Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

This is a spoiler-free review.

And, this is my 100th post on this blog! So I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you to all my readers. I appreciate your support and encouragement -- you are all wonderful. Here's to the next 100! Now on to The Fault in Our Stars...

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) has cancer in her lungs. Terminal. It's really a miracle she's lasted as long as she has. But she's still dying, and she's depressed (it's a side-effect of dying) and worried about the scar she'll leave behind when the inevitable happens. So her ever patient mom (Laura Dern) sends her to a cancer support group where she has one friend -- sorta -- a soon-to-be blind dude named Isaac. (Nat Wolff) Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) had cancer at one point, and lost his leg to it, but now he's okay. He comes to the support group to, well, support his soon-to-be blind friend Isaac. And there, Hazel and Gus meet.

And with an opening like that, you can be sure that angst-filled romance is to follow.

In case you didn't know, this movie is based on the novel of the same name by John Green. It's an extremely popular book, but I'm usually not big on teen romances, especially if there's fatal illnesses involved. (And that was a big understatement.) But armed with an understanding of the awesomeness of the author, and the promise that it was better than a typical cancer romance, I gave it a shot. And if all sappy teen romance novels were as good as The Fault in Our Stars, then I probably would have read more than just one in my life.

Gus, Isaac, and Hazel may not look like much -- between the three of them they have five legs, four eyes, and two and a half working pairs of lungs. But they also have two dozen eggs.

So, as it always is with novels and their film adaptations, I already knew the best version of the story (the original is the best by rule) which I think helped and hindered my enjoyment of the film at the same time.

It helped in ways like making me even more impressed by already impressive acting and characterization through of my previous knowledge of the characters. Shailene Woodley was guaranteed to be a perfect Hazel from the very beginning, and she didn't disappoint. She is sweet and sullen and honest and caring and endearing and everything Hazel is supposed to be -- except not a teenager. She fakes it well of course, and Hazel is a mature sixteen-year-old anyway. Ansel Elgort matches Woodley's acting stroke for stroke for his part, and makes a very charming, adorable and accurate Gus. With the story belonging to Hazel, he received more of the dreaded Chopping Block of Adaptation, but managed wonderfully in spite of it. The two make as great pair, and I especially love how their friendship shines through their relationship more often than romantic tension.

They were obviously having fun with their roles, but not too much to spoil the performances.
Often with adaptations, the source material is only used as "more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules," so much so that occasionally you wonder if the writers' book was actually different from yours. The best though, are always done treating the book as a rule book, and that is what was done here. And it lands this film somewhere in my top five best book-to-film adaptations. Having John Green involved in the filming probably helped, fear of the wrath of the fans probably helped, but the biggest factor I'd say is very simple: the book demands its respect; it is unquestionably its best version this story could be. The filmmakers knew that, so they made it as similar as possible. Changes are minute and usually insignificant. But -- there are exclusions, as there always are.

Here is where knowledge of the book hindered my enjoyment. There isn't much original material that could be qualified as bad or unnecessary, so good parts are left out. Some being amongst my favorites; things I was anticipating seeing acted out on screen. It's the nature of the beast, but it still leaves empty spaces wanting to be filled. And being catered to the General Audience -- a relentlessly shallow creature -- it felt less personal than the novel.

I guess I just favored the less commonly liked parts more.

I wish I could separate the two, and judge the film without reference to the book, but they are so similar that I start every paragraph with the intention of doing just that, and still wind up using the word "adaptation" again. The film is the book, but less; and the best I can say about their differences is this: the film's best parts are different from the book's best parts, and that was very interesting and pleasing to see.

Watching the story rather than reading was enjoyable in a different way, and that plus the all-around fantastic performances from thoughtfully cast actors, and the simple, lovely look makes the film well worthy of its existence. It may not go as deep as the book, but it still goes deeper than any other films of its type that I can think of. The sap and the sentiment are both layered on as thick as it can get, but finds plenty to balance it with on the other side, with delightful light comedy and moments of honesty and sincerity. At the film's opening, our heroine tells us that there are two ways to tell sad stories: sugar-coat it, or tell it how it is. I think in this case though, the best route was taken, and it was neither; but rather a mix of sugar and honesty that made a happy, and sad, and heartfelt medium.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not is our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings. -- William Shakespeare

Friday, July 18, 2014

Anticipating The Guardians of the Galaxy

Confession time: I have not, to the best of my memory, ever read a superhero comic. So I have no previous knowledge about this superhero sci-fi action/adventure comedy called Guardians of the Galaxy, but it's as highly anticipated for me as a Marvel movie can be. (Marvel movies can be anticipated to a stronger degree than regular movies, don't cha know?) I may not be a comic reader, but I am certainly a Marvel fan, and I knew I would see this movie the moment I knew it existed. But I don't devote entire posts to the subject of anticipating something lightly. Here are 7 reasons why my excited anticipation is so extreme:

1. The cast of characters.

An assassin, a thief, a raccoon, a maniac, and a tree walk into a lineup....

The last time Marvel gave us a cast this unprecedented it was 2012, and it broke box-office records. Of course this is pretty different -- none of these characters have previous solo films. But they all look pretty fantastic in their own way.

Bradley Cooper is voicing Rocket, the raccoon with serious anger issues. (In the normal way, not in the turn-green-and-grow-huge-muscles way.) He appears to be the character that everyone will either adore or despise. I plan on adoring. And Vin Deisel is voicing Groot. The "tree." He says everything by saying, "I am Groot." Should be hilarious.

Dave Bautista is Drax. Very large, green and red patterned skin, no shirts required. I tried to figure out what their Avenger equivalent would be, and I got stuck with Rocket and Groot, (combined, they make up the Hulk) but Drax's would have to be Thor. The crazy muscles help of course, but mostly because Drax's way of speaking is very Shakespearean, and the intricacies of language escape him.

Zoe Saldana is a mysterious alien again as Gamora, but this time green. And the pink hair ends is a good touch. (Everyone knows the pink goes good with green, right?) She also gets some very dramatic cheekbones, and I would be surprised if she is given every ounce of dry wit this movie has to offer. Obviously, she's the Black Widow of the group, but even if she wasn't a girl, she'd probably still get the title. She looks to be the best at hand to hand combat, and is a loner, emotionless, and scary. Oh yeah, and pretty.

And Chris Pratt is the hero that no one has heard of, Star-Lord. Or just Peter Quill. Of Earth. The movie hasn't even released yet, but he's still already the latest go-to guy for a charming and handsome leading action/adventure man. You could attribute it to all the weight he lost for this role, but are people really that shallow? Uhm... Well, Director James Gunn isn't; he was ready to cast him and give him a CG six-pack. Fortunately that wasn't necessary. Star-Lord is the Iron Man (charming and cocky) Captain America (sincere leader) and Hawkeye (epitome of cool) of this group all at once, and is as good-looking as whichever one you choose. But the best comparison really is that he's like a space Indiana Jones. So, basically, he's Han Solo.

Look at this picture and then tell me honestly that it doesn't remind you of Indy. I can just see him rubbing his chin, and then pulling out a bag of sand...

And of course as a diligent Doctor Who fan, I must mention Karen Gillan as villainous lady Nebula. She shaved her head for this role, and looks awesome. I mean just absolutely fantastic. I have no idea what her character will be like, but do not doubt of its incredible-ness. And I fully expect an epic battle between her and Gamora.

This is what happens when you stop traveling with The Doctor, Amy...

Neither do I doubt the incredible-ness of Lee Pace (aka Thranduil of the Hobbit movies) as Ronan, (the ACCUSER!) who is the main villain of this film. Keep rocking those eyebrows, elf-king. I look forward to your evil monologues.

The rest of my points are all very closely connected. There is: 2. The trailer. Which features: 3. The soundtrack. Which helps give the movie: 4. The unique style.

Here's the original trailer which introduces the characters with some humor and gives out a taste of the snazzy action, all to the tune of Blue Swede's Hooked on a Feeling:

And the second trailer, which makes a valiant attempt to show us a serious and epic film, but can't help adding in a little comedy at the end.

And here's something fun -- a trailer for the original Star Wars trilogy, in the style of Guardians of the Galaxy! It makes me want to re-watch Star Wars almost as much as I want to see Guardians.

It's really the music that does it. Speaking of, below is the official GotG soundtrack cover.

Seriously. It doesn't get more awesome than this.

And here is the track list:
  1. "Hooked on a Feeling" Performed by Blue Swede
  2. "Go All the Way" Performed by Raspberries
  3. "Spirit in the Sky" Performed by Norman Greenbaum
  4. "Moonage Daydream" Performed by David Bowie
  5. "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" Performed by Elvin Bishop
  6. "I'm Not in Love" Performed by 10cc
  7. "I Want You Back" Performed by Jackson 5
  8. "Come and Get Your Love" Performed by Redbone
  9. "Cherry Bomb" Performed by The Runaways
  10. "Escape (The PiƱa Colada Song)" Performed by Rupert Holmes
  11. "O-O-H Child" Performed by The Five Stairsteps
  12. "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" Performed by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell 
 Retro meets sci-fi is one of my most favoritest things. And clever use of music in film is another -- when the music actually becomes a part of the film, not just something to listen to while there's no dialogue. I could put some examples, but really that's another whole post on its own. One I'll wait to write until I've seen Guardians, just in case it goes as I predict and has some of the best examples itself.

As for the style, well, I've never seen a James Gunn film before, so I don't know exactly what his style is. I do know that he was hired so that he could lend his unique style and flair to the film. And if any of what we're seeing here is at all a clue... with the overall overwhelming boldness... the quirky characters... the dark, gritty tone... with a shiny, space finish...

And just look at that color palette! The dark earth-tones contrasted with bright neons. Every single one of these pictures is a work of art in itself. Just look at the textures, and the lighting and the contrast...

Okay I'm getting a little of-topic. Photos and trailers have been misleading before, but if they were any indication, we're in for a real treat with this movie, and making it in the style of James Gunn was the right decision.

6. I have one final point to make. It's very simple, and gives the film the most credibility, and can be summed up in one word: Marvel. I trust that they know what they're doing (because they really really do) and am staking a ton of hope on the success and awesomeness of their latest film. I usually think it is unwise to set expectations so high and risk disappointment, but this is much more fun right now.

7. Wait wait, I forgot one. And this is, like, all my points combined. Very important. Look:

Their tagline is "You're welcome." People. Their tagline is "YOU'RE WELCOME."

So, tell me: on a scale of 1 to "dying," how excited for this movie are you? What in particular is most exciting to you? (I'm assuming you are at least a little bit excited since you made it to the end of this post.) (Did you notice I skipped number 5? I did. Just now. And now I guess I'll leave it.) And isn't that the absolute best tagline ever?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Giant Mechanical Man

This review is spoiler-free.

The Giant Mechanical Man is a pretty much completely unknown movie, and the title doesn't represent it very well if you don't know what it's about, so just bear with me on this.

And no, this has nothing to do with transformers. It doesn't even have any literal robots.

Jenna Fischer is, as anyone who has seen The Office will know, the perfect embodiment of an everygirl. An everyman is easy enough to find in movies, but "everygirl" apparently isn't even a word. But Jenna Fischer is one. Or at least she can play one. And so Janice is one. Janice is a 30-somthing New Yorker with an unfulfilling job, and has a hard time paying her bills, and she doesn't know what she wants out of life.

Tim is very similar to Janice in many ways, but an everyman he is not. He's a street performer. Every day he gets up, coats his face is shiny silver paint, puts on stilts and a shiny silver suit, and goes to work where he stands like a statue, and only moves as if he were a machine. But underneath that paint he is pretty much exactly the same as Janice. His job is unfulfilling -- the common-folk don't understand the artistry, and it doesn't make him much money -- and he is being pressured to move on in his life, but can't see any direction to go.

Oh, did I mention? This is a romantic comedy.

And with that one sentence, you have made at least one prediction that you are probably right about. But if you've gotten this far, don't give up on me yet, because if this were a typical cheesy rom-com, I wouldn't be bothering to review it.

First of all, on the comic side, there is some quality comedy. No stale, reused slap-stick here. This film is funny -- truly, laugh-out loud-funny -- because that's what it is, naturally. It couldn't not be. It's releasing and comfortable to watch, and wonderfully refreshing to see.

And then to balance the comedy, there's a surprisingly deep (and even darkish) and thoughtful side as well. Movies feature all the time characters who aren't satisfied with their regular or middling lives. And those people inevitably go out and chase their dreams and find fulfillment, and I have no problem with that. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty did that, and it was great. However, this movie presents them in a way that feels almost taboo; because in our culture it is not okay to not know what you want out of life. To not have clear dream to pursue. But Janice and Tim -- they don't. Their lives are at a crossroad, except they can't even see where the new paths start. And the film suggests that it is okay. And if you're thinking that's uncharacteristically deep for a rom-com you're absolutely right.

Did I mention that this film is also an independent?

That leads me perfectly into the romance, because indies have a certain quality about them that is used particularly well here; our two leads -- you know, the ordinary, unsure everypeople? -- they sound like real people too. I love the conversations they have; in a typical rom-com, you might call them "awkward," but they're not, just realistic really. So even when the film takes slight turns into the cute sappiness, it feels comparatively more real, and makes those moments all the more sweeter. And the two do make a very cute couple. The "genre" of an indie film doesn't by nature mix well with the traditional rom-com genre, but this movie finds a way to blend them and not leave anything wanting from either side.

Jenna Fischer as Janice, as I said, makes for a very relatable, everygirl kind of character. She is sweet and charming, and truly funny in a not at all obvious or abrasive kind of way. You just suddenly find yourself laughing at her -- or with her. And Chris Messina as Tim, I never noticed before I saw this film. I've seen him in several films, but didn't recognize him. At first I even figured he was an unknown cast for his talent as a mime (which is very good) but no. This makes it even more impressive how quickly he won me over. His Tim is more of a defeatist than Janice, but in his way is every bit as sweet, charming, funny, and relatable as she.

Both give more the kind of performances you expect from an indie rather than a rom-com.

But fine performances and small amounts of deeper meaning don't at all dampen the rom-com effect. I watched this expecting some cute and sweet romance and that's what I was satisfied with at the end. Some of it was downright adorable. Some of it was maddeningly relatable. Some was strangely illuminating. A lot was uniquely amusing, or even hilarious. All simply, neatly made. And of course, revolving around a giant mechanical man, wandering aimlessly through life, it is entirely unlike anything else.

Oh, and did I mention? The Giant Mechanical Man is available for instant streaming on Netflix...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Upcoming Movie Roundup - July

Welcome to a very special edition of my monthly Upcoming Movie Roundup! Today will feature nothing but why I will not be going to see any movies releasing this month. It's very exciting.

This month is looking so boring I'm wondering if I'm missing anything -- besides all the annoying horror flicks and raunchy R-rated comedies that is. I hope no one's motivation for not scheduling any interesting movies for July was because they were afraid of Transformers monopolizing the audience. That would be very sad. Actually, it's already is sad, because it could be true.

In June I did get out to see Edge of Tomorrow, which satisfied my slight craving for a fun and action-packed summer escape. And I can go ahead and tell you right now that I'll only be heading to the theater this month to add more check marks to my June list. The Fault in Our Stars is on the plan, and Snowpiercer is hanging out in limbo.

On to the new movies I won't be seeing:

Earth to Echo
July 2nd; PG
What? What is this anyway? First of all, I've yet to see a "found footage" film, and I don't plan on breaking that streak with... this. My first impression is Super 8 (or E.T. Actually, the poster is totally ripping off E.T.), except for kids, and, I don't know, sillier or weirder, but that actually makes it sound kinda good considering how good those movies are, and I don't think they deserve such a degrading comparison. This second trailer is slightly more interesting, but it'll have to do a lot better than that to convince me to not just re-watch Super 8 instead. So, all that to say, nope.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
July 11th; PG-13
Okay, before you judge me on this one, I have to say that this is absolutely the most interesting new release this month. But seriously. If I have to watch that roaring ape, wearing war paint, riding a horse, through fire, and wielding a machine gun (...I can't even write that without laughing...) one more time. And yes, it's Andy Serkis, and as a diligent fan of his and of the motion capture technology, I am confident I will be seeing this eventually. Just please, not in theaters. Just, no.

July 25th: R
When I first saw this trailer I was interested. It looked like a more extreme version of Limitless except with Black Widow instead of Rocket Raccoon. And Scarlett Johansson has never led a movie solo before, so if this movie is successful, perhaps a Black Widow solo movie isn't so unlikely. Yep I was pretty intrigued. That was before the film was rated, of course. Now it's been slapped with a nice, wonderful, solid R, and I'm mildly disappointed as I say "never mind." (Oh, and that 10%-of-the-brain thing is a old myth...) It could still help bring about that Black Widow movie though perhaps...

July 25th: Unrated
Ugh. Ugh. I don't even want to talk about this one. If it gets an R rating, I'll regret mentioning it at all. I can say one thing really positive about it though: I know for a fact it'll be better than the last Hercules movie. You know -- The Legend of Hercules? Didn't see it? Me either, but it didn't keep me from forming an opinion on it's awfulness. You can't make a movie that bad if you tried. Just ask The Producers. Okay, so, blah blah blah, The Rock, blah blah blah, wow, that's a really big lion, blah blah blah, Rufus Sewell Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt make things a little more interesting, blah. Whew, done.

Because I want to talk about something I actually find interesting, today will also feature a television special. That I will definitely be watching.

Sundays 9/8c, June 29th - July 20th; PBS
Series 2 of Endeavour actually premiered this past Sunday, but I'll let that slide. If you're a fan of Sherlock, then you'll know that even though I say that Endeavour isn't quite as good as Sherlock, that's still very high praise. Sherlock is unmatched in the crime drama world, but Endeavour takes second in my book. It isn't as fast-paced or hilarious, but it always features high quality, intriguing cases, top-notch acting and incredible characters, especially the lead, Shaun Evans as the amazingly understated and endearing Detective Constable Endeavour Morse. I highly recommend this show.

If you're interested, I recommend heading over to the Masterpiece website for free streaming of the latest episode, (and the last episode of series 1.) Series 1 is also instant on Netflix. But each week features a separate case so it wouldn't be too confusing to jump straight in. If you need more convincing, check out my review of series 1. Who needs movies anyway? (Ha, who am I kidding -- but still.) July is the month of Endeavour!

Do you see something in these new releases that I missed? Or is this looking like a dud month from your perspective as well? Sound off in the comments!