Friday, December 25, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

So, in case you've been living under a rock for the past several months, there is a new Star Wars movie out! Being respectful of all my fellow geeks on the internet who have begged the rest of the internet to avoid spoilers, I will avoid being too specific here and describe my impressions. Apart from a broad synopsis in the following paragraph, I won't reveal anything you haven't seen in the trailers you've probably seen 147 times. Of course, if you want to go in to the movie fresh with nothing but the trailers on your mind, I wouldn't read beyond this paragraph. I will say here, though, that this Star Wars movie feels more like Star Wars than all the prequel trilogy movies combined. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a good, solid film.
Thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, the galaxy faces a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order. When a defector named Finn (John Boyega) crash-lands on a desert planet, he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough scavenger whose droid contains a top-secret map. Together, the young duo joins forces with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to make sure the Resistance receives the intelligence that could potentially turn the course of the ongoing fight against the First Order.
There, see? That wasn't too spoilery, was it? Honestly, I'm doing my best not to tarnish your experience seeing this movie.
I was legitimately worried about this movie when it was announced; the last time I got excited about a new Star Wars release it SUCKED. That abominable prequel trilogy tarnished Star Wars with abysmal storytelling, insulting characters, flimsy plots, blatant self-promotion for merchandise, twisting established rules of the setting, too much CGI and poor green screen execution, iconic characters (like Yoda) behaving in completely contrary to how they were previously established, a lack of impacting significant scenes, and too much unrealistic lightsaber madness. If any of that had appeared in this new Star Wars movie, director J.J. Abrams would forever after by referred to as "Jar-Jar Abrams" and lost his credibility as a director. Thankfully, gratefully, The Force Awakens makes genuine effort to shake Star Wars from its slumber, and reconnect the series with it's much pined for past. The Force Awakens is what we were hoping for when The Phantom Menace was announced, and it is good.
I loved this new cast. We've got new a great set of characters who are interesting and dynamic as well as some solid actors playing them. I'm glad we're getting some more diversity in the cast; the original trilogy featured two female characters and one token black guy. Here, we've got a couple of new female characters and a black lead character who isn't just there to be a token support cast member. Rey is a spunky, self-reliant young woman with a charming accent who both wants to leave her situation, but is determined to stay and stick it out. Finn has a disquieting past and a sheltered upbringing; a lot of the universe is new to him and we get to experience the unfamiliarity of this new story along with him. Kylo Ren is a complex antagonist; he is an intimidating force to be reckoned with. He is dangerous and unpredictable, but clearly feels morally justified in his motives. You very quickly enjoy disliking him, but the more we learn about him the more empathy we feel for Kylo Ren. I loved these characters and am truly looking forward to seeing them in action in the future!
It was a sheer joy to see Han Solo again. I've seen several of Harrison Ford's more recent films and much as I love the guy, he is showing his age. However, it's been awhile since I've seen Ford look this energetic and spry in a movie. This 73-year-old actor not only takes on the mantle of his legendary, iconic role again, he very clearly enjoyed doing it! There are a couple other appearances of some familiar faces, but Han Solo as a major character (rather than a cameo) genuinely gave this movie a fun and deeply nostalgic aspect.
Vague as my synopsis above was, I'm sure it sounds familiar if you are a fan of Star Wars. The Force Awakens seemed to borrow several elements from A New Hope. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, structurally, The Force Awakens almost seems like we're repeating the past on some level. But on the other hand, there are enough new locations, events, and characters, that the two movies don't quite compare. It almost seems like a remake of A New Hope with so many creative liberties taken that it's effectively a completely different movie, but still rings true to the original enough that it fits perfectly in to the franchise's chronology without repeating itself.
Star Wars has notoriously challenged itself in fight scenes in the past. For example, take the battle on Hoth in at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back against the Empire's AT-ATs or the battle on the verdant moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi with the high speed chases through the trees. The Force Awakens does this as well. In one scene (shown in the trailer; not a spoiler) there is an aerial dogfight between TIE fighters and X-Wings close enough to the ground that the ships reflections are seen in the lake nearby, while in close proximity our heroes fight off stormtroopers on the ground. This was amazingly choreographed and was fascinating to watch. There are other dogfights in space between the First Order and the Resistance toward the end of the movie which are intense, creative, and exciting!
The prequel trilogy had basically nothing but lightsaber fights when two characters were going head-to-head. Sure, we all love lightsabers but having every fight involve lightsabers cheapens their impact. In The Force Awakens we have some lightsaber fights, but they are reserved for the major, climactic fights. They are easily among the best lightsaber fight scenes. In A New Hope, choreography wasn't well established and looked more like two people waving glowsticks at each other, even when it was an iconic confrontation. In the prequel trilogy it was over choreographed to the point that it looked like dancing with glow sticks that rarely even hit one another. In this movie, the lightsaber fights strongly resembled real sword fights. Kylo Ren's lightsaber resembled a heavy broadsword and he moved like it had a lot of weight. His opponents clearly lacked experience fighting with lightsabers and it showed in their technique. They end up being some of the most realistic-looking lightsaber fights in the franchise.
There is a beautiful subtlety to new material and to the references of previous films in The Force Awakens. In the Prequel trilogy the movie practically asks, "Okay, stop everything. This is where we are going to find out where C-3P0 came from. Just look at how much effort went into the puppet for this character." The original trilogy didn't stop everything to tell you how important a new character will be; it didn't stop to tell you who Obi-Wan Kanobi is or what a lightsaber does. It just shows you the amazing new concept or character, and if it's important it shows you what it does along the way. There are new crazy weapons that stormtroopers use (again, we see this in the trailer; not a spoiler) and we see it in action just long enough for that one fight to occur. Characters develop gradually along with the story over the span of the movie, giving them depth. We don't stop everything merely to show off something new, it's just part of the movie and we watch in awe as we take it in. It's beautifully subtle and makes for a smooth-flowing story.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a good, solid movie. It's everything we had hoped and dreamed of back in 1999 before getting the rug pulled out from under us by The Phantom Menace. It's got a good story packed with action and populated by both familiar faces and fresh blood. This movie successfully recalls the series' former glory while injecting it with renewed energy. It has a solid beginning, middle, and end but leaves some questions unanswered which will inevitably be addressed in future installments. The Force Awakens begins another epic chapter in the Star Wars Saga in the best possible way. This is absolutely worth seeing in theaters, and I urge you to do so. This is the quality of Star Wars movie we want to see in the future, so please help make sure it does well in the box office. This is also well worth the investment to own when it is available on home video.

What were your impressions of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Comment below and tell me about it, but kindly avoid spoilers for anyone who may not have seen it yet.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Krampus Review

There is a Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore character called Krampus, a horned, anthropomorphic figure who punishes children who have misbehaved during the Christmas season, in contrast with Saint Nicholas who rewards the well-behaved with gifts. Frankly, I'm surprised this demonic folklore figure hasn't been used as a horror movie villain before now. Krampus (2015) features an ironic take on Christmas in general, features B-movie camp, and disappointingly little Krampus.
While the holiday season represents the most magical time of year, ancient European folklore warns of Krampus, a horned beast who punishes naughty children at Christmas time. When dysfunctional family squabbling causes young Max (Emjay Anthony) to lose his festive spirit, it unleashes the wrath of the fearsome demon. As Krampus lays siege to the Engel home, mom (Toni Collette), dad (Adam Scott), sister (Stefania LaVie Owen) and brother must band together with their dreadful visiting relatives to save one another from a monstrous fate.
So, it seems that the Krampus character has popped up increasingly in pop culture, including the Christmas episode of the American Dad TV series in season 9, where I first heard about it. When we hear about Krampus in the movie, he is referred to as "The shadow of Saint Nicholas." It seems to represent the bad qualities of Christmas that many people are becoming cynical about these days. This cynisism was beautifully Krampus starts with Bing Crosby singing "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Chrismas" while we see Black Friday shoppers trample store employees. beat each other up over merchandise, kids getting into fistfights in the middle of Christmas pageants, stressed housewives trying to make elaborate dinners, huge messes of holiday wrapping paper. This ironic opening scene was just beautiful; it captured the essence of the unpleasantness that Christmas can bring when we become materialistic, mindless consumers, and spiteful towards other people and family members during a season that claims to be about love, sharing, and kindness. It's this sort of attitude in part that draws the attention of Krampus.
I had really hoped the movie would go on to explore this lack of Christmas Spirit during the Christmas season, but it dosen't delve into it nearly as much as it had potential to. So many Christmas movies and TV specials try to sell "The True Meaning of Christmas" by having some grouchy Scrooge character or busy professional have a sweet change of heart and learn to love or some scientifically inclined intellectual experience the "magic" of the Christmas season and suddenly believe in Santa Clause or some such tripe. Here I was hoping to see Krampus terrorize people into a state of humility and gratitude that forced them to understand the love, personal sacrifice, and kindness that they claim they have but obviously didn't. There was tons of potential to do an ironic and scary "True Meaning of Christmas" thing. It started out that way, but quickly devolved into a Christmas themed home-invasion horror story with very little Krampus.
Krampus has hoards of ironic Christmas themed minions that he keeps sending into the house to abduct and terrorize the Engel family and their houseguests. There are killer Gingerbread men, a many-toothed teddy bear, a creepy angel, and a monstrous worm-like creature inside of a jack-in-the-box clown, to name a few. It's a more mature juxtaposition of Christmas and Halloween than was used in The Nightmare Before Christmas. The family ends up fighting off these creatures repeatedly; Krampus doesn't really appear until near the end. He's the titular character and we see a disappointing lack of this him. He's not really even a presence until the end. By that point he had hardly been established as a central villain and we didn't have a whole lot of reason to be afraid of Krampus specifically other than he looked kind of creepy.
With all the Christmas irony crammed into Krampus, it can be considered a horror/comedy. There's quite a bit of irony playing on Christmas special tropes, but that dies off rather early on. There's still humorous gems of dialogue strewn throughout the script. The relatives that come to visit Engel home are akin to the Cousin Eddie's family in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with none of the charm. Angry with his hosts, Uncle Howard complains to his wife, "We should have gone to stay with my brother!" "Your brother lives in a barn!" she says. "Jesus was born in a barn!" Later "I just got my ass kicked by a bunch of Christmas cookies!" proclaims Howard after one of the more comical attack scenes. Some eerie remixes of ordinarily cheery Christmas songs make their way into the background during action scenes which add to the surrealism and irony of the scenes.
The horror bits were kind of fun and creepy, but it feels like the movie held back a lot on the violence. When there is an opportunity for gore, it mostly happens off screen. The monsters are kind of scary and creepy, but not terribly grotesque. There are a number of scenes when it sounds like the characters are about to drop an F-bomb, but are either interupted or the dialogue sounds similar but is obscured with loud sound effects in hopes that audiences wouldn't notice there was a lack of profanity. This is all fine and dandy, but seems to be a watered down version of what the movie had in mind. The movie stays safely within its PG-13 rating, it just seems like the movie is holding itself back, which ultimately weakens what the movie was aiming for. It's as if it's trying to be really scary without letting itself be properly frightening.
Krampus is an ironic and down-to-earth spin on the normally whimsical and saccharine sweet Christmas movies and TV specials that we are bombarded with around this time of year. It's got funny bits, but the horror aspect takes center stage more often than not. There's funny dialogue, B-movie horror schlock, and doesn't get preachy about what it thinks you should think about Christmas. There is little interaction with the movie's titular monster, which is a big letdown, and it doesn't explore the potential for commenting on how awful some people are around the holiday. It feels restrained and didn't allow itself to do all it wanted to do, which keeps it from its full potential. It starts out strong, but has a weak, vague, and disappointing conclusion. It's almost like Gremlins meets National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, but isn't nearly as good as either one. I can't recommend seeing this in theaters; it's just not worth the price of a movie ticket. If it does sound interesting enough for you to want to see, I'd wait to rent it from RedBox or something.

Are there other obscure mythological figures associated with holidays that you'd like to see star in a creature feature? Comment below to tell me all about it!

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II Review

So, we were left with a cliffhanger at the end of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, and a year later we finally get to see the conclusion in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II (2015). It's been an exciting series and this final installment lived up to expectations set by previous films. This one got really intense in some scenes, but felt lacking in some way in other scenes.
After young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) agrees to be the symbol of rebellion, the Mockingjay, she tries to return Peeta to his normal state, tries to get to the Capitol, and tries to deal with the battles coming her way. Katniss teams up with her closest friends, including, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin) and a now unstable Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) for their ultimate mission. Together, they leave District 13 to liberate the citizens of war-torn Panem and assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who's obsessed with destroying Katniss. What lies ahead are mortal traps, dangerous enemies, and moral choices that will ultimately determine the future of millions.
I never miss an opportunity to praise Jennifer Lawrence for her acting chops. She's simply fantastic here; she's the caliber of actress who improves the quality of the film she's in just by her presence, even if the movie is bad (take House at the End of the Street, for example). Katniss a fantastic female protagonist. She's a somewhat oblivious but totally hardcore heroine who sometimes responds in stereotypically feminine ways but, more often than not, breaks convention. She’s a breadwinner and protector, quick to anger, emotionally damaged, confused, and heroic. Katniss is brave and strong, skilled and smart, and, always, distinctly a teenage girl. She's the kind of character I'd want my daughters to model. Josh Hutcherson was fantastic as well. By this point in the story Peeta is significantly damaged and has been driven mad, and Hutcherson plays that incredibly well and convincingly.
There were two scenes in the book that I was worried would be left out or downplayed in the interest of time; seeking asylum from a person living in The Capital whose cosmetic surgeries and fashionable alterations made her look inhuman, and the "true or not true" game. The surviving members of Katniss's group seek refuge from a fashion clothing designer named Tigris in The Capital, her body alterations made her strongly resemble a tiger. In the book she was depicted as a tragic character to show that the beauty obsessed Capital was cruel to even their own citizens who nearly destroyed their bodies in the interest of keeping up with expectations to the point that they were no longer themselves and then discarded. It's a small, but poignant role that backed up the theme. Sadly this was downplayed to just being a weird character that randomly helped our heroes. That wasn't unexpected, but I'm glad she at least appeared briefly.
In the previous movie, Peeta's memories were tampered with and was conditioned to think that Katniss was the cause of all the war and fighting. He actively tries to kill Katniss because he believes that's the right thing to do. After some reconditioning in District 13, he understands that his memories and personality have been altered. In order to help Peeta sort out true memories from fabricated ones, he and Katniss play this "true or not true" game where Peeta describes something according to his skewed recollection and Katniss tells him if it's accurate or not, which is confirmed by others since Peeta doesn't trust Katniss. Not only is this a fantastic bit of character development, it's also something that could legitimately be used for helping people with anxiety. This was incorporated perfectly into the movie and I was highly pleased to see it.
The action here is intense! It still remains within its PG-13 bounds, but wow, parts of it was intense. There are insane, sadistic traps our heroes encounter and try to survive. Some are really cool and lend themselves to some amazing action scenes. There is one part, however, that really set me on edge. In the tunnels under The Capitol, the team encounters some terrifying monsters. I knew it was coming, but I did not expect what happened on the screen. All our heroes were on edge hearing something creepy in the dark, you just know something is going to jump out of the dark for a big scare, but the anticipation lingers for a long time. So long, in fact, that I was feeling genuinely distressed and fidgety. Something is going to scare me, I just know it. The scene ends up going just long enough that I started to doubt that event was going to happen yet, at which point I jumped out of both my seat and my skin. It was followed by an insane action scene that was also highly intense. It was really good! Thematically the movie gets very grim and dark, so much so I wonder if some younger viewers would be okay watching it.
In my review of Mockingjay Part I, I complained that there was a lot of down time which hurt the pacing of the movie. That was less of an issue in Part II, but it still lacked something. The first two movies were both exciting and dramatic, and that made them incredibly good. I think the problem with Mockingjay Part II is that it's mostly just exciting. The action was great, the effects were stunning, the tension was palpable, and the characters were good. I think where the problem lies is in parts of the aftermath and conclusion. I'll avoid spoilers here, but there's a vague sense of betrayal between some of the characters which deserved a bit more exploration or at least allusion. A death of a certain character could have been more impactful. The personalities and importance of some secondary characters were lost in the transition from book to movie (like Tigris). I think that if these few bits had been given more gravitas, it would have made Mockingjay Part II even better. The decision to turn a 390-page book into over four hours worth of screen time (and a bonus payday for the studio) has resulted in a patchy end to a franchise that started so promisingly. It's still good, but the Mockingjay story was weakened by stretching it out further than was necessary.
Tragically, Phillip Seymour Hoffman passed away during the filming of both Mockingjay movies in February 2014. He played an outstanding Plutarch Heavensbee, but this was his last appearance after a long career in film. All but two scenes involving Hoffman were completed by the time of his death. Regarding Hoffman's scenes, Lawrence commented that, "He had two substantial scenes left and the rest were appearances in other scenes. We had no intention of trying to fake a performance, so we rewrote those scenes to give to other actors… The rest, we just didn’t have him appear in those scenes. There’s no digital manipulation or CG fabrication of any kind." It was an honorable way to pay respects to the actor and his accomplishments.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II comes to an exacting and somewhat satisfying ending. Overall, the series of films is good, even if the two Mockingjay films suffered from being divided into two movies and lacked significant impact during the conclusion. It was still usually poignant when it needed to be and highly exciting. This last movie takes a remarkably dark tone even by comparison to its predecessors, some of the action and tension might get to be a bit too much for younger audiences, but it's positively riveting. If you can still catch this in theaters, I'd say go for it. The Hunger Games movies are worth owning copies of, and pulling out once in a while to relive the legacy of Katniss Everdeen again and again.

What other Young Adult novel trilogy would you like to see made into a movie in the future? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Good Dinosaur Review

I, for one, think it's highly interesting that Pixar has released two feature films in the same year. That's a gutsy move when you consider the fact that the two movies will therefore be in competition against each other for Best Animated Feature for the upcoming Oscars. This second Pixar movie, The Good Dinosaur (2015), ended up being above average. It hasn't quite lifted the movie studio out of their slump of mediocrity, but it is a step in the right direction.
Luckily for the young apatosaurus named Arlo, his parents (Jeffrey Wright & Frances McDormand) and his two siblings, the mighty dinosaurs were not wiped out 65 million years ago. When a rainstorm washes poor Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) downriver, he ends up bruised, battered and miles away from home. Good fortune shines on the frightened dino when he meets a Neanderthal boy whom Arlo names Spot (Jack Bright) who offers Arlo help and friendship. Together, the unlikely duo embark on an epic adventure to reunite Arlo with his beloved family.
I wasn't sure what I was getting into with The Good Dinosaur. The trailer mostly boasted Pixar's usual stellar animation, but didn't give us much of a hint at the story. This is usually a bad sign. The last thing I was expecting was a prehistoric western. The Good Dinosaur is structured like a western, but doesn't make it's character so human-acting that it's obviously a western. Arlo's family works on a farm growing crops to keep themselves fed during colder seasons, but they don't have farm equipment per say; they kind of work the fields tilling the ground with their nose, build a silo out of rocks and mud, and they live in a cave; it is still the stone age, after all. Arlo is a farm boy who gets lost after a storm and meets what is functionally a stray dog and the two help each other out as they face the wilderness together. They meet a psychotic cult of pterodactyls who worship bad weather and lead by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn). They also meet Butch (Sam Elliott) and his family of cowboy tyrannosaurus whose "ranch" is full of prehistoric longhorns. Arlo and Spot help fight off a pack of cattle rustling velociraptors. Along the way Arlo learns the meaning of courage on his way home. The story of The Good Dinosaur is a prehistoric frontier survival saga and something of a vision quest. That alone is a neat concept which was expertly executed.
Most kids movies are fast paced, but surprisingly The Good Dinosaur is slower, almost poky in its non-frantic pace. Many Pixar movies hold dearly the values of manic verbal humor and elaborate chase sequences, but The Good Dinosaur favors some very straightforward and classy storytelling which also heralds back to old western movies. There is a profound charm and beauty to the wordless stretches in the movie. Moments like these are when the humor is predominantly physical and the striking prehistoric scenery takes precedence. I could see some viewers (possibly even kids) being put off by this more relaxed pace and the simplicity of the direct story, but I found the straightforwardness and the more leisurely paced film to be refreshing. This isn't to say that The Good Dinosaur is boring or even slow; it just doesn't move at a manic pace nor is it a complex tale. It still boasts some emotional heft to it, even with simple characters like Arlo who is basically defined by little more than how he recoils from and then confronts his crippling fears. Like most Pixar films, it caused me to tear up on more than on occasion.
Pixar has always set an unprecedented high standard for their animation, and this one was no different. The prehistoric background - mountains, valleys, forests, and rivers - are animated with such realism it practically looks like it was shot with a video camera rather than animated on a computer. Yet the characters are given cartoonish proportions and movements which gives the movie an almost surreal quality. The characters are still highly detailed and beautifully animated. Everything from the gentle bob of an animal's breathing to the fluid shifts in Spot's facial expressions was clearly, lovingly rendered. There are even incredibly designed scenes (which I won't detail here for the sake of avoiding spoilers) that make the sky itself resemble shark-infested waters. The animation is positively amazing and is sure to impress and awe.
The Good Dinosaur delivers some incredibly beautiful animation and worthy story. Even if it doesn't quite live up to Pixar's lofty standards, it still ends up being a charming, family-friendly movie. There are echoes of The Lion King, Bambi, and many other timeless Disney classics in this simple coming-of-age story. It is a good movie, but pitted against the previous Pixar movie from this year I'd place my bet on Inside Out for Best Animated Feature. The Good Dinosaur is worth seeing in theaters, and probably worth owning on Blu-Ray eventually. Dinosaur-loving kids will likely love this movie to pieces.

Can you think of another "metaphorical western?" Something that isn't literally a western sort of genre, but has a lot of similarities to it? Comment below and let me know!