Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Movie Review - "Sleeper" (1973)

I would have never expected to love a Woody Allen film as much as I enjoyed "Sleeper" but this film caught me completely off guard, while also teaching me that I love slapstick and visual comedy more than verbal comedy.

As I've mentioned, Woody Allen movies are so hit-and-miss with me, some leave a great impression on me like "Midnight in Paris" or "Crimes and Misdemeanors" while others like "Annie Hall" or "Hannah and Her Sisters" make me want to claw my eyes out. Part of me feels that Allen's work gets better when he distances himself from the movie, by making his characters less like his neurotic, annoying self. But "Sleeper" throws a wrench into all of that by embarrassing the standard Woody Allen protagonist and changing the world around him.

Suddenly, I found this to be comedic genius.

Miles Monroe (Allen) was the owner of a health-food store in Greenwich village in the 1970s, but goes in for a surgery and ends up cryogenically frozen, only to be woken up 200 years later. Miles finds the world vastly different from the one he left, where countries no longer seem to exist, sex is only done inside of small booths called the "Orgasmo-tron," polite robots perform all tedious tasks and the world is ruled by a man known as the great leader. Miles has been brought out of his sleep to infiltrate a top secret facility for the rebellion, a group intent on taking down the dictatorship.

Part of the reason this works is because it is a reverse fish-out-of-water story, where we are put in the same position as our protagonist. Not only is Allen an alien to this world, but so are we. Every new advancement in technology that we learn about is so wildly bizarre yet strangely alluring, like the previously mentioned sex machine or the way food is cooked. This makes Allen's reactions to the new world so much more enjoyable when we are having a similar reaction.

I found myself laughing at nearly every scene, from Miles learning about this strange drug ball, to a chase around the robot repair facility that may or may not involve dismemberment, to Miles getting stuck in a suit that lets him bounce like he's on the moon. So many memorable scenes, but my favorite was probably Miles learning how food is cooked in the future and he ends up creating a blob-like monster by mixing two similar viles together and has to fight it off with a broom.

While "Sleeper" wants to be a parody of dark tales of the future, like "1984" or "Fahrenheit 451," it is also Allen's tribute to the greats of slapstick comedy, like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. This shows constantly throughout the movie, as there are many single shot sequences with little dialogue and lots of physical comedy. But fewer pies in the face, and more avoiding the dangers of the future by strange methods that would make Jackie Chan blush.

"Sleeper" does have its share of verbal comedy, especially when the people of the future want information on celebrities of the past and Allen tells the strangest lies about people like Richard Nixon and Joseph Stalin. But the focus of this film is on slapstick, which made realize just how much I adore visual comedy, at least in the movies. At its best, slapstick embraces the visual art form of film and can tell us so much without saying a word. It is enjoyable in the simplest of ways, but can be far more satisfying than the greatest of verbal sparrings.

"Sleeper" takes me back to movies like "Duck Soup" and "City Lights" and gives non-stop laughs, while also offering a future that uniquely dark yet strangely comforting, a world that has its dark side but does not seem all that bad. The film takes every opportunity to explore this laughable world while giving us a Woody Allen character that never gets too annoying. This was a joy to watch from start to finish and is now my favorite Woody Allen movie.

Final Grade: A+

Movie Review - "A Face in the Crowd" (1957)

Imagine if Charles Foster Kane was a country singer instead of a newspaper man, and you'll get "A Face in the Crowd."

Actually, that is not an enitrely fair description. "Citizen Kane" painted the good and the bad of its protagonist and showed him for who he really was - a flawed man who had wants and desires that could never be fully achieved, like all of us. "A Face in the Crowd" takes a similar angle, by showing a man rising from nothing to position of power and ultimately being corrupted by that same power and greed.

"Citizen Kane" does its best to mantain Charlie Kane's humanity, despite his growing need for love and affection. But in this movie, its main character Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) embraces the megalomania and shows just how deep his lust for power can go.

Lonesome is found by a local Arkansas radio persona, Marcia Jefferies (Patricia Neal) in the town's prison for drunk-and-disorderly conduct but has a knack for singing and playing his guitar. Marcia decides to bring in Lonesome to play on the radio in the morning, and he quickly uses his airtime to say a few things about the people in this town, like the sherriff running for mayor and the owner of the radio stations' massive pool on a hot summer day. At first, Lonesome feels he is using his voice of the "common people" and putting it to good use, making sure they vote for the right person and helping out kids during a scortching day.

But the way he speaks to people gets the attention of bigger news stations in Memphis and eventually New York, when Lonesome Rhodes gets his own television program that is watched by millions of people across the country. As Rhodes gains more fame and has women swooning over him at every event he attends, he also eventually gains power over a senator and wants to start making his way into politics.

The power of "A Face in the Crowd" comes from how small and simple Lonesome Rhodes starts out, even with his big personality. He claims at one point that he puts everything he has into everything he does, even his boisterous laugh. But as we see Rhodes using his power more and more to his own advantage, instead of for the people like he did while on the Arkansas radio, we see more of this sadistic man who is only out for himself and will do anything he pleases, losing what made him popular in the first place.

But because Lonesome started out in a place where everything comes from, we end up seeing a lot of ourselves in him. That if we were given the same opportunity where a camera or microphone is constantly forced in our faces, we might lose ourselves as well and give into the power he has. It is both freightening and relatable at the same time.

Of course, Andy Griffith's performance is what makes this movie so powerful. It is strange having only known about his television work before watching "A Face in the Crowd," where I had known him to be a wholesome and honest character, yet we see him playing a despicable man who drinks too much and handles more women than a brothel, but still knows how to connect to the common man. He does everything over the top and so passionately, like any moment will he his last moment of life, which makes meanical transformation so much fun to watch.

I couldn't take my eyes of the screen during "A Face in the Crowd," as I was always so curious how far Lonesome Rhodes would take his power trip and what would be lost in the process. It is also a great example of how the media can corrupt people with good intentions, or take people with bad intentions and give them a platform to reach other people. While the movie doesn't outright attack all media outlets, so does show that media creates power quickly, and that power can be corrupted easily.

Final Grade: A

Monday, April 3, 2017

Movie Review - "Power Rangers" (2017)

If you asked my parents what I cared about more than anything else as a child, they'd tell you I was obsessed with three things - Godzilla, Star Trek and Power Rangers. Every day after school, I would be sure to get back in time to watch an episode of Power Rangers, even if I had already seen the episode twenty times. I remember dressing up as the original blue ranger for Halloween one year, and then wearing that same outfit the next year with the addition of Worf's sash from "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

And while my passion for Power Rangers has died down much over the years than my love of Godzilla and Star Trek, I still keep up with Power Rangers even after being on the air for over 20 years. Every once in a while, I look back and the Rangers and realize just how corny and over-the-top it was, with bare-bones morals, dialogue with more puns than any normal human being could stand, and of course martial arts performed by superheroes in brightly-colored spandex who would be showered in sparks when they were hit.

And I loved it. I still love it today.

I find the charm of Power Rangers to be a simplistic one, cool martial arts accompanied by a catchy rock anthem and memorable giant robot fights. Let's face it, nobody remembers the plots or messages of a Power Rangers episode, just the action sequences. Personally, I always enjoyed the giant monster sequences more than the solo-Ranger fight scenes but that might be due to how much it feels like a Godzilla movie. At its best, Power Rangers felt like a combination of a Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee martial arts film and a daikaiju movie were made into a television show.

So when the new "Power Rangers" movie was announced, I was skeptical but also excited at the prospect of the Rangers being given a massive budget. The biggest flaw of the original show was it always had a cheap budget so everything always looked fake and many shots were recycled, not to mention using almost all fight sequences for the show from a long-running Japanese program called "Super Sentai" (for example "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" used most of its fight scenes from "Zyuranger"). As the trailers were released, my excitement for the film slowly died down and I realized the film was not going to be good. And I was right.

Set in the town of Angel Grove, five teenage misfits uncover five glowing coins in an abandoned gold mine. The next morning, they all discover that the coins have given them incredible strength and head back to the mine to find answers. What they find is a space ship with two alien life forms, the robotic Alpha-5 (voiced by Bill Hader) and the giant-floating head of Zordon (Brian Cranston), who tells the five they are now the Power Rangers and must defend the planet from the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

The one thing "Power Rangers" wishes to stress more than anything else is the "five teenagers with attitude" concept. Each of these five new characters has their own set of problems, quirks, and reasons to be angry at the world or rebel against the status quo. Jason (Dacre Montgomery) was a star athlete that didn't want to be forgotten and took things too far, Zack (Ludi Lin) is a crazed kid looking for fun but wants to just get away from his sick mother, while Trini (Becky G) is confused about what she wants out of life and refuses to have any labels put on her, including her own sexuality.

But the character that gets to shine brighter than any other is Billy (RJ Cyler), who is still the token-nerd, but ends up getting all the best lines and seems to be the only one who enjoys being a Power Ranger. This time around, they made Billy autistic, as humor goes right over his head and he takes everything literally, which leads to a lot of great jokes between him, Jason, and Zack.

Looking back at the original Power Rangers, this is a nice change, since the 1990s Rangers had no real character. They were idealized goody-goods who were perfect in everything they did, whether that's fighting monsters, school or their many extra-curricular activities. Now each of the Rangers actually feels like a human being with flaws and motivations.

However, that's the only good thing "Power Rangers" has going for it. Out of the two-hour runtime, they spend about an hour-and-a-half developing each of the Rangers and their angst, while another twenty minutes is spent explaining a backstory most the audience already knew. There is maybe 15 minutes of action to be found here, and the majority of the hand-to-hand fight scenes are all done through fake-looking CGI.

I expected the Megazord fight to be entirely computer-generated, but to take the human element out of the martial art sequences and be replaced with more robotic-looking models than the actual robot is infuriating. There is only one scene where the Rangers fight a gang of rock monsters, and they don't use either power weapons or use any classic music.

In fact, outside a brief five second shot, this movie never uses the Power Rangers theme song, or any memorable pieces of music from the show. Part of what made Power Rangers so memorable was the music and how effective it was matching the tension of a fight scene while also getting the audience pumped up. The music gave the show charm that it couldn't get anywhere else. I cannot remember any of the music from this movie, outside the forced pop songs that were groan-inducing.

Imagine watching a Star Wars movie without any score by John Williams or the sound effects, and you get an idea of how off-putting "Power Rangers" can be.

The other problem with this film is that it takes itself far too seriously. Outside of some jokes that Billy gets, the other characters are always so serious about being super heroes that it takes the joy out of everything. For crying out loud, these five are standing in a space ship, talking to a giant-floating head telling them they've been signed up to be soldiers in an intergalactic war while wearing brightly colored Iron Man suits with incredible powers and get to drive around in robotic dinosaurs. At least crack a smile every once in a while and have some fun with the ridiculousness. The best we get is that Kimberley crashes a monster into the car of some girls that were picking on her, or Jason making a Transformers reference, but that's about it.

From a fan's perspective, "Power Rangers" is a disappointment. While there is the occasional reference to something in the series, like the Zeo crystal or the Green Ranger, the film doesn't seem to get what made the Power Rangers so memorable and why they are still making new series over twenty years later. It's not because of new Super Sentai footage, but because of the genuine sense of fun action that it brings. The show embraces the corny style and just rolls with how absurd things can get. But this movie only seems to be interested in teenage drama and takes every bit of dialogue or action as if it were the end of the world. There's no sense of joy or amusement to be found here.

I would say "Power Rangers" is like a Wikipedia article - It is knowledgeable of the past, but it sucks all the entertainment of it. The film might understand Power Rangers, but it doesn't respect Power Rangers.

Final Grade: D+

Movie Review - "House" (1977)

Much like "Shaft" is the poster-child of Blaxploitation, "House" is the poster-child of modern Japanese horror films.

You might be wondering - what's the difference between Japanese horror and regular horror? If you look at classic examples of Japanese horror, like "Ringu," "The Grudge" or "One Missed Call," you will notice a particular focus on modern ghost stories, but especially ones where the ghosts are vengeful and will go beyond their expected boundaries to get their pray. This makes Japanese horror far more unpredictable, since everything you thought you knew about the undead goes out the window. Additionally, Japanese horror tends to linger far more on the body torture of the ghosts' victims, showing exactly how they were killed in every excruciating detail.

Watching a Japanese horror film is like being in a nightmare that plays on every single one of your fears. These films are often unforgiving, unapologetic, and will get stuck in your head for days. For example, my roommate came in to watch one scene of "House" and witnessed a piano eating a young woman. He later told me he had nightmares for two days after watching just that one scene.

But what sets "House" apart from other Japanese horror films is its style and atmosphere. While most others in the genre take themselves seriously, "House" never truly goes all-in on the horror. The film follows a group of teenage girls, led by Gorgeous (seriously that's her name), as they go to her aunt's house for the summer, only to find out she died years ago and has been waiting for some new young bodies to show up. Also in the group is Gorgeous' best friend Fantasy, the music-savvy Melody, the token-nerd Prof, and the gravity-defying Kung-Fu.

While the fate of each girl is as gruesome as the last, the dream-like state that "House" goes for allows the film to have absurd fun with the whole thing, like watching Kung-Fu literally fight off ghosts with moves that would make Bruce Lee jealous. There is also a bright color-scheme in "House" with a large focus on orange and yellow, especially the setting sun over the landscape of this decaying house.

If you're looking for a horror film that never takes itself too seriously and has fun with the vengeful ghost angle, "House" is exactly what you're looking for. The film is as weird and trippy as you would expect from 1970s Japan, and it makes this one of the more unique ghost stories out there.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review - "Logan" (2017)

I've never been the biggest X-Men fan out there, but I certainly get their appeal - a group of unique individuals who want to make a better world that is free of prejudice and fear of being different. But part of the reason I do not particularly care for the X-Men is because of their mixed movies, ranging from the laughably bad "X-3: X-Men United" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" to the decent "The Wolverine" and "Days of Future Past." The only film in the franchise I thought was any good was "First Class" and that was entirely due to the acting and on-screen chemistry of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

Part of the problem with this series of movies is too much of a focus on Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, due to fan popularity, and leaving other characters with little to no development. As great as Jackman is at playing this vicious character that is often more beast than man, the films could never go all-out on his brutality without being R-rated. But thanks to the success of "Deadpool," Fox realized they could make R-rated superhero movies that don't hold anything back and still make more than enough money at the box office.

Which leads us to "Logan," the conclusion to Hugh Jackman's run as Wolverine and a much darker and grim outlook on the future of mutants. The film is basically a modern-day western, having more in common with "No Country for Old Men" and "Hell or High Water" than any previous X-Men movie, as we are given a tale of redemption, loss, and belonging in a world that has long since passed. In the end, the film offers a somber, touching final note to a legacy that has been building up for 17 years and nearly ten movies.

Set in the year 2029, mutants are dying out. No new mutants have been born in decades, and the surviving ones have been systematically hunted down. The only surviving members of the X-Men are Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is suffering from several mental diseases that make him lose control of his powers, and Logan (Jackman), whose healing factor is slowing down and is being poisoned by the metal in his body. Charles is locked up in an abandoned warehouse just behind the Mexican border, while Logan works as a limo driver, paying to keep Charles safe.

One day though, Logan is contacted by a nurse and told to take a little girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota where she'll be safe. He begrudgingly takes on the task and slowly learns more about Laura's abilities and her similarities to him, all while they are hunted down by a military faction called the Reavers.

Despite the focus on Wolverine thoughout this movie, I felt the best part was Patrick Stewart's performance as a dying Professor X. Stewart's role is unlike anything I've seen him play before, one filled with confusion, sadness, and pain. This is a man who wanted nothing more than to show the world that change isn't to be feared, and instead watched everyone he cared about die and his dream fade to ashes. At one point he questions whether mutants are actually god's mistake and that everyone was right to fear them.

Stewart plays the role as a decaying man, much like the world around him. He can hardly function without babbling incoherently and has to constantly be on strong medicine so his mental abilities don't overpower him. As the film progresses, we see the madness disappear and be replaced by hope when Charles bonds with Laura and a farming family they meet up with, as we see his humanity and immense kindness once again.

Of course, the brutality of "Logan" is over-the-top but we should expect this from an R-rated superhero film. "Deadpool" has taught us that nothing will be spared in these movies, and we get to see every bloody limb ripped clean.

But "Logan" does take moments to calm down and make you realize how lonely Wolverine and Charles are in this world now, and that everything they ever worked for means nothing more to these people than a fantasized comic book. So with all the dismemberment, sorrowful tone and finality to everything, this certainly isn't a superhero tale for everyone.

Overall, "Logan" was a far different X-Men movie than one would expect but gives the audience exactly what it wanted. The acting is pitch-perfect from everyone, including the young Dafne Keen who ends up saying so much with few words. As a conclusion to a story we've been invested in for nearly two decades, we cannot ask for anything better than "Logan."

Final Grade: B+