January 29, 2015

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie

I don't know if it's the 13 years of schooling that can't stop teaching us how America is the hero of the world or the fact that we grew up with grandparents who actually lived through the war, but Americans have a soft spot for all things WWII. This is certainly true in the movies, where it's hard to pick out more than a dozen popular war movies that aren't about WWII. Despite our country being in a fair number of "conflicts" since then (I mean, really Congress?), we really don't think back to Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq/Afghanistan (not to mention our hand in all the wars in Central America) with any kind of fondness. We think of WWII as "the good war," which makes Captain America an iconic "good guy" superhero. I think it would feel unpatriotic to dislike him, even though his first movie was dull and uninspired.

But, since everything gets a sequel these days, and I can't seem to escape watching them, Captain America was given a shot at redemption and I was there to watch it. He brought all of the idealism and wholesomeness we associate with the 40's and managed to make it not seem out of place in the cynical present. There was also a fair bit of hand to hand combat, which sets it apart from the usual explosion-filled, gun-firing action movie. (Though there were plenty of explosions as well.) Even Samuel L. Jackson managed to get a few lines out that were under 150 decibels.

There were, however, still some negatives to contend with. For one, Marvel decided yet again to do the whole "rebel rides a motorcycle in a white t-shirt and jeans" thing (did they confuse him with Wolverine?), which you'd think they understand to be sort of played out by now. And Scarlett Johansson still doesn't use a Russian accent which still bothers me. Then they work in some emotional chit chat for her, which seems out of sync with the character they've crafted for her thus far and frankly, are some of the worst parts of the movie. I'm no comic book nerd, but it seems like Marvel is squandering the opportunity to make Black Widow a totally badass character with her own spin off with her weak portrayals in these Captain America movies. And all the tight leather outfits in the world can't make up for the fact that Scarlett Johansson just shouldn't be a redhead.

Overall, despite the pain in watching Robert Redford well past his glory days and a couple of plot twists that aren't even mildly unpredictable, it was still way better than expected. Maybe because it has a stupid title.

Final word: Between this and Guardians of the Galaxy, I almost forgive Marvel for making so many Spiderman movies.

January 27, 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace

My sister loves Vin Diesel. Like, I'm pretty sure he thinks he's hot. So she would be disappointed that his role in this movie is limited to the words "I am Groot." Generally in that order. I, on the other hand, thought he was the best part of the movie. (Although the guy who takes everything literally comes in at a close second.)

With the market over-saturated with superhero movies, this movie stood out as one that actually balanced humor with its action sequences. Beyond the "I am Groot" jokes (which never get old, btw), the jokes are also evenly distributed among the characters instead of being concentrated with just the one funny side kick like so many other movies.

Chris Pratt is very obnoxious frat boy-ish here (think: Ashton Kutcher in every movie and TV show, but chubbier), which could really ruin a lesser movie, but sort of works here because they add just enough dork to his character that you don't really take him too seriously. It's unfortunate that we're somehow expected to believe he's is such a stud that he scores with dozens on women using nothing more than his charm, but you know, it's a fantasy movie. *eye roll* I sort of wished Zoe Saldana had stabbed him with something sharp and watched him die painfully despite being him the main character, but alas, this is more of a "feel good" movie.

The plot is predictable and a bit cliché, but I mean, it's still an action movie, so what else would you expect? It does this whole "band of misfits" thing and of course, has a rousing pep talk before heading into the big fight, but I've realized these things are don't really bother me when the rest of the movie is good. Other things I was able to overlook because the movie was good enough? Some extremely lazy outer space set design (Ronan's lair looks like it's made of black painted styrofoam) and a really confusing first 15 minutes where they basically scroll through every single character with minimal backstory. Maybe viewers were expected to know who these characters were? But if even a non comic book geek like me can figure it out, probably anyone can.

Final word: We'll see how much I still like this movie when the sequel comes out.

BTW, this has absolutely nothing to do with the movie, other than the fact that it's about Lee Pace, the actor who plays Ronan the Accuser, but this had me cracking up. People on the internet can be funny.

January 24, 2015

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, et al

I'd like to say I'm not reviewing any more sequels, but it seems like that's all there is these days. And after this movie, I thought I was especially done with Dreamworks sequels. Yet, here I am.

My gripes about the first movie are still present: the voice of Hiccup, the fact that none of the kids have accents but all the adults have strong Scottish accents, and the fact that they are supposed to be Vikings, but have Scottish accents. So minor stuff, really.

The animation, however, does live up to the original. There are more dragons, more wide shots of scenery, and more characters--all requiring more work on the part of the animators. I think they did a fabulous job and I can see why people are in awe of this movie because people often focus on amazing cinematography and lose perspective on things like say, plot. (See: Gravity)

I will say, they really tried to make the plot interesting and complex. They did not cop out and simply copy the original (cough, cough, Hangover 2). They brought back all the original characters that people liked and introduced new ones. However, this is also made the movie a bit of a hot mess. Much like a big budget Hollywood ensemble cast movie, this had too many characters. Characters from the first movie who provided occasional comic relief but who were also present throughout were reduced to one or two snippets with exaggerated comedy and not seen otherwise. It's as if they already had a contract with those cast members, so wrote in a little part for them, but otherwise re-cast almost the entire movie. Even Stoic, the dad, was only seen a few key scenes, which is a f*ing travesty because he has the most epic man beard of all time. And I never tire of Gerard Butler's voice.

The introduction of the female character, to me, was too predictable and an overwrought attempt at creating the relatable clash of feelings of the first movie between Hiccup and his dad. It felt like just another plot twist to try and keep things interesting. While I appreciate the attempt at a non-predictable plot, it simply failed here and the continual twists became a little annoying.

Ultimately, it was better than your average sequel, but perhaps that's not saying much. It's certainly not Oscar worthy. 

Final word: Not seeing what the hype was about. And it's sure as hell not better than The LEGO Movie.

January 20, 2015

The Penguins of Madagascar (2014)

a bunch of career voice actors and John Malkovich, Bennedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong

Remember when I complained that pretty much all sequels are a bad idea? This also applies to spin-offs. You know, at least Disney has the decency to make their spin-offs straight-to-DVD. That's why most people have probably never heard of The Lion King 1 1/2 or Leroy and Stitch. Those movies may be awful, but at least they're not charging $12/ticket to watch it.

Dreamworks, on the other hand, is responsible for 4 Ice Age movies, 4 Shrek movies (not to mention its own spin-off, Puss in Boots) and this series - all released in the theater. Not to mention The Croods.

In some ways, it's sort of understandable this movie was made. Not only was the franchise successful enough to milk 3 movies from it, but much like the minions of Despicable Me, everyone's favorite characters in Madagascar were the penguins. Well, them and Julian. And for the first forty-five minutes or so, the movie was pretty decent. It had clever humor, a passable plot with lots of action, and really played up the fact that everyone finds penguins irresistibly cute. I mean, not as much as pandas, but penguins are pretty cute too.

But then... time stopped. At least, that's what it felt like. I must have checked my watch 20+ times during the last half hour of the movie. It's like it just wouldn't end. I understand that people have certain expectations with regard to the length of feature films, but this movie felt like it stretched an hour plot into an hour and a half movie just so people wouldn't feel ripped off. Except that the extra half hour is really what made the movie horribly disappointing, so that's ironic.

Oh, and while I'm impressed that Ken Jeong has managed to parlay 15 seconds of nudity in The Hangover into an actual career, I think we can all agree his "talent" is better suited to stereotyping Asian people than voicing cute, furry animals. 

Final word: I have a feeling the upcoming Minions movie will be highly reminiscent of this experience.

January 15, 2015

Into the Woods (2014)

Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, et al

There are two types of musicals:

1. Classic musicals, where people randomly break into musical numbers, but otherwise talk normally. (Think: The Sound of Music. The real one--not the ridiculous Carrie Underwood version.)

2. Musicals where people sing the entire time, even throughout what should just be dialogue. (Think: every time a regular TV show decides to make a musical episode.)

This, my friends, is not The Sound of Music. Singing comprises about 95% of all words spoken in this movie, which means you have those awkward bridges of people singing to each other without a recognizable song that encompasses them. But, there are no Russell Crowes in this movie, so it's not quite as distracting or painful to watch.
The plot is really quite clever. The fairy tales are widely recognized and the idea of having them all intersect is interesting and at times, funny. The musical number where Chris Pine and whoever plays Rapunzel's prince rip open their shirts on top of a waterfall is slightly disturbing, even in spite of the fact that it's supposed to be satire, but I didn't mind the rest of the musical numbers.

Where the movie fell short for me, was in some of the casting. I found Little Red Riding Hood to be not really cute enough to overcome her bratty demeanor and Johnny Depp plays just another creepy Tim Burton-esque character with too much make-up. Chris Pine, though he tried, made a few too many creepy rapist faces to jibe with his Prince Charming character. I think he was trying to "smoldering." Again, I know he was supposed to be over-the-top, but instead of finding him amusing, I found him to be creepy. Like, you wouldn't want to be alone in the woods with him.

I also never cared for Jack and the Beanstalk, so to have that be sort of the main storyline was disappointing. Despite my beef with Chris Pine, I found the Cinderella storyline so much more compelling and Meryl Streep really brought life to Rapunzel, so the other main characters of Jack and Red Riding Hood really paled in comparison. Seriously though, I don't know what kind of preparation Meryl did for this movie, but her singing was about a hundred times better than in Mamma Mia!.

In all, the Golden Globes decided to recognize the fact that both Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep were excellent in their respective roles and that this movie was, overall, a successful adaptation of a play. It had some obvious flaws (like being a bit too long and Act III being awkwardly edited), but for those who can endure a lot of singing, was enjoyable enough to watch. I think people who didn't like it maybe didn't know what they were in for--perhaps they expected it to be more of a dark, creepy tale instead of the funny, satirical piece that it was. (Just look at the movie poster.) Or maybe it was just too much singing.

Final word: It sure beats watching another sequel.

January 6, 2015

Think Like a Man Too (2014)

The same cast as the first one with the addition of the Allstate guy and a few other semi-famous actors as basically irrelevant characters

I recently got into a--let's call it--"heated" discussion of my expectations of movies. It seems a particular individual took offense at my surprise that The Maze Runner, though decent, failed to offer really anything new to the YA dystopia realm. The individual seemed to indicate that all YA, as well as all romantic comedies, lacked any creativity whatsoever. I staunchly defended my optimism in watching these movies with the hope each time that they might offer something new or unexpected, like Don Jon or Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

I probably should have chosen a different movie to watch after that argument.

I will say, I wasn't all that optimistic going into this. Despite hitting #1 at the box office in its debut, and my positive review of the first movie, I sort of knew deep down this wasn't going to be good. I half-heartedly hoped otherwise, but I knew. Nothing good can come of a sequel whose major plot point is the fact that it's set in a party city (see: my Final Word below).

The whole thing was a combination of tired and bizarre. Where the first movie had insight into real relationship issues, this movie had exaggerated situations and recycled dialogue. I mean, how is it even possible that Zeke (the freak) would run into that many women he had previously slept with? And why would every woman even still care, years later, that he had dumped them after what was presumably a short fling? Talk about not understanding half your viewer demographic. And why would any woman in their right mind marry a guy with a mother like Loretta? If you didn't think the women in the first movie were portrayed as controlling, manipulative, and emotional enough, this movie certainly remedied that.

As for the bizarre, the extended music video break in the middle was not only not funny and bizarre, but extremely long. They literally played the entirety of "Poison" by Bell Biv Devoe. While the women switch between making it rain with dollar bills in a strip club and posing on couches as if they were strippers themselves. And a random appearance by Floyd Mayweather might have made more sense if they had just gone all the way and copied The Hangover's use of Mike Tyson in their movie as an additional plot point, but instead, he was just in the movie to showcase a joke (again) about Kevin Hart being tiny. Like I said, bizarre. And pointless.

Final word: This is Sex and the City 2 meets The Hangover 2 bad. 

P.S. This was so bad, a reviewer on IMDB actually wrote, "If you like comedies like 22 Jump Street or Neighbors, you would be wasting your time by going to see this movie as it does NOT compare what so ever [sic]." Doesn't compare with Channing Tatum/Jonah Hill or Zac Efron/Seth Rogan? Ouch.

January 1, 2015

The Maze Runner (2014)


I don't know what it is about Hollywood and putting out multiple movies about the same thing at the same time, but it seems to be a recurring problem. So it's not really The Maze Runner's fault that it happened to come out after both The Hunger Games and Divergent--but it also doesn't make it easy to watch the movie without running constant comparisons.

Let me list all the ways the movie is reminiscent of recent YA movies:

1. The main guy looks kind of like an emaciated Taylor Lautner.

2. The girl is a slightly cuter version of Kristen Stewart. (Thankfully, those were the only two comparisons to the Twilight series I found.)

3. Alby, the black guy, looks like a younger version of Wayne Brady. (This has nothing to do with other YA movies--I just found it to be distracting.)

4. The whole "box coming up from the ground with food in it" evokes images of the cornucopia in The Hunger Games.

5. The ridiculous factions of people with their "role in society" is redundant of both The Hunger Games and Divergent, though at least The Maze Runner doesn't pretend like the people are sorted based on a one-dimensional assessment of their personality. And there's no Harry Potter sorting ceremony.

6. The maze itself (without giving too much away) and its changes are very reminiscent of the arena in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I mean, do we need to get the architects from Inception to come and design some more imaginative torture chambers for authors?

7. And though not a recent YA book/movie, the whole plot of course is very Lord of the Flies. While I appreciate the undercurrent of political thought of how a society should function, all these movies focus on dictatorships and less on problems the readers might actually face. I realize these books are fantasy/fiction, but wouldn't it be great if the recent popular teenage books actually taught them something about the world they're living in? Maybe that's just asking for too much.

Other distracting moments? Having almost an entire cast of males (in direct contrast to the leading females of both The Hunger Games and Divergent) and realizing the cute boy from Love Actually grew up to be really not cute. (Call it the curse of Elijah Wood.)

Also, not to draw direct comparisons to the "seasoned black guy vs. new white guy" thing, but I got a serious Shawshank Redemption vibe from it all. The prison-type atmosphere, the old time-y clothes, the all-male cast... I half expected Alby to tell Thomas to get busy living or get busy dying.

Don't misunderstand me--this was not a bad movie. Much like Oblivion was a decent movie, despite the familiarity of most of it, this movie managed to repeat much of what we've seen in recent years and still make it exciting. You really can't underestimate the power of good action sequences and this movie has lots.

There were actually some improvements in this movie over its counterparts:

1. Actual, meaningful diversity in its main characters. Instead of just having minorities as peripheral characters or extras (or not at all, Divergent), The Maze Runner features both a black guy and an Asian guy as main characters--with names and everything!

2. No romantic subplot. I'll admit, I like romance movies and watch an ungodly amount of horrible rom coms because I always root for people to find love, but it was surprisingly refreshing to watch a movie with absolutely zero sexual tension or romantic undertones.

3. Action that didn't make me want to laugh. Unlike The Hunger Games, we weren't expected to believe the hero was already somehow skilled at weaponry or something. And no one used the ridiculous fighting techniques shown in Divergent. Not to mention that with the diversity of characters, it wasn't difficult to distinguish who was who during rapid sequences.

4. Decent casting. Despite my complaints above about everyone looking like someone else, no one character stuck out as being miscast. Granted, I didn't read the book, so I don't have a deep-seated grudge against anyone (like Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark), but with the absence of really anyone famous, I wasn't distracted by an appearance by say, Lenny Kravitz, and wondering why he was there. Or whether someone like Kate Winslet should have participated in such a lame movie.

5. No lame tattoos. Ok, ok. I should stop picking on Divergent now or else this list could just keep going.

However, the ending was a massive letdown. The movie managed to keep the suspense of exactly who was behind the maze for the entire movie, then revealed it in an extremely short and unexciting way. And frankly, didn't even answer all the questions I had about the whole thing. Mostly it just felt like a set-up for the sequel. I mean, I know there's a sequel coming, but they could have at least has the decency to give a real ending to make it feel like a movie in its own right.

Final word: Decent enough to watch the sequel, which--in this recent movie climate--is saying something.