Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Battleship (film) 2012


This is a fun movie, if you don’t think about it too much.  There are some major plausibility problems.  Good to see the Navy get some Hollywood air time.


I’m always glad to see Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights and John Carter) get lead roles.  From the previews you would think this is a Transformers movie, but it’s not.  That’s good, because I dislike all the Transformer movies, but I still watch them when they come out on disk just to keep up. 




Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Tree of Life (* * *)

The Tree of Life is a highly ambitious and award winning film that tries to encompass all of life, love, tragedy and loss in the story of a 1950's family mixed with images of the universe that are reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The thing that the movie barely manages to do, however, is entertain, so the film does not rise to the same great level of its vision.

The performances are all excellent.  The Brad Pitt father character felt very real to me.  The interaction of his three boys tugged at my heart strings and occasionally made me laugh.

The movie is really a spiritual journey.  Sean Penn plays one the boys who is now an older man and questioning his place in the universe.  The entire film is about him reminiscing over his youth and his lost brother.  I am sure that the last 8 minutes won't make much sense to most people, but it is similar to the ending of Lost (****) where all the dead gather together before moving on, or even more similar to the ending of Places in the Heart (***½) where we see images of the living and dead together.

The movie is told in a non-linear fashion that makes it harder to follow, but it is a necessary part of the story to show how past and present are tied together.

I was sure that the movie would be told from a Pantheist perspective, but the film is remarkably non-committal about its view of religion and spirituality.  Whatever your faith or lack of faith might be, the film will probably appeal to your viewpoint.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Avengers * * *

I didn't realize until recently that all the recent Marvel action movies like The Hulk (**½), The Incredible Hulk (***), Iron Man (***), Iron Man 2 (***), Captain America: The First Avenger (***), and Thor (***) were all a prelude to The Avengers where all the super-hero characters come together.  In essence, those movies are like advertisements for The Avengers, which I am sure will be a huge commercial success.

Being a big Josh Whedon fan, I was delighted to see that he wrote and directed The Avengers, but it is a fruitcake of a movie;  Its disparate parts mesh together to form a whole that is interesting but does not live up to its full potential.  My chief complaint is that the last third of the film is all action that is almost as mindless, but not quite, as the last third of Transformers (**½).  For people who want an intense summer action flick, then the last third of the movie will be the "payoff" after a rather long build up.  However, it is my opinion that action scenes work best, if not brilliantly, when they also serve to reveal more about the characters.  The action scenes in The Avengers do a little bit of that, but not enough.  They are mostly just an overdose of eye candy.

I felt vaguely satisfied but wished that it could have been better.  In way too many movies when something horrendous threatens a city or the world, the movies show scenes of a small group of people on the ground with cars blowing up all around them. This has been done so many times that it has gotten old, and it is repeated too many times in this movie.  (If I never see another car blow up, I will die happy.)

Speaking of recycled scenes:  The cage that they put Loki in seems right out of X-Men (***).  The flying aircraft carrier we saw before in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (**½).

Too many of the characters in this movie do things that are physically impossible, but maybe we can tolerate that in a movie about super-heroes.  The movie defies logic at times:  A redirected nuclear missile just happens to explode at the right place and time?  A group of super-heroes have trouble putting aside their differences when faced with a threat to the whole planet?  When faced with such an attack, the military is not called out to repel the threat?  Real wars are not won by heroes or super-heroes, but by armies.

This weekend I also saw Men in Black III, which I found to be slightly more entertaining.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Men In Black III * * * ½

It is enticing to go see a movie when it first appears in the theater.  I caught the early Friday morning showing, which is discounted, of Men In Black III.   I am pretty pleased with it.  Roger Ebert likes the movie better than the original, although I am not ready to go that far.  He seems alone in that opinion.  

Adding time travel to the plot makes for a more interesting movie.  Also, Will Smith knows how to generate a persona that is just barely smart aleck enough give the movie some humor without overdoing it.

The movie seems to acknowledge that Tommy Lee Jones is getting too old to play the part of Agent K.  He even looked a little old ten years ago in Men In Black II.  What few scenes he does have in the movie he spends almost entirely sitting down.  His character is presumably 69 years old, although Tommy Lee Jones is only 65.  To get around the age issue, the Will Smith character, Agent J, travels back in time and meets a much younger Agent K, cleverly played by Josh Brolin.

I wouldn't mind a Men in Black IV, but think that it might be time for some new blood.  Maybe Agent J could take on a new partner.

This is the first Will Smith movie since the disappointing 2008 Seven Pounds (**).  The third installment in the Men in Black series has been a long time coming mainly because the second movie was not that well received.  I don't think that Men in Black II (***) is in any way a bad movie, although it is a little lightweight, but I think that it makes a good rental.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Good Will Hunting (Rating: B+)

Good Will Hunting is one of those movies I heard about but never got around to watching until now.  It was nominated for 9 academy awards and won 2.  Recently I saw a clip which intrigued me.

Will Hunting is a 20 year old punk, former orphan, who gets into fights, is on parole, works as a janitor, and happens to be a mathematical super-genius.  When he is discovered by a MIT college professor, the professor makes a deal with a judge to keep the boy out of jail and to get the boy into counseling.  Will Hunting is defiant to anyone who wants to help him and isn't willing to embrace that he might have a higher potential.

The counselor is played by Robin Williams, who is surprisingly somber for Robin Williams, although he does sneak in a couple of jokes and one impression.   Will Hunting is played by Matt Damon, who is great in every movie he is in.  He co-wrote the script along with his co-star Ben Affleck, and it is a pretty smart script.

However, I had a little trouble believing the "punk is really a super-genius but wants to stay a punk" story.  If the guy is so smart, why hasn't he tried to make a better life for himself?  Real geniuses are driven to do the things that they are good at.  In this movie, everyone wants to hand Will Hunting success on a silver platter;  All he has to do is be willing to take it.

There are way too many movies about people who are infinitely more talented than everybody else and succeed without making any real effort.  The first half of Ice Castles is an example that comes to mind.  The real world is full of talented and smart people, but few are successful in a big way, and none succeed in a big way without a great deal of hard work and maybe some luck.

If it wasn't for all the foul language and sexual references, this could be a pretty good PAX-TV movie.   There is a pivotal psycho-babble moment when the counselor tells Will Hunting over and over "It's not your fault" until finally Will Hunting breaks down and drops some of his defiance.  In some respects this movie is a Rocky equivalent, where a no-name low-life finally starts to make good.  Like Rocky, the movie is full of colorful inner-city characters.  Like Rocky, the story was written by the leading actor who was relatively unknown prior to the movie.  This is the movie that made Matt Damon a star, and he is one of my favorite actors.

I think that it is a pretty good movie.  The colorful cast of characters makes the movie intriguing.  This movie is mostly about personalities and there are plenty of interesting personalities to enjoy here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fantastic Mr. Fox versus Chicken Run

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a 2009 stop motion animated film based on an English children's book.  It might have been an interesting book, but the movie seems slow and not very compelling.   Nothing in this movie seems very funny to me, which is why the movie is pretty dull.

The characters are a little too much like human characters, wearing suits, writing stories, and selling real estate.  The plot focuses on how Mr. Fox keeps getting into trouble because he can't stop stealing from the humans, which is something that he is very good at, but some of the humans are pretty nasty.  The animation is somewhat jerky and portions of the movie look very two dimensional.   Roger Ebert liked it, but I can't see why.  Mr Fox is voiced by George Clooney.  Perhaps the movie is a metaphor for either a mid life crisis or finding out who you really are.   Rating:  C-.
Chicken Run is a 2000 stop motion clay animated film that looks smooth and three dimensional.  The characters are interesting, and there are occasional funny moments.  The story is a compelling one about how the chickens want to escape their imminent doom.  Mel Gibson voices a visiting rooster, who the chickens mistakenly think can fly.  They hope that he can help them escape.  Rating:  B+.  Roger Ebert likes this one as well.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Zombie Movies

What makes a movie or TV show enjoyable?  For me it is likable characters and a suspenseful story, or at least a story that is interesting in some way.  That is all that should really be required.  However, I know people who rule out specific genres saying that they will never watch those genres.  For example, I have heard people say that they think that Star Trek is stupid.  I think that Star Trek is anything but stupid, although some of the older shows do feel a bit dated.  Some people will never watch horror or science fiction (or science fiction horror) because they simply don't like those genres.  I have heard people say the same thing about animated films, although I can think of a few animated films that were absolutely terrific.

Much of the problem comes down to Suspension of Disbelief and how much fantasy a person can tolerate.  When you think about it, all movies are fantasy,  but if you don't believe it then chances are  you won't enjoy watching it.  There are maybe a few movies that seem so absurd that I would lose interest, but for the most part my ability to Suspend Disbelief is pretty high.  I have no problem watching The Muppets (twice) because I enjoy the characters; Some of them feel like old friends to me.  I have no problem watching a movie about a sponge who cooks burgers at the bottom of the sea because the whole thing is satire on human society; It's not about sea creatures.  It is about people in the same way that Aesop's fables are about people.  Much of science fiction and horror is actually intended to be a commentary on our society, so they could be viewed as modern fables.

The comment I made about The Ultimate Gift is that I don't necessarily have to believe it to enjoy the movie for what it is.  All that was required is that the characters be likable, and they are, and for there to be suspense, and there is.

So where does one draw the line?  Even I have a slight problem with the movies where the dead come back to life because I know it is impossible.  To believe such a thing would require us to believe in supernatural forces, which is the problem that I have with most horror movies.  Still, it can be fun to pretend.  It can be fun to imagine what we would do if we were faced with such a situation.  But if the situation doesn't sound interesting to you, then maybe Suspension of Disbelief goes out the window?

The best show where the dead come back to life is not a movie, but The Walking Dead television show.  This show has great characters - really great characters.  Because of this, I am a die hard fan.  Do yourself a favor and watch the first 15 minutes.  You will meet some very interesting people.  Everyone I know who has watched it, loves it.

Not all zombie movies are movies where the dead come back to life.   The most successful zombie movie ever made, the Will Smith version of I am Legend, is really about a virus that turns humans into homicidal maniacs.  In fact, the producer of 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, both of which are pretty good movies, argues that his movies aren't zombie movies at all;  They are about the spread of a "rage virus."  Another really good movie, The Crazies, has the same premise, except that it is a bio-weapon.   The comedy Zombieland, which I happen to absolutely love, claims that it is a mutated form of Mad Cow Disease, which doesn't sound that impossible to me.

I prefer this type of zombie movie where a disease has infected most of the human population.  In this respect, movies like this are not much different than a movie like Contagion, which is terrific movie about a pandemic.  The primary difference is that Contagion doesn't have hordes of crazy people chasing and killing the non-infected.

Almost all zombie movies share certain characteristics:
  1. The breakdown of society.  I think that this is the major part of the appeal.  Most zombie movies are post-apocalyptic.  In that respect, they are not that different from Mad Max movies.
  2. Man's greatest enemy is still his fellow (living) man.  Most zombie movies have people at odds with each other.  I would think that under these circumstances, people would put aside their differences and unite against a common non-living enemy, but that might not make for a very interesting movie.  Instead it is the living people who end up killing each other.
  3. Gore.  Personally I can live without excessive gore in my entertainment, but it does give the story an extra urgency when you see people ripped apart by a horde of attacking zombies.  The George Romero series of zombie movies and The Walking Dead TV series tend to be excessively gory, but the other movies that I listed above aren't nearly as bad.
  4. Social Commentary.  Most zombie movies comment in one way or another about the human condition, but the George Romero movies are especially famous for this.
I recently watched all 6 George Romero zombie movies, which is the series that started the whole zombie fad.
George Romero's first Zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968 version) started it all.  It has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  It has been heralded as a groundbreaking movie that spawned dozens of imitators.

For me the movie is just O.K.  It is obviously low budget.  The acting and production quality are second rate.

There is a whole genre of movies about people hiding in a building or a house while being attacked from the outside.  These movies have the advantage of of creating a suspense that carries the film because the audience wants to see how it ends.  Despite the cheap production quality, the movie is suspenseful and  occasionally exciting.

At first I was disappointed that the movie ended with such a predictable tragedy.  After some reflection, I felt satisfied with it.  One common theme in most zombie films is that even though there are monsters everywhere, man's greatest enemy is still his fellow man.

One thing that makes George Romero zombie movies stand out is that they all have a certain amount of social commentary.
George Romero's second zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead, was for the longest time the king of zombie movies.  Roger Ebert rates the movie at 4 stars.  I liked the movie quite a bit.  It is not necessary to watch any of the other zombie movies to see this one.

After a Zombie Apocalypse, a small group of humans hole up in a shopping mall and make a life for themselves there. Their biggest threat is not the zombies, but other humans who want what they have.

There is some unpleasant gore at the end, but it is not as bad as some other zombie movies.
George Romero's Day of the Dead (1986 version) is the third installment in his zombie series.  The only reasons to see it are ...
  1. You like zombie or horror movies.
  2. You are interested in the George Romero series.
I give the movie a generous B- because I fit into both categories.

Romero originally intended the movie to be a much more epic film, but couldn't get the funding for it.  The film looks somewhat cheap, like a made for TV movie.

I could have done without all of the gory special effects.  Every zombie movie has at least one scene where a massive hoard of zombies attacks people, but here they take the special effects to a new level by showing live people being ripped apart.  The special effects are interesting in a clinical sort of way, but reality would be much messier.  Therefore the gore in this film is more on the comic book level, although extreme, which almost makes it tolerable.

I have a problem with any movie where the characters spend a lot of time arguing with each other.  Here the conflict is between a small group of scientists doing research in an underground bunker, and a small group of soldiers assigned to protect them.  You would think that if these people thought that they might be last people on earth, that they would put aside their differences and band together to fight a common enemy, which is the zombies.  Much of the conflict revolves around the head scientist and the head soldier, both of which have gone a little crazy.

The lead scientist is especially crazy because he has the wacky idea that he can train the zombies to be non-aggressive.  The trouble with his theory is that the humans are outnumbered by a hundred million to one, so his chance of  training all the zombies is nil.  He actually makes progress with a captured zombie that he has nicknamed "Bob" (pictured), who oddly enough starts to develop a bit of a personality.  Bob ends up being so interesting that he makes the movie almost worth seeing.

Despite all the flaws, I couldn't help but think that the movie is entertaining.  It has a whopping 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  When the humans start to kill each other, there is a certain suspense in wanting to know how it turns out.
Land of the Dead is about the conflict between rich and poor in walled off city after an Zombie Apocalypse.  Dennis Hopper plays the most powerful person in the city with his usual sliminess.  Meanwhile, like in the preceding movie, the zombies start to develop some personality and begin to organize against the humans.

When I got the movie from Netflix, I was disappointed to see that it was the director's cut.  I knew that this meant that it would have extra gore and violence, which it does.  George Romero seems like a pretty weird person to add 4 minutes of extra violence and gore to a movie that is already gory and violent.

Despite this, it is a pretty slick film with many interesting characters and an interesting story.  It is a major step up from its predecessor.  This movie has many memorable quotes.
Diary of the Dead is essentially a reboot of the zombie series because the zombie apocalypse takes place in more modern times.  It follows a group of film students who decide to film the zombie apocalypse as it is happening and post their film to the internet.  Overall, the movie is pretty interesting and not as gory as some of its predecessors.

Survival of the Dead is about the conflict between two feuding families living on an island after a zombie apocalypse.  In a way, this movie is a throwback to western films.  This is also the first George Romero zombie film to include some characters from the previous movie.

This is the only George Romero zombie movie to get a bad rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  I think that the movie is underrated.  (I give it a B.)  

My favorite zombie movie is not any of the George Romero films, but 28 Days Later.  The sequel, 28 Weeks Later, is still pretty good, but I prefer the original.  Of all the George Romero films, Dawn of the Dead should probably not be missed.

If you like your zombie movies more on the funny side, I thought that Zombieland was great in so many ways.  Shaun of the Dead is a lessor movie that is still funny and made Simon Pegg famous.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Muppets (Rating: M for Muppet)

Disney The Muppets is about the silliest movie I have seen in long time.  What was I thinking?  However, the movie is smart to play it this way, because it pokes fun at The Muppets with a lot of inside jokes, recognizing that The Muppets might be a little past their prime.  At one point when things aren't going well, Amy Adams says "This is going to be a really short movie."

I started to feel a little nervous when the opening sequence was a happy street song and dance number in Smalltown, USA.  The movie is full of happy song and dance numbers.  It lacks any pretense of seriousness, but there is something infectious about its zaniness.  It is suppose to be silly, but I kind of miss the original Muppet Movie which was much more subtle, deeper, and had soul.   This film is like a echo; It reminds us of the things that we like, but it is not as good as the original.

The plot is a simple one about trying to revive the old The Muppet Show.  If you didn't like The Muppet Show, then you won't like this movie.  However, I have fond memories of The Muppet Show, so I enjoyed this movie for the same reasons.  Somehow the story is just barely strong enough to carry the picture.

The movie introduces a new character, named Walter, who is an underdog that idealizes The Muppets.   

There are a ton of cameo's in this film, the most significant of which is Mickey Rooney.  The man is 91 years old and doesn't look bad.  Maybe he is letting us know that he is not dead yet.

The Muppet Movie finished the end credits with a surprise and was maybe the first movie to do so.   Many other movies have since imitated this.  I was disappointed that this film didn't do the same.

Check out the trailer here.