Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Circle


Everyone loves a good Big Brother tale, right? George Orwell and all that stuff? I know I do. Some people view them as far-fetched science fiction that "will totally never happen." And hopefully they're right about them never happening. I like to view them as cautionary tales or warnings. Obviously some scenarios that we are given are more plausible than others. This is one of the more relevant ones in recent years, though--because some of what is going on in this movie is already happening to a lesser extent and is already relevant. 

This particular one centers around one Mae Holland (Emma Watson) who gets a job at the famous tech company "The Circle"--which is one part Facebook, one part Google and one part Ultimate iCloud. Their latest product that gets introduced by spokesman Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) shortly after Mae joins? "SeeChange"--which is basically an initiative to put cameras everywhere that produce real time video all for the public. Bailey's mantra (and the film's terrifying tagline) is this: "Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better." You can imagine things only spiral from there.

On its outward dealings, The Circle is a big brand corporation that cares nothing for privacy--and even sees privacy as one of humanity's greatest flaws. On the inside, the workers are almost a weird cult-like community--one where they are encouraged to be on the property as much as possible "participating" in whatever activity and where this community wants to be involved with everyone in their "circle"--no matter what they're doing or where they are. Creepy, no?

It gets better. Particularly when Mae goes "transparent"--having a first person camera on her at all times viewable to the entire public while the social reactions pop up on the screen repeatedly. Those might be a slight annoyance at first as many of them are cliched Internet phrases, but some of them are actually kind of interesting and serve as a further indictment of the heavy reliance on social media. But yes, a person's entire life is livestreamed and available for the public to watch and react to. Repeatedly. And the idea is to get more and more people in on the act, of course--livestreaming their entire lives. Creepy indeed.

All of that to say that The Circle is a cautionary tale indeed. Perhaps intended to warn us of what we could become one day. As such, many of the concepts presented are pretty enthralling and we're giving a pretty interesting movie with quite a bit of food for thought (often presented from the movie kind of playing devil's advocate).

While I do not understand fully why this film has gotten panned, it is still rather flawed at times. The direction is a bit sloppy and at times it feels like some footage was cut out (particularly near the ending). For example, we're not given much background about the "Circle" company before we're hurled into it. There are also some things that make no sense. Namely John Boyega's character--despite an early scene with him clearly being troubled by the Circle, his motivations and what not are just all over the place. He's a difficult one to figure out. The script is also up and down--and while most of the star-studded cast that includes Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, Karen Gillan and Boyega is mostly able to make the best of it, Bill Paxton is sadly wasted in his final (and posthumous) film role.

And then there's the ending... and the fact that there's not really much of an ending. Shortly after the final of the film's many "press conference/presentation" scenes, a rather alarming pull-back "reveal" shot happens. And then it ends--boom. But there's quite a bit that's not answered--like what happens to certain characters or how they react to the final events of the movie. Again, it feels like some footage was cut out.

While none of these flaws really ruin the movie, at times they can bring it down a little--making the film feel a bit underwhelming. It really does feel like the film could've been even better with a bit more coherence and better direction. Heck, with a super-relevant storyline like that and the all-star cast, it should've probably been one of 2017's better films.

And while it's definitely nowhere near as awful as most would have you believe and it's actually still above average, you still can't shake the feeling at times that they probably could've done better. This makes one of the film's earlier lines more ironic. During Mae's interview for The Circle, she is asked (among other questions) this: "What is your greatest fear?" Her response (this apparently being the one that lands her the job)? "Unfulfilled potential."

Indeed, Mae. Indeed. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Despicable Me 2


Despicable Me was quite the unexpected success from a rather unknown animation company. But it worked because for the most part, they put all the right ingredients in. It was hilarious and it had heart to it. What wasn't to like? 

One probably wondered beforehand where they could go from there in a sequel. At the end of the last movie, Gru had cast aside the "evil" mantle, and had devoted himself to being a good father instead. But because the first movie made lots of money, that means they had to come up with something. What do they come up with? 

Well, let's see. They introduce the Anti-Villain League, a league dedicated to preventing villains like Gru from exacting their evil plans. (Considering their absence in the first movie, I'd say they're doing a terrible job of it thus far.) And the AVL picks up Gru to help them foil one of these villains--who stole some purple serum from an arctic lab--and his ultimate plan turns out to be to create purple demon Minions. No, seriously. That's actually his plan. And to what end? Umm... just the generic "take over the world" type deal. Also, there's the villain himself. They sort of try to fool us into thinking he's a red herring... but it never works. The whole thing's quite predictable. 

So yes, the plot took a little bit of a backseat in the sequel. Thankfully, the humor (in general) didn't. Steve Carell still does his voice role as Gru very well, and while there a couple of rather dumb scenes involving the Minions here, they're still quite hilarious for the most part. Heck, even the purple Minions--dumb as the plan involving them is--are still pretty funny. Elsewhere, the introduction of AVL Agent Lucy Wilde is nice as well. The climax itself is pretty suitably exciting. 

Here's the deal with this movie, though. After a pretty great start during the first third of the film or so, things actually kind of slow down to a near crawl for a bit--where a bunch of loosely tied sequences are thrown together to extend the movie's length. Most of which are not so good--such as the ridiculous date Gru is set up on at one point, or the "Happy" song montage. Granted, there's a couple breaks in this slower part of the movie--such as the fire alarm scene--and it does kick back up again later--but this is quite an unexpected turn for a sequel to a movie that never slowed down for a second. 

Despicable Me 2 isn't a bad sequel, and it's still a pretty funny movie. But it lacks that key ingredient of a feel-good storyline/ending that helped set the first movie apart from its peers. And that slow middle of the film seriously does hurt it. Of course, few were probably expecting the film to live up to its predecessor anyway, so it's not too shocking. Ultimately, it's mostly just fun comedy, a return to the characters you liked the first time around, and not a whole lot else. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Going in Style


So guess what? This film is a remake. You probably didn't know that. A lot of people probably didn't know that. I actually didn't know that for a while. But it is a remake. A remake of a film from 1979. Well, even in an age of endless remakes, I guess it's okay to remake a movie when the original has been completely forgotten about. 

This film centers around three elderly men--Joe, Willie, and Albert--all played by famous older actors. As in Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, respectively. These three guys are just living the retirement life--until their retirement pensions are cancelled by some evil bank due to their former company being bought out. Or something like that. So basically, these three guys are now screwed. Until they get the idea to rob the bank and take back what is rightfully theirs (and *only* that). 

To be frank, this movie gets by pretty strictly on the power of its main stars and the chemistry they have. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman both being in a movie to begin with is great, but Alan Arkin arguably gets many of the better lines with his character's dry sense of humor. Also, Christopher Lloyd is in this movie--and though he doesn't have a whole lot of screen time, he steals the show whenever he is on it with his over-the-top performance. Some scenes in the movie are more funny than others in general--namely the "test robbery" run of a discount grocery store. 

That said, this movie is a little bit *too* simpleton in some ways. There's not much to this movie's storyline other than the bank robbery and everything leading up to it (as well as the immediate aftermath). And there's not a whole lot payoff at the end (no pun intended). While things go mostly as you might expect, nothing really big happens before the final resolutions. Basically, the 15 or so minutes immediately following the robbery (but before the actual ending) kind of almost feel like a waste of time and were perhaps intended to just stretch the film to 95 minutes. 

It's a decently funny movie, but it also plays it a little too safe at times and doesn't really do anything special with the storyline. Not that you would expect much in a mere comedy like this, but you'd expect something a little more. That said, it's an alright way to pass about an hour and a half of your time--thanks to the cast and their chemistry. You might forget about it fairly quick, but you won't feel like you wasted your time either. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Despicable Me


Early on in the 2010's, there was a sudden rush of animated movies about guys who start out as "villains" but end up being redeemed by the end (this, Megamind, Wreck-It Ralph). Two of them even happened in one year! And despite how much they were using this storytelling device, all of these movies actually turned out pretty good. While most will agree that Wreck-It Ralph is the best of the bunch, Despicable Me is the most famous one (or infamous, depending upon how much you hate the Minions by now) and is the only one of the bunch to have spawned its own franchise. And this was from an animation studio (Illumination Entertainment) making their first go at it. 

This particular bad-eventually-turned-good-guy is Gru (Steve Carell), a villain whose goal in life was to be the most well-known of the villains. And for a while, he actually was--at least in the actual villain community, anyway. (No one in actual society seems to know anything about who these villains are or where they live--despite the fact that they're pretty conspicuous.) But he gets upstaged by a newcomer and now has to put himself back on top. So he tries to pull off the ultimate heist: steal the moon. 

No seriously, steal the moon. It's at this point where I should probably mention that, unlike other modern animated films of its caliber, this one is a lot more Looney Tunes-esque not only in humor style but also in that it doesn't pay much mind to silly things like science or physics--or even logic in general, at times. (Namely at how despite villains, their villainy *and* their bases being pretty obvious and out in the open, law enforcement never does *anything* at all in this movie.) 

Anyways, things get only crazier for Gru when three young orphaned girls--Margo, Edith, and Agnes--end up in his life. (How exactly, I will refrain from saying.) And honestly, you can probably more or less predict what happens from there. Probably one of the biggest flaws about this movie, as a matter of fact, is how predictable it is. However, I guess that just makes it more impressive that the final product is as good as it is. 

There's a lot of good things to say about this movie. Though Gru is a jerk to start off, it helps that Steve Carell gives a hilarious vocal performance. But Gru himself has decent character development throughout as well. The girls themselves manage to be likable/charming enough. As for the Minions? Well, they're still quite hilarious in their first go-around--we're not given overdoses of them here. They're great comic relief, but there's plenty of comedy to go around in general. There's plenty of memorable moments in general--whether it's the iconic "It's so fluffy" scene, the attempted infiltration of a fortress that results in much pain for Gru, or the surprisingly heartwarming ending. (Too bad they put in a ridiculous dance number right after that.) 

Of course, it's not without flaws. The above mentioned dance number ending is stupid. The opening scene itself (with the great pyramid) is pretty doggone forgettable. There are a few humor attempts here and there that don't work as well as others. Also, a glaring flaw is the actual villain. Yes, there is an actual villain besides Gru--and it's Vector. Who's basically a bratty teenager/young adult. And who does actually nothing really that villainous (besides his early offscreen heist) or even interesting until the climactic act. Yup, he's a pretty lame villain. Heck, the girls' former orphanage supervisor is a bigger villain than he is! 

Even with someone below average in the antagonist category, Despicable Me still manages to do what Marvel Studios has done a few times--still make a pretty good movie. Whatever one may think of what this franchise has become, this first one is still genuinely fun and it actually has some charm and heart to it. While it may not be as great as Wreck-It Ralph--or as unique as Megamind--it's still a pretty good movie in its own right. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Kong: Skull Island


So here's the second installment in the MonsterVerse. What is the MonsterVerse, you ask? The "shared universe" franchise which is basically an excuse to have new Godzilla and King Kong movies, and to have them fight each other in a few years. Which is actually a pretty awesome prospect. But for now, we get their... um... solo movies? 

The biggest complaint about the Godzilla movie was the lack of Godzilla actually being on screen. While it was still a fun watch regardless, fans won't have to worry about such issues here because King Kong is on screen a lot more in this film. As a matter of fact, we're thrust into the action almost *immediately* after arriving at Skull Island. Beyond that... and all the star talent in this movie... the two MonsterVerse movies are actually a bit more similar than you'd expect at times. Mostly in that they attempt to make the main character monsters more sympathetic. 

This movie actually takes place in 1973, centering around the organization Monarch (who was also a focal point in Godzilla, in case you'd forgotten) and their expedition to the uncharted Skull Island, along with a military escort led by Samuel L. Jackson. Why, exactly? Because it's uncharted territory. And this is the Cold War, and the Americans have to do/discover everything before the Russians, of course. At least, that's the "official" reason anyway. But once they get there, they get more than they bargained for. With not just King Kong... but all the other monsters on the island too. Including giant spider-like creatures. And a Krakken of sorts. And Skullcrawlers--crosses between reptiles and more traditional lizards. 

Much like Godzilla, there's not a whole lot of concern with plot here. There's not a lot that's straight up stupid, but they only care about creating enough plot to justify monsters fighting each other and to get humans involved. That also means, once again, that there's not much character development and you don't end up actually caring too much about the characters. But it does help that there is *much* more talent in this movie--Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell... and of course, Samuel L. Jackson, who is able to give a death stare directly into Kong's eyes without flinching... which is pretty awesome. John C. Reilly also steals the show with his comic relief. 

This is mostly a popcorn action movie; after a kind of slow first 15-20 minutes, it gives you action or suspense of some sort for the rest of it. And most of it's pretty doggone exciting and fun to watch--whether it's watching humans taking on monsters (and usually losing) or watching Kong go toe-to-toe with monsters as well. You get what you came for, and the spectacle is quite fun. If Godzilla was good because of how well it was directed (despite a couple glaring flaws) and its production values, then Kong: Skull Island is good because of all the insane monster action. 

With that said, Kong: Skull Island isn't a classic by any means. A movie with great action but also with mediocre writing and uninteresting characters can only be so good. This movie is good, for sure. But it is mostly geared towards the popcorn action/adventure fans. You'll definitely have some fun and enjoy it when it's all said and done, but it's certainly not the best thing you'll see all year either.