Monday, January 4, 2016

I Was Never Told How Great Star Wars Was

In light of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’ve noticed some negativity towards the film and, somehow, a negativity towards Star Wars in general. While I don’t wish to contribute a review of The Force Awakens (Okay, I do: It was actually great, get over yourselves), I do have something to say about what I’m seeing written:

I was never told how great Star Wars was when I was a kid. I watched them over the course of a couple days at my grandparents' house, on cable, on a tiny TV that had a slightly green tint because of its age, when I was around 9 or 10 years old. I was enamored by the wonder of A New Hope, the visual mastery of The Empire Strikes Back, and the ease with which Return of the Jedi hid a depth behind a light narrative. These are memories of feelings I had before I really fell in love with movies.

Even after that, I hadn't yet become a Star Wars fan, even with the release of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, though I saw them multiple times, and I liked them (at the time). It wasn't until my friend Jimmy, an avid Star Wars fan, made me really want to watch the Original Trilogy again that I became a fan. This was around 2003, and I was in love with movies, and sure of my desire to be a filmmaker. So I watched them, on my own, and the familiar feelings of wonder, awe, and joy I had as my younger self were present, and they still are when I watch them to this day. (By the way: Thanks Jimmy, I wouldn't be half the Star Wars fan if it wasn't for you) 

But from the first time watching them, I was never told how good they were, they were just that good.

I was also never told what they did for moviemaking, but I saw it. Miniatures, Chroma-keying, Rear-projection, Go Motion Animation, Animatronics, Puppetry, Muppetry, Motion Control, George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic used every special effects trick in the book and even created new ones to tell the story of Star Wars throughout the Original Trilogy. I knew that I had seen so many of these things done in movies afterwards, but it wasn't until becoming a fan and learning about the legacy of Star Wars that I learned that people weren't using many of these in the way that Lucas and ILM did until Star Wars made it popular and accessible, for filmmakers and film-goers. (Note: Although the Prequel Trilogy were not good technical movies as a whole, the advances in filmmaking, like using digital cameras, as well as some of the optical and computer-generated effects, were revolutionary at the time, and are used today) 

With the Internet influencing how written media is produced right now, we are reaching a boiling point with how we talk about the art of movies. We are talking about Hollywood like they are the only ones who make movies. We are presenting our opinions, our feelings about movies, educated and not educated, as myopic, insulated, and circularly-logic'd facts about why a movie is good or bad, without having any real conversations (since they are "just movies"), or presenting any real analysis (nobody wants to read more than 1,000 words, they just want to know if the movie sucks or not).

However, it's more than just whether a movie sucks or not. You can see the lineage and influence of a mediums history; Fine Art, Pop-art, any Art, through the years, and Film is no exception. However for some reason cinema history and appreciation is not made as accessible to many, whether it's perception or apathy, and this is seen in the way we talk about movies (again, they're "just movies"), with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Star Wars being the topics of a lot of this talk recently. 

I've now read that George Lucas is " incredible businessman, but not a genius." I've read that even the first Star Wars itself "was just as contrived as the new one”, which has then led to statements like "There's a reason we don't talk about The Hidden Fortress (a huge inspiration for Star Wars, and an amazing film), THX 1138, and American Graffiti (two of Lucas' previous films. Both incredibly underrated) today."

We don't talk about The Hidden Fortress today because only cinephiles talk about classic cinema, and believe me, we talk about The Hidden Fortress. We don't talk about THX 1138 because only cinephiles talk about Art Films, since they blur the line between Fine and Pop-art in a way that many casual viewers aren't sure how to view. We don't talk about American Graffiti because it got buried by Universal Pictures because those studio bozos didn’t like it. The film itself made well over its budget back in its original run and its subsequent theatrical re-releases by the studio, was well-liked by viewers, critically acclaimed, and was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also rekindled interest in 50s and 60s American culture, allowing other films and TV, notably Happy Days, to find success.

It’s true that George Lucas has hurt himself as an artist, and hurt his product over recent years, and that has understandably caused some to (arguably) rightfully question his status as a genius, but when you look at the donut and not the hole, you'll see that he's always been more “George Lucas: Creator of Star Wars” and much less “George Lucas: Director of Howard the Duck”. When George surrounded himself with people who challenged him, like a good collaborator does, he rose to the occasion, instead of just steamrolling them and forgetting to tell us a well-crafted story, like he did with the Prequels. But Hollywood constantly doubted him, drove him away, and created the George Lucas that made that Prequel Trilogy “how he wanted to”. That doesn't make the Prequels any better, but with that understanding, you can go back and remember to appreciate George for the filmmaker he was in his time and the good things he did for Pop-cinema as a whole. (Note: It also wouldn’t hurt if you go back and watch THX 1138 and American Graffiti, because they are truly great movies, and will show you much more of the artist George Lucas was)

I discovered at a young age that we need to love movies for their imperfection, and it eventually drove me to learn their history, much like you would do with any medium of Art. I've also spent years studying Cinema, and that's not just watching movies. I've watched countless documentaries about their history and how they are made; read countless books about making movies and trade magazines about how they are made; I've even made my own films. While it doesn't take years of study or making your own movies, I do believe that only through education and experience can you understand the medium and talk about it with a sense of knowing. It's one thing to feel a certain way about a piece of art, but how we perceive, analyze, and discuss it is another, and it is happening so unintelligently, being lumped in with "our opinion", and it's hurting all of us. Most are so concerned with having strong opinions that they forget to have strong ideas, or provide good criticism or analysis. We then close our minds to discussion, so quick to “agree to disagree” and move on. If we really want movies to be better, we have to talk about them better, and that won’t happen the way it is right now. So if you like movies, watch movies, learn about movies, and talk movies. Don’t be afraid to like what you like, but also don’t be afraid of others’ ideas, don’t be afraid of analysis, and don’t be afraid to think critically.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation: An Anti-IMF Review

Last Friday we went to see Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Part of me wants to criticize the movie for being a tentpole action movie, but that's really a criticism for the studio since they decided that's what they wanted for the franchise after the first film. So I'll try my best to not compare Rogue Nation too heavily to the first film in the franchise (which by the way is fantastic, and you should watch).

This installment of the franchise sees Ethan Hunt and the team take on their toughest mission to date, finding and dismantling the Syndicate – an International group of rogue agents hell-bent on world chaos.

There are a few problems with Rogue Nation, visually. Some of the indoor scenes are downright ugly, like the filmmakers didn't bring enough lights, and the hand-to-hand fight scenes are shot and cut in a way that you can't really tell what is going on. What's weird about that the film is helmed by Christopher McQuarrie, whose previous film Jack Reacher had very visible action sequences, and the cinematography is done by the renowned Robert Elswitt. Couple this with the fact that the chase sequences and outdoor photography are fantastic, it left me sort of annoyed and wondering what happened.

Despite some ham-handed visuals, it's always the story and performances that make the Mission: Impossible movies really stand out. Rogue Nation follows suit with a story that moves at a brisk pace, twisting and turning, pulling Ethan Hunt and his team deeper into their enemies' evil plot. The dialogue is snappy, tense, and very funny at just the right times. The actors understand that with the franchise comes a little bit of melodrama, and they all nail it perfectly. Simon Pegg's character Benji Dunn gets a larger role, and even though he has a few moments where he gets to show off his dramatic acting, it's Pegg's chemistry with Tom Cruise that really makes their scenes pop. Alec Baldwin and Ving Rhames should be applauded, not only for their own performances, but by making the dreary Jeremy Renner incredibly tolerable and actually funny a couple times. Relative newcomer Rebecca Ferguson also shines with Cruise and company as the Double/Triple/Quadruple agent Ilsa Faust, adding a great emotional context to a difficult role.

I do have another problem with Rogue Nation’s overall story and execution: It's sort of a superhero movie. Since the first film, Ethan Hunt and his team went from being very good spies to being a supergroup that can't seem to lose. Rogue Nation tries to remedy this with a thick plot filled with mini-failures and dialogue that reinforces that, and even though it's a no-brainer to understand the good guys will always win, you never get enough good moments where you question that. The action in the film may be tense, but that tension never really makes you hold your breath the way the filmmakers intended.

Despite its faults, I really enjoyed Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, and even though it's an uneven visual mess, it provides what Hollywood is frequently missing nowadays: A fun time at the movies. See it eventually.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Ant-Man: A Not So Tiny Review

This past weekend I went to see Marvel's latest spin-off movie, Ant-Man. While there are a number of things to really like about the film, it'll definitely (and rightfully) be known as one of Marvel's weaker ones.

Armed with the ability to shrink in scale, burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is recruited by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and with the help of Pym's estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), plan a heist that will foil the misguidedly evil plans of Dr. Pym's former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

The first thing to point out is that at its core, Ant-Man is very much a heist movie. Lang is a down on his luck ex-con, who has an all too perfect score fall into his lap that turns into something much smaller than himself (see what I did there?), and he is given the chance to use his abilities for good. It features all the staples of heist movies: The planning montage, the scene where they have to plan and execute a heist to steal something pivotal to the larger, end-movie heist, breath-holding moments, and close calls. That being said, it's not a very good heist movie; Ant-Man never really has the time to build the right amount of tension or gravity to make anything really matter that much, and once it does, it has crumby payoff, and it's only in the last twenty minutes of the film where the ending is more than predictable anyways.

The acting in Ant-Man is the real standout of the film. The entire cast, main and supporting, really nail their roles, and give us as much emotion from the script as possible. The supporting cast brings the right amount of comic relief, and Michael Peña steals every scene he's in. Also, big shoutout to my boy Ernesto, he crushed it. The big four of Rudd, Douglas, Lilly, and Cross are very good together, and they certainly charm the hell out of you, but you can't help but see there's something missing. The film moves too fast to get through all of its story, and because of that, it's a bit emotionally disconnected. All the moments are there and executed well enough, but the movie doesn't give us the kind of time we need to not only get really attached to the characters, but also to connect with where they go emotionally.

While that kind of thing should be expected when a script is turned in by a pair or filmmakers, Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright, who then leave the production due to creative differences, and the script is then re-written by Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, it doesn't mean it shouldn't be held against it. There is a lot left of Cornish and Wright's script in some of the story elements of the film, but McKay and Rudd molded it to fit Rudd's sense of humor, and distributed that through the rest of the cast as well, but it unfortunately dumbed down many of the funnier moments of the film. The combination of McKay and Rudd's dialogue with the adventurous remnants of Cornish and Wright's script make for an overall fun and funny movie, but Director Peyton Reed and company missed really making some of Ant-Man's scripted dialogue and visual gags pop.

The sentiment is the same for much of the look of Ant-Man. There a few scenes that have suspect cinematography, being under-lit or have poorly composed framing, and the editing moves the film along too fast for you to connect; you can't help but feel the whole thing was rushed. That said, the special effects looked fantastic, and the filmmakers had a whole unit dedicated to macro photography to be used, and those moments are especially good. Seeing a tiny Lang bouncing across a real record player ludicrously close distance is really awesome looking. Additionally, the final sequence gets a bit psychedelic and is surprisingly cool.

My real criticism is a larger one: Why can't Marvel just try to make these movies great? We can "But but but Guardians" all day long, but you have to realize that movie scared the shit out of Marvel the entire time it was in production, and it should have, really; it was their riskiest picture to date. But the second Thor movie, The Dark World? Everyone is already going to see it for hunky Chris Hemsworth, but Marvel could have also make it a better than decent movie. This makes Ant-Man's mediocrity especially frustrating because we have seen what happens when they find the right filmmakers (like James Gunn with Guardians of the Galaxy) or when the filmmakers are out to make a great movie first and foremost, even if they are inexperienced (like Anthony and Joe Russo with Captain America: The Winter Soldier).

Despite being fun and charming, Ant-Man is still too much like some of the other non-Avengers pictures (See: Incredible Hulk, the Thor series): Good but not great, without enough bright spots to propel it through mediocrity; good ideas executed in too little time by the wrong filmmakers. Marvel Studios/Disney definitely seems more concerned with brand control than making great films, so they settle for just good ones. See it eventually.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Selma - A Short(ish) Review

Continuing my trend of trying to get through some of the Oscar nominees, even though I’ve definitely now missed the deadline, I watched Ava DuVernay’s historical drama Selma.

Selma is based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, and Hosea Williams, of the SCLC and the SNCC.

I didn’t like Selma, and it has nothing to do with the controversies it’s been involved in; it’s because it isn’t really that great of a movie. 

The cinematography is nothing special; the scenes are lit well, and it’s color-corrected to match the time period, but DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young don’t do anything that interesting with the camera. Sure, the camera goes handheld when the action picks up, uses slow motion at times to accentuate some chaos, and while the camerawork never gets so hectic that it alienates the viewer, it also doesn’t do anything special in itself to be that praiseworthy. It’s good technique in itself, but nothing great.

The movie’s pace is slow; building a tension that boils over at just the right times. Outside of that, Selma is a bit of a mess. In its defense, it has a lot of ground to cover, but doesn’t really do a good job at keeping us informed about the amount of time that is passing by. When it does, it uses these weird little graphics with an FBI seal and a typewriter sound effect, like we are supposed to be watching the film from a government surveillance point of view. What makes this extra weird is that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI at the time, was in the movie for about three minutes, and has no real impact on the film as a whole. The story is much more about King and President Lyndon Johnson, which is also a problem because they have the same exact conversation four or five times throughout the movie.

At times, David Oyelowo’s performance as Dr. King is transformative. At times. There are other times when the movie screeches to a halt because Oyelowo is having such a hard time chewing on King’s southern accent and rhetoric. With all the vocal inconsistencies and shoddy dialogue, it made for a just very good performance. To say it outright, David Oyelowo’s performance was not Oscar-worthy.

The same goes for nearly all the other non-naturally-American accented performers in the film, too. I normally have no problems with performers not having perfect accents, even if they are playing a real person, but Selma was tough for me to get through. The film has Tim Roth, Tim Roth, trying to do a southern accent. This problem is especially noticeable when preceding or following scenes have actor Stephen Root, who does a great southern accent, in them. This problem causes many of the performances in Selma to fall flat, and adds extra inconsistency to an already messy film.

In addition to not being well accented, most of the supporting cast members are bland and one-dimensional. Several characters are around because they needed to be in order to move the plot forward. Coretta Scott King was there because she is Mrs. King, and had to ask Malcolm X for help for some reason. She is also strangely written and directed to be this embodiment of disapproval that ominously looms over Dr. King’s shoulder. Did you know that Common is in Selma? It doesn’t matter; he has like four throwaway lines. President Lyndon Johnson is played by Tom Wilkinson, but with the way it’s written it could’ve be played by any old white guy and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. The only interesting supporting character is Giovanni Ribisi as Lee C. White, and that’s because Ribisi is a weird dude to begin with. Apparently White was an important advisor to President Johnson; could’ve fooled me.

What bothers me is that DuVernay has talked extensively about how hard it was determining what characters were important, who needed to be added, subtracted, etc., but then made any character not named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. relatively unimportant. She did an excellent job at writing speeches for Dr. King without using any material from the actual speeches, and she should be praised for that, I guess, but outside of that, she didn’t turn in an astounding script overall, and that turned into a not great movie.

I can imagine that all of this reads like nitpicking, but this movie was nominated for Best Picture, and I simply don’t feel like this movie should be in the conversation with the others this year. 

Furthermore, I don’t think this somewhat inaccurate retelling of a real event really adds anything to the current conversation about racism. Now before you start wagging your finger at me because of what I said in my Whiplash review about historical correctness, let me be clear: I understand the inaccuracies were to help DuVernay tell her story the way she wanted to, and she is under no real obligation to make her fictional film about a real event historically accurate. That being said, Selma’s inaccuracies caricature both parties in a way that makes you disapprovingly shake your head at America’s mistakes regarding the Civil Rights movement without making you think about the issues it represents any differently. Hell, the most revelatory part of the movie is that song at the end written by John Legend and Lonnie Lynn. Wait, who the hell is Lonnie Lynn? Oh hey, that’s Common. Ah, that’s why he was in the movie!

For all my criticism, Selma is a good movie. It was well-produced, not completely ugly, and above-averagely acted. Unfortunately its inconsistencies and story issues make it nothing particularly special, and I feel that the film has started some misguided conversations about lack of diversity/sexism/racism in films and filmmaking. See it eventually.

Whiplash - A Short Review

I didn’t really know much about Whiplash until I heard people talking about how good it was, or rather how good J. K. Simmons is in it. With the Oscars that I didn’t watch (I care about who is picked, just not the broadcast itself) this week, I decided I’d better check this flick out.

Whiplash follows the story of Andrew Neiman, a first-year jazz student at Shaffer Conservatory of New York, one of the best music schools in the county, and his relationship with Terence Fletcher, the conductor of the school’s best jazz band, who has a reputation of being abusive to his students any opportunity he gets.

The movie is a slow train wreck and you see everything coming. It’s powerful, frightening. Whiplash is not a drama, it’s a psychological thriller. Fletcher becomes the monster that lives under Neiman’s bed; he wants to be one of the greats and Fletcher convinces him that he is the only person who can make that happen. Fletcher’s seduction forces Neiman to alienate himself from friends and family, and his abuse pushes Andrew beyond his limits and ultimately to his breaking point.

It’s clear that Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has a personal relationship with not only the story, but also with jazz and drumming. He gives Whiplash a jazz-like rhythm, knowing just when to speed up, slow down, or go crazy. The depth of field opens and closes with the intensity of the scenes, with shots getting tighter. The editing also moves with the rhythm of the music, until the film starts rapidly cutting with Andrew’s drum hits, until we are only seeing quick frames of drums, cymbals, and eyes.

This isn’t just in the visuals, either; the characters performances have a similar rhythm, showing vulnerability one moment, volatility the next. Simmons’ performance is otherworldly. His intensity crosses the line perfectly, and there are a number of moments where you no longer see a man, you see a monster. His character becomes a dark cloud that looms over each scene, and you are continuously waiting for the storm that comes from him. 

Miles Teller’s performance as Neiman is also nothing short of brilliant. His beginnings as an awkward and unsure young man are convincing enough that you cringe every time he lets Fletcher’s tutelage force him into making another bad decision, his drunk-with-power desire making another alienating statement to someone who cares about him.

As for the criticism it has received about getting Jazz history wrong, the critics mostly miss the point. They usually note how the film is “not about jazz”, but then forget that it’s not about getting jazz history right, either. There is an anecdote in the film that is told inaccurately so one character can better manipulate another, so it doesn’t have to be right. Some critics further argue that it’s the film’s job to portray Jazz history accurately, which it’s not. The film’s job is to tell its story, and it can do so however it so chooses. The film is about abuse of power, which the film gets right. Fletcher’s accolades are alluring, and the characters, the victims, think it’s worth the abuse because he perpetrates that he is trying to push his students to greatness.

Whiplash is a beautifully crafted movie, which has a unique rhythm that fits right between Indy and Hollywood, and is worth every bit of praise that it has received. See it immediately.

Monday, February 9, 2015

X-Men: Days of Future Past - A Short Review

 Originally published 5/26/14

Saturday we went to see X-Men: Days of Future Past. I was blown away. I may be biased as I was more excited to see this movie than anything else this summer and Days of Future Past is one of my favorite story arcs in comics. I set really high expectations, which surprisingly, Days of Future Past met.

Front to back, this movie executed to the best of its ability. It was able to create its own worth as well as amplify the power of the previous film, X-Men: First Class, and even the other films in Fox's X-Men franchise.

Taut from the beginning, the movie throws information at you and expects you to keep up. Its pace slows a bit after the opening sequence, using character introduction and early exposition to get you up to speed, only to repeat the process. This helps increase the sense of urgency in the story as well as driving home a couple of the films themes.

The film wastes very little screen time. Bryan Singer and the filmmakers show you that the one thing that's going to be more spectacular than the action sequences are the characters and story itself. Very few shots focus solely on the spectacle of the computer generated imagery (which is great-looking, by the way). The visual language of the film is consistent, the cinematography interesting, and most of all, the filmmakers never forget what the movie is: A character story; all of the action is still steeped in character (dat Quicksilver scene). In fact, the prettiest looking shots in the film are dialogue scenes and close-ups.

I think my favorite part of Days of Future Past is the writing and the acting. Whether it was in the beginning of the writing phase, or somewhere along the way, the filmmakers realized that they had some of the best actors working today, in roles large and small, and pretty much told them to turn the feels on full blast. Everyone turns in a sparkling performance, whether it was the sad and disconnected performance by Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, or the brilliant role reversal of McAvoy as the angry and emotionally unstable Professor Xavier, while Michael Fassbender plays the now calm and resolved version of Magneto he becomes. Then of course there is a small scene with McAvoy and Sir Patrick, which is giving me feels just thinking about.

All gushing aside, I have a couple minor complaints. Most of the major characters from First Class were written out, or more or less and afterthought. The elements of those characters are definitely hinting at the future of the story, whether it becomes tangible or not, which added depth to the film, but in a sense it also seemed tacked on to remind you that those characters mattered.

I also can't help but want more of the future story. I understand what it had to be to increase the tension of the story, but the most Oscars are on the future side of the story, and you can never have too much of Sir Patrick and Sir Ian. It would have also been really awesome to see more of the future mutants and understand their story, because Bishopppppppppppppppppppp.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best X-Men movie to date, but not just because of its own power and execution, but because the filmmakers did what I thought couldn't be done: Reverse the damage done by the not-so-great X-Men and Wolverine films. See it immediately.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Godzilla - A Short Review

Originally published 5/26/14

Having to wait for my friend to get back from his vacation, I finally saw Godzilla, and thankfully my county has a Dolby Atmos theater to see it in. Here's some thoughts I had about the movie.
Godzilla, as a character and story device, was fantastic. Literal and Allegorical, Godzilla was fierce, complex, and breathtaking.

The music and sound design was amazing, adding to the intensity, grandeur, and nostalgia of Godzilla. Probably my favorite part of the film.

While the film was great-looking, it was a bit...bland. The camerawork and effects were really good, but the overall look of the film was nothing to write home about. Truthfully, stunning cinematography was never part of the franchise, more of an expectation I had for the filmmakers.

Godzilla featured better than average acting all around, with particularly great performances by Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe. A number of the characters lacked depth in the writing, more specifically Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his family (Elizabeth Olsen as wife Elle and Carson Bolde as son Sam), and that lack of depth, coupled with poor character connections, didn't build the kind of emotional bridge I needed to identify, or care, about Ford and his family's journey.

The movie was also devoid of a lot of "close call" moments, failing to really raise the stakes over the course of the film. In reflection, this was a bit of a problem with most of the Godzilla films, with the original relying on the allegory to increase the tension, and the monster versus movies relying on the spectacle of the fight to overshadow the stakes.

There were very few things I didn't like, and they all have to do with the lack of emotional depth and visual flair that I had expected from director Gareth Edwards, given all the hype about his love for the source material and his previous film. Technically great, but lacking the kind of punch I wanted for Godzilla.

The overall narrative was effective and it did what I wanted it to: It combined the deep symbolism of the 1954 original with the monster versus films that followed and popularized the franchise.

Despite the film's shortcomings, it was written, paced, scored, and executed in the best way it could in the Studio System, successfully bringing Godzilla into the era of modern American cinema the way it should be.

Godzilla was a very good film, and I very much liked it, but it's tough for me to call it great.

I recommend seeing it, though, preferably in the non-3D format and in a theater that has a Dolby Atmos sound system.