Saturday, May 30, 2015

Toy Story 3


RATING: A-

From a logical standpoint, it could be argued that the Toy Story series didn't need a third film. The first two films were just fine (the second one being spectacular), and even though there were technically places to go from there, one still had to be nervous about the fate that often awaits most threequels--even if it was Pixar doing the thing. 

Well, whatever fans thought, we did end up getting one 11 years later. I myself was excited for it when it first came out; at the time, Pixar was still infallible so I wasn't particularly worried. Overall, I wasn't disappointed--though I did end up getting a *lot* more than I bargained for. 

Just as the film comes out 11 years after the last one, we end up flashing forward in time in the film as well. After a slightly ludicrous opening sequence where we see the full extent of Andy's imagination (as a child), the film then switches to him getting ready to head off to college. And the remaining toys who haven't been given away have been left alone for years. And now he's gotta do something with them, right? 

Well, one thing leads to another and the toys accidentally end up in a box headed for the local daycare. At said daycare, they end up in a room with the more rowdy youngsters, and while trying to get better treatment, it turns out the daycare is rigged by a group of toys led by an evil... pink teddy bear. Yup, you read right. An evil pink teddy bear. Well, he actually turns out to be a pretty threatening figure, more so than TS2's antagonist. So now they have to plan an incredibly elaborate escape that borrows from quite a few other movies in order to escape and get back to Andy. 

In the end, Toy Story 3 turns out to be a very different experience from the other two films. It's quite emotionally rough to watch at times, especially if you grew up with the first two films the way I did (well, more the second one). I don't know which part is harder to watch--the infamous "incinerator scene," or the perhaps inevitable ending that concludes the trilogy on a note that tugs on the heartstrings. 

Toy Story 3 goes for a very different approach from the first two films, which focused on toys and being loved by a kid. Now, the kid's grown up, and so has everyone else who was born during that decade--the film is tailored very well to be an offering for that generation, years later. 

The film isn't exactly perfect, though. Like I said, the opening sequence which actually shows Andy's imagination come to life is amusing, but also rather silly. And they seem to have a problem making a romance that doesn't come off as annoying--Ken and Barbie's relationship has a couple amusing moments, but is often just silly. And I'm still having trouble buying the Buzz & Jessie thing, even if it was hinted at near the end of the second film. Here, it doesn't help itself. 

Still, Toy Story 3 manages to be a successful ending (albeit a rough one) to an excellent trilogy. One question we should perhaps be asking ourselves is this: How in the world can we care about a bunch of silly plastic toys to the point that we have grown men--including cynical critics, no less--admitting to crying at the end of the film? I still don't know the answer to that. But this much cannot be denied: in that case, Pixar *must* be doing something right. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Toy Story 2


RATING: A+

How often does a sequel come out that's better than the original? I mean, sure, there's plenty of sequels out there that weren't as good as their predecessors but were still good. And then there's the sequels that just fall completely short (often that's because they were unnecessary sequels). 

Toy Story 2 is better than its predecessor on practically every level--on the storytelling level, on the humor level, on the writing level, on the animation level (seriously, this film looks *really* good for 1999), and on the characterization/character development level. 

And yes, for two films, we continue to buy into a movie world where toys come to life when the kids are gone. This time around, the plot itself is more interesting--centering around Woody being stolen by a toy collector, and finds out he is an extremely rare collectible and part of a toy/merchandise collection based off an old TV show featuring him--and the other three toys there try to convince him to go to a museum for eternity with them. 

Interestingly enough, I think this film could've stood on its own without the first one (save a couple tiny edits) and no one would've been the wiser. This film is very different from its predecessor, focusing on a brand-new scenario for toys--and if they were perhaps sentient, the conflict they would face on which they prefer: being loved by a kid in its room, or being idolized in a museum for eternity without ever receiving the same type of attention (getting played with) that they would have before. 

The characters are far more tolerable and interesting in this one. Woody and Mr. Potato Head both have gotten over some of their previous idiosyncrasies that made them flawed in the last film, and are now fully enjoyable. The brand-new characters are interesting as well: Jessie, a cowgirl doll with a tragic backstory; Bullseye, a horse who's there more for comic relief, and Prospector, who also has his own backstory which affects his actions and the plot greatly. 

They definitely upped the ante as best as they could in practically every way. Toy Story 2 is the perfect example of sequel-making done right--in this case, done to near perfection. There's very little wrong with the film--it's just enjoyable all around. The sad thing is, the best was *still* yet to come for Pixar, and they certainly set the bar high for the rest of their films and sequels to come with this fantastic film. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Toy Story


RATING: B+

Ah, Toy Story. The beginning of an unprecedented streak of universally liked movies from a company. The story that caught everyone's heart immediately and, 20 years later (!) has still not been forgotten that easily. It also stands as one of the few movies on Rotten Tomatoes with a 100% rating (as does the first sequel). 

Who could forget the imaginative tale of a world where toys come to life when their child owners are not around and where their greatest fears are being replaced--and one such cowboy doll is replaced by a space toy, which leads him to go to unprecedented lengths to get his #1 status back with his owner Andy which--through a series of events--leaves them in the room of the psycho toy abuser kid (Sid) next door? 

Yeah. To be honest, considering what Pixar's come up with since then, Toy Story's imagination doesn't hold up quite as well as it used to. Nevertheless, we all buy in still. Every single one of us. The kids, the young adults, the adults, we all buy in to it. 

It may seem slightly strange that this historic film (which was the first theatrical computer-animated film of all time) would not get an A grade of any sort. And this is coming from a guy who loves Pixar as much as the next guy. So why the B+ rating? 

Well, one major reason is some unlikeable characters. For example, Sheriff Woody--the cowboy doll--isn't particularly a likable character in this film. (And what's odd about is that in the next two films, he's a perfectly decent fellow.) He at first comes off as the leader who's got it all under control, but when the space toy Buzz Lightyear replaces him, he gets quite jealous immediately and becomes a bit of a jerk. His character is jumping all over the place in the film--from standing strong to a jerk to a feeble afraid person to heroic by the time the film nears its end. Perhaps more annoying (and also far better in the next two films) is Mr. Potato Head, who--despite cracking some of the better jokes in the film--is supposed to be the quasi-villain of sorts in Andy's room, and isn't even good at that and is just more annoying than anything. 

The film's biggest saving grace is its script and its second half. The film is filled with laughs--both on the script and visual. Early on, Potato Head's first line is this: "It says it on my box: Ages 3 and up. I'm not supposed to be babysitting Princess Drool." (He says this after getting tossed into a crib with a baby.) It doesn't stop there either. The film also has a particularly good couple of final acts--the cleverly planned (and hilarious) escape from Sid's house and then the moving van chase which still holds up quite well. 

Overall, Toy Story perhaps is a little bit overrated. Many consider it to be among the top echelon of Pixar's films and perhaps cinema in general, but that's perhaps heaping too much praise on it. Yes, it's still quite a good film and a great start for Pixar, but it's a far cry from its first sequel and much of what else Pixar has to offer.

Nevertheless, it's still a good and fun film when all's said and done, even if there's a couple perhaps distasteful moments now and then. It may make some of you start looking at your toys weird (it never did that for me), and may also make you look back on childhood with an air of nostalgia. It's hard to not like the film as a whole, whichever demographic you may be. Perhaps that's where the film succeeds best: at being a mutual crowd-pleaser that almost everyone can enjoy to some degree. (Of course, that could be said for most of Pixar's films in general.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Maze Runner


RATING: A-

The dystopia genre is beginning to become more like the superhero genre: it's spitting out variations of itself faster and faster. Eventually, at some point, it's probably going to wear off and get old. That may not happen for a while, though, not while people are still being creative and keep coming up with interesting, worthwhile ideas--cautionary tales. 

This was the *second* dystopian young-adult book series of 2014 to have its first movie come out, the other one being Divergent. Meanwhile, the Hunger Games "trilogy" is still going on as well. So how does this one hold up? A lot better than I expected, actually. 

The movie wastes absolutely no time in cutting to the action: teenager boy named Thomas wakes up in a box elevator that is taken up to a gigantic enclosure surrounded by four stone walls, where he meets about a good fifty or sixty other boys who have been living in the "Glade" as well for some time. Beyond those walls? The Maze. And some of the boys have been going in there, trying to find a way out for some time now. 

This admittedly doesn't even sound dystopian at first, or even particularly unrealistic. Until we meet the Grievers. The robotic Shelob-like spiders that come out at night to eat anyone who's left in the maze. And Thomas becomes the first to kill one of them. And they tear off its leg. And they discover an electronic device of a sort. 

Unlike the others, who have been just trying to survive in the maze for years, Thomas knows something is wrong and is determined to find out what. And the action-packed thriller that ensues is exciting to the very last minute. There are multiple plot twists as the movie goes on, until we get to the ending which ends on a slight cliffhanger of sorts, leaving us to wait for the sequel based off the second book--Scorch Trials. 

The movie has been criticized by people who did and didn't read the book alike for being confusing. I did not read the book myself, and I didn't find anything particularly confusing--at least, nothing that I knew won't be answered until Scorch Trials. 

The Maze Runner is a very thrilling, heart-pounding flick. It may have a somewhat thin premise at first, but things just keep getting amped up and up until they've unearthed the latest case of a government--or something--abusing its powers. That may seem like a spoiler, but come on, what dystopian book/film doesn't involve that? Overall, it's definitely worth watching, whether you've read the book or not--in this case, I don't think it matters. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mission: Impossible


RATING: A

Ah, the 1990s. This was a pretty good decade in a lot of ways for entertainment. There were many movies during this decade that still hold up extremely well today. Jurassic Park, Independence Day, and The Matrix (even though that came on the tail end of that decade). Mission: Impossible is another one that holds up very well today in multiple ways even almost 20 years later. 

Mission: Impossible centers around Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), an agent for a covert espionage agency called the IMF who ends up becoming a target when the rest of his team is killed during a mission and he ends up going at it without the help of his crew to come up with the real culprit, and find out who the mole is that has been causing problems for the IMF. 

The plot may only sound about average, but things quickly heat up. There are multiple plot twists, perhaps most infamously one involving Jim Phelps--an original character from the TV series. I have not watched the old series, so this affected me in no way, and these days, it won't affect many other people either. 

Most people remember the film for its famous CIA break-in scene. And yes, that scene is fantastic. It's hard to describe accurately in words--you have to see it for yourself and watch as Ethan tries to pull of a soundless computer heist while hanging from the ceiling. There's very few "break-in" scenes in the last 20 years that even compare to it. 

But that's not the only thing that holds up real well. There is also the bullet train scene, which I won't talk about too much to avoid spoilers--but when you think about it, the only thing that even compares to it recently is an also-bullet-train scene from The Wolverine. Also worth mentioning is the soundtrack, which is easily one of the best of the '90's, composed by Danny Elfman. 

Mission: Impossible, in many ways, is in a league of its own. Coming out of 1996, this is one of the more thrilling films I can think of. There are a couple of confusing points, and occasionally Tom Cruise can be amusingly annoying (he still does well for the most part though). But it's definitely a film that is worth checking out if you haven't already. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Transcendence


RATING: B

Just how much would you do and how far would you go to attain your dreams? This film asks that question, along with several others, in a new twist on the "artificial intelligence" genre--if this film can even be fit into that category. It takes on a different category of its own. 

Yes, mankind is attempting to create artificial intelligence. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a leading figure in the movement, while his wife, Evelyn, simply wishes to create a better, more perfect world. When anti-A.I. activists/terrorists end up going on a rampage across the country, the results include putting a radioactive-chemical-laced bullet into Caster's chest. 

The one thing those "terrorists" didn't account for? The possibility that Evelyn and Max--a technical genius--would come up with a way to accelerate their plans and save Will somehow. Impossible, right? The result is that they upload his consciousness into a computer. And immediately, the new intelligence that has taken on Will's form/voice/actions--wants more power. And more. And more. And more... 

Ultimately, it's not too hard to see where the result of this is going to go to some degree. Obviously, A.I.-Will's plans for getting more and more power is just going to result in disaster. And that ends up leading to Max and the "activists" teaming up to shut him down before he ends up becoming a literal Deus ex Machina.

This film has a *lot* of promise within its plot. Although it seems to get off to a bit of a slow-moving start, it picks up quick and what results is a very exciting ending, along with a late twist at the end and a final shot that'll leave you going "Wait, what?" 

However, this film ended up getting some poor treatment during its production. It's not particularly well directed, and much of the first hour is quite boring. It really shouldn't be--in fact, if this movie had a decent director, there's a fair chance it would've gotten an A+. Even with the good acting and the excellent narrative, this film is not the strongest. 

Despite that, it's definitely the type of movie that I want to see more of. The artificial intelligence genre is one that I'm kind of a sucker for, because of the consequences that end up occurring and the questions that are asked (but sometimes deliberately not answered). This one is no different. This film shows the dangers *and* the positives of what an artificial intelligence could do if it was given enough power and control. It's ultimately left for the viewer to decide, more or less, what they prefer. 

Could Transcendence have been a lot better? Yes, it could've. But is it still worth watching? Definitely. Just don't give up on it just because the story moves slow early on, because what comes later on shouldn't disappoint, even if the final product isn't quite what could've been. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Need for Speed


RATING: D+

Oh, Hollywood. We know it's bad when they're pilfering out an adaption of a video game series like *this* just to get a few bucks. I mean, seriously. Need for Speed? A movie out of that? Part of the problem is, the Fast & the Furious films are stealing all the money with regards to the street racing genre. 

One has very little to go off of with a film like this. Your prerequisite is basically that you make a film about illegal street racing... with really, *really* fancy cars. After that, it's all up to you. Perhaps that's part of the problem. They didn't really know what to do, so they had to improvise. 

The plot we end up getting saddled with is an up-and-coming racer named Tobey goes into a three-way race along with one of his crew, Pete, and his rival, Dino for some money and bragging rights. Dino decides to play dirty when he falls behind and pulls the old bumper trick on Pete--dead instantly. Even worse, Dino goes into hiding just long enough for the cops to be tricked into thinking it was Tobey that did it--so two years later, the Count of Monte Cristo--er, um, I mean Tobey--comes back out of jail ready to race again and this time leave Dino in the dust for good. 

Yup, it's mostly a revenge story. If you're expecting a story where the guy realizes the error of his vengeful ways and repents, you're in the wrong place. If you're hoping for a vengeful blood-fest, you're still in the wrong place--the story falls somewhere in between. Yes, Tobey gets revenge--that's inevitable--but not in the way you might expect (not that that fact makes it any better). The plot isn't *that* bad, at least not in principle. 

What *is* bad, however, is the acting. Aaron Paul ends up doing very poorly as the lead--he's not even that believable when he goes back for his dead crew member and is freaking out. As a character, he's extremely one-dimensional, but that can be said for just about everyone in this movie, just as the poor acting can. Dominic Cooper does a bit better as Dino, but sometimes he's just annoying. And then there's the female character whose role is the random dame stuck along for the ride--but is really just there for no reason. She can't really even be called eye candy. The only acting performance in this film worth anything was Michael Keaton as the Monarch, who runs the penultimate race of the film. Too bad his acting talent is rather minor in this film. 

This film is *very* shallow on characters and acting. And sadly, there's not quite enough of the speed. Yes, there's a lot of scenes with cars going fast, but I kinda expected more scenes like what we see at the end--a high-speed street race on the highway with some more stunts and crashing. There's only one *really* good stunt in the film, and it comes about midway through. 

As lacking as this film is in a lot of departments, it's not all bad. There are a lot of cool roadway views and scenery shots, as well as some quite good camera angles during the racing scenes. I also have to say I kinda liked the soundtrack. And admittedly, the final race was pretty thrilling. I also have to admit that watching a Lamborghini and a Bugatti Veyron--among other awesome cars--racing each other is pretty darn cool. 

Of course, one never should expect much from a film like Need for Speed. A film like Need for Speed is one that you simply expect to be dumb entertainment and sort of an escape from the real world for about two hours. The "guilty pleasure" genre, if you will. But Need for Speed doesn't even really even fit the bill there. Where does it fit in Hollywood's library? That's something I'm still trying to figure out. If you're *really* bored, it might work as a minor distraction, but otherwise I can't see a way to recommend this film. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron


RATING: B+

"What if the world could be safe? ... Isn't that why we fight, so we can go home?" 

These are questions among others, that Tony Stark/Iron Man has (and yes, he inexplicably has new suits, despite destroying all his technology in Iron Man 3) as he tries to start up an artificial intelligence to protect the world for them. 

Of course, that doesn't end up working out too well for them. 

The artificial intelligence--named Ultron--learns really quick, and he decides that the Avengers are a threat--and later, humanity itself. So, he starts his little crusade to basically turn the world into a giant crater. 

And who stands in his way? Well, the Avengers, of course. We've got Iron Man, who's now essentially working behind his team's back; Thor, who's there to do some awesome hammer work and taunt everyone who can't lift his hammer; Hulk, who's still smashing; Captain America, who's still playing the team leader; Black Widow, whose main job now is calming down the Hulk; and Hawkeye, who actually has character development for once (something that was nonexistent in the first movie, and he hadn't appeared otherwise except in a cameo). 

And then there's the newcomers. We have Quicksilver, and I still have a hard time getting over the fact that two actors are playing the same character in different movies (the other one being X-Men: Days of Future Past) with release dates this close. But he's still fun to watch. And then we have Scarlet Witch, who is an awesome addition to the team, even if her abilities are somewhat confusing at times. 

So it's this group vs. Ultron and his army of clones. 

This is a pretty good movie. It's got a pretty decent plot, and asks several questions worth asking, although it oddly doesn't contribute much to the "dangers of A.I." story lines that several types of entertainment have developed (Person of Interest, anyone?). There are some pretty darn cool fight scenes and destruction sequences, with the fight between Hulk and Iron Man in the Hulkbuster suit taking the cake. 

Still, there are some flaws to this film, which sadly leaves it in the lower echelon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies (granted, even said "lower echelon" films are still very good). For starters, I felt the whole thing was sort of anticlimactic to a degree. Without giving too much away, Ultron is defeated a little too easily in my opinion after basically being described as a juggernaut for the Avengers (although perhaps they have to save that for Infinity War with Thanos). 

Also, near the end, a key character inexplicably leaves the team. Hardly anything is given to suggest that said character would do such a thing, and yet he does, with really no word of his return. It leads me to think, perhaps, that the character's actor is retiring from the series and they just needed to find a way to write the character off without killing him. 

Finally, we have the Vision. This was the guy that there was lot of hype for, the guy that everyone was excited to see in this film (it seemed). Well, he ends up doing... basically nothing the whole film. He just randomly jumps in and out of the action, only showing up when he sees fit, I guess. Basically, the Vision is a huge let-down after being treated like the next huge thing for the Avengers. 

Despite a couple things that left me scratching my head, this is still a very entertaining movie and still keeps Marvel's streak going, even if this isn't the best of the bunch. The true test for Marvel will be the Ant-Man movie--if they can pull that off (and the trailer looked promising), they can probably pull anything off. I'm slightly skeptical about the bloated direction the series is going in, but I'm still excited for the rest of the upcoming movies. Time will tell if Marvel Studios can keep it up.