December 31, 2015

21 Observations About Star Wars From A First Time Viewer

Confession: I've never seen Star Wars before. Like, any of them. I never thought of this as some kind of deep, dark secret, but with Star Wars: The Force Awakens taking over all aspects of life (Star Wars themed home decor! Star Wars shaped food! Star Wars sponsors Grey's Anatomy!), it seems my lack of Star Wars knowledge is putting me increasingly in the minority. So I went on a 4 day binge, watching all 6 previous movies in preparation for joining the masses at a screening of Star Wars Episode VII.

As a classic series debuting before I was even alive, I went in expecting some hokey graphics and other often-overlooked flaws many of our favorite childhood movies have. But as a set of fresh eyes watching the entire series start to finish (in the recommended order of 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 6), I noticed a few things along the way:

1. As Yoda would say: Cute, young Anakin Skywalker is. Carry long portions of dialogue, he cannot. Elijah Wood, he will never be.

2. George Lucas loves an extended flight scene. Like, really, really, extended.

3. It seems the whole "rebels wear leather jackets" thing extended back even into the 70's. Clichès really are clichès for a reason.

4. The casting of Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi is bizarre. George Lucas does realize Jedi are supposed to be calm, rational people right? Do you realize Samuel L. only shouts once in all 3 prequels? Did he forget to bring his personal writer on board or something?

5. Anakin Skywalker is the whiniest character since Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. He's even more annoying to watch than Harry Potter when he falls under the negative influence of the horcrux.

6. Also, Padmé can do so much better than Anakin Skywalker. Sure, he's a Jedi, but she's a freaking former queen! And wouldn't that whole "I killed them all--not just the men, but the women and children too" confession send up some red flags to preclude you from marrying him?!? (And doesn't anyone find it creepy they first met when he was like, 8, but "fell in love" when he conveniently reached an appropriate age? Yuck.)

7. My theory of prequels and sequels remains intact: they are never as good as the original. Sequels lack the excitement of the first, and prequels rarely surprise you because you know where the story is headed.

8. Jar Jar Binks might be the worst sidekick ever created. If the Star Wars franchise were controlled by CBS, they would probably give him his own spin-off with Kat Dennings.

9. I don't want to be overly sensitive, but between the inexplicable Japanese accent of the viceroy of the Trade Federation and this guy to the left, I'm starting to wonder if George Lucas has something against Asians.

10. I know it's a fantasy story, but are we really expected to believe an 8-year-old Anakin Skywalker built and programmed a droid, built a racing pod, and taught himself to fly? He doesn't even look old enough to cut his own steak.

11. I appreciate that female characters (while few and far between) are not simple-minded, weak women, waiting to be rescued. Aside from the whole Leia/Han Solo "I love you." "I know." And Padmé once she gets pregnant and just stands around with worried looks.

12. I now understand why fans and critics hated The Phantom Menace. Natalie Portman is like a cardboard cutout of herself and I cannot un-see that terrible Mexico spring break braid in Ewan McGregor's hair.

13. I'm still fuzzy on exactly what "the Force" can and can't do. Apparently it allows Jedi to leap buildings like Superman and throw heavy objects around with their hands, but prevents them from actually flying, thrusting opposing planes out of the way, or even deflecting bullets?

14. There is no way Luke and Leia are twins. They don't even look to be in the same age range until Episode VI.

15. I know "the Force" was weak or whatever, but it seems the whole Darth Vader transformation could have been avoided if they hadn't kept Anakin Skywalker on the sidelines like a JV player.

16. This series never would have made it if not for Harrison Ford. He makes everything better. (Except 6 Days, 7 Nights. That couldn't be saved.)

17. I used to dream of owning a pet wallaby. Now, I dream of having a little Yoda who can limp around my house and give me wisdom. (Though I'd also settle for an ewok.)

18. Anakin seems to be the only person unable to correctly pronounce Padmé. He calls her Padamé. Like he couldn't read his script or something.

19. Obi Wan turned out to be significantly less badass than I had imagined. R2-D2 is significantly more so.

20. This series remind me a little of The Fast and the Furious--each subsequent movie had to up the ante on finding new ways to incorporate fast rides, fighting, and explosions.

21. If the promotion and box office success of Episode VII are any indication, I can safely assume sequels will continue to be made until my grandkids are old enough to watch them.

December 28, 2015

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

There are two questions you never want to find yourself asking while watching a movie:

1. Of what other movies does this remind me?
2. How long is this going to run?

The answers to which, were:

1. The Lion King, AvatarCity Slickers, and Mater from Cars
2. Long enough for me to get bored. Then realize there was still 30+ minutes left. Of a 90 minute film.

The Good Dinosaur started with some good ideas, some amazing animated cinematography, then got sidetracked by making the most sappy, predictable, boring story possible with its components.

The animation of the landscapes are amazing. Really. When the movie first started, I thought it had been photographed and we were going to end up with a throwback Disney Mary Poppins-type animated and real life mixed movie. It's that good.

And the idea of dinosaurs never going extinct, but surviving until they overlap with humans? Interesting premise. And sort of clever to make the dinosaurs the protagonists, with their "civilized life" of domesticated agriculture, while humans remain essential wild and dangerous. But is it 90 minutes-worth of clever and interesting? Not by a long shot.

The characters are weak and predictable. Yeah yeah, everyone loves an underdog, but isn't there anything else to be added to this narrative of "weak and timid protagonist with a good heart proves to himself and his bullying sibling/parent/friends/whatever that he is actually strong inside through some arduous journey?" Blah, blah, blah.

What makes a movie like this boring and a movie with a similar premise--say, Hercules--interesting is the detail surrounding the main narrative. In Hercules, the supporting characters are more numerous and have more depth. Meg layers the complexity of good people who do bad things, Hades and his sidekicks are both evil yet provide comic relief, etc. Even Pegasus the horse (who doesn't talk) is more entertaining than the wild little boy in The Good Dinosaur. All we get here are short cameos from redneck dinosaurs like Buck and Butch and Nash. Didn't we already have to suffer through a prototypical "hick" character in both Cars and The Frog Princess?

This movie relies on only two characters--one of whom doesn't speak a word--to fill the entire time and carry the emotional load it tries to dump on the viewer. Instead, it comes off as predictable and trying too hard. Castaway, this is not.

Maybe it was the Western theme. I don't hate Westerns, though I am hard pressed to think of any I love beyond Young Guns (Kiefer!) and Tombstone (Val!). Or maybe it was the fact that a movie about dinosaurs managed to only have a whopping 5 types of dinosaurs (one of which was in the movie for about 30 seconds). Or the fact that the apatosaurus kids' entire goal in life was to put their stupid footprint on a grain storage bin.

In the current climate of remakes and sequels, I was genuinely excited to see a new movie with original characters. But I haven't been this let down from a Disney movie since Brave. At least I can rest assured it won't win Best Animated Feature against Inside Out.

Final word: It's a bad sign when the best part of the movie is the animated short beforehand.

P.S. I hate to give publicity to other blog posts I find offensive or ridiculous, but this one about the movie being blatantly anti-Christian and the author "having to explain to his kids about Hinduism" because of the short beforehand almost made my eyes roll out of my head.

December 17, 2015

15 Things I've Learned About the Hallmark Christmas Movie Universe

It's been two years since I first wrote about made-for-TV Christmas movies. It was slim pickings back then, with The Hallmark Channel trying it's very best to churn out cheesy holiday goodness starring actors who were relevant 20 years ago (Dean Cain, I'm talking to you).

Since then, watching these has become some sort of a trend. Lifetime, TV One, and Ion have all jumped into the mix, making "original" (the use of that term is highly debatable) holiday movies, and Hallmark has expanded into it's "Movies & Mysteries" network with movies that are still Christmas-themed, but attempt to be more dramatic. Even the pool of actors has exploded. Now, for every movie starring Lacy Chabert or Candace Cameron-Bure, there is one with someone who is still acting in things besides TV movies.

Through 3 seasons of nightly Christmas fare consumption, I've learned a few things about the Hallmark-version of life.

1. Both ice skating and picking out a Christmas tree are extremely romantic, but only if one of the two people on the quasi-date are completely inept at the activity. I'm not sure how anyone can be inept at picking out a tree, but this somehow makes for lots of prolonged eye glances and coyly ducking behind trees.

2. Speaking of Christmas trees... only real trees are acceptable. Having a fake tree is the mark of a soulless individual who absolutely cannot sustain a relationship. Real trees are part of the "magic of Christmas."

3. Really rugged men cut down their own tree, but just picking a pre-cut tree off a lot still qualifies as being "super into Christmas" for women and men in office jobs.

4. Sexual harassment is totally ok in the workplace if your boss is cute.

5. Stalking: also ok if you are attractive.

6. All women work the same three jobs: advertising, journalism, or owning a bakery. Her job determines her personality: corporate jobs = single and too busy to date or make more than one friend. Bakery = warm and kindergarten teacher-ish.

7. All men are either slick advertising/finance executives with little time for basic human decency, or down-to-earth guys who do "manly" work like furniture making or construction. Basically, they get the same characteristics as the women, except they get paid more for their jobs--just like real life! *snap*

8. If the main character works in an office, she/he is always up for a promotion--but only if they nail the Christmas story/deal.

9. Someone always has a secret passion for something artistic but lacks the self-confidence to pursue it.

10. There are always kids or animals involved. Someone is always a single parent, aunt, or volunteers at a shelter to help amp up their dating appeal by seeming maternal or nurturing.

11. There are only two ways people are single: recently dumped and bitter about it, or widowed. No one ever gets divorced.

12. People in relationships do not kiss. Nor do people who are basically dating but haven't had "the talk" yet. In fact, no one kisses until a dramatic moment presents itself.

13. It's not weird at all to tell someone you love them after only knowing them a few days. They totally won't panic or be weirded out.

14. Only white people celebrate Christmas. Visible minorities are relegated to friends, co-workers, and the occasional extra. (Seriously. There is never more than 2 black people in a single movie unless it's starring Christina Milian.)

15. It always snows on Christmas. It doesn't matter if it's LA or Seattle or Tennessee.

Don't miss my follow-up post, 10 More Things I've Learned About the Hallmark Christmas Movie Universe

December 14, 2015

Trumbo (2015)

Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren

My social media news feeds have been chock full of political statements lately: Syrian refugees, gun control, Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter (yes, this is still happening), Supreme Court Justice Scalia's weirdly racist statement, anything out of Trump's mouth, etc. And like everything else in life, each side staunchly believes it is the correct side. 

Where I start to lose my sh*t is when people start calling for the infringement of First Amendment rights. A quick lesson out there for everyone who wants to scream "freedom of speech" anytime they want to say something hateful. Yes, you can say it (so long as it is not threatening harm to someone else). But people can still judge you, respond to you, and repeat in the same hateful manner. Hence, the comment section of any article on the internet. Freedom of speech is protection from government persecution of your speech, not public opinion. *steps down from teacher's podium*

I bring all this up because in the wake of all this political turmoil, I watched Trumbo, a movie about Hollywood's blacklist of workers based on their affiliation with the Communist party. And man, did it get my blood boiling. Because no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, don't we all agree that Congress wastes far too much time and money on stupid investigations while ignoring actual problems? (see: The Mitchell Report) I thought this was a universal truth.

But I watched this movie and realized how little has changed. People's fear of Communists, either blatantly led or at least egged on by the government, allowed thousands of people to be fired, lose their homes, become ostracized from their communities, etc. I want to be sympathetic. I do. I get that people are/were scared. But at what point does your fear get to trump fellow citizen's civil liberties? At what point does your fear get to ruin other people's lives?

This movie was heartbreakingly sad. But not because of Dalton Trumbo suffering, though that was of course, tragic. This movie made me sad because I can't help but wonder how many people will watch it and think "wow that's terrible--good thing those times are over." Or "thank goodness for people like Trumbo, who stood up for what's right." Or worse, "he got what he deserved."

Because the fact of the matter is, those times are not over. We are facing an assault on our civil liberties every day, on different fronts. And how many people are going to be willing to risk their livelihood for what they believe in? How many people will stand up for what they believe in if they don't personally have a stake in it? Are we going to leave it to the persecuted to fight their own battles?

I am reminded of the little seen movie, Flash of Genius with Greg Kinnear, in which he spends his entire life fighting court cases against the Detroit motor companies for essentially stealing his patent of the intermittent windshield wiper that can now be found on every single car manufactured across the world. He lost his family, his credibility, his health, and probably a good deal of his sanity fighting for his right to what was already legally his under the law. And yet he had to fight a battle most would not survive. Thank god for him. And thank god for people like Trumbo, who was willing to fight for his Constitutional right to believe whatever he wanted to believe, whether or not I agreed with his philosophies. How many of us would go to prison defending our beliefs and rights (because reminder: Trumbo and the Hollywood 10 actually did NOTHING ILLEGAL). I'd like to believe I would, but I honestly don't know if I would have the courage.

I realize I addressed very little of the movie itself and instead went off on a political tangent. That wasn't by accident. The movie, while compelling, is good precisely because it causes you to think about the political atmosphere of then and today. Of course the acting is good--it's Helen Mirren and Walter freakin' White (who looks more than a little like Geraldo with that moustache), with a dash of John Goodman, who should never act without holding a baseball bat. Everyone plays their part like a good waiter at a fine dining restaurant: the experience is seamless and they call no unnecessary attention to themselves. The characters resist becoming one-dimensional "good" or "bad" guys, with shades of fallibility and valor on both sides. And Louis C.K. is in it, which only makes it more awesome. 

This movie, at it's core, is the quintessential Hollywood movie: it stars big, serious names, is historical, is a drama, and of course, is about Hollywood itself. It's just a shame it wasn't nominated for more Golden Globes.

Final word: If this movie doesn't at least frustrate you in some way, I question your moral compass.

P.S. Roman Holiday is my favorite movie of all time, so it doesn't hurt that Dalton Trumbo also wrote it. Freaking genius, that man. 

December 9, 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard

When did we stop demanding that our summer blockbusters have real plots? Have I become the cranky old lady in a rocking chair, complaining bitterly about "the good old days?" Sure, summer blockbusters have always been known for emphasizing action over substance, but when did we reach Transformers 4-levels of CGI completely replacing a script writer?

The overall premise is believable--that is, if we as a society had already found a way to bring back dinosaurs, that someone would capitalize on its marketing appeal and create an interactive theme park of sorts. You know, the same plot as the first movie. I can even get on board with the fact that eventually, some dumbass would start mixing genes to create some sort of super dinosaur that could basically kill everyone. But outside of those two points? Everything else is a stretch. And I do mean everything else.

Why is there no governmental regulation or oversight of this very obvious potentially dangerous park? Why is the design of the headquarters copied from watching Apollo 13 or really any other NASA-themed movie? Do the writers understand they're writing about a theme park/zoo? Why would a theme park ever allow visitors to actually drive their own bubbles through open fields of dinosaurs? Is everyone operating on the "honor system?" Did the writer of Fifty Shades of Grey write the banter between Pratt and Howard? Is this movie for real?

Add to that, Vincent D'Onofrio's appearance as the most unintentionally ridiculous villain since Hugh Jackman in Chappie and this movie was practically a comedy. An action comedy, of course.

Maybe I missed something, watching it at home on DVD instead of in a big dark theater, but this movie was lacking the suspense and terror the first movie brought. Instead, you just knew the dinosaur was going to be waiting around the corner or above someone's head every time the camera did a slow pan. Granted, I don't watch a lot of suspense movies, but there has to be other methods of drawing that same sensation. It was as if this movie copied every technique from the first movie (with the exception of more updated CGI), except badly.

Which leaves you with only CGI and action--both of which are good. It's hard to hate any action sequence, really, outside of the ending of 22 Jump Street. So that's something, I guess.

Final word: It plays like the 4th movie in a series that never needed a sequel. Which it is.