A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

What if I told you that the current top of the box office was a film that addressed complex geopolitical themes, incredible views on the foundations of civilization, a complex look at the nature of war, mind-blowing effects, and complex characters who have to earn their sympathy?

You would probably think I was describing some film that had been released in time for Oscar season. But I’m describing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. I expected it to be good; Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a good film that featured amazing special effects. But this takes the source material to a level I didn’t know existed.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place about ten years after the original. If you’ll recall, the finale of the original film focused on a retro virus that made apes intelligent and killed human beings. In that ten years, humanity has been virtually wiped out (the exposition at the start of the film states that the virus had a survival rate of 500:1). So, for most of the first act, we focus on the apes and how they are thriving as a society.

Caesar (Andy Serkis, the king of mo-cap who deserves at least an honorary Oscar) is the leader of a tribe somewhere on the west coast of the United States. We see how the apes hunt, how they live, and how they form relationships with each other. We see Caesar’s children, and how they disagree with aspects of his rule.

These scenes are amazing. There is almost no dialogue in the first act of the movie (the apes talk like the Frankenstein monster), but we get a sense of all the issues at stake. The fact that these nonhuman characters are the most sympathetic in the film says something about director Matt Reeves and Serkis. We get a sense of what’s at stake for the Apes and why there would be a conflict between them later. But there’s very little dialogue. The apes, particularly Caesar, are able to talk but mostly rely on sign language and grunting. How is it possible to communicate their language in this manner and make people really get it?

It’s a difficult task, but Reeves succeeds. The apes are the best characters in the film even though they can barely speak. This continues after human characters are introduced The primary conflict in the film is between Caesar and Koba (Toby Kebbell). Caesar is willing to work with them, while Koba despises them for the medical testing he endured. It is not simply a question of good versus evil – the film never says who is truly correct and the humans and apes are equally capable of evil. But mostly, they just want to reactivate a hydroelectric dam in ape territory and start rebuilding their own civilization. There are great scenes between Caesar and his new human friend Malcolm (Jason Clarke). They don’t trust each other, and there are good reasons why, but they do realize they will need to at least cooperate.

It’s a very complex relationship that has a lot to say about current geopolitical battles. Both sides may have a point and the decisions the characters make will be hated. But even those who want to respond violently are at least able to explain why.

The third act of the film does devolve into a simpler action film. But even then, the themes of the work have been set up so well that it makes sense. It’s simple, but it’s something that could happen given what we’ve been told. Koba’s hatred for humans is reinforced by the massive arsenal of weapons they’re building and his actions take on a desperation. Koba isn’t exactly evil – he’s become blinded by his own beliefs. There is something Animal Farm-esque about Koba and how he arrives at his conclusions.

The last act also features some of the best moments from Cesar as he contemplates on why he is more willing to trust apes than the humans who had not made a deliberate invasion against their society. And that final fight actually means something – it is not just a reason to showcase CGI. It is a battle of ideologies. There is an “evil” side, but it one that makes sense in the context of the world and isn’t simply dismissed or defeated. The conclusion is very satisfying and is the preamble to how these two societies will get along – or if they’ll be able to. The third film in this revived franchise, if it’s done correctly, is going to take these questions to new heights.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes knows exactly what it needs to do to be successful. It addresses its themes with a level of confidence and skill that I thought would be impossible for this time of year. It’s an amazing movie and the revived Apes has the potential to be the greatest blockbuster franchise in a long time.

I can’t wait for the third one. Hopefully they’ll bring back the pantsuits.

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A Review of Life Itself

Roger Ebert died on April 4th, 2013. That’s a year and three months ago. There are certain moments in a person’s past that feel so intangible that it may as well have happened to someone else. Then there are those few moments that simultaneously feel as if they happened yesterday and feel as if they are so buried into your consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine what life was like before then.

When Einstein articulated that time was relative, he was greeted with prizes and a status in our culture that has yet to be equaled. Why? Was it because he used numbers? Everyone, even the smallest child capable of conscious thought and memory, can describe the moments in their life where it’s impossible to measure time in any meaningful way.  It’s only when someone looks at those moments do they realize how fleeting the human experience can be.

I don’t know what it says when I say that Ebert’s death was one of those moments for me. I never met him, I was never in a position where I could have met him., and the more I learn about him, the more I’m convinced he wouldn’t have cared for me too much. But still, it remains one to me. Ebert was a figure I greatly admired as I read, not just his reviews, but his battles against his illness and his thoughts on current events and complicated political subjects. I certainly didn’t always agree with him, but he was an important stepping stone for me in examining why I felt the way I felt and why I think the way I think.

I write this preface to surrender myself. When watching a movie, you must wait for it to have its effect. I walked in knowing what its effect would be on me and I would be dishonest if I tried to ignore that.

But we need a review. So goes nothing.

Life Itself, based on Ebert’s memoirs, began production about five months before his death. Ebert worked with director Steve Jones (of Hoop Dreams fame) to document his life and what he was going through. One can get a sense that Ebert really felt this was the last big project he would be involved in. At one point, Ebert predicts that he will not live to see the documentary get released. We see footage of him in the hospital during his last great health scare over a broken hip that turned out to be the first sign that cancer had returned to his body. This footage interspersed with friends talking about him and clips of Siskel & Ebert & The Movies. We hear Ebert’s voice read from his own memoirs. (I have no idea if this narration was recorded before or after his death. It’s possible that Jones used the same computer program Ebert used in his final years.)  It’s an ambitious project that not too many people would have signed up to do.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9ud1HUHgug]

The hospital sequences show Ebert in a previously unseen human light. I think my favorite scene in the movie is when Ebert is going home after his next to last hospital stay. He is wheeled in his wheel chair and then told to stand up and walk to the stairs. Ebert grows frustrated, making hand gestures and slapping his leg to signal for someone to bring him a note pad so he can write down instructions. We don’t see Ebert’s face (his back is to the camera) but it’s easy to imagine the pain he was feeling.

Ebert had always put a brave face on when talking about his illness and the effects it had on him. I was constantly wondering how he could maintain this. Didn’t he miss talking to his wife? Didn’t he really miss eating? I am not in any position to judge those writings or guess just how he was really feeling, but I did wonder just what else was happening. We see it all here. But, despite the physical pain, Ebert still found time to make jokes about what was happening.

Life Itself shows us, for better or for worse. I know many people will be uncomfortable by those scenes of Ebert in obvious pain. But for me, they bring him down to a new level that I had not seen Ebert at before. We see him in the hospital, having his throat irrigated. I had seen the famous Esquire picture before of Ebert after his jaw had been removed, but here we get nice, long looks at his face. He’s still making jokes and reflecting on his favorite parts of Chicago.

I realize now the point of the film isn’t so much about Ebert. It’s about someone who knows they don’t have much time left in their life and what that means. It’s also a reflection of what happens when anyone is gone. Chaz Ebert is the undisputed hero of the piece. She grows frustrated at times, but is always there and the way she describes Ebert’s final moment (Ebert’s final days are not captured on camera, as the doctors refused to grant Jones permission to film)…well, it doesn’t depend on what happened. What matters is Chaz’s expressions as she told it. Maybe that’s the secret to life itself – finding someone who will be able to tell your story in that way after you’re gone.

The rest of the movie focuses on his past and has people affirming what he wrote about in his memoir. Friends talk about his working at the Sun-Times. Martin Scorsese (who is also an executive producer of Life Itself) is barely able to hold back tears as he discusses carrying Ebert’s review of his first movie around in his pocket. Ramin Bahrani (the director of Man Push Cart) talks about a gift that Ebert gave to him. And we see clips and outtakes of Siskel & Ebert of the two men constantly bickering but finding mutual respect for each other.

If I have any complaints, it’s that these scenes are not presented in any particular order. We cover the largest events – his beginnings, his Pulitzer, his work with Gene Siskel and the response to his death, his work with Russ Meyer (including the sex scenes scenes that probably give the movie its R rating), his love of Cannes, his illness. But there’s really no order to it. We go to his alcoholism, to his early years, to Siskel, to Meyer, back to his childhood, and back. It was hard for me to find the connections to Ebert’s own memoirs or see where the biography was going. Maybe that just means I need to watch the film again?

I certainly don’t an excuse. As an obituary and a tribute, I can’t think of anything better than Life Itself. Now that a year has passed, I think it’s time that we not mourn the fact that there won’t be any more reviews. I think instead it’s time to step back and look at Ebert’s accomplishments. Life Itself is the perfect place to start. We hear from the people who cared about him and the filmmakers who were encouraged to continue after hearing his words of encouragement. Steve Jones was one of the filmmakers inspired by Ebert and it’s easy to see he cared for his subject. If everyone cared as deeply about their subject as Jones did, documentaries as a whole would replace the summer blockbuster fare that threatens to drown out his movie. That’s unfair. Life Itself deserves to be seen and cherished for as long as films can be watched.

Thumbs up.

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A Review of the Lego Movie

After another week of disappointing theatrical releases, I decided to stay in and review something that everyone has been telling me I should be watching – The Lego Movie.

I wasn’t that enthusiastic about the movie. The Lego video game series is good for a chuckle, but the joke seems to be, “boy, you sure can build a lot of things with these toy blocks.” It surprised me when the raves started coming in, but I remained on the fence.

Well, I am not sure if everything is awesome, as the catchy theme song repeatedly asserts. But the movie is. It is probably the best true spoof since Scream.

The film is absolutely a cliche of every single kid’s adventure film. You can practically see the dog-eared copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces in the background. None of the characters go beyond the level of the flat pieces of plastic that make them. The plot is incredibly convoluted – how you can shoehorn Batman (Will Arnett) and Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) into the same scene is still not something I quite understand.

So why am I not destroying the film? There are two reasons.

The first is that the film acknowledges each of its short comings and uses it to cast a wide net on what most kid’s films are like. The main character, Emmett Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) is such a terrible character that he would be insuffereable in any other movie. He is relentlessly happy, following his “instructions” to the letter. He is useless in a struggle, no one he meets remembers him,  and his favorite past time seems to be watching his favorite sitcom, Where are My Pants.

So when people tell him he is “the special” who is destined to save the world and get the girl, Emmett doesn’t believe them. And the weird thing is that he doesn’t change throughout the film, but then again, arcs are rare things in the modern animated canon. I wouldn’t say that Emmett has an arc, but that’s the point. He saves the day by “following the instructions” and not changing his worldview at all.

The entire movie is like that, with the tongue firmly in the cheek. The person who calls the hero to the adventure is named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), who is a literal wizard for no reason other than to give the film a fantasy element. The main villain uses household items that he doesn’t know the names of – in one scene, he refers to nail polish remover as “the remover polish of Naile.” Even Wyldstyle, the girl who falls in love with Emmett, is not hyper-sexualized like is disturbingly normal in animated films. She looks like any other Lego figurine. Badcop (Liam Neeson) is named after his primary trait and we never learn just WHY there is such a character.

Not once does the film take any of this seriously. The primary joke is about how this has all been done before and has been considered original or even acceptable. The Lego Movie never considers its plot to be good.  Its strength rests in the knowing twinkle throughout the film. There aren’t many films where, upon the destruction of their homeland, the character who is a literal cross between a unicorn and a cat will yell out, “Marshmallows!” in an attempt to stay positive.

The second reason is that the film really does feel like something a kid would create with a little imagination. That’s the best advertisement for Legos, and it’s so subtle that it is not immediately evident. I won’t spoil how this is addressed, but the film is smart to put the film on the level of the toys.  It also explains all of the cliches I described above. What The Lego Movie is saying is that most of its peers could have been written by an eight year old with an overactive imagination. We have discovered repeatedly that is right.

I gave Frozen a lot of grief because it took itself and its dated themes so seriously. Had The Lego Movie taken such a tone for even one scene, it would have crashed and burned into something horrible. But luckily, it never did. The film recognized its strengths and used them for its entire run time. It’s an endlessly clever film that’s perfect for kids and the parents who watch it with them.

I can’t imagine a better animated film coming out in 2014.

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VHS Still Belongs Dead

After the two tiered disappointment I had last weekend, I’m avoiding the theater. The Fault in Our Stars is a movie that’s out and I do imagine it’s more unique than Tom Cruise’s Groundhog’s Day with Aliens and Fire, so if you are reading for a recommendation, go with that.

Instead I’d like to look at something else that I keep hearing about from the fringes of film collectors – the growing boom of VHS nostalgia.

VHS, for those increasing number of people who grew up after the format died (you kids with your music and your scooters) was an analog format that burned images onto magnetic tape. This tape was read by a VCR. It was, throughout the 90s, absolutely revolutionary. It put people in control of the film and what they could see. It allowed for the most obscure materials to become available. It lead to labels with the biggest film geeks in charge. In the 70s, the first film generation of directors graduated. The 90s independent boom owes much of its success to VHS. After all, Quentin Tarantino didn’t go to UCLA. He worked as a clerk at a local rental shop.

Because of the importance of the format, there has been a growing amount of nostalgia amongst the same crowd that buys instant cameras at Urban Outfitters. This is reflected in a growing number of documentaries. First, there was Atom Egoyan’s documentary on VHS, called Rewind This. Rewinding was how you got the tape back to the beginning and…I’m just going to stop shaking my fist like an old man before I get really depressed.

There are also documentaries like Adjust Your Tracking, that is far more about audience and their relationship with tapes.

It’s that second documentary and the feelings that are presented by the participants that I feel deserves a response. I understand the nostalgia for VHS. But that’s not what inspires these people. They want to revive the format, or at least try to discuss how there is virtue and how nothing is better.

That is nonsense. When Lloyd Kaufman is the voice of reason in any argument, your stance is bad.

Video tapes were evil little devices with a bad picture quality (especially on high definition TVs) and were about as brittle as a dead leaf. I’m not going to count the number of times that I had tapes wear out on me. And even if it was better at recording (which VCRs were), that was a moot point because it a) impossible to tell how much space you had left b) impossible to edit out commercials and c) not designed to last a long time. When your movie viewing experience turns into a Mission Impossible style event, you have problems.

So, why do people still hold onto their tapes? Well, there are some things that have never properly been released on DVD, Blu Ray, or streaming. So that’s your only place to go. It also may take people back to a simpler time in their lives. But there is no reason for anyone to claim that this was the greatest way to view films.

I liked Atom Egoyan’s documentary. It examined the medium for it is, but did not try to pretend like it was something worth romanticizing. I haven’t seen Adjust Your Tracking, but it looks like it has all of the problems I’m describing. The collectors in that film describe their collections as the pinnacle of their existence. One person sniffs his tape as he describes it. A joke, sure, but not one that is particularly funny with how revealing it is.

VHS was important, but is not any longer. There is no point in pretending you belong to a secret club that still possesses the knowledge on these magical monoliths that couldn’t even hold any extras. Next thing you know, you’ll want to open a blockbuster franchise. The world has changed – that is the one thing we know will come. Don’t try to stop time.

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A Review of Maleficent

By now, most of you have already seen Maleficent. But if I can make anyone think twice about seeing it, this exercise would be worth it.

This is a bad film, and it’s bad at the most fundamental levels. It hides it very well beneath a beautiful design. This film will win a number of Oscars next year for it’s technical achievements. And it will deserve them. I can’t imagine a better looking film this year. Maleficent creates a wonderful fantasy world and shows how much the line between animated fantasy and live action has blurred.

And…that’s about the only nice thing I’m going to say about it.

Maleficent is such a poorly written film that I can’t even put everything I want to say into this simple review. This is a movie where everyone has to be an idiot in order for the events that happen to actually happen. Characters change on a whim and forget why they are doing what they are doing. We are told that characters feel a certain way, but we never show how they get to that point. This is a film about magic, but we’re never told how it works. This is a film that takes place over the course of many years, but it still feels rushed an incomplete.

I know screenwriter Linda Woolverton also wrote the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland, which practically defined “style over substance” for this decade. But that script was Chinatown compared to this. Alice was at least a well defined protagonist and we got a sense of why she felt that way she felt about her world. We never get that sense with anyone in Maleficent because they keep changing their motivations to match the Sleeping Beauty story. Don’t think that this is some huge re-imagining of that myth. It’s the Sleeping Beauty story with extra Maleficent scenes thrown in. About the only major change is what breaks the curse – I won’t spoil it except to say Disney already played that hand with Frozen and it wasn’t particularly revolutionary then.

It’s a shame this has to be Angelina Jolie’s first film in four years. (OK, first in three years if you count Kung Fu Panda 2.) She gives a fine performance and you can tell that she loves the character, such as it is. I was tempted to praise Jolie on that alone – she really is a charming actress. But the character is so poorly defined that Jolie is forced to play dumb, something no one should ever do. There are times her Maleficent is appropriately camp. But for the most part she is a dopey witch and I left wondering why they even bothered to make a movie about such a half baked character.

I’ll give you an example. After Maleficent places the famous curse on Aurora (the “Sleeping Beauty” of the Disney film and the classic fairy tale), the baby goes off to live with the three fairies I’m sure you are familiar with . One of them is played by Imelda Staunton, which is kind of creepy. Anyway, as their antics devolve into an extended Three Stooges routine, Maleficent follows Aurora and ends up making sure she has food to survive. She’s actually the one that practically raises Aurora.

Why? The entire reason she placed a curse on her at all was to get revenge on King Stefan (Sharlto Copley, who looks strikingly similar to Michael Bay) for faking his love for her and then stealing her wings in order to take the throne. Why on earth would someone who cursed a child to a sleeping death not five minutes before turn around and save that child from actual death? The movie never says. Surely if the goal was to hurt Stefan, watching him suffer after his daughter’s death would be a great way to do it. Nope. I thought it had something to do with making sure that Maleficent’s curse goes through or else she may have to suffer, but that’s never brought up as a possibility.

Neither is their subsequent bond, which leads Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) to believe Maleficent is her “fairy godmother.” OK, first off, she looks like this:

Come hug me. That is not a request.

Second, Maleficent is too happy to play along with the charade without every explaining why. It comes across as stilted and unrealistic.

There are a hundred ways it could have played. Maybe Maleficent was just toying with Aurora to hurt her later? Nope. Maybe time heals all wounds? Maybe, but we never get that sense that this was a gradual change in Maleficent. It just…happens.

How do you expect us to become engaged in these classic characters and appreciate the changes made to them when everything they do makes no sense?

I’m not against these reinterpretations of fairy tales. It’s lead to some great things, like ABC’s absolutely charming Once Upon a Time. But most of the films have been piles of limp mush which barely do any re-interpretation at all. It’s the same story with a new cover. But Maleficent doesn’t have the story or the cover. It has nothing but prosthetic cheekbones and a lot of CGI. That’s not what has kept these stories alive for centuries.

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A Review of A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane needs to fail.

When I say that, I don’t say that because I want to see him crash and burn. He has proven himself to be an  exceptionally talented voice over artist and occasionally funny writer. I will defend his stint as Oscar host because he was willing to actually take shots at the crowd rather than fawn over them a la Ellen DeGeneres. (Plus, everyone seems to misunderstand “We Saw Your Boobs.” The joke was on him and how cheap his laughs usually are – not about the actresses filming nude scenes). So, I want him to be funny. I say that Seth MacFarlane needs to fail because he is in a position where he no longer challenges himself – and can justify that because everything he does is successful. It’s called George Lucas Syndrome, and MacFarlane seems to have a very bad case.

Ted, MacFarlane’s previous film, was a phenomenal success at the box office but not with me. I liked the bear, but I found the rest of the film to be completely lacking. It’s plot was a tired romantic comedy and the film seemed to forget that it had a talking teddy bear. It didn’t even recognize the good ideas that it had.

A Million Ways to Die in the West has even fewer good ideas. It barely even knows what it wants to be. Mel Brooks took the western satire about as far as it can go with Blazing Saddles, and MacFarlane was smart not to try to outdo it. Rather, MacFarlane’s Albert Stark is a geeky man who hates the time and place he lives. He hates the sheep he farms, he dreams of going to San Francisco, and he passes the time complaining to his friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman) about all the ways the land can kill you. These conversations actually lead to the biggest laugh of the film, when Albert points out the town’s mayor has been dead for three days and everyone is just letting him lie in the gutter to be taken away by wolves.

Anyway, his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for a mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) and a new girl in town, Anna (Charlize Theron, one of MacFarlane’s targets in “We Saw Your Boobs”) who teaches him how to shoot and be a man to defeat Foy in a gun fight. Get it? It’s basically the “fix up” plot of any number of romantic comedies that just happens to be set in the old west. OK. I shouldn’t have to tell you then that Albert will have to take on the “meanest gunfighter in the west” Clinch (Liam Neeson) to “win the girl.” And the gunfight has to take place at noon. This is a plot that has been done to death and about five minutes in anyone who’s ever seen a movie can guess how it will end.

I am not criticizing the film for not being original. That’s not the biggest question and Blazing Saddles didn’t have an original plot either. The question is – is it funny?

Well, yes and no. There are funny moments but it’s all in the subplots and quickly gets buried by Albert repeating the same five jokes for the entire run time. Edward and Ruth are far more interesting characters than Albert. Ruth is a prostitute who services ten men “on a bad day.” Edward is her fiance. There is never a question that the two are truly in love. But they refuse to have sex because “they’re both Christians.” When the disparity is pointed out to Edward, all he can say is, “my job sucks too.”

There is a huge amount of comic potential there. Why not have Ruth fall in love with a client, who just happens to be Clinch? Or have him try to get into the profession himself? Why not have their faith challenged?

All of that is ignored in favor of MacFarlane’s western nerd fantasy. It’s the same problem that killed Ted for me. MacFarlane had a great idea and then completely ignored it in favor of a tired plot with little comic surprise remaining.

He’s not even able to recognize the funniest part of his own jokes. One scene late in the second act has Foy being fed laxative by Anna. Duty calls, and he grabs a hat to relieve himself. The first hat isn’t enough, so he grabs another. Then we get a shot of one of the hats being tipped over, and all I will say is I never want to eat chilli dogs again. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – one of the many famous scenes in Blazing Saddles is an extended fart joke. The funniest part of that sequence is when Foy goes for the second hat, and is constantly batted away by the cowboy. It’s subtle, it emphasizes Foy’s rising tension and bizarre request, and it require no dialogue or sound effects. But that’s not what we’re supposed to laugh at. Based on the countless fart jokes, tasteless items, and out of place pop culture references, it’s clear what MacFarlane wants. We’re supposed to laugh at the hat being tipped over.

This is why MacFarlane needs to be challenged. Family Guy used to be a great piece of television anarchy before it was revived and MacFarlane grew increasingly smug and complacent. His live action sitcoms are apparently duds (I haven’t seen Dads, but the quick cancellation speaks for itself) but they not slowing him down. MacFarlane is smart – he can be funny. He just needs to remember what is funny and why great comedies of the past are still laughed at across generations. Blazing Saddles was just released on a great 40th anniversary edition Blu-Ray. A Million Ways to Die will be lucky if it is not found in a bargain bin or buried on the Netflix homepage in three years.

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A Review of X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men is probably one of the few superhero franchises I actually like. There are certain films in other franchises that have earned praise from me, but this is one of the few (baring the unforgivable Origins: Wolverine) that is consistently worth watching.

Certainly not all of the films have been great (see The Last Stand for proof of that) but all of them have some level of subtext in play. I’ve seen arguments that the mutant gene represents homosexuality. I’ve read countless debates about how Magneto is Malcolm X and Charles Xavier is Martin Luther King Jr. Or that the whole thing is an examination of the McCarthy hearings. All of that actually makes sense. But beyond that, the franchise can still surprise me with its characters and plot. Not only is there a staple of new mutants that can be introduced (and they usually get the best scenes), there is always a lot of ways to bring out the best in existing characters. They work in both a large ensemble drama and in a stand alone action film (like in The Wolverine). And even though the series is now almost 15 years old, the narrative is still holding together.

Days of Future Past, based on the very famous comic. The film doesn’t follow it but I can see why director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg wanted to use it. It’s not only a great example of speculative fiction, but also the culmination of what hatred can produce…and how we as a species can stop our civilization from descending into madness.

The films starts off about nine years into the future, with the few surviving X-Men, including Kitty Pride (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Storm (Halle Berry, who has four or five lines in the entire film), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and Magneto (Ian McKellen) all fighting the Sentinels. These are the famous giant robots who have been programmed by inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) to kill mutants and those who may eventually breed mutants. Professor X comes up with an idea that it was Trask’s assassination by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence wearing only blue body paint) that lead to the creation of the Sentinels and the current world they live in. He uses Kitty’s power to (somehow) send Wolverine back in time to 1973 and stop this future from happening. Wolverine must recruit the younger counterparts of the team – still Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), along with Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Also, there is a new mutant character with super speed named Quicksilver, who is part of the best scene in the film.

Part of the fun is seeing how the younger characters introduced in First Class grow up into their weathered selves. Professor X was a particularly troubled show. His past self has found a way to walk again, but at the cost of his mutant powers. He is torn by the fact he failed raise Mystique properly, and now practically lives as a drug addict. It was an interesting contrast, but I think I preferred Magneto’s story. He’s still cartoonishly evil at times, but at least we get that sense how. Being accused of killing JFK will do that. Still, it’s fascinating to see how two men on the opposite ends of the moral spectrum can still be friends – and to examine whether or not the villain may have a point.

The better super hero movies try to examine what “fighting for the right thing” means and what “right” is. Magneto may be a monster for trying to kill President Nixon, but what about Trask? Even Congress incredulously asks about how “weapons that target our citizens” can be morally justified. It’s easy to see how killing Trask would be considered a logically sound conclusion – and equally easy to see how it isn’t. In fact, it’s hard at times to see how the X-men can prevent the disastrous future. The first act ends with them stopping Trask’s assassination, but it only makes things worse and makes them look like monsters.

The performances are…well they’re not noteworthy, considering the talented cast that has been assembled. But they do show characters who are carrying a heavy burden. Lawrence, in particular, is even more conflicted than McAvoy. She realizes how much better she could be if she did evil things, but is afraid to carry them through. It’s great that a character who started out as a secondary henchman has become such a strong character. It’s why I like these films.

Days of Future Past is not perfect. There are some significant gaps between the films that have not been explained, like how Magneto got his powers back. Certain characters (like Toad) or introduced or reintroduced in the first act, but are forgotten by the end. There is too much exposition in the dialogue, especially when someone has to state that homo sapiens is the scientific name for humans. You really think that someone doesn’t know that? Actually, please don’t answer that question.

I also have mixed feelings about how it ends. I won’t go into details, except to say that a few characters appear who shouldn’t be in any condition to show up and walk around. I imagine it’s being done to keep everything fresh so they can make more movies (others Fox will lose the rights to Disney) and it does make sense that a film about time travel would have an affect on events from previous films. But that sort of narrative, which is used far too often in comic books, takes away any impact characters have in shaping their own destinies and prevents me from caring about any of them. When death is a temporary thing, who cares if a character makes a heroic sacrifice?

Still, that’s in the comics, so I can’t fault Days of Future Past for creating that narrative problem. And the good far outweighs the bad. Days of Future Past appeals to the usual popcorn audience while being very smart.

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A Review of Godzilla

First off, I apologize for my extended absence. I was in the process of buying my first home. It meant that some movies fell through the cracks.

But I bought the new condo right as we get started with summer 2014. There will be fire, cleavage, yelling, and maybe some thought actually put into the film beyond the bytes and pixels used to create the stunts. And there will be a mass audience, including children who have not yet learned the skillful art of shutting up when the lights go down.

So, let’s start with Godzilla, heavy on the fire and yelling. I was one of the people that really liked last year’s Pacific Rim, mostly because of the amount of fun the filmmakers were having and injecting into the story. I didn’t get quite the same sense of fun with Godzilla. Now, there is a lot to like about it and it’s a step in the right direction for summer blockbusters. But this isn’t something that I am going to say must be seen.

Godzilla is not really a film about the giant lizard. Rather, it is a film about two creatures (referred to as MUTO – Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organisms) that are awaken by the radiation from power plants in Japan. Godzilla, who the military tried to kill in the 1950s via the reported nuclear tests in the Pacific, also comes back to fight them.  This fight doesn’t occur until the last half hour of the film. Until then, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) try to survive the creatures’ rampages from Japan, to Hawaii, and eventually to San Francisco. There’s also a Japanese scientist (Ken Wantanabe) present to act solemn.

I’m not a fan of the original series. I’ve only seen two Godzilla movies that I can recall – the original one and Godzilla V. Megalon. And even that latter film had the MST3K cast guiding me through. The original was dumb and poorly made but it was noteworthy for trying to capture the Japanese mood following Hiroshima. That event was still fresh in everyone’s minds and the original Godzilla ends with the doomsday weapon used to defeat the mighty beast being destroyed. Godzilla was a Cold War symbol for the dangers of nuclear weapons -which means that after 1991 he was about as relevant as Yakov Smirnoff.

That anti-nuclear weapons theme is muted in the new version, because such a mentality would make no sense. But the new Godzilla should be commended for trying to keep up with the times. The first act recalls the Fukushima plant disaster and Godzilla and the Muto are more environmental disasters than Cold War consequences. The subsequent cover up about the creatures recalls far too many things to be listed here. It’s awkward commentary, yes, but so was the original film and director Gareth Edwards must be praised for adding those elements to his film.

Another approach that is quite different from the usual blockbuster fare is how Godzilla handles the wide spread destruction necessary for this time of year. At least one city must be leveled per blockbuster, and Godzilla is no exception. But most of the destruction is only seen after the fact, with people reacting and trying to find their loved ones. Some people may complain about this (it ultimately means the film is not about Godzilla. He doesn’t even fight the Mutos until the third act.) but I thought it was a nice human touch. The only moments we see are a few brief seconds on a news report. That’s how we experience everything. The average Michael Bay action sequence goes on for so long that it loses any impact. These moments in Godzilla excite us because we don’t see everything.

One of the things I praised Pacific Rim for was the fact that it took place in a world that was responding to the presence of giant monsters. Godzilla doesn’t handle that as well, but it still tries. This human element is where a disaster film needs to focus. I don’t really care about Godzilla- he’s a giant animal who’s here to wreck buildings and kill equally giant animals. There’s not a lot of exploration in his motives there. What matters is the people.

Godzilla looks more or less like this.

At times it does feel like we’re being programmed to like this characters. Both have family connections – Joe loses his wife early in the film, and Ford trying to get back to his wife and child for a majority of the run time. But it is convincing enough, especially when we see other people going through the same journey. It’s very basic, but it works during the film.

That last paragraph contains the phrase I would use to describe Godzilla as a whole: “Convincing enough.” This is much better than the last attempt to redo Godzilla for a modern age. I know this film could be much, much worse than it is. Maybe that’s why there’s been so much praise for it. I don’t exactly share the enthusiasm. The film feels programmed to elicit certain emotions and doesn’t contain any real love for the Godzilla franchise. It could be about any monster or any disaster.  But I do share the sense that this isn’t a bad film due to the fact that it’s trying to incorporate a human perspective.

If I had to compare this to any movie it would be World War Z. Like Z, Godzilla does have a head on its shoulders and is perfectly acceptable while it’s screening. If you’re looking to kill an afternoon with friends then there are worse ways. But I am probably never going to think about this film again – it’s completely disposable. Still, I’m glad we’re at a point where even a disposable film is a watchable one. If you want to see how far we’ve come, well, go find the 1998 Godzilla adaptation and compare it to this. You’ll see how we’ve progressed.

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A Review of Frozen

OK, I don’t know what to do anymore. I am apparently out of the cultural loop.

For months, I have heard nothing but praises about Frozen. Everyone told me I needed to see it. I missed because as a general rule, I don’t go to see films with children in the audience unless I am with someone. But others who didn’t have that problem helped this movie gross more than a billion dollars and ensure that the Oscar winning “Let it Go” was playing on the radio somewhere every ten minutes.

And I have no idea why. The movie I saw was not the sort of earth shattering item that deserved this massive following. At best it was an average fantasy that was so in love with itself that it was unwilling to let the audience explore it for themselves. The soundtrack does have one good song (“Let It Go,” because what else would it be?) but the rest of the songs were unmemorable.  And even if the animation is nice (which it is) that’s ultimately meaningless because the film has very few ideas to back up those sequences.

I tried to like it. I went into the moving thinking I would love it. I went in hoping I could finally see what had so captivated the world. Even after watching it, I distrusted my own judgement so much that I went back reading any review I could find to see what I had missed. But I couldn’t shake it: this is the most I’ve been let down by a film in a long time.

Let me start at the beginning.

The story is about two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Adele Dazeem…darn it, the teleprompter screwed up again). Basically, a long time ago, they used to be friends, but Elsa hasn’t talked to Anna lately at all. Sorry, Kristen Bell’s presence in the movie brings out the corny jokes in me. In reality, Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her unexplained ice powers and so the girl’s parents lock her away from everyone after some talking rocks tell them that Elsa’s powers are dangerous. Presumably they went on to fill out their “parents of the year” applications afterwards. Anna wants to go back to playing with her sister, but no dice. Anyway, they grow up, parents die, and so Elsa inherits the kingdom of Arendelle. Did I mention they were princesses? The phrase “Disney movie” should have tipped you off. Anyway, during Elsa’s coronation, Anna meets a man named Hans, they fall in love and want to get married immediately. So, what comes next could have been resolved if only Vegas style quickie marriages existed. Elsa refuses to give her blessing and in a rage, unleashes her freezing powers to the horror of the population. She flees but Arendelle is plunged into winter. Anna goes up a mountain to comfort her sister with an ice salesman named Sven, but her childhood experiences with Elsa’s powers are slowly killing her by “freezing her heart(?!).” Oh, and Elsa finds time to create a snowman that talks like Elder Cunningham from Book of Mormon and longs to experience summer. He tags along with Sven and Anna. Don’t ask me why. Got all that? I’m not even sure I do.

People have told me that Frozen is so special because it shatters the Disney animated mold. It updates itself for the 21st century with strong female characters and deconstructs the usual Disney cliche of how “true love” will cure all the world’s evil. Also, ladies, you don’t just have to sit and wait for Prince Charming to come whisk you away.

Now, it does to a certain degree and I will give it credit for that. Frozen is more about sisters and that familial bond is what “saves the day” than it is about the princess ignoring her dreams and giving her life to her prince. The main female characters are much stronger in the sense that they are given positions of authority and know how to use that authority. Finally, it’s pointed out how crazy it is to marry someone you have just met. This last part has been part of the Disney staple forever so it’s progress to recognize how weak that is. Oh, also, Prince Charming (Hans) turns out to be a Machiavellian jerk. This last part is historically accurate, so I’m glad Disney wanted to acknowledge it.

But that’s it. The film is so reliant on the rest of Disney’s usual tricks of the trade. Now, other filmmakers do not shy aware from their techniques as much and I understand why. You stick with what works. But Disney’s storytelling methods have a lot of problems. Those changes I described above seems to be Disney recognizing this. Too bad they don’t DO anything about it.

The soundtrack is a great example. None of the songs were particularly memorable and none (except for…well, you get the idea by now) are markedly different from any other Disney song. That’s a problem – if you want to pretend like this is original then certainly thought needs to be put in that area. But they’re the standard “I want” song, in which a character sings about how they wish there life were different, or the “boy meets girl” song, in which a boy meets a girl. Or the comic relief song, in which the comic relief has a witty little number that serves as a break from the “heavy” story. Frozen has all of these songs, which demonstrates how eager it is to follow formula. There isn’t even any sort of commentary on HOW this is similar to what’s happened, which a film that has been described as a deconstruction would supposedly be eager to do. Nope. It’s enough to make me not want to build a snowman.

Yes, that was a lame joke, but that’s more wit than I got watching Frozen. In fact, I didn’t get much because the film didn’t let me. It gave me a nifty little fantasy world and then insist on holding my hand throughout. I don’t know how many times that damned snowman summarized the same plot point for the audience but it could have been turned into a drinking game. And yes, there is a “true love” element that is added, really only for the sake of adding a “true love” element. And a villain (Hans) became a villain with no motivation. And the resolution to the whole “the world is freezing and we’re all going to die” is stopped rather than actually, you know, resolved. Elsa’s powers are wildly inconsistent anyway. At times she is in control of them, at other times not. At times she is able to build finite non ice things (ice skates, her dress) at other times she can only build gargantuan blizzards with no explanation as to how it works. No one else seems to notice or care that she is able to create life, even if it is in the guise of a clumsy snowman.  Even Josh Gad, which I had heard was the breakaway character, did nothing for me. He was basically recreating his Elder Cunningham role without leaving first gear. I know the man is incredibly funny and that Disney is able to provide big laughs. But nothing connected with me. One of the few amusing parts for me was a “blink and you miss it” tribute to Arrested Development. That’s not a good sign. (For those curious, watch the Duke dancing with Anna in the coronation scene. He unmistakeably performs Lindsay Funke’s chicken dance.)

Hello! Would you like to change religions? I have a free book written by Jesus!

I know what you’re thinking: “What about the animation?” What about it? I have no interest in exploring how animation technique has improved to capture water and ice freezing if there is no story to back it up. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of tech demos you can watch that have the same result as Frozen. Having technically advanced animation is step one. You cannot ignore the rest. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, while never acknowledging its huge debt to Jean Cocteau, managed to capture a great story that also boasted some great animation. But I bet no one watching this scene cares about the fact that animation was used to create sweeping crane shots.

No, you care about Belle and the Beast dancing, falling in love with each other. It’s the emotional core that has to be present in any film. “Let it Go” has that moment. In it, Elsa takes control of her life. That’s the emotional core. And it was supported by the stunning animation of her palace being built. I don’t care about how you were able to animate a tuba players cheeks or a fountain being realistically frozen if there is no emotional investment in the scene.

I know it sounds like I think Frozen is a complete waste. It isn’t. But then your friends and family can probably tell you why it’s good. I cannot. I didn’t find the jokes funny, I didn’t find the characters engaging, I didn’t find the songs that worthwhile (with that one exception…I think I’ve made it clear I’m definitely on that bandwagon) and I found the story dull with too many unexplained elements. I enjoy when a movie surprises me and hate when a movie lets me down. I’m being so harsh because Frozen was squarely in the former category. Disney, if you really want to break out of your mold and get with the times, then go all out. Don’t cross out a few words and insist that you have a new manuscript.

Hate mail to the usual address please.

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My Reaction to the How I Met Your Mother Finale

I wasn’t planning writing a blog about the HIMYM finale, but the reaction to it has compelled me to do so.People seem to hate it, as though a bad finale means that they have personally been insulted. I get that reaction. Unlike a film, a TV show traditionally requires years of following to get to the conclusion. And TV shows more than films depend on their mass audience. So when the finale is bad, the fans of that show feel a level of anger that I don’t think is felt anywhere else. Go ask a Seinfeld viewer what he or she thinks about the giant middle finger they received when they tuned in to watch their favorite characters go to jail for being awful people. Or the Sopranos fan, still mad that the show stopped in the middle of a sce.

I’m getting that same feeling from HIMYM fans. But I disagree with it. I really enjoyed the final episode and thought it was the perfect send off the characters. Yes, the episode was flawed. Yes, there were some jarring shifts that could have been solved with another rewrite. But it was an effective episode to showcase why many people loved the show.

WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS follow for those five of you who care but still haven’t seen the episode yet.

All of season nine told the story of the 24 hours before Barney and Robin’s wedding. That plot was resolved in the previous episode. The last episode showed the time leading up to Ted telling the kids his story – all nine years were told in flashback with the kids sitting with incredible patience on the couch. In those years were divorces (Barney and Robbin were split up in twenty minutes or so) marriages (Ted and Tracy, the titular mother) and children being born (Ted’s kids, Marshall and Lily’s third child, and Barney’s illegitimate daughter that made him swear off his womanizing ways).

It is true that all of this felt rushed. We didn’t feel the years needed to pass in order for these characters to grow the way we saw. That is a flaw. What is NOT a flaw is the fact that they changed. And their actions matched their characters. Barney and Robin had both been unstable and quite immature throughout the show. There were several hints that the marriage wouldn’t work, from Robin’s mother to Barney’s elaborate plans that showed he hadn’t changed completely. To see them finally change and move on was necessary, even if that meant getting a divorce. And if it made people uncomfortable and upset, well, so do divorces in real life. That reaction shows that audiences were invested in these characters. Was it odd that something the entire season had been building up to a wedding that was suddenly rendered moot? Yes, but it was not unbelievable and it was an important part of Barney and Robin’s character arcs.

I’ll address the other main point of controversy in a moment, but I want to take some time to reflect on aspects of the episode I felt were very well done. First, Barney’s arc was everything it needed to be. He finally found the “love of his life” in the child he had always sworn he didn’t want. Before that, he was forever stuck as a teenager, a manipulative sex addict who was so charismatic no one noticed his flaws. Even the announcement of Ted and Tracy’s pregnancy still lead to a boob job joke from Barney. But when he held his child, there was the same sense of growth that would happen with any decent human being. Barney even uses the same lines he had previously laughed at with his friends. Barney never really becomes progressive (note the scene where he chastises women he feels are dressed too provocatively) but at least he’s moving on with his life and realizing there’s more than loose sex.

There were fantastic callbacks to previous episodes that make series finales.  (The hanging chad costume was my favorite, especially when Tracy joined Ted with a Gore/Lieberman sweatshirt.) And it still managed to find new challenges for the characters. Yes, Robin broke away from the gang, but her reasoning at least made sense. Sometimes, to paraphrase Robin, people just drift apart. It doesn’t have to be sad. That’s the sort of simple but poignant observation that drew viewers to the show when it premiered.

Even the mother’s death was handled well. When telling that story, there was a sense of loss from Ted as he remembered why he had fallen in love with her. I don’t have the video to his narration but find it and watch it if you get a chance. Some complained that there was no sense of mourning, but from Ted’s timeline, his wife had died six years ago. It’s realistic that he would remember her fondly and be sad, but he shouldn’t be crippled by grief.  And it was a twist that had been hinted at throughout the entire series:

OK, I’ve been avoiding it. It’s time to talk about the scene that riled everyone.

 

MASSIVE, MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD:

Now, from what I’ve heard, this ending had been filmed back in season 2 so the kids would be the same age no matter how long the show lasted. This approach was simultaneously smart and dumb. It was smart because it allowed for an unusual amount of foreshadowing that kept people paying attention. It was dumb because everyone was trapped into a corner from the beginning. No matter how the characters evolved, they would eventually have to come back to this moment that had been written long before the show ended. It was impossible to predict what sort of evolution and plot would have to be sacrificed or be addressed. To make any ending work, How I Met Your Mother would need to address that. Maybe it could have been better.

But writing is not based on the desires of the masses and the ending we saw is the ending that Carter Bays and Craig Thomas wanted to give us. So the question becomes – does it work? I think so. For one, How I Met Your Mother is a show that is ultimately about personal growth. Ted as a character had often existed outside of his own stories. Things were happening to him. He didn’t make things happen. That’s why it took him so long to meet Tracy – he thought the universe would just hand her to him. It doesn’t work that way and that finale scene shows Ted figuring that out. He needs to be the master of his own destiny. Also, his new relationship with Robin does nothing to diminish the relationship he had with Tracy. Actually, the scene reveals how important the mother was to Ted. She was the one who revealed how he couldn’t just sit by and wait for things to happen. He had to go out and make them happen. Even his kids were a reminder of that; they were the ones pushing him to call Robin. And it concludes the story that began in the pilot, in which Robin was the object of Ted’s desire. In the end, Ted got the girl in more ways than one.

Any fictional work has to show development in its characters. Ted, in those final moments, matured more than anyone else on the show. Maybe Robin and his relationship won’t last. Maybe it’s a mistake. That’s not important. What is important is that Ted finally took control of his life.

How I Met Your Mother was a rarity for this age. It was a traditional sitcom that ignored many new techniques. It kept the laugh track, it was four cameras, and the characters could have been placed in any number of ’90s sitcoms with no revisions. But it was too charming to be ignored and too poignant to be considered dumb. It’s fair to criticize the ending to any show. But, in the grand scheme, that’s just an hour out of a multi-year run. Even if you hated the ending, think of all the fun times you had on the ride and how it feels that the ride is over.

I, for one, will miss it.

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