Friday, January 31, 2014

The Lone Ranger Review

I'm still convinced that Disney is searching for another cash cow like Pirates of the Caribbean was. Prince of Persia didn't quite cut it and John Carter was a flop. The Lone Ranger (2013) is their latest attempt. The movie was dragged through the mud by other critics, but I ended up seeing it anyway. Frankly, I think it's a whole lot better than the media made it out to be.
In the 1930's, an elderly Tonto (Johnny Depp) tells a young boy the tale of John Reid, The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer). An idealistic lawyer, he rides with his brother and fellow Texas Ranger in pursuit of the notorious Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Ambushed by the outlaw and left for dead, John Reid is rescued by the renegade Comanche, Tonto, at the insistence of a mysterious white horse and offers to help him bring Cavendish to justice. Becoming a reluctant masked rider with a seemingly incomprehensible partner, Reid pursues the criminal against all obstacles. However, John and Tonto learn that Cavendish is only part of a far greater injustice, and the pair must fight it in an adventure that would make them legend.
The Lone Ranger has a few things going for it that other Pirates of the Caribbean-success attempts didn't have. First, it has Johnny Depp. Depp is type cast a lot of the time, but still excels in comical roles like he did in Pirates of the Caribbean. Second, The Lone Ranger has the same director as Pirates did; Gore Verbinski. He did the first three Pirates movies, Rango, and Mousehunt. He's a very visual director that has made some outstanding family films. It's the fact that both of these Hollywood personalities are present in The Lone Ranger. I'm certain it was the decision of studio executives and film producers to have them involved in The Lone Ranger in hopes that it would be as successful as Pirates was.
The Lone Ranger started out as a radio show way back in the 1930's. There have been a number of television shows and movies based off of it. I've never seen or heard any of these, but I am familiar with the cultural icons. All are present in this movie and they are well incorporated. The catchphrases, well known characters, Even the music from the William Tell Overture, which was used as a theme song in the old radio show, is present.
A lot of the exterior shots were filmed on desert locations in Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Gore has captivated an excellent Old West feel with gorgeous widescreen spectacles that owe a lot to classic “spaghetti westerns” of the 1960's. Even the action heralds back to Buster Keaton-style stunts. As far as visuals and action goes, this really is great movie to watch since it draws inspiration from a lot of old successful western movies. There had to be at least as many stunt men as there were digital effects artists working on this movie.
Depp and Hammer were great together. Hammer is a ridged, comically straight laced, sheltered, naïve city boy who is completely out of his element. It's kind of fun to watch him learn how the world really is and how he decides to take a stand and make things as good as he believes they should be. Depp is basically the same wacky character he often plays. This rendition of Tonto is similar to Captain Jack Sparrow but with a Native American motif. He's funny, weird, and serves up wacky humor.
The Lone Ranger is certainly not without it's faults. The most blaring of which is having a very white guy portraying a Native American. I love Johnny Depp, but it's so awkward when actors who are obviously of European decent, are playing characters of other ethnicities. Why not just give an actor of the character's ethnicity an opportunity to shine? I think that Tonto's character acts so comically weird that he becomes a politically incorrect depiction of Native Americans, and might offend some viewers. On the other hand, the Native Americans in the movie (actually played by Native Americans) all agree that Tonto is crazy and doesn't represent them. Still, the character makes me cringe a little.
Another problem is the spiritualism theme. It's repeatedly established that “nature is out of balance” and is causing animals to behave strangely. This is occasionally funny such as the scene when John's horse is found in a tree, and sometimes creepy. What causes this is not really established. Is it all the corruption from the outlaws? The western civilization taking over the American wilds? I have no idea. While the idea is repeated several times, it's neither resolved nor explained. It seems that it was haphazardly stuck into the movie here and there in an attempt to create a sense of larger stakes than what was originally thought, or to establish a sense of urgency. The story would have made more sense without it.
Finally, I thought the length of the movie was too long. It's fun, but long. The first forty-five minutes of the movie are excellent. It's easy to get lost in the second forty-five minutes. There ends up being multiple groups of villains that take too much time to explain. By the time it's all sorted out we've stopped caring and we're ready to see our heroes duke it out with the baddies. I think the movie would have been stronger with just one central villain.
The Lone Ranger is fun. Everyone told me it was crap, but I genuinely enjoyed it. There's tons of deadpan comedy and witty humor, lots of exciting action, some impressive visuals, and fun characters. It runs a bit long and might lose its audience from time to time, but that train scene at the end makes any confusion well worth enduring. I don't think it's quite as good as the first Pirates of the Caribbean was, but it is by far much better than critics were saying it is. I highly recommend renting The Lone Ranger, you may even consider purchasing a copy if you enjoyed other Gore Verbinski films.

Did you see The Lone Ranger? What did you think? Would you be up for watching a second installment? Comment below and tell me why or why not!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Her Movie Review

March is quickly approaching, which means that Academy Awards season is here. This means that there's a lot of Oscar Bait in theaters between December and March. Her (2013) seems like Oscar Bait material; biographies, period dramas, weepy inspirational stories, big name actors, etc. Her wasn't half bad, but I'm not sure it's going to win Best Picture.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely man in the final stages of his divorce with his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). When he's not working as a letter writer, his down time is spent playing video games and occasionally hanging out with his married friends Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). Theodore decides to purchase the new OS1, which is advertised as the world's first artificially intelligent operating system, "It's not just an operating system, it's a consciousness," the ad states. Theodore quickly finds himself drawn in with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the voice behind his OS1. As they start spending time together they grow closer and closer and eventually find themselves in love. Having fallen in love with his OS, Theodore finds himself dealing with feeling of both great joy and doubt. As an OS, Samantha has powerful intelligence that she uses to help Theodore in ways others hadn't, but how does she help him deal with his inner conflict of being in love with an operating system?
The thing that makes this such Oscar Bait material is that there is a lot of dialogue about life, love, and what it all means; that's a telltale sign. That's not necessarily bad; in fact Her does this quite well. It's an impressive piece of writing. In fact, one of the Academy Awards that Her is up for is Best Writing and I think it's got a very good shot at it. The frequent exposition on love and relationships is thought provoking, poignant, and flows naturally with events in the story. It didn't exactly make me want to run out and fall rapturously in love with someone and appreciate the tender moments in life as other movies have, but it's still a solid piece of writing.
What makes this movie so interesting is the fact that Theodore is falling in love with an incorporeal personality; specifically artificial intelligent software on his computer. This adds a surreal quality to this love story. You don't doubt that Theodore and Samantha are in love, but how can that possibly work out under the best of circumstances? Her does address this and explores the surreal nature of the relationship. There is a "sex" scene which really is just Theodor laying in bed by himself while he and Samantha are describing what each would be doing if they could actually touch one another. It really is a strange and surreal scene. It manages to express what a normal sex scene usually does, that is depict the unity of the two characters, while also drawing lots of attention to how bizarre that unity is.
Her also comments on our "relationship" with our technology today. We are so plugged into our computers, smart phones, and iPads that we are gravitating away from human interaction and connectedness with real people. This is particularly well illustrated as Theodore's job is acting as a ghostwriter for clients. He makes handwritten letters to a recipient, which is printed out, put in an envelope, and mailed off. The idea of literally falling in love with technology is not too much of a stretch of the imagination. Frankly, if Theodore and Samantha were both human doing the same things ,the movie wouldn't be nearly as interesting. But seeing this guy on a date with a disembodied voice who sees through the lens of his cell phone is attention-grabbing. It's one thing to see someone guide a date by the hand to a surprise; it's another thing entirely to see a guy wandering around with his eyes shut and his cell phone out in front of him as a disembodied voice directs him to a surprise.
Her isn't a bad movie. It's got interesting characters, an original concept, some excellent writing, great camera work and direction by Spike Jonze, and a great performances from the cast. Since this is a movie about adults and relationships, there are several adult scenes and adult dialogue. It's all meaningfully implemented, but put me off only as a matter of personal preference. It's still a good solid movie even with the Oscar Bait material. I recommend seeing this if you're not too put off by the adult situations.

Would you date an operating system? What kind of perks might that have? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters Movie Review

I suppose that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters came about in wake of other dark fairy tale revisions such as Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Jack the Giant Slayer. Unlike the others Hansel & Gretel was not meant to be taken very seriously, and indeed it is hard to do so. But even for a fantasy/action/comedy/horror movie that aims for campy fun, it's still not very impressive.
The siblings Hansel and Gretel are left alone in the woods by their father and captured by a dark witch in a candy house. However, they kill the witch and escape. Years later the orphans Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) have become famous witch hunters. When eleven children go missing in a small village, the Mayor summons Hansel and Gretel to rescue them. Upon arrival, the siblings save the red haired Mina (Pihla Viitala) from the local sheriff (Peter Stormare) who is accusing Mina of Witchcraft. Soon they discover that the Blood Moon will approach in three days and the powerful dark witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) is responsible for the abduction of the children. She intends to use the children together with a secret ingredient in a Sabbath to make the coven of witches protected against fire. As Hansel and Gretel race against time and fight off powerful witches, they begin to learn some mysterious secrets about their parents.
I have to give this movie a little bit of credit. They took what is ordinarily a short and simple fairy tale and did practically nothing to change it. The whole classic fairy tale is done during the prologue of the movie before the opening credits start rolling. This movie is about what happened afterwards and hints at creative underlying motives of the characters. The fairy tale is not corrupted or reinterpreted; just expanded. I liked that, and it gave Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters some potential to be an interesting and fun movie.
Of course, they didn't actually make it interesting or very fun. The movie starts out with some exciting action scenes chasing and killing witches with ridiculous weapons that would seem at home in a Final Fantasy video game, but then it slows down a whole lot. Hansel develops a romantic interest with Mina and Gretel meets up with a troll. Most of these scenes don't seem to do much for the story overall. I realize a movie like this isn't going to be profound by any means, but during these scenes it's almost like it's flailing around to achieve some deep character development. That's respectable, but seems so perfunctory and not well thought out.
The movie is very predictable. With each character that is introduced, you can pretty accurately predict how each one was going to play out. I was never wrong. I did, however, appreciate that there wasn't an insipid teenage love triangle forced into the story. We have too much of that rubbish already. One inconsequential detail about Hansel's character that I liked a whole lot was the fact that because he was force fed candy as a kid in the candy cottage, he now has diabetes and has to take regular insulin shots. That makes sense, and is not something I had ever considered. It really has no meaningful role in the movie, but it was kind of a neat detail.
The special effects were kind of hit or miss. The CGI lacked refinement and looked very much like it was computer-generated imagery; the blood and gore looked almost silly, but was better than that of Sharknado. The practical effects were decent, though. The aforementioned troll was all animatronics and looked pretty good. Exploding heads and other such nastiness looked good for what it was. It's not exactly my cup of tea, but that's appealing to some viewers.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is an interesting genre mash up. The fantasy isn't half bad, the action is ridiculous and hard to take seriously, the comedy usually falls flat, and the horror is more like "somewhat gross" than it is actually scary. There's several F-bombs and other profanity which I didn't really feel was necessary; the profanity and gore gives it an R rating. The story slows in the middle, but the beginning and end is pretty exciting. In the end it's not a very good movie and isn't as much fun as it tries to be. It's little bit better than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; it doesn't quite achieve what it's trying to be. It's okay if you just want to watch some senseless violence that doesn't require much thought, and even then it's barely worth the price to rent. Otherwise, don't bother.

I know I've asked before, but what other dark fairy tale revisions would you like to see?

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Croods Movie Review

Now that Dreamworks is essentially doing its own thing down instead of trying to emulate Pixar (see my Kung Fu Panda review for further ranting), Dreamworks has created a number of exceptional animated movies. The Croods (2012) was fun and showcased some stellar animation, but floundered a bit in terms of story.
The Croods, a family of prehistoric cavemen, has managed to survive harsh environmental hazards and predators for years in the safety of their cave. It is the job of the patriarch, Grug (Nicolas Cage), to keep his family safe and has repeatedly taught them the rules that have kept them safe for so  long; "new things" pose a threat to survival, and to never not be afraid. Grug's wife Ugga (Catherine Keener) and their three kids, Eep (Emma Stone), Thunk (Clark Duke), the ferocious baby Sandy, and Ugga's mother Gran (Cloris Leachman) spend their days cowering in their cave and scavenging for food. The Croods are forced outside the safety of their cave when it is destroyed as the tectonic plates begin to shift. Terrified of the alien world outside, they seek out a new shelter with the help of a nomadic caveboy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who, unlike the Croods, uses his brain to come up with ideas and inventions to overcome obstacles.
Concept Art for The Croods
Similar to Lilo & Stitch art
Chris Sanders is the guy responsible for The Croods. He directed it, wrote the screenplay, came up with the story concept, and heavily influenced the character designs. Chris Sanders also did all of this for Lilo & Stitch as well as provide the voice for Stitch. He's got a passion for animation and it does show in The Croods. You can see some similarities to the art style from Lilo & Stitch manifesting itself in The Croods.
The animation in The Croods is really fantastic. Everything is highly texturized. You can see very believable cracks and crags in rock formation, see clumps of fur and individual hairs on the characters and their fur skin clothing, small blemishes and imperfections in the skin, you can even see the veins bulge in Grug's neck when he yells. Among the most impressive bits of animation is the dust clouds. They look remarkably realistic!
Most of the characters are actually not that interesting. Grug and Eep are easily the most interesting since they each grow and develop the most. The other characters pretty much have one shtick that defines them and it is continuously reiterated in each scene. For example, Gran seems to be there for the sole purpose of mother-in-law jokes. On the other hand, Grug is having to accept change, accept that he can't control everything, and that rules naturally need to change as the world changes. It seems that rebellious teenagers go back as far as protective fathers do. Eep wants to explore and see the world, which goes completely against Grug's "new things are dangerous" and "never not be afraid" rules. Eep learns that the rules that have been around for generations have lasted for a reason; they work, and they keep us safe.
One of the things I particularly appreciated about The Croods is the family doesn't fight with one another. They certainly have very different views and don't always agree with one another. Sometimes they become angry at each other, but they don't fight amongst themselves. Family movies often have a kids vs. parents sort of theme, but that is not present here at all. The entire Crood family loves and respects each other despite their differences. This is established early on when The Croods scavenge for food; the whole family is in on it and they work together as an efficient team. Everyone works seamlessly together in a hilarious scene that is a cross between dodge ball, an obstacle course and a rugby game. I thought that was refreshing and I would love to see more movies do that.
There is a joyful, exciting, and tense theme of exploration and discovery. None of the prehistoric creatures the Croods encounter are actual prehistoric animals; they're all unique, comical, and bizarre. Even the landscapes they traverse seem highly strange and otherworldly. This gives us a sense of unfamiliarity along with the characters. While this was well implemented, they didn't do much else. The Croods encounter a new thing, they panic, and either accidentally find a way around it, or Guy provides a way around it. Nearly every scene follows that pattern, and it quickly becomes predictable.
The Croods is a good clean movie that the whole family could enjoy. It wasn't the best movie, but it had some very good qualities. It features some remarkable animation, some simple characters and some good characters, a fun theme, and good family values. The slapstick and cartoon physics are funny, but not very diverse. That coupled with a predictable story pattern weakens the movie overall. In the end, I think it's an okay movie. Kids will love it, older audiences will be amused. It's worth seeing once, but probably not worth owning unless you've got kids. You shouldn't lose any sleep over missing this, should that be the case.

I really liked the fact that the family in The Croods was
actually functional; they disagreed and became angry with each other at times, but were always loving and respectful of one another. It was realistic, yet optimistic. I want to see that in more movies. Can you think of any other movies that have a family like that in it? Comment below and make some recommendations!

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Movie Review

Ever since the end credits started rolling at the end of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), I've been chomping at the bit to see the sequel; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), and I was not disappointed. Even with a few flaws, there is more exciting action, more beautiful visuals, and easily the best dragon in cinema history!
After successfully crossing over and under the Misty Mountains, Thorin (Richard Armitage) and company continue their quest and must seek aid from a powerful stranger named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) before taking on the dangers of Mirkwood Forest. Upon reaching the forest, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) discovers "Black Speech" graffiti on an old ruin and abruptly leaves without explanation. If the dwarves reach the human settlement of Lake-town, it will be time for the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to fulfill his contract with the dwarves and use stealth to retrieve the Arkenstone which will reunite all the dwarves. The party must complete the journey to the Lonely Mountains and burglar Baggins must seek out the Secret Door that will give them access to the hoard of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Meanwhile, Gandalf rejoins a fellow wizard of his order, Radagast the Brown (The Doctor Sylvester McCoy), to investigate a potentially greater foe that the Black Speech foretold.
As was the case with The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Hobbit movies are being filmed back to back and filming sometimes overlapped. It's all the same cast and crew. So to save space here, just go read my review of An Unexpected Journey; what I discussed there can easily be said about The Desolation of Smaug.  An Unexpected Journey was good, though it had some pacing issues. But holy cow! The Desolation of Smaug is amazing! I think this is more of the tone viewers were expecting with the first movie. This one really takes things up to the next level.
This movie assumes that you have seen the previous one. Seriously, you must not see these out of order. The movies starts off with some exciting action and doesn't really slow down enough to develop the characters that have previously been established. Sure, we get some new characters; Orlando Bloom reprises his role as Legolas the elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) the Chief of the Guards for the Elfking, and Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), and the Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry). They all get developed to varying degrees, but the movie assumes you already know who Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the other dwarves are. That's often a downside to sequels; but since this is part two of a three part story, I can let it slide.
The Hobbit Trilogy is based on the book, the appendices to The Return of the King, and Tolkin's personal notes. There are extra scenes and characters I just didn't recognize at all. It turns out that there were scenes and characters included that were unique to the movies; Tauriel for example. I was suspicious that Legolas showed up in The Hobbit at all. He was not in the book, and I was expecting him to just make a simple cameo, nod to the fans, and be gone. Not so. He's actually a major character and that makes sense because his father plays an important role in the movie and the book. If you're going to shoehorn extra characters or scenes into an established story, it's important to make them meaningful, memorable, and amazing. That is exactly what Legolas and Tauriel were, and I loved it!
Smaug is easily the best dragon ever put on the big screen. I was a bit upset that we got to see him in one of the trailers. But no, the trailer did not do Smaug justice. If you saw the trailer, you have not seen anything yet. He is absolutely colossal. He's cunning, articulate, evil, ridiculously powerful, menacing, and dominating. I mean, you know when Bilbo enters the hoarded treasure chamber that you're going to see Smaug, but nothing can prepare you for it! You really feel the dread Bilbo feels upon first seeing this monster. Smaug would probably corner you without any kind of effort, kick your butt at a game of chess, and then incinerate you. I simply cannot describe how excellent Smaug is in this movie! This dragon is truly epic, and is going to be a memorable movie villain for ages to come; right up there with Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, The Wicked Witch of the West, and The Joker.
The Desolation of Smaug isn't without its flaws. The music is good, but not nearly as memorable as the music in An Unexpected Journey. This isn't a movie score you're as likely to listen to repeatedly. The story is weakened a bit simply from being the "middle chapter" in the bigger story; there isn't much of a beginning point nor is there much of a conclusion. It just ended so abruptly. This is very much a special effects intensive film, but a couple of times the CGI looked rather overt. I felt like some scenes could have been polished up a bit more.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was fantastic! It's got some flaws, but I don't think they are deal breakers by any means. The director, Peter Jackson, seems to be slipping into the realm of fan fiction at times, but he manages to make his additions acceptable and lots of fun for the most part. Smaug is incredible; best movie dragon ever! We're left with a considerable cliffhanger, but it's made me all the more excited for the final installment. You must see The Desolation of Smaug on the big screen. Smaug will look much less incredible on a TV screen. Catch this in theaters, and then wait to buy the extended edition on Blu-Ray. It's worth owning.

All other movie dragons have now been dethroned, but before Smaug came along, what was your favorite movie dragon? I thought Draco the dragon in Dragonheart was pretty good. Comment below and tell me about your favorite!