Thursday, March 31, 2016

Day 1583 - Pitch Perfect 2

I can't remember why I ever watched the first Pitch Perfect, but I'm sure it was a combination of people who said it was actually pretty good and Anna Kendrick.  Suffice to say, I enjoyed the first movie.  When the trailer for the sequel came out I found myself wanting to see it, but when the movie arrived I never got around to seeing it in the theater.  I think it was because I thought that while the first movie focused on Anna Kendrick's Beca, I thought that the second one would focus on Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy.  Much to my relief, that wasn't the case.

The basic plot of the film is that the Barden Bellas have landed themselves in some hot water and are banned from both competing and recruiting.  Through some loopholes, they can compete at the Worlds and they have a new Bella (Hailee Steinfeld), because she came to them and is a legacy.  There's lots of a cappella singing, there's a couple romantic entanglements, and there's a harsh German group that stands in the Bellas way.  Oh, and montages.

But what makes this movie pretty good is the underlying message about growing up.  There's a running joke that Brittany Snow's Chloe has been at college for 7 years, because she doesn't want to leave this group.  And it's funny, but it also has a tinge of bittersweet.  Once she leaves (and all the other Bellas, too, since they're seniors) what are they going to do with their lives?  Beca has taken an internship with a music producer, and that's eating up a lot of her time. Fat Amy is discovering that she's falling in love with Adam Devine's Bumper.  And the Bellas need to get their mojo back if they're going to do the impossible and win the Worlds.

I'm going to take a moment here, and talk about Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy.  Like I said before, I thought she was going to be the focal point of the movie.  She wasn't, but neither was she ignored.  I feel that the writers hit that sweet spot just perfectly, as she never overwhelms the film (even as she's the impetus for the Bellas exile), and is perfect (and perfectly blunt) when she appears.  Finding that balance between obnoxious and funny is sometimes a tenuous line, but the movie nails it.  Her own journey is one that she experiences and earns all on her own.

What's also impressive about this movie is the actors who just let it all hang out (as it were).  John Michael Higgins' announcer is even more clueless and sexist this time around.  David Cross kills it as an eccentric a cappella aficionado.  A number of real life Green Bay Packers show up for a throwaway gag.  And Elizabeth Banks does a fine job working double duty as co-announcer with Higgins as well as directing the flick.

This is not a movie that will be praised through the annals of time.  But it tells a funny story, has some good music, and has real heart and deeper thoughts than a movie like this usually does.  As a sequel it really wins, because the it has the characters you love (or like), has them actually grow as characters, and introduces some new ones.


Friday, March 25, 2016

Day 1577 - Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

It was okay.  Not as bad as some people are saying, but definitely not as good as some people are claiming.  I don't really think I'm going to write about the story or plot all that much (Batman fights Superman because Lex Luthor tells them to, and Wonder Woman shows up).  What I really want to talk about is why I have the reactions I did to the movie.

I was 17 years old when the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman movie came out.  I remember all the controversy that occurred when Michael Keaton was announced as Batman.  I also remember that I thought he would do fine.  I knew, even then, that comedians made for some of the best dramatic actors because a lot of them have some very dark, dark souls and that comes through their acting.  (I also remember liking the casting of Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent mostly because who doesn't love Lando Calrissian?  It makes me sad that the role was wasted on Tommy Lee Jones.)  And when that Batman hit the theaters, I had to have seen it about three times (usually my benchmark for when I really like a film), I bought all the trading cards, and even the comic book adaptation.  One of the first tapes I ever bought (and possibly the first one) was the Danny Elfman score to the film.  That movie hit all the right notes for me... with one exception - Batman killed bad guys.  His Batplane had guns and rockets which he used liberally.  He dropped a bad guy down the cathedral staircase.  And, really, he killed The Joker. 

I've grown up reading comic books, and one of the absolutes are that the good guys don't kill the bad guys.  Characters like Wolverine, The Punisher, and Deapool don't count, because that's been part of their character from the very beginning.  And, yes, yes, I know Batman carried a gun and killed bad guys in his early appearances, but the creators were still finding their way with him.  When he actually started gaining depth and focus in the late sixties, that was the Batman as he's really become defined.  And when Frank Miller aged him and made him grim and gritty in The Dark Knight Returns, he (or the editor) made a concerted effort to call out the beatings he gave and the lengths he finally went to to actually NOT kill The Joker. 

It was a real pleasure to me to watch Batman Begins and see that Christian Bale's Batman made it a concerted effort to not do any killing.  Even with Ra's al Ghul at the end - while he made a conscious effort not to save him, I always abided by the comic book rule of no body = no death.  I would not have been disappointed if he had shown up in either of the last two Christopher Nolan Batman movies.

And that brings us to Batman V Superman.  Batffleck kills a lot of bad guys.  His Batplane, like Keaton's before him, has a ton of ammunition.  And he uses it.  Bad guys are shot or blown up by the Dark Knight, and all I could think of was - "I don't like Batman being the Punisher."  Maybe that's why there are no crazy villains in Gotham during the movie.  He's killed them all already.

And I don't include the dream sequence in this discussion.  It's a dream, Batman is fighting parademons, and the world is a completely different place.  I have little problem giving that scene a pass.  Although, the Flash looked pretty stupid.  But hey, that's just me.

Maybe I'm just being the old guy yelling at the kids to get off his lawn.  But I want being a superhero to mean something.  For as many faults that Ang Lee's Hulk has (and it does have lots), it seems like he went out of his way to show that the Hulk didn't kill.  Yes, you can make the arguments that any of the current crop of superhero movies out there have lots and lots of collateral damage.  And none of the bad guys ever seem to be alive at the end of a movie to be put into prison.  But Batman and also Superman, in their best stories, always found a way to be better than the villain. 

And this is all before I could even write about the uncomfortably long scene of Amy Adams' Lois Lane having a conversation with Supes while taking a bath.  That's where the conversation needed to take place?  I know it's hard to prove that a character is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in about 15 minutes of screen time, but having the character spend a whole scene in a bathtub doesn't help her cause in any way.

Again, I didn't hate the movie.  Gal Gadot was almost as perfect a Wonder Woman we could have hoped for.  I want to see a whole movie based off the picture that we're shown.  And she was great in both her civilian identity as well as her superhero one.  During the last battle, her smile was one of the highlights.  She's back to doing what she should have been doing all along.  But, even in a movie as stuffed as this one is, it could have used a lot more of her.

I always say that when an actor portray a superhero (especially a masked one), then it doesn't matter how they play the superhero (because most of the time it's a stunt man in there anyway), but how they portray the civilian identity.  Ben Affleck does a fine job portraying Bruce Wayne.

Finally, I didn't mind Jesse Eisenberg's Luthor. That being said, I don't mind Jesse Eisenberg.  If you're one of those people who don't like him, this movie is not going to change your mind.  He's definitely not a Luthir we've ever seen before.  But his villainy is in full display.  And you believe that he's capable of all the bad things that he does.

It would have been nice to have at least one laugh during the movie, but what are you gonna do?  And what's with that title?  Is 'V' the new 'vs'?  Adding that 's' was too much for people?  The two main characters are fighting - don't hide it.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Day 1574 - The Bronze

Rather than a full-fledged review of The Bronze, I've decided to jot down some thoughts about the movie.

1. By the end of the film I realized that in terms of the "R" rating, I think this movie pushes its boundaries even more than a film like Deadpool.

2. I feel like the filmmakers watched the episode of Seinfeld when he's underwhelmed by the gymnast he's with, and said, "No, no, no" and then proceeded to show us the most acrobatic sex scene, possibly ever.

3. I've heard a lot of reviews comparing this to Napoleon Dynamite.  I'm guessing it's because of the small town setting and quirky lead character.  I was more struck by its similarities to the film Young Adult.  Which leads into...

4. Young Adult was made by filmmakers who crushed it in every way.  The Bronze isn't nearly as polished or thoughtful.

5. Those accents!  Is that what people in Ohio sound like?  I live here, and I'm really gonna say no.

6. I think about characters that are hard to love (or even like) and Melissa Rauch's Hope is one of those.  Unfortunately, while she starts off unlovable, her climb back up to normalcy isn't as compelling as it should be.

7. Thomas Middleditch is awkward enough to watch without any tics.  Giving his character even more just seems like overkill.

8. I think what really got at me is that nearly every character is a "bad" person, but the movie doesn't embrace that.  It doesn't have enough faith in itself, so it tempers them, and that waters the movie down, and doesn't make Middleditch's Ben stand out as much as he should.  The contrast should be stronger.

This isn't a bad movie, but instead it's a series of missed opportunities that's anchored by a foul-mouthed protagonist who's hard to sympathize with.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Day 1572 - 10 Cloverfield Lane

I love the fact that JJ Abrams spits out surprise movies every once in a while.  Up until a few months ago none of us knew that this movie was even a thing.  Is it part of the original Cloverfield universe?  No.  But thematically, in that we, as an audience, know as much as the characters do - absolutely.

Michelle (as played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has broken off her engagement and is driving off to who knows where when her car crashes.  When she wakes up, she's in a cement room, handcuffed to the wall.  That's when Howard shows up, saying that the outside world has collapsed in a possible nuclear fallout and he rescued her.  Howard if played by John Goodman, who plays the role with the perfect mixture of menace, naivete, and seriousness.  Rounding out the bunker is our final person, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.).  All we know about him is that he has a broken arm and apparently forced himself into the bunker against Howard's better wishes.

What's real?  Who's lying?  Is the world really ending?  All these are questions that we have, and the brilliance of the movie is that it answers them one at a time.  Because we're kept in the dark about so much, as each layer gets revealed, we get to see if what we're thinking is actually true.  It's a brilliant way to let the movie unfold.

Rather than talk about the movie's story (because that would ruin a lot of the surprises that are in store), I'd rather just spend a minute on the actors.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character is like few we've seen on film.  She spends the entire movie doing whatever she possibly can to get to the truth as to why she's in the bunker.  If she has to lie, steal, or bludgeon whoever or whatever she has to, to get at the truth, then she absolutely will.  She's rightfully scared at her situation, but she never lets that fear take over.  And John Goodman matches her step for step.  And, amazingly, as strong as a performance that he has, there's nothing more terrifying than a clean-shaven John Goodman.

That's not that much more to say.  Pay attention during the film.  Lot's of seemingly throwaway lines have real meaning.

I thought it was great.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Day 1564 - Zootopia

Animation is not always the first thing you look at when you're watching an animated film.  When you go back and rewatch something like Toy Story, which is remarkable for its animation, you're usually paying attention to the characters and the story, because both are tremendous. And that's what keeps us coming back time and again. And Zootopia's story, which is incredibly deep and subtle, will keep you watching it as you figure out what metaphors you want to ascribe to it (and there are many).  But even more than the story (which I'll get back to), this really is a triumph of animation.  And not in the way that Pixar can astonish you, or Hayao Miyazaki can transport you, but instead it's in the "acting" of the characters. 

Zootopia is set in a world where every animal exists in harmony.  lions, and tigers, and bears work and play with mice, giraffes, and lambs.  The predator/prey cycle has been gone for years.  But prejudice still exists, as (don't call her cute) bunny Judy Hopps becomes the first rabbit police officer, and is promptly put on traffic duty.  Fighting for more responsibility, she's given 48 hours to solve a missing person case or else quit the force.  Her only lead is Nick Wilde, a con artist of a fox, who wants nothing to do with Officer Hopps.  And all this is just one of many layers of subtle digs at both sexism and racism that flow throughout the film.  It's pretty staggering that a film aimed at kids is as progressive as it is without being preachy or pandering, and is entertaining as all get out. 

But, for me, the real genius of the movie is the way the animators have focused on the characters' reactions to the events around them.  When Officer Hopps has Nick completely under her thumb, just look at the sad, defeated expression he has on his face.  He was not expecting that when he got up that morning.  And I could spend the whole movie watching Officer Hopps' ears.  They might be the most expressive thing in the film.  They're up when she's excited or happy, down when she's at work, and somehow even lower when she's feeling her worst.  She'd be perfect in a silent film, with her ears doing all the acting.  And don't get me started on the gloriousness of the sloths.  The pure joy that slowly (ever so slowly) blossoms across their faces is nothing but a treat.

Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are the perfect voice actors for their characters.  You're rooting for the indefatigable Officer Hopps to triumph over forces out of her control.  And Bateman brings just the right amount of sarcasm and cynicism to Wilde's Fox.  When his backstory is revealed, it's impossible not to sympathize with him.

And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg.  The movie has all the action and humor that you expect in a movie like this.  It's just buoyed by a strong story and fantastic animation.  So, so good.


Friday, March 11, 2016

Day 1562 - Stephen King and Bernie Wrightson's Creepshow

Truth be told, I've never seen more than 15 minutes of Stephen King and George Romero's Creepshow.  I know I've caught some of it on TV, but that's it.  I did sit through Creepshow 2 more than 25 years ago, and I still remember how bad it was.  It takes a certain kind of movie to leave that indelible an impression.  But today, I'm here to write about the comic book adaptation of Creepshow.

I was either 11 or 12 years old (6th or 7th grade), and one of the kids a grade above me (T.J.) was casually reading Stephen King novels.  As I think about ti now, that was quite a feat for someone who was, at most, 13 years old.  One day, he brought in this graphic novel called Creepshow.  I was a comic book reader at the time, but I knew nothing about the EC horror comics (Tales From the Crypt for example), as I was in full superhero mold at the time.  This comic was making its rounds throughout the classroom when it landed in my hands.

I was not prepared.

This was a comic book that was filled with graphic violence (beheadings, people getting eaten by a monster, and a man full of cockroaches), and profanity.  And I couldn't put it down.  It stopped making the rounds at me.  I was well aware that the comic wasn't mine, and I knew I'd eventually have to give it back to TJ.  But for a brief time, I read that sucker so much that images were permanently burned into my brain. 

Fast forward to tonight.  I now own a copy of Creepshow for myself.  I bought it tonight, and this was the first time I read it at least 32 years.  Some thoughts...

1. It was much shorter than I remember.  King tells five stories in a very short amount of time.  As I've gotten older, and read much, much more, I recognize the style of what he was trying to accomplish, and there's no wasted space.

2. It has only minor profanity.   I don't think it has any of George Carlin's 7 words you can't say on TV.  I've told people that this was my first experience with profanity on the written page, and it was, but I guess I didn't know what I was in for, because the language here is pretty tame all things considered.

3. It's still pretty violent.  An image of a head with candles on top of it, acting like a birthday cake is still startling.  A swamp monster committing suicide - grim.  And the crate monster reveal is still pretty great. 

4. I can appreciate Bernie Wrightson's artwork on a number of levels now.  As a kid, it was serviceable to the story.  Now I can appreciate the artwork itself, as well as the pacing.

5. Until tonight, I never knew that the movie came out before the comic.  I thought it was the other way around.  That's a tidbit I could have lived without knowing.

Reading Creepshow again tonight, after all these years, really brought me back to grade school.  The images that were burned in my mind then, still exist for me today.  They've just come into sharper focus.  Now I just have to find a copy of a story where a guy kicks at a cat, then gets crushed by an iron maiden while the cat licks up his blood.  I read that one in high school. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Day 1558 - MySpace and Life Itself

In 5 or so years, I've written 72 blogs on this website (this being number 73).  The five years previous to this I wrote a lot (a lot!) more. And they were all on MySpace.  We'll say it was a year ago, but I went back to MySpace, just to check it out.  All the profiles are still there (c'mon, we were all too lazy to kill that profile).  But all the blogs are gone.  For those of you who don't know, for a few of us, that was the big draw.  The MySpace blogs ran the gamut of subjects.  But the one I posted in the most was Film/TV.  And I posted on a regular basis.  And by regular, I mean up to three times a day sometimes.  And every once in a while a week might pass before I posted something.  Unlike the months of tumbleweeds that roll on by here.  And there was a community. There was a group of us that supported each other, wrote to each other, argued with each other, and read each others work. 

Then Facebook crushed MySpace like a bug, and everything changed. 

But I bring all this up, because of two things.  1.  When I revisited MySpace the last time, they had an option where you could get all your blogs sent to you on a PDF file.  Considering that I never saved a single one of them, I jumped at that chance.  Once that happened, I bought a flash drive, and put all of them on it.  Last week, the process of printing all of them out began.  Because there's nothing like having the tactile experience while you're reading them.  Half of them have been printed, and they're all in order.  It helps that all the headers start with what day I wrote each one.  There's no comments on any of them (lost to the sands of time), but they exist again.

And the second reason I bring all this up, is because I bought and watched Life Itself yesterday.  This is the documentary that looks at the final days of film critic Roger Ebert.  Here's a guy who got hit with cancer, lost the ability to speak, and parlayed that into a new stage in his life by focusing fully on his writing.  He never stopped going to movies, and never stopped writing about them until his body quit on him. 

For all of the MySpace movie critics, I'm pretty sure we consider Roger Ebert to be one of our influences.  I know he was one of mine.  I grew up watching "At the Movies" and would follow it around as it changed channels and times on an almost weekly basis.  I got to see Siskel and Ebert live at the Cleveland Playhouse.  It was a perfect experience.  I'm sure they didn't change their script from city to city, but for me, it was exactly what I wanted.  (I actually talked/wrote to Gene Siskel before he passed away, but that's a story for a different day.)

But Life Itself was not so much an eye-opener for me, because I already knew most of the stories, but it was more of a kick in the pants to me.  Watching him write, and watching the the love he had for films, combined with my own writing staring back at me, was a sobering thing.  I used to write.  I need to do that more.  I miss everybody else's opinions, too.  This isn't a call to arms or anything.  Nor do I know if it will really motivate me to keep writing, but this whole exercise has taken me a half hour, and I feel that I should be able to be distraction-free for that long every few days. 

Facebook will never be MySpace, and nor should it.  But I do miss the community that we had.