Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

When the movie ended, I mulled over how to react. It took a lot of mulling. I could not instantly say "This was great!" I certainly couldn't say "This was bad!" Is it good? Is it great? Is it good only in the context of the Star Wars saga, or good as movie qua movie? Is it just another sci-fi movie with Star Wars nostalgia thrown in to appeal to fans? Or is it a better movie than the usual crop of sci-fi movies?

(For context, I love the original trilogy (RotJ a bit less) and I do not hate the second trilogy. I disliked the enhancements that Lucas made to the original trilogy: they didn't add anything and they really look kind of hokey, but they didn't ruin the movies for me. The second trilogy had some pitifully bad acting, midichlorians were a useless and stupid addition, and Jar Jar was annoying, enough to stress my enjoyment of the first movie. The pod race went on for too long. It was insane that none of the Jedi could see that Annakin was a complete failure as a Jedi (he was so transparently unable to control his emotions that it was criminal to let him be a Jedi), and the final fight between Annakin and Obi Wan ended really stupidly, what with the "high ground" and Obi Wan letting his friend burn to death instead of putting him out of his misery. But I didn't find the taxation and blockade plots boring. I liked Amadalia's spunk, the light saber fights was awesome, and I thought the plot hung together fairly well. Remember that Return of the Jedi had stupid Ewok battle scenes and really bad acting from Carrie Fisher (who acted fine in the first two movies). Something about the second trilogy movies were still appealing to me: that thing that made Star Wars. Which may simply be the well-choreographed lightsaber battles.)

Is it good? Yes. Is it great? Um... maybe?

It is entertaining and plotted well, even if they leave out a number of explanations to fully understand some of the plot details. However, it is missing parts of what made Star Wars unique. The first is development between the action scenes, like Luke talking to his Aunt and Uncle or looking out over the horizon, Han and Leia talking, Han and Luke talking, Obi Wan talking to Luke and training him, etc. This movie has one conversation between humans, and it is flat and forgettable. It has a few slower scenes, and they are great; but more were necessary. Another is character transformation, like Luke learning to take on responsibility, Han turning back to save the rebellion, or Darth Vader, for that matter. There are two transformation in this movie: one is early in the movie and very quick, so it hardly counts, and the other is non-mental and not really a kind that makes you feel invested in it. It just happens, and you're left wondering why. Mostly, what is missing from this movie is mysticism. No one is reaching out to a higher cause or into the unfathomable unknown. Mysticism is nearly, almost, kind of struggling to be there in the movie, but it doesn't happen until the very last frame of the movie.

The nostalgia is there, but not overwhelmingly so. We get some of the old characters on screen for a while, and they don't just stand there looking wistful. I realize that it's hard to strike the right balance. Nevertheless, it is mishandled a bit. The movie tries to copy the original trilogy too much; there really is too much New Hope in it. A planet sized weapon attacked by X-Wings and Tie fighters, plans hidden in a droid, a freakin' alien bar scene. There is even a father son conflict. We did these already, didn't we?

The cinematography is vastly better than the first or second trilogies. Ships and hovercraft move in erratic patterns with oddly tracked shots full of detail as the camera focus swirls around. Ships don't look like models or sterile backdrops; they are fully realized and lifelike. If Lucas was trying to "update" his original trilogy with enhancements to make it look more modern, this movie shows how far he failed in doing so. THIS movie looks incredibly good, so much so, that it feels un-Star Wars, which has always been a bit less complicated and a bit more hokey than the modern sterile sci-fi we are used to.

It was great to see a mad dash to save the girl only to find out that she doesn't need saving. It was nice to see diversity, but really, there is only one black dude in the galaxy, so far (unless Lando is hiding somewhere). BB-8 is really good as a WALL-E type droid, though mostly a substitute for R2-D2 who is awol for much of the movie.

The acting is universally good. Like the original movie, there is nearly no on-screen romantic dialog, a welcome change from the worst elements of episodes II and III. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are charismatic, and even have a bit of chemistry. On the other hand, Adam Driver as Kylo (the villain), and Oscar Isaac as Poe (a hero) are both uninteresting, flat characters.

Though the movie has plot problems, little character transformation, and little substantive dialog between characters, I still enjoyed the movie. Partly due to nostalgia. Partly that it is a decent action movie, like the better Marvel or Batman movies. Party because there are lightsabers. And partly due to the charisma of Harrison Ford, Daisy, and John. As for the latter two, we will watch your careers with great interest.

Spoilers, questions, and complaints ahead.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Movie Reviews: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Spectre, Minions, Paper Towns

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2: This movie, while not as good as the first two films, is a fine action flick with some unique elements that sets it apart from other modern action movies. One is that it tackles the question of whether the resistance is really a better substitute than the existing tyranny. Another is the fine, strong and useful heroine as the central character.

The acting and directing are good and the movie is put together well. But this movie is only half a movie, and you won't understand most of it without having read the books or seen the first three movies, especially the third. If the third book would not have been split into two movies, the result would have been one much better movie.

As usual, I don't ding a movie just for leaving out parts of the book or for changing elements in the book. However, what was left out of the movie includes some of the central themes the book, and that's a pity. Perhaps the most crucial element left out of the movie is that Katniss was a selfish, spoiled, and lazy heroine who had to train in order to be able to handle herself in the field. Also left out of the movie is the brutal and permanent physical disfigurements she sports by the end of the book; she lives out the remainder of her life with half of her face burned off. J-Law's Katniss suffers no such problems in the movie, despite a scene showing her getting burned. Like in the first movie, the physical and social desperation and psychological trauma are dispensed with in favor of the kind of insensitive and careless video game violence that we come to expect from movies, where no one eats or goes to the bathroom and children can kill hundreds of people or watch hundreds of people die horrible deaths and yet suffer only a brief cry or angry outburst. Pity. Go read the books.

Still, this last movie is worthy and entertaining. We will watch Jennifer's career with great interest.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: At least this series, like the original Bourne trilogy, but unlike the current superhero movies or the Bond franchise, gives us thrilling action sequences that appear semi-possible and even - occasionally - make you think that they may end with the main characters dead.

This MI, like the last one, is far more entertaining than it should have been. It only crashed for me in the middle during a car chase that had one too many car flips. When the occupant jumps sprightly out of the overturned car onto a motorcycle, my disbelief could no longer be suspended and the movie was ruined for me for about twenty minutes.

The end also seemed rather impossible since the plan required a bunch of people to be exactly at one spot at a specific time with certain hardware and construction that could not possibly have been obtained or constructed, but whatever. Tom Cruise manages to not crowd out everyone else in the movie, at least.

It's all still pretty dumb, but it's entertaining and occasionally clever. The whole plot is a mcguffin for the action sequences. Something about an organization taking over the world.

Spectre: Spectre completes a four part mini-arc for Daniel Craig's James Bond. It is better than the frenetic and unwatchable Quantum, and not quite as stupid as the ridiculously plotted Skyfall. I would rank it below Casino Royale, which was the most straightforward of the films.

While not quite as stupid as Skyfall, please tell me Bond's plan wasn't to walk into the lair, let himself be captured, trussed, and tortured, and, while drills are going into his head, hand his watch to his girlfriend in full view of many bad guys, have her toss the watch so that it blows up exactly the right way to knock out exactly the right people and release his electronic locks, and have all the bad guys miss him from close range, and walk to the unguarded and available helicopter, and have the lair blow up from a couple of bullet shots due to ... actually, I still don't know why it all blew up. It's like the scriptwriters are not even trying anymore. The surveillance capabilities are also presented as ridiculous; I don't put it past governments to have more surveillance than many of us know, but I feel pretty confident that they still can't capture video inside a remote house without at least having placed a video camera in the house first.

And since when can nine different governments cooperate sufficiently to put all of their surveillance into the hands of a British guy? Heck, since when can nine different government organizations in the same country even connect their computers to the same network?

The film tries to introduce an actual romantic interest, as opposed to just a sexual interest, for our hero. And it brings into question whether Bond really wants to continue being a 00. Watchable, but silly. The whole plot is a mcguffin for the action sequences. Something about an organization taking over the world.

Minions: The prequel to Despicable Me, this fluff kids movie contains many funny moments but a pretty bad plot. It is the movie equivalent of a game with a lot of tactics but not a smidgen of strategy.

Despicable Me at least had the bad guy turn into a good guy, which makes sense when the main characters all care for and love each other. This movie dispenses with any kind of character arcs or growth, has only bad guys, and hangs the movie on a quest by three walking babbling banana slugs in search of "the most evil" person to serve. This really makes no sense. The movie ridicules the idea of evil, making "the most despicable" characters into jewel thieves who steal lollipops from kids ... and not much worse. I can think of worse people who work at my bank. And no one ever gets killed or hurt for real.

The animators and director do an incredible job of carrying the movie along with almost no understandable dialog for most of it. The silent movies did it 100 years ago, and apparently these were part of the inspiration for how to achieve it in this movie.

I am uncomfortable with the whole premise, since there is no one to root for, really. If we ignore that, the movie is basically plotless, and the quest is nonsensical. Despite this, in between holding my head at the inappropriateness of the whole endeavor, I laughed out loud quite a few times. Scene after scene is thrown at you with joke after joke, and some of them are quite clever and funny. Something like The LEGO Movie (which didn't suffer from the problems that this movie has). But ... are all the minions boys? Why?

There are so many better movies with better values that I wouldn't buy it for my kids or go out of my way to see it. However cute the banana slugs are.

Paper Towns:  John Green is having a few good years. After The Fault in Our Stars, he comes back with another movie based on one of his books. This one has more normal teenagers, none of whom are heading for imminent death.

Quentin (Nat Wolff) loves a neighbor girl Margo (Cara Delevingne) who has a habit of disappearing. Near the end of high school, she takes him out for a night in which she exacts her revenge on her (now) ex-boyfriend, ex-friends, and a few others and then disappears the next day. He and his friends decide to track her down based on the clues she left as to her whereabouts. Meanwhile, high school is drawing to a close and each of the friends has his or her own stories and concerns about the present or future.

Part high school romcom, part mystery (very small part), and part road trip, I started off not liking the movie because neither Quentin nor Margo initially appeared to be likeable. The disappearance to come was predictable, so I am not spoiling that for you. It is after this that the movie picks up, slowly, slowly the characters evolve and they all become likeable. The minor things in the movie are not always predictable, and even the major ones, while more predictable, are handled well.

A sweet movie with several interesting allegories that I expect (hope) are explored more thoroughly in the book.