Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

The Spoilers are strong with this post.

Helmed by J.J. Abrams and featuring all the expected classics like returning characters and that distinct nostalgic Star Wars feel, while simultaneously brimming with the best our modern day can offer in the way of special effects, thrilling excitement, and epic geekiness, ten years later, the Force has awoken!

Awakened? Awoken. Whatever -- it's awake, and it's awesome.

The plot is very Episode IV: a droid, escaping while it's master is captured, holds important information that both the good (the Resistance) and the bad (the First Order) sides want, and winds up on a desert planet (Jakku this time) where it befriends a native, whose life is about to change forever.

But in this case, two people have their lives changed forever. One is the native, a girl who fends for herself while she waits for her family to come for her, Rey (). The other is a stormtrooper, who's out on his first mission when he decides to defect from the First Order. Finn () is just FN-2187 until he helps the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron () escape the Order, and the good natured rebel gives him a new name -- just before they crash land and are separated. Finn then teams up with Rey and BB-8, and a certain circular ship, to finish the presumed-dead Poe's mission and bring the secret information back to the Resistance. But they meet with more trouble along the way, in the form of an aging Han Solo () and lovable, big-walking-carpet, who want the Falcon back, and an intimidating Sith, Kylo Ren () who wants the information stored in BB-8 -- the last piece of a map that leads to the long-missing last Jedi, Luke Skywalker ().

Tip for the baddies: never overlook the droid. It's probably very important.

Along with Han and Luke, Leia () is also back, and the leader of the Resistance. These returning characters together are the biggest reserve I ever had about this movie. I figured their inclusion would be necessary, and it certainly was, and definitely worth it, but as I fell in love with the new characters, I cared less and less to reminisce with the old ones. Han in particular is very prominent in the plot as his story line is wrapped up. And I like what they did with it; I just didn't like that it meant I'd have to wait for Episode VIII to get to know the new characters more.

The title of hero belongs to our personable stormtrooper, Finn. What I love most about Finn is that since he was brainwashed and sheltered by the Order since childhood, he's very naive, yet in spite of the brainwashing, is a first class gentleman, is super friendly, and has a great sense of humor. And honest -- I adore how honest he is. He always goes to Rey's aid, and even though every time she takes care of the problem before he can help, he still always tries again the next time. It doesn't make him clueless; it makes him a good guy, and great character. In the whole movie he has one, short-lived delusion of selfishness. His naivete along with his high energy makes him hilarious -- certainly the character with the best laugh-lines -- and engaging, but it doesn't take away from the depth of his serious moments. He is the film's tone personified, and he is what ties the movie together, and John Boyega does an outstanding job with it all.

Who knew? A faceless stormtrooper becomes a Star Wars hero!

Rey, however, is the film's main character -- along with being the heroine. It's a close call, but because she is the one destined to be a Jedi (contrary to what the trailers and posters had us believe -- nice one, J.J.), it skews in her favor that way. Really these two together are what makes it all work; almost like they are one character together. What one may be missing the other naturally fills, and they complement each other winningly. Daisy Ridley's Rey is a perfect "strong female" character because she doesn't make a show of the fact that she can take care of herself. In fact, she doesn't make a show of anything she does, and never tells anyone when she just saved their life, or how she escaped, or that she just beat a Sith Lord -- or whatever the case may be. On top of that, she's drop-dead gorgeous, but has a welcoming, down-to-earth quality to her that makes her very relatable. Ridley is a true talent and owns her character with quiet grace and British charm.

"Oh, and do drop your gun!" This girl knows how to Jedi.

I knew from the moment Oscar Isaac was cast that he'd be my favorite character, and I knew from the moment he was revealed to be a pilot that he'd be stuck in a cockpit most of the film. I was right on both counts. Poe Dameron owns the movie's opening, but once he appears later he's more in the background in favor of those previously mentioned, and, yes, spends a considerable amount of time flying an X-wing. Awesomely, of course. Oscar Isaac makes the most of every second though, leaving a great impression, and continuing to amaze me with his spot-on character acting. Every one of his characters is so unique; it's like playing that one character is his specialty. His Poe is an effortlessly cool; a loyal rogue, smart-mouthed, and laughs in the face of danger, but is friendly and easy-going with those he trusts. If he doesn't get even more time in Episode VIII, someone will have made a very wrong decision.

It Star Wars! You gotta have a good trio. Obviously that's what he's meant for, but he got a little left out...

The biggest surprise turned out to be Kylo Ren. This is rather crazy, because he was already everyone's favorite character and the designated coolest character even before anyone had seen the film. His costume, his mask, his voice, and don't forget that controversial lightsaber -- all made him stand out from the very beginning. But the film doesn't rely on that only; they give him tons to chew on, and more built-in depth than the previous three heroes put together simply by making him Han's son. Adam Driver hits a beautifully complicated conflict of thrillingly cool evilness masking an unstable storm of fear and anger. A true Sith. I love that he idolizes Darth Vader, not knowing that he turned to the Light side before dying. (Side note: why didn't Luke tell him?) I loved his temper tantrums, and I like that his neat lightsaber is useful for stabbing people during a clash -- that's just the kind of evil he is.

is again playing a CGI character, the Supreme Leader of the First Order, Snoke. Who, we were all glad to discover, is not actually a giant. But it still very intimidating and promising. is third baddie, Hux, a First Order General. His character was fun, and played off with Kylo in some very interesting and entertaining ways. 's silver stormtrooper, Captain Phasma got next to nothing to do besides look and talk cool. I was sad the 's character didn't look like him, and neither did 's, but they both still gave good stuff. Recognizable cameos and bit-parts were everywhere, and wins for being most unexpected.

Star Wars villains really know how to dress!

There were some throwbacks to the original trilogy, but it was done in good taste and with reserve. There wasn't nearly as much as there could have been, nor, in fact, as much as I expected there to be. Believe it or not, this movie seeks to separate itself from the Star Wars we already know, just with maintaining the general principles of the tone. Almost the first thing we knew about The Force Awakens was that J.J. was bringing back the practical effects. In fact, his goal was to bring back that feeling of awe and wonder he had watching the original trilogy as a kid. With that goal in mind, he put effort into creating the film practically, and with detail. And every bit of it worked together into a beautiful success. The wonder and the exhilarating thrill of watching Star Wars -- something I was only barely able to remember when recently re-watching them -- has been restored.

I feel like this story is just now finally beginning to live up to its full potential, but it's not fully there yet. In separating itself from episode six, and breaking off into its own new direction, a lot of time was spent cutting ties, making clean ends, and moving on. They did a great job with it -- it couldn't have been done better, but taking that time for the old meant giving up time from the new, and sometimes the unexplored territory seemed to sit there just out of reach, tempting. When it was being explored it was brilliant. I can hardly wait to see more new creatures and planets, and new additions and developments on the powers of the Force and the way the Jedi and the Sith use them. Everything promises to be fully thought-through and fleshed-out and awesome.

Think about it -- hilt-guards are for protection; these are for attack -- which sounds more Sith?

The script is probably the only thing that could use more improvement. Things like plot or the individual lines that characters say is one of the least important things about Star Wars, and this one was still light years ahead of the campiness of previous films, but there's still room to grow. I don't care that this movie pretty much copies episode four's whole plot outline because it was awesome and worth redoing, and I didn't mind that there were only a handful of fantastic lines, and just a lot of filler besides; but neither do I think that a smart script and a complex and unique plot would at all detract from the fun that was done to such perfection first try. The next director is Rian Johnson, and I hope he brings his signature full armory of smarts and wit and adds it to the full blast of sci-fi geeky delight.

This movie is not perfect. Honestly it couldn't have been even if a perfect movie is a possibility. It had too much baggage and too much responsibility. But it was, I believe, the best it possibly could have been, which, considering the huge amount of hype and the pressure from such a legacy, really is fantastically high praise. Also, I may think it's just shy of a perfect movie, but as far as the movie-loving little kid inside me who guides my movie-enjoyment is concerned, it was perfect, and the best movie ever. Whenever I wasn't so involved and drawn into the world that I wasn't even aware that I was actually sitting in a theater, it was only for brief moments, which I used to revel in my giddy excitement that I was once again watching a Star Wars movie for the very first time.


Overwhelmed, I was. Handle it, I could not.

Filled with absolutely incredible characters portrayed by an amazing cast, and a deep respect for its roots, balanced with an explosive sense of gleefully gripping entertainment, The Force Awakens gets it exactly right. It feels warm and familiar while surprising you with plot twists that make perfect sense, and blowing you away with breathtaking visuals that could only exist with the combination of the world of a long time ago and the movie magic of today. By the fans and for the fans, the iconic saga that is Star Wars reawakens, ushering in a whole new era of thrilling tales of adventure from a galaxy far, far away...

Monday, December 7, 2015

Gåten Ragnarok

Mild Spoilers.

It started out a lazy night in like any other. The bros and I scrolled through our Netflix options briefly before settling on a PG-13 adventure film titled Ragnarok. Not a Marvel movie that doesn't yet exist, but definitely relating to Norse mythology. It didn't take us long to discover though, a very interesting thing: the film was Norwegian -- and therefore, in Norwegian. So we did the most obvious thing to do at that point; we turned off the subtitles and watched the whole movie like that, relying only on our intuition and guesswork to fill in the the plot.

I thought it would be an amusing experience, but it wound up being way more interesting than I imagined.

It was a family adventure, borrowing plays from Steven Spielberg, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, about a historian/archaeologist of some kind () who along with his friend and coworker () discovers the location where a Norse myth occurred. He, his two children, his friend, and the friend's sister (best guess) () travel to the small, hidden island in search of artifacts... but what they find is even more... alive.

First of all, this was no ground-breaking adventure story. It had a classic and fairly predictable plot. However, it was all done very well. As far as I could tell, the plot was thought through very neatly and concisely, and while they borrowed the fun and obvious elements from Spielberg and Indy, they also used the harder to pinpoint, but just as important elements that make those films great. Ragnarok has great adventure pacing that only feels slow very occasionally and was definitely not lazily thrown together. It features a unique location and several very memorable and fun action set pieces that keep the movie fresh and thrilling.

Translated literally, "Gåten Ragnarok" is "The Riddle Ragnarok." The American title is simply "Ragnarok," but I think we can do better... The Mystery of Ragnarok. The Legend of Ragnarok. The Mystery of the Legend of Ragnarok!

Our understanding of all the speech-related element came from listening to inflection, observing body language, and an understanding of what is usually said in particular cliched situations. This created some very cool side effects though, because obviously some things were just too detailed and arbitrary to know. Like, we knew that the kids' mom had died, but whenever people had a conversation about her, we didn't know exactly what they were saying, just that it was about her, and the speaker's emotion based on inflection.

I found it very interesting to discover that not knowing the details of a situation didn't at all hinder my emotional connection with the characters and their situations. In fact, I wonder if it was higher than if I had totally understood them. Usually sub-par scripts are most often what breaks the fourth wall for me, and in this movie's case, I honestly have no idea of the script's quality, and cannot be influenced. Here, instead, all I got was the emotion of the actor, which was realistic all-around. This was by no means a high-emotion movie, but every little bit was involving and immersing way past what I would normally expect out of a small adventure tale like this. So, in a way, this was the most realistic script ever in my eyes. Super strange, but accurate.

Yes, it is a family adventure. See, there are KIDS being terrorized by that monster!

Gåten Ragnarok had it's share of pitfalls and corny moments, but was overall an exciting, fun, and thoroughly entertaining adventure tale. Though I think the novelty of not understanding the language enhanced my enjoyment of it in an incredibly unique way, I thoroughly expect to enjoy it again when I re-watch it -- using the subtitles this time to check my work.

Out of curiosity, have any of you ever watched a foreign language film without the subtitles?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Interstellar

Some Spoilers within.

Crops on Earth are dying. Corn is the last one to survive, and only a matter of years away from meeting the same fate. And then it'll be humanity's turn. But NASA has been working in secret on a way to save the humans. When a black hole opened up in space near Saturn, they saw their chance and took it -- sending astronauts in to explore the planets in the new galaxy, in the hopes that they'll find a habitable one.

Through a series of strange events, Cooper, a pilot-turned-farmer discovers NASA's secret headquarters. There he is told the truth about Earth's impending demise and is recruited to lead one last mission into the black hole -- to visit the three planets where the surviving astronauts are sending out signals indicating that the planet is potentially habitable. Knowing that the mission would take many years, Cooper doesn't want to leave his two children behind, but takes the job anyway, to save them.

Ladies and gentlemen; 3001: A Space Odyssey.

Never mind if it's enjoyable; never mind if it's entertaining; the biggest issue and controversy surrounding 's latest blockbuster epic is whether or not it's scientifically viable. I started out without any specific explanations of the science behind this movie, but I had heard about relative time in space travel, and I know all about paradoxes too... because Doctor Who. So the parts in the film that had to do with space travel -- the black hole, the time differences, the technical aspects -- made sense to me as the film explained them. It would be a whole other issue if the story was being sold as a true story, but it's science fiction, so making sense within its own explanation is all I require to give a stamp of approval.

The previously mentioned aspects I can see the more involved (read: geeky) fans debating over, about potential holes, or whether or not the science is applicable in reality, but a lot of the less science-y events made we wonder how far people's claims of this film's incredible accuracy actually goes. Are people swallowing that the Earth will eventually die via the natural extinction of plants? That humans will eventually evolve to be able to see and manipulate time? I love a good bootstrap paradox in my entertainment, but that involves literal time travel (not just space travel "time travel"), backwards time travel, and that, as fun as it is to enjoy in a film, is a little silly to call scientifically accurate.

Short answer: no; it's not scientifically accurate. Proof? Bookcases.

Now that I've dealt with that, on to whether or not Interstellar is enjoyable and entertaining -- an underrated point that I put a lot of importance on when evaluating entertainment. And this is actually a pretty unique case. Usually in a big blockbuster I have a backup for if the plot fails to engage and impress; the cast. Usually there's at least one actor or character present that I can turn my attention to. This movie, not so much. It has a huge cast, but isn't made up of many actors that I'm automatically biased towards. Plus was the only constant character, and I'm neutral towards him. I didn't find much to connect with Cooper on, except that I really did appreciate his extreme will to survive because of his love for his children (child, really). Only, that came from the script.

I actually dislike generally, and her character being so dramatically sentimental and inept (she was probably a descendant of Gravity's Ryan Stone) didn't help one bit. She killed my favorite character, , who died predictably early. Then all I had to look forward to was 's appearance, which ended in surprise when Mann turned out to be a coward and a villain. And while I'm on the subject, can I just ask; why did Mann want to kill Cooper and the others? I mean, they all wanted to leave. I just can't see what he thought it would help. If you have an idea about that I'd love to hear it. The only possibility I see is that he was just plain crazy. Cooper's daughter Murph was best when being played by , who handled the potentially annoying characteristics of the character much better than the younger portrayal. As for the son, Tom, he was set up for development as the younger, but once he grew into , no use was made of it. I was sad for him though because Cooper never seemed to care one iota about him compared with Murph. was around, which was a good thing, and so was all of a sudden, and I spent a lot of time wondering where he came from... and who he was.

Woman, please, pull yourself together.

So since the entertainment "backup" of the cast was so slight and so often absent, I had to almost solely rely on the entertaining elements of the plot to involve and impress me. On that score the film skews toward to positive side. The movie was overlong in my opinion, but it was able to keep me interested while waiting for the cool things to happen. When the cool things did happen they weren't so exciting as to change the tone which helped. If they had been, the slow parts in between would have been more boring by comparison, and since there was more time spent in the in between, that wouldn't have been good.

Visually, the movie was pretty fantastic, with consistently great cinematography, even during the scenes that weren't really going for the "wow" factor. Hoyte Van Hoytema is cinematographer instead of Nolan's usual Wally Pfister, and he gives the movie a fresh look, but it still maintains that Chris Nolan flavor too. You know what I mean. In the big "wow" scenes the effects live up to the hype and the vision they are portraying. Even if there isn't much to see that the trailer didn't show us. The most memorable part of the whole film is how creatively beautiful it is.

Here's something I don't usually mention: the score. Typically, unless they're particularly good or particularly bad, they don't stand out to me. Well this one stands out. In a particularly bad way. I suppose I should give Nolan and Hans Zimmer credit for attempting something bold, but for me it wound up being mostly ineffective, almost always distracting and nerve-grating, and often way too loud, covering up dialogue. In fact, the sound in this movie was just the pits. Characters would mumble and whisper, barely audible, and then five minutes later would scream their heads off with no evidence of dampening. I spent the whole movie adjusting the volume. I don't care what realistic, dramatic, or edgy effect you're going for; if it causes your viewers to rewind to hear a line right before blowing their eardrums out, it's a bad idea.

Usually we take a film's sound for granted; here it's the biggest downfall. Such a little thing...

I would have liked the characters if they'd been played by different actors; I may have liked the actors if their characters were better written. The science would have impressed me more if not for random gaps in logic, and everything that happens after Cooper goes into a black hole the second time. But, the big twist would have been cooler if it didn't take itself so seriously. The big twist also would have been less predictable if less time had been spent hinting at it... And I would probably want to see it again -- if I didn't have to sit through it all again.

A little too ambitious for its own good, Interstellar never settles on what it wants to be. It winds up in an awkward middle ground of incomplete brilliant ideas and deeply thoughtful hogwash. It's too serious and focused on the theories and the science to be thoroughly entertaining as a sci-fi space adventure; too out there and theatrical with its elaborate fiction to be taken seriously for its theories and science. A grand and beautiful mess.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Upcoming Movie Roundup - December

From my November list I saw the one film I knew I would see, Mockingjay Part 2 (click here for my review) and we started The Man in the High Castle, which is great, but we're making slow progress. Still waiting on a chance to see Brooklyn and Man Up.

December, of course, has one new release that pretty much everyone knows about -- even the people who don't usually keep track of movie releases. It is undoubtedly the biggest hyped movie I have ever witnessed, and it's thrilling to be a part of it all. But, there are a few other December movies that are also worth a look:


MI-5 (Spooks: The Greater Good)
Dec 4th(limited); R
A spin-off movie of the British version of 24 (sorta), Spooks (or MI-5 in the US). I've never watched the TV show, and I wouldn't really expect this to be an actual great movie or anything, (reviews so far are expectedly middling) but the thing is, when it comes to action thrillers like this, even the bad ones are good to me. I'm definitely up for this one. I only wonder how much knowledge of the series is required. Or, maybe I should actually watch the series now...




In the Heart of the Sea
Dec 11th; PG-13
Every time I'm reminded of this, Ron Howard's latest epic, I think about it has basically everything I love to see in a movie. It looks beautiful, always a big bonus. It's an intriguing story, with lots of potential for genuine drama -- if the tone veers more to the serious, survival side, or to the action/adventure side, or lands anywhere in between it doesn't matter -- it'll all work well. Even though it's based on reality, it has that element of awe and wonder that comes from a fantasy. And it has a cast -- I mean it really has a cast. Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland top my "excited to see" list, but there's also Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson. Plus it's a period drama. And set at sea. Even if one of these elements fail to be as great as they promise to be, there's many to back it up. I have very little doubt that this will fail to be a worthy film, and I may even have to drag my family to the theater to see it!




Don Verdean
Dec 11th(limited); PG-13
Ah-hahahahahaha-ooh... Well. It's a comedy from the writers of Napoleon Dynamite, and it stars Sam Rockwell and Jemaine Clement, which is three huge pluses right there, but the part where it pretty much is constantly poking fun at Christianity is much less appealing. No real Christians are like that in reality, and I have no problem with poking fun at the fake ones who actually are, but it always irks me a little to see Christianity portrayed so inaccurately -- even in fun -- because that really is the way some people view all Christians, and c'mon -- who would want to be associated with that? Reviews are mixed so far, but I love me some Sam Rockwell, so we'll just have to wait and see.




Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
Dec 18th; PG-13
Gah! Do I really even need to say anything? The fact of the matter people, is, that even if every single other movie in December were complete trash, no one would care, or probably even notice -- because Star Wars. And if it's any good, that applies the January movies too. And it's gonna be good. Even if it isn't instantly as classic as the original trilogy it's still going to be worth all the hype. It looks so beyond epic from it's trailers. J.J. Abrams... epic amounts of sentimentality... fantastic cast. Even though I've never seen John Boyega or Daisy Ridley in anything before I already consider myself to be a fan of them, plus there's my personal favorite Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong'o, and of course the original cast of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. One sad point for me is that I can't see it until Sunday at the earliest, (so I'll be dying on Thurs Fri and Sat) but that's the one damper amongst the piles of insanely exciting things about this hugely anticipated continuation of the Star Wars saga. All aboard the hype train! Next stop: a galaxy far far away! Woot wooot!




Joy
Dec 25th: PG-13
Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and David O. Russell together yet again. Honestly I don't really need to know much more than that. What I do know is that the story is really four stories, each centering around a woman played by Lawrence, and, one of the stories, I believe, is true. It's a very different premise, and I hope is successful in making another good film for these three. What really sealed the deal for me was the PG-13 rating. I'm quite impressed. And if nothing else it'll be a great acting vehicle for Lawrence.




Point Break
Dec 25th; PG-13
I recently saw the original Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze film, and enjoyed it, so I don't see why I shouldn't do the same for this remake someday. This one looks much more thrilling as the daredevil aspect has been kicked up to match the modern day. Otherwise it doesn't seem to have much going for it, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's generally considered an unworthy remake by fans of the original.



 
The Revenant
Dec 25th; R
The chances that I'll ever see this are pretty slim. Even if it does turn out to be considered a fantastic film and even if it does finally allow Leo to win that Oscar, it just plain in unappealing to me. In spite of the cast, which, besides Leonardo DiCaprio, includes Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, and Lukas Haas. It looks abrasively intense and serious, and that is just not interesting to me. I've sat through the trailer three times now in theaters and every time I do, I feel embarrassed for Leo. He's trying so hard! So, so hard. Poor Leo. It would be really sad if he didn't get it this time. I would laugh. With this one, I'm really interested in knowing what you guys think. Are you excited to see this movie, and if so, why? For Leo's performance, or the movie itself? And does anyone share my opinion that this movie is trying so hard it's actually embarrassing, or am I alone in that?




Weee, what an exciting month! How excited are you for Star Wars, and when are you planning to see it? And are there any other movies this month that have your attention?