Friday, March 28, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

Directed by James Bobin
Written by James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller
Based on characters created by Jim Henson

            2011’s The Muppets was the perfect return to form for the Muppets.  It was funny, it was smart, and it was clearly made with a lot of love.  With the loss of Jason Segel and the downright-awful Lady Gaga special, I was rather wary about Most Wanted.  But the second the opening song, “We’re Doing a Sequel” starts, I knew that everything I love about the Muppets is here.
            With the gang back together and the studio looking for a sequel, Kermit (Steve Whitmire) just has to figure out what the plot is.  When Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) suggests a world tour, it’s the perfect venue for the Muppets—but it’s really just a plot to replace Kermit with the world’s #1 criminal, Constantine (Matt Vogel), in a plot for him and Dominic to steal London’s crown jewels.
            So yes, things are definitely more towards the older Muppet movies than the “Let’s put on a show” plot of The Muppets.  Fortunately, it doesn’t veer off too far.  The Muppets are still a travelling troupe, they’re still putting on shows, and, most importantly, they’re still the focus.  Arguably, the biggest problems with the 2011 movie were the unnecessary focus on the human romance and Walter’s almost star-stealing role in the plot.  Here, the humans are rightfully relegated to secondary characters, and Walter…still feels a bit like a star-stealing character.  He’s a nice enough character, but when the plot hinges on him in a spot where it seems a more notable Muppet like Gonzo could’ve had a great role, there’s a problem.
           Fortunately, the movie also has one of the other important parts of any Muppet movie: a great sense of humor.  From self-referential winking to the rapid-fire silliness, Muppets’ sense of humor is well and truly in the right place.  Constantine’s hilarious attempt at impersonating Kermit, which nobody figures out, is perfect.  Sam the Eagle, working for the CIA, clashing with the Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) is perfect satire of American perception of Europeans, with Jean constantly taking 6 hour lunch breaks and ending his work day at 2.  And the songs are rather rightfully hilarious, though sadly, not as catchy as the previous movie.  There’s no Life’s a Happy Song here.  The musical highlight is definitely I Hope I Get It from A Chorus Line being performed by a group of tough criminals (including Danny Trejo and Ray Liotta) in a gulag.  It’s the kind of cover you’d expect to have seen on the show.

            That previously mentioned opening number knowingly contains the line “The sequel’s never quite as good”.  And yes, it doesn’t quite match the pure love of the franchise put into the previous one.  But it more than makes up for that by being constantly hilarious and well-focused.  The Muppets revival continues on the right track.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Longest Day

Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald and Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by Cornelius Ryan, Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and Jack Seddon
Based on the novel by Cornelius Ryan

            Saving Private Ryan has one of the most memorable opening sequences in any movie, with its long D-Day sequence that easily shows the horrors of war.  And that pretty much defines D-Day in most media: storming the beach.  The Longest Day takes a lot (and I mean a lot) more time to meticulously show every piece of what happened during D-Day to, again, show the horrors of war, but also providing a fascinating document.
            There is little focus on individual characters here.  While there are certainly plenty of stars throughout (most notably, John Wayne), this is a true ensemble movie, showing the attack from multiple perspectives.  Right from the start, we see the American and British allies preparing for the attack, the Germans believing that the Allies will have to delay things, and the French Resistance preparing things in secret.  The first hour of the movie is nothing but setup for the attack, and it remains fascinating.  Avoiding the trope that most American-made war movies use, the different sides actually speak in their language, which also means the Germans aren’t automatically portrayed as over-the-top Nazis.  Instead, they’re textured tacticians just like the Allies, and the soldiers on both sides are shown as just soldiers doing their jobs.
            And as mentioned, the idea was to show a “war is hell” mentality.  The people who get gunned down on the way to an objective that isn’t there, the paratroopers who get stuck in trees and provided as an easy target, the German soldiers who plead “Bitte, bitte” to the Allies, but get mercilessly shot as a solider wonders what “Bitter bitter” means.  But it falls into the one trap that any anti-war movie can encounter: if you show combat, no matter how hellish, people won’t get the message.  And indeed, for the movie’s final 2 hours, there is plenty of exciting action.  Maybe it’s because there’s no perspective character that it becomes harder to relate to the many soldiers getting shot.  Maybe it’s just that, with the hundreds of extras storming the beaches and towns, it’s easy to get so swept up in the spectacle that the message can just be easily ignored.  This isn’t necessarily a hit against the movie, since this is just a common problem, and the final scene hammers the point home well enough: a solider describing his gruesome injury to another soldier, as he wonders who actually won.  But it’s worth remembering that plenty of people ended up recruiting after seeing this movie.

           Plenty of great details, action, and a dark message hiding beneath means that, for The Longest Day’s 3 hours, it moves quickly enough to keep you enthralled.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Blair Witch Project

Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez

            The found-footage genre has long had its ups and downs.  When done brilliantly, it can be a great way for a director to get their start, and give new form to a standard story.  When done poorly…well…I’ll just point to whatever comes out in January each year and assume you can see a tired horror movie that thinks acting like it’s real will make it better.  And either way, we can point at Blair Witch Project as the true beginner of the trend, but is it worth seeing now?
            Heather, Mike, and Josh are college students looking to make a film about the Blair Witch, a legend of a small town.  After interviews with the townsfolk, they head out into the woods, where they become hopelessly lost and stalked by the Blair Witch.
            Let’s start with the first question for any horror movie ever, especially older ones: is it scary?  Well, in the jump scare, hide-your-face horror sense?  Not really.  In the creepy, not-going-to-go-into-any-woods-anytime-soon sense?  Yeah.  There’s never anything shown on screen, but it’s the mere fact that the atmosphere is creepy enough makes it work.  Even during the daytime, as the actors find piles of rocks around their tent and a grove full of stick figures, you get that feeling that something’s not right.  And then it becomes night, and you absolutely fear for anything that’s going to happen.  The erratic camerawork just makes it creepier.  One scene has the characters running, with Heather screaming “What is that?!” but the camera never shows what it is (apparently a crew member wearing a ski mask—yeah, less is more runs well here).  Let your imagination run wild.
             It’s hard to talk more about the movie without noting how it was made.  The actors were given a 30 page script which just explained the Blair Witch myth, and then sent out on their own, given instructions of where to go each day, and increasingly lower amounts of food.  Everything that happens from there is, by all accounts, their own decision.  And it works.  Their anger and frustration at each other just keeps building up until they’re practically tearing at each other’s throats, most notably with Mike and Josh screaming at Heather to put the camera down.  Their fear when something unexpected happens is genuine.  And when they break down, they break down hard.  At one point, they find they’ve wandered in a circle instead of going anywhere, and Heather falls down crying.  And of course, there’s Heather’s famous “I’m so sorry” confession to the camera.  Yes, she hams it up a bit, but the snot and tears just make it so genuine.

            Blair Witch Project may not be scary, but it can still creep you out and is perfect for seeing found footage’s baby steps.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery

Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe
Art by Roc Upchurch

            Comics are great for putting two genres together that you may not think of, and then do great together.  Kurtis J. Wiebe has even done it before, with Peter Panzerfaust combining Peter Pan and World War II action.  Rat Queens combines Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy and Bridesmaids-style comedy…and what do you know, it’s a perfect fit.
            Sass and Sorcery opens with the titular Rat Queens, an all-female group of adventurers, having destroyed a good part of the town of Palisade in a bar brawl.  It turns out that the town is in a time of peace…which leaves all the adventuring parties with nothing to do but drink and wreak havoc.  When they go on a quest to clear out some goblins, they instead find an assassin trying to kill them, and uncover a plot to kill them and the other adventuring parties off.
            When you think fantasy, you probably don’t think of characters that curse, drink, get high and make dick jokes.  And then along come the Rat Queens.  The story here is certainly interesting, if not exceptionally unique, but it’s the humor that brings everything together.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny and works well by being ridiculous and playing well with the fantasy setting.  Betty, the Halfling rogue, packs a lunch full of candy and drugs.  Dee Dee is a former cult member who still ends up praying to the cult.  And there’s some nice over-the-top violence, if that’s your thing.  It only parodies some of the fantasy tropes, and takes much more time to make its characters unique and funny on their own.
            And as with all good R-rated comedies, it’s the characters that elevate this from “funny” to “a must-read”.  The Rat Queens are all eminently likeable.  Issue 3 gives them some downtime from being funny and killing things to get some character development, and it’s perfect.  Betty in particular is already my favorite character.  She’s clearly caring and has a big heart, and then she’ll turn around and make a drink of candy and liquor.  Dee Dee’s story also starts to develop near the end, and I’m intrigued.  If the book being great already didn’t have me hooked, there’s a nice lead-in to the next arc here.  And finally, I must say, a fantasy story with people of color and non-heterosexual characters?  Yes please.

            If you like gory fantasies and R-rated comedies, Rat Queens hits every note perfectly.  A must-read from issue 1. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Croods

Directed by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders
Written by Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders and John Cleese

            Dreamworks was on such a winning streak, and now they’ve gotten fairly hit or miss.  Their “two movies a year” schedule has started producing less “one drama, one comedy” and more “one good, one bad”.  Thankfully and surprisingly, The Croods is the good one for 2013.
            Eep (Emma Stone) is a cavegirl who wants to go out and explore the world, but ends up stuck in one cave thanks to her overprotective father, Grug (Nicolas Cage).  When an earthquake destroys their cave, the Croods are forced to move on into the bigger world—and meet Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who believes the end of the world is coming, and has big ideas that threaten Grug’s “new is bad” beliefs.
            The Croods excels at two things: its comedy and its visuals.  The comedy follows the Madagascar rule of being as over-the-top as possible, taking well and full advantage of being absurd.  A Looney Tunes-esque puppet can distract a vicious predator.  The character can be in mortal danger one moment, and then fall hundreds of feet the next and be fine.  It even manages to get in some darker comedy, such as the opening of the movie, which explains the horrible ways all the Croods’ neighbors died.  And as for the visuals, this is one of Dreamworks’ most impressive movies.  The huge jungles and deserts are remarkable, and the animals (all made-up) are colorful and just fun designs.  A lemur with its tail connecting to another lemur, a multi-colored sabretooth tiger that’s simultaneously vicious and adorable.  It’s stunning to look at.
            And of course, every animated movie must have some heart and morals.  And here’s the one point where the movie falters.  You know from that outset that, at some point, Grug is going to have to come around to liking Guy.  I can’t even consider this a spoiler, if you’ve seen or read a story in any form, you just know this.  What the movie does is essentially just flip a switch on Grug.  His character development doesn’t slowly happen or have any big revelation, the movie just arbitrarily decides at some point to give him the development.  The moral in general is questionable at best as to what it actually tells the audience (although the message at the end is well done).  And this also comes with the fact that the movie shifts its perspective away from Eep, and indeed, the rest of the Croods family towards the end, to focus on Grug and Guy.  Apparently, an early script of the movie was just about them, with the rest of the family added later, and it shows.  Hopefully, the inevitable sequel (it’s already announced, even) will rightly focus more on Eep than Grug.

             Still, even with its missteps, The Croods is hilarious.  Plenty of big laughs offset the third act problems well enough.