kickstarter.) When the movie finally came out, I checked theaters here hoping to find it with little luck. It was in part thanks to my brother that I finally got to see it, care of receiving the movie on disc for Christmas (and a big thanks to him for that!) Imagine my relief to find my anticipation hadn't been for naught. Now, I can see where some of the criticisms of disappointment could come from, most notably the fact that Watterson himself never makes an appearance. However, I can understand why it happened the way it did. Yes, I would have loved to see Bill Watterson himself make an appearance to discuss his comic and the effect it has had, but like they establish within the film, he was never really a man who asked for fame. He's content to be left alone to live his life, and honestly, the fact the movie respects that wish is something I see as a disadvantage turned strength. So it's a missed opportunity, but for a good reason. In the meantime, in his absence, the comic is free to stand up for itself, ultimately. We still get some pieces of Watterson's mind along the way - there are several segments devoted to the internal politics of the comics page, with several other industry names sounding off on it as well (some of Berkley Breathed's sentiments are actually pretty fascinating, especially as he was a fellow veteran of the years Watterson ran) - and even though he never appears directly, this does still help paint a little bit more of a picture of the cartoonist whose mystique has become part of his draw (as one cartoonist jokingly describes him, he's the Sasquatch of cartooning.) When the film isn't going into what the comic has to say about Watterson, it in turn explores why it became, and still is, as loved as it is even nowadays. The stories run from the fascinating, to a few with nice personal touches (perhaps nothing life-changing, but still rather nice to hear.) In a lot of ways, the movie is a very well-intentioned love letter to what some have called 'the last great comic strip,' and even if it doesn't always put it in words, it still manages to convey that love just by virtue of its existence. It's a sweet little movie with a lot of heart going for it, and I'll admit - it made me want to break out my collections and give them another read for old time's sake.

Five down, five to go.
The second half will be coming up soon.

Till then, keep an eye out. We'll be collecting more organs from 2013's corpse soon enough!