Friday, July 31, 2015

Harvey Review

Growing up as a kid who enthusiastically enjoyed Saturday morning cartoons, I'd notice famous movies spoofed all the time, but was usually too young to get the reference. I'd hear about an invisible giant rabbit named Harvey in several movies and cartoon shows, most notably in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Well, I finally got around to seeing the Jimmy Stewart classic, Harvey (1950), and I've got to say it's a sheer delight.
Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a wealthy drunk who starts having visions of a giant rabbit named Harvey. Elwood lives with his sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and her daughter (Victoria Horne), and Veta worries that Elwood has gone insane. In the process of trying to have him committed, Veta admits that she occasionally sees Harvey herself and a comedy of errors ensues. The director of the mental home, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), tries to reconcile his duty to help Elwood with his own growing experiences with Harvey. Elwood and Harvey soon become the catalysts for a family mending its wounds and for romance blossoming in unexpected places.
Harvey is a comedy-drama based on the stage play by Mary Chase. The original Broadway production of Harvey opened on November 1, 1944 at the 48th Street Theatre, ran for 1,775 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1945. It has been adapted for film and television several times, most notably this 1950 film starring the legendary James Stewart. Josephine Hull first preformed her role on the Broadway version of Harvey before the film was produced.
Harvey is a comedy, and it is indeed funny, but it's significantly watered down compared to contemporary comedy films. I tend not to like modern comedy films since they tend to mistake loud, annoying, and bombastic character for funny characters and confuse crude jokes and innuendos for humor. Harvey revolves around situational humor, comical misunderstandings, and ironic impropriety. The story is dialogue driven and full of charming and amusing characters. The lack of physical comedy and emphasis on dialogue may bore some younger audiences who are used to loud bombastic characters flailing around in a vain attempt to be entertaining. At no point was I truly laughing out loud, but I was consistently amused by the antics and charmed by the characters. My favorite was easily Veta who is a proper, high-class woman who becomes highly flustered and exasperated as her attempts at propriety and social protocol are innocuously and unintentionally foiled by Elwood's innocent antics.
Harvey was produced during the enforcement of The Hays Code, the squeaky clean set of moral guidelines to which movie and TV studios had to adhere. In this case, The Hays Code made the story a bit ridiculous, even for a movie about a six-foot-tall talking rabbit. Elwood is frequently referred to as an alcoholic. We see him order drinks only a couple of times, but only once in the entire movie do we actually see him drink anything. The Hays Code would not allow him to be shown getting drunk on film. Elwood's alcoholism is a plot device, but we're never shown anything to suggest he's actually an alcoholic outside of people saying he is. A drunk who never drinks nor is ever inebriated is hard to believe. Why should we think Elwood is an alcoholic without proper reason to think so? Seeing someone with an alleged drinking problem act like a perfectly pleasant and well-mannered individual significantly trivializes a very serious condition. Elwood may be drunk and may be delusional, but he's also happier, less neurotic, and more content than the so-called normal people who surround him and claim to be looking out for his best interests. Is that the best way to depict alcoholism? In the end, it's a very clean movie even if that cleanness seems a bit unnatural on occasion.
The sets and camera work in Harvey were excellent. Many large sets were used that emphasized depth. Frequently there was the main action in the foreground, usually dialogue between two characters, with one or two additional characters in the background busying themselves with something and interjecting some dialogue with the characters in the foreground. This gave a sense of depth and made what was originally a stage production seem less confined to a stage. There are also a lot of wide shots, many of which were suggestions by James Stewart himself. These wide angle shots were used so that "Harvey" would be in the frame. This was brilliant as it drew attention to the fact that Elwood was conversing and interacting with a character who is basically not there.
Harvey is a good, clean movie with a full cast of charming characters and amusing situational humor. It's not without its flaws, though. It's a bit slow, even by 1950's standards, and it lays on the sweetness rather heavily at times. It handles (or rather doesn't handle) alcoholism in such a misleading way that I'd be worried that impressionable children might derive some erroneous conclusions about it. Overall, it's a good, solid, and charming movie which I enjoyed. I recommend seeing this classic at least once, though it may merit a discussion about alcohol consumption with young children afterwards.

James Stewart is such an icon of classic cinema. What is your favorite James Stewart movie? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Ant-Man Review

In light of massive hype around The Avengers: Age of Ultron I had completely forgotten we had another Marvel movie hitting theaters this year. Hard to believe, since the trailers for Ant-Man (2015) were pretty funny and caused much excitement among me and my friends. The movie might be Marvel's funniest superhero origin story, even if the scale is smaller for this size-shifting character.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), an engineer who committed a crime he felt that was justified, is sent to prison. When he gets out he wants to be on the straight and narrow, but having a record doesn't help. Eventually his friend tells him of a job and he decides to take it. Scott has to break into a vault and when he does all he finds is a strange suit. After he takes it, he puts it on and discovers it shrinks him, grants him superhuman strength, and the ability to communicate with an army of ants. Scott tries to return it and when he does he's arrested. A man claiming to be his attorney goes to see him and tells him that the suit was an opportunity which he should have taken. Later some ants bring him the suit and he puts it on and gets out of jail. Scott then goes to the man who says he's Hank Pym, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent and  the man who created the suit. Pym used it before and called himself Ant-Man. He gave it up when he found out that S.H.I.E.L.D. was planning to use his technology for things Pym didn't agree with, so he made sure no one could replicate it and put it away. But he now needs Scott to be Ant-Man because it seems like his protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is close to replicating it. So he wants Scott to get into the lab and take it. Scott is uncertain if he can do it and Pym's daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), agrees and thinks she should be the one to go. But Pym insists that Scott is the one. So Pym and Lilly train him while trying to make sure Cross doesn't suspect anything.
Ant-Man isn't a widely known character in the Marvel Universe, but that's what I love about these Marvel Cinematic Universe movies; they showcase some of the more obscure superheroes and give them opportunities to shine. This being a Marvel movie, you should keep a sharp eye out for references to other Marvel characters and cross-movie references.
So many of the previous Marvel superhero movies have had grand-scale and over-the-top action scenes. It almost seems funny that a movie about a character whose ability is to shrink would have a smaller scale. Scott isn't the stuff of legends, nor does he aspire to be. Scott isn't even interested in fighting. His primary objective is to get a stable job and earn partial custody of his daughter. He gets tied up in some superhero action that he has little interest in initially, but ultimately goes along with it as a means of achieving his goals. This isn't an globe-trotting adventure; it all takes place in a couple of locations in San Francisco. The scale is smaller, but the story isn't any less interesting. It seems that rarely heeded Hollywood wisdom that “less” really can be “more” was implemented here.
One of the things I liked about the characters is that no one was ethically pure; everyone has some slightly dubious backgrounds and motives. The good guys aren't completely good the way Captain America is, nor are the bad guys in the vein of Thanos or Loki who are villains and they know it. Scott is basically a good guy who is not above law breaking if he feels it's justified. Cross is not diabolical, in fact, he's trying make the world a better place, though his experiments are having some adverse side effects. This fits into theme of people transcending who they are and what they are capable of and the idea that even the smallest person can change the world.
As a hero whose power is to shrink, Ant-Man is a little hard to take seriously at first. Fortunately the movie acknowledges this and has fun with the idea and laces it with a generous amount of humor. Similar to Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man plays with the superhero genre while fully embracing the emotions that make the genre fun. This might be the funniest Marvel superhero movie to date; it's got several quotable lines such as, "Baskin Robins always finds out."  I laughed a whole lot.
One of the things that really bothered me about Ant-Man was Hope van Dyne's character. She's established as being more competent, knowledgeable, and capable than Scott about the Ant-Man suit. When we learn why Hank Pym insists on it being Scott, rather than Hope, who acts as the hero, I was left thinking, "Really? THAT'S the reason?" Marvel has been receiving criticism for not utilizing its vast array of female superheroes and even downplaying the character of Black Widow, the only female hero used in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here, the movie is practically acknowledging this gender inequality and laughing about it, giving the hero role to a man at the expense of a much more competent woman character. I know there is a Captain Marvel movie in the works which will feature Marvel's first female superhero as the star, but that's still several years away. You'd think they'd at least start warming up to female superhero.
Shrinking is great and all that, but you wouldn't think that kind of power would be conducive to interesting fights. On the contrary, the action is kept fresh and Ant-Man's powers are used in remarkably creative ways that really keep you guessing how the story is going to progress. There are many times when we're getting caught up in the shrunken action, that when the camera switches to an angle a few feet away, it makes us realize how completely absurd an epic fight scene on a toy train is while still remaining exciting and fun, even humorous. The visuals are amazing. I saw Ant-Man in 2-D, but there are several scenes that are probably fantastic in 3-D.
For all its humor and exciting action, Ant-Man isn't without a few bugs, so to speak. The smaller scale is a major plus, the characters are pretty good, the theme is satisfying, the action and visual effects are fantastic and highly creative, and it's playful in unexpected ways. However the gender dynamics here are annoying and unfounded, the opening scene doesn't establish enough and seems to be included for the sake of cameos, and the story dips into clichés a bit too often. Overall, it's a good movie and I enjoyed it. It's not the best the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer, but it's worth seeing in theaters and getting a copy of once it hits home video.

If you were to pick a female superhero from Marvel's arsenal of characters to star in her own movie, who would it be? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Minions Review

As I went to the movies over the past month or two, nearly every movie I saw had a trailer for a movie starring the lovable Minions of the Despicable Me franchise. This movie was cleverly entitled Minions (2015). I praised the interlude shenanigans of these cute characters in the two Despicable Me movies, but having a movie with nothing but those shenanigans was Minion overload and seemed like more of a cash grab than an attempt to entertain.
Evolving from single-celled yellow organisms at the dawn of time, Minions live to serve the biggest and meanest villain they can find, but find themselves working for a continual series of unsuccessful masters, from T. Rex to Napoleon. Without a master to grovel for, the Minions fall into a deep depression. But one minion, Kevin, has a plan; accompanied by his pals Stuart and Bob, Kevin sets forth to find a new evil boss for his brethren to follow. They travel from frigid Antarctica to 1960s New York City, ending in modern London, where their search leads them to Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world's first-ever super-villainess. The first job the Minions are tasked with is to steal the crown jewels from Queen Elizabeth II (Jennifer Saunders). Equipped with gadgets from Scarlet Overkill's husband, Herb Overkill (Jon Hamm), the bumbling trio are put to the test for their new master.
It's no understatement to say that the Minions are popular characters. I see them all over the place on Facebook, even in pictures where their inclusion makes no sense. In their previous movies, they are hysterical characters who steal every scene they show up in. They were highly amusing interludes to see between scenes in the Despicable Me movies. But having a movie with nothing but the Minions was a bit much. They don't exactly speak, but make sounds that are occasionally similar to a number of languages. It got to the point that I was hearing their high pitched voices so much I started craving actual dialogue, and when there were people finally speaking it was like, "Oh, yeah, that's what words sound like" Cute and funny as they were, they started getting annoying after a while.
Non-verbal as the Minions are, the way they are animated and by the sounds they make, you can usually tell what it is they are saying or in some cases singing. It's an indication of good animation when we can tell what a non-verbal character is saying or thinking. The animation is pretty good here, too. At one point the Minions find themselves in a mirrored dressing room which boasted some amazing animated "camera" work; that had to be tricky to animate and make it look that good. But as the movie was available in 3-D, there were several shots that looked tailor made to showcase the fact that it was available in 3-D. Shots like these always feel like cheap attempts to charge you a few more dollars for the 3-D show rather than showing what kind of creative things can be done with 3-D technology.
The whole movie is very simple and straightforward, and stuffed to the brim with physical gags and cartoonish humor. That's not bad, of course, I love that sort of thing from time to time! But the silly cartoonish stunts made up at least two thirds of the film, letting any story fall along the wayside. What made Despicable Me so good was the fun story and the characters' personalities clashing together so profoundly. Minions is just a mess of silliness. Kids will eat this stuff up. The concourses of children in the theater I attended were in stitches through most of the movie. I laughed many times as well, but not nearly as much. This isn't exactly something that parents and their children will enjoy together like some other family movies. This is more of a kid movie than a family movie. It's something to take the kids to see just for them, though parents will likely get a few chuckles here and there.
The thing that made this seem most like a cash grab was the fact that in Despicable Me we see blueprints on the walls of Gru's lair for the Minions. This strongly suggests that Gru created the Minions (genetic mutations based on corn), and not adorable creatures that evolved from the dawn of time. I tried to find a picture of this online as evidence, but couldn't find one. So, it seems that they changed their own story canon to feature some funny side characters doing nothing but be funny at the expense of the kind of story that made the previous movie so successful. Sadly, if this trend continues, future movies will lack heart and uniqueness.
Minions was a fun movie, though not a terribly good one. I laughed many times, but not nearly as much as the hoards of kids in the theater. The Minions are adorable and hysterical, but there's just a bit too much of them. It boasts some quality animation, but is lacking in the kind of storytelling that made their previous movies so successful. The 3-D was gimmicky, not terribly well implemented, and was likely utilized just to squeeze a few more dollars out of its audience. The whole thing feels like a cash grab, even if it is a rather amusing cash grab. I did enjoy it, but it's not something I'll go out of my way to see again. I'd wait for it on home video if your kids can wait that long. If they can't I wouldn't do anything more than a 2-D matinee.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Sharknado 2: The Second One Review

In 2013, hype and gossip about the SyFy Channel's latest schlockfest, Sharknado, grew to such an extent that it was being talked about by several celebrities on Twitter and became a trending topic. This publicity was such that the SyFy Channel's encore broadcast of the movie was most watched film in the history of their network. When there is a reception like that and a production cost that low, it's the perfect conditions for a sequel. Thus, Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014) came into being and was the highest-premiring film in SyFy history. And yes, it is every bit as stupid as it sounds.
Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering) and his ex-wife April Wexler (Tara Reid) are flying to New York City to promote How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters, a book April has written about the infamous Los Angeles sharknado. As the plane comes in for a landing through a storm it is battered by airborn sharks in another freak weather storm akin to the one Fin and April survived. This time multiple sharknadoes are causing large ravenous killer fish to rain down upon New York City's unsuspecting population and cherished, iconic sites. As the only ones with experience, Fin and April are best equipped to save The Big Apple.
"Sharknado" sounds ridiculous enough, and indeed was probably a big draw for the first movie. But even the subtitle, The Second One, is hilariously stupid. The first movie knew it was ridiculous and was genuinely having fun with it. Sharknado 2 does its best to bring more preposterous scenarios and cheesy dialogue, the likes of which made the first move so delightfully bad. Attacking the sharks with swords, fire axes, and chain saws are not unheard of. In fact, the ridiculousness is pushed full throttle and just ends up remarkably silly. Things like physics are completely thrown out the window. It's as if the writers were thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool if Fin cut a great white shark perfectly in half lengthwise?" "Yeah! And to make it even cooler, he should do that while giving a speech! There's no way that wouldn't work!"
Similar to the first movie, the camera work was abysmal and gave little sense of space or direction. In one scene our heroes are caught in a cab on a street which is flooded with water up to the axles. There, naturally, are dozens of sharks swimming in these eight-inch-deep waters. They hoist a rope over a streetlight so they can swing to safety. Really, that should only get them maybe twenty feet away, tops. But the camera never shows us what our heroes have swung to. The top of another car? The sidewalk, which would also be flooded? Would it have killed them to take half a moment to show what it was they landed on? How safe can they be at that unspecified location when sharks can leap 15+ feet out of the water? Seriously, if you think about this movie at all, it completely falls apart. This is not in any way or by any means to suggest that it was well put together. Just sit back and enjoy the ridiculous madness.
There were a number of "celebrity cameos" in Sharknado 2. I use "celebrity" in a very generous way; it was more like washed up actors and obscure people that were desperate to appear in a movie. Most of these cameo roles made nods to previous roles the guests had played. Robert Hays was previously a pilot in Airplane! Judd Hirsch was a cab driver in Taxi, Jared Fogle was a longtime spokesman for the Subway restaurants, and Billy Ray Cyrus was a doctor in the TV series Doc. Al Roker and Matt Lauer appear as themselves hosting The Today Show and commenting on the insane weather conditions. Some of these characters' names are in-joke references to Jaws, having similar names to characters in the classic shark movie. Wil Wheaton was my favorite; he's pretty much great in everything he does these days.
The visual effects are still just as poor as the previous movie. The CGI lacks refinement, and are inadequately blended into the actual shot. You can tell the bad CGI storm clouds are added to what is obviously a sunny day; some shots have these lame storm clouds and others have clear skies within the same scene. The digital gore was actually slightly improved. Still very fake looking, but it did look somewhat more gross. We saw the chewed up face of a woman after a small shark gnawed on her for a bit. That was the only instance that made me second guess if this was in compliance with normal broadcast television standards. It still looked too fake to be taken seriously, though.
Sharknado 2: The Second One is just as dumb as its predecessor. The script is terrible and full of cheesy lines, the acting is barely above that of a soap opera, the special effects are painful to watch, and there are plot holes big enough that the Statue of Liberty's decapitated head could roll through. But like the first movie, Sharknado 2 knows it's being ridiculous and does not at all take itself seriously. If we are to rate the movie by how well they achieved what they set out to do, this is a phenomenal success, even if it is really bad! Granted, the schlock factor here is not quite as entertaining as it forerunner, but fans of this franchise are going to get a kick out of it. The only real way to watch this is with friends while laughing at it and making fun of it. But if preposterous, low-budget movies that don't bother to make sense aren't your thing, there's no way you'll enjoy it.

I've just discovered that a third installment is going to be released soon. Check your local TV listings for Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! on the SyFy Channel, premiering on July 22, 2015.

How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters is an actual book. I have read it, and it is somewhat entertaining and talks about monsters from other B movies. It can best be described as a bathroom reader. Check it out on or at Barnes & Nobel. Available in paperback, ebook, and audio book formats.

What's your favorite ridiculous campy B movie? Are there any that are worth going out of the way to see? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Hidalgo Review

I frankly don't see a lot of westerns that I am truly enthralled by. They tend to be formulaic and come a dime a dozen. On the occasion that I do find a western that I enjoy, I usually like it a lot. In the case of Hidalgo (2004), I thought it was a really fun story that goes outside of the usual western setting of the western wilds of the United States and into the Middle East. It's far from perfect, but it hits the right notes.
Held yearly for centuries, the Ocean of Fire--a 3,000 mile survival race across the Arabian desert--was a challenge restricted to the finest Arabian horses ever bred, the purest and noblest lines, owned by the greatest royal families. In 1890, wealthy Sheik Riyadh (Omar Sharif) invited an American, Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), and his horse to enter the race for the first time. During the course of his career, Hopkins was a cowboy and dispatch rider for the U.S. cavalry--and had once been billed as the greatest rider the West had ever known. The Sheik puts his claim to the test, pitting the American cowboy and his mustang, Hidalgo, against the world's greatest Arabian horses and Bedouin riders--some of whom are determined to prevent a foreigner from finishing the race. For Frank, the Ocean of Fire becomes not only a matter of pride and honor, but a race for his very survival as he and his horse attempt the impossible.
So, Frank Hopkins himself was a real person who was known as a legendary distance rider, claimed to have won four hundred races, and was recognized by his contemporaries as supporting the preservation of the mustang breed of horse. His life and story were the inspiration for Hidalgo, and Disney marketed the film as "based on a true story," although subsequent investigations have failed to find any evidence of such a race. Hopkins was known for telling exaggerated stories about himself, even claiming that he was born in 1865, which also was never backed up with any proof. History buffs who care about accuracy are probably going to get all bent out of shape many times in this movie. It should be abundantly clear this is a made up story for the sake of telling a fun story.
And what a fun story it is! There's lots of gunplay, horse racing, saving damsels in distress, outrunning a sandstorm, swordplay, political intrigue, clashes of cultures, and outwitting scoundrels. On the one hand, the story is formulaic and does a lot of things that other westerns do. But on the other hand, I think it does a lot of these formulaic elements very well and shows us some good examples of these sorts of elements. I don't want to praise the movie as unique simply for being a western that is mostly set in Middle East, but that is what it is and I can't think of another movie that has done that.
This adds some interesting aspects to the movie; rather than clashing or fighting with Native Americans, we're clashing and fighting with Sheiks and Arabs. That's not a huge change of pace, just a different people and culture. Unlike older westerns which demonize Native Americans, the Middle Easterners here are depicted as honorable people with a rich tradition who happen to have some unscrupulous individuals who violate and make exception to those honorable values and traditions for their own personal gain. So, pretty much like every culture out there. As I have little experience with that part of the world I can't comment on the accuracy of their depiction in this movie, and I hope the historical accuracy is not an indicator if cultural accuracy.
This isn't just a western, it's also a horse movie. Horse enthusiasts will likely be enthralled by the relationship between Hopkins and his horse, Hidalgo. The main horse and Viggo Mortensen actually have a chemistry between them. Mortensen liked and got along with that horse so well that he later bought the horse. There are some great lines in the movie that are perfectly "western" and perfectly "horse movie." The damsel in distress asks Hopkins "Why do I feel that you truly see me when others do not?" to which Hopkins replies, "Well, my horse likes ya." Classic.
Whether or not the events depicted in Hidalgo really happened to Hopkins, it's still a fun story. Please ignore any tiresome scolds who complain that the movie is not really based on fact. I mean, duh. The story is full of some likable characters, plenty of action, a search for identity and honor, and some pretty impressive horses. If there's a downside to any of this, I'm not seeing it. Sure, it's formulaic. Yeah, it doesn't stray far from western movie tropes. But it's a fun movie, and I liked it. I recommend seeing this film if you enjoy westerns or simply love horses. Hidalgo is worth having a copy of if you fall in that demographic. It does get rather violent, so it's not something to watch with younger children present.  I already have a copy of this on my shelves; it's fun to take out and watch every now and again.

What's your favorite "horse movie?" Comment below and let me know!