Saturday, November 28, 2015

Inside Out

This review is Spoiler-free.

Pixar's back-to-form movie Inside Out gets creative with what goes on inside you head, hands out hearty laughter for free, and tugs gently on heartstrings -- but it's not all perfect. The story centers around an 11-year-old girl named Riley who moves with her parents to a new, far away home, and struggles to begin her new life there. Most of the time is spent literally inside her head as her emotions (Joy (), Sadness (), Anger (), Fear (), and Disgust ()) take turns at the console, responding to situations in Riley's life, and creating memories that define Riley's personality. Joy spends most of the time in control, but when things start to change and she begins to lose control she panics, and her every attempt to keep things happy and the way it used to be only makes things worse.

Everybody panic now!!

This film's super creative premise is its high point. From it comes all the neatest insights, funniest jokes, and most involving drama. And that is the order of what I was most impressed with. The Insights -- showing an explaining how the mind, personality and emotions work in a simplified, fantasy way -- worked really well, and felt very true to life. So much so, that I often found myself wishing that they'd gone even deeper with the idea. It stayed very basic during the movie, at a level that is understandable for the younger audience, but was too basic for my grown-up understanding. I grasped the concepts very quickly and immediately wanted more, but it is a kid's movie, so I didn't get it.

But, I was appeased by comedy. There were many great laugh-out-loud moments that I thoroughly enjoyed, but there was also plenty of great subtle comedy. The movie's default setting was funny, so though laugh-out-loud moments only came occasionally, I was almost always aware of, and amused by the underlying foundation of humor. I loved the dynamic between Joy and Sadness. They were the only two true standouts of the cast, and their conversations were naturally funny because of their clashing and extreme personalities. The rest of the cast and characters had their moments of course, but those two were consistently great under the pressure of being heavily featured.

Sadness' inexplicable need to touch all the memories though... brilliant.

The drama was a mixed bag. Half came across sincerely and I didn't mind being taken in to it, and half pushed too hard, was too unnecessary, and too contrived. The former took place mainly at the end of the movie, and the latter in mostly in the middle. Also the end-drama was directly related to the movie's premise and the middle-drama wasn't. That is not a coincidence -- the movie's most successful moments were always the moments that were close to that winning base idea.

The movie's main flaw was, basically, its entire second act -- the whole, entire plot of Joy and Sadness looking for, and finding a way back to the console room. I know, that makes it seem huge, but it was more of a missed or misused opportunity than anything else. (Or the film should have been about thirty minutes shorter.) It had a few, fleeting humorous moments, but was mostly just a sad excuse for filler. It wound up being down right boring as they tried different ideas but ended up exactly where they started several times, and then had some unnecessary rabbit trails, before eventually throwing together a lazy solution because all the good ideas had been used already. The only truly worthwhile things that happened in that section was the events in the control room, and a little of the character development between Joy and Sadness -- but only some.

The creative way of portraying the mind was the only thing that kept that section going.

Fortunately, the boring and unnecessary filler of the middle section did not at all bleed into the awesomeness of the beginning or end, both of which were full of the classic, meaningful, Pixar fun and creativity, and that helped leave the movie's impression in my memory as... a mostly joyful one.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

Spoilers throughout.

The mammoth phenomenon that, three and a half years ago, kick-started the trend of teen dystopia movie adaptations has finally reached its conclusion. The dystopia trend is still raging strong today, and shows almost no sign of relenting, yet, this final part of the final chapter of the girl who began it all feels past its prime -- and about a year overdue. The beginning of the end (in more ways than one) was the first Mockingjay movie and the decision to split the story into two movies. Did that decision help the movie-makers adapt the slightly bloated and chaotic last book more accurately? Absolutely. Was it worth it? Well...

Stick with me and we'll find out! Or die trying!

This film centers on Katniss and co. as they give their all to one final push in the war against President Snow. It starts out with the exact same dull, droning tone that Mockingjay Part 1 gave us. I was surprised at this for about two seconds before I realized that expecting this film to be more exciting when it was filmed at the same time as the last one was totally unrealistic. I kept having this conversation in my head: Me: "This is boring and I don't care about it anymore." Me: "Okay, but at least try and view it from an unbiased perspective so you can review it." Me: "Fine." Five minutes later, Me: "This is boring!" Eventually I realized that my unbiased opinion is just that -- this movie was sluggish and dull and lifeless for more than half of the run time. 

The cause of this probably came a lot from the two-part-stretch, but I also noticed that it had a lot to do with characters. The interesting, lively characters were sidelined in favor of the characters that were neck-deep in dark, heavy drama. Katniss is capable of, and has been a lively character is the past, but the movie inexplicably toned down that side of her here. For the most part she looks like she's sleepwalking through the plot. It can't be 's fault though -- she's just too good at being depressed and despondent. When she breaks out of that rut and absolutely kills a scene at the end, I wished that Katniss had been present for more of the movie.

Unfortunately even Jennifer Lawrence can't carry a movie all by herself.

Peeta () and Gale () are also pretty despondent too, as they spend the movie moping -- Gale, because he knows he's losing the love-triangle battle, and Peeta, because he randomly and unwillingly flip-flops between being a good guy and a bad guy. The book's quick dismissal of Gale always bothered me, and the film does nothing to combat that. After Katniss doesn't kill him when he asks her to, and after he (possibly) inadvertently causes Prim's death, their last conversation only touches on his side of the guilt. Though I did love the delivery of Katniss' line that dismisses him forever. On Peeta's side, things often get too mushy and verge uncomfortably on cheesy as they set up for Katniss to finally choose him, but still they don't properly cover the best of their drama. At the climax when he prevents her from killing herself, the potentially powerful moment was sadly rushed and glossed over.

I guess the film lost sight of its best features: it's powerful moments, and it's fun, memorable characters.

Relatively new characters get first priority for screen time and development, and  Natalie Dormer, , and stand out. Old favorites only really make appearances. Haymitch () lights up the screen when he's there. Johanna () is just begging for more screen time. Effie () gets to show up, but doesn't get to be her usual amusing self. Caesar Flickerman () goes full villain in his cameo-length part. and Julianne Moore keep things professional as their respective Presidents. Finnick () tries to make the most of it, but is mostly ignored before being given the same disappointing throwaway death he got in the novel. Beetee () practically doesn't even exist. Even Prim () -- the one sure-fire sucker-punch -- isn't developed enough to get the best reaction. As the characters serve their purpose as the novel dictated, they fade away, unimportant. One novel was made into 4 hour, 20 minute film, and yet there were no character expansions.

I can only guess that the film makers were literally too scared of the fans to make any changes at all.

The only thing that was deemed worth expanding, it seems, was the action sequences -- though still minimally. The action in general though is really what makes this film worth watching over reading the book. They are visually cleaner than the book's hectic descriptions, and are a welcome break from lingering shots of deadpan faces. Ideally, this and the last film combined could be at least a half-hour shorter, and that extra time was picked up mostly by making each event -- each shot -- last just a little longer. It did nothing to add to the content of course -- a ten-second shot of Katniss' face is just as descriptive as a two-second one. It's like they were too lazy to add any new content, but also knew that a movie must be over 2 hours in order to be an "epic," and these movie have to be epics.

So after an hour and a half or so off all that, we finally get to the tide-turning final battle, and the climactic aftermath, and finally, the film gets good. This is what we were waiting for, and it didn't disappoint. Because it was the best parts of the book, it was the best parts of the film. They showed it all like the book demanded, and everything fell naturally into place. I finally fully understood the scene where Katniss votes in favor of the symbolic Hunger Games. Then Plutarch's letter, read out by good ol' Haymitch, and the fan-pleasing moment between Haymitch and Effie. The way they showed the slow progression of time as life starts to find a place again with our heroine and her fellow District 12 victors was simple, and genuinely great. And then that final scene, that gives us full circle feel for the final resolution, as Jennifer Lawrence delivers one last monologue, as the woman who used to be Girl on Fire.

Girl -- fire. Fire -- girl. For the last time.

It is important to note, that though I give this film and Mockingjay Part 1 the same star score, and though my review of Part 1 may sound more positive, I definitely consider Part 2 to be the better of the two films.

It got really messy there for a while, but managed to wrap it all up in a satisfying way -- the exact same satisfying way the book did of course, but redundancy is underrated. Actually, it's not, but it is forgivable. Especially in this case when the franchise was so tired for so long I actually thought it would sleepwalk right though the end, but, thankfully, it wound up waking up just in time to conclude with a bang almost loud enough to cover up the previous sounds of snoring. So, no, I don't think the two-part split was worth it, but all things considered... there are worse games to play.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Age of Adaline

This review is Spoiler-free.

"On November 1st, 2015, at precisely 8:08 in the evening, an overly dramatic narrator began to relay a tale in the living room of an insignificant movie review blogger. The story he told was about a single woman; Adaline Bowman. In painstaking detail, he dramatically glossed over her life, spouting times and dates until the film's introduction was complete and he had finished relaying the backstory we already knew -- that Adaline, because of reckless driving and pseudo-science, was magically cursed to look like a twenty-nine year-old Blake Lively.... for the rest of her life."

Doesn't sound too terrible to me...

This movie is an astonishing mishmash of sweeping romance and melodramatic ridiculousness. The main idea -- a love story surrounding a lonely immortal -- is a classic that is capable of some pretty grand drama. The way this movie portrays it is often ill advised. If I didn't know better, I'd think they created the more unnecessary plot elements just so they could poke holes in them. Mainly, their explanation for how she gets to be immortal in the first place is a silly attempt at being science-y. Don't call it science. It's a fantasy, so call it a fantasy. Then you don't have to explain everything and you can spend more time showing Lively gliding around in elegant dresses. Win-win.

The film's main redeeming quality is that it really is a beautiful sight to see. It oozes elegance; from the leading lady, to the music, down to the framing of each shot. It lures you in, inviting you to relax and let the film just soak in, and for the most part this works. Mainly, all the drama of the plot is presented in a very mellow way (I know, it is a melodrama, but here there's a big emphasis on the "mellow" part) not trying to force you to care about Adaline's woes as much as she does which is definitely a good thing.

There were, however, two slip-ups on this point. The first was a particular scene, that for a "normal" person was a sure-fire tear-jerker, but for me (cold-hearted person that I am) it went too far trying to pull out tears, and it snapped me out of my relaxed enjoying state. And the second was whenever the narrator was talking. Seriously, it was just too much. It was so over-the-top and cheesy that if you were to satire it, you wouldn't actually have to enhance it any. It's at satire level already -- but is taking itself seriously. I didn't know whether I should laugh or groan.

Still can't decide...

Blake Lively as our ageless heroine matched the movie's calm, cold, and elegant tone with her demeanor, which is always something I like to see. Though at first it may seem wrong to have your movie's heroine be as aloof as Adaline is -- even beyond the requirements set down by plot and character arc -- but it really becomes the thing that sets Adaline's movie apart. Lively takes Adaline's smooth, refined voice, untouchable elegance, and tragic melancholy right up to the edge of believably, and sticks her toes over the chasm. And the result of the daring portrayal, for me, is what made this movie memorable. You could argue she took it too far, but since she matched with the film's level on everything, I say no.

The supporting cast took its role very seriously and never ventured to do anything but support, and thus feels a little meager. Harrison Ford does some good things and earns his place. Michiel Huisman lacks what you would really expect out of the main love-interest in a romance like this, but it's less his fault and more the script's penchant for rabbit trails. He gets some good moments of charm in there, but never gets to go very deep. The surprise for me was Ellen Burstyn as Adaline's older daughter -- and by that I don't mean "oldest daughter," I mean "daughter who is older than her," at least as far as looks are concerned. The younger woman playing motherly to an older woman was strange, but wound up being a surprise highlight of the film for me. Their unique relationship was portrayed very well, and was interesting to watch.

Weird, but interesting.

The film also had a surprisingly refined sense of humor -- when it did humor that is. It looked lovely and succeeded in presenting the film's main idea in a fairly pleasing and romantic kind of way. As far as time goes, there was more spent successfully than unsuccessfully. However, when things go unsuccessfully, they go to very far that way. The film's holes are painful, and made even worse from being presented in such a factual manner. And the previously mentioned rabbit trails distract and send the plot on aimless loops that just don't fit in the end. I find the film lands in a balance for me; I liked some things; didn't others; but for the most part I just don't care -- it just isn't the kind of movie I would ever love. So though I will say that it was worth watching, and a well-made movie, I imagine that only people who already love romantic melodramas will really appreciate what this film does.

"Then, at exactly 10:00 that same evening, 112 minutes later, the movie ended, the credits rolled, and the insignificant blogger went on with her life."

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Cabin in the Woods

Major spoilers in the second half of this review. 
I saw this film cut for TV.

I don't watch a lot of horror movies -- in fact, you could almost say I never watch horror movies. As a rule, I am not a fan. Even so, I was interested in this one even way back in 2012 when it came out -- drawn in by Joss Whedon's involvement and it's impressively high Rotten Tomatoes score -- but it's R-rated content was more than I wanted to handle... so I waited three years for it to make its television debut.

A long and suspenseful wait. But worth it.

The film was co-written, and directed by Drew Goddard who recently left an impression on me by being the man responsible for the excellent adapted screenplay for The Martian. Goddard and Whedon's styles pair really well with similar senses of humor, and great attention to detail. The characters are very Whedonesque, and credit for the movie's smooth pacing and wonderfully matter-of-fact storytelling go to Goddard.

The cast is full of familiar faces -- with a few Whedon regulars. The young adults who go to the Cabin are Kristen Connolly as Dana, Chris Hemsworth as Curt, Anna Hutchison as Jules, Fran Kranz as Marty, and Jesse Williams as Holden. Then in the office setting, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins and Amy Acker are responsible for raining terror down on the unsuspecting college students.

Switching back from the horror plot to the everyday life of office workers was neat and effective risk.

Even without watching horror movies I am fully aware of their pitfalls and their cliches. This film willingly hops right into all those "required" moments and then immediately and cleverly turns them around, poking fun at them with a sharp humor that points out the all the holes of the genre. For the first two acts, satire is the name of the game, and Goddard and Whedon win every hand as they use the cliches to their advantage. The plot moves along traditionally as obviously stereotyped characters bite the dust one by one in gruesome, terrifying, and brilliantly tongue-in-cheek ways.

The film's one real problem is a bit of a catch 22. It chastises typical horror flicks by doing the exact same things those films do, and while that makes it funnier in a way, and a great satire, it also means that it still has the essence of the films it is criticizing -- so it can't help but drag itself down a little along the way.

I suppose it had to be worth it though. For the most part.

Major Spoilers from here to the end!
Then the third act twists away from the typical (if satirized) mantra. At this point all the kids are dead except the main girl, Dana, (whose death we all know is optional) and the office is celebrating a successful event. But -- surprise! -- Marty, the dumb stoner dude who's been high the whole movie isn't actually dead! He's actually alive (and actually not that dumb) and his excessive smoking has actually kept him from being affected by the chemicals meant to create the cliches the lead to easier deaths. He and Dana escape to underneath the cabin where the control offices are, and that's where things get really interesting.

The film is pretty great up to this point -- it's scary, thrilling, mysterious, hilarious and very well-made -- but the final twist are what clinches the movies status as a mind-blowing and unique horror film. I expected that some twist of the type would come, but was still taken off guard by pretty much the whole rest of the film.

Got to be the movie's hero, but first had to be the movie's resident dummy.

First of all, Marty surviving was absolutely fantastic. Of the three guys, he has the least hero potential for the first two acts; he was the second person to "die" and probably the most boring character-wise (though he was the sensible voice of reason). He was the goofy comic relief. Then suddenly he becomes the hero (though Dana's heroine is still the main character) as the whole story turns round on its head. Dana stays the same in our perceptions but also becomes more endearing (and she's definitely a Whedon-writ female). The two don't get to add enough depth of character fast enough to be satisfying before the film ends, but what is left wanting is part of the charm and the cool brilliance.

I love the final scene. I can't even remember all of what the two unexpected heroes talk about after the climactic battle, but loved it out of some sort of principle because it "wasn't supposed to happen." So they sit on a staircase and share a joint, covered in blood from head to toe, and then the Earth is obliterated.

Because that's what happens when a horror movie doesn't follow the rules.

Worth it!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Signal

This review is Spoiler-free.

Two MIT college students are being harassed by a stranger who impressively hacked into the MIT servers and wreaked havoc. The "cool nerd" boys are determined to get even, so when they're helping one's girlfriend move across the country and discover that the hacker's signal is only a little out of their way on the trip, they decide to pay him a visit. From there, things start getting weird.

And the weirdness never stops growing from there on out.

It will be hard to properly represent this film without giving away spoilers, but I'll try. The thing is, the less you know going in, the more surprised you'll be, and the more surprised you are, the more successful the film is. Because, as far as I can tell, this movie's sole purpose is to surprise you -- but it fringes too closely to predictability to be consistently effective at it. So, it's a science fiction, it's suspenseful and occasionally scary, it has a mystery to it, and its filming style is slow-moving and cerebral. Also, at some point, Lawrence Fishburne shows up.

In the leading role Nic, Brenton Thwaites gives a performance that is fitting to the film's style, and is probably the best I've seen him give. Beau Knapp as Jonah occasionally outplays him though. Fishburne is a great constant. Olivia Cooke as Haley, Nic's girlfriend was unimpressive and fortunately wasn't given much to do.

I  just realized Knapp was the gas station clerk in Super 8. Yeah. He's cool.

The highlights of the movie were its surprise reveals. The slow and cerebral pacing kept a suspenseful undertone going throughout, and when it built up into an exciting moment, it did it quickly with the sudden change of pace enhancing the thrill or the shock of the moment. It was quite effective. But great technique aside, the fact that the so-effectively revealed surprises were actually legitimately cool -- or scary or creepy or mind-blowing or whatever the individual goal was -- is really the important thing here. They made the movie fun to watch in the same way that The Twilight Zone is fun to watch.

In the more boring places, the style and the camerawork was just confusing. It seemed like they were trying to say something deep or profound in the subtext, but it all wound up being a waste of time when the film ended with many question still lingering around, unexplained and unresolved. At the end, I could explain what happens plot-wise, but I'm still at a loss as to the why, the reasons for many of the side plots, or what it all was supposed to mean. I will probably never know.

"Why do I see me when I look in the mirror?? This is so trippy."

Though it attempted many things, the film succeeded in one thing only. Fortunately that one thing was the most important one. It left a big impression with its science-fiction-y elements, and The Twilight Zone-like plot. The ultimate straightforwardness of it impressed me in spite of the predictability, and a potentially pretentious indie tone was tempered some classic sci-fi coolness. If, like me, a little science fiction is all you need to enjoy a film, then by all means... take the bait.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Upcoming Movie Roundup - November

In October, I saw The Martian (click to read my raving review), and it totally rocked my world, and blew me away, and I barely even thought about any of the other movies I was mildly interested in seeing, let alone actually considered going to see any of them. Instead I spent the entire month re-watching old Matt Damon movies and longing to see The Martian again, but wasn't able to. I finally did yesterday, so now I hopefully won't be distracted from the new movies of this month of November. Cause it's looking like a very fine month for movies.

Nov. 6th; PG-13
I'm not a huge fan of James Bond, and Daniel Craig is one of my least favorite portrayals of him. Bond movies have always been the kind of movies that are pretty to look at but not particularly deep on character, or wise when it comes to morals. But at least they were fun to watch. Recently, they haven't even been that -- just more beautiful and more meaningless than ever. So I'm more excited for Spectre being the last Craig Bond film -- so we can see who will play him next -- than I am for the actual movie. I have no doubt I will watch it eventually, it's just a matter of when. And the more thrilling and fun it is the more I'll enjoy it, and if it's just a pretty spectacle, I'll just try to appreciate that. There's a top-notch guest cast of Christoph Waltz and Lea Seydoux, but I'm most excited to see Dave Bautista as a henchman.

The Peanuts Movie
Nov. 6th; G
Okay, I just love the Peanuts too much, and this trailer did not impress me. Not even close. And it's too be expected -- I feel protective of these characters. I don't want to see some weird version of them that I arbitrarily deem to be wrong! This trailer was not at all impressive, but it didn't totally convince me that the movie will be terrible either. However, I will not be watching this movie unless something or someone can convince me that it is an actually great and actually funny and actually respectful of the source material. I'm determined to play hard to get. So win me over if you can!

Nov. 6th(limited); PG-13
Set in the 1950's, a young Irish girl immigrates to America.... That's enough information for me -- they had me at "Irish." It looks like a romantic drama, and it looks really sweet. And very Irish. And very 50's. Saoirse Ronan is the girl, and the cast also includes Domhnall Gleeson and a relative unknown, Emory Cohen, who rounds out the love triangle. Honestly, this looks like the exact kind of movie that I (and the rest of the ladies in the family) will watch no matter what kind of reviews it gets, even if they're terrible, but I don't think we'll have to worry about that. It's already getting stellar reviews and I can hardly doubt it'll be a wonderfully lovely movie.

Man Up
Nov. 13th(limited); NR
Lake Bell gets accidentally mistaken by Simon Pegg as his blind date, and decides to go along with it (who wouldn't?) to humorous, and possibly disastrous results (for her -- hopefully not for the movie!). It doesn't look groundbreaking or anything, (in fact it looks downright cheesy) but hey -- it's a British rom-com with Simon Pegg! Does it really need to be groundbreaking or anything more than cute and cheesy? Answer: No. No, it does not.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II
Nov 20th; PG-13

Ah, here we go -- the big one. Finally the end of The Hunger Games series! The dullness of Part I blew a lot of wind out of my sails, but I suppose it's time to try and get it all back for the big finale. It's looking huge and epic, and will certainly be exciting and intense. I'm looking forward to a few things... and not looking forward to a few things. Right now I can't see liking it more than the first or second films just because of the story, but maybe it'll make up for it with that giant budget and beautiful style -- or, maybe there'll be a few rewrites! You never know. But anyway, Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss is back for the last time, and is just as determined as ever. Finish strong, and may the odds be ever in your favor!

The Good Dinosaur
Nov 25th: PG
What? Did humans evolve from dogs now? Anyway, the next Disney Pixar heart-string-tugger is almost here, and I haven't even seen the last one yet! This one's trailer isn't very interesting to me, but I'm going to try not to base my opinion on it too much, considering Disney's terrible reputation for creating trailers that don't represent their movies properly. Since it's a Pixar, the big question here isn't "will it be a good movie?" but more, "will it actually convince me to see it?" Right now it's not off to a great start. But there's potential.

The Man in the High Castle
Nov. 20th(streaming on Amazon Prime); TV:MA
The pilot has been available fro streaming for a while but I've been waiting for the rest of the series to come along and it's not long now! Based on a Philip K. Dick novel, this Amazon series is set in an alternate reality where the Nazis won WWII. This trailer kicks the interest up even more by revealing that people find footage showing us winning the war, which creates that epic sci-fi mystery that a signature of Dick's. Rupert Evans and Rufus Sewell are the familiar names of the large cast. It looks terrifying and dark and intense, and as long as the content isn't pushed too far, I will definitely be watching it come the twentieth.

What movies are on your list this month? What are you excited for? Let me know in the comments!