Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The 2014 incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an acceptable movie. It wasn't a completely abomination. In fact, it was perfectly watchable. I'm not saying it's great, just better than you might expect.

It is by no means anywhere near as good of a movie as it should have been. By now, those of us who grew up watching the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoons and movies are now old enough to be the ones making the movies. Theoretically, in this age when comic book movies are at an all time high, a TMNT movie that comes out now should be the best damn Ninja Turtles movie ever, fulfilling some filmmaker's dream of making the TMNT movie he or she dreamt of making as a child.

Sadly, this is not the case. The 2014 movie feels like it's more the end result of a series of business decisions. Nickelodeon bought the rights to the TMNT franchise, and figured they might as well make a live action movie in addition to the current version of the cartoon show. Knowing that people would see it regardless of quality, they put just enough effort into making the film so that it would make enough money to warrant a sequel, but pretty much stopped there. For comparison's sake, it's not even on the level of something like Transformers, (which I admit liked.) It is, however, better than Transformers: Rise of the Fallen (which I hated.)

It's at least a better movie than Ninja Turtle fans feared it was going to be. Early in the film's development it was leaked that the 2014 film would change the turtles' origins so that they're aliens, not mutants. When filmmakers are actively considering making versions of characters that flagrantly fly in the face of what the fans want, expectations should be rightfully lowered.

Fortunately, the filmmakers changed their mind and went with versions of the Turtles closer to fan expectations. While this version doesn't stick to the origin story most of us grew up knowing, (which in reality was just a spoof off of Daredevil's origin story anyway,) it does at least adopt the version of the origin story from the current IDW comic series being co-written by TMNT co-coreator Kevin Eastman, (which is actually quite good, by the way.) In other words, they stuck reasonably close to the source.

However, the actual execution of their origin story, and the rest of the character development, falls flat. The film assumes you're already familiar with the characters through some other movie or TV show, so it does little to establish the turtles' personalities aside from some overhanded character design. For example, we only know that Donatello's the brainy one because he's got glasses and is covered in hi-tech goggles and Go-Pro cameras. He's nerdy. We get it.

The villains are equally flat. The Foot Clan are neither ninjas, nor robots, but just a squad of criminals terrorizing the city for no apparent reason. Shredder is present in the film, as is his adopted daughter Karai, but they do surprisingly little. Karai just gives out orders, and Shredder just fights. The only villain to get anything close to a story arc is a scientist named Eric Sachs, played by William Fitchner, a guy you recognize as a supporting actor in several movies you've seen, even if you can't remember specifically which ones.

Now, if you're wondering just how much character development one should even expect out of a Ninja Turtles movie, just look at the 1990 movie or the 2007 animated film, simply titled TMNT. Both of these films start out with the assumption that the viewer is coming in cold, with no idea who any of the characters are, and fleshes them out fully. The 2014 movie, feels like it assumes you've already seen those other movies.

Since I'm still focused on the negatives, I might as well talk about the character designs themselves. If you've seen the trailers, you're well aware that the designs of the turtles are pretty awful. They look less like giant turtles, and more like green skinned man-babies. However, they are not the worst offenders. Splinter, for some reason, is given a bald face, and as a result looks like one of the pinheads from the movie Freaks. Shredder's design is over the top in a way that can only be described as "Michael Bay." While Bay only produced, and didn't direct the film, it's moments like this where his over the top influence is felt. Instead of making Shredder's costume look like a samurai outfit covered in an excess of sharp edges, it's a mechanized suit that fires out a never ending supply of blades, and looks like a set of over-sized Swiss army knives strapped onto an off-brand Iron Man.

At least the film didn't do the one thing I was worried it was going to do, and that is "whitewash" the character of Shredder. Early trailers made it look like William Fitchner would be playing Shredder, a character that's supposed to be Japanese. Rest assured that the character is played by Tohoru Masamune, an actor of Japanese descent. Likewise, the film has Baxter Stockman played by K. Todd Freeman, a black actor. I don't even know if Stockman has a single line of dialogue in the movie, but at least he's depicted as an African American, as he's appeared in every version of the character except the 1987 cartoon, which had him as white.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is at least entertaining, even if it does manage to be underwhelming. It doesn't feel as much like a movie as it does like a really big budget TV pilot for a live-action Ninja Turtles series. If this were on TV, it would definitely get me hooked as a series, assuming more of the backstory and characters would be fleshed out in future episodes. As a movie, I wished they hadn't operated on the assumption that they could leave all of that for the sequels. Still, the action's alright. The jokes aren't bad. Megan Fox seemed to return to the level of acting she displayed in the first Transformers movie, (which I know wasn't great, but she definitely got worse after that movie.)

Definitely do not see it in 3D. I saw it in 3D partially because after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D I thought that maybe studios had nailed the art of making a film post-converted into 3D look as good as one shot natively. That, and my friends picked the showtime. While Guardians felt like a film that was shot with 3D effects in mind, Ninja Turtles was definitely not. If director Jonathan Liebesman was shooting it with 3D in mind, he certainly didn't know what he was doing. There are far too many quick visual cuts and shaky camera work for it to be comfortable to watch. Even in scenes where the camera is steady, it's clear that the conversion work is poorly done. For example, one scene that takes place in the rain looks like you're watching it through a shower curtain when the 3D effect is added.

If you're a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you'll probably enjoy the movie well enough. If the characters are completely new to you, the film isn't likely to make a fan out of you, but you still might enjoy it as a "put your brain in neutral" kind of movie. Either way, you might want to wait until it comes out on video. I'm sure it's a much more enjoyable film if you pay $1 to see it, versus $10, but if you've already seen Guardians of the Galaxy twice, and you want something fun and brainless to watch in cinemas, sure go head and see it on the big screen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy is arguably Marvel Studios' biggest gamble to date. It's based on one of the more obscure teams of Marvel heroes, specifically an incarnation of the team that appeared in a series that only ran for two years, back in 2008. (Of course, Marvel revived the series in anticipation of this movie.) I imagine that when the film was first announced, I wasn't the only nerd who had to flock to Wikipedia to find out just exactly who or what the Guardians of the Galaxy even were.

Like many of my fellow nerds, I had faith that Marvel would deliver a solid movie. After all, Marvel Studios has had an unbroken string of hits worthy of Pixar, starting with Iron Man. (Not to be confused with properties Marvel licensed out to other studios, such as X-Men, or Spider-Man, which have certainly had their shares of hits and misses.) However, many were worried that Marvel was bound to stumble eventually, and that when it did, it would be with the crazy space-adventure movie, starring characters nobody ever heard of.

If Marvel does eventually stumble, it sure as hell isn't with Guardians. I'm not going to be so bold as to say that it's on par with a movie like Star Wars: A New Hope, but Guardians certainly captured the feel of A New Hope in ways that the prequel trilogy didn't. Guardians is full of the roguish space cowboy types that made Episodes 4-6 of Star Wars so enjoyable, and that were strangely lacking from Episodes 1-3.

The fact that Guardians worked so well as a movie is actually a bit surprising. On paper, it sounds like it should be a bomb. Of the five heroes, only one is human. Of the four non-human protagonists, one is a talking raccoon, and one is humanoid tree, capable of only saying the words "I am Groot." While the current trend of comic book movies is to tone down the more comic-booky aspects of the source material when adapting things for the big screen, such as dropping code names or costumes, Guardians fully embraces its comic book origins. Characters retain their names such as Drax the Destroyer and The Mad Titan Thanos. The story has the Guardians trying to stop a villain named Ronan the Accuser from trying to destroy the planet Xandar. This sounds like it should be the sort of movies nerds make fun of for years, as the worst possible idea anybody could come up with for a summer blockbuster, and yet it's proven to be one of the best ideas to come around in a long time.

Quite frankly, I'm sure that if this film had come out twenty years ago, it would have bombed in theatres, having been torn apart by 90's critics for it's wild and fun nature, and unabashed comic book feel, only to re-emerge as a cult classic after finding its audience on video. In other words, Guardians would have experienced the same treatment The Fifth Element received.

Yet, Guardians works as a movie, even if it doesn't sound like it should, because the filmmakers know when to play things for laughs, and when to play it straight. Despite the unquestionably sci-fi pulp nature of this film, the film never treats the story as being campy. It's loaded with (sometimes incredibly juvenile) humor, but treats its core story as earnestly as every other movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The cast they lined up for this film is perfect, and there are a few unexpected performances among them. Obviously, Zoe Saldana is great as Gamora, but having seen her in Star Trek, there's no reason to expect anything less. No, the bigger question was how Chris Pratt would do as the main character, Star Lord/Peter Quill. He's certainly developed a loyal fan base from his role as Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, but aside from his voice-over work in The Lego Movie, he had yet to take on the leading role in a movie. Considering how much hoopla he's generated over getting in shape for this film, he better get used to sticking to that regimen because he's definitely proven he can helm a movie, and not just as a comedian.

The performances that really surprised me were from Karen Gillian and Dave Bautista. I had only seen Gillian as the kind natured Amy Pond on Doctor Who, so it caught me off guard how frightening and intimidating she was as the villain Nebula. As for Bautista, when I saw the trailer, I figured he'd been cast as Drax the Destroyer strictly for his size and muscle mass, but it turns out he's got a knack for delivering deadpan comedic lines, some of which make up the best moments in the movie.

Finally, there's Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser. I've been a fan of Pace ever since his roles in Pushing Daisies and The Fall (which is easily on my list of top 5 movies.) Personally, I think he's one of the most underrated actors out there right now. This film is unlikely to boost his standing, but only because he's heavily costumed and covered in makeup. As Ronan, he is perfect in the role, giving his all portraying a villainous force to contend with, but you can tell he's secretly reveling in playing the character.

It actually shocks me to say this, considering how 3D adverse I am, but this is actually a film worth seeing in 3D. The first time I saw Guardians, it occurred to me it might actually be worth watching in 3D. When I saw the film a second time (yes, it does warrant watching twice in cinemas,) I did not object when my friend wanted to catch a 3D showing, and it certainly made for a more enjoyable second viewing. Not only did the film have dazzling visuals and a brilliant color palate, but every shot was composed in a way that it was clear that director James Gunn wanted it to look good in 3D. Even though the film was originally shot in 2D, they did a great job converting it into 3D so that everything from the wide-angle shots of deep space to the close up shots are not only easy on the eyes, but add to the immersive experience.

(Originally, I was going to comment that either they did an impressive job converting Guardians to 3D, or I've just gotten used to watching 3D movies, but I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 3D over the weekend, and that is a terrible, terrible conversion job. So yes, I can safely say the conversion job in Guardians is well above average.)

Now I can't talk about Guardians of the Galaxy without mentioning it's soundtrack. It's one of the first things about this film that grabs you. In particular, the opening credits gets its hooks into you with a scene featuring Peter Quill trouncing about a barren planet to Redbone's hit, "Come and Get Your Love." The film makes heavy use of 70's pop hits, but every one of them is as perfectly selected and placed as if it were in a Quentin Tarantino film. So for any parents out there with young kids, get ready for them to develop a sudden interest in the music your mom and dad listened to growing up.

For a summer that's felt like it's lacked a solid, knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark hit, Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie that should have been the anchor for the July 4th weekend. It may have been an audacious move on behalf of the marketing team to give this film the tagline, "You're welcome," but the film backs that tagline up, as well as prompting me to say, "Thank you, Marvel."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho's post apocalyptic thriller, Snowpiercer, took a long time to get an American release. The film first premiered overseas almost a year ago. It seems odd that anybody would stall releasing a film starring actors such as Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt and Jamie Bell, but despite the worldwide acclaim the film had received, the US release was held up due to the Weinstein Company, who bought the US distribution rights. Initially, the Weinsteins planned to edit the film down into what they considered a more marketable, action oriented cut, (did they learn nothing from the infamous Battle of Brazil?)* Thankfully, they relented and agreed to release the film unedited in the US, but the trade-off is that the film would only get a limited release.

Seeing as how, these days, films rarely get the chance to jump from small art-house releases to nationwide roll outs, if Snowpiercer isn't playing in your neighborhood, you might have to wait for it to come out on video, but it is worth it. The film takes place in a future where an attempt to curb global warming disastrously fails, plunging the Earth's temperatures to uninhabitable levels. The last survivors of the human race are on a train that endlessly circles the world.

It's an absurd premise, but other filmmakers have taken more believable movie premises and made them into outrageously implausible movies, and Snowpiercer's premise makes more sense once you realize it's a class conflict allegory. The very back of the train is a cramped, squalid slum whose inhabitants are not permitted to leave the car. Meanwhile the rest of the train's inhabitants are free to move about and live in luxury. One of the tail section's inhabitants, Curtis (played by Chris Evans,) decides to lead a revolution to take the engine.



Once the tail section's inhabitants make it into the main body of the train, the environment shifts from being a dark, gritty slum into a surreal and luxurious wonderland. All of the cars are extremely purpose-specific and instead of being cars adapted to fit certain functions, they are instead built like rooms in buildings on stable land. There's a nightclub car, a spa car, and even an aquarium car complete with an underwater tunnel. There's a particularly bizarre scene in a schoolhouse car, featuring a overtly pure and wholesome teacher.

In spite of strange environments of the various train cars, the movie itself doesn't feel too weird or surreal, because the protagonists remain firmly rooted in the environment of the ghetto they're trying to escape from. It's a dynamic similar to The Hunger Games, in which the Capital's residents live ostentatious lifestyles, and only look upon residents of the outer districts with disgust. The over-the-top nature of the luxury cars on the train only reinforce how out of the way the train's upper class go to live the lifestyle they want, at the expense of those in the back.

In case you're wondering, the film does address why the most bizarre aspect of the film's premise occurs, namely why the train keeps going on an endless loop instead of just staying in one place. The reason given may not be the best, or most plausible, but if the train just stayed still we'd all be denied the visual spectacle of intense battles in tight environments, or the strangeness of luxury amenities cramped into train cars. Snowpiercer balances it's surreal and realistic moments extremely well, allowing you to enjoy its stranger moments, while maintaining a very clear and focused plot.

Balance is actually a central theme to the story in Snowpiercer. The characters constantly remind the tail sectioners that the train is a closed environment, and one way or another it's an ecosystem that must be maintained. There are a few scenes sprinkled throughout the movie that argue that the way things are in the inescapable ark are the way they must be for humanity to keep on surviving, but usually before you can consider buying into the argument, the film hits you with a grisly revelation that keeps you rooting for the tail section.

Personally, I saw Snowpiercer as being a dystopian drama with elements of action, and not a straight up action movie, like the Weinstein Company saw it as. However, there are some pretty intense action scenes in the film, so their plan to edit the film into an action flick isn't completely unfounded. There's a pretty intense scene early in the film in which the tail sectioners, armed only with pipes and other blunt instruments, open a car door to find the next section is full of guards all armed with axes and pikes. The scene that follows is inevitably brutal and gripping, and somewhat reminiscent of the infamous hammer scene from Oldboy.

This isn't a soulcrushingly dark movie, though. To contrast the grittier aspects of the film, there's plenty of humor running through the movie. Some of it comes from the peculiarities of the front end of the train's inhabitants, and some from the tail sectioners being hopelessly outmatched by their combatants. Bong Joon-ho seems to fully acknowledge how crazy the premise of the movie is, and plays up the absurdity without going overboard, similar to the films of Guillermo Del Toro.

However, like I said earlier, this film is at its heart a drama, and the cast delivers some incredible performances. Tilda Swinton throws herself into the role of Mason, a mouthpiece for the head of the train. She's so quirky and unrecognizable in the role, its the kind of immersive performance one usually associates with Johnny Depp. However, the actor who really gets a chance to show what he's capable of is Chris Evans. He's obviously best known for roles in action movies, and a few romantic comedies as well, but I get the sense he's been trying to take on more serious roles as well, even if most of the ones he's had so far have been in movies that have gone largely unnoticed. That may change, as near the end of Snowpiercer, his character delivers a monologue about what it took to survive seventeen years in the tail section of the train that's a bit chilling at parts, but definitely shows he's capable of taking on a more dramatic role in a film not full of gunfights and explosions. This movie may also prove to be a breakout film for actress Ko Ah-sung, one of the surprisingly few Korean actresses in this South Korean movie. She has a supporting role in the film as a character that's oddly indifferent to the revolt she's partaking in, and is also responsible for some of the best moments in the movie.

It's a shame that the Weinstein Company opted to give this film a small release in the middle of summer, because it probably would have done quite well if released nationwide between January and March, which is a time of year often seen as a dumping ground for mediocre movies, and would have been the perfect time for a film like this to stand out. Fortunately, although Snowpiercer presents a very unique visual spectacle, it isn't one that necessarily needs a massive screen and killer sound system to be enjoyed at its best.

If this film does have one thing going for it's American release, it's that despite being a Korean film, it's primarily in English and has a cast primarily made up of Western actors, so it's unlikely that this version of the film will be undercut by an American-made remake way too soon.

*For those of you who didn't click through the link, and are unfamiliar with the so-called Battle of Brazil, Terry Gilliam's 1985 sci-fi dystopian film, Brazil, faced a similar situation as Snowpiercer regarding it's US release. Universal, which had bought the US release rights to Brazil wanted to recut the film, trimming down its running time and making it more upbeat overall. The US release was held up until Gilliam held private screenings of his original version in the US, ultimately winning Best Picture award by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The original version still didn't get released in the US, but Gilliam approved of a considerably less invasive cut of the film. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Now I'm going to apologize in advance for the fact that this review has a fair amount of spoilers in it, but there's just no way to talk about what the filmmakers did right and wrong in this particular movie without going into plot points.

In many ways, the 2014 remake of Godzilla is a well made movie. It's visually engaging. They picked a great cast. For the most part, the special effects look incredible. Unfortunately, there's quite a few problems lying beneath the surface of this well polished movie, but the greatest problem has to be the plot. "Who even cares about the plot?" you ask. "Aren't people just paying to see a giant lizard wreck a bunch of cities?" If that's your philosophy on monster movies, I'm not going to shoot you down.

However, the problem is that there's hardly any Godzilla in this Godzilla movie.

I don't mean this in the sense that when Godzilla isn't on screen, the rest of the movie is building up suspense for his next imminent attack. I mean that he isn't even the main focus of the movie. He's just a tertiary character. The main focus of the movie, the thing that everybody is trying to figure out how to kill, the thing that threatens the lives of humans everywhere, is a pair of giant insectoid creatures classified as Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects, or MUTOs for short.

The MUTOS are only here to do two things: eat radiation, and mate. Naturally, they wreck a path of destruction as they try to do both. It's the MUTOs that the characters are primarily focused on stopping. So then where is Godzilla? Most of the movie he just spends kind of chilling out in the ocean, like an actor waiting in the wings for his cue.

In fact, for much of the movie it's easy to forget you're actually supposed to be watching a Godzilla movie. Much of the dialogue in the movie seems to go like this:

SOLDIER: The MUTOs are destroying everything! What do we do?

GENERAL: Here's a plan to kill them.

SOLDIER: What about that Godzilla thing chilling out in the ocean?

GENERAL: Um... This plan ought to kill him too... Maybe.

This might have actually been a fairly decent monster movie if they had just left Godzilla out of it, but he's in there, in a somewhat awkward manner. Inexplicably, one of the scientists, played by Ken Watanabe, suddenly becomes this film's version of Charlie Day's character from Pacific Rim. You know, the one with the kaiju tattoos who's just a bit too excited about the monsters threatening to extinguish mankind. For no real reason, Watanabe's character concludes that Godzilla is a good guy, and that instead of trying to kill him, everybody should just let him be and he'll kill the MUTOs, because he's their apex predator.

And of course, this is exactly what Godzilla sets out to do once the MUTOs make landfall. I realize that in most Godzilla movies, he iss the hero, saving mankind from other monsters, but in the original movie he was the villain, senselessly causing destruction across Tokyo. If I'm going to see a movie called Godzilla and only Godzilla, not Godzilla vs. MUTO, I expect all of the focus to be on a giant lizard trashing cities. Unfortunately, this film decided to jump the gun and build up the mythology of Godzilla as King of All Monsters, without any proper setup of what Godzilla is, and why he's defending humanity. It's like they made Godzilla 2, without making Godzilla 1, figuring you didn't care enough to see it anyway. Defending humanity is the best way to describe what he does on screen. He doesn't attack the MUTOs like he's their predator. He attacks them like it's the sole thing he was put on earth to do. Again, not much of a reason is given as to why this is.

The other problem with having Godzilla just show up out of nowhere and fight the other monsters is that it kind of makes the rest of the action irrelevant. The climax of the movie involves a team of soldiers trying to get a nuclear warhead out of San Francisco, but once it's clear that Godzilla, not the bomb, is going to kill the MUTOs, the scenes with the soldiers feel like they're part of another movie. I almost felt like somebody was flipping channels between an action movie and an HD remaster of an old Japanese monster movie.

Also, Godzilla's look in this version is a bit disappointing. I know it's sacrilege to say this, but personally I preferred the look from the 1998 version. That version had the visual elements of the original Godzilla, but looked more convincing as a monstrous lizard wrecking a city. The 2014 version remains very faithful to the look of the original Godzilla, but to a fault. All the millions of dollars spent on highly advanced CGI results in a creature that looks, and moves, like a guy in a giant rubber suit.

As for the human characters in the film, they all felt very generic. The film starts out strong, building the characters by setting up their roles in the story through a disaster at a Japanese nuclear power plant. (The filmmakers were at least tasteful enough to not suggest it was supposed to be Fukushima.) Unfortunately, once the MUTOs show up and start causing havoc, all character development comes to a grinding halt.

The thing is, you need to have strong character development among the human characters to get you to care about the story. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of long, drawn out monster battles and scenes of destruction, and those can be a bit boring after a while if there's nothing to anchor the viewer into the lives of the people caught in the path of destruction. For example, Pacific Rim built up its characters enough that you not only cared about the humans in giant robot suits fighting monsters, but also cared about the people on the streets below. In Cloverfield, all the relationships that are established in the opening party scenes are carried through the movie as a group of friends and family try to get each other out of New York as its being ripped apart.

In this version of Godzilla, because the characters aren't developed well, you don't really care about the humans in the path of destruction. Considering that in the finale, a father, a mother and their son all find themselves in separate parts of the city, all under attack, I couldn't find myself caring much if anything happened to any of them. They felt less like characters and more like extras with extended amounts of dialogue.

That's a shame because, as I said before, the cast in this film is amazing. There's Ken Watanabe, Bryan Crantson, Kick-Ass's Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and even Juliette Binoche. Even though they all put in great performances, they all feel under-used as actors.

The 2014 version of Godzilla had the potential to be a great interpretation of the story. From the outset, it looked like the producers intended to make a serious and seemingly plausible take on the monster movie concept. It had all of the elements it needed to do it. The cast was there. The cinematography, sound and music were all right. Aside from the CGI rubber-suit Godzilla, the effects were good too. In spite of this, Godzilla managed to feel like a late night B-movie somehow given the trappings of a major blockbuster. By all means see it, but wait until its available for home viewing.

Or, if you must see it in cinemas, catch a showing where Mystery Science Theater 3000-like heckling is encouraged. There's enough moments of B-movie stupidity going on that it can only add positively to the viewing experience.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Amazing Spider-Man 2

Director Marc Webb certainly had an uphill battle when he took on the role of directing the first Amazing Spider-Man movie. The decision had been made to reboot the franchise after the disaster that was Spider-Man 3, but in order to clearly establish to audiences that this was a completely new version of the character, it meant retelling his origin story. It had only been a decade since Sam Rami's first Spider-Man movie had been released, so retelling the origin story meant partially remaking a movie that was only ten years old.

Nonetheless, Webb proved himself up to the task, not only opting for a more serious and "realistic" interpretation of the hero, but also putting a new spin on Spider-Man's origins. In Amazing Spider-Man, he hinted that Peter Parker's transformation into a superhero might have been tied to work that his father, Dr. Richard Parker, did on genetics. There were some scenes filmed that made more overt references to Peter's father's work being tied to his super powers, but these were cut before release, possibly due to fan outcry against this new interpretation.

For Amazing Spider-Man 2, Webb chose not to shy away from his twist on the tale, and instead makes it the backbone of the film's story. In this film, Norman Osborn is dying from a hereditary genetic disease, one he had hoped to cure though the research Peter Parker's dad was doing. Norman's son, Harry, learns he also has the disease. However, when his father dies, and Harry inherits the company he discovered that the board of Oscorp destroyed all of Dr. Parker's files have all been destroyed as a show of good faith to the shareholders, after Dr. Connors attempted to use it to turn everybody into lizard monsters in the previous movie. Harry slowly takes on a more villainous persona as he tries to uncover the research, ultimately taking on the persona of the Green Goblin.

Unlike the first Amazing Spider-Man, which only had a slightly different version of Spider-Man's origin from the original, the Goblin story arc feels completely different from the version in Sam Rami's trilogy. While Willem Dafoe was fantastic as Norman Osborn in those movies, lets be honest, James Franco's performance as Harry Osborn was kind of weak, and only became weaker as his character was supposed to become more villainous. ASM 2's version of Harry Osborn, played by Dane DeHaan, is much more convincing, both as Peter Parker's best friend, and as Spider-Man's nemesis.

As you've probably guessed from the trailers, Green Goblin isn't even the film's main villain. That honor goes to Jamie Foxx, as Electro. As much as I like it when movies try to stick to characters' comic book appearances for movies, Electro's getup was one of the campier ones, and his new look for the movie is a welcome change. Foxx does a great job with the role, taking the character from a confused, socially awkward person to somebody who revels in terrorizing the Web Crawler.

Yes, there are certainly campy aspects to Foxx's portrayal of the villain. In fact, the whole film has a slightly campier feel than the previous one, although nowhere near as over-the-top as Rami's trilogy. However, it's well balanced out with the more serious and dramatic parts of the film. I guess Marc Webb realized you can only go so far with the gritty and serious take on comic books before it looks equally as absurd as a campy interpretation, especially when you have characters that include giant lizard-men and a villain made of electricity.

Even though ASM 2 has both Goblin and Electro as villains, with a minor appearance from Paul Giamatti as Rhino, this film isn't the bloated mess that Spider-Man 3 was, trying to awkwardly mould a story with Venom, Goblin and Sandman. Instead ASM 2 follows an arc similar to The Dark Knight, having one character emerge as a villain early in the story, and another character come into the villain role as the story goes on. However, it also teases at the appearance of many, many more villains for sequels, such as Black Cat, Doctor Octopus, Vulture and Alistair Smythe. (Why would you name a villain "Alistair?" Clearly, thats a wholesome and virtuous name, right?) Hopefully these new villains get paced out well, or used in small does, otherwise ASM 3 might become just as big a mess of a movie as Spider-Man 3 was.

The best part of Amazing Spider-Man 2 was, just like in the last film, the onscreen chemistry between actors Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who play Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. The way they banter back and forth feels like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. In this go around, Gwen and Peter have a bit of a falling out as Peter is filled with guilt over going back on a promise he made to Gwen's dead father that he'd stay away from her. However, they work so well together as a team that you can't help but cheer for them to get back together.

Overall, the film is pretty top notch. It's not quite on par with the level of quality we've come to expect from comic book movies, thanks to the Avengers franchise, but the film does find the right balance of lightness and seriousness, as well as campiness and grittiness. The only part I can really single out as needing improvement is the music. To put it politely, there are some questionable music choices in the film. For example, some of the songs selected to play over montage scenes don't quite fit the tone of what's happening on screen, and the first song to play over the end credits sequence is, I kid you not, an R&B slow jam.

However the worst offender is probably Electro's theme music. It starts out clever. When Electro is still his human persona, Max Dillon, he's always accompanied by a chorus of whispering voices. It keys you in to the fact that the character isn't quite stable as a person, even before he undergoes his super-powered transformation. Once he does become Electro, and decides that Spider-Man is his enemy, the voices move from whispers to overt screaming. Suddenly, it sounds less like an internal monologue and more like a rejected song from the Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark musical.

In the end, Amazing Spider-Man 2 felt like a satisfying take on the character that managed to feel faithful to it's comic book roots, while being completely different from the version in the Sam Rami trilogy, which also remained pretty faithful to its comic book roots. I'm a bit nervous about these rumors that Sony plans to expand the franchise into spin-off movies, creating an Avengers-style cinematic universe. For now, as long as they stick with Marc Webb at the helm and Andrew Garfield as Spidey, I'll at least be looking forward to Amazing Spider-Man 3.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Her

Upon hearing the premise of the film Her, it's easy to get a misconception of what this movie is about. You may have gotten the impression it's about a pathetic loser who is so hopeless at interacting with people that he develops a relationship with the operating system on his phone. Yes, the film is about a man who falls in love with his phone, but he's not some sort of loser with social issues. Rather, Her is a movie about how our relationship with technology is changing, and the strange consequences that result from us trying to make technology easier to interact with. It's a story about falling in love with an artificial intelligence that's advanced enough to have a self aware consciousness.

The film is set in a near future where technology has changed how we interact with people. It doesn't really cast judgement on whether those changes are good or bad. Bluetooth earpieces make a comeback. People actually talk in chat rooms with their voices instead of typing. They send handwritten letters to each other, but they outsource them to a website called Beautiful Handwritten Letters.com. The main character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is a man going through a divorce. He upgrades the operating system on his phone and computer to a new one that uses artificial intelligence. After it personalizes itself to him, it takes on a female persona that names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

The film does an excellent job of making this seemingly absurd concept feel plausible. When Samantha and Theo first start talking, she comes off as just an easy to interact with operating system. She offers to help sort organize his emails and calendar. Then Theo finds himself talking to her about things that have nothing to do with organizing his life, and soon they find themselves attracted to each other.

Their relationship undergoes similar highs and lows as any human/human relationship would, except at its low points, Theo and other characters in the film do call attention to the fact that it is a relationship with a computer. It's because of moments like that, where the characters question the emotions they're feeling from technology (and the technology itself questions the emotions it feels from humans) the movie has a sort of prophetic feel to it. Her joins the ranks of other sci-fi classics such as Gattaca and Minority Report that are in many ways so on the nose with their premises that it feels like less of a question of "Could this happen?" and more of a question of "What do we do when this happens?"

Lets face it. We are actively working on making computers easier to interact with, and we're working on making artificial intelligence convincing enough to pass a turing test. I wouldn't be surprised if the first time most of us interacted with a true artificial intelligence it would be in the form of an operating system. Think of how big a deal Apple made about Siri on its iPhone. Imagine what a selling point it would be if a company came out with a computer you could actually converse with. The easier computers are to talk to, it's not too hard to imagine people feeling a bond of friendship with them, especially if computers are capable of showing friendship back.

Her is actually a much tamer film than you'd expect from writer/director Spike Jonze. Jonze's previous films have been unabashedly strange and surrealistic, such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, (both of which were written by the unquestionably strange Charlie Kaufman.) He's also known for music videos such as Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" and "Weapon of Choice." And of course there's his work in advertising, making ads such as the "Tainted Love" ad for Levi's and the greatest Gap commercial ever.

Considering how strange Jonze's filmography is, Her feels surprisingly down to earth. Yes, the film does have moments of quirkiness, such as having characters play unusual video games, and having high waisted pants be the go-to fashion trend, but it's light on the weirdness, so as not to distract from the characters.

Jonze made a brilliant choice in not giving Samantha a face. She's represented through abstract imagery on computers, but most of the time her only visual presence is as the phone or an earpiece. I think this is what sells the story the most. It shoots past the uncanny valley by not giving her some sort of faux human digital representation. Instead Samantha sounds like a woman Theo is having a conversation with on the phone. There were actually moments in the movie where I forgot that she wasn't somebody Theo was having a long distance relationship with over the phone, but rather the phone itself.

Of course since we never see Samantha, this means most of the dialogue between her and Theo involve long shots of Joaquin Phoenix staring off into space as he holds his end of the conversation. It does take some getting used to at first, but it also helps immerse you in his character.

The film also takes the high road in not representing the future as bleak, or our first encounter with a conscious AI as being apocalyptic. Considering that "future dystopia" and "robot uprising" are two of the most common tropes in science fiction, not using either one in a film set in the future, about computers, seems downright revolutionary. Her felt so grounded in a plausible reality, that when I saw the trailer for the upcoming film Transcendence, a thriller where a man's consciousness is uploaded into a computer and then turns evil, that premise felt hilariously absurd.

Her is an unexpectedly heavy and emotional film. You wouldn't think a movie about a man talking to a phone for two hours could emotionally resonate with you in the way a movie about a more conventional romance would, but Joaquin Phoenix's performance, and Jonze's writing and directing really drive it home. The relationship between Theo and Samantha feels real enough that as the logistical problems of a human and a program being in love present themselves, the tragic aspect of the story slowly creeps forth. Although the aesthetics of the movie may seem dated in a few years, I believe that the core story of Her will definitely age well.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The World's End


When I first saw Shaun of the Dead, I realized it an incredibly unique movie made by an extremely talented cast and crew. It manage to spoof zombie movies in a way that paid homage to them as well, and went far above the usual fare we see in parody movies today of just re-enacting famous scenes, but with jokes. It showed off writer/director Edgar Wright's ability to shift from horror to romance to drama to comedy, all without missing a beat. And of course, it introduced Americans to the onscreen duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

The three would reunite a few years later to make Hot Fuzz, a movie about a London cop sent to a peaceful village in the country, that starts out as a fish-out-of-water story, shifts into a film about a small town with a secret, throws in a few elements of slasher movies before exploding into a parody of Michael Bay action, all while being a buddy movie.

Somewhere along the line, the films became referred to as the first two parts in what is semi-officially known as the Cornetto Trilogy, called so because of how the films share themes of friendship, maturity, alcohol, violence, towns overrun by a menacing force, people trying to jump over fences, and a random appearance by a Cornetto ice cream cone. At long last, we've been given the third part of the trilogy with The World's End.

Like the other two films with Wright, Pegg and Frost, The World's End hops its way about film genres. It opens with Gary King (played by Simon Pegg) describing what he considers the best night of his life: attempting an epic pub crawl, known as The Golden Mile, with his high school best friends, back in their home town. However, they never managed to complete the crawl, so years later Gary becomes determined to round them all up, and finish what they started, making it through all twelve pubs to The World's End.

Then they realize their hometown has be conquered by alien robots.



Frost and Pegg switch out of their archetypal roles for this film. While the other Cornetto films had Pegg as the straight man, and Frost as his bumbling sidekick, in this film, Frost is the straight man, with Pegg acting like a full on maniac. I dare say that Pegg's portrayal of Gary King goes right up there with Shaun on the list of iconic sci-fi/comedy characters.

It's actually rather impressive how the film manages to stick to its core premise of friends reuniting for a pub crawl while all around them they're being threatened by increasingly hostile robots. It's largely due to Pegg's character being absolutely fixated on finishing the crawl, against all reason, forcing his friends to come along, if only to try and save him. Then again, that's what I love about movies written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. They manage to take a premise that should be a movie in itself, and make it the backdrop for a character driven story with characters you'd want to see in a movie even without the sci-fi shenanigans happening around them.

Another thing I was surprised by this movie was how it depicted a rather balanced view of drinking. Most movies I can think of that are about friends drinking tend to celebrate partying from top to bottom, with no real consequences. World's End is actually just as much about the fun of drinking as it is about the consequences. Nick Frost's character starts out the film as a teetotaler, telling his alcohol obsessed friend Gary, "You remember the Friday nights. I remember the Monday mornings."He talks about how it takes real balls to go into a pub, full of drunken rugby players, and just ask for a water. I just found it so refreshing to see a character in a movie about drinking, who abstains from drinking, and yet isn't depicted as some kind of square. Granted, Nick Frost's character does start drinking as the movie progresses, but then again wouldn't you if you found yourself surrounded by hostile alien robots?

While there are a few bits of dramatic moments throughout the film, World's End is at it's heart a very solid British comedy. I am a huge fan of how Wright's writing and directing style leads to fantastic moments of comedic timing, whether it's in the form of wordplay or visual gags. There are moments of witty dialogue exchanges followed by lowbrow slapstick humor, or highbrow visual gags mixed with bad puns and obscenities. It doesn't get too lowbrow though. The crudest joke in this film still manages to stay far, far, far classier than anything in this summer's other apocalyptic comedy, This Is The End.

I wouldn't go so far as to say this is an "intellectual" comedy. However, it is a film that's so jam packed with subtle jokes and ingenious moments of foreshadowing that it warrants multiple viewings just to catch everything you might have missed the first time around. It's also funny as hell, which is of course the other reason to watch it multiple times.

The fight scenes in this movie are pretty damn impressive as well. Edgar Wright worked a good amount of action sequences into Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but where he really started to cut loose with filming fight scenes was in that non-Cornetto Trilogy movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. That film was loaded with over-the top fights, and Wright incorporates some of that into World's End. The bar fight scenes have ordinary Joes taking on a waves of martial arts savvy robots. It's crazy to watch, but the result is a depiction of what every imagine's he'd be like if he had to get his friends' backs in a bar fight. In other words, its some of the most epic fist fighting you'll ever see in a bar.

Even though The World's End is called the third part of the Cornetto Trilogy, here's hoping that it isn't the last film that Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost make as a trio. They just work too well as a trio to not give us more movies. Maybe they'll take a line from Douglas Adams, and give us more movies in The Increasingly Inaccurately Named Cornetto Trilogy. Although The World's End might not be on the same level as Shaun of the Dead, (That's a pretty hard one to top for anybody.) but it is certainly one of the best films to come out in 2013.

And it is best enjoyed with friends, and beer.