Friday, April 24, 2015

Woman in Gold Review

I do enjoy viewing art museums, though my articulation of art criticism outside of film is somewhat limited to something akin to, "Now that is an aesthetically pleasing... whatever that is." When I see good art, I can recognize it as good art. The artist Gustav Klimt's iconic painting "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" is what initially caught my attention in the trailer for Woman in Gold (2015); it's a beautiful painting that used real gold and silver foils to create a beautiful paining. On top of that, seeing two mismatched actors together on screen was also intriguing. Finally, some World War II history was involved and it sent me over the edge; I had to see it. While it is a good movie, it's not as deep or profound as it thinks it is.
Sixty years after she fled Vienna during World War II, an elderly Jewish woman, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), starts her journey to retrieve family possessions seized by the Nazis, among them Klimt's famous painting 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I'. Together with her inexperienced but plucky young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), she embarks upon a major battle which takes them all the way to the heart of the Austrian establishment and the U.S. Supreme Court, and forces her to confront difficult truths about the past along the way. Maria does this not just to regain what was rightfully hers, but also to obtain some measure of justice for the death, destruction, and massive art theft perpetrated by the Nazis.
I was privileged in college to study World War II history coupled with psychology, culminating in travels to Munich, Germany to see historic sites firsthand. It is one of the greatest experiences I've had in academia. The combination of these two disciplines was positively fascinating and ever since, I have been engrossed by that time period. World War II dramas tend to resonate with me. Woman in Gold was particularly interesting, because it explored how the actions of the Nazis of the day have an effect on the present, even when well over half a century has passed. Nazi Austria is only visited briefly in flashbacks throughout the film as Maria reflects on memories. The movie shows how history is still very much alive and continues to influence us today. The past isn't just stories, it is our personal history, our family history, our heritage, and the long standing narrative that defines who we are now.
Woman in Gold tries to portray this idea of returning to our roots and preserving our histories, but seems somewhat lacking in its ability to do so. Initially, Randy is helping Maria for the money and prestige that the lawsuit would grant him; but he eventually he sees how it's not just Maria's history they are fighting for, but his as well, and he gains new conviction as the case becomes more relevant to him. How this is portrayed is that Maria and Randy visit the Austrian Holocaust memorial, and Randy excuses himself and cries in the privacy of a public restroom with no prior indication of interest. This could have been a deeply dramatic scene, but we're not shown why this change of heart happened so much as we were shown that it did happen. It causes this turning point to seem like a convenient plot development. This is just one example of some dramatic action being over simplified and weakened. It was well acted, no doubt, but without establishing enough context so many of the scenes felt lacking.
Helen Mirren is a beautiful and regal actress who often plays very dramatic roles. She has played three British queens in different films and television series, and she fits the role of nobility with remarkable astuteness. I particularly liked her in Hitchcock and The Hundred-Foot Journey. Ryan Reynolds is frequently typecast as an arrogant, handsome, cocky, and rude young man. And he plays that role very well. He's essentially the same character in Just Friends, Green Lantern, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Waiting. While I hate to oversimplify his career, I think this is one of the only times he's taken on a dramatic role. He does a pretty good job of it and emotes remarkably well. In one scene, he loses his patience and is downright intimidating as he vents his anger and frustration. There are moments when his characteristic humor shines through, but overall he does quite well in a dramatic role. These two mismatched actors bounce off of one another beautifully; their character's contrasting views and personalities make for some great scenes between the two. It's an odd coupling of actors, but they do a splendid job together.
Woman in Gold was not a bad movie, but wasn't as deep as it seems to think it is. It is at its core the true story about legal proceedings meant to resolve ownership of a painting. While that is an interesting story, frankly there isn't a whole lot of actual story to tell with that. Fortunately it is more character and theme driven than story driven, and the characters and theme are excellent. I'd never have imagined seeing Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds acting opposite each other, but here they are. Woman in Gold benefits greatly from the talented leads, but their strong work doesn't manage to overshadow the fact that there isn't a whole lot actually going on otherwise. It expresses the idea of getting in touch with our heritage and preserving our histories, but it doesn't do a whole lot outside of that. I like the movie overall and I recommend seeing it once it hits home video, but I don't think it's quite worth going out of my way to see a second time.

Can you think of another great movie that urges you to get in touch with your family history and heritage? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Grabbers Review

The mood for a scary movie doesn't strike often, as I don't care for the horror genre much as a matter of preference. Teetering between horror and a light hearted comedy, I found a nice compromise. It's an Irish film called Grabbers (2012). Residents of an Irish island must get very drunk to survive attacks by blood-sucking alien monsters who can't tolerate a high blood alcohol level in their victims. You can't tell me that doesn't sound like a fun time. It's kind of a spiritual sequel to Tremors or Slither but with more alcohol.
On Aran Island, an idyllic fishing village off the coast of Ireland, a charming but somewhat work-shy police officer Ciaran O'Shea (Richard Coyle), is tasked with greeting officer Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley), a straight-laced young officer who has arrived from the mainland for temporary assignment. Not that there is much for them to do, aside from dealing with the occasional drunk, and that's usually O'Shea himself. Simultaniously, blood-thirsty, sea-dwelling aliens arrive at the quiet island to propagate. As dead whales wash up on shore and people start mysteriously disappearing, the officers and marine ecologist Dr. Adam Smith (Russell Tovey) slowly discover their peril along with one sure defense - high blood alcohol levels, which the aliens can't stomach. As a storm approaches, enabling hungry alien hatchlings access to the locals, an open bar kicks off a desperate bid for survival as inebriated police and friends stagger to remain cognizant long enough to thwart the alien invasion.
It's tricky to make a good horror/comedy movie. It needs to be balanced. You don't want too much horror or you won't like the characters. Inversely too much comedy and you'll hate the creature; let's face it, that's what you came to see. Grabbers manages to balance them evenly. The characters develop with each other rapidly and the creature is well made. The Grabbers do kill off a couple of people, as is expected, but overall it's not gratuitous with the violence. It's got just the right mix of scares and humor, and we end up with a pretty fun movie overall.
The humor is varied and usually intelligent enough to keep audiences engaged. It wasn't over the top with actors trying to punctuate insipid, juvenile humor with ridiculous facial expressions like you might see Will Farrell or Adam Sandler do to indicate that they think they have done something funny. There is a lot of self referential humor that plays on just about every Irish joke ever told. In an early scene, Dr. Smith is researching the dead whales washed up on the beach. O'Shea finds an alien egg and not knowing what it was yet starts beating it with a stick before Dr. Smith has a chance to study it. Annoyed Smith says to him, "You... really are Irish."
In another scene, after O'Shea manages to remove one of the Grabber aliens from his face, he, Nolan, and Smith start beating it with everything they can until it stops moving. Dr. Smith, having mixed feelings about this says, "This was one of the most important discoveries of the century, and you killed it." O'Shea responds by saying "Nope, still moving" and the three panic and start stomping on the creature again. Later on, a very drunk Dr. Smith, oblivious to the danger he is in, tries to get a picture with one of the large Grabbers. "I need a photograph with it for National Geographic! And Facebook." The dialogue is funny, and decently well written.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) did not review Grabbers to give it a rating, so it is officially "Not Rated" or NR. It is rated 15 in the UK, and 15A in Ireland; I assume that's something like PG-13 by American standards. Grabbers is tricky, though. It ends up in kind of a grey area between PG-13 and R. As stated, the violence is not gratuitous, there is no nudity, and as there are many drunken Irishmen in this movie, there is therefore some strong profanity. But some of the delightful Irish accents are so thick, I didn't recognize some of their vocabulary as profanity until I was halfway through the movie. There are also two pretty convincing decapitated head props used, though we don't actually see the decapitations occur. If you're not too offended by that, I'd say this is a PG-13 movie.
The story is a standard creature feature with jump scares and ugly man-eating monsters. The movie doesn't really do anything original as far as what we typically see in the genre, though it does put a funny spin on it by requiring the protagonists to have a high blood alcohol level to stay safe from the aliens. This adds some humor and tension, as we aren't sure if they are coherent enough to fight the monsters off or escape from a building. I can't think of other horror movies that get gorgeous shots of the Irish countryside. It is well enough made that it tends to be a cut above the rest of the straight to video creature features out there. The CGI on the Grabbers really is quite good, too!
Grabbers is a fairly standard creature feature with some competent actors, funny humor, a few decent scares, good camera work, good digital animation, some beautiful Irish scenery, and thankfully doesn't take itself very seriously. In general, this isn't going to appeal much to audiences who aren't already fans of campy creature features. It's not for everyone. Even if you are not a fan, this is still a pretty good time for a light movie. Out of all the bad decisions you may have drunkenly made, one viewing of Grabbers makes up for a lot of them. With or without beer goggles, it's an entertaining film - and without any regrets the following morning!

What is your favorite "creature feature?" Comment below and let me know!

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Emperor's New Groove Review

Disney is responsible for some of cinema's most incredible features in history. They pretty much wrote the book on animated movies. Disney is also responsible for some of the most deplorable rubbish imaginable that ever hit the direct-to-DVD shelves. An oft overlooked animated movie they did remarkably well on was The Emperor's New Groove (2000). It was unlike many of its predecessors in that it wasn't an epic drama, it was a full length slapstick silly movie that the legendary Chuck Jones, director old of the Loony Tunes shorts, would have been proud of. This great and fantastic film puts me in stitches every time I see it!
Vain and cocky Emperor Kuzco (David Spade) is a very busy man. Besides maintaining his "groove," and firing his suspicious administrator, Yzma (Eartha Kitt);he's also planning to build a new water park just for himself for his birthday. However, this means destroying one of the villages in his kingdom. Meanwhile, Yzma is hatching a plan to get revenge and usurp the throne. But, in a botched assassination, courtesy of Yzma's right-hand man, Kronk (Patrick Warburton), Kuzco is magically transformed into a llama. Now, Kuzco finds himself the property of Pacha (John Goodman), a lowly llama herder whose home is ground zero for the water park. Upon discovering the llama's true self, Pacha offers to help resolve the Emperor's problem and regain his throne, only if Kuzco promises to move his water park. Kuzco's perfect world becomes a perfect mess as this unlikely duo deal with hair-raising dangers and wild comic predicaments as they race to return Kuzco to the throne before Yzma tracks them down and finishes him off.
Believe it or not, The Emperor's New Groove started out as another epic as per Disney's usual standards. It was going to be called "Kingdom of the Sun" set in the ancient Incan world and feature a selfish emperor who finds a peasant who looks just like him along the lines of Mark Twain's archtypal novel The Prince and the Pauper. However, the evil witch has plans to summon the evil god Supai and capture the sun so that she may retain her youth forever. She turns the emperor into a llama and threatens to reveal the pauper's identity unless he obeys her. The emperor-llama learns humility in his new form and even comes to love a female llama-herder; and the two set out to undo the witch's plans. It would have delved into Incan spirituality and culture and been a romantic comedy musical in the traditional Disney style.
I think this sounds like a fascinating story! But following the underwhelming box office performances of Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, studio executives felt the project was growing too ambitious and serious for audiences and needed more comedy. The project was pulled and put on hiatus for a number of years, then had the script completely rewritten, the actors recast, the whole thing went in a completely different direction, and had a new title slapped onto it. It resulted in a very light hearted cartoonish romp that had above average animation for its day. The Emperor's New Groove certainly doesn't aim high or strain too hard; it is completely at ease inhabiting it's pretty miniature realm.
The two things that make this movie so utterly fantastic are the voice actors and the animation. There is a brilliant all star cast here, and all of them have experience with comedy. David Spade plays a fantastic sarcastic short guy. John Goodman is a quintessential bighearted teddy bear. Eartha Kitt can be so zany and expressive that everything she says is a hoot. Patrick Warburton has a distinctive voice, and often plays a surly tough guy or a very dim-witted one. Warburton had roles in television shows before The Emperor's New Groove, but he was such a lovable and hilarious part of this movie that every time I have heard his voice after seeing it, I instantly get excited and say, "It's Kronk!" Everyone gets hilarious lines in this movie and no one outshines anyone else; they are all at the top of their game here and it is simply amazing.
The animation is classic 2-D hand drawn cell animation and it's pretty solid. The art has a simple color scheme and doesn't focus too much on shading. This gives a Saturday morning cartoon quality to it. The backgrounds look more detailed than the characters do and there's lots of pretty designs to see. The spastic way the characters are drawn and animated, couples beautifully with the voice actors' performances. Nearly everything they do, both grand and subtle, are funny. Everything from casual exchanges of dialogue to the screwball action is uproarious, thanks to some skilled animators and talented voice actors.
I dare say that Yzma and Kronk steal the show in every scene they are in; they've got to be some of the best, albeit funniest, Disney villains ever. At first Yzma's plan to kill Kuzco is to transform him into a flea, put him into a box, mail the box to herself, and then smash it with a hammer. But then decides poisoning him would be better and save on postage. Kronk keeps forgetting the plan, gets distracted making spinach puffs, and is anything but subtle when Yzma reminds him of their objective. The scene that always gets me is when Yzma and Kronk suspect Pacha of hiding Kuzco and try to search Pacha's home only to be foiled by Pacha's very pregnant wife and two rambunctious prankster little kids. Every time I see this scene I end up literally rolling on the floor laughing out loud and have to pause the movie until I can catch my breath.
While it is unfortunate that the original movie had a complete overhaul and was entirely changed around, the resulting movie is animated comedy gold. The Emperor's New Groove is absolutely uproarious and highly entertaining. The animation is fantastic and reminds me of classic Saturday morning cartoon shows, the voice actors are absolutely brilliant, and the resulting characters are some of the most lovable Disney creations I can think of. The plot is very simple, but that's okay. It may be light hearted, but it's so much fun to watch. The Emperor's New Groove is an outstanding Disney movie that seems to be overlooked these days. It is absolutely worth the cost of a copy to add to your home collection, but as of writing it is available on Netflix streaming. If you haven't seen this movie, you're missing out on a lot of laughs.

Is there an oft overlooked Disney movie that you are particularly fond of? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, April 3, 2015

I, Frankenstein Review

I'm sure some movies sound much better on paper than they do on screen. I'm sure that some movies start out as half-baked ideas and then get put into production before those ideas can be solidified into something coherent. And I'm sure some studios count on flashy special effects to hide the fact that the movie makes no sense. After seeing I, Frankenstein (2014) I am confident that all of these were the case for this outlandish and ludicrous movie.
Dr. Victor Frankenstein dies frozen to death and the creature he created buries him at the Frankenstein family cemetery. Immediately following the burial, the creature is attacked by demons. He kills one of them and is rescued by a band of Gargoyles who take him to a Cathedral where the Gargoyles Order gathers. The Queen of the Gargoyles, Leonore (Mirando Otto), keeps Dr. Frankenstein's journal together with the treasures of the Order and gives the name of Adam (Aaron Eckhart) to the creature. She then explains to Adam that there is an ancient war between the angelic Gargoyles and the demons whom are under the command of the demon Prince Neberius (Bill Nighy). She also invites Adam to join the Gargoyles in the war against the demons, but Adam prefers to isolate himself in a remote place. Two hundred years later, Adam returns and finds a modern society. Soon he learns that Naberius has the intention of creating an army of soulless corpses to be possessed by demons. The scientist Terra (Yvonne Strahovski) is researching a process to create life and Naberius is seeking Dr. Frankenstein's Journal to help Terra raise his army.
If that summary didn't sound stupid enough, let me explain further why this movie is so dumb.
We establish early on that this is a secret war that has been going on for centuries, and it must be hidden from the humans. For starters, I don't understand why it should be kept from humans. The world is at risk of being overrun by demonic forces who will destroy the world for some reason; if that reason was addressed, I must have missed it. The angelic gargoyles' numbers are low and need all the help they can get. Why keep humans out of it? And why do the demons agree to this rule of the secret war? They seem to avoid making a spectacle in front of humans as well. Furthermore, where are the humans anyway? When Adam returns to civilization we see him taking in how society has changed by seeing him stand amidst about eight people in a cramped alleyway. There is one human apart from Terra who gets maybe two lines before being killed by a demon, and that's it. The movie takes place primarily in a sprawling metropolis that doesn't seem to be inhabited by anyone. Most of the buildings we see are dilapidated, abandoned wrecks. Who is this war being hidden from?
Another weird thing is Frankenstein's creature. Most movies have depicted him as a lumbering awkward hulking monster, and reasonably so being a creature made up of mismatched body parts. But here he mostly looks like some muscular pretty guy with some stitches here and there. Frankenstein's monster wasn't meant to be an action hero, and this movie unintentionally proves it. I like Aaron Eckhart as an actor, but he just never struck me as a "Frankenstein" sort of person and he certainly doesn't look like one in this movie. I've also seek Eckhart play some fantastic roles, one of my favorites being Harvey Dent/Two-Face in The Dark Knight. You can see in his eyes his desperate attempt to make this movie work. He looks like he thinks the script sucks and doing his utmost to save it by acting his part really well. But the script doesn't lend itself to depth of character, theme, or story and Eckhart's acting ends up seeming desperate and overcompensating. I did like that Adam was not taking sides, he was kind of a wild card that could tip the balance of the war either way, but he still sticks to what he wants and to his own set of morality. This isn't terribly interesting or unique; it's a action hero trope that works, and it worked just fine here even if it was applied to a completely out of place character from classic literature.
This was a fairly low budget movie with a lot of very busy CGI artist. The special effects were alright overall. The gargoyles looked pretty good when not in human form. The demons in demon form looked a bit silly; like people wearing silicone movie monster masks. The action was decent, though sometimes hard to take seriously even for otherworldly beings with supernatural strength. It reminded me a lot of Van Helsing; it featured lots of CGI with actors in front of green screens. Van Helsing was stupid, but fun, and admittedly a guilty pleasure of mine. I, Frankenstein is just stupid. It can't be considered a guilty pleasure; just guilty.
I, Frankenstein was visually loud, with an incoherent story which made little sense, and was tedious to watch. The cast is made up of actors I've seen perform much better in other movies. Many of them seem to be trying to salvage this train wreck of a script, but the script simply gives them garbage to work with. I truly didn't care about any of the characters nor how the story concluded. I, Frankenstein wasn't just bad, it was REALLY bad. It's the kind of movie whose only redeeming value it to watch it with a bunch of friends with the sole intent of riffing and joking about it. This is not worth your time unless you want to make fun of it. As of writing this it's currently streaming on NetFlix, which is the only way it's worth watching; it's not even worth the cost to rent it.

What is one of your guilty pleasure movies? I'm a fan of Van Helsing and (brace yourself) Super Mario Bros. I owned up and told you mine, now comment below and tell me yours!