Friday, May 31, 2013

Across The Universe Movie Review

So, I've heard the "Hollywood musical" is making a comeback. I'm not sure where that came from, since most of the musicals that have come out in the past several years have been movie versions of already popular Broadway shows, not a musical that came from Hollywood. The exceptions I can think of are Pitch Perfect, if that can be called a musical; Repo! The Genetic Opera, the first rock opera in ages; and Across The Universe (2007). Across The Universe did use songs exclusively from The Beatles, but it feels more like a musical that any other "Hollywood Musical" released in a long time.
Jude (Jim Sturgess), visiting the United States in search of his long-lost father, meets Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), through her brother, Max (Joe Anderson), a student at Princeton. After deciding to drop out of college, Max and Jude drive to New York and settle in the sprawling East Village tenement and are soon joined by Lucy. Their landlady, Sadie (Dana Fuchs), is an aspiring rock singer and the resident earth mother. Rounding out the bohemian household are Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist who arrives from Detroit after his younger brother's death in the Detroit riots, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio) an Asian-American lesbian cheerleader who hitchhikes to New York from Dayton, Ohio. Each one is desperate to make something, anything, of themselves, but the world is changing around them and is pulling each of them in very different directions as the Vietnam War takes its toll on The United States.
All of the music in Across The Universe is from The Beatles. Their music is classic, timeless, and outstanding. I'm not real big into music and even I love The Beatles. The songs are jazzed up and redone with somewhat more contemporary music, but mostly stick to their source material very well. At worst, they sound like respectable covers of popular songs.
A couple of the songs are done a little differently, though. In an early scene, Prudence is singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand," but it's done as a slow, soft song instead of a fast, upbeat song. Given that context you realize that the lyrics are not about the excitement of holding a lovers hand, but about unrequited love. It's actually a sad scene and sets Prudence up as a tragic character.
On the one hand, the story isn't terribly complicated, nor are the characters very well developed. They're all likable and their plights are relatable. What makes the story interesting is the songs. The songs move the story forward and develop the characters remarkably well. It's almost as if the songs which were written 40 years prior to the movie's release were tailor-made for this movie.
The visuals are absolutely stunning to behold. There's a bizarre mix of mostly live action, lots of CGI supplements, and some practical effects as well. It's so beautifully done, that I doubt you'd be able to tell which is which most of the time. The visuals compliment the 1960's vibe very well; they really play up the psychedelic aspects during particularly strange Beatles songs. It does seem like a visual trip at times. I'm pretty sure that if the technology existed in the 1960's, this is the kind of visuals a lot of movies and music videos would have strived for.
There are tons of Beatles references throughout the movie. If you're not already a Beatles fan, they'll fly over your head without your notice. Dialogue subtly include Beatles song titles, some shots imitate famous Beatles pictures, and some events mirror things The Beatles actually did. It's not always clear if it's done for humor's sake; sometimes it's kind of funny if you catch it, sometimes it's just a clever nod to The Beatles. It's not distracting in any way. If you notice it, you'll probably smile. If you are a non-Beatles fan, you'll probably just not notice.
The 1960's are well captivated in Across The Universe. In fact, many scenes are derived from actual 1960's events; violent student protests at Columbia University, the bombing in Greenwich Village, and of course the Vietnam War. There are also characters who reference pop culture icons of the 1960's. Sadie is an overt reference to Janis Joplin; Janis' throaty singing voice is well imitated by Dana Fuchs. Jo-Jo is a clear reference to Jimi Hendrix, particularly after Sadie dresses him up in a purple shirt and bandana - one of Jimi's most famous stage costumes. Minor character Dr. Robert has a psychedelic painted bus similar to that of Ken Kesey's. If you take out the special effects and the fact that people spontaneously burst into song, Across The Universe captures the feel of the 1960's remarkably well.
Across The Universe is a trippy, strange, fun, romantic, humorous musical that is unlike anything else I've ever seen. It's almost like a two hour Beatles music video that has a plot. Granted, the plot is fairly predictable, but the characters are interesting enough to be invested in them to at least some degree. It's the visual effects and music that really brings this movie to life. There are no less than 33 Beatles songs used in the movie either in their entirety or in part; they are remarkably well integrated and move the movie forward. If you're a Beatles fan, this is not something to miss. If you somehow are not a Beatles fan, there's still plenty of fascinating visuals and interesting 1960's references to see in this movie. I own a copy of this on Blu-Ray and it's sitting on my shelf next to other favorites of mine, I even have the soundtrack. I recommend seeing Across The Universe and getting your own copy as well.

Here's the trailer for Across The Universe so you can hear a sample of the songs and see some of the amazing visuals:

Would you like to see more "Hollywood Musicals?" Not movies that are based on existing Broadway shows, but actual original musicals from Hollywood? Comment below and tell me why or why not.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Chasing Mavericks Movie Review

I've mentioned in the other two surf movies I've reviewed, Ride the Wild Surf and Soul Surfer, that I like to think I was a surfer in a previous life. I don't necessarily patronize surfing movies that often; they're usually at a basic level the same as any other sports movie. However, I found myself watching Chasing Mavericks (2012) the other day. While it was also a lot like other sports movies, I rather I liked it.
Fifteen-year-old Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston) discovers the mythic Mavericks surf break, one of the biggest waves on Earth, is not only real, but exists just miles from his Santa Cruz home. Eager to take on the legendary waves, he enlists the help of local surf legend Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) to help him survive it. As Jay and Frosty embark on their quest to accomplish the impossible, they form a unique friendship that transforms both their lives, and their quest to tame Mavericks becomes about far more than surfing.
As was the case in Soul Surfer, Chasing Mavericks is based on a real person and true events. Jay Moriarity was an accomplished surfer and waterman. He gained international fame when his wipeout at Mavericks was caught on film and made the cover of Surfer magazine. He also co-authored "The Ultimate Guide to Surfing." While Jay seems to have lead a relatively short life, he was highly passionate about everything he did. That's the sort of person that a good biopic tries to glorify.
Jonny Weston is a newcomer to the big screen. He's actually not too bad. His inexperience is evident, but for a first major motion picture he performs admirably. The characterized Jay is interesting. Jay is a remarkably optimistic and hopeful young man despite his circumstances living in a poor neighborhood with an alcoholic mother who can't hold down a job and pay the bills. There are many times as the character and story unfolds that you can't help but think, "Aww... he's such a good kid." Realistic? Maybe not, but he's the kind of kid you'd love to know.
Gerard Butler is good, as usual. His American accent isn't always very convincing, but he brings an intense presence to the movie with his stern, hardened looks and his often booming voice. Frosty is a mentor, and like most mentor characters he puts his mentee through hell but keeps encouraging Jay to keep going. Their relationship is a typical mentor/mentee bond that you've seen in movies dozens of times before, but both characters are fun to watch and the actors bounce off each other pretty well.
I've mentioned in both Ride the Wild Surf and Soul Surfer that the surf photography was highly impressive. Well, I think Chasing Mavericks was even better! The Mavericks waves were not just big, they were monstrous! Frosty says they were the size of five-story buildings at one point. Seeing boats on the ocean get heaved around by these waves was scary. As the waves crashed down upon the ocean, the water foams and froths so much that it occasionally looks like Jay is snowboarding rather than surfing. Okay, maybe it's just difficult to get lousy surf photography or something, but I was once again impressed by it in Chasing Mavericks.
The story we are offered is surely one you've already seen. The young athlete taking on a new lofty challenge in his or her sport, while a grumpy mentor whips them into shape, followed by some emotional drama at home and in relationships, rivals and bullies try to throw our hero for a loop, etc. The story is very cliché, and doesn't go out of its way to do anything bold or new. Frankly I think Chasing Mavericks manages to naturally achieve the spiritual or at least philosophical quality that Soul Surfer failed to accomplish for all its desperate efforts.  The story is not so predictable that you can accurately guess specifics of the next scene; movies which do that are truly abysmal. But even though Chasing Mavericks sticks to tried and true story points, it still remains interesting enough to enjoy.
Chasing Mavericks was an enjoyable surf movie, even if it was a cliché sports movie with a standard mentor/mentee character dynamic. It's sweet, gentle, and affably modest on the whole, but the script feel lacking somehow. The dialogue isn't always convincing and that makes the story feel trite. Nevertheless, I was bonkers over the surf photography, I liked the two main characters, and surfing is cool on a matter of principle. If you don't mind the stereotypical nature of the movie, Chasing Mavericks is worth the rental price. Even though I liked it, I didn't quite think it was worth the cost to own a copy.

What is your favorite mentor/mentee duo? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Iron Man 3 Movie Review

It's no secret that The Avengers was a phenomenal success. It wasn't originally intended, but it was quickly decided upon to do another Avengers movie. But before that can happen, we need another couple of movies to showcase our heroes' having individual adventures before teaming up again. Iron Man 3 (2013) is the first movie of the second string of movies leading up to another Avengers movie.
In light of the alien invasion in New York (in The Avengers), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is suffering from panic attacks. To set himself at ease, he has built several dozen new Iron Man suits, which has created some friction with his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Several mysterious bombings have occurred around the country over the last several months which mysteriously leave no forensic evidence. These have been orchestrated by a man calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), and the attacks are becoming more intense. Meanwhile a Dr. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is trying to team up with Stark Industries to perfect a super-soldier bio-chemical solution called Extremis, which should grant super-healing abilities.  After drawing the attention of The Mandarin, Tony Stark's safe world and everything he has is virtually destroyed. Tony's friend, Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) the former War Machine, now re-branded as the Iron Patriot, is sent on a wild goose chase to find The Mandarin. With his back against the wall, Tony is left to survive by his own devices, relying on his ingenuity and instincts to protect those closest to him.
I'm so glad that Iron Man 3 acknowledges events from The Avengers. In a short amount of time Tony Stark discovered the existence of powerful gods and alien threats as they both descended to attack Earth. Yes, The Avengers did save the day, but having symptoms of PTSD and panic attacks is not an unreasonable reaction to the ordeal. In a desperate moment, Tony pours his heart out to Pepper, "Nothing's been the same since New York. You experience things, and then they're over. I can't sleep, and when I do I have nightmares. Threat is eminent. I have to protect the one thing that I can't live without. That's you." This is simply the next logical step in the character's development, and it's done well.
Iron Man 3 has a darker tone than the previous two. Tony is at a very low point since nearly everything that makes him Iron Man has been taken away. It deals with some very real and sometimes scary issues; terrorist attacks, the impact on the families of the victims, foreboding insecurity, and mental breakdowns to name a few. But at the same time, Tony's character is a narcissist and rather than deal with traumatic or uncomfortable situations, he deflects it with humor. Iron Man 3 is pretty funny. With the dark nature and the comedy, it makes for some strange tonal contrasts. It didn't always fit perfectly, but I think it did work; it never sounded like sloppy writing that was trying to do too many things at once.
There is a HUGE plot twist halfway through the movie. I really want to talk about it, but to avoid spoilers I won't. I will say that it's probably going to irritate hardcore Marvel fans a whole lot. I was always a fan of Spider-Man and X-Men myself, and I have virtually no concept of Iron Man mythos. While it did take my be surprise, I could easily see long-time fans of Iron Man getting immensely bent out of shape by this plot device. Hopefully it won't cause anyone to boycott any future Iron Man movies or anything like that. I still thought the movie was good.
I can't review Iron Man 3 without talking about the effects. It's a special effects intensive movie with lots of CGI work and is so remarkably well done. Most of the mechanical suits are done with CGI. But it's so detailed, moves so naturally, and the lighting is so perfect you'd hardly guess there wasn't a real large metal suit running around. The final fight at the end is amazing. It's full of crazy Iron Man stunts that I never would have expected. It's hard not to cheer Tony on as he dukes it out. 
Iron Man 3 was great. It had logical progressions in character development, a darker tone, lots of laughs, incredible effects, a pretty good story, and some fun references to the other Avengers. That plot twist will throw you for a loop, though; it will make or break the movie for some Marvel fans. I managed to roll with the punches since I had no preconceived notions. Iron Man 3 is worth catching on the big screen and worth getting a copy on Blu-Ray once it's available. Also, make sure you stick around after the credits for a hilarious post-credits scene, as per Marvel movie tradition.

Boromir tells it like it is.

So, we have three Iron Man movies. Technically four, if you include The Avengers. Which one is your favorite? Comment below and tell me why!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness Movie Review

Back in 2009, J. J. Abrams took on the tricky task of not only appeasing a notoriously judgmental fan base but of winning over a new generation of movie goers with a relaunch of the 1960's cult classic TV series, Star Trek. Four years later we get a much anticipated sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and it's quite a ride!
The USS Enterprise and her crew have been sent to a distant planet to observe a primitive civilization. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) violates the Prime Directive when the life of First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) is jeopardized, exposing the Enterprise to the planet's civilization during the rescue. Called back to Earth, Kirk is demoted to First Officer of the Enterprise with his mentor Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) resuming command. The two attend an emergency meeting at Starfeet Command to discuss the bombing of the secret Section 31 installation in London, perpetrated by former Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). The meeting is attacked by Harrison who flees to the Klingon home world, Kronos, leaving Pike dead. Kirk is reinstated as the Enterprise Captain, and is given special permission from Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) to hunt down and kill Harrison with 72 long-range prototype photon torpedoes. This violates several of Starfleet's usual codes of ethics. With some trepidation, Spock, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), "Bones" (Karl Urban), "Scotty" (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Checkov (Anton Yelchin) follow Kirk as he leads the way to seek out Harrison, the one-man-weapon-of-mass-destruction.
Into Darkness picks up where Star Trek left off. In the previous film, the character driven plot revolves around Kirk and Spock being at odds with one another. Now the two have found a means of working together. They still have polar opposite personalities, but now they have an understanding that Kirk is the captain and Spock is the first officer and should have Kirk's back at all times. Spock does have Kirk's back but "Vulcans don't lie" and sometimes when Kirk breaks the rules, Spock is obligated to address that. It's a logical progression of the two characters' development and we get to see how this interesting dynamic brings the two of them closer together as friends. This relationship is the heart and soul of Star Trek; the ambiguous compound of rivalry, warmth, and interspecies misunderstanding. There are plenty of other characters who are well developed and make significant contributions to the story; it doesn't exclusively revolve around Kirk and Spock. The whole Enterprise crew gets multiple moments to shine.
The visual effects are brilliant. There are massive explosions, outstanding chases, beautiful scenery created through CGI, and the sets for the interior of the Enterprise look amazing. I loved seeing the Enterprise go into warp, buildings collapse, and space ships crash. Everything was shown in glorious detail. There were no shaky cameras to obscure details, and we got plenty of wide shots to show the magnitude of the damage. Into Darkness spares no expense on its stunning visuals nor it's riveting action.
There's an interesting theme that lends itself to a cautionary tale of real world politics. Yes, Harrison is a great villain, but I think the real "enemy" is the prospect of war, or rather how to best handle the onset of war. Kirk and Spock represent the two arguments about war; what is expedient and what is right. They have specific orders that are not in harmony with Starfleet's values, and would probably start a war with the fearsome Klingons. Spock readily puts forth the counter-argument to the crew's mission to destroy the fugitive Harrison; aren't they morally obligated to capture the suspect and bring him to trial instead? Our heroes are often set upon by the dilemma of choosing between moral ideals and making hasty retaliations. We aren't necessarily given a specific answer to the question, but it should make the viewer think about their country's stance in the face of contemporary international conflicts.
I think Into Darkness has a few more Star Trek references from the old TV show and movies than the first movie did. If you're a hardcore Trekkie, you'll notice lots throwback references throughout the movie. There's even some classic Star Trek lines delivered in new and unexpected ways, which was a very creative implementation. But even if you lived under a rock and never watched Star Trek before, you won't become lost watching Into Darkness. I watched Into Darkness with a couple of non-Trekkie friends and the only thing they were confused about is what a tribble was, and that is at best a detail of miniscule importance.
Star Trek Into Darkness was incredibly fun. I didn't think it was quite as good as its predecessor, but it was a good solid movie. J. J. Abrams knows how to construct a good blockbuster with a perfect blend of incredible action and meaningful characters. We are shown an excellent script which brought us some good dialogue. The visual effects are gorgeous and detailed, the action is exciting and well presented, and the classic Star Trek references are delightful. This will keep old school Trekkies and noobz captivated and enthralled.  Star Trek Into Darkness is worth catching on the big screen, and is worthy of a blu-ray purchase once it becomes available.

There are plenty of Star Trek movies out. Star Trek Into Darkness is the 12th. Do you have a favorite? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Atlantis: The Lost Empire Movie Review

 Maybe it's just me, but I don't think anyone really remembers Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). I can think of a few good reasons not to see it, but I can also think of reasons you shouldn't miss it.
It's 1914, and Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), the grandson of Thaddeus Thatch works in the boiler room of a museum. He knows that Atlantis is real, and he believes he can get there if he has the Shepherd's Journal, which would act as a guide to Atlantis. Milo needs someone to fund a voyage, but his employers don't take him seriously and refuse to fund his expedition. After meeting a mysterious woman, Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian), she takes Milo to her employer Preston B. Whitmore (John Mahoney), an eccentric millionaire who was a friend of Milo's grandfather. He gives Milo the Shepherd's Journal, a submarine, and a 5-star crew. The crew includes Commander Tiberius Rourke (James Garner), French Geologist "Mole" (Corey Burton), Medical Doctor, Joshua Sweet (Phil Morris), Italian Demolitionist "Vinny" (Don Novello), Puerto Rican mechanic Audry Ramirez (Jacqueline Obradors), elderly and sarcastic radio operator Wilhelina Packard (Florence Stanley), and a Western-style chuck wagon chef called "Cookie" (Jim Varney). After a bizarre voyage through the ocean's depths and through cavernous caves, they find Atlantis, governed by its king (Leonard Nimoy) and his daughter Kida (Cree Summers). Milo is beside himself with awe and wonder at the Atlantean City and doesn't suspect his crew of ulterior motives.
Disney was taking some bold new steps with Atlantis. It was their second animated feature without a musical number (Dinosaur being the first), their first animated sci-fi adventure (followed by Treasure Planet a few years later), one of the few to be shot in the Cinemascope aspect ratio (widescreen) format, and at the time of its release Atlantis used more CGI than any other Disney-animated feature. Disney was pushing the envelope with this movie.
Hellboy by Mike Mignola
The visual style inspired
designs for Atlantis.

The first thing that stands out about Atlantis is the animation. There are lots of details in the backgrounds and props, but the characters all have simple high contrast shading which makes them look flat. I thought that was a bit distracting, but take into consideration the style they were going for. The visual style was strongly based upon that of Mike Mignola, the comic book artist behind Dark Horse comic's Hellboy. The characters look angular and have large, squareish hands. It's very interesting to look at; it gives this animated action movie a satisfying comic book feel. Mignola's distinctive style helped earn Atlantis a cult following among comic book aficionados.
Another fascinating aspect of Atlantis was the Atlantean language. One of my linguistic heroes, Marc Okrand, was hired to develop the language used in the movie. Okrand is famous for developing the Klingon Language for the Star Trek movies and TV series. The Atlantean language employed an Indo-European word stock with its own unique grammatical structure. Okrand would change the words if they began to sound too much like an actual, spoken language. The written form was meant to be read left-to-right on the first line and right-to-left on the second, continuing a zigzagging pattern to simulate the flow of water. The artificial language was fascinating to hear and see, but wasn't utilized to the extent that I had hoped. It seems like a lot of effort was put into this underused aspect of the film.
The action in Atlantis was particularly exciting. Everything was well choreographed and it was easy to follow. While it is suitable for younger audience members, the action was  used to draw the audience in. Unfortunately with such an emphasis on the action, I felt that the story and characters suffered. I wanted to know more about the Atlantean culture and more about the character's histories and motives. There's very little down time in Atlantis, making the movie feel rushed. Yes, it's a Disney family movie, but they've done other animated features that flesh out the story and characters better than they did here. Excusing the lack of story and character development on the fact that it's a kids' movie is a pretty lousy argument. You can do better than this, Disney!
On a side note, I want to commend Jim Varney on his role as Cookie. Varney is known for his titular role in the Ernest movies, playing Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies movie, and for providing the voice for Slinky Dog in the first two Toy Story movies. Varney began doing the voice work for Cookie while struggling with lung cancer. He passed away in February of 2000, and never got to see the film. He was shown clips of his character's performance and reportedly, "He loved it." For a man virtually on his deathbed, Varney did a great job portraying an upbeat comical character.
Overall, I think the art style and production of Atlantis: The Lost Empire was far more interesting than the end result was. Most of the characters are shallow and conventional, and the story is predictable and unrefined. The art and color palette will blow you away, and the action will likely keep you interested. Due to its poor box office performance, Disney quickly canceled a spin-off TV series and an underwater Disneyland theme park attraction. I think that if more effort had been put into the developing the story, this would have been a much better movie. But if you're a linguistics dweeb like myself or a comic book enthusiast, I recommend seeing Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It will be released on Blu-Ray on June 11, 2013 and I may get a copy just because the animation is so intriguing. If art and linguistics aren't your thing, you're probably better off watching something else.

Here's the trailer to showcase the interesting animation and art style:

Can you think of another movie or book that uses a fictional language? I've already mentioned Star Trek's Klingon language and the Atlantis language. Comment below and tell me about it!