Monthly Archives: March 2015
“Whiplash” reminded me of my fond days in a middle school jazz band. The beats, the rhythm and the smooth feel of the songs that differed from the strict and pomp “Kitty March” or “Sleigh Ride.” Concerto pieces were standard and stuck to a beat while jazz was more loose and felt like a song that could keep going on. But I can’t say the egos in the club were brutal. I still have the sax as of this review but regardless of the film’s brash tone, I looked back on my music days and wondered. Had I continued in this course, would the stakes be raised or would there be something else in store?
Based on the true experiences of director Damien Chazelle, it follows the journey of first-year jazz student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) who is determined to live up to his idol Buddy Rich by joining a studio band course. Ever since he was young, Andrew has set his sights on the drums to the point he wants to prefect his craft even the point he bruises his hands. That wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t for the conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) who goes beyond the term “teacher from hell” as he keeps pushing his students to the point of using verbal insults and aggression that makes Lee Ermey’s Drill Instructor in Full Metal Jacket look soft.
What sounds on paper appears to be a battle of teacher and student when the last 40 minutes reveal it to be a battle of egos. Without giving too much away, “Whiplash” fools us into thinking its the “typical hard edge teacher” against the “student that will go far and succeed” type of story. We are led to think that Terence is the true source of conflict when he really isn’t. There are moments that show he’s not a hard character but a human being. He shares the same feeling of perfection that Andrew has; a strive to make a new “Charlie Parker.” He delights in seeing a young cousin and shows his respect when someone dear to him dies.
Perhaps that is what makes “Whiplash” work so well is how no conflict exists. Its tension between a man who wants to make the perfect band and a kid who wants to be the next musician to turn the tide. Earlier in the month, I managed to view “Foxcatcher” and while that was a unique portrayal of egos it happened to be a darker one. Some viewers might find it to be unsettling to see band members getting chewed out with harsh words but it depends on what view you have. When J.K. Simmons was on screen, I didn’t see a bully but a man striving for a perfect sound. You can see for yourself in the first rehearsal scenes when he is listening for a beat or when he catches a sour note. He doesn’t get stirred unless what bothers him continues to play on.
The character of Andrew is also interesting too as he keeps all distractions from the side and focuses on being perfect as a percussionist. However, I would have liked to see more of the distractions kick in a bit or at least see more on the consequence of his choices. There is a moment when he gets a girl but abandons her for his passion and yet we see her fate later on without much effect. This kid is surrounded in so much isolation to the point it makes me wonder what would happen if he tried to be social once he looses his ambition. Would it change him or keep the same passion? A little more of that would have giving a bigger depth to the character other than stick to the drums. But would it bring the tragedy of Andrew or strength him?
By the end, “Whiplash” still satisfied in the areas addressed before. I liked the performances with their realistic “unpolished” feel, the Terrance character and most important is the sound editing. Very rarely do I praise a movie based on its sound, though its shot beautifully as well. This was caught early on when Andrew plays in the studio band for the first time as alternative core drummer. When we hear him play, we hear those drums banging and far more than the rest of the brass or treble instruments. When its someone else, we barley get a margin of what they are performing as all is focused on Andrew’s work. Its award for Best Sound Mixing at the Oscars is truly deserved.
There’s an embarrassing story I must confess before I begin. A week into the new year, I actually tried to see the new “Annie” as part of a resolution but it didn’t last long. I was alone with no one in and by the time “It’s a Hard Knock Life” came on, I got up and left. 15 minutes was all I could last. But then, I thought maybe things would change when it would come out on home video. Perhaps I was in a different mood or atmosphere at the time. Well, I have to say that anything past those 15 minutes I don’t regret missing. Maybe a small thing here and there but the execution and everything else kills it to a beating pulp of crumbled screenplay paper.
Tempted to call it a remake, this new “Annie” is more of “remix” trying to be a contemporary take of the 1977 Broadway musical seeing it uses eight of the original songs and injects new score and lyrics to bring a modern style. I’m not against the idea of a modernization unless I feel its done good respect and justice. But in this case, next to nothing works. On paper, certain aspects could be salvageable but the choice in cast, the music and the overall delivery completely brings things to a lifeless and dull standstill. And this is coming from someone who wasn’t a big fan of the original musical or the 1982 film.
The movie literally opens with an Annie lookalike finishing a report on William Henry Harrison only to be greeted with groans and bored looks while the new Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) tries to hip her ad-libbed report on Franklin D. Roosevelt with class participation and false information much to the confused look of the teacher (who says “Good job, Annie” with the magic of ADR). On top of that, she is no longer an orphan but in foster care while she awaits the return of her parents who abandoned her years ago. Unlike the previous versions, we never learn their fate and thus left to guess they are dead or written out for a sequel.
But let’s go back to the previously mentioned scene on how they introduce this Annie but saying the old was annoying and cheery without any personality. But yet throughout this movie contradicts the “new look” by giving a personality that is cheery, overly optimistic and nothing but smiles. There’s not a single thing I remember that Wallis does new to improve this character other than giving Annie a literacy complex. She’s not feisty like Aileen Quinn nor clever like Alicia Morton. There are times when they try to show this Annie is not dumb as you think but its played up for the cute factor more often. I try not to hamper on child acting too much but when your told to look cute and smile a lot, that’s very much what you get here.
She’s under the care of Miss. Hannigan performed by Cameron Diaz in one of the worst roles I’ve seen her perform. I can’t say Hannigan is a moral character seeing she is supposed to have a huge hate for children despite living off the misery of orphans (oh, I’m sorry “foster”) and in return gets hit back. The Carol Burnett take was fun despite being floozy and dark while Kathy Bates went for a more manic approach. Diaz gets the drunk aspect but takes the cruel matters way too far making her portrayal so annoying and unbearable that looking at undigested vegetables in my colon were more fascinating than the countless pop culture references she spews out (“I never told you the time I was almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish”) or when she treats that foster girls like pure trash to the point she uses a spray bottle to get their attention.
Jamie Foxx achieves a new low as the Daddy Warbucks character; now renamed Will Stacks. Stacks is a tycoon that does a cellphone business but is pursuing to be mayor of New York City. Why? There is no clear reason. All we get is this cheap “work hard in life” motive but it doesn’t go anywhere. On top of that, how is it possible for a head in a telecommunications business be able to run for politics? Either way, Annie is brought in to soften his image especially seeing he rescued her from a near car accident that goes viral on the Internet (perhaps, too quick as the universe of this movie says that what Stacks does goes viral globally at the drop of the hat.) To add on, Foxx’s performance feels tiring and stiff. He barley cracks a smile and at times rarely shows an emotion. At least the previous Warbucks had an excuse for their grump complexion but had a change of heart. Here, Foxx doesn’t show this form of change and left yawning along with him as he goes out to a Twilight-style movie and try to bond with Annie. The only times he shows signs of life is during the songs but even they feel stiff due to the song style and lame lyric changes.
Bobby Cannavale replaces Hannigan’s scheming brother in the form of a slimy political adviser (“I got them elected. Schwarzenegger, Kim Jong Il, that Blood Diamond guy”) who seems his only motive is to get Stacks elected and get paid for his work. There’s no other big motive than just get this guy mayor and get his name out. To describe the annoyance I developed with this character, picture someone from Jersey Shore mutated with a Republican and Cameron Diaz’s performance in this movie. The result is the migraine I got for the rest of the movie as he tries to bug in on Stacks to “up the polls” and act devious for no other reason. I get it! He wants to see Stacks mayor but what does that accomplish for this guy. Even when he tries to remove Annie from Stacks (even though it was his idea to adopt him) near the climax with fake parents, I kept asking just what is he accomplishing and what purpose does he serve. Even if you added a mustache, a top hat along with a back cape, he wouldn’t fit the standard cliche of a 1920s silent movie villain because there is no strong motive to support his actions. At least Rooster in the previous incarnations had a purpose even if he was a last minute conflict.
Other than forgettable and tiring performances, the songs are just standard and sound the same. When I mean “sound the same,” they attribute with the same style of pop tempo and constant auto tune. There’s never a moment when I stopped and thought, “wow! they are singing!” like in Les Miserables or Into the Woods. Every note that is belted or every word that is sung is enhanced with electronic voice and it goes so tiring that it becomes a drinking game. Even the new lyrics that are added to “Hard Knock Life” and “Little Girls” feel lazily written with no clever spin or twist. “Little Girls” being the worse of the batch as Diaz’s Hannigan whines about being famous and not surrounded like little girls saying she is locked away like a princess which contradicts her character seeing she drove herself to this point of living and no one else. Choreography is beyond stiff without any inspiring use of set as musical numbers are shot from a far distance with tons of empty space as the camera moves around trying to do something interesting. As bad as “Little Girls” is, it had an interesting idea by having Hannigan hallucinate her furniture and clothing into little children which at least did something but that’s the only thing I can remember that I thought was close to clever.
In fact, a lot of this new “Annie” didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I barely remember the other foster kid’s names or what they did in the movie. Even by the big climax with her parents found at about 90 minutes in, I still felt things were dragging on to a dead creak. There’s already so much you have done, what else is there? Wrap up and get to the “super mega happy ending.” I want to compare it to something like The Wiz but even that journey down the Yellow Brick Road had more flare and effort. This comes off as a heartless and “slap-dash” feeling that feels more half-arsed by the end when red balloons from the celebration finale keep bouncing off the end credits to no end as if they want us to find something to enjoy from it desperately. I want to say they tried, but I sense not much of an effort when you have boring to annoying performances, stiff dancing as well as song “re-scoring” you can find on any “Kids Bops” CD and painful pop culture references that try to modernize but end up dating the movie as opposed to be a timeless affair. And I swear, if anyone tries to convince me other wise that this WAS a good movie with effort and grace, then do me a favor and never speak to me again. Please?
There are so many questions that left me with “Birdman” and that is a good thing. It makes me want to watch it again and again to see if there was anything I missed or hidden clues that could provide some answers. Rare has a movie given me this feeling to understand the world of Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) and everyone around him as well as his psyche. This is straight up a film that is well shot, well made and handled with care with next to little flaws. In many ways, this is a perfect movie, but why is that?
Michael Keaton plays a washed up actor named Riggan Thomas whose only work is for playing a superhero named Birdman and its many blockbuster sequels. To reclaim his fame, he plans to write, direct and star in an adapted play he hopes will succeed big on Broadway. Unfortunately, problems rise as he tries to get his plan underway from not one but many complications and here is where the movie really shines. First up, he has a troublesome relationship with his daughter (Emma Stone) and girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) who try to be the reason of sanity despite the fact her little girl is a pothead and his love life is a wreck. It gives the implication that settling down and trying to a have can take its tough turns when it comes to loving another but also trying to be a respectable father.
If that wasn’t bad enough, more stress comes in the form of a method actor played by Edward Norton who feels like he is trying to steal Riggan’s authority and respect. Instead of a brat, Norton’s character is violate and brutal as he seeks every aspect to sabotage Riggan’s reputation from nearly violating one of the actress during a sex scene during a preview performance to even flirting with his own girl. When these two butt heads and fight, we feel like two titanic actors from different times going at each other. Keaton being the old style keeping things simple and delicate while Norton is a look at the modern view of actors that soak up the attention. Not every scene is a fight as once in a while they will have a sit and down chat to show they are human despite their differences.
But the icing on the cake is the character of Riggan. As explained before, he played a superhero and this mentality comes back to haunt him in the form of an inner voice that constantly beats him up. When it comes on, we feel like its a commentary of what true actors fear the most. Trying to avoid an image they don’t wish to be recognized with. Riggan is tormented with the fan aspect to the point he flops between letting it be to becoming a nuisance. Should we let actors get a second chance to show their full capability or let them jump back into a clown suit just to entertain us? It also gets better when we see him use a lot of levitation powers and telekinesis to the point we start to question if Riggan is really crazy or does he actually have super powers? A question that is left on a hook so ambiguous that I almost shouted “GENIUS” at my television screen.
“Birdman” feels like a trip into the actor’s mind as we start to question the inner demons as well the blocks of his life. What does he wish to achieve and what does he want to do? I felt this movie was a perfect representation of that as the troubles of Riggan and the world around cave in to the point that even the character questions what worth does he have when many see him as this popular icon he was once known for. A big strength is the cinematography as the whole movie feels like it was filmed in one long shot. If Alfred Hitchcock was alive, I bet he would be asking how that was accomplished. The whole movie is edited in a way that literally leaves you on the edge with rarely as a single cut away as things transition from one scene to the next and day becomes night. For a near 2 hour movie, it feels like a week goes by and that is how life feels like almost at times when you think about.
There is really nothing more I can say about “Birdman.” Its hands down a near flawless movie. The only negatives I can think of is that some people might not understand the “artsy” angle or understand some aspects like Riggan’s powers and such. I say this is film that is great on all levels from acting, cinematography and story. Very rarely do we journey inside the mind of an actor and this truly presents the hardships and rewards . Even by the end, I still wasn’t sure if Riggan was bat-crazy or just a real superhero among a few other questions. Maybe this will all lead up to “Birdman Returns” but perhaps that is just a pipe dream that deserves to be as a dream and nothing more. Keaton is Keaton and that is how I want to remember him as.
Eddie Redmayne must had a hard time trying to perform Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” This is not an easy role to take on but somehow he makes to translate the story of a brilliant mind that kept moving forward to an interesting feature in the pursuit of ideas and trying to live. Most biopics of today tend to be romanticized, over-bloated and go as far to change facts just to “spice” things up. The problem today is that no biopic is perfect and will had its detractors. “Hitchcock” and “An Adventure in Time and Space” are a good examples because they are presented more as a tribute while showing real life events. But then you have those like “Buddy” or “Jobs” that will change events for the sake of creativity liberties in making a story creating an uneven narrative that doesn’t know what it wants to say. “Theory of Everything” is more than that.
Eddie’s performance is rather surprising showing Stephen’s college life early on before the effect of his motor neuron disease. It gives us a chance to see his time before the disease overtook his body and shows how brilliant he was. I can only imagine how hard it was to sell viewers the idea of a person with damaged functionality. Once he starts to loose control of his limbs, it gets hard watching Stephen convey his theory of black holes and time while he deals with his weakening body.
For me, this was the center of the movie. When Eddie Redmayne acted like his body was deteriorating bit by bit, I was convinced. This is a man whose knowledge is expansive yet resourceful which only makes you wonder how could he be confined to a wheelchair. The fact he kept his theories and expanding on them while still moving through life makes for a good motion picture about self-confidence and living with your flaws. The special effect is the actor as he has to convince us he is in a weak state and as the movie went on, I too felt bad for everything Hawking went through as much as the real one.
But I can’t say “Theory” is completely perfect. A subplot with Felicity Jones as Hawking’s love interest almost drags the movie down as his condition gets worse to the point she is going camping with a close male friend of hers and worries that his wheelchair bound husband might be cheating. Its the usual biopic stock that is done just to give conflict to the picture. The movie would have been more powerful if it remained on Hawking and his condition and I do admit, it would be interesting to see how his mobility affects his friends around him but this is as close as we get.
Aside from that, “Theory of Everything” works. For every fleeting frame, I felt like I was watching Hawking’s life as he moved on from wheelchair to the next, one mode of communication to an electronic voice box and so forth. The moments that work best are when it focuses on Hawking and his struggles as the condition spreads from his limbs to even his vocals. I kept watching wondering what would happen next and in the end felt satisfied. Its an emotional piece of cinema that’s not overly powerful like “12 Years a Slave” but yet a unique look into one of the most amazing minds that surprisingly exists today.
The premise of “Neighbors” may have been done before but it shows some promise. The idea of wacky neighbors moving in and turning the quiet life of John Belushi upside down at least brings opportunity for social commentary and ideas for jokes. Of course, I wish I was talking about that 1981 comedy and not the 2014 movie because even the new Seth Rogan and Zac Effron showed bigger opportunities for laughs but it seems stuck in its dumb environment and doesn’t do much clever. The 1981 John G. Avildsen uneven comedy at least had something building towards it with old vs. new, youth vs. senior and anti-socialism. The 2014 Neighbors is a far different movie with some similar cues even though it bears no connection to the Belushi comedy outside of similar themes and a slightly similar story. I’m not saying its clone or a remake. But when two different movies share the same name, it makes you wonder what is the better movie when both feel uneven.
Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne surprisingly work well as a couple that moved into a new neighborhood and have a sweet kid. Moving past their wild days, they try to settle down and focus on a quiet life raising their baby. The good thing so far is the chemistry between these two. They really sell you the idea they are a perfect couple considering the dialogue feels natural and they look cute together. Unfortunately, conflict comes in the form of a fraternity that moves next door and the two battle it off as the couple tries to tell them to keep the party down despite getting roped in to kick back and have a beer every time they try to convince them. Things go too far when they call the cops on the sorority unleashing a war between frat and family as the two try to find a way to get the college kids kicked out for good.
The concept itself shows promise but it goes way too easy for the stupid and dumb. This could have been a smart commentary about “coming of age” and at times it does get that vibe but a good bulk of the movie has Seth smoking a joint with college kids and pulling crazy stunts to get the Delta kids in trouble. The whole movie feels mostly filler as air bag traps are placed in Seth’s office space and in return damages the plumbing system creating a bigger advantage for the Delta group as well as a one-note genital joke that temporary saves their house. I guess the movie is trying to be a lay back and stupid comedy but it doesn’t feel much amounts to anything. Even half the time when Seth and Rose pull their pranks, I’m thinking half the time about what’s going on with the baby. There’s even one hilarious scene where the kid almost swallows a condom leading to a variety of jokes that are not mean spirited but at least work in the context of the movie. I kept wondering why not have more of that. You have an excuse to push the boundaries of comedy here. Instead, it takes a back seat to the ususal drug, poop and sex jokes.
On the plus, the performances are good. Again, Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne work good together. Zac Efron plays the leader of fraternity as he is determined to see their sorority made well known and I do find his character interesting but it feels too villainous. Off the bat, we side for the couple way too easily as his pranks go from harmless to borderline diabolical. In one scene, he twiddles the sorority bat like a cane as he examines the deeds of the past college members as his friend convinces him to move on and focus on reality. Something about this character almost feels like it could work for “A Clockwork Orange” parody like Zac is doing his take of Alex and all that matters is getting his name out there even when he is long gone and graduated. There’s something dark to this character that never made me sympathize him that much and that’s the problem. The couple are easy to feel bad for because they have an excuse; they have a baby!
Later in the year, Seth Rogan and James Franco made “The Interview” which in comparison I feel is the better movie because the satire was clear and its attack on media portrayal left no stone un-turned. “Neighbors” tries to be something akin to “Animal House” where its going for that college humor but there is a big difference. “Animal House” had characters you could relate to and in a way see in a normal fraternity. They were over-glorified but simple people that were underdogs but never gave up. I feel like they attempted the same thing here but it doesn’t come together for me. Most of the comedy is just the straight-up R-rated material you’ve seen before so its not breaking much ground and its source of satire is all over the place. Its is trying to say something about the youth today or getting a life vs. having one that is carefree. Aside from a few solid laughs and good performances, I only recommend this as a rental.
We have come so far in terms of Disney’s treatments to their library of live-action fairy tale films. Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” was at the start with eye-appealing visuals but lacked the heart with a story that was far removed from the Lewis Carroll story and marketed as an adaptation than rather a sequel. While I don’t have a dead hate, I do feel it has problems and will leave it at that. Then the train got rolling with “Oz, The Great and Powerful” and Maleficent” as ideas for “re-imagining” came underway and this is the heart of the controversy. We don’t want to see tales anew unless there’s a reason for it. I will admit I had more tolerance because most of today’s movies feed off the “mono-myth” and thus when you think about it, not a lot of film’s today have an original story. With “Oz,” there were some nice visuals and a decent story, but a cast that felt hit and miss in their roles. “Maleficent” was a bigger headache for some viewers by taking one of the most well-known villains and turning her story into a “Wicked” parable. Again, I had no problems as long it provided a source of entertainment or at the very least had something of value. Maybe I am going soft on these but I will admit my pleasant surprise after seeing the latest Disney take on “Cinderella” to which I feel future directors should take a cue from on making a successful transition.
Lily James plays the glass slipper wearing working girl who hopes of having a life far more elegant than it already is. With her parents dead from an illness, she has to deal with the orders of her wicked stepmother and cruel stepsisters who are more ugly in personality than looks. Many could consider this feminist considering Cinderella has a one-note motive but this was part of the original fairy tale to begin with. You could make her a male and give him the same motives without much of a difference. She hopes for something better aside from her raggedy treatment of living in the attic with her animal friends and sleeping by the cinder scattered fires.
Her only obstacle is Cate Blanchett as her stepmother who is hungry for power and money to the point she will lash her own misery on another. The fact she manipulates Cinderella into a working maiden knowing she is nothing more but a leech seeking her own pleasures without the task of hard work and labor. Blanchett’s take is fun to watch and you can tell she soaks every frame enjoying her “bullying” manner of seeing her two kids get more credit than a step-daughter who has more ability and ambition. All she seeks is to get things her way and be wealthy much like the classic tale. However, I do wish there was more of sinister chill that is lacking compared to the 1950 animated Disney film for scenes when she tears at Cinderella’s dress. In the animated version, she turns her stepsisters on her when realizing the items used were taken from her sibling’s drawers where else in this take a set of put downs and some tearing leads to the girl’s break down. The last third manages to salvage the villain when she tries to make matters more difficult but again something is lacking in her when the stakes are raised.
Richard Madden brings a form of the Prince that was missing in most of the adaptions by giving an actual character. With so much on his shoulders, “Kit” (as he is nicknamed) just wants to rule without a in closed view and be open minded. When he meets Cinderella, its not much of a love at first sight but more of an understanding between two similar people from two different social classes. There’s more of an active personality here than the 1950 animated version which comes into play near the end as he seeks to find the one girl he met before in the woods and the ball knowing there is a spark or something to that accord.
Kenneth Branagh is known for directing a lot of Shakespeare and his style is throughout with wide shots that have us marvel at set pieces like the ballroom and parts of Cinderella’s house. He takes a simple tale and bloats into a period piece that almost complements the wide view of the animated film seeing back then its 1:33:1 aspect ratio was limited but yet felt like a grand portrait. Kenneth mixes between giving us a tale from its time while knowing this is a family film at heart and yet it makes me wonder he was able to combine both styles. It makes me question what this would have been more like if there were no fantasy elements and was a straight up retelling from its era.
However, “Cinderella” is not a bad movie yet its nowhere near perfect either. The special effects and make-up work range from delightful to cartoony as CGI mice have wide eyes and as animals transform to human beings it has an obvious approach despite using prosthetic elements at times. Moments like the pumpkin transformation have some creative value while lizards and geese turning into people look a bit goofy. And while it does manage to use elements form the original story and focus on the human characters, there are times when it borrows too much from the original 1950 Disney film with again the group of mice and certain designs from the clothing the stepsisters wear to some of Cinderella’s ball gown. While these moments are small, they detract from the fresh direction its taking itself into at times obviously skewing away from being a film made in the 1950s and tries to be timeless in its direction.
Fresh elements like Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother work because the quirky personality is a different take while also knowing when to add humor to the scene. Its a small moment but at least does a different approach. “Cinderella” works best in this angle because its not relying on the source of another film like “The Wizard of Oz” or “Sleeping Beauty” for its material seeing its has a range of things like the Charles Perrault take and moments from the Brothers Grimm fable. But when there’s an moment that feels like it was lifted from the 1950 cartoon, it either feels different from being set in the “period piece” tone its going for or feels like a small copy. But on the whole, there’s plenty of eye-candy visuals and elements that helps make this take stand on its own.
Also, on a side note, those who see this movie will be treated to a short, “Frozen Fever” which I’m going to say right off the bat is a disappointing waste. I hate to give fans of Frozen bad news but this one didn’t work for me. The whole tone plays off like somewhere close to a deleted scene from the first film to an extended music video as Elsa tries to surprise her sister Anna with a birthday party but goes overboard while catching a cold from the exhaustive work. As she belts her notes, she makes mini-snowmen appear that try to wreck havoc with Elsa’s plans. There’s some elements that could work but the whole experience again feels like a pointless music video/extra musical number that could have survived better as a DVD/Blu-Ray bonus feature. Why not do something with Olaf loosing his carrot nose and chasing after it or something with the butler Marshmellow who looks after Elsa’s castle? It seems like there are opportunities for a better short but are nothing works. Maybe I’m too hard but I felt nothing of value here. Those who are trying to wash themselves clean of the “Frozen” hype might want to either arrive late or just rent “Cinderella” when it comes out. For its such a pity to have a 4 minute song scene with little to offer be attached to a far more piece of entertainment. And your reading this from someone who enjoyed “Frozen.”
It was about time I finally got to see “Big Hero 6” after so many of my colleagues have been talking about it and recommending it left and right. And I’m going to be honest, I went in with extremely low expectations with the feeling of another “Frozen” ordeal. “Frozen” had great ambition and some unique elements but it seems its stay of praise has over extended. The Snow Queen adaption was good to my taste but not to the point where it stands like timeless classics along the lines of “Beauty and the Beast” or “Mary Poppins.” So you can imagine how I was feeling for the most part. Even I felt its win for Best Animated Feature was sketchy but then again Disney has had this streak and I’m not a fan of the Oscars to begin with. Though to my surprise, it wasn’t the first half that makes me recommend this but more of what happens in the second half that won me over.
Set in a futuristic San Francisco that is combination of American and Japanese elements, a robot prodigy named Hiro Hamada uses his technology skills for underground robot fights as opposed to something more. His brother convinces him otherwise after introducing Hiro to his college pals that his robotic work could be more than just street fighting. After inventing a set of microbots to get the notice of the professor, things go from good to bad as a tragic incident kills his brother and his invention with it. But a masked villain appears with his tiny robots as he plans to unmask the culprit for the memory of his older sibling. Equipped with a robot his brother made and his pals, Hiro plans to make a superhero team out of team in hopes of capturing the masked man.
What works best about Big Hero 6 is the two leads and their chemistry; Hiro and his sibling’s robot Baymax. The boy and robot angle is something Disney would do and easily make for a family film. But there is something here that makes it more unique and fresh. Hiro is trying to coupe with the loss of his brother while Baymax tries to stick with his nursing/hospital program that his brother made. There is no implication of Baymax wanting to be human or anything of that angle as his monotone voice and personality leads to some comedic moments as well as some touching ones. Instead of giving Baymax a human personality, we often question his emotion being a machine without human features as his actions go either way.
Hiro is different as his character is given a lot to work with. He is trying to move on from a traumatic moment in his life while also using his abilities for a different cause or trying to find one. Its the typical stuff till midway the movie shifted to a parable about how unfulfilled revenge can be. Without giving too much away, this is this big plot twist that changes the attitude of the story. No longer is it about trying to deal with loss but trying to move on. It wasn’t till right at this moment, I was immediately sucked in and interested. Not only does Hiro have to deal with what is around him but also what path he must take with his life. I thought it was clever and certainly added a lot of heart to the movie.
So, your probably asking what about the rest of the characters and that is my biggest problem. For the first 24 minutes, we do get introduced to these supporting characters and elements that come into play later but with so much focus on Hiro and Baymax that they feel underdeveloped in my opinion. We get the lazy surfer dude, the hyper excited inventor, the cool one, the muscular one that worries a lot and so forth. I kept thinking why the other half worked more and I just kept going back to Hiro and his robot. Its clear they are the better focus of the movie but I felt like there could have been more elements with the other characters. There’s a big twist with the reveal of the masked man which does work but I felt it could have been a lot stronger.
Aside from that, I will admit the animation is good as always. Its Disney so you know there will be effort involved. The fight scenes are done with style like out of Astro Boy or Battle of the Planets while the futuristic version of San Francisco looks like a cleaned up take from Blade Runner. Even without end credits, Big Hero 6 is roughly 90 minutes long but I wish it went on a little longer. Again, maybe give some breathing room to the side characters and perhaps a little more to the story. To compare, The Incredibles spent a good bulk setting up its characters, the relationships and at least was able to craft a plot to tie everything together. But on the upside, “Big Hero 6” is a delight I’m sure everyone will enjoy.
There’s more than one reason why “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” doesn’t work. If I was a fan of Star Trek, chances are I would be highly disappointed and find myself yelling many Klingon obscenities at the tv screen. As a typical moviegoer, I really don’t know how to put this. In a way, I heard this one was the worst of the batch and sort of expected what was coming. I didn’t come off feeling angry but what I can say is that I wasn’t amused either. Most bad movies like “Masters of the Universe” and “Howard the Duck” at least had some form of effort and left me with something to enjoy. “Final Frontier” is a strange case where it does start with an interesting idea but then explodes like the first bite of a sloppy joe. The meat sinks from the sandwich buns and seeps onto your plate to the point you find yourself eating it with a spoon in understanding the confusion.
To understand why this is considered the worst in the original film series, let’s examine the faults one step at a time. The previous Star Trek films had a director that at least had an understanding of the franchise. Robert Wise took “The Motion Picture” on the show’s themes of technology’s vast expansion while Nicholas Meyer examined the human element more in “The Wrath of Khan” making for a successful entry. The late Leonard Nimoy wasn’t a bad director as clearly he can mange making a movie but some of the ideas felt very far fetched from whales communicating with aliens to rebirth. While “Search for Spock” and “Voyage Home” made up for it some great writing and humor, the themes and ideas felt too vague and incoherent but still had some supporting legs for its existence in the story.
Instead, directing duty went to William Shatner who I will admit had an interesting idea but somehow got lost within the production problems and weird choices. There’s no such thing as a bad director until you see the movie but unfortunately this movie is proof Shatner is not good at directing movies. There appears to be some oddly shot scenes to cover up cheap special effects and even the editing is by far the most unforgivable raging from the infamous “Hover Shoes Elevator” scene which could have been easily edited to even obvious wires and ships that fly around like they are from a Looney Tunes. From what I understand, there was a much bigger story in the works that got whittled down thanks to studio interference and criticisms from the cast. Thus a parable about religion got lost in the mix of goofy yet forced humor and again some production troubles ranging from special effects made someone lesser than ILM to even a production story where Shatner nearly died when filming the desert scenes. Credit to ambition but the bigger faults lie within the story.
Laurence Luckinbill plays a Vulcan named Sybok who turns out to be Spock’s half-brother. He goes around curing people of their pain by removing it and plans to meet up with an entity he believes is God. And that’s just the surface. This doesn’t come into play till the second half and already there are some problems. We never get to learn where Sybok got these powers or even understand his motives that well. He cures McCoy and Spock of their painful memories later on but it doesn’t prove much. Does he have connections with this big God anomaly? We never really understand in the end.
In fact, more time is devoted to Kirk and his pals vacationing at Yosemite and forced comedy aboard the Enterprise that is not functioning fully. What made the previous installments work was the compensation between political views and actual character development. Even if they did channel the campier side of the original show, they did it in a mature manner as if it was a B-movie with brain. “The Final Frontier” uses this campy factor to full power complete with one-liners, surreal moments like Uhura’s infamous fan dance and some very forced comedy. Highlights include Scotty having trouble getting the Enterprise fixed together, a bunch of Klingons trying to chase after Kirk that look like space hillbillies and Kirk trying to help Spock understand the concept of a night with a campfire. This can work but its execution is so forced in it feels desperate for a laugh.
“Voyage Home” worked because we were fascinated by the idea of the future seeing the past and making a unique commentary about how “advanced” we were at the time. The chemistry came from the Enterprise crew interacting with 1986 computer devices and mingling with people that are far off from the 23rd Century. Aside from whales and time travel, that was the glue that held it together. “Final Frontier” has a ridiculous concept but there is nothing to connect to as the story goes from a campfire to a hostage rescue to a mutiny lead by Sybok to the climatic meet-up with the God entity. There’s clearly too much going on here and without a clear connection, we get no support as we feel like we are watching three Star Trek movies crammed into one. Even most of the focus is on Kirk, Spock and McCoy as the supporting cast are used for one-note jokes or just used little at all. The previous movies gave small roles a sense of importance and character. Not shove them aside for a Stooge trio making the film more “Kirk” centered than the others.
However, the character of Sybok does try to be some form of connection in these string of plots but his actions don’t make any sense. He wants to get a starship to meet up with the God entity but stages a ransom to hijack one. He doesn’t want people to die and tries to act innocent, but his villainous actions contradict the character’s good will. Would it kill to send out a distress signal or at least some kind of contact to get a ride? All this trouble just to get to a creature that claims to be God but isn’t feels like a waste of time not just for Kirk and the crew to go through but even our own.
Bottom line, “Final Frontier” is easily the most skippable entry. Its one you can live without seeing. I can’t say its 100% terrible as there can be a nice scene once in a while with some character development and there was at least some promise. William Shatner said the idea for this one came from watching televangelists and noticing how they were strangely horrifying yet fascinating to watch. Sybok almost has this feeling with promises of something greater and healing powers. If this character was developed further and maybe given a stronger motive, perhaps there would be a stronger conflict at play. But alas, nothing comes together. I didn’t even talk about the pointless David Warner cameo, the triple-breasted feline bar dancer or even the fact that almost every scene has someone drinking alcohol. Maybe the original script was a better movie at the start with cut material ranging from Kirk going against the Devil to a rock-monster that got replaced with a giant blob of light. Even when the Star Trek movies where being released on 2-disc DVDs, Shatner asked Paramount Pictures to do a recut of the film with added footage and new effects to improve it. As you would expect, Paramount decided to not to support this idea and didn’t attempt it. That’s well enough proof for you. A Star Trek sequel so infamously bad that even its own studio doesn’t want to fix it up.
I feel there’s something that needs to commented about Leonard Nimoy and his directorial debut with “Star Trek III”. Compared to Nicholas Meyer who directed “Wrath of Khan,” its strange to see someone who had no idea what Star Trek was about make a great sequel. Nimoy’s take is much different retaining the B-movie feel of the original series while feeling contemporary. “Search for Spock” was a good attempt but lacked focus under so many different elements that it came off as a string of ideas than rather a single narrative. While “Search” still had some legs to keep it enjoyable, all that gets fixed in “The Voyage Home.”
William Shatner returns as Captain James T. Kirk as him and his crew try to return to Earth after their last adventure but find out that a giant alien probe that looks like a Cuban cigar with a disco ball attached to is destroying the Earth. Its revealed the probe is trying to make contact with humpback whales but unfortunately the giant mammals have been extinct for years. The logical solution; go back in time to the 21st century, get some whales and head back to the future. Sounds complex and really hair-brained but somehow all that is made “logical.”
Much like “Explorers” and “Real Genius,” it takes what could have been a really ridiculous idea and make it very plausible. Most of the time, we get to see how they are able to figure out a way to transport the marine creatures and doesn’t skip over any scientific beats. They even go as far to explain an extremely durable form of glass that won’t be invented (yet it was in 2009…scary) is the solution to keeping them in the ship. Though if I had to nitpick, I’m still a little concerned about “leg room” for the whales the tank is only big enough to hold them but I can let is slide seeing its a one trip ordeal.
The biggest highlight of “Voyage Home” is seeing the Enterprise crew in modern day 1986. Its the typical fish out of water routine but lives up to potential. Instead of Back to the Future where someone from out current time is looking at the past, we get people from the future seeing our current time (or past in this case) and making commentary cracks about daily life like the usage of money, our limited technology and so forth. This widens the bar for many jokes and scenes that work really well. But in a way, I do feel like there could have been more in like maybe Spock watching “Stand By Me” in a theater and trying to understand the emotion of the film or Sulu exploring Chinatown. There’s open possibilities that get limited because of the story and motivation but at least it knows when to stop and deliver a humorous jab at 1980s society.
If there was one problem I did have with it, or possible a few, its that while the story is plausible yet far fetched, the pacing again is very laid back and lacks a strong conflict. Which is not a bad thing but it makes you wish there was some way this entry was more powerful and had stronger elements. For example, there’s a doctor played by Catherine Hicks that looks after a pair of whales that Kirk and Spock eye at but is too attached to the gentle giants. This could have been a great use of an obstacle but her character feels somewhat interesting. When Kirk explains that he is from the future, we don’t get a strong sense of wither he believes him or not and most of the time Hicks’ character feels confused and annoyed. In fact, a lot of the people they come across in this movie feel a tad cut-out and not so developed. Maybe it has to due with how there’s so much focus on the Enterprise crew and their mission that it makes the 1986 dwellers of San Francisco feel more like plot elements and less like civilians. They only serves as devices to get the crew to obtain things like money or as a gag once in a while.
On top of that, it really takes the message of endangered species to a conventional level. The idea of saving animals from extinction is something that could have ended up as too preachy but thankfully they don’t go that road. At times, it does a feel like obvious considering they show footage of hunters killing whales and even a short encounter with some at sea. But I wouldn’t say its pushes it too much. It plays out to a point where it fits in with the story without being the focus. Come to think of it, what kind of conversation would an alien want with whales? There are some things about this movie that really boggle the mind. For a set up like that, you think it would become this big moment at the end but without giving too much away, it happens without flare. Even the way they time travel to 1986 is a little questionable. Maybe its because I’m not a big Trekker but there has to be a more reasonable way than warp speeding into the sun. What if they go too far and end up in the 1800s? How else will they know the amount of warp speed to get the date?
Perhaps I’m already thinking too deep but as a whole “Voyage Home” is a good entry. The only reason to see this film is for these fish out of water characters interacting with modern day. Its not a bad movie and its certainly a good entry but there is some room for improvement here in spots. Nothing too bad just a little more expansion with the Enterprise crew in modern times and perhaps some things better explained. On its own, its a rather enjoyable entry with surprisingly good comedy. A good example is when Kirk and Spock try to ask the Hicks character out for dinner and likes Italian. Seeing Vulcans can’t lie, Spock dejects like Kirk tries to help. Moments like that add to the Enterprise characters as genuine people with flaws.
But in hindsight, maybe that’s what Leonard Nimoy was trying to convey here. That we as people have flaws that we make us a part of what we are. There’s a running theme about communication and how it can be misinterpreted or fixed in the long run. From Spock not understanding a question about emotion to Scotty trying to speak to a Mac computer, its all about how we interact with each other and in doing so, understand more of our surroundings and where we are. Perhaps that is the heart to “Voyage Home.” Its not just seeing these familiar characters in the past but more how they interact with it. Truly that makes this one a worthy sequel that is not to be skipped. Live long and prosper…