Posted on 7/29/14 03:00 PM
Oh gosh, Michael Bay. What have you done? What abominable thing have you brought into our multiplexes? Transformers: Age of Extinction is a special type of bad. It's original. In terms of filmmaking and style, Transformers 4 is a movie entirely unlike anything else I've ever seen. It would be avant-garde if it weren't so stupid.
Bay tries to weave a plot together, but it finds itself hopelessly lost in a mess of meaningless explosions and set pieces. It's tricky to summarize. Essentially, it goes like this: one day, Mark Wahlberg finds in an abandoned cinema an old truck, which he soon finds out is a Transformer named Optimus Prime. Dragging Wahlberg into his conflict, Optimus Prime calls upon his buddy Transformers to fight aliens who are trying to vaporize the entire planet Earth into an element called Transformium. This summary, it has to be understood, is grossly simplified. There are many more subplots, but this is the story at its very simplest. It's impossible to understand, and impossible to enjoy.
It's really a shame too, because this movie could have silly fun. There are moments in the film which have a semblance of potential; upon seeing the cool locations and interesting setups, you think "this is an ingenious setup, and if, say, Spielberg or even Brad Bird could simply take the camera from Bay, I'd be having a blast!" But no, it's Michael Bay! It's a stew of over saturated shots and blockbuster cliches; dirty cesspools polluted by moronic characters and driveling dialogue. The fourth Transformers movie is a tedious gathering of the wrong and excessive traits, which, gathering from grosses, the world is all too happy to accept. It's a movie whose characters are less human than HAL 9000, whose dialogue is about as subtle as its product placement, and whose action scenes have more silly and gratuitous violence than an episode of the Itchy and Scratchy Show.
This movie is vile.
Michael Bay, easy though he is to target, is such a bizarre film director. His directing is remarkably loud, unsubtle and excessive. He doesn't have the patience to see a scene out and actually develop a good story. The editing, the writing, the cinematography: it's all done in the style of a staggeringly long-winded movie trailer. Each shot is dramatic and dynamic even when it doesn't fit, and each scene ends with something witty and exciting, but then cuts to another scene immediately lest the audience grows bored. It never plays out naturally. Why do this?
His sense of humor is also off. Something surprising about Transformers is how funny it tries to be, but the problem is, Michael Bay doesn't understand comedy. His style of comedy is crude, obnoxious and predictable, all with dismal comic timing. Bay shoots comedy like he would drama. Or his idea of drama. What's more, the movie never knows when to put comedy in, and when to leave a scene be. There's one scene where a Transformer says, of Optimus Prime: "Ugh, you just want to die for the guy. That's leadership. Or brainwashing, or something." OK, fair enough, the audience is supposed to laugh here. Then, another one says triumphantly in reply "no, that is Optimus Prime." Now we're meant to be cheering. The audience is left confused by the jarring tone change. Is that the joke? That the second robot didn't get it? Probably not. If Bay hadn't insisted on being funny, this scene would have been a lot more coherent and had a much greater effect. There are many classic action movies with comedy, but these all knew when to be funny and when to be exhilarating. Transformers does not.
The script was written by Ehren Kruger, and the dialogue is blathering claptrap. Though Bay might not display much knowledge on how to direct comedy, Ehren Kruger doesn't help him much. Some of the dialogue is absolutely dreadful. Besides not sounding like a human, besides not being funny, it makes no sense. In insisting so stubbornly it's funny, the movie pushes character development to the side, makes its tone a mess, and becomes confusing. The plot structure is all over the place and it opens up so many conflicts that it goes on forever. This movie could have been a good 45 minutes shorter! Instead it drags on and on and on.
You simply have to feel bad for the actors in this film. Stanley Tucci is actor who is both eminently likable and extremely good, but in Michael Bay's Transformers, he has to resort to acting like a blithering idiot. You can only hope he was paid well. None of the actors truly stand out, but looking at the dialogue they have to say and somehow make the audience buy, that's no wonder. This movie also has Kelsey Grammer and Titus Welliver as baddies, the latter of whom I spent the whole movie convinced was Jimmy Nesbitt. That was the sole reason I enjoyed his character.
Transformers: Age of Extinction, in short, is a mess of a movie. It might be fascinatingly bad, but that doesn't make it any better. If you're a Bay fan or like this type of film, knock yourself out with this. But anybody else will feel like they themselves have been knocked unconscious watching Transformers. Or, at least, they'll wish they had been.
Posted on 6/19/14 12:29 PM
After months of underwhelming advertising, the star-studded, big-budget and of course dark and gritty Godzilla reboot has finally come into theaters, with a great, earth-shattering roar. And though I may be in the minority for saying this, it's not great. It isn't terrible, but, at the end of the day, it doesn't give you much at all to remember.
The story is fairly pedestrian. There are two MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) and they are stomping on big cities all over the world, in search for one another, so they can procreate and take over the world with their spawn. We must stop them, but one scientist has to consider the option that perhaps Godzilla is the only thing that can save us from these horrible monsters.
Of course, don't get me wrong; Godzilla is not a horrible movie. It isn't even actually that bad! It's very well shot, and the directing and acting and structure are completely serviceable. It's never actually boring and there are definitely scenes of intriguing suspense.
That being said, Godzilla simply has too many problems to actually register as good. The main problem with the movie is that it neither has the metaphorical resonance, nor the fun that a Godzilla movie should have. Metaphorically speaking, this Godzilla doesn't really make sense. The original used Godzilla as a metaphor for nuclear bombs and tension. Here, the MUTOs represent climate change, but it's so underdeveloped and so seemingly unimportant to the filmmakers that it has little bite. Plus, if the MUTOs really do represent climate change, what does Godzilla, the creature that stops them, represent? The next generation? Is that why he's so exceptionally chubby?
Of course, people won't go to this film to be intellectually challenged about the current issues of the world, they go to have fun! This movie has to be, at least to a certain degree, pleasing to a summer audience. It should't have dumb, meaningless destruction à la Transformers, but the summer movie audience has to at least get some form of fun. This is Godzilla 2014; we want destruction, some exhilarating roars, and some satisfying dramatic shots. Unfortunately, Gareth Edwards is so intent on making a gritty, realistic blockbuster, he doesn't let himself (or, in turn, the audience) have fun. He's disappointingly restrained, and so we don't get any of that.
He always cuts to the aftermath of the disasters, looking for dramatic subtlety. It's never mixed in with some satisfying shots of Godzilla stepping on buildings. Perhaps most disappointingly, the characters are the biggest part of the movie. I wouldn't mind that, I'd support it of course, if the characters weren't quite so boring. The lead character Lieutenant Ford is essentially a wooden plank, and the actor who portrays him, Aaron Taylor Johnson, is simply not very expressive. None of the characters are particularly interesting, from the Bryan Cranston conspiracist, to the Elizabeth Olsen wife-and-nothing-more, to the Sally Hawkins character, who's just there to spew expository dialogue in her British (and hence professional-sounding) accent. She of course disappears when all the exposition has been revealed.
These characters aren't people whom we want to see happy and healthy, they're people who prevent the film from actually being great. They're never developed. It's the obstacles that are developed, but even this isn't through images, so much as through dialogue. What fun is that?This movie presents bland characters with bland expressions spitting bland lines about one of the coolest creatures in all fiction. We don't get to see Godzilla, as much as we get to hear our bland characters talking about it! Don't you see the problem with that? There are a fair amount of MUTOs, but they hold only a fraction of the appeal of our Gojira. Outside of one great reveal shot, Godzilla never gets his moments.
He does have one big fight with the MUTOs at the end of the film, but it simply isn't enough. The fight is beyond silly, riddled with clichés, and above all, it's in the middle of the night and shrouded in shadows. It's hard to see.
At the very least, Alexandre Desplat has written a pretty good score for the film. It has a surprising Danny Elfman/Tim Burton feel to it, but without actually having the Danny Elfman clichés, which is a big plus. It has a lot of personality, and is decent even out of context.
Unfortunately, though, Godzilla is quite simply not good. It's too uninterested in story to be dramatically potent, but too held-back to have fun. I feel like it must be clarified that I'm not asking for over-the-top action or non-stop set pieces or dramatic trailer shots, but a Godzilla reboot can't have as little suspense or excitement as this film. This movie can't be so restrained. There are of course some good scenes, and Gareth Edwards can construct some pretty great shots, but if he is indeed set to helm a Star Wars film, I would like to send him one message: you'll do well, so just have a bit of fun with it!
Posted on 6/04/14 01:55 AM
A common trend in Marvel movies is that they start off really well, drawing in even the non-comic book fans, but slowly collapse until by the second hour they are completely silly. Iron Man, for instance, starts great, but then ends up being a confusing mess. So, when Captain America: The Winter Soldier started off with a thrilling set piece on a boat, I made sure not to get my hopes up that I'd finally really like a Marvel movie. I kept waiting for The Winter Soldier to fall apart, but, surprisingly, it never did. I understand that it's a big, loud, movie-star packed blockbuster, but nonetheless it is very fun.
The story picks up a little after The First Avenger ended. Captain America is adjusting to modern life fairly well, when he discovers Operation Insight, run by SHIELD. The operation is to send three helicarriers into the sky, keeping everyone under constant surveillance and gun-point, as well as having access to all information about everybody. If something about your past suggests that you can do something bad in the future, these helicarriers will shoot you dead before you can even do the bad thing. It's up to Captain America and his friend Natasha Romanova to stop it!
It's an unsettling villainous plot, but one that makes the movie far more interesting than it could have been otherwise. It's modern and intriguingly political, due to its obvious ties to NSA surveillance and the US's drone policy, which the directors have freely admitted they were aiming for (obviously). Of course, its political side does bring about a problem. For the politically intellectual (i.e. the exact opposite of myself), the film seems very shallow. Even those like me who are perfectly content knowing only the most basic of anything concerning politics, the movie seems simplistic and biased in its criticism of these matters. It's hard to juggle being an action movie with being political, without having one be underdeveloped and pushed to the side of the other, and this is very clear. I applaud Marvel's ambition, but their comments are very underdeveloped and even a little childish. For instance, the movie is essentially telling us that if you, in any way, support America's use of drones, you are, by definition, a Nazi and Captain America hates you.
However, if you can forget all that, which does take a little while to do, you can see that, if nothing else, the political ties do make for an interesting villain plot. Often with Marvel movies, you get very obvious good guy vs. bad guy scenarios, but that's less interesting than something like Project Insight, behind which there is a perfectly sane idea. One of the villains even says "I would protect the lives of seven billion people, at the cost of twenty million." The motive that there will be no more terrorist attacks is far more compelling than, say, Red Skull's half-baked motive: "the world isn't ready for its own freedom," which is just silly. It might not be politically complex, but you can't say the NSA-ties don't make for some interesting villains.
There are factors other than interesting villains too, of course, that result in The Winter Soldier's rising above Marvel's standards, such as the action. All the action scenes in this movie are intense, brutal and ferocious and I would have it no other way. The directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, haven't had any experience directing action in the past, but that doesn't show. I think Joe Johnston might have been a touch better at shooting the action -- this movie does occasionally bring out shaky cam and I was hoping for a couple more wide shots -- but, on the whole, the action in this movie is better than in its predecessor. Admittedly, the "who's on my side," "everybody's pointing guns at everybody else" type of action that we see here isn't terribly new, but, who cares, because the action is fantastic. What the movie changes from The First Avenger is the use of machines. The First Avenger, though fun, often suffered from an overuse of guns, or tanks or Tesseract lasers and while they're still present here, the action is far more punch-oriented. For instance, when Captain America is fighting The Winter Soldier, it often comes down to knives, shields and kicking, which is much more exciting, especially when you see how good at fighting The Winter Soldier actually is. Furthermore, for these scenes, the directors don't shoot it with quick-cuts or extreme close-ups, and this gives it a more realistic look and lets the audience absorb the fantastic choreography. The directors also, like Joe Johnston, do a good job at making Captain America as vulnerable as he can be by throwing his shield away or putting him against an opponent he genuinely has trouble with, and this makes it much more interesting.
Of course, I do realize that the action is often completely preposterous. Some of the things Captain America is able to do are pretty silly and there are often moments that are very comic book-like and thus feel jarring in contrast to the hyper-realistic nature of everything else. Yet, while not everything that happens on screen can be accepted, the movie does a better job than many other Marvel films in easing you into some of the sillier moments. I normally would roll my eyes upon seeing a man in big metallic wings and goofy goggles flying backwards while shooting at his enemies, and there is still a sense of silliness, but it's much easier to accept it in this film, with this atmosphere, than in some of the other Marvel movies.
The action's also helped by the fact that we genuinely don't want to see the characters die. They're surprisingly strong in this movie. Captain America/Steve Rogers doesn't come off as arrogant or annoying. He's still not a very interesting main character, but he's nonetheless likable enough and very fun to watch fight. When he's fighting, he's downright cool. Paired with his shield, used to great effect in this movie by the directors, it's great to watch him engage in combat. Plus, Chris Evans is clearly well cast in the role; he's got everything he needs to play Captain America down.
Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanova is also given a surprisingly large part in this movie, but that's very good. What makes Black Widow so fun is that, unlike Captain America, she isn't a superhero; she's just a really aggressive gymnast. We know that she doesn't have a magical shield or hammer to help her out; her survival is up to her wit and ability to do backflips. However, when she is fighting, it's great to watch. Even when she isn't fighting, though, Black Widow doesn't succumb to the clichés that Agent Carter unfortunately falls to in the first movie, which would have been so easy to do. Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers isn't an interesting character, but if Marvel's writers and directors can make her like this again, I'd be for a spin-off movie.
Outside of the returning faces, though, there are many new cast additions, almost all of whom do a very good job. This movie brings in Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Frank Grillo and more. The addition of Anthony Mackie is probably the best, as he brings a very natural and gracious likability to the role of Falcon, which is necessary for a character that could have been very annoying with the wrong actor. Robert Redford as the Dick Cheney of the movie is great, and perfectly cast. Surprisingly, the only weak addition is Frank Grillo, of Warrior fame. He looks the part and he plays this role very well, but, frankly, he's just too likable to play a bad guy. Even when he's shooting at Captain America, it's too easy to root for him. You just keep hoping he'll have a cliché, last minute redemption and that we can be allowed to like him again.
The problems of the movie, however, are unfortunately hard to get into without spoiling the whole film. I will say, however, that the action, though it is generally very thrilling, does bring up some problems. For one, as was mentioned earlier, sometimes in trying to be faithful to the comic books, it throws in very silly ideas that don't fit. Scarlett Johansson has a digital mask at one point, and there's a moment where we learn that a baddie has done something amazingly high-tech in the 40s that even we are still thirty years away from being able to do, which is a little ridiculous.
Also, the movie does have a lot of fake outs, which are annoying and have no dramatic weight. When we do think they're dead, it's frustratingly cheap when it turns out they're not, but when we do know they're not dead, it's dull when the movie keeps trying to make us think that they are. I don't think I'm spoiling anything when I say that of course Captain America isn't going to drown, no matter how melodramatic Joe and Anthony Russo make the scene or how slow Henry Jackman writes the music. Other times these fake outs are just dropped, as if the movie itself forgot that somebody has just been hit by something that's killed these other people right away. At times, the movie can be frustratingly simpleminded.
Another problem that's tiptoeing on the spoiler line is the not-really-main-villain bad guy, The Winter Soldier. He's threatening, but he's not as interesting as I'm sure Marvel wanted. He's given his own dramatic backstory and inner conflict, but it comes off as uninteresting and overblown. The Winter Soldier's dramatic side is dull and takes up far more screen time than it should. He is menacing, but nothing about him screams "I'm so fantastically threatening, I must be in the title!" He's disappointing.
The score by Henry Jackman also isn't great. It's little more than constant rhythmic banging and pounding and beating, and when listening to it out of context, headaches are bound to pop up. However, I do feel like one of the few people that actually thinks that in the film, it's OK. The banging and pounding when placed next to such ferocious fighting does, in a way, heighten the intensity, and that is what a score needs to do. Granted, some of the tracks are pretty horrible, like the worst one 'The Winter Soldier,' which is a loud and pretentious exercise in combining the sounds of WALL-E singing and dubstep and hoping it'll turn out OK ... but, on the whole, it's not as bad as everyone's making it out to be.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier has many problems, and its political ambitions are very underdeveloped and simplistic, but on the whole, and especially considering Marvel's standards, this movie is a lot of fun. The action is fantastic and the characters are well rounded, and make for an excellent 130 minutes of entertainment.
Posted on 6/04/14 01:55 AM
When the Marvel logo pops up on screen before a movie, I'm never quite as excited as many others. If anything, I'm completely unsure about the quality of the film I'm about to watch. Sometimes, Marvel can provide a perfectly decent ride, like in Iron Man, so far my favorite film of theirs, but sometimes their movies can trod along slowly, loudly and in an utterly monotonous manner, like in The Avengers, an overblown, overrated fest of meaningless explosions. Captain America: The First Avenger, however, falls squarely in the middle of this, providing some fun action unfortunately diluted with many problems.
The movie takes place during World War II, and here we find Steve Rogers, our protagonist. He wants desperately to be in the US Army with his friends, but due to his asthma and physical frailness, nobody accepts him, even though he's brave and courageous and should be in the Army. Enter Dr. Abraham Erskine, a German scientist who has with him a "super soldier serum," which essentially works like steroids. For several reasons, we learn that Rogers is the perfect fit for the serum, and thus our tiny protagonist becomes the bulky and strong Captain America. Shortly after this, we find out that Hitler is no longer a problem, and that the Army's attention should be brought solely to HYDRA, another German domination-hungry group, who's especially dangerous because they have taken the Tesseract, the blue aerogel-like McGuffin also found in The Avengers. Captain America must prevent the villain and head of HYDRA, Red Skull, from taking over the world with it.
It's obviously a typical Marvel plot line, and this gives the film its main problem. While at this point nobody's asking Marvel to completely change their formula, there's a difference between not doing anything new, and being flat out cliché, which is something the movie has difficulty remembering. From the dialogue, to the plot points, to even the little details, The First Avenger often presents us with ideas that we've seen not only in past Marvel movies, but generally in any action movie before. Even when the action is fun or the characters likable, the clichés continue popping up and bringing the whole film down. There's not breaking new ground, and then there's this.
There are also many other problems with the script. For one, the dialogue isn't very good. Some of the conversations feel unintentionally awkward with dialogue that isn't particularly interesting for the audience. The main problem with the dialogue is the subtlety, which is in undeniably low supply. Granted, I'm not expecting much subtlety in a movie about a star spangled, tights wearing, drug-enhanced super-soldier, but nonetheless, and especially during the conversations between Captain America and his love interest Peggy Carter, it's decidedly lacking.
What's more, the movie's often downright cheesy. The patriotism aspect of course gives for some cheesy flag-waving moments (though not as much as you might think) but there is much cheese to be found elsewhere, especially when the director zooms in on Hugo Weaving's face, with eyebrows villainously pointed down, as he states in his exaggerated German accent "no Dr. Zola, this will change... the world!"
For the most part, the characters are hit and miss. Tommy Lee Jones's General Chester Phillips is pretty fun, with the actor doing a good job with him. Bucky, Captain America's closest friend is an OK, if minor and ultimately unmemorable character and Dominic Cooper's Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark, has a very small part, though he has enough personality to be surprisingly memorable.
The three main characters are Peggy Carter, Red Skull/Johann Schmidt and, of course, Captain America. These three characters are fairly strong. The weakest of the three is probably Red Skull. He's menacing, I guess, but at the end of the day he's just a generic bad guy. The most memorable villains are always the ones that do something different, but Red Skull doesn't (and his actual red skull seems like a total waste of budget; why does it matter?).
Agent Carter is far more interesting, though it's disheartening to see the script's clichés wear her personality down. When she's fighting or training the soldiers, it's great and a lot of fun. However, unfortunately, in an utterly cliché manner, it turns out her rough cool action side is just a facade, which is broken down to reveal an insecure inside, once she meets Captain America, whom she immediately falls in love with. These are the unfortunate clichés I mentioned earlier that continue pestering the film and bringing its overall quality down.
Fortunately, this doesn't happen to our main character who remains perfectly fun throughout. It would have been very easy to make Captain America arrogant and condescending, but, for the most part, he isn't. He isn't terribly arrogant, though exceedingly humble I wouldn't say he is either, except for in the very big scenes where he has to be e.g. his coma-inducing crash. It's also a shame that his costume is more silly than it is cool. All things considered, he's a fun enough character who's easy to get behind and root for in the action, even if he's maybe not quite as interesting as some other superheroes.
The action scenes he's in are good, though. They're fun, thrilling and they don't take themselves too seriously. I attribute much of the action's success to director Joe Johnston of Jumanji fame. His directing is very good and this is especially clear during the action scenes. He always finds a creative way to show everything. It isn't simply "and then Captain America punched the bad guy"; it cuts to a fun camera angle and then we see, or sometimes just have to guess, what's happened. What also makes the action fun is how vulnerable we get Captain America. If you hang around his shield too much, he can seem boring and invincible, which makes it all the more exciting when he throws his shield away and you know that he could be shot or even killed at any moment. The fun action is certainly, above anything else, what keeps the movie afloat.
The score by Alan Silvestri doesn't do much to help with the action, though it's okay. The biggest problem with it is Captain America's theme which is cheesy and not very interesting. The rest of it's alright, though.
Captain America is never going to be my favorite superhero movie and its clichés and poor writing do bring the film down heavily, but it's still perfectly alright, and I am certainly looking forward to The Winter Soldier.
Posted on 5/24/14 12:04 PM
Alas, the illustrious career of Hayao Miyazaki, the director of some of the greatest animations of all time (and, in my opinion, far and away the number one greatest: Spirited Away) has ended. However, if The Wind Rises is truly to be his last film, what a great way to end! It's never quite as good as the films that made him famous, say Princess Mononoke or Kiki's Delivery Service, and it does have several hiccups but, ultimately, that doesn't matter to this elegant, beautiful and thought-provoking film.
The film is an animated biopic (ish) of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer behind many of Japan's fighter planes during World War II, including the ones that attacked Pearl Harbor. Through Jiro's eyes, we see a TB plague, the 1923 Great Kant? Earthquake, and his relationship with his wife, Nahoko. Of course, it's all highly fictionalized, so that it's only a biopic in the most basic sense of the word.
The story is obviously not typical Miyazaki in that it doesn't involve wild imagination or the like, but he treats it with a maturity almost unheard of in animation. He's sensitive yet effective in showing the film's themes, and the manner in which he portrays the events of the film like Jiro's relationship with Nahoko is well above anything other animations or even live-action films are doing now (it's still really sweet, though).
Of course, even if this isn't typical Miyazaki in the sense that his imagination isn't in full command like in Spirited Away, you can still tell that this is Miyazaki. The most notable trait is the manner in which he tells the story. The Wind Rises has the same graceful, fluid pacing that you find in his best films. What makes Spirited Away and Kiki's Delivery Service so good is the fluid manner in which their stories are told. It almost feels as if you're absorbing the movie through the images and atmosphere. You can only get this feeling when a film is really sharp in where shots or scenes are cut, and, to me, this is a sign of great directing. In The Wind Rises, you get just that. Not a single shot is cut at the wrong moment and not a single scene goes on too long or too short, which makes for a very rewarding experience. Miyazaki is a great director, and he does wonderfully with this film.
You can also tell that this is Miyazaki from the wonderful score by one of the best film composers working today: Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi has composed some of my very favorite scores (Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, for instance) and his score for this film is one of the best of the year (granted, 2013 was a pretty bad year in film scoring). It does a great job in helping the movie achieve the aforementioned fluid and graceful tone. It presents Hisaishi doing something very different than his other scores in terms of tone, but still succeeding hugely. The flying moments are never too whimsical, the romantic moments are never cloying and the sad moments are never generic, which makes for a wonderful score, and one which I have often listened to out of context. I'm praying we can still see more Hisaishi after Miyazaki retires, for he is truly one of the best.
Another staple of Miyazaki movies: the hand drawn animation, which is absolutely superb. The Wind Rises is beautiful to look at. Miyazaki has such a painterly eye, and he gives the film many shots where we can simply absorb everything he's created. The sky, the landscapes, the colors; it's all so nice, and something that can only be captured by hand-drawn animation. I'm all for computer animation, but the quality in Miyazaki's drawings is unparalleled.
Thematically, this movie is also incredibly rich, and it's through the themes of creativity and inspiration that most viewers will be able to strike a chord with the film. Chances are, if you watch The Wind Rises, you will in at least one way or another be able to relate to the themes.
Jiro's passion is making planes. It isn't just a job for him, it's something he's always thinking about. He's inspired at the most random of moments by the oddest of things, because Miyazaki portrays him as somebody who doesn't know, probably doesn't even want, to turn his creative side off. It's obvious at this point that this story is not meant to be taken literally, but metaphorically, with planes representing the viewers' respective passions. I'm sure Miyazaki sees a little bit of himself in Jiro, with the planes being his movies; and the aspiring artists in the crowd will all be able to recognize how well he portrays the creative mind.
Of course, having the subject being the man who helped Pearl Harbor happen, a big question is raised: is it OK that Jiro's planes went on to do such terrible things and kill so many people in the war? Does if matter what his art went on to be used for? It's an interesting question to ponder, and one without an easy answer. Miyazaki handles the question tastefully and tactfully. While he doesn't give an entirely clear answer, he does show Jiro making planes because he loves doing it. It shows him making the planes, not with malicious intent, but because it's been his passion since childhood, and there's nothing he'd rather do. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we see Jiro in a dream with his hero Giovanni Caproni as he walks across the wreckage, and laments how not a single plane came back. Insensitive? Definitely, but it's nonetheless important to recognizing the character's motivations.
It's also a scene that debunks most of the criticism thrown at the movie from the Japanese audience. Many people claim that it glorifies the war and the man who made these deadly weapons, but I feel like this is a shallow argument. It's not glorifying the war, it's merely using it is a vehicle through which it can tell this story about imagination and the creative process. Pay no attention to the comments; it's meaningless criticism.
However, even if it's not in any way glorifying war or killing, Miyazaki doesn't opt for the other extreme either, in saying that Jiro is a perfect man. In the end, Miyazaki doesn't give a clear answer to the main question, because, well, there isn't one. I feel like interpretations of the film will differ as more people watch the film and make their own opinions, but I see it as follows: the Second World War was, obviously, one of the worst periods in human history, and these Zero Fighter Planes killed many people, but it is nonetheless difficult to censure a man who is portrayed as only creating these to satisfy his passion. He knows that it's going to the war --he even builds it with the thought of catching up to other countries' far more sophisticated technology in mind, but to color him in with thick "bad guy" strokes isn't right either, at least not in my eyes. Of course, while other people might look at this as a cautionary tale about what happens when you don't realize the consequences or something like that, this is what I think Miyazaki was aiming for, and I think that's a sensitive, yet still satisfying, way for him to answer the question.
Yet, for a metaphorical movie to work, it has to also be interesting while keeping the themes and symbolism out of mind. The Wind Rises passes with flying colors. It has great characters, a protagonist who's really likable and interesting and doesn't even come close to succumbing to Shia LaBoeuf, "I'm an artist!"-syndrome. It has a romance that's beautiful and sweet, while still retaining a bite, and it has the most beautiful animation. Though Miyazaki was most certainly attracted to the themes of creativity, it's still clear he's very interested in telling the story of Jiro, too. It isn't hiccup-less (the beginning of the romance is a bit odd, even Disney-fast), but that doesn't matter. I'm so relieved that The Wind Rises is as good as it is.
Posted on 5/08/14 11:42 AM
Your enjoyment of the Amazing Spider-Man 2 is based solely on how well you can accept the fact that it is a cartoon. Not just any cartoon, but a sophomoric, often awkward and dishearteningly dumb one. Marc Webb's Spider-Man films were meant to be the grittier, more realistic take on Spidey, but, no, it isn't. If anything, it's just as goofy as Sam Raimi's films.
In this follow up to the 2012 film, Peter Parker has to face three of his greatest foes yet: The Green Goblin/Harry Osborn, Electro/Max Dillon and The Rhino/Aleksei Sytsevich. From these dreadful foes, Peter has to keep his girlfriend Gwen Stacy safe all the while doing further research about the mysterious disappearance of Mr. and Mrs. Parker.
Before the film was released, many people did suspect that there would be one too many villains, and they would be a problem for the film. This does happen. Although Aleksei Systevich only gets a couple of minutes of screen time (and even fewer minutes as The Rhino), one still gets the sense that, with three villains and two climaxes, the movie is stuffing two films' worth of substance into one movie. This makes the movie feel overlong, and consequently the second climax with the third villain isn't as interesting as it could have been. Dane DeHaan as the Green Goblin is trying to channel Heath Ledger's Joker performance, but falls desperately short. Electro as the menace who isn't menacing isn't a very good villain, no matter how much CGI is thrown at him, but, then again, his musical theme is great and Jamie Foxx is eminently likable making Electro OK, I guess. The one villain, however, who is genuinely fantastic is The Rhino, thanks to Paul Giamatti's hysterical, intentionally hammy performance. He wouldn't work as a main villain, but what we get of him is brilliant. However, his unfortunately short 15 minutes of screen time aren't quite enough to solve the villain problem or any other problems the villains might cause.
The main problem with the film, however, isn't the villains, but its cartoony nature. Of course, it must first be made clear that Spider-Man has to be a goofy hero. His humor is a major component of his personality, and one of the traits that makes his transition into superhero more interesting and what makes him so endearing to his biggest fans. I don't have a problem with the movie trying to be a cartoon. What's problematic is the movie's dumb attempts at being funny and goofy, which only make the silliness feel more forced and uncomfortable. Ultimately, it's what brings the movie down. When it's funny, it's great. However, what happens more often than not is the movie doesn't get laughs and it's simply awkward. It's really fun to see Spider-Man playfully taunt Aleksei Systevich when he's in this moment of such heightened criminal intensity, and that makes for a memorable sequence. It's thus disheartening to see the movie settle for "web pulls down man's pants" jokes or the like.
Outside of often not being very funny at all, the movie is often completely Looney-Tunes like in how exaggerated everything is. Again, being exaggerated can be really fun, but when most of the cast and crew are unaware of how silly everything is, as they are here, it isn't. Dane DeHaan plays the Green Goblin completely seriously and, with his pointy teeth and gel-heavy hair that are decidedly funny, this makes the scenes with the Green Goblin an unintentional vacuum of credibility and menace.
The movie is at its best, however, when it's obvious the actors know how hammy everything is. For instance, as I said earlier, Paul Giamatti is absolutely brilliant. Knowing Giamatti from his subtle work like Miles in Sideways, watching him play a Russian mobster who only speaks in yells is riotously funny. Let's all pray he returns for The Amazing Spider-Man 3. Unfortunately though, not enough of the actors are having as much fun as he is.
Then, there are also moments when the audience has no idea how to feel. Does the director know how goofy this is? Is this supposed to be serious? I think it's intentional but I'm not sure? Many of the scenes with Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon come off this way, especially one particular scene involving a conversation with Spider-Man that I'm not going to spoil. It goes from funny, to confusing, to flat out awkward.
Outside of its goofiness, however, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does do a lot right. For one, Andrew Garfield is absolutely perfect both as Peter Parker and Spider-Man. He captures the playfulness of the character, but in the right way. He isn't unintentionally silly or awkward; he's downright funny, and his shtick provides the film with its very biggest laughs. At times his delivery of the dramatic lines is a little off, but it's forgivable when you see his humor and confidence.
Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy is also very good and her character is so much more interesting than Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane. Plus, she shares a lot of chemistry with Andrew Garfield saving the romantic scenes from the wretchedly unsubtle writing and at times young-adult level direction (by "young-adult direction," I mean scenes with the music swelling and close-ups on the lovesick character, yadda yadda yadda). But, because of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield, it works!
Furthermore, even though it takes a really, really long time to get there, the climax is quite good. It goes on far too long and there are of course numerous preposterous scenes and moments that completely fall flat, but in spite of all that it is genuinely thrilling. For one, it's really pretty with the bold blue and red of Spider-Man and Electro and, of course, Spider-Man flying (it's supposed to be swinging on spider-webs, but, no, it's flying) is really well shot and great to look at. It's a CGI fest, but undeniably a pretty one. Secondly, the cartoony nature of the movie gives for some fun locations of fighting and there are some fun, albeit completely goofy, moments. For instance, the second climax takes place in a clock tower. A clock tower! The Great Mouse Detective did that! How great is that?! Even if many flaws can be poked at the climax, I was genuinely invested in what was happening.
The score, however, is a little perplexing. It's done by Hans Zimmer working with The Magnificent Six and Pharell Williams, and this contrast of styles is quite clear. Hans Zimmer's written a score that's far more melodious, orchestral and not tech-oriented than you would come to expect from him - I genuinely thought it was John Powell - but Pharell introduces a rap and dubstep to the film, which really contrasts Zimmer's score. Granted, the theme of Electro (with Pharell's rap and Zimmer's instruments) is fantastic, and how it's used throughout the film is very clever. Elsewhere, however, it's bizarre. There's even a scene where The Blue Danube is playing, and then dubstep interrupts it, but Strauss doesn't stop, so the dubstep just gets louder and louder, and etc. I imagine this is what it was like in the recording studio.
All things considered, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is very disappointing. There are many good things about it, and it is occasionally pretty funny, but, ultimately, it doesn't work. It goofiness is good when it's not being treated too seriously, but most of the time it falls flat. It doesn't realize how funny it is when it's being serious, and it doesn't realize how unfunny it is when it's trying to make us laugh. The writing is cliche, it's really long, and, in the very worst sense of the word, it is 100% cartoon.
Posted on 4/17/14 04:40 PM
While watching The Lone Ranger, Gore Verbinski's latest Johnny Depp collaboration, a number of thoughts go through your head. Time and time again you find yourself asking the questions: "who's that again?", "is that supposed to be funny?", "huh?", "would that work in real life?" and of course the ever popular "how much longer is this movie?!"
The movie tells the story of how a normal policeman, John Reid, became the famous, masked Lone Ranger. But against that background there's so much extra story that is very tricky to summarize. John Reid befriends and becomes co-legend of justice with Tonto, who's kind of a Comanche Indian, but not technically since he lost their trust. Tonto wants to become part of the Comanche again, and tries to join their war with Tom Wilkinson's character who wants to build a railroad on the Comanche land. Meanwhile, Butch Cavendish is an evil murderer (specifically of Indians) whom Tonto and John hate, for murdering many Indians as well as Dan Reid, John's brother. I also think John Cavendish is trying to start a war with the Comanche, but don't quote me on that. And, lastly, John Reid has to save his brother's wife because he's in love with her too, a plot point which makes you sit up, scratch your head and yell "WHAT?"
The story is obviously a completely bubbleheaded, scatterbrained, dingdonged mess, but even if that doesn't work the movie could still have been enjoyable in the guilty pleasure sense if the action was fun, but it isn't. While the action is surprisingly well shot, there is no suspense to be found. We are told time and time again that John Reid is a "spirit walker" and that he can not be killed. But what the movie doesn't tell us is that if he can't be killed, why ever should we care what's happening to him? If he's being shot at or riding a horse on top of a train, there's no suspense because we know he's going to get out of it OK. And even ignoring that little tidbit, The Lone Ranger's action is beyond ridiculous. I'm perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief, but there is a limit and horses running across rooftops faster than the train they're chasing (!) before heroically jumping ten meters onto said train, crosses that limit.
It also never seems to know what tone it wants, and this can be said about the whole movie,not just the action scenes. I blame this on the director Gore Verbinski, who's clearly trying to recapture the sense of fun from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but also trying to give it a sense of drama about the Comanche Indians losing their land. He never seems to know how seriously he wants to take his movie. As a result, we get a massacre of Indians followed up by a shot of a horse sitting on a branch like a bird, and Johnny Depp making a little quip about it. Some of the humor is really, really bad. As in, "horse pooping on owner's head" bad.
And of course it doesn't help that the actors aren't very good at comedy, at least not in this case. I like Armie Hammer and he's really great as the Winklevi in The Social Network, but as the Lone Ranger, he feels so awkward. He's miscast and isn't given anything to do. I also really like some of the other actors like Tom Wilkinson and Helena Bonham Carter, but they really shouldn't have signed onto this at all.
Johnny Depp, however, is at an all time low. I really like Johnny Depp (his performance in Ed Wood is hard to beat) but his shtick has gotten so tired. He now has six of these quirky, extremely made up characters. But even amongst his Johnny Depp friends, Tonto is one of the more boring Depp performances. He's simply lost his comic timing. I of course don't blame this entirely on Depp, the script and direction have large parts to do with it, but nonetheless, Tonto, with his silly accent and over the top personality, is no Jack Sparrow.
But worst of all, The Lone Ranger is boring. It drags and drags and drags. There's a lot of action in it, but in its 149 minute runtime, a devastatingly large chunk of it is taken up with awkward, clumsy and flat out dumb conversations. And it's so easy to zone out when you have no idea what the hee-haw everybody's talking about. It's long, it drags and it's 140 minutes long.
As for the score, I genuinely think that Hans Zimmer wasn't really trying, though I don't mean that as a negative comment, in fact, on the contrary. Based on interviews and such, I get the sense that Zimmer was far more invested in his dramatic work from this year, like Rush or 12 Years a Slave, which I think is cool. But the score is actually alright, with a really fantastic climax, in the form of Geoff Zanelli's arrangement of William Tell Overture which is all kinds of fun. The main problem, though, is that it sounds a lot like his scores for Rango and Sherlock Holmes, which of course isn't what you're looking for in a musical score.
Whichever way you look at it, The Lone Ranger is a bad movie. It's long, ridiculous and comedically braindead. Its tone is all over the place and even with an OK climax, it bores the whole way through. It presents Gore Verbinski trying to mix the best parts of Rango with the best parts of The Pirates of the Caribbean, but instead getting the worst parts of both. It's a flat out ugly movie!
Posted on 4/17/14 11:04 AM
How can a movie with such a well-respected director, A-list cast, and fascinating story end up being so dreadfully boring? That was the question I was asking myself as I exited The Monuments Men, a film that starts out with so much promise, but ended up making me twiddle my thumbs and long for the two hour runtime to finish. It is a dull, disjointed, and entirely witless movie, that, in spite of some redeeming aspects, provides a terrible disappointment for the viewer.
Though the film changes several details (like the characters' names), Monuments Men is based on a fascinating true story about an angle of World War II that often goes overlooked: the attempt to save the world's culture and art that was at risk of theft or destruction. The group of people that set out to do this - nicknamed the Monuments Men - were a group of art historians and museum personnel who, though unfit for duty as a soldier, were passionate and motivated to stop Hitler and save the art. This film focuses on 7 of the roughly 400 Monuments Men (the others are never shown or even acknowledged), as they throw their lives on the line to save our beloved masterpieces.
That's a terribly interesting story, but it unfortunately falls flat. I attribute most of the film's problems with the writing and directing (Clooney did both, though Argo producer Grant Heslov co-wrote). It just isn't very good. The film was pushed back because Clooney was having trouble with the tone of the movie, and it still isn't very well handled. The movie doesn't really seem to know what it wants to be: a cheerful, escapist caper film or thought-provoking drama about World War II. And as a result, we get bright, happy scenes where everybody's smiling, jarringly contrasted by dramatic frowns and tears. It's quite distracting, and, worst of all, neither tone is well handled. For one thing, the drama is schmaltzy. The dialogue, the music, the direction; it all feels so heavy-handed. Especially one scene with Bill Murray, involving the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which makes all the characters sit down and cry and contemplate the war. It's awfully syrupy. But on the other hand, you have the light, old-fashioned comedy, and that doesn't work well either! No matter how jokey it gets, the movie never truly feels fun. It lacks that natural feeling of warmth and cheerful jumpiness, and it ends up feeling all too calculated. Also, the jokes aren't too funny, and this doesn't help at all. The witty banter between our characters, and light and silly comedic routines all fly by with little reaction from the audience. Nothing truly has you groaning, but for a comedy, what we have is not enough.
Also, the movie constantly feels the need to interrupt the story in order to explain the movie's themes and plot points. There are whole conversations just establishing what the audience should already know. The themes are also spoon-fed. One theme of the movie is whether or not it was worth it to risk these people's lives just to save art, and though this is a perfectly alright theme, Clooney delivers it terribly unsubtly. It's constantly brought up through speech, and not images: at the beginning of the film Clooney says 'remember, your lives are more important than any piece of art,' but then later in the film he's asked if he still has that opinion, and we learn that 'no, art is indeed greater than us.' Having themes, plot points and characterization so blatantly delivered through monologues and dialogue is simply lazy filmmaking.
That's not the only way in which the movie's storytelling misses the mark, though. Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is its pacing; The Monuments Men is a disjointed and dreadfully choppy film. It does not flow at all, and there's no time to let the audience soak anything in. Individual scenes might be interesting, but when they're surrounded by entirely different episodes of the story, they quickly fade in memory. Episodic truly is the word.
But, still individual parts are good. Clooney is entirely decent at directing action, and the set pieces of the film are reasonably exciting. Also, some of the characters have memorable rapports with each other, like Bill Murray and Bob Balaban's characters, who have some entertaining scenes together.
Also, no matter how choppy or unsubtle the story is, it's still very interesting. It might not be told all that well, but parts of it do undeniably shine through. I do want to learn more about the mission that these people went on, and some scenes that we get in the film do show a quite excellent movie struggling to get out, highlighting just how interesting this film could have been with only a couple of rewrites.
And also, as expected, the actors are great and very likable. Even when the script doesn't really flesh them out, the actors give us enough reason to care about them. I would argue that Matt Damon is the star of the movie, and he's definitely quite good. It's not a very difficult role at all, but he's perfectly decent in it. The movie also stars John Goodman (lovable as ever), Jean Dujardin (carrying that same charm he showed in The Artist) and Bill Murray, being the same glorious Bill Murray as ever. Also, Cate Blanchett plays Claire Simone, inspired by Rose Valland, the spy who voluntarily recorded details of art stolen by the Nazis, and Blanchett's definitely quite good, even though her French accent is at times alarming, and frequently switches from very strong, to less so. In terms of acting, though, I'd say the one weak link is Clooney, who won't stop grinning or bobbing his head back and forth. It gets a bit obnoxious after a while. Other than that, though, the acting is very strong, and manages to keep the film from collapsing entirely.
Also, though unspectacular, the score by Alexandre Desplat of Fantastic Mr. Fox fame is perfectly decent. It might not rank near the top of Desplat's ever-expanding collection of work, but there are some very strong musical moments, and the film's theme is actually quite nice.
But in spite of all the good that the film has, The Monuments Men never amounts to anything much. It's simply a dull movie, and one that wastes its fascinating subject material. And this is a terrible shame.
Posted on 4/17/14 11:04 AM
Most every year, there is one crowd-pleasing, very accessible movie that gets lots of critical acclaim and awards attention. Last year there was Silver Linings Playbook, before that we had The King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, and I would even say that in the 2012 Oscars we had The Help (and yes I will fight you about that). This year, though, to the surprise of many, it was Philomena, Stephen Frears's new movie, that got the Academy's vote as crowd-pleaser of the year, over the ever popular Saving Mr. Banks, which they seemed kind of cold to. So, does Philomena deserve this love? I think so. Although it isn't quite as good as Saving Mr. Banks, Philomena is still more than good enough . It's obviously not a great movie, and it is very much that typical crowd-pleasing film, but nonetheless, as a member of the crowd, I can proudly say that I was pleased.
Based on a true story, this movie follows Philomena Lee and her adventure with Martin Sixsmith, a British journalist and Russian history enthusiast. We are told that Philomena got pregnant as a teenager but had her child taken away from her by the 'evil nuns' as they are jokingly referred to in the film. Sixsmith agrees to help Philomena find her son and write an article about it that will bring to light all the awful things that happened to her . So, thinking that her child - Anthony Lee as she called him, or Michael Hess as he was named by his adopted family - is in America, Martin and Philomena travel there to find him.
Though this is a good film, there is one big problem with it. And it isn't the anti-Catholicism message, which I frankly believe people are way overreacting about (yes what the nuns did is terrible, but it's not an attack on a whole religion! It's nothing to get offended about!). I don't mind that aspect at all. Instead, I don't like the portrayal of the title character. Not so much in the end of the film, but definitely in the beginning and even in places in the middle, one gets the feeling that the writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope are poking fun at her. It's a very cynical portrayal of Philomena, but not cynical in the way that British directors, writers and comedians have pulled off so well in the past. And when you get this impression, it takes a lot out of the film. It sounds like a petty, silly complaint, but I feel like they should have respected their characters more, because the film comes off as a little bit mean, and that's not something I want in my movies. I do seem to be alone on this, though.
But she does improve as a character, and you do start to care for her. You've liked her as a person the whole way, but it's not until later in the film that the rude writing goes away. There aren't a whole lot of other characters, but those that there are are quite good. Obviously Martin Sixsmith is the other main character, and he's quite fun. He gets some wickedly funny lines, and Steve Coogan is a very likable actor. Sean Mahon has very little screen time and hardly even says a word as Anthony/Michael, but he and his character make a big impression. The nuns however are pretty flat characters without much dimension, but they're hardly in the film. And I highly, highly doubt that Stephen Frears put them in to get a message of anti-Catholicism across.
However, it's not the evil nuns, but Sean Mahon and his character's relationship with Philomena that is definitely the emotional core of the movie, and this core is very affecting. Interestingly though, the dramatic attention of the film is given entirely to Anthony and Philomena, leaving the relationship between Sixsmith and Philomena not for tear-jerking, but entirely for the film's thematic and comedic elements. Yes parts of the drama are cliché, but when the movie tries to get you to cry, you hear snivelling in the cinema very quickly. This movie is the definition of bittersweet, but I think that when done right bittersweet-ness can be one of the most affecting angles of drama to put in a story. And here it is done right! It's very well handled by director Stephen Frears, helmer of The Queen, which is actually one of my favorite movies of all time. The directing of Philomena is obviously not as good, but it's still impressive. His directing here is very simple and understated, but that's a good thing. He lets the scenes fly with some nice, but not flashy, cinematography, and good, but not attention-grabbing editing. He lets the writing and actors do most of the work, and this is not lazy, but admirable.
But this film is also part comedy, and though the humor is alright, it's not as succesful as the drama. Some jokes are hysterically funny, others are OK, but some are actually really bad . Most of the great jokes come from Steve Coogan's mouth, who's very good at delivering comedic lines, but there are also some big laughs coming from Judi Dench . There are admittedly some gags that make you wonder however they got past the first phase of script editing (what was up with the 'do you believe in God' exchange?), but there are enough laughs to counter the groans, and the cinema was often erupting with loud guffaws.
Finally, the score by Alexandre Desplat works okay, but it really isn't that memorable. For instance, it definitely can't hold a candle to his masterpiece of a score from last year, Moonrise Kingdom (why do so many people dislike that score?). This score isn't bad, it just really follows the motions without doing much different. Especially Martin's theme which just blares 'CLICHÉ CHARACTER THEME' at the listener. It has some fine tunes I guess, and I do like the choice of instruments, but on the whole it's not as memorable as some of Desplat's other work.
Even though Philomena starts off really shakily and stays that way for rather too long, it improves. It's a very bittersweet story, with finely tuned performances, good laughs and a nice central theme. It has nothing to it that screams theater experience, but if you're looking for an undemanding but ultimately rewarding film, it's fine to check out on DVD.
But, still, could the Academy find nothing better to nominate for Best Picture? No Inside Llewyn Davis....? Oh well. Never mind.
Posted on 4/17/14 11:04 AM
The poster could have nothing but the words "Christopher Nolan's New Movie" and it would still gross a billion dollars.