Friday, May 27, 2016

The Angry Birds Movie Review

About five or six years ago I read an article that said an Angry Birds movie was in development. Anyone I mentioned this to refused to believe it because the market was already flooded with merchandise based on the popular casual gaming app and no one wanted to see more of it. Additionally, because making a story based on launching spherically shaped birds at building blocks with a sling shot doesn't sound like it has much story potential. Well, The Angry Birds Movie (2016) did finally hit theaters and it was every bit as weak, ridiculous, and unwanted as everyone assumed it would be.
Flightless birds lead a mostly happy existence, except for Red (Jason Sudeikis), who just can't get past the daily annoyances of life. His temperament leads him to anger management class, where he meets fellow misfits Chuck (Josh Gad) and Bomb (Danny McBride). Red becomes even more agitated when his feathered brethren welcome green pigs lead by Leonard (Bill Hader) to their island paradise. As the swine begin to get under his skin, Red joins forces with Chuck and Bomb to investigate the real reason behind their mysterious arrival. When it is discovered that the pigs steal all the eggs from Bird Island, it's time for the birds to get angry, fight back, and save their children. But the only weapon they've got is a gigantic slingshot the pigs gave them as a gift of good will.
The Angry Birds Movie is, of course, based on the app of the same name. Since it was released in 2009, the Angry Birds game has been downloaded more than 3 billion times across all versions and platforms of mobile devices. Angry Birds has become a big merchandise brand name, creating not only several variations of the popular app game, but also plush toys, board games, t-shirts, candies, a line of Hot Wheels cars, LEGO and K'nex sets, sports equipment, pet toys, and more. With so many products already available, it was only a matter of time before a movie was produced. The Angry Birds Movie did feel a lot like both a celebration of the game and a 97 minute commercial for the game and existing merchandise. Of course, there had to be even more merchandise produced specific to the movie itself. The Angry Birds Movie really was a cash grab, and it wasn't even a vaguely amusing cash grab like the Minions movie.
On the one hand, The Angry Birds Movie doesn't take itself too seriously. That's a very good thing, given the ridiculousness of its premise. But at the same time it doesn't take the ridiculous premise seriously enough to take advantage of the potential humor. Jokes often fall flat as they simply draw attention to how weird a situation is. For example, when the anger management instructor is launched via the slingshot, she literally drops fireballs out of her butt onto the pig city below. That happens to be what this character does in the game, but it's given no explanation in the movie. They could have made a joke about spicy burritos, have her be embarrassed when her lady-like demeanor is compromised, or just about anything, but instead they had Red quip "Well, how about that? She can shoot fireballs out of her butt." That was the joke. Many jokes are as bland and fall flat like this. There are a number of bird and pig related puns, most of which I thought felt forced and were disappointing as a connoisseur of delightfully terrible puns. There are a few amusing nods to the game, such as in the opening scene, when Red asks two birds what they rate the birthday cake he delivers, he asks how many stars out of three. This is a reference to the game; the highest score you can get is three stars.
The humor was disappointing, and the writing in general was pretty weak, too. Rescuing eggs of course makes sense, but none of the character's motives beyond that makes much sense. They just do what they do without much of a rhyme or reason behind it. The aforementioned incident of Red delivering a cake had Red arrive late. We're not given a reason for him to be late, and the recipients of the cake accuse him being lazy, tired, or of sleeping in. Nothing suggests that these might have been the case, and Red is established as being a responsible, if grumpy, individual. The reasons for events happening and the motives for why characters act the way they do are left unexplored and unexplained, making the story and characters very weak and flimsy. I realize this is a children's movie, but there are much better children's movies you could take your children to see. The Peanuts Movie, for example, was outstanding. The Angry Birds Movie, is so poor in quality that I can't imagine anyone who is not ten years old or younger enjoying it much. There are a series of 2-D animated shorts based off of the Angry Birds game which have far superior writing than this full length movie.
The Angry Birds Movie is to date the best film adapted from an app. This is a pretty poor endorsement, as I cannot think of a second example of such a phenomena. The story is predictably weak, the humor frequently falls flat, the characters are shallow and have nebulous motivation, and the movie drags on for longer than needed. The Animation is decent enough and the all star cast was great, apart from the lousy script they had to work with. I realize I'm not the target audience here, but Author C. S. Lewis once said, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” I believe the same can be said about children's movies; a lot of Disney films are enjoyed enthusiastically by adults. The Angry Birds Movie is mostly an annoying commercial for products you likely already own. This is not worth seeing in theaters, wait for it on home video if you must. If you really want an Angry Birds experience, you're better off spending movie ticket money on the entire collection of Angry Birds ads-free game apps and spending the evening playing those on your Smartphone.

Is there another casual gaming app that might make a good movie? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

It's no secret that Superhero mash-ups are a big thing. Ever since six of Marvel's greatest had to band together to fight villains from another world in The Avengers, audiences have been craving more alliances between Superheroes. This year, it seems, Superheroes aren't getting along so well. We've had Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice which pitted two of DC's best known heroes against one another. Now Marvel's heroes, The Avengers, are being split down the middle and are fighting amongst each other in Captain America: Civil War (2016). The result is a highly enjoyable and, holding true to Captain America form, makes some interesting political commentary.
With many people fearing the actions of super heroes, the government decides to push for the Hero Registration Act, a law that limits a hero's actions. This results in a division in The Avengers. Iron Man stands with this Act, claiming that their actions must be kept in check otherwise cities will continue to be destroyed, but Captain America feels that saving the world is daring enough and that they cannot rely on the government to protect the world. This escalates into an all-out war between Team Iron Man; Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland); and Team Captain America: Captain America (Chris Evans), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) while a new villain emerges (Daniel Brühl).
While overall I liked The Avengers: Age of Ultron, it could have been better. Civil War was much more along the lines of what I had hoped for. Tons of Superhero action, incredible fight scenes, intermingling between super powered characters, clashes of personalities, interesting themes, etc. Civil War is first and foremost a sequel to Captian America: The Winter Soldier. It's a continuation of the story of Captain America and his old friend who was brainwashed and controlled by Hydra. The second story is the governments of the world putting a system of accountability on the Superheroes and the resulting conflict between our heroes. This second story is a natural side effect of the Captain America/Bucky Barnes story, so they are intertwined in very logical ways.
The hard part is to know who to cheer for. In The Avengers there was a really great, but short, fight scene early on between Thor and Iron-Man. It was amazing because these were both characters I loved and the fight was incredible, and I simply did not know who to root for. It wasn't until Captain America intervenes to breaks up the fight, which itself was amazing, that the two lowered their arms. The fight was creative, took advantage of and displayed each hero's respective powers and abilities, and was edge-of-your-seat exciting. You wanted to see them really lay into each other, but you didn't want either one to lose because you already like these characters. Civil War is pretty much a whole movie with fight scenes like that one. But it's so well written that you still don't know which team to side with. The conflict that arises from the Hero Registration Act makes a lot of sense. Neither side is wholly wrong, and if you, yourself, aren't flip-flopping between which team you'd be aligned with, you're just being unreasonably stubborn. Civil War is that well written. The major fight between sides is absolutely amazing, and again you don't want anyone to really get hurt, but you just can't help but get caught up in the action and see the very different personalities and superpowers clash in the most epic ways. Most of the heroes are in it for a short while, but they are just so fantastic. I love how Ant-Man keeps forgetting less super powered hero's names; he refers to Hawkeye as "arrow guy."
Holding true to Captain America tradition, Civil War makes some social and political commentary. It explores topics of the morality and justification of revenge, how much control the government should have over its citizens, the idea that law is not an indicator of morality and how many horrible things have been done to people that were perfectly legal, and the traumatic effects that war has on innocent bystanders and those who get caught in the crossfire. There were lots of people who died in the epic fight scenes we love so much in previous Marvel movies, and the natural consequences of those fight scenes are coming to fruition here. Normal people are becoming fearful of superheroes and what they are able to do, so a Hero Registration Act makes sense. But at the same time, Civil War explores the idea that while war is absolutely a terrible reality, it is sometimes necessary. Having people who are able to stop the evil actions of others is good. They save as many people as possible but often are not able to save everyone, which is truly regrettable. But are the rescuers at fault for not saving everyone? Would it have been better to let the enemy have its way and save no one at all? The human cost of "Collateral Damage" is explored respectfully here. It's a complicated set of topics that can be touchy issues. Civil War explores these topics without getting preachy or telling you what you should think, and does it with a safe Superhero metaphor over the top so as not to potentially offend. The themes explored in this movie are fascinating and make for a rich story.
Two new heroes are introduced in Civil War, we were teased with these new characters in the trailer. The first of which was Black Panther. Wow, this character was fantastic. He was complicated, compelling, interesting, and a fun addition to the movie. I truly have limited knowledge of this character from the Marvel comics, but I couldn't help but love him. He's scheduled to have his own movie early in 2018 and I am psyched about it now that I've seen Black Panther in action. The other is my all time personal favorite superhero, Spider-Man. This is the third actor to play Spider-Man and he's quite possibly my favorite. That's saying something because Tobey Maguire was pretty great and Andrew Garfield did a solid job as well. We don't get an origin story for Spider-Man this time, which is good. It would have taken too much time and we've already had the origin of Spider-Man, possibly one of the best known original stories in the Marvel universe depicted on the big screen twice in a relatively short amount of time between two Spider-Man film series. This Spider-Man is still in high school, is reluctant to join the fray because he's got a big math test to study for, he's a hilariously talkative and cracks jokes during fights (a signature component of the character), he's not yet confident in himself and is still mastering his newfound abilities, acts like a fanboy in front of all the established heroes, and comes up with ideas for taking down opponents from "old movies" like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Sony owned the movie rights to Spider-Man and since the character was an important component to Marvel's Civil War storyline, Disney had to negotiate rights to the character back from Sony so Spidey could be in the Civil War movie. I don't know that we'll have another Spider-Man movie from Sony (probably not), but Disney has one starring Tom Holland as the infamous web-slinger due out in summer of 2017, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of this Spider-Man in action as well. We came to Civil War to watch Captain America and Iron-Man throw down, but frankly Black Panther and Spider-Man pretty much stole the show in every scene they were in.
So, we've got this new villain that gets much of the two storylines rolling. Helmut Zemo plays such a small role in everything that I often forgot he was there orchestrating events so far behind the scenes that he was often overlooked. He's not powerful, he has no superhuman abilities, he's working alone, he was dangerous only because of knowledge and convictions he held. He wasn't even much of a villain, but more of a weasel who would sneak around and push buttons in just the right way to get a small reaction that would escalate exponentially into big conflicts while almost entirely avoiding attention. I'm not even familiar enough with Marvel comics to know if this was ever a major villain; I've never heard of him before. He's a pretty good weasel, and his subtlety is a refreshing change of pace from the over-the-top flashy villains we've had in the past.
Captain America: Civil War begins the next wave of Marvel movies with an action-packed blockbuster boasting a decidedly non-cartoonish plot and the courage to explore some thought-provoking themes. It's thematically heavy, and indeed doesn't end on as positive a note as we usually get from Superhero movies. The writing is excellent, the large cast of heroes all get their due screen time and moments to shine, and their clashing personalities are positively delightful. The action is creative and riveting to say the least. Civil War is fun, smart, and coherent. Most importantly, it allows its heart to beat strongly amid the chaos, with character moments and set pieces working together to create one of Marvel's best films so far. I loved Captain America: Civil War. It is worth the ticket price to see in theaters, and worth getting a copy of when it's available on home video. Just make sure you're all caught up on previous Marvel movies before you see it; like The Avengers movies, it's important to know where each character is before they all come together again.

So, which side were you on while seeing this movie, Team Captain America or Team Iron Man? Comment below and tell me why, but please be careful to avoid spoilers.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War Review

Snow White and the Huntsman was released back in 2012 and was surprisingly decent for what it was, despite having Kristen Stewart as one of the leads. Charlize Theron as Ravenna, the evil queen, stole the show and made it exciting and interesting; I wanted to see more of this amazing actress in this interesting role. Well, a movie pegged as a prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman was released and I was psyched to see more of Charlize Theron as Ravenna. Unfortunately, The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016) is a major flop and seems to go out of its way to avoid showing us what made the previous movie decent.
Betrayed by her evil sister Ravenna (Charlize Theron), heartbroken Freya (Emily Blunt) retreats to a northern kingdom to raise an army of huntsmen as her protectors. Gifted with the ability to freeze her enemies in ice, Freya teaches her young soldiers to never fall in love. When Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and fellow warrior Sara (Jessica Chastain) defy this rule, the angry queen orders them to be killed. Eric escapes, believing Sara to be dead. Many years later after Snow White had defeated Ravenna, The Magic Mirror Ravenna used as the source of her powers is stolen before it can be destroyed. Fearing the return of the Evil Queen, Eric is ordered to seek out the Mirror and destroy it. Accompanied by dwarves Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon), Eric sets out to find and destroy The Mirror. But Freya also seeks The Magic Mirror for its power, and she sends one of her most lethal Huntsman to retrieve it first and kill Eric along the way if necessary.
The Huntsman: Winter's War was marketed and promoted as a prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman. That's just fine, of course. However, the story is more of a prequel/sequel mash up. The first fourth of the movie is a prequel and we are introduced to Freya, Sara, and Eric, and we see Ravenna's relationship with her sister. Then we get "Seven Years Later" on the screen and from that point on, everything is supposed to have happened after Snow White and the Huntsman, effectively making it a sequel. A sequel is also fine. But doing both in one movie is both confusing from a narrative perspective and a blatant cash grab from a film making perspective. Yeah, I wanted to see Ravenna's fantastic villain in action again, but this was a convoluted way to make it happen. Yes, it's just fine to have a few years pass in a story to shorten the span of time between important related events. But it's sloppy story telling if within that elapsed time, which we gloss over, a whole other movie's worth of events occur, the likes of which have a significant impact on rest of the story. I can appreciate a movie expecting it's audience to have seen the previous movie, but there's so much that The Huntsman assumes the audience knows and doesn't bother to explain. It makes the story confusing, convoluted, and poorly presented. The dreadful quality coupled with rehashed good quality special effects and big name actors makes this seem like a cash grab; there's no heart in it. It feels like it was thrown together at the last minute just to sell tickets.
The trailers for The Huntsman were pretty exciting. We got to see some shots of Freya and Ravenna throw down against each other with flashy special effects and action. That's the kind of larger-than-life stunts I appreciated about the first movie and wanted to see more of them in this second movie. Unfortunately, nearly every scene in which that sort of action occurred was shown in the trailer. I wanted to see lots of Ravenna doing her crazy thing; using beauty as a weapon, harnessing the power of The Magic Mirror, and manipulating blood in disturbing ways. Sure, we see some of that and what we see is pretty cool, but what we see is only toward the end during the climactic fight. We see a whole lot more of Freya, but we don't really see her use her powers much either. Granted, what made Ravenna so menacing in the first movie was how powerful and manipulative she was before she even resorted to using magic. Here, she's all super powers with none of the sophisticated subtlety of the previous film. The big fight at the end is probably the best part of the movie; but, it spends too much time with uninteresting characters mucking about in the woods doing very little pertaining to their intended quest.
The Huntsman does have a pretty good cast. Chris Hemsworth has shown us some good acting in the past. Charlize Theron is reprising a role I adored, and she was incredible in Mad Max: Fury Road. Emily Blunt is great actress as well. Nick Frost plays an excellent comic relief as usual. Really, the whole cast is good, they just had a horrible script to work with. The few characters returning from the previous film aren't as interesting or well developed as they were before. I actually feel sorry for the cast involved. It seems like they were present only to fulfill contractual obligations, not because they thought this would be a good movie. The best part of The Huntsman is that while Snow White is mentioned nominally a few times, Kristen Stewart does not appear in the movie.
The Huntsman: Winter's War boasts some nice special effects and a stellar cast, but neither one is enough to make up for the sloppy storytelling, lousy script, and convoluted nature of this entirely unnecessary sequel. This movie is disappointing no matter how you look at it. The returning characters aren't as interesting or fleshed out as they previously were, new characters were weak and bland, and important points of the story are left out under the assumption you've seen the previous movie. It seems like the producers thought that Elsa in Disney's Frozen was popular and tried to shoehorn a rip off of that character into a half-baked sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman. This movie lacks the heart and epic quality of its predecessor, and even that movie wasn't all that good to start with. I cannot recommend seeing The Huntsman: Winter's War even if you did like Snow White and the Huntsman. It's a blatant cash grab which I can't imagine anyone involved in it enjoyed making.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Strange Brew Review

There are a couple of movies that are regularly brought up among friends of mine when talking about 1980's comedy movies. One is Strange Brew (1983). When I confess that I have not seen it, I'm told to "Take off, you hoser." Well, I finally got around to seeing it. It is wacky, silly, and at times surreal. Though early on, it prompted me to reflect on the subjective nature of comedy.
In their quest for free beer, bumbling Canadian brothers Bob (Rick Moranis) and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas) wind up working at the Elsinore Brewery. The hapless hosers uncover a sinister mind-control plot spearheaded by Brewmeister Smith (Max von Sydow) and must stop the scheme, which also involves Uncle Claude (Paul Dooley), a member of the Elsinore family. As Bob and Doug try to help the brewery founder's daughter Pam (Lynne Griffin) regain the brewery founded by her recently-deceased father, they also manage to drink plenty of their favorite sudsy beverage.
Bob and Doug McKenzie were popular characters on the SCTV (Second City Television), a Canadian television sketch comedy show offshoot from the Toronto's Second City troupe that ran between 1976 and 1984. The two dim-witted beer-swilling brothers, wearing heavy winter clothing and tuques, would comment on various elements of Canadian life and culture, frequently employing the interjection "Eh?" The sketch was conceived when SCTV moved to the CBC television network which had shorter commercial time which required the SCTV show to need a two-minute filler. The characters became remarkably popular and Strange Brew was formulated during the height of their popularity.
The challenge for Strange Brew was expanding an improvised two-minute comedy sketch about two guys talking about how hard it was to find parking spaces in donut shops into a full-length story. Strange Brew purports to be to be loosely based on Hamlet, though I saw more similarities between Hamlet and The Lion King than I did between Hamlet and Strange Brew. The movie starts out being remarkably loose and unstructured. It looks a lot like I imagine the SCTV's sketches looking like, the two McKenzie brother sitting around talking about beer and how they are in a movie. This went on longer than it should have and I was worried that I was in for 90 minutes of this sort of thing. When the story actually got underway, it was easier to watch. The story is decent for what it is; a silly adventure that serves as a vehicle to deliver some bizarre humor. That's about all the plot does and it does that well.
The humor here I felt was hit-or-miss. Sometimes it was funny, other times it took me a moment to realize the punch line had already been delivered. The two brothers still make commentary on things around them; one of my favorite moments of this is while they are driving, Bob begins to speculate and says, "Did you ever notice that, like, in movies when they're driving they don't look at the road for a long time?" Doug, who is driving turns to Bob and says, "Geez, no, I never noticed that, eh?" Doug continues to make eye contact while Bob explains, "Yeah, it's because they're being towed by a rig." The conversation is interrupted when Doug nearly front ends a truck. The humor makes constant jabs at Canadians and stereotypes about them. Reoccurring themes include hockey, beer, and donuts. The villain's henchmen all wear hockey gear and carry hockey sticks. The whole story centers around trying to get free beer from a brewing company. In one rather amusing scene, the McKenzie's get classified company information from a receptionist by offering her donuts; she cracks when presented with a jelly-filled donut.
Yes, there are plenty of funny moments, but there were a lot of gags I didn't find so funny. I found the aforementioned opening scenes pretty bland and even annoying, which is what prompted my reflection on the subjective nature of humor. Analyzing humor won't get anyone anywhere, though. Humor is very subjective and if I laugh at something and you don't, no amount of my logic is going to convince you that it was funny. Overall, I didn't think Strange Brew was nearly as funny as many of my friends had made it out to be, but it was alright for a few chuckles. Also, having lived in Canada myself, I can honestly say actual Canadians don't act the way the McKenzie brothers do.
Strange Brew is fairly lowbrow in its intent and outcome, though it effectively draws out a few laughs from its unique premise and weird characters. I thought other comedy titles from its time were funnier, such as Better Off Dead, UHF, or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Strange Brew isn't a bad way to spend an afternoon watching a movie, it's just not something I think I'd go out of my way to see again. It seems to have made a lasting impression culturally as Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas basically reprised their roles as the McKenzie brothers as the two moose in Disney's Brother Bear many years later. Strange Brew may be worth seeing once if you enjoy bizarre comedies or jokes about Canadians. Otherwise, you may be better off watching something else.

What are some other good television sketch comedies made into movies that you've enjoyed? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Jungle Book Review

So, it seems that live-action remakes of classic Disney animated features are going to be a trend now. I still say that Maleficent was not that impressive, while Cinderella exceeded my expectations. I'd heard about a live-action Beauty and the Beast remake, but a live-action version of The Jungle Book (2016) slipped under my "coming soon" movies radar. The original animated Jungle Book isn't one of Disney's greatest films, though I enjoyed it as a kid. This newer version has more story to it and is more thematically cogent.
Raised by a family of wolves since birth, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must leave the only home he's ever known when the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) unleashes his mighty roar. Guided by a no-nonsense panther (Ben Kingsley) and a free-spirited bear (Bill Murray), the young boy meets an array of jungle animals who don't have his best interests at heart, including a slithery python (Scarlett Johansson) and a smooth-talking ape (Christopher Walken).
The Jungle Book is a collection of short stories written in 1894 by Rudyard Kipling. And according to Disney tradition, their original 1967 animated musical was a significantly watered down and sugar-coated version that had little to do with the book upon which it was based. There was a 1994 live-action version of The Jungle Book which featured no talking animals. This third version of The Jungle Book strikes a balance between Disney's two previous versions by retaining the buoyant spirit of the 1967 films (as well as some of its memorable songs) while crafting a movie with more realism and peril. I think this balance worked out very well.
In the animated Jungle Book, there wasn't much theme or story surrounding it. Disney was content to have some cute characters sing some musical numbers and have a villain generate some kind of tension regardless of how vague his motives might be. Thematically, I interpreted the animated movie to be about growing up. Mowgli is being encouraged to leave the fun filled jungle and go to the man village and take on responsibilities, Mowgli resists this, trying on new animal personas, up until he discovers a human young lady and then has no trouble at all moving from childhood. In this version of The Jungle Book, it's more about nature and man's place in it. Back in Kipling's day, nature was something to be overcome and tamed, where as now nature is something to be protected. Mowgli loves and respects nature, but as a human he is prone to making and using tools. This is mankind's adaptive skill, as opposed to tooth and claw that the rest of the animal kingdom has. It is established, that while Mowgli's tools have very practical use, they are not in alignment with the natural world, and it would be in his best interest to leave the jungle to be with his own kind where such tools are more inherent. A sense of urgency is produced by Shere Kahn who distrusts man and his tools because he was burned by fire or "Man's red flower" which disfigured him. Fire itself is developed as a powerful tool that humans use. Fire was similar to The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, in that controlling it was  going to give someone ultimate power, but corrupt them as well as create destruction. Thematically, everything fit together beautifully. The story and theme were woven together in this new interpretation without detracting from the fun quality of the original animated film.
Initially, I was surprised that more of the movie was not shot in actual jungle locations, given the prominent theme of preserving the natural order of things. This was a CGI intensive movie that used a lot of green screen to create a surreal, dreamlike world. The Jungle Book made glorious use of photo-realistic rendering, computer-generated imagery, and motion capture technologies in such a way that frankly rivaled the innovations of Avatar and Life of Pi. Among the most impressive uses was the motion capture, and none was more impressive than that done for the character of King Louie. This antagonist shows up later in the movie, and is essentially the catalyst which gives Mowgli the idea of how he can defeat Shere Kahn. When we see King Louie, I thought he looked familiar. It took me a few minutes before I realized that this Gigantopithecus, looked, sounded, and acted a whole lot like Christopher Walken. The mannerisms were so spot on of the actor, even Louie's eyes looked like Walken's. The visuals and camera work are nothing short of amazing.
Admittedly, I wasn't real keen on a remake of The Jungle Book, since I didn't find the original all that great. But this version was fantastic! It's as lovely to behold as it is engrossing to watch, and is only bolstered by a stellar vocal cast. The Jungle Book actually makes significant improvements upon its predecessors while setting remarkable new standards for CGI. This wasn't a musical, though it had Baloo singing a bit of the song "Bear Necessities" and King Louie singing a shorter and slightly altered version of "I Wan'na Be Like You" to give it a different context for this version of the movie. Though not part of the actual movie, Scarlet Johansson sings Kaa's "Trust in Me" song over the end credits. This is a good movie and worth the money to see in theaters; it would be a great film to see as a family. I'd also consider getting a copy on home video when it's available.

Disney is cranking out live-action versions of their animated classics. I'm still looking forward to Beauty and the Beast, even more so after seeing this the fantastic transition made on Cinderella and now The Jungle Book. What is an animated Disney movie that you'd like to see made into a live-action film? Comment below.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

So, Warner Brothers announced their latest superhero movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and the internet exploded. Certainly, this was a match that DC comics fans have been anticipating for years. I, however, like many others, objected to it as more information was released about it. I truly could not see this movie being any good. It seemed that Warner Brothers was making a foolhardy attempt to catch up with Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe in a short amount of time by throwing a bunch of DC heroes into one movie all at once. After seeing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I still hold that opinion. However, I didn't think the movie was nearly as bad as everyone is making it out to be.
Following his titanic struggle against General Zod, Metropolis has been razed to the ground and Superman (Henry Cavill) is the most controversial figure in the world. While for many he is still an emblem of hope, a growing number of people consider him a threat to humanity, seeking justice for the chaos he has brought to Earth. As far as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is concerned, Superman is clearly a danger to society. He fears for the future of the world with such reckless power left ungoverned, and so he dons his mask and cape to right Superman's wrongs. The rivalry between them is furious, fueled by bitterness and vengeance, and nothing can dissuade them from waging this war. The tension between them is further fueled by the conniving Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who is launching his own crusade against the Man of Steel. However, a new dark threat arises in the form of a third man: one who has a power greater than either of them to endanger the world and cause total destruction!
There was just too much revealed about this movie in the trailer. It left virtually no surprises for the movie to show us. It showcased what was surely supposed to be a major reveal toward the end of the movie by having Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) show up in the trailer and have the three face off against something that looks remarkably like Doomsday. That ruined so many of the surprises that Batman v Superman had to offer. Really, if you know anything about the DC comic universe, you know that if Doomsday shows up anywhere, you can pretty accurately guess how the story is going to end. The trailer showed us too much and it weakened what the movie had to offer that was good. I want to meet the marketing team behind this movie and give each one of them a firm slap across the face.
Batman v Superman evens out to be a decent movie; it has a lot of bad in it, but it does deliver some great material as well. Let's start off with Batman. Affleck was publicly announced to play the part of Batman in this movie, and the internet exploded. So many people were enraged by this, and reasonably so, especially after that really, REALLY terrible Daredevil movie he starred in back in 2003. I understand that so many people were outraged by Affleck playing Batman that his agent advised him to stay off of Twitter for a few weeks. But, Affleck ended up being amazing! I thought it would be a good number of years before anyone would be brave enough to don the role after Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. This was a new take on Batman, one that was damaged, and had changed his moral code just enough to be new without changing what we all love about the character. This made him very hardcore and fascinating. If Warner Brothers plays their cards right, this would make for a strong center for a new solo film with Affleck as Batman.
The action and cinematography in general was fantastic. The story here may not be so good, but let no one say that director Zach Snyder doesn't know how to move a camera. The camera work was beautiful, the scenery and visual effects were stunning, and nearly everything looked pretty darn fantastic. Only once or twice did I ever get drawn out of the movie experience to go "eh, that could have been polished up a bit better" or have the cameras angels in post-editing change so fast as to leave me behind and wonder what just happened. The action scenes were intense, and looked incredible.
One of the concerns I had about The Avengers movie was that they were going to mash together a bunch of major characters, give one or two of them a bulk of the screen time, and leave everyone else as half-baked characters. This was my concern with Batman v Superman as well, more so because only Superman had one movie prior to this, Man of Steel. Any other characters being introduced for the first time could not possibly get the amount screen time to be fleshed out enough for their big screen debut. This was kind of what happened with Wonder Woman. By the end of the movie we still don't get a real sense of who she is or what she's about. However, this movie revolved mostly around Superman and Batman, so that's somewhat forgivable. She still played a significant part in the end, but she wound up as a token female superhero, which is really too bad. Given the small role she had, Wonder Woman was pretty good for what she was. I think that a more brief appearance of her would have been better. Don't misunderstand, I want to see Wonder Woman in a movie; I just think it would have been better to leave her as a hinted at cameo, as was done with other Justice League characters who make very brief appearances.
I didn't like this portrayal of Superman. Superman is supposed to be a symbol of hope, but I was never convinced of that here. There was a montage that seemed to be trying to tell me that he is a symbol of hope, but I just couldn't buy it. The tone of this story is too dark, this depiction of Superman is controversial within his own storyline, and the brightness of hope didn't seem to have a place in this movie. It was more of a Batman movie that happened to have Superman in it. The two characters are thematically opposite and the two clashing themes don't fit together well in the same movie. It could have worked in the right hands, but it just didn't work out well here. Then the whole motivation for Superman to be fighting Batman was hard to swallow; Batman's motive was very clear and understandable, Superman's motive was that the poorly developed script said it would be neat to see them fight. The two were basically one short conversation away from understanding one another, but they duked it out instead.
The story in Batman v Superman was as messy as I feared it would be. During the opening credits we get a rehash of the all too familiar origin of Batman which was really well done and featured minimal dialogue. Then we go to the first scene, which tells us a little bit of story, then it switches to another scene to start another storyline, and it keeps switching back and forth every five minutes or so, making it frustrating to keep track, and not giving us enough information before switching back. On top of this, the overall story moves very quickly and it's easy to get lost if you aren't paying very close attention. Batman had some visions or dreams of what I assume were the future and took them as hard evidence. While some were kind of cool, they didn't make any kind of sense. Perhaps it's hinting at a bigger story arc that spans multiple movies? If so, they were made to appear much more significant to current events than what they were. It's too soon for that since we're just now introducing a bunch of characters. There are so many plot holes in this movie I'd like to discuss, but I want to avoid further spoilers that the trailer didn't already spoil for you. Suffice it to say, the story needed work.
Lex Luthor was a major disappointment. Jesse Eisenberg may be a good actor, but he's not a good Lex Luthor. Luthor is supposed to be an ordinary human, albeit one with a strong, commanding presence. This Lex Luthor was an energetic squirrelly little twerp that more closely resembled the socially inept Mark Zuckerberg (that Eisenberg played in The Social Network) who had finally snapped and went crazy. He just looked too young and silly to play a decent Luthor. Doomsday truly felt shoehorned in at the last minute; I could see studio executives insisting on including him to excite fans into wanting to see the movie. The origins of Doomsday in this movie were not canonical and in fact, made no sense at all. It could have been a great story arc, but as was the case with the inclusion of Wonder Woman, there was no real story around him and he mostly shows up to excite fans and destroy some property.
There are many hints dropped thoroughout the movie to tease at and suggest the upcoming superhero alliance of The Justice League. Yeah, those were exciting to see. But they're doing it all backwards. Marvel had the wherewithal to introduce characters individually in their own movies before putting them all together. That allowed us to know who each of The Avengers were right from the start and proceed with character and plot development for the story in which they were gathered together. For the DC movies here, many characters are thrown together, few are given enough screen time for us to care about, others are mere cameos, and we as movie goers are not given context for why we should be excited about them. We should see a Wonder Woman movie, an Aquaman movie, a Flash movie, and maybe some others before throwing them all together, or else the resulting story about their union will have to spend too much time explaining who they are and what they're about and not have enough time for a fleshed out, compelling narrative. I'm curious to see if these DC movies can prove me wrong and deliver something well done and interesting, or if I'm right and the series will fall apart from weak story and characters before it can get going. Batman v Superman has it's good points, but it's not a very good start to a series of movies.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was much better than I feared it would be. Ben Affleck as Batman was positively amazing! The visual effects were stunning, the action was riveting, and the cinematography was gorgeous. The villains were a considerable disappointment. The story and pacing was a bit of a mess, even if it was a fun mess. And the movie felt bloated with all the hints at things to come in future movies, about half of which could have been left out to avoid unnecessary confusion. Overall, I think the movie was good, just not great. It could have been better, but it could have been a whole lot worse and I am grateful that it wasn't. I urge you not to veto this movie because Ben Affleck played Batman, nor because Warner Brothers isn't going about their Superhero team up movies as well as Marvel did. Give it a shot; you may like it. I think this is worth seeing on the big screen if you're a DC comics fan; it's not a bad way to spend a couple hours. If you're not such a big fan of DC, maybe wait for this on home video.

What do you expect to see from future DC/Justice League movies? Do you have high hopes? Do you think they'll deliver a decent set of movies based on Man of Steel and Batman v Superman? Avoid spoilers, but tell me what you think!

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Boxtrolls Review

It's so frustrating when there is a movie I really want to see in theaters and then miss the opportunity. I really had wanted to see The Boxtrolls (2014) in theaters, but somehow missed it. I'm a big fan of stop motion animation, and even though it seems to be a dying art in the face of high tech digital animation, once in awhile another feature film hits theaters. I'm glad there are studios and talented stop motion animators keeping the medium alive. The Boxtrolls ended up being a charming film featuring some stellar animation.
The Boxtrolls are a community of quirky, mischievous creatures who have lovingly raised an orphaned human boy, whom they named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), in the amazing cavernous home they've built beneath the streets of a city called Cheesebridge. The story is about a young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors who tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator, the town's villain, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). When Snatcher comes up with a plot to get rid of the Boxtrolls. Eggs decides to venture above ground and "into the light," where he meets and teams up with fabulously feisty Winnifred (Elle Fanning), the mayor's daughter. Together, they devise a daring plan to save The Boxtrolls family.
The animation in The Boxtrolls is fantastic! This was animated by Laika Studios, who also did Coraline, ParaNorman, and were contracted to do Corpse Bride. There is such beautiful subtlety in the characters' movements, from the subtle little facial expressions and eye movements to the insanely complex gestures and action scenes. Everything moves with marvelous fluidity and nonchalance. Even the bounciness of Winnifred's curly hair and swaying of Snatcher's greasy, ropey hair looks remarkably believable and convincing. The characters still have fascinating structure to them. Unlike most characters designed by Tim Burton, not all of the ones in The Boxtrolls are spindly; some are large and bulky, others are small and compact, and there are a few skinny, spindly ones, too. Some of the characters even change size and dimensions. Often when this happens, we're shown a projection of their shadow on a wall as they transform, but here we actually see the transformation in exquisite detail. Even these shots are done with amazing detail as the character struggles to maintain balance while we watch their weight shift significantly. I simply cannot speak highly enough of the animation here.
A complaint I had about the stop motion animation in ParaNorman was the frequent inclusion of some CGI to garnish a particular shot that simply couldn't be done with stop motion animation alone. While these shots and scenes often looked good, it kind of weakens the magic of stop motion animation when there's too much CGI. There was some CGI added here and there in The Boxtrolls, but it wasn't taking center stage. It took the form of clouds of smoke or dust to accent a shot, not take up the whole background as was done in ParaNorman. Minimal use of CGI was beneficial in the end. Most of its implementation was subtle and wouldn't have looked as good without it.
The story here is cute. We have a boy raised by a family of quirky lovable little creatures who are misunderstood, and worlds collide when the boy tries to interact with the people where he's from. Then we've got a token villain who is selfish and wants to exterminate the cute lovable creatures, and our hero has to straddle the line between both worlds to bring peace to both. The Boxtrolls doesn't really do much in the way of originality as far as story goes, it's a classic Hero's Journey story structure that's been used since ancient Greek myth. It's still a fun little story that anyone of any age could get behind, though, and the characters are remarkably charming, if a bit on the simple side.
The theme here seems to be trying to say something meaningful but it gets murky. It seems to be trying to say something about our nature, or how we were born. We're constantly told that characters behave in such a way that is simply in their nature, and they can't really change their circumstances. For example, it is in the nature of the Boxtrolls, themselves, to be passive and hide when there is danger. Eggs doesn't want them to change, but he tries to get them to run for their own safety but can't seem to get them to do it. When the Boxtrolls actually do flee on occasion, there is much applause for changing their nature. But Snatcher is motivated by climbing the social ladder and is actively trying to change his "nature" or circumstance but can't seem to do it. What's the message we're supposed to get from this? There's not even something to suggest that we have the circumstances we're given and we just have to do the best with what we can sort of manage. The murky theme is amusingly explored by Snatcher's henchmen who are frequently discussing the duality of good and evil and pondering whether they are inherently good or evil, and if they even have a choice in the matter. These same henchmen get a funny mid-credits scene where they speculate about giant omnipotent beings controlling everything they do while we actually see the stop motion animators manipulating the puppets for these characters. I'm really not clear what message I was supposed to get from The Boxtrolls, but I can overlook that since the rest of the movie was pretty good.
The Boxtrolls isn't Lakia's best film, but it's still very much enjoyable, as it is packed with enough offbeat wit and visual splendor to offer a healthy dose of all-ages entertainment. Visually, the film is a feast, stuffed with little jokes and surprises and the kind of black humor that Alfred Hitchcock heartily enjoyed, as well as having some painful, groaner puns. The animation is incredible, but the theme is obtuse and confusing. The Boxtrolls moves forward with revolutionary techniques in filmmaking, but mostly stands still as far as theme and story structure goes. It looks great, but no amount of visual trickery or animation genius can make a mediocre story any better than what it is. That said, I still liked The Boxtrolls a great deal, and I think it's worth seeing even if it is on the simple side. I just can't get over how great everything looked! The Boxtrolls is currently streaming on Netflix as of this writing and it's not a bad way to spend an hour and a half. Though there are parts that might be a bit too scary for younger viewers.