Friday, October 31, 2014

The Adjustment Bureau Review

Mashing up genres can make for some interesting stories. Recently a couple of sci-fi romances movies have been released; The Adjustment Bureau (2011) and Upside Down (2012). I've been meaning to see both of them, and just now got around to seeing The Adjustment Bureau. It tosses around some neat ideas about determinism versus free will, but the actual romance part was pretty weak to say the least.
On the brink of winning a seat on the U.S. Senate, ambitious politician David Norris (Matt Damon) meets a beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) - a woman like none he's never known. But just as he realizes he's falling for her, mysterious men conspire to keep the two apart. David learns he's up against the agents of Fate itself - the men of The Adjustment Bureau - who will do anything in their considerable power to prevent David and Elise from being together. In the face of overwhelming odds, he must either let her go and accept a predetermined path or risk everything to defy fate and be with her.
We don't often see a politician character who isn't to some degree caught up in the deceit and corruption inherent in politics. David is a pretty down to earth guy for being a politician. Maybe it's because we're seeing the version of him presented to the news and media as well as the behind-the-scenes version of him. There's not a lot of difference in personality on and off the news, though he certainly puts his game face on for the cameras. I'd probably vote for this guy. Inversely Elise is not necessarily a bad person, but she is kind of a brat. She's a bit selfish, likes to stir up drama from time to time, and cause small amounts of trouble in the interest of looking playful and cute. I didn't like her and had I met her, I doubt there would have been a second date, let alone a first one. While the two actors had some decent chemistry, I didn't see much of a reason for them to fall in love other than "they just clicked." That's a convenient reason to put characters together, but it robs them of potential depth and development.
This is a sci-fi film, but it's not high end science fiction. The science fiction/fantasy element plays an important role, but does not lend itself to big budget special effects or complex shots. There are special effects that are coyly inserted here and there when you aren't expecting it. It's subtle enough to avoid drawing you out of the scene and story to appreciate flashy visuals, yet sometimes so subtle that you catch yourself realizing a moment or two later that what you just saw couldn't have actually happened. It's not unlike the kind of sci-fi you'd see on the classic Twilight Zone television series. There is an interesting chase scene toward the end where David and Elise are teleporting through New York City's doorways similar to the scenes in Pixar's Monsters, Inc, though not nearly as elaborate. It's interesting, but probably won't blow your mind with visual effects and sci-fi wonderments.
There are some fascinating philosophical and theological implications in The Adjustment Bureau. I love stories that toss around ideas related to ethics, existentialism, and philosophy. There's a great deal of conflict between the ideas of free will and predestination. We have a story about a mundane existence that is totally a product of unseen manipulators trying to keep things going according to a specific plan. That lends itself to interesting Abrahamic theological implications such as an omnipotent and omniscient God. While not implicitly stated, it's suggested that The Chairman of The Adjustment Bureau represents God, while his caseworkers are angels. The downside to all these interesting ideas is that the movie seems to be too cautious to delve into these concepts that would lend themselves to a complex and fascinating theme for this movie. I suspect the filmmakers were reluctant to follow these implications too far, which is entirely understandable. The Adjustment Bureau could become thematically preachy if not kept in check.
Another very interesting aspect of this film is that while The Adjustment Bureau itself  is not at all evil, it does try to thwart our protagonists from reaching their goals, thus making The Bureau the antagonist in the story. There are several caseworkers from The Bureau that we meet whom are portrayed by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, and Terence Stamp. For the most part these characters do not actually threaten David with injury, death, or even pain to persuade him to follow his predetermined fate. Thompson (Stamp), the most imposing caseworker, does little more than give David an epic guilt trip. There really is no violence in this movie and not a lot of action other than a couple of chase scenes, yet it still expresses a sense of urgency, foreboding, and some suspense. That suggests some clever writing.
The Adjustment Bureau was a good movie that could have been a great one had it been a little more daring. For a sci-fi romance thriller, the romance is there though I didn't particularly like the female lead character. It certainly has some science fiction elements to it but it's not as loud and overbearing as most science fiction movies are, and the thrills might not put you on the edge of your seat. It's a more tame movie than what we are usually accustomed to for sci-fi, but that doesn't make it any less good. I recommend seeing The Adjustment Bureau, it's an interesting movie that will raise some fascinating questions for you to think about. It's a renter, or a good find if you happen upon it in a $5 bin at Wal-Mart.

Can you think of any other non-action science fiction movies? A.I. Artificial Intelligence is one of my favorites, and I'm still looking forward to Upside Down. Comment below and tell me about some others!

Friday, October 24, 2014

House at the End of the Street Review

It being the Halloween season, I was in the mood for a mildly scary movie. I have also become something of a fan of Jennifer Lawrence. Fortunately there is a movie that features both these qualities, House at the End of the Street (2012). For a psychological horror thriller, the movie is pretty tame and overall poorly executed, but provides a few scares and atmospheric foreboding.
Seeking a fresh start, newly divorced Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) and her daughter Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) find the house of their dreams in a small, upscale, rural town. But when startling and unexplainable events begin to happen, Sarah and Elissa learn the town is in the shadows of a chilling secret. Years earlier, in the house next door, a daughter killed her parents in their beds, and disappeared - leaving only a brother, Ryan (Max Thieriot), as the sole survivor. Against Sarah's wishes, Elissa begins a relationship with the reclusive Ryan - and the closer they get, the deeper they're all pulled into a mystery more dangerous than they ever imagined.
House at the End of the Street is, at face value, pretty straight forward. The characters are simple, the story is direct and uncomplicated, and the cinematography is usually standard by-the-book fare. It's not until we learn about our villain's back story that things start to get convoluted. Most everything ends up fitting together by the end of the story; the villain's twisted motives are probably going to be understood, even if the back story is presented out of sequence. But it still leaves some pretty major plot points unexplained. Unfortunately I can't really be more specific than this without giving away spoilers. Suffice it to say the story isn't fully explained by the end of the movie, and not because it was hoping to make a sequel eventually.
The characters are remarkably simple. The writers tried to give Elissa and her mother some depth by having them still emotionally reeling from a recent divorce, yet it's pretty cliché and uninspired. Jennifer Lawrence is phenomenal as usual, but she's got some pretty lame material to work with here. Elissa is a teenage girl, she's interested in boys, she enjoys and writes music sometimes, and she's snarky to her mother sometimes. That's everything that makes up Elissa. None of the characters are complicated or interesting. In fact, our villain even seems like a needlessly complicated rip-off of Psycho's Norman Bates. One of the closing scenes even closes in on the hospitalized villain who looks into the camera much like the closing scene in Psycho. That really burns my cookies since this villain isn't nearly as interesting and the movie isn't even half as good.
Most of the cinematography is pretty standardized and bland, but there are a few moments that were above average. We have a knife welding girl running through the woods towards Elissa's house with Ryan in pursuit trying to stop her. The camera pans around outside the house and we see through the windows Elissa moving about and doing some evening chores and we get brief peeks of the knife welding girl closing in. This was a pretty elaborate shot that was pretty good, not great, but pretty good. The two or three brief moments like this don't make up for the lackluster camera work used in the rest of the movie.
This is a psychological horror thriller, but it's also rated PG-13. It's a fairly tame scary movie. Most of the scares come from very cheap and predictable jump scares. There are a few foreboding creepy atmosphere scenes that are actually pretty scary. Elissa is walking home at night and has an old car slow to a stop and idle for a moment or two before backing up. The fact that she's a teenage girl alone in a wooded area and an unknown car stops is a bit unnerving, but the background music makes it seem all the more unsettling. There's another scene late in the movie when Elissa is trapped in the basement and has a handgun to defend herself, then the villain cuts the power off. She is left trying to find her stalker with a flickering flashlight. Of course you know someone's going to jump out at her in the flashlight beam, yet this scene had become so tense that I had to turn the volume down until the inevitable jump scare had passed. Because it's PG-13 there's no graphic violence, no gore, no grotesque stomach churning imagery. What little violence that actually happens takes place off screen.
House at the End of the Street is a tame horror movie with weak characters, a flimsy story, full of cheap jump scares, and apart from Jennifer Lawrence has a mediocre cast. Other than a few moments where the movie unexpectedly manages to do something good, House at the End of the Street is a study in mediocrity. None of it is likely to stand out in your memory as being very good or very bad after a few days; it's very forgettable. If you are in the mood for some PG-13 level scares, I recommend The Others or Dark Water.

R rated horror movies tend to be too much for my tastes, but once in a while a PG-13 scary movie is kind of fun. Can you think of some other notably good PG-13 scary movies that are worth seeing? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Chicken Run Review

The stop motion animation studio that did the Wallace & Gromit shorts took their first stab at a full length motion picture in 2000 called Chicken Run. It was bigger and more elaborate than any of the short films they had done before, and it truly was a remarkable feat of clay animation. It also conveniently happened to be a good movie on top of that.
Having been hopelessly repressed and facing eventual certain death at the chicken farm where she is held, Ginger the chicken (Julia Sawalha) has tried increasingly elaborate and desperate plans to escape. The farm’s owners Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth and Miranda Richardson, respectively) keep their chickens under close surveillance to prevent any escapes. It’s not until Ginger sees a smooth-talking Rhode Island Red rooster named Rocky (Mel Gibson), who literally lands in their midst from out of the sky, that Ginger hatches the idea that the imprisoned chickens could fly away. Rocky needs to wait for his broken wing to mend before he can actually demonstrate how he flew, but time is running out as Mrs. Tweedy decides to move from selling eggs to selling chicken pot pies.
This really was an amazing bit of animation, mostly thanks to the difference in size between the chicken characters and the human ones. The chicken characters are very articulate puppets and the puppets for them were probably around a foot in height. The Tweedys were proportionately larger than the chicken characters, and since the puppets are made out of clay, they would have had to be remarkably heavy and very difficult to articulate. It’s probable that there were foot-tall versions of the human characters when scenes featured only them, but there are several scenes where they interact with the chicken puppets and huge puppets would be needed to interact with them. Consider how the villain Oogie-Boogie in The Nightmare Before Christmas was a large clay puppet that moved and danced seemingly effortlessly. The puppet, itself, weighed over thirty pounds and it kept falling over, forcing animators to reshoot scenes. The Tweedys were easily much bigger than Oogie-boogie compared to the chicken characters. Yet interaction is so seamless you can’t imagine how they could possibly have animated these characters with such a significant size difference. I’m not sure exactly how this was accomplished, but suffice it to say it was done extraordinarily well.
The story is good and well suited for laughs and endearing characters. Ginger and her fellow chickens try hilarious escape stunts that incorporate cartoon physics and slapstick humor. The chickens have varied personalities and are lots of fun. Even the bad guys are funny. There is a scene where Ginger and Rocky are trying to escape the new pot pie making machine’s test run. It’s every bit as action packed and silly as an old Tom and Jerry cartoon. There are sentimental moments and moments of great character development which add a great deal of relatability and charm to the movie.
My only real beef with Chicken Run was the blatant vegetarian and animal rights themes. I mentioned this in my review of The Pirates! Band of Misfits. It makes sense given the nature of the story: chickens living on a chicken farm trying to escape from maniacal farmers. The farm, itself, is designed to look like a concentration camp. This is kind of funny, but at the same time it seems ridiculous to compare the horrors and torture that humans underwent during the holocaust to chickens. Don’t misunderstand; I’m in favor of ethical treatment of animals. Chicken Run never outright tells you that eating meat is evil and you should only eat vegetables, but it’s certainly not subtly hinted at either. There are times the movie gets a bit close to being preachy but never actually does so. I’m still unconvinced, and still love me some fraid chicken. This shouldn’t dissuade viewers from watching Chicken Run; it’s still a very good movie. I simply think the vegetarian theme was a bit much at times.
Chicken Run is a really good movie. Kids will love the slapstick humor, adults will enjoy the story along with their kids since it doesn’t pander to strictly juvenile audiences, animation buffs will love the detail in the puppets and be baffled by how well they interact, and vegetarians will probably champion this movie as something that promotes their beliefs and is still very family friendly. I enjoyed Chicken Run a lot and highly recommend it to anyone. It’s got a 97% on; it really is worth your time.

Chicken Run was a good movie without being preachy. Can you think of other movies that were blatant propaganda hidden in an animated kids feature? FernGully: The Last Rainforest comes to mind. Comment below and tell me about some others.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Stuff Review

There are times that a truly campy horror flick can be a lot of fun. I kept seeing The Stuff (1985) being suggested on Netflix Instant Play, and the movie poster looked so hilariously silly I simply had to watch it. Even though it's a total camp fest that is difficult to take seriously, it plays on a fear and paranoia that seems more applicable to today than the mid-80's.
A strange but tasty yogurt-like goo begins erupting from the earth and is discovered by a couple of miners. They taste it and decide to market it since it tastes so good. The American public literally eats up the new dessert sensation called "The Stuff," but unfortunately it takes over the brains of those who eat it, turning them into brainwashed mind-slaves with no will to do anything but eat more of the bizarre substance by any means. A former FBI agent turned industrial saboteur David "Mo" Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) is hired by the leaders of the suffering ice cream industry to find out what The Stuff actually is and destroy it. Meanwhile a young boy named Jason (Scott Bloom) discovers that The Stuff is alive and sees how it affects his family. He's arrested for vandalizing a supermarket in trying to smash displays of The Stuff. This attracts the attention of Rutherford, who comes to Jason's aid. They are joined by advertising executive Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci) who is responsible for The Stuff's market success. Together they try to uncover the secret of The Stuff.
The Stuff was just as silly as can be hoped for when it comes to old campy horror movies. It's kind of an amalgamation of other, better movies. It's kind of The Blob meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a bit of Soylent Green stirred in since some of the story revolves around Mo trying to find the secret of The Stuff. At its most basic level, the story isn't bad. Like many horror stories it's got some jump scares and some eerie foreboding moments. But if you put very much thought into it you might accidentally realize how little sense it makes on the whole. If the audience is left thinking, "wait, what happened?" Then it didn't tell the story well enough to make sense.
I'm not sure if this was supposed to be comical or not. The Stuff certainly pokes fun at marketing and fads in popular culture, but parts of the story and the acting are just so bad and silly, that I wasn't sure if it was in fact intending to be funny. Some of The Stuff's mind zombie people are incredibly fragile and their heads would explode when punched. This looked so absurdly fake that I laughed every time it happened. People are not made of rubber and Styrofoam. Was this supposed to make me laugh? I'm honestly not sure, but it did!
A lot of the visual effects have not aged well; there was a lot of blue screen used when I'm not really sure it was necessary. Substance props for The Stuff included lots of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, yogurt, and, for a few scenes, fire-extinguisher foam. There is a scene where Mo and Nicole are attacked in a hotel room by The Stuff, the scene required a room that could turn upside down allowing The Stuff to appear to be moving up and down the wall. It's actually a pretty good scene! Worth mentioning is that this is the exact same prop room used in the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie that came out the same year with an ill-fated teenage Johnny Depp in his big screen debut.
The early 1980's was marked by a severe global economic recession, and there was resentment towards wealthy big companies that were making a profit at the expense of others, even if it wasn't actually the case. Not much has changed, huh? The Stuff focuses a lot on corrupt corporations who are trying to make money off people regardless of how their business practices affect their customers. That is still going to resonate with viewers today. But currently food is a big issue; we're more concerned about what's in it, where it came from, and what chemicals like preservatives and artificial flavoring, are doing to our bodies. A movie about a food craze that literally eats away at people's bodies and food distributors going to great lengths to obfuscate what food is made out of and what it's doing to our health sounds much more applicable to modern culture than it was to 1980's culture. With current food trends leading to widespread obesity, cancer, heart disease, and other issues, I'm surprised a movie similar to The Stuff hasn't come out recently. A horror movie playing on cultural paranoia about our food seems like an untapped potential that the film industry isn't taking advantage of.
The Stuff is a very silly movie with an illogical story that doesn't manage to wrap itself up with much of a conclusion. There are moments when the movie actually comes alive thanks to some of the actors incongruous ingenuity and the director's willingness to simply have fun with the material. It's got some nice touches, but overall isn't that great. It's a perfect dumb movie to watch with some friends for the sole purpose of making fun of it. Even without comments from the peanut gallery, it's still so silly that it earns a few laughs on its own, intentional or not. Thematically, it missed its mark by a couple of decades. Modern audiences might find more in this movie now than they did in the 80's. This is rated R, but was made before the PG-13 rating was created; I would give it a PG-13. Heads might explode, but it looks so awful and fake that R seems too strong. I think the TV movie Sharknado was gorier than this. I enjoyed it for what it was, and I'd be willing to watch it a second time.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Last Action Hero Review

Back in the year 1993, a phenomenal movie was released and became a classic movie and one of the director's best known films. I am, of course, talking about Jurassic Park. The very next week after Jurassic Park hit theaters another movie was released called Last Action Hero. Most of its audiences were people who were going to see Jurassic Park but tickets were sold out, leaving them to settle for Last Action Hero. Critics also gave Last Action Hero predominantly negative reviews, and with good reason; as a piece of fiction it is pretty lousy, but as a ridiculous comedy that satirizes action films it's golden.
Young Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brian) is a big fan of Jack Slater, a larger-than-life action hero played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. When his best friend, Nick the projectionist (Art Carney), gives Danny a magic ticket to the new Jack Slater film, Danny is transported into Slater's world, where the good guys always win. One of Slater's enemies, Benedict the hit man, gets hold of the ticket and ends up in Danny's world, where he realizes that if he can kill the real Arnold Schwarzenegger, Slater will be no more. Slater and Danny leave the movie to stop Benedict, but movie rules don't apply in the real world and with Benedict bringing villains from other movies to the real world can he be stopped?
Last Action Hero was before its time. Before Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, or Zombieland, there was Last Action Hero. This movie takes the quintessential movie star of that era and put him in a spoof of his own genre. For all the roles Schwarzenegger has played, he has a non-existent range. He's good at squinting, smirking, and standing up while keeping his back straight, but not as convincing as the viewer that he's anyone other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's incapable of disappearing into a role, instead of becoming a character, the character becomes him. That ends up being the central punch line of most of his comedies; it's funny to see him do something un- Schwarzeneggerian. That tends to make his comedies pretty bad.
Last Action Hero fails as fiction because the movie didn't properly distinguish between the real world and the world of the movie-within-the-movie and never defined the parameters of either. For instance, after Danny gets sucked into the fictional Schwarzenegger movie Jack Slater IV, he discovers that characters from other movies, like Terminator 2: Judgment Day's T-1000 (a cameo by Robert Patrick), also inhabit this universe. But if the T-1000 is a real person in the movie-within-the-movie, then why does the actual film Terminator 2 also exist in the same world (albeit starring Sylvester Stallone)? If Jack Slater loses his invulnerability upon entering Danny's "real" world, then why do other movies characters such as Death (Ian McKellen) from The Seventh Seal retain their powers after being freed from their movie? And why does Danny's world seem so fake and saturated with in-jokes and movie references as Jack Slater IV?
Because everything is so malleable, the humor no longer rests in the violation of rules (which don't seem to exist) or screen personas, but in the imaginative co-mingling of intentional crassness and non-logic. Danny is transported into Jack Slater IV in the middle of a car chase. Slater shoots a bad guy, who gets thrown into an ice cream truck, which then promptly explodes. Cue another bad guy keeling over, with an ice cream cone lodged in the back of his head. "I iced that guy," says Slater, before adding "To cone a phrase." That's just hilarious, not so much because it satirizes a trope, but because of a complex interaction of intentionally unreal and parody elements of things we recognize and things that ignore both common sense and physics.
A lot of the humor is like this. It further goes on to satirize action tropes. Once in the real world, Benedict tries to lure Slater by killing someone. In the movies, this usually attracts the hero to start a fight. But even when shouting to the neighborhood that he's shot someone, nothing happens. Slater also is confused that there are no obvious clues left behind by henchmen as to where the bad guys can be found. A lot of movies are parodied or referenced in this movie including Die Hard, Hamlet, The Wizard of Oz, E.T., Blade Runner, Amadeus, both Terminator movies, The Nightmare on Elm Street, Witness, Lethal Weapon, Rambo III, Total Recall, and many others. Not to mention the many action movie star cameos.
One thing that makes a good movie good, is that it sets up rules and then breaks them. Take Jurassic Park; the rules are that barriers protect visitors from dinosaurs and that the dinosaurs can't reproduce. These rules are deliberately broken ("life finds a way"), and it makes the story interesting. Last Action Hero can't accomplish that because what makes it special also dooms it; though it satirizes narrative rules, it never completely adheres to one, making the movie's "reality" all wonky. It goes from a fictional reality to a real fiction to a fictional fiction to a cartoon-like narrative and then back to the fictional reality again. It makes for a weak story that is hard to take seriously as a piece of writing. But the satire of action movies is really quite entertaining.
Last Action Hero is technically not a good movie any way you look at it. The special effects weren't even that good for its day. The humor is often weird but still earns lots of laughs. The satire is strange and yet so poignant and interesting that it makes the movie a lot more fun than it should. I highly recommend seeing Last Action Hero, especially if you're a movie buff. It's fun and much more intelligently written than it seems to realize. I think this oft-overlooked movie deserves to be rediscovered.

Here's the trailer to give you more of a feel for movie's satire:

What is your favorite movie satire? Comment below and let me know!