Thursday, October 29, 2015

Shaun of the Dead

This review is Spoiler-free.

In the first -- and the strawberry-flavored -- movie of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's wonderfully brilliant Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, Simon Pegg is Shaun, a twenty-nine year-old, uninteresting, uninterested electronics salesman, who never bothered to get his life in order. He lives with his best friend Ed (Nick Frost) who is even more of a do-nothing than he is. And Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) has reached a breaking point -- a breaking up point. But things must always get worse before they get better, and that's where the Zombie apocalypse comes in.

Yes, Shaun, if the city is overrun with the undead, then you probably don't need to go into work.

In spite of (or perhaps a bit because of) Shaun's unmotivated attitude, he is still easily Pegg's most endearing character of the "trilogy." The everyday, well-meaning, average guy, who can be extremely motivated when it comes to things he truly cares about, Shaun is a fantastic character, a deceptively simple stereotype, and so easy to love and root for. If you don't like him at the beginning, but do by the end, it's not because of any change in him, but because of you, realizing that he's really been a great person the whole time. And Simon Pegg's performance as him cinches all those endearing qualities. I wonder at why mainstream movies always keep Pegg in the "quirky comic-relief side character" category. He is totally brilliant at comedy of course, but is no less great at drama. Real, actual, deep drama. Yet it seems like he rarely gets real drama to play outside of these three films. Makes them all the better for it I suppose!

These two. Oh man, these two.

And he and Nick Frost make a wonderful duo. I mean, that's an obvious thing to say, but they really really do. They work off each other and make each other funnier, and more compelling. Frost's character of Ed here isn't as endearing as Shaun, but is still very funny and goofy, and gets his dramatic moments too. Kate Ashfield as Liz basically equals Ed's character for second main character, and while she isn't characterized to be super funny, is definitely a good character. Liz's flatmates Dianne and David (Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran) don't really reach the great humorous heights of the other three leads, but they support very well, and that is plenty. Penelope Wilton is amusing as Shaun's shell-shocked mum, and Bill Nighy is as good as ever as his step-dad. Jessica Hynes (Stevenson) is Shaun's female doppelganger, and Martin Freeman has a bit-part as her boyfriend, in one of my favorite gags in the movie.

Wait a minute...

Humor is this film's main source of brilliance. The beginning shows dead-eyes humans slothing about with no purpose, and they aren't even zombies yet. The sequence of Shaun doing his morning routine, and then doing it again the next day, not noticing that zombies have replaced all the people around him, is fantastically amusing, and also pretty fantastic storytelling. I also just adore the scene of throwing records at the zombies, trying to decide which ones are worth breaking. From the extended jokes, down to the smallest hilarious expression, this movie, it's script, and it's actors, and of course the director, all really know how to handle the comedy, and it's what makes the movie as great as it is.

And that's why, when the comedic tone fades into a serious dramatic one with only a side of comedy in the third act, the tone change is too obvious, and it suddenly feels like the film had gone downhill -- just a little. Thinking about it, I like the drama; I like that this movie has a deeper meaning to it than just killing the undead in humorous ways, and I love that it has an underlying heart beneath all the strawberry-flavored gore. If it could have those things without having to cut back as much on the hilarity though, it would have been that much better. There are still often funny and amusing moments, but it gives way to the drama, instead of letting it come up beside and work in tandem. It's not the worst trade in the world though; Simon Pegg is a great crier, looking so incredibly and pathetically sad, and the dramatic twists and conflicts give much more interest than people whacking zombies on the head.

Not that whacking zombies on the head isn't fun or anything...

Understandably, this film is rated R, with some language, and one particularly violently gross spot. And, I have to say that I don't love the ending. I respect it, but it's not what I would have wanted to do. But then again, what I would have wanted to do wouldn't have matched the style of the rest of the film, so I suppose I have to admit that it was the right ending. With Edgar Wright's brilliant directing vision, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's winning combo, all the wonderfully original and incredibly smart jokes, and the endearingly off-kilter style, Shaun of the Dead absolutely kills.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The History of Future Folk

This review is Spoiler-free.

On the distant planet of Hondo, there lived a little boy named Trius who promised his mother that when he grew up he would find a way to destroy the comet that was heading toward their home planet. He grew into the greatest Hondonian General ever known, and one day set out to save his people. He crash-landed on a planet called Earth, which was the perfect planet for the Hondonians to relocate to.

But -- just as he was about to release a toxin to eradicate the current inhabitants, he heard something in the local Costco: music. Hondonians don't have music, and he had never heard anything so amazing before. It changed him. He learned how to play the Banjo and started up an act in a club. He got married, and had a kid, and years went by. But he never forgot his mission or his promise.

General Trius (right) and the mighty Kevin.

The two stars of this strange, strange little film -- Nils d'Aulaire who plays General Trius, and Jay Klaitz who is Kevin, an assassin sent to kill Trius and complete his mission -- are actually a musical duo with an act like the one in the movie. In fact the movie was made because of their success and is based on the fictional backstories they created for the show. They are called Future Folk (now the movie's title make sense) and they play space-themed folk music. Yes, you heard that right. Space-themed folk music. And it's awesome. The two are enormously talented, and their music is equally beautiful and hilarious.

The movie is worth watching for the musical scenes alone. Unfortunately the rest of the film suffers by comparison. It does have a consistently engaging plot though. There's decent acting, and even a few interesting and humorous filming techniques. The writing is hit-and-miss. The feel is decidedly Indie and the deadpan tone enhances the humor of it all very well. But none of it quite reaches the level set by the musical performances. It's an imbalance that enhances the music and dulls everything else, and the shifts between the two are a bit jarring.

But, much like the combination of sci-fi lyrics with folk-music sound, it's all part of the charm.

Knowing that the main point of the film is the music makes the few low-budget shortcomings easily forgivable. Plus the total-geek vibe sent out by cheesy costumes and laughable fight sequences gives this wacky flick that distinctive cult feel, and that makes me think it's perfect exactly the way it is. It's themes are simple, but sweet and positive, giving just the right amount of heart to this very, very strange, shamelessly geeky, and impressively folk-y musical adventure.


Monday, October 5, 2015

The Martian

Mild Spoilers.

Six astronauts are sent to Mars for the Ares 3 mission -- Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) and Mark Watney (Matt Damon). Their mission on Mars was supposed to last 31 sols (Mars days), but on the 18th sol, a huge storm blows in, forcing them to abort their mission. During their escape, they lose one of their men; the lowest ranking, the botanist, Mark Watney.

In any other space movie, this would just be the first casualty of probably many (with six people, you have plenty to spare) but this cheeky lighthearted botanist doesn't get the memo: he wakes up on Mars, alone, with an antennae stuck in his gut, and decides that he's going to live. On Mars. With limited food. In a Hab meant to last 31 days. For 4 years. Until the next Ares mission will come, and he can hitch a ride home. How? Science.

The coolest interplanetary scientist on the planet.

Okay, I just have to say one thing before I can fully concentrate on this movie: The book was better. And once you finish reading this review you'll know that I say that only to emphasize how remarkably, incredibly amazing the book is, not to say that this movie is in any way lacking. Because it's not. Anyway, with books, you can't include an awesome soundtrack!

This story's greatness comes mainly from its stranded hero, Mark Watney. In spite of his nearly hopeless situation, he stays optimistic, and works determinedly to solve the daunting problems in his way with a cheerful attitude. This creates a lot more humor than one would really expect out of a space survival movie, and Matt Damon is the ideal person to play this endearing every-man and unconventional hero. The ability to become a person who can crack a joke while losing a staring contest with death isn't really definable by what one would normally call "talent" -- it's a quality that you either have, or you don't. Well, Matt has it.

He's the same from beginning to end, never going through a "heroic journey" or any character change at all. It's unusual. I love it.

Damon fills the personality of the lonely Martian comic perfectly, and then puts his talented efforts into portraying the serious and intense drama realistically. Charm isn't something that Damon's characters ever really lack, so it's no surprise Watney has that, but the level of vulnerability we see in him is less expected. If you don't absolutely adore this character after the first 30 minutes, you have a heart of stone. Rooting for a hero with complete abandon has never been so effortless and inviting.
He may be the lone man on Mars, but he is certainly not alone in the movie. The rest of the crew mentioned above all have their part and do their share. Particularly outstanding is Chastain as the ship's commander. She gives a deep and elegant performance. I also just really love Michael Peña. He always keeps thing up-beat and interesting. I wished to see more of Stan's doctor Beck, but when you're the strong and silent type, that just how it goes. Hennie's German scientist keeps up with the bigger names easily, and Mara hits the mark for the geeky and kinda weird cute girl.

You're awesome, you're awesome... you're ALL awesome!! Sadly Michael Peña is absent in this photo. Michael, you're awesome.

On Earth we have another cast, and another story line, as NASA does their part to bring Watney home alive as well. There, we have Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the head of the Mars missions, Sean Bean as the Ares flight director, Kristen Wiig as NASA's media relations, plus Donald Glover, and Mackenzie Davis. These guys almost split their screen time with Damon, and while none of them come close to having the captivating charm of his Watney, they all do a great and commendable job. Standouts here are Ejiofor, who comes across effortlessly, and controls the screen while he's on it, and Glover who's just... unexpected.

And you, sir, are a steely-eyed missile man.

Fact: space movies are better with a soundtrack from the 70's. This movie uses that knowledge to full advantage, by including several musical working-montages, that are, to be perfectly blunt, epic. This really is the one thing the movie could do that the book couldn't, and it was beautiful, and sometimes very funny, and beautiful. In fact this whole story is a balance of beautiful and funny. The comedy comes too often and is way too unique and funny to be classified as just comic relief, and in the hands of Ridley Scott, the look of the film is consistently breathtakingly gorgeous, and beautifully foreboding. It gets every bit as edge-of-your-seat intense and despairingly emotional as you'd expect from such a hardcore survival adventure, but remembers to give us plenty of relief too -- via wit and fun and grandeur and many glorious moments of triumph against the odds.

Starman, waiting in the sky....

Adaption-wise, there was a lot that was word-for-word the same, and there were some changes; some that I expected and some that I didn't. But, the reason why I love this story so wholeheartedly is not because of the events that take place, and in the end, even the few bigger changes made no real difference because the heart of the film stayed exactly the same. This story focuses on sincerely connecting with its audience, giving us a straightforward story full of simple truths and raw honesty, instead of coolly trying to impress us with cheap, contrived, and empty parlor tricks.

I was wowed by the visual feats and impressed by the practiced, involving film-making. I had tons of fun listening to the musical montages and Watney make sarcastic quips with all that Matt Damon charm. And the fact that most of the film is scientifically viable is endlessly impressive. Those things all make a good, enjoyable movie, but this achieved greater heights than that. I don't abandon my cynicism and reserve while watching movies lightly, but here I willingly fell head over heels, because I found something that was worthy of investing my cares in. A genuine, everyday, unlikely fictional hero set in a story that is designed to sincerely engage and inspire us through him.

The all natural, organic, Martian-grown potato farmer.

The Martian resonates because of a striking harmony of simple, but powerful details. Mark Watney is a good guy, put into a near-impossible situation. Totally alone, he scrapes and fights with an uncrushable spirit. He may feel it, but he's not truly alone; on Earth, complete strangers pitch in valuable time and resources to his desperate cause. And Watney's crew all happily risk their lives for him. The fact that this story is technically science fiction, set on Mars, using real science theoretically in order to create a realistic backdrop, is just that; a really, really, really neat and fantastic backdrop. The core of the story itself as real as it gets; affirming the inexhaustible value and wonder of human life.

On Mars. To the tune of David Bowie. And ABBA. With science!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Upcoming Movie Roundup - October

Last month went as expected, with a trip to the theater to see The Scorch Trials, which I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed, and Before We Go from the comfort of the TV room sofa. October has one huge must-see that I've been waiting for rather desperately for the past two weeks or so, and a couple promising others that may be a good DVD watch sometime. But first things, first...

The Martian
Oct 2nd: PG-13
So much yes. So much. I'm really surprised at myself for how incredibly excited I am for this movie. It's the first movie whose anticipation has actually made me forget about Star Wars 7. Even Rogue Nation only made me temporarily forget after I'd seen it. I wrote a whole post about my high anticipation and expectation levels that you can read here -- but here's the short version: Matt Damon is Mark Watney, an Ares astronaut, who, through an unfortunate series of events is stranded alone on Mars without his crew (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie), without communication, and with food and supplies meant only to last 31 days; he must use his smarts (and real science) to survive. The cast also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, and Kristen Wiig. The book was brilliantly smart and thrilling, and the Ridley Scott film promises to be faithful adaptation, and a compelling science-fiction-meets-science-fact adventure. Can. Not. Wait.

Oct 9th: PG
It looks like a cute, fun, adventurous remake of Peter Pan, and the origin story gives good opportunity to get creative with the story as well. Early reviews coming in are not nearly as positive as I would like, and are turning me off from wanting to see it in theaters, but they're not quite bad enough to keep me from wanting to see it altogether. I just have to see Hugh Jackman being the film's villain Blackbeard, and Garrett Hedlund as the young, not-yet-Captain Hook -- minus the hook (we'll for how long!) I guess I just won't expect too much out of it.

Crimson Peak
Oct 16th: R
If I watched horror movies. I don't, (certainly not this kind) and don't think I could -- even for Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska -- but this one looks like a real quality horror movie, which is the only kind that ever tempts me in the slightest. And it has such an elegant, beautiful style... but then is so disturbingly creepy. If I watched horror movies... Here's the trailer, but don't watch it -- cause it's scary. :P

Oct 16th; PG
Okay, I never read any of these books as a kid (perhaps that had something to do with my aversion to horror movies now?) so I don't have any sentimental attachment to this movie, but for some reason I still have a nice, mild interest in this. Of course it looks totally silly and cheesy, but sometimes when it's done right those things can make a movie really fun to just enjoy and laugh at and not really think about. And you need a movie like that every once in a while. Jack Black and Dylan Minnette star.

Bridge of Spies
Oct 16th: PG-13
Steven Spielberg's Cold War drama starring Tom Hanks. So the chances of this being a well-made film are pretty much %100. And well-acted. And well-scored. And dramatic. So this one's really a no-brainer, but I don't currently have any real interest. I love Spielberg's movies, and period dramas are great, and Tom Hanks promises to be as great as ever, but I'm just not too excited about this being more of a political drama war-movie, instead of an more action-centered war-movie. The trailer does show some bits of action, but nothing really big. So I'll just have to wait and see if it really is a straight drama, and if it is, just wait until a war drama is what I want to see!

Oct 23rd(limited); PG-13
Okay, so this movie looks well-made and everything, plus it has a great cast including Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, and Helena Bonham Carter, but honestly, it looks like it's absolutely nothing more than propaganda for extreme modern feminism, and that just completely ruins it for me.

Oct 23rd(limited); NR
A Bradley Cooper chef movie! This one has quite the supporting cast too -- Sienna Miller, Alicia Vikander, Lily James, Emma Thompson, Daniel Bruhl... It says it's a dramedy, but from the trailer it looks more like pure drama. Still, it's about cooking, and stars Bradly Cooper. It's one of those "wait and see" cases I suppose.

What are your movie plans for this fall month? Tell me in the comments!