Wednesday, August 16, 2017

So Many Questions

Two Stars

“The Dark Tower” is a missed opportunity and I have so many questions concerning the production of this film. For one thing, was this a TV pilot? When I heard before seeing this film that the running time is a mere ninety-five minutes, I already took it as a sign that this movie might be bad. “The Dark Tower”, Stephen King’s magnum opus series of eight books, has a lot of stuff in it. I don’t expect the first film to have everything in it, but a film starter like this could have been a new “Lord of the Rings” film type series. There is no shame in taking beloved books and making them television series anymore, as shown by the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” or George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thornes”. Some might even argue that we are in a golden age of epic television anyway, so why not just make a pay per view TV series out of this book series?

Even if this was a television series, the pacing of this movie was odd even if it was for television. Many of the scenes felt like set ups to films that might have been great. However, the word to describe them is rushed. This movie doesn’t take a minute to breath. Even so much that even writing a review of this film isn’t allowing me to get to the part where I explain the basic plot to the reader. The plot starts with a kid named Jake, who lives in a New York City apartment with his mom and step dad. Played by Tom Taylor, the kid who plays him isn’t bad at all. In the fact, for the most part, the actors really aren’t the problem here. The child actor who plays Jake comes off convincing as a kid who’s a bit off. The movie starts with his dream of kids at some kind of weird camp where they are hooked up to machines and drained of power to power a tower.

Once again, all good stuff. Another scene has him sadly putting up drawings of scenes from his dreams. Once again, cool “Twilight Zone” type stuff Stephen King is famous for. However, within a couple of minutes, he figures out there’s an old house in Brooklyn which he suspects might be a portal to another world of his dreams, and he needs to run away from his mom who wants to introduce him to two people who run a school in upstate New York for special kids. Once again, this is a big problem in the film that is twofold. Jake is an interesting character, and I kind of want to see what would happen if he was in a special school in upstate New York. That’s interesting.
However, he is already on the run, and basically, we don’t get to know anything about his life beyond what I just mentioned. Before we know it, he finds a portal in an abandoned house. After a couple minutes, he’s already in a desert with the gun slinger Roland, who is played well by Idris Elba. Idris Elba, a guy who constantly has pain on his face, with a gun is in the desert and woods commenting on the ruins of civilization. They start their “Lord of the Rings” type journey to a village that is in danger, towards the Dark Tower.

But meanwhile, there’s another character, Randall, played by Matthew McConaugley who didn’t seem to know what to do with the role. He just walks around, talking in a flat voice like that’s enough to be “evil”. He wears a hood, he can kill people with a touch, he tells them as they are dying that there is no afterlife and he makes kids turn against their parents by simply walking past them. It ends up that school in upstate New York isn’t real, and it’s really him wanting Jake because it ends up Jake has the shining, another Stephen King reference. Yet, this movie can’t decide if it’s Stephen King diehards or people who are completely new to this material. However, the worst mistake a movie adaptation can make is just assume everyone read the book walking in.

However, there’s even more when Roland and Jake go to our world and do battle against Rolland to defeat his evil. They want us to believe Roland and Jake have a father son type bond now but like everything else in this film, it’s rushed. The pacing in this movie is weird. It’s so rushed, and it makes me wonder if they just threw together a bunch of openings to more compelling scripts together and threw the title “Dark Tower” on script. This movie has had a not so great history. In 2007, Ron Howard (still credited as a producer) gave a crack at this. He couldn’t figure out a way to make it work. So, then J.J. Abrams took a crack at this. He couldn’t find a way to make it work. God, if Howard and Abrams can’t make it work, I don’t think it’s going to work. Then they got a foreign director named Nikolaj Arcel, who I wasn’t sure was really well versed with the movie’s source material. Then Sony kept showing the film to test audiences, and according to the internet, after bad receptions, kept reshooting it to the point the kid looks older at the end of the film even though it’s supposed to take place over a couple days. Sony ended up spending four million dollars reshooting this film.

This film is accredited to five screenwriters, which is usually a bad sign. However, “Spiderman: Homecoming” is accredited to six screenwriters, and somehow pulled off a coherent and lovable film that took cues from John Hughes. I don’t know how exactly they screwed this up. There is no shame in today’s world of making epic books into TV series, and considering how “The Dark Tower” is considered a modern “Lord of the Rings”, I think slowly doing this over a couple years as a TV series might have served the material better.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Biggest Twist in “Goosebumps”? It’s Actually Good.

Three Stars

I had a lot of fun seeing this film.
“Goosebumps”, for those of you who grew up before Harry Potter mania overtook young adult literature, was a series of young adult novels which were designed to give you the chills, but not so much that you would be traumatized, but spooky enough that you would think twice before going to sleep. Considering the books sold three hundred million copies over the years, it’s a bit baffling that they haven’t had a movie adaptation until now. R.L. Stine’s spooky tales have been scaring kids for over twenty years now. R.L. Stine has said in an interview that the problem was that they could never figure out which book to make into an entire film, as the books aren’t very long. The “Goosebumps” film takes a very creative approach to this problem. Why not just have a kid move next door to R.L. Stine himself?

Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves with his mom (Amy Ryan) to a new neighborhood in Greendale, Maryland. He’s not thrilled to be moving from New York City, but that changes fast when he sees the pretty girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush). They meet each other, but she is quickly taken inside her house and he gets a stern warning from her dad, a mysterious man with black-rimmed glasses, who they later learn is R.L. Stine (Jack Black). At school, Zach quickly makes a nerdy friend named Champ (Ryan Lee), who is basically a teen version of Howard Wolfowitz. Things are going normally enough, with him being embarrassed by his mom being  the assistant principal and his aunt  (Jillian Bell) stepping in to help out.

Then one night, Zach hears a mysterious scream come from his next-door neighbor and thinks Hannah is in trouble. He calls his friend, Champ, and they find that there’s  mysterious secrets and big surprises in the house and by mistake unleash the monsters, and things go bonkers. My favorite monster in the film was Slappy The Dummy (also voiced by Jack Black), who turns around the chair, threatens R.L. Stine and the kids and escapes to create chaos in the town.

 What I appreciated about this film was it could of been a big monster chase, and in a way, it is. However, I felt the director and screenwriter took time to throw things into this film they where under no obligation to do. Some of the jokes actually poke fun at the nature of this film in general. At one moment, Zach asks why R.L. Stine couldn’t just write about unicorns and fairies. “Because” R.L. Stine says, “that wouldn’t sell three million copies.” Some of the humor is very self aware, and funny.

Another thing I liked about this film was the twist with the daughter, which I won’t give away, but I thought, was actually pretty unusual considering this is a kid’s film. They didn’t really have to think out a creative twist for her. The kid characters in this film are pretty generic for the most part, but so are the kids in most of the “Goosebumps” books. “Goosebumps” isn’t in the business of making memorable kids like “Harry Potter”, but in a way that’s okay.  R.L. Stine’s stuff is all about normal kids getting into spooky situations.

Jack Black obviously has fun overdoing the cliché horror author persona of R.L. Stine, giving him a cheesy accent and a goofy back story about how none of the kids liked him as a child, as he gained the power to bring the monsters he wrote to life. In a way, this film was better thought out than a lot of the current nineties revivals we’ve been seeing lately. We aren’t seeing a big reunion of these childhood books and us, and yes, some of the twists don’t really make sense, but it doesn’t really matter.  I wish more things that reach for nostalgia while also introducing a new audience, would embrace the silliness of why we liked the things in the first place.  

Friday, May 23, 2014

"The Wind Rises" is a Great Farewell To The Master of Dreams

Four Stars

Say goodbye to the grand master of dreams. I’ll miss Hayao Miyazaki. I’ll miss the magic, and I’ll miss the wonder. He is retiring, and his final film “The Wind Rises” is magical without being magic based. It’s based on a true story, something new for Miyazkai. Though, it has its usual theme. That thin line between good and bad, and a kind of belief that everyone has some good in them, as most of his villains are good people. However, when Miyazki’s guys are good, they are really, really good. No one creates more lovable characters than he does. The man is a master storyteller, which usually leaves the Pixar guys in awe.  His final film, “The Wind Rises” is interesting, because you feel that if this is his final film, he’s going to have his say, which is obvious in little scenes he has in this film. I am reminded of “Grave of The Fireflies”, which he didn’t direct but produced, a film the great Roger Ebert called one of the greatest war movies ever made.
This story centers on Jiro Horiskoshi, a young man who wants to be a pilot. Due to his bad eyesight, it isn’t happening but he instead becomes one who designs planes. He has wide eye optimism, as he simply wants to make planes. He doesn’t know that the planes will be used for war, but at the same time, kind of does. He does know that he loves them as machines and dreams of taking flight. He dreams of his hero, an Italian plane designer named Caponi.

This definitely feels like his last film. I can tell because of all the little commentary he slips into it. His criticism of war and violence is nothing new, as seen in “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Princess Mononoke”. The film ends on the note that Jiro isn’t completely happy with what his planes, which he lovingly designed, are used for. Between the magic of Miyazaki’s movies, there’s always been a hint of commentary. Nature shouldn’t be messed with. Girls can be strong as guys. Evil is never complete evil.

There’s nothing I can really say about the visuals. Every movie Miyazaki produces is beautiful to look at. Every detail is so worked on that you forget your watching an animated film. No one gets you more emotionally invested than Miyazaki in an animated film, except for maybe Pixar.  That being said, there’s a reason that Pixar worships Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s production house. They take many cues from him on how seriously they should take an animated story.
There’s a love story, once again not unusual for Miyazaki, but also this one has a sad part to it. Something one notices while watching Miyazaki movies is his love stories never really stick. “Spirited Away” and  “Princess Mononoke” both have love stories that aren’t going to stick or maybe they will. “Princess Mononoke” leaves it open.

It’s hard to write about Miyazaki’s last film without talking about his other work. I loved the fact that he chooses such a realistic story to end his film career. However, whether magical or non-magical, Miyazaki has the same themes throughout his films. This one is no exception. One sees the sadness and hope throughout Jiro’s life. Tragic and happy, Miyazaki’s films, at the end of the day, are about people and that’s why you forget you are watching animation. “The Wind Rises” is one of this year’s best films. The end of a career built on magic and great storytelling which will missed at the movies.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

“Blackfish” is this year’s most unlikely thriller

Four Stars

I don’t know how this didn’t get an Oscar nod. Excuse the pun, but that smells fishy to me. “Blackfish” is a powerful documentary about SeaWorld. Now that may not sound like much. SeaWorld? It’s a stupid amusement park. Who cares? What this documentary proves, is that SeaWorld is much more symbolic for a bigger problem. It’s symbolic for corporate greed and abuse. Using the story of the trainer Dawn Brancheau, who is killed by the whale, Tillikum, who has killed three people over his career at SeaWorld.

Tracing the history of SeaWorld, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite interviews an old fisherman who was hired by SeaWorld in its early days to kidnap killer whales from its families in the ocean. The fisherman says, “This is the worst thing I ever did.” SeaWorld, after Dawn’s death, blames her for her death. Cowperthwaite interviews former SeaWorld employees, all telling horror stories from their time working there from a whale being separated from his calf to people being almost killed by the whale and SeaWorld’s higher ups simply not caring as much they should.

SeaWorld seems like a narrow topic, but SeaWorld becomes a symbol for a lack of accountability for corporations. Skillfully using scenes of SeaWorld’s family friendly image, she spends a good amount of time talking about the mental condition of the whales. One neuroscientist says all whales in captivity are traumatized. Experts talk about how killer whales are more emotionally complex than we give them credit for.

That entire aside, though, it does beg the question of how absurd it is to build a billion dollar business around killer whales doing stupid pet tricks for a cheering audience. The government investigates SeaWorld and they lie. It’s sad to listen to these people who worked at SeaWorld, because obviously a lot of these people are sincere in their love for animals. Once again, it all comes down to money. These killer whales are worth millions of dollars.

It’s a very upsetting film, in parts, but it’s also hopeful that one-day people will stop using animals for these various purposes such as entertainment or money operations. It’s more than that, though. This film is about how certain companies would do anything for money even at the expense of a living, breathing creature. It’s unbelievable, though, that Tillikum is still at SeaWorld. The trainers in this film plea for SeaWorld to free Tillikum and let him live out the rest of his days in the wild. SeaWorld probably won’t listen. They need Tillikum to breed and it’s worth too much money.

Gabriela Cowperhwaite does an incredibly good job at making this film powerful, and I thought about it days after I saw it. It’s a powerful piece of work, and this is great documentary filmmaking. I’m not saying that documentaries have to be on depressing topics, and they too can be uplifting as well. I am not against the documentary on back up singers winning the Oscar this year, but at the very least, this great piece of documentary filmmaking should have been nominated. This was a powerful film that stayed with me. It may or may not change anything, but non-fiction filmmaking is important, and this needed to be made. It’s one of the year’s best films.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

“Philomena” is a Powerful Film

Three and a half stars

The movie “Philomena” is a powerful new movie on the true story of a women searching for a son she gave up years ago. Based on a book by Martin Sixsmith, “Philomena” brings together two people who are both reeling from problems in their past. One is a journalist who had a very public firing and the other a women who is haunted by the son she was forced to give up. Judi Dench gives a powerful performance as Philomena, who is constantly having a look of pain on her face but also keeps a positive outlook on her faith and forgiveness of those around her. Martin (Steve Coogan) is a bit more cynical, as he doesn’t share her faith in the very church, which made her give up her son. Together they go from Britain to America, trying to figure out what happened to her son. Steve sees it as a human-interest story at first but along the way, learns to put away some his snobbery and see things from Philomena’s point of view.

The film is directed by the wonderful Stephen Frears, who has directed some very good movies like “Dirty Pretty Things”, “The Queen” and “High Fidelity”, which is one of my personal favorites. He does a very good job of shooting this movie, using real footage of Philomena’s son intercut with the movie. I like how he didn’t make it overly dramatic and more of just a story about this women figuring out what happened to her son. Of course, something that has to be addressed is the role the Catholic Church played in this film. They are the ones who took Philomena and her son in, when she was young. They are also the ones who made her give up her son. They do not come off looking good, but I wouldn’t say this film is anti-Catholic. Philomena is a very good person throughout the film, and that is in part to her keeping her faith. She is forgiving.

I like the relationship she develops with Martin. They together have good chemistry and learn to understand each other a bit more. Martin gets angry at what has been done to Philomena. Judi Dench is always good in just about everything she is in. The pain on her face is very believable throughout the film. Steve and Philomena start to develop a very deep respect for each other, and there’s a scene towards the end where Martin finally starts to see things through Philomena’s eyes and does something very nice.

Nothing in the movie is resolved, except for the fact that sometimes institutions don’t do right by their own people. The church that Philomena lived at as a young girl didn’t do right by her, or her child. They are so stuffy they can’t even get over the fact that they considered what she did a sin. The film focuses, though, mostly on bringing these two people together in a kind of understanding of each other. A comedian, Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the film’s screenplay, plays Martin and he does a very good job. He goes from stuffy, and the audience sides with him at times because we know he is right about the injustice of what the church did to Philomena and her son.

However, we also see the world through Philomena’s eyes. She isn’t quite ready to get angry at the church that separated her from her son. She says in one scene that she wants to forgive because she doesn’t want to remain angry. Martin doesn’t quite get why she would forgive. However, at the end, he does learn a bit about why she needs to move on. Sometimes moving on is the only way people can forgive. Philomena didn’t do anything wrong, despite what the Church considers a sin.

It should be noted, though, that this is a movie that works because of the people who made it. It’s not a movie of the week. It’s a sad and true story. We may not walk out of the theater quite understanding in our modern takes on things why Philomena is so willing to forgive, but we do understand Philomena’s willingness to move on because of the great performance of Judi Dench. Forgiveness is easy. Moving on is hard.