Monthly Archives: November 2015
The bar has been raised so high for Pixar, its a wonder how they are able to make one story after another. I will still say the peak for the animation studio was Up. A movie that was able to present heavy themes of coming of age, dealing with loss and making the most of life for a simple idea. This summer, Inside Out nearly trumped that with a premise that has been done before but executed differently. The result was such an enjoyable affair that once again, I wondered just how far these animators and storytellers could go. However, for every good movie they make, there is one that isn’t full of the charm and wonder but at least you can see some form of effort. And this where I’m sad to say, The Good Dinosaur falls in the middle of this.
Once the end credits began to begin, I felt mixed and torn on this latest entry from the studio that showed what toys do alone and what monsters lurk behind our closet doors. One the one hand, this is a grand eye-candy visual of a film in terms of atmosphere. For a CGI movie, the water looks and moves like water, the trees sway like real trees and the ground these extinct creatures walk along is probably the most impressive I’ve seen from Pixar. However, I feel so much focus was spent on working on the scale textures and less on the story along with its concept.
The movie asks “What if the meteor didn’t kill the dinosaurs” as we see the giant space rock zoom past the Earth allowing the prehistoric beasts to evolve over time. What could have been a unique “Planet of the Apes” idea instead has the whole tone play out like a Western. Apatosaurus are seen farming, Tyrannosaurus runs a ranch with prehistoric longhorns and Velociraptors are cattle rustlers. These are interesting ideas for social class in this world but these three barley meet or play off each other outside of the last two mentioned. It seems the world of these creatures are more fixed on the reins of their environment as opposed to being one giant community as seen in Finding Nemo or A Bug’s Life. Perhaps it would have been better if somehow these three species played off each other more but the movie is more focused on finding a story as opposed to sticking with one.
A young Apatosaurus named Arlo is risked with trying to help his folks out while dealing with conquering his fears and making an impression on his siblings and parents. This is symbolized by a footprint placed on the rock wall of a silo as opposed to something that feels more earned like leadership or at least respect. If one were to predict the story already, a death in the family happens causing Arlo to be more traumatized and eventually gets swept down the river as he gets placed on a journey for home. In fact, the way he gets separated from his home happens so sporadically you could swear the movie is rushing itself.
Along the way, a human boy with a dog-like personality befriends him, named Spot by the worrisome protagonist, as the little caveman tries to help find his way home. Sad how this is the only strong element of the movie as we see how these two play off each other. The idea of a strong yet small cave dweller helping a dinosaur lends itself to some humorous moments and a couple of heartwarming ones too. Most notable is a scene when Arlo tries to communicate the idea of family to Spot with sticks and sand. Without giving too much away, it turned out to be one of the most well-executed scenes in the movie. However, it gets crushed by a twist near the end removing the heart touching feeling yet some of it remaining.
In a nutshell, there really isn’t too much to discuss seeing how paper thin the concept and story are executed. From what I heard, there were some production problems behind this one causing a major overhaul tossing out an entire cast and story. I do wonder what that other version would have been like in hindsight seeing it would have been fun to see John Lithgow as a dinosaur. The final result is really a Western with dinosaurs that has some unique ideas but doesn’t go any further. I feel bad as I can only imagine the amount of time those animators spent trying to perfect every rock and blade of grass but to match it to a movie that is barley sub-par. While I don’t feel this is the worst or even a bad movie, I am unfortunate to say this is an uneven one and from times surprisingly brutal for a Pixar film. Animals get swallowed in whole, some get nipped at the body, Arlo’s tripping over rocks come off as more painful than a minor injury and concepts of death seem to be tagged on as opposed to explored deeply as in Up (again, a much better Pixar movie). Which is why the real winner for the holiday season goes to The Peanuts Movie; a movie full of heart, deals with the subject of perseverance on a level kids can understand and a story that is easy to follow and simple. There are tons of great ideas in Good Dinosaur, especially a nice performance by Sam Elliot in a minor role, but if only these story elements and cliches were evolved into a better feature.
Also attached to the movie is a short called Sanjay’s Super Team, a short that explores Hindu religion in a way that is understandable to kids and adults. The story follows little Sanjay as he pictures the Indian gods and goddess as a group of superheroes. Surprisingly, a lot of matieral is covered in the span of 5 minutes from tradition to old vs. new as Sanjay’s father tries to get his son to understand the observance of the Hundu culture. How a short is able to present so much in just a short time as opposed to a full-length feature that goes nearly nowhere with its concept feels surprisingly to me. The idea of comparing ancient gods to how we view superheroes is a common theme as characters like Superman and Spider-Man are see as the modern “Greek gods.” And yet, I feel so much deeper ground is covered when we see Sanjay’s interpretation of these powerful beings and how well it pays off at the end. Here’s hoping this one gets the Oscar for Best Animated Short.
When dealing with themes of the future, movies have a two-sided coin to present. One says make it bright and hopeful like Hill Valley in Back to the Future Part II while the other says make it darker and grimm like Blade Runner. To present an optimistic view of the future while showing conflict is an even heavier attempt has a movie has to balance between showing the upside to a higher lifestyle while presenting there are conflicts like the society of wealthy vs. poverty in Metropolis. To make these elements into a thought provoking blockbuster is not a bad idea but it depends on how the mixture of these elements get handled. Or else one will end up with such a clunky and off-tone picture as Tomorrowland. As I am sad to say, one of the biggest domestic box-office flops of this year seeing so much effort and talent were thrown in yet little pays off or comes as entertaining.
The premise deals with a hidden utopia on Earth, how it is hidden remains unclear, with a promise of peace and harmony but comes off looking like a giant spa resort of gizmos and gadgets taken from The Jetsons and many other future films. Perhaps I should be more precise and bring up the fact this is based on Disney’s Epcot and Tomorrowland theme park attractions. Which is no surprise seeing certain elements like Space Mountain do appear as Easter Eggs here and there. But as expansive as the giant city is, we don’t spend much time in it. The main focus is the story and characters surrounded by this massive place which I wouldn’t have much of a problem if these elements were at the very least interesting.
Britt Robertson plays a tech-savvy teen that always believes in optimism but it nearly contradicts with her character by means of vandalism to a NASA launch pad being dismantled so her father can remain an engineer. I guess her actions account for something seeing she gets a magic pin that shows her this amazing city but only as a holographic illusion. Even more questioning is the ability of the pin as once one touches it, they see this great world but stuck in the real one as they lumber around like some kind of virtual reality helmet strapped on. Even in one scene, we see her move to the city in a corn field but also falling down the stairs when doing so in real life. If this pin makes an illusion, wouldn’t it be safer to confine it to one room as opposed to having said person meander in real life? What if one touches it and walks around in day time traffic? So much for the future of that poor soul.
Either way, this pin creates such curiosity, that she seeks out the origin of it. All traces lead to a cranky inventor named Frank Walker (George Clooney) who wishes to be left alone then return to the fabled city he was banned from. Apparently, he somehow manages to keep track of the world’s lifespan as an impending doom is set against the Earth. He thinks the young teen has the ability to save it as in much stories where the young hero or heroine is chosen to save the day thanks to her kindness.
In a sense, the film tonally tries to be something along the lines of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the good kid gets picked due to their ingenuity and despite hardships has a kind heart but I didn’t really get a sense of care for out characters. The performances are fine but just something about the writing feels off in narrative and character wise. The narrative flow gets distracted by Clooney’s flashing back as the structure of the movie is held by first person narrative as we cut back to the character Frank telling viewers what we are watching. An element cleary unneeded as the film can unfold without it.
Outside of Britt’s character having an open mind and Clooney being the man who lost hope, there wasn’t much else I found that really showed a care or motive to hang on to. Maybe its the jumbled narrative or how little we see of the city, but most of the plot feels very spotty that when one character decides to go on a search or move to the next story beat, there isn’t much risk or purpose behind it. She find a pin, goes to see the source, finds out the villains, saved by a sidekick/henchman type character, comes across a grizzled guy, go to futuristic place, find something is wrong and try to fix it. The story is so basic and paper thin that it shouldn’t feel this complex when its being told. And with not much connection to these story beats and directions it takes, why should we care as viewers?
The bigger problem comes in the second half when our heroes make it to Tomorrowland to find it in shambles. Apparently, a last minute conflict comes in the form of Hugh Laurie who plays a pessimistic Governor of the place who knows the secret link between Tomorrowland and the real world as well as why things are crumbling as they are. With the fear of an apocalypse on the way in people’s minds, it feels this is the direction things are heading into. So right off the fly, the message is a no-brainier. Be happy, keep being positive, work toward a bright future and don’t be negative. My problem is how heavy handed this message is and obvious they hammer it through the majority of the movie to the point it becomes more of the focus and less on the story.
To compare, The Peanuts Movie has a similar theme but not as obvious. As Charlie Brown tires to show he can do great things and fails, the more the viewer wants to see him succeed. The message of hope is more well-preserved here because that is not the focus. The focus is the characters and the story so later on, we can look back and remark the trails the protagonist had to endure as we compare them to our lives. Even themes of optimism and pessimism are explored better in Inside Out as we see how one can’t live without positive and negative things. They have to co-exist and co-operate. Tomorrowland takes these elements and instead cooks them into a good vs. evil manner at the last minute that has been done to death.
Without giving too much away, Laurie’s character reveals how people’s positive and negative thinking are essential to the world of Tomorrowland in a reveal so preachy that it undermines the entire message of the movie. With images of doom and gloom plaguing the real world, it has the future seeking to go in that direction unless convinced otherwise seems to be the logical solution. Instead, the final 20 minutes opts for a big action climax instead of a much smarter route like maybe a talk or a way to convince Hugh’s character that convincing people to be positive is a means to make a brighter future. That doesn’t happen. We get a feast of explosions, destruction and a villain’s downfall that is so cliche it makes my blood boil to see what could have been a nice story about building to a better tomorrow turn into a cliche blockbuster romp.
The screenplay was written by Damon Lindelof who credits include Lost and 2012’s Prometheus while Brad Bird co-writes. With this knowledge, it feels like two different movies are mixed in as the ideology of Brad Bird is clashing with the “whizz,” “bang,” and “pow” of an edgy sci-fi movie. Instead of taking a break for character development or perhaps even heart felt moments which are standard of Brad’s work, we find ourselves watching and counting out the story beats as hero goes from point A to B with little interest knowing what will happen next. Times that could have been used for exploring character relationships are traded up for big action set pieces and CGI wonder as a monument turns into rocket ship and people get obliterated by lasers held by evil androids. There is something very tonally off here between the future talk and the action.
And for those who think I’m being “negative” over Brad Bird, I like the guy. I do. I recall The Iron Giant when the metal monster is told how souls can’t die. Or how about the “Krusty Gets Busted” episode from The Simpsons when Bart is trying to convincing himself his hero is not a crook under shades of blue and Krusty merchandise. And need we not forget Mr. Incredible’s dilemma of trying to be a secret superhero and a family man. If Tomorrowland had more charm much like these small scenes that carry so much weight, perhaps I wouldn’t be so harsh. The city might have an interesting design, but under the retro rubble is a clunky and uneven story that crumbles and pods without pay off or impact. If you want a movie about the optimism and pessimism of the future play against itself, I recommend watching the Back to the Future trilogy more seeing themes of controlling one’s future and the negative benefits of a positive change are far better explored. Even movies like Explorers and The NeverEnding Story had a better handle with certain aspects like building to the unknown or trying to maintain hope. Fraggle Rock’s themes of universal peace was better explored without the aspect of violence being involved to solve a problem. Unfortunately, Tomorrowland didn’t do much for me. Aside from the performances being ok, it just came off as dull, preachy and just really a waste of good talent. I feel bad for saying this but the future of this movie looks rather grim as it stands at #4 at my worst of 2015 list.
Of all the trilogies to exist in this universe, I never thought I would hold this one a step above Star Wars in terms of admiration. Edgar Wright originally started this as a joke but since has been official. Three original movies with different plots that have similar connections with only one big thing that keeps it together; a Cornetto ice cream. For those here in the U.S., a Cornetto is sort of a Nestle Drumstick ice cream but with more diverse flavors. An odd choice how three different movies are connected but a simple ice cream brand. And yet, each movie feels deliciously enjoyable as a frozen treat.
Shaun of the Dead kicks it off with the colors resembling a strawberry flavor for the gore and blood. Indeed, how fitting it is seeing the film is great send off to the Romero zombie movies. But in a sense, it feels more like both an homage and a “how NOT to survive” film. Simon Pegg is Shaun, a electronic clerk without a life, bunks with a lazy friend (Nick Frost) and recently had his girl break up with him. To think, this would be the last hero you would expect to root for in a zombie apocalypse.
Even if you haven’t see the Romero films, this movie is such a roller coaster to watch from beginning to end as our hero Shaun has to use what he has to stay alive. What makes this guy so lovable is not just the every-man abilities he gets, but just how we connect to his low life. This is the last person we expect to see be a leader with a group of friends that even feel diverse about his choices. From setting up camp in a pub to devising plan after plan, the comedy comes from not just how these people can’t work with each other but how they poorly they perform. As the gory effects mix beautifully with the British wit, one wonders how a film like this can be so well-made and nearly flawless.
The second film in the trilogy takes a different turn with Hot Fuzz. The original blue flavor symbolizes the police element which very describes this entry in a nutshell. Simon Pegg returns as a hard-boiled but “goody-goody” cop named Nicholas Angel. Because of how “too good” he performs, Nicholas gets sent to watch after a small village that is more backwards than you can imagine. Outside of trying to fit in with the lazy team, Nicholas thinks something is afoot as key murders happen while trying to deal with small-time tasks like underage teens in pubs and chasing geese.
Trading in his slacker personality, Simon Pegg does a good job playing the tough as nails cop while a good bulk of the comedy comes from how his serious edge doesn’t mingle with the small town. Of course, this builds to a huge conspiracy that he is aware of and perhaps a few others too. One suspicious character is his new chum Ed (Nick Frost) who may seem dimwitted but surprisingly doesn’t get the hard shaft when he messes up. The highlight of Hot Fuzz is the chemistry between Pegg and Frost knowing how well these two play off each other like a comedy couple. The humor of the movie is certainly in the right place seeing how odd of a village that can take something so small as a typo in a newspaper column so seriously.
However, while most people deem this the best of the three, there are problems I have with this one. The tone of Hot Fuzz tends to parody action buddy movies and at times seems to fall into the traps of them. What feels like a satire at times can be a bit too close when mimicking these Michael Bay style tropes and cliches. Of course, they do pay off at the end but nearly ruin the unpredictable factor. Now there is a dark twist about the village that I can spoil which brings the movie into a huge 360 degree turn but I tend to question the aspect too much. Unlike Shaun that is straight-up fun, the clashing parody of real cop drama vs. stylized action gets too much for me to handle. None the less, there is good comedy and charm with these characters but I miss the carefree tone from Shaun of the Dead.
But that leaves us to The World’s End with mint chocolate chip representing the aliens in this film. And without a doubt, this is my personal favorite of the three. I recall seeing this one in theaters after a slow summer and honestly, I couldn’t ask for a better way to end it. Many fans and moviegoers seem very divided over this one but I still feel it is the strongest of the three for a variety of reasons.
Simon Pegg trades in responsibility to become the loud and boisterous Gary King, who manages to convince his old school pals to gather and attempt a pub crawl that they failed to do years ago. Once back in the town, things seem to have slightly altered outside of the whole town being converted into mechanical beings with blue ink for blood. The concept alone doesn’t get more high winded than that paying homage to 1980s dark sci-fi ranging from John Carpenter films to a little of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Not only does Pegg changes things up but so does Nick Frost as Gary’s best friend who is more calm and organized compared to his previous characters who were lazy and irresponsible. It’s almost like the two traded places just to see how well they could do a character like this. Even Pegg’s Gary comes off as likable despite the loud personality as someone who just wants to relive the past. Its not till near the end a huge plot twist comes into play where we finally understand why this high school past time means so much to him in a tragic yet interesting way.
The rest of World’s End is just pitch perfect to me. The fact you want to see these guys complete this marathon of beer while trying to avoid being converted into alien robots is just fun. Even for a low-budget film, the special effects alone are a huge highlight displaying how much can be accomplished with so little. Dare I say, this entry has probably the best fight scenes of all the three from bathroom brawls to intense chase scenes from one pup to the next. It all builds to a climax that is simple yet I feel Douglas Adams himself would be proud of as the worst of humanity is left to defend how amazing the human race is under the skeptical alien anomaly (voice by Bill Nighy in a hilarious cameo.) In short, this is a very engaging entry.
Besides that, I do admire all three of them for how bizarre and yet entertainingly diverse each one is. Like flavors to ice cream, movies have flavors too that entice out taste buds as much what entertains us. From zombies to cop action to aliens, these three movies have it all and much more. The appeal for these movies is just indescribable as they feel like pure love letters to what movies mean to us and why we love them. While they are not pure masterpieces, they not meant to be. They are Edgar Wright’s great send ups to our favorite genres.
With Halloween upon us (or was by the time I wrote this), I pondered just what was it that made Hocus Pocus so popular these days. It was a movie Disney made in 1993, released in the summer (weird choice) and while it did ok at the box office, the film never made a huge splash like in the $100 millions. But now in days, this movie is like a virus on the Halloween season. Hear me out, people at my retail job talk about the film and how it airs to the equivalency of popular water bubble conversations. It gets a huge respect and love at Witch’s Woods, my other Halloween job, with even getting played at one of the haunts. And when I went to look for a copy at my local video store, there was only one Blu-Ray of it left on the shelf. That’s how huge the respect this movie gets around this time of year. So rather than review it, just what about Hocus Pocus does everyone go rapid and joyful for?
Is it the story? Well, not really but granted it does have an interesting concept. A group of witches called the Sanderson Sisters (get it? Sounds like Anderson Sisters?) are put on trail for their crimes in old Salem. They plan to say young and youthful but sucking out the souls of little children to ensure they will live forever. After their hanging, 300 years later, a kid named Max blindly lights a magic candle in their abandoned home causing them to come back and bring chaos. A typical good vs. evil story mixed with some fish out of water elements.
As the witches try to make sense of the new world, being 1993 in the movie’s case, they find Halloween is nothing but a holiday now with trick-or-treaters and technology has been updated. Does this get used to the advantage of the movie? Not fully. There are a couple of fun scenes where they interact with televisions, try to mingle at a Halloween party complete with a song and ride around on mops and vacuum cleaners. But that’s sort of about it. In a sense, I can see this working. The idea of witches resurrected and trying to fit in with modern times but it feels underplayed most of the time.
The more important thing is how Max takes their magic spell book (which by Disney’s standards is nicely designed and very Evil Dead-lite) which has a certain recipe for their soul sucking potion. While the three bewitching sisters try to hunt them down, Max has to relay on his typical sister, a would be girlfriend and a talking cat who is really a teenager cursed to help stop them. So yeah, for a 90 minute movie there is a lot going on here. In fact, there is so much plot going on that one wonders how things don’t get too complex. I can’t say its too hard to follow seeing the fish out of water elements feel like a break from the story but again, its a basic good vs. evil ploy that has been used since Disney’s time.
If that’s the case, do the characters make the movie so well-known? Again, not exactly. The main characters are sort of your run of the mill tropes and cliches. You have the awkward teen that gets bullied, the girl that will become the love interest, the sibling that is between annoying yet has a good heart, the goofy parents, the townsfolk that are deaf to their warnings and the bullies that act like they are hip and cool when they are not. Its very much a big bag of cliches that we have seen before and are written like beings we would see on a TV movie. Which is ironic seeing this movie was originally going to be a Disney Channel Original until executives thought other-wise.
There’s also that talking cat named Binx who has an interesting back-story (voiced by James Marsden, human body performed by Sean Murray) and knows much of the Sandersons. But that’s sort of about it. There is also the question of times when he can talk and times he can’t. If Binx can speak English so well, what is he doing roaming about the old witch house? And if these kids are in trouble, wouldn’t it be more interesting to help convince others of what’s going on? If there was a deleted scene that explained that plot hole, I would be fine but there isn’t. He could have been a more helpful ally but just only resorts his duties to the main characters. We also get a zombie that tries to be the lackey of the Sandersons and has this funny running gag of loosing his head. But again, there’s not much to his character outside of comic relief. And that sort of sums up a good bulk of the main things. There’s not really that big or unique to them. While not bad concepts or ideas for that matter, they don’t feel fully developed.
Another thing I will address before I move on is that some people feel bugged by the whole “virgin” element. If you don’t know, the plot of the curse involves a virgin to set off these chain of events to happen. And Max just so happens to be that said “virgin” who is picked on and doesn’t fit in with the New England town. To be honest, I really wasn’t bugged this. If they flat-out bullied him because he didn’t have sex, then there would be some problems. But for the first half, most of that bullying is just toward him not fitting in and stuff like that. I can barley think of a scene where his character is made fun of just for his virginity aside from maybe one scene and the closing line. But its very underplayed.
So if this movie isn’t really that big of masterpiece then why does it keep drawing new viewers? One answer: The Sanderson Sisters. These are probably one of Disney’s best villains to date. They have have the most fun and the actress portraying them have a lot of scene-stealing moments that really add on. True they are masked by basic quirks like Bette Midler being the annoyed leader Winnie, Kathy Najimy as the child-hungry but very bumbling Mary and Sarah Jessica Parker as the sultry and boy-crazy Sarah. Every moment they are in the movie, you can tell these three are having the time of their life. I love the way their get their eyes widen and just how expressive they can be. Even when they are given little to work with or play off of, they really try.
In fact, I wonder what it would be like if Hocus Pocus was just about them? In a time when self-centered villain movies are being the talk of the town, I would actually like to see maybe a sequel or even a reboot that just focuses on them only. It would be kind of fun to see a bunch of Shakespearean characters try to live in modern times. Heck, there’s even a stage show about them that recently opened up at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Obviously, they are the strongest element in the movie and if you took that out, Hocus Pocus would have been this basic and simple film.
So with that, your probably wondering how I feel about Hocus Pocus overall and where do I stand with it. For starters, I did grow up watching this movie as a kid and enjoying it. But not for the plot or the characters, just for the witches themselves. I can’t really say if that is a good thing or a bad thing but a part of me does feel this movie holds up in some way. Granted, its not a perfect movie by any means or really a masterpiece like say the Wizard of Oz but there is sort of a way I can describe why it got so popular over the years. Because its the one movie that dips itself into holiday tradition more than any other Halloween movie. Of course, movies today like Trick R Treat are starting to catch on (which arguably is a better movie) but there is one big reason why THIS movie is getting more attention to what its doing.
A good example of this kind of movie is A Christmas Story. For those who don’t know, the movie was released and didn’t make a big impact. But over the years, everyone keeps talking about it and watching it like its some kind of Christmas classic. It honors the Christmas traditions we went through as a kid and exploits them in some form of an adult twist. While Hocus Pocus doesn’t do that entirely, it does honor some Halloween traditions like trick-or-treating, urban legends, witchcraft and even discusses darker elements of the holiday that few Halloween family films would even tackle.
So for what it is, I do enjoy Hocus Pocus. Not for the story and not for the characters but what for it does to the holiday. Granted, it could have been a stronger movie if it was placed in different hands but I can’t think of anything too bad or ethically unclean. I know this movie already has a strong fan base and still growing one. But I do warn for newcomers to watch with low expectations. I know there are a good handful of people that don’t find much joy for the story, characters and few things here and there which is understandable. As for me, I don’t mind defending this one even if it is flawed. The witches are fun, the special effects surprisingly still look amazing and its one bewitching flick I always look forward to around this time of year.
We are not done yet! All week long, we are catching up on more horror goodness for that bag of leftover candy you got. Stay tuned creeps!