Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ben-Hur Review

"Oh no! They're remaking Ben-Hur! How dare they!" Yes. They did remake Ben-Hur. No. I was never happy about it. But do you know what? The closer we came to the release of this movie, the more I realized that the idea alone of remaking Ben-Hur is not a bad one. If you disagree with this and you think that the idea of remaking Ben-Hur is a blasphemous one because this property should never be touched by anyone, regardless of talent, let me quickly remind you of the history of Ben-Hur. The 1959 classic that me and you both love was in fact a remake. Ben-Hur began as a novel written in 1880 by Lew Wallace. This novel was the best-selling novel in it's time and stayed that way until Gone with the Wind in 1936. That novel was adapted into a super popular play in 1899, running until 1921. It was first adapted into a short film in 1907, then to a silent film in 1925. Following the beloved classic in 1959, it was adapted into a direct-to-video animated movie in 2003 and became a TV mini-series in 2010. So yeah, this is a story that has been adapted quite a bit. Technically it would be unfair to bash it based on the remake argument alone. But since remakes are a dime a dozen nowadays, now is as good of a time as ever to dive into what makes a good remake.

You know the story of Ben-Hur. If not, you should. This is a religious tale centered around Christ's life, ministry, and death that's intertwined with the fictional tale of a man named Judah Ben-Hur and his longtime childhood friend Messala. Judah is a Jew and Messala is a Roman. In a tragic turn of events, the two friends become enemies after Judah refuses to give Messala certain information that he wants, which is proceeded by Messala betraying Judah after Judah is accused of attempting to murder the Roman governor. Messala knows he is innocent, but sentences him, his mother, and his sister into captivity anyways because Judah didn't cooperate. Judah swears vengeance on Messala for this wrong-doing, especially since Judah has no idea what the fate of his mother and sister, and thus we have on our hands an epic tale of revenge and faith as Judah eventually comes across the Christ and has this inner turmoil between getting his revenge and doing what is right. This leads to so many beautiful themes throughout the story as well as some incredible character arcs with Judah Ben-Hur as well as a whole host of side characters. We also have on our hands a ton of emotional moments, both positive and tragic, and a beautiful ending that gives you all sorts of feel-goods.

That's what the story of Ben-Hur is supposed to be, anyways. That description is actually my description of the 1959 Ben-Hur. I have not actually read the book or watched any of the other adaptations, so I can't officially speak for them. But if you haven't seen the 1959 movie, I beg of you to completely ignore this 2016 Ben-Hur and go watch that 1959 Ben-Hur. I know it's 212 minutes long (3 1/2 hours), but it's 212 minutes of pure glory and perfection. The 2016 Ben-Hur may only be 125 minutes long, but it's 125 minutes of cringe-worthy story-telling, dizzying camera work, and pure disappointment. It's now another prime example of what NOT to do when you remake a movie. And it's suffering the financial consequences because of it. Based on its $100 million production budget, Paramount and MGM were hoping for big things out of this. In order for it to make a good profit, $200 million would probably towards the low end of what it needed to make here in the U.S. An opening weekend of $50-75 million would've been needed to get to that mark. Instead it had a sixth place finish with a mere $11.2 million and is looking to end up with only $25 million total. Ouch!

To put that into perspective, the 1959 Ben-Hur made a grand total of around $75 million. That was nearly 60 years ago. Adjusted for ticket price inflation, that would be equivalent of $848 million today, which is close to what Star Wars: The Force Awakens made in its theatrical run just recently. It would've been unfair for this remake to make that much money even if it was done perfectly and pleased everyone, but when you remake a movie that came out 57 years ago and you only make a third of what that movie made without adjusting for ticket price inflation, that is flat-out embarrassing. Especially when considering the story you are adapting is one of the most popular and well-loved stories ever. Even a moderately done remake of a story this popular would take in a good chunk of cash. Sometimes I'm sad when movies crash this hard. In this case I am applauding our country for uniting together to completely reject this 2016 Ben-Hur. Hopefully this will be a lesson to Hollywood that this phase of constant remakes is not a good phase. And if you're going to do a remake, you better be justified in your remake and you better do a good job. I'm looking at you 2017 Jumanji. And all of our movies on our long list of remakes.

With this said, what is it that constitutes a good remake? First off, a studio should look at the property they are remaking and ask themselves why are they remaking it? If the answer is, "we think we can make a good chunk of money by remaking this," then the filmmakers deserve to be slapped. Money shouldn't be the primary motivation for remaking a movie. The best answer, in my opinion, is that a filmmaker takes a good long look at a certain property and comes up with an idea of how this can be improved or has a new idea of what they can add to this property. My favorite example of this comes with Hitchcock's classic The Man Who Knew Too Much from 1956. This is a classic that many Hitchcock fans love that has inspired so many other movies. What people may not know is that this is the second time Hitchcock made this movie. The first time was in 1934 and while it had some good ideas, it was poorly executed and really wasn't that great of a movie. I imagine that in the 1950's Hitchcock looked at this movie and said to himself that he can do better with this premise. So he did it again. And he created a masterpiece. This same idea was done this month with Pete's Dragon. Disney took one of their lesser movies and created a new movie that was phenomenal.

Keeping with Hitchcock, a bad example of a remake comes with the movie Psycho. The 1960 version is another Hitchcock masterpiece and my personal favorite movie. In 1998 they decided to remake Psycho using the same exact script as before. The 1998 Psycho is literally a carbon copy of the the 1960 Psycho, but executed much more poorly. It literally adds nothing to the original. Yes, you can remake a classic and be justified. The Coen Brothers proved that with True Grit in 2010. But once again, even though the 1969 True Grit is a good movie, the 2010 True Grit added a lot to it and made a phenomenal modern western out of it. I'm hoping for similar results next month with The Magnificent Seven, which looks fantastic based on the trailers. There are so many more examples that I could dive into, but let's finish this idea off with the chronology of Ben-Hur itself. We started with a book. Then we turned that book into real life by making it into a play. Then we had our first attempt at a cinematic version with a silent short film. That was followed about ten years later with a feature-length silent film. Then in 1959 we had our beloved classic which added this thing called sound among other things. Each adaptation added something valuable to the previous version.

I can't speak for the 2003 animated version or the 2010 TV mini-series, but the idea of each seems like it adds something new and unique. An animated movie is fun. That even had the voice of Charlton Heston a few years before he passed away. A TV mini-series has the option of extending the story beyond the length of what is accepted in a movie. With how much story there is in the book, you could cover a lot more details with a TV mini-series. But this 2016 movie? Yuck! This takes the story of Ben-Hur and completely butchers it. The first mistake was the choice of director. If you're planning to remake a big religious epic, choosing Timur Bekmambetov, director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, probably wasn't the right choice. Granted the screenplay that was written by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley is pure crap, but Mr. Bekmambetov proved that he couldn't get anything worthwhile out of that screenplay. A Steven Spielberg or a Ridley Scott level of director probably could've done something here. But not Timur Bekmambetov. The actors themselves did their best with what they were given, but they weren't given much and they didn't have much help from the director here, so there's not much that they could've done, all things considered.

First and foremost, the principle focus of Ben-Hur should've been Christ and his teachings. That's the point of this. The book is actually titled Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Both the book and the 1959 movie start with Christ's birth and end with his death. The principles that Christ taught are the focus of the story and those themes are told mainly through the experiences of Judah Ben-Hur. This 2016 Ben-Hur doesn't start with Christ's birth. It starts with a tease of the chariot race scene, then jumps back in time and spends the whole movie building up to that moment. Christ is in the movie, but he was certainly not the focus. In fact, Christ seemed shoe-horned into the movie. The purpose here seemed to be to make a cool action movie with these fancy special effects that we now have access to. The chariot race scene and the ship battle scene were the huge focuses of the movie. And do you know what? The 1959 Ben-Hur did both scenes better. The use of practical effects to pull off both scenes in the 1959 was phenomenal. I just re-watched the movie this past weekend and those effects hold up very well and have a lot more emotional impact than the new movie. I'm not going to say the special effects in the new movie were bad. They were just unimpressive.

The other huge problem with this movie was the story-telling. Some remakes are bad because they create a carbon copy of the original. This 2016 Ben-Hur is bad because of the exact opposite reasons. In an attempt to do something different, they went completely off the rails and essentially threw the original story in a blender. The set-up is the same. Judah and Messala were friends. Then Messala betrays Judah and sends him into slavery where he spends several years as a slave on a Roman warship. That's where the similarities end. Remember in the 1959 Ben-Hur where Judah saves Arrius' life, the Romans win, and Judah is adopted by Arrius, becoming a Roman citizen? Yeah, that's not in this movie. Completely axed. In fact, the character of Arrius does not exist. Remember how Judah spends years having no idea where his mom and sister are and is told they are dead right before the chariot race starts, which adds to his anger towards Messala and is followed by Messala revealing the truth about them after the race is over and before Messala dies? That's all mixed around. In fact, Judah's mother and sister are about as much of an afterthought as Christ is in this movie. You know how Judah doesn't officially get together with Esther until the end of the movie, thus making for an interesting romantic drama? Yeah, they get married in the first act of this movie.

I don't mean to be one of those annoying fans that complains about everything that is changed from the original story. It's okay to change things. I haven't read the book, but I did read the detailed summary of the book after re-watching the 1959 movie. There were plenty of things that the 1959 movie changed. But they were acceptable changes. The story-telling was effective. Every moment in the movie was built off of the previous moment and we had a beautiful story that was told with great character arcs. I expected this new movie to change things, too. But the things they did change made no sense. Their new story that they told was really stupid and had no emotional impact. All the important moments and reveals happened at the wrong time and Judah's character arc wasn't fleshed out enough, but was super rushed at the end instead. Thus the warship scene is wasted. The chariot race is kinda pointless. His conversion to Christianity doesn't make much sense. Completely removing everything about him becoming a Roman citizen removed a lot of the heart and soul of the movie. That's like remaking The Lion King but taking out the Timon and Pumba sequences. Everything was completely off and things ended in a total trainwreck. No feel goods for me. Just confusion.

The actors in this movie were just fine. Jack Huston made a great Judah Ben-Hur. Toby Kebbell was a great Messala. Rodrigo Sanchez was a serviceable Jesus. Nazanin Boniadi was a good Esther. Morgan Freeman had some weird dreadlocks, but once I got used to those, he did a good job with his character. Some of these choices made me nervous at first, especially with Jack Huston stepping into the ginormous shoes of Charlton Heston, but they did great. Their characters weren't written too well and some of them of them were forgotten. But the acting was fine. Technically speaking, the movie was also fine. We had great sets and great costume designs. The special effects were unimpressive, as I previously mentioned, but they weren't bad. The one major glare on the technical side of things was the camera work. I'm not one to say that shaky cam is inherently bad. It can be used effectively if done right like in the Bourne franchise. But this movie was very shaky and there was no reason for it to be. There were a lot of scenes when the camera just started shaking for no reason and I was like, "SOMEONE HOLD THE FREAKING CAMERA STILL!!!" And those action sequences with that camera got rough. I'm glad I didn't see it in 3D because that could've been bad.

In the end, I went into this movie with very low expectations given that the trailers made the movie looked awful. I hoped for the best, but yeah this is just as bad as the trailers make it look. The 1959 Ben-Hur is one of my all-time favorite movies and my heart sunk just like everyone else's when this was announced, but I eventually concluded that the idea of remaking Ben-Hur wasn't a bad one. There was a lot that they could've done with this. But they completely butchered everything. The focus of the movie wasn't in the right place. Instead of being centered around Christ, it is centered around the action sequences and the revenge plot with the religious themes being more of an after-thought. After a boring introduction, there was a brief period of time where I was engaged, but when the warship sequence ended in a completely different way, I became confused and I started to wonder where this was going. That place ended up being right down the tank because they got everything wrong in the final two-thirds of the movie. With such an inspirational source material, the fact that I felt empty and confused was super disappointing. I would easily give the 1959 Ben-Hur a perfect 10/10. This 2016 Ben-Hur, though, gets a 4/10 from me.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings Review

Animation right now is arguably as dominate now as it ever has been. Pixar and Disney are about as strong as they ever have been. Despite a minor bump in the road with The Good Dinosaur, Pixar scored big with Inside Out last year and scored even bigger this year with Finding Dory, as the latter has now become their highest grossing domestic release ever. Meanwhile Disney is on a huge winning streak with Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia all doing phenomenal. But Pixar and Disney aren't the only ones winning right now. Illumination has earned a place among the big boys with their Despicable Me franchise as well as this summer's The Secret Life of Pets. Blue Sky has made bank with their Ice Age franchise. Warner Animation Group is taking advantage of the huge success of The LEGO Movie. Then we have others such as Sony Pictures Animation and Dreamworks trying to keep up. So yes, it's a great time for animation. But do you know what animation company ISN'T getting the attention it deserves? Laika. In terms of quality, they've made movies that are just as good, if not better, than everyone else. But yet they don't make even close to the amount of money that the others are. It's a shame. Especially since they just made their best movie yet.

If the name Laika isn't just as recognizable to you as Pixar, Disney, or Dreamworks, then shame on you. Remember them. And treat all their movies as must-sees. However, if you don't recognize their name, I do think you'll recognize their movies that they've made. Kubo and the Two Strings is their fourth movie. Their first three are Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. If I were to rank those three, I would go ParaNorman then Coraline then The Boxtrolls. But I love all of them. The Boxtrolls is their least liked film, but I found it absolutely adorable and hilariously entertaining. It barely missed my list of favorite movies of 2014. And that's their fourth best movie. So it's really saying something for me to call Kubo and the Two Strings their best movie. This movie is absolutely phenomenal. Not only is it now my favorite animated movie of the year (ahead of Zootopia and Finding Dory -- which is also saying something), this is one of my favorite all-around movies this year. My current top three are The Witch, The Nice Guys, and Captain America: Civil War. This fits right in with those, possible as high as number two. It was one of my most anticipated movies of the year and it lived up to all the hype I gave it, which is rather refreshing, all things considered.

A huge part of my reasoning here is the animation style. I absolutely adore stop-motion animation. If you're unfamiliar with the term stop-motion animation, it's the animation style that takes an inanimate object, usually a clay figurine, and gives the illusion that it's moving on it's own by photographing it frame by frame, moving it every so slightly between each frame. Claymation is the most common form of stop-motion animation and that's exactly what Laika does. Creating just one small scene in a stop-motion film takes forever. Laika's previous film, The Boxtrolls, took 72 weeks to animate. It's around an hour and a half long and has 125,280 frames. That's absolutely insane! Just think about all the time, effort, patience, persistence, and planning that goes into all that. 125,280 frames! I'd be willing to bet that Kubo has even more. I don't know all the details for Kubo. I imagine there was some use of CG with certain scenery or background characters, but the attention to detail is incredible in this movie. It's the best use of stop-motion animation that I have ever seen. I was in awe for most of the movie as I was watching, especially during some of the intense action sequences. I feel that some people go into these movies and take all of this for granted, which makes me sad.

It is true, though, that you can't just rely on the animation style for the movie to be good. All the film-making elements have to be there as well. Story. Characters. Voice acting. Music. Pacing. All of that. It has to be there. And that's where Kubo wins big. Not only is it the best use of the stop-motion animation style that I have ever seen, this movie is a lot of fun and incredibly moving. I think if this movie was a normal, all-CGI animated movie, I would still be praising this. I'm not going to spoil the setup for this movie because the trailers do a good job of not spoiling that. It starts with a huge emotional punch right out of the gate that is better left as a mystery. But nevertheless, we eventually find ourselves on a journey with a boy named Kubo, a monkey, and a beetle warrior. Kubo is the son of a samurai and has certain magical powers that he needs to learn to control. On this specific journey, Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle are out searching for three pieces to a magical suit of armor in order to save their village from a certain evil. That may sound vague and slightly cliché, but it works. I promise. I just want to leave the specific details a surprise. This may not be laugh-out-loud funny, super action-packed, or intensely deep and emotional, but what it does to is find a great balance of all of that and thus is a very well-rounded film that has something for everyone to enjoy.

First off, this is an extremely fun adventure. I saw it as almost playing out like a video game. We had three objects to find and each of these objects was guarded by a "mini boss" of sorts, which then led to a "final boss." Each of those moments provides a fantastic action sequence as they battle each "boss." Might I remind you, this is stop-motion animation. Had all these action sequences been done in CGI, this still would've been impressive. When it comes to action-focused animated movies, I think of movies like Big Hero 6, The Incredibles, and Kung Fu Panda. The action in Kubo is just as entertaining as those movies and in my opinion more intense. The stakes are higher, the villains are scarier, and there's no guarantee that those on our team make it out. As is the case with Coraline and ParaNorman, this is not really a kid's movie. I imagine mature kids will be fine, but this will probably be too intense for younger kids. This is not a knock on the movie. Unlike Pixar and Disney, the target audience for Laika isn't necessarily young kids. I don't necessarily want to make a Studio Ghibli comparison here, but it might be closer to that in terms of audience. Outside perhaps The Boxtrolls, these are mature films from Laika that I would say are more geared towards older fans of animation.

Then we have the themes of the movie. Kubo doesn't go full out Pixar on us with the emotion, but there are several moments where the emotion hits hard. As I said, it does so at the beginning. It gets you pretty good at the end. Then there's several moments sprinkled throughout where the movie sneaks up on you. It never tries to bash you over the head with emotion, but it does so enough to successfully tug at your heartstrings. I would love to dive into specifics. There's a couple of different themes that this movie has. I would argue that most people can relate to these themes. But I'm not going to talk about it. I'm going to let you discover it on your own. Just know that I was sold. As far as the comedic aspect of this movie, it would be a mistake to call this an outright comedy. It's not even Laika's funniest movie. But there is plenty of comedic relief in the movie, specifically with Monkey and Beetle. I liked the focus on the drama and the action, but I thought there was enough comedy to make it a well balanced movie. And the voice cast consisting of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, and George Takei was very good. Everyone did a good job of disappearing into their roles, which helped keep the focus on the characters.

So yes, Kubo and the Two Strings is a movie that I would highly recommend. Stop-motion animation is a genre of animation that I have all the respect in the world for. It takes so long to put one of these movies together and to see a final result as flawless as Kubo puts me in awe. When you have hair like Kubo does or fur like Monkey does and it flows just as naturally as hair would in real life, it just blows me away. Then I look at the whole universe that is created and all the attention to detail with everything and I'm even more impressed. This is truly the best stop-motion work that has been done in my opinion. Then on top of that we have a movie with a great story, great characters, fun action, powerful emotion, and good comedic relief and as a fan of the genre and a fan of film in general, I am perfectly satisfied. No movie is without sin. That's the nature of film, especially when you get to personal preference. But with me, any problems I had with the movie were more nit-picks than anything, so I'm not even going to bother bringing them up. I loved this movie. I hope you go out and support Laika by seeing this movie in theaters. They deserve your money and your time. This is my favorite animated movie of the year right now and one of my favorite movies overall this year. I'm going to give Kubo and the Two Strings a 9.5/10.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Café Society Review

It's time yet again for our yearly Woody Allen movie! And when I say yearly Woody Allen movie, I mean that quite literally. Woody Allen has been directing movies since 1966 and between 1966 and now he's only missed six years: 1967, 1968, 1970, 1974, 1976, and 1981. That means he's literally not missed a year from 1982 to the present. Along the way, he's picked up 24 Oscar nominations, mainly for his writing and directing work with one nomination for acting. Out of those 24 nominations, he's taken home four trophies. His movies as a whole have been nominated for a grand total of 53 Oscars with 11 wins, which includes one best picture win, that being 1977's Annie Hall. Yes, that does mean he beat out Star Wars for that best picture win that year. I'd be willing to bet that that's a popular pick for biggest Oscar snub, but as I've not seen Annie Hall, I can't officially judge. Point of all this, though, is to show how legendary of a filmmaker Woody Allen is. Even though he's been very hit and miss for me recently, I have a lot of respect for the man as a filmmaker and I usually try to check out his films when they come out, although I admittedly haven't seen as many of his films as I want to. That's one of my many homework projects right now.

Café Society is Woody Allen's 46th feature-length film that he's directed, which is incredible. If you've seen a lot of Woody Allen's films, you probably know exactly how you feel about them. He has a tendency of being fairly divisive as a lot of people love his films and a lot of people hate his films. As I've mentioned, I haven't seen enough of his films to determine which side I'm on, but recently it's been mostly miss for me. Which is why I'm happy to report that Café Society is a hit for me. But it's a very strange hit for me as I went back and forth in my head quite a bit on this one. The major theme of this movie comes via a quote from Jesse Eisenberg's character: "Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer." I'm not going to spend time analyzing and discussing that quote, but there's a lot of times where that rings true in life. That's what it feels like, anyways, especially when we get caught up in the moment. Thus the themes of this movie are very strong and thought-provoking. The movie starts out seeming like it will be a by-the-numbers romance drama, but it doesn't take you long at all to realize that it's actually more like a romance drama thrown in a blender. Which is more accurate to what life is actually like. More on that in a bit.

The movie is set in the 1930's and Jesse Eisenberg plays this young man from New York who is tired of his current situation and decides he wants to try his luck over in Hollywood, so he goes over to his uncle, played by Steve Carell, who is a major Hollywood agent to try to find work there. Right off the bat he falls for his uncle's secretary, played by the lovely Kristen Stewart, and the two of them start what is an incredible on-screen romance. This isn't the first time Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg have played love interests in a movie. It's at least the third time that I can think of, the most recent example being the hilariously awesome American Ultra from last year. If you haven't seen American Ultra, I highly recommend it. A very underrated film. Back on track, Eisenberg and Stewart. These two have a perfect spark. They know how to work together and they do a dang good job of it. Thus I was fully invested in this romance drama. In an odd way, I felt like I related to Eisenberg and I wanted him to succeed and get the girl, because he deserved it. But then the movie gets awkward really fast because you find out that Steve Carell, a happily married man of 25 years, is cheating on his wife with the MUCH younger Kristen Stewart and thus we have this uncomfortable love triangle.

The biggest qualm I have with this movie is this love triangle. Thematically it fits what Woody Allen is going for with the movie, but Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart have absolutely no romantic chemistry. Both of them knock their roles out of the park, it's just that the chemistry is not there. The fact that there is a 28 year age gap is probably a big reason for that. In fact, this is starting to become a theme for Woody Allen and I don't know why. There was a 28 year age gap between Colin Firth and Emma Stone in 2014's Magic in the Moonlight and a 14 year age gap between Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone again in last year's Irrational Man. Woody Allen has an obsession with this and he needs to stop because it doesn't work. I get that this happens in real life, especially in Hollywood. Being that this is a movie about the problems with Hollywood that reflects not only with the past, but also the present, this does fit. But there's just no chemistry Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart and thus I had a hard time getting invested in a love triangle when one half of that triangle just didn't connect. Speaking of which, there's another love triangle later on, which I won't go into detail about, that also doesn't work. No age gap here as Blake Lively and Jesse Eisenberg are only four years apart. But there's also zero chemistry there. Thus I got slightly frustrated with the movie.

This isn't the fault of the actors in the movie. They're all fantastic. It's just that sometimes chemistry between two people isn't there. When we have three relationships in the movie and only the relationship between Eisenberg and Stewart makes any sense, it means that the emotional impact of the movie doesn't hit quite as hard as it could've. But major props to all of our leads, especially Eisenberg and Stewart. For the most part I've always loved Eisenberg in his roles. He had a little bump in the road earlier this year as his version of Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman was atrocious. But outside that he's been great. He's one of my favorite actors working today. Same goes with Kristen Stewart as an actress. She's phenomenal. If you're still hating on her because of Twilight, you need to get over yourself. Like seriously. Wake up and return to 2016. This girl has consistently blown me away, so I will consistently defend her. Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, and American Ultra are great examples of movies you need to watch of you still think Kristen Stewart can't act. In addition to Café Society this year, she's also in Certain Women, Personal Shopper, and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, so there's plenty of chances this year to check her out and see for yourself.

Now that I've gotten my typical Kristen Stewart soap box out of the way, let's get back on track. Despite some frustrations I had with chemistry issues, there were a lot of times where I wanted to yell at the movie for going in certain directions with the plot. But then every time I felt like screaming, I stopped and started to think about what was happening. The movie is called Café Society and it's about this society where everyone has some serious flaws. I'm not going to detail all of our main characters in the movie out of respect for the movie-going experience. I don't want to spoil things. But every character has some serious flaws to them. Steve Carell is despicable. Kristen Stewart is despicable. A lot of the minor Hollywood characters are despicable. Jesse Eisenberg's family back in New York is full of despicable people. Jesse Eisenberg himself, despite starting out very innocent, also starts to become despicable. This is the point of the movie that Woody Allen is trying to drive home. And it's incredible. If you look at our society right now, there's a lot of despicable people. Despicable people running for president. Despicable people in Hollywood. Then you start thinking about your own life and you start to wonder if you are a despicable person yourself. Yes, this is a movie that's a reflection of Hollywood. But it's also a reflection on all of us. No one is perfect.

Also thematically, there's a recurring theme of both romance and choices. First with romance, life isn't like your typical Hollywood romance drama. It's not always wrapped in a lovely little bow. Sometimes things happen that just plain out suck. Yes, I can be a hopeless romantic at times, especially when I'm watching movies. I want the happy ending. I want things to work out. I want the guy to get the girl. But I think sometimes we come to expect that too often and thus when a movie comes around that takes your typical romance drama and throws it in a blender, it's easy to scream and complain that things didn't work out like they should've. But many times that's actually more realistic to what happens in real life. Romance can be amazing and dating can be phenomenal. But it can also be the most stressful, frustrating thing. I've had many experiences where I thought there was chemistry between me and girl only to learn that she has chosen someone else. It's a harsh jab in the heart. That also leads to this idea of choices. Sometimes we make choices in life that we regret later. But we're forced to live with the consequences of those choices. And that can suck, too. These are all things that this movie dives into quite well. Thus I wanted to be frustrated at first, but when I stopped to think about everything, I was instead blown away by what this movie did.

No, this isn't a perfect movie from Woody Allen. But when you've directed 46 movies in 51 years, not everyone of them is going to be a slam dunk. But in my opinion this is a pretty solid outing from Woody Allen. The emotion in the movie didn't hit quite as hard as it could've due to their being no chemistry at all between Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell as well as none between Jesse Eisenberg and Blake Lively. Only the romance between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart was believable. But despite this, all of the actors in this movie were at the top of their game. And the movie took me for quite the emotional ride. There were a lot of plot twists throughout that I didn't see coming that made me scream in frustration. But in every instance, I stopped to think about what happened and the more I thought about it, the more I was totally sold. Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer. That's the theme here. Honestly it's quite relatable at times because of us not being able to see the bigger picture. Café Society is a thought-provoking film with a lot of powerful themes that I was able to grasp onto and relate with. It's not a movie wrapped in pretty bow, but life is often not wrapped in a pretty bow either, so I really respected that. My grade for Café Society is a 8/10.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Pete's Dragon Review

Here we are again with another remake of a Disney "classic." The trend began in 2010 with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which piggy-backed off the 3D success of James Cameron's Avatar to make over $1 billion worldwide. When Disney finds a trend that works, they ride that trend until it's completely dry, which is why they are one of the most successful businesses ever. I'm not going to list all of the Disney classic remakes because that list is becoming too long, but I will recap that this year we have Disney providing us with a remake of The Jungle Book as well as Alice Through the Looking Glass, a sequel to the aforementioned Tim Burton phenomenon, with Warner Bros. delivering The Legend of Tarzan. Disney scored big time with The Jungle Book, which currently has earned $947.6 million worldwide, but had a huge misstep with Alice Through the Looking Glass, which has only earned $76.9 million in the U.S. on a $170 million budget with $292.3 million worldwide. The Legend of Tarzan, on the other hand, surprised big time as it's earned $124.9 million in the U.S. and $347.3 million worldwide and counting. Warner Bros. is happy about that. And now Disney is up to bat again with a remake of... Pete's Dragon? Yup. And it's surprisingly good.

You'll note that I put "classic" into quotation marks when talking about this trend. That's because Pete's Dragon can hardly be called a classic. As with every Disney movie, there is a portion of people who love this movie, but I'd argue that the childhood nostalgia factor plays a much bigger role with that crowd than some of Disney's other movies that still hold up when you re-watch them as an adult. Simply put, the original Pete's Dragon is really not that great of a movie. Fun idea, but poorly executed on just about every level. And it's not remembered nearly as well by the general public. It only has a 6.3 on IMDb with a mere 16,940 votes. Compare that to Disney's The Jungle Book from 10 years earlier, which has a 7.6 score on IMDb with 123,542 votes. On the critic's side of things, Pete's Dragon carries a 48 percent on Rotten Tomatoes compared to the 86 percent that The Jungle Book has. So if it wasn't as well-liked or remembered, then why did Disney select it as their next project when they had so many better options to remake? You got me. That's why I wasn't expecting anything from this at all. Which is a big part of the reason why this shocked the heck out of me. If you would've told me back in May that Pete's Dragon was going to be one of the summer's best blockbusters, I may have laughed at you.

It's worth noting right from the beginning that this movie has Disney formula written all over it. There's no huge surprises. No crazy twists or turns. You know exactly where the movie is going to go right from the opening scene. They totally play this safe. But do you know what? That's not always a bad thing. This is Disney knowing who their audience is and playing to that audience. They've been making family-friendly movies since the 1930's and have charmed that audience time after time. They're good at it. They know what works. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? This is them playing those same notes, but in this instance they play those notes perfectly. This is an absolutely fabulous family adventure that that kids and parents can both love. It provides a fun adventure, great characters, and a positive message that hits just right. When it comes to remakes, this is an example of a remake done right. Most remakes today are no more than a cash grab. Studios will take a well-loved movie and do it again for some extra cash. These frustrate me. Why can't we just enjoy the original movies if they are great movies? But as I mentioned with the original Pete's Dragon, it's a fun idea that is very poorly executed. Someone from Disney looked at that property and said that they can take that idea and do it right this time around, especially since we have the technology to design a believable, live-action dragon.

As far as the story goes, Pete begins the movie as a 5-year-old kid going on an "adventure"  with his parents. Sadly, they get in a car crash and Pete is the only one that survives. Out in the woods all alone he runs into a dragon and the two of them become best friends. Six years later, Pete has become a little Tarzan kid who has developed a very strong bond with this dragon, who he has named Elliot. Due to a certain chain of events, Pete gets forced into the real world after being found by a certain family and thus is separated from Elliot. While he's figuring out how to adjust to the real world, Elliot is out to find where he went, but instead runs into the wrong crowd and thus is hunted by this small group of people led by Carl Urban as he is deemed dangerous. First off, Elliot is definitely what I call a dragon dog. I referred to him as this before I saw the movie because he looked like a mix between a dragon and a dog. That title rang even truer as I watched the movie because Elliot also acts like a mix between a dragon and a dog. I was worried about this heading into the movie, but I fell in love with Elliot so fast. He is an adorable little dragon dog with an incredible personality and a ton of emotion. The chemistry between this CGI dragon dog and this 11-year-old Tarzan kid is incredible. The look on Elliot the dragon dog's face when he was sad tore me up.

This dragon dog might actually be the best character in this movie and if you're a pet lover like me, I'm sure you'll fall in love with him just like you would with your own pet dog. Right along with this dragon dog is the incredible performance from the young kid who plays Pete. It's hard to develop a great, believable relationship with an animal on screen, especially if that animal is a CGI animal that's not actually there during filming, but this kid pulls it off. It's so good that the movie pulls at your heartstrings on multiple occasions, both in sadness when they are separated and in joy when they are together. But this kid is also incredible when he gets forced into real life and has to adjust. The performance reminded me a lot of Jacob Tremblay in Room in how he reacted to the real world like a normal kid that age would react. And speaking of relationships, he also develops an incredible relationship with the young girl in this family who adopts him. The friendship between those two kids is just a joy to watch unfold and both child actors deserve some serious praise for their roles. Bryce Dallas Howard and Wes Bentley play the couple who take Pete under their wing and I have to say that this is a pretty solid on-screen family that is put together here with the frosting on the cake being the great Robert Redford as the grandfather.

Yes, a lot of fantastic characters in this movie with Elliot the dragon dog taking the cake. Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence play the two young kids in the movie. I have to make sure I mention them by name since they are both great! On top of all these relationships, I was fully invested in this story. It's much different than the 1977 Pete's Dragon, which is rather bizarre. This is a movie about a boy losing his parents. It's a movie about a boy and his pet/friend dragon. It's a movie about a boy being separated from that dragon and learning how to adjust to the real world. Then it's a movie about reuniting with this dragon and going on this fun, emotional adventure in the third act with a "villain" in Carl Urban who has good reason to be hunting this dragon. There's a lot of moments where this movie takes it's time to set things up. Yet there's not really a dull moment. The flow and the pacing are great. The movie is visually stunning and has a phenomenal soundtrack, which includes my girl Lindsey Stirling providing one of the many great songs that fit the tone of the movie very well. I'd go as far as saying this feels like an old-fashioned Disney movie that has all the emotions and feel-goods that you would expect that could become a childhood classic for today's kids.

It's been a very average summer to say the least. Even movies like Jason Bourne or Suicide Squad that I personally enjoyed I realize could've been a lot better and thus didn't quite live up to my lofty expectations. On top of that, there were a lot more movies that were flat out duds. Pete's Dragon is a movie that I was totally expecting to fall right into this pattern and be a throw-away movie in the middle of August that would be worth ignoring. But I was so wrong. Yes, this is a Disney movie directed at family audiences, so it's not going to do anything crazy or unpredictable. But this feels like an old-fashioned Disney movie that plays all the right notes and plays them very well. It's emotional. It's heartbreaking. You may need to take some tissues with you. But it's also inspiring and teaches a fantastic message to young kids while providing them with a fun adventure. This is not quite on the level of The Jungle Book remake back in April, but it's a whole heck of a lot closer to that than I was expecting and is honestly more enjoyable than most movies I've seen this summer. Pete's Dragon was a huge surprise for me and a huge win for Disney in terms of quality. I feel totally comfortable awarding it a 9/10.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (SPOILERS)

I don't often do book reviews on this blog. The last one I did was over two years ago. I usually keep this blog focused on movies and TV shows. In fact, I've only done four book reviews total on this blog and three of them were for the Hunger Games trilogy. So yeah, this is a bit unique for me. But at the same time, it's been a long time since a new Harry Potter book got released. Nine years to be exact as The Deathly Hallows was released to world in July 2007. I definitely reserve the right to make exceptions on this blog, especially when it comes to wizarding world of Harry Potter. Now if we're being technical, The Cursed Child is not really a book. It's the "special rehearsal edition script" of the new Harry Potter play put in book form for the world to read. For the sake of being simple, I'm choosing to classify this as a book review because I'm definitely not reviewing the play itself as I don't live anywhere close to where it's being put on. No talking about the play production, the acting, the casting choices, etc here. Just the story that I read. And it's been a week since I read it. I figured I'd give people time to read so that I can do an all-out spoiler review of this because that's the only way to do this in my opinion. Consider yourself warned. Let's begin!

Since this is the first time I've discussed anything Harry Potter related on this blog (the final movie was released July 2011, six months before I officially started this blog), allow me to do a brief history of my experience with this franchise. I didn't keep a record of the exact dates of when I read each book, but I remember not quite jumping on board right away. Looking at the release dates, The Sorcerer's Stone was released in the U.S. in September 1998, which would've been the beginning of my fourth grade year. I think I remember The Goblet of Fire being released before I was sucked in. That was released in July 2000 both in the U.S. and the U.K., which was the summer before my sixth grade year. I also think I remember my sixth grade teacher reading The Sorcerer's Stone to us, which I'm pretty sure was what actually got me hooked on the series. So let's say it was my sixth grade year when I got into the series, which would've been sometime shortly before or shortly after my 12th birthday. When I was finally sucked in, I was in for life. This was such a magical world in many ways and I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed reading every book and enjoyed watching every movie. And yes, I did like all the movies, but we'll dive into those later this year before the release of Fantastic Beasts.

When they announced that they were making a new play with the script being released in book form to the world, I was ecstatic. I purchased The Deathly Hallows the midnight of its release during the summer following my high school graduation and was done within a day or two. That was the end of an era for me, which was sad. When the final movie came out five years ago, that was even sadder because I thought that was the end Harry Potter in any form. This is a franchise that began in Elementary School for me and finished (or so I thought) well into my college years. That's a big chunk of my life growing up. I feel that these Harry Potter stories are a part of who I am because of it. Thus I love this idea of beginning a new era of Harry Potter starting with this play right now and the new spin-off movie later this year. These are exciting times! As this is such a great universe with so much story potential, I hope this is the beginning of many new Harry Potter stories, be it prequels, spin-offs, sequels, or whatever. In a day where Hollywood is definitely obsessed with sequels, remakes, and adaptations, I'm often an advocate of them pushing on the breaks a bit. But not with the Harry Potter universe. This is a world that needs to be mined and explored in depth. Bring on the new plays, new books, new movies, or new TV shows. I'm totally down with it all!

With all of that said, I'm about to do something with this universe that I've never done before. I've never hated any of the books. I've never hated any of the movies. But I suppose there is a first for everything. And I really hope it's the last. Because I absolutely hated Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. HATED. With a fiery passion. I bought it the day after it was released for about $17 and I really wish I could get my money back. And the time I spent reading. In fact, I kid you not, I finished this story out of complete obligation because I knew it wouldn't be fair to voice my opinion unless I had finished it. But halfway through reading, I had no desire to finish. I got through most of it that first night because it's a really fast read. But when I woke up the next morning, instead of jumping right in, I literally stared at the book for several moments and then decided to do something else before finishing it off. I didn't want to. Compare that to when I read The Deathly Hallows. I literally lost the ability to do anything else but read and thus I finished The Deathly Hallows in less time than I did The Cursed Child. At 759 pages, The Deathly Hallows has well over twice as many pages as the 308 pages that is The Cursed Child, with quite a bit more words per page. That should tell you something in and of itself.

You can probably tell that this is going to be a long post, but it's one that needs to happen. And if you have made it to this point and haven't read this story, this is your final spoiler warning. Let's get into specifics because there is a lot to say. First off, this is a story that should've been written as a book by J.K. Rowling before being turned into a play. And she should've taken her time with it. I have absolutely no problem with the idea of Harry Potter books being adapted into plays. In fact, I think that's an excellent idea. But let it be a book first. I definitely knew what I was getting into when I purchased this, so it's not like I was shocked to see a script of a play instead of a book. But if I'm being honest, reading a script for a play is just not the same as reading a book. The reason why reading the Harry Potter books was such a great experience is that a book can do something that a play or movie can't. You can go into far greater detail. You can take your time. You can really get lost into the universe or world that your book takes you into. I loved spending time with all of the characters in Hogwarts. I loved the detail that the books allowed and all the quality time I spent with the characters in Hogwarts. Due to the nature of this being a script for a play and the play having a limited time, this element of spending quality time with our characters is just not there and thus everything feels rushed.

If this were the only issue with this story, I was totally willing to accept that. I knew I wasn't going to be able to dive into great detail with story, but I was still excited for some good characters and an intriguing new story in this wizarding world. I was excited to see where all my beloved characters were 19 years later and I was hoping that I would develop a new found love for this new generation of Harry Potter characters. And I'm not going to lie, this had a good start. Here we have Harry's son Albus going to Hogwarts for the first time right along with Ron and Hermione's daughter Rose. Rose is essentially like a clone of Hermione and wants to make sure she does everything Hermione did in the exact same way. Albus is a little more relaxed in this element, but he's super nervous that he'll get sorted into Slytherin. Harry assures him that if he doesn't want to be sorted into Slytherin, he won't be. The sorting hat takes his wishes into consideration. That's how it works. Right? Anyways, they both run into Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco Malfoy. Albus and Scorpius start to become good friends, but Rose is like, heck no. Steer clear of him. But Albus makes friends with him anyways and thus we have some interesting tension right off the bat. Harry's son becoming friends with the son of Harry's longtime rival and enemy at school? That's pretty interesting.

Enter Hogwarts. Rose goes to Gryffindor. No surprise. Scorpius goes to Slytherin. Also no surprise. Albus' turn under the hat and he gets sorted into... Slytherin? Wait, what? I thought he was dreading that. And given the rules of the sorting hat as established in the original book series, there's no way he should've been sorted into Slytherin. Unless he had a change of heart on the train ride. Or unless he had a change of heart when he saw his new friend be sorted into Slytherin. Neither of which this story gave any clues of, so I doubt that was the case. Instead I got the feeling that he hated this and essentially had his hopes and dreams crushed. Which is kinda interesting, but kinda annoying because we're kinda breaking the rules here. Oh well. This actually didn't bother me too much because I liked the idea of having our protagonist this time around in Slytherin and having his best friend be the son of Harry's enemy. There seems to be this stereotype in the Hogwarts world that all the heroes come from Gryffindor and all the villains come from Slytherin, while the other two houses are more of an after thought. So I was ready for them to flip the script on this. We already had some interesting dynamics set up and some honest, believable tensions ready to happen. I was all ready to thoroughly enjoy this new year in Hogwarts with all of these new characters in this situation.

Next year at Platform 9 3/4. Wait, what? No! Tell me this isn't happening. Tell me I read that wrong. Those were my exact thoughts when I read that. We literally went from the sorting hat scene to one Quidditch class scene with Madame Hootch that was taken almost directly from The Sorcerer's Stone (that will become a theme with this play) to next year at Platform 9 3/4. We're page 22 in this script and we've already started year two for Albus. This was the second big twist of the play, but this time around I was not in. I did not like this idea at all. I really liked the previous formula with the books where each book was one year at Hogwarts. That gave us plenty of time to develop our characters and our story. Given the fact that they had a really intriguing set-up, I honestly felt short-changed that I wasn't able to experience that first year of Hogwarts. When that time jump happened on page 22, this play lost me. Page 22. And keep in mind, act one, scene one, actually starts on page 7. That's the 16th page of actual dialogue and story out of the 308 pages total. I spent the whole play hoping that this story would recover after I felt like I got brutally slapped in the face on page 22. Spoiler for the rest of this review: it never did. In fact, it just kept getting worse.

Act one of this play goes from page 7 to page 86. Which by the way, there are 19 scenes in act one. That's an average of about four pages per scene. Many of those scenes are two pages or just a page and a sentence. And remember, our average word count per page is not very much at all. I'm not judging the play here as I'm not a play expert, but in many of the plays I've been to they have to spend at least a bit of time setting up each scene. With a ton of really short scenes throughout, I'm honestly curious to know how much of this play is setting up new scenes and how much is actual play. Not going judge there. Just honestly curious. Anywho, back to what I will judge, before act one is finished, not only have we jumped one year in time, but we have jumped three years in time. Suddenly I'm wondering if this short play is going to encompass Albus' entire time at Hogwarts. Thankfully that's not the case, but it's year four where we spend most of our time in this play. But not really at Hogwarts. There's honestly barely any time spent at Hogwarts here, which is frustrating in and of itself. Instead we get this really dumb story line where Albus and Severus decide to jump ship while on the train to Hogwarts at the beginning of their fourth year in order to go back in time and save Cedric Diggory.

That's right. We're going back in time to save Cedric Diggory. Why? Well, you got me. Out of all the people that died in the books, why Cedric Diggory of all people was chosen to be rescued in this story is beyond me. So many other people throughout the series would be totally worth trying to save. But this side character from The Goblet of Fire really seemed like a dumb choice. But yeah, Amos Diggory shows up at Harry's place complaining that Harry killed his son and Harry feels horrible and because Albus now hates his dad he's going back to save Cedric Diggory. Because we have time turners again. We'll get to those in a second. The daddy issues I speak of could've been interesting. The son of the legendary Harry Potter feeling over-burdened by the unwanted weight on his shoulders because of the family he was born into. That's another good setup. That a similar idea that the movie Creed followed, which worked like a charm. In this instance I was more annoyed by it. Albus doesn't like his dad. Harry fails at being a father. I mean, Harry never really had a father, so I can understand the struggle. But this just kept going for an unwanted length of time. I swear it was like the majority of the play. The could've called this Harry Potter and the Stuggles with Being a Father.

They could've also called this Harry Potter and his Stupid Child. The other half of why all these father/son issues didn't work for me outside them spending too much time with it was that Albus Potter is one of the stupidest, most annoying, and most unlikable protagonists in any book or movie that I have watched or read in quite some time. Hey, I hate my father, so let's go back in time and save Cedric Diggory. Once our plan fails and we have screwed up the timeline, let's go back in time again and screw it up even more, causing him to kill his father and thus make it so he was never born and making it so his best friend has to find Snape and Hermione and save the world. Then once Scorpius has saved the world, let's have this genius idea to NOT give the time turner back, but go destroy it on our own away from Hogwarts. And not just that, let's invite Miss Crazy Lady, Delphi the daughter of Voldermort, to join us in destroying it. Of course they don't know the real identity of Delphi at that point, but the fact that she was so totally on board with the whole idea of time travel to change how things transpired should've at least clued them in to the fact that she should not have been invited back. That of course leads to the fourth act of them getting stuck in the time period where Voldemort killed Harry's parents.

Yikes! How many dumb decisions can one dumb teenager make in one short, 308-page story? But fine. Even if we just chalk that off to a dumb teenager doing dumb things like all teenagers do, how about we then address the biggest issue of this entire play? The thing that allowed them to do all these dumb things. The time turner! The object itself is not a bad idea. The idea of time travel is also not a bad idea. The problem here is that they freaking broke their own rules of time travel! I'm perfectly fine with the idea of alternate timelines. I love the Back to the Future trilogy as well as CW's superhero TV show The Flash. Both use alternate timelines and do a great job with it. But both of those universes set that time traveling rule up from the very beginning. The Harry Potter universe set up a different set of rules back in The Prisoner of Azkaban that I think was one of the best set of time travelling rules in the history of like ever. It's the single timeline rule. While you're going through the story, these random events start happening that aren't explained until later. Once you learn of Hermione's time turner, it all makes sense. These random events were future Harry and company coming back through time to save the day. Happening at the same time on the same timeline as our current events.

I absolutely freaking love The Prisoner of Azkaban because of this. It is by far the best stand-alone story in the entire Harry Potter universe. I would still pick The Deathly Hallows as my favorite book because of all the emotion and the huge payoff it gives after years of building up to that moment. But in terms of story, The Prisoner of Azkaban takes the cake as the best individual story and that's because of this brilliant use of time travel that just blew my mind. And the character of Sirius Black, of course. But that's irrelevant to this current review. First off, in general if you start with one set of time travelling rules in your universe you need to stick with it, whether it be single timeline, alternate timeline, or whatever. Second, if the rules you set up in the first place are some of the best rules of time travel ever set up, WHY IN THE FREAKING HECK WOULD YOU EVER DECIDE TO BREAK THOSE RULES AND DO SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! Forget for a second that our specific time-travelling adventure was a really dumb, boring adventure that I was not invested in at all. I was absolutely furious at the idea that they broke their rules. It made my blood boil while I was reading and it makes my blood boil as I type this right now. Enough to make me yell at you in all caps because of it.

Just a second ago, I told you to forget for a second that our specific time-travelling adventure was really dumb. Let's unforget that now. Should I remind you that the whole point of their adventure is to go back in time to save Cedric Diggory? Cedric freaking Diggory!? Not Harry's parents. Not Dobby. Not Fred Weasly. Not Lupin and Tonks. Not Dumbledore. Not Snape. Not Sirius Black. Cedric Diggory. Even if we look at it with the idea that Albus wants to get back at his father by righting one of his father's wrongs, are we really going to look at ourselves in the mirror and say that the most wrongful death in the entire Harry Potter universe that Harry directly or indirectly caused was that of Cedric Diggory? I mean, we have a time turner, right? We broke our time-travelling rules, right? We can literally go back and save anyone, right? We could even go back and save Harry's parents, making it so that Harry is no longer super famous. That would benefit Albus, right? It would cause a whole bunch of other consequences that they would have to go back and fix, but that would make for an interesting story. But no. We decide to go save Cedric Diggory. After breaking our time-travelling rules. And a big portion of this story is doing this then fixing what they did.

Enter act four. After going back in time to save Cedric Diggory and royally screwing up everything else, thus causing Scorpius to re-save the world with Snape and Hermione, the latter of which was kind of a fun sequence, Albus and Severus end up getting stuck back in the time period right before Harry's parents get killed. I purposely brought up that as an example of what they could've done because that's kind of what happened in the last act. Except this is Delphi's workings. Delphi, who we initially thought was Amos Diggory's crazy niece and thus Cedric Diggory's cousin. Turns out this was just a ploy. Now if we're going to set up another villain after Voldermort, we have to make sure we do a dang good job because of how interesting of a villain Voldemort was. A fantastic option is to have it be a follower of Voldemort who happens to be still around and wants to continue what Voldemort started or somehow try to bring him back. Preferably the first option because I'm down with creating new villains to fight instead of having it always and forever be Voldemort. But if we want to do the second option, then fine. That works for now. And if we want our villain to be a crazy powerful witch, that's cool, too.

Because of this, Delphi almost works for me as a villain. First problem is that she relies way too much on these kids for her plan to work. Second problem is that she's really gullible in the end and gets stopped too easily. But the biggest problem that I can't get over is that she is Voldemort's daughter. But not just that, she's the daughter of Voldemort AND Bellatrix. Because apparently Voldemort was off fooling around with Belatrix while he was waiting to execute his grand plan. Not that he has any moral standards he has to follow, but that's just a disturbing idea. And one that doesn't make much sense. I thought Voldemort was incapable of loving. So are we saying that he fell in love with Bellatrix and had a child with her? Or are we saying that he decided to have a child with her in order to continue his legacy in case he failed, which would infer that he wasn't confident that he would succeed? Pick your poison, I guess. The play doesn't give us any details and regardless of which way I try to think about it, I'm not sold. Belatrix and Voldemort having a child is a huge twist that makes no sense to me at all. I would've prefered Delphi to simply be a follower of Voldemort. Not a daughter of Voldemort.

I could go on about this play. There's so much more I could discuss, but since I've rambled on so long anyways, I'll call it good for now. In summary, this story lost me on page 22 and never recovered. The time jump to year four frustrated me. I didn't like Albus Potter as a protagonist. The father/son issues between Harry and Albus went on way too long. We freaking broke our time-travelling rules to go on an uninteresting time-travelling adventure centered around saving Cedric Diggory. And our twist-ending that Delphi is the daughter of Voldemort and Bellatrix was both disturbing and made no sense. I didn't even discuss that this is essentially like a fan fiction of Harry Potter that combines the third, fourth, and seventh books into one instead of coming up with a new, original story. I don't know whether I should blame J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, or Jack Thorne for this (those are the three names on the cover of my copy). Perhaps all three. But this is an overall disaster. I'll return to the Harry Potter universe on this blog later this year with my ranking of all eight movies followed by my review of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in November. Hopefully that'll be a better experience. If I were to give this a grade, I would say it deserves a 3/10.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Nine Lives Review

I saw the trailer for this Kevin Spacey talking cat movie and I'm not going to lie, I thought it looked really dumb. I almost had zero interest in seeing it as I was 100 percent confident that it was going to be trash. Then the reviews came in. Suddenly I found myself in the theater watching it. No, it wasn't because the reviews were good. It was because the reviews were SO bad that I got curious. I wanted to see HOW bad this movie was. Granted there wasn't a ton of reviews, but a 3.2 on IMDb and a 5 percent on Rotten Tomatoes got my attention. As did a review from YouTube critic Chris Stuckmann who went on an absolute angry tirade against this movie. You see, I thought this was going to be a dumb movie, but one that would entertain kids to the point where you can't praise it but you also can't trash if it entertained it's target audience of 5-year-old kids. Thus is why I felt comfortable skipping it. But reviews were so bad that I was surprised myself. I had to satisfy my curiosity. Going in, I had three questions. One, is this really as bad as everyone has been saying? Two, if so, does it make it into so bad it's good territory? Three, is there any entertainment value whatsoever for young kids? Those questions are going to be the basis of this review.

First, the premise of this movie. An older man, played by Kevin Spacey, is the rich owner of a very successful business. He is both the worst boss on earth and the worst parent on earth. He's in his second marriage and no one in his life likes him at all. Except his 11-year-old daughter. She adores him to the point where she will record and watch his press conferences from his work over 80 times in a row. Let's stop right there. This tells us two things. First, we've got on our hands one of the most cliche premises you can think of. I don't need to tell you the rest. You know exactly what's going to happen. Second, an 11-year-old daughter watching her dad's press conference over 80 times in a row? Are you kidding me? Apparently our goal is to go for the worst writing ever and come up with the most unrealistic situation ever. Because heaven forbid a kid's movie present a real-life situation that people can honestly relate to. Let's continue, though. Because this father is the worst person on earth, he gets turned into a cat by this crazy cat whisperer dude and is forced to live for a time period as the family's cat. Because that's a totally unique idea that's never been done before. I wonder how this is going to turn out?

This is not going to be a spoiler review, but only because I don't care to dive into the details of this horrific plot. It's a movie aimed at 5-year-olds with the most cliche, predictable plot you can imagine. I would say that you know from the first five minutes of this movie how everything is going to turn out, but that's not completely true. You know by looking at the title and poster of this movie how everything is going to turn out. You don't even need to watch the trailer, but if you do, everything will be verified. This is about a man who is the worst person on earth, gets turned into a cat and thus realizes that he is the worst person on earth and thus is a great person once he becomes human again. That's it. You can guess that from the the title of the movie. You can guess that from the poster. You can guess that from the trailer. You can guess that from the first five minutes. They don't even make an attempt to do anything unique or creative whatsoever. In fact, this is one of the laziest movies of this whole year. If your goal is to make a fun movie for kids, you can take a predictable, cliche premise and turn it into a fun kid's movie. It just requires some good writing and a solid effort by all the cast and crew. But no. You get none of that here.

When I say you get no effort from anyone, I mean it. I don't know how this script got passed the board room, but it did. Someone accepted this and I have no idea why. The whole script is beyond awful. What's even more confusing is why Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, Robbie Amell, Teddy Sears, and Christopher Walken accepted the roles offered to them. These are very respectable actors who should've taken one look at the script and tossed it in the trash. Maybe they saw that Barry Sonnenfeld was on board to direct and signed the contract? I mean, he's the guy who directed all three Men in Black movies. He should at least be able to take a script and do something with it, right? Nope. I don't even know who to point the finger. Talented actors and talented filmmakers were responsible and everyone across the board looked like they were there for a quick paycheck. And it's not just the director and actors that were lazy. All the special effects and sound editing was atrocious. I mean, we live in 2016. A believable, live action Jungle Book movie was just made using almost entirely computers. We should be able to make a passable talking cat movie. But no. I've seen movies from the 80's and 90's that did a better job with the special effects than this movie.

Maybe it's unfair to expect every animal movie to be on the same level as The Jungle Book. But still. Do something to make it believable. Kevin Spacey gets turned into a cat, but all we get is shots of the cat with a Kevin Spacey voice-over. Not once in the entire movie did I believe that Kevin Spacey's voice was coming from the cat that was on screen. But not just that, there were cat meows and growls for most of the movie and I didn't even believe those natural cat noises were coming from the cat. I'm no expert, but it should be fairly easy to use a computer to make it look like the cat is angry when growling noises are happening. Then when they decided to use that computer to create special effects with the cat jumping around the house, it was a complete joke. That cat was doing things that a cat would never even be capable of doing in real life and the CGI during those scenes was a joke. When I say I've seen talking animal movies from the 80's and 90's that did a better job with special effects and sound mixing/editing, I'm not even exaggerating. This is bad. It's really bad. And it boggles me looking at the cast and crew, who have all made great movies. What went wrong? How could a movie this bad be made by people who are this talented? I don't get it. I really don't.

To answer my first two questions, is this movie as bad as everyone has been saying and if so, does it reach the so bad it's good level? Does it deserve a 3.2 on IMDb, a 5 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and an F from Chris Stuckmann? Abso-freaking-lutely. And for the second part of that question, no it definitely doesn't reach the so bad it's good level. This is just bad in a cringe-worthy way. If this was made by amateur filmmakers who didn't know any better or by a group of filmmakers who were purposely trying to make a bad movie, like that of Sharknado, perhaps I could understand. But the fact that this was made by professional filmmakers who have made great things in the past and won Academy Awards for their work just makes this movie mind-boggling. And I haven't even discussed the plot specifics that proves this even further. But honestly I don't want to. Just think about my example in the beginning of the daughter watching her dad's press conference over 80 times in a row and think about something that level of stupid or worse happening in every single scene and you have nailed this movie. I don't even exaggerate. The actors themselves don't do a bad job, but the movie they're in is so dumb that it just seems like none of them really care.

Before I sign off, I do want to address that final question I had, because that's where this gets tricky. Is there any entertainment value for young kids? Well... uhhh... yes. I have to be honest. I went to a matinee showing on a Saturday afternoon and I had a theater full of kids whose parents were tricked into thinking this may be a fun kids movie and I used those kids as my test subjects. Did I laugh? No. Not even once. Did I think the movie was complete trash? Yes. But I also payed very close attention to the kids' reactions to each scene and there were several moments where all the kids burst out in laughter. There's an opening montage of cat videos that made them laugh. The first few moments when Kevin Spacey got turned into a cat made them laugh as he struggled to figure things out. When he peed on the rugs and in people's purposes, it made them laugh. When he attacked his former employee who was trying to sell his company, it made them laugh. I purposely walked out alongside a family of kids and as they left they were commenting on how they thought the movie was really funny. So how do I judge this? Do I say it's a horrible movie that you shouldn't even show your kids when I witnessed a lot of kids laughing throughout? I don't know. That might not be fair.

Personally I think there is a lot of potty humor in this with him peeing everywhere or them threatening to neuter him that I don't think is good kid's humor, but it's nowhere near as dirty as The Angry Birds Movie from earlier this year. However, to this idea of the kids enjoying it, I have a few thoughts. First is that I always say that the best kids movies are the ones that kids and adults can enjoy. While this may have entertainment value for a 5-year-old, this has zero entertainment value for adults. Being that, as an adult, you are the one paying for the tickets, I don't think this is worth venturing out to the theater to see. That can be expensive. If this shows up on Netflix in a year or so and you need something to distract your younger kids while you do a few chores around the house, perhaps this is a good option. But that aside, I still think there are better options for kids that they would enjoy more, especially if you are wanting to take your kids to the theaters right now. We have Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets, The BFG, and Ice Age: Collision Course in theaters right now. In the next few weeks we will add Pete's Dragon and Kubo and the Two Strings to the bunch. Please, please please, please do me a favor and choose one of those over Nine Lives. You'll be doing the whole family a favor.

In wrapping this review up, I honestly feel like I've only scratched the surface. Cat pun partially intended there. This movie is a CAT-astrophe. Pun there very much intended. This is one of those movies where I could go scene by scene and totally tear this whole thing apart. We start with a very unoriginal premise of a man getting trapped in the body of an animal in order to learn a life lesson. Whoever came up with that premise took it and hired someone to write a very bad script. Somehow that script passed the board room and a talented director and talented actors were either hired or conned into doing this project and every single one of them phoned it in. I don't know how excited they were to do this movie, but the final product would lead me to believe that they were all there for a quick paycheck only. Then after a really lazy, unfunny movie that relied heavily on toilet humor to attempt to be funny, this was passed onto post-production where they came up with special effects and sound editing that were more poorly done than plenty of 80's and 90's talking animal movies. This is a mess. But it's a mess that a lot of the kids in my theater enjoyed somehow. So maybe your kids will enjoy this, too? Even so, I don't recommend you seeing this, especially with all the options out right now. My grade for Nine Lives is a 3/10. Because it made the kids laugh. But even that feels generous.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Suicide Squad Review

My most anticipated movie of the year has finally arrived! And it has arrived with an onslaught of horrific reviews that almost crushed me. As I type this, it currently holds a 27 percent on everyone's favorite review aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes. For the record, I am a fan of Rotten Tomatoes. I think it's a great site that gives an honest consensus of professional critics around the web. As someone who loves reviewing movies, I would love to become big enough one day for my opinion to be added to the many great critics whose opinions get considered on that site. I laugh at this petition that Suicide Squad fans have started to take down the site due to bad reviews. It's not the site's fault. Let's point the finger of blame at the right source. That said, even though I like looking at Rotten Tomatoes, there are a lot of times where I disagree with the consensus. Take this summer for example. Now You See Me 2: 33 percent. Ninja Turtles 2: 38 percent. The Legend of Tarzan: 35 percent. Nerve: 57 percent. Jason Bourne: 57 percent. That's five "rotten" movies that I personally gave good reviews to. Let's add another one why don't we? Because, yes, I enjoyed Suicide Squad. So allow me to defend this DC success that's been unfairly trashed.

Before I get into Suicide Squad, though, I think it's important for me to remind you of my position on these DC and Marvel superhero films. First of all I will reiterate that this Marvel vs. DC war is really dumb. I hate the idea that people think you need to choose one or the other. Why can't I like both? But if you put a gun to my head and force me to pick either Marvel or DC, I will first argue with your logic because I don't think I should be forced to pick one, and then before you pull the trigger, I will pick DC. That might shock some, but it's true. I've been more attached to the characters and stories from the DC comics growing up than I have the Marvel comics. Batman and Superman are two major reasons behind that. I love the first two Christopher Reeve superman movies. I enjoy most of the Batman movies. The Dark Knight trilogy specifically is phenomenal. But I also grew up watching a lot of DC cartoons on TV with Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League, etc. Outside Spider-Man, Marvel didn't have as big of an impact on my childhood and it was DC that ruled my life for many, many years. Obviously it's been a different story as of recently. When we specifically compare the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the DC Cinematic Universe, it's been Marvel that has dominated. But DC's ruled TV, so it's not like they're completely out of the game.

Let's talk about that DC Cinematic Universe real quick. They've only had two movies so far, but it's been a rough start. I absolutely hated Man of Steel with an angry, fiery passion. But it's not because I'm a DC hater. It's because I'm a DC lover and I hated the way they portrayed Superman in that movie and I thought the movie itself was also pretty cruddy. I also wasn't a fan of Batman v. Superman either. But it's not because I'm a DC hater. In this instance it was because they tried to do way too much. They shoved at least three movie's worth of content into that one movie because they didn't want to spend several years trying to catch up to Marvel. In the process, they only gave us eight minutes of Batman fighting Superman, which was the freaking title of the movie. And that ended because their mothers have the same name and thus they were besties ever since. I do hear the Ultimate Edition of the movie improves the movie, but I've not been able to get my hands on a copy and I don't want to pay the money to buy it just to see, so I can't judge. What I will say about Batman v. Superman is that I loved the individual elements of the movie and it gave me hope for the future of the DC Cinematic Universe.

Note the director of both these movies. Zack Snyder. I've concluded a while ago that perhaps it's not a DC problem we have or a Warner Bros. problem. Maybe it's a Zack Snyder problem. I'm sure the man is an amazing individual, but I just haven't really enjoyed his movies. I've been waiting for him to prove otherwise, but he has yet to do so. The first benefit of Suicide Squad is that it is not Zack Snyder. It's David Ayer. He's a director I do like. Two years ago he made a fantastic movie called Fury that I think is really underrated. He also directed End of Watch and wrote and co-produced Training Day, two movies I haven't seen but have heard great things. So I was excited to see what he could bring to the table as a writer and director of Suicide Squad. They also had an excellent marketing campaign with several phenomenal trailers that had me stoked. Not to mention a great cast with some of my favorite actors, including, but not limited to, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, and Will Smith playing Harley Quinn, Joker, and Deadshot. No way they can go wrong, right? Well, apparently some people think they went very wrong. But I'm not going that route. I'm going against the grain because I was thoroughly entertained with this movie. This isn't perfect, but there's a lot of things they did right.

I love myself a good villain. Recently I've been very particular with my villains because this is something that Marvel can't get right. If you are one that thinks Marvel can do no wrong right now, this is the exact question I'm going to probe you with. They've had a handful of decent villains, but they've also had a ton of forgettable villains and not too many truly great villains. So what makes a good villain? In my opinion a good villain is more than just someone who looks and/or sounds scary. They need to have a good backstory. They should be relatable. They need to have good motivations for what they are doing. It's nice if they actually have a good plan. Looking and/or sounding ominous is good frosting on the cake, but that's actually not a requirement for me. Some of the best villains are ones that look like normal human beings because they are often most relatable. It's also preferable if the villain isn't the type of villain that's been done a hundred times before or has a plan that's hasn't been attempted a hundred times before. But with good acting and good writing, that can sometimes be forgiven. If you analyze these qualifications, most of Marvel's villains fail. Loki may be the only one that passes the test. Suicide Squad has seven characters that at least pass the majority of these qualifications.

This is what I liked most about this movie. The idea of the suicide squad has always been one that I've loved. A team of villains organized by the slightly crazy Amanda Waller to fight another villain for the "good guys" is a fantastic premise. They did this on the TV show Arrow back when it was actually a good show and it's been done other times before that and it's a lot of fun. In many ways I like it better than having a team of heroes because you aren't sure who exactly you're supposed to be rooting for and you honestly don't know if one or more than one of them are going to betray the others. Because, after all, they are "bad guys." It's what they do! How do you get a team of villains to actually do what you want them to do? In this case you insert some sort of explosive device into their necks and threaten to blow them up if they don't do what you ask. And you give them incentives like freedom or reduced prison time if they cooperate. This is the premise here. I don't want to dive too deeply into the specifics of the plot because I respect the movie-going process and the trailers, despite there being like a hundred of them, did a good job of not spoiling the plot or the ending. But I loved this team. I loved the uncertainty with several of the characters. And I was entertained by the action.

Let's talk about the specifics with these villains. Headlining everything right now is Harley Quinn and the Joker. And for good reason. I love these two! Probably my favorite type of villain is one that is psychologically messed up for whatever reason, which is the case with both of them. We get more backstory for Harley Quinn and less backstory for the Joker, but the Joker is so insane that he makes up for us not knowing a ton about him. These two are the perfect on-screen psychotic couple. So much crazy chemistry between them. Margot Robbie is every bit as good as she's been hyped up to be and Jared Leto puts to rest any concerns there were of bringing this character back after Heath Ledger's legendary performance in The Dark Knight. It is worth noting that this is not the Joker's movie. He may not show up as much as you may like him to. But as long as you realize his role in this is most likely a tease for something coming up, then you should be fine. I would really love our solo Batman movie to focus on the Joker as the villain. I know it's been done a hundred times before, but Ben Affleck's Batman needs to face off against Jared Leto's Joker in an epic showdown. An official rumor is that we are getting a Harley Quinn spin-off movie and I'm 100 percent down for that, especially after Margot Robbie's performance in this movie.

We do have plenty of other villains to talk about. And I hope you are fine with me talking a lot about villains in a villain-centered movie. In addition to Harley Quinn and the Joker, our other great villain here is Will Smith's Deadshot. He's a crazy guy that's killed a lot of people, but he also has a daughter who loves him and he loves her. This father/daughter relationship is done so well. When I talk about motivation and backstory, it doesn't get much better than this. On top of that, Will Smith is such a boss as Deadshot and brings so much charisma to the character, much like he does in almost every other role he takes on. There's a reason he's one of the best a-list actors in the business right now. After these three, we have Jai Courtney's Captain Boomerang, Mr. Eko's Killer Croc, Jay Hernandez's Diablo, and Cara Delevingne's Enchantress. These four aren't on the same elite level as Harley Quinn, Joker, and Deadshot, but I'd say all of them are good villains for their own reasons. Yes, if you didn't catch it, Jai Courtney was boss. That may be a first. If you are confused about Mr. Eko, that's the actor's character in the TV show LOST. Please don't make me type the name Adewale Akinnuoye-Agabje twice. Mr. Eko is much easier. Out of these four, I think I liked Cara Delevingne most, but Jay Hernandez was close behind and the other two weren't bad either.

I won't spoil who the big villain is that our team is fighting. That was spoiled for me and it made me mad. But I actually enjoyed this villain for reasons I'm not getting into. Our officially suicide squad team is Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Boomerang, Diablo, and Killer Croc. The others are in the movie doing other things. And given that they are technically all villains, anything can happen. So if you have no idea who the main villain is, that's a good thing. Our main "good guys" in this movie are Amanda Waller played by Viola Davis, Rick Flag played by Joel Kinnaman, and Katana played by Karen Fukuhara. Out of these three, Amanda Waller is the most interesting of the bunch. She's the mastermind behind all of this and she's pretty dang good at being intimidating. And there's some things that her character does that make you question her motivates and make you wonder if she's really that much better than our main "bad guys." I liked that. The only true, pure good person in this movie is Katana. She's more of a side character, but she's fighting alongside our team and is super boss. But being that they spent so much time introducing her in Arrow only to literally do nothing with her, I'm glad they had her on in this movie fighting with the team because she's boss!

Concerns with the movie? Yes, I have them. But for me they are more nit-picky than major concerns. We did spend a lot of time setting up our team. But I enjoyed all of these set-ups. It's not like Batman v. Superman where we had over an hour of set-up because the movie tried to be three movies in one. This was more focused. Amanda Waller has an idea to get a team of villains together to solve a problem. They organize that team and go out to solve the problem, with a few obstacles along the way. That's a more focused movie. And it was an entertaining one with a whole ton of fun action sequences and great characters. The action wasn't super over-the-top and frustrating like in Man of Steel and it wasn't super rushed like our Batman and Superman fight in Batman v. Superman. There were moments in the movie where the editing felt off or a specific scene felt tacked on. I know there was a lot of re-shoots and I'm wondering if that may have been part of the problem. The soundtrack was also a bit too much at times. And you could argue that our main villain was a bit cliche. I want to dive into that last point, but I won't. There was no huge twist or jaw-dropping moment. You can call this a run-of-the-mill superhero movie, but it was one that I really enjoyed.

Yes, this is a long review. But it needed to be because I really enjoyed this movie and given that it's been getting so much crap from critics and others, I needed to make a stance. I look at the three movies from DC's cinematic universe and I see a lot of progress. Man of Steel was a disaster. Batman v. Superman was a little better, but overall another misstep. Suicide Squad was much better than both of those two, which proves that we are going in the right direction. I liked the lighter tone of this movie. There was plenty of humor in it as well as a lot of scenes that were simply fun and entertaining. DC started this universe thinking that they needed to do everything dark and depressing, which I wasn't a huge fan of in this instance, so I'm glad we got a movie that was simply light-hearted and fun. I loved our team dynamic. I counted ten good characters in this movie, at least three of which I could elevate to great. Most of these characters had great character moments and believable arcs. I love how this team gelled as a group and I really want to see most of them back in some form or another in this DC universe. No, this was not as phenomenal as I was initially anticipating it would be, but this is still a lot better than some are giving it credit for. I'm going to give Suicide Squad an 8/10.