Sunday, June 30, 2013

Seeing Is Believing Movie Reviews: "Despicable Me" (2010)

Believe it or not, this is my first time viewing “Despicable Me,” even after so many people I know telling me how good it was. I’ll admit, when I first saw the trailer, I felt like I could predict exactly what would happen. And really, when you know what’s going to occur, why watch it?

Yet, much to my surprise, there were several things that kept me on my toes, mostly done through some of the clever ideas and additions that come out of nowhere. I will admit right off the bat, that I do not regret watching this movie.

Upon someone stealing the great pyramid, super-villain Gru (Steve Carell) is now more motivated than ever to perform the greatest heist by stealing the moon. In order to get funding to achieve such a task, Gru must steal a shrink ray from another villain, Victor (Jason Segal).

After witnessing three little orphaned girls entering Victor’s fortress, Gru decides to recruit these three by adopting them.

As you can imagine, hijinks ensue and Gru must figure out how to balance his plan to steal the moon while learning to be a father for these girls.

Right away, the story isn’t immediately pulling me in. As I mentioned, the trailer tells you every major event of the film. As such, the plot is rather predictable and doesn’t try to do anything too risky. It’s your basic “family vs. work” personal story.

What pushes this film past that calculable story are many of the ideas that it has within the world that it sets up. In particular, the idea of villains and the role that they serve. In this world, “Villain” is apparently a chosen profession. They don’t rule the world, presumably because there are so many of them competing against one another. They just want power and recognition, and really who doesn’t want that?

Not only that, but it goes against the traditional “hero vs. villain” ideology by removing the hero. This world is full of super-villains, but no sign of super-heroes. There is hardly anything stopping these villains from their schemes besides other villains and their own incompetence. This is something that I’ve never quite seen before and it’s an interesting idea to think about: How would the world be different if there was only Lex Luthor or the Joker, but no Superman or Batman?

Also, like so many others, I think the idea of the Minions is both cute and interesting. Each one of those little yellow guys feels wholly unique and they lead to some of the best comedy in the entire film. As a collective, they’re probably the most interesting character in the film in how they will do anything their master tells them, but still find ways to screw it up in the most adorable way.

If I had a complaint about these ideas in “Despicable Me” it would be that they really aren’t explored enough. Things like the super-villain filled world and the Minions really are the driving force of the film, and it comes off like they don’t do nearly enough with them. 

We only get to see about three or four super-villains in the film, when the world is supposedly full of them. What are some other villains like? What do ordinary people think of them? How is the government handling the villains? Is there even a government, or have the villains taken that over? What are some of the other big events villains have pulled off?

These are just some of the questions that the film could have explored in more detail and would have led to an even greater world and understanding of how it works. Yet, the film doesn’t really address any of them. It’s a little disappointing, given that the idea of villain-ruled world is a great concept.

Maybe “Despicable Me 2” and the upcoming “Minions” film will address these ideas in more detail and give us a better idea of the world that Gru inhabits. As it stands though, what “Despicable Me” does with these unique ideas can be a bit underwhelming.

As for the comedy, it’s pretty standard. They play it safe with comedy and try to not do anything too out of the ordinary, which is fine. I wouldn’t expect them to pull a “Ren & Stimpy” with it and do something too far-fetched. There were moments that I giggled at, but nothing too up-roaring. 

If I had to describe “Despicable Me” in one word, it would be “cute.” The minions, the animation style, the three little girls, Gru’s childhood dream of being an astronaut and several moments where Gru develops attachments to his children all scream of cuteness. Moments to make the audience let out a collective “awww.” To be fair, the film does a great job at doing that multiple times. If you’re looking for the cutest group of tiny creatures with big doughy eyes and huge grins, look no further.

All in all, “Despicable Me” kept my attention with its cuteness and unique ideas of super-villains, even if there was so much more that could have been done with it. It has good comedy, good characters and even if the story was predictable it was still effective. Certainly worth checking out at least once.

Final Grade: C+

Friday, June 28, 2013

Seeing Is Believing Movie Reviews: "Videodrome" (1983)

“It seems today that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV.” - Family Guy

As much as this line is used for comedic effect in “Family Guy” and considering how I have an extreme distaste for the approach the show as taken lately, that one particular line said in the opening theme song does have a point.

Many movies and television shows in the last few years have become more about sex and violence, something that was once taboo and is still rather uncomfortable to discuss in public conversation. The reason movies and television are able to get away with it is because the audience (hopefully) knows that what they’re watching isn’t real and can tell the difference between reality and fiction. That it’s merely fantasy that can’t hurt others.

What if the line between reality and fiction was so blurred that it was impossible to tell them apart? That is the main point of David Cronenberg’s 1983 film “Videodrome,” a film that exploits the hell out of sex and violence, but does so to convey a message about where society is going.

Max Renn (James Woods) is the president of CIVIC-TV, a television station that plays material that is looked down upon by most, from soft-core porn to violent torture. Max is looking for a new program to air which will bring in new audience members, and he believes that can come from a show called “Videodrome,” a plotless show is merely torture and murder of a different person every episode.

Max believes this is the future of television and immediately wants to air it on his channel. But as Max begins to watch more of “Videodrome” he begins to get strange hallucinations about torturing a woman he met and an odd hole appearing in his stomach. As Max begins to investigate further, he finds out that there may be more to “Videodrome” than he initially thought.

I should hate this movie. It’s merely gory and seemingly unnecessary violence mixed with disturbing imagery. But I can’t bring myself to say it’s a bad film, because “Videodrome” is a rare example where gore, violence, sex and disturbing images are necessary to the story and world of the film.

There’s a scene early on in the film where Max is on a talk show, discussing what he believes is point of his station. He starts off by saying that his station provides an outlet for many people who can’t find porn or torture any other way (this movie came out in the 1980s, so the internet didn’t exist yet). Max also says that what he does is a positive benefit to society, because he allows his viewers to live out their harmless fantasies or frustrations.

To me, this scene justifies the need for violence and sex and why I’m okay with it’s presence in this movie. That Max is helping society by letting them vent their sexual feelings without it getting in the way during their normal lives. He doesn’t do it for the money or because he just really loves porn and torture, but because this something that everyone experiences and he wants to make it easier for people.

As the film progresses, it becomes more of a cautionary tale about blurring the line between reality and fiction. That it’s easy to confuse the two with the abundance of television and media in our daily lives. Those with a strong moral constitution would be the ones to withstand in society, and the weaker ones would eventually die out.

What I really enjoy about this is how much more effective this message seems in today’s world. Television and social media sites putting out fiction every minute of every day, and often passing it off as the truth. This only blurs that line even more. As television and other media outlets attempt a more realistic approach, we are often left wondering what to really believe in.

If there’s one thing I don’t like about the movie, it would be the ending and how forced it felt. Until the last few confrontations, it was moving at a brisk pace and had a solid yet eerie tone about the uncertainty of events to come. The last few minutes just seem to be there to give some resolution to events that Max goes through. In this particular case, I don’t think resolution of these events needed to be there. With all the hallucinations, I think the ending would have worked better if it was a bit more ambiguous. 

I should also say that this is not a film for everyone. There is much gore, violence and (well crafted) deaths that many people will find disturbing. This film was made by David Cronenberg, who you might know as the director of the 1986 film “The Fly” which still gives me nightmares about some of its images. 

So if you’re not into that at all, then this movie is not for you. But if you enjoy a film that’s more of an interesting sci-fi commentary about sex and violence in our society, as well as a unique but well made narrative (for the most part), then I would suggest checking out “Videodrome.”

Final Grade: B+

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Seeing Is Believing Movies Reviews: "Man Of Steel" (2013)

Let it be known that I have not watched any Christopher Reeves’ Superman movies. The only knowledge I have on Superman comes from the 1990s animated series and a couple other animated movies released over the past few years. As such, I am not an authority on Superman, but then again I’m really an authority on anything. I’m just an audience member with an opinion.

In any case, I have no basis to judge the newest Superman movie, “Man Of Steel,” on when comparing to movies like “Superman: The Movie” (1978) and “Superman II” (1980). I must merely judge the film on it’s own merits. And boy, does this one come out looking boring.

The story follows the tale of Superman, Kal-El (Henry Cavill), of the planet Krypton. As his world begins to implode on itself, his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends baby Kal off into space so that the race of Kryptonians may survive. Kal-El lands on Kansas were he is raised by the Kents and given the name Clark. As he grows older, he discovers that he has fantastic powers. 

Clark must now choose how to use these amazing powers: To help humanity in any way he can and prevent our planet from becoming another Krypton, or to use them for his own gain, much like the Kryptonian army searching for Clark, led by General Zod (Michael Shannon).

This is your basic Superman origin story. It’s safe to say that everyone has at least heard of the Man of Steel and know where he comes from. This film does not tread any new ground, which is fine. Superhero films will often follow the same path many times and have basic plots, yet still turn out as fun and enjoyable rides, like “The Avengers.”

The problem with this film is that it doesn’t really bring anything new to table. “Man Of Steel” plays it far too safe, and as a result becomes predictable in terms of plot and character. We can see the actions of characters like Clark Kent and Lois Lane coming before they even happen.

Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the characters are likable or relatable to make up for the predictable story. Yet the film falls victim to yet another problem: Bland actors. Amy Adams as Lois Lane lacks any sort of charm or wit that would make her character endearing and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, head of the Daily Planet, lacks any sort of emotion in his delivery.

The two biggest offenders of being bland in the movie though belong to Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. I swear, these two never raise their voices above a monotone level and usually have the same emotionless look on their face. Even when Crowe’s character is killed, the look on his face remains unchanged. It’s difficult to get invested and interested in a character that always has the same uncaring attitude throughout the film.

If the actor playing the role doesn’t care about their performance, then why should I?

The only actor who breaks out of this blandness is Michael Shannon as General Zod, who gives a grandiose over-the-top performance. Shannon will constantly scream his lines which is always good for a laugh. Shannon’s role certainly sticks out like a sore thumb amongst everyone else.

Something worth noting about “Man Of Steel” is that the story was done by Christopher Nolan, the director the recent Batman trilogy. 

I can understand why Nolan would help out on this movie. He has proven that he can make a Superhero story and turn it into something that non-Superhero fans care about and would want to see.

Here’s the thing: Nolan was able to do this well with Batman, a grittier hero whose story is more about an average person rising up from tragedy to become a symbol of hope and courage. That doesn’t translate well to the more optimistic and fun-loving Superman.

“Man Of Steel” is written very much like a Batman movie, where it takes a more serious-minded approach and tires to add grit where it doesn’t belong. 

Now you could say this is indicative of how Superhero movies work in today’s modern audience. That the typical movie-goer will only like Superhero films that show a darker side to being heroes. “The Dark Knight” is the best example of that as it stepped up that genre of film to whole other level.

My answer to that is it’s entirely possible to have a fun-loving nature in Superhero films and still come off as serious movies like “The Dark Knight.” Many of the recent Marvel films are prime examples of that, especially “The Avengers” and the Iron Man movies. They’re able to balance quirky and unique characters, like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, with more serious moments of drama, and come off like it covers all spectrums. 

So my question is, if movies like “Iron Man” can prove that Superheroes can have a lighthearted nature to them and still be both funny yet intense, then why can’t they do that with other heroes like Superman?

Overall, I left “Man Of Steel” feeling bored and uninterested in what happened. Not only was it predictable and brought us nothing we hadn’t already seen, but the bland acting from the majority of the cast made me stop caring about the story fairly quickly. A super bland Superman film for me.

Grade: D

Friday, June 14, 2013

Seeing Is Believing Movie Reviews: "Big Trouble In Little China" (1986)

Welcome to a new segment of my blog, where I review every movie that I watch for the first time. As time goes on, I hope that this segment will become more regular. Also, keep in mind that what you’re reading are my initial thoughts on the film, what stuck out to me and what made the film either enjoyable, boring, horrible or somewhere in between. I will be doing these reviews literally after I finish watching the film.

Anyway, to start things off let’s take a look at John Carpenter’s 1986 film “Big Trouble In Little China.” Going into the film, I had heard a variety of different things about, including that the film was cheesy goodness with lots of great action sequences. To be fair, the film delivers on the action sequences and does throw in a hardy dose of comedy into a normally dramatic situation. 

The plot of the film follows a truck driver by the name of Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) as he visits a friend, Wang Chin (Dennis Dun), in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But when Jack drives Wang to the airport to pick up his fiancee, she is kidnapped and the two are pursued by a Chinese gang. As the film progresses, we learn more about why the gang wants Wang’s fiancee and that there is a dark ancient history behind a man who wants her for himself.

My immediate feelings on the film are that it comes across like a combination of a 1970’s Kung-Fu movie, complete with over the top stunts and wacky martial arts, and “Ghostbusters,” mostly through the use of the super natural, the effects which are used to portray said other worlders, and the straight-man to watch the insanity ensue. 

At first, I found myself asking, “Why is Kurt Russell in this movie? He really doesn’t belong in this scenario. What does he bring to the table?”

But as the film progressed, my question was answered in much the same way it was used in “Ghostbusters.” If you were to remove Kurt Russell from this movie, the playful and energetic atmosphere would be removed from the movie. All of the best lines and moments in the film revolve around Russell’s character, and it’s his resolve and ability to take everything in stride that makes this whole event some much fun.

Without Russell, this just becomes a very strange and forgettable Kung-Fu movie with some halfway decent effects. Though I guess another saving grace for the film would be the unique yet compelling mythology the film develops through it’s villain, Lo Pan (James Hong). This is mostly accomplished through Hong’s performance as an old and creepy wheelchair bound warlord, but then also as a teeth-grinning psychopathic wizard. Hong works both in different ways, but still comes across like they’re the same character.

It is also interesting to watch “Big Trouble In Little China” after watching so many other John Carpenter films. Having seen “The Thing”, “Assault On Precient 13”, “Halloween” and “They Live!” already, I can safely say that John Carpenter is able to take the most basic plot lines and add just the right amount of zest and flavor to them to make the film compelling to watch for a whole different reason. “Big Trouble In Little China” is no exception to that rule. Though I will say that this particular film takes a lot more chances than many of Carpenter’s other works, it succeeds at most simply because of Russell and Hong’s performances, as well as Carpenter’s love for his craft.

You can tell that John Carpenter is enthralled with what he does and puts every ounce of his heart and passion into his films. That passion comes through in his films and gives it an extra kick that many other films lack. While his films may not always be big financial hits, they’re always a joy to watch and each one I’ve watched as put a simile on my face.

Final Grade: B+

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Pursue your own meaningful and worthwhile goals!

“The end, as I have learned, may well come before we expect. Don't waste your time living for someone else's idea of "employable." You have a finite amount of time; spend it on your own goals. They are worthy! Anything meaningful to you is worthwhile.”

This is a quote from a recent article written by one of my fellow Easterner writers, Davis Hill. In the article, he addresses how a recent car accident made him realize just how precious life is and that we should always be aiming for our own goals, rather than the goals of others. 

It touched me, emotionally and made me realize just how important my own goals in life should be to me. To step up and do what I want to do. And I know that people always say that after they read something emotionally moving, they’ll change their life or look at it in a new way, but never do. Well, I’m not going to let this opportunity pass me by.

As you may or may not know, I’m graduating from college in a week and a half. This opens up all new doors and possibilities for me that I have only ever dreamed of. I’ll of course be looking for job opportunities in my field, in this case film criticism and journalism.

But one thing has been in the back of my mind for the longest time and has become one of my fantasies. To understand what that idea is, I’d suggest you watch this video of Doug Walker, also known by his internet persona, the Nostalgia Critic, review instant Shaquille O’Neal classic “Kazaam.”

Why did I make you watch that? Well, one, because I think it’s very funny, and two, because it gives you a good idea of what I have in the back of my mind: The idea of an internet review show.

While I’ve been at college, focusing my time on studies and projects, I haven’t really had the time to develop this idea in detail. I came up with some basic plans, but nothing too serious. However, now that graduation is upon me and Mr. Hill’s words have inspired me to pursue my own ideas to the best of my ability, I’ve decided to take this review show plan and see what comes from it.

So what exactly would I be doing with this review show? Well, I’d like to be something similar to the review you just watched, but still giving it my own unique spin. You see, part of the thing of internet reviewing is being able to find your own niche to look at. Something that you know inside and out, have immense amounts of passion for, but still being able to know that it’s not perfect and can still point out the flaws (all while having fun with it). 

And for me, there is only one particular niche of movies that works for me in that regard: Daikaiju films, also known as Japanese giant monster films.

If there’s one thing that I’ve always loved in this world (aside from my family and friends) it is Godzilla. I can honestly say I would not be deeply invested in movies if it weren’t for Godzilla. and his friends. From an early age, I enjoyed the monster battles and how Godzilla looked. As I grew older and my tastes in films began to change, I watched the many Godzilla films again. To my shock, many of the films still stood up under critical analysis. Now, much like many of my other favorite critically good films, I can enjoy several Godzilla films on multiple levels. 

This is something that I’m deeply passionate about, and no amount of people telling me that even the best Godzilla films are terrible compared to films like “Citizen Kane’ and “Casablanca” is going to change that.

As such, I believe that there is enough material within the Godzilla films and other Japanese giant monster movies to make an entertaining yet informative review show. I currently have a list of 85 Japanese giant monster movies that I could review, ranging from great examples of filmmaking to some of the worst piece of filth you’ve ever seen in your life.

Here are some of the ideas I have this review show. Let me know what you think of these ideas and if you can think of any other great ideas for the show:
-In the review, the monsters would talk to tell jokes, and each monster would have its own voice.
-Soda cans with my own custom logo on them, which I would drink during the review.
-The camera would be angled rather than directly facing me, with me looking at the TV.
-During the closing credits, show funny production photos.
-Ask experts on daikaiju filmmaking for some production information about the creation of films.
-When pointing out a films flaws, don’t be afraid to reference other work to add a joke, but mostly stick to well known works.
-Watch both subtitled and dubbed versions of the same film, and if there is a huge difference between the two versions, point it out.
-A Grading System - End the review by giving the film a grade between A+ and F-.
-Have a Highlight of the Film - The best part of the film.
-Possibly hire other actors/actresses for scenes that involve more than one person.
-Try to start every episode with a comedic bit before going into the review.
-Community Involvement - At the end of a review, ask the viewers what they think of the film and if they have any suggestions for films I should review.

I also have a list of characters that I could portray, mostly for comedic effect. One would be the reviewer himself, which would essentially just be an extension of my own personality. Another is a character that never speaks and gets into a lot of trouble, but is kind-hearted and only wants to help others. The last would be a complete opposite of the reviewer character, who is a stuck-up douchebag who is perfect at everything but doesn’t seem to like others.

Lastly, during one of my journalism classes, we created editorial boards in which we collaborated on certain writing assignments. But one thing that stuck out to me was the creation of a values lists: A list of beliefs and morals that the group should always stand for and stick to them as if they were the basic elements of who we are.

This intrigued me so much, that I decided to come up with my own values list for this internet review show, to give me some idea of what I stand for.

1. Be honest.
2  Respect the works of others.
3. Be myself, but be my best self.
4. Make work that I can be proud of, not just what people want to see.
5. When it comes to humor, do what I think is funny.
6. Don’t half-ass anything.
7. ALWAYS be passionate.
8. Show the power of daikaiju films, but don’t be afraid to show the bad.
9. Don’t be afraid to do the same shot many times.

And I believe that’s all I have to say right now. This is something that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, and I really hope that I can make it enjoyable and entertaining. I believe my three years of film school and two years of journalism school make me very uniquely qualified for this task, and nothing would please me more than to see this idea come to fruition. Maybe even get picked up by people like the Nostalgia Critic and get paid to make these kinds of videos for a living. 

I’ll end this off by saying that, if you have any ideas at all about what you think would make this show idea even better, or want to criticize the ideas, characters and values I’ve listed above, then please feel free to do so. Also, it would help me out so much if you shared this blog post around to as many people as you possibly can and tell them to share their thoughts and feelings about my show idea. The more people that see this and the more people that help me make this show idea better, the more likely it will get off the ground.

Please help me live Mr. Hill’s words to the fullest by letting everyone else know about my dream.