Friday, February 28, 2014

The Jerk Review

Having the weird sense of humor that I do, I admit I don't always enjoy comedies. The Jerk (1979) is considered one of the top 100 funniest movies according to the American Film Institute, and I still hear references to it now and then. I finally got around to watching it the other day, and I did think parts of it was funny.
Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin) begins his story by telling us "I was born a poor black child." Raised by a black family in Mississippi he learns the shocking truth that he was adopted. Never having the rhythm for music that his family has, he one evening finds himself instinctively tapping his feet to an easy listening tune on the radio instead of a low-down blues. donning a World War II bomber helmet and goggles, Navin takes to the road to start a new life in St. Louis. Upon arriving, a gas station owner, Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason) gives Navin his first break and hires him to pump gas. One day at the station Navin has a brainstorm, concocting an invention called "The Opti-Grab," A combination handle and nose-brace for eyeglasses. Navin runs into trouble when a crazed gunman (M. Emmet Walsh) picks out his name at random from the telephone book and tries to kill him. Navin escapes to a traveling carnival, where he wrangles a job as the "guess-your-weight" man. At the carnival, he begins dating the stunt driver and S&M enthusiast Patty Bernstein (Catlin Adams). But Navin meets the beautiful Marie (Bernadette Peters) and he quickly falls in love. In the meantime, the "Opti-grab" has taken off and soon Navin is a millionaire.
Comedies are tricky to review. What people find funny is subjective and differs greatly from person to person. Even I admit I have a weird sense of humor. I think there are basically two types of comedy; you either laugh at something that's funny because it looks silly (i.e. wearing WWII bomber helmet and goggles to hitchhike to St. Louis) or you laugh at something for the underlying reason that such antics are happening. Sure, it's kind of funny but if the punch line is simply "he looks silly wearing that hat" the humor is kind of weak. The why isn't addressed; The Jerk just wants us to laugh at the gags at the most basic level. By wearing a silly hat no plot point is made and nothing is said about the character. It's just silliness for the sake of silliness. Analyzing humor won't get anyone anywhere, though. Humor is very subjective and if I laugh at something and you don't, no amount of my logic is going to convince you that it was funny. That said, I laughed a few times at the comical antics; fewer than I'm sure the movie would have liked from its audience. It averages out to be an "okay" comedy in my book.
The Jerk is based on Steve Martin's stand-up comedy routines. He had made a few cameos in movies up to this point, but The Jerk was his first starring film role. Navin is supposed to be an 18-year-old boy venturing out to make his way in the world. Part of the irony is that he's still played by Steve Martin who was about 37 at the time. I'm starting to doubt if that man ever had hair any color other than white. Martin brings a very energetic vibe to his character; he plays a very innocent, naive, and often times downright stupid character with unfailing optimism. Although he didn't actually write the script, the character is a creation of Martin's and no one else could have played this role with such enthusiasm.
Back in 1984, a crazy new movie rating was released to indicate a movie that was above PG, but not quite as bad as R. The first movie to be released with the PG-13 rating was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Having said that, The Jerk is rated R, but today its content would have been earned a PG-13 rating, that rating simply didn't exist back in 1979. There's is some profanity, alcohol and marijuana use, and partial nudity in one scene when Nevin is trying to cover himself up with his pet dog. There is implied sex, but it's never shown on screen. There is also a scene with a nude painting in the background.  None of the content is graphic or suggestive enough in my opinion to have earned it an R rating today. Interpret that how you will, I just think it's interesting how film content and movie ratings have changed over the years.
The Jerk is a funny movie. It didn't have me falling out of my seat laughing, but it got me to chuckle a few times. It was fun seeing Steve Martin in one of his earliest roles. The story is pretty random and goes all over the place. The characters are funny, but shallow. It averages out to be an "okay" comedy movie. I'm glad I saw it because it's a classic worthy of a few laughs. It's probably not something I would go out of my way to see a second time. Like I said, it really wants you laugh at the gags at their most basic level. I recommend it only if you really like comedies, are a fan or Steve Martin, or appreciate classic movies.

What's your favorite Steve Martin role? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Unicorn City Review

Independent films are generally hit or miss; they are often made and written by amateur film makers who haven't quite mastered the art just yet. As such, a lot of independent films are overlooked or never seen. Unicorn City (2012) is an obscure little title that ended up having a lot of heart and a remarkably low budget.
Voss (David McGinn) is a gamer who is unemployed and looking for work. After much searching, game developer company Warlocks of the Beach interviews Voss for a management position. He seems a good candidate but lacks evidence of the leadership skills necessary to land the job. Given one week to prove himself, Voss does the only thing a rational adult would do; create a Utopian society for gamers called Unicorn City, where everyone plays their characters in a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) Game. Voss convinces his gaming guild to follow him into the mountains and has Marsha (Jaclyn Hales) a long-time gamer and best friend to document his abilities. However, Shadow Hawk (Jon Gries), Voss's gaming nemesis likes having control over the game and, as much as possible, over the lives of those who play it. It's not long before Shadow Hawk shows up to overthrow Voss' Kingdom and claim it for himself. Things get progressively worse and Voss's geek utopia begins to fall apart along with his hopes at getting his dream job.
While there are a lot of fantasy elements in this movie, it's not actually a fantasy. It's literally a bunch of reality-deprived geeks, most of whom probably live in their mother's basement, pretending to be princesses, knights, elves, and even centaurs. They have obviously homemade costumes to help them enact their fantasies. This is primarily a comedy of errors with some romantic overtones, though it blurs the lines between real life and fantasy. At one point Voss has to save Marsha. While the danger is very much real, they both stay in their LARP characters during the conflict. It's surreal, ironic, and kind of funny.
There are only about three characters in Unicorn City who aren't super geeks. I enjoy my geeky pastimes, but I've got nothing on these ubergeeks. My knowledge of a few Klingon insults pales in comparison to these guys. The movie really captivates geek culture in all of its socially awkward glory without bashing it in any way. The dialogue is brilliant. There are lots of very clever nods to geek culture that will probably go over most non-gamers' heads. The game company Voss is interviewing at is called "Warlocks of the Beach", which is a play on the actual gaming company "Wizards of the Coast", who is responsible for the famous Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons games. This isn't to say that only gamers will get these references. Similar to how Galaxy Quest was probably much funnier to Star Trek fans due to all the in-jokes and references, audiences who have played D&D are more likely to get a bigger kick out of Unicorn City.
There's a catchphrase that goes, "Fake it 'til you make it." meaning to imitate confidence so that as the confidence produces success, it will generate real confidence. The purpose is to create a positive feedback loop so as to avoid getting stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy related to one's fears of not being confident. That is essentially the theme here in Unicorn City. All the main characters have real-life issues they are facing, and they lack the confidence or skills to overcome them. They draw upon the strength they have given their in-game alter ego characters and learn to overcome their real world problems. "You are what you pretend to be," they are frequently reminded. I really like this theme of drawing strength from the fantasies these movie characters have created for themselves.
This is a hilariously low-budget film and it wouldn't surprise me of most of the wardrobe came from clothes lying on the floors of the cast members' bedroom closets. It looks pretty cheap, but since these characters are usually unemployed 20-somethings, it fits really well. There's a common folly in independent films where some shots are held just a little too long and ends up making the shot feel a bit awkward. This happens several times in Unicorn City, but that may have been intentional to accentuate the awkwardness of the bumbling geeky characters who seem to lack much self-pride in the first place. 
Unicorn City is a decent film. It's a fun idea, has funny relatable characters, a good theme, great dialogue, and manages to tell a decent story on a very low budget. It's not without its flaws, though. It features a couple of amateur actors, it slows down a lot in the second act, and features some bland camera work. These are hardly deal breakers, though. Unicorn City's weak points pale in comparison to what it manages to do well. The movie is rated PG, but probably won't appeal much to younger audiences. There's a lot of geek culture involved in this movie, so the geekier you are, the more you'll get a kick out of it. It's on Netflix Instant Play as of this writing, but you can also watch it for free (with commercials) on I thought it was a fun movie, but not quite worth owning a copy of. It is good enough to seek out for a viewing sometime.

Here's the trailer for Unicorn City. Check it out:

Are you a gamer? Are there any table-top RPGs you'd like to see made into a movie? I wouldn't mind seeing a good Dungeons & Dragons movie made. I'd also love to see a Werewolf: The Apocalypse movie. Comment below and tell me about a game you'd like to see made into a movie and why!

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Lego Movie Review

I was so excited for The Lego Movie (2014) when I saw the trailer for it. It looked hilarious. I could see it either being an incredible, fun animated movie or a hundred-minute long commercial for toy products. This movie not only met my highest hopes, but it exceeded my expectations by a lot!
Emmet (Chris Pratt) is an unremarkable construction worker who is perfectly happy with his settled existence as an ordinary citizen of the metropolis of Bricksburg. The plastic world is run by the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Everything is monotonous and routine, but no one complains because no one knows any different. Things change when Emmet follows a mysterious figure named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and discovers an ancient artifact known as the Piece of Resistance. According to the prophecy, this makes Emmet "The Special." After escaping Lord Business's henchman, Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), the two meet up with Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) an old wizard to determine Emmet's role in stopping Lord Business's evil plans. They meet up with other Master Builders including Batman (Will Arnett), Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie), Metal Beard the Pirate (Nick Offerman), and Benny the 1980-something space guy (Charlie Day) to construct a plan to save the entire Lego world from Lord Business's secret weapon, The Kragle.
The Lego Movie was written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. These are the geniuses who wrote and directed the first Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which I absolutely loved. Lord and Miller have excellent talent for writing an interesting and fun story, capturing high energy in their camera work, a great sense of comedic timing, and animating some very expressive characters. All of that is present in this movie, too.
The animation for The Lego Movie is absolutely phenomenal. Literally everything is made out of Lego pieces; people, buildings, cars, props, fire, explosions, water, fog, etc. What's amazing is, I don't think there were many Lego pieces used in the movie that don't actually exist in real life. The animation is CGI, but the movement is made to resemble stop motion animation. The characters moved like Lego figures; their arms could only move on one axis, they don't have knees, and they don't have articulate hands. All that made the movie feel much more tactile and realistic. They even got the texture of the Lego pieces spot on. Some are shiny and smooth, others are more rough and don't reflect the light as well, you can see the plastic seam leftover from plastic mold, you can even see slight tooth marks on some old pieces. You know you tried to unstick two stubborn Lego blocks by prying them apart with your teeth as a kid. Don't deny it. It looks for all the world like a camera zoomed in on an elaborately build Lego set. Here's a clip to help illustrate:

One of the neat things about The Lego Movie is that it captures feel of the Lego toys. There is a remarkably fun feeling of creating, inventing, and self-expression that is laced throughout the movie. It even encapsulates the manic feeling of trying to build something out of Lego blocks. In one scene, the newly assembled team is trying to make an escape vehicle as fast as possible. They are constantly shouting things like, "If anybody has black parts, I need them, okay?" "Use the yellow bricks." "No, it has to look this way!" "Does anyone know what this is and do you need it?" "We should use wings and rocket boosters." It sounds exactly like my friends and I did when we were playing with Lego. There are lots of mismatched characters and sets, just like you would have with a collection of different Lego sets. Dumbledore and Gandalf get annoyed when they are mistaken for each other, Michelangelo, the artist, is juxtaposed with Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle, and there are several cameos by actors portraying either themselves or characters they have played, not the least of which includes Shaquille O'Neal. It's simply amazing how the feeling of playing with Lego was incorporated into the movie! 
Part of what makes The Lego Movie so interesting is the layers of theme. On the surface it looks like a brightly colored fun light-hearted kids movie. Lord and Miller skillfully balance an impressive array of narrative and thematic spinning plates; the tension between following instructions and going your own way is at the heart of this movie. It also tackles ideas like order and chaos, adults and children, practicality and magic, the real and the imaginary. Yet it presents it in a laugh-a-minute, kid-friendly way that will entertain kid viewers and intrigue adult viewers. It's almost like Toy Story had it been written by Mel Brooks after reading George Orwell's 1984. 
The Lego Movie completely blew me away. I was hoping for something good, but hadn't dared to expect something this well made. Just as it's recurring musical number suggest, "Everything is Awesome" and there really isn't a better word for it. The characters are fun, the animation is exceptional, the setting was highly creative, the themes were multi-layered and interesting, and the humor was right up my alley.  I honestly can't say anything bad about this movie. It's got a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, for goodness sake! Go watch this in theaters; it's well worth ticket price. It's the kind of film we want to encourage Hollywood to keep making. I wasn't even halfway done with the movie before I decided I had to get a copy on blu-ray when it becomes available.

This was easily the best movie based on a toy product that I can think of. Can you think of another one that was good? Which toy based movie was the worst? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Despicable Me 2 Review

Despicable Me was one of Universal Studio's best selling animated features. In fact, it was the highest-grossing non-DreamWorks/non-Disney-Pixar animated film in North America. This lofty title was overthrown by its sequel, Despicable Me 2 (2013). That's worth talking about.
While Gru (Steve Carell) the ex-super villain is adjusting to family life and attempting an honest living in the jam business, a secret arctic laboratory is stolen. The Anti-Villain League decides it needs an insider's help and recruits Gru to the investigation. Together with the eccentric AVL agent, Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), Gru concludes that his prime suspect is the presumed dead super villain, "El Macho" (Benjamin Bratt), whose teenage son Antonio (Moises Arias) is also making the moves on Gru's eldest daughter, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove). Seemingly blinded by his over protectiveness of his children and his growing mutual attraction to Lucy, Gru seems on the wrong track even as his hordes of Minions are being quietly kidnapped en masse for a malevolent purpose.
Despicable Me had lots of heart and some great characters. Most of that movie's energy revolved around an evil super villain having to get along with three young girls who like fluffy pink unicorns. The characters bounced off one another very well and it made for a lot of situational comedy. In Despicable Me 2, the lovable characters return, but they are all getting along perfectly well and their situations aren't nearly as creative and funny. Now Gru is set on being a good father and taking care of his new daughters. That's all fine and dandy, but the characters' story arches seem to be watered down to a standardized prepackaged family drama that's been overdone many times before. Furthermore, Gru has turned from being a great bad guy to a boring good guy. That's a critical thing the first movie had. His previous nastiness undercut the prevailing sweetness perfectly well. This makes the movie hopelessly nice and insufficiently naughty. The characters in Despicable Me 2 manage to be fun, but they lack some of the depth of the first movie.
Despicable Me 2 could easily have been called "The Minions Movie." Don't get me wrong, the Minions are hysterical. They steal every scene they show up in. They are cute, they are funny, they sound silly. The way the movie was advertised, you'd have thought it was all about little yellow guys who were incapable of speech doing nothing but a bunch  of silly physical gags. There are a lot more Minion shenanigans in this movie, and it's a stitch! They don't technically say anything, but the way they are animated and the sounds they make you can usually tell what it is they are saying or in some cases singing. It's an indication of good animation when we can tell what a non-verbal character is saying or thinking. By the end of the movie every child is going to want their own Minion toy. Heck, I want one!
Despicable Me 2 is a cute movie. It doesn't quite exceed the quality of its predecessor, but it has enough charm, humor, and warmth to make it a solid family film. It's a credit that the writing can be so funny in the moment that you don't have time to stop and realize it lacks cohesion, dramatic tension, or a life lesson for the characters or audience to learn. The movie is a lot more like getting together with old friends for a few laughs and seeing what they've been up to. And that's just fine! Kids will get a huge kick out of revisiting the same sort of jokes while adults will be entertained enough to enjoy it with their kids. Despicable Me 2 is worth owning on Blu-Ray if you've got kids who will want to watch it repeatedly. I enjoyed it, but not enough to get my own copy to watch again and again.

There are tons of Minion antics between the two movies. Which one is your favorite? Comment below and tell me why!