Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

I seem to have started a little tradition for myself of reading a Dickens novel over the Christmas season every year. First it was Little Dorrit, after having watched the fantastic, wonderfully long miniseries adaptation by BBC; this past year, it was Nicholas Nickleby, and this time, I did the reading before the watching, falling in love with the book, and then this adaptation.

The Nickleby's.

When his father makes a mistake that results in the loss of his fortune, and then dies soon after, young and naive Nicholas Nickleby and his sweet sister Kate are thrust into the cold and cruel world where they must learn to work for a living. Their good and honest personalities clash with the rest of society and causes much trouble for them, and we follow them through their ups and downs as they determinedly forge a path through the worst humanity has to offer in 1830's London.

This 2001 TV film clocks in at 3 hours, and by my reckoning could have easily been twice as long, because as good as this lesser-known adaptation of one of Dickens's lesser-known novels is, it only seems like a highlight reel of the 770-page book. They did the best they could with the time they had though; the content was packed in at an almost dizzying pace, but it was there intact. Most of what was left out wasn't necessary to include -- Dickens seemed more invested in page numbers than concise, rabbit-trail-less storytelling. Some of my personal favorite parts were left out, but the important plot lines were all present, and a good amount of the not-so-important, but entertaining smaller bits besides.

Our dashing hero.

James D'Arcy, I knew from very early in reading the book, was ideally cast as the young hero Nicholas, and I was not wrong. Nicholas is a potentially tedious character to portray; pride and naivety are easily bothersome flaws for a hero to have, and his positive qualities -- mainly his passionate good heart -- are difficult to bring out on screen without helpfully explaining text, but besides looking the part exactly, D'Arcy does the character justice admirably. My only complaint would be that he comes across a little too reserved or stuck-up at times, and that I tribute to the lack of honest, expressive speeches he gets to make, and that the lighter side of the whole story is left out. He never lacks for charm, sincerity or cheerful optimism though, and one thing done exactly right is his righteous anger; seething underneath his outward calm.

The only character I liked, but didn't wish more screen time or development for was Smike, Nicholas's friend and faithful companion. He's played by Lee Ingleby, and is translated to the screen and portrayed flawlessly. Okay, I did wish one thing more for him, but it was at the end where everything was going at break-neck speed, so I understand. Ingleby was sweet and sad and wonderfully pitiable and everything he should have been.

Their friendship and dynamic together was great.

The gorgeous Sophia Myles is Nicholas's sister Kate, and she winds up in the same place as most other characters; she is obviously well-cast, but doesn't get quite enough time to give the character a full, totally satisfying arc. She does do Kate's kindness, gentleness and sweetness every bit of credit it deserves though, in a true, sincere way. Their mother may fall into the same category of lacking time also, but of that I'm actually glad, since here, she doesn't go on endless flighty ramblings, but you know that she could at any moment, and the threat of it is enough.

Imagining them as their characters in the book was almost too easy. They were perfect for the roles.

There's no shortage of villains to antagonize our hero and his family, but the best (and therefore the worst) of them is also his family -- the uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Ralph is a remarkable, amazingly complex antagonist I thought, and Charles Dance embodies him and his coldness with chilling believability, and underlying human realism. It is much more difficult to understand his inner-workings without Dickens's helpful guidance, but already knowing it, I found I could see it come out in the subtleties of the performance.

The story is about Ralph Nickleby almost as much it is about his nephew; he is no one-dimensional villain.

Other villains' existence was more focused on causing trouble for Nicholas than their thoughts and motivations behind it, so they were all done well; doing their duty and then fading out. Most notably is the Squeers family, who were all -- father mother daughter and son -- detestable through and through. And so disgusting that I wished they wouldn't be shown eating so very much. I have to admit I enjoyed Fanny's attempts at attracting Nicholas though, and it was one of few things that didn't feel hurried. Also worth a mention are Sir Mulberry Hawk (Dominic West) who was perfectly terrible, and his brace of followers, which includes the most familiar face this film can boast; before his rise to fame and mischief-making, Tom Hiddleston! He had a grand total of four words to say, but the camera did like him plenty.

Sir Mulberry and his secondary crony, Old Fashioned Blonde Loki.

The Cheeryble Brothers were the exact opposite of the villains; their sole existence was to make the Nickleby's lives better without examination of "why's," but I must say I wished to see more of their antics, and I definitely missed the inclusion of the honorary third brother Tim Linkinwater, who was undoubtedly excluded from this version for not having anything really important to do.

Then -- ah! -- there are the romantic interests! The definition-of-charming period drama veteran JJ Feild is Kate's, and of course he does a wonderful job being sweet and romantic like always. It goes without saying that they didn't get nearly as much time to develop their relationship as I would have liked. Neither did Nicholas and his girl, played by Katherine Holme. She looked the part perfectly, but had a nasally voice, and was barely given a half a chance to develop a character. A scene was added to give them some extra time on screen together, and a cute as it was, it felt out of place by not contributing at all to the plot.

Yay, Dickensian romance!

At the surface, this story doesn't have much a plot to speak of; it literally just follows the life and episodic adventures of its dashing young hero. Yet I would have sat through ten hours of this movie if it meant only a handful more of those insignificant adventures were included. Nevertheless, this film makes a valiant effort. It sets a good, dark tone, and keeps the focus and heart in the right place; it cast the characters flawlessly -- to actors who, in their turn gave wonderful performances -- and, with an understanding of what was most important to include, the story was trimmed down to three hours in the best way I could imagine possible.

The short run-time is the biggest flaw, and a significant one, causing repercussions throughout the plot and characters and restricting them from their fullest potential. But when their fullest potential is the great amount of time, attention and understanding Dickens devoted to them, the lesser level they reached in a three-hour low-budget film adaptation is not only acceptable, but quite impressive in itself. It doesn't lack in compelling characters, humorous moments, heartfelt moments or classic old-fashioned entertainment, and stays true to the feel and themes Dickens gave it. If it weren't for the attention and love put into this adaptation, I would have wished I hadn't wasted three hours on it, but instead, my one wish is that it could have been even longer; if only so I could spend a few more precious moments in the world of Nicholas Nickleby.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Nanny Diaries

Annie, a fresh college graduate from New Jersey is feeling a lot of pressure from her mother to start her gray, cardboard cutout climb up the ladder in the business world of NYC, but she's not sure if that where she wants to be. Her major was business, sure, but her minor was in cultural anthropology -- the study of humans and their differing societies. She's not sure about that either.

Annie comes in contact with a member of a strange and exotic society known as "rich housewife."

She not sure about anything -- except that she should save this little boy from being run over by a segway. The boy's mother, a rich mom from the Upper East Side, is very grateful. Annie introduces herself, but the mom mishears her and hears "I'm a nanny" instead of "I'm Annie." And wouldn't you know it? Mrs. X (as Annie calls her to protect her name) needs a nanny. Annie likes kids and needs some time to regroup and figure out her life, and decides this would be a good place for her to do that, but she signed up for way more than she thought.

This movie is quite a mishmash of genres, mainly a rom-com with a very large side of drama, or, maybe a drama with a medium side of comedy and a good taste of romance. It's narrated by, and from the perspective of Scarlett Johansson as Annie. Before watching this movie I heard an opinion that she was miscast to be the lead of this movie, and maybe that's so -- it was based on a book that may have a very different kind of lead -- and she certainly is an unconventional choice to play a mild mannered casual everyday kind of girl, but it's exactly that that makes her and the film she leads stand out from other drama heavy rom-coms. She was charming and complimented the script and film style well I thought.

These two go way back, don't they?

On the other side of the romance is another familiar Avenger: Chris Evans. He is the "Harvard Hottie" from upstairs and don't worry, his lack of a name doesn't mean a bit-part role. Of course since there's more nanny drama than romance here their relationship gets the shorter end of the stick, but they're still plenty fun. They have really great chemistry together, as you know if you've seen The Winter Soldier, and this just has a little bit more romance for them to deal with.

Things start getting serious though, when dealing with the X's. Annie uses her time working for Mrs. X as an opportunity to do a kind of anthropogenic study on high class New York families. I don't know at all from experience, but I imagine that some things she observes and the film shows us are stereotypes and/or exaggerations, but some probably hits home too. And for more than just those lucky enough to call the upper east side their home.

Not amused. Not at all amused.

Mrs. X is Laura Linney. I adore Laura Linney, though I've only seen her in a few things, and I must say she really impressed me in this role. Her character was tragic and complex and full of hard layers and the way she played it was well-near mesmerizing. She controlled the screen while it showed her. As far as I can tell, the character was her type -- the lady who is bright and cheerful on the outside but hiding lots of darker things underneath -- but it didn't feel like just another typical role, it felt like a very thoughtful performance, even if the character was just a generalization of that kind of woman. Her son Grayer is played by Nicholas Art and is only occasionally annoying, when he's supposed to be, and is otherwise quite a charmer and quite an actor.

Another generalized character is Mrs. X's distant, cold, super rich husband. He is played by Paul Giamatti, and not at all his type. It was rather scary actually; when the character is first introduced they hide is face for a time, and when it's finally revealed it's made up to be unsettling -- light reddish hair, and contacts to make his eyes a lighter blue. He looks as if he has no soul. And of course Giamatti's performance uses and grows on that impression. He is quite the pro, and produces a character that is arguably stereotyped and just as arguably accurate.

We all know those looks.

The comedy is hit and miss -- some silly, slapstick type things and some things that warranted a chuckle, but nothing particularly flat or particularly memorable. As a rom-com -- however partially -- this movie is not missing any Oscars it's worthy of by being overlooked and disregarded. But, as a rom-com, it actually impresses by being a satisfying lighthearted romance and adding some pretty deep and heartfelt themes and lessons to the mix as well. It's an involving, sweet story that gets its truths right, and is full of talent, making a quite enjoyable glance into a fictional exhibit featuring the strange culture of plastic families and their overwhelmed and observant nannies.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Spectacular Now

This film is rated R, with a high amount of content I consider inappropriate (and did my best to avoid when I could) even imbedded in it's themes, which prevents me from recommending it without reserve. This review focuses on my thoughts apart from those problems.

Major Spoilers throughout.

"Bad boy" meets "good girl" and they rub their traits off on each other, encouraging each other to be simultaneously better and worse, in this realistic, unapologetic look at life and love through the eyes of a high school senior.

Said senior is Sutter Keeley -- on the surface, your average southern, easy goin', sweet talkin', foul-mouthed, foul-minded dude. The kind that has walked every southern high school hallway, plus some. A number have crossed my path. They're hard to miss. He is played realistically, to absolute perfection by Miles Teller. He lives with his mom. He's still mad about his parent's divorce. He's had a long string of serious-but-not-really relationships, the latest of which just dumped him. The only thing he really takes seriously is his partying, and that leaves him waking up at 6:00 AM, on a stranger's front lawn, hungover and wondering where his car might be.

Yet you never dislike him for even a second. The film rides on this character's journey alone.

Actually, someone wakes him up. Literally, from his nap in the grass, and, eventually, figuratively too. Her name is Aimee (played by Shailene Woodley). She goes to the same school as Sutter, but he never noticed her, because she's not his usual type -- she's sweet, reserved, not too confident, and unaware of her beauty. It doesn't take Sutter long to see her good qualities, and he enjoys hanging out with her, but is more interested in her potential to make his ex jealous than anything else -- for while that is. Then he suddenly notices himself beginning to change... for the good.

Of course that's not before Aimee takes the plunge into the world of teen partying, drinking and... loose morals. I wonder though, if Aimee really was the "good girl" we're supposed to believe she was from the beginning. It's clear from the moment they meet that she is interested in him, and is eager to pursue their relationship (in the furthest, shallowest way possible), and come over to "his side." She is "good" only in the worldliest sense. She follows rules; he doesn't. That's all that separates them.

The main reason I braved this turbulent film was because of Teller and Woodley and the glowing reviews they received for their performances. And I'll gladly add my voice to the resounding praise: they were real, they were natural; they were spectacular. Their scenes together -- especially the ones made up of one long take -- are an absolute pleasure to see, just because of the natural ease and grace they possess, making the scene feel more like real-life than I've ever seen accomplished in a film like this. This should also probably be credited to the director, (James Ponsoldt) who undoubtedly encouraged them to act on their impulses and improvise off into rabbit trails if the moment called for it, as long as they reverted back to the script eventually. In this way the pair's relationship was very real, but, I never found it personally, emotionally compelling.

They're also the most convincing twenty-somethings-playing-teens I've ever seen.

What I did find compelling, was Sutter. As good as Woodley is, this movie is all about Sutter, and Teller handled the complexities of the character amazingly. His dilemma over loving Aimee and being afraid that his bad influence is ruining her life is powerful; his issues involving his father, even more so. At first, Sutter's excuse for his bad lifestyle is his dad's absence, something he blames his mom for, believing he was a good man and she kicked him out -- and if she hadn't he would have been raised properly. But then he meets his dad again, (he is played greatly by Kyle Chandler) and realizes with horror that he's nothing like he'd remembered; seeing him was like looking at himself twenty years in the future, and suddenly he has no one to blame for his problems but himself.

Aimee woke Sutter up and told him he was in a hole; meeting his dad again was what made him realize he wanted out; but most importantly, it was his mother who was there to help him with the climb. This part had the least amount of time spent on it, but it was also the most straight-forward, and most untainted positive part of the whole film.

The movie is marketed as a romance. I found it both less and more than that.

In my favorite scene, near the end of the film, Sutter's employer -- and closest thing he has to a father figure in his life -- calls him to his office and gives him a choice: promise to stop coming to work loaded, or get fired. And I love Sutter's honesty; they both know that's a promise he couldn't keep, and so he doesn't make it. They shake hands, and he starts to leave, but then his boss adds that if he were Sutter's father, he might give him a warning lecture about the dangers of what he's doing to himself. With a subtle power that defines the character and film alike, Sutter replies to the good-hearted man that if he were his father, he wouldn't have to.

But Sutter is able to overcome the shadow of his father, realizing that it he alone is responsible for his life, and it's never too late to start living it right. At the end of the movie he is maybe not on the best path, but certainly a better one; meandering towards the light at the end of the tunnel -- with a smile on his face that allows us to hope that he just might make it.

Monday, May 11, 2015

New Trailer - Paper Towns

A month or so ago, I saw that this existed -- a trailer for the new John Green teen novel adaptation. I decided not to watch the trailer immediately though, but to read the book first instead, so as to enhance my reading experience by knowing as little about the story as possible beforehand. I'm glad I waited because the trailer kinda gives away some things -- maybe not spoilers exactly but things that took me by surprise in the book. Here it is:

Based on the book, my impression is that it will makes a good movie. It's not as deep and profound as The Fault in Our Stars perhaps, but is certainly as relevant -- if not more -- and has a message that I like better. Casting looks good to me. The only actor I've seen before here is Nat Wolff -- he played Isaac, Gus and Hazel's blind friend in TFIOS, and I think is ideal casting for Q, the hero of Paper Towns.

Margo and Quentin.

It's hard to tell from a trailer about the people I've never watched before, but they do look promising. Of course, the standards set for Margo, the female lead, and pretty unattainably high. It's like trying to cast The Great Jay Gatsby -- even the most esteemed actors (like Leonardo DiCaprio) seem to lack the finesse to play such a character. (Yes John Green, I just compared your Margo Roth Spiegelman to Jay Gatsby -- I hope you would be happy at that!) Cara Delevingne is better known as a model than an actress, but does have a strangely, intensely striking quality to her, so based on that the chances of her living up to the name seem reasonable.

The trailer promises to be a faithful adaptation, with only details left out or changed from the book, much like TFIOS, and that is a big plus, but also completely expected. I do worry a bit that the grittier parts may be left out though. If they succeed with the adapting, and put half as much heart that was put into The Fault in Our Stars movie, or a tenth of the heart Green put in his book, then it should be a movie worth searching out.

What do you think of the trailer? Want to see Paper Towns, or no? Have you read the book? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, May 8, 2015

10 Favorite Screen Characters

Jamie at Through Two Blue Eyes has tagged me to make a list of 10 of my favorite screen characters, which is something I could not pass up on spending way too much time on!

Instructions: For this quick, fun blog hop, you just name your 10 favorite characters from movies or TV, then tag 10 friends (if you can) to do the same!

Pretty simple. In theory at least. Leaving people out is one of my least favorite things to do, and my list of favorite characters goes on way beyond the number 10. (It goes way beyond 100 for that matter!) But I'll try to not think about it too hard and just go with some favorite characters who have been impressing me with their greatness lately.

The descriptions of the characters my contain spoilers for their character arc. I'll try to keep away from unnecessary plot spoilers though.

"Oh, did you hear that, lads? He says we'll blunt the knives!"
Bofur -- The Hobbit Trilogy (reviews: movie 1, movie 2, and movie 3)

Since this is for favorite screen characters, I will forgo mentioning Bard, Bilbo, and Thorin, because I first loved their characters in a book, not on the screen, but Bofur is different -- there is no personality for him in Tolkien's novel. But the dwarf played by James Nesbitt in the Hobbit movies is full of personality, stands out effortlessly, and is easily my favorite of the twelve dwarves. (And for someone who is just fun and fun to love, he even beats out Thorin.) I love his chipper attitude, the way his hat and braids to not conform to the laws of gravity, and his fantastic mustache. I love that he's always eager to help out, honest and straightforward, and that he's always the one who wonders where Bilbo is. He keeps things peppy and lighthearted and is just generally one very cool dwarf.

"He'll keep calling me... He'll keep calling me until I come over. He'll make me feel guilty... Uh, this is ridiculous. Okay I'll go, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go."
Cameron Frye -- Ferris Bueller's Day Off

This John Hughes iconic classic is, in my opinion, one of the more hilarious movies ever made, and Alan Ruck's Cameron, best friend of professional hooky-player Ferris Bueller is a big part of the film's greatness. He's the guy who protests to everything but is bullied into participating in crazy adventures because the hero is sure that the only reason he's a sour-puss in the first place is because his parents bullied him that way. Definitely true for Cameron. This movie doesn't have much plot or character development to speak of -- it takes place in one day, and is almost nothing but high quality, funny fluff -- but interestingly, Cameron does get quite a bit. He learns to stop worrying and start living. He also stares into the eyes of a child in a pointillism painting and seems to see something quite profound. And he makes a very necessary third wheel to the party of three friends who have the chemistry for teenage adventure and hilarity like no one else.

"You like a man who takes himself too seriously. You want my opinion? You need to lighten up!"
Dr. Johnathan Crane -- Batman Begins (review)

An easily overlooked Dark Knight Trilogy villain what with Bane and the Joker, but Cillian Murphy's psycho psych doctor has found a special place in my heart. It has a little to do with his dramatic and off-putting facial bone structure, and a little to do with his dazzling blue eyes that seem to drill into your very soul, but mostly it's his eerie calm persona, particularly in that one scene where he puts Falcone out of commission. Every time I watch that scene I am struck again by the detail and subtlety of the performance, and the way Crane puts on a poker face, but is just readable enough. I love the details of him; the way he smacks open his mouth and breathes audibly before speaking; the way every eye movement and smile seems like a precise and conscious act; and the way he calls Batman "the bat man."

"Oh, the park? I've always been there. Ever since I was a small Cambodian child. Of course, that was after 'Nam. Then I joined the circus to become a clown fighter. I know about 46 ways to kill a clown. I hate clowns. I'm kidding -- except for the part where I really do hate them."
Owen -- The Way, Way Back (review)

I'm fairly sure that there are no roles that Sam Rockwell has taken that aren't awesome. Every time I see him his characters are the funniest and the coolest. Owen, the underachieving manger of a retro water park though, is arguably his best. He jumps at the chance to befriend an awkward, lonely kid, Duncan, who wanders into his park, impressing him with his extravagant comedy routines, and uncanny ability to dodge work. He becomes a friend, mentor, much-needed father figure, and place to escape to for Duncan. And when Duncan opens up to him, he sincerely encourages and consoles him, putting the jokes aside. Though they seem like opposites on the surface, Owen sees himself in Duncan; someone who is hurting more than he shows, and feels oppressed by the world. He doesn't have all the answers, but commendably does his best help Duncan on his way -- and makes him and us laugh with his signature Rockwell-style banter.

"I'm not seeking forgivness for what I've done, father, I'm asking forgiveness for what I'm about to do."
Matt Murdock -- Marvel's Daredevil (review)

Defense lawyer by day; masked vigilante by night. One interesting twist though: he's blind! As he says though, "there are other ways to see." And he uses every single one of those ways to help him "see" better than sighted people can. Then he uses this skill to kick butt. Awesomely. He fights criminals at night and defends accused criminals during the day, and all the time, fights the devil inside him, and tries to find a balance with it, not knowing if he should embrace or eradicate it. Charlie Cox's immaculate performance portrays both of Matt's contradictory sides with ideal balance. On one side he's kind and gentle, easy-going and fun loving; but is driven, and cares about the things and people that need caring for. Then the darker side does more for those things and people than the good side and the law will allow. This side tells one villain that he enjoys hurting him, and says it very convincingly. The best thing about this character though, is the incredible jaw-dropping fight scenes he is involved in.

"I'm a leaf on the wind; watch how I soar."
Hoban "Wash" Washburne -- Firefly/Serenity

Joss Whedon's TV show Firefly and its sequel film has no shortage of totally awesome, totally original characters. I however, am partial to the goofy pilot Wash, who is, for the most part, the comic relief. He is played with comic genius by Alan Tudyk (along with Whedon's brilliant comedy-writing skills) and never fails to be hilarious and endearing. He's laid back, wears Hawaiian shirts and plays with plastic dinosaurs on his console. He's married to his totally opposite -- the captain's right-hand woman, hardcore and serious Zoe -- and their relationship works every bit as well as you wouldn't think it would. He may be a goofball, but when there's a call for it, can be serious too, and the change just adds that much more gravitas to whatever the situation may be. There are nine very shiny people on board the Serenity, and weird blonde guy who flies her is one of them.

Morse: "How do you do it? Leave it at the door?"
Inspector Thursday: "Cause I have to. Case like this will tear a heart right out of a man. Find something worth defending--"
"I thought I had! Found something."
"Music? I suppose music is as good as anything. Go home. Put your best record on. Loud as it'll play. And with every note, you remember: that's something that the darkness couldn't take from you."
Endeavour Morse -- Endeavour (reviews: series 1; series 2)

Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) is a young, opera music and crossword puzzle loving Detective Constable for the Oxford Police in the 1960's. He's reserved and sensitive, usually quiet with occasional outbursts of passion; very smart, but not very wise. He sees connections in cases that no one else does, and is often ridiculed for his wild theories -- but to be fair, he is by no means right all the time. I like him for these reasons, and because of how he goes against the grain; in his work and pretty much everywhere else, and even as a character. Sure, on the surface he may be your typical brazen, world-weary detective who's a loner and drinks too much, but he's really too young to be world-weary yet, loneliness is a hindrance to him, and his brazenness is a facade too easily seen through. He's also a complete gentleman, gentle, kind and caring. Often scared, but always brave; in some ways modest, in some proud; and if you want someone who will never give up on a case until the end, there are a lot of detective shows out there that boast their detectives have that quality, but for DC Morse, actions speak louder than words.

"You're just different now. You're just different now, and there's nothing wrong with that."
Leo Fitz -- Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.

Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) was always my favorite character -- from the very first episode I believe. First of all, you're naturally twice as awesome if you have a Scottish accent, and Fitz's is an exceptionally good one. Also, I like that he is a novice at field work and unusually not good at fighting for a SHIELD agent. But of course has the bravery go in the field and fight if he needs to. At the beginning of season two he lost a little of his coolness with the trauma-induced speech and motor skills dysfunction, but that just added depth and sympathy to the character. And then, in the 11th episode of season two he just blew me away. I thought for sure he was going to tell someone when he leaves after finding Skye with all the broken glass, but no -- he understood immediately what was going on because he's smart, but he also knew what to do because he's really smart, and is experiencing a similar situation. His quick thinking in that scene seriously impressed me and his compassion and understanding of Skye that made my favorite Agents of SHEILD moment. Now, every time I see him I think to myself, "Oh my goodness, Fitz is so amazing."

"You know, 'nerd culture' is mainstream now. So, when you use the word 'nerd' derogatorily, it means you're the one that's out of the zeitgeist."
Ben Wyatt -- Parks and Recreation

I only ever started watching Parks and Rec for Chris Pratt's hilarious goofball Andy Dwyer, so a few things about the show really surprised me; like how awesome and funny the show is overall, and how great all the characters are. The show's quality gradually gets better from the very first episode, and finally hits its peak only after Ben Wyatt and Chris Trager join the cast of characters. Ben (played by Adam Scott) is the uptight stick-in-the-mud geek; shamelessly nerdy, and surprisingly cool. I began to really like him only because he and Leslie's romance was so cute, and it's really neat how they complement each other in such strange ways, and then upon re-watching some episodes I really began to appreciate the contradictory awesomeness and awkwardness of him. I love how he nerds out over things like the Game of Thrones throne, or creating The Cones of Dunshire or the claymation movie, yet can be very charming as has healthy relationships with everyone in the Parks Department (even Ron!). And I just love that he never gets the appeal of Little Sebastian -- he's like the show's reality check.

"Hello little guy! It's the sweetie man coming!"
Wikus Van de Merwe -- District 9

I only recently saw District 9 for the first time, and in spite of the super-unique premise, and the incredible visual quality of it, the thing that blew me away and impressed me the most was the main character's character arc: Sharlto Copley's dorky South African government employee who gets way more than he signed up for when he is selected to head up the relocation of a huge population of stranded aliens. At first, Wikus is completely unlikable. He's a jerk, insensitive, oblivious and self-obsessed, and putting on a front for the "documentary" cameras -- though I don't think even he knew he was. Once the gloves come off we see the real him -- an even worse person -- still self-serving and even more of a jerk, plus a coward. But he's also confused, scared and desperate, so as we begin to understand him we also begin to sympathize with him and become involved in his journey to heroism. It's a journey that he gives a lot of resistance to, before all at once completing the transformation and becoming a totally awesome, full-fledged selfless action hero. It really is one of the craziest character arcs I've ever seen, and along with Copley's charming and raw performance, makes a very uniquely endearing character.

Phew! And there you have it. And interestingly there seems to be common theme or trait among all these guys, but I'm not sure exactly how to define it... they're all more than they seem to be? That's true of most of my favorite characters. Anyway...

I am tagging:
Banrion An Gheimhridh
Elora Shore
Tegan Hall

Obviously, you're not obliged to participate, but if you'd like to, I love to see your list!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Major Spoilers throughout.

Earth's Mightiest Heroes are all back: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the Hulk; the Avengers -- and Joss Whedon; and the biggest Evil Genius currently in film-making. They've returned to save the world again, because that's what they do.

And they're doing it more efficiently and with more pizzazz than ever now that they've already found their footing as a team.

This is one of those rare cases where the plot is not only just a good excuse to make the movie, but is actually making the movie better by taking the backseat. A Joss Whedon plot is always solid, but priority here is given to character. It's the biggest movie of the summer, brimming with action and distractingly cool special effects, but the thing that left the biggest impression was still the Avengers themselves, and their surprisingly not-super, but superbly-human struggles and dilemmas.

Every Avenger has their moment to shine, and their due dose of character development. And I love the way they were prioritized. Avengers who have solo movies -- that would be Stark, Steve and Thor -- stepped graciously into the background a little and gave the other less fortunate but equally lovable heroes a longer turn in the spotlight -- that would be Barton, Romanoff, and Banner.

"We'll be right here if you need us..."

Clint Barton, or Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) after spending most of the first movie playing MVP for the wrong side, gets the extra development to make up for it, and then some. Mr. I-see-better-from-a-distance is hiding a wife and two-and-a-half kids in a farm house situated on some rolling green hills! This instantaneously gives him both a layer of explanation, and two more layers of mystery. And oh, I was so mad at Whedon, because I knew, I knew it was a great set up to sucker-punch so hard, and I never would have forgiven him (again) if he'd done it, but that Whedon is just too unconventional and unpredictable for that, and my favorite Avenger happily lives on. But not only that, he got to live up to his hero potential in the fight scenes, and got some of the best, most Whedon-esque lines to say, which he owned with burning sarcasm. His equally inspirational and hilarious rant at Wanda was just the best.

Hawkeye sitting on his perch like a cool Hawkeye, 'cause Hawkeye is cool.

And then Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and I mention them together, because yes, they are an item now. And first of all, I like that -- Nat's friendships with Cap and Barton are too good to ruin with romance, and Nat and Bruce make an unexpectedly good pair, on and off the field. Natasha is a beautiful enigma, (the kind that is Whedon's specialty) being so cold and deadly at work, but with her elegant hairstyle, and wearing flouncy skirts off duty. And I loved the way she picked Banner and then just went for it. We all know what she's like when she flirts (as Cap says and Tony knows too) and it's great to see the minute but important differences when she's serious. The dynamic between her and Banner is wonderfully unique, and wouldn't be so without the romantic element.

She is always an interesting, complex and fun character, but Whedon's version of her is my favorite.

Banner, though, I don't quite understand. I certainly understand the center of his character -- his fear of himself -- but I don't understand how that motivates him to act. Plus I assume there's more going on in there besides that. Did he run away at the end because of fear, or because he wanted to be alone, or was he just mad at Natasha for kissing him and pushing him off a cliff? Hard to tell, but whatever kind of mixed-up he is, it's complicated, understandable and convincing.

I like these two together. They're both some strange characters with some serious dark sides; not as different as you might think.

Iron Man, or Tony Stark, (Robert Downey Jr.) is the veteran of the team, and has done so much growing in his three solo outings that he hardly has anywhere to grow now, but does seem to have started on an arc that will lead to some interesting places in the future. He gets his share of snide comments and makes everything look cooler, and that's plenty. Same basically goes for Thor (Chris Hemsworth); he has his humorous moments, and his hinting dramatic moments, and all those bits about people being worthy to lift Mjolnir or not, so he continues to be awesome and quite helpful.

Captain America; Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still trying to find a place where he fits in the world, but he keeps his problems in perspective and concentrates on the problem at hand. It seems like it would be easy to make Cap boring or into a shallow goody-goody, but his well-adjusted persona and predictability instead make him an effortlessly engaging, lovable and sincere character. And I'm glad he got his dance with Peggy, even if it was just a vision.

And now, saying "language!" is a movie reference that even Cap will understand!

Now the newbies; the Maximoff twins, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) or, as they are never referred to in the actual movie, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. They temporarily work for Ultron before switching over to the good side, and for two new characters in an already bursting cast, they make impressively good and compelling additions. Firstly they are important to the plot, but eventually are welcome to the party on their own merit as characters.

I'm looking forward to seeing more of-- well of her anyway. Sadly I can't say the both of them, because Pietro is the one who doesn't make it though the movie. He dies heroically saving Hawkeye and a little boy from a shower of bullets, and it was sad. Sad in a good way -- the kind that actually sincerely induces the word "aww." It made me like the character even more, and gave him that last boost of character he needed. It was neat actually, with Hawkeye being set up for the sucker-punch, and him and Pietro having a testy rivalry going throughout the movie, ending with that reused line, "you didn't see that coming" -- Quicksilver's first and last. So both their development was used up, but now with her being an Avenger and her brother being dead, there's a new beginning waiting for Wanda.

The way their powers are portrayed is cool -- glowing red magic for her and a jagged blue trail for him.

And now -- dun da-dun-dun duuuuun -- Ultron himself. I never really wondered or cared how good a villain he'd be, I suppose because I knew he wouldn't be able to compare with Loki, no matter how creepy he can make children's songs sound. Another point for Joss and Marvel; Ultron doesn't even try to fill Loki's shoes. He even forgoes doing evil plan-revealing monologues! James Spader does his thing that only James Spader can do, and turns Ultron into the most amusing and sinister artificial intelligence that is hip on pop culture you've ever seen. He is a lively robot, and seems to have every human emotion that your typical delusional murderous maniac would have -- right down to temper tantrums. He also looks great; his robotic face is very expressive and just creepy enough, and the way he is every one of his minions adds importance to every kill an Avenger makes. Overall he's just very well planned, designed and acted super-villain.

He will crush you -- and look so patronizingly bored while he does it.

Mentionable, but less featured characters include Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue (you know it's a huge movie if Andy Serkis only gets a side mention, but he does get the biggest side mention, because his short screen time doesn't decrease his awesomeness), Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Cobie Smulders as Agent Hill, Don Cheadle as the War Machine; Anthony Mackie's Falcon, Stellan Skarsgard's Dr. Selvig, and of course Peggy Carter -- Hayley Atwell.

Paul Bettany's Vision is almost a side character, except he's almost not even a character at all -- he's every bit an unwaveringly good AI program, and very little like a human pretending to be a robot. The snarky AI computer JARVIS has always been a favorite of mine, and having the computerized butler become Vision was a great inclusion that fit in ideally with the plot. He may not technically be JARVIS anymore -- floating elegantly through the air on willpower and creating capes out of nothing like some strange celestial being -- but if he sounds like him, is sharp-tongued like him, and yes, looks like him, then there's certainly no loss.

Ultron: "You're unbelievable naive." Vision: "Well... I was born yesterday." Yep -- JARVIS's personality definitely stuck around.

There's only one real problem in this entire picture, and that is that there were a few times during the action scenes where it was hard for me to tell who I was watching and what was going on; most prevalently in the Avenger Tower scene. That's it. Another viewing or two and it will disappear. Otherwise the action is styled perfectly to suit our heroes -- occasionally ever-so-slightly on the cheesy side, but fun, original, fun, magnificent, fun, entertaining, and definitely fun.

There is one thing that can be taken as good or bad: Age of Ultron is basically a replica of the first Avengers. It's the exact same formula -- the exact same ingredients, baked into the exact same cake. Its icing is different of course, with different details, more colors and extravagant decoration -- that is, it's bigger, three years more advanced and filled with more fantastic Whedonisms -- but underneath it's still the same. Here's the thing though; it's a really delicious cake. It is perfection, and everyone knows you don't mess with perfection. Unwritten movie rules try to say that you can't just add details to the original formula for a sequel and make a good sequel at the same time, and often that's true, but I'm glad Whedon ignored the rule and did what he wanted, because this movie was almost exactly the same as the original, and exactly what I wanted it to be.

So congratulations on the resounding win!

With the signature style of Whedon, the Avengers gives us a plethora of brilliant jokes to laugh at, countless moments to surprise and wow us, tricky mind games to worry us about the fate of our favorite heroes (or was that just me he was torturing?), and a couple deeper thoughts to tempt us to chew on that complements our popcorn. It gave us a long but fast-paced and epically scaled clash of a plot line, ending with a grand climactic battle in the sky against a totally evil and dislikable, but never annoying villain -- to a perfectly satisfying conclusion. Every technical aspect was sharpened to a fine point; superhero-ed cinematography style, clean and bright special effects, a meticulously honed script for maximum cheekiness in banter, and a cast that obviously had so much fun, yet delivers on the involving performances from the smallest side character, to the mightiest of the many mighty heroes.

To put it very, very simply: this movie is awesome.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Upcoming Movie Roundup - May

Avengers, assemble! Things went according to plan again, and April became the Avenger month for me. My theater does it's movie premieres the night before, so by the time this lovely month of May had rolled around I was already deep into the fangirling about how great Age of Ultron was. It was pretty darned fantastic, in fact, and if you expect to see a review of it popping up within the next few days you will not be disappointed. (You also won't be disappointed with the film itself.)

So now I can focus my May movie attention to all these other movies that Ultron had before overshadowed. Turns out, it's looking like a pretty fantastic month, with quite a few very interesting releases.

Have you seen Age of Ultron yet/when will you be seeing it? And what other May movies have your attention?

Here are the ones who have mine:

Far From the Madding Crowd
May 1st(limited); PG-13
The appeal of this one is that it's a period drama with Carey Mulligan. It's an adaptation of the novel by Thomas Hardy, (SPOILERS) and normally, that would make me very wary, since he typically has his stories end in tragedy, but I heard that this one doesn't, and that makes me very interested. (END)

May 1st(limited); R
This is a comedy about an uptight mother (Helen Hunt) who follows her oppressed son (Brenton Thwaites) to LA to nag him about going to college and instead gets her life changed. It doesn't really look like it'll be ground-breaking or anything -- I mean, the trailer practically gives away the whole movie -- but it does have a nice cast (Luke Wilson is also in it) and it looks funny enough, and rather sweet and if I ever watch it, that'll be all I expect from it.

Mad Max: Fury Road
May 15th; R
I've only seen parts of the Mel Gibson original Mad Max movies, so I don't really feel like I have any right be be super interested in this remake. And I'm not really. Certainly the cast of Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult is interesting, and it all looks very stylishly crazy, and of course super-duper violent, and visually quite impressive. And orange. I'll be surprised if it turns out to be not as good as it promises to be, but it may be a while before I see for myself.

May 22nd; PG
Well -- it's an adventure flick, I can see that much. And sci-fi too. And George Clooney is in it, and that girl from The Longest Ride, Brittany Robertson. Brad Bird is directing, so that's a huge plus. But what's it about? I couldn't begin to explain. Every time I watch a new trailer it get weirder and more ambiguous about anything to do with plot. It's based on a Disney theme park "land" so maybe that explains the ambiguous-ness, or maybe they're just trying to be secretive about it. Either way, I'm intrigued.

May 29th; PG-13
Simply put, this is a rom-com with Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone, so count me in. It has a few more pluses on a technical level; it's directed by Cameron Crowe, it co-stars Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin, and it's set in Hawaii. But honestly, my interest comes down to the the fact that this trailer just makes it look like a great romantic comedy with Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone. Yep, I'm basing my opinions off a trailer -- and I fully expect to be right.

San Andreas
May 29th; PG-13
I'll keep it short here: this movie is the new disaster movie that I will be laughing over with my brothers come whenever we can watch it for free.