Thursday, December 29, 2016

Ben-Hur (2016)


While some could argue that maybe it was nearing time to resurrect this particular story back into cinema, a remake of Ben-Hur would still have a tough act to follow. Despite the 1959 film's overly long length, it was very well made. There was a reason it won as many Oscars as it did back in its day.

If you're familiar at all with Ben-Hur at all, you'll know that it's the story of a wealthy Jew named Judah whose family is betrayed by his former friend Messala turned loyal to the Roman Empire, and he ends up in the galleys, swearing vengeance. His long story leads him eventually to the lawless Roman Coliseum in the chariot race against his friend-turned-enemy that is the focal point of the story in general, as well as to cross paths on occasion with Jesus Christ.

One good thing about the prospect of a new version was that it could trim the length of the nearly four-hour 1959 version. Here we get two hours, and yet somehow it isn't enough; we cover the basics and most of the necessary parts, but there are some minor alterations here and there that make the film perhaps a little more confusing at times for those are who are completely new to the story (namely, Messala's motivations and character, which in general feel far less fleshed out).

Somehow, despite being drastically shorter, this version feels surprisingly slow-paced at times; which might be due in part to quite poor dialogue and hit-or-miss acting. It felt difficult to be interested except during the more important scenes, or just the action pieces; and yet they still kind of screwed one of them up. The other main action piece besides the chariot race is the naval sea battle, but we don't actually get to see much of it because we're stuck inside the boat for most of it instead.

The greatest flaw by far, however, is Jack Huston, who has zero of the charisma and not even half of the acting ability that Charlton Heston had. The character of Judah is actually less interesting under Huston. Rodrigo Santoro doesn't fare well as the Christ either; he has so little of the impact or presence that you might be expecting if you've seen Jesus enough in cinema. (Seriously, the version of Jesus in the 1959 version fared better, and they didn't even show his face!)

It's not necessarily all bad, though. Morgan Freeman is a bright spot amongst the acting, and though it won't be remembered as one of his top performances, he still lifts any scene he's in. The chariot race, even if it doesn't quite top the insane realism of its predecessor, is still pretty doggone entertaining in its own right, as the introduction of CGI allows them to do things they could never have done in the original.

On one hand, it may seem a little unfair to rag hard on this movie, since it did have such a tough act to follow. On the other hand, it still feels like any adaption of this is capable of being better. It doesn't have to be a shot-for-shot remake or anything, but it just has to be better made and better written, and has to have a better lead. If you're not familiar with this story, I would recommend just sticking to the 1959 version, even if it is rather long.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets


Even though this is a premise I'm quite sure we've seen before in different forms, here's a movie answering the question of what your pets do when you're not at home. On an average day, for a dog, that can mean just staring at the door all day until your owner comes home. Or go throw a party. For a cat, it might mean tossing away the actual cat food and raiding the fridge. Or just being a lazy bum.

Of course, all of this can change when your owner brings home a new dog who's significantly bigger than you who immediately insists on taking your bed and all your food. And if you're a dog like Max, you feel the need to get rid of this competitor immediately, which of course ends up leading you on a crazy adventure in a plot that sounds quite a bit like Toy Story... until instead of meeting an animal abuser (because the equivalent of Sid in this movie would have been way too dark) we get a human-hating animal cult led by... Kevin Hart the Bunny (or Snowball). It's actually quite hilarious.

The premise of this movie is somewhat promising (if you look away from the fact that it rips off movies like Toy Story), but ultimately it's pretty thin. Much of it depends on the fact that all the owners are gone all day long apparently, as well as apparently being incredibly forgiving when they find a mess--instead of being forgiving but still putting them in a crate or something. And just some other unrealistic things in general, such as the single fastest Animal Control response team in history.

The biggest mistake the marketing department made was making this movie compete against the other big talking-animal movie of the year--Zootopia, which was way more sophisticated. This movie is not that at all. It's a mostly brainless comedy; and a pretty fun one at that. We get plenty of Looney Tunes-esque slapstick violence that we don't get nearly enough of in today's animation. We get some amusing depictions of things pets do. We get plenty of Kevin Hart being Kevin Hart. And we get the single funniest interrogation scene of all time, courtesy of Gidget, the awesome (even if naïve) super tiny dog.

The Secret Life of Pets may not be the smartest animated movie of the year, but it's still quite fun in its own right, giving you just under 90 minutes of harmless comedy. If you're more demanding of a good story in a kids' movie because like many of us you've been spoiled by Pixar--or you're just not into the whole slapstick comedy thing--this one probably isn't for you. But for those who are open to this kind of material, go ahead and check it out; it might be a little more fun than you expected.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One


One of the interesting (and slightly unnerving) things about when Disney acquired Star Wars was the announcement that besides the new trilogy, there would also be these "Anthology" films; spin-offs that didn't carry episode numbers and thus weren't directly attached to the series, but that were still canon and part of the Star Wars universe. It's better not to think about that part of it.

Rogue One was described as more of a gritty war film early in production, which was enough to get me interested in at least this one. If it hasn't already been made clear to you, this movie takes place between Episodes III and IV--almost immediately before IV, as a matter of fact. The movie answers the question we never really realized we had: "Just how did they manage to get those Death Star plans?" And so we get a 133-minute movie devoted to that very question.

We're introduced to a whole batch of new characters; a few side characters we've seen before in previous movies, and one character you've only heard of if you've watched the Clone Wars TV series--Saw Gerrera. The new bunch of characters is led by Felicity Jones--um, I mean Jyn Erso--and then there's the other ones, most of whose names you won't even remember later. (Seriously, I only remember the names Jyn Erso and Captain Andor.)

This movie's final act/45 minutes really saves it; it does put the "Wars" in Star Wars as we are given an awesome climactic battle which includes the return of the Imperial Walkers on land, and up in space the Rebel fleet versus the Imperial probes and Star Destroyers (and we also witness the greatest Star Destroyer takedown ever). Not to mention Darth Vader appearing in action at the end, and the final 30-45 minutes make you pretty easily forgive the fact that most of the rest of the movie is more forgettable.

Aside from a visually strong Death Star test run and an attack on an Imperial base, the first hour contains a lot of nothing as we are given more sci-fi mumbo jumbo than usual out of a Star Wars movie, and really flat characters who are difficult to get excited about. Especially the blind ninja who's not a Jedi, but keeps irritatingly repeating "I am one with the Force, the Force is with me" and he does seem to have some sort of power; which makes no sense.

Still, as I said, the final act was pretty amazing. The visuals and set pieces are great all the way through. It was interesting seeing the return of Governor Tarkin via CGI. K-2SO was amusing as well. It's not like the movie isn't entertaining or good or anything. But there are issues underneath the surface that make it still feel like a lesser Star Wars movie; at least when compared to the original trilogy or even The Force Awakens.

Ultimately, Rogue One is a very different kind of Star Wars movie, seeing as there are no lightsabers (until the very end with Vader), and the Force really isn't involved much either. But probably any big Star Wars fans should still see it. It does get right quite a bit of what the other prequels got wrong, even if it makes some mistakes of its own. It feels a little underwhelming, but it's still a pretty decent installment in the Star Wars universe.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)


Remakes. Many people don't have much use for them. Thus, when one actually is successful, sometimes we're unsure of whether to be pleasantly surprised or just disgusted. I certainly did not go into this movie with high expectations at all. So, I came away a little pleasantly surprised... but also slightly disgusted. Not necessarily at the movie and its content, but more at the movie's existence and the fact that its success opens the door for even more Disney remakes.

Now, I've watched the original Jungle Book 1967 cartoon, but I never read the actual book. (Isn't there a bit of irony in calling a movie a Jungle "Book?") The plot runs more or less the same as the original, only with a bit more backstory (which actually helps), and certain characters getting more screen time (the wolves) while other characters get much less screen time (Kaa) or are just cut completely (the vultures).

So of course, we also have the big change from animation to the massive CGI jungle. Interestingly enough, basically everything in this movie but the kid himself (who's sadly a mediocre child actor anyway) *is* CGI. The CGI varies from actually pretty stunning regarding the jungle itself to oddly sloppy with Bagheera, the panther.

Obviously one of the main questions is how it compares to the original. And that is difficult for me to say, actually, owing to the fact that it's been years and years since I watched the original cartoon, and I don't remember certain parts that well. But some things that were undoubtedly an improvement included the added backstory; namely, where Mowgli came from and a little more exposition as to why Shere Khan wants to kill him so badly. Also, it was good to see the number of musicals cut down. Only two songs were left in this one. Obviously, you have to keep "Bear Necessities," and I won't make any complaints there, even if this rendition feels more subdued. But I don't understand why they had to keep "I Wanna Be Like You," one I don't recall even liking when I was younger in the original, and I certainly didn't care for this one either.

But one thing that they couldn't have done back then but was a pretty great timely update was the action sequences, which are much more fulfilling. And there's also just about every scene with the menacing Shere Khan (voiced masterfully by Idris Elba) in it in general. In this version, he actually kills a side character and later creepily threatens another while telling its children a story. And we get to watch him go toe-to-toe with Bagheera, Baloo and the wolves much more satisfyingly.

One thing that was definitely a step down was Baloo in general. Despite Bill Murray, this version is a bit more of a jerk at times (Bagheera calls him a con artist, and he's not entirely wrong) and just less of a feel-good character. Also, this version of Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) ends up being a lot less comical  and a lot more creepy and weird... and not in a good way.

As you can see, there are some things that are actually pretty doggone well and other things that aren't. And there are some things that are just kind of there; I found it pretty difficult to stay engaged during the monkey scene, for example. And I wasn't sure how to feel about the elephants' new role in this version.

It's honestly rather difficult to forget throughout the film that it's a remake, and not really a necessary one either (I find it hard to call any of these Disney remakes "necessary," regardless of how I felt about the original). With that hanging over it's head, it does take a little bit away from the movie itself. Which is unfortunate, because there's actually a pretty decent film in there. If you never saw the original, you'll probably love this movie. And you might enjoy it regardless. And that's fine. I was entertained enough by it myself.

Just remember... in part because this movie was successful, we're going to get live-action versions of movies like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast (next March, too). And basically every other Disney cartoon ever, too. (Mulan's currently on the release schedule for 2018.) But I genuinely wonder how all the 90's and 2000's kids feel about the inevitable remake of The Lion King. I know if it held the same place in my heart as it did for many other people, I would be pretty enraged. Just keep that in mind while you're enjoying this particular remake.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass


It only took six years, but a sequel to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland happened. Were people really still interested by this point? That's up for debate, since it didn't even make half the money the first one did. Impressively, despite the long span between the two movies, they got basically *all* the cast of characters to return--even the minor ones that I didn't expect to be in the film at that point.

 The plot of this movie isn't quite as cookie-cutter as the first one, but it is somewhat more convoluted as it involves time-travel. It centers around a depressed Mad Hatter who wishes to know what happened to his family, whom he believes are still alive despite being presumably slaughtered by the Jabberwocky. Alice then tries to change the past, only to get caught up in a maddening series of events in the process.

Interestingly enough, the movie does hit some of the usual clichés you'd expect from a time-travel plot--while avoiding others entirely. This ends up being a problem, as we are left with a rather ridiculous ending in which some odd device is able to fix everything (despite that seeming impossible), and somehow everything ends up working out a little too perfectly... even by my standards, as some characters in both Wonderland and the real world end up making unrealistic changes a little too out of the blue.

Despite some of the plot sloppiness, there is still some fun to be had. The visuals and set pieces are still great, and the cast is still awesome (though Johnny Depp feels slightly more subdued this time), with Rhys Ifans added in this one, as well as Sacha Baren Cohen, who delivers a brilliant performance as a physical manifestation of "Time." Despite some of the frustrating time-travel material, his character is possibly the best thing about this movie, as he delivers many self-referential jokes ("Stop wasting myself..." get it?) and many hilarious puns, particularly in a tea party scene. The script is actually probably the best thing about this movie.

Although it's difficult to not be frustrated at times with this movie, the script and its humor help make this an enjoyable pastime of a movie. Although comedy may not have been what this fantasy movie was going for overall, that really is where it succeeds the most. And even if that isn't quite what some are hoping for, it was enough that I didn't feel like I had wasted my time at all when it was over. Though not a lot of people will likely be watching this movie, it should at least be recommended to fans of puns, if no one else besides fans of the first movie (which there aren't a lot of).