Sunday, September 29, 2013


This is not a fun little family movie full of color and laughs.  "Prisoners" is instead a rough and brutal movie about people pushed to the breaking point, families enduring nightmare scenarios, and the viscous brutality unleashed by such stress even in generally good people.  Usually I bemoan movies that take themselves far too seriously, offering bitter drama without laughs or much joy, but "Prisoners" may be the first film I've reviewed on this blog that is utterly stark and utterly grim, and is appropriate for it.  This is drama at its most intense, completely unpleasant and desperate, and a truly well-made film.

The plot involves two little girls of a White and Black family disappearing during a friendly mixed-racial Thanksgiving feast, vanishing into the grey air of the Pennsylvania suburbs.  This launches a week-long search for the girls, bringing their families to absolute desperation, to the point they will do anything to find their lost children.  For two and a half hours you watch as these parents walk through a weeping winter sky, following up on leads, and eventually committing horrible acts themselves to follow up on the only lead they have.  The threads and twists of this thriller expand slowly leaving you to wonder just how far these characters are going to go, "how desperate can they become?".  Two and a half hours is an abusively-long running time, but perhaps an appropriate one, as these parents themselves suffer the endless march forward, with the clear knowledge that every passing day makes their daughters' demise more and more certain.  Which only pushes them further, to do even worse things.

Most thrillers are based around a time limit.  A cackling villain has the children locked in a vat of acid and if the police do not solve twelve riddles in three days, the girls' die.  Within that time limit, the story twists and turns, but inevitably its all about fun action and rising tension.  "Prisoners" has no limit, there is no villain giving away enigmatic clues over the phone, teasing the lead detective.  It is just snow falling on another day, while people keep going further down the road to madness.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

I know they're making a "Jurassic Park 4", even though nobody particularly wants it and nobody really wants to make it.  So how about we just can that idea and instead give "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" the subtitle "Jurassic Park 4" and then live happily for the rest of our lives?*

The original "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" was a nice little kids' book that you can find in your local library and enjoy.  Go read that.  But as for this review, it is basically of no consequence, because to us the original "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" was a 2009 computer animated film featuring a strong comic style, bright cartoony animation, and a very strong plotline.  I recall that movie coming basically out of nowhere, only going to see it because I was babysitting my little cousins, and I needed them to be quiet for an hour and a half.  And shockingly, it turned out to be a brilliant little movie and one of the best and most warmhearted comedies of the last decade.  "Cloudy Meatballs" had its own manic style,  making food visual gags, satirizing the traditional Hollywood path of beauty (the heroine this time puts on the scrunchy and glasses, and is much better for it), and had a really strong character base well-suited for the comic nonsense to come.

I don't think I was alone in thinking that "Meatballs" would be another forgettable awful Cg animated film like "Robots" or "Over the Hedge", and instead found a film that was able to do amazing things with that medium without being Pixar or needing to copy Pixar's own style.  "Chance of Cloudballs" was precursor to otherwise fun comic animated films such as "Despicable Me" and "Rio" and well... the rest of the CG animated films have generally been crap or sequels**.  2013 has already had two silly well-made animated sequels with "Monsters University" and "Despicable Me 2", so where does "Cloud with a Chance of Meatballs 2" stack up?

Most sequels are inferior films and "Cloudy Meatballs 2" is no exception.  Its a very fun movie with its own sense of excitement and plenty of laughs.  Most of the film is an explosion of visual puns mixing food with creatures, based around a bright colorful universe of a food ecosystem.  But really, that's as far as the movie goes.  It has really adorable and fun monsters, lots of gags to go around with it, but not really much for its characters to do.  You'll find this is a fun time at the movies, but hardly an enriching one.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Blue Jasmine

"Blue Jasmine" is, frankly, not my kind of movie.  I might hold a measured contempt for mindless action nonsense like "Riddick", but fortunately or unfortunately, those are exactly the kind of movies my brain is wired for.  Even the more terse and serious, extremely well-crafted films, like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" are still essentially escapist fantasies featuring incredible people living exciting adventures.  So when "Blue Jasmine" is a low-key movie about relationships, class differences, and emotional instability upon reaching middle age after the collapse of your entire support structure and world view, I'm left basically unable to exactly process what it was that I've seen.  It reminds me of the kind of novels that fill literature course curriculum or the New York Times Book Reviews.  Real weighty personal tragedies that are discussed over the clink of cocktails at extremely trendy parties that I will never be invited to because my idea of great literature is George R. R. Martin.

I suppose I'm already falling back into a familiar viewpoint of anti-snobbery, the same arguments I've made before as to why movies such as "The Tree of Life" steal souls and murder babies.  But really, "Blue Jasmine" is not really a bad movie.  Its well-acted, its well-directed, it has powerful characters full of life who move through a story along very logical steps.  And its actually rather funny, though I'm not quite sure how intentional the humor was.  I wasn't quite sure if director Woody Allen was building some kind of very dark sitcom featuring two sisters from mismatched backgrounds trying to live together in San Francisco or a dark and effecting human tragedy in a vague homage to "A Streetcar Named Desire".  Or both?  Or maybe some freakish third thing, unimaginable to me and my small Summer Blockbuster-rattled brain.

I guess the point I'm making here is with "Blue Jasmine", I'm really not sure whether I really liked it or not.  Honestly, I can look at every individual piece, and make this double for every casting choice and acting decision, and see nothing but well-made filmmaking.  But was the movie any good?  You can weigh every individual piece, but somehow the math doesn't seem to add up, there's this weird airy lacking in "Blue Jasmine", and I'm not quite sure if I can put my finger on it.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


Ever watch Vin Diesel suck his own dick for two hours?  Yes?  Oh, you saw "Riddick" too, then?

There once was a movie called "Pitch Black"*.  For a science fiction horror action adventure movie, it was shockingly well made.  It featured a diverse cast of well-written characters, an evolving thrilling plotline, and a unique breed of alien monsters for foes, slowly eating every person.  It also created a character named Riddick, played by Vin Diesel, a space outlaw with shiney eyes, a menacing shadow whose purpose in the story never quite becomes clear.  Riddick was a great character in that story, whose particular see-in-the-dark powers actually made him a foil to the aliens, who hunted by darkness.  Fortunately or unfortunately, Vin Diesel then made a movie called "The Fast and the Furious", turning him into what was supposed to be the next great Hollywood star.  The simple SciFi alien thiller then started to change.  The next film was the nigh-unrecognizable "Chronicles of Riddick", an absurd space fantasy epic, turning the shifty anti-hero escaped con into some kind of galactic Chosen One, fighting an evil empire of Necromongers.  There were planetary invasions, backstabbing side characters, Dame Judi Dench as an Air Elemental, and by the end, Riddick wound up as EMPEROR OF OUTER SPACE.

Needless to say, the Riddick brand didn't quite take off as Vin Diesel or his marketers thought.  Really most of his fans liked him because he was tough, ambiguously ethnic, and in the movies could drive like a maniac.  Not because he was Space Conan.  Don't get me wrong, I kinda liked "Chronicles of Riddick" - though I did see it about ten years after it came out on TNT.  I like space opera, especially ones so earnestly silly and out of their minds.  But "Chronicles" was a big failure, and Vin Diesel's career has been in limbo ever since.  Finally thanks to "The Fast and Furious", "Fast 5", and "Furious 6", Vin Diesel has three blockbuster successes under belt, so he's finally acquired enough clout to start the Riddick brand up again.

This time in "Riddick", we very quickly ditch the Air Elementals and Necromongers, and instead we're back to Riddick being trapped on a desert planet fighting a horde of monsters while dealing with bounty hunters.  Essentially "Riddick" is a direct sequel to "Pitch Black", featuring virtually the same story only with far worse characters, far worse writing, and much much less scary monsters.  The difference this time is that Riddick is the star from the beginning, this is a movie all about how awesome he is constantly.  So its really a mixed bag, I have to say.  You have the pieces for what could have been a good space thriller, but its undercut by the fact that the movie has to be all about how awesome Riddick is.  Just calm down, he's a cool dude, I get it!  Just get his giant dick out of my face, I'm trying to appreciate a movie here.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The World's End

I have a confession to make:  lately going to the movies just hasn't been much fun.  This is not to say that I'm growing weary of my hobby of watching films and reviewing them here on this blog, but rather for the last few months I have been struck by what has to be the worst run of bad luck I've ever experienced.  When was the last time I walked into a movie theater, bought tickets, watched the film, and actually enjoyed what I saw?  Two months ago - in July.  "Despicable Me 2" was the last movie I could say was worth the time and money I spent on it*.  Otherwise its been bland disappointments like "Elysium" or "The Butler" or movies that looked so mediocre that could not even gain the charm of being a disappointment like "City of Bones" or "The Wolverine".

So thank God for Edgar Wright, who has literally made movies fun again.  I don't think I've ever quite appreciated Edgar Wright and how this man makes the world better for everybody.  Which is funny because Wright directed "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World", a film I named the best movie of 2010 awhile back.  Along with his writing partner/star, Simon Pegg, Wright created "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz", two of the best comedies of the last decade.  "The World's End" marks the conclusion to an informal trilogy of films including the aforementioned two, which has been dubbed the "Three Flavours Conetto Trilogy".  In some way Simon Pegg and his best friend Nick Frost must deal with adulthood, friendship, love, and some kind of freaky over-the-top genre invasion.  So where "Shaun of the Dead" is a zombie film, "Hot Fuzz" is an American action fest, "The World's End" is a SciFi invasion of the body snatchers film.

Now does "The World's End" live up to its spiritual pedigree?  You bet your drunken ass.  I am basically left largely without a single complaint for this film, I was utterly satisfied and entertained by every character, plot twist, and story direction.  "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" both are really well-made movies, but I can't say they've quite warmed my heart as much as "The World's End" has done.  Its easily the darkest film of the three, featuring the most fundamentally broken people, and probably has the least laughs in total.  But let's face facts:  we are rubbing up against genius here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Let's Play Final Fantasy VIII Has Concluded

So last night I finally finished the long-running Let's Play of "Final Fantasy VIII" that I was hosting along with some FFWiki friends.  This was a project that began in early March, and now, half a year later, has concluded in an explosive baroque finale which I'll link right here.  Essentially that series devoured most of my creative energy, and almost immediately wiped out my interest for "All-Out Giant Monster Attack!", which I unfortunately left pretty unfinished after twenty-five reviews.  Maybe I'll return to it, but I have my doubts.  Anyway, "Final Fantasy VIII" being a long forty-hour title, this was a very very long Let's Play, running at something like twenty-on and a half hours.

This was a Let's Play that killed my old Vista operating system, forcing me to burn my laptop to the ground and start from scratch with a more modern system.  I limped the entire project together using a shitty video editing software called "Wondershare Video Editor", a program apparently designed to crash and freeze with a small accidental video editing function thrown in.  I think four or five episode recordings ended in total failure, with my computer melting down, forcing a re-record.  Then there was one time I forgot to hit record, and did not notice until an hour later.  But as Bob Ross is prone to say, there are no mistakes, only happy accidents, so the second attempts were almost always considerably funnier and more fruitful than the first.  But beyond all this, the Let's Play was really the first time I've ever taken a leadership role in anything, forcing me to deal with a veritable nightmare of scheduling conflicts, no-shows, and recording problems amongst a co-hosting team that was literally scattered around the globe on three continents, none of whom I've ever met in person.

I also must note this is probably the only Let's Play that features a running plotline, with Faceless Squall as a main villain.  Of course, I had no plan for this, and basically up every element and conversation on the fly, basically just talking to myself and using a pitch-changing tool to make the villain sound scary.  Luckily "Final Fantasy VIII" is a game that makes very little sense, and I'm pretty sure the director, Kitase, gave that story as much thought I did to the Let's Play's plotline.  In retrospect, this entire adventure was probably overly-indulgent and ultimately pointless, but its something that nobody has done before.  It certainly added a mountain of work onto an already massive project.

Anyway, if you love "Final Fantasy VIII", or hate it, I got a finished Let's Play now it.  And that's something most humans have never done.  So there is that.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Grandmaster

Another dull biopic.  Only this time starring a kung-fu master who looks like Barack Obama.

"The Grandmaster" is the latest film telling the story of martial arts legend Ip Man, best known for being the master to Hong Kong superstar, Bruce Lee.  "Ip Man" is probably a perfectly normal name in China, and rather unfortunately in English it sounds like a superhero themed around intellectual property laws* or around Internet Protocol addresses.  In the West here, Ip Man is probably best known for being the basis of a kung-fu film coincidentally called "Ip Man", where Bruce Lee's master beat the crap out of several Japanese invaders during World War II.  That film was a fairly straightforward action movie, clearly dramatizing and inventing interesting adventures for Ip Man to have.  Hardly one of my favorite kung-fu movies but a decent enough watch.  "Ip Man" sparked off an entire mini-genre of Ip Man films, "The Grandmaster" is something like the fifth of sixth of such things, and it seems to be trying to do something more dramatic than just using some history tangentially related to Bruce Lee to frame fist fights, so how successful is it?

The version of "The Grandmaster" that's been released by the Weinstein Company in the United States is some twenty minutes shorter than the original two hour, ten minute cut.  Perhaps in those twenty minutes something crucial to the film's soul was lost, because the movie I saw was terribly meandering and almost plotless.  Ip Man himself barely has much of a presence in this particular movie, its hard to say there's much of a character beyond a knowing smile - his soul expression.  Rather "The Grandmaster" seems to be more of a movie about Gong Er, a female heir to the Grandmaster of Northern Chinese martial arts.  She's not a bad character, and she's well-acted, but her story takes up the second half of a movie seemingly about a far less interesting character.  There's no villain, there's really no love story, there's no particular conflict that holds the whole movie together, except in Gong Er's extended side plot.

Maybe I'm particularly missing the point, but "The Grandmaster" feels strangely bloated and plodding for a kung-fu film.  Many characters are underdeveloped, walking right in for a single scene, fighting Ip Man briefly, then leaving forever.  Director Wong Kar Wai brings a fantastic visual flair and even manages to craft wonderfully moving scenes occasionally, managing to bring more excitement into simple conversation scenes than his massive rainswept kung-fu spectacles.  But the whole movie never really amounts to anything.  Without ridiculous Japanese villains to fight, its hard to find why Ip Man really matters, or even what kind of story they're trying to tell about him.  The lead is so vaguely developed that narration from Ip Man's actor, Barack Obama look-alike, Tony Leung, is the only way to force any humanity or drama into this film.  Who would have thought that a damn kung-fu movie end up just as confused and dull as last week's "Lee Daniels' The Butler"?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Anybody in the mood for a lowest common denominator Oscar bait movie?  Summer is now over, the Blockbuster season has now gone the way of Blockbuster Video, and now its time for the Weinstein brothers and their competitors to start the race for those golden naked men statues and the millions of dollars that come with them.  And along the way, maybe some actual high-minded dramas can actually get made.  Let's have the season start with a sanctimonious cornball poser of historical dramas.

America has spoken and "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is now the biggest hit of August, probably thanks to being the first human drama of any dimension to get a wide release at all.  When your competition is stupid action adventure, anything that even attempts to have any deeper meaning is going to scratch a badly-needed itch.  Especially to American audiences who really want to be congratulated for killing all racism decades ago, thus letting us feel better that our society has improved so much.  I'm not being condescending, in such difficult times as ours, its fine to want to look back and create heroes out of the struggles we've overcome.  Non-offensive uncontroversial hero struggles are comforting, though we really shouldn't let the cheeriness of this production, or the real power of the historical issues it glosses over, fog the fact that "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is a simply bad movie.

I'll start immediately by handing over respect to the ambition of Lee Daniels and "Lee Daniels' The Butler: Directed by Lee Daniels" in his creation of this film.  Taking the relatively small and constrained story of an African American butler working in the White House during the height of the civil rights era and transforming it into nothing less than a massive epic of the entire story of Black America in the 20th century sure is impressive, if ultimately impossible.  There's just too much going on in this film for it be coherent:  part political drama set in the quiet servant realm of America's royal court, part biography full of family conflicts, and part vast epoch of the great racial struggles of the last century - its certainly a lot of movie.  If it had just been the first part, using the refined high culture of the White House as a foil for the brutal struggles of Black people against Jim Crow, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" would have been a perfectly fine movie.  Instead its a bloated, slow, ultimately pointless maudlin monster, hardly watchable if not for the subject matter bringing up deep memories in its (rather elderly) intended audience.  This is less a movie than going to Church.