Monday, January 4, 2016

Top Ten in 2015

A lot of pundits are putting out their Top Ten Favorite Films of 2015 list, so I thought I would do the same.  Not that I view myself as a pundit.  I didn't even really see a lot of the films in contention for many of the major awards races, but I saw quite a few movies this year and some of them were really great.  Here are the ones I enjoyed the most:

Probably the least surprising movie on the list.  It's a juggernaut of a film that has already broken a dozen or so box office records. This is not surprising.  What is surprising is that it turns out the movie is pretty great.  I've seen it twice in theaters (something I haven't done in a long time) and I enjoyed it more the second time and I will likely see the movie again before buying it on Blu-Ray.  There are things I didn't like about the movie, but really my biggest gripe with this film is that the score is underwhelming.  No new themes, no rousing marches.  It's fine, just kind of bland.  I mean even The Phantom Menace had Duel of the Fates. Despite that, there was much to love in this new entry - the nostalgia factor balanced with a cast of fresh faces that are really wonderful; amazing practical effects; Han Solo.  Above all I loved Rey as the new protagonist of the series and Kylo Ren as the villain.  Rey is strong, vulnerable, funny, smart and energetic.  Kylo Ren is dark, dangerous and subtly layered.  It was great to see nuanced characters in a 40 year old space soap opera.  JJ Abrams did a great job of establishing a universe that feels both familiar and new.  I can't wait for Rian Johnson's Episode VIII.

Oh man, how I love a good Rocky movie, or even an okay Rocky movie.   Well, honestly I love all the Rocky movies (except IV - sorry Drago).  So I have been excited for this movie since I first heard about it.  And Ryan Coogler (who co-wrote and directed the film) knocked it out (of the park).  It's hard to make a movie that balances nostalgia while bringing something new to the table (see above), but the Creed team struck that balance amazingly well.  And speaking of scores, this one delivers.  New themes blended with old ones - like this.  Michael B. Jordan is a great actor and he is great in this role, but the real standout here is good ol' Sylvester Stallone in his 7th (yes 7th) outing as the Champ Rocky Balboa.  Give this man the Oscar right now.

Pixar is king as far as I'm concerned.  Of the 16 films they've released since 1995, there's only one I don't really like (Cars 2 in case you're wondering).  The rest of them range from pretty darn good to amazing.  Inside Out has to be in my top five favorites, maybe top three.  Such an emotional (pun intended) movie that balances humor, heart, adventure and the bizarre to create a transcendent movie-going experience.  It's  a movie about understanding the purpose of the bad feelings as well as the good.  It reminds me of this.  Seeing this with my wife on a date night was one of my favorite movie going experiences this year.  It also helps watching this movie as a father of daughters.

One of the few cases where the book wasn't better than the movie.  I wouldn't say it was worse either.  It's kind of like Castaway, but on Mars and with real science The Martian is a feel-great movie.  It's about the power of cooperation, the unconquerable nature of the human spirit and all those other lovely clichés.  Matt Damon has to carry a lot of the movie and he does so with aplomb, but the supporting cast is game and no one lets the ball drop.  My personal favorite is Danny Glover in a small, but important and memorable role.  Schools should show this movie and read this book to inspire kids to work in math and science.

A small, quiet, deliberately paced film about an aging Sherlock Holmes?  Well, it has the benefit of being one of Ian McKellan's finest performances and a tightly written script that weaves three seemingly unconnected stories into a satisfying conclusion where all loose ends are tied and you're left feeling better about the world as a result.  The premise is that Sherlock Holmes is now reaching the end of his life, his memory is fading and he is trying to remember the answer to a mystery he already solved, but Watson had recorded incorrectly.  It's a great story with twists and turns, but smaller from other Sherlock adaptations of late.  Also keep your eye on Milo Parker.

Pairing Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg was bound to create some compelling drama, but I wasn't expecting to like this film as much as I did.  It felt like To Kill a Mockingbird meets Thirteen Days (or even Spielberg's Lincoln).  It's a courtroom drama without much courtroom and a Cold War movie without much fighting.  It's about backroom deals and tricky politics.  I was proud to be an American when I watched it, but I felt empathy for the "other" as well.  Until I saw Creed I was sure the Best Supporting Actor category was going to be owned by Mark Rylance, he gives the most understated performance of the year and he sells you wholesale on his character despite being a Soviet spy.  One of Spielberg's least flashy films, but a fine addition to his already stunning canon.

One of the few real Oscar contenders that I've had the chance of seeing so far.  I was amazed at how much I liked this film.  Like numbers 5 & 6, this is a small picture.  Small in scope and stakes.  Saorise Ronan carries the film in another small but masterful performance from this year.  Emory Cohen was also a standout as Eilis' (Ronan) love interest, Tony and Julia Waters (best known as Mrs. Weasley from the Harry Potter films) gives the film a much-needed dose of humor playing a strict boarding-home mother in the Big Apple.  The production design and cinematography are sharp and both help make this film rise above its trappings as a rote coming-of-age story.

I've tried to sprinkle some class into this list, but sometimes there's a popcorn flick that just grabs you by the shirt collar and pulls you along for a couple of hours.  By the end of the fifth Mission: Impossible film you have a bit of whiplash, but you're smiling too.  The plot is nothing special - some secret organization is hellbent on sending the world into chaos to prove..."I think it's something to do with free will" (to borrow a phrase from another movie) or not.  It doesn't really matter what matters is that there is only one man who can stop them and his name is Tom, I mean Ethan Hunt.  But finally Hunt has a worthy female counterpart in Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).  I can hardly remember any of the other women in the MI movies, but Ilsa is more than capable without Ethan and is saving him much more often than he is saving her.  Strong female protagonists abound in 2015 and Ms. Faust is at the top of that list.

I was not at all familiar with the Paddington books when I first saw the trailer and so I was completely uninterested in seeing this movie.  It didn't help that the first trailer was a scene from the movie set in a bathroom that had mostly gross out gags about earwax and look at the movie poster, not the best.  Then I saw the first reviews come in and then more.  Pretty soon I was convinced that I would at least have to take a look at it.  I am so glad I did.  It's a charming, heartwarming, hilarious gem of a movie with some great performances, particularly Hugh Bonneville as the wonderfully dry Mr. Brown.  It's a modernized look at an older tale, but it retains the charm and humanity that made this bear so famous to begin with.

A lot of people are tired of comic book movies, but I find it so fascinating that this is what most Summer movies have become.  It doesn't surprise me either.  When you look at film history things always happen in waves.  Eventually this fad will pass and something else will take its place.  I'm fine with it sticking around for a little while longer if we keep getting movies like Ant-Man.  The 65th (or so it feels) entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is fresh and breezy thanks to a light-hearted performance by Paul Rudd and a low-stakes heist movie plot.  It's an origin story, a caper, an action film and it's quite funny.  Michael Peña really shines as Scott Lang's ever-positive partner in crime, Luis.  And how can you not love a movie who's climactic final battle happens inside a train set in a little girl's room?  Bonus points too for introducing us to the first headlining female superhero in the MCU - watch out for Ant-Man and the Wasp in 2018.


This one falls under really good Pixar stuff.  I include it here for two reasons: first, I was surprised at how much I liked this movie.  The story wasn't anything terribly new, but it was fun and it was told in a really surprising way - as a Western.  I wasn't expecting that and being pleasantly surprised at the movies these days is rare for me.  And second, the landscape animation in this movie is AMAZING.  The cartoonish character designs were always a little off-putting for me, but the landscapes are so photo realistic it is scary.  Go see the movie for that reason alone.  Really Pixar is genius for releasing this movie in the same year as Inside Out - get them in with a heavy hitter that gross hundreds of millions of dollars and you may just earn enough good will to bring in audiences for this sub-par, but still pretty good film.

Now let's just hold up here for a few minutes.  I need to make this very clear: THIS IS NOT A GOOD MOVIE.  The dialog is terrible, the plot is utterly ridiculous and the acting is...passable.  And yet - this is a GREAT movie.  I say that because it is everything it's meant to B.  I knew from the moment Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson ripped a car door off with his bare hands while dangling precariously from a rescue helicopter that this film would be amazing.  Not good, mind you, but amazing.  It's one of those movies where the action drives the plot.  Earthquake comes?  Luckily I got this helicopter to go save my ex-wife.  Helicopter crashes?  Luckily there's a truck here with the keys in it.  Now there's a giant crater where the road used to be?  Well we better go to that old barn and find a plane.  And so on.  It has everything I want in a disaster film: a series of events no one can avoid, a broken family that will be brought back together during the disaster and Paul Giamatti.

So those are my favorites from this year.  What were yours?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How to Leave Someone

I've been thinking about this post for quite some time, but have been putting it off (along with all other blog posts) for too long.  So here it is - my thoughts on some of the best endings in movie history.  I've heard that the new Star Wars movie has "the best parting shot of the whole series".  And I guess that reignited my thoughts on the subject.  I find it interesting that this would be something that people (plural, more than one) would be talking about.  Not about effects, story, character, etc. To be fair most people are being vague to avoid spoilers, but even still why is an ending so important?  I think if you want to be the kind of movie that is memorable you need scenes that linger.  They need to evoke some sort of feeling - excitement, horror, despair, hope, or nostalgia.  Something that will bring back an emotional memory every time.  I believe, if you can end your film on one of these highs (or lows) the parting scene can evoke a feeling that will spark a memory of the whole film.  Let me explain by showing a bad, but still applicable example (WARNING: Some endings contain spoilers - duh!).

Remember this movie?  Box office would suggest not because nobody saw it.  But as a kid I did, several times.  I loved it. It's a terrible movie, but for some reason I have vivid memories of this movie and particularly this scene.  It was the first time I remember a sequel being so blatantly set up and I took the bait - hook, line and sinker. I was so excited there would be more (bleak, dystopian, weird) adventures for Mario Mario and Luigi Mario.  Sadly, no sequel was ever made, but at a young impressionable age I learned the importance of ending a movie well.

Not all endings need to be red herring sequel baiting (although see this: for another 90s example [the music!!]).

So take a look at some very good endings and what makes them great.  And not just endings, but final scenes.  The moments immediately before the credits roll.

Let's talk about hope.  I love hope.  It gives me such...optimistic feelings.  How do you inspire hope in the final moments of a film? One way is to pare it with tragedy or heartbreak.  Like in this example from LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (sorry for the terrible quality):

Two people at a funeral.  Grieving.  Our girl has feelings for the hero, but couldn't share them with him.  A small token of affection and then - her response!  And their smiles!  So great.  This whole movie is amazing, but the ending is sublime especially for a movie with such a strange premise.

These kinds of endings are great for romantic movies and comedies where the leading pair are just so perfect for each other, but never really get together during the film (see also What's Up Doc -; and You've Got Mail -; and the similarly themed Sleepless in Seattle - and while I prefer the movie ending take this alternate ending to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, I mean a sunrise? Come on! -  Hope comes when the victory is not yet won, but lies just over the next hill.

DREAD.  The opposite of hope.  It leaves you wondering if it's all worth it.  Take for instance this Horror film.  The premise: You watch a video tape, it has strange haunting images, then you get a phone call that just says "Seven days."  A week later you're dead.  There has to be a way to stop it, right?  Well there is.  Make a copy of the tape and show it to someone else.  Behold the last scene of THE RING (Warning: scary images abound - PG-13 ones, but still):

GAAAAH!  But you just showed ME the video and that's it?!?!?!  I may never want to see that movie ever again, but I'm never going to forget that ending.

Remember nostalgia?  Of course you do.  There's movies that thrive on giving us that good ol' feeling.  Some endings are meant to remind us of better days, but often have us simply remembering better movies.  The nostalgia I'm thinking of isn't a reminder of older films, but of another time.  They make us think about our childhoods, our parents, siblings, friends we've lost touch with.  No one does this better than Spielberg.  Take E.T.  In just a couple minutes Stevie manages to pull all our heartstrings and play us like the John Williams' swelling orchestra.  Watch.  Remember.  Cry a bit.


Time to get on your feet.  To cheer.  To rouse rabbles, or something.  What better way to sink deep into the psyche of your audience than to bring them to their feet cheering?  Movies can fake this emotion easier than most because it's easier to earn a RAH-RAH-RAH moment, so often these endings can seem forced, but not always.  They can be gloriously earned.  None more effectively than this one...

I mean...the score ramping up into an even more epic score, the roguish looks from Han to Leia, the pomp, the circumstance!  One of the most memorable endings to any movie (see Nostalgia), and despite a little Wookie racism (#medal4chewie) it really seals the deal for an already impressive film.   And a lot of other films earn these moments (Speed Racer, a controversial choice, perhaps, but I love it - can't find a link, watch the movie!  Rocky, another icon finale -; and you could put most sports movies, but why not just go for the best - HOOSIERS -

There are a lot of endings that can work that I don't have time (or reader attention span) to elaborate on.  Endings like twist endings (see: Planet of the Apes [1968] -; ambiguous (see: Inception [some might say this is a bit of cheat though] -; tragic (see: United 93 [Warning: might be disturbing for some] -; and absurd (see: Time Bandits -

To end this entry on endings I give you what is quite possibly my favorite film ending ever.  It falls under the category open-ended.  The audience isn't force-fed a happy little conclusion tied up with a bow.  In this case a Texas Sheriff named Ed Tom has been tracking a sadistic serial killer who was sent to track down $2M in stolen drug money.  Over several days Ed Tom sees murder and chaos like never before, but in the end the villian gets...away? And our hero...retires?  Now watch the scene the directors (the magnificent Bros. Cohen) chose to end with:

That's it.  He woke up.  It's not a speech about the consequences of evil or the fruits of doing good (although I could write a thesis paper about how much symbolism and righteousness is packed into these two minutes).  I love this endings and others like it.  Again, films try to cheat with endings like this all the time and rarely succeed and even more rarely do they succeed on this level.

I have no more endings.  What are some of your favorites?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (or How Mrs. Travers Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mouse)

Walt Disney Pictures is no stranger to schmaltz and sugar-coated narratives, and Saving Mr. Banks is no exception.  The new film starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, tells the story of how Walt and Co. convince the uptight author P.L. Travers to sell the rights to her beloved Mary Poppins.  The film walks a delicate line between genuineness and schmaltz and, for the most part, it succeeds.

Fearing (rightly so) that Disney will turn her characters into cartoonish, singing and dancing fools, Mrs. Travers embarks to Los Angeles to make sure her Nanny and more importantly, the Banks family, remain true to her vision.  After two decades of hounding the poor author for the rights to her book, Walt finally succeeds in getting the stiff-upper-lipped Travers to LA to show her what they have in store.  It's clear she comes begrudgingly and out of necessity (her funds, as well as her creative juices, have dried up) and she is not going to give in easily.  She demands no animation, no singing and no dancing.  In short, everything Disney stands for is unfit for her story.  She claims her characters are family and the staff, including ol'Walt himself, don't quite get what that means. 

The audience slowly gets clued-in, though, as the film flashes back to P.L.'s childhood in Australia and her relationship with her father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell).  Goff is a drunk and a bit of a mess, bouncing from job to job, trying to provide for his family.  Still the young Travers (born Helen Goff, Ginty to her dad) adores her father.  Being old enough to understand some of what is going on Ginty is torn between wanting to help her father get better and being his enabler with alcohol and with shirking his work responsibilities.  These moments are really heartbreaking and help us understand why it is that the adult Ginty is so unwavering with her characters.

And while there are dark moments, much of the film is light and fun and even quite funny.  It's fitting that the happy moments take place at Disney's studios in the rehearsal room as the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and a delightfully gruff B.J. Novak) treat Travers to the now iconic songs.  It's fun to see how the famous duo crafted the lyrics and music we all know and love.  And while the same beats are hit again and again, it is fun to see Travers battle it out with the Brothers and Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), the script writer.

The strength of this film lies in its cast.  Emma Thompson is a formidable P.L. Travers and she commands every scene she is in.  She is one of those actors who is able to be both strong and vulnerable at the same time.  The film succeeds or fails on the central performance and Ms. Thompson is more than up to the challenge.  Making Tom Hanks Walt Disney was a stroke of genius as well.  While the physical similarities between the two are slight, Hanks embodies the everyman Disney was, or at least appeared to be.  He is probably the closest thing we have to a Walt Disney today, in temperament and demeanor at least.  And while the two leads do a splendid job, the real stand out is Colin Farrell as Travers father...Travers.  We've seen Farrell do mean, angry, funny, and crazy, but never have we seen the kind, compassionate, loving Colin Farrell as we do in Saving Mr. Banks.  His portrayal of a father ill-equipped to take care of a family is absolutely heartbreaking.  He's a loser and he knows it, but for the sake of his beloved Ginty he puts on a good face, but the audience can see it's an act; an act that will not end well.

Saving Mr. Banks is good family fun.  And while it succumbs to some of the weaknesses Mrs. Travers saw in Disney's work, it rises about the sentimental trappings and earns its genuine emotional beats.  The direction is a bit heavy handed (John Lee Hancock of The Blind Side fame is not one for much subtlety) and the film ends much happier than what really happened (P.L. Travers disliked the film so much that in her will she made it so no other adaptations could be made of her books), but these are minor quibbles in a film that is just so likeable.  The design, music and cinematography are all top notch and the supporting roles by Schwartzman, Novak, Whitford and Paul Giamatti as an always cheerful chauffeur are spot on.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom - I Mean, We're Talking Loooong Walk

This may be the most appropriately titled movie of the year.  Perhaps ever.  There were such high expectations for this film.  On paper it's a knockout - a Nelson Mandela biopic with Idris Elba in the lead?  Come on, that's a no-brainer.  To be fair, Idris Elba hits it out of the park with his portrayal of the South African anti-Apartheid leader.  You just end up wishing he had been given a better film to work with.

The film spans most of Mandela's adult life, from his beginnings as a lawyer in segregated South Africa to his years as a revolutionary and then his subsequent arrest and imprisonment for 28 years and finally his activism after being released, ending with his election as the first Black President of South Africa.  The scope of the film ends up being its biggest problem.  Rather than focusing on some pivotal moment in Mandela's life, this perfunctory and cursory overview of his whole story feels shallow and moments that should make heart race or your blood boil felt hurried and trite.

Being someone who doesn't know much about Nelson Mandela, particularly his early role in South African politics, I found myself wanting the film to stay put on one time in Mandela's life and really flesh-out what impact it had on the man he would become.  I didn't know that Mandela was a radical during the 60s.  I didn't know he was arrested because he was involved in bombings of government buildings.  I found those scenes really compelling, but that whole era of his life is covered in about 20 minutes of a two-and-a-half hour film.  I'm also a sucker for courtroom dramas and I found myself thinking, "I would love to see a whole movie with just the court battle."  But again, the movie brushes past that part.  In fact it took awhile for the movie to settle on what the majority of the film would be about.  It ended up spending the most time on Nelson's 28 years in various prisons.  Now granted, this is a pivotal and important part in Mandela's life and the shaping of his worldview, but it doesn't make for gripping cinema.  The end of the film picks up a little as he negotiates his way out of prison and eventual gets elected President, but again, we've spent so much time on other things that this part of his life feels rushed.

Now not everything in the film was awful.  As mentioned before Idris Elba gives a towering (quite literally, Mr. Elba is a broad-shouldered 6' 3") performance as Nelson Mandela.  He commands each scene and often makes the character rise above the uneven script.  He is joined by Naomie Harris (Skyfall) as Winnie Mandela in a touching and often heartbreaking performance of her own.  In fact their relationship and Winnie herself are very interesting parts of the film that could have a film all their own.

After Nelson is freed from prison, he finds his relationship with Winnie strained.  This shouldn't be surprising as they have been married for decades, the overwhelming majority of which they have lived apart; both spending time in prison.  Also, Winnie becomes much more militant after her time and torture in prison while Nelson's views have softened towards pacifism.  These added strains cause the couple to eventually separate (and ultimately divorce, though not shown in the film).  It's an interesting pairing that was founded on love, but seemed to have been sustained through political necessity.  If only there was more time to explore these ideas.

So, while not without its charms, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, suffers from narrative overload and doesn't offer anything new to the biopic genre or to life and story of Nelson Mandela himself.  Even with the wonderful performances this film can't escape falling victim to one of the most important rules in storytelling: Whatever you do, don't be boring!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World - He Will Rock You!

Chris Hemsworth is back as the titular demigod of Thunder, Lightning and Hitting Things with a Big Hammer in the latest from Marvel's Avenger universe, and for the most part, he's back in big, impressive way.  The original Thor (2011) was one of my personal favorites in the Marvel canon.  The idea that a super hero (a god even) would have to come down to earth and learn to be human in order to inherit his rightful place as a king, resonates with me and the film was also funny, it had some heart and some great action.  Now Thor has moved beyond his boyish whining and headstrong arrogance, and with that you lose some of what made him such an intriguing character at first, but in the end this film is none the worse for it.

This time out Thor is back on his home planet of Asgard (after the events of the Avengers) bringing peace to the Nine Realms (other planets under the protection of Asgard).  Since the events of the first Thor the Bifrost (a magical Rainbow Road that transports people between the Nine Realms) has been fixed and Thor and his posse can travel instantaneously between the worlds to fight off any and all badies.  And they do it with aplomb.  After securing the freedom of all the people, however, Thor isn't in the mood to celebrate.  His father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), has made it clear that it is time for Thor to take his rightful place as King of Asgard, and as such should look for a Queen.  Odin hints that Sif (Jaimie Alexander), the lone girl warrior and resident Thor-ogler, would be the perfect match, however, Thor's thoughts are more earthly-bound.  He can't wash the mortal Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) from his perfectly coiffed golden locks.  He worries about her and goes to the Guardian of the Bifrost, Heimdall (Idris Elba) to see how she is doing, but Heimdall who can see everyone in the Nine Realms, can't find her.

Turns out Jane stumbled across a portal between realms where millenia ago Odin's father hid the Aether, a really bad liquidy thing, that the Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) tried to use to destroy the universe.  And wouldn't you know it?  They're back and ready to take the Aether (which has now possessed Jane) and get back to their original task.  See these Elves believe that the Universe as it is now was never meant to be.  Before the Nine Realms, we're told in a prologue, there was darkness and the Elves want the darkness back.  Why?  Well because they're Dark Elves and that's what they like.  Pretty one dimensional, but they look great and Christopher Eccleston (the first Doctor of this generation's Dr. Who) does a great job of being menacing.

However, despite the Elves being designed so well, their goal is so impersonal and their actions so apocayptic that it's hard to get too invested.  Luckily the story makes a few small personal choices that bring the story down to relatable levels.  But I've spoken before about my aversion to the new trend of destruction-based superhero movies and the effect I think it has on us.  Luckily the stakes are kept mostly personal and the finale isn't so loud and destructive as to dull you into a noise coma.

To protect his earthly love Thor brings Dr. Foster to Asgard so his physicians can take a look at her.  Odin isn't happy with Thor's actions, but is shocked to find Jane infected with the Aether.  Here we get one of many gobbledy-gook explanations about the evil and the darkness of the Aether and how it can't be destroyed.  Thor is concerned for Jane's life, Odin is concerned for the fate of the universe.  Both of their concerns come to fruitition when Malekith and his badies come crashing into Asgard looking for the Aether.  And Thor and his warriors are able to fight off the Elves, but not before Malekith is able to strike a huge blow to Asgard.  Now Thor is determined to hunt down the Elves so they can extract the Aether from Jane and he can destroy.  But Odin has ordered the Bifrost closed and there is only one secret way off of Asgard, known only to one prisoner.

Enter Loki (Tom Hiddleston), likely the reason for a lot of fans returning to the film.  Loki has been imprisoned for his actions during the Avengers and Thor comes to him for help only because he is most depserate and Loki similarly has cause for revenge against the Elves.  This is where the movie really takes off.  A daring and treasonous escape from Asgard, a brutal battle with tricks and double crosses on the Dark World and a great finale.  Loki and Thor have a great back-and-forth and it's nice to see the film take a less serious tone in the latter two-thirds.

The funniest stuff of the film, though, goes to Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard).  After having, in his words, "a god in [his] head" for most of the events preceding and during the Avengers, Erik is a little off his rocker, but he has figured out how to stop the Elves from using the Aether to destroy the NIne Realms.  It's one of those easy fixes that you don't have to explain because the science doesn't actually exist, but it has to do with placing poles that create a gravitational field around the source of the Convergence (the aligning of all the realms that the Dark Elves plan to use as a portal to unleash the Aether) so you can manipulate and close the portals.  It's convoluted, and convenient, but it makes for a pretty cool space jumping finale.

Overall, Thor: The Dark World is a fun ride.  The plot is a little convenient at times and the villain isn't as fun or compelling as Loki himself, but it doesn't much matter when a film looks this good, is this strongly directed and has this much heart and humor.  It's pretty spectacular that Marvel has had this much success and kept up the quality of films this well for a series of interconnected super hero movies for this long.  Thor is one of my personal favorites in the series and The Dark World proves there are stories left to tell from Asgard.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Despicable Me 2: Papoy!

Everyone really goes to see Despicable Me for the Minions, right?  And in the sequel the Minions have a larger role, both in on-screen time and in story.  As with any film that seeks to make a peripheral character the focus of a sequel, there are many dangers (see Cars 2), but Despicable Me 2 does a fine job of walking a fine line.  The genius of the move is to make them crucial to the plot, thereby justifying the added on-screen presence, but the danger is you might overdo the fart and butt jokes, and this movie gets awfully close to just that.  I don't know, though, maybe it's just my inner 14 year-old or the fact that those jokes are often played a little tongue-in-cheek, I still laughed.

Minions aside, the story focuses on the ever lovable baddie, Gru, who after adopting three little girls has given up a life of badness to be a good stay at home dad while trying to start his own line of jams and jellies which he doesn't seem to have a knack for. Gru is satisfied being the world's best single dad, but it becomes obvious very quickly, at least to his girls and the neighborhood moms, that he is missing something, namely the love of a good woman.  As if his life were scripted (hey!) Gru meets Lucy an ever-perky secret agent that works for an Anti-Villain agency tasked with bringing Gru in to help them track down a super villain who is planning a really bad thing (which escapes me at this moment, something about turning the minions evil and ruling the world probably).  At first Gru is reluctant, both to the job and to the advances of the lovely Lucy, but he eventually comes around to both proposals.

A lot of the humor and heart in this well crafted sequel comes from relationships.  Gru and Lucy have a wonderfully awkward repartee for sure, but the real humor comes from Gru's paternal instincts kicking in once his oldest daughter, Margot, starts liking boys, one flirtatious latin boy specifically.  Grounding the ridiculous plot in real emotion and relationships like this that make Despicable Me 2 really fun and engaging.

Steve Carell is in characteristically strong form as the voice behind our villain hero and Kristen Wiig brings a delightful foil to Gru's grumpy personae with Lucy's endlessly optimistic, brightly colored Secret Agent.  The Minions continue their almost intelligible babbling to great comedic effect, particularly a great send up of Backstreet Boy's "I Swear" and the Village People's "Y.M.C.A." at the end of the film.

It's not a perfect movie by any means.  The story was a bit predictable and there weren't any great surprises like I hoped there would be.  Gru also felt like a secondary character with so much going on and I don't think he had as central (or humorous) a role as he did in the first film, this is partly due to the increased role of the minions and various subplots.  Also, how are these three girls, none of them older than 13, alone so often?  I guess the bumbling Minions double as babysitters?  All that said, it's a thoroughly enjoyable family film with a lot of heart and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.  Most of my criticism comes from the fact that the first film was so surprising and I love it so much that it's hard not find fault with a film that is "merely very good."  But nostalgia can be a very dangerous drug when judging sequels.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Monsters University: We're OK! We're OK!

Monsters University is a cotton candy-colored return to form for Pixar after the poor Cars 2 and the fine, but overly childish Brave.  MU takes place an unspecified number of years before the 2001 Monsters Inc. at the titular school where Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan meet as competitors for the Scare Program.  The story is simple, Mike has book smarts while Sully has a natural ability for scaring.  The two become natural enemies as they prepare for their scare final which will determine whether or not they get to continue in the program.  After an unfortunate accident, however, the two are forced to become allies when they are banned from becoming Scarers.  Now they, along with their ragtag teammates from the nerd fraternity Oozma Kappa, have to compete in the annual Scare Games against the school's finest sororities and fraternities in order to win back their place in the Scare Program.  Familiar, for sure, but lots of fun.

Much of what happens is standard college movie fare.  The rivalries, the miracle victories, the cheating, the pranks, etc.  But it's all done with such panache and humor that it's easy to enjoy.  Really the biggest issue I had was that there wasn't a strong enough antagonist.  Like many college films, the bad guy here is the Dean.  Devilishly voiced by Dame Helen Mirren, Dean Hardscrabble is a formidable foe; frightening even to her fellow monsters, she's certainly menacing, but there lacked an ever-present villain.  Some of the other fraternities have typical jock-types (awesome voice work by the always charming Nathan Fillion and the geeky Bobby Moynihan), but none of them felt threatening enough.  They could have used Randall (Steve Buscemi) from the first film, there was a great set up with Mike and Randall being friends and roommates at the beginning, but the filmmakers made the smart choice of not referring too much to the original.  Just enough nods and winks without over doing it (watch for a subtle wink to the original with a throwaway gag involving the accident prone George Sanderson).

As with all Pixar films, the visuals are state-of-the-art.  The colors in MU jump off the screen (even in 2D) and the action set pieces are thrilling.  The new characters are great as well, particularly the hapless brothers of Oozma Kappa (perfectly abbreviated to OK).  Don, Squishy, Terry, Terri and Art are all unique and memorable, which can't be said of all the other characters in the film.  Each member of OK has their time to shine and is able to use their unique abilities to help the team in the Scare Games.  My personal favorite is the flighty Art, a New Age Philosophy major who can't wait to laugh with his brothers...and cry with them.  Squishy also has some wonderful moments as he constantly scares Mike by sneaking up on him, blank faced.  This leads to a great moment in the final act as the members of OK test their scaring abilities.

The sight gags and throwaway lines made this film a delight to watch and it's fun, as always, to play "Guess the Voice" as you spot John Krasinski, Aubrey Plaza and the other top-notch performers.  This film has great rewatchability, because so many of the jokes are quick one liners or visual jokes you miss on first viewing.  Like the joke from the improv club president.  I know I missed some great joke about never saying No in improv, but I was too busy soaking up the campus along with Mike on his first day.  The story is well structured and it moves along nicely, I never once checked my watch.  And while there is a lot that is familiar, there are still plenty of surprises to keep you engaged.  The third act, especially takes some nice turns.

So while many people will be bemoaning the fact that this isn't one of Pixar's "best" (although I might disagree) the film is solid.  It's fun, it's heartfelt and it's enjoyable.  In fact the story seems to be a metaphor for the movie itself and its place as part of the Pixar canon.  Sometimes it's good, maybe even noble, to be OK.  The brothers of Oozma Kappa learn that teamwork and supporting each other are more important than book smarts or natural ability alone and while it takes Mike and Sully a bit longer to realize this, they embrace their weakness and use it to become a strength. I also can't praise enough the epilogue that teaches a brilliant lesson: sometimes you can still fulfill your dreams with little time and a lot of hard work.  Maybe with some work and in enough time Monsters University will reach its rightful place among the best of Pixar.