Friday, November 27, 2015

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Review

A good twelve years ago Disney threw us a curveball of a movie. No one seemed to know it was coming until the trailers hit the internet, and no one had seen a movie quite like it, so there were no preconceived notions or expectations to live up to. Not only did this movie wow us with a great deal of fun and creative action, it reignited interest in pirates and once again made them a romanticized notion that people surprisingly flocked to. I am, of course, referring to Pirates Of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) arrives at Port Royal in the Caribbean without a ship or crew. His timing is inopportune, however, because later that evening the town is besieged by a pirate ship lead by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). The pirates kidnap the governor's daughter, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), who's in possession of a valuable coin that is linked to a curse that has transformed the pirates into the undead. A gallant blacksmith, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), in love with Elizabeth, tentatively allies with Sparrow in pursuit of the pirates.
As far as I can tell, this was the first time Disney had attempted to make a feature film based on one of their park rides. There have been other attempts which can best be described as bad. I suspect part of the appeal of Black Pearl was to see exactly how a notorious kids theme park ride transitioned into a movie. Really well, as it turns out.  There are lots of nods to the ride in the film, but none are so overt that they beat you over the head with them. For example, the ride's song "Yo Ho "A Pirate's Life for Me" was sung three times in the film; twice by Elizabeth and once by Jack in the final scene. The jail scene where prisoners try to tempt the Prison Dog who held the keys to their cells with a bone is taken directly from the ride. Even Jack's line, "the dog is never going to move" referenced the fact that the dog in the ride never actually moves. If you know what to watch for, you can see many actors behaving like the puppets do on the ride for a second or two on screen or in the background. This movie was so influential that it sparked interest in going on the Disneyland ride. Kids who grew up watching the movie ended up disappointed by a trip to Disneyland when they didn't see Jack Sparrow in the ride. Disney ultimately had to change the ride up a bit to resemble the movie due to its popularity. The ride now features Jack Sparrow, Barbossa, and Davey Jones (who appears in later films).
This was the first time in ages a legitimate sea epic had been filmed. Parts of the sea-faring scenes were actually filmed on location in the Caribbean oceans. Real sea ships were used in many of these scenes, while meticulously decorated barge "stunt doubles" with computer-generated imagery filling in the details were used in other scenes. This gave the movie a realistic feel to it that wouldn't have worked as well if it were all CGI visual effects. But what CGI effects were used were fantastic! Even twelve years after its release, it still looks good; the movie has aged very well.
Objectively, the story here isn't great. It's decent and fun, but isn't great. I truly don't think this movie would have done nearly as well with anyone else cast as Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp was encouraged to adlib and improvise a lot in this movie, and he does. Depp's outstanding, unforgettable, and charismatic character often takes center stage and steals scenes he's in. He effortlessly shoves the cliché love plot out of the way and makes the film his own. Jack Sparrow is so charming, funny, and likable that you can't help but enjoy the movie as a whole. I'm not sure how the cast and crew were able to keep a straight face when Depp was hamming it up as the character he created. Even Jack Sparrow's catchphrase, "Savvy?" was improvised by Depp.
The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a great movie. It's not perfect, but there truly is very little that can be said about this film in a negative light. It is clever, witty, and sharp. One of the true achievements, however, is that it isn't too witty and sharp; it knew its boundaries, unlike the sequels. The seriousness of the situations these characters were put in feel real, which caused us to care about what was happening to them. This movie became an instant cult classic and reignited film fans' love of pirate adventures. The fact that it had no expectation contrasts with its sequels, which is why it was probably so successful. The movies that came after this first one had their good and bad attributes, and even with a fifth installment coming out in 2017, I cannot for the life of me imagine it topping The Curse of the Black Pearl. In fact, I can't see any pirate film surpassing this landmark film for some time to come. This is absolutely worth owning a copy; I've got my own copy already comfortably resting on a shelf next to some of my other favorites. If you haven't seen this movie, you're missing out. If you have seen it, it's high time you saw it again.

If another theme park ride (Disney or otherwise) were made into a movie what would you like to see? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

A couple of weeks ago a group of my guy friends got together with the express purpose of watching an over the top action movie. We ended up watching Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) which was in theaters in the spring earlier this year. I have never seen a Mad Max movie before and only had marginal interest in seeing them ever. Fury Road was insane, over the top, and completely amazing! Not only that, but it's possibly the cleanest R-rated move I've ever seen.
Years after the collapse of civilization, the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) enslaves apocalypse survivors inside the desert fortress, the Citadel. When the warrior Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads the dictator's five wives in a daring escape, she forges an alliance with a loner and former captive of Immortan Joe, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), and one of Joe's religious zealot "War Boys," Nux (Nicholas Hoult) . Fortified in the massive armored truck, the War Rig, they try to outrun the ruthless warlord and his henchmen in a deadly high-speed chase through the Wasteland.
There are three Mad Max movies out there already, all of which star a young Mel Gibson. Originally, Gibson was intended to reprise the titular role. Fury Road's director, George Miller, ended up recasting the role because of controversies surrounding Gibson and because he really wanted Max to remain at a younger age. Tom Hardy took on the role and he was great. Granted, I don't know how his portrayal of the character compares to Mel Gibson's; I haven't seen the old Mad Max movies. Hardy was fantastic in The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, and he is still a dramatic force to be reckoned with here. Fury Road harkens back to the original films, usually in the form of Max's hallucinating about people he was unable to save. It is also a complete story on its own that doesn't rely on the assumption that you've seen the previous movies that were originally released over a quarter of a century ago. That's good, because a lot of people have been born in the last 30 years and not all movie attendees have seen the Mad Max movie. This introduces the world setting and character to a new audience. Fury Road wasn't an attempt to rekindle interest in the original films, but I certainly want to see them now!
This is a Mad Max movie; it features the titular character and the iconic post-apocalyptic world setting he inhabits. But oddly, Max himself isn't what the story revolves around. I'd argue that even though Max is the first character we're introduced to, Furiosa is the main character. It's her story, it's her adventure, it's her quest. Max is picked up and kind of tags along in the interest of their mutual survival and as a means of Furiosa achieving her quest to free Immortan Joe's wives from abuse and to find a safe place to call home. Max is mostly present only because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fury Road doesn't hint at a sequel, though there is probably enough material to make a couple. If that were to be done, I could see Furiosa eventually taking the helm of the stories set in the Mad Max universe because she is so remarkably interesting and such a highly compelling character. Max was great and all, but I'd be up for seeing more of Furiosa.
Surely you have seen Indiana Jones. Remember that crazy car chase where Indy falls down the front of a moving car, slides underneath said car to the back, climbs into the back and takes out the driver? It's a fantastic scene and highly enjoyable. Mad Max: Fury Road is basically two hours of that kind of scene. There is tons of over the top crazy action and it is relentless! Scene after scene of high stakes action, with just barely enough downtime to catch your breath before the next one starts. The stunts are nothing shy of incredible. People are constantly jumping from vehicle to vehicle, firing guns, things are exploding, enemies are defeated, allies are wounded or lost, vehicles spew fire and smoke as they accelerate, storms encroach upon the chaos, and it is absolutely fun! There's even some guy strapped to the top of a vehicle who inexplicably plays an electric guitar that also inexplicably shoots flames. Why? Who cares!? It's awesome! The stunts were unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and 90% of the special effects and stunts were practical; no CGI used for most of the whole movie. Due to the intensity of the stunts used in the movie, 150 stunt performers were used which included Cirque du Soleil performers and Olympic athletes. There are insane vehicles and cars used in the movie which defy reason, all of which were fully functional, again no CGI here.  This truly is a cinema spectacle to behold.
Fury Road was lauded as a pro-feminist film, though I'm not sure I agree with that entirely. Yes, it was fantastic to see a "women taking the reins" sort of movie. It features some women who choose to live without men, eventually fighting those men they chose to live away from. It highlights most men as villains complicit in the manufacturing of women designed to be breeders (none of this is depicted; only spoken about, or rather shouted about over the sound of cars and trucks racing at 90 mph). To be perfectly honest, the women (other than Furiosa) were not a big part of the movie and neither were their acting chops. The wives were a plot device that got some bits of dialogue. The wives' characters hardly had enough material to incorporate deeper issues. I still loved Furiosa, but I can't imagine women anywhere feeling empowered as feminists watching this movie. It's entertaining, absolutely, and it has a surprising amount of narrative heft, but Fury Road is basically a two-hour car chase and doesn't really tackle issues of feminism.
Fury Road might be the cleanest R-rated movies I've ever seen. It's "rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images." There is no sex scenes and little nudity (I'm sure I've seen worse in PG-13 movies). The action is very intense, but the violence is not gory nor visually explicit; anything notably gruesome takes place off camera, or in a few cases shows us just enough to get the gist of what has happened without dwelling on how grotesque it probably was. Furthermore, while this seems the perfect situation for it, I don't recall hearing a single word of profanity. There is talk of things that of a mature nature, but it's never shown. For example, the wives are basically sex slaves, treated as objects, abused, and intended for breeding purposes, but none of that is ever shown. It is more or less deserving of an R-rating, but Fury Road lies in the gray area between R and PG-13.
Mad Max: Fury Road was positively amazing. It's like a relentless two-hour assault on both the eardrums and the eyeballs. The structure is solid and even, at no point does it feel repetitive or drawn out. The supporting cast lacks refinement and depth, but Max and Furiosa are great characters that you can't help but be drawn to. The story is simple, but it's the action that is the backbone of this movie; it's simply fascinating. I'd love to see Tom Hardy continue in the Mad Max franchise, but more than that, I'd like to see Charlize Theron as Furiosa move it forward. I love good, strong, female protagonists, and Furiosa is great! All of the insane, over the top action sequences are positively incredible. This has got to earn awards for stunt work, and if none exists one should be made for the express purpose of giving it to this film. This is like action as art. I highly recommend seeing Mad Max: Fury Road. It's also worth owning if you enjoy action films at all.

Are you a fan of the old Mad Max films? What did you think of Mel Gibson being replaced by Tom Hardy? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Peanuts Movie Review

The Peanuts comic strips never were my favorite, I'd always read Calvin and Hobbes or Garfield first in the funny papers. The many animated Peanuts TV specials were cute and certainly had their charm, but were hardly things I'd go out of my way to see. When I heard about The Peanuts Movie (2015) and that it was being CGI animated in 3D, the only response I could think of was "Good Grief." But then I saw the trailer and got to see the animation in action, as well as a hint at the storyline. Only then did I become excited about it. Not only did it turn out to be really good, but it held so true to its source material that you'd think that Peanuts cartoonist, Chales M. Shultz, had a hand in making it!
Life always seems complicated for good ol' Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp), the boy who always tries his best against seemingly impossible odds. When the Little Red-Haired Girl moves into his neighborhood, Charlie Brown develops a crush on her. He is hoping to shed his former reputation and reinvent himself as a more confident person, and start over with a clean slate in the eyes of the Little Red-Haired Girl. Meanwhile, his best friend Snoopy takes to writing an epic adventure in a fantasy world. As a World War I flying ace, the lovable beagle pursues his nemesis, the Red Baron, while also trying to win the heart of a beautiful poodle named Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth).
 I cannot speak highly enough about the animation. I really was expecting a bunch of creative or even crazy camera shots and 3D gimmicks to showcase how diligent the computer animators were while making the movie. Boy was I wrong. There was a great deal of flat staging used in The Peanuts Movie, which is to say most camera angles and movements were eye-level with the characters and were flush with the background. This made nearly any given shot resemble a 2D panel in the comic strip or cartoon TV special. Furthermore, while the animation was smooth, it wasn't fluid. This was intentional though; some of the subtle jerkiness in animation was meant to emulate the subtle jerkiness and movement of the 2D animation that was so beloved in the old TV specials. There were even the lines added here and there like what was done in the comics and TV specials, such as the dotted lines that follows Woodstock's erratic flying, lines following a character who dashes off screen to illustrate their speed, or squiggly lines above a characters head to suggest dizziness. Yes, it was digitally animated; but the brilliant lighting, color scheme, and camera work made the animation resemble the classic feel of the comics and TV specials and the similarities are positively uncanny. It's almost as if you were watching an old Charlie Brown cartoon with moving puff stickers or something. It's difficult to fully express what the animation is like. Take a moment to watch the trailer here to get a good look for yourself:

As is the case with most of the Peanuts storylines, there isn't a villain or an antagonist to defeat. It's just a bunch of kids, experiencing life and learning from their experiences. Charlie Brown is a guy who, in the face of repeated failure, picks himself back up and tries again. Truly, that is no small task. Everyday qualities of perseverance, to pick yourself back up with a positive attitude, are more admirable and down to earth than seeing an action hero save the world. The story here feels very real and is something that people can relate to, regardless of their age. It's not a struggle against a bad guy, it's a struggle of self respect and improvement. Nevertheless, there is a sense of urgency and finite time available that gives the movie a bit of an exciting edge. The Peanuts Movie remains as sweet and innocent as ever while still being relatable to a broad age range.
One of my favorite scenes is the opening scene where we're introduced to the whole cast. Because of the robust number of Peanuts characters, the movie didn't need to introduce any new ones. The opening scene shows us things like Sally trying to flirt with Linus (her "Sweet Babboo"), Charlie Brown is thwarted by the Kite-Eating Tree, Lucy calls Charlie Brown a blockhead, the kids go ice skating, and Snoopy tries to run off with Linus's blanket among other familiar bits. Throughout the movie we see other common Peanuts gags, such as Charlie Brown trying to play baseball, Schroeder playing the piano and appreciating Beethoven, Snoopy imagining himself as a WWI flying ace and writing a novel, references to The Great Pumpkin, hanging out next to a brick wall, and Lucy's Psychiatry Booth (my favorite). We came to the end of the movie and hadn't had Lucy hold a football for Charlie Brown to kick, but even that was included in one of the two mid-credit scenes. This movie has essentially everything that makes Peanuts what it is; it feels like a classic Peanuts cartoon, leaving nothing out.
The Peanuts Movie is a terrific big-screen version of the classic comics and TV specials that should satisfy Peanuts fans and generate new ones. This movie feels familiar, even cozy. I never was a big fan of Peanuts, but this movie feels like the return of an old friend. It perfectly pays homage to its source material, including everything that gives Peanuts its charm, and adding nothing to detract from it. The Peanuts Movie works because it's simple. At no point was it trying to sell a toy, sell comic books, or be any cooler than it actually is. Adults will absolutely find The Peanuts Movie delightful and charming, but the comedy and message will still ring true for kids. It's not just an all-ages crowd-pleaser, this would be the perfect first feature for a preschooler. I firmly believe that Charles M. Schultz would have been immensely pleased with this movie. This is worth seeing in theaters if you've ever enjoyed Peanuts to even the smallest degree. In fact, I'd encourage you to do so, it's the kind of film we want to encourage studios to keep making.

What's a newspaper comic strip you would like to see a movie made out of with the love and care that The Peanuts Movie was? I'd LOVE to see a good Calvin and Hobbes movie. Comment below and tell me what you think!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Psycho Review

I can never narrow it down to just one title when asked what my favorite movie is. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) always makes my list of favorites. As a college student I took a Film as Literature class coupled with Introduction to Psychology. This class gave me the vocabulary to express why I liked or didn't like a movie and sparked an interest in psychology. We critiqued every aspect of Psycho imaginable. It was an incredibly edgy movie for its day; it set a new level of acceptability for violence, deviant behavior, and sexuality in American films, and is considered one of the greatest films of all time.
Phoenix officeworker Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is fed up with the way life has treated her. She has to meet her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) in lunch breaks and they cannot get married because Sam has to give most of his money away in alimony. One Friday Marion is trusted to bank $40,000 by her employer. Seeing the opportunity to take the money and start a new life, Marion leaves town and heads towards Sam's California store. Tired after the long drive and caught in a storm, she gets off the main highway and pulls into The Bates Motel. The motel is managed by a quiet young man called Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who seems to be dominated by his mother.
Psycho is based on the Robert Blotch novel of the same name. It's a very good read and the film is an outstanding adaptation of the book. Hitchcock acquired the rights to the novel and proceeded to buy up copies to preserve the novel's surprises. Paramount Pictures executives were hesitant at Hitchcock's proposal for Psycho and refused to provide his usual budget because of their distaste with the source material. They further attempted to thwart Hitchcock's cost-conscious approach by claiming their sound stages were booked even though the industry was in a slump. Hitchcock countered that he would personally finance the project and film it at Universal-International using his crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series if Paramount would merely distribute. Paramount, wanting as little to do with what they believed would be a failed movie, deferred most of the net profits to Hitchcock. When Psycho became a sleeper hit (a movie that didn't have a huge opening and went on to have huge mainstream success), Hitchcock made a fortune. The conflict ended Hitchcock's tenure with Paramount and by the time principal photography started, Hitchcock had moved his offices to Universal and the film was actually shot on Universal's back lot. Universal owns the film today as well, even though the Paramount Pictures logo is still on the film. The fascinating story of the making of Psycho is encapsulated in the 2012 movie Hitchcock, which worth seeing if you are a fan of Psycho.
One of the things that makes Psycho so intense is the visceral emotions it generates in its audience. Marion, who is normally a reasonably good person, steals a considerable amount of cash. Nearly every scene we follow her through after the theft is rife with paranoia. Even though we don't agree with Marion's choice we empathize deeply with her fear of being discovered and the paranoid thoughts about how people might react to her when they find out. Visually depicting a character's unease and nervousness isn't terribly complicated, but watching Marion's panic increase and hearing her play out possible scenarios in her mind is both a tribute to Hitchcock's directing as well as Leigh's superb acting. Even in scenes without Marion the disquiet and feelings of suspicion it generates is absolutely palpable.
Psycho is probably best known for its shower scene, the film's pivotal scene and one of the best-known in all of cinema. Even if you haven't see Psycho, chances are you have seen the shower scene spoofed, parodied, or referenced in at least a few other sources. It is so iconic that it has spawned numerous movie myths and legends. It is unarguably a work of cinema art. The scene runs 3 minutes and includes 50 filming cuts; in the main action in the sequence, everything was so rapid that there were 78 separate pieces of film in 45 seconds. It's rich use of symbolism, fascinating shots with the camera, and Leigh's magnificent performance make this one of the more memorable and outstanding pieces of cinema art. And, the scene was done with no visual nudity; nothing is shown below Leigh's bare shoulders or above her knees, which goes to show that overt nudity is not required to make a movie good.
Initially Hitchcock was disappointed with Psycho. He even disliked the shower scene and believed the movie would end up on a low budget drive-in double-feature. Hitchcock did not conceive of music for the shower scene, but motion picture music composer Bernard Herrmann insisted that Hitchcock try his composition. It was only after seeing the film with its score, including the shower sequence, that Hitchcock realized that the movie would work. Truly, Psycho would not have been the phenomenal success that it was without the iconic soundtrack of screeching violins, violas, and cellos the shower scene and other important scenes to add to the atmospheric foreboding.
There is so much to mention and discuss about Psycho I really could go on for pages about it. Not only was Psycho immortalized for its contribution to the horror genre, it practically created the slasher movie genre. This is one of Hitchcock's Masterpieces, and should be seen by everyone. It features brilliant camera work, directing, and cinematography, it was filmed with tact, grace, and art. Hitchcock didn't create modern horror, he validated it. Psycho is 55 years old (as of this writing) and it still gives me chills. This is one of my all time favorite movies; it is worth seeing many times over, and well worth the investment to own a copy. I highly recommend seeing it if you haven't already, and seeing it again if you have.

What is your favorite Slasher film? Why did you like it so much? Comment below and tell me why!