Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pitch Perfect review

Not once did I see a promotional ad or trailer for Pitch Perfect (2012). If not for people posting Pitch Perfect images, clips, and quotes on Tumblr, I never would have heard about it. It would have been a shame, too. Pitch Perfect wasn’t exactly my kind of movie, but I must admit that it achieves what it sets out to do very well.
The Barden Bellas are a collegiate, all-girls a cappella singing group thriving on female pop songs and their perfect looks. After a disastrous failing at last year’s national finals, most of the ladies quit. The two remaining members, Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), work on getting a new group of Barden Bellas together for a shot the following year, though the girls who show up for tryouts do not fit the Bellas’ typical mold.  Among the new recruits are Beca (Anna Kendrick), an independent, aspiring DJ with no interest in the college life; a lesbian named Cynthia-Rose (Ester Cean); the promiscuous Stacie Conrad (Alexis Knapp); the quiet, inaudible Asian, Lilly Onakuramara (Hana Mae Lee); and a sarcastic, overweight exchange student from Tasmania who calls herself Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson). But after Beca meets Jesse (Skylar Astin), from the rival all-male a cappella group called the Treblemakers, Beca has a new outlook and takes it upon herself to help the Bellas find their new look and sound to get back into the competition.
Like many movies that feature obscure competitions, Pitch Perfect seems to try to convince us that a cappella music is a big thing that matters to a lot of people. Like, when you have a movie about boxing (Rocky for example), everyone in the whole world seems deeply interested in boxing; but in the real world, I don’t think I’ve met anyone who gives a hoot about it. In Pitch Perfect, Barden University not only has one, but several a cappella singing groups who are all at odds with one another, and there are tons of a cappella groupies that follow each one religiously. Not very realistic, but if it was realistic you might have a small handful of attendees at each of the Barden Bellas events which would make their efforts seem ludicrously trivial.
Pitch Perfect is a musical of sorts. In my mind a musical has the characters randomly breaking out in singing and dancing to songs that are pertinent to the plot or character development, like they do in Hairspray or Les Misérables. Pitch Perfect is about a group of ladies who sing whatever they feel like because that’s what they do. They have singing competitions, practices, etc; they don’t spontaneously burst into a well rehearsed and choreographed number. That’s a bit more believable than a traditional musical. Also, the music used in Pitch Perfect was varied and interesting; songs included contemporary songs like “Don’t Stop the Music” by Rihanna, “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson, “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus, and older [better] songs from the 80’s like “Mickey” by Toni Basil, “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”, by Pat Benatar, and “Let It Whip” by Dazz Band. The music is varied and will probably appeal to a large range of viewers.
The humor in Pitch Perfect was hit or miss. Some of the jokes fall flat while others are simply hilarious. I’ve got to give credit to Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy. She’s absolutely hysterical! She’s got a talent for doing comedy; her delivery is spot on, and nearly every one of her lines is a crack up. One of the Treblemakers tries hitting on Fat Amy, “I have a feeling we should kiss. Is that a good feeling or an incorrect feeling?” She responds with, “Well... sometimes I have the feeling I can do crystal meth, but then I think, mmm... better not.” She makes the movie very quotable.
In a lot of movies like these the entirety of a character consists of one attribute that defines them; such as the handsome guy’s character is “The Handsome Guy” or the mean girl is “The Mean Girl.” No depth or character development beyond that; it makes for uninteresting, flat characters. Interestingly, the characters in Pitch Perfect were more developed than I’m sure anyone would have expected. Yes, most of them consist of one attribute that defines them, but for most of them we get some interesting background stories throughout the movie that helps us understand what motivates those behaviors. It makes the characters much more interesting and even relatable.
Pitch Perfect was a lot better than I thought it was going to be. The music is varied, interesting, and will appeal to a wide range of viewers. The characters were more interesting than a typical “teen movie.” The plot is predictable, yet fun and enjoyable. The humor is pretty good, though crude at times; I laughed a good deal throughout. It’s probably not something I’d want my 10 year old to watch, though. The sexual jokes and dialogue gets annoying pretty quick. While I’ve never seen an episode of Glee before, I imagine that Pitch Perfect is like a longer and better written episode. Glee fans will probably love Pitch Perfect. Pitch Perfect knows what it was trying to do and achieved that very well, so I have to say it’s a good movie. I don’t think it’s quite worth buying if you’re not into musicals in general, but I think Pitch Perfect was just good enough to go out and rent. It’s worth at least one viewing, I think.

What is your favorite movie soundtrack? Mine is probably the one from Watchmen. Comment below and tell me about yours!

Friday, January 25, 2013

ParaNorman Movie Review

Stop-motion animation seems to be a vanishing art, but in 2012, we had two Halloween-themed stop-motion movies that were released around the same time. I think Tim Burton is keeping the medium alive. Once in a while someone else will make one as well. ParaNorman (2012) was not done by Tim Burton. Popular as zombies are, I’m almost surprised there wasn’t a zombie movie targeted towards kids before before this one.
In the little town of Blithe Hollow, Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a boy who can see ghosts and speak to the dead. No one besides his eccentric new friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), believes his ability is real. One day the town lunatic, Norman’s estranged eccentric uncle (John Goodman), tells him of an important annual ritual he must take up to protect the town from a curse cast by a witch it condemned centuries ago. Eventually, Norman decides to cooperate, but things don’t go according to plan. Now, a supernatural storm caused by the witch’s curse threatens Blithe Hollow as the accursed dead rise. Together with unexpected new companions, Norman struggles to save his town, only to discover the horrific truth of the curse. With that insight, Norman must resolve the crisis for good.
ParaNorman hit theaters in August, a bit early for a Halloween movie. It has a lot of classic “Halloween” elements in it; ghosts, witches, and zombies and an autumnal setting. I was expecting a silly, light hearted romp with silly monsters and trick or treating that would probably conclude with some sort of wacky villain trying to ruin everyone’s fun. Boy, was I wrong! ParaNorman had a lot of morbidity; ghosts who are unhappy and lingering around, a character actually dies in the movie and becomes a ghost, decaying zombies arise and begin shambling about, and stories of a witch being hanged back in the early Colonial days of America. It seemed kind of dark for a family film. Even though ParaNorman is PG, it had some genuinely scary imagery that would probably scare the pants off some young viewers.
Norman's hair always sticks straight up
The animation in ParaNorman was great. Actual stop-motion animation had lots of detail; the sets and characters really looked good. A lot of props and characters have exaggerated features. It adds an interesting style to the animation that looks unique to the movie; it doesn’t look like a Tim Burton feature with spindly characters who have enormous eyes. There are subtle little things, like Norman’s hair, that add some charm to the movie. Norman tries to style his hair so that it looks nice, and it gets tussled up during his adventure, but no matter what happens to it, it springs straight up again. Hair is very hard to animate in stop-motion; I’ve got to give these animators credit. There is some CGI animation used in the movie, too. I think that detracts from the “magic” of stop-motion animation, but it was well incorporated and looked good for the most part.
What surprised me most about ParaNorman was the theme of the movie. Like I said, I was expecting a light-hearted Halloween romp, but the theme was actually pretty deep and meaningful. It’s about how people will overreact with fear of the unfamiliar, and how that often leads to bullying or worse. It’s also about open, clear communication to ensure that we understand one another and don’t jump to erroneous conclusions which could cause us to harm one another. ParaNorman incorporated this theme remarkably well; we aren’t beat over the head with it, but it’s still beautifully and logically woven into the story. I absolutely loved this theme, and they used it in the context of a zombie movie! It’s amazing!
My only real complaint about ParaNorman was the fact that it is pretty slow paced. I understand that it needed to establish some back story and develop the characters before they can actually delve into the meat of the story. But by the time the story got moving I was teetering on the brink of boredom. I hadn’t lost interest enough to turn it off, and the movie as a whole is pretty good, it just has a slow start. If you can make it through the first fourth, you’re in for a good, solid movie.
ParaNorman is a fun movie that features some good animation, a decent story, a fantastic theme, and features zombies. What’s not to love? There is some scary imagery that might frighten some younger viewers, so I wouldn’t recommend showing this to kids under the age of 8 or so. Beyond that, I highly recommend ParaNorman to anyone, especially to help understand bullying, the reasons it happens, and how to stop it. It’s got a slow start, but it’s worth sticking with it. ParaNorman has been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this year, it was that good. I would buy ParaNorman on Blu-Ray, but I think it is worth renting at the very least.

I can think of a couple of PG family films that were probably a bit too scary for their target audience. What was a movie or movie character in a kid’s movie that scared you to pieces when you were little? Comment below and tell me why!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kung Fu Panda 2

In general, sequels are not as good as their predecessors. Often times the protagonist has achieved his objectives and become an experienced, stronger character at the end of the first movie. Then for some reason, in the sequel our protagonist seems to lose all experience, knowledge, and skills and has to start the Hero’s Journey all over again. It’s a lazy writing technique that a lot of movies use. I was expecting to see this in Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), but someone goofed up and wrote a good sequel that is a logical follow up to the first film.
In the Valley of Peace, Po (Jack Black) is reveling in his fulfilled dreams as he serves as the fabled Dragon Warrior protecting his home with his heroes and closest friends, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross). However, Po and company learn that the murderous Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) of Gongman City is threatening the land with a fearsome new weapon that could mean the end of Kung Fu. They attempt to stop him, but Po is burdened with crippling flashbacks linked to this new villain. Lord Shen is paranoid after a soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) warns him to beware of pandas, so Lord Shen and Po’s destinies are linked more than Po ever imagined. As Po seeks out his past, he struggles to find inner peace to gain an advantage over this formidable foe.
Whenever I see Jack Black in the credits for a movie it makes me cringe. With the exception of the first Kung Fu Panda movie, I haven’t liked a single movie he’s been in. In fact, I wanted to dislike Kung Fu Panda 2, but it was so well done, that I simply couldn’t dislike it. Everything that made the first Kung Fu Panda movie great was reiterated in this sequel; great animation, great voice acting, and great story. Just go read my Kung Fu Panda review and pretend I’m talking about this one.
There’s more to talk about, though! I was so relieved that Po somehow had not forgotten all his experiences and lost his fighting skills, forcing him to have to relearn everything. If that had been done, they may as well have just rereleased the first film again. Po is a Kung Fu master, now. While he’s still bumbling and lovable, he can lay the smack down when he needs to.  But in Kung Fu Panda 2, Po has a revelation. Maybe his father, Mr. Ping the goose (James Hong), isn’t the biological father of Po the Panda. Po starts questioning his origins, and it seems the only one with answers is the evil Lord Shen. This not only creates an interesting dynamic between the hero and villain, but it also allows us to explore Po’s character more deeply, making Po all the more interesting.
Then there’s Lord Shen. I love it when Gary Oldman plays a villain, and he was an excellent villain here. He’s bent on conquering China at all costs; he knows he’s got a powerful new weapon that makes him a force to be reckoned with. One wouldn’t think that a peacock would be all that intimidating, but he’s got this cool, calculating, confident attitude with a little paranoia stirred in. He uses metal blade-like feathers that he throws like knives and has light metal armor on his feet which scrape and cling as he walks, which sound musical, but ominous. He’s also a bit funny; he’ll practice lines for when the perfect moment arrives, “Greetings, Panda; we meet at last,” though when he finally gets to deliver his menacing lines, Po’s ungainly antics usually spoil the moment for him. Lord Shen is a really good villain that I would put on par with Scar from The Lion King or Jafar from Aladdin.
Apart from the fantastic art design, stellar animation, and great writing, (again, read my review of the first film) there’s something to be said about the Foley art. Background sound effects don’t usually stand out; you just expect them to be there. Right from the first fight scene there’s a lot of Foley work that is so well incorporated and sound so good it almost resembles music played on non-instrumental objects. There’s also the sound of Lord Shen slowly walking that also sounds amazing and practically musical. The movie sounds good as well as looks good.
I tried not to, but I really did love Kung Fu Panda 2. There’s some great character and plot development to make it interesting for adults as well as tons of slapstick humor to keep viewers of all ages engaged. I was rolling on the floor laughing at all the physical comedy and watched the engaging conflict with rapt attention. It’s a great family movie that heralds back to classic Kung Fu movies just as the first film did. Kung Fu Panda 2 is better than the first movie, in my opinion. I highly recommend both of these movies to anyone; just make sure you see them in chronological order. Both movies are worth owning on Blu-Ray.

It’s rare that a sequel is better than the first movie. What is another example of a sequel being better than its predecessor? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Eat and Run

Back when Video Stores were a thing, I remember browsing the shelves of VHS tapes looking for a good dumb movie to watch with my family. I’d see all kinds of titles I’d never heard of, but for some reason Eat and Run (1987) always stuck out to me. I never did see it until I randomly came across the whole movie posted on YouTube.  I don’t know if that was posted with the studio’s consent, but I finally got to see it.
A 400-pound humanoid alien, Murray Creature (R.L. Ryan), lands on earth wearing a plaid suit. He quickly discovers that he likes to eat Italian; Italian people, that is. Before long, 35 New Yorkers from Little Italy are missing. Incompetent detective Mickey McSorely  (Ron Silver) is the only one with a clue. He discovers their awful fate while trying to use the phone in a Pizza restaurant. He tries to get the police chief to believe his story, but of course he doesn’t, and McSorely is left with no alternative but to try and dispatch Murray by himself. But McSorely must hurry after he discovers that Murray’s next target is Judge Cheryl Cohen (Sharon Sharth), McSorely’s main squeeze.
I’d seriously be surprised if anyone remembers Eat and Run. It is a low budget B-movie sci-fi comedy. Typically, low budget movies make some money in the box office, make a little more money with the home video release, and then are completely forgotten about within a year or so of their theatrical release. I get the impression that Eat and Run was like that. I’ve never heard or seen anything about it outside of finding it in obscure corners of old video stores.
No one seems to talk about or remember the Scary Movie series and its various spin-offs like Epic Movie or Meet the Spartans. They are really bad B-movies that are generously referred to as comedies. Eat and Run, however actually was very funny. McSorely frequently narrates the story as it goes along, but we usually find out that the character actually is narrating events around him as if it was an old noir detective flick, much to the annoyance of anyone within earshot. McSorely questions a matronly gossip in Little Italy, who says she thinks the Norwegians are responsible for all the missing persons. So McSorely asks police headquarters to round up all the Norwegians in New York for questioning. When Judge Cohen is being held captive by Murray, the only person she can ask for help is a mime, who calls up McSorely and attempts to explain Cohen’s predicament through pantomime over the phone. There’s tons of slapstick silly nonsense throughout the movie which caused me much laughter.
Even the dialogue is witty for a B-movie comedy. There are a few scenes where characters use lots of similar-sounding words, and the conversation ends when one character tries to summarize the information in a lengthy tongue-twister. How these actors are able to do these scenes in one take without falling apart in peals of laughter is beyond me. I’ve never heard of these actors before but I must give them credit for their performance in scenes like these.
I started watching this movie not realizing it was rated R. But seeing this 1987 R-rated movie in 2013 was, in and of itself, funny. Apart from a handful of F-bombs, the content is no cruder or visually explicit than a PG-13 movie of today. That probably says something about society’s change in norms over the years, but I think it’s still a fun movie
Eat and Run was a wacky, silly, and stupid B-movie comedy that had me laughing throughout its entirety. Maybe that’s just because it caters to my weird sense of humor. Because of the profanity, I wouldn’t recommend Eat and Run if there is going to be impressionable young viewers watching it. But since the profanity is the worst I can say about it, I still recommend seeing Eat and Run if you’re not too put off by profanity. The problem is I don’t know how you’d see it other than the YouTube video I found. If you even own a VHS player, you’ll be hard pressed to find a video cassette copy, it’s not on DVD, and NetFlix doesn’t have it on Instant Play. I’ll put the YouTube link that I found below so you can watch it if you feel so inclined.

Watch Eat and Run on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBbDPIHVos4

Good B-movies are hard to come by. What’s a good B-movie that you have enjoyed? Comment below and tell me why!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Movie Review

Even though I don’t think it was too soon to make a movie about the bin Laden manhunt, I’m still surprised someone had the guts to do it. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) had a great opportunity to be politically skewed, so I wasn’t sure it would be worth the effort. However it is well done, and is up for several Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress.
Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a CIA operative whose first experience is in the interrogation of prisoners following the Al Qaeda attacks against the U.S. on September 11th, 2001. She is a reluctant participant in extreme duress applied to the detainees, but believes that the truth may only be obtained though such tactics. For several years, she is single-minded in her pursuit of leads to uncover the whereabouts of Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Finally in 2011, it appears that her work will pay off, and a U.S. Navy SEAL team is sent in to capture bin Laden. But only Maya is confident bin Laden is where she says he is. If she’s wrong, it will bring worldwide shame to the United States for breaking into a compound on the land of a nation that is tentatively an ally.
The 9/11 attacks are still an emotionally and politically charged subject and I feel as though there was no way to make this movie without offending someone to at least some degree. Yes, we see some CIA officers using torture and humiliation tactics to get information from prisoners at a black site. That is going to cause some people to cringe; they don’t want to see that and they won’t want to acknowledge that Americans were torturing prisoners for information. If that had been left out, other viewers would be offended and accuse the film of being biased, that Hollywood is trying to hide the truth, or that Zero Dark Thirty used rose-tinted camera lenses or something.
My biggest concern was that the movie would be politically skewed and would glorify President Obama and demonizing President Bush, or vice versa. This didn’t happen. In fact, mention of either President was minimal at most. It didn’t suggest that 9/11 was an inside job or anything. I was so relieved that Zero Dark Thirty was not so politically skewed and simply focused on objective facts.
I’m glad that this movie didn’t use big name actors. With two exceptions, I didn’t know a single actor. I recognized Joel Edgerton as the Red Squadron Team Leader from The Odd Life of Timothy Green and from Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith as young Uncle Lars. I also recognized John Barrowman from the Doctor Who and Torchwood TV shows. Because I didn’t recognize any of the actors, it made the movie seem more realistic; that is to say that it wasn’t made glamorous by adding big name actors or actors who look good and have no talent.
Okay, Jessica Chastain was in The Help, but I didn’t make that connection until looking up her filmography a couple of days afterwards. She was outstanding in Zero Dark Thirty. Early on she’s an uncertain and reserved individual, but she grows into this confident, powerful woman whom even upper level CIA personnel are hesitant to disagree with. Chastain carries the movie; it wouldn’t have been nearly as good without her. Her delivery is intense and powerful and simply blows you away. She’s got my vote for Best Actress.
Zero Dark Thirty has an episodic structure; it’s a string of short stories that usually center on Maya. Typically this sort of movie focuses on the marines, and not the government intelligence that leads the hunt for someone like bin Laden. This is largely about the people doing research, typing on their computers, making logical connections, and chasing paper trails. It’s almost like a whodunit sort of mystery, except that we know whodunit and we just need to find where he is. The story spans several years, other characters weave in and out of the story, and we see several Al Qaeda attacks that you’ll recognize if you watch the news at all. It’s very episodic, and at times focuses on the dull paperwork and other times on very tense action. We know how the movie ends, but there is still such a level of intensity and uncertainty that it holds you on the edge of your seat right up until the end.
Zero Dark Thirty is a great movie that fortunately remains objective and focuses on the behind-the-scenes events that lead up to defeating the notorious terrorist leader. There are some scenes, such as the torture scenes mentioned above, that are uncomfortable to watch and there is plenty of profanity. If you’re offended by such material, I don’t recommend watching this movie. However, I do encourage you to see it if you can tolerate several F-bombs and a few torture scenes. It’s a great movie with an excellent storyline and deep, meaningful characters. It’s suspenseful at times, and stressful in “paperwork” scenes. It’s just a great film. No wonder it’s been nominated for Oscar Awards.

Is there a major world event that has been shown on the news that you think would make a good movie? What is it and what would make it a good movie? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Artist Movie Review

When was the last time you saw a silent film? They really aren’t very common any more. Generally when a movie opts to be silent or be shot in black and white rather than color it is for artistic reason, not necessity.  The Artist (2011) was one such movie that showcased its story the way it was done before “talkies” were developed.
Outside a movie premiere, enthusiastic fan Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) literally bumps into the swashbuckling hero of the silent film, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). The star reacts graciously and Peppy plants a kiss on his check as they are surrounded by photographers. The headlines demand: “Who’s That Girl?” and Peppy is inspired to audition for a dancing bit-part at the studio. However as Peppy slowly rises to fame through the industry, the introduction of talking-pictures turns Valentin’s World upside-down.
I think The Artist drew a lot of inspiration from Singing in the Rain. Both are about an egocentric actor and a rising star dancer who are caught up in the whirlwind brought about by talking pictures. It’s a story about actors who make films, and all the celebrity worship and glamour that goes along with it. The Artist goes in a markedly different direction than Singing in the Rain did. The Great Depression hits, Valentin loses everything, and his last hope for retaining any money is box office success of his latest silent movie which is outshined by Peppy’s latest talking picture. In spite of a bleak downward spiral, the movie remains humorous, cheerful, and pleasant; much like the films back in the 1920’s. For all purposes, you would think that it actually was an old silent film if not for the appearance of several big name actors including John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell.
The Artist is a silent film, and it is conscious of that. But The Artist has fun with the concept and kind of jokes with the viewer about it. The movie relies on some excellent actors to portray feelings, emotions, and ideas without allowing us to hear dialogue. There are intertitles used throughout to get complex dialogue that can’t be articulated through facial expressions and gestures. Intertitles are what you see when the camera cuts away from the action for a few seconds to show you something like a cue card with the words the character is speaking. There’s also a scene shortly after Valentin learns about talking pictures in which he has a dream sequence where there are actual sound effects, but he cannot make a sound. One would not think this would be such a novelty, but by this time we are so accustomed to the silent film, that when Valentin sets his glass down on the table we’re taken aback as we hear a clinking sound. The movie genuinely has fun with the fact that it’s a silent film and makes it fun to watch.
Dujardin plays his role remarkably well. He’s absolutely stunning in his delivery. He is so expressive that he seems like a natural for a silent film. He acts subtle in some scenes and over the top in others without seeming like a ham. And like the Gene Kelly character in Singing in the Rain, he’s got a smile that dazzles no one more than himself. He’s such a good actor that he even plays some melodramatic scenes while avoiding pitfalls that would make him look utterly foolish.
I think what makes The Artist so endearing is the attention to detail and the style. A lot of camera work was used to mimic the types of shots used in old silent films. Because the movie is not in color, it drew more attention to the creative lighting techniques. The lack of color actually made it more interesting to watch. Every single shot was absolutely gorgeous to behold.
The Artist is a very good film. It’s creative and innovative while maintaining the qualities that make a film feel like a classic. It’s well acted, well written, and is visually stunning. The story is clean enough that the whole family could watch it. I could see the fact that it is a silent film would dissuade some viewers. This isn’t the kind of movie we see anymore and its unfamiliarity might leave a bad taste in the mouths of some viewers. However, I strongly urge you to see this movie and try not to focus on the fact that it’s a silent film. The story is good and the style is excellent. There is a reason it won five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Have you seen any silent films? What did you think of them? Of the old silent films I've seen, my favorite is Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Comment below and tell me about the silent films you've seen.