Monday, September 29, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Watching someone play a video game can be entertaining or irritating.  Watching Edge of Tomorrow is just like the former category; the character tries to survive a mission, totally blind at first to the obstacles he must face, die a bunch of times, and eventually get further and further until he beats it. Based on the Japanese light novel All You Need is Kill (the best title in the history of titles) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka,  Edge of Tomorrow is a really fun and expertly crafted film that may look obscenely generic from a production design standpoint, but its script is wonderfully original.

Ok, so maybe the idea of a man reliving the same day over and over again has been done, and it's been done better (I personally think Groundhog's Day is a masterpiece).  However, for a CGI-heavy, action-driven, explosion fest, Edge of Tomorrow's greatest strength is probably its darkly comedic tone. We are thrown into the world of the not-too-distant-future (yeah, yeah, "way down in deep 13") where an alien race called the Mimics has invaded, and they are of course threatening to destroy the Earth.  Military forces are barely making a dent in stopping the invasion, but there is one woman, Seargeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who was recently a key asset in earning Earth its first victorious battle.

The soldiers who combat these Mimics wear special battle armor called ExoSuits that give them intense protection and firepower, but don't seem to be strong enough to help them win the war (though the in-movie advertisements for the ExoSuits are meant to get average people believing that ANYONE can be a soldier).  Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a public relations officer and head of the ExoSuit's advertising, finds himself rebelling against the powers that be (in the form of General Brigham (Brenden Gleeson)), gets himself knocked unconscious, and is thrown into a military camp.  There, he is framed as a soldier who tried to go AWOL and gets forced into combat under the orders of Sergeant Farell (Bill where-has-he-been Paxton).  On this particular day, the military stages an offensive attack on the Mimic's territory, and Cage doesn't even know how to work the suit he'd spent so much effort promoting.  Cage is killed in battle after the attack fails horribly, however, he mysteriously wakes up back at the army camp at the beginning of the day like nothing ever happened; excepts he's the only one who remembers it.

From here on out, we get the familiar "guy living the same day over and over again" tropes, but they're done at a quick pace without much dwelling.  Cruise's reaction to living the same day over and over again is priceless, and weirdly enough, never grows tiring as the film continues.  Watching Cage relive this day multiple times and discovering new and better battle tactics might have made for an entertaining enough movie, but the more information that's revealed about Emily Blunt's character, the more fun there is to be had.   Saying too much about the film's plot beyond my summary has the major potential to be spoiler heavy, and since this movie sort of bombed at the box office, I assume there are plenty of genre fans out there who still haven't seen it.

Too bad so many people missed out! Seeing Edge in IMAX was exhilarating, and while I don't think the 3D effect added anything to the experience, it was never outright bad.  From a design standpoint, the movie looks generic by modern action/sci-fi movie standards (Elysium comes most prominently to mind), which is my theory for why it wasn't the smash hit the studio expected it to be.  However, the story itself is engaging, the characters are well-developed, and the humor is fantastic.  Who ever thought watching Tom Cruise die over and over again would be so hilarious? Don't answer that.

What often helps make a classic sci-fi movie memorable is the musical score, and man-oh-man is Edge's score forgettable.  It sounds like wannabe Hans Zimmer music for most part; just fast, repetitive violins, BWAM sounds, and echoey drums.  Does it fit the movie's tone? Of course it does.  But everything since The Dark Knight sounds like this, completely bland and devoid of memorable leitmotifs or discernible melodies.  Christophe Beck, who did a wonderful job scoring Frozen last year (wrote the score not the songs), is not at his most creative here.  I don't know if it's studio interference, composer's choices, or just an unconscious trap that most modern scores fall into, but for me it's a big disappointment that we just don't get great music to go along with otherwise great movies.  For God's sake, the music for the trailer was so much better!

The design of the aliens is a strange choice, and I give it props for originality.  However, I don't think that the formless beasts that attack our heros come across as tangible.  It's just a wild CGI mass that's far too busy with movement for its own good; such an obvious CG-only effect never registers as something real or threatening.  I guess it's better than what it could have been (generic humanoids who can speak English, like the vast majority of sci-fi movies), but Edge's script is good enough to warrant a better design for its aliens.  I actually like the idea of them being beastly creatures that can't be reasoned with, but I can't help but feel like there was a better way to go about it.  Also, why were they called Mimics, again? It makes them sound like shape-shifters, which they never demonstrate themselves to be.

So much of Edge of Tomorrow is well written, paced, acted, and directed that the generic aesthetics only make the smallest dent in the movie's overall integrity, especially if one's expectations are lowered to the standards set by most of last year's sci-fi summer movie offerings.  Trust me, this is no Elysium.  It has heart, humor, action, and wonderful talent behind it to make it work the way it does.  That it was a box office disappointment is a real shame; it gives Hollywood the impression that the public doesn't want original movies if we don't see things like this but then see Transformers 4 twice.  It also kills me to learn that Summer 2014 was the worst summers, financially, in years.  I saw so many good movies this summer, Edge included.  I can only hope that through DVD sales and streaming services that it finds the audience it deserves sooner than later.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Star Trekking: The Undiscovered Country

Before watching the sixth Star Trek film, experiencing the saga was always like looking into a time capsule; regardless of how timeless the stories are, Star Trek (from a production standpoint) always seemed to live comfortably in the years before I was born; the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s.  I could look at the series and films as products of their time or as products ahead of their time.  But now? StarTrek IV: The Undiscovered Country was made in 1991.  I may have been a baby, but I was alive, dammit.  That means that the franchise had been alive for twenty-five years, and despite already spawning a spinoff TV show (The Next Generation), it was still the same at the core; Kirk, Spock and McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew having exciting, dangerous, mysterious, and thought-provoking adventures in space.  But these guys were getting old, and by this sixth film, something feels right, if a bit melancholy, about saying good-bye to them.

We catch up with Captain Sulu (George Takei) as he and the crew of the Excelsior are nearly decimated by a... hang on... Captain Sulu? Excelsior? Oh my, when the hell did Sulu become a captain?! Good for him. Anyway, the Excelsior is nearly destroyed by the shockwave from the surprise explosion of the Klingon moon Praxis.  This throws the balance of life off considerably for the Klingons, leaving their ozone depleted and their energy-producing facilities on Praxis destroyed.  They offer peace with their longtime enemy, the United Federation of Planets, for the sake of their own survival.  As an escort to Earth, the Enterprise crew meets with Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) and his associates, including his daughter Azetbur (Rosanna Desoto) and Chief of Staff, Chang (Christopher Plummer).  However, something goes horribly wrong when it appears that the Enterprise has fired upon the Klingon's Bird of Prey ship in an act of  hostility.  Soon after, the Chancellor is assassinated by two men in space suits, framing Kirk (William Shatner) and McCoy (DeForest Kelly) as possible suspects.  Kirk's son was killed by Klingons in Star Trek III, giving Kirk a reasonable motive for the murder. With so much tension between the Federation and the Klingons, this might just be the spark that ignites all out war.

The Klingons have always been Star Trek's representation of Communists in the real world, drawing the most obvious parallels in the TV series.  This film takes the metaphor a step further by portraying Klingon/Federation relations with undertones of racism and cultural tolerance.  While it may be a bit on-the-nose, I like the way the Enterprise crew positively detests the Klingons based mostly on their customs (including the way they smell and how they eat).  It creates interesting character interactions between the main cast and the Klingons, with an early dinner scene being a standout Trek moment.  Kirk has his reasons to hate them (the death of his son), but overcoming his racism is a major part of his growth in the film.  The characters typically preach about how people have overcome prejudice and racism in their century, yet because the majority agrees, the Klingons are the exception.  It adds a bit of unintentional bigotry to the main characters (actually making them a bit more realistic).

The actors really shine in their last outing as these characters, which is very pleasing to say the least.  While Sulu spends most of the film off screen, his presence is felt whenever he interacts (via monitor) with the rest of the cast.  James Doohan as Scotty, Walter Koenig as Chekov, and Nichelle Nichols as Uhura get their typical supporting roles, but always add a certain something that gives their parts a larger-than-life feel.  This cast is, without a doubt, a family, and by this point it can't help but show. The new helmsman, Valeris (Kim Cattrall), is a welcome newcomer and acts as a Vulcan protégé for Spock.   McCoy and Kirk also get some great moments when they are arrested and taken to the Klingon prison planet as they plan their escape and reflect on everything they've been though together (it also brings about some of the film's funniest scenes).

Leonard Nimoy might just be at his best in The Undiscovered Country.  Allowing himself to accept emotion into his life (to a certain extent), his character is totally rounded out and his arc is complete.  No longer cold and calculating, but warm and rational, Spock seems to be the only character to have no initial prejudice against the Klingons.  He even volunteers the Enterprise crew to escort the Chancellor to Earth.  Spock appears to have a life where he can mix logic and human emotion to achieve true balance; it's just such a great note to leave his character on.  There's even an important theme about racism buried within his relationship with Valeris (one that I also thought was well-explored in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).  There's another kind of racism; believing that because someone belongs to your race or species that they are your ally.  Without spoiling, Spock's  interactions with Valeris later in the film are effectively heart-wrenching.

Nicholas Meyer, who directed The Wrath of Khan and co-wrote The Voyage Home, returns to direct The Undiscovered Country, and wow did I miss him.   Though input was obviously provided by the cast, the studio, Gene Rodenberry and co-writer Denny Martin Flinn, there's something about Meyer's touch in both Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country that just hits the right notes.  There's a style to the mood and direction that is unmistakably unique to both films, and as a result, they are the most dramatically satisfying in the saga while still keeping in with the spirit of the original show.  It's a great looking film too; it's darker than the average Trek movie, and the Enterprise feels more lived-in.  The Klingon prison planet feature some gorgeous cinematography as well, with sweeping shots of the snowy mountains and claustrophobic tightness down in the mines.

It is immediately apparent  that ILM returned to do the visual effects, and it's even more apparent that it's ILM in 1991, because there is some honest to goodness early CGI in this thing!  To give the illusion of zero gravity blood spurting out of wounded Klingons during the assassination, ILM created digital lava-lamp-looking blood and animated it into the scene; an effect that was almost certainly not going to come from any other visual effects studio at the time.  It might be obvious now that it's computer animated blood, but I'm sure in 1991 the effect was positively mesmerizing.  In addition, the space shots, morphing effects, beaming, lasers... everything looks the best it ever had up to this point.  Do I really need to say that it's a major step up from The Final Frontier?  I can't even imagine how the show's original VFX people (people who might as well have had crayons to create laser effects) must have reacted when they saw how far the franchise had come.

Cliff Eidelman provides a dark and exciting score that emits a sense of danger and adventure, and perfectly suits The Undiscovered Country's tone.  The score also contains leitmotifs of the original Star Trek theme song; a pretty smart inclusion, considering this is the soundtrack to what would be the original crew's final mission.  Mind you, I don't think it really compares with Jerry Goldsmith or Jame's Horner's scores, both of which had such memorable themes and ear-meltingly gorgeous instrumentals.  But it definitely works for the movie at hand, and it really is beautiful to listen to even on its own.

What the undiscovered country is, according to the film, is the future.  A bright and peaceful future was important to not only the Klingons and Federation in the film, but to the post-Cold War world as well.  With a taut screenplay that tells a good who-done-it mystery, great character interactions and total commitment from the cast, solid production values and some very poignant Shakespeare references, The Undiscovered Country closes out the original Star Trek series very well and honors its legacy.  Are the characters a bit too racist for the sake of the story?  I don't think so.  The crew has their legitimate reasons for hating the Klingons, and it helps exploit a certain human flaw in all of them despite claiming to live in a world without racism.  The message of the film is about overcoming prejudice, and it's tastefully executed.  I sort of got chills when the camera backed away from the crew to show all of them (except Sulu) sitting at their designated posts, looking out into space one last time.  And the handwritten cast signatures during the main credits? Genius. It's a satisfying conclusion to a wonderful film and television series.


Now on to... the next generation!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Thoughts on the "Gotham" Series Premier

I honestly don't watch a lot of television, especially new television.  With the advent of Netflix, and with my general disinterest in most television show premises, I just don't tune in the way I used to (and I'm certainly not alone in the new web-centric world).  But something about Gotham sparked my interest, not only because I'm a huge Batman fan, but because I happened to be free tonight at 8 o'clock.  I find most Fox shows like The Following to be over-edited, cliche-ridden and to feature overbearing music.  So what did I think of Gotham, you ask? The "what-if?" prequel tale of Bruce Wayne before he was Batman, of James Gordon before he was Commissioner and Catwoman...while she's... already... Catwoman?

I thought it was alright.  There are good and bad things here, with the overwhelming majority of it being just... meh.  On to the good first; Gotham city itself is very well-realized and captures a comic book setting very well.  The styles of the city-dwellers, the cars, the buildings, the lights... it's all very reminiscent of the Gotham from Batman Begins, and that's a definite good sign.  From a visual effects and art design standpoint, it's just glorious.  I also thought Robin Lord Taylor gave the best performance of the episode, playing Oswald Cobblepot a.k.a. The Penguin.  I also liked Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney, a character that I believe is original to the show.  

The bad? I thought this episode was rushed as hell.  Slow down for your own sake, show. Too many character introductions, too many scenes that start and end within the same minute, and too much dialogue saturated with exposition and lacking in character or natural emotion.  The actor playing Gordon, Ben McKenzie, is a bit stiff and overly serious (although that seems to be how he's written).  It would have been nice to see a father/son relationship seed being planted between Bruce and Gordon to potentially grow in future episodes, but the show is more interested in the revenge element.  This stifles the character development because now it's all about the plot.  Also, Gordon's girlfriend Barbara, (I AM SO CONFUSED) played by Erin Richards, gets some pretty bad dialogue and her performance is just as wooden as McKenzie's; scenes that are supposed be showing us their loving relationship are painfully dull. 

Time for the meh.  Batman's origin story has been done to death, and Gothom didn't really add much.  I'll cite Batman Begins again because the scene in which Bruce's parents are killed is portrayed very similarly to how it plays out in Begins.  However, the emotion just doesn't resonate as strongly, and Bruce's over-dramatic scream he did at the end did not help.  It's like the "Uncle Ben dies" scene from the two Spider-Man origin movies; the original film resonates strongly, so to see it done again just takes away some of the impact.  Not to mention the show as a whole is a lot gorier than the Nolan films; I feel that excessive use of gore is often used as a crutch to make a show or movie to seem more dark and edgy, but here it was just distracting.  When blood is overused, it stops resonating, and I think Gotham falls into that trap at points.  And as a side note, the music was completely negligible.  You hear the Batman music composed by Danny Elfman (or even Hans Zimmer) and you just think, "Wow! That's Batman!"  Unfortunately, that element is sorely missing and is desperately needed. 

Neither committing to full-out comic book tone like the animated series or the Burton films, nor giving us a satisfyingly gritty take like Batman Begins, Gotham falls a bit flat.  There are plenty of easter eggs for longtime fans, and that was appreciated (if a bit shoehorned in at times).  The editing during fight scenes uses a bit of shaky cam and super-fast cutting, which I hate with a fiery passion.  While I certainly didn't think the main cast was anything to write home about, there are a number of supporting characters that really shine, and I hope they get their chance to play fully-fledged villains if the show takes off.  But will I be watching?  It's hard to say.  Maybe if I get that incredibly rare Monday night off again, I'll flip to Fox and see if things have improved.  I thought the first few episodes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer were terrible, and now it's one of my favorite shows.  So let's see if any of Gotham's potential can be fulfilled. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Star Trekking: The Final Frontier

I had heard such awful things about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  William Shatner was promised the director's chair after he reprised his role in Star Trek IV, but he didn't just direct; he had a big hand in writing the thing (apparently due to a writer's strike).  As I placed the dreaded blu-ray disk into my player, waited anxiously for the menu to appear, and apprehensively pushed the play button, I was starting to sweat a bit.  Is this the end? Am I about to watch Star Trek as I know it go down in flames through a series of horrible slapstick bits, campfire sing-alongs, and god-awful visual effects?  Kill me now! Just end it here!

Good thing I had low-as-dirt expectations, because it really wasn't that bad.  The story is coherent, the characters never stray too far from their established personalities, and the music by the returning Jerry Goldsmith is excellent as usual.  When I say the story is coherent, I mean it makes sense within the context of the film, not that it's especially good.  And make no mistake; this is the weakest film in the series, right below The Motion Picture.  In fact, it has all the opposite problems of The Motion Picture, whereas that film had no comedy, color, or fun, The Final Frontier tries too hard to be funny and colorful.  However, it often mistakes corniness for charm, which is oh-so grating.

We catch up with the crew of the Enterprise, having been fully reinstated to their old positions after their world-saving actions in The Voyage Home (Kirk is demoted from Admiral to Captain, Spock is first officer, etc).  Kirk (Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and McCoy (DeForest Kelly) are on shore leave, camping at Yosemite National Park (and doing some stupidly dangerous rock-climbing as well).  They are called back because (get your surprised face ready) there's a hostage crisis and the Enterprise is the only ship close enough to respond to the emergency on the planet Nimbus III.  When the crew assembles, including Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei), Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Scotty (James Doohan), they arrive at Nimbus III to find that the hostage situation was a hoax, and the crew is now at the mercy of a man named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill).  He is an infamous Vulcan who believed that the ways of their ancestors, savage and emotion-driven, was the key to self knowledge, and he's gained a strong cult following.  He's on a quest to find the physical manifestation God (I think), and he believes that on a planet known as Sha Ka Ree he will find the answers he is looking for.  But, wait! There's more! Sybok is also revealed to be... SPOCK'S HALF BROTHER (insert soap opera organ here).

Actually, one of my favorite parts about The Final Frontier is Sybok.  He's so positively un-Vulcan in his mannerisms that it only makes sense why Spock would be ashamed of him, and consequently, would never have mentioned him to his best friends.  Sybok mind-melds with people and psychologically lifts their mental pain, including emotional scars from past trauma.  There's a really great scene where Sybok melds with McCoy to reveal something that he's always regretted; he pulled the plug on his dying father, and shortly after, the cure to the disease his father had was found.  It was a really powerful scene that shows us a side of McCoy we rarely see, him some unexpected character development (it makes no sense how the other people in the room can see the memory...but I digress).  I see Sybok as a stand-in for cult leaders that get people to commit group suicide; he's very charming and offers people hope, but where he's ultimately leading people is deeply twisted.  Shatner wanted to represent the fraud of televangelists, and I think he did a good job.

Something else I really liked was the running theme about how people's pain and experiences make them who they are.  It's something that Kirk says multiple times, and it definitely feels like a topic that could have gotten its own episode during the show's initial run.  What gives the theme added resonance is Kirk's newest pain, the loss of his son.  While Shatner definitely writes Kirk to be the main character of the film, he does give the others things to do; this is definitely in keeping with the Enterprise crew's group dynamic seen in the last few movies.  Unfortunately, that spells comedic disaster for some of the crew members.

Uhura gets the worst of it for sure.  In order to distract the guards on Nimbus III, Kirk devises a genius plan to distract the guards BY MAKING UHURA GET NAKED AND SING WHILE HOLDING LEAVES ON HER PRIVATE PARTS.  I wasn't offended, exactly, but I did think to myself, "What the hell am I even watching?"  It was awkward and stupid and unnecessary.  Other random things like Scotty cartoonishly banging his head into a wall, the men singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat while camping, and the slapstick antics while the new Enterprise if falling apart are flat-out painful. I'd love to see the Enterprise gang going camping, just not hosting a sing-along for kindergarteners.  The Voyage Home set the standard for comedy in a Star Trek film, but The Final Frontier fails to live up to it in every regard.  The story is needlessly padded as well, featuring Klingon hostiles that never take the film to any interesting place, making their presence feel extremely superfluous.  However, these issues only sinks the film so far.

What really undoes any credibility the film might have had are its really terrible special effects and its moments of horrible editing.  Due to the fact that ILM was too busy (and cost too much), The Final Frontier's visual effects were handled by smaller, lesser known houses.  Don't think I'm knocking new talent; these effects companies were old fashioned, in a bad way.  Embarrassing rear-projection, reused shots from the previous films, Klingons that look like Klingon cosplayers, one too many shots of an obvious stunt double for Shatner during the mountain climbing scene, the horrible, wobbly compositing effect on the image of "God" at the end... all these little aesthetic elements and cheap production values rob the movie of believability and are laughable by the standards set by the other films.  And don't get me started on the editing during the scene where Kirk, Spock, and McCoy go rocketing up an elevator shaft, passing the same floors several times.  Just. Awful.

Expectations make up big part of how one will enjoy a film.  In my experience, to really judge something objectively, it's best to have no expectations; watch the film as it is, not as a comparison of what you thought it would be.  However, Star Trek V is a movie that you MUST watch with low expectations, or else you just can't enjoy it.  I got a lot of enjoyment out of it, even though it's impossible to deny that it's a pretty bad movie.  Definitely the worst in the series thus far into my Star Trekking, but not quite the dog shit I was prepared for.  All I can say is that I'm glad I got it over with and I'm pretty excited to move on to Star Trek VI (mostly because, for once, I have absolutely no idea what it's about).


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Godzilla (1998)

To go on some kind of tangent about how BAD Roland Emerich's 1998 Godzilla movie is would be a pointless exercise.   I can't add much to what countless other internet reviewers (and actual critics) have said about it in the past; it's quite honestly a mess from start to finish, the writing is hackneyed, and everything about Matthew Broderick's acting is just a   I've seen it in a theater twice now; once during its initial run when I was about seven years old, and once a few weeks ago when Rifftrax Live! did a theatrical riff on it as part of a Fathom Events special screening.  So instead of picking apart what doesn't work about it, I'll judge it based on how well it holds up as a monster movie, which when you consider the genre, is chock-full of movies that are terrible in quality but are still entertaining in their own way.  It still fails miserably.

The aesthetics of the movie don't feel like a classic Godzilla or Daikaiju film at all; they feel like Independence Day.  When I say the aesthetics, I'm talking about the camerawork, the dialogue, the acting, the special effects, and especially the tone (mixing serious and funny and failing to be either more than sporadically).  One reason that the Godzilla films are fun is because they have a hand-made quality; you know you're watching a man in a monster suit fighting some puppet on twenty strings... but it's charming, in a way.  Charm is the last thing the 1998 film has, and I actually find that same charm to be lacking in Independance Day as well.  I find most all of Emerich's films to be devoid of heart and inspiration; every emotion is hollow and the jokes feel forced.

Often times, the actors in Emerich's movies have the ability to overcome the bad writing and give a good performance, like Jeff Goldblum in ID.  But wow, oh wow, does the opposite happen with Matthew Broderick.  I get what he was going for: nerdy and awkward.  But instead of making the character the likable geek, Broderick plays Nick as if he has autism, which makes laughing at his behavior impossible.  There's a certain over the top acting style that the Japanese actors in Kaiju movies have which helps add to the fun of the movie.  They point and scream and talk very seriously about how this deadly monster that shoots death rainbows out of it's back is going to destroy them all.  The character drama is kept to a minimum, even in the original Godzilla, the most serious-minded movie in the canon.  Here, it's not clear whether or not we're supposed to take these people's character drama seriously.  We need that classic disaster movie "scientist that no one will believe," and what we get is Matthew Broderick just looking absolutely lost.

Some say we look alike...
Hm. I don't see it.
Not only does Emerich's Godzilla want to be Independence Day, it's content to rip off Jurassic Park shamelessly.  No where is this more apparent than in the scene where all of Godzilla's eggs hatch baby Godzillas that look just like velociraptors.  They are such a blatant rip-off of the concept that it's actually a little insulting.  There's a dearth of creativity all over the thing, and the baby Godzilla scenes really go to show that the writers just did not care or weren't given enough time to think of something better.  And yeah...that CGI hasn't aged well at all (on both the babies and the titular Godzilla).

It would have been nice to see a fun little homage to the Japanese icon via either a campy monster movie or an update to the original, dead-serious Godzilla films.   What we get is a film with no heart, integrity, creativity or passion; it exists ONLY to produce a trailer that will get butts in seats for opening weekend, and one of those butts was mine.  I didn't like the film when I was seven, not realizing I was in the majority.  And if you can't get a seven year old to like your monster flick, you've got a serious problem.


Monday, September 8, 2014

My Cousin Vinny

I haven't seen many of the "Great Courtroom Dramas" of all time, but I've seen enough to know that they can be really interesting, moving, and even significant in the way they represent society as enacted by a jury.  My Cousin Vinny does all of these things while still being a comedy, and that's no easy feat.  It's a comedy with endearing characters, hilarious dialogue, great performances, and a story that gets more interesting the further along the film goes.  It's also one that I'd never seen until about a week ago, and Lord forgive me, for I have sinned.

We are first introduced to the accused; two young guys named Billy (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) who are accused of murder after a misunderstanding at an Alabama convenience store.  They're gonna need a lawyer; a cheap one.  Luckily Billy has a lawyer cousin they can get to represent them: the titular Vinny (Joe Pesci).  Vinny and his girlfriend Mona Lisa (Marisa Tomei) stick out like sore thumbs in the rural town of Beechum County, with their thick Brooklyn accents and harsh sense of style.  At first, things appear grim for Billy and Stan as Vinny continually botches up each hearing and the case now must go to trail. Vinny hasn't had any trial experience in the six years since he graduated college, but his natural tendencies to argue intelligently until he gets what he wants might be enough to save Billy and Stan from the death penalty.

The premise for the film is good enough, but to see where writer Dale Launer takes the story becomes so involving, and the comedy is so sharp and on-point, that you're positively on the edge of your seat by the end.  The film even makes legal procedure seem interesting, with Vinny's constant inability to be polite to the judge and respect the dress code getting plenty of milage because of Pesci's performance.  You get the sense that Vinny is never bewildered by the law process, just annoyed by it; he may not understand all the rules, but he's gonna figure this thing out one way or another.

Marisa Tomei famously won an Oscar for her performance, and while she owes a lot of her character's brilliance to the writing (like most Best Actor Oscar winners), she really does a great job of flawlessly embodying the smart girl who just sounds stupid.  Tomei and Pesci have really great chemistry that makes their arguments a joy to listen to, seeing as how they never get into "real" fights, just hilarious bickering that subtly develops them as characters.  When you see Mona Lisa handle herself in an argument about a leaky faucet, she makes up an entire scenario with intricate details in order to get a one-up on Vinny when he asks her if she's sure she turned it off.  While she does this as a joke, it helps establish that she's an even better arguer than Vinny, so her involvement later on in court comes as no surprise.  Also, I have to mention former Munster star Fred Gwynne as the judge, who might be the one holding the gavel, but is always one step behind the other characters.  He never goes full-on villain, which definitely works in the movie's favor, but he's always there as an adversary to keep tensions high.

Something else I love about the movie is how it exposes the falsities of eyewitness accounts.  People misinterpret information, claim they see things when they couldn't have, and don't often think about variables when they "know what they saw."  But Vinny interviews each of them and finds the holes in their reports, and as each one is revealed you get a sense of victory.  You just wanna pull a Macaulay Culkin and yell "YES!" every time, and not because Joe Pesci is lighting his head on fire.

My Cousin Vinny has remained pretty endearing in the years since its 1992 release, and it's easy to see why.  It has a charm to it that's impossible to fake; the characters are all lovable and well developed, and the court case gets more interesting the further into the movie you go.  There's no room for sentiment though; this is a hard-R comedy, probably exclusively because of its f-bomb count, but that only adds some believability to the two Brooklynites.  Having someone from Brooklyn not swearing in every other sentence would be like watching a Mel Brooks movie with no penis jokes; it just wouldn't seem right.  The cherry on top is the chemistry betwen Pesci and Tomei, giving the movie its heart and grounding its humor simultaneously.  I'm not sure I've seen another courtroom comedy quite as satisfying as this, but when the bar is set this high, I guess that's understandable.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Lego Movie

When I saw ads for The Lego Movie, I really wasn't too impressed.  It seemed like a pop culture-laden commercial for Legos with a generic story, and in some ways, it is.  The only difference between the film itself and the way I envisioned it is that it's really funny, full of social commentary, and contains a twist that not only makes the movie better; it actually requires you to watch the movie a second time with the twist in mind.  It's sort of like The Sixth Sense of animated kids' movies.

The story follows Emmet, a Lego man living in a world where everything is made of Lego blocks.  He's your everyday, blue collar worker, following instructions that tell him to do not just the things at his construction job, but things in his daily life.  One day, his life is turned upside when he finds out he is "The Special," the one who is destined to save the Lego world from the evil Lord Business and his powerful new weapon known as the Kragle.  He is guided, and often ridiculed, by his new friends Wyldstyle (a badass spy-type girl who wishes she were "The Special") and Vitivirus (a wizard who is an amalgamation of every fantasy wizard with a long white beard ever put to page or screen).

If the plot doesn't interest you, you may have missed the entire joke.  The Lego Movie is a surprisingly sharp parody of the standard hero's journey, and a clear reversal of just about everything that the hero's journey stands for.  Often times, the hero of an epic quest is a pretty bland, every-day sort of guy with no remarkable character traits.  That's exactly what Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) is; unremarkable and completely ordinary.  Thinking creatively is something he's never done, and that's where the social commentary part of The Lego Movie comes in.

What the film is saying is that people often won't make creative decisions; they usually do things according to the norm and like things that are popular.  The song "Everything is Awesome" beautifully embodies the modern pop song in every way, from its oppressively generic faux-dubstep beat to its subtextual theme about conformity, it's just hilarious.  And come on, admit you do some of the things Emmet does during his morning routine (buying overpriced coffee, routing for the local sports team even if you don't like sports, etc).  It's pretty much a perfectly tongue-in-cheek time capsule for what life is like in the 2010s.

Social commentary is nice, but dammit this is a comedy first and foremost.  It's a comedy made for families, but it's so witty and fast-paced and never talks down to its audience. The voice work from Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, and Liam Neeson is across the board spot-on, without any one voice seeming like it's only there for film to boast, "Hey look! We got celebrities! PRODUCTION VALUE!"  The voices combined with the animation style, a unique CGI technique that resembles stop-motion (and likely fooled a lot of people into thinking that's what it was) adds to the comedy due to the "limitations" of bringing a world made of nothing but Lego blocks to life.

No review would be complete without talking about the third act, the one that takes this good movie and makes it a great one, so for now, this review will remain incomplete.   I'd hate to ruin the interesting and unexpected route the film's story takes, and how it changes everything that happened before it for the better.  It only reinforces the themes the movie establishes, like thinking creatively in a world that is obsessed with normalcy and fitting in, and just plain having fun rather than taking things so damn seriously all the time.  It's definitely one of those rare American animated movies that seems to be made for a general audience, rather than just kids (or worse, stupid kids).  What appears to be just another extended toy commercial reveals itself to be a thoughtful, funny, memorable and awesome movie.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Rick's Personal Summer Movie Recap

While the summer typically produces Hollywood's most brain dead, effects-driven, franchise-friendly, action movies, I'm a genre guy and I love the summer movie season.  With how much money tickets cost ($13 for a standard ticket in most NYC theaters now), I like going to the movies for the spectacle, the laughs, and the 'splosions.  But I need a good story, characters, and talent to get me through it all, and I saw more than enough of that this summer.  True that there were quite a few disappointments (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla), but there were also a few surprises.  Here are five of the best movies I saw this summer; movies that I really liked or even loved, and will likely be getting a spot on my blu-ray shelf sometime soon.  KEEP IN MIND I missed out on 22 Jump Street, A Most Wanted Man, Snowpiercer, and I have yet to see Boyhood, so don't freak out if you think I didn't like them.  I'm assuming you value my opinion, please comment below if I am mistaken.

5.) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Finally! An X-Men movie that lives up to the standards set by the first two films... twelve and fourteen years ago... but whatever.  Seeing Days of Future Past was like getting an apology from your boyfriend after he's been a schizophrenic asshole for a whole decade.  And just as you're out the front door, there he is with chocolates.  It's never too late to say you're sorry.

4.) Edge of Tomorrow

Talk about a surprise.  When I saw the ads for Edge of Tomorrow, I couldn't be more disinterested.  Generic post apocalypse setting, Tom Cruise doing lots of running around, CGI effects, and a story based on the tired cliche that is the Groundhog's Day plot.  But word of mouth was too good to ignore, and I can't tell you how happy I was to see an original, hilarious, and smart story about a man living the same shitty day over and over that goes beyond its gimmick and keeps you guessing--and interested--in what's going to happen next.

3.) Guardians of the Galaxy

I know I've already proclaimed this as being the funniest superhero movie of all time, so I'll try not to gush here.  But holy crap, I just love these characters.  Rocket and Groot are just so charming and well-realized that I just wanna take them home with me.  The human (or human-like) characters have such great comedic timing and chemistry that there's no possible way a sequel could botch it up (KNOCK ON THE HARDEST WOOD YOU CAN FIND RIGHT GODDAMN NOW).  Energetic, perfectly paced, and side-splitting at every turn, you just can't not love this movie.

2.) How to Train Your Dragon 2

I make no secret of the fact that I absolutely love animation, so I was bummed when I looked at the summer movie roster and didn't see a new Pixar movie.  But hey, who needs Pixar when you have Planes: Fire and Rescue? That'll keep those little bastards quiet for an hour and a half while we take shots in the back row every time a new toy flies onscreen.  Well anyway, I didn't know what to expect from How to Train Your Dragon 2, especially with its predecessor being one of Dreamwork's most charming and beautiful movies in their history.  But once again, word of mouth was just so damn good, so I opted for the IMAX experience and got my money's worth for shit sure.  An exhilarating, emotional, funny, and gorgeous experience to behold, Dragon 2 was good enough to give me my Pixar fix for the year.  And I haven't gotten a good Pixar fix since Toy Story 3. 

1.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Maybe I'm biased, maybe I had high expectations, and maybe it's just that damn good, but I absolutely loved Dawn.  I like Rise a whole lot, and would have been totally satisfied with a sequel that was as good or close to it.  But Dawn is not just the best Apes film to come out since the original 60s adaptation; it's in my top sci-fi films of all time due to its ape characters, visual effects, complex themes about racism, and ANDY FREAKIN' SERKIS, and yeah... that was some really impressive camera work, too.  Until something better comes along, this is my favorite movie of 2014.

Bonus Round:

My pick for the most disappointing movie this summer: Godzilla.  A really effective trailer mislead us into thinking that this was going to be an epic disaster/horror movie, finally doing 21st century justice to one of the most iconic monsters in all world history.  What we get is a character drama without the characters, and actors who are clearly doing too much work to compensate for the fact that they have nothing interesting to work with.  Loved those kaiju fight scenes, just didn't love everything else.