Thursday, June 18, 2015

Throwback Thursday: I, Frankenstein Review

[Note: This was originally published circa October 2, 2014]

I'll say this for I, Frankenstein: It delivers what it promises.  This is DEFINITELY a movie about Frankenstein's monster (now known as Adam) battling demons alongside tepid gargoyle allies.  It even does that job reasonably well, with fluid fight choreography, artsy camera work, and a motif brimming with gothic...everything, basically.  It also makes the commendably bold choice of basing its anti-hero and plot specifically on Mary Shelly's original novel, rather than the more recognized and therefor marketable Universal Studios incarnation.  Unfortunately, by simple virtue (or is it sin?) of being a movie, it also makes IMPLIED promises of such things as plot, dialogue, characterization, and most-notably, PACING; that iconic bell-curve of story progression we learned in elementary school. (Setup, Conflict, Climax, Conclusion; if I remember correctly.)

Such subtleties are scarce here, and you miss them immediately.  Before the opening narration is even all the way done, Adam is attacked by demons and rescued by gargoyles [NOTE: They're also angels, basically; I forgot to mention that in the original review]; both out of the blue.  They offer him (not to mention us) the brief pleasure of a supporting cast, and then he leaves, narrates some more, fights some more demons, flashes forward, narrates some more, fights some more demons, revisits the angels, who do some demon fighting on their own, and once in a while there's a conversation, to remind you this isn't a video the snark I would've made two decades ago (and other reviewers have already expressed such an opinion), but these days there are plenty of video games that have more dialogue than this film and are less linear to boot.

Once again, the problem isn’t even that anything that’s actually in this movie is necessarily bad.  It looks nice (read; it’s ugly as sin, but that’s appropriate in this case, and it’s detailed), almost all performances are competent (if none even remotely impressive), and as mentioned, the action scenes work fine of themselves.  The problem is that a lot of good things aren’t actually in this movie.  Without the elements that anchor the trailer-filling fight scenes together, it’s a disorganized mess that makes you wonder why you aren’t watching another action/horror movie; you never get a good feel for exactly what part the barely-existent story you’re seeing.  In fact, it’s arguable that the climax of this film feels less climatic than other scenes. (I won’t spoil it, but there wouldn’t be much love lost if I did.)

All of the above content would be sufficiently damning on its own, but I have a few more nitpicks to impart.  The first is that, due to the film’s constant kinetic pace, any ability to take seriously its backstory of a secret Heaven-Hell war raging under our noses for centuries, quickly flies out the window with a rain of shattered stain glass.  Somehow, despite both being able to transform into human form, neither the demons nor the gargoyles care a whiff for subtlety when they get down to their jobs, smashing things and vaulting through the sky in full-view throughout a European city (the film never specifies which one) that is somehow still intact and populous in spite.  All that might be a bit more forgivable had the film been even remotely self-aware and whimsical, but its humor is limited to a few dry situational snarks.

Which brings us to the second additional nitpick: Tragically, despite its unique concept, and despite applying a technically appropriate style to that concept, an action film has never felt so cliché.  The ugly characters, dark alleys, and halls are perfect for a franchise gothic from the start, and the Latin choir score and existential ramblings gel perfectly with the biblical theme.  Had it come out in some other time (and, it should go without saying, evaded at least some of the flaws I stated above), I, Frankenstein could have worn such distinctions well.  In the present era, though, thanks to the success of such films as The Matrix and Batman Begins, we’ve spent a decade full of action films abusing such morose tropes.  Onward through the 2010s, just when you think Marvel’s films have won their final heroic battle against that conformity, another black sheep comes along to add to the sludge of a long mostly-black flock.

All that being said, I can say one thing emphatically positive about this movie: It’s a blast to make fun of; like no other B movie in recent memory.  I’ve had some great laughs today, all the way from hearing my friends weigh in their thoughts, through reading critics’ reviews of this movie, to writing my own.  Describe it at any length, and jokes write themselves that I didn’t even know I had before I started it.  This dubious honor may well grant the film a twisted sort of immortality—much like a lightning bolt frying a corpse.

Throwback Thursday: Rango Review

[NOTE: This was originally published circa January 19, 2012]

To hear Rango described on paper, you'd wonder how it managed to glean such an enjoyable experience from the sum of its parts.  I say this because, as far as much of the basic scenario goes, we’ve seen this before.  A stranger wanders into a troubled old western town, performs feats to make himself popular, and finally saves the town from a greedy villain’s conspiracy.  That’s right; Rango is a deep-dyed Western; sure, it’s the only Western about a chameleon played by Johnny Depp, but the vast majority of tropes are all things we’ve already seen in other movies, and much of it remains predictable for that reason.  So how is it that this movie, which should logically feel stale, comes out feeling fresher than most other animated family films released in recent memory?  Perhaps it’s because it applies so much elbow-grease to a clichéd formula that it makes it enjoyable again, perhaps it’s because we’ve had such a break from the genre that it feels new again compared to what have come to be the mainstays of animated films these days, perhaps the little things, like the film’s animal cast, really do count for a lot, and it may be a combination of these—but whatever the case, it’s like no other animated film, and an absolute blast to watch.

Compared to most animated films, Rango does not spend much time setting up its storyline before it happens on the screen; before we even know the antihero of the film well, he is being hurled out of a car, dodging traffic and predators, and strolling into a saloon within minutes of his first appearance.  At first it feels like a weak narrative, but given time and attention, it reveals that it’s just an energetic one.  This film doesn’t tell us much because it would rather show us, and it shows things rather expertly.  Through a stable blend of harrowing, high-velocity action scenes and jokes that are often side-splittingly hilarious, Rango actively makes the audience feel like they’re along for the ride.  In addition, it helps that the film looks and sounds great.

Visually-speaking, the best single word to describe Rango is “unique.”  This is not a film that feels compelled by the mainstays of modern animation; while other animated movies tend to produce a world filled with exaggerated, glossy pastel colors and exaggerated, proportionally-stylized characters, both of which call constant attention back to the notion that they’re just long cartoons, Rango seeks an alternative in a worn, sober world that is essentially beautiful in an ugly way.  With the possible exception of a quartet of cute mariachi owls who provide the film’s soundtrack (and occasionally some snide commentary), there isn’t a single pretty face anywhere in this movie; many characters look like actual desert animals, and all have a hardened and/or battered look to them.  This is a motley-looking crew, with faded clothes, unkempt facial hair, wrinkles and scrapes, bloodshot eyes, and a myriad of other features that indicate a life in the badlands full of sorrow—one character even has an arrow lodged in his skull via one of his eyes!  The presentation of the harsh environment that forged them is equally well-realized, with its bone-dry deserts, decaying remains of the unfortunate, and its red, silhouette-casting sunsets.  The point is that this film doesn’t whitewash its grit; it displays it proudly and thus immerses viewers.  The town of Dirt deserves special attention, as in addition to having the same worn-out look that the rest of the movie features, much of it is constructed of repurposed human objects, providing lots of fun details to look for in its appearance, in the vein of such classics as The Rescuers.  One more thing about the visuals: Roger Ebert has observed that this movie, despite not being optimized for 3-D graphics, looks better than many that are.  For my part, I’m somewhat disappointed this film wasn’t in 3-D, as there are plenty of scenes that could have made great use of it, but Ebert is still basically right; it already does look much better than many other CGI films.

Sound is another strong point.  The aforementioned owl chorus provides a well-produced, appropriate-sounding score of country and mariachi music to set the mood, and I advise everyone to stay for the end credits, where they really let loose with a spectacular fanfare.  However, what will draw many to this movie is the voice-acting.  Johnny Depp does a great job as Rango, hitting all the subtle-yet-important details of his character’s mood, and providing a distinction between the early scenes where he’s just a self-important humbug and the final scenes where he comes to take the role of hero seriously.  However, though Depp’s performance is excellent and often compelling, he sometimes sounds like a typical, likeable-yet-naïve CGI protagonist, a bit of a letdown for an actor as distinctive as Johnny Depp.  However, the rest of the cast sound straight out of a classic Western, with all the accents and dialects you’d expect, and even a lot of mild expletives.  Here too, this film wears its grit on its shoulder, with spectacular results.

In closing, let me reiterate that Rango is a unique movie.  Opinions are going to vary as to how much a cast of animals makes the old feel new again, but I certainly can’t say I have seen a lot of animated Westerns, and this film does capitalize on its unique cast to put an occasional twist on the old mechanics; such as in the case of a chase scene where, in lieu of a train being attacked and boarded from horseback, a javelina-drawn wagon is boarded by raiders riding on bats. (Also admit it; did you have to look up what a javelina was?)  Taking its inspiration from the American epics of yesteryear also means this film hardly ever draws on contemporary pop culture for its humor, which is another way it sets itself apart from the crowd.  In the end, Rango feels less like a mess of clichés and more like an affectionate tribute to Westerns, and it’s a roaring-good time, to boot.

Throwback Thursday: Cars 2 Review

 [NOTE: This was originally published circa September 21, 2011]

Much as I remember being the case with this film's predecessor, cries of skepticism have followed the production of Cars 2, it's gotten its share of negative press since being released, and it's raking in a ton of cash despite the ire.  From a marketing standpoint, there isn't even a real reason for reviews of this film to exist, but I like writing reviews and I like being a maverick, so I'll do it anyway.

I'll admit it, I'm a Cars apologist.  Barstow, California is my hometown, so the first film's ode to Route 66 probably has a personal appeal to me, but even beyond that, I appreciate the film on an intellectual level.  As marketable as the franchise has become due to America's love affair with the automobile, the first movie itself actually offered some good commentary on the negative effects of said love affair.  Cars 2 continues the trend of being deeper than it might seem at first, even if the majority of its audience is too young to pick up on that.

In fact, let's start with the assumption that this is a kids' movie.  In a way, Cars 2 is surprisingly dark.  With all the obvious James Bond influence comes a slew of explosives and guns, as well as the somewhat uncomfortable revelation that yes; cars can die.  One death is someone we didn't even know, but the first scene relevant to the first movie reveals that Doc Hudson, Lightning McQueen's mentor, has passed away just like his voice actor, Paul Newman.  Since Fillmore, originally voiced by the late George Carlin, simply got a new voice actor, this seems an unnecessarily macabre place to take the plot, but the violent-for-a-kids'-movie action scenes are a blast, and tellingly what this movie has been marketed around.  More on them later.

The story of Cars 2 moves quickly, but it manages to have some depth, and it helps that the film feels self-aware.  If the first Cars was set in a booming, gung-ho America with little reason to complain, this film recognizes that three years later, things aren't as ignorantly-blissful.  Oil shortages are hurting an economy based on oil, and people (and cars) are scrambling to find an alternative, despite the risks.  Against this backdrop, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) talks his best friend Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) into entering the World Grand Prix.  While bumbling around in Tokyo, however, Mater accidentally gets implicated in an international espionage caper related to the race, when he is mistaken for an American spy, and much of the film comes to center around his misadventures alongside two British spy-cars.

I get it; the accidental-spy scenario has been done before.  I get it; Mater is an obnoxious simpleton.  However, if anyone can make lemons into lemonade, it's Pixar, and fortunately they do.  The general annoyance at Mater is acknowledged in the form of him getting a lot of come-uppance from other characters and being a Clousseau-like anti-hero.  Nonetheless, the movie makes him a more well-rounded character, giving him unique areas of expertise that were previously unrevealed, yet make sense given his day job, and when the cards go down and he has to save the day despite everyone else's prejudice against him, he becomes easy to root for.

It's not like the plot will be what draws most people to this movie anyway, though; that job belongs to its excessive flair.  Detractors have dismissed this film as an extended, glorified toy commercial that should be beneath Pixar, and I can get that logic, but then again, who has done more than Pixar to prove that toys can be charismatic?  The first thing that practically all critics will have to grant is that Cars 2 looks great.  Long after CGI has become so widespread that its mere presence no longer impresses anybody, Pixar still manages to wield it expertly, having created enormous, detailed replicas of Tokyo, Paris, an Italian village, and London, with plenty of subtle references to automobiles, but also plenty of resemblance to their real-world counterparts.  Through these lush environments cavort the cars, sporting, and very often utilizing, an abundance of gizmos and firepower.  The film utilizes a lot of action clichés, but it's impressive to see just how they work when performed by talking cars, and towards the end there's an increasing amount of thinking outside the box.  Such thinking works perfectly to establish a fast-moving action climax, initially a staple of Pixar films, but becoming less of one from Finding Nemo onward, but that fine tradition is back in full force here, and I'm overjoyed. 

Again, many will be quick to scream "toy commercial" at all this, and again, I don't care.  I don't care because there's a REASON that some things make successful toys--because they're AWESOME!  I'm usually a fan of eloquence, but let's not beat around the bush about this point.  I don't care if I come across as a big, dumb ugly-American for saying this, especially to people enraged that Pixar made a film starring Larry the Cable Guy: Cars souped-up with machine guns, missiles, rocket boosters and other gizmos are crazy-awesome, especially the part about the guns.  I can't stress how sick I've been getting of children's media replacing realistic weapons with dorky-looking rainbow-colored lasers fired from blasters that look like plastic toys.  I loved that they restored real guns to Rango despite its target audience, and now I love that they did it here.

Besides, even dismissed as a toy commercial, things could be a lot worse.  Cars 2 is many orders of magnitude better than Transformers 2, and that seems pretty impressive.  How can you strap a bunch of tacky gadgets onto ordinary civilian automobiles, and use them to make a far better high-explosive action movie than Michael Bay was able to accomplish using robots built from the ground-up to do battle?  Beats me, but they sure did.

Maybe Pixar should know better.  Maybe making a big, dumb summer action flick is beneath them.  In doing so, however, they have raised that flick far above what it would have been otherwise.  I appreciate that Cars 2 manages to slip an admirable amount of character development into a premise that didn’t even demand it, and that’s now the icing on an already solid cake; a cake made of awesome, tricked-out cars.  I don’t care how juvenile this praise is—some things are just cool.

Throwback Thursday: Thor Review

 [NOTE: This was originally published circa May 19, 2011]

The latest big-screen adaptation from Marvel Comics, centering around the titular Norse thunder god, is part heroic epic; part stranger-in-a-strange-land comedy.  The combination isn't as awkward as it sounds, and the first reason for this is because the film features a man from a radically different world visiting a humble Earth location.  The second reason, though, is more important--because it just gels well with the way Marvel movies work. 

Beginning in Spider-Man, and taken to new heights in Iron Man, Marvel has refined a formula for movies that involves a surprising amount of zany comedy, with its heroes starting as humorously inept and bumbling around through slapstick and other awkward situations before they master themselves and become able to affect others.  It sounds strange on paper, but what can I say; it actually works.  It's great fun to watch this sort of movie, because we can laugh at their protagonists but also root for them, as their flaws give them common ground with us, the all-too-human audience.

Thor is a continuation of this sort of idea with its own twist.  In Spider-Man and Iron Man, we snickered at the fact that the protagonists were naive, inexperienced, and generally unprepared to become heroes, even if they were destined to do so, having come from a completely passive, unheroic walk of live.  By contrast, Thor, played charismatically by Chris Hemsworth, seems very much like he was born ready to fight the fight; brave, muscular, idealistic, tough, and armed with a magical hammer, Thor is seen with his friends, beating up a bunch of frost giants in the very first act of the movie.  In this case the hero's flaw is almost the opposite of what it's been in the past: Thor has no appreciation for the humility of sub-hero society.  The world that Peter Parker and Tony Stark took very much for granted is alien to Thor, which is why, after his trigger-happy attack on Asgard's historical enemies nearly provokes a war, his father Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins, banishes him to Earth to learn his lesson.  Little does Odin know, however, that Thor's brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is conspiring to take over Asgard, so time is of the essence.  Meanwhile, there's a romantic subplot between him and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), as well as some humorous hijinks with her associates, and also some run-ins with the government added to round out the experience.

One of the very first things viewers will notice about this movie is its appearance.  This movie actually BEGINS in the mundane human world, with a van trudging through the middle of nowhere, and then bumping into Thor, initiating a flashback into the very, very different mystical realm of Asgard, which is, in a word, gorgeous.  Gigantic, shiny, and transcending the boundaries between the terrestrial and the cosmic with all the intensity of a surreal Wyland painting, Asgard serves up a visual treat so breathtaking that I'm almost ashamed this wasn't a video game, because exploring it would be quite a thrill.  I've heard multiple sources claim that this film is often dark to the point of being invisible in its 3-D version, so I opted to see it in 2-D, but if the detractors are correct, then that's quite a shame; a good 3-D treatment could have capitalized on this film beautifully.  Oh well; it's still beautiful as it is.

After a bit of cavorting in this alien realm, Thor's banishment brings us back into backwater New Mexico, and all the lack of glamor that comes with it.  Some may find this annoying; not only dumbfounded that this movie established a spectacular environment only to ignore it, but also disappointed in how it doesn't rival some of Marvel's other movies in terms of visuals, but I found it poignant.  By choosing not to banish Thor to a major city, warzone, or otherwise striking earthly location, the film nails home the point that Odin wants to force him into valuing the insignificant.  Meanwhile, Thor himself is a pretty good sight for a burly inhuman hero who can't be entirely replicated through a human actor.  Hemsworth LOOKs like an iconic Norse hero, if not a god, with lots of hair, a muscular physique, and colorful armor to complete the look (though he's without it for a lot of the film), and certainly he's a nice break from the slim, clean-cut, spandex-clad look of most superheroes.

The acting of all the major players in this movie is very good.  Hemsworth, in line with his plot-given task, delivers a performance that's hammy and comical, but also very likeable; you really get that he's always well-meaning, even when he's clueless.  Anthony Hopkins does a great job sounding sagely as Odin, a very important role, even if it's not onscreen much.  Finally, Tom Hiddleston plays a devious villain who's actually "acting" a lot in the canon of the movie, and Tom's own acting is more than up to the task.  Though you probably went into the movie knowing he was the villain, Loki keeps his cards close to his face and does a great job looking like he's the peaceful voice of reason next to the dangerously-violent Thor in the opening scenes, as well as later looking sad when telling Thor of what happened since he left, and so-on through all the other scenes of the movie.  You're never quite sure whether Loki sincerely believes in any of the things he claims to believe, or whether he ever deserves any sympathy on any level, and such ambiguity works perfectly for a character whose villainy is tied to his shady, unpredictable behavior.  If there's one problem, it's that his performance isn't as exuberant as it might have been.  Hiddleston's Loki is more than manipulative enough to live up to his reputation, but you'd think the God of Mischief would ENJOY evil a lot more; Loki here doesn't have many emotions beyond variations of perturbation.

To sum things up, Thor isn't a huge revolutionary movie event.  It DOES represent, along with Captain America, which is due later this year, an important step on the way towards a crossover Avengers movie that probably WILL be monumental, but for the present, it's more of the same sort of thing we've seen in the past few Marvel movies.  Still, it's an approach that DESERVED repeating, and I like that Marvel is finding ways to incorporate a lot of different heroes into its uniting, feel-good framework.  It's always better to be left wanting more than wanting less, and if you're one of the many people who wanted more after you saw the other recent Marvel adaptations, you will find it here.