Monday, February 13, 2012

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999)

I was in fifth grade when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out. I was already a pretty big Star Wars fan at that point. I remember having Return of the Jedi taped off of TV and watching it often. That was until the original trilogy came out again in 1997. My dad took me to see those when they came out and my Star Wars fandom was cemented forever. I remember seeing The Phantom Menace in theaters three times. I was absolutely in love with the movie. I was in fifth grade. If I reviewed The Phantom Menace when I was in fifth grade, I think there would have been a lot of exclamation points, a high usage of the word ‘awesome,’ and little substance. I’m glad they are releasing all the movies in theaters again. It gives me the opportunity to review them as an adult, or at least as close to an adult as I’ll probably get.

The first Star Wars prequel, Episode I: The Phantom Menace has become one of the most derided and criticized movie ever. There is a LOT wrong with the movie. Most of which has to do with the involvement of George Lucas. He wrote, directed and executively produced this movie. He was effectively in complete control over the entire production, and it shows. The plot of the movie serves only to move us to the next thing that has to happen. We already know that the focus of the prequel movies is going to be the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader.) Why that requires an extended storyline that focuses on galactic politics, I don’t know. Politics is boring, VERY boring. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very important. You should be aware of local, state, and national politics because well, they affect you very closely. However, trade sanctions and taxation in Star Wars? Really?  This is science fantasy! Taxation and politics is a little too mundane for it to be the driving force of the story line here. 

Anyways, I should probably tell you about the storyline. I’ll try and do it quickly and get it over with. Jedi master and padawan (intern/apprentice) Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are dispatched by the Galactic Senate to negotiate a settlement by mega-corporate Trade Federation and the peaceful planet of Naboo led by popularly elected teenage Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman.) Trade Federation tries to kill Jedi, Jedi flee to Naboo. Jedi meet frogman, frogman takes Jedi to frogmen. Frogmen send Jedi to Queen.  Jedi rescue Queen. Jedi and Queen try and go to Coruscant (galactic Washington D.C.) but can’t cause Trade Federation shot their engine. They go to Tatooine to get parts, only person that has parts can’t be Jedi mind tricked. Jedi meet annoying slave kid Anakin Skywalker. Anakin builds stuff, builds podracer, races in the Tatooine 300 and wins. Jedi get parts and Anakin. Jedi takes Queen and Anakin to Coruscant, nothing happens. Jedi, Queen and Anakin go back to Naboo to try and deal with it themselves. They do. Jedi fight horned tattooed Sith (bad guy). Sith kills Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan kills Sith. Anakin blows up mothership. Queen coerces a settlement with Trade Federation. *deep breath* 

Apart from the very disappointing plot, the dialogue also suffers. I can’t blame the actors for the lameness of the acting because they were most likely doing the very best anyone could do with what they were given. It’s hard working with such a lame plot.

Despite how hard I am being on this movie, and please understand, it deserves it, I still enjoy watching the movie. It’s probably mostly because I’m a Star Wars fan, but it’s also because, despite the disappointing story and lack of plot and emotion, there are a couple scenes that are pretty amazing and fantastic.

Great Scene #1: Podracing. This is a pretty intense and exciting sequence. I think that if they had extended this sequence and made it a little longer and less monotonous, it would have made the movie a lot more memorable and exciting.

Great Scene #2: Duel of the Fates.  Ok so, when I was in fifth grade and even now, I loved the double sided lightsaber. It was awesome. Three incredibly powerful fighters in their prime fighting each other with lightsabers was probably the most exciting scenes of the movie. Make this scene more gritty and exhausting (to the characters not the audience) and it would have been a lot better.

In addition to these specific scenes, the general use of CGI and special effects when not overdone, made for a beautiful and awe inspiring experience on the big screen that harkened back to the original Star Wars.

Lucas did do something right when he got John Williams to come back and compose the soundtrack for The Phantom Menace. The soundtrack is better than the movie. 

I suppose I should mention something about the 3D. It was ok. I feel like moviegoers should stop expecting in-your-face 3D sequences from your Hollywood movies. It appears to me that the best use of 3D these days is the subtle use. The use where you might actually forget it’s in 3D. It’s an added dimension to the picture literally and figuratively. It’s the next step in movies. I don’t think it’s going anywhere, and as long as they can make movies in 3D without ruining quality and sharpness of the picture, then it’s ok by me. If this is the only way we’ll be able to experience some great movies again on the big screen, then so be it.

All in all, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace fails under the weight of its writer/director/producer. The sheer number of missed opportunities and unrealized potential leaves one wondering, “Did this story really need to be told?”

As a movie: 4/10
As a Star Wars movie: 5th out of 6

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Oh, to be a kid again. I was 8 when the original Toy Story came out. At the time, Toy Story was a breakthrough in animation. A completely computer generated animated film had rarely if ever been seen before. Now, they're everywhere. Now, you're lucky if you get the chance to see a new traditionally animated film. This is all to say that there's really not much more to be said about animation these days. It looks great, has for a long time. This is the third Toy Story, that we've been given, so again, nothing new about the animation. That leaves, the story. It is here that I see Toy Story 3's biggest issue. Or, it's simply my biggest issue. I have no idea what Toy Story 3 wants to be, and I transfer that confusion onto the movie itself. 

Toy Story 3 kind of picks up where the second one left off, except it's about 10 years later. Andy hasn't played with any of his toys in years. One by one they've been thrown away, sold, or given away. The group of toys in Andy's room has gotten noticeably smaller. Despite all the lessons they've learned during the first two movies however, most of Andy's toys are still constantly worried that they're not wanted and that they're going to be forgotten and/or thrown away. This, of course, would be one of the only real worries a toy could possibly have, that and being given to someone younger than your age recommendation. (More on that later.) Andy's mom tells Andy, who's going off to college, that he has to decide what he wants to do with his toys. He has to decide whether he wants to bring them with him to college, throw them away, donate them to the local daycare, or put them in storage.
One thing leads to another; Andy decides to put all the toys but for Woody up into the attic for storage. However, his mom mistakes the black garbage back full of his toys that Andy leaves below the attic, for garbage and brings the bag out. The toys, not realizing that they were in fact destined for the attic, believe that Andy has left them for the garbage, so once Woody rescues them from the garbage man, one of many stressful sequences for the toys, they decide that they'd rather go to Sunnyside day care and be played with all the time.

When the toys find themselves at Sunnyside, they're greeted by a seemingly generous and genial cuddly bear named Lotso. At first, Sunnyside seems like a godsend to the toys. However, they quickly realize that the heavenly environment they're shown isn't where they'll be spending their time. Instead of the 6 and 7 year olds that play rather nicely with their toys, Andy's toys are put in the toddlers section where toys aren't played with, they're tortured and abused. When Buzz goes to talk to Lotso, the cuddly bear is gone, and a fascist dictator is found instead.

The rest of the movie includes nods toward an array of different movie plots from a lot of great movies. An elaborate prison break scene, a touching and painful flashback explaining Lotso's horrible detachment towards owners, and a rather terrifying trip down a garbage incinerator that seemed incredibly out of place for a kids movie. Everything leads up to the toys finding their way back to Andy, and Andy passing on his toys to the next generation in a very touching scene that honestly may have drawn a tear or two from this reviewer.

There's really no saying that this movie wasn't good. It was. Considering that it's all about toys, the movie's ability to elicit anxiety, fear, love, and hatred from the audience is amazing. However, that's not something new we saw that in the first two Toy Stories. What makes many of the original Disney/Pixar cartoon movies so successful was the fact that they of course catered to children while still having subtle hints towards adult humor. You have to keep the parents interested too. Toy Story 3, on the other hand takes this nod for adults and absolutely runs with it. I'd say half of the movie or more was directed more towards the parents and/or the college age students who were kids for the first one. Maybe that's who it was meant for. IF it was, that's unfortunate. The best thing about Toy Story and its sequel, was that they were both first and foremost kids movies. The fact that adults could enjoy them just as the kids was a great addition. It seems that Toy Story 3 will be best enjoyed after you've graduated high school at least.
Like I said before, it's most certainly a good movie. If it was a little bit more original, I feel like it could have been a great movie. What happened to keeping your childhood toys to give to your children and your grandchildren? I think they writers missed an opportunity here. Can you imagine a Toy Story 3 where the toys spent the time in the attic? It would be like a less terrifying more interesting Sid's room. Seems like they lost a lot when Andy gave his toys to the little girl. Yes the girl will play with them, but she's not Andy, she's not even related to Andy. The toys should learn to wait, that family is family, and that we trust our family and eventually they will be played with again, by Andy's son/daughter.

Again, it's a good movie. A very good movie. I just think that when you're talking about Toy Story, it should be a great movie. This wasn't a great movie. There was no real human commentary, like there was in the first two. It's not all the time that you get a decent third movie in a trilogy, but it seems Toy Story has done just that.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jordan Award Winners

Here they are:

Best Makeup:  Alice in Wonderland

Best Visual Effects: Tron: Legacy

Best Costume Design: The Tempest

Best Original Score: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross- The Social Network

Best Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin - The Social Network

Best Original Screenplay: David Seidler - The King's Speech

Best Animated Picture: Tangled

Best Supporting Actress: Rooney Mara- The Social Network

Best Supporting Actor: Matt Damon- True Grit

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone

Best Actor: James Franco - 127 Hours

Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen - True Grit

Best Breakthrough Female Performance: Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit 

Best Breakthrough Male Performance: Andrew Garfield - The Social Network

Best Picture:  The Social Network

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Fighter (2010)

What exactly is a family? For many people it's who you grow up with, those people that live with you. For me, my family is my father, my mother, my sister, my brother, my brother-in-law, and my girlfriend. I know that those people love me. I love those people. They are my family. They won't give me advice that will help them at my expense. This does not seem to be the case in David O. Russel's “The Fighter,” where nearly the entire family is more worried about loyalty and their own self-interest than the well-being of the one member of the family that can possibly help them.

There is nothing really new or groundbreaking about “The Fighter.” The story circles around a pair of brothers. One, a crack addict former boxer, named Dicky (Christian Bale),  who constantly reminds himself and others that he once was good and knocked Sugar Ray Leonard down in a bout. The other a current boxer, Mickey (Mark Wahlberg), who's trying his best to break out and start winning some matches. We also see Dicky and Mickey's mom, Alice (Melissa Leo), who seems to know what's best for everyone. It seems that Dicky and his mom serve as Mickey's manager, and they're really not that good at it. They let Mickey fight a man 20 pounds heavier and Mickey gets his butt kicked.

Mickey meets a smart bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams), who questions the intentions of his brother and mother. She wonders if they have the best for Mickey in mind. Of course, Charlene comes into conflict with Mickey's family rather quickly, and the conflict remains throughout much of the movie. The question that is constantly being asked, is who's looking out for who. Somebody needs to look out for Mickey because he's the one being punched in the face for a living. The problem is, Mickey doesn't seem to want that responsibility either. Whether it's his mom, his brother, or Charlene, somebody seems to take control of Mickey. Why can't Mickey make his own decisions? The movie never really answers that.

Watching the movie, I wonder if living in the family he did, if Mickey was naturally that passive outside of the ring, or if the personalities that he grew up with squelched his own personality. The family is an interesting one, Dicky and Mickey have different fathers, and I think everyone's on positive terms with everyone else. They live in a poor neighborhood so of course they surround whatever opportunity for prosperity they can. It used to be Dicky, he screwed that up. Now it's Mickey. However, Dicky is still family, and here, family comes first. Family always comes first, even before the wellbeing of their prize-fighter. Charlene convinces Mickey that he needs to make a change. He eventually and grudgingly does.

Like I said, this movie doesn't really do anything new. But, it does what it has to to make a rather compelling and interesting movie, if not exciting and original. The movie is based on a true story so there may not be as much room for creativity and originality, but that's ok. The movie is good, not great. The acting is great. Well, the supporting acting is great. Wahlberg kind of has to take a back seat to all the other characters, because well, that's the character he's playing. Each of the other characters has such a strong personality that they require strong performances. The closest to over-the-top acting comes from Bale, and yet, I can't exactly fault him for it, because it seems as though it's exactly how Dicky would act. Mellissa Leo and Amy Adams seem to work very well against each other, because they seem so similar to each other. They both love Mickey, they both think they want and are doing what's best for Mickey. It's just much clearer to the audience that Charlene is right, and mom is wrong.

It's hard to change tradition, especially family tradition. When your entire life is based on family first and loyalty above all, it becomes incredibly difficult to make a decision against the advice of family. Sometimes you have to though. Family is not always right. There has to come a time in every person's life when you start making your own decisions apart from one's family. Otherwise, you can never be your own person. You can never create your own family, and you can never leave home.

Maybe you don't want to leave home. That's ok. But there's a whole world out there, and you'll never see that if you never leave home.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Inception (2010)

Honestly, who has never, at one time or another, wished to view their dreams as if they were a movie. The idea of being that much more aware and conscious during a dream seems, at least to me, to be pretty cool. Then again, I have no real idea of the power behind dreams. I understand that in many cases the dreamer has quite a bit of power to change things in their dreams. Then again often times dreams get away from the dreamer and into some pretty weird crap. I've heard it's the subconcious that does a lot of the construction in dreams. The subconcious is buried deep for a reason, it can be pretty messed up. Christopher Nolan's newest film, “Inception” he takes a unique and interesting look at dreams.

The story follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a corporate spy who, along with his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt),  steals valuable information from the very minds of the information holders. The movie starts out with Cobb and Arthur  rather successfully stealing information from a Japanese business man, Saito (Ken Watanabe).  Saito turns out to have been testing the pair and seeing if they are skilled enough to complete a reportedly impossible task called “inception.” Instead of finding and taking information out of someone's dreams, inception requires the placing of an idea or information in the person's mind and have them take it as their own. This is a very difficult task.
To do this Cobb and Arthur need to recruit a team including a forger (Tom Hardy), a sleep drug expert (Dileep Rao), and an architect (Ellen Page), someone to actually build the worlds in which they will be going through. The target of the job is a man (Cillian Murphy) who's recently inherited his father's huge corporation. There's a lot of explanation and exposition that I'm going to leave out of here. Needless to say, it's complicated but simple for those who know what's going on, namely the people in the movie, and maybe Christopher Nolan. If you haven't seen this movie yet, go see it. You won't get any more of the story from me.  Suffice it to say that Cobb's got some baggage (Marion Cotillard), and when you're going into dreams, baggage can be very dangerous. The story's really not the driving force of the movie.

The driving force of the movie is the visual aspect. The idea of having the majority of a movie taking place within a dreamscape demands some spectacular visuals, and “Inception” does not disappoint. One of the main aspects of this movie is that the settings are created. That is why Cobb recruits architecture students. Nowhere else can someone build exactly what they draw on a page or think of in a daydream. This movie boasts a city that turns in on itself. Whole cities slowly falling into the see. One of the greatest scenes of visual effects was done without computer generated images. Christopher Nolan thinks big with his movies and bigger every time. This movie is a spectacle to watch.

The only real problems with this movie is how dishonestly it looks at dreams. Like I said, the subconcious is a crazy and messed up place, yet in the movie the most dangerous thing is a crazy wife and thoughts with machine guns. Yes, Cobb's memories often make their way into the dreams he's working in, however, I feel that a movie that truly wants to look at the power of dreams needs to give those who mess with them a lot less control. Dreams are crazy, dangerous, and oftentimes scary places. We see no terror in this movie. The dreams in “Inception” do not seem to be anything like a normal person's dreams. The concept of dreams here are more likely for architects than anything else. That being said, that is a small problem and does not take too much away from the movie.