Review: Muppets Most Wanted

poster muppets2The Muppets used to be kind of a niche thing. You’d love them or you’d hate them. Whether the movies succeeded, or failed you could rest assured that muppets will be muppets for better or worse. The characters are nothing less than iconic. The personalities of Miss Piggy, Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie and the rest are so defined that any fan with enough multi-colored socks could put on a fairly convincing play. At the very least, there would be no confusing who was who. That’s why its so surprising that professional writers failed to tap into the natural reservoir of character traits and humor and instead tried to rewrite the Muppets’ DNA.

When Jason Segel took hold of the property for the 2011 film, he brought his fan sensibility with him and revitalized the franchise by taking it back to it’s roots, while simultaneously updating the humor for the current film going crowd. The Muppets were more themselves than they had been in decades, and they were still able to keep up in the post The Hangover comedy era. Nicholas Stoller, whose writing contributions include Fun With Dick and Jane and Yes Man cowrote the script and returned for the sequel without Segel’s much needed perspective. James Bobin, the inexperienced director with only some episodes of Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Concords on his writing resume, returned to helm the ill fated project and cowrite the script as well.

It was a mess!  First off, the opening number announces that they are making a sequel.  self referential humor can be very funny if you have the tact, but cynically singing that the sequel is “never quite as good” sets coordinates for an approach that is determined to rise above this accepted truth and truly entertain the way only Muppets do.  Sadly, it is a foreshadowing of the utter hopelessness of the film.  Instead of a straight forward quest rife with gag opportunities and surprising celebrity cameos, The Muppets most Wanted is bogged down by a part heist/ part jail break plot that ineffectively parodies the genres and fails to let the Muppets be Muppets.  The action scenes were ill conceived and the songs were just –BLAH!

There is no reason to see the film if you like the Muppets.  They are mere stuffing in a vehicle that only serves its three stars: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell.  Dominic Badguy (Gervais) is sidekick to an escapee from a Russian prison who uses his likeness to Kermit in order to infiltrate the group and lead them on a European tour that coincides with a series of planned robberies.  The bits between Burrell and Sam (an Interpol and CIA agent respectively) were the closest to being sufficient, but sadly fell to the wayside.  Fey plays the warden of the prison where Kermit is held by mistake.  A bigger mistake is the assumed staying power of a gag that has tough inmates portrayed by the likes of Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo prancing around in song and dance numbers.  The lack of skill and sentiment caused the bulk of the film’s humor to be either misplaced or misused, if not both at the same time.  The through line of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship was the only thing consistent with past Muppet ventures, the others are neglected and used only to further the ill conceived plot regardless of (or even in opposition to) their own inherent strengths.  The cameos, a muppet staple, amounted to such and such star appearing on screen for a couple of seconds.  The only real exceptions being, Usher playing an usher, and my favorite, Salma Hayek appearing as a guest on the show where none of the characters can be understood.

By the end of it I felt like the show not only lacked heart, it lacked genuine affection for the material and respect for the Muppet audience.  The sense of humor of the film seems to come at the expense of those who hoped to see a familiar style of comedy with some fresh surprises.  Their arrogance and laziness are at once incompatible and unexplainable.  There are some good laughs to be had here and there, but not enough to make this overwhelming disappointment worth the time.

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Are Indie Films Better Than Studio Films?

I got duped into watching a little indie horror film called Grabbers, last night.  It’s on Netflix and it has a pretty high rating of 3.5 stars.  The premise– townspeople of a seaside village must keep their blood alcohol content up to avoid being eaten by alien sea monsters– seemed worth watching, but the Tremors-like production lacked anything significantly appealing.  I don’t want to turn this into a review, But this production is very interesting to me as a failure on many levels, but still a success, apparently, on Netflix.  It is even has 72%on Rotten Tomatoes!

It’s an indie film, which means nothing to me.  People talk about liking indie films as though they are their own genre and they are not.  I love that independent film has grown and the artistic freedom and access that it affords, but in general, I don’t like indie productions any more than I like Hollywood ones.  There are just as many flaws in both systems.  I think that generally, the point of a Hollywood studio production is to make money.  They can accomplish this by giving wide audiences what they want, or at least by profiting on their anticipation with a huge opening weekend.  One of the biggest complaints about this system is that it rarely delivers anything particularly extraordinary.  One of the biggest drawbacks is that they track ticket sales as a formula for success rather than critical reception.  The difference is that ticket sales show how many people want to see a movie about such and such, and reception shows how close the production came to audience expectations.  So, if a highly anticipated blockbuster has a huge opening weekend, Monday morning, execs start discussing sequels even though it generally takes about six months for public opinion to catch up and settle the score.  Studios leverage the audiences willingness to watch a property they want to see, even if it is not handled appropriately, so the cycle if broken, is only done so by accident, being either exceptionally good or disastrously disappointing.

Independent films generally aim to make movies.  There are some driven storytellers out there who are very skilled and do their best work, free of the shackles of the studio system, but some directors find the resources available through studio backing are indispensable.  In the world of independent film there is a willingness to look the other way for the sake of supporting art, or perhaps damning the Hollywood machine; But there lie several motivations behind independent film production.  We like to pretend it is for the sake of art, but mostly indie film makers only want to make movies.  Content doesn’t even come secondarily.  This system is ironically even more dependent on revenue because the funding is sought after and less available than funding dumped into a promising franchise, or star vehicle from one of the big guys.  It’s also worth noting that independent films that do get funded by successful producers are somehow seen as inferior, or not true indie film despite being some of the best independent work out there.  For the other folks out there, the focus on just making movies is as tragic as the course of just making money, because they are happy just to be working and either don’t know how to achieve excellence, don’t want to, or are simply not qualified to.

No matter where you are making movies, or who you are making movies for, it should always be about telling a good story.  You can blame budget for substandard special effects, but hiring good writers, directors and actors are not contingent on signing a higher pay check.  This is why the idea of independent film is so appealing.  Potentially, much more can be accomplished provided that the artists are serious about creating something substantial and that their choice of medium is conducive to the talents they are afforded (photography and music come to mind as frequently neglected skills in the world of independent film).  This is where just making a movie gets in the way of possibly making a great movie and opting for convenience is just as bad as any politics in the traditional studio system.

Unfortunately, there is a double standard where indie films are concerned.  They are allowed to be awful and credited with being original, or somehow more legitimate than a mainstream production.  This is the only way that I can reconcile the positive ratings given by audiences to a movie like Grabbers on two separate platforms.  The movie bumbles between genres and never realizes the potential of the premise, lacking heavily in the dialogue department and sadly formulaic without any seasoning or spice.  The blandness is dampened further by utterly uninteresting visual style and terribly monotonous music.  In fact, the creature effects were the movie’s only real strong point.

Such a promising concept is transformed into a boring and sloppy attempt at crossing genres without truly nailing any of them.  This is another problem that indie film struggles with.  It’s also why anytime I hear the word “dramedy” I turn and run the other way.  The reason is simple.  Untested unskilled filmmakers ought to start with more focus, learning how to master one genre before attempting to fuse two together.  A sci-fi/horror is plenty to work with for a novice.  A sci-fi/horror/comedy is unthinkable unless you have the craft down and are able to maneuver between both styles with pinpoint precision.  Grabbers is a muddled mess, failing to be either scary or funny, and with no heart beating underneath the bare bones formula it pales in  comparison to the one liners anyone would use to win you over.  The term “dramedy” is the most common example of indie film failing to tap its soul.  To attempt it is useless.  You cannot have a great comedy without good drama at it’s core.  And all the best drama feeds off of the fuel of comic relief.  A dramedy attempts to give both genres equal billing where one, by necessity, must outweigh the other in order to find success.  The result is almost always two poorly executed genres and an unsatisfying movie.

I don’t know why dramedy is so popular among indie fare.  I chalk it up to inexperience and trying to do too much too soon, or maybe the writer feels that life is neither all that funny or all that serious and wants to capture that view.  Either way, it makes for a stunning waste of time.

Review: Last Vegas

poster last vegasAbout half way through the movie I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “This is so good.”  It’s not unconventional, or provocative, per se.  it is predictable, but only because it’s perfect.  Last Vegas has tons of diverse talent that syncs up instantly for a symphony of comic wit and sincerity that is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end.  While I say it is predictable, that is only because it turns the only way I think it can be truly satisfying.  That is not to say that the movie is not full of fun surprises and misdirection that truly pays off.  I can only describe the experience as gleeful.

The story is of four old friends– plaid by actors in roles designed to accentuate what makes them great: Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, and Robert DeNiro– who grow apart and get the gang back together 58 years after its inauguration for an unlikely bachelor party in Las Vegas.  Imagine a classy, soulful, sharply comedic, heartfelt spin on the Wolf Pack that may well be superior to even the fist Hangover film.  The roster for the crazy Vegas weekend includes a Florida retiree who isn’t ready to be a Florida retiree, a grandfather who’s family fusses endlessly about his health, a successful businessman in Malibu eulogizing his mentor, and his old best friend, a widower and recluse who no longer speaks to him.

The movie is about all kinds of relationships, but it’s just fun to see the guys cut loose, judge a bikini contest, go clubbing, meet celebrity look-a-likes in drag, rediscover what they mean to each other and what they appreciate about their lives.  I really think this film is a home run.  It seems effortless the way the highs and lows come together to make a fully developed and satisfying movie experience that can be repeated.  The performances are all fantastic, including Mary Steenburgen, who plays a Las Vegas lounge singer the boys become smitten with.

It hits all of the tones that it should.  It’s a Bachelor Party movie and what’s more, it’s set in Vegas and the scene is captured really well and the cast deftly maneuvers it with style, cunning and hilarity.  I also like that much of it feature The Aria, vs. Caesar’s Palace, which is the usual.   Much of the comedy of the film comes from the fantastic direction of Jon Turteltaub, who I’m sure not only informed the actors, but got some of his own jokes in from his perspective as a storyteller.  I recently saw another Turteltaub film, The Kid, which stars Bruce Willis.  It was a lot of fun too and Jon really knows how to direct.  Writer Dan Fogelman (The Guilt Trip) is no slouch himself and these guys are in top form and collaborating with the crème de la crème of acting.

The bottom line is, Last Vegas is a well paced, disarming comedy that is deceptively heartfelt and delivers in all genres it touches on with lightning fast speed and dexterity.

Review: The Internship

dvd the internshipThe Internship is a smart collaboration between Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps and Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Productions.  It’s intelligently crafted, to the minutest detail, making it yet another pleasurable viewing experience from the director of Date Night and Real Steel.  Worthy of ownership, it was perhaps an easily overlooked movie that might be disregarded as more of the same in a sea of mundane comedies.  With the familiar faces of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn headlining the film you may feel as though you’d seen it before and at the very least, the word fresh is not one that would creep into your preconceptions.

But Levy does with the natural talents of Wilson and Vaughn, what he did for Tina Fey and Steve Carell, and the collaboration turns out wonderfully shaped performances.  The finished product is a perfectly paced, lean comedy that takes advantage of each moment to generate and reinforce positive interest in the story.  The result for the viewer is an engaging experience with plenty of laughs and quotable dialogue that is very re-watchable.  The strength of the story is almost like that of a Pixar movie.  It’s not likely to bring a tear to anyone’s eye by any stretch of the imagination, but it is carefully plotted and the comedy is driven just as much by the ensemble of lovable misfits as it is by the circumstances.

We open up with Billy and Nick, a couple of great salesman getting psyched on the way to a crucial meeting with a client.  They are a confident team who know what they are doing, but the company is in trouble, so the pressure is on.  No time is wasted introducing these guys and getting the audience to empathize,  Within minutes they learn that the company is over and that they are out of jobs.  Rather than take another sales job that will allow them to continue to scrape by, the two decide to jump headlong into a new field created by the technology that rendered their skills obsolete.  They take an internship at Google, where a series of challenges are laid before a variety of teams in a winner takes all race for employment.  Since everyone is much younger and more educated, they avoid Billy and Nick like the plague leaving them to be scooped up with the rest of the losers after all the teams are chosen.  The hostile group of hopeless loners must act like a team in order to survive and find friendship along the way.  It’s not original.  It sounds a lot like Dodgeball if you think about it– or the more recent Monsters University–  But the genius of it is not in the originality of the plot.  All throughout it are elements of many classic comedies, and yet it stands alone as unique, because of what transpires between the bullet points.  It’s funny, it’s familiar, but it’s also new and has a strong identity of its own.  A couple of the best examples is the two or three key stages in the middle act that reveal a lot about the characters and energize the plot; and the sweet, underplayed subplots for Nick and Billy.

I think, what makes the movie work most is that it has heart under the surface, but the focus is always comedy.  There is a kind of slight of hand at play, that I think is mostly due to Levy’s role as director, but also the finely honed sense of comedy Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson have their own reputations for.  It goes beyond the clash between cynicism and idealism in the fight for the American dream.  The Internship is sharply focused and deeply felt so that the plot becomes an exercise in fun and frivolity, with a firm spine to carry it through.

Review: Much Ado About Nothing

bluray much adoMy impressions after watching Joss Whedon’s micro production Much Ado About Nothing are pretty simple, but my feelings about it’s creation are much more complicated.  If I separate everything going into it from the finished project in an effort to be fair to the production’s value, I may unjustly discredit the film just as I would taking all things into account.  All in all however, I found it to be pretty enjoyable.

I have not been so enamored with Whedon since he scripted and helmed the pivotal Marvel production The Avengers. Having seen how mediocre his direction can be and seeing a clip out of Much Ado itself, I was prepared for a terrible cheap look for the no budget movie.  I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of photography and the direction which showed more forethought and creativity than I expected.  The house was smartly used for the most part and created a very unique and special feel for the movie.  Alexis Denisof, whom fans will recognize as Wesley from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel is superb as Benedick.  Though American, Alexis is known for his british accent and lived in London for some time.  It adds a small dose of irony to hear him speak shakespeare with an American tongue.  Aside from that, his whole performance as the character is admirable and he almost bore the entire movie on his back with the support of Fran Kranz as Claudio, and Reed Diamond and Don Pedro (Both actors from the Whedon series The Dollhouse). Not to discredit the rest of the cast, but I thought this unit was particularly enjoyable and really seemed to grasp the material.

The whole cast was assembled from friends of Joss who had worked with him at one time or another, the side effect of which is that they all have a special place in the hearts of the fans who fell in love with them in their previous settings.  It adds a sense of familiarity in the spirit the impromptu production conveys.  Some of the dialogue comes off a little rocky. I noticed the lighter moments were harder for some of the actors to pull off than the scenes that took a more serious tone.  One of the things that unfortunately did not work for me was the casting of Amy Acker as Beatice.  As much as I love Acker, I just could not be persuaded to accept her in the role.  I would think a more obvious choice was Marena Baccarin, Or even Alyson Hannigan, Alexis’ wife.

I realize of course that the nature of the production was somewhat prohibitive in terms of assembling the cast (Joss made it during a vacation from post production on The Avengers) and it’s wonderful how many great talents got together for this, including Acker, but that’s part of what I mean when I talk about the strength of the movie, as it is, without the distractions of how it came to be.  As a no budget movie put on by a big family of friends in the director’s house, It came out pretty damn good.  But– and this is a big but, like something Sir Mix-a-lot would only dream of– would you pay the premium ticket price or purchase the $20-$25 Blu-ray if it didn’t have Joss Whedon’s name attached to it?  There is even a $15 paperback written by Joss Whedon and William Shakespeare!  Come on.  Are you kidding me?

If a student film maker with limited resources and a passion for film pulls something like this together, then it ought to be supported financially by those who would encourage independent filmmakers.  But should a successful writer/director with a dedicated fan base who has landed (and is yet to finish post production on) the monumental Avengers gig not be held to a higher standard?  I’m not saying it should not have been made, but maybe he should have waited.  It seems to me like the fans are being exploited and taken for granted.  In time– perhaps sooner than later considering what a let down Agents of Shield has turned out to be– they will resent him.

One such lapse in the quality that might have been forgivable in the hands of an amateur is the locations used for the scenes with Dogberry and the watchmen.  It was an unfitting mess compared to the rest of the production.  But it was shoehorned in in order to shoot the whole thing on Joss’ property, with a minimum of preparation.

As a whole– though it is enjoyable and has a terrific cast and is shot beautifully in black and white– the settings and performances are inconsistent with the entire production and the momentum slows from time to time when it ought to be less indulgent and just keep moving.  It’s pretty good for what it is, but what it is is not what it should be.

Movie Review: The World’s End

“We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! … And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time… We are gonna have a party.” -Heavenly Blues (Wild Angels 1966)

poster the worlds end

I have not wanted to commit my thoughts about The Worlds End into review form, because I don’t want to resign myself to the disappointment that still haunts me when my thoughts turn to the film.  I saw it at the triple feature we had in town and it was a great night.  Even though it was the end of a marathon, past my bedtime, and my expectations were justifiably high, the movie was put together very nicely and managed to make me laugh quite a bit.  The action scenes had a lot of cuts, which I know bothers some people, but I thought they came together well and I really enjoyed watching Nick Frost fight.

For the most part, you could say the film is a success.  Forgiving some minor indulgences, by director Edgar Wright, such as his trademark piss poor toilet aim shot and fence jumping shenanigans (which amount to more of a running joke connecting the Cornetto films than the ice cream actually does), the film was put together very nicely and boasts fine actors with splendid performances.  It looks good, has some great ideas and is genuinely funny, but I felt disappointed when the end credits began to roll and I never shook the feeling.  In fact, as the dust settled, I’ve had to acknowledge that I just didn’t like it.

Firstly, you should not expect to see a group of old chums reminiscing about old times over a few too many pints on the brink of a robot invasion.  That was what the trailer sold me on and what I thought would make a great new effort from the trio behind Shaun of the Dead and the even more triumphant Hot Fuzz.  The film is senselessly dark at heart which becomes a wet blanket in a comedy that already has the added pressure of  an invasion movie twist.  Simon Pegg plays Gary King a recovering (not so much) alcoholic whose life may as well have ended twenty years ago on the one night he remembers as the ultimate experience, a pub crawl left unfinished, but with the promise that life would never be this good.  His friends have not only moved on, they have lost touch and want nothing to do with him.  He only convinces them to once again attempt the “golden mile” by telling them Andy Knightly (Nick Frost) the most slighted of Gary’s school chums has agreed to go, then convincing Andy  by lying about the death of his mother.

Right away you see Gary is in a bad place.  He is sort of pitiful, but moderately entertaining.  As the story wears on his despair becomes clearer, but no possible cause comes up.  They never bother to explore the source of the problem to find means to a resolution.  Rather, they defiantly and joyfully exploit his desperation in a misguided effort to make a statement that is ultimately empty and definitely unsatisfying.

As the reluctant reunion gets underway King is already screwing over his mates.  A cop pulls them over for speeding and they find out King still has the registration under his friend Peter’s name.  The first bar is not as it has been preserved in Kings perfect memory of that fateful night twenty years ago.  The second, oddly is just like the first.  It isn’t long before it is discovered that some of the towns inhabitants are not human and after a violent encounter with some robots, they determine that the best thing to do is carry on with the crawl as though nothing is wrong, an exercise which proves futile.

the statement of the film is somewhat lost in the verbose, not so witty ramblings uttered by King, that could have used another revision, or a cursory glance by Vince Vaughn.  It just felt forced, but that wasn’t the ultimate turn off.  SPOILERS– two things really bothered me about the film:

It ends with a face off between King and the leader of the robot race at The World’s End.  It turns out, it isn’t just the town under attack but the whole world has been gradually assimilating to this “advanced” culture over the last twenty years.  The world takeover is suddenly reversed due to the belligerent rantings of Gary King.  The above quote from Wild Angels is King’s credo and ultimately, it is the speech that sends the aliens packing, uprooting the “Network” and returning Earth to the dark ages.  Far from any catharsis, or healing, or even an intelligent twist that reveals the sanity behind Kings rebellion, the film turns away from more interesting avenues with lots of potential, for a more streamlined action movie with muted purpose.

And what becomes of Gary King after he Stonewalls the “Network” and causes them to disembark after twenty years of taking over?  He roams the land with a band of robot versions of his friends at the age of twenty, picking sword fights with humans that discriminate against them.  Why has he suddenly sided with the enemy?  Why is he looking for a fight?  What is he fighting for?

For all of the great ideas and possibilities that went into The World’s End, the whole point appears to be that it is better to be a hopeless asshole at liberty to be a hopeless asshole than to be governed by something greater.  Granted, the governing force was dark and dangerous in itself, but there is no synthesis, no epiphany, for all of it’s preaching, the film offers no suitable alternative.  Gary King remains as lost as anyone’s interest in him.

Review: Monsters University 3D

postermuWhen I think of Pixar, I think of some of the finest storytelling to ever grace a movie screen.  I think of the studio not as an animation studio, but as a movie studio that happens to practice animation.  The distinction for me is that the focus is more about the writing first, and as it turns out, these fantastic yarns are best illustrated by the abundant talents of the finest visual artists in the field wielding the best of the best of the best technology.

Pixar has always pushed the envelope in one way or another.  They have always dared to captivate adult audiences as well as children, arguably sometimes favoring the former.  They have pushed the boundaries of how much story a film can contain, how many subplots can be shuffled in between, and how fleshed out and human a character can be, even winning you over by the end after being so unlikeable.

The films of Pixar carry with them a high level of expectations to even the most aloof moviegoer and even ardent fans such as myself are quick to criticize when we feel that threshold has not been met.  Even with such a fearless, focused and dedicated staff of artists an element can sometimes go missing.  Cars 2 was a tremendous experiment in pushing the genre, making it more “spy movie” than “kids movie”, but it did not reach it’s potential to capture the many different settings in a way that would bring as much intrigue to the look of the film as there was in it’s plot.  Brave was the studio’s first foray into folklore, a decidedly more predictable and therefore less interesting form of storytelling without making some key break-throughs and turning points near the end of the script.  Wall-e For all of it’s visual glory and attempt at heart could not really seduce an audience into empathy and really just became an unintentional environmental tale.

If these films had more heart and dimension in their characters, more exciting and daring turns and more ambiance they would easily be among my favorites.  Monsters University is one that has the complete package.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, and while it’s stars already had one hit Pixar film, Monsters University stands alone as a great feature.

The movie is about Mike and Sully’s college days, before they became friends.  First off, I want to address how perfectly college life was depicted while remaining kid friendly.  You won’t see John Belushi chugging a bottle of Jack, but the parties and the cliques, the classroom lectures… well, it’s fun when you don’t have to do it.  The campus is amazing and the rendering really shows off some terrific lighting effects, giving it a very romantic visual appeal.  Don’t think it’s just about frat houses and old buildings, though.  Monsters University is an adventure that takes you to the unexpected.  Dean Hardscrabble is appropriately terrifying, and– true to Pixar tradition– defies the standard good guy bad guy dichotomy, appealing to the notion that however distasteful a character is, there is always potential to go the other way (and vice versa), just like real life people (go figure).

The heart of the story is Mike.  As a wide eyed kid on a field trip, he becomes enamored with the idea of becoming a scarer and devotes his life to that end, working exceptionally hard and finally enrolling in the school of scaring at MU.  Here is where Mike meets all kinds of challenges due to his disadvantage of not being Scary.  At one point he tells Sully he’s worked harder than anyone to get there to which Sully replies “That’s because you don’t belong here.”  Sully, a natural Beast, rides on his fathers name and fails to learn anything.  Of course these two have to work together and when they do, it’s tremendous.  Aside from that the supporting cast of characters are some of the finest and most enjoyable to watch.

Lots of hard work and long computer hours were put into the creation of this monster of a movie, think about all the fur and textures and the massive number of on screen characters at one time.  Think about the hues in the sky and the streetlights, the reflections and the shadows, all working together to create the perfect mood for each scene.  Monsters University didn’t make me cry, but it has it’s touching moments. It is unique, original, entertaining, provocative, cutting edge, state of the art… In short:  It’s a Pixar film.

Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph

Every once in a while, a movie comes out that is not only incredibly enjoyable to watch, but you have to think how fun it must have been to make.  That’s the way it was when I saw Wreck-It Ralph, the newest Disney film which really feels more like a Pixar production.  Directed by Rich Moore (Futurama, The Simpsons), Wreck-it Ralph is exemplary of what great Disney storytelling is all about.  The eye candy dazzles as this epic adventure sweeps you into the secret worlds of arcade video games on a misguided bad guy’s quest for glory that ultimately brings out the hero within.

Not enough praise can be given to this insightful and very funny film.  The world and its main characters are so entertaining and deliciously constructed that you can’t help but anticipate what is coming next.  Full of references to well known video games of the past and present and some clever new ideas folded into the mix, a potentially confusing concept is ingeniuosly laid out in a simple believable way as Wreck-it Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, leaves his own game and travels into others.  Each game has it’s own rules, as does the common space between them that the characters share–Game Central Station– and of course there is the way these games interact with the gamers in ther arcade;  But with all the jokes and the learn-as-you-go game rules, at its heart is a tremendous exploration of what truly makes a hero.  Most likely to be considered a sort of next generation Toy Story, Wreck it Ralph is not unlike Up in it’s epic marvels and storytelling prowess.

Sarah Silverman is perfectly cast as ragamuffin racer Vanellope.  Vanellope is a glitch in Sugar Rush, a Candyland inspired Racing game.  She adds some further grey to Ralph’s complex issues of right verses wrong.  King Candy is another delightfully performed character, voiced by Alan Tudyk.  The heroes, Calhoun (Jane Lynch) and Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer) are relegated to the minor character role as they search for Ralph and discover an unseen threat.  Though, they never break from their profile character traits there is just enough of their storyline to pull out a whopping finally.

The story begins with a quick explanation of the Donkey Kong like arcade game Fix-it Felix Jr. from Ralph’s point of view.  Tired of being the outcast, he hears a distressed character from another game complaining about all he has to go through for a medal.  Ralph takes his place in the game with disastrous results and winds up losing the medal in the Sugar Rush game.  Vanellope– the outcast of her game– only wants to race, but the king forbids it.  Ralph teams up with her in order to get back the medal, but soon discovers that fame and glory don’t make a hero.

I have to say, this is the best new film to come out of Disney Animation Studios in a while.  Smart and emotionally deep, the film boasts vivid worlds, terrific character designs, and all the laughter and tears that Disney is so well-known and appreciated for.  Wreck-It Ralph is worth a big screen 3D experience and I can’t wait until it hits the Bluray stands.  Oh, and the Oscar goes to…

Movie Review: Battleship

The low held expectations of, I think, most people when they found out that Hasbro not only planned to make a movie based on the Battleship board game, but that it was in fact put into production as a summer blockbuster a la Transformers was due mostly to skepticism about how such an adaptation would even be possible.  The inevitable question that would follow the rolling eyes of anyone who’d read about it was “How?”  It seemed an insane and poor attempt to wring more money out Hasbro’s properties, especially in the wake of the underwhelming G.I. Joe.  When the Ouija board movie was scrapped it seemed like Battleship shouldn’t stand a chance, yet it was given big money production and seemed unflinching in its development and marketing strategy.  All the while, I for one believed the entire experiment was doomed.

Such gross conflict is exactly what Battleship thrives on in its film incarnation.  It may be flippant and clumsy, but the premise is actually very strong and the plotting really proves that not only can it be done, but it turns out it can be done pretty well.  It is funny to me when I think of how much must have been riding on the success of the film and how little the makers seemed to take it seriously, particularly at the start of the film, where engaging your audience is crucial, they seem to test your willingness to submit to a film over two hours in length with no (then) discernible plot.  The characters are goofy with questionable dialogue and the scenes are irreverent and almost whimsical.  It’s fun, but only increases doubts that the movie will ever come together.  Happily this trial is a short one and once the filmmakers begin to take things more seriously the film begins to look better and better and slowly, but definitely wins you over by the end.

The hero of the story is Hopper, a romantic, gifted, but arrogant naval commander who is always in trouble and looked after by his strait laced brother, a captain.   Their superior is also the father of Hoppers girlfriend and they need his permission in order to marry.  Hopper is like maverick in Top Gun if he consistently under performed and disappointed.  He’s not the guy you want making decisions when the fate of the world is at stake.  Meanwhile, the alien threat in this movie is very menacing.  The set up, which somewhat and very ingeniously mirrors its source of inspiration in a way that should satisfy even the most cynical movie fan, leads the naval fleet into near hopelessness.  The film turns out to be very delicately plotted, satisfying the basic, but crucial demands of its source material, and previous Hasbro successes.  The references to the game, whether implied by peg shaped missiles or graphically depicted with computer monitors and birds eye perspectives, or simply buried in the premise made this adaptation a win, as did the wildly imaginative alien tech and the strategy that keeps you engrossed and hoping Hopper can pull out a “W” just this once.

Battleship borrows heavily from Iron Man, Top Gun, Aliens, and is definitely modeled after ID4.  While it doesn’t reach that level of greatness it does bring some freshness to the mix of “been there done that ” that makes it a fun, enjoyable film worth watching at least once.  In fact, in terms of the many sources cited and referenced in the film I’d compare it to John Carter which is also reminiscent of several earlier films in its search for a unique identity.  I only think that while John Carter might have been more interesting because of those allusions Battleship comes out a better film in spite of them.

Movie Review: Winning Season

I needed a net-fix so I gave Winning Season a try solely because of Sam Rockwell.  I was fully prepared for the movie to be a blatant Bad News Bears Rip off so when it started out that way I didn’t pay any attention.  Surprisingly, The movie comes into its own fairly quickly and though Rockwell is certainly the strength of the film I found myself pretty interested  and actually enjoying the movie.

Sam Rockwell is readily introduced as a drunk who works nights as a busboy.  He is quickly reconnected to a former classmate/athlete who runs their Alma Mater and is desperate to find a new coach for the girls basketball team.  So, he takes the job, but hates it and doesn’t take the girls seriously.  Meanwhile, his daughter who plays basketball for another school, hates him.  So, the story pretty much writes itself after that, except watching Rockwell’s tenacity as a coach and his teams dedication to him even after he gets fired is really something, and the overall turnaround for the character and a well executed ending make it a worthy view.

First of all, I do give it full marks for story.  It could have very easily been a rehash of the same old sports movie routine and while it still had those common elements, its individuality outshines its derivative genre aspects.  That combined with Sam Rockwell holding it down in the lead really makes the movie worth watching.

It’s not perfect.  a lot of the acting from the girls is corny and forced.  Not great dialogue may be a factor, but the performances at times are reality-show-awkward.  The story is not particularly clever, but original enough to not just re-watch Coach Carter, or something.  Unless you want to have a battle of the Sams.  (Nick Fury against Justin Hammer?)  Thankfully, it’s not so overwhelmingly awful that the really entertaining parts can’t be enjoyed and overall I give it a solid B.