Friday, April 25, 2014

The Muppets Movie Review

The Muppets have been comedy icons since the mid-70's. Though the infamous Jim Henson appeared with early Muppet characters as early as the 1950's. The cast of wacky puppets originally starred on The Muppet Show TV series and went on to make several movies. After Muppets In Space in 1999 The Muppets kind of fizzled out, making only occasional obscure TV appearances. After Walt Disney Pictures bought The Muppets, they did a YouTube video of the cast singing Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody which garnered over seven million hits within its first week. So, there's still an interest in The Muppets. Finally, in 2011 The Muppets hit theaters to revive the franchise, and it ended up being one of the best Muppet movies to date.
When three Muppet fans, Gary (Jason Segel), Mary (Amy Adams), and Walter (who is somehow a Muppet himself) learn that Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) wants to drill for oil under the old Muppet Theater, the trio set out to find The Muppets, who have been split up for years, in hopes that they can put on one last show and save the Muppet Theater. Kermit the Frog now lives depressed in his own mansion in Hollywood, "The Great Gonzo" is a high class plumber at Gonzo's Royal Flush, Fozzie Bear performs with a tribute band called "The Moopets," Miss Piggy is a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris, and Animal is at a celebrity anger management rehab center in Santa Barbara. Can the cast get their act together and pull off a spectacular marathon to raise enough money to save their old theater on such short notice?
When The Muppets hit theaters it had been a good 12 years since The Muppets had a theatrical film. Of course there are some different puppeteers portraying some of The Muppets. This was the first Muppet film without the involvement of veteran Muppet performer Frank Oz whose characters included Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Sam the Eagle on The Muppet Show. Fozzie just doesn't quite sound the same without Oz.
Jim Henson had originally created The Muppets to revive the dying art of the variety show he grew up with; it has been a standard structure for most Muppet movies and shows and was aimed towards adults and children . I'm not entirely sure that style of entertainment is appreciated anymore, but on the other hand, watching a variety of 3-minute comedy and music YouTube videos for a half hour is pretty similar.
The Muppets was positively saturated with nostalgia for original Muppet Movies and especially The Muppet Show. Viewers who got a kick out of the old television series back in the 70's and 80's will easily be transported back to the good old days and revel in the familiar absurdist sketch comedy variety show that The Muppets are known for. A number of sketches and songs that helped make The Muppets so famous are either eluded to or even preformed again in this latest movie.
The musical numbers are tons of fun. Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame wrote a majority of the songs. He even won an Academy Award for the song "Man or Muppet." Although it was the fourth Muppet film to receive an Academy Award nomination, this was the first time a Muppet film had won an Academy Award and was the first time a Muppet film was nominated for Best Original Song since 1981's The Great Muppet Caper.
The Muppets is a really fun movie. Serving as both a wondrous stroll down your childhood's  memory lane and a fantastic introduction to Kermit and company, this is a warmly inspired nostalgia kick that will delight both longtime fans and endear the franchise to a new generation. The giddiness that Jim Henson and friends brought to the original Muppets is missing. The antic energy and old vaudeville variety show are remarkably fun, but may be alien to modern kids. That style that Jim Henson originally strived for seems dated, but still not bad. Whether you are young or young at heart, this is a charming movie that is worth seeing for some laughs and fun songs. Jim Henson would be proud. It's also worth owning if your kids get a big enough kick out of these classic characters.

What was your favorite Muppet sketch? For me it's a Dr. Bunsen and Beaker at the Muppet Lab. Golly, that was hilarious. Comment below and tell me all about your favorite sketch!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Underworld Movie Review

When they are portrayed correctly, I like a good werewolf or vampire movie. They usually aren't portrayed very well. I've wanted to see Underworld (2003) for  awhile since it features both vampires and werewolves duking it out. About eleven years later I finally got around to it. I kind of liked it, but for the wrong reason.
Vampires and werewolves have been sworn enemies for hundreds of years, never seen by human eyes. Now fought in the present the conflict takes and unexpected turn. Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a beautiful vampire warrior, uncovers a Lycan/werewolf plot that could prove fatal for her entire race. She shadows a human, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), the Lycans' supposed target. Selene is unable to stop the Lycans in time and during a violent struggle, Michael is bitten by Lucian (Michael Sheen), the Lycan overlord, long thought to be dead. Michael will become a werewolf on the next full moon, but how does this fit into the Lycan's plans? Both sides must decide how to end the conflict and save their species as new and terrifying secrets unearth themselves and threatens the existence of both species.
The story here is not very complicated or terribly interesting. It's like, fight fight, fight, fight, "Oh, the Lycans are up to something," fight, fight, fight, fight, "Uh-oh, you're gonna be a werewolf," fight ,fight, fight, fight, "The Lycans have Michael! But why?" fight, fight, fight, fight. That could have been my summary paragraph; not much else happens beyond that until the last fifteen minutes or so. There are plenty of plot twists, but you can see most of them coming from a long way off. Even with a predictable and basic plot, the plot twists do their job well by keeping the audience guessing, even if the audience manages to guess the outcome sooner than the movie would probably like them to. The writing isn't bad in terms of plot development, but the story itself was sub-par at best.
Underworld was painfully stylized. It had a very artificial color palette; lots of black and light blues, with the very occasional and contrasting bright red for the blood. It seemed to me like the actors were striking artificial poses and posturing to the point that it resembled a sexy cologne commercial, especially with the black leather catsuits and unreal color and artificial backgrounds. Everyone was overacting in an almost exaggerated way, and the lack of character development made it difficult to care about any of the characters. It looks like they were trying to emulate The Matrix with the leather bodysuits, trench coats, sunglasses, and slow-motion action but failed to be anywhere near as good.
Unfortunately the vampires weren't very vampire-y, and the werewolves weren't very werewolf-y. The vampires possess the superhuman physical prowess commonly seen in pop culture, but none of the mystical weaknesses of mythical vampires; crosses, holy water, garlic, stakes, etc. The werewolves have a pretty impressive transformation process, but the end result is pretty lame. They resemble gorillas with canine snouts and claws. This is the only time I've seen werewolves considered immortal like vampires are. Even when they were CGI animated, they still resembled men in rubber monster suits. That was probably the most disappointing part of the movie for me.
What I thought was most interesting about Underworld wasn't actually part of the movie itself. As I was watching it, I kept thinking of a couple of games by White Wolf, Inc. called Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Vampire: The Masquerade; storytelling role playing games both set in the World of Darkness setting. As it turned out, White Wolf, Inc. filed a lawsuit against Lakeshore Entertainment Studio for seventeen counts of copyright infringement and claimed over eighty points of unique similarity between White Wolf's game systems and the movie. White Wolf was granted an expedited hearing and the lawsuit ended in a confidential settlement. Seriously, that was what was most interesting about the movie to me, and it wasn't even a part of the movie. Underworld did earn a few points with me only because it resembled a game I like to play. Neat as that is, it doesn't say much for the movie itself.
Underworld is not the most creative, memorable, good movie by any metric. The acting is forced and exaggerated, the blocking looks like it was designed by a modeling runway director, the colors look out of place and unreal, the story was weak, and I didn't particularly like the vampires and werewolves. It is good for being an over-the-top action movie with magical guns that never run out of ammunition. This movie did earn a few points for resembling a couple of role playing games that I enjoyed, but that was about it. Don't bother with Underworld unless you really want to see a crazy action movie that asks you to take its credibility beyond a movie's normal threshold. If you do play Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Vampire: The Masquerade, you'll probably get just a little bit more out of it. That alone bumped my assessment of the movie from "meh" to "eh, okay."

What's the best movie werewolf you've seen? Not the best werewolf movie, but the movie werewolf that looks the best. Comment below and tell me about it!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Movie Review

Considering the current state of America and its government's reluctance, inability , or refusal to help average, non-wealthy, non-corporation citizens, it seems the only kind of patriotism these days is the knee-jerk "we're number one" nationalism variety. I praised Captain America: The First Avenger for its comments on patriotism and where the true strength of America lies. Now that Captain America is finished with The Avengers movie and is returning for his own second movie I had high hopes for more patriotism, political commentary, and superhero action. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) did not disappoint.
For Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), awakening after decades of suspended animation involves more than catching up on pop culture; it also means that this old school idealist must face a new world of subtler threats and difficult moral complexities. That becomes clear when Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is killed by the mysterious assassin,  The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), but not before warning Rogers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been subverted by its enemies. When Rogers acts on Fury's warning to trust no one there, he is branded a traitor to the organization by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a senior leader within S.H.I.E.L.D, a member of the World Security Council, and an old comrade of Nick Fury. Now a Fugitive, Captain America must get to the bottom of this deadly mystery with the help of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and his new friend, Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie). The battle will be costly for Captain America, with Rogers finding enemies where he least expects them while learning that The Winter Soldier looks disturbingly familiar.
The characters in Captain America: The Winter Soldier were positively amazing. Steve Rogers in particular was great. He's been working for S.H.I.E.L.D. for the two years that followed the events in The Avengers, and he's still trying to adjust to the modern world. It's not so much a question about his shock with modern technology as it is about societal differences. He has gone from the 1940's to today; he comes from a world where people were more trusting and the threats were not as deep. Now it's harder to tell who's right and who's wrong. In our world, actions you take to protect people from threats could compromise liberties and privacy. That is really tough for Steve to swallow. He is teamed up with Natasha and they form a fascinating dichotomous contrast. She is incredibly modern, not very reverent, and exceedingly blunt whereas Steve is a man from the 40's. Steve isn't necessarily a boy scout, but he is reserved and has a strong moral center, whereas her moral center moves around as the situation requires. As a spy, Natasha lies for a living. Steve is a character who tells the truth. Give them a problem and they'll have very different ways of approaching it. She pushes him to modernize while he pushes her to add a certain level of integrity to her life. The characters and their respective actors bounce off each other beautifully.
The First Avenger told us about real patriotic American values. Winter Soldier makes some fascinating commentary about modern politics in a very relevant way without being heavy handed in trying to be relevant. It raises questions about the United States Government and how it behaves. It does this in a smart, almost subversive way. It's very pertinent to how we define freedom currently, versus how we defined freedom in the 1940's. There is a scene early in the film that sets up this interesting question. Fury tells Rogers a story about his grandfather and a gun; basically a variation on "walk softly and carry a big stick." But then Fury shows Rogers "the stick;" weaponry that can take out 100 hostiles in a minute, than can read a terrorist's DNA from a million miles away, and basically eliminate threats before they can become threats. "We're going to neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen," Fury tells Rogers. "I thought punishment usually came after the crime," Rogers objects. "S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be," says Fury. Rogers boldly retorts by telling him “You hold a gun on everyone on Earth and call it protection. This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” How could one not think of the way America has invaded other countries based on rumors of stockpiled weaponry or the monitoring internet use for any signs of correspondence with enemies? In the other Marvel movies we've had invading aliens, killer robots, and super powered villains to fight. Here we've got very human enemies that are using very real methods to attack and undermine the good guys. The only things we're asked to believe is the "super soldier" Steve Rogers being at above normal human ability, and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s airships and their Bond-style spy gear. Everything else is pretty down to earth, and that makes it all the more relatable. The villains aren't just trying to take over the world, they're probably targeting YOU specifically!
Disney has taken over Marvel and their second wave of movies leading up to The Avengers 2 has been good so far. These Avengers movies have proven to be a corporate cash cow, and I'm surprised that they took the chance to tackle these big issues rather than playing it safe. And similar to what was done in Iron Man 3, it messes around with the franchise canon a bit. I won't spoil anything, but any fan will know that is horribly taboo. S.H.I.E.L.D. has never been without it's issues, and I'm interested to see where the movie series goes with it.
The Winter Soldier was a formidable opponent for Captain America to face, but The Soldier didn't have much of a presence until toward the end of the movie. He's a good villain and introduces further moral dilemmas for Captain America to deal with. Moral dilemmas for Captain America are always black and white, but The Winter Soldier presents the only real grey area that he has had to face. It makes the character dynamic all the more fascinating. Sebastian Stan did an outstanding job acting this part; he gets few spoken lines, and most of his face is obscured for much of his screen time. Having said that, he manages to portray a great deal of emotion through facial expression and actions. Stan did a great job in this role given his limited screen time. The Winter Soldier's theme music starts off eerie and gradually swells into a sort of panic screech which makes the formidable enemy all the more frightening. I didn't think he played a big enough role to get his name in the title of the movie. If you're familiar at all with the comic books, you'll know that The Winter Soldier has a huge story arc and that this is probably just the first chapter of his tale.
Captain America: The Winter Solider was excellent. It delves deeper into theme and character than the other Marvel superhero movies have. It's a very character driven movie that has some very pertinent themes that are magnificently woven into the story so as to avoid being preachy. We get several new characters and we get some glimpses into their past without focusing on unnecessary details; each character has their own distinct arc. The action is great, the pacing is even, and the effects are amazing. Even if you don't enjoy super hero movies that much, you'll probably enjoy this one. I recommend brushing up on your Captain America lore by watching the first movie again before seeing this one. Make sure you watch for Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk references, and stick around for mid-credit and post credit scenes. I'm going to be getting a copy of this when it hits Blu-ray. Don't miss this movie!

Have you seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier yet? What did you think? Avoid spoilers, but tell me what your impressions were and what the future might hold for the Marvel Universe movies.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Non-Stop Movie Review

It's true that not all of Liam Neeson's movies have been good, but he's the sort of actor who has such a powerful presence that he effectively makes movies better when he is in them. Clash of the Titans for example was pretty bad, but seeing Neeson as Zeus and hearing his line "Release the Kraken!" made the whole thing worth it. He's very good in action movies, and while Non-Stop (2014) wasn't the greatest movie, it was made much better because Neeson is in it.
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is a former cop who took to drinking to cope with his daughter's death. Now working as an air marshal, he boards a transcontinental flight from London to New York. Once the plane is over the Atlantic Ocean, Marks gets mysterious texts on his secured network phone demanding that he instructs the government to transfer 150 million dollars to an off-shore account. Until he secures the money, a passenger on his flight will be killed every 20 minutes. He fails to get help from his fellow air marshal (Anson Mount), he enlists the aid of a passenger Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) and flight attendant Nancy Hoffman (Michelle Dockery) to help pinpoint the who is the threat. As the situation becomes more complicated and Marks resorts to more unorthodox measures, passengers begin to suspect that he is the one hijacking the plane.
Liam Neeson is of course great in this movie. His delivery is spot on, his presence on screen is powerful, and his accent is as endearing as ever. Neeson brings enormous conviction to his late-career action roles. He's a fairly large person and moves his big body through the confined spaces of the airplane with so much power you'd might expect to see him rip out the seats. I have no doubt that delivering his line (shown in the trailers) "I'm not hijacking this plane. I'm trying to save it!" is going to go down in Neeson History like so many of his other memorable and dramatic lines.
On the other hand, most of the other cast members were wasted on what is otherwise a mediocre script. Julianne Moore is a great actress who has been in several outstanding films; that said, why give her such a weak role that could have been played by just about anyone? Her role would have been a perfect shot at a big for an up and coming actress. The same could have been said of most of the rest of the cast as well. In fact, Lupita Nyong had a small bit role as a flight attendant, even after winning an Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave. She IS an up and coming actress; Non-Stop is in fact her only other movie role. It still seems like her remarkable skills were wasted on a bit role here.
The story is pretty good for a mystery-thriller. Having a death threats issued on an public airplane is pretty scary. The idea of an airplane hijacking after all the security measures that started after 9/11 is all the more unsettling. The plot devices used in Non-Stop resonate with viewers pretty well, which makes for an interesting movie.
The movie is not without its flaws, though. My biggest pet peeve with "whodunnit" sort of stories is when we are given virtually no hints as to who has actually done it. When we finally get the big reveal at the end, it's completely out of nowhere and there's no way that we could have reached the same conclusion on our own. There's a brawl between Marks and another passenger in one of the airplane's lavatories; I don't see how anyone the size of Liam Neeson could even fit into one of those lavatories, let alone fight with someone else inside of one. It's a tense scene, but a bit difficult to believe. One of the killings remains unexplained. We understand clearly how it happened, but not by whom or when. In fact, this one murder is developed in such a way that there is effectively no way it could have happened, but the movie quickly moves on to other plot twists and hopes we didn't catch that detail.
Non-Stop is a fun movie that was made even better by Liam Neeson doing what he does best: glaring and growling through tight spots and effectively making the movie less preposterous by his mere presence. He elevates an otherwise B-movie thriller into a decent enough tense action movie. The acting is good, even if the material was occasionally sub-par. The action was great and makes for tense movie. The ideas thrown around by the plot are verisimilar and will likely strike a chord with audiences.  I enjoyed Non-Stop for what it was. I think it's worth seeing, but worth waiting for on DVD. It didn't seem to gain much by being on the big screen. It might even be worth owning an inexpensive copy of to pull out on occasion for a fun movie night that doesn't require a whole lot of thought and effort to watch.

What is your favorite Liam Neeson role? Comment below and tell me all about it!