Thursday, June 25, 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes of the Intergalactic War of the Total Carnage of the Blood of the Innocent People of the Planet of the Apes. 

As it is less-commonly known.

(Some Spoilers beyond.)

So as a result of the drug that caused the apes to become smart in Rise of the Planet of the Apes of the Beginning of the Events of the War of the Population of the Apes of the Planet of the Apes, being given to humans, there is a global epidemic that wipes out nearly all of humanity. Amongst those left are Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman. They need power, and unknowingly trespass on ape land -- Caesar's (Andy Serkis) land -- looking for it. War almost breaks out for the first two acts, and then finally does for real right as soon as the film ends.

Jason Clarke regrets signing something maybe? Or left the stove on?

Okay, right up front I have to say: this movie is just awful. I didn't expect to love it going in, but I did expect to appreciate it. I mean, seriously -- it has an impressive 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, but there's no way that a movie about smart apes warring with post-apocalyptic humans is ever going to be a favorite movie of mine. I expected to tolerate the plot, and appreciate the artistry, but the plot wound up being boring with a super-sized side of irritating, and the CGI varied from just as expected to weirdly cheap.

The animation budget seemed to be spent on just two apes -- Caesar and the villainous Koba (Toby Kebbell) -- they were the only two who were consistently flawless and perfectly detailed. The rest of the apes were generally alright -- about the quality they were in Rise. Anything that was animated and not an ape... oh my goodness. The herd of elk at the beginning looked like a video game. Even explosions looked cheap. And most interaction between man and ape was not quite convincing. The ape's expressions were realistic because there were talented actors behind that CGI, but motion-capture technology is not enough of a novelty to me anymore for that alone to impress. Is it just because I'm a year late to the party, or am I missing something?

He looks great, but honestly, I'm still more impressed by Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.

And even if the effects were as awesome as they were hyped to be there would still be that plot to deal with. Arg. First of all, whose genius idea was it for this to be a two-hour, ten-minute buildup to a war that's gonna happen in the next movie? I was waiting the whole time for nice battle of epic scope, and all I got was one little skirmish near the end. This movie was so anti-war that they actually didn't have the war. 

In the middle of the movie I had a thought that maybe they would prevent the war, and no battle would take place in the whole movie -- and that they'd filmed the battle clips showed in the trailer just to deceive us. If that had actually happened this would have been the best movie ever; but still super boring.

"Onward to war, faithful black steed!" "Yes my King Kong-- er, Koba!"

Like I said the first two acts were just the dramatic threat of war, and that was boring enough as it was, but on top of that, neither side was actually bad. Caesar, the leader of the apes, and Jason Clarke, the spokesperson for the humans were both perfectly willing to get along peacefully and trustingly.

"But people -- there has to be a war. It's important. What do we do?"
"Contrive the heck out of it."
(This was probably not a real conversation the movie's writers had.)

And in comes Koba, who hates humans, and wants them gone for good. And in comes Gary Oldman, who's a distrusting coward, and with his perfectly reasonable act of precaution of making sure the humans have the means of defending themselves, Koba is able to misunderstand and justify his rebellion. Misunderstandings. Yep. Those wonderful, ever-helpful misunderstandings.

Interestingly enough, this type of misunderstandings in movies -- of which this film could be the poster child -- is my biggest pet peeve in movies. When two seconds of thought or just a drop of common sense could make sense of the matter, but it doesn't, because this plot point it's contriving needs to happen to keep the story going. Well, the story keeps going, but now I don't even want it to.

That was what pushed the movie over the edge for me.

No. Just... no. Please.

Besides that, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes of the War of the Stupidity of the Humans and Apes of the Failed Peace of the Planet of the Apes tries so hard to be serious and culturally relevant with drama and understated statements, but does it all so wrong. It's humorless, aloof and totally uninvolving; not drawing us in, so when things get serious and dramatic we're still thinking about how ridiculous it is that apes are riding horses, and can't get involved in the emotion of the moment. And its "cultural statements" are nothing more than humanistic sentimentality designed to trick us into forgetting that this movie never actually says anything.

I love Andy Serkis, and all his work I've ever seen. And I like Jason Clarke a lot too, who gave a valiant effort to the task of carrying this huge wet blanket of a film along with Serkis. They're both superiorly talented actors, but the film swallowed them. Good grief -- it swallowed Gary Oldman for crying out loud! What kind of bottomless pit of a movie is so terrible that it pulls talent like this down with it? That is actually very impressive. I'm impressed by that. And that's about all.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tom Holland is Spider-Man

The second reboot of the Spider-Man film franchise has it's new lead: Tom Holland.

Tom is a nineteen-year-old British actor, known mainly for his role in The Impossible. Before getting into movies though, he played Billy Elliot on stage, and being trained in dancing as you would have to be to play Billy will certainly also be very helpful for swinging from buildings with the classic Spidey grace.

A couple years ago for April Fools I fake cast him as one of three potential Eustaces for the fake adaptation of The Silver Chair. I'm excited now to see for real what he can do, and if his franchise will be able to outlast the last two.

What do you think of the new Peter Parker and friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Jurassic World

This is a Spoiler-free review.

The Park is open.

And it's already boring (in fiction anyway). Jurassic World overcame the horrors of the disastrous 1993 theme park it was built on top of and became amazingly successful, but then the consumers began to get bored of real-life dinosaurs. They want something new; something exciting; something cool. So some scientist mixed together a bunch of genes and the result was a dino even scarier than the T-Rex: the Indominus rex.

It doesn't take much imagination to figure out what happens next.

Bothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) are sent to Jurassic World to visit their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) while their parents (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) have a nice quiet divorce. Claire is very busy preparing the Indominus rex for her unveiling. Owen (Chris Pratt -- but you definitely know that one) is very busy training his Velociraptors to obey his commands -- and not eat him. Mr. Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) is very busy trying to convince Owen that the Velociraptors should be used in the field -- for war. Once the Indominus gets loose and starts on a killing spree, everyone is very busy trying to not die.

Elements of the plot are obviously very predictable, with most events mirroring one from Jurassic Park, and that's not at all a bad thing -- this movie takes the predictable and goes to predictably exciting places with it. But then, as much of homage to and modernized carbon copy of the original Jurassic it is, it still has its own original ideas as well, that freshen it up for an audience easily bored and with high expectations.

Well -- THAT'S new.

They way they handled the trained Velociraptors for one. I thought it would be unbearably cheesy, but they maintained their danger in spite of the training, making them unstable, and it did wonders for the films suspense level. We all know Chris Pratt's character isn't going to get eaten, but we enjoy worrying about it all the same. And the Indominus was a seriously cool mash-up of a lot of seriously cool (and totally far-fetched) ideas. It's like the gleeful creation of a dino-obsessed six-year-old who's been trained in art design and high fashion. It's awesome.

The only problem plot-wise is that by the end they've painted themselves into a corner, and the resulting desperate leap for satisfying conclusion is less climatic than it's set up to be. Others may also point out gaps in logic in varying sizes, and I won't deny their existence, but I'd rather have them present along with the fun and awesomeness they help contrive than not.

When I watch cheesy thrillers about dinosaurs in the modern day, realism is not high on my list of must-haves.

At the top of my must-have list is a great cast, and Chris Pratt fills that category alone. I've known how awesome he is for at least a year now, but I seriously doubt that being reminded of the fact is ever going to get old. The role of Owen (like many other roles he's had and will have) is perfect for him. This one allows him to be cool and serious in a stylized, almost tongue-in-cheek kind of way. He is the epitome of the rugged hero, who quips at the villains, flirts with the ladies, and delivers the overly-dramatic lines with straight-faced gusto and a cool smolder.

Summary of this review: Chris Pratt rules; carries movie; beats up dinosaurs.

The rest of the cast only adds to all that. Bryce Dallas Howard I do like, and she never fails to do a great job, but here her character is the obligatory annoying good guy. She does overcome it fairly well by the end, but then there's something wanting in her chemistry with Pratt. But, since Jurassic World is in no way a romance, that can't be a big complaint. The two kids, I am very pleased to report, are in no way annoying. They have finally perfected how the make the Jurassic kids act brainlessly and get themselves into huge trouble and still make them endearing. And the development of these brothers's relationship was interestingly poignant for an action/thriller.

Keep back kids; it's a very scary thing -- character development!

I'm always happy to see Judy Greer in a cast list because her name is always a guarantee of a well-developed and acted supporting character, and so I must mention that as the boy's mother here, that guarantee comes through yet again. Fans of British entertainment may also recognize Katie McGrath in a smaller role. And then of course Vincent D'Onofrio makes a great and creepy bad guy; not even close to the level that he was as Wilson Fisk, but the exact right amount for this kind of movie. I enjoyed hating him very much.

A welcome surprise to the fray of thrilling carnage was how many throwbacks and references there were to Spielberg's original classic. They even did the rear-view mirror gag, which I specifically did not expect would happen. Sentimentality came on fast when the ruins of the original park are visited, and John Williams' original theme plays loud, proud and magnificent. This movie, as updated, upgraded, revamped and, well, evolved as it is, is obviously still proud of its origins, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

A roar of approval!

The fourth installment (or reboot, if you like) of the Jurassic Park series goes back to its vintage roots of epic wows and thrills, high-quality special effects and the cheesiest awesomeness money can buy. It may not be a great movie in terms of award-worthy storytelling, but as pure entertainment it takes gold as the best popcorn flick since the last time Chris Pratt graced the big screen. Jurassic World is rip-roaring, thrilling fun from start to finish.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Larry Crowne

This review is Spoiler-free.

Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) gets fired from his job as a salesman at U-mart. After retiring from the Navy he spent his life working hard at this job, trying to climb the ranks, only to be told that his lack of a college education is what left him in the dust of more educated but much less talented and devoted workers. And now, times are tough, so they cut him loose. He thought he was going to be employee of the month again.

That's life for ya.

In serious need of a job, but determined not to let anything get in his way this time, he trades his gas-guzzler suburban for a moped and signs up for classes at the local community college -- an economics class, a writing class and a speech class, the three first building blocks for a successful businessman -- but one of those classes would even go so far as to highhandedly change his life.

Speech 217: The Art of Informal Remarks. Taught by a sullen and sarcastic Mrs. Tainot (Pronounced Tay-no, not Tay-not) (Julia Roberts), who has a deadbeat husband (Bryan Cranston) and a pretty serious alcohol problem.

The plot of this movie builds up like real life. Events happen, never really anything big or dramatic, but by the end they have built into something pretty substantial. Though it's not hard for Larry's life to improve once it get as low as it is at the beginning, it's quite rewarding to watch him reevaluate himself and start down a fresh path with a fresh optimistic outlook, and find happiness there. This movie has nothing huge or life-changing to say, but what it does say it says sincerely and with plenty of entertainment.

These two. Mostly, her.

My favorite part is the characters and there's an awesome cast to play them, right down to the supporting characters. Tom Hanks is always charming, and watching him transform from frumpy and dated nerdy goof to cool and lively gentlemanly hero is more fun than I expected it'd be. To instigate his physical change is Talia (the amazingly diversely-talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a young, laid back free-spirit who invites him into her scooter gang, and is constantly buying him new, cooler things from haircuts to watches. Her boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama) is not a little bit jealous and makes for many amusing situations.

In the classroom, Mrs. Tainot is quite the character and the movie is nearly just as much about her as it is Larry. Life doesn't push her reset button for her, and she must figure out how to do it herself while navigating random inconvenient complexities and teaching people how to speak all the while. The few students of her class are all unique characters, even the smallest ones, and I love that. The best is the dumb skater dude played by Rami Malek. He may be totally stereotyped, but he's also totally hilarious and totally my favorite.

Ah, education.

I also must mention Larry's neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) and his wife (Taraji P. Henson) who run a 24/7 yard sale in their front yard, because, wait for it, they won a TV game show. Plus George Takei teaches Larry's Economics class. Yep, if nothing else this movie knew how to create some wacky and charming characters.

Besides starring, Tom Hanks actually directed and helped write this one too, and I say great job to him. The writing is sharp and memorable, and the directing is solid if free of a particular style. The story has some very unique qualities to it that are less about making a traditional comedy sure to attract crowds and more about telling a small but meaningful story honestly, and letting the charm and entertainment come through naturally. There was only one instance in the whole film that felt forced, and I was amused and charmed in every scene. Some of it is seriously funny, and lots of it has an understated thoughtfulness to it, so it makes you think and then sticks with you.

Did I mention there is a smidgen of romance? Yup.

This film has a bit of a bad rep for being dull and many reviews to back that up, but I honestly think that reaction is only because of wrong expectations. There is nothing at all wrong with Larry Crowne, except that it wasn't what people expected it to be (something groundbreaking that redefines the comedy genre probably -- people have high expectations of Tom Hanks, and why not?). It doesn't redefine anything, but sometimes the hero doesn't have to save the whole world for the movie to be great and that is absolutely the case here. Give a little attention to this charmer (though it may give you a frumpy first impression) and reap the unexpectedly sweet rewards.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd

Given a limited release in May, this adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel finally made it to a theater near me, and, I actually went and saw it!

The story is set in 1870, and focuses on the life, trials and love of a young woman named Bathsheba Everdene. (The ever-immaculate Carey Mulligan.) Like a similarly named young female character (who is now more famous than this character who inspired her existence) Ms. Everdene is a strong-willed and free-spirited woman. She is an orphan, and relishes the fact that she has no one to answer to or depend upon. She inherits a farm and begins to run it herself.

But there are three men in this story and you know what that means -- tons of that very special drama that only a love triangle can create. (Is it still a triangle if there are four persons involved?)

I can hardly talk about anything I liked or didn't like without spoiling the entire basic plot of the movie, so the next several paragraphs will be doing just that. If you want to avoid spoilers skip to the marked end of the section. (Six paragraphs down, near the bottom, after the last photo.)

---- Spoilers! ----

He appealed to her dependence -- something she rejected and repressed.

The first of the three men is Gabriel Oak, (Matthias Schoenaerts) a shepherd who becomes her friend while she is still poor. He is a very straightforward, no nonsense kind of man, and when he falls in love with her, he asks her if she would like to marry him -- just like that, simply and sincerely. Bathsheba is not impressed, but turns him down gently. Then when he loses his flock and land to an accident and after she inherits her farm, she hires him to shepherd her sheep, and though he gives up on the possibility of marrying her he is always loyal to her -- a friend and an honest councilor.

The second is her neighbor, William Boldwood. (Michael Sheen) He is an older gentleman and never would have given her a second thought if it weren't for a silly and thoughtless act on her part of sending him a Valentine. He falls hopelessly, and she feels too sorry for him to tell him no outright, so there is almost always an unanswered marriage offer between them. Of the three men I feel most sorry for Boldwood -- hung up on her, miserable, and always kept in suspense.

He appealed to her purse -- something that constantly worried her.

And the third is Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) -- young, handsome, charming, and bitter. The woman he loved jilted him at the altar, and he looks at Bathsheba as nothing more than an interesting challenge. Mr. Oak and Mr. Boldwood respect, and are perhaps even a little intimidated by her stubborn independence, but Troy knows how to play a woman, and the willful Bathsheba bends to him just as easily as any other woman might. They marry and he begins to gamble away her money. Then his love turns up again, and explains how she didn't mean to jilt him. He promises to help her, but she dies. After that, there are only two options for a character in his situation, and he tries both unsuccessfully. I won't spoil this specifically, but I just love it when that happens to a character, and this one was handled particularly well.

He appealed to her vanity -- something she would never deny.

In the end Bathsheba is left with only two choices: one man, or no man, so we can hardly be proud of her choice. In fact she chose wrongly several times and still ends up with the best man. I must say though I was pleasantly surprised. I did not expect Bathsheba's independence to be portrayed as such a bad thing as it was, but she wasn't really a strong and independent woman -- not at first. At first she was only willful so that someone could tame her, and that's why she fell for Troy. She wanted to be trouble for someone and she was. The end doesn't see her as changed as I would have liked to see, but she is at least not a silly schoolgirl who relishes drama anymore. She begins to adopt a real strength, learns to understand herself and discovers what she really wants, and then chooses the man she should have chosen in the first place.

Though Ms. Everdene is the center of this story, I hesitate to call her a heroine. The hero, however, is obviously Gabriel. He always there though sometimes in the background and (at least to me) was the character with whom we can most naturally identify, and the one we most often feel for. This man only has two character flaws that I can see, and one is his choice of a woman. Really, she only deserves him at the end, and by then his extraordinary patience and loyalty places him even higher above her. The other is hardly a flaw either but it bothered me that he would never pursue her, even though that's what she wanted. She is that "elegant female" Mr. Collins knows all about that gives Lizzy such a bad rep.

Anyway, all's well that ends well, and if all there was to this movie was an opening and one proposal it would have been much too short. But not really bad -- after all, his first proposal was one of the best proposals I've seen on film. I would have said yes. He brought her a tiny baby lamb for goodness sake, and who cares if the wording was blunt? The look he had on his face while delivering those words said more than the words ever could.

This woman has a heart of stone.

---- End of Spoiler section. ----

So while I did enjoy this story well enough as a romance and a period piece -- full of all the elegant music, beautiful cinematography, fantastic costumes, and sweeping romance typical of a good installment to the genre -- it was the characterization that makes it stand out. I was quite impressed with the journey our heroine took, even if the result wasn't a drastic a change as I would have preferred. And I was even more impressed with what the story had to say on the subject of love, character, the dangers of certain behaviors, and the one thing few stories like this don't comment on; the depravity of human nature. And it was all done with a happy ending, and not one instance of overly-dramatic melodrama in between. And there were only a few romantic clich├ęs -- per scene -- which were done so well that I only minded once.

Though I only recognized three faces in the whole cast, I became quickly fond of the characters I was supposed to, and equally quickly despised the appropriate ones as well. I have never witnessed Carey Mulligan do anything wrong, and here is no exception. She fits the character perfectly and plays her expertly, walking the balance of likeability and realism to ideal results. Schoenaerts, Sheen and Sturridge are all equally impressive in their respective and diverse roles, each one characterized thoroughly and confidently, and all put together they make a great cast and play their part to make a very good movie.

There were some plot holes, and things glossed over confusingly as I was sure there would be, but I do wonder if it has to do more with honest adapting problems or if they were holes that could have been filled with a little more effort. I am now inspired to read the Thomas Hardy novel to explore deeper into these unique characters, and flesh out my understanding of this quite fascinating story.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Trust Me

Very mild Spoilers.

Clark Gregg writes, directs, and stars in this comedy about a former, less-than-successful child actor who is now a less-than-successful agent for child actors. He finally gets his big break when he meets a stunning fourteen-year-old actress who is about to be cast in a huge movie franchise and hires him to represent her.

Agent Coulson is good with kids.

The movie starts out how you might (and I did) expect -- kinda goofy, kinda cheesy and kinda funny, and with plenty of potential. It was a typical beginning for a nice, better-than-average 3.5 or 4-star movie, and the supporting cast that included Amanda Peet, Allison Janney and my favorite, Sam Rockwell didn't hurt things one tiny little bit.

But then. BUT THEN. The movie started to take a strange turn. The first act was absolutely a comedy; the second act was more dramady, which was understandable, since plot-drama was happening. The third act had no comedy whatsoever, and was downright strange. I understood what was going on well enough, but was completely lost as to what Mr. Gregg was trying to say with it. I'm still trying to decide if he was trying to make a joke that fell completely flat, or some deep, insightful and artistic statement -- that also fell flat. Or maybe he was just playing a mean trick on those of us who were hoping to see a fun comedy about the movie business full of some of our favorite people in the movie business.

Hmm. Maybe he was making a statement about the movie business.

So while the strange and creepy twist that turned into a confusing, unsatisfying and ambiguous ending pretty much ruined the whole rest of the movie, up until the point of it's being ruined, it was quite enjoyable -- pretty funny, and involving and interesting. There was some cute romance between Gregg's character and Amanda Peet's, Allison Janney was as great as she ever is, and Sam Rockwell was Sam Rockwell -- except much meaner -- which is to say, he was pretty awesome, even though his part was way too small for my taste. And Clark Gregg made an involving and endearing lead. He started out rather a jerk, and seemed to be on a classic bad-to-good character arc -- for most of the movie he really was.

The girl this movie revolves around, relative newcomer to acting Saxon Sharbino, doesn't show her status as a newbie in the slightest. She never fails to impress with a very complex and widely-ranged role. Believing that she was the type to be cast in a teen film franchise and become the next Kristen Stewart, or Jennifer Lawrence or Shailene Woodley was the easiest thing to believe in this movie.

She certainly does have a presence.

And her performance was the only thing that connected (by the tiniest little thread) the jarring tonal change and plot twist that sent this neat little flick in the biggest downward spiral I've ever experienced in a movie. It was really quite spectacular. And after the fiery crash, I sat stunned amongst the wreckage on the couch while the credits rolled and wondered what happened. And every time I think about it I've still made no headway in discovering the reason behind that disastrous turn. I wonder if a second viewing would help my understanding of the point of this movie, but the chances that I'll ever sit through the hour-and-a-half of that weirdness again is very unlikely. Even if it does have Sam Rockwell in it!

I'd just watch The Way, Way Back again instead. And you should follow my example. Trust me.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Upcoming Movie Roundup - June

May was a pretty slow month and I never got out to the movies, though I probably would have if Far From the Madding Crowd had been playing in my theater. June has a couple more that I'll probably be watching once they release on DVD, and also one very super-awesome-sauce must-see!

What June releases have your attention right now?

Testament of Youth
Jun 5th(limited); PG-13
Another period drama for this summer! This one is set in WWI and seems almost unbearably full of drama. But it's getting good reviews already and has an enticing cast. The leading lady, Alicia Vikander I have never seen before, but the rest of the cast is almost nothing but familiar names, such as Kit Harington, Emily Watson, Hayley Atwell, Dominic West, Anna Chancellor, Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, and Jonathan Bailey. Those names alone are enough for me to want to watch it, whether it turns out to be melodramatic and depressing or not.

Love & Mercy
Jun 5th(limited); PG-13
The fact that this one centers around the life of Beach Boy Brian Wilson weighs almost nothing with me. It's the cast of John Cusack and Paul Dano -- playing the older and younger version of him respectively that has all my attention. Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti don't hurt things either.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Jun 12th; PG-13
I figured that after The Fault in Our Stars I would be done with movies about cancer, but if it's a good movie, I can't help but be interested, even if one of the characters is practically guaranteed to die. This one has no one I recognize in it besides Nick Offerman in a supporting part, but the trailer is great, and the movie is getting some head-turning reviews.

Jurassic World
Jun 12th; PG-13
This is my June must-see. And... well, there's not too much else to say. Chris Pratt and dinosaurs -- how can that possibly go wrong? It seriously cannot. It may not be a GREAT movie, but it will undoubtedly be an AWESOME movie. And that's all I need. Can't wait!

Inside Out
Jun 19th; PG
It's the new Disney Pixar movie, so the chances of it being less than great are at like, 0.00001%. It's cast with plenty of familiar names, but none that are particularly exciting to me. Amy Poehler leading promises lots and lots of excited funniness, and the premise is super creative. I haven't got hit with excitement for this one yet, but I'd be surprised if it doesn't happen eventually. As I said, it's the newest Pixar movie!