Friday, January 29, 2016

The Revenant Review

Leonardo DiCaprio is a phenomenal actor who puts forth extraordinary effort in his acting and ends up delivering a particularly high-quality performance. It's no secret he's striving for an Oscar award, and remarkable as many of his performances have been, he has yet to earn that particular award. In his latest film, The Revenant (2015), the whole movie is anchored in DiCaprio's 200% commitment to his performance. It's a good movie with a stellar cast, but not something that's going to stick with you very long afterwards.
While exploring the uncharted wilderness in 1823, legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) sustains injuries from a brutal bear attack. When his hunting team leaves him for dead, Glass must utilize his survival skills to find a way back home, guided by sheer will and the love of his family. Grief-stricken and fueled by vengeance, Glass treks through the wintry terrain to track down John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the former confidant who betrayed and abandoned him.
For a movie set in the uncharted American frontier, there were a number of British and Irish actors portraying American characters. Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, and Domhnall Gleeson all played prominent roles in The Revenant with remarkably spot on accents. Of these three actors, I thought Tom Hardy was most impressive. I didn't even realize it was Tom Hardy until the end credits started rolling. He has this thick accent that I can only describe as being "southern," nebulous as that term might be to describe an accent. He also had a thick mop of hair and a scraggly beard hiding most of his face. His acting and makeup was so well done that I did not realize it was Tom Hardy at all. Domhnall Gleeson is becoming a favorite of mine. He's known for playing Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter movies, Phil in Unbroken, and recently General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He's a solid a actor who delivers great performances. Will Poulter has appeared in The Maze Runner and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He's still fairly new to the big screen, but does a fine job here juxtaposed with some big name talents.
Leonardo DiCaprio's skill and passion for acting is very much evident here. He depicts intense emotions as he portrays Hugh Glass enduring trial after trial and struggling to keep alive in a harsh, unforgiving frozen wilderness. He's grief-stricken and fueled by vengeance, and it shows in every little thing Glass does, from begging a Native American he encounters for some food to stave off starvation, to rescuing a girl from being raped by frontiersmen. DiCaprio imbues his character with an intensity that is simply remarkable to watch.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu takes DiCaprio's performance and makes it even better with some truly magnificent camera work. This is the first Iñárritu film I've  ever seen, and his mastery of capturing beautiful imagery is beyond compare. Even with some of the grotesque scenes, it still looks beautifully done. The Revenant captures some truly gorgeous shots of the wilderness, forests, and frozen tundra. The way shots were set up was very artistic without a sense of self-importance. There weren't many shots that didn't look like a work of art. The Revenant was a beautiful movie to watch.
Having said all that, it took me a while to determine if I actually liked it. The story within the movie was pretty simple. There's a set up which was interesting, a remarkably long middle full of Hugh Glass trying to not die, and a conclusion that wasn't very straightforward. I daresay The Revenant could have been much shorter and still achieved the story it set out to tell. There were many moments where Glass was simply walking or staring off wistfully into the distance. Yes, these moments looked good, but made the movie drag significantly in terms of story. I don't want to say it was slow moving, because there was so much to visually take in. But the story progressed at a snail's pace at times, even if it was beautiful to watch. It wasn't until well after the movie ended that it occurred to me that The Revenant was more about the experience than the narrative. It was about the experience Hugh Glass had trying to survive after being mauled by a bear and left for dead, not the story of how he survived. It's also about our experience of witnessing this beautifully constructed film, not the film telling us a deep or meaningful story. It's likely the movie won't appeal to some audiences because of how drawn out the story ends up being, but that by no means is to suggest that it is a poor movie.
The Revenant is a starkly beautiful as it is uncompromisingly harsh. There is a phenomenal cast delivering well made characters, and a highly skilled director showing us some remarkably beautiful scenery and capturing it in the most visually stunning way. The story here is not the point, and is in fact a very simple story. The Revenant is about the experience, not the story. I do think that The Revenant is worth seeing if you are not too put off by the violent and occasionally gory images and the aforementioned sexual assault that give it its R rating. There is a chance you may find it too "artistic" if you value story over visual delivery. I'm glad I saw it, but it's not something I'd go out of my way to see a second time.

Is there a role that you think Leonardo DiCaprio deserved an Oscar for? Comment below and tell me about it!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Avatar Review

It doesn't seem so long ago that James Cameron's last film, Avatar (2009), was still a pop culture topic that everyone was talking about. From how amazing the visual effects were, to "Post Avatar Depression," to its world-wide box office records, to assertions that it rips off other popular movies in terms of story, everyone was talking about Avatar. It seems to have had less of a lasting cultural impact than what some were guessing, I still maintain that Avatar is a work of cinematic art that should be seen.
On the lush alien world of Pandora live the Na'vi, beings who appear primitive but are highly evolved. When his twin brother is killed in a robbery, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) decides to take his place in a mission on this  distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge's (Giovanni Ribisi) intentions of driving off the native humanoid "Na'vi" in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. Because the planet's environment is poisonous, human/Na'vi hybrids, called Avatars, must link to human minds to allow for free movement on Pandora. Under the direction of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), an exobiologist and head of the Avatar Program, Jake becomes mobile again while inhabiting one such "Avatar" body. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na'vi people with the his Avatar body. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand - and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.
Enough cannot be said about how completely mind blowing these visual effects are. The detail in the ecosystem of Pandora is simply incredible. Every plant, creature, and Na'vi character is created with highly detailed computer-generated photorealism. From the texture of Na'vi character's skin, to the lush, verdant foliage, to the bioluminescence inherent to many creatures on Pandora, everything looks positively gorgeous. It's such a visual feast for the eyes that you can't take it all in fast enough. Everything was so beautiful that some audience members reportedly felt some mild form of depression after seeing the artistic beauty in Avatar and then contrasting that with their real lives. That seems a bit silly to me, but with how picturesque and gorgeous Pandora is made to look, I can't say it's without basis.
The Na'vi characters, themselves, are computer generated. They are about 10 feet tall humanoids, have blue striped skin, pointed mobile ears, tails, and large catlike noses and teeth. While taller than humans, they have narrower proportions in body frame. Cameron created these computer generated characters with new motion capture animation technologies that he had been developing for fourteen months leading up to when the  filming started. Improved methods of capturing facial expressions enabled a full performance capture, so every little twitch and eye movement you see in the Na'vi, was actual movement captured from the actor playing that character. It made these digitally generated character believable and engaging.
The story of Avatar can't be said to be weak, it's fairly complex with interwoven storylines and subplots, and an interesting array of characters. However, Avatar got a lot of flak for being a rip-off of other well established stories and themes. In that regard, if you haven't actually seen Avatar, you can probably already say you've seen Avatar. It has a strong resemblance to movies like Dances with Wolves, Disney's Pocahontas, and FernGully: The Last Rainforest. The theme has been explored in other movies, too;  Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke comes to mind. Is it really so bad that the story is similar to other movies? If that's the worst thing that can be said about Avatar, I'd have to argue that it's still a good movie. In terms of story, audiences shouldn't expect too much that is unique and new, but that isn't to say it's boring or even identical to the other stories out there.
I found the themes to be engaging. Avatar is an action-adventure journey of self-discovery in the context of imperialism and deep ecology. There's an overt message of environmentalism in Avatar, and the highly common trope of greedy corporate types plotting to destroy landmarks or natural environments in order to gain profits. That's not so new. There's some interesting subtle comparisons in the term "avatar" about which Cameron said, "It's an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods taking a flesh form. In this film what that means is that the human technology in the future is capable of injecting a human's intelligence into a remotely located body, a biological body." The blue skin of the Na'vi was an intentional connection to Hindu deities, further drawing on that definition of "avatar." All of the humans in the movie have their own "Avatar" of sorts, kind of an alternate body that depicts who they are inside. Jake and Grace have their Na'vi avatars representing their connection to, and interest in, the native people of Pandora. Quaritch has this mechanical battle suit armed to the gills with missiles and guns, representing his lust for war and violence. There's a friendly pilot who helps our protagonists who is useful by herself but is truly in her element in the cockpit; she was born to fly. Parker's "avatar" is more subtle; he spends most of his time in the corporate office and command center. This is his avatar, and it's not until we see him outside of his element there that we see what a weak individual he is.
Avatar broke several box office records and became the highest-grossing film of all time, surpassing Cameron's previous movie, Titanic, which had held those record for twelve years prior. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has now become the highest-grossing movie in North America; it hasn't yet been released worldwide as of writing this review. Avatar and Titanic still hold the top two spots for highest grossing films worldwide. Avatar was nominated for no less than nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It ended up winning three, for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects. The achievements that Avatar earned for itself is an indicator of how good the movie was. I still maintain it's a work of art that should be seen.
Avatar might be more impressive on a technical level than as a piece of storytelling, but it reaffirms James Cameron's singular gift for imaginative, absorbing film making.  Avatar showed us something that we have never seen before and reminded us of what movies can do, what they are capable of, and what an experience movies can be. It would be a full-fledged masterpiece if judged solely on its technical merits. While it wasn't the most original narrative, it serves the film well, even if it was merely a template for Cameron to show us this gorgeous world and its landscapes. Avatar didn't have the lasting cultural impact that I assumed it would; I haven't heard of Na'vi-themed weddings the way I've heard about Klingon-themed weddings. But for awhile, Avatar was a hot topic of discussion everywhere you went. If you haven't seen Avatar you're missing out on an incredible cinema experience of technical and visual splendor. Just don't get your hopes up too high about a unique story. I recommend seeing this movie; it's also worth owning a copy of to bask in its beautiful artistic expression every now and again.

Ever since Avatar came out, there has been talk about three additional movies. Where do you think these movies could go in terms of story? Would we explore more biomes on Pandora? Fight off invading human corporations wanting to mine for resources? What would you like to see happen? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Time Bandits Review

Director Terry Gilliam is known for creating some truly spectacular visuals in a time before digital special effects were possible. He's done a number of bizarrely fascinating movies including most of the Monty Python movies, Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, The Brothers Grimm and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. One of these strange movies, Time Bandits (1981), which seems to be aimed at kid audiences, was also bizarre enough that I couldn't take my eyes from it. Yet there wasn't enough actually going on to hold my interests otherwise.
Young history buff Kevin (Craig Warnock) can scarcely believe it when six dwarfs emerge from his closet one night. Former employees of the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), they've purloined a map charting all of the holes in the fabric of time and are using it to steal treasures from different historical eras. Taking Kevin with them, they variously drop in on Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese) and King Agamemnon (Sean Connery) before the Supreme Being catches up with them. But, in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness lies Evil (David Warner) who is also after the map and wants to use it to redo all of creation in his own dark image.
There are a variety of celebrities making appearances here, including Peter Vaughan, Shelly Duvall, and Katherine Helmond, among others. Sean Connery received top billing in the movie even though he, like most of the other celebrities, appeared only appeared for maybe twelve minutes all together. They did make fun characters, even if they were small parts.
The visuals are absolutely fascinating. The special effects are highly detailed and all were done without computers. So many of the special effect heavy scenes were mesmerizing. I couldn't take my eyes away and kept wondering how they actually did some of the effects. The way some of the special effects were done was a bit obvious, but others were so bizarre I can't for the life of me imagine how they were done without computers. Even when there aren't abstract special effects, the structure of the camera shots were also highly detailed. It makes the whole movie experience hard to look away.
The story here is pretty simple and frankly repetitive. Basically, it's just a kid and six dwarfs racing breathlessly through one set piece after another, shouting at one another. There's not really a well established goal other than avoid the Supreme Being and Evil. The story is episodic; most of the segments of the movie could be put in just about any order. In the hands of a less detailed and meticulous director, I doubt this movie would have done as well.
On the surface, this seems like a pretty kid friendly movie. Our main protagonist is a kid, the characters are wacky and fun, there's no crudity or vulgarity, in fact it remains safely in its PG rating. However, I think the bizarre visual effects and surreal fantasy elements might make Time Bandits a bit too creepy for young kids. Even innocuous scenes such as when Kevin and the Dwarfs are trapped in a cage with literally no background other than a black void in all directions would have been a bit difficult for my six-year-old self to wrap his brain around. Some of Evil's henchmen were tall figures with flowing black robes, horned animal skulls for heads and large hook-shaped arms; the costumes were simplistic, but would probably be too scary for some young viewers. I don't necessarily think this is something that should be kept from kids, but maybe wait until they're a little older and can handle creepy imagery.
Time Bandits is a remarkable time-travel fantasy whose fantastic set design and homemade special effects create a vivid, original universe, but left me feeling ambiguous. It has a great cast, but a weak characters. It has incredible visual effects and camera work, but a flimsy story in which they are framed. It seems to be intended for kids, but looks like something that would creep out kids rather than entertain them. Apparently enough snooty film critics thought that Time Bandits was important enough to add to The Criterion Collection, a video-distribution company which specializes in licensing " important classic and contemporary films" and selling them to film aficionados. I recommend seeing Time Bandits only because the visuals are so fascinating, not so much because it's good. If it sounds too weird for you, then it probably is and you're probably better off not seeing it.

What is the weirdest movie you've ever seen as far as visuals go? Comment below and tell me about it!

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Ridiculous Six Review

Netflix has been cranking out original material for a while now. They've produced and distributed their own television series a season at a time for subscribers to binge watch all at once. Most of them have been critically well received. Just recently Netflix released a movie also exclusively on their streaming service. The Ridiculous Six (2015) is an Adam Sandler movie, so it didn't perk my interest until I saw a headline stating that "Adam Sandler's 'Ridiculous Six' Is Making History for Netflix." That article made me think I should check it out. I now wish that I hadn't bothered.
In the Old West era, a calm man named Tommy Stockburn (Sandler) is raised by Native Americans, where he is named "White Knife", due to his tendency to use knives. He is soon going to marry his fiancé, Smoking Fox (Julia Jones). As the wedding day nears, Tommy is approached by his long lost father (Nick Nolte) who tells Tommy that he needs $50,000 or he'll die at the hands of his former gang. Tommy sets out on an ridiculous journey to find the money to save his biological father discovering on the way that his promiscuous father has fathered five half brothers each with different mothers. Wanting to help save their father, Tommy is joined by Chico (Terry Crews), Herm (Jorge Garcia), Lil' Pete (Taylor Lautner), Ramon (Rob Schneider), and Danny (Luke Wilson) all of whom have nothing in common other than a similar biological father. The six brothers become an outlaw gang called The Ridiculous Six, stealing money from other outlaws as they race against time to save dear old dad.
I am of the opinion that Adam Sandler has never made a good movie, and has relied almost exclusively on asinine, juvenile gags that primarily appeal to young teenage boys who themselves have incredibly juvenile sensibilities. If you have matured beyond the level of thirteen-year-old boy I can't imagine any Adam Sandler movie appealing to you at all.
Having said that, The Ridiculous Six is breaking Netflix records for watched movies. There is virtually an all star cast, some of whom are decent actors and comedians. The trailer made the movie look like it had potential. I'd been hearing from some outlets that "The Ridiculous Six was the most-watched Netflix title in history." The specific article I mentioned above said that this was erroneous reporting and clarified that the case was actually that "it’s the most streams ever in 30 days of release." That makes a lot more sense because this movie was absolutely terrible. Apparently, all of the thirteen-year-old boys from around the territories Netfix operates in are responsible for this statistic that was later so misconstrued.
The Ridiculous Six is considered a slapstick western comedy. Well, it certainly was a western, but it was too insultingly immature, tasteless, and stupid to be considered a comedy. I didn't crack a smile once during the entire two hour movie and kept looking at the remaining run time to see how much more of this drivel I had to endure. I tend not to like modern comedy films since they tend to mistake loud, annoying, and bombastic characters for funny characters and confuse crude jokes and innuendos for humor. The Ridiculous Six is a classic example of why I don't care for modern comedies. It lacks wit, comedic timing, irony, or even witty wordplay. More often than not, punch lines involve a donkey having explosive diarrhea, a middle aged woman mentioning the various places in a room that she has had sex, or onlookers misinterpreting something as fellatio. Granted, in the hands of someone who is actually funny, such scenarios could be delivered in such a way that could be witty enough to be humorous. Incidentally, this is Adam Sandler's writing and he has yet to prove to me he has ever had comedic talent at any point in his career.
There are a number of actors in The Ridiculous Six who have been in comedies that I enjoyed. There's a fairly solid cast here, including Steve Zahn, Danny Trejo, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, and Jon Lovitz to name a few. American rapper "Vanilla Ice" even appears for a small role as Mark Twain which is just as cringe worthy a thing as you might imagine. Interestingly, Adam Sandler isn't the usual loud, annoying, and bombastic character he usually plays. He's counter- typecast as a straight man and allows everyone else to deliver the funny material (such as it is). Sandler's lack of flailing around in a vain attempt to convince us he's funny makes this the best Adam Sandler movie I've seen to date. Furthermore, I've only seen Taylor Lautner in the Twilight film series where he (and everyone else) was just terrible. He's again counter-typecast here as a loud, obnoxious, halfwit hillbilly which wasn't nearly as irritating as his Twilight role. So, this is the best Taylor Lautner movie I've ever seen, too. That's not saying much, since The Ridiculous Six received a rare 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Even Battlefield Earth, considered one of the worst movies of all time, got 3%.
I feel entertainment press manipulated me into watching The Ridiculous Six through misrepresenting statistics and facts about it. It's yet another markedly not-funny movie from Adam Sandler. It's every bit as lazily offensive as its cast and concept would suggest. The writing was bad. The acting was decent for what it was, including some noteworthy counter-typecasting. This comedy movie was completely devoid of humor; the jokes are often juvenile and gross, unsophisticated and insensitive. I am of the opinion that juvenility, grossness, or insensitivity shouldn't by any means be outright removed from the comic tool kit; the way these comic tools are used here just isn't good at all. This movie just isn't good by any metric. The Ridiculous Six is standard couch fare for Adam Sandler fanatics and must-avoid viewing for film enthusiasts of every other persuasion.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Antboy Review

I keep seeing this superhero title appear on Netflix. It looks delightfully ridiculous, and I finally got around to seeing it. Not to be confused with Marvel's Ant-Man which hit theaters last year, Antboy (2013) is a low-budget, kid-friendly Danish superhero film which has a bizarre charm, a few worthwhile laughs, and tons of geeky comic book references. I can't honestly call it good, but it is enjoyable in a strange sort of way.
12-year-old Pelle Nøhrmann (Oscar Dietz) is bitten by a genetically altered ant and develops superpowers. Aided by comic book nerd Wilhelm (Samuel Ting Graf), Pelle creates a secret identity as superhero Antboy. When a super villain, The Flea, (Nicolas Bro) enters the scene, Antboy must step up to the challenge.
One of the charming things about Antboy is that it's very kid-centered. Many of the contemporary superhero movies revolve around adult-themes which are interesting, but not things kids could relate to so much. For example, Tony Stark in Iron Man is constantly having to deal with the problems of running a multi-million dollar tech industry and stopping government interference. Scott Lang in Ant-Man is basically trying to get a job and earn custody of his daughter before getting mixed up in superhero stuff. Clark Kent in Man of Steel is searching for a sense of identity and moral restraint. These are more grown-up issues which give these superheroes depth. Pelle is simply trying to fit in at school, make a friend, and maybe earn the affection of the prettiest girl in school. The kid's only 12, and has a good, healthy home life. Making friends, gaining popularity, and maybe getting a girl's attention is about as deep as most 12-year-old's issues get under such circumstances. But at the same time, that's the kind of thing kids are concerned with. It makes this kid-focused story relatable to the kid-targeted audience. There's an amusing scene early in the movie where Pelle enacts his superhero fantasies with stuffed animals, which is another kid-thing you'll never see the likes of Batman doing. Humorously, the comic book style "sound effects" that appear on screen as Pelle fights his teddy bear heralds back to Adam West's Batman.
This is a Danish film, and the version streaming on Netflix is dubbed in English. That's helpful since I doubt younger kids could read subtitles fast enough to keep up with the dialogue. However, even though I prefer subtitled movies in their original language, I imagine anyone would find the dubbing in Antboy annoying. Not so much because the dialogue is out of sync with lip movement, but because the English voice actors are pretty bland. They seem bored at times and their vocal inflections seemed a bit off, given what the actor was doing or saying; such as sounding more excited or subdued than what the actor was emoting. Annoying as the dubbing was at times, it still gave the movie a weird sort of charm.
Marvel's Ant-Man character has the ability to shrink down to ant size, has super strength, and can control/communicate with ants. For more on why that actually is cool, go read my Ant-Man review. Antboy, however, has powers that sound more along the lines of what one would expect from a superhero who has "ant powers." He can bite through just about anything, has an incredible sense of smell, can lift fifty times his own weight, and can crawl on walls. Since ants excrete corrosive fluids, Antboy has also gained the ability to urinate acid. He pees on a door to get through it at one point. Sadly, there will not be a scene wherein Antboy tactically pees on a foe; it's a PG film after all. But Antboy's powers are finite; since they are fueled by sugary foods. As such, Antboy's utility belt is stuffed full of soda and candy bars; another humorously kid-centric idea. There's a scene later in the movie where Antboy has to break into a vending machine and chug all the sweets therein to continue fighting his arch-nemesis.
Antboy is very safely in the realm of PG. The violence that occurs in the movie happens largely off-screen; no punches or anything else land on camera. Antboy himself deals out no physical violence. However since this is a foreign film it features a few things that are not something you'd ordinarily see in American films. The kid peeing acid for example. I mean, we see nothing other than a urine stream, but urinating is something that is implied in US films, not shown. Also, when we learn about The Flea and his history and powers it's a bit on the dark side. It's not unlike supervillain clichés we all know and love, but it's a bit dark for a PG-rated kid movie. Nevertheless, I wouldn't have any issues with showing Antboy to young kids. I'd be curious to see how they'd like it.
Antboy is a lot like a low-budget retread of Spider-Man on the surface, but is a bit off-kilter on some details, leaving one pleasantly baffled. The kid-friendly drama is overall pretty lame, but the execution is amusing, awkward, and charming in its own way. It's a considerable shlock-fest, but it's kind of a fun shlock-fest. The acting (and voice dubbing) might be substandard, but it looks like the crew probably had a fun time making Antboy and they achieved what they set out to do; make a wacky, kid-friendly superhero movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. I probably won't go out of my way to see it again, but I enjoyed it for what it was worth. It's not a bad way to spend a little over an hour if you have Netflix's streaming service.

Antboy seems to have done well for itself. There is a sequel that was made and a third installment is due out later this year. I'll be on the lookout for those.

Can you think of other good Independent superhero movies that aren't big-budget films based on well established comic books? Comment below and tell me about it!