Friday, March 29, 2013

The Lorax Movie Review

When The Lorax (2012) hit theaters I heard a lot of people talking about how they had never heard of, or were unfamiliar with Dr. Seuss' book, The Lorax. That surprised me since I remember having it read to me as early as Kindergarten and seeing the 1972 animated TV special dozens of times. Oh, well. Maybe the movie will inspire people to go read the book.
In a walled in city of Thneed-Ville, where everything is artificial and even the air is a commodity, a boy named Ted (Zac Efron) hopes to win the heart of his dream girl, Audrey (Taylor Swift).  When he learns of her wishes to see a real tree, Ted seeks out The Once-ler (Ed Helms), a ruined old businessman outside of town in a stark wasteland. Upon hearing of how the hermit gave into his greed for profits and devastated the land over the protests of the forest guardian, The Lorax (Danny DeVito), Ted is inspired to undo the disaster. However, the greedy Mayor of Thneed-ville, Aloysius O'Hare (Rob Riggle), has made his fortune exploiting the environmental collapse and is determined to stop the boy from undermining his business. Ted ventures out to restore the devastated landscape with the help of Audry, his mother (Jenny Slate), and his Grammy Norma (Betty White) while eluding the ever watchful Mr. O'Hare.
The trailer for The Lorax (and probably my summary there) leads us to think that the bulk of the story revolves around Ted and Audrey. Their story is pertinent, but the bulk of the story revolved around the young aspiring entrepreneur, The Once-ler, and how he started his business making and selling Thneeds, and his conflict of interests with The Lorax. That story is told in flashbacks while Ted's present-day story effectuates the unfolding back-story. It's a neat storytelling device that worked well in the movie.
The thing that bugged me about The Lorax was they did a lot of stunts to pad the length of the movie. There were musical numbers that did nothing to move the story forward; most weren't even catchy. There were only two musical numbers that were useful in any way. The first was the opening song that described Thneed-Ville, how there is no nature in it, and how there's lots of things to distract people from environmental awareness. The other was about The Once-ler trying to convince himself that his business practices weren't so bad. Every other song was about something which was already established and they seemed to do the musical number out of a sense of obligation. Just because it's a musical, you don't have to do a 3 minute song for every little piece of plot development. There were also cute forest animals doing cute things that we spent a lot of time focusing on before the scene got going. It was cute and funny, yeah, but they did too much of it and it seemed to be there for no reason other than to extend the length of the movie.
The Lorax was released theatrically in 3D. I watched it on instant play on NetFlix. There were lots of scenes that were clearly meant to showcase some 3D effects, including things that obviously were meant to pop out at the audience, and several first-person shots during roller-coaster-like chase scenes. I'm sure it was impressive in 3D, but in a 2D format it looked like those scenes were specifically tailored to add three or four extra dollars to movie ticket costs. From an artistic standpoint, that says to me that box office sales were more important to the producers that showcasing a story through a unique art medium. That is sloppy movie making.
A lot of people were kicking up a stink about the environmentalist message in The Lorax. Yeah, don't wipe out the trees, but I think there's more to it than just the tree-hugging cautionary tale. Under that overt layer of theme I felt there were more subtle themes that were well incorporated. What is the price of success? Are you willing to sell your soul for that success? If you do, will it feel fulfilling to you? Another theme touched on corporate greed and the hazard of flooding the market with your products. Heed the words of The Lorax, Angry Birds! The story is about a young man driven to succeed by his family and he takes it too far; I felt that was more of The Lorax's theme than it was about convincing your kids to be tree-hugging hippies as Fox News was trying to prophesy.
The Lorax wasn't a bad movie. It had some pacing issues what with the extra antics and musical numbers to pad the length of the movie. It was kind of fun and exhibited some stellar animation. It feels a bit preachy at times, but like I said the underlying themes are more interesting than the more overt environmentalist theme. It's amusing and I'm sure young viewers will enjoy it a lot. Frankly, I thought the old thirty-minute TV Special was better than this hour and a half CGI-fest.

What is your favorite Dr. Seuss book or movie? Comment below and tell me why!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Seven Pounds Movie Review

I keep thinking of comically based movies when I think of Will Smith. Movies like Men in Black, Wild Wild West, and Independence Day. More recently, he's been in slightly more serious roles and action roles. I think it's great that he has developed as an actor. Will Smith portrays an amazing dramatic role in Seven Pounds (2008).
Haunted by a secret, Ben Thomas (Will Smith) looks for redemption by radically transforming the lives of seven people he doesn't know. In the process he seeks out Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) to help resolve her situation with the IRS. Emily has a serious heart problem and is waiting for a donor, but her blood is very rare and her odds are low. Meanwhile Ben seeks out other people to help them in a journey for redemption. Ben hadn't planned on falling in love with Emily, she's the one who will end up transforming him.
Seven Pounds shows us an interesting character that we, the viewers, are not permitted to know very much about. We see that Ben has a plan and already has it well in motion as the movie opens. While Seven Pounds primarily focuses on Ben, by the end of the movie we still don't know a whole lot more about him than we did at the beginning. Why does he check into a cheap hotel? Isn't he paid for his lucrative job? What favor does his lifelong friend Dan (Barry Pepper) owe him? Why exactly is he looking for people who need their own favors? Why after he intuits he is speaking with a blind man (Woody Harrelson) on the phone, is he so needlessly cruel to him, and then follows the same man to restaurant and engage in conversation? For the first half of the movie, Ben is acting according to a plan that makes sense only to himself. He doesn't really have a reason to explain it to himself again, nor does he have a reason to explain it to anyone else. It makes for a curiously enigmatic story, albeit frustrating that we don't know all the details. I don't think it's an indicator of bad writing, simply a different type of storytelling.
Will Smith plays his role extremely well and he displays an impressive range of emotions. Ben is a man who is wracked with guilt and sadness. He can be a tough, merciless IRS man, he can bend the rules in some cases, he can have a romantic candlelight dinner with a beautiful woman, he is angry sometimes, but he seems angriest with himself. It's an amazing performance.
Rosario Dawson is pretty amazing as well. She's trying to make the most of her situation though she isn't expected to live much longer. She's naturally empathetic and manages to keep up with Ben's sometimes bizarre emotional dance, following his lead. Emily is such a sweet character who offers every ounce of charm and care to the one man who seems doomed to deflect it.
It was strange noticing there was very little background music in Seven Pounds. There's almost no subtle ambient music to help amplify the mood and tone of each scene. The emotional tension is almost exclusively left to the actors. That should say something about how good the actors are. There's also some shaky camera work as if a camera man is trying to follow the action on foot through a small confining house. It did feel somewhat realistic, but shaky cam isn't necessary here. There wasn't physical action going on that we felt rushed to try to capture on film, it was dialogue driven emotional action.
Overall, I thought Seven Pounds was simply "okay." It tended to be an overwrought sentimental drama that dragged on for longer than was necessary. Sure, there are sweet moments of romance, some interesting plot twists, some great moments of emotional intensity, but painfully slow pacing of the film tended to weaken their impact. The ending will probably leave some viewers in tears and leave others indignant. I wasn't all that invested in the movie and even I teared up a bit. I think this is worth watching only if you enjoy heartfelt dramas of redemption and romantic stories. Otherwise, you'll likely be bored and possibly annoyed by Seven Pounds. In this case, I was in the latter category.

What has been your favorite Will Smith role? Mine is probably Independence Day or I, Robot. Comment below and tell me about yours!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Oz The Great and Powerful Movie Review

As a long time fan of the 1936 film The Wizard of Oz, I was beside myself with excitement when I saw the trailer for the upcoming Oz The Great and Powerful.  After the initial euphoria wore off I then feared the movie would be little more than a CGI-fest set in popular, established setting with little plot and weak characters, similar to Tron: Legacy. I still jumped at the opportunity to see it, but braced myself for disappointment.
Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco), a small-time circus magician with dubious ethics, is hurled away from dusty Kansas to the vibrant Land of Oz. At first he thinks he's hit the jackpot-fame and fortune are his for the taking. That all changes, however, when he meets three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams), who are not convinced he is the great wizard everyone's been expecting. Reluctantly drawn into the extensive problems facing the Land of Oz and its inhabitants, Oscar must find out who is good and who is evil before it's too late. putting his magical arts to use through illusion, ingenuity, and even a bit of wizardry, Oscar transforms himself not only into the great and powerful wizard of Oz but into a better man as well.
If you've never seen The Wizard of Oz, I have to wonder where you've been for the last 77 years. It's one of the most beloved movies ever made; you owe it to yourself to watch it and to introduce your children to it. Since Oz The Great and Powerful is a prequel to a 77-year-old classic, there will probably be some audiences (i.e. post-Harry Potter children) who don't know or care about The Wizard of Oz. They will probably be lost watching this story about a not-very-nice grownup in a magic land, but for long time watchers of The Wizard of Oz, Oz The Great and Powerful is enchanting and fun.
Oz The Great and Powerful sadly shares a kinship with George Lucas' Star Wars prequels in the way it presents a beautiful, borderline-sterile digital update of a world that was richer, purer, and a lot more fun in lower-tech form. Like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the actors in Oz The Great and Powerful look artificially superimposed against their CGI backdrops. However CGI is nothing short of gorgeous and while it does look artificial, it's nothing short of stunning to watch. It's also uses 3-D well; it shows a lot of depth, not just projection.
There are lots of subtle little things that hint at events in The Wizard of Oz which are fun to watch for. There are characters in the Kansas prologue and in Oz that are played by the same actors and have thematically similar conflicts. Before heading to Oz, one of Oscar's old flames says she's going to marry a man by the last name of Gale; suggesting she is Dorothy Gale's mother-to-be. One of Oscar's first feats in Oz is frightening off a cowardly lion with smoke and mirrors. We also meet a tinker whom it is implied builds the Tin Man. We even see that distinctive spiral beginning of the Yellow Brick Road where Dorothy starts her journey a few years later.
James Franco has worked with director Sam Raimi before in the Spider-Man Trilogy as Harry Osborn. In Oz The Great and Powerful, he plays this occasionally sincere character that is often a con man. Oscar is an illusionist and a serial liar, Franco has played this kind of role before, but here he seems more believable when Oscar is being deceitful than he is when Oscar is being sincere. It evens out to a less-than-captivating performance.
Much of Oz The Great and Powerful centers around Oscar's transformation from the me-first snake oil salesman into the Wizard of Oz, or rather "the man behind the curtain." Oscar relies on inventions of his earthly hero Thomas Edison to pull off his biggest trick ever, which will likely even have the audience convinced. Around that point, the movie breaks free of its beautiful, but artificial trappings, and becomes a story with heart in the final act.
Oz The Great and Powerful doesn't have the classic feel that The Wizard of Oz has, but it's still a fun movie. Viewers who have never seen The Wizard of Oz are not likely going to enjoy it as much. Nevertheless, Oz The Great and Powerful is very effective as its own film and as a prequel to one of the most beloved movies in history. It's not perfect; most of the live actors do an adequate or sub-par job. The story has several plot twists to keep it interesting; such as who the Wicked Witch of the West is. You know she's going to be in the movie, but you're still blown away when we find out who it is. There are a few scenes that might be a bit too scary for viewers under the age of 6, but this is an excellent family film that is worth catching in theaters. Possibly in 3-D if you enjoy 3-D; it was well implemented. I'm glad I saw it; I had low expectations for this movie, but I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't quite like it enough to get my own copy, but it was worth the ticket price.

There is an obscure third Oz movie also made by Disney. It came out in 1985 and is called Return to Oz. Freaked the heck out of me as a kid. Have you seen Return to Oz? Would you like to see more movies set in  the Land of Oz? Comment below and tell me about it!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Rock of Ages Movie Review

I'm not a groupie by any means, but I do enjoy 80's Rock 'n Roll. I am much too reserved to be a legit groupie. Having said that, I was psyched to see Rock of Ages (2012), a movie based on a Broadway musical that exclusively features 80's rock music. How can you go wrong with a rock musical?
Arriving in Hollywood with stars in her eyes, Sherrie (Julianne Hough) meets Drew (Diego Boneta), and together they plunge headlong into the local rock scene in the Sunset Strip, dreaming of Rock 'n Roll stardom. The rock club they work at, The Bourbon Room, is in dire financial strain. The owners Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and Lonny (Russell Brand) are relying on money from a gig by the enigmatic and unreliable rock god Stacie Jaxx (Tom Cruise).  Meanwhile, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) the religiously conservative wife of Los Angeles' Mayor rallies her church to protest in front of The Bourbon Room, planning to shut them down in an attempt to rid L.A. of its "sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll" image. Even with everything riding on the gig, Stacie Jaxx's conniving manager (Paul Giamatti) tries to get away with The Bourbon Room's earnings.
I'd never heard of the Rock of Ages Broadway show before this moving came out. I really liked the idea of a musical with 80's rock music, and there is an outstanding rock classics from artists such as  Def Leppard, Journey, Poison, Guns N' Roses, Joan Jett, Bon Jovi, David Lee Roth, and Twisted Sister among others. And they were so creatively implemented. One of my favorites was when Stacie Jaxx was being interviewed by Rolling Stone Magazine, while describing how his life is much more complicated than it appears, you hear Bon Jovi queuing up in the background and then he starts singing "Wanted Dead or Alive." The other favorite of mine was when The Bourbon Room's clientele are waiting to enter while being scorned by the conservative fanatics. The resulting song is an amazing mash up of Starship's "We Built This City" sung by the rock patrons and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" sung by the protesters. The way the songs are worked into the story is extraordinarily creative and even riveting.
The story itself, though isn't all that impressive. Early on, all the stories are fairly intertwined, but they branch off into their own storylines. There were some storylines that I was more invested in than others. The love/separation story between Sherrie and Drew was pretty run of the mill until they went their separate ways and had to compromise their dreams. When they got back together to lament where life had taken them, Sherrie to a waitress at a strip club and Drew to join a pop boy band, it was decided that Drew is the one that hit rock bottom. Stacie Jaxx's story was more interesting with the media hounding him, his fame and status as a rock god on the brink of toppling as rock was giving way to pop. I thought the most interesting storyline was Dennis and Lonny trying to keep The Bourbon Room up and running as they approach bankruptcy and as the conservative fanatics close in on them. Dennis and Lonny are the comic reliefs in the movie; they are funny and manage to make things like a failing business amusing. But in the end each story wasn't all that interesting on its own, and the overall story arch was only vaguely interesting as each storyline interwove with the others.
Getting Tom Cruise to play Stacie Jaxx was a brilliant casting decision. I imagine the role of Stacie Jaxx is a coveted role, like Edna Turnblad in Hairspray or Éponine in Les Miserables. Tom Cruise has a reputation for being a formerly reputable actor who is now crazy, joined the Scientology church, and jumps on Oprah's couch. The character Stacie Jaxx has a very weird personality, is drunk with his own fame, is out of touch with reality, and is kind of a rock god/man child going through a meltdown. Who better to play that sort of role than Tom Cruise? He kind of takes our perception of him as a crazy guy and uses it as a strength, and he does just that immensely well in Rock of Ages.
In the end, Rock of Ages was disappointing. The story just barely kept me engaged and most of the characters were fairly cliché. The sets were great and the costumes were perfect; they really helped sell the late-1980's feel. The music was outstanding, but that's because it was taken from some of the best songs that 80's rock had to offer and provided some excellent covers; the music is what made Rock of Ages any good. The sex scenes were very risqué for a PG-13 movie; Rock of Ages really pushed what I thought was acceptable for a PG-13 movie. It would probably put off some viewers; heck, I found myself averting my eyes. I appreciated that Patricia and the religious conservatives were not picked on for being conservative or religious; the character had a personal vendetta, the movie wasn't out to bash religion or those with conservative ideals.
 This movie is definitely not for everyone. However, if you like rock 'n roll, if you like music, or think you know when the death of rock 'n roll was, you'll probably enjoy Rock of Ages. Even if you are in that category, I still say Rock of Ages is a renter. If you're just there for the music like I was, you could make your own play list out of the movie's soundtrack and rock your soul out to that. There is the fact that Rock of Ages really captured the feeling and vibe of an 80's rock concert that makes watching the movie more fun than listening to some MP3's.

Here's that We Built This City/We're Not Gonna Take It mash-up scene to illustrate the creative usage of the songs:

So, a musical that features classic songs form a specific music genre. If you were writing a musical like that what genre of music would you use? Country? R&B? Pop? Jazz? Whatever the heck it is that Lady Gaga does?  Comment below and tell me about it!