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Closing the loop: on unexpected story in “Looper”

December 30, 2012 Leave a comment

looper-posterI went in knowing very little about the movie, besides that it involved time travel and I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing it.  When the movie finished, I sat in my seat for a little bit, thinking.  The film caught me completely off guard, perhaps because I had such low expectations for it, but perhaps because it was uniquely designed, told an unexpected story, and brought more to the table than its trailers promised it would.

The film is creative in many ways, especially in the way that it uses time travel as a tool, not as a purpose; time travel is set up an interesting way through which we can explore certain ideas.  We could go on and on debating the incorrect details of how the did or did not handle time travel, but that’s simply displaced, even by the characters themselves.  In the words of Old Joe, Bruce Willis, “this time travel crap just fries your brain like an egg,” who goes on to dismiss all.

There’s a terribly gruesome scene, during which we don’t actually see anything.  Somehow, that lack makes the scene all the more worse – imagination has always been the most powerful storyteller.

There’s a wry sense of humor pervading the film.  Small moments, like the name of the waitress with fewer letters.  Good interplay between past/present Joe.  Nice camera decisions, poignant imagery.

Emily Blunt did an excellent job here, coming off as both tough and struggling, a great improvement from her performance in “The Adjustment Bureau.”  Joseph Gordon-Levitt was fine too, although he looked a little strange, trying so hard to be a young Bruce Willis.

4/5 Waffles

No weapons on the table: on the safe stories and mild morals of Pixar’s Brave

After countless years of heroes that have ranged from toys to old men, from fish to cars, Pixar finally unveils its first movie with a heroine.  This alone is exciting news, but add several Time Magazine articles building hype about the rise and fall of the movie, scrapping of the plot and starting over, a female director replaced by a male director – and suddenly, it feels like there’s a whole lot more at stake.

Within the first few moments, we see Merida, voiced amazingly by Kelly Macdonald, show her fierce personality.  I can only imagine the hundreds of people who must have worked night and day to bring the bounce to Merida’s fiery red hair, every individual strand curled, blowing in the wind.  She shows a stronger bond with the bow and arrow than with her mother’s teachings of propriety, and often shows her wild nature – we see her cantering in the woods, shooting targets (with proper bowmanship, according to Charles), and altogether being free and daring.  She’s a fine heroine for Pixar to start with, and the trailer certainly highlighted her stubborn nature at its best.

What the trailer doesn’t truly show is the true plot of the story – at its heart, Brave is about the tense relationship between Merida and her mother, the ever-proper Elinor.  With very little warning, Elinor is turned into a bear, and from there the actual story begins.  I liked Brave until it took this turn – it made sense that Merida would refuse her suitors, showing up to “shoot for [her] own hand [in marriage],” and otherwise playing the tough girl.  What I couldn’t get on board with was the choice to make this into a mother-daughter story, one that glossed over potentially complicated issues to make a movie about wild-daughter introduces proper-mother to nature.

As always, everything was beautiful.  Merida’s hair was gorgeous throughout, the textures of clothing were always detailed, the animals were cute and the woods were wonderfully brought to life.  Merida’s toddler triplet brothers provided adorable comic relief throughout the movie, though, as someone pointed out, it was completely unnecessary for furthering the plot.  The soundtrack was heartwarming, and the ending was surprisingly touching, though as adults the riddles were no longer puzzling, and so the film lacked a sense of suspense.

Overall, 4/5 – Honestly, I enjoyed Brave a good deal, but I just expected more out of Pixar.  Where was the magic from WALL-E?  The originality from The Incredibles?  The adventure from A Bug’s Life?  After the disappointment that was Cars 2, I expected Pixar to outdo itself with Brave.  While it created a story that was obviously tenderly crafted, Pixar fell short of its usual excellence here.  The sweetest moment was probably in the accompanying short, La Luna (though it also, unfortunately, was predictable).

Best regards,

Apple

What kind of bird are you? – on Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of my favorite movies of all time.  I love everything from its whimsy to its color palette, its sarcastic lines to heartfelt animation.  When I saw a preview for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, I couldn’t wait for it to arrive at my local theatre, where, for one sweet, short week, it would run.  Interestingly, the Michigan Theatre is actually a real theatre, where one would expect plays and operas – a gentleman played on an organ while the moviegoers filed in.

Watching the preview for Moonrise Kingdom filled me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, and the movie did not disappoint.  All those cute moments are expanded, and there are some more mature moments as well.  The script was sharp, the colors and homes were vintage, and the story was sweet.  There was also a sense of tension building throughout the movie – we hear within the first few minutes that in three days, one of the worst hurricanes of all time will strike the small island town.

There’s something romantic about escaping into the wild to be with your love, and Moonrise Kingdom certain plucks at some heartstrings with its two young characters so certain of their undying love.  Yet, for some reason, I had a hard time believing the world of Moonrise.  Did I only like Fantastic Mr. Fox because it was about animals?  I do love animals.  Somehow, the animation and animal-centered story made it easier for me to fall in love with the characters, to forgive them any quirks that felt a bit too out of place.

It’s not to say that Moonrise was uncomfortable.  In fact, it was an extremely pleasant experience.  While Moonrise is not exactly a children’s film, it holds a nostalgic flavor of childhood, of simpler times and smaller things.  I do wish we had learned more about Sam and Suzy; I feel like too much of the film was filled with all the supporting characters, though all of them did an excellent job. The music was sweet, the scenery was lush, and the kitten was adorable.  I also loved little details like the children’s books that Suzy brought and read throughout the movie.

Overall, 4/5 – Moonrise Kingdom is an eccentric tale of young love, stylistically filmed and armed with a witty script.  If you watch the trailer and feel happy, then you will enjoy the movie.

“You lack conviction.” – On Marvel’s The Avengers

I was excited about this movie when I saw its preview at the end of Captain America last year, and again had my interest piqued in a Time article from this week, praising Whedon for making an enjoyable movie.  Though this movie is proof of Joss Whedon’s juggling abilities, it is inherently limited by its own premise. No matter the amount of care gone into sculpting a film like this, each individual character will lack development.  Sometimes writers choose to develop leaders more (X-Men: First Class), though here, no one seemed to care too much about Nick Fury.

How can a movie like this be anything more than a mess?  Half the time, we are meeting new members of the team and explaining their subsequent backstories, struggling to make them all fit together with some semblance of coherence.  As a result, any overarching story is lost.  The climax was far too reminiscent of last summer’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon – a portal in the sky opening to another part of the galaxy and letting in aliens who want to enslave humanity over a skyscraper background?  Sound familiar?

Orson Scott Card once wrote how each character added a whole new layer of complexity to the number of relationships that need to be developed – between A and B, there is one relationship: A with B; between A, B, and C, there are four relationships: A with B, A with C, B with C, and all three together; and so on, and so on.  Think it’s hard with four people?  Try ten on for size.  When they all stopped fighting and actually talked to each other, I thought some good character dynamics came out.  It was reminiscent of a Final Fantasy game – flying in the sky on some sort of ship, visiting different characters in the cockpit or laboratory, getting to know everyone…  While I can’t stand Tony Stark/Iron Man, I dislike Steve Rogers/Captain America even more.  There was some nice vicarious catharsis each time the two went at each other.

In terms of acting, casting Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow felt like a poor choice.  I found her scenes to be unconvincing and flimsy, even grimace-inducing.  I thought Cobie Smulders (Robin from How I Met Your Mother) as Maria Hill, Fury’s assistant, would have made a much stronger main character to develop and focus on.  By the way, did anyone else totally think she was Jennifer Connelly?  Mark Ruffalo also did an excellent job as Dr. Banner/The Hulk; he was probably the best of the set.  Jeremy Renner, who I will always love for The Hurt Locker, was splendid though plain as Hawkeye.

Joe tipped me off to the not one, but two secret codas during and after the credits.  Most of the audience left after the cliffhanger afternote set the stage for a sequel, (nowadays, everyone expects one secret preview at the end of a movie), but we stayed until the credits were all finished.  Apparently, Robert Downey Jr. needs five hairstylists or so.  The second secret scene was actually adorable, living up to the cuteness of the movie as a whole.  All the characters have a continuous stream of one-liners and running gags, all to be expected from a Whedon production, with self-deprecating humor that is surprisingly charming.

Overall, I have to give this a 3.5/5 – it has good tension and dynamics, but the characters take up too much space and edge out any meaningful storytelling.  It’s a nice kick-off to the blockbuster season, but not anywhere close to earning its current 93%-96%-8/10 rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

By the way, I talked to Orion, who is currently giving this movie a 4.5+.  Maybe it’s because he’s read/watched all these heroes in action before.  I’m not sure how people who have no history of comic books will feel about this film, since we are, after all, in the Marvel Universe, which seems to me like a very sentimental storage attic the size of a football field.

And one last endnote – we saw the previews for the Expendables 2, and I have to say, it’s ridiculous. Stallone, Statham, Jet Li, Chuck Nooris, Liam Hemsworth, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger…they seem to have given up on any semblance of serious storytelling.

You point, I’ll drive: on “Beginners”

After we walked out of “Tree of Life,” we ended up in “Beginners,” simply because there was a subtitled, semi-talking dog in the previews.  We knew some basics about the movie – Ewan McGregor starred as Oliver, a man whose father Hal (Christopher Plummer) is dying.  We also knew he had a dog named Arthur and had just met a girl named Anna (Melanie Laurent).

“Beginners” felt very whimsical.  The timeline of the film is criss-crossed between two different stories – the first, of Oliver’s budding romance with Anna, and the second, of Hal’s coming out and decline of health.  We also receive a few shots of a young Oliver, with his very hip but slightly crazy mother (these scenes reminded me of Fitzgerald’s young Amory, from “This Side of Paradise”).

Christopher Plummer plays an excellent, believable character, who simultaneously makes us laugh and feel great sorrow; it’s difficult to fall in love with a character who we know is going to die, there is a feeling of missing someone who is still there.  Having come out after Oliver’s mother’s death, Hal is suddenly super-involved with a new crowd, has a new boyfriend, and is trying to deal with his grave illness.  The movie follows things through Oliver’s point of view (director Mike Mills based the movie on his own experience), but Plummer breathes a charm into Hal’s otherwise plain (almost cliché?) character.  There is one scene in the movie where a homestay nurse attempts to style Hal’s hair, which sounds so simple and silly, but was terribly heartbreaking to see.

Less interesting and/or believable was Oliver’s relationship with Anna.  It felt too contrived, to meet at a party where Anna does not speak, to return to her hotel room (Anna only lives in hotel rooms, because they make her feel “free”), and to have awkward breakup/makeup conversations.  This type of whimsical couple-y arc felt too much like a chick-flick to me, even though things are from Oliver’s perspective.  A girl who’s always on the run from being tied down?  Thanks, but we’ve seen that all the way back in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Throughout the film, Oliver is working on an assignment to make a cover for the band “The Sads,” and he works his own experiences into this assignment, generating tons and tons of potential album covers, none of which the band like.  The film feels likewise scattered, which is okay at times, but leaves us with a cottony impression after leaving the theatre.  Kevin fell asleep halfway through and slept for most of the film.

Overall – 3.5/5; “Beginners” offers a fluffy look at two relationships, one which is ending and one which is beginning, but despite the heavy backstory and a compelling performance by Plummer, that’s all it ends up feeling like: fluff.

Best regards,

Apple

X-Men: First Class–A Second-Class Film (Orion’s Take 2/5)

June 13, 2011 1 comment

This movie review is late.  Part of the reason for that is the sheer disbelief I felt when leaving the movie theater after the credits—I needed time to process my horror over the destruction of a beloved brand.  Perhaps I exaggerate: after all, the lead characters did their job admirably.  I just cannot comprehend why the producers of this film thought it a good idea to return to the era of kitschy, campy, superhero movies, when The Dark Knight proved to anyone with a brain that superhero movies could be done seriously, and done right.

As noted above, the rapport between James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto is quite electrifying.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give them enough room to grow: though it’s clear that the two characters respect each other (Xavier and Magneto go as far as to call each other “brother”), there is no real interaction between the two that explains this connection.  Sure, the two play some chess, and talk about the nature of revenge, and of mutant rights—but that makes up maybe 10 minutes of a two-hour film.  There simply isn’t enough material to go around.

Thus, despite excellent performances by both McAvoy and Fassbender, the relationship seems stilted somehow, strangely misplaced.  This is all the more problematic because the two characters share an extremely complicated relationship in the other films and in X-Men canon.  Magneto is no simple villain, and Xavier is no simple hero, but without a lack of development at the end of the film these are the positions each character holds.

And if that weren’t bad enough, the rest of the cast is at best lackluster.  I don’t blame them.  Playing such second-rate mutants as “Banshee” or “Angel” can’t have been exciting.  The only characters the casual fan will recognize are Beast, Mystique, and maybe Havok.  I don’t understand why these were the X-Men chosen to make up the “first class” of X-Men—obviously the movie doesn’t stick that closely to canon (everyone knows that the real reason Xavier is in a wheelchair is because of Lucifer, an obscure villain), but why use random X-Men nobody has heard of?  Also, the first few X-Men also run into the same problem as Xavier and Magneto, getting so little screen-time that when one character is removed from action, the audience doesn’t feel a thing.

My feelings are captured in the last scene of the movie.  Erik Lehnsherr has put on the mantle of Magneto.  His cape is red.  He’s wearing gloves.  I’m excited for this moment, the beginning of the next chapter, the unveiling of one of the best comic book villains ever.  And then the camera cuts to Magneto’s face.  The helmet, which was cool before in silver, is now spray-painted a gaudy red.  There are two horns on the front.  He looks and obviously feels ridiculous, but he takes a deep breath and delivers a line that makes me smile in embarrassment.

“Call me…Magneto.”

2/5 Waffles

–Orion

See also: Apple’s Review (4/5)

Killing will not bring you peace, my friend: “X-Men: First Class”

I have been excited for this movie since the first preview.  X-Men is set apart from other superhero/comic book series simply because of the sheer number of characters.  There is no main superhero; instead, there are teams.  Although the latest installation in the X-Men franchise, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” was terrible, the trailers for X-Men: First Class focusing on different characters just looked so exciting.  Orion and I went to the midnight premiere, which is always fun and packed with energy.

James McAvoy stars as the young Professor X, still simply Charles, who begins discovering other mutants.  There is a sense of coming together, and, as Charles says several times, “you are not alone.”  There were many things that I liked about “First Class,” but I think my favorite was just how many characters there were, and how each character grew in his or her own way.  (You guys can check out some of the character-specific trailers that are out there.)

Of course, the movie is filled with tributes to the original X-Men movies, both its predecessor and future.  We see Charles and Erik attempt to recruit a gruffy Wolverine, we learn how Charles became wheel chair bound, and watch the rise of the Brotherhood.  While this is pleasant and fun in one sense, it’s also sometimes frustrating; ne of the big problems I have with Marvel is just how many contributors there are to a series; so many different authors have all written in their own stories, so continuity becomes a big problem.

It’s amazing how much the movie was able to accomplish – not only do friendships form and break, but romances and alliances do as well.  Of course, they’re not very thoroughly developed because of the sheer mass of events, but it’s enough to be believable.  The division between mutants with physical abilities and mutants with mental abilities, for example, is something I never really considered before, but plays out in the movie.

Overall, 4/5 – the story was fast-paced, fun, and exciting!  I love watching the students grow, and Charles and Erik evolve into Professor X and Magneto.  Orion hated the movie though, so you’ll all have to stay tuned to hear what he thinks!

Best regards,

Apple

See also: Orion’s Review (2/5)




My fist hungers for justice! – on continuity and expansion in “Kung Fu Panda 2”

There is something very dangerous about sequels (and prequels and further additions). They can either be fantastic or terrible. Having thoroughly enjoyed “Kung Fu Panda,” I was hesitant to check out its sequel; how could anything top the original in terms of comic action, great voice acting, and an uplifting story? Luckily for us, “Kung Fu Panda 2” not only built on its predecessor, but also expanded the reach of its story to give us 1.5 hours of despair and delight!

The story continues: fatty panda Po, now the Dragon Warrior, happily protects the Valley of Peace along with the Furious Five, but a new trouble has arisen. Lord Shen, a peacock prince, is exiled and deprived of his birthright to rule. In revenge, he has invented a Weapon that threatens to overcome and extinguish all of Kung Fu! This new villain is elegant, an albino peacock with red and black eyes – he is more refined than the last movie’s Tai Lung, and also has more complicated issues.

Ever wonder why Po’s father is a goose? Apparently, he’s adopted! Big surprise, right? The story begins with Po experiencing a flashback/nightmare that throws him off guard. This causes him to confront his goose father and begin his search for answers to his mysterious past. The second movie deals heavily with the issue of parentage – our villain Lord Shen was banished by his parents, and Po’s parents are MIA – of course, the two end up talking about this connection.
The intimacy this approach takes, paralleled with the grand scale of Lord Shen’s plans (his goal is to have all of China bow down at his feet), gives the audience a great balance and scope of topics. The movie also stresses a similar topic as the first movie – a very soft, gentle (one might almost say squishy) approach to martial arts. Master Shi Fu tells Po at the beginning of the movie that he needs to “find inner peace” in order to grow as a warrior. It takes the whole movie, but the audience cheers Po on every second of the way.

Again, Jack Black is the perfect voice to fatty Po; Angelina Jolie provides a mature and solid voice for the hardcore Tigress, and Jackie Chan provides his typical comic relief as Monkey. The story’s action is nonstop, as is the humor; there are terribly sad scenes and also ridiculously comic ones. The leaps by which 3D animation has grown is really amazing; the expression on Po’s mother in one flashback is unbelievably emotional.

Overall – 4.5/5; a great, polished and surprisingly sophisticated sequel, “Kung Fu Panda 2” is an adventure well worth watching. There’s also a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of the movie, setting the stage for a potential third installation, which I hope will be just as great as this second one was.

Best regards,
Apple

May 2011 movies!

Which May 2011 movies do you want to see?  There are a lot of interesting ones!  Vote on the sidebar!

Thor – Norse mythology!  Natalie Portman!  Action and thunder!

The Beaver – Depressed Mel Gibson and a beaver puppet; family includes Jodie Foster.

Last Night – Keira Knightley + Sam Worthington + out of marriage temptations!

Priest – Vampires + priests; Paul Bettany starring.  From a comic book.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – no more Knightley/Bloom, but Penelope Cruz joins!

Kung Fu Panda 2 – Jack Black returns to voice fatty panda Po!

The Tree of Life – Brad Pitt stars in this dramatic period piece.

Hanna–Orion’s Take

April 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Watching Eric Heller (Eric Bana) dismantle four agents is very much a pleasurable experience.  I do not use the word dismantle lightly.  While James Bond might be charming, watching him beat up thugs is like watching a man try to take a watch apart by slamming it on the ground.  Watching Eric Heller, on the other hand, is like watching a watchmaker deliberately separate all the pieces.  His movements waste no motion, no energy.  His sole intent is the disabling of his pursuers, and when he’s done with them, they don’t even twitch.

When the movie opens, we see Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) in brief flashes amid the snowy landscape.  She’s hunting a reindeer, and so moves quickly and silently from one location to another.  When the deer goes down, Hanna is there to cut it open.  She’s like her father—deadly, efficient, and merciless.  She’s been trained that way so that when the time comes she can find and kill Marissa Wiegler (played chillingly by Cate Blanchett).  But she’s also a young girl with a fascination with everything and everyone, her young exuberance shining through at every moment.  You can train a girl to be an assassin, but she’s still going to have the heart of a young girl.

This naïve wonder, this curiosity towards the world, is handled brilliantly by Saoirse Ronan.  Much of the movie involves not only Hanna’s hunt for Marissa Wiegler but also her growth in a world she has never seen.  For me, this character development was handled well, maybe not perfectly, but with an amount of competence.  There is a certain charm to the way Hanna responds to questions (when asked about what her mother died of, Hanna simply says, “Three bullets”) and her strength makes that charm all the more endearing.

I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been watching movies with heroines that are kind of weird (Jane Eyre, Babydoll from Sucker Punch) but Hanna really appealed to me as a truly strong girl.  She’s not a falsely steely-eyed assassin like Marissa Wiegler.  Her heart, despite everything, is pure.  This purity is what I loved most about the film, the way her heart is free and full of light, the way that despite everything she has to do to survive, she can still admire a run-down amusement park as magical.  This is especially striking when one considers the two counter characters of Marissa Wiegler and Eric Heller.  Eric is a weary soul, just tired of it all, while Marissa Wiegler is a woman afraid—but we are not really given a glimpse of what that fear is.

Before I start complaining, I want to spend some time praising the acting.  Every single member of the case was exemplary, but Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana are especially worth noting because they manage to hold their own against the marvelous lightness of Saoirse Ronan’s performance.  Cate Blanchett adopts a southern drawl that grates against Wiegler’s steel spine—Wiegler’s affected sweetness is brutally drowned in her vicious movements.  In one scene, she angrily screws on a silencer in preparation for a cold-blooded assassination.  She’s angry because her target is not afraid, and that anger is not satisfied until the victim in lying in a pool of blood.  Then a hint of pleasure shivers through her voice, as she says in German, “Just like her mother.”

Eric Bana is simply cool, in all senses of the word.  When fighting, his actions are smooth, brutal to the point of beauty.  When he speaks, though, we get the hint of gentleness that is so missing in Wiegler’s character.  In one pivotal scene, after a long fight, we see his weary face brighten with pride as he says something about Hanna.  From the very beginning, we see his connection with Hanna, the desire to protect her conflicting with his desire to set her free.

But despite the excellent acting, something about the story simply does not ring true.  I believe the characters—as they are in the time depicted in the movie.  But I can’t accept their motivations.  What drives Wiegler?  Shame?  Guilt?  Fear?  Why does Eric Heller hide in the first place?

The ending, cycling back, will be immediately recognizable.  The time in between—the growth and the interaction of characters, was worthwhile, a little world contained.  I just wish I could believe the world outside those borders.

4.5/5 Waffles

-Orion

PS—There is more to say, but just watch the movie first.

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