Friday, April 29, 2016

Strange Brew Review

There are a couple of movies that are regularly brought up among friends of mine when talking about 1980's comedy movies. One is Strange Brew (1983). When I confess that I have not seen it, I'm told to "Take off, you hoser." Well, I finally got around to seeing it. It is wacky, silly, and at times surreal. Though early on, it prompted me to reflect on the subjective nature of comedy.
In their quest for free beer, bumbling Canadian brothers Bob (Rick Moranis) and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas) wind up working at the Elsinore Brewery. The hapless hosers uncover a sinister mind-control plot spearheaded by Brewmeister Smith (Max von Sydow) and must stop the scheme, which also involves Uncle Claude (Paul Dooley), a member of the Elsinore family. As Bob and Doug try to help the brewery founder's daughter Pam (Lynne Griffin) regain the brewery founded by her recently-deceased father, they also manage to drink plenty of their favorite sudsy beverage.
Bob and Doug McKenzie were popular characters on the SCTV (Second City Television), a Canadian television sketch comedy show offshoot from the Toronto's Second City troupe that ran between 1976 and 1984. The two dim-witted beer-swilling brothers, wearing heavy winter clothing and tuques, would comment on various elements of Canadian life and culture, frequently employing the interjection "Eh?" The sketch was conceived when SCTV moved to the CBC television network which had shorter commercial time which required the SCTV show to need a two-minute filler. The characters became remarkably popular and Strange Brew was formulated during the height of their popularity.
The challenge for Strange Brew was expanding an improvised two-minute comedy sketch about two guys talking about how hard it was to find parking spaces in donut shops into a full-length story. Strange Brew purports to be to be loosely based on Hamlet, though I saw more similarities between Hamlet and The Lion King than I did between Hamlet and Strange Brew. The movie starts out being remarkably loose and unstructured. It looks a lot like I imagine the SCTV's sketches looking like, the two McKenzie brother sitting around talking about beer and how they are in a movie. This went on longer than it should have and I was worried that I was in for 90 minutes of this sort of thing. When the story actually got underway, it was easier to watch. The story is decent for what it is; a silly adventure that serves as a vehicle to deliver some bizarre humor. That's about all the plot does and it does that well.
The humor here I felt was hit-or-miss. Sometimes it was funny, other times it took me a moment to realize the punch line had already been delivered. The two brothers still make commentary on things around them; one of my favorite moments of this is while they are driving, Bob begins to speculate and says, "Did you ever notice that, like, in movies when they're driving they don't look at the road for a long time?" Doug, who is driving turns to Bob and says, "Geez, no, I never noticed that, eh?" Doug continues to make eye contact while Bob explains, "Yeah, it's because they're being towed by a rig." The conversation is interrupted when Doug nearly front ends a truck. The humor makes constant jabs at Canadians and stereotypes about them. Reoccurring themes include hockey, beer, and donuts. The villain's henchmen all wear hockey gear and carry hockey sticks. The whole story centers around trying to get free beer from a brewing company. In one rather amusing scene, the McKenzie's get classified company information from a receptionist by offering her donuts; she cracks when presented with a jelly-filled donut.
Yes, there are plenty of funny moments, but there were a lot of gags I didn't find so funny. I found the aforementioned opening scenes pretty bland and even annoying, which is what prompted my reflection on the subjective nature of humor. Analyzing humor won't get anyone anywhere, though. Humor is very subjective and if I laugh at something and you don't, no amount of my logic is going to convince you that it was funny. Overall, I didn't think Strange Brew was nearly as funny as many of my friends had made it out to be, but it was alright for a few chuckles. Also, having lived in Canada myself, I can honestly say actual Canadians don't act the way the McKenzie brothers do.
Strange Brew is fairly lowbrow in its intent and outcome, though it effectively draws out a few laughs from its unique premise and weird characters. I thought other comedy titles from its time were funnier, such as Better Off Dead, UHF, or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Strange Brew isn't a bad way to spend an afternoon watching a movie, it's just not something I think I'd go out of my way to see again. It seems to have made a lasting impression culturally as Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas basically reprised their roles as the McKenzie brothers as the two moose in Disney's Brother Bear many years later. Strange Brew may be worth seeing once if you enjoy bizarre comedies or jokes about Canadians. Otherwise, you may be better off watching something else.

What are some other good television sketch comedies made into movies that you've enjoyed? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Jungle Book Review

So, it seems that live-action remakes of classic Disney animated features are going to be a trend now. I still say that Maleficent was not that impressive, while Cinderella exceeded my expectations. I'd heard about a live-action Beauty and the Beast remake, but a live-action version of The Jungle Book (2016) slipped under my "coming soon" movies radar. The original animated Jungle Book isn't one of Disney's greatest films, though I enjoyed it as a kid. This newer version has more story to it and is more thematically cogent.
Raised by a family of wolves since birth, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must leave the only home he's ever known when the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) unleashes his mighty roar. Guided by a no-nonsense panther (Ben Kingsley) and a free-spirited bear (Bill Murray), the young boy meets an array of jungle animals who don't have his best interests at heart, including a slithery python (Scarlett Johansson) and a smooth-talking ape (Christopher Walken).
The Jungle Book is a collection of short stories written in 1894 by Rudyard Kipling. And according to Disney tradition, their original 1967 animated musical was a significantly watered down and sugar-coated version that had little to do with the book upon which it was based. There was a 1994 live-action version of The Jungle Book which featured no talking animals. This third version of The Jungle Book strikes a balance between Disney's two previous versions by retaining the buoyant spirit of the 1967 films (as well as some of its memorable songs) while crafting a movie with more realism and peril. I think this balance worked out very well.
In the animated Jungle Book, there wasn't much theme or story surrounding it. Disney was content to have some cute characters sing some musical numbers and have a villain generate some kind of tension regardless of how vague his motives might be. Thematically, I interpreted the animated movie to be about growing up. Mowgli is being encouraged to leave the fun filled jungle and go to the man village and take on responsibilities, Mowgli resists this, trying on new animal personas, up until he discovers a human young lady and then has no trouble at all moving from childhood. In this version of The Jungle Book, it's more about nature and man's place in it. Back in Kipling's day, nature was something to be overcome and tamed, where as now nature is something to be protected. Mowgli loves and respects nature, but as a human he is prone to making and using tools. This is mankind's adaptive skill, as opposed to tooth and claw that the rest of the animal kingdom has. It is established, that while Mowgli's tools have very practical use, they are not in alignment with the natural world, and it would be in his best interest to leave the jungle to be with his own kind where such tools are more inherent. A sense of urgency is produced by Shere Kahn who distrusts man and his tools because he was burned by fire or "Man's red flower" which disfigured him. Fire itself is developed as a powerful tool that humans use. Fire was similar to The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, in that controlling it was  going to give someone ultimate power, but corrupt them as well as create destruction. Thematically, everything fit together beautifully. The story and theme were woven together in this new interpretation without detracting from the fun quality of the original animated film.
Initially, I was surprised that more of the movie was not shot in actual jungle locations, given the prominent theme of preserving the natural order of things. This was a CGI intensive movie that used a lot of green screen to create a surreal, dreamlike world. The Jungle Book made glorious use of photo-realistic rendering, computer-generated imagery, and motion capture technologies in such a way that frankly rivaled the innovations of Avatar and Life of Pi. Among the most impressive uses was the motion capture, and none was more impressive than that done for the character of King Louie. This antagonist shows up later in the movie, and is essentially the catalyst which gives Mowgli the idea of how he can defeat Shere Kahn. When we see King Louie, I thought he looked familiar. It took me a few minutes before I realized that this Gigantopithecus, looked, sounded, and acted a whole lot like Christopher Walken. The mannerisms were so spot on of the actor, even Louie's eyes looked like Walken's. The visuals and camera work are nothing short of amazing.
Admittedly, I wasn't real keen on a remake of The Jungle Book, since I didn't find the original all that great. But this version was fantastic! It's as lovely to behold as it is engrossing to watch, and is only bolstered by a stellar vocal cast. The Jungle Book actually makes significant improvements upon its predecessors while setting remarkable new standards for CGI. This wasn't a musical, though it had Baloo singing a bit of the song "Bear Necessities" and King Louie singing a shorter and slightly altered version of "I Wan'na Be Like You" to give it a different context for this version of the movie. Though not part of the actual movie, Scarlet Johansson sings Kaa's "Trust in Me" song over the end credits. This is a good movie and worth the money to see in theaters; it would be a great film to see as a family. I'd also consider getting a copy on home video when it's available.

Disney is cranking out live-action versions of their animated classics. I'm still looking forward to Beauty and the Beast, even more so after seeing this the fantastic transition made on Cinderella and now The Jungle Book. What is an animated Disney movie that you'd like to see made into a live-action film? Comment below.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

So, Warner Brothers announced their latest superhero movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and the internet exploded. Certainly, this was a match that DC comics fans have been anticipating for years. I, however, like many others, objected to it as more information was released about it. I truly could not see this movie being any good. It seemed that Warner Brothers was making a foolhardy attempt to catch up with Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe in a short amount of time by throwing a bunch of DC heroes into one movie all at once. After seeing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I still hold that opinion. However, I didn't think the movie was nearly as bad as everyone is making it out to be.
Following his titanic struggle against General Zod, Metropolis has been razed to the ground and Superman (Henry Cavill) is the most controversial figure in the world. While for many he is still an emblem of hope, a growing number of people consider him a threat to humanity, seeking justice for the chaos he has brought to Earth. As far as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is concerned, Superman is clearly a danger to society. He fears for the future of the world with such reckless power left ungoverned, and so he dons his mask and cape to right Superman's wrongs. The rivalry between them is furious, fueled by bitterness and vengeance, and nothing can dissuade them from waging this war. The tension between them is further fueled by the conniving Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who is launching his own crusade against the Man of Steel. However, a new dark threat arises in the form of a third man: one who has a power greater than either of them to endanger the world and cause total destruction!
There was just too much revealed about this movie in the trailer. It left virtually no surprises for the movie to show us. It showcased what was surely supposed to be a major reveal toward the end of the movie by having Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) show up in the trailer and have the three face off against something that looks remarkably like Doomsday. That ruined so many of the surprises that Batman v Superman had to offer. Really, if you know anything about the DC comic universe, you know that if Doomsday shows up anywhere, you can pretty accurately guess how the story is going to end. The trailer showed us too much and it weakened what the movie had to offer that was good. I want to meet the marketing team behind this movie and give each one of them a firm slap across the face.
Batman v Superman evens out to be a decent movie; it has a lot of bad in it, but it does deliver some great material as well. Let's start off with Batman. Affleck was publicly announced to play the part of Batman in this movie, and the internet exploded. So many people were enraged by this, and reasonably so, especially after that really, REALLY terrible Daredevil movie he starred in back in 2003. I understand that so many people were outraged by Affleck playing Batman that his agent advised him to stay off of Twitter for a few weeks. But, Affleck ended up being amazing! I thought it would be a good number of years before anyone would be brave enough to don the role after Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. This was a new take on Batman, one that was damaged, and had changed his moral code just enough to be new without changing what we all love about the character. This made him very hardcore and fascinating. If Warner Brothers plays their cards right, this would make for a strong center for a new solo film with Affleck as Batman.
The action and cinematography in general was fantastic. The story here may not be so good, but let no one say that director Zach Snyder doesn't know how to move a camera. The camera work was beautiful, the scenery and visual effects were stunning, and nearly everything looked pretty darn fantastic. Only once or twice did I ever get drawn out of the movie experience to go "eh, that could have been polished up a bit better" or have the cameras angels in post-editing change so fast as to leave me behind and wonder what just happened. The action scenes were intense, and looked incredible.
One of the concerns I had about The Avengers movie was that they were going to mash together a bunch of major characters, give one or two of them a bulk of the screen time, and leave everyone else as half-baked characters. This was my concern with Batman v Superman as well, more so because only Superman had one movie prior to this, Man of Steel. Any other characters being introduced for the first time could not possibly get the amount screen time to be fleshed out enough for their big screen debut. This was kind of what happened with Wonder Woman. By the end of the movie we still don't get a real sense of who she is or what she's about. However, this movie revolved mostly around Superman and Batman, so that's somewhat forgivable. She still played a significant part in the end, but she wound up as a token female superhero, which is really too bad. Given the small role she had, Wonder Woman was pretty good for what she was. I think that a more brief appearance of her would have been better. Don't misunderstand, I want to see Wonder Woman in a movie; I just think it would have been better to leave her as a hinted at cameo, as was done with other Justice League characters who make very brief appearances.
I didn't like this portrayal of Superman. Superman is supposed to be a symbol of hope, but I was never convinced of that here. There was a montage that seemed to be trying to tell me that he is a symbol of hope, but I just couldn't buy it. The tone of this story is too dark, this depiction of Superman is controversial within his own storyline, and the brightness of hope didn't seem to have a place in this movie. It was more of a Batman movie that happened to have Superman in it. The two characters are thematically opposite and the two clashing themes don't fit together well in the same movie. It could have worked in the right hands, but it just didn't work out well here. Then the whole motivation for Superman to be fighting Batman was hard to swallow; Batman's motive was very clear and understandable, Superman's motive was that the poorly developed script said it would be neat to see them fight. The two were basically one short conversation away from understanding one another, but they duked it out instead.
The story in Batman v Superman was as messy as I feared it would be. During the opening credits we get a rehash of the all too familiar origin of Batman which was really well done and featured minimal dialogue. Then we go to the first scene, which tells us a little bit of story, then it switches to another scene to start another storyline, and it keeps switching back and forth every five minutes or so, making it frustrating to keep track, and not giving us enough information before switching back. On top of this, the overall story moves very quickly and it's easy to get lost if you aren't paying very close attention. Batman had some visions or dreams of what I assume were the future and took them as hard evidence. While some were kind of cool, they didn't make any kind of sense. Perhaps it's hinting at a bigger story arc that spans multiple movies? If so, they were made to appear much more significant to current events than what they were. It's too soon for that since we're just now introducing a bunch of characters. There are so many plot holes in this movie I'd like to discuss, but I want to avoid further spoilers that the trailer didn't already spoil for you. Suffice it to say, the story needed work.
Lex Luthor was a major disappointment. Jesse Eisenberg may be a good actor, but he's not a good Lex Luthor. Luthor is supposed to be an ordinary human, albeit one with a strong, commanding presence. This Lex Luthor was an energetic squirrelly little twerp that more closely resembled the socially inept Mark Zuckerberg (that Eisenberg played in The Social Network) who had finally snapped and went crazy. He just looked too young and silly to play a decent Luthor. Doomsday truly felt shoehorned in at the last minute; I could see studio executives insisting on including him to excite fans into wanting to see the movie. The origins of Doomsday in this movie were not canonical and in fact, made no sense at all. It could have been a great story arc, but as was the case with the inclusion of Wonder Woman, there was no real story around him and he mostly shows up to excite fans and destroy some property.
There are many hints dropped thoroughout the movie to tease at and suggest the upcoming superhero alliance of The Justice League. Yeah, those were exciting to see. But they're doing it all backwards. Marvel had the wherewithal to introduce characters individually in their own movies before putting them all together. That allowed us to know who each of The Avengers were right from the start and proceed with character and plot development for the story in which they were gathered together. For the DC movies here, many characters are thrown together, few are given enough screen time for us to care about, others are mere cameos, and we as movie goers are not given context for why we should be excited about them. We should see a Wonder Woman movie, an Aquaman movie, a Flash movie, and maybe some others before throwing them all together, or else the resulting story about their union will have to spend too much time explaining who they are and what they're about and not have enough time for a fleshed out, compelling narrative. I'm curious to see if these DC movies can prove me wrong and deliver something well done and interesting, or if I'm right and the series will fall apart from weak story and characters before it can get going. Batman v Superman has it's good points, but it's not a very good start to a series of movies.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was much better than I feared it would be. Ben Affleck as Batman was positively amazing! The visual effects were stunning, the action was riveting, and the cinematography was gorgeous. The villains were a considerable disappointment. The story and pacing was a bit of a mess, even if it was a fun mess. And the movie felt bloated with all the hints at things to come in future movies, about half of which could have been left out to avoid unnecessary confusion. Overall, I think the movie was good, just not great. It could have been better, but it could have been a whole lot worse and I am grateful that it wasn't. I urge you not to veto this movie because Ben Affleck played Batman, nor because Warner Brothers isn't going about their Superhero team up movies as well as Marvel did. Give it a shot; you may like it. I think this is worth seeing on the big screen if you're a DC comics fan; it's not a bad way to spend a couple hours. If you're not such a big fan of DC, maybe wait for this on home video.

What do you expect to see from future DC/Justice League movies? Do you have high hopes? Do you think they'll deliver a decent set of movies based on Man of Steel and Batman v Superman? Avoid spoilers, but tell me what you think!

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Boxtrolls Review

It's so frustrating when there is a movie I really want to see in theaters and then miss the opportunity. I really had wanted to see The Boxtrolls (2014) in theaters, but somehow missed it. I'm a big fan of stop motion animation, and even though it seems to be a dying art in the face of high tech digital animation, once in awhile another feature film hits theaters. I'm glad there are studios and talented stop motion animators keeping the medium alive. The Boxtrolls ended up being a charming film featuring some stellar animation.
The Boxtrolls are a community of quirky, mischievous creatures who have lovingly raised an orphaned human boy, whom they named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), in the amazing cavernous home they've built beneath the streets of a city called Cheesebridge. The story is about a young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors who tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator, the town's villain, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). When Snatcher comes up with a plot to get rid of the Boxtrolls. Eggs decides to venture above ground and "into the light," where he meets and teams up with fabulously feisty Winnifred (Elle Fanning), the mayor's daughter. Together, they devise a daring plan to save The Boxtrolls family.
The animation in The Boxtrolls is fantastic! This was animated by Laika Studios, who also did Coraline, ParaNorman, and were contracted to do Corpse Bride. There is such beautiful subtlety in the characters' movements, from the subtle little facial expressions and eye movements to the insanely complex gestures and action scenes. Everything moves with marvelous fluidity and nonchalance. Even the bounciness of Winnifred's curly hair and swaying of Snatcher's greasy, ropey hair looks remarkably believable and convincing. The characters still have fascinating structure to them. Unlike most characters designed by Tim Burton, not all of the ones in The Boxtrolls are spindly; some are large and bulky, others are small and compact, and there are a few skinny, spindly ones, too. Some of the characters even change size and dimensions. Often when this happens, we're shown a projection of their shadow on a wall as they transform, but here we actually see the transformation in exquisite detail. Even these shots are done with amazing detail as the character struggles to maintain balance while we watch their weight shift significantly. I simply cannot speak highly enough of the animation here.
A complaint I had about the stop motion animation in ParaNorman was the frequent inclusion of some CGI to garnish a particular shot that simply couldn't be done with stop motion animation alone. While these shots and scenes often looked good, it kind of weakens the magic of stop motion animation when there's too much CGI. There was some CGI added here and there in The Boxtrolls, but it wasn't taking center stage. It took the form of clouds of smoke or dust to accent a shot, not take up the whole background as was done in ParaNorman. Minimal use of CGI was beneficial in the end. Most of its implementation was subtle and wouldn't have looked as good without it.
The story here is cute. We have a boy raised by a family of quirky lovable little creatures who are misunderstood, and worlds collide when the boy tries to interact with the people where he's from. Then we've got a token villain who is selfish and wants to exterminate the cute lovable creatures, and our hero has to straddle the line between both worlds to bring peace to both. The Boxtrolls doesn't really do much in the way of originality as far as story goes, it's a classic Hero's Journey story structure that's been used since ancient Greek myth. It's still a fun little story that anyone of any age could get behind, though, and the characters are remarkably charming, if a bit on the simple side.
The theme here seems to be trying to say something meaningful but it gets murky. It seems to be trying to say something about our nature, or how we were born. We're constantly told that characters behave in such a way that is simply in their nature, and they can't really change their circumstances. For example, it is in the nature of the Boxtrolls, themselves, to be passive and hide when there is danger. Eggs doesn't want them to change, but he tries to get them to run for their own safety but can't seem to get them to do it. When the Boxtrolls actually do flee on occasion, there is much applause for changing their nature. But Snatcher is motivated by climbing the social ladder and is actively trying to change his "nature" or circumstance but can't seem to do it. What's the message we're supposed to get from this? There's not even something to suggest that we have the circumstances we're given and we just have to do the best with what we can sort of manage. The murky theme is amusingly explored by Snatcher's henchmen who are frequently discussing the duality of good and evil and pondering whether they are inherently good or evil, and if they even have a choice in the matter. These same henchmen get a funny mid-credits scene where they speculate about giant omnipotent beings controlling everything they do while we actually see the stop motion animators manipulating the puppets for these characters. I'm really not clear what message I was supposed to get from The Boxtrolls, but I can overlook that since the rest of the movie was pretty good.
The Boxtrolls isn't Lakia's best film, but it's still very much enjoyable, as it is packed with enough offbeat wit and visual splendor to offer a healthy dose of all-ages entertainment. Visually, the film is a feast, stuffed with little jokes and surprises and the kind of black humor that Alfred Hitchcock heartily enjoyed, as well as having some painful, groaner puns. The animation is incredible, but the theme is obtuse and confusing. The Boxtrolls moves forward with revolutionary techniques in filmmaking, but mostly stands still as far as theme and story structure goes. It looks great, but no amount of visual trickery or animation genius can make a mediocre story any better than what it is. That said, I still liked The Boxtrolls a great deal, and I think it's worth seeing even if it is on the simple side. I just can't get over how great everything looked! The Boxtrolls is currently streaming on Netflix as of this writing and it's not a bad way to spend an hour and a half. Though there are parts that might be a bit too scary for younger viewers.