Friday, March 28, 2014

Divergent Movie Reivew

Oh, hey wow! Another set of movies based off of a young adult novel trilogy. We certainly haven't had enough of those lately. Contrary to the circumstances when I saw The Hunger Games, I had read the Divergent book before the Divergent (2014) movie hit theaters. This is a rare case where I think the movie is better than the book upon which it is based.
Set in a futuristic dystopia where society is divided into five factions that each represent a different virtue, teenagers have to decide if they want to stay in their faction or switch to another for the rest of their lives. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) makes a choice that surprises everyone by leaving the Abnegation faction that values selflessness and joins the rough and rugged Dauntless faction which values bravery. Beatrice and her fellow faction initiates have to live through a highly competitive initiation process and training from Four (Theo James) and other trainers. They must undergo extreme physical and intense psychological tests, which end up transforming them all. But Beatrice has a secret; she is Divergent, which means she doesn't fit into any one faction. If anyone knew, it would mean a certainty of death. When Beatrice discovers a growing conflict lead by Erudite leader, Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), which threatens to unravel the seemingly perfect society, Beatrice's secret might help her save the people she loves, or it might destroy her.
So, I have read the Divergent book. It bears a more-than-passing resemblance to The Hunger Games; dystopian future, society divided into groups, rebellion, searching for a sense of identity, worrying about being different, etc. The characters were inconsistent, the story wasn't developed well, and most of the events were thrown together without obvious connection. It's a pretty weak novel that didn't inspire me to check out the others in the series. Having said that, I think the writers of the Divergent movie did a great job of taking a mediocre book and developing it into a decent movie. It's sad if the movie does a better job of telling the story than the original book did. In the movie the characters are more consistent, we understand the reason for certain events, and the story is more evenly paced. That's not to say the movie was exceptionally good, just better than the book it was based on.
Much of the film revolves around the rigorous training that Beatrice and the other newbies are put through. Four and Eric (Jai Courtney) are heartless and tough on the new recruits, so naturally Beatrice develops a romantic interest in Four. The scenes where this enigmatic interest develops was very much forced. Four puts his hand on Beatrice's side or back to help her with fighting stances and posture and then leaves them there just a little too long for comfort. Of course this is supposed to be romantic and is meant to illustrate the growing passionate tension between the two characters. It ends up looking so awkward and uncomfortable that I literally laughed out loud nearly every time this happened. I think this is more of a flaw of the script and maybe a lapse in directing; the actors do a decent job acting their part, they just didn't have very good material to work with. In fact, I think Woodley and James's performances were a strength in the movie, it could have been a lot worse with less skilled actors.
There are a number of creative liberties used in making this movie. We actually get to see Beatrice develop from a rather frumpy reserved puritan-like character into a hard core fighting machine and strategist. We get to see what make Four tick. Jeanine has a much more prominent and developed role as the villain. There's some emotionally intense scenes near the end that made me a lot more invested in the characters. The big fight at the end of the movie is very different, but much more logical and poignant to the story and characters. These differences made the movie a lot more solid than it was in the book, I think.
Apart from the hallucinogenic mind-test scenes, there isn't a whole lot of particularly intensive special effects. A lot of the action scenes were executed with practical effects which is always a plus in my book. Most of the CGI was in the exterior shots of post-apocalyptic Chicago. Ruined structures, the huge defensive fence around the city, and some futuristic buildings were rendered by computers with such remarkable detail that one would hardly suppose they were artificial. It really helped sell the post-apocalyptic setting.
Divergent wasn't a bad movie. It had plenty of weaknesses, including some shaky cam which I'm convinced was trying to imitate The first Hunger Games movie. The love interest was illogical, some characters were left underdeveloped, the Young Adult Fiction formula undercuts some potential for an interesting theme and makes the story predictable. On the other hand, the acting is pretty good, the special effects are well integrated and coupled with some good practical effects, the story is reasonably well developed, and we've got a strong female protagonist. Divergent was much better than the book, but still wasn't a wholly remarkable movie. The book didn't inspire me to read the others in the series, but I liked the movie enough to check out its sequels. Unless you're a huge fan of the books, I'd wait for this to be on home video. It's a renter, but it's a pretty good renter.

So, Young Adult books seem to be a movie genre any more. What is a Young Adult book series that you would like to see made into a movie? I think The Looking Glass Wars would be pretty cool. Comment below and tell me what you think!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Harold and Maude Movie Review

Several years ago Harold and Maude (1971) was recommended to me as a cult classic. I'm usually up to snuff on my cult classics, but I honestly had never heard of it. I put it on my movie list, but hadn't got around to watching it until recently. Now I can't imagine why it's not more widely known.
Self-destructive and needy, but wealthy, seventeen-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) is obsessed with death. He spends his leisure time attending funerals, watching demolition of buildings, visiting junkyards, having sessions with his psychologist, and simulating suicides to try to get the attention of his indifferent, snobbish, and egocentric mother (Vivian Pickles). When Harold meets the anarchic seventy-nine-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon) at a funeral, they become friends and the old lady discloses other perspectives of the cycle of life to him. Meanwhile, Harold's mother enlists him in a dating service and tries to force him to join the army. As Harold and Maude's friendship grows, he finds the truth about her life as it begins to draw to a close.
This movie is categorized as a romantic comedy. I really don't see how this is a romantic movie at all; romance is about two people sharing a mutual love and admiration for one another. The relationship in Harold and Maude was about these two fairly unique characters sharing a mutual love and contentment for life itself. The comedy element is certainly there, and more often than not it's rather dark. The scenes where Harold stages fake suicides are funny but bleak. There are other scenes that are more lighthearted, but the overall tone of the movie is dark. Having said that, the movie is rated PG. As I detailed in my review of The Jerk, the PG-13 rating didn't exist before 1984. Given the dark comedy and the faked suicide scenes, I think it would qualify for a tame PG-13. It's not graphic, but it's tonally dark sometimes, and probably not something to watch with small kids in the room.
I simply adored the themes in Harold and Maude. Harold embodied nihilism; he believes that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. Existentially, he is without meaning. This was very typical of the doomed outlook of the alienated youth of the era during which this movie was released. Maude embodied a purpose driven life full of optimism having overcome some truly hard times in her past. The two characters are therefore at different points on the same path. Harold is part of a society in which he has no importance. Maude has survived and lives a life with meaning and deliberate choice. It's easy to get drawn into philosophical analysis here, but suffice it to say that it's well implemented and will make you think about life.
The humor is certainly amusing. Easily my favorite scene is when Harold's mother is filling out the information form for the dating service she is signing Harold up for. She's answering all the questions they way she would answer them. She asks Harold how he would answer, but doesn't bother to wait for his input. She indicates that Harold is in favor of capital punishment, thinks women should run for presidential office, and that he has head and back pains after a stressful day. Meanwhile, Harold is loading a handgun and aiming it at himself. His mother takes no notice, until Harold apparently shoots himself. She doesn't even look up and snaps, "Harold! Please!" and calmly continues with the questionnaire.  The humor ranges from dry, to dark, to silly, to ironic. It ends up being pretty funny overall.
Harold and Maude was an excellent movie. It's funny, it's interesting, it's dark, and it will make you want to go live life to its fullest. The characters are unique, the script is well written, and the story is fun. It's not perfect, though. The visual style makes everyone look fresh from a wax museum, and the camera work is anything but inspiring. While the characters and story have aged beautifully and are still relatable today, the 1970's cars and fashions have not. Nevertheless, Harold and Maude is a good movie that is worth seeing if you aren't put off by the dark humor. It was a box office bomb in its day, later developed a cult following, and finally started earning a profit in 1983. It's now a cult classic, and I may consider getting a copy of this for my personal collection.

What's the oldest cult classic movie that you enjoy watching? Comment below and tell me about it!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Charlotte's Web Review

The E. B. White children's classic, Charlotte's Web, seems to be such an icon that it never occurred to me that there have only been two versions of the movie to date. There was an animated feature from Hanna-Barbera in 1973 and more recently a live-action one in 2006 from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies. I was raised on the old animated version, but I still think this newer one is pretty good.
Fern Arabel (Dakota Fanning) is a young girl growing up on her family's farm. When a sow gives birth to some piglets, Fern's father (Kevin Anderson) intends to do away with the runt of the litter,  but Fern persuades her father to let him live. The pig, named Wilbur (Dominic Scott Kay), becomes Fern's pet, but when he grows larger, he's put in the care of homer Zuckerman (Gary Basaraba), a farmer down the road. Fern is still able to visit Wilbur regularly, and it soon occurs to both of them that pigs tend to have a limited life expectancy on a farm, and that unless something unusual happens, Wilbur will eventually become Christmas dinner. Charlotte (Julia Roberts), a friendly spider who lives in the barn, hatches a plan to make Wilbur seem special enough to save by weaving messages about the "terrific" pig into her web, and she soon persuades her barnyard friend to join in her plan. Time files and the end of the season approaches and everyone wonders if Charlotte's messages be enough to save Wilbur.
Charlotte's Web was a very cute movie. It was a competent retelling of the classic children's book that will easily endear it's audience. It's got a timeless feel to it, similar to that of The Odd Life of Timothy Green. The book was originally printed in the early 1950's, but this movie doesn't specifically take place in that time period. It could very easily have taken place at any time; the clothing and sets looked typical of an idyllic Norman Rockwell style country setting. There are no TV's or cell phones, but they probably wouldn't have looked terribly out of place. This gives a timeless feel that people of any age could relate to.
Each of the two Charlotte's Web movies have their own thing to appeal to kids. Apparently, it was assumed that to please kids in the 70's there had to be lots of musical numbers because kids like songs. In 2006 it was assumed that to please kids there had to be a bunch of fart jokes because kids like fart jokes. I can understand wanting to appeal to the target kid audience, but the fart jokes got pretty annoying after a while. This version of Charlotte's Web didn't have musical numbers, but we did spend a lot of time watching Templeton the rat doing gross rat things. They spent a lot of time on the rotten egg scene, I thought. It's interesting to see how movie studios have changed their tactics in kid movies, but I'm not sure that moving to fart jokes from musical numbers is necessarily a flattering development.
Charlotte is given a friendlier face than
that of a real spider.
There are a lot of stars that make up the animal voice work. It includes Steve Buscemi, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, Robert Redford, Thomas Haden Church, and André Benrubi. It's a fantastic cast that pulled together and made a pretty darn good movie.
I watched Charlotte's Web a good eight years after its original release. CGI effects haven't made particularly huge leaps and bounds in that time, but the computer animation still looks pretty good today. Charlotte's size doesn't always seem to stay consistent from scene to scene. Charlotte has the hairy texture of a spider, but is given a bit of a cartoonish appearance, probably to keep arachnophobia audiences from losing it during the movie, or at least to keep from making new arachnophobes out of the young audience.
Charlotte's Web simply has too much talent and too strong a story to truly mess it up. There was some potential to do more with the story, but this incarnation is respectable and a good update to the classic story for a new generation of kids. It's got everything a good clean family film needs; humor, drama, some sadness, and an emotionally satisfying ending. I liked this version of Charlotte's Web even with the excess of fart jokes. If you've got kids at home, this is something you may consider getting a copy of. Even though I enjoy kid movies from time to time, I didn't really enjoy this one enough to get a copy myself. My opinion might be clouded by nostalgia, but I think the animated version was just a little bit better.

Surely you've seen at least one version of Charlotte's Web. Which one do you prefer? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Casa de mi Padre Review

I seem to have been giving a lot of the movies that I have recently seen predominantly positive reviews. It's high time for a bad movie. I heard about Casa de mi Padre (2012) from The Q Filmcast. I figured it was a bad movie because Will Ferrell is in it. When it comes to disappointing, Will Ferrell rarely disappoints.
Armando Alvarez (Will Ferrell) has lived and worked on his father's ranch in Mexico his entire life. As the ranch encounters financial difficulties, Armando's younger brother Raul (Diego Luna) shows up with his new fiancé, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez). It seems that Raul's success as an international businessman means the ranch's troubles are over as he pledges to settle all debts his father has incurred. But when Armando falls for Sonia, and Raul's business dealings turn out to be less than legit, all hell breaks loose as they find themselves in a war with Mexico's most feared drug lord, the mighty Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal).
 This movie is an odd phenomenon. Once the opening credits are over and before the first scene starts you hear Kris Kristofferson doing a short voice-over that says, "If it sound Spanish, man, that's what it is; it's a Spanish movie." Apart from a couple of short lines from an American character, everything is in Spanish. Will Ferrell spent a month learning Spanish with a dialect coach for the role. I'm far from fluent in Spanish, but Ferrell's Spanish is spot on and is pretty convincing from my perspective. At first I had thought it was a voice over, but no, that's really him. I kept expecting poor Spanish from Ferrell, or at least discrepancies between the dialogue and subtitles, but no such luck.
The movie tries very hard to parody Mexican Telenovelas; limited-run dramatic programming with soap opera quality dramatics and dialogue. Everything is highly intense and exorbitantly dramatic; subtlety has no place in this soap opera style movie. There are lots of gags to suggest a low budget; small sets with obviously painted backdrops, a lot of fake animals used as props, intentionally using editing mistakes and errors in cutting the film during editing. There's one scene when Armando and Sonia ride side by side in a shot that doesn't actually show the horses they are riding on while the background slides past at a different speed than the horses are apparently galloping. During fight scenes Raul is always smoking, and often has an alcoholic drink in one hand.
The movie is in Spanish, but I genuinely don't think it is intended for Spanish speaking audiences. It's features a lot of American style humor, but it's in Spanish. Armando and his fellow Rancheros will make a joke and then chuckle amongst themselves for an uncomfortably long time. One time this is interrupted by Sonia who asks if she can be included in their joke. Armando unapologetically tells her no because the joke was about her. Seriously, that's just about the funniest bit of dialogue in the whole movie. In another scene, Onza is supposed to be delivering some dramatic lines while lighting up a cigarette. This is done naturally and fluidly and looks dramatic in an ironic sort of way. As he continues talking he lights a second cigarette and is soon speaking with two cigarettes hanging from his mouth. This is probably the funniest stunt in the whole movie. There's a ridiculous sex scene where about half the shots have a mannequin prop instead of Sonia. The humor is very typical of a Will Ferrell movie, that is to say, it's not very funny at all.
There are a couple of reasons this was probably a bomb in the box office. It's barely been two years since it was in theaters and no one can remember ever hearing about it. The advertising campaign must have been pitiable at best. On top of that, it's in Spanish with subtitles. Americans don't seem to like having to put forth the effort to read their movies, least of all the demographic that actually finds Will Ferrell's comedies funny. I prefer subtitled movies to dubbed movies; there is less interference with  the director's artistic intention. No one seems to have heard of Casa de mi Padre, and even upon hearing it, I doubt anyone would go out of their way to see it; it just isn't something that I think would appeal to very many people.
Casa de me Padre was just awful. It's kind of like a frozen enchilada dinner from the supermarket; it seems like it could be a good idea at first, but you quickly realize it lacks flavor or anything else appealing. The irony is thick in this movie; acting was ironically dramatic, the sets were cheap, the effects were terrible, and the dialogue was silly. That's great since that's what it was trying to do! However, it didn't do much other than be ironic. The movie is supposed to be first and foremost a comedy and it's just not funny. The humor is at best juvenile and usually didn't get a reaction from me. Seriously, the only movies that featured Will Ferrell that I liked were Stranger Than Fiction and The Lego Movie where he's counter typecast; he's just not good at being funny. Don't bother watching this movie. It's stupid. It does irony well, but not well enough to be enjoyable.

What's your favorite parody of a film genre? I like Kung Pow: Enter the Fist which is a parody of 1970's Kung Fu movies. Comment below and tell me about yours!