Monday, September 23, 2013

Family Movie Night #2

Family Movie Night #2

It’s that time again. More movies suggested to me by family and friends. A few of these I also watched alongside my family, which is something that I haven’t done in a while. Good to know that a family can sit down and just enjoy a good hour and half of entertainment and forget about the troubles of the day, right?

Anyway, let’s get right to it.

“The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” (2012)

I freely admit that I was not the target audience for this film. I understood what the film was trying to say about growing up, especially after a tragic event, and trying to find a place in life, but it didn’t have any impact on me and I moved on fairly quickly afterwards.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is beginning his freshman year of high school, but doesn’t have a single friend and is nervous to make new ones. As the days progress and a few seniors who seem more outspoken than others, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) stand out to Charlie, and he connects with them through their similar tastes in music and awkwardness.

Now the trio must go through the rigors of high school life, while Patrick and Sam deal with getting ready for college and Charlie secretly battles the inner thoughts of his late aunt. 

While I have no problem relating to these characters and at times enjoy their journey through bullies, relationships and coming to terms who they really are, most of what happens doesn’t stick with me. 

There is certainly an overarching story involving Charlie and his need to overcome what happened to his aunt and make friends, this plot thread is rarely touched on and is vaguely explained. It isn’t until the end of the movie until we know exactly what happened, so we’re kept in the dark, unsure of what to make with the connection to Charlie’s aunt.

Outside of that, most events just happen with little regard for others. While that style of filmmaking has its place, thats never appealed to me. Moments come and go and some don’t seem to have any impact on the outcome. They might have a subconscious affect the characters, but not the audience. 

Overall, “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” did it’s job at portraying a coming-of-age story about a shy, awkward high schooler, but it really didn’t do anything impressive or different. Thus, nothing sticks out. It’s just kinda there.

Final Grade: C

"(500) Days Of Summer" (2009)

In my “The Big Chill” review, I talked about how the film attempted to capture the randomness and unpredictability of life and turn that into the plot. Or rather, the lack of a plot, because life itself rarely has a plot or story to it.

While “The Big Chill” took the plotless concept and still made for an interesting character piece, “(500) Days Of Summer” does something rather similar by being essentially plotless yet consistently entertaining and fun.

The movie follows Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a greeting-card writer, who steadily falls in love with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), an assistant at the same company. The film is told in a nonlinear fashion, over the course of the 500 days in which Tom and Summer know each other. We see the full course of their relationship, from awkward beginnings, to passion lovemaking, to the bitter breakup and the aftermath.

The opening narration of the film clearly tells the audience this is not a love story. The narration is correct about that. While the movie is entirely about the relationship between Tom and Summer, it’s more-or-less about the day-to-day randomness and unpredictability of life. 

Yes, “(500) Days Of Summer” was able to capture what I feel “The Big Chill” could not achieve: Taking the plotless idea of life, and making an interesting and compelling story out of it.

Part of what makes “(500) Days Of Summer” work is that its told in a nonlinear manner, yet its impossible to get lost or confused as to where you are. The problem with films being told out of order is that you get lost rather easily. You’re not sure which piece goes where and if there aren’t any pieces missing that we’re not seeing. “(500) Days Of Summer” cuts all that out by giving each day a number. It’s a quick yet effective solution.

Second is believability between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel. Their relationship feels real, with ups-and-downs, good days and bad days, arguments, apologies, fantasy moments and even their little quirks and character weaknesses. 

Actually, with the framework of the movie and Tom’s constant hunt for “The One,” I can’t help but be reminded of “How I Met Your Mother,” which seems like a large inspiration for this movie. While “How I Met Your Mother” mostly uses the framework for comedic effect, “(500) Days Of Summer” uses it to demonstrate the progression and changes of life.

In the end, “(500) Days Of Summer” finds the perfect blend of the randomness of life, but also the emotions and sincerity of life as well. The framework is used just right and the relationship between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel is the structure that holds the film together.

Final Grade: A-

“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947)

I hate to do this, because I try to avoid comparing two films to one another, since one of my rules on film criticism is that a film should stand on its own merits without being compared to anything else. But I feel with “The Bishop’s Wife,” this comparison is unavoidable. Therefore, I must compare the film to “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Before anything else, I adore “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Easily one of my favorite movies of all time, it never fails to make me happy and yet cry at how everything comes together perfectly. That’s no small task, since I can only think of two other movies that have managed to make me cry. Yet “It’s A Wonderful Life” is one that does this with so much ease. Twice.

The reason I say comparisons between these two films is unavoidable is for a few reasons. One is how much the two have in common, with story, tone, atmosphere, attempts at messages and to a lesser extent, character. 

The other reason is how close these were released from one another. “It’s A Wonderful Life” came out in 1946, received quite a bit of praise and was nominated for several Academy Awards. A year later, “The Bishop’s Wife” was released.

For me, that has to be more than a coincidence. 

I can see Samuel Goldwyn, the producer of “The Bishop’s Wife,” attending a screening of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” falling in love with the film and immediately thinking about doing his own version of the film. In the 1940s, that was manageable, since Hollywood studios could make a movie in roughly three or four months.

While Goldwyn may have been able to understand plot points and characters of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” if this film is any indication, I don’t think he understood what made the film so fantastic.

The story follows Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) as he attempts to get financial backing to rebuild the local Cathedral during the holiday season. Henry is swamped with work and has no time for his wife, Julia (Loretta Young), or to enjoy all of life’s pleasures and the spirit of the holidays. That is until he is visited by an angel, Dudley (Cary Grant), who has come to help solve all of Henry’s problems.

My problem with “The Bishop’s Wife” is not so much that it attempts to copy and paste “It’s A Wonderful Life,” but that it does so by removing all humanity and heart from the initial classic. 

Where “It’s A Wonderful Life” would spend time building up the surrounding cast of characters in Bedford Falls and showing us the progression of George Bailey’s life, “The Bishop’s Wife” just meanders around while we watch Dudley perform miracles and acts of kindness and then quickly move on to the next act.

This would be fine if Dudley was an interesting or fun character, but he’s not. Everything he does in the film is done perfectly. Always with a smile, never anything wrong or a hair out of place. I’m sorry, but that’s boring. What makes a character enjoyable and everlasting are their flaws and weaknesses. To show they’re human and that they can change or fix problems in their lives.

Dudley has no flaws.

And it’s not because he’s an angel. Clarence from “It’s A Wonderful Life” was an angel (second-class) and he wasn’t perfect. He messed up at some things, but he still had a big heart and wanted to help George realize how great of a life he had. That makes him a far more developed and likable character than Dudley.

If anything, watching “The Bishop’s Wife” just made me realized how unbelievably well-made and heart warming “It’s A Wonderful Life” is. That even if you copied story elements and character motifs from a successful film, doesn’t mean you’re going to have the same results as that film.

“It’s A Wonderful Life” works because of a combination of simple morals and values that most people can understand, developing a world around the life of one man and showing just how many other lives he touches, and never losing touch with the kind and giving nature of humanity. This is something that Samuel Goldwyn and “The Bishop’s Wife” didn’t seem to understand.

Final Grade: D-

Final Thoughts: 

It’s interesting that this time around all three of these films made me feel something different and left contrasting opinions with me. “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” was just sort of meh and forgettable. Nothing too special, but nothing particularly bad either. “(500) Days Of Summer” showed me how to turn a plotless film about the randomness of life and love into something unique yet insanely fun to watch. While “The Bishop’s Wife” took all the great parts out of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” leaving just many acts of kindness.

Going into each of these movies, I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that members of my family had enjoyed these movies. I can certainly see why my family likes each and every one of them. “The Bishop’s Wife,” while repetitive and nauseating at times, does have a generally pleasant attitude and Cary Grant is charming and usually brings out a smile.

So in the end, it really comes down to expectations. My level of expectations were set at the same point for each of these movies, yet I came out feel different about them all. Others might go into “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” expecting to feel something or to learn about themselves or how to a teenager in a difficult environment. While I may have not felt that, I can understand and respect that.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Movie Review: "Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs" (2009)

I’ve gone on record saying that animation has become one of the most powerful forms in cinema in the last few years. That’s a statement which I still stand by.

While some directors and studios seem to focus the bulk of their attention on making money at the box office and making what’s popular with modern audiences, animated movies offer up a distinct variety change from the norm. I attribute this more to the fact that, in animation, there is much more freedom and creative possibilities.

In a live action film, you still have to work within the normal confines of reality, physics, time and space. In animation, the filmmakers are in control of every last detail. You can change how certain humans and characters look, the way the lighting and shadows look across a landscape, even bend the very nature of the universe just to suit your needs. To do the things that you could never do in any other visual medium.

In an animated film, the entire world is the filmmakers’ canvas. 

There are also many different types of animation out there. From the optimistic yet heartfelt hand-drawn Disney animated look, like “Aladdin” and “Beauty And The Beast,” to the grittier yet breathtaking films of Hayao Miyazaki, including “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke.” To even the more recent 3-D animated films of many studios, such as Pixars’ “Toy Story” or Dreamworks’ “Shrek.”

A recent 3-D animated movie that caught my attention was “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs,” based off of a children’s book of the same name. I’ll admit that I hesitated to watch this for some time. Not because I thought it looked bad, but because I had never heard of the book before. Plus, much like “Despicable Me,” I could basically tell what was going to happen just by watching the trailer, so I felt no need to see the film.

Then I watched the trailer for the upcoming “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2,” and was laughing at nearly every joke in that short little bit of the film. I knew that, from the trailer alone, I had to see this film. To better understand the awesomeness of multiple food animal puns, I thought it’d be good to watch the first one.

Luckily, the fun spirit and quirky yet quick humor of “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” kept me thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) grew up believing that he would become one of the greatest minds the world had ever seen, and spent most of his time creating inventions for the betterment of man kind, always resulting in failure and ridicule. But Flint’s never give-up attitude allowed him to bounce back from every one, leading to his greatest invention yet: A machine that converts water into any food you can imagine.

During a town celebration, where Flint plans to show off his biggest achievement to everyone in Swallow Falls, things go terribly wrong and the machine is launched into the Stratosphere like a rocket. Yet much to Flint and the town’s amazement, it combines with a large cloud to create a never ending storm of food.

Now Flint is celebrated as a town hero and Swallow Falls becomes the biggest tourist attraction in the world. But as the mayor of the town begins to ask far too much out of Flint and the machine, the food begins to grow larger and more unstable, endangering the town and the entire world of being engulfed in a gigantic food storm.

What I will take away the most from “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” are the characters. For once, there is not a single character that I hated. I was given a reason to love and laugh at every one of the people in this town. From the glutton of a mayor (voiced by Bruce Campbell), to the sassy yet badass cop of the town who will do anything for his son (voiced by Mr. T, foo’).

The character that I couldn’t help but fall in love with was the romantic lead, Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris), a spunky weather girl who comes to Swallow Falls from New York to have one big chance to make it big. As she spends more time with Flint, we learn more about how she’s intelligent but chooses to hide that side of herself so that she’ll be accepted by society. 

So while Sam always has this optimistic and cheerful attitude about everything that goes on, she has this part of herself that wants to come out but can’t. I’ve always felt the best way to get an audience to like a character is to first introduce us to their general attitude and lifestyle, getting us to first like and understand them, but then give us more. Sam Sparks is a fantastic example of that.

Not to mention her character ties in nicely with the main theme of the movie: Being okay in your own skin and loving yourself for who you are. To not care about what others say or think about you, so long as you are happy with you. 

Flint is constantly being haunted by the ideas that his mother instilled in him at a young age, about pursing his dreams of being a great scientist. His father (voiced by James Caan) was never happy with that, always wanting his son to do something that he knew Flint could succeed in. It’s this drive within Flint that makes him want to create even better inventions. 

The passion of machines and gadgetry within Flint is what drives Sam to see herself as she truly wants to be. That she doesn’t need to hide behind a fake laugh and dumb exterior just to so others won’t pick on her. 

Because of this kind of morality and theme, combined with the visually appealing style of giant foods falls from the sky with a vast range of colors and palettes and consistent humor that hits just the right notes for both adults and children, “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” was so much fun to watch.

Final Grade: B+

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Turner Classic Movie Reviews

If you’re a fan of great old movies, then one movie channel that is a must-watch is TCM, Turner Classic Movies. All day long they play some of the greatest films of all time and give people an avenue to watch some old movies that would otherwise be inaccessible. 

As such, I frequently watch TCM for movies which I’ve heard great things about, but have never had a chance to watch for one reason or another. Recently, I noticed that I’ve been watching many new movies to me on TCM. So I figured why not write up reviews on all the movies I’ve been watching through Turner Classic Movies these last few days.

There are sure to be many more reviews coming due to watching TCM so much. In fact, I’ve already written several reviews on movies watched through TCM, such as “The Birdman Of Alcatraz” and “Things To Come.” But, without further adieu, here are the many films of Turner Classic Movies.

“The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog” (1927)

Ah, silent cinema. I’ve felt there is a certain charm to silent movies, which is lacking from all sound pictures: The ability to tell a story through visuals and the emotions on the actors faces. No words or dialogue, just the images. In a way, silent movies are cinema in its purest form.

Many of the greatest stars and icons of the movies began there careers in the silent era of filmmaking, one of the most notables ones being Alfred Hitchcock, often known as the “Master Of Suspense” and for giving some of the greatest thrillers in cinematic history, such as “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “North By Northwest” and “Vertigo.”

Hitchcock’s first outing in the thriller genre was when he still worked out of Britain, with “The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog” in 1927, right before the end of the silent era. While this film has many of the classic Hitchcock tropes that we’ve come to know and love, this particular film sure does falter at times.

The movie begins when an unknown man, known as “The Avenger,” kills blonde women in the London streets in a Jack The Ripper style. Now all of London is paranoid about who the killer might be and where he’ll strike next. Two such people are a couple who own a boarding house and have just rented out one of their rooms to a strange man who wishes to hide his face and starts to grow an attachment to their blonde daughter.

Instead of suspecting that he might be a vampire, they decide to let their friend, who is a police detective and in love with their daughter, handle the man and find out if he is the Avenger.

While the idea of a serial killer who only hunts blondes is intriguing, especially in the hands of Hitchcock who is well known for his obsession with the golden curled women, that’s the only interesting thing going on with the film. Everything else is rather predictable and lackluster.

We spend most of the movie following this strange man as we’re given clues to believe that he might be the killer, while we know that he isn’t the one. This might have been an ingenious idea back in 1927, now it’s a trope of thrillers and mysteries that only serves as a misdirection. When the majority of the film is a misdirection, you give the impression that you’re just wasting the audience’s time.

This really comes to a head at the end of the film when the truth is revealed and we find out more about the killer. Let’s just say that I felt unsatisfied with what we’re given and how little it has to do with the resolution of the main characters. The film builds up this man like Jack the Ripper and we don’t even know his real name or why he did it. So many questions and expectations left unanswered that it’s difficult not to be pissed off at the movie for leaving us so much in the dark.

If you want to see how Alfred Hitchcock started and watch a silent Hitchcock film, then certainly give “The Lodger” a shot. If you’re not interested in silent movies or hate being left out of all the important information, I’d say skip this one.

Final Grade: C-

“Safety Last!” (1923)

This is my first introduction to Harold Lloyd, who is often said to be one of the greatest physical comedians of all time. Personally, when I think physical comedy, I think anything like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges and Tom & Jerry. I might already have my feelings of physical comedy greatest set in my mind so much that Harold Lloyd would have no affect me.

“Safety Last!” is another silent film that still captivates audiences today, 90 years after the films release. It tells the story of a love-struck boy from a small town (Harold Lloyd) as he moves to the big city to make something of himself so that his girlfriend (Mildred Davis) can be proud of him and live a happy and carefree life.

The problem is the kid can’t find a decent job in the this huge city and can only get small amounts of money, all of which go straight to his girl as jewelry and presents. Luckily, he gets a chance to make it big when his boss at a department store says that he’ll give anyone a thousand dollars to bring in more customers. Harold decides the best way to do this is to climb to the top of the twelve story store without any support whatsoever.

My problem with the movie was where it started and how much time it spent before getting to the interesting part. Honestly, the film only starts to get good when Harold prepares to climb the building, which is about halfway through the movie.

Before that point, it shows Harold stumbling around town trying to make a living while also getting his girlfriend to believe he is the manager of the department store he works at, when all he does is measure and cut pieces of fabric. All the time, he is lying to the woman he loves about it, and never once has to pay for his actions. He gets away with so many terrible actions that I stop being sympathetic towards him and grow to hate him.

At least in a film like “City Lights,” where Charlie Chaplin has to pretend to be a millionaire to impress a blind girl he’s falling in love with, Chaplin doesn’t take the issue lightly. He seems to hate doing it, and in the end still does the right thing when it comes to paying for an operation that would fix her eyes. Here, there seems to be no remorse or hatred towards lying and making things up to the love of your life. 

Now, that being said, once the film does get to Harold climbing the building, the film gets very impressive. Even by today’s standards, this is still an amazing feat. Harold Lloyd literally had to climb this twelve story building with no support or assistance and has so many long takes where he’s hanging on to the building by his finger tips or even the hands of a clock. The comedy for this scenario works because of the real life danger that Harold put himself in for this very long scene. 

What’s even funnier is that originally, he wasn’t supposed to climb. A buddy of his, who demonstrated earlier that he could climb a building no problem, was going to do it and he’d split the thousand dollars with him. But the two had a run-in with a cop earlier and his buddy spends the rest of the film running from the police, meaning Harold has to climb. 

It’s a scenario that works effectively on its own. While the first half of the film has many moments that makes the main character un-relatable and unsympathetic, the second half more than makes up for it with wonderful stunts and great sense of humor. 

Final Grade: B-

“High Sierra” (1941)

Confession time: Humphrey Bogart is far from my favorite actor. He is not bad at what he does, but I can’t help but scratch my head at some of his performances. Mostly, the roles that involve him doing something romantic, especially “Casablanca.”

I don’t see Bogart as a romance man. Maybe it’s because of how old he looks compared to his costars or that he has a pretty ugly mug. As such, I find that Bogart is in his element when he has to be rough and tough, out in the wilderness, trying to survive. The best example of this is “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” where Bogart plays a man desperate to make a living, but is overcome by greed when he begins his hunt for gold and just might resort to killing his partners just to get their gold as well.

One of Bogarts’ earliest yet most well known roles was “High Sierra,” which was written by the same man who wrote and directed “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” John Huston. 

Bogart plays a gangster, Roy Earle, who has recently been released from an eight year stay in prison. Earle swears to an aging and dying friend of his, Big Mac (Donald MacBride), to do one last big heist, where he and a group of nervous newcomers will rob a California resort. All the while, Earle mingles with the newbies and tries to make a life for himself outside of his gangster lifestyle, including using all of his money to pay for an operation to help a young girl, Velma (Joan Leslie), with her clubbed foot. 

Just as the heist is being pulled off, things go south and Earle has to kill a security guard, while three of the new guys are killed in a car accident on the way back to the hideout. Now beings the manhunt for Earle has he retreats into the Sierra Mountains to hide and make one final stand against the police.

At it’s core, “High Sierra” is a tragedy for the character of Roy Earle. He spends eight years in prison for his gangster crimes, is free to do what he pleases, only to be sucked back into the gangster lifestyle. While Earle tries to help out innocent people and attempts to lead a normal life, it’s his greed and love of crime that keeps him going. Yet, ultimately, he can’t even have that without hurting the people around him. 

Bogart handles the role with his typical stone face approach, as a guy whose been around the block more than once and knows the ins-and-outs of this lifestyle. While he does develop a relationship with one of the female gangsters, Marie (Ida Lupino), I don’t actually buy that the two were in love. That their relationship was purely physical and nothing more. 

Maybe it’s because of Bogart’s lack of raw emotion that makes most of his romantic roles so unconvincing to me. In this case, that style of acting works for a hardened gangster. The film makes it a point that Earle is the last of his kind. That everyone else like him is either dead or in jail. So to show that he isn’t willing to let anything hit him, or that Earle has seen so much crime that nothing affects him anymore, Bogart’s portrayal of Earle works here. 

Overall, “High Sierra” works as a good gangster piece about the last of his kind, attempting to break out and make a life for himself, only for it all to come right back in his face in a tragic way. Bogart works in this role and I can’t imagine anyone else playing Roy Earle. 

Final Grade: B+

“The Passion Of Joan Of Arc” (1928)

You know what’s worse than a courtroom drama? A silent courtroom drama. 

Personally, I’ve never been a fan at all of courtroom dramas. I see them as just a bunch of people talking back and forth in circles, discussing legal matters that I don’t understand. 

Even the best courtroom dramas, like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Verdict” don’t do much for me because it’s like listening to two different auto mechanics talking about different ways to repair your car on something that you didn’t know was broken: You don’t understand what they’re talking about, and in the long run you don’t really care.

But suddenly, if you remove all the dialogue in a courtroom drama, suddenly the film becomes a test of patience. Watching as a bunch of talking heads with no names go talk endlessly about something even you’re not sure about. You watch as the defendant just sits there with a blank expression on their face, soaking in what’s going on as if they’re staring at a fly on the far wall.

That’s what “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc” felt like. Scene after scene of judges asking our lead character, Joan (Maria Falconetti), the same questions over and over. If she had really seen god. What god was wearing. Whether god was a man or a woman. How she was sure if it was god or if wasn’t the devil in disguise. And all the while, Joan takes what feels like minutes to answer each of their questions, all while having the same blank expression with huge eyes that look like they’ll pop out of her head any minute. 

There is no substance to this film whatsoever. I’m someone who knows very little about the Joan of Arc, other than she believed she was a decedent of God. After watching this film, I learned nothing new about her or her crusade. The film literally begins with her in the courtroom and judges deciding what must be done with her. We’re never given a reason as to why she’s in this position, how she feels about, where she came from, how France got to where it was and how she got this connection with God.

Now granted, the film was supposed to be an exact reflection of the case involving Joan, which is something that director Carl Th. Dreyer tried his best to emulate. Still, my problem is this doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting story alone. Context, in this case, can make a world of differences, as well as not constantly cutting Joan’s face every time something happens.

I know I said earlier that silent films have a certain charm to them for their ability to tell a story without every saying a word. Well, this is a case that would have benefitted from having some actual words said, rather than keeping it silent. The downside to silent movies is they can’t always effectively capture the full affect of human emotion. “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc” would have greatly improved if we could hear Joan speak and hear the impact of her sacrifice on both the judges and France.

In the end, “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc” didn’t do anything for me. There were points where I drifted off for what felt like minutes and it didn’t seem like I missed a thing, just more vacant staring by Joan. In small doses, that kind of look can be powerful, but overdo it and it just becomes annoying.

Final Grade: D-

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Movie Review: "Kung Fu Panda 2" (2011)

It is normally the consensus that movie sequels tend to suck. Films that fail to live up to the expectations of their predecessors, such as “The Matrix” sequels or “The Pirates Of The Caribbean” movies, or ones that only serve as quick cash-ins on the popularity of others, mainly the “Transformers” abominations of cinema.

My theory for why most sequels fail to cut it or are almost never as good as the first ones is because these new films raise the stacks and up the ante of the drama and action. As a result, less thought and logic is put into the film and thus the movies are less coherent and more prone to cliches. They suffer because they want to emulate the popularity of the previous movies but don’t necessarily want to take any risks to try something new or else lose the audience.

Of course, there have been more than a few good or even great film sequels. Some that even manage to out do their precursors. For example, one of my favorite sequels is “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan,” which is a wonderful Shakespearian-esque sci-fi piece compared to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which puts me to sleep every time. Even “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” which takes the premise that began in “The Terminator” and continues it while making the stakes bigger yet keeping the characters interesting and worth pursuing. 

Another film I can now add to that list is “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which manages to outshine “Kung Fu Panda” at nearly every aspect. Not only that, but through a combination of outstanding visuals, touching character moments and interactions, a great sense of humor and captivating action pieces, “Kung Fu Panda 2” is the best work I’ve seen out of Dreamworks Animation. 

Following the events of the first “Kung Fu Panda,” Po (Jack Black) is now the Dragon Warrior who watches over the Valley Of Peace, alongside the Furious Five Kung Fu masters and their mentor Shi Fu (Dustin Hoffman). One day that peace is threatened when Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock bent on conquering all of China, kills the head of the Kung Fu council in Gongmen City with a giant cannon. Now Po and the Five must travel to Gongmen City and stop Lord Shen before he kills Kung Fu conclusively. 

Before I go any further, it should be said that I thought “Kung Fu Panda” was by no means a bad movie. In fact, it was insanely enjoyable at times. The pacing was rather slow and the villain didn’t necessarily fit the tone of the rest of the film, but other than that the action was well done, Po’s transition from lowly panda to Dragon Warrior was a lot fun and made sense considering his character. It feels weird to say, but a film called “Kung Fu Panda” starring Jack Black as a talking panda who goes on about how awesome things are was a very well made movie. Don’t judge a book it’s cover, I guess.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” is very much in the same vein, only now it has to do with sequel problems. Luckily, it overcomes these issues by outshining the first film.

What stood out the most was the emotional core of the film and how it all came back to Po’s search for inner peace. At first, Po and the audience aren’t sure what he has to feel so distraught about. As it’s introduced and we learn more about Po’s history, the film tugs on some heart strings and gives us a reason to care about him as a character. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a little emotional at a few points in the film.

To go alongside the great character moments the film has to offer, “Kung Fu Panda 2” also gets in some great comedy. Another downside to “Kung Fu Panda” was that the jokes were often cliche or missed the mark. Here, nearly every joke works and still stick with me, especially when Po attempts to sneak around the city while avoiding detection. 

As you can imagine for a big oaf like him, that leads to several creative hijinks. 

The fight scenes, while excellently handled, are still roughly on par with “Kung Fu Panda.” The first film broke out of many typical fight scenes with just normal fist fighting, and included many environmental battles, including one where a bridge was used as the main weapon. 

In the sequel, there aren’t as many of those fights, but instead we have a variety of different fighters, with the villain using his cannons, blades and peacock feathers to attack, rather than his fists...or feathers, I guess.

Finally, the visual appeal of the film is wonderful. Going for a mystical Chinese approach, similar to films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the visual palette is full of awe inspiring color. The film takes full advantage of the fact that it’s an animated movie and chooses the visual style of every shot carefully, even down the color of the villain’s clothing and feathers. Even the simple act of the main cast traveling on a boat towards Gongmen City looks gorgeous. 

Honestly, there is very little for me to complain about with “Kung Fu Panda 2.” It’s a film that hits all the right notes and capitalizes on everything that made the first movie so great. Everything, down to the villain’s motivation for wanting to take over China and his own character weaknesses, just feels right and sensible. It was a blast to watch and I’d gladly do it again. 

Final Grade: A 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Things To Come" (1936)

Do you ever watch a movie all the way through, yet by the end of it you’re just sitting there, contemplating and asking yourself, “What the hell did I just watch?”

“Things To Come” is one of those movies for me. While the film certainly has a theme throughout and a good moral, the film is so scattershot about it’s presentation and goes all over the place with its cast and their performances.

Originally based off a novel by H.G. Wells, it follows the story a small British town called “Everytown” as a new world war breaks out. The film then chronicles the progression of that war and its ramifications from when it begins in 1940 through the next big step of human ingenuity in 2136.

This story progresses like a historical reenactment documentary of a future that never happened, similar to Mel Brooks’ “History Of The World, Part 1” if it took itself seriously and removed the comedy (Also when is Mel Brooks gonna get around to making Part 2 of that, damn it).

My problem with the film was its constant shifting of main characters every time it chose to skip ahead in time, with each new segment practically having entirely different sets of people. Only a few times do characters from a previous part carry over, but they’ve aged so much and had no time to grow on the audience that I had completely forgotten who they were.

Though one impressive aspect of the film was the special effect work, especially when it came to the set design and use of miniatures. For 1936, this is some skilled work that seems straight out of “War Of The Worlds.” I can’t think of many well done effects movies from the late 1930s, so for this kind of work to be done in this period blows my mind.

Overall, this is a hard movie to talk about. Not just because of the story and its problems, but because I’m already starting to forget events that happened in the film. Not much of the film just latched out and begged for my attention, other than the effects portions. Long speeches about progress and asking what is war good for just wash right over me, and this film has those in spades. 

Final Grade: D+

Friday, September 6, 2013

Movie Review: "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers" (1978)

Horror movies are quite different from most other films.

For one, they rely completely on one emotion: Fear. Not to mention this is a feeling which not everyone regularly uses. Whereas other films, like dramas or adventures, have an entire canvas of emotions and feelings, from exciting to heartbreaking.

Another would be something that horror films share with comedies, in that most of them lack any repeatability. Or at the very least, the bad ones do. Once you know what’s coming and where the scares and jokes are, you don’t or even can’t find it frightening or laughable any longer, thus making it nearly impossible to watch a second time.

Not only should a good horror or comedy rely on a multitude of emotions, but should also offer up something which would make it worth watching multiple times without getting boring or tedious.

“Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” is such a horror film, as it presents scenes that not only scare or creep the audience out, but also has an emotional core that makes the audience root for the characters and their struggle to remain alive. 

The film is a remake of a 1956 sci-fi/horror movie, which was more-or-less meant to make a point about the growing concern of Communism in America at the time. How it removed the individual of their passions and emotions and made them one with the collective and their goals. The 1978 film keeps that idea intact, while also improving upon it without targeting any one group of people.

Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) notices one morning that her boyfriend has become rather distant and less passionate about everything, even his love of basketball, to the point where she thinks someone has replaced him. She takes this to her boss and close friend, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who tries to comfort her without making her out to be crazy. It isn’t until Matthew notices several other cases of this happening around town that he begins to investigate and finds duplicates with white tendrils being made of anyone who falls asleep. Now Matthew and Elizabeth must try to do something before all of San Francisco and the world is replaced with these alien duplicates.

Something noteworthy about the film is the use of visuals throughout and how silent the film acts at times. There are several scenes that have little to no audio, and especially music and dialogue, simply letting the pictures speak for themselves. This works to the films’ benefit, since horrifying imagery and lack of human emotions of the replicants works much better with the eerie lack of sound. Not to mention emotional moments between characters when they’re in the heat of an intense scene and they just share quick glances into each others eyes.

However, the lack of dialogue also works against the film at times. Because there are so many scenes that remain silent, some elements of the story go unexplained. For example, there is no explanation why the aliens need to take over our bodies, copy our forms and destroy the original host body. It’s explained that they fled from their dying world and have been surviving ever since, but why do they feel the need to kill all sentient life on the planets which they invade? It’s certainly not to survive, since they could live on without killing us and taking our place.

As a result, many elements in “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” are left up to the audiences’ interpretation, especially the motivations of the aliens and how they’ll go about taking over the entire planet when just one city proved to be rather difficult.

I couldn’t help but notice some parallels between this story and “War Of The Worlds.” Though both are different in their approach and ultimate goals, both stories are told from the perspective of an average person trying to cope with the reality of the situation, rather than on a global scale. The aliens seek world domination for reasons that go unexplained, and their invasion plans involve plant life. It’s also weird that the Martians in “War Of The Worlds” were brought down by germs, which is how these particular aliens started out.

Overall, “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” is a unique paranoia inducing horror film with some wonderful moments that show the power of film as a visual medium. Even with all the alien moments, the film still maintains its emotional core between the two lead characters. Even if you’re not a fan of horror, this is still a movie worth checking out.

Final Grade: B+