Wednesday, December 28, 2016
One of the first things I learned about being a director is the main role that one must serve - to lead the actors into giving the best possible performance they can. Whether that is providing proper motivation, being their best critic or their best friend, a directors' first duty is to the actors. And while that role has expanded to encompassing nearly every aspect of filmmaking, the sign of a good director does ultimately come back to how well one can direct the actors.
Half of a great performance comes from the actor. The other half comes from the direction.
I bring this up because "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" has the same director as 2014's "Godzilla," Gareth Edwards. "Godzilla" is an great comparison piece to "Rogue One," since many of the same strength and weaknesses are present in both movies, evident by the same filmmaker.
In my initial review of "Godzilla," I talked about I adored the size and scope of the monsters and overall terror that Godzilla presents, but that the only notable performances were from Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe. Since then, my feelings have expanded to feeling that most of the human scenes were forgettable after Bryan Cranston's character is killed, but that the monster scenes were handled fantastically even though there weren't many of them.
After watching "Rogue One," I am convinced that Gareth Edwards is a master of handling size and scope to provoke awe and wonder, but his ability to direct actors leaves a lot to be desired. Unlike "Godzilla," which had many accomplished actors in it, "Rogue One" is lacking in that department (continuing the trend of Star Wars by hiring mostly unknown actors for their leads), and thus any good performances rely on the ability of the director. Unfortunately, we get some lackluster performances in "Rogue One" that involve a lot of staring off into nothing and lack of emotion.
Set after the events of "The Revenge of the Sith," the Intergalatic Empire now rules over most of the known galaxy with an iron fist and lots of blasters. The Empire wants to make sure there is no hope of defeat, even from the small group of rebels attempting to thwart their plans, so they begin work a super weapon that'll destroy an entire planet - the Death Star.
When the rebels stumble across the daughter of one in charge of constructing the Death Star, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), they use all of their connections to find out exactly what the Empire is planning and to find Jyn's father, Galen (Mads Mikkeleson). They construct a small team of rebels, including Captain Andor (Diego Luna), a former Imperial cargo pilot (Riz Ahmed), a converted Empire droid who has developed a sarcastic personality and a blind warrior who believes in the force (Donnie Yen).
Like in "Godzilla," this film is impressive when it comes to size and scale of the monster, in this case the Empire. Other than Imperial flags flying everywhere and Stormtroopers lurking around every corner, the Star Destroyers and Death Star dwarf everything in else in the film. There's a shot of a Star Destroyer hovering an entire city, casting everything in shadow. You really get the impression that the Empire is in control of every last corner of the universe and that makes the challenge of overcoming this threat seem all the more impossible for our heroes.
This is also the most beautifully shot Star Wars film so far, with a lot of the shots lingering on the backgrounds of these alien worlds. One of the opening shots is an orbital descent into this beach-like world with massive ring around the planet, and we spend what feels like three minutes watching the waves roll up and see the ring high in the sky. Or the aforementioned shot of the Star Destroyer lingering over the city. Some of the more memorable shots in "Rogue One" rely less on CGI and more of a natural beauty that I feel gets taken for granted.
So while the size of the Empire is on full display and the film takes full advantage of great backgrounds, the biggest complaints I have with "Rogue One" are the characters and the pacing. Outside of Jyn Erso, I don't remember any of these characters names, which is not a good start for these people when you can't even remember their names, let alone their personalities. These are the characters that are supposed to inspire hope in a task that seems impossible, and most of them can hardly show any emotion.
Part of this problem is the acting from our two leads, Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, who remain stoic and emotionless throughout most of the film, so focused on the task at hand that they don't take any joy in anything. Contrast this with the first Star Wars film where Luke, Han and Leia are in a similar situation, yet Luke is constantly thrilled by this exploration of space, Han is using his charm and wit to outsmart everyone and Leia is less than thrilled by the escapades of her rescuers. Those three were having fun with their performances, despite constantly being on the run and having a gun pointed at you every second.
Like Aaron-Taylor Johnson's performance in "Godzilla," the lead roles in "Rogue One" do very little with their performances that it teeters on boring. Everything the Empire throws at them is mostly meet with a blank stare.
But there are some memorable characters in "Rogue One," like their robot buddy K-2SO, who always says what's on his mind and isn't afraid to back sass the decisions of his superiors. He was the biggest source of comic relief, a nice change of pace from the other droids we've had in Star Wars. Also, Donnie Yen's blind warrior was different enough from any Star Wars character I've seen yet still enriched with lore, since he is devoted to the ways of the Force and constantly chants his mantra. Yen is a skilled martial artist, having previously displayed his talents in the "Ip Man" film series, and he uses his talents here as well, giving a fun hand-to-hand combat sequence between him and a gaggle of Stormtroopers.
Outside of those two and a kick-ass scene involving Darth Vader, I don't remember much about these group of rebels.
The other problem with "Rogue One" is its pacing and how long it takes before events are set into motion. The film spends the first third hopping from one planet to another, getting little bits of information that ultimately leads nowhere other than to get the whole gang together. It isn't until the rebels become aware of Galen's location that the film begins to move and get interesting, at which point the pacing picks up a bit. By the end, we're left with an exciting climax on a tropical planet that becomes a last stand for the rebels in an attempt to save thousands of lives, but it took a long time before things started getting good.
As such, the pacing for "Rogue One" is all over the map, with the first third moving as slow as a snail, the second part moving at a normal speed, and the climax going at a ridiculous speed to keep up with every character. Honestly, the first half almost feels pointless since it was all there to establish the rebels are trying to get the plans for the Death Star, which we all know because of the first Star Wars movie.
Overall, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" showcases the strengths and weaknesses of Gareth Edwards, both his ability to show how hopeless it is to oppose this threat, and his inability to give his leads proper direction. There are plenty of great moments, battles and characters in this movie, but the journey our heroes take wasn't always captivating. This is certainly not a bad film, but it is not up to the quality of the original trilogy or "The Force Awakens."
Final Grade: B-
Friday, December 16, 2016
Here's something you don't see everyday - A French melodrama with every line of dialogue in song. I give "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" points for being creative and one-of-a-kind, since this is something you never see outside of some plays.
When I say every line of dialogue is in song, I mean every single word. From casual conversations on the street between strangers to deep life-changing conversations on who people should marrying.
The film follows Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), a young girl who lives with her mother in their umbrella store in Cherbourg, as she falls in love with a slightly older man Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) even though her mother forbids her from seeing him. Genevieve only seems happy when she's with Guy but that quickly turns when he gets drafted and will be away for the next two years. Afraid of being left alone, she must decide to wait for him or marry a wealthy jewel salesman.
The story starts out simple enough and turns tragic as it progresses, which makes the operatic music scenes feel far more grandiose. While I can't appreciate the French music offered in this film due to my lack of music knowledge and hardly ever hearing French music before film, I did feel the film benefitted from being done in song.
Without the music, this would have been a run-of-the-mill drama about choosing love and loneliness or happiness and wealth. But Deneuve's performance is enhanced by her singing as her decisions carry more weight when she's pouring her emotions out in song.
Imagine if "The Graduate" was entirely a musical, and you get a pretty good idea what this film is about.
I respect "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" more than I enjoyed it. I won't remember some of the finer points of the plot or even entire characters, like Guy's aunt, but I will never forget the film that was a musical from start to finish.
Final Grade: B-
It is strange that two of the most important movies of all time are also uncomfortably controversial. 1915's "The Birth of a Nation" is the first feature-length film, as it was the first "film" rather than just a short 20-minute picture, yet the film portrays the African American community as evil, soulless barbarians who must be stopped and the KKK are the heroes of the film. Similarly, 1927's "The Jazz Singer" is the first movie to feature sound and active dialogue, yet its main character is a white-male in black-face for most of the film.
But I give "The Jazz Singer" far more leeway than "The Birth of a Nation."
In the 1927 film, Jackie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) is a struggling singer trying to make it make it big outside of being a Cantor. He makes it big when a young woman on Broadway hears him sing and tells him to perform for their latest jazz show, on the condition that sing in black-face and have his name changed to Jack Robin. Much to the dismay of his traditionally Jewish family, with his father believing that he shouldn't sing outside of a Synagogue, Jack takes the job but is disowned by his father.
As I said, this the first "talkie," to which every film between 1928 and now owes everything to. The only scenes that feature any audio though are when Al Jolson is singing, with the rest of the film remaining silent with title cards are exaggerated silent-era acting. While some might find this distracting, "The Jazz Singer" makes it work due to the dual nature of Jack's character living in two different worlds - One filled with overbearing parents stuck in tradition that remains silent, and another that is loud, vibrant and full of life and sound.
It is fitting that the only time we hear Jackie is when he is singing, because that seems to be the only time he feels alive. While this was probably done due to technical limitations and still learning how this whole "sound" thing worked, the choice to go back-and-forth between silence and singing works well for "The Jazz Singer."
Still, there's no denying this film hasn't aged well. The black-face is always off-putting, but understandable for the times since that was a common practice among Broadway performers in the 1920s. I'd say only watch this one if you're interested in film history and wish to witness the first talkie.
Final Grade: C+
Recently, I've done a bit of research on screwball comedies, in particular how to tell the difference between a screwball comedy and a romantic comedy and why screwballs died out. In films like "The Philadelphia Story" and "The Lady Eve," it is the overbearing or controlling woman that dominates the weak and incompetent man, a reversal of the typical gender roles in the 1930s and 1940s.
Movies like "Some Like It Hot" and "Bringing Up Baby" are about mascunlinty being challenged through a comedic battle of the sexes. This thrived because women holding all the power in a relationship was new to Hollywood.
But what truly separates screwballs from rom-coms is this challenge is done almost entirely through heated verbal exchanges, always charged with sexual energy. Film critic Andrew Sarris once described the screwball comedy as "a sex comedy without the sex." All these films came out at a time of strict censorship when filmmakers couldn't show anything related to sex or hold a kiss for longer than three seconds, so they had to get creative by having sex through word play.
If a man and woman can't kiss each other, they'll sass each other.
By doing this, it allowed filmmakers to tell far more riske plots that wouldn't have been picked up normally. Case in point, 1942's "The Major and the Minor." The story follows strong-willed Suzanne Applegate (Ginger Rogers) quitting the New York lifestyle, having tried over 30 jobs in two years and hating them all. She decides to head back to her home in Iowa, only to find out she doesn't have enough train fare. So she dresses up as a 12-year old girl, Susu, to pay half fare and ends up falling into a cabin with Army Major Kirby (Ray Milland), who buys that she is a little girl, but she slowly falls in love with him.
"The Major and the Minor" would not work in theaters nowadays, since it would be portrayed as a romantic comedy and it would be hard to avoid the pedophilia. But since this is a screwball comedy, of course the man is oblivious to the woman's plan or her advances. He doesn't see her as anything more than a child that he can help, the poor dolt.
Director Billy Wilder takes every advantage possible to show that not only Major Kirby is incompotent, but every single man in the movie. Despite trying to be a 12-year old girl, not a single male on the army training base buys the disguise, except for Major Kirby, who is too kind and honest for his own good. Every Private on the base wants a moment alone with Susu, even the ones in committed relationships, to remind her how the Germans conquered the Sudan if you catch my drift.
There are enough twists and turns in "The Major and the Minor" to keep the story from getting dull and more than enough charm in the writing to keep the laughs coming. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay and he gives every line just enough sass without being too obvious or overbearing. My favorite scene is when Major Kirby has to teach Susu about the birds and the bees, due to all the boys hitting on her, and describes her as a lightbulb attracting all the moths and that she needs to learn to turn that lightbulb down a bit, never aware that Susu has probably killed a few moths in her time.
Is this the greatest screwball comedy? No, "Some Like It Hot" and "The Lady Eve" excel at turning the gender roles on their heads and spinning it around a few thousand times, but there is no denying "The Major and the Minor" is hysterical, if not a bit ludicrous, and is engaging because of Wilder's script and the performances of Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, who give two of the most genuine and honest performances I can think of.
Ultimately, the reason the screwball genre died out was because MPAA ratings system and the creation of R-rated films in the 1970s, as well as how modern sensbilities had changed over the years, especially the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Some elements of the screwball are still used in modern films, but the whole point of the screwball comedy is no longer valid with the strict rules of 1930s and 1940s filmmaking no longer in place. Even without those rules anymore, "The Major and the Minor" is certainly a film worth checking out.
Final Grade: A
Sometimes a movie experience is heightened when you imagine yourself in the year the film was released, especially with films that came out forty or fifty years ago. The reason I praised "Arrival" as much as I did was because it came out the same week as the recent U.S. election and it instilled hope and communication amongst all of mankind in a time when that is what audiences needed to hear.
This film, "Fantastic Voyage" might seem kind of drab and ludicrous by today's standards, especially with that title, but think of what movie-goers were dealing with in 1966. Science fiction had already explored the vast reaches of space, the Cold War was at its height, while also being in the middle of the Vietnam War, we were still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy and fight for rights among African Americans was still underway.
Audiences still had "2001: A Space Odyssey" to look forward to, but there hadn't been many sci-fi spectacles for some time. Perhaps the concept of aliens and space exploration had grown tiresome. So instead of going to another galaxy, we would look inside ourselves and see the wonders that our own bodies have to offer.
"Fantastic Voyage" takes place in the far-off future of 1999, when a secret government organization that can shrink anyone and anything to microscopic size for an hour is in danger. One of their leading scientists had recently discovered the key to make the shrinking process last longer than an hour and was attacked by Soviets and put into a coma. The attack caused a blood clot to develop in his brain and it is impossible to remove without killing him. The organizations' solution is to shrink a submarine with a knowledgable crew of doctors, inject it into the scientists blood and travel up to his brain and destroy the clot from the inside with a powerful laser.
This is one of those movies where you shouldn't worry about the finer details, like why the shrinking process only lasts an hour, because there is a lot of fine work being done on what the human body looks like on the inside. The charm of "Fantastic Voyage" comes from imaginative landscapes of the blood stream, the heart, the lungs, ear drums and brain would operate on an active microscopic level and interacting with it. To see this vast black emptiness become populated with blood cells or the many cavities of the heart lay motionless as the submarine navigates its corridors is a colorful and personal journey that lives up to the title.
Imagine "The Forbidden Planet" except it all takes place inside the human body.
My only complaint with "Fantastic Voyage" is the mentality of certain crew members, in particular Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance), when if even the slightest thing goes awry he demands they leave and abandon the mission. Granted, Dr. Michaels may or may not have had alterior motives, but this happens at least three times during the journey. It makes you wonder why he was put in charge of the mission when he is so quick to give up on it so many times.
Overall, "Fantastic Voyage" is a delightfully charming piece of 1960s science fiction. Short on logic and a shallow story, the film easily makes up for it with a tour through the human body unlike anything before or since. There are also plenty of quiet moments where the characters contemplate the genius that goes into creating all life, so there's something here for everyone.
Final Grade: A-
Monday, December 12, 2016
I'm not an avid Harry Potter fan. I was about ten when Harry Potter-mania began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and my mom read the first three books to me and my sisters. I additionally read the fourth book on my own time, then tried to read the fifth but quickly lost interest. When the movies came out, I was interested up to the point where I stopped reading the books, so I only made it through "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which I felt was the best book and the worst movie.
As such, I haven't been interested in anything Harry Potter-related for a long time. But, when I heard that a movie starring Eddie Redmayne set in 1920s America while still being in the Potter universe, I felt this was at least worth a look, since this movie was no longer bound the rules of being an adaptation and could freely explore this magical world.
In 1926, wizard Newt Scamander (Redmayne) travels from England to America with an interesting case full of magical creatures. While making his way through New York City, one of these animals escapes and runs amok in a bank, getting the attention of non-magic user Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and the Magical Congress of the U.S. Through a strange case of mishaps and accidents, Newt's case of mystical animals ends up in Jacob's possession, who unknowingly opens up the briefcase and lets several creatures out and begin to cause mass panic among non-magic users and trouble for the Magical Congress. Now it's up to Newt, Jacob and a pair of magical sisters, Tina and Queenie (Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol) to catch the beasts before they cause too much trouble.
Being someone who doesn't know much about the wizarding world, I went in to "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" with low expectations and ended up having a blast with the film. Part of it was seeing this new area of the sorcery world in New York City, but it still being so foreign and fascinating, as it took place during the 1920s and was filled to brim with a working-class society of elves, goblins and magic, all while trying to hide themselves from the prying eyes of non-magics.
Above all else, this was an adventure-piece through the prohibition era, only now magic is prohibited instead of alcohol. Each of the beasts were unique, with some being beautiful, while others were creative and some were terrifying. Yet none of these beasts were the typical magical beings we all know, like dragons, pixies or centaurs, but instead were snakes that could grow to fit their accompanying space, meaning it could shrink to the size of a tea cup or as big as a house, or an invisible monkey that can see five seconds into the future. So our heroes must rely less on magic and more on their cunning wit.
Which brings up the best part of this film, the characters. Tina was a former agent for the Magical Congress, but performed some questionable actions that got her demoted. Now she's looking for any opportunity to prove herself a worthy witch and uses every opportunity to throw the book in Newt's face. Queenie has a keen ability to read people's minds and flaunts it every opportunity she gets. Think of her as a flapper girl with psychic powers and loves what she does. Newt is a bit of an enigma, as someone who keeps to himself and sees humans as the most vicious and ruthless animals on the planet, finding it easier to socialize with his beasts. Unfortunately, this doesn't give Eddie Redmayne much to work with, as he is mostly staring off into space for most of the film.
But the best character in "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" was the non-magic Jacob. We get a man who is so confident in the ordinary world and then gets introduced to all these unbelievable and extraordinary people and animals, seeing a side of the world he never would have dreamed of. Yet Jacob takes all this in stride, unflinching at the glowing rhino staring him down and unapologetic about the wizarding world. He's like Han Solo, the only ordinary character in a cast full of people with extraordinary abilities and powers. Jacob adds depth, charm and comedy to this film where it desperately needed it and there isn't a wasted scene with him.
I will say that, for a sometimes quirky adventure through New York City as these people track down magical creatures, the film got disturbingly dark at times. There's a subplot involving a non-magic family who spreads to word around town that wizards walk among them and they must be stopped, but then we're told the mother beats all her children to the point of mental scarring. I would not recommend taking children to see this one, since it gets unnecessarily dark at times.
But overall, I really enjoyed "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them" as a fantasy-adventure that never took itself too seriously. The animals were creative, the characters were always charming and it was whimsical to see how magic would have worked in 1920s New York. Going into this film with little knowledge on Harry Potter helped, especially since I always remembered more about the expansive magical world of Harry Potter and not Harry himself.
Final Grade: B
Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Out of all the movies in 2016, "Arrival" has been the most important one to come out. Amid the failed blockbusters, superheroes, sequels and animated films, "Arrival" reminds us that film can be more than just entertainment but a window into the human psyche, showing our flaws as well as our potential.
I went in to "Arrival" expecting a smart flick about what we'd do if aliens ever came to us and decided not to blow us up. Instead, what I got was smart piece about the importance of communication and how time shouldn't stop us from enjoying life. This is less like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and more like "Contact" or the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
But what makes "Arrival" stand out among those is the timing. If this film had come out a month ago, I would have thought it was smart and thought-provoking. But this movie came out the same week where less than half of the American population voted for who would be leading our country, and we ended up electing a man who has no political experience and is already genuinely hated by the American public. A movie about communicating among people and opening up dialogue between nations, speaking of hope for the future, comes at a time when we need that the most.
I saw "Arrival" less than a week after the presidential election ended, and I was terrified about what was coming next and where we would be going. This film helped me realize that we're not alone in all this and that we are in charge of our own future.
This makes "Arrival" not necessarily about the aliens, but about how we treat one another. These aliens send down twelve ships, scattered throughout the planet but at least one near every major power in the world, including one in Montana and another near Shanghai. Each country has a different response to the aliens, with China threatening to bomb the space craft, while the Americans hire linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to communicate with the aliens.
At the base near the space craft, there is a strong military presence, who have large explosives ready to detonate, which more than a few soldiers want to pull off. There is a constant sense of unease about this whole venture, with the trigger-happy military taking charge and the lack of communicating between Earth's nations. This is a logical reaction to unknown invaders, but shows that the governments of the world were not designed to handle alien encounters and so they scurry around like chickens with their heads cut off.
Without giving too much away, there is a drastic shift near the end of the film that changes the entire outlook of "Arrival." I'm not sure I could fully explain the details, since the film is rather vague on what happened, leaving most of it up to interpretation, but I do know that our story of peaceful aliens switches the focus to us.
"Arrival" recognizes that we are flawed frightened creatures who lash out and only think of ourselves, but that we have the potential to be kind and understanding. All we need is a little push in the right direction and shown a bit of compassion to get us moving, and that is exactly what these aliens are doing.
It matches with the films of Denis Villenueve, like "Prisoners" and "Sicario," by taking the indie-vibe but making it feel big and important. His films are less about flashy effects and threats, and more about the danger of those threats and how these characters react to those threats. I don't think "Arrival" would have worked as well if Villenueve wasn't directing, because the human factor is the driving force behind it all.
Overall, if you go see any movie this year, see "Arrival." It may not be big or flashy, but it is important, smart and most of all, hopeful in a time where we need that.
Final Grade: A
Friday, December 2, 2016
The whole reason I checked out this movie was because I noticed who wrote it - Rod Serling, the creator of "The Twilight Zone" and writer of the original "Planet of the Apes." If you've watched enough of "The Twilight Zone," you'd notice that Serling was a poltically-charged man, but also played both sides. He often founds ways to poke holes in both the Republican and Democratic sides, showing the flaws and leading to the side that Serling was always on - humanity.
So when I learned that this man also wrote a movie about a corrupt megalomania general (Burt Lancaster) and his plans to overthrow the President (Fredric March) and take over the United States government, my curiosity was immediately peaked.
"Seven Days in May" was originally a novel, conceived in the middle of the Cold War and the rise of mutually assured destruction via nuclear weapons was at its highest. The idea of both the novel and the film, is that it takes place roughly ten years in the future and the President, being sick and tired of threatened by atomic bombs every day and the end of the human race, signs a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, despite more than 70% of Americans disagreeing with him on that decision, most saying that the Soviets cannot be trusted and would destroy the U.S. at the first opportunity.
The film was also released in 1964, the same year as two other massive Cold War thrillers, one a serious look at the possibility of mutually assured destruction, "Fail Safe," and the other taking that same story and making a comedy of it, "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." "Seven Days in May" was released only a few weeks after "Dr. Strangelove," so it's no wonder this film often goes unnoticed.
Where "Dr. Strangelove" took the hard-edged politcal jargon that would come from an accidental assault on an opposing nation and turned it into petty squabbling about America's impotency, "Seven Days in May" tells it to us straight and in long-form, with all the flowery politics you could imagine. Needless to say, the majority of this film went over my head.
The best scenes were the ones involving Burt Lancaster, who always has a certain intensity that is unmatched. He comes across like he's not even trying to be intense, but every word he says is so drenched in importance and ferocity that you believe in what he's saying. When he delivers a speech about how the President is dragging this country down and how it needs a man like himself to bring it back from the brink, you believe him. Unfortunately, Lancaster is only in a few scenes of the film, mostly near the beginning and the end.
Additionally, Fredric March plays a great contemplative President living in a difficult time to be President. Kirk Douglas also has a leading role, playing a subordinate to Lancaster who finds out about his plans to take over and alerts the President. Douglas plays a subdued role in this film, which is different from his usually vocal and intense roles in films like "Ace in the Hole" and "The Bad and the Beautiful."
Overall, "Seven Days in May" is worth a look if you want to see Rod Serling at his most political. It is an interesting tale of a man with power who feels that his leaders aren't doing their job and wants nothing more than take that power away from them. It does get bogged down in politics that most people won't understand, myself included, but it balances that out with some great performances.
Final Grade: C
Thursday, December 1, 2016
It seems we now have a pattern with Marvel movies - More of the same, except with entirely different characters learning about whole new worlds.
That may seem confusing, but take a look at the many heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - Tony Stark, Thor, Peter Quill aka Star Lord, Scott Lang aka Ant-Man and now Stephen Strange. All of these characters have the same defining characteristics - Ego-driven, self-absorbed, often feel like the weight of the world rests on their shoulders alone, and think of themselves as indestructible or unstoppable. To these heroes, the world is theirs for the taking because they are the best at what they do.
Of course, over the course of their films these hot heads learn to temper their ego-mania, some more than others (Iron Man's biggest strength still seems to be pride in himself), but "Doctor Strange" is the first one of the Marvel films to outright say that having too much of an ego can be a bad thing. Heroes like Thor and Star Lord learn about humility, teamwork and trust, but Stephen Strange mainly learns that he is not the center of the universe and never will be. Most of the movie is Stephen coming to terms with that knowledge, and thus his ego-driven persona is mostly gone by the end of the film.
I appreciate this approach to Stephen Strange's character, as it gives us more of the lovable pricks we've come to expect from Marvel films, while also taking it in a new direction and giving us a character that learns from his mistakes. Out of all the Marvel films, Stephen has the most growth as a character, changing from a Sherlock Holmes-like surgeon who dances to music during an operation into a patient, logical sorcerer who would rather talk his way out of a situation instead of resorting to violence.
In "Doctor Strange," we learn of a whole new side of this world, one devoted to magic and sorcery. When Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is in a terrible car accident, his once expert surgical hands are reduced to shaking husks of their former selves, ruining Stephens' career. He spends his vast fortune looking for a cure, but nobody can fix the injuries in Stephen's mind. With nothing left to lose, he spends the last of his money on a one-way trip to Nepal, with the promise that a being known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) can heal him, and introduce Stephen to his true destiny.
Once again, Marvel is pitch-perfect with their casting decisions, especially with Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton in "Doctor Strange." Cumberbatch nails the ego of a surgeon who can pick his patients (just like another self-absorbed genius Benedict has played in the past), while still capturing the whimsy and curiosity of learning about this magical world. His American accent can be hit-or-miss sometimes, but I couldn't see anyone else playing Doctor Strange.
Tilda Swinton, while stirring up controversy by playing a character that has historically been an Asian male, still does wonders for this role. Swinton is one of the few actors who is so ambiguous about her roles, mostly because she is so ambiguous herself. Her approach is "less is more," leaving a lot of mystery and intrigue about her characters. Now she's playing a character that has supposedly lived for thousands of years through some unknown dark magic, yet still seems to be in tune with the evolving world around her. So while the role should have gone to someone else, I'm glad it went to Swinton, because we got a cryptic performance out of her.
But my favorite character in "Doctor Strange" was certainly Stephen's cape. This little guy is a sentient piece of cloth, yet gets more character than Rachel McAdams does in this film. He saves Stephen's life on more than one occasion, including slamming a guy's face repeatedly into the ground. He has no lines of dialogue yet develops this strange friendship with Strange. The cape is like the magic carpet from "Aladdin," in that they both have a lot to say, but have no way of saying it.
The visuals for "Doctor Strange" are mind-bending and something I've never quite seen before. One of the best scenes in the film is a chase between Strange and the villains through New York City while the space around them is constantly being warped and twisted, like being inside of a kaleidoscope. This chase sequence is unpredictable and relies less on hand-to-hand combat and more on outsmarting the opponent and the landscape. Certainly one of the most visually appealing Marvel films to date.
However, outside of all this, there isn't much else to "Doctor Strange." The story is predictable, the villains aren't special (even casting Mads Mikkelsen as the antagonist Kaecillus didn't save that), the comedy is forgettable and the film doesn't get interesting until the final act when the villains plans become clear. The film is devoid of the usual Marvel charm, though there are some attempts to inject humor and light-hearted ribbing into this dark story, even if it doesn't always work.
So while there are parts of "Doctor Strange" that are enjoyable, overall this one of the weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is nice to see ego-driven know-it-all taken down a peg, unlike other Marvel entires, as well as some great performances from Cumberbatch and Swinton, this one doesn't stand out to me. But it is something far different from what Marvel has done in the past, which does make it worth your time.
Final Grade: C+
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
It has come to my attention that, while the overwhelming majority thought "Shin Godzilla" was a solid film that blended the terrors of giant monsters with the triumph of overcoming them, while also paying loving tribute to the films that came before it, there are some who were thrown off by the film in many ways. Some hated the cast of thousands that had no development and no reason to care for their struggle against Godzilla, while others thought it was filled with too much political discussions and not enough monster action.
But the most common complaint I've heard is that "Shin Godzilla" does away with the traditional style of daikaiju filmmaking, in other words suitmation. In this film, Godzilla is not some guy in a rubber suit, like he was in the previous 28 Godzilla movies, and is instead mostly a computer generated image. In fact, almost all the effects in this film were generated by computers.
Did you know that almost every tank used in the first military confrontation with Godzilla was a CGI creation? I didn't know that until I watched a behind-the-scene clip on YouTube that showed how some of the effects were created, and it went into detail on how the tanks and helicopters were made.
Some people hate that a film style drenched in tradition would forgo all of that and use a modern creation. A style that goes back to the 1950s and was used all the way through the mid-2000s, and it is missing from the latest entry in the Godzilla series.
And while I see where these people are coming from and the importance of sticking to tradition, I don't think "Shin Godzilla" would have been nearly as effective if this Godzilla was a guy in a rubber suit. If anything, "Shin Godzilla" showed the potential of CGI in Japanese monster movies and how you can do things that were never possible before.
Let me ask you a question - Before "Shin Godzilla," what was the most recent big daikaiju movie that came out? In Japan, Godzilla hadn't been seen since 2004 in a film that nearly killed the franchise, "Godzilla: Final Wars," Gamera has been missing since 2006 with "Gamera: The Brave," and Ultraman has been mostly limited to television. I bring this up because it shows that daikaiju movies died out around the mid-2000s.
There are plenty of explanations for this, including an overabundance of monster movies at the time, a lack of original stories and far too many retreads, but it was clear that around 2004, box office numbers were declining with daikaiju films and reviews were not great either. Part of this could have been that the CGI seen in other big budget films, like "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "King Kong," were blowing away anything Japanese studios could make and they didn't have the money to compete with the American studios were creating.
With so many films using CGI, we became accustom to that, and got use to filmmakers using that imagery to create things that we could have never seen otherwise. Because of that, audience didn't want to see guys in rubber suits anymore.
Honestly, I don't blame the filmmakers of "Shin Godzilla" for using mostly CGI to create Godzilla. Toho had been using small amounts of CG in the Godzilla films since "Godzilla vs. Destoroyah," as well as every movie in the 2000s. Sometimes it is easier to get Godzilla's size and scale across when you're not bound by a guy in a rubber monster suit.
If you have the technology to do so, why not use it? If you want to get people interested in daikaiju movies again, you've got to find new ways to captivate them.
What I found the most impressive with "Shin Godzilla"'s CGI is how well it complimented the cinematography. There were dozens of shots in this film where you see large-scale camera movement or shots with miles of city-wide destruction. There's one shot entirely out of the side of a car, as it starts pretty far away from Godzilla, but drives closer to him, until its right next to his massive leg and caught in his trail of destruction. Or another shot where all you can only see Godzilla up to his knees, but the camera focuses on the cars and chunks of building that his feet are kicking up as he moves across the landscape.
These shots would have been impossible to achieve if Godzilla was a suit.
I cannot recall much dynamic camera movement in previous Godzilla films. There were a few times where the camera would pan left or right a bit, but the camera was mostly static, especially in the early Godzilla movies. I understand why - they can't move the camera too much because the set isn't that big. But with "Shin Godzilla," all of Toyko is this movies' set.
I was blown away when I got to see Godzilla from so far away and then up-close and personal in the same shot, especially since Godzilla hardly moved in that shot. The camera is so dynamic in "Shin Godzilla" that you could have told an entire story with just the monster clips, and it would have worked out spectacularly. It was breathtaking to see a monster film where the camera movement had no limits.
On top of that, the filmmakers of "Shin Godzilla" set out to give us a Godzilla that benefited from CGI. This Godzilla has tiny skeleton-like hands that couldn't have worked for a suit actor's arms, and a tail that moves more than the rest of the body. He has an insanely long neck, leading to a head that has teeth everywhere, an absurdly large mouth and smallest eyes you can imagine. Not to mention, this is a constantly mutating creäture.
Is this Godzilla possible through suitmation? Sure, anything is possible, in fact there are a few shots in "Shin Godzilla" where they used a large puppet. They even made a full-body suit for the newest Godzilla. But they mostly stuck with CGI, to keep this Godzilla's bodily exaggerations going.
I don't think a little Godzilla mutating into a bigger Godzilla in the middle of a bustling city would look convincing if done using suitmation.
Which brings us to my biggest point - There are so many things you can do with CGI that would be ridiculous otherwise. I don't doubt the power of suitmation and how clever it can be, fifty years of daikaiju filmmaking prove that, but "Shin Godzilla" proves that using CGI can be as clever. It can be used to give us impossible creatures in realistic settings, and to be combined with cinematography to give us something we've never seen before.
Computer generated imagery has come a long way since its conception. While there were dark days of CG, where it was everywhere and everyone thought they were an expert on it leading us to some crappy action/adventure and fantasy movies, we are now at the point where we can have entirely CG characters interact with real actors and be just as emotionally invested in them as any other character.
Any film that uses CG to make a talking racoon and a tree who are best friends, and make them the most interesting characters in the film is using CGI to its greatest potential.
Because computer generated imagery isn't just a cheap way out of actually creating something. It is a filmmaking tool, just like a camera, lighting and an editing device. It can be used well or poorly, depending on the filmmaker. If you use it badly, it'll stick out the like a sore thumb and break the illusion of cinema. But if used properly, then you expand your landscape and allows you to show the audience more before.
There's no denying the appeal of the classic Godzilla movies, especially for someone like me, seeing those rubber suits and hand-crafted sets, where you can see all the hard work in the construction of the shot alone. The charm of those films may not be present in "Shin Godzilla," but it is replaced by a new charm. One that speaks to the digital age and takes full advantage of using mostly CGI, through cinematography, monster design and atmosphere.
So, with the success of "Shin Godzilla" and its use of CGI, what does all this mean for the future of daikaiju filmmaking? I think that filmmakers are going to become far more clever and find new ways to blend computer imagery with suitmation. Just because one film found success in a new way doesn't mean they'll abandon the old ways. I do think this means we've entered a new era for daikaijus, one of exploration and possibly experimenting with combining styles. And with Toho planning on more Godzilla movies in the future, I am certainly looking forward to what is in store for us.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
What do you do when two rather unlikable yet relatable characters want to kill an irredeemable despicable character? You get a twist thriller where everyone gets what is coming to them.
"Diabolique" is a French black-and-white thriller that has been described "Hitchcock-ian" in the best possible way. And while I see the similarities between this and some of Hitchcock's murder mysteries like "Rope" and "Rear Window," "Diabolique" adds a level of hatred and pity that is absent from most of the Master of Suspense's thrillers, something that I've only found in French filmmaking.
In a normal Hitchcock film, the main characters are there to be the lenses for the audience. They have phobias and wit certainly, but they also don't try to make the audience hate them (unless you're "Vertigo" or "Psycho," in which case that all goes out the window). But with "Diabolique," I couldn't completely relate to those two women, Christina and Nicole, who are both teachers at an all-boys boarding school. Christina is married to the headmaster of the school, Michel, while Nicole is Michel's mistress, and both have come to realize that Michel is a terrible person and they would both be better off if he was gone. So the two begin to formulate a plan to murder Michel and make his death look like an accident.
Christina continually has second thoughts about the murder. She is a devoted catholic and was raised by the church her entire life, but Michel is an abusive spouse who is only after Christina's money. Because of her upbringing, she can't get a divorce without shaming herself for the rest of her life. Nicole, being cold-hearted but understanding of Christina's suffering, convinces her that murder is the only solution.
There is this strange feeling I get with both Christina and Nicole throughout "Diabolique," where I see them as both the heroes and the villains. Technically, they're murdering an innocent man, even though most would say the world would be better off without him. Their reasons for committing such terrible actions make sense and are logically right, yet they are still morally wrong. Nicole and Christina exist in a grey area where you can sympathize with their struggles, yet feel sick that they'd end another life for their own needs.
"Diabolique"'s tension and mystery gets cranked up to eleven during the second half of the film, when the body mysteriously disappears. The murder they had so perfectly planned goes awry when they feel something supernatural happens. Things get even more complicated when students keep claiming they've seen Michel around the school. The terrible deeds of Nicole and Christina will not stop haunting them, which makes that grey area so rewarding as the film progresses.
So while there is a Hitchcock influence in "Diabolique," the moral ambiguity that can only be found in French cinema elevates this film even further. It paints a portrait of three darkened lives trying their best to control everyone around them, and failing miserably at it. This is one of the best thrillers I've seen in a long time, with memorable twists, pitch-perfect atmosphere and satisfying all the tension it was building up to.
Final Grade: A
If you didn't like creepy wax replicas before, you'll be horrified after watching this movie!
"House of Wax" tells the tale of Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price), a man devoted to recreating famous people through wax sculptures, such as Joan of Arc, John Wilkes Booth and Marie Antoinette. Jarrod is so obsessed with this that he even talks to his sculptures, and he claims they talk back to him. He has a museum where everyone can see his sculptures, but business has been slow lately and his business partner demands he do something to bring in a bigger crowd, something that would shock the audience. But Jarrod believes in the natural beauty of his sculptures and he doesn't need to use murder or torture to bring in a crowd.
But the business partner brings up the point that each of Jarrod's wax dummies are insured and that if they burned down the museum the two of them would be rich. Jarrod is against the idea, insisting that these people are his family and brawl ensues. Jarrod is knocked out and the building is consumed with fire. The waxed people begin to melt, their clothes and hair going up in flames and their eyes falling out of their head, and Jarrod is unable to make it out of the burning building.
However, months later, a new wax museum opens up, that showcases terrible murders and grotesque, savage imagery, run by a wheelchair-bound Professor Jarrod, unable to sculpt due to his burned hands.
This was one of the first films to showcase 3-D, with advertisements all over the place claiming that this would revolutionize the way we watched cinema. As such, there are several shots in throughout the film that pander to the third-dimension, such as a street entertainer who uses two paddle balls that he thrusts at the screen.
Outside of those who are afraid of wax statutes and their eyes that always follow you around, "House of Wax" boasts a creepy Vincent Price performance that showcases multiple types of strange. From the first Professor Jarrod, who thinks of his creations as his family and talks to them like they'll answer back, to the revived Professor Jarrod, obsessed with the macabre and treating everyone else like wax dummies, even the living. If anything else, watch this film for Vincent Price's performance.
Overall, "House Of Wax" is a gorgeous horror film, with vibrant colors and an intriguing horror mystery. While most horror films at the time were still in black-and-white, this one takes full advantage of color cinematography. If you're intrigued by how lifelike Jarrod's sculptures can get, especially when those eyes follow you where ever you go, check this one out.
Final Grade: A-
Here we have another one of those movies that began as a romantic novel that take a supernatural turn, like "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." "The Uninvited" is about a brother and sister that buy an old rundown house in England, which turns out to be haunted and the only way to free the ghost is to know what is troubling her.
Like with "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," I can see the appeal of this movie. It has romance, comedy, fantasy, horror all rolled into one and given some charming actors and actresses, like Ray Milland. To be honest, Milland's performance the only part I liked, since he always had a happy-go-lucky attitude about the whole thing. He sells everything he owns in London to by this house, so he can't leave even after finding out the place is haunted. He always has a brilliant smile on his face, not even a ghost can take that away from him.
But clearly, I am not the target demographic for "The Uninvited." This is aimed for young women who don't mind being scared now and then, but also like a bit of romance. It is a by-the-numbers fantasy romance, with some nice atmosphere and fitting music, but it does not have much else going for it.
Final Grade: C
For being a movie led in the same camp as "Dracula" and "Frankenstein," Universal's "The Wolf Man" sure doesn't feel like a horror film. If anything, this comes across as a psychological mystery, where you're unsure if there really is a monster or if it is all in the head of our protagonist, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.).
The doubt about Larry's actions is the driving force behind "The Wolf Man." The titular werewolf only gets about two minutes of screen time, and we never see Larry fully turn into a wolf (the most we get are his legs getting extremely hairy), so the film chooses to cast everything in mystery. Larry wakes up remembering nothing, but there are dead villagers with bite marks. Local doctors and psychologists explain that a man could give into his animal-istic tendencies, especially if he were hypnotized. Perhaps by the passing gangs of gypsies, who immediately run for the hills when they hear a werewolf is nearby.
Larry is an odd character, since he starts out looking through his telescope to find a local girl running an antique shop and runs off to hit on her. He refuses to give up on this girl, even after she turns him down multiple times. Larry shows up after the store closes and takes the girl on a date she didn't agree to. Even after he learns this girl is engaged, that doesn't stop him from hitting on her. Larry starts out as such a sleaze-ball and I couldn't wait for the werewolf to show up.
After he is bitten by a wolf and loses control of his own actions, possibly by the gypsy woman controlling him or by turning into a werewolf, he becomes a bit more sympathetic, since he just wants to understand what's going on and how to put a stop to all this. Lon Chaney Jr. is wonderful for that part of the role, with his big watery eyes and permanent sad face. You can't help but feel sorry for this man. Either that or give him a bone and pat on the head.
This is also the film that established all the classic tropes for werewolf movies. How the curse is spread, the full moon being what causes the transformation, and silver being the key to stopping a werewolf.
Overall, I enjoyed "The Wolf Man," if only for knowing where all these stories of werewolves came from. It was nice to see the introduction to this type of story being played as a mystery and not straight horror, especially since that sets it apart from the other Universal monster flicks.
Final Grade: C+
There was a story a while back, when "Guardians of the Galaxy" was still in theaters, where this guy took his autistic brother to the movie. His brother didn't normally go out to the theater, but he immediately established a connection to Drax the Destroyer because of how the alien reacted to metaphors and expressions, with the one that stuck out being if something were to go over his head, Drax's reaction was "Nothing goes over my head, my reflexes are too fast."
The brother wrote a touching piece towards director James Gunn, actor Dave Bautista and the entire cast and crew of "Guardians of the Galaxy" for creating an action hero that his brother, an in effective everyone with autism, could relate to. Because those with autism have an immensely difficult time relating to other people, as well as film characters. Visual queues and non-verbal expressions are lost on most. So to find a character who is going through the same struggles they are can mean a great deal.
This is why I enjoyed parts of "The Accountant," a film that boasts a great deal of action sequences featuring a character with autism, in particular Asperger's Syndrome. Normally, the main character be as plain as possible, so that everyone in the audience can relate to our hero. Give him some basic struggles, maybe a quirky personality and you're set. But in this film, we get a hero who has a mental illness that can't be overcome with pills or therapy, and is detached from the world around him even though he wants to be apart of it.
Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an autistic genius, raised by a brutal military-oriented father who trained him and his brother to be feared and could beat up anyone who picked on him. As Christian grew up, he took a job as a CPA accountant, but has been secretly running the books for the deadliest organizations in the world. His latest job is a robotics company in the Chicago-area, and his able to unearth some old files that suggest the company is missing millions of dollars, which gets the attention of some hired mercenaries, led by the mysterious Brax (Joe Bernthal).
Meanwhile, the leader of the Treasury Department, Ray King (J.K. Simmons), is about to retire, but wants to use his last few months to track down this mysterious accountant and find out who he is and how he was able to get away with handling the money for the most dangerous people in the world.
Looking back on it, there is nothing spectacular about the story or the action of "The Accountant." The plot follows an expected path, leading to a competent action sequence, which sets up a mystery about who is stealing the robotics company's money, culminating in a poorly-shot action sequence in a dark house where you're not exactly sure what's going on. The plot is, at best, generic for modern-day thrillers, and at worst is tedious and predictable. Outside of the climax, which is handled badly, the cinematography is fine, as it meticulously shows the routine of Christian's life and what happens to him when he deviates from that. These aspects of the film were adequately handled and performed.
The entire subplot with J.K. Simmons' character ultimately goes no where and adds little to the story. There is a touching flashback where Ray King meets the accountant at gunpoint, done mostly in one long take and showcases the acting talent of Simmons, but that's about all his story adds to "The Accountant." The two never meet again, and King's journey of finding this unknown man has no resolution.
Yet, despite all this, I will remember "The Accountant" for a long time, due to how well the film handled the sensitivity of being autistic. There have been films that danced around a character having autism and choosing not to attention to it. There have also been movies that show characters having symptoms of autism, deduced by the audience, but never directly referenced in the movie. "The Accountant" proudly proclaims that its main character is autistic, has difficulty socializing but has increased mental capabilities, doesn't like being touched or having his senses overloaded, and that there's nothing wrong with that.
Christian puts himself in several awkward situations throughout the film, with both his clients and co-workers. He will outright say he hates something about a person's outfit, usually because the other person asked Christian if he liked the outfit and he was only answering honestly, but he is willing to recognize when he might have upset someone and attempts to make the situation better. These people don't treat Christian any differently, as they are mostly trying to understand him and appreciate the work he is doing for them.
There is one scene about halfway through the film, where Christian explains what is happening to his colleague, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), and he tells her about his Asperger's Syndrome, how easy it is to get into a routine and how difficult it is to be broken from that routine and the inability to read people's emotions and connect with them. His last line is what will stick with me - "I have a very difficult time socializing with other people, even though I really want to."
As someone with Asperger's Syndrome, that line hit me hard. This isn't a tortured soul looking to redeem himself or someone out for revenge. This is a man who wants to not be seen for his mental problems, and instead be looked at as a normal person who could be accepted, despite his illness, and be loved like everyone else. All he wants is friends and lasting connections, something very hard to come by for him, even though he tries so hard to make it work.
If anything else, "The Accountant" is for those who have to deal with this on a daily basis. It brings Autism to the front for everyone to see, and shows that they are all wonderful people waiting to be discovered. They may often be blunt or rash, but they are kind and caring individuals that deserve love just as much as anyone else.
Final Grade: B-