Friday, December 30, 2011

Kung Fu Panda Movie Review

Dreamworks has done several animated movies that  were mediocre attempts to capitalize on the success of Pixar’s masterpieces. Dreamworks tried to undermine Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998) with Antz (1998). They did it again when they released Shark Tale (2004) after the success of Finding Nemo (2003). When Dreamworks does their own movies, instead of copying Pixar, they really let themselves shine. I’m leery of anything with Jack Black in it, so I watched Kung Fu Panda (2008) with some hesitation.
Po (Jack Black) is an overweight, lazy, irreverent panda who is a dedicated fan of Kung Fu, but his skills are limited to making noodle soup at his father’s restaurant. Po adores the Furious Five - Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) – a team of Kung Fu masters trained by the red panda named Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to protect their peaceful valley. One day, Shifu's mentor, the old tortoise Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), has a vision that Shifu's former student and adoptive son, the evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), will escape from prison and return to take revenge for being denied the Dragon Scroll, which is said to hold the secret to limitless power. Oogway holds a tournament to discover who is worthy of the Dragon Scroll and become the Dragon Warrior who can defeat Tai Lung. Through a blundering mishap, Po is selected. Shifu, lacking faith in Po, attempts to scare off Po with grueling training. But Po’s unwavering enthusiasm for Kung Fu keeps him going. True to Oogway’s vision, Tai Lung escapes and begins journeying to the temple. Po can’t seem to grasp even the most basic concepts of Kung Fu, but Shifu discovers that Po is capable of impressive physical feats when motivated by food. Using this discovery, Shifu begins training Po and incorporating these feats into a makeshift, yet effective Kung Fu style. But will it be enough to stop Tai Lung from getting the Dragon Scroll, and unlimited power?
I don’t like Jack Black on general principle; he gets cast in irritating roles in movies that do pretty badly. Year One (2009) and Gulliver's Travels (2010) are great examples of this. It’s hard to overlook these eyesores and look at his good movies, such as King Kong (2005) and Kung Fu Panda. Jack Black actually was funny in this movie. His screwball delivery really worked well with Po’s hilarious expressions. He is still playing his usual dim witted impertinent character, but Po is more interesting and complex than most of the other characters I’ve seen Jack Black play. You really do see Po develop and learn as the movie progresses. It was also good to see a hero that was a clumsy, fat character; generally the best that this archetype can hope for is a bumbling sidekick who is the brunt of most of the jokes. I’ve never seen so much belly bouncing combined with martial arts as was done with this character.
I kept becoming awestruck at the artistic scenery of the colorful ancient China. Little details here and there really helped make the art stand out; the trees, mountains, and buildings were beautifully designed. The China-inspired relics and art were comparable to actual art work of ancient China. There was a whole lot of detail in the art design, which helped make the movie endearing.
The animation was quite impressive, too. Most of the characters looked like cute, fluffy stuffed animals. This, coupled with the believable martial arts movements, created a humorous sense of irony throughout the film. Even the movements for Viper, who is a snake, were interesting; she has no arms or legs, yet her fighting movements still resembled martial arts.
I love it when I expect a movie to be substandard and I end up being wrong. Kung Fu Panda is an example of this. There’s a whole lot of slapstick in this film, but it doesn’t detract from the interesting characters and fun story that is reminiscent of old Kung Fu flicks. I’d recommend this movie to anyone, young or old. It is engaging, funny, and worth the watch.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Ghostbusters Movie Review

We’ve all seen monster movies. We’ve all seen comedies. Monster movies rely on suspense to move the story forward, leaving little room for comic relief. Comedies have the flow disrupted if there is much tension. It’s rare to see a movie that combines these two elements; I can’t think of another example of a fusion of monster mayhem and humor as accomplished as the iconic movie Ghostbusters (1984).
Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr. Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are parapsychologists at Columbia University who research paranormal activities and ghost appearances. After gathering their first useful hard data from a specter at a library, they return to Columbia University to find their funding and tenure cut off. Now jobless with useful scientific data on ghosts, they create their own paranormal exterminator service called “The Ghostbusters” using ghost catching technology invented by Egon. They catch their first ghost at the Sedgewick Hotel, and become hugely successful. Business booms and they have to hire Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) to help meet the demand. The Ghostbusters are summoned by Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) to investigate a demonic spirit that she finds in her refrigerator. Peter takes interest in Dana and begins competing with her neighbor Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) for her affection. Ray discovers that the Dana and Louis’s apartment was built by a cult leader and that the design of the building acts as a conductor to summon Gozer, a demon god of destruction, from another dimension. The Ghostbusters are summoned by the city to handle the massive ghost outbreak, and save them from impending annihilation.
Where to start on this classic?
One of the more endearing features of Ghostbusters is the combination of genres. It’s sort of a suspense/action/comedy movie. Usually high production special effects and comedy don’t blend well. Comedy requires spontaneity while special effects require meaningful planning ahead of time. High end special effects detract from spontaneity, and thus from good comedy. Ghostbusters somehow managed to pull it off, though. Most of the scenes featuring improvisation comedy sketch masters Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis were in fact, improvised. This is amazing because every line of dialogue, even the improvised ones, develops the plot and characters. Yet the spontaneity doesn’t detract from the special effects; there was a natural progression of the plot and characters to cause Gozor to take the form of the cute food mascot, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The ordinarily contrasting film elements merged beautifully to make a great movie.
The art design in the movie was fantastic as well. Remember that this movie was made long before computer special effects were available. The models and puppets for the ghost creatures were made transparent and well designed. They looked monstrous and creepy, yet weightless and ghostlike.
The wardrobe was fantastic, too.  The characters all looked really believable within their context.  The Ghostbusters team looked perfect in their field gear.  The jumpsuits and proton packs (used for catching the ghosts) were so well designed that they are now iconic symbols of the Ghostbusters film.  The Ghostbuster’s car, Ecto-1, is a 1959 Cadillac ambulance/hearse combination which is, itself, so iconic that it is almost its own character. It was beautifully designed with lots of detail.  A good indication of great movie design is seeing ordinary people try to replicate it.  You’ll see Ecto-1 and Ghostbusters uniforms replicas at sci-fi conventions and even some car shows decades after the movie was released.  Everything about this movie exudes personality and classic cinematic artwork. 
With great special effects, some suspenseful scenes, hysterical humor, and one of the catchiest movie theme songs in cinema history, Ghostbusters has withstood the tests of time. It is required viewing even if you have only the vaguest of recollection of the film.  If you have seen this movie before, go see it again! If you’re a bit too young to have seen it back in the day you must watch it at your earliest convenience so that you will know who you’re gonna call.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Troll Hunter Movie Review

I think it is unfortunate that so many Americans do not watch foreign films. Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto Del Fauno, 2006) is a Spanish favorite of mine. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was cinematographically a good film, but I didn’t care much for it. I suspect most Americans are scared off by having to put forth the effort to read subtitles. That could explain why there are English-speaking American remakes of successful foreign films such as Let Me In (2010), The Invisible (2007), and Quarantine (2008). Unfortunately, the foreign independent film Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren, 2010) has a similarly scheduled fate due to be released in 2014.
A group of Norwegian film students, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and their camera-man Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) set out to make a documentary about a suspected bear poacher named Hans (Otto Jespersen) who spends his nights prowling the Norwegian countryside in a Land Rover which has disquieting scratches all over it. Hans eventually concedes to allow them to tag along, but what the students discover is that the Norwegian government employs troll hunters (such as Hans) to destroy the beastlike trolls that venture too far from their allotted territory and threaten the environment and power pylons. The four of them decide that people have the right to know that trolls exist and change the focus of the documentary project to that of revealing a complex government cover up; they don’t want the public to know about trolls.
I thought Troll Hunter was a very creative film. I absolutely love the idea of fantasy creatures existing in a modern world setting. The trolls in this movie have a heavy basis in classic Norwegian fairy tale. They are big and hairy, can smell the blood of Christians, some have multiple heads, and they all have huge noses that would put Richard Nixon to shame. There is even an encounter with a troll under a bridge, probably one of my favorite scenes. They are beastly monsters that are fun to see on the screen; they herald back to the fantasy creatures you may be familiar with, but are depicted in a kind of a scary, “grownup” way.
Troll Hunter is a “found footage” mockumentary, and thus filmed in queasy-cam. What you see on screen is what Kalle is capturing with his camera. Since Kalle is running away from ferocious trolls, there is a lot of camera shaking. This is essentially the same camera technique that was popularized by The Blair Witch Project (1999). I was really worried that I would get motion sick watching this movie, since I can’t even stomach first-person shooter video games. But I was just fine. If I, and my periodic motion sickness, can stomach Troll Hunter, surely it wouldn’t give you much trouble.
The found footage mockumentary “genre” is often used by low budget horror films. It is a clever ruse to keep the audience from seeing anything in much detail, which gives the film crew an excuse to not spend the money to create much detail in their visuals. It was fairly obvious that Troll Hunter was a low budget film, but the special effects for the trolls was uncanny! They looked so lifelike and believable. Unlike most films in this genre, you get to see lots of the monsters. This movie doesn’t shy away from showing you the trolls, which is good. Why else would you watch this movie? Aside from the fantastic troll effects, the Norwegian forest and mountain scenery in the movie is just gorgeous. I’m ready to go visit.
I recommend seeing Troll Hunter. It’s not a classic for the ages, but it was certainly enjoyable. It has a bit of a slow start, but everything in the movie is significant to the plot. With a rating of PG-13, it’s probably not a fantasy movie to watch with a younger audience, but pretty good for a teenage and adult audience who can keep up with the subtitles. Make sure you watch this before you see the 2014 remake; English-speaking American remakes are rarely as good as the original foreign films on which they are based.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Yes Man Review

In Liar Liar (1997) Jim Carrey plays a lawyer who can’t lie and in Yes Man (2008), Jim Carrey plays a loan executive who can’t say no. The similarity between the jokes in each movie is unsurprising. Critics have said the two films are too much alike for the later to be taken very seriously. I can’t think of a good argument against that.
Carl Allan (Jim Carrey) is a depressed recluse. He’s been in this funk for three years since the love of his life left him. He habitually says “no” to everything to avoid complications and unsolicited interaction with people. Despite protests, Carl is dragged to a personal development seminar that promotes a simple idea: “say yes to everything.” Carl is pressured by the motivational speaker, Terrence Bundley (Terence Stamp), to take the challenge to say “Yes” to every request for a year and see how his life changes. Immediately Carl finds himself in the strangest situations; flying lessons, Korean language classes, inviting Mormon missionaries into his home, and guitar lessons. Some of these situations lead him to encounter a pretty young lady named Allison (Zooey Deschanel). She has a unique take on life and engages in a variety of uncommon interests. Between the girl who hosts a jogging photography group and the man who can’t refuse anything, the two of them form an interesting relationship. But Carl soon realizes that not all opportunities should be taken.
Yes Man has an interesting concept; if you are given the option to do something, do it. This will earn you a wild variety of experiences and could lead to a fuller, more interesting life. It can also bring about some aversive side effects. I’m glad Yes Man showed both sides of this. Normally in a story the dramatic tension stems from the choices that the protagonist makes, but in this story, you know exactly how the protagonist will respond to everything that happens to him. No matter what he is faced with, his response is always “yes.” The story quickly becomes dull without a significant conflict and it is reduced to a string of weird situations in which Carl finds himself. This could be pleasant or exciting if it was you experiencing it, but in a movie we expect uncertainty and drama.Yes Man doesn’t really provide much of that until the end when a lot of the consequences of Carl’s actions (he isn’t really making decisions) take effect. Yes Man has an interesting premise, but a weak execution.
I liked more of Jim Carrey’s early work. He was zany, wacky, and funny. Then he started getting typecast as the eccentric weirdo character. Carrey moved into some dramatic roles, the ones of which I have seen were impressive. Seriously, you need to go see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and The Truman Show (1998). Yes Man was sort of a return to the zany comedy that made Jim Carrey so famous to begin with, and it worked well for him. Carrey’s wacky humor kept this film alive when the dramatic tension was essentially gone. The movie has plenty of opportunities to get painfully slow and lose the audience’s attention, but Carrey’s screwball humor manages to keep the audience engaged long enough for the movie to reach its conclusion.
Yes Man is structured like a comedy, and if not for Jim Carrey’s performance it wouldn’t have passed for a very comical film. The movie is a bit more palatable if you think of it as a romantic comedy; the relationship between Carl and Allison is the main driving point in the story.
One of the most awkward scenes in the movie occurs after Carl accepts the “yes” challenge; he suddenly is susceptible to sexual advances of his elderly lady neighbor. It’s not visually explicit; no nudity at all, but I really wish that scene had not made it into the movie. You have been warned.
If you missed Yes Man, don’t get worked up about it. It’s hardly Carrey’s greatest moment. If you get a chance to see it, it may be worth it, but I wouldn’t spend the money renting it unless you are a Jim Carrey fan.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Green Lantern Movie Review

Do you remember when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) was being released and everyone was eagerly anticipating a new Star Wars film, only to have a pretty lame movie released? That’s what happened with Green Lantern (2011); the hype was better than the movie.
Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a cocky test pilot is “chosen” by a power ring which is given to him by a dying alien. This ring is powered by willpower and is the weapon and symbol of The Green Lantern Corps. Hal is transported to the planet Oa for training in this intergalactic peace-keeping force. Hal reluctantly accepts this calling, feeling that he is in over his head. Meanwhile, the now dead alien who gave Hal the power ring is being dissected by Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) under government direction. The alien was killed by an immense super-powerful being called Parallax. Some of Parallax’s genetic residue resides in the dead alien and infects Hammond, granting him telekinesis and telepathy. Hal returns to earth and combats Hammond who is beginning to go insane. Through this confrontation, Hal learns that Parallax is headed to earth to gain enough power by feeding off of the fears of humans to attack Oa and destroy The Green Lantern Corps. Hal must learn to control his fears and feelings of inadequacy so he can conquer Parallax’s invasion and save the universe.
I get the impression that the Green Lantern setting is very expansive and complex, and somewhat unique. There are hundreds of alien races, significant characters, worlds, and powers to keep track of and there just wasn’t enough time in the two hour movie to develop everything sufficiently; not even the important plot devices. Because of this the movie really felt rushed; “Here’s Hal Jordan, here’s The Green Lantern Corps, here’s some token characters you’d expect to see in a movie, here’s some powers we aren’t going to bother explaining, here’s a villain with no obvious motives. Stop asking questions, just watch the movie.” With other superhero movies, you don’t have to explain a whole lot. With Superman, all you have to establish is that he is from another world and has powers that a human wouldn’t have. Then it’s just a matter of developing his character to show that he is inherently good and illustrating that, even Superman can’t be everywhere. But since only a little bit of the Green Lantern universe actually takes place on earth (a setting we’re familiar with) more setting development has to occur, and there just wasn’t enough time to get it all done.
Ryan Reynolds is good-looking and funny, yet still seems to get typecast; in action movies or comedies he still plays an arrogant, cocky, and sarcastic douche bag. Of course, Hal Jordan having that sort of a personality and then having responsibilities placed on him that have universal significance it kind of interesting. But even Hal isn’t developed enough; when he’s on the brink death, I still don’t care if he lives or not. Reynolds did okay; he just had weak material to work with.
Blake Lively plays Carol Ferris, Hal’s flame. Carol acts so differently from scene to scene that I was a good way through the movie before realizing there were not two women of similar appearance and dissimilar personalities having a relationship with Hal. And it did not help matters that her appearance conforms so much to standards of beauty that there isn’t much about Blake that makes her character stand out.
The visuals were really pretty good, but the translucent objects conjured by the Green Lantern rings looked awkward and strange. It just flat out looks unrealistic and hard to take seriously. Power ring effects aside, most everything looked alright.
Green Lantern was pretty disappointing. It was not what the hype made it out to be. It’s an over budgeted, under written, and unfocused movie with lots of CGI and very little soul. Even hardcore Green Lantern fans were disappointed. I wouldn’t recommend taking the time to see Green Lantern. I doubt even the extra nine minutes of footage in the Extended Cut could save this movie.